The best ancient history books

3 authors have picked their favorite books about ancient history and why they recommend each book.

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Encyclopaedia Biblica

By Thomas Kelly Cheyne, John Sutherland Black,

Book cover of Encyclopaedia Biblica

The official title of the book is ‘Encyclopedia Biblica: A Critical Dictionary of the Literary, Political and Religious History, the Archaeology, Geography, and Natural History of the Bible.' This work was produced by various professors of Oxford University and was a continual work from 1899-1903. It seems to be rarely mentioned by historians and Biblical scholars today, and I am recommending this work because there is a considerable wealth of information in it, and any student of history would find it incredibly useful. The Oxford professors critically examined ancient folklore and legends, without being swayed by traditional opinions of the time. For example, the origins of the people of Israel, and Egyptian and Hittite history are thoroughly examined, as is the Biblical literature. Interestingly, in this work, the professors doubted the existence of Nazareth, stating: ‘Was Nazareth originally the name of a town (or village) at all? There…


Who am I?

Henry Davis is an independent historical researcher who has been studying ancient history for over 20 years. Even though he wanted to embark on a formal education studying the Classics, he suffered from extreme anxiety and felt he could not do so. He resorted to self-study, with help from family and friends, who had degrees in Classical studies, and began reading the work of respected historians/scholars/classicists, Dame Mary Beard, Tom Holland, Sir Ronald Syme, Gavin Townend, and Anthony Birley, to name only a few.


I wrote...

Creating Christianity - A Weapon Of Ancient Rome

By Henry Davis,

Book cover of Creating Christianity - A Weapon Of Ancient Rome

What is my book about?

A profound and controversial investigation of a complex theme - the war that led to the fall of Jerusalem and the creation of the Christian religion. The religious and political battle between the people of Judea and the Jewish and Roman aristocracies is presented in an unconventional narrative, which investigates ancient evidence, quotes from the work of respected authorities on the subject, and states controversial opinions openly. Its main conclusion is that the New Testament (the new law) was created by a powerful senatorial family called the Calpurnius Pisos, who had the full support of their relatives, the Herodian royal family (the family of ‘Herod the Great’), and the Flavian emperors, with the Piso family hiding their name within the Koine Greek scriptures. The result is a book that is both provocative and compelling.

The Penguin Dictionary of Ancient History

By Graham Speake,

Book cover of The Penguin Dictionary of Ancient History

Dictionaries are not usually meant to be fun but this fact-packed book is so well-written that it is a joy to read. Wonder who on earth was Cicero? What the Punic wars were all about? How the Greeks defeated the Persians at the Battle of Salamis? What was so special about Greek theatre? And why  Rome conquered Britain? You will find all the answers here. Besides military and political events, it covers literature, philosophy, art, religion, sport, and society, all the way from 776BC and the first Olympic Games to the end of the Roman Empire in the west in AD476.


Who am I?

I have been fascinated by ancient Greece and Rome since I first saw Italy and Greece as a teenager, revisiting them whenever I can. I studied ancient history at Cambridge University and have written eight books about it, most recently The Colosseum. After living in Paris, Rome, and London, I am now based in Wiltshire in southwest England, almost within sight of Stonehenge. There is a small megalith outside my own house.


I wrote...

The Colosseum From AD80 To The Present Day

By Nigel Rodgers,

Book cover of The Colosseum From AD80 To The Present Day

What is my book about?

The Colosseum in Rome awed the world when inaugurated in 80AD. It is still Rome’s greatest landmark, a brilliant example of ancient engineering. Inside its vast arena lavish but brutal entertainments were staged for centuries. The Colosseum, my vividly illustrated guide-cum-history, examines the arena’s construction, workings, and checkered history, including the recent partial restoration. One chapter explains the role its games played in the life of the ancient city, another the gladiators’ brief, sometimes glamorous lives. Further chapters outline how the massive structure survived centuries of earthquakes, fires, depredation, and neglect after the fall of the Roman Empire, and its later roles as a palace, fortress, church, tenements, site of black magic, and vegetable garden. There is also a guide as how and when it is best to visit, avoiding the queues and the hottest, most crowded times. Over 200 illustrations include cut-away reconstructions showing how the complex building actually worked.

