The best history books that resonate across time and place

Who am I?

I'm a historian who teaches strategic studies at the National Defense University and Georgetown University in Washington, DC. I'm fascinated by how we write and teach history, how we interpret it, and how we use it. To use history, we have to “get it right,” but we also have to think about how the past impacts the present. One of the foremost challenges confronting historians is how to write the history of their particular subject well while making it applicable (and interesting) more universally. The following books are all particular to the region I study most closely—the Eastern Mediterranean—but their grasp of humanity is profound. Their power and perspectives ring true across millennia.

I wrote...

Restoring Thucydides: Testing Familiar Lessons and Deriving New Ones

By Andrew R. Novo, Jay M. Parker,

Book cover of Restoring Thucydides: Testing Familiar Lessons and Deriving New Ones

What is my book about?

In the world of strategic studies, there are few books more widely studied than Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides’ work is difficult to teach and study because it's long, dense, and substantive. Thucydides was ambitious in hoping that his work would be a “possession for all time.” My co-author, Jay Parker, and I tried to peel away the layers of cliché and oversimplification to get at the “real” Thucydides. Our approach was simple: read the whole book and explore Thucydides’s own time to understand both his historical context and the context of his History. The result is a book that tries to challenge preconceptions and simplified interpretations of Thucydides’s work, but also how we read any “great book” with lessons meant to satisfy existing agendas.

The books I picked & why

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The History of the Peloponnesian War

By Thucydides,

Book cover of The History of the Peloponnesian War

Why this book?

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War probably needs no introduction. It is our only primary source for the shattering conflict between Athens and Sparta, which ended the “Golden” period of Athens famous for its art, its plays, and of course, its revolutionary system of direct democracy. Beyond its value as a work of history, Thucydides provides timeless insights into the nature of humanity, conflict, and society. He remains one of the most profound writers about human nature, politics, and strategy. When I teach Thucydides, I often joke with students that whatever you are looking for, “you can find it in Thucydides.” Just thinking in terms of contemporary headlines, we might say that if you’re interested in the dynamics of great power competition, you can find it in Thucydides. If you want to explore how societies react to pandemic diseases, how democracies debate policy or how they are vulnerable to demagoguery, how policymakers manage fears of escalation in conflict, or how big conflicts can have small causes, “you can find it in Thucydides.”

Freedom and Death

By Nikos Kazantzakes,

Book cover of Freedom and Death

Why this book?

Kazantzakis is perhaps most famous for being excommunicated after he wrote The Last Temptation of Christ, but I think his best book is Freedom and Death. Freedom and Death was described as Kazantzakis’ “modern Iliad,” but it is more than a tale of heroes and war. It is about the struggle of the Cretan people for liberty and their desire to end the Ottoman occupation of their island at the end of the 19th century. In spite of the obvious morality of the cause of freedom, Kazantzakis paints a complex picture in which there are no obvious heroes and humanity’s faults are clearly visible. No character is more noble than the Turk, Nuri Bey. None more flawed than the novel’s Greek protagonist, Captain Michalis. Freedom and Death is also the powerful story of a man’s struggle against himself and the conflict between our personal interests and our greater obligations. It is about the dreams we pursue and the costs we suffer to achieve them. In Kazantzakis’ work, these profound tensions are often resolved through violence, but for all the brutality in the book, a sensitive and powerful portrait of humanity at its best and worst endures.

Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World

By Roger Crowley,

Book cover of Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World

Why this book?

This book is an extraordinary synthesis of half a century of history (c. 1520-1571) as European powers and the Ottoman Empire fought for control of the Mediterranean Sea. Empires of the Sea focuses on a number of momentous military engagements, the Siege of Rhodes (1522), the Siege of Malta (1565), the Ottoman conquest of Cyprus (1570-1), and the Battle of Lepanto (1571). Crowley writes like an artist evoking the colors and textures of the brilliant seventeenth-century amid a world of emperors, sultans, popes, and pirates. He manages to capture both the extraordinary individuals who shaped momentous events through their personalities and the broader historical trends that led to the defeat of Ottoman expansion during the 16th century and shaped the contours of Europe as we know it today.

The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe

By Mark Mazower,

Book cover of The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe

Why this book?

There is no better scholar of modern Greece than Mark Mazower and his latest work on the Greek Revolution is a tour de force. As the title suggests, Mazower explores how the Greek Revolution, based on the “new politics” of national identity, overthrew Ottoman imperialism and established the world’s first true nation-state. The Greek Revolution gives us all the famous characters from 1821 in detail: Koloktronis, the brigand turned general who became a national hero. Ibrahim Pasha, the son of the Pasha of Egypt who dreamed of conquering Greece for himself. Ioannis Kapodistrias was a brilliant diplomat who became the first Greek head of state only to be murdered by his own people. And George Byron, the poet, turned adventurer, turned financer of the Greek Revolution who died of fever while campaigning for Greek freedom. At the same time, the book analyzes more universal characteristics of revolutions: their fundamental link to civil wars, the bloody, atrocity-filled realities of wars fought on the basis of nationalist principles, and the cynical complexities of geopolitics when the weak fight against the strong.

The Leopard

By Giuseppe Di Lampedusa,

Book cover of The Leopard

Why this book?

E. M. Forster famously described Lampedusa’s solitary work as “one of the great lonely books.” It is a masterpiece that simultaneously captures both the peculiarity of Sicily within the experience of the wars of Italian Unification while brilliantly portraying characters confronting universal human emotions of love, loss, and struggle in times of momentous change. Lampedusa based the book’s protagonist, the Prince of Salina, on his own grandfather. The story, told in a series of episodes across half a century, while fictionalized, captures the essential elements of the birth of the modern Italian state, the rise of a new class of elites at the expense of the old, landed aristocracy, and the often-fraught attempt to create a unified Italian identity. There is a well-known film with Burt Lancaster in the starring role along with Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale that really evokes the visual power of the subject, but the book remains a must-read.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Greece, the Ottoman Empire, and Sicily?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Greece, the Ottoman Empire, and Sicily.

Greece Explore 98 books about Greece
The Ottoman Empire Explore 31 books about the Ottoman Empire
Sicily Explore 26 books about Sicily

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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