Friday, May 17, 2013
If you find yourself interested in ancient history and want to learn more about it, it can be tough to know where to start. One must avoid TV, as purveyors of dubious programing like the "History Channel" are likely to try and convince you that all the great ancient civilizations were built by space aliens. You can get a lot of information from the internet, but then Wiki can only tell you so much. One still has to resort, thankfully, to books. A good general history of the Ancient World is the best place to start.
A general history of the Ancient Mediterranean presents definite challenges. How can an author manage to cram in thousands of years of history, covering several complex civilizations, into one book? One would expect either a meager outline that lightly covers only the most important events (indeed, this is what we usually get) or a ponderously massive tome that takes forever to slog through. Remarkably, Charles Freeman managed to avoid either extreme and gave us a 650 page history that manages to cover, in detail, all the major political, military and cultural events in one enjoyable book.
Egypt, Greece and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean, Second Edition is the cornerstone of my ancient history library, one that I have turned to time and again over the past few years. It starts with the Ancient Near East 5000-1200 BCE and goes all the way through to the emergence of the Byzantine Empire. He writes not only of the great figures of history but also the forgotten voices. In the ancient world history was nearly always written by upper-class men, men whose views of course color our view of their times. Freeman does not forget women, children, peasants and slaves. Just so, he does not forget the smaller cultural events that affected change, ones that are usually overshadowed by great political or military events.
One of the most valuable things about this book is how it shows us that these different civilizations were all very connected to one another. If one were only to read books about Ancient Rome for instance, that interconnectedness can be forgotten. Other nations could be viewed as only conquests or enemies, when in fact a great deal of Rome's culture was influenced by them. In Freeman's book it is easy to see how these cultures developed together over time.
If you are to read only one book about the Ancient World (shudder to think) it should be this one. It really does have a remarkable amount of information and is utterly engaging. Hopefully, it will serve as an introduction and inspires you to read more.