When you want to start learning about ancient history, the vast range of books available can be overwhelming. Especially as books on the ancient past can span from the over simplified to the dense and very academic. In this list of books we’ve tried to find a balance between the two. These best books about ancient history should be easy, informative reads that are based in academic research and tell you something new.
Indus Valley and Ancient Mesopotamia
First, we want to start with some of the earliest, but often lesser studied, periods of Ancient History. The Indus Valley Civilisation is one of the earliest examples of settled urban communities on a large scale. Based around the central city of Happara, many hail its development as extraordinary and largely unknown. Some of the features that make it stand out are its large plumbing systems, city design and egalitarian social order. If you want a slim but insightful read to learn some of the basics, and not so basics, of these people we recommend; Shereen Ratnager’s Understanding Harappa: Civilization in the Greater Indus Valley. It’s self-described as wanting to ‘rouse’ the interests of students and non-specialists and many reviews praise its balance between academic thought and easily digestible content. We think its dedication to sharing archaeological information as well as a nuanced discussions of their demise are partially useful.
Moving east, another area that has been often hailed as a cradle of civilisation is that between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Known as Mesopotamia, many of us would have first heard of this civilisation as a foot note to the Egyptians. However, as early pioneers of writing and other technologies, this categorisation seems unfair. Therefore, for a first insight grounded in the artefacts from this period we recommend Ancient Mesopotamia Speaks: Highlights of the Yale Babylonian Collection. Although published to supplement an exhibition, the beautiful images of the pieces and the thematic essays really allow you to get lost in this ancient world.
One of the most infamous ancient civilisations is indisputably Egypt. Known for its pyramids, plethora of gods and ruthless pharaohs, many of us would have learn about who they are and what they achieved before. However, the story of ancient Egypt is a complex one that dominates large swathes of ancient history. This vastness can be hard to comprehend and facts like Cleopatra being born closer to the modern day than she was the erection of the pyramids can seem bizarre. Therefore, one needs a direct and comprehensive work to be able to navigate this. For this purpose, we recommend Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra. Many recommend this as a go to for beginners before they graduate to the much denser Oxford History of Ancient Egypt.
Recommending books on Hellenistic and Classical Greece threw up quite a challenge. Many places will suggest you read many of the great Greek canon of literature and histories, such as those by Plutarch. They have great merit but sometimes a little more context is needed to fully appreciate what you are reading. Therefore, for Ancient Greece we wanted to recommend a concise overview – Ancient Greece: A Very Short Introduction. The Very Short Introduction series are published by Oxford University and you can find academic introductions to just about anything! The Ancient Greek work allows you to consider the historical timeline, cultural output and historical reception of this remarkable period. They are quite academically written, but its short length makes up for this and it’s a brilliant jumping off place for further study.
Like any of the civilisations we discuss in this article, there is room for close reading on specific themes. For example, you may care most about politics or culture or the simple every day. However, when it comes to the Greeks, we know that their military might and countless battles are often key places of interest. Therefore, the second book on Ancient Greece we want to suggest is Battles and Battlefields of Ancient Greece: A Guide to their History, Topography and Archaeology. Praised for its captivating nature and depth of research it’s a work that will indisputably grab military history fans.
The Roman Empire and Republic had a significant impact on a lot of Europe, North Africa and Western Asia. If you live in a country that the Roman’s invaded, their mark is often still visible today. Whether that’s in ruins, urban plans or roads. Therefore, it is not surprising Roman history draws so many people in. Here at Pax Romana we of course are not exempt from that, naming ourselves after one of the most prosperous parts of their history! Many, many books have been written about the Roman, but here we nearly always return to Mary Beard’s SPQR. It’s large, but benefits from Beards length of scholarship and in-depth knowledge. If there were a book you should read about this period, this would be it.
Having a full understanding of what it means to be Celtic historically and in the modern day can be a significant undertaking. A term with great nuance it has been used and misused throughout centuries of historical writing. Therefore, we didn’t want to just suggest a biography of Boudicca, but something that was a little more nuanced. Celts: Art and Identity is our recommendation to help meet these stipulations. Inspired by an exhibition that was held by the British Museum and National Museum of Scotland it puts beautiful Celtic art at the heart of its discussions. Using these pieces as jumping off points they examine questions of identity formation and pan-European histories.
