This is my review of A History Of The Ancient World. I had planned on doing more history reading in 2021. But the year whizzed by and I found myself in December having read nothing. A quick search for “top history books” surfaced a number of interesting choices. I chose this one because it covered a period of history I feel I don’t have a good grasp on - pre-Roman/Greek antiquity from the start of civilisation onwards. It also tied in nicely with my study of epic poems (a great deal of which were written in ancient times, or drew inspiration from it).
The book itself is quite large. At almost 1000 pages it is the longest I tackled this year. But it was a quick and easy read, with rather clear prose. As you might guess, the book is ordered chronologically and focuses on the civilisations on the Near East, Egypt, India, China, and of course Greece and Rome. Most of the first half of the book is focused on Egypt and the Near East as that’s where stuff was happening. But the second half branches out to the other parts. The book ends with the fall of the Han dynasty in China, the rise of the Sassanid Persian empire, and the reign of Constantine in the Roman empire.
I’m not a history buff or anything, but I did get three main things out of this.
The first was a better understanding of the Bronze and Iron ages civilisations. This is a huge swath of history, from about 4000BC (that’s 6000 years ago) up to 800BC, on which I had a very basic grasp. Now I know how Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians interacted, and how the dynasties of Egypt ruled, and why there are old, middle, and new kingdoms in their history.
The second was a better understanding of China’s history. The parts about the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period were especially interesting, as I had some knowledge of these times, but I couldn’t link them in a good framework.
And the third thing I got was a better grasp of just how brutal ruling and the passage of power were in these times. Most of these historical societies had the notion of power being inherited from father to son. And I believed this was a fairly basic affair, and you’d see long multigenerational dynasties like you would in medieval Europe or our times. But turns out that what happened in real life would put Game of Thrones to shame. You could count on one hand the number of successful such transitions. Otherwise there were plots, killing of children, palace coups, regents, murdering of relatives, etc. Someone close to power and with ambitions would become the new ruler - the shrewdest and most powerful. But rarely the “rightful heir”. It put for me the deaths of Caesar or Alexander the Great into a “normality”, rather than oddball exceptions.
The major thing I disliked about the book was that it focused exclusively on the lives and deeds of kings and the expansions or downfalls of their kingdoms. Of course there usually isn’t any other record to go. But I would have liked more details on the links with technological progress, religious development, and societal advancements. Things like the Bronze Age, the Iron age, developments of agriculture, animistic religions, etc. are barely mentioned. Yet many times the conquests of a king, or the migration of a population, were driven by such things. Without the extra background there’s a lot of unanswered questions about the “why” or “how” of certain developments.
Still, you can only cram so much into a book, and given the breath of history covered, I understand where the compromise is coming from.
Bottom line, I’m happy I read this book and definitely recommend it.