The best works of narrative military history with prose that really sings

Who am I?

I’m a lifelong warfighter, law enforcement officer, intelligence officer, and emergency services worker, intimately familiar with the crisis response and what makes conflict so fascinating to students of history. I’m also a popular novelist with an in-depth understanding of story arcs and what makes great prose. I’ve previously published narrative military history myself – Legion Versus Phalanx: The Epic Struggle for Infantry Supremacy in the Ancient World. My short nonfiction, much of it based on military history and crisis work, has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, and Ancient Warfare Magazine.

I wrote...

The Bronze Lie: Shattering the Myth of Spartan Warrior Supremacy

By Myke Cole,

Book cover of The Bronze Lie: Shattering the Myth of Spartan Warrior Supremacy

What is my book about?

The Spartan hoplite enjoys unquestioned currency as history's greatest fighting man. The last stand at Thermopylae made the Spartans legends in their own time, famous for their ability to endure hardship, control their emotions, and to never surrender - even in the face of impossible odds, even when it meant certain death. Was this reputation earned? Or was it simply the success of a propaganda machine that began turning at Thermopylae in 480 BC?

The story of the Spartans is one of the best known in history, from their rigorous training to their dramatic feats of arms--but is that portrait of Spartan supremacy true? I go back to the original sources to set the record straight.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Never Greater Slaughter: Brunanburh and the Birth of England

Why did I love this book?

Livingston is the undisputed master of conflict geography/cartography, using battlegrounds as the interpretative mechanism for truly ground-breaking scholarship. He has already disrupted centuries of scholarship on major medieval battles such as Hastings, Crecy and Agincourt, completely changing how we view them (and proving where they were actually fought). He’s also an accomplished novelist, and he brings his flair for dramatic narrative to this towering scholarly work, making it as exciting to read as a pulse-pounding action novel. Never Greater Slaughter absolutely raises the bar on what great scholarship can do, and how gripping it can be while doing it.

By Michael Livingston,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Never Greater Slaughter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'No one has done more than Michael Livingston to revive memories of the battle, and you could not hope for a better guide.' BERNARD CORNWELL Bestselling author of The Last Kingdom series Late in AD 937, four armies met in a place called Brunanburh. On one side stood the shield-wall of the expanding kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons. On the other side stood a remarkable alliance of rival kings - at least two from across the sea - who'd come together to destroy them once and for all. The stakes were no less than the survival of the dream that would…

Book cover of The Plague of War: Athens, Sparta, and the Struggle for Ancient Greece

Why did I love this book?

Roberts’ groundbreaking, game-changing story of the Peloponnesian War (really, wars) is richly detailed and comprehensive, a modernizing “leveling up” from Donald Kagan’s 2004 standard text. By centering her narrative in the impact of the war, rather than strategy and politics, Roberts brings home the terrible human cost of the conflict, and the book serves as a critical examination of what wholesale violence means to a society, from the high to the low. Roberts writes with incredible empathy, and her voice makes the book more than enlightening, it’s a deeply moving mediation on the depths of self-inflicted suffering as only human beings can engender. 

By Jennifer T. Roberts,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Plague of War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 431 BC, the long simmering rivalry between the city-states of Athens and Sparta erupted into open warfare, and for more than a generation the two were locked in a life-and-death struggle. The war embroiled the entire Greek world, provoking years of butchery previously unparalleled in ancient Greece. Whole cities were exterminated, their men killed, their women and children enslaved. While the war is commonly believed to have ended with the capture of the Athenian
navy in 405 and the subsequent starvation of Athens, fighting in Greece would continue for several decades. Sparta's authority was challenged in the so-called Corinthian…

The Thirty Years War

By C.V. Wedgwood,

Book cover of The Thirty Years War

Why did I love this book?

The Thirty Years War is one of the most significant wars in world history that . . . pretty much nobody has ever heard of. It’s also one of the most complex, involving an intricate interleaving of geo-political gamesmanship, evolving personalities, religious dogmas, and military strategy and tactics that can leave even a committed scholar’s head spinning. Fortunately, Dame Wedgwood navigated this thicket expertly, tugging on each thread and laying them clear, making the story so utterly accessible that it’s still the gold-standard on the topic despite being originally published in the 1930’s. Much of the book’s success hinges on storytelling. Wedgwood does an incredible job of bringing the history to life through the lens of the incredible characters ambitions, flaws, and personal striving.

By C.V. Wedgwood,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Thirty Years War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Europe in 1618 was riven between Protestants and Catholics, Bourbon and Hapsburg--as well as empires, kingdoms, and countless principalities. After angry Protestants tossed three representatives of the Holy Roman Empire out the window of the royal castle in Prague, world war spread from Bohemia with relentless abandon, drawing powers from Spain to Sweden into a nightmarish world of famine, disease, and seemingly unstoppable destruction.

Book cover of Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the Bloody Fight for His Empire

Why did I love this book?

Ghost on the Throne is one of the very few books to explore the underserved period in military history immediately after the death of Alexander the Great, his empire unraveling as his former generals vied for power. Romm narrates this complex and fascinating history with a novelist’s flair, featuring beautiful prose and a gripping narrative that brings out the scholarship with a dynamism that makes it feel like a fantasy TV epic a la A Game of Thrones. The story is packed with thrilling battles, scheming politics, and spicy romances – all them entirely true.

By James Romm,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Ghost on the Throne as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Alexander the Great died at the age of thirty-two, his empire stretched from the Adriatic Sea in the west all the way to modern-day India in the east. In an unusual compromise, his two heirs—a mentally damaged half brother, Philip III, and an infant son, Alexander IV, born after his death—were jointly granted the kingship. But six of Alexander’s Macedonian generals, spurred by their own thirst for power and the legend that Alexander bequeathed his rule “to the strongest,” fought to gain supremacy. Perhaps their most fascinating and conniving adversary was Alexander’s former Greek secretary, Eumenes, now a general…

Book cover of Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West

Why did I love this book?

Tom Holland is one of the most famous popular historians alive, and also one of the most famous polymaths, writing on topics ranging from Islam to medieval and classical history. He’s also dabbled in fiction and playwriting, and those chops come shining through in Persian Fire, an entirely fresh look at one of the most studied conflicts in ancient history – The Greco-Persian War. Holland effortlessly eviscerates the tired “east versus west” narrative and treats the Persians with an honestly and empathy that is made even more rich by his gifts as a storyteller.

By Tom Holland,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Persian Fire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 480 BC, Xerxes, the King of Persia, led an invasion of mainland Greece. Its success should have been a formality. For seventy years, victory - rapid, spectacular victory - had seemed the birthright of the Persian Empire. In the space of a single generation, they had swept across the Near East, shattering ancient kingdoms, storming famous cities, putting together an empire which stretched from India to the shores of the Aegean. As a result of those conquests, Xerxes ruled as the most powerful man on the planet. Yet somehow, astonishingly, against the largest expeditionary force ever assembled, the Greeks…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Greece, the Thirty Years' War, and Athens?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Greece, the Thirty Years' War, and Athens.

Greece Explore 134 books about Greece
The Thirty Years' War Explore 8 books about the Thirty Years' War
Athens Explore 44 books about Athens

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Cleopatra, River God, and Women, Armies, and Warfare in Early Modern Europe if you like this list.