Before writing the book, I made a special visit to Rome to investigate the recent excavations of the hypogoeum, the network of underground passages and lifts essential to the games.

The Histories

By Herodotus, Robin Waterfield (translator),

Book cover of The Histories

If one wanted to understand the study of the galaxy, they might start with Galileo. Something similar could be said about starting with the historian Herodotus to understand ancient peoples (and the study of them). Was he serious about his craft? Yes. Was he a product of his time? Yes. Should you take everything he writes as fact? Absolutely not. So why read Herodotus? Because he was the first person (as far as I know) to study the Scythians for the purpose of scholarship. Moreover, his work contains many of the stories that scholars since his time have tried to prove, disprove, or reinterpret. In short, if you want to join a conversation, it can be helpful to know how it began.


Who am I?

I'm an author who believes that history contains an endless number of stories of how our past peers dealt with and contributed to the tension, fusion, and reinvention that is human existence. When writing The Greek Prince of Afghanistan, which focuses on the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom of ancient Afghanistan, I included a Scythian character, because I felt the novel’s story, like humanity’s story, is best told through multiple perspectives. The above books helped me greatly in that effort.


I wrote...

The Greek Prince of Afghanistan

By David Austin Beck,

Book cover of The Greek Prince of Afghanistan

What is my book about?

The Greek Prince of Afghanistan follows the early life of Demetrius, prince of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom of ancient Afghanistan. He lives in a world of cultural fusion and conflict, and he faces threats from every direction. From the west, an army approaches under the banners of Antiochus, a Hellenistic monarch obsessed with ruling the lands once conquered by Alexander. From within, tensions build between the kingdom's Greek elite and non-Greek subjects. In desperate need of allies for the imminent war, Demetrius rides north to secure an alliance with the Scythians, a people rumored to eat their prisoners and feed their elderly to the dogs. But with his kingdom divided, their help may not be enough.

The Histories

By Herodotus, Tom Holland (translator),

Book cover of The Histories

Herodotus (his name means ‘gift of the goddess Hera’, sister-wife of supreme god Zeus) was born in Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum in western Turkey) in about 484 BC. He was born therefore a subject of the mighty Persian Empire. (Based in Iran, founded by Cyrus the Great in about 550 BC, it eventually reached as far east as Afghanistan and the Indus Valley, as far west as the Aegean and Egypt.) But he grew up in the shadow of that Empire’s famous failure - in 480 and 479 - to add mainland Greece to its possessions. And he set himself as his life’s mission - as a pioneer historian - to try to understand and explain that failure. In order to do that, he had first to describe and explain the Empire’s origins, in Iran, then to describe and explain its rise and rise throughout the Middle East, and then, finally,…


Who am I?

I have studied Classics and Ancient Greek history since my teens, I read ‘Greats’ (Ancient History and Philosophy) at Oxford, completed an archaeological doctorate on early Sparta also at Oxford (1975), while spending my teaching career (1972-2014) in Northern and Southern Ireland, and in England at Warwick and Cambridge Universities. I retired as the inaugural, endowed A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture before taking up my current position as A.G. Leventis Senior Research Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. I have been the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of some 30 books on ancient Greek history, most recently Thebes: the Forgotten City of Ancient Greece.


I wrote...

Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece

By Paul Cartledge,

Book cover of Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece

What is my book about?

Among the extensive writing available about the history of ancient Greece, there is precious little about the city-state of Thebes. At one point the most powerful city in ancient Greece, Thebes has been long overshadowed by its better-known rivals, Athens and Sparta. In Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece, acclaimed classicist and historian Paul Cartledge brings the city vividly to life and argues that it is central to our understanding of the ancient Greeks' achievements--whether politically or culturally--and thus to the wider politico-cultural traditions of western Europe, the Americas, and indeed the world.

