Essential Knowledge: IV

The traditional way in the West of teaching history is to start with the three phases of history. There is the beginning, the middle and the end. This is based on two assumptions that are unique to the West. One is that history is a process where the past casts a shadow over the present to shape the future. History is a long chain of causation. The other assumption is history works toward some end, as if it is by design. The idea of “progress” rests on this assumption. The world is progressing toward some end point.

For the student of history, the habit has been to start at the beginning and read forward, thinking about how each era led to and shaped the next. The tides of history have carried man to the place he is today, not by chance, but through the great chain of causality. Each new civilization was built on those that came before it. In this way, history is a stack of blocks and the story of man is a tower reaching to the heavens. To know what comes next means knowing every block in the stack and why it is there.

A better and more accurate way to read history is to think of each people as having their own beginning, middle and end. History is not one single ribbon in time, but thousands of bits and strands that often lead nowhere and have no influence on what comes next, other than to perhaps stand out as an example for modern people. The emphasis here as we get into the essential knowledge of human history is to stick with books and podcasts that avoid theories of history. Instead, the focus will be on the story of the people in question.

For Westerners, the story of history usually begins with the Greeks, but you cannot really understand the Greeks without knowing something about the Persians. Greek civilization and what we have come to know as the West was forged in the time between the Battle of Marathon and the heroic last stand by the Spartans at Thermopylae. That’s not true, but it is the way we like to imagine it. Still, to understand the Greeks, you need to know something of the Persians. While only lasting 200 years, the Persians are integral to the history of the Greeks and the Jews, which is why Cyrus gets mentioned in the Old Testament.

You could read Herodotus and it is a fun read, but you can also listen to the great Dan Carlin podcast on the Persians. Carlin is a great history podcaster and a great storyteller so it is a fun way to learn a bit about the Persians. An excellent book for the general reader is Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West. The Persians did not exist in a vacuum, so learning about the people they conquered is a good idea, especially for Bible studying Christians. Here’s a book worth reading and here is another one that covers the material.

For those who have come to prefer podcasts, there is this ongoing podcast about the Ancient world that covers just about everything. I’ve listened to some of it and it is pretty good. There’s also the Ancient Warfare Podcast. It a product from the Ancient Warfare Magazine and it is a fun way to get your feet wet with regards to the people and civilizations of the ancient world. Unless you intend to search for the Ark of the Covenant, these history podcasts are a good introduction to the essential knowledge of these people.

The big subject, when it comes to this part of the world, is ancient Egypt and we are spoiled for choice when it comes to books. Unless you have a desire to become an Egyptologist, a good survey book like The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt is a solid choice. A highly readable history is The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, which is why it made it to the best seller list. Of course, there’s always the podcast route. This one is probably the most popular one at the moment. It’s well done and entertaining.

Finally, the Greeks. The main reason to know about the Persians, Egyptians, Babylonians and so forth is to have a better understanding of the Greeks. No people has cast a longer shadow and it is impossible to be an educated man without knowing about Greek history, culture and society. It is preferable to know Classical Greek. In a better age, Classical Greek was taught in high school, but that is no longer true. If you want to try and learn a bit, there are on-line course like this one and this one to get you started. You will not become fluent, but you can pick up enough to appreciate the grammar.

For the general reader or someone entirely new to the topic, Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times is a great choice. It is one of those books you can read at the beach or at the airport. For something a bit more advanced, a textbook like this one or this one is a good choice. We tend not to think of textbooks as good reading, but modern history texts are aimed at a generation brought up on smartphones so they tend to be a bit more readable. The key is to start with a general, chronological history of the Greeks.

You cannot be an educated man without having read Homer. You can get the Iliad and the Odyssey for close to free as an eBook. The same is true of Aesop’s Fables. Most people remember it from childhood, but in the context of Greek history is recommended reading. Plato’s Republic is also a must read and it can be downloaded free from any number of sources. Of course, you can always find an on-line course on Greek literature if you are the sort who prefers structured learning.