It’s hard to define exactly what we’re referring to when we say ‘Ancient China’. With the earliest found Chinese records dating from 1250 BC, and archaeological going back further, it is perhaps defined most simply by dynasty. This is a vast time period, and we thought we’d start with an original ancient history to scratch the surface. Records of the Grand Historian is comprised of three volumes that were written in the first century BC. Covering the Qin and Han dynasties, they are a piece of history in their own right. Written by Sima Qian, the court’s ‘Grand Historian’, he followed in his father’s footsteps to write this history of the world known to the Chinese at that time. This work was incredibly influential in future histories of China, including some of those written today.
However, the best approach to Ancient Chinese history can be looking more closely at one dynasty or theme. For the Tang Dynasty, we recommend Charles Benn’s China’s Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty. Noted for its beautiful illustrations but knowledgeable writing many suggest this book as a brilliant way to start learning about Ancient China. It takes the focus away from just emperors and looks more at ordinary people and what China’s ‘golden age’ meant for them.
Like many people in Ancient History, the Vikings have been defined as just one thing. As the Egyptians might be pyramids and gold, the Vikings have become raiding and violence in our popular imagination. It is true that they did invade and ransack many places in Europe, most famously on the British and Irish coast. However, they also had a well-developed culture, far reaching trade relationships and complex politics. Who was and wasn’t a Viking is very much up for debate in current historiographical circles. For this recommendation, we thought we’d choose a less academic but still thorough work: Neil Oliver’s Vikings. Written to come out with a BBC Documentary series, it has many personal anecdotes that make it an enjoyable and engaging read.
Byzantine Empire and Crusades
At the same time Vikings were active in the North Sea, in the south we find the Byzantine Empire. The eastern half of the Roman Empire that continued to flourish after the Roman’s ‘fall’, it’s known for beautiful jewellery, preservative scholarship and Christianity. Throughout time, many historians have written on Byzantium. However, the empire was known for its intellectuals, so we thought it best to recommend one of their own. Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographia of Michael Psellus, published in 11th Century AD, is a clear history of the Byzantine Empire written at the time. Countless scholars and reviewers say if you were to read one book on this period, this should be it.
Of course, the other defining feature of Byzantium in this period are the conflicts that we know as the Crusades. These wars were highly political and religious wars, meaning that much historiography throughout history is full of strong biases towards either side. No history, no matter how modern, is ever exempt of bias. However, we thought we’d try and find a modern work that attempts to be impartial. The Crusades: An Epitome by Susanna A. Throop is the recommendation we fell on to satisfy this. An open source book it can be read online for free, and covers all of the Crusades, including those that go past our normal remit.
Here at Pax Romana, there is often a lot of interest in the Seljuk pieces we sell, but there aren’t lots of popular books written about the empire and its achievements. Our recommendation comes in a the form of what might be considered a textbook on this period; A.C.S Peacock’s The Great Seljuk Empire. In fact, published in 2015, this was the first English language general history of the empire and makes up for this in its comprehensive nature. Of course the growth of Islam and Islamic empires in the ancient to early modern world is a large topic. The Seljuks are just one component piece. However, we think this lesser studied empire is a great place to start.
For one final book we wanted to give a general read, one to perhaps read a chapter of before bed! As people become more engaged in the ancient past, more innovative ways of telling these stories are coming to the floor. One that caught our eye is Colin McEvedy’s Cities of the Classical World. Full of atlases, it attempts to tell us the history of our ancient ancestors through the cities they built and places they lived. With detailed illustrations it’s a lighter but fascinating new way of thinking about what can be stilted ancient history.
Let us know if you follow our suggestions for the best books about ancient history! We’d love to know what you learnt and what you enjoyed. These works cover the main periods we sell pieces from here at Pax Romana; so the list is not exhaustive. However, we love spreading knowledge about the ancient past and are always open to suggestions of the periods you want to explore.