The Landmark Herodotus

By Robert B. Strassler (editor),

Book cover of The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories

For anyone wanting to find out not just what happened in the Graeco-Persian Wars (490–479 BC) but how their participants viewed the world, Herodotus’ Histories are a treasure trove. Writing a generation after the event, Herodotus travelled widely, interviewing as many people as he could from veterans to Egyptian priests. But readers must be wary: Herodotus wasn’t writing history as we understand it. Instead, he blended fact, anecdote, and moralizing to demonstrate why in his view the Greek way of life (especially Athenian democracy) was superior to Persian totalitarianism, and why Persian hubris merited divine punishment. While the Landmark edition’s translation of Herodotus’ seductive prose may not be the best (Tom Holland’s, for example, is better), the number and clarity of its maps make it invaluable.


Who am I?

Ever since my father introduced me to the Greeks, I’ve been passionate about the ancient world and bringing it alive. I read Classics at university and taught for eleven years, during which time I founded the award-winning theatre company, Actors of Dionysus, dedicated to performing Greek drama in translation. A highlight was staging my adaptation of Trojan Women not just in Ephesus Theatre but besides the walls of Troy. From 2010, I’ve divided my time between writing books and articles on wide-ranging classical subjects, editing Bloomsbury Academic Press’ ‘Looking at…’ series on Greek drama (which include my translations), book-reviewing, lecturing, and directing theatrical performances (most recently with Dame Sian Phillips).


I wrote...

Phoenix: A Father, a Son, and the Rise of Athens

By David Stuttard,

Book cover of Phoenix: A Father, a Son, and the Rise of Athens

What is my book about?

Phoenix is a vivid, novelistic history tracing the rise of Athens from relative obscurity to the edge of its so-called ‘Golden Age’, told through the lives of Miltiades and Cimon, the father and son whose defiance of Persia vaulted Athens to a leading place in the Greek world.

According to author and classicist, Daisy Dunn, Stuttard writes with such passion and verve of these vibrant years in Athens's history. Such is the power of his storytelling that Miltiades and Cimon – both so often overlooked – soar as triumphantly as any phoenix from the ashes of antiquity.”

The Histories

By Herodotus, Tom Holland (translator),

Book cover of The Histories

No, it isn't boring and dry. Believe me. Herodotus, the ancient Greek writer, geographer, and historian is said to have traveled in Egypt in approximately 450 B.C. In his travels, he compiled extensive notes on his observations and experiences and came to the conclusion that Egypt was highly impressive but also incredibly strange, if not downright weird. Flip to page 319 of this book (my version of it anyway) and you will find Herodotus's examples of the way in which Egyptians do everything in reverse of the rest of the world: ". . . the women buy and sell, the men abide at home and weave; and whereas in weaving all others push the woof upwards, the Egyptians push it downwards. 

Men carry burdens on their heads, women on their shoulders. Women make water standing, men sitting. They relieve nature indoors, and eat out of doors in the streets, giving…


Who am I?

When author Rosemary Mahoney took a solo trip on the Egyptian Nile in a seven-foot rowboat, she discovered modern Egypt for herself. As a female, she confronted deeply-held beliefs about foreign women while cautiously remaining open to genuine friendships; as a traveler, she had experiences that ranged from the humorous to the hair-raising--including an encounter that began as one of the most frightening of her life and ended as a chastening lesson in cultural misunderstanding.  Whether she's meeting contemporary Egyptians or finding connections to Westerners who traveled the Nile long ago, Mahoney's informed curiosity about Egypt never ceases to captivate the reader.


I wrote...

Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff

By Rosemary Mahoney,

Book cover of Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff

What is my book about?

Rosemary Mahoney was determined to take a solo trip down the Egyptian Nile, even though civil unrest and vexing local traditions conspired to create obstacles every step of the way. Starting off in the south, she gained the unlikely sympathy and respect of a Muslim sailor, who provided her with both a seven-foot skiff and a window into the culturally and materially impoverished lives of rural Egyptians. Egyptian women don't row on the Nile, and tourists aren't allowed to for safety's sake.