The Greco-Persian wars and the Peloponnesian War are probably the two most important topics in Greek history. You can and should read Thucydides, but Donald Kagan’s treatment of the Peloponnesian War is fantastic and perfect for the general reader. As far as the Greco-Persian wars, reading Herodotus is a must, but you can also read The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, by Robert Strassler. It is a big book, but it is a big topic and this treatment reads almost like a novel.

If you want to have a little fun while learning a little bit about Thermopylae, the Gates of Fire is a fun read. It’s not history, but it give you some sense of life in ancient Greece. A more serious telling is Thermopylae: The Battle For The West. If you prefer a podcast, then an excellent podcast on ancient Greece is this one that I have been listening to recently. The good thing about podcasts on ancient history is they tend to be done by people with the passion of a fan, rather than historians just making a buck.

Finally, a book that does not quite fit into the history category, but one I enjoyed reading is 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. It is not exactly a history book, more of an analysis of what happened at the end of the Bronze Age. Within a period of 40-50 years at the end of the Bronze Age almost every significant city in the eastern Mediterranean world was destroyed. The reason for this remains a bit of mystery, but it makes for a good transition to Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, a must read.

68 thoughts on “Essential Knowledge: IV

  1. Agree with you on this. Also recommend Dan Carlin, please support his and other podcasts you enjoy with a buck or two.

  2. Z- is there any chance you could make a list of your required reading? I know it sounds like I’m being lazy, but it would be nice to have a compiled list to spread around to the good people.

  3. Well, perhaps not children. As there is significant blood and guts, wierdness, limited and not so limited nudity and sexuality. So a parent’s guidence is necessary for 300 and 300:Rise of an Empire.

  4. Would add that while getting people to read especially children might be difficult, they may sit through a movie and be inspired to learn more. In my opinion, 300 and 300:Rise of an Empire should be required viewing. Maybe I’m a complete schmuck but there are some truely moving scenes in both.

  5. ” Within a period of 40-50 years at the end of the Bronze Age almost every significant city in the eastern Mediterranean world was destroyed. The reason for this remains a bit of mystery . . . ”

    Well, once everything had been bronzed people lost all hope and gave up. What was the point of a city if there was no future? Of course, no one knew that plastics and composites were the future.

  6. Herodotus is actually interesting. I thought it would be dry or stale. I was bored by Caesar’s stuff when I was a kid.

  7. what we have come to know as the West was forged in the time between the Battle of Marathon and the heroic last stand by the Spartans at Marathon

    S/b “Spartans at Thermopylae”

  8. Pingback: Essential Knowledge | We Seek the Truth!

  9. Elizabeth Wise-Bauer’s histories of the ancient and medieval world are easy to read narratives and encompass the entire known world, so Asian history chapters are mixed right in with Europe. Concurrent history.
    Carroll Quigley The Evolution of Civilizations, available from Liberty Fund (I bet I have a hundred or more of their titles) is a nice complement to Tainter.
    You can pick up old Penguin histories on the cheap at a lot of used book stores or at library or red cross sales. Sometimes I buy an old book for reference and to read the introduction. Reading the summary put together by the expert who edited the book is often as informative as the book itself. If you question his judgement, you have the text right there in front of you.
    When I used to travel more I’d take a small book with me. Viking Portable Library books are great primary source introductions to many topics. Greek Reader, Age of Reason, Conservative Reader, Rennaissance, Dante, you name it, all with great introductions. The Penguin books are good for this, too.
    One other way I’ve done things is to get interested in a particular part of history and read several books on it. Doing so helps you not only to understand that little part of history, but to give context to other things. Venice, for instance. Reading a few books about that gives perspective on the history of Rome, Italy, Byzantium/Eastern Empire, Islam, Rennaissance, the age of the condottiere and Machiavelli, Napoleon, the Habsburgs, etc. I haven’t done so, but I’d bet that reading about the history of Naples would provide insight into that of the entirety of western Europe.
    Old Anchor paperbacks are good, too.

