History books

I know a lot of you read history books. Anyway, I am looking for good biographies of ancient figures. I have read Plutarch (twice, and I love it), but I want either similar old texts or modern historical biographies of people from ancient Greece (inluding Hellenistic) or China.

Also, I am looking for good ancient histories that focus on tight events and/or time periods. For example, a book that gives a nice account of Rome’s conquering of Greece, fights with Pyrrus, etc.

Tried Herodotus and Thucydides yet? Herodotus isn’t focused on a tight time period, but Thucydides fits the bill in that department. Then you’ve also got Xenophon. Judging by what you’re describing, I think you’d love the Anabasis (Persian Expedition in Penguin Classics). Arrian and Rufus are great for Alexander. And Pausanias is also interesting, although his work is more travel writing with interesting anecdotes than a tight look a t single historical period or an event.

You didn’t say Roman, but if you’re interested in that era as well, pick up Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars, Tacitus’ Annals and Histories, Cassius Dio’s Reign of Augustus, and Lives of the Later Caesars in Penguin Classics. The latter two are edited versions of Dio’s history and the Historiae Augustae, though they’re not hacked up so much as they are incomplete. Definitely worth reading, though. For biography, you’re going to find more from the Roman period (Plutarch, for instance, wrote in the second century AD), dealing with Roman subjects, btw, because biographies were wildly popular in Rome.

For modern, well, it’s hard to know where to start, there’s so much. Sealey’s History of the Greek City States is a good, scholarly look at the entire classical Greek era, and Peter Green wrote a fantastic history of the Greco-Persian wars that you might like, along with an excellent bio of Alexander. And there is an entire line of Roman imperial biographies published by Routledge. They’re generally quite good, although I’ve got differing opinions of the ideas expressed in each book, and they are scholarly. You’d still enjoy them, or at least most of them (Pat Southern’s Augustus, for example, is pretty dense if you don’t know the period quite well) if you’re looking more for popular history, though.

On the second part:

Romance of 3 kingdoms? Long as hell, I’ve only scratched it, but it certainly has discrete set of events, even if it covers a wide swath.

A version is online as well:


Perhaps the works of Josephus? History of the destruction of Jerusalem?


BTW, I’d be better with specific questions. If you want to read about a certain historical figure, or a specific event, I’d be better able to give reading recommendations.

Yeah it’d be better if you got more specific :) Thucydides is of course one many cite; “the father of history” is generally well readable and covers a pretty interesting period of time. Livy on Hannibal is quite good I think. Caesar’s Commentaries, while self-promoting, is also good.

— Alan

I’ve enjoyed Lion Feuchtwanger’s novels very much. In particular, Raquel was a downright awesome book, and Goya was an interesting and quite lifelike account of the rise and fall of the painter.

It may not be what you’re looking for in terms of genre, but I thought I’d throw it out there.

Another nod to Livy’s Histories. He describes the conquest of Macedon quite nicely and its fairly easy to see through the propaganda of the times.

www.threekingdoms.com is the Sanguo Yan Yi which is the novel, not the history which reads quite a bit differently. The history was written by Chen Shou, I don’t think there’s a English translation though I could be wrong.

Records of the Grand Historian. Written by Sima Qian and chronicles China’s history up until his own time (90 BCE).

Record of the Warring States. There’s a lot of heroes here that Luo Guan Zhong references in his Romance of the 3 Kingdoms novels.

Personally, if I can say this without sounding extremely pretentious, I would say Livy is only worth reading in Latin, for his style; his content unfortunately at times is little more than propaganda.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is still surprisingly readable, and in places really laugh-out-loud funny. Read the abregied version first, though.

Livy sucks in english, it’s true.

For Greece, my suggestions would be:

The Peloponnesian Wars, Thucydides.

Easily the most fascinating thing I have ever read. Not only is it phenomenal as a general history, but Thucydides also delves into tangential issues, such as the breakdown of the polis system throughout classical Greece. What, that doesn’t sound interesting? Well, it is. It’s probably the earliest surviving account of what happens when a democracy breaks down, and Thucydides was a very perceptive observer.

You definitely want the Crawley translation, though. By far the best.

The Anabasis, Xenophon.

I lied above, this is actually the most fascinating thing I’ve ever read. It’s the account of a group of hoplite mercenaries who signed up with Cyrus to fight his brother Artaxerxes in a Persian civil war. As the Persians couldn’t field heavy infantry anywhere near the caliber of the hoplites, Cyrus quickly managed to reach the gates of Babylon and was poised to be the next god-king of Persia. Unfortunately for the Greeks (and, I suppose, for Cyrus), Cyrus got himself killed in the battle of Cunaxa, and the Greeks found themselves stranded near Babylon.

As the Greeks are trying to make their way back home, the Persians kill off their generals. The Greeks simply elect new generals and start marching. Probably the best non-fiction adventure story ever told.

And I know you didn’t ask, but if you are looking for a modern “survey” history of ancient Greece, try http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0195097432/qid=1121175864/sr=8-3/ref=pd_bbs_ur_3/002-3751729-9448800?v=glance&s=books&n=507846.