Whether she's confronting deeply held beliefs about non-Muslim women, finding connections to past chroniclers of the Nile, or coming to the dramatic realization that fear can engender unwarranted violence, Rosemary Mahoney's informed curiosity about the world, her glorious prose, and her wit never fail to captivate.

The Roman Revolution

By Ronald Syme,

Book cover of The Roman Revolution

Considered a controversial masterpiece, this book has helped reveal far more than many realize. It examined the fall and overthrow of the Roman Republic and the re-establishment of the monarchy centered on the life and career of Octavian, who became Augustus, the first emperor. Syme, a much-respected scholar of ancient Rome, was immensely skilled in the use of prosopography, the technique of examining and tracing genealogical connections between the various leading families of republican and imperial Rome. He showed that republican Rome was ruled by an oligarchy, in this case, where a small group of powerful people, related by blood, marriage links, are in control. Syme’s expertise in examining the nomenclature of ancient history has allowed further discoveries to be made, mainly the family connections between the Roman Emperors of the first and second centuries. This is not the best book for an introduction to Roman history, but it is…


Who am I?

Henry Davis is an independent historical researcher who has been studying ancient history for over 20 years. Even though he wanted to embark on a formal education studying the Classics, he suffered from extreme anxiety and felt he could not do so. He resorted to self-study, with help from family and friends, who had degrees in Classical studies, and began reading the work of respected historians/scholars/classicists, Dame Mary Beard, Tom Holland, Sir Ronald Syme, Gavin Townend, and Anthony Birley, to name only a few.


I wrote...

Creating Christianity - A Weapon Of Ancient Rome

By Henry Davis,

Book cover of Creating Christianity - A Weapon Of Ancient Rome

What is my book about?

A profound and controversial investigation of a complex theme - the war that led to the fall of Jerusalem and the creation of the Christian religion. The religious and political battle between the people of Judea and the Jewish and Roman aristocracies is presented in an unconventional narrative, which investigates ancient evidence, quotes from the work of respected authorities on the subject, and states controversial opinions openly. Its main conclusion is that the New Testament (the new law) was created by a powerful senatorial family called the Calpurnius Pisos, who had the full support of their relatives, the Herodian royal family (the family of ‘Herod the Great’), and the Flavian emperors, with the Piso family hiding their name within the Koine Greek scriptures. The result is a book that is both provocative and compelling.

The Love-Artist

By Jane Alison,

Book cover of The Love-Artist

The Roman poet Ovid was one of the most popular writers of his day, but the defining tragedy of his life – his lifelong exile from Rome at the very height of his powers – remains as mysterious today as it was in his own time. In The Love-Artist, Jane Alison provides that tragedy with a back story, when Ovid, on holiday on the shores of the Black Sea, meets and is enchanted by the witch-like Xenia and persuades her to return with him to Rome, with dire consequences. But it’s the book’s dream-like atmosphere – the sense that we are seeing the world through the eyes of a great poet with one foot in the ambitious world of empire and the other in an unstable netherworld of imagination and mythology – that will remain with the reader.


Who am I?

If you want to learn about historical societies and events, read history books. But if you want to understand your own world, and how it has emerged from and been shaped by the eternal, unchanging human psyche, intellect and fragility, read historical fiction. A great historical novel should always be first and foremost about the time in which it is written. That is what first drew me to the story of Petronius in The Uncertain Hour – if it doesn’t have a human heart, no amount of technical historical detail will kindle it in the reader’s imagination.


I wrote...

The Uncertain Hour: A Novel

By Jesse Browner,

Book cover of The Uncertain Hour: A Novel

What is my book about?

A.D. 66. Having been falsely implicated in a plot to assassinate the emperor Nero, Titus Petronius has a choice: await the executioner at dawn, or die a noble Roman death by his own hand. Deciding that his will be a suicide like no other the world has ever seen, he summons a small circle of intimate friends to his magnificent villa on the coast of southern Italy. As they feast on course after course of the most sumptuous and exotic fare the empire has to offer, his guests are expressly forbidden to dwell on the imminent tragedy; instead, they are enjoined to sing, eat, drink, and celebrate. But as his life dwindles to a few precious hours, Petronius himself cannot shake off the ghosts of his past or his regret over mistakes that can no longer be set right.