  10. Victor Davis Hanson is indeed a marvelous historian and commentator although so far I have only read one of his books – “The Father of Us All, War and History, Ancient and Modern”. I check out his blog pretty regularly too which I endorse –

  11. Z, your first three paragraphs are fantastic! I wish I would have had a history teacher who would have introduced the subject in such a captivating manner. I grew up in a home where reading was not much on display and I only really started reading after I finished grad school (the stuff I was interested in).

    I only hope that I left my children with the same burning desire to read, learn and search out truth through different sources unlike so many who do not know what is going on daily or only know what the MSM tells them.

    History is a key to life. No matter your origins, the world we live in today is the result of the Butterfly Effect and the winds of change that people and decisions and actions from times past have brought us to and that still carry us like waves upon the great seas. To know history is to be able to climb up above the 30,000 ft. level and take in the larger perspective. While it is difficult to predict anything, it makes it possible to put things, many things into better context. Thanks!

  12. Some people read history to learn and reflect.
    Others read history to affirm their preconceived notions.

    This latter group comprises most progressives and organization they join or support.

  13. there are some truly magical movies — made in greece during the 60’s and 70’s — set in antiquity. if anyone is interested, i will put them on a public sharing site. no dubbed dialog though (which is probably for the better). these are not brad pitt movies, so be warned 🙂

  14. I was taught by a graduate class history professor to read primary works written by the people of the time, in order to understand the events of the day. Once one goes that route, it is very difficult to go back to reading modern interpretations. Someone like Bernard Cornwell can be excruciating to read, because the descriptions of the old times have a distinctly modern overlay. One thing is Cornwell’s favor is that there is little to no written record of many of the times and places he describes.

    Try Richard Henry Dana’s “Two Years Before the Mast” and tell me old time writing is not compelling.

    • Funny you say that Dutch. In William S. Linds saga, Victoria, the main character, a Marine Captain from Maine who is ousted by PC, he is directed to a Dartmouth College Professor (who runs a small study college with courses that Dartmouth has banned for un-PC bad think), tells him he must read the classics before he can fully understand what has happened to him and the world around him. There is a pretty good list in the book, not unlike what Z and you are talking about, and the reasons you are saying so. By the way, Victoria is free to read up to about midway, but it is available on Kindle in entirety. A great easy to read yarn too. It is about how Maine and NH secede and what they have to do to win their freedom against all odds and cultural marxism.

  15. Kagan taught one of my favorite classes in which the P war was one of the principal topics. “Causes of War” or something like that was the name of the course. Prof. Kagan had a disconcerting way of looking at one: given a visual impairment, he was looking to your side when looking you in the eye. Great teacher, one of my favorites, but others in his family… Well… Victoria Nuland is his dtr-in-law, I believe.

    Excellent essay, this one, with lots of useful info and references. Thanks! Plus which, your idea of history as thousands of bits and strands that sometimes lead nowhere is a terrific insight.

  16. Re: Gates of Fire:

    “What is the opposite of fear?” The question is asked of Spartans repeatedly chapter after chapter without an answer.

    “The opposite of fear is love.”

    Such a great book.

    • Gates of Fire was also a blast to read.
      Quite moving and humane, too.

      Historical fiction is the best. Women’s novels often have outstanding detail, plus it pays to know how the enemy thinks. (Hint: when the heroine meets the guy she’s going to fall for, she always hates his guts. Can’t stand him.)

    • Stephen Pressfield has many great titles to read. While novels, The Afghan Campaign and Killing Rommel are superb stories that integrate a lot of historical information in a easily digestible and contextualized format.

  17. If you want to get into Greek culture a bit more, one option is the 3 volume set by Werner Jaeger:
    Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. Originally published in 1939 are still quite accessible to the modern reader.

    He also published a smaller work called Early Christianity and Greek Paideia which is quite interesting how “Christianity was Hellenized and Hellenic civilization became Christianized” And if you read the Philokalia you can still see that influence though that work is sort of inaccessible to a lot of folks. I

  18. Frankly, podcasts take longer for me than reading books. And I don’t retain audio learning as well as visual. But I do like the British History podcast:

    I would recommend that folks start a commonplace book. We should not count on the internet being with us forever. Keeping a record of the interesting things we read and commenting on it, will help keep that knowledge alive.