Not the best history out there, but the only word I can think of to describe it is “readable.” I find that readable text is rare in a survey book, but this one bucks the trend. And it doesn’t overdo the political correctness.

If you are interested in archaeology, I also highly recommend

This book just flat out kicks ass. Not only does it begin with a relatively detailed narrative of the natural environment of Greece before the classical period, it’s the best archaeological companion I’ve ever seen that’s actually got intelligible companion text. Minoan sculptures, spear tips, earrings, you’ll find drawings of them all here. Floorplans of the palaces at Knossos and Mallia? Yep. Street layouts of bronze age towns? Yep. This book sets the standard for readable archaeology books, IMO.

And my final recommendation if you’re reading about classical Greece is this: Renault’s “The Nature of Alexander” is rubbish. Don’t bother.

The ancient histories have all been well covered here. I’ll add Polybius to the list since he’s pretty essential in understanding Roman imperialism, and was likely one of Livy’s major sources.

For a good recent Roman biography, I point you to Anthony Everitt’s Cicero.

The Hellenistic period isn’t as well covered by modern popular historians, but Erich S. Gruen’s The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome is surprisingly accessible. It comes in two volumes bound together and the second volume may be what you are looking for. It looks at Roman imperialism in the East region by region and tries to explain Roman imperialism in general. It is widely considered the most important book on the period from the last forty years, but it does presume a bit of prior knowledge - not as much as his other scholarly monographs, but some basic geography and chronology would be helpful. You can look inside the book at Amazon, so try that and see if you are keen to try it. (Gruen is my favorite classical scholar at the moment, and his books are, as one critic has put it, “revisionist in the best sense of the word.”)

Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Punic Wars is a good survey of that period.

Concerning modern writers, you can get a good feel for the soldier’s experience in the Hellenistic world through Victor Davis Hanson’s earlier works, The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece, The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization, and Hoplites: The Classical Greek Battle Experience (ed.)

His later books are cross-era studies mostly, jumping from era to era, but still typically feature the ancient period at one point or another (Carnage and Culture, Soul of Battle, Ripples of Battle).

His new book, coming in November, goes back to a singular focus:

— Alan

Donald Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War is a very good modern retelling, by the way, and acts as a general history and update to his 4-book academic book series he wrote about the same topic some thirty years ago.

John Prevas’ works are interesting if you want to see how an event unfolded historically, how it happened, and what it looks like today (or how probable was it) - Hannibal’s crossing the Alps, for instance.

Barry Strauss’ recent book on Salamis has just been published in paperback.

— Alan

Thanks for the tips guys. I should have specified that I have read both Herodotus and Thucydides more than once. I’ll get a Loeb version of Livy though. I know Latin, so I will read it in Latin. I have read some of it, but not all, and I once translated some of it for a student I was tutoring for GCSEs.

I was intentionally vague in other ways though because I wanted good books more than specific themes. I am interested in the eras and the civilizations I mentioned.

While I am thinking about it though, does anyone have a good source for 4th century Greece, which talks about the rise of Thebes/fall of Sparta?

I mentioned the Thebes thing above, but I am also interested in a nice account of the fall of Syracuse at the time of Archimedes.

And if there are good biographies on any of the following figures, that would be nice:

Pyrrhus, Demosthenes, Mithridates.

Oh, and I should also state that I am less interested in themes that are already widely covered, such as the Peleponnesian War, which many of you are mentioning. I am looking to expand my knowledge of the history BETWEEN such major events, so that I have a better sense of the continuity of the history of these time periods.

Except in the case of China, where my knowledge is FAR too limited.

The major sources for this period are Nepos’ life of Epaminondas, Plutarch’s Life of Pelopidas and Xenophon’s Hellenica. None do a very good job - and Xenophon is simply terrible on this since he is too preoccupied with being a propagandist for Sparta.

Paul Cartledge’s The Spartans covers the city from its glory days to its fall. Sealey’s “History of the Greek City States” may have what you need, but I’m not sure.


A third of Hanson’s The Soul of Battle deals with basically the beginning of the fall of Sparta with Epaminondas’ march. May not be worth buying just for that, however.

Was about to suggest Paul Cartledge’s recent book on the Spartans but TSG did so…

Serge Lancel wrote a book all about Carthage which is interesting for its look on an ancient city that’s not Roman, Greek, or Egyptian. Quite detailed.

I wouldn’t mind seeing a book that details the wars of Alexander’s successors, which was a very long, protracted struggle with a lot of battles and intrigue. Don’t think I’ve really seen one yet in recent times…

— Alan

As for China… you can try out some of Ralph Sawyer’s various translations and collections of various Chinese works that deal with the ancient period and are dictions of military doctrine, etc. - not just Sun Tzu and Sun Pin, but treatisies on intelligence, incendiary & aquatic warfare, leadership, etc.

Osprey has published some multi-country (but specific) works on the Far East concerning siege weapons and naval warfare (usually covering China, Korea, Japan, etc.

— Alan

Checking Sealy’s Table of Contents, it has a chapter on the fall of Sparta. I’m going to buy myself a copy now. (My shelf is heavy on Rome, light on Greece. Time to redress the balance.)