Quarantine

By Jim Crace,

Book cover of Quarantine

Written long before quarantines became so fashionable, Jesus in Jim Crace’s novel is an almost peripheral player, because set during Christ’s forty days in the wilderness six other people share in the inhospitable desert caves, miracles, and hallucinations. Each character has their own troubles and trials; their own battles with demons to resolve; which they hope isolation and fasting will accomplish. And for each, in ingenious ways, it does… I am a big fan of Crace’s style, rhythm, and invention, and this is one of his finest works.


Who am I?

I’m the author of five extremely different novels: Boy A (which was made into an award-winning film), Cham, Genus, The Tongues of Men or Angels, and Under Country. They share almost nothing in subject or setting. Ranging from first-century Judaea to a future London. From ski resort workers in France to young offender prisons in Britain. My latest work - Under Country - is about the 1984 Miners’ Strike and its still lingering scars in the North East pit villages. Yet, I suppose, if there were a unifying theme between them, it would be that each, in its own way, is influenced by and fascinated with Christianity.


I wrote...

The Tongues of Men or Angels

By Jonathan Trigell,

Book cover of The Tongues of Men or Angels

What is my book about?

The Tongues of Men or Angels was my first ever hardback and the hardest book I’ve ever written. The research alone almost killed me, quite literally a couple of times in the Middle East. But in some ways, it is the novel that I’m most proud of, because it is my own committed ‘truth’ about the birth of a religion. The Mail on Sunday put it better than I could:

“This daring novel tells the story of Jesus and his followers in the years leading up to and following the Crucifixion. Trigell's interpretation of the origins of Christianity, particularly the factional struggle between the disciple Cephas (Peter) and the convert Saul (Paul), will spark controversy, but there's no denying the raw power of the writing.”

Delphi

By Michael Scott,

Book cover of Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World

Scott is an associate professor of classics and ancient history at the University of Warwick and his erudition shines through this comprehensive study of Delphi and, at its heart, the Oracle and Temple of Apollo. Yet this is never a dull, academic book, Scott's obvious love for the place and its history prevents that, as he chronicles the wars and disputes, the judgements and prophesies, as well as how the Oracle, the female Pythia, was set at the very centre of the ancient world. He evokes the place brilliantly, with its spectacular setting, and brings the history up to date with the rediscovery of the ancient site and its re-emergence from the mountainside. It was inestimably useful to me when I wrote Oracle, but it also reinforced my desire to return to what is a very special place.

Who am I?

I'm a crime writer and my latest novel is set in Delphi, Greece at the Temple of Apollo: it interweaves a modern murder mystery with perennial themes like justice, retribution and law so the cradle of law and democracy was an ideal setting, especially Delphi, which the Greeks believed to be the centre of the world. I visited there at the turn of the millennium and it has always stayed with me. Since childhood, I have been fascinated, like many, with the stories of ancient Greece, its gods, myths, and legends, and the genesis of so many of the ideas which underpin western society and thought. I've taught Classics in the past, but these books will give the reader joy as well as improving their knowledge.


I wrote...

Oracle

By Julie Anderson,

Book cover of Oracle

What is my book about?

Blood calls for blood. Near the ancient Temple of Apollo, young environmentalists protest outside an international conference. Inside, business lobbyists mingle with politicians, seeking profit and influence. Then the charismatic leader of the protest goes missing. A body is discovered, placed like an offering to the gods. The next day a broken corpse is found at the foot of the cliffs where blasphemers were once tossed to their deaths.

As a storm closes in and strange lights are seen on the mountain, the conference is cut off. Is a killer stalking them? Or are primal forces reaching out from the past? Like the cryptic Oracle of Delphi, Cassandra Fortune must supply the answers before the conference is over. And before more die. Justice will be done, but what kind of justice?

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