    • Like you say, with paper you have something immensely more durable that reliably survives an electronic civilization, to pass on to others or pass down to your kin. Kindles are convenient, but after using one I find there is nothing like a dead tree book. Maybe I’m a traditionalist or provincial, but I’m going back to paper. Besides, there is something real creepy about a corporate entity having intimate knowledge of my reading habits and other meta data. I have this sneaky suspicion my kindle is not unlike Faceborg in that respect. What would the greeks have to say?

      • It’s like what is happening with photography. It’s all digital now. So how does it survive? I have bought a lot of old photographs but I just don’t think we are leaving much for future generations.

        • It’s history is circular I’m thinking. There is a small renaissance movement of sorts in film photography it seems. Read a couple times recently there’s photographers who are into impulsion photography because it is more like a canvas for painters. Kind of like in music recording, the digital leaves out organic certain elements.

    • I read paper almost exclusively and underline and highlight. I also make notes in the margins and began a year or two ago putting notes of real significance in the blank areas in the front and back of the book. Say you come across something that might be a good thing to quote later, or something you think may have importance as an idea, or might have been used by another author. Put a note about it in the back. Sometimes authors or editors do a bad job with their index. I add to it. In one of my histories of the French Revolution that has the best timeline for it, I’ve put in highlights and filled in lacunae as I notice them, also adding explanatory notes where I find I need reminders.

  19. Thank you Zman for the suggested reading sequence. I’m going to do just what you suggest. I have no doubt it is good advice.

    • Always wondered how well VDH’s works are written. The guy has some pretty decent current events commentary. He strikes me a scholar of note, but I have no idea in what strain of history he is adept in.

      • VDH is a trained Classicist. He used to teach at Stanford, but I think he may have retired or semi-retired. Classicist tend to be very high IQ people. It is a small field that is very demanding. You have to know at least two dead languages, which is not easy. I’m told VDH writes some very readable books, but I have not read any of them. I used to read his columns, but I rarely visit NRO these days.

        • Thanks. Read his column at PJ Media back before 2010, but for some reason there was places he wouldn’t go if the topic was current history and events, though he would hint at things, which I found interesting due to his fame as an historian. I’m sure he had his reasons, but I felt it was wasting valuable reading time if he was skirting politically incorrect topics. Not to say I’m judging the guy, just went on to read others who had more literary grit so to say so I could find answers to things I was trying to understand.

          Time to give VHD another try.

        • PS, speaking of Homer, every time I watch the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou, it is funnier and funnier. It’s allegory as Homer in a subtle way.
          Thats some top shelf tongue in cheek right there. The sound track is pretty fitting too. Though my favorite part and the whole movie is my favorite mind you, is when the wonderfully simplest minded character Delmar pipes up and say’s, “Your not a Man unless you own land”.
          I think VHD is discovering his Agrarian roots are pretty darn important to a lot of things if his last couple pieces I’ve read are any indication.

          • I don’t think he ever lost his agrarian roots 🙂

            my only (slight) criticism of VDH is he is a bit repetitive.

          • Having a working farm, and with living in the state run by neo-Bolsheviks, probably gives a guy like VHD a feeling of lets say, mortality. If you understand what kill the Kulaks is about, you should be very cognizant of your Agrarian roots as a farmer, ( history is circular, the human terrain is always on top, thats what you have to keep in mind with 4th Generation war when it raises it’s head ). Take Rhodesia, or more the Ukraine since it is between the anvil and hammer of deep states again, history is circular to me, and it seems the cycles are speeding up in the last couple centuries.

          • I find the movie to be a bit of a statement on the ambivalence of religious belief from a Jewish perspective and a praise of multiculturalism. Note how in the end the corrupt politician is ok because he has embraced miscegenation, even though he has done so for cynical self interested reasons.

        • Zman, when you find time definitely check out VDH’s Carnage and Culture.

          His accounts of Cortez vs the Aztecs and the British stand at Rorke’s Drift during the Zulu wars are my absolute favorite history reads anywhere. Gripping stuff.

