13 books directly related to ancient history 📚

All 13 ancient history books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

Encyclopaedia Biblica

By Thomas Kelly Cheyne, John Sutherland Black,

Book cover of Encyclopaedia Biblica

Why this book?

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 are two NT passages which may well suggest a doubt...’(page 362, column 3360).


The Penguin Dictionary of Ancient History

By Graham Speake,

Book cover of The Penguin Dictionary of Ancient History

Why this book?

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.


The Histories

By Herodotus, Robin Waterfield (translator),

Book cover of The Histories

Why this book?

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.


The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories

By Robert B. Strassler (editor),

Book cover of The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories

Why this book?

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.


The Histories

By Herodotus, Tom Holland (translator),

Book cover of The Histories

Why this book?

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, to explain both its successes (conquest of all Asia as the Persians understood that and part of European Greece too, suppression of a major revolt of Greeks in the 490s, victory in the battle of Thermopylae followed by the sack of Athens in 480 and again in 479) and its failures (the battles of Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea) against Greeks.

Herodotus of course wrote a text for himself, but his original mode of ‘publication’ was by public lecture. The eventual written version is the longest surviving single work of ancient Greek prose. For its theme and its epic manner it earned Herodotus the accolade of ‘most Homeric’. The title ‘Histories’ in the plural reflects the fact that the original ancient Greek word ‘historia’ meant ‘research’ or ‘enquiry’. When scholars working in the great royal library at Alexandria in Egypt in the 3rd century BC came to edit a ‘definitive’ text, they divided the monster into 9 ‘books’, each named after one of the 9 Muses, beginning of course with Clio, the Muse of History. The first 4 books take the story from about 550 to about 500, the last 5 books, from about 500 to 479 BC. The first 4 books contain lots of ethnography, that is, accounts of the customs of all the non-Greek peoples with whom Greeks came into regular contact around the eastern Mediterranean and Black Seas, for example the Scythians to the north of the Black Sea, as well as of the Persians further east. The last 5 books are chiefly battle narratives, each book focused on a major conflict: 5 (the Ionian Revolt), 6 (Marathon), 7 (Thermopylae), 8 (Salamis), and 9 (Plataea).

The Histories will appeal to late teenagers and to adult readers of all ages and tastes. One of its many charms are the anecdotes that tell an edifying tale or point a moral: for example, when the Athenian statesman-philosopher Solon tells oriental king Croesus to ‘look to the end’, that is, to call no person fortunate or happy until you have seen how she or he died. Or, when that same Croesus tells his conqueror Persian emperor Cyrus that there is a ‘cycle’ to the affairs of men and mankind: as we might say, what goes around comes around – no one and no state remains forever at exactly the same point in the cycle, whether of good or ill fortune. Indeed, as Herodotus himself says, cities that once were great now are minor, and vice versa.


The Histories

By Herodotus, Tom Holland (translator),

Book cover of The Histories

Why this book?

Herodotus is a joy to read. In his Enquiries into the heroic struggle of Greece against the mighty Persian Empire, he wanted to preserve the memory of wondrous deeds. And he does it brilliantly. Along the way we discover how to catch a crocodile in Egypt, visit the walls of Babylon, and travel with the fearsome, gender-fluid, Scythian warriors. As the massed Persian armies with their arrogant and manipulative commanders bear down on the divided state of Greece, we are taken to battlefield of Marathon, witness the tenacious heroism of the 300 Spartans, and fight on the sea at the great Greek victory at Salamis. This epic conflict between the forces and ideals of East and West is rendered beautifully in Tom Holland’s fluent translation, which nimbly walks the line between accuracy and accessibility.


The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire

By Susan P. Mattern,

Book cover of The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire

Why this book?

This biography of the second century CE celebrity doctor Galen is one of the most surprising and revealing books I’ve ever read about Rome. A native of Asia Minor who got his start treating gladiators, Galen came to Rome and vied for prominence with the city’s intellectuals. By his own account, he wowed Romans with his skill in diagnosis and public vivisections of animals as gruesome as anything you’d see in the arena. Something like one-eighth of all surviving classical Greek literature is made up of Galen’s writings. Susan Mattern excavates this vast body of material to recover Galen’s own astonishing career, his interactions with his patients (including the emperor Marcus Aurelius), and his observations of terrible scenes of Roman life such as a dangerous copper mine, famine in the countryside, and a major fire in 192 that burned down much of the imperial capital.


The Roman Revolution

By Ronald Syme,

Book cover of The Roman Revolution

Why this book?

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 an incredibly important one for revealing the family relationships and political motivations of the Roman aristocracy. This is not just ancient history, but very much portrays how politics functions now.


Quarantine

By Jim Crace,

Book cover of Quarantine

Why this book?

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.


Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World

By Michael Scott,

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

Why this book?

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.


Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times

By Elizabeth Wayland Barber,

Book cover of Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times

Why this book?

Women’s Work is considered a seminal text in the study of fashion - whether that’s costume history, the culture of fashion, the history of textiles, or even the intersection of labor and feminism. If you’re interested in the study of garments, in learning why thread and cloth and sewing were so important in the past as well as why it continues to be important today, there is no better place to get started. This book has been popular for decades for a reason. Women’s Work helps to restructure and reorient your thinking around what we wear, a necessary component to understanding fashion.


Understanding Collapse: Ancient History and Modern Myths

By Guy D. Middleton,

Book cover of Understanding Collapse: Ancient History and Modern Myths

Why this book?

“Collapse” is a term frequently bandied about in the press and popular as well as academic historical writing. Middleton’s book, well-informed by the palaeoenvironmental, archaeological, and documentary evidence shines a powerful light on some of the pervasive myths about supposed historical collapses, many of which were not at all what the term might suggest. He challenges us to think carefully and critically about what we really know about a past civilisation before we rush into easy judgements. His book made me rethink many of my own assumptions on the subject and undoubtedly influenced my own work.


Travel in the Ancient World

By Lionel Casson,

Book cover of Travel in the Ancient World

Why this book?

Anybody who studies travel in ancient Rome knows the name of Lionel Casson, and after reading his magnum opus, you will understand why. Reading his book makes me feel that I am taking a tour of the Roman world in all its glory: its diversity, its impressive infrastructure, its cultural highlights, and its religious pilgrimage sites. Travel could be exciting or dangerous, luxurious or barebones, for business or for pleasure. In Casson’s engaging and accessible prose, however, it is always a revelatory window into Roman culture and history. Casson’s book helped me understand the personal, emotional aspects of travel in ancient Rome and, consequently, made me feel closer to ancient Romans themselves.