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Volume 11, Issue 3: Hisoria

Learning History

Cris Schlect

Perhaps I should face up to the reality that I'm a history nerd. Some of the books that fascinate me most cover the nuances of obscure topics that few other folks find interesting. For instance, not everyone shares my passion for the study of Athenian warships in the fifth century B.C. Even right now, I'm on the edge of my seat waiting for Cambridge University Press to publish the revised edition of The Athenian Trireme, halfway convinced that my friends, neighbors, and students will take a holiday, uncork some champagne, and celebrate its arrival with me.

I understand that The Athenian Trireme may not be for everyone. But some books are for everyone, or at least for those whose calling requires them to become historically literate. I do believe there exists something like a canon of historical writings, works of acknowledged importance that cannot be passed over. I know others believe this "canon" exists, for they have asked me to list the books that make it up. And so I propose titles which layman-historians like me, and certainly professionals, ought to become acquainted with as we mature in our historical pursuits. Surely, my list is flawed, yet perhaps it points in the canon's general direction. I include some titles for their helpfulness more than their importance.
We begin with ancient Greece, starting with Plutarch's Parallel Lives. Plutarch's lives of Theseus, Solon, and Lycurgus are most important for early Greece, and his remaining Greek lives for Athens' Golden Age and later. Aristotle's Constitution of Athens, especially the first half, is also an important history of this all-important city. For ancient Sparta, consult the very helpful Plutarch on Sparta from Penguin Classics, which includes the best ancient sources on that famous garrison state. The so-called "Father of History", Herodotus, is essential reading for any historian. Herodotus covers the history of the world he knew up to the fifth century B.C., and especially of the war that vaulted Athens into its Golden Age. Robin Waterfield's new translation of Herodotus is affordable, and the excellent notes on the text make it the best version to new readers of this classic work (Oxford University Press, 1998). More of Plutarch's lives cover the important period between the Greco-Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War (Themistocles, Aristides, Cimon, and Pericles), which brings us to the Peloponnesian War itself, and its chronicler, Thucydides. Thucydides' history stands alongside Herodotus' in its greatness and it is unquestionably included in the historical canon. For its maps and helps, the edition I highly recommend is The Landmark Thucydides (Free Press, 1996) edited by Robert B. Strassler. Xenophon's Hellenica picks up where Thucydides leaves off, moving us into the fourth century B.C. Alexander the Great is the next stop along the way, and Arrian presents an outstanding overview in his Anabasis of Alexander. I have seen a number of modern surveys of ancient Greece, and of these my favorite is Botsford and Robinson's Hellenic History, fifth edition-revised by Donald Kagan.
After Alexander, Rome rises to preeminence. To capture Rome's beginnings we turn to Livy, whose work is impeccable for its literary quality. Livy's first ten books are essential, along with Plutarch's lives of Romulus, Numa, Camillus. Livy continues from Rome's origins to cover her wars with Carthage, a series of conflicts that resulted in Rome's domination over the Western Mediterranean. While Livy is a good read here, Polybius is even better and probably more reliable. Appian's Roman History (published under various titles) is an important source for many eras, but especially for his account of the civil wars that eroded the Roman Republic. And once again, Plutarch presents important biographies for the later Republic: Pyrrhus, Caius Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, Tiberius and Caius Gracchus, Cicero, Antony, and Brutus.
As we move on to the Roman Empire, we turn to another biographer, Suetonius, whose Lives of the Twelve Caesars portray each of the Julio-Claudian emperors, together with the Flavian house through Domitian. An even more important source for this period is Tacitus, whose Histories and Annals present a brutally candid look at imperial politics from Tiberius through the civil war of 68-69. In this same era, we should also turn our attention to the hinterlands of the empire, in Judea, where the Jews revolt against Rome and then Rome, in turn, sacks Jerusalem, as Christ had prophesied. Josephus chronicles these important events in his Jewish Wars. In addition, the church historian Eusebius provides a thorough and authoritative account of the rise of Christianity in the Roman world.
I have been pleased with the affordable "Penguin Classics" editions of most works named above, especially Xenophon, Arrian, Livy, Polybius, Appian, Suetonius, and Tacitus. Unfortunately, the Penguin edition of Plutarch reorganizes Plutarch's work and omits his important essays that compare his subjects.
For later Rome, the documentary sources wane in reliability and literary quality. However, the classic eighteenth-century work by Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, holds a definite place in the canon and covers his subject in well-presented detail. His enlightenmentish disdain for the Church does show through. Of the recent surveys of Roman history I know, I am most satisfied with Sinnigen and Boak's A History of Rome to A.D. 565, sixth ed. (Macmillan, 1977).
Those who teach history should acquaint themselves with these and other works. Be patient; it will take years. At the rate of one book per month, familiarity will come in just a few years. Next installment: medieval history.

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