        • My introduction to Victor Davis Hanson was his “Carnage and Cultures”. Very readable but disappointing. He had a hypothesis to prove, that the superiority of Western culture was why the Western side always won on the battlefield. And so it did in his carefully chosen examples. Unfortunately he I thought he ignored examples that contradicted his thesis, and seems to ignore the issue of who is Western. So long as he sticks to Greeks and Romans he’s great, but moving further afield he is “out of territory”. I much prefer his shorter essays and editorials, that is Hanson at his best.

        • Zman should read VDH’s Mexifornia. Unfortunately Hanson does not understand the depth of Trump support by the dirt people. He gets the anger but not the deep seated hatred for the elites and what they’ve wrought on our American culture. NRO is filled with traitors.

        • Just started his The End of Sparta yesterday. A novel, but it has to be as we have no original sources for Epaminondas.

        • Dear Zman, VDH spent most of his academic career, not at the hoary halls of Stanford, but at California State University at Fresno, in the heart of the Central Valley, teaching to commoners’ kids. CSUF is in a backwater, which makes VDH ‘s rise as a scholar and a commentator more remarkable. I would guess that a lot of “Country Class ” offspring go to that school, and I don ‘t mean rural 😉

      • He’s one of my favorite non-fiction authors. Very readable and rarely dry. He goes beyond the historical facts and provides context on the landscape around the event, the players and insight into why things turned the way they did. His books are akin to merging volumes of biographies, event facts and commentary into one concise book.

        • Sounds most excellent. I like readable and to the point. Lately he seems to have crossed a certain bridge lets say, in regards to my comment back to Z above. If he colors his historical essays as you say, I’m looking forward to his works. Thank you.

  20. Zman, I love this series! As I’m in the academic biz, I’d like to add: Never be afraid of so-called “pop history.” If well done — and most of them are (though the exceptions are brutal) — they are much better sources for the general reader than academic stuff. Academic monographs are micro-focused, contextless junk, and “general studies” written by big-league academics are nothing but “context” — you know, women, slaves, gays, etc. Julius Caesar? Irrelevant. Now here’s 400 pages on how gay disabled female slaves really ran the Empire. Again, there are always exceptions (Donald Kagan is the biggest of big-league academics, and he’s great), but anyone who tells you that so-and-so isn’t worth reading because he doesn’t have a PhD is projecting.

    • Academic work is close to unreadable. Research papers are unreadable now and deliberately so. Either the authors are hiding from the morality police or hiding the fact they did nonsense work. The preferred trick is to footnote every word.

      • Yup. My own dissertation was almost 2:1 footnotes to page numbers, and that was a ways back. I was also routinely told that I needed more “theory.” Eventually I got so frustrated that I spent six pages saying “this topic is important” in the most obscure, mind-bending marxoblather jargon I could find… and it sailed right through committee. I only wish I’d had the balls to use the Postmodern Essay Generator for some of it.

    • I learned almost all my early British history from the historical fiction of Bernard Cornwell. Maybe ten or twelve books, Dark to Middle Ages. That’s just one rock of many on the globe. I can probably identify the players without a scorecard now. But Victor Hansen believes that through the 70 years of the Peloponnesian Wars we will learn that everything which human societies have experienced since that time is but a repeating of some experience in that one. BTW, the HBDers are concluding that the Greeks were of a Teutonic migration, with the sole exception of the Attics.

      Two geographically small places with intense histories and legacies, one lost and one in the process of being lost. North America is a continent in which their legacies were collected large, but since we are rejecting history it seems we will soon have to endure making our own. History, like evolution, is not like molding clay, it is like making sausage.

  21. History is usually taught through a modern lens which often distorts the facts. I remember learning about how wonderful the Greek experiments with Democracy in Athens were. Upon closer inspection as a History Major in college, I realized that the ancient democracies were complete disasters and we had been served a load of BS in Junior High.

    • It’s said that politics is the art of war. Seems like history of war is a superlative insight into human history like no other. War and combat is certainly is the most dynamic activity of man and has shaped history more than almost anything but for food and water. It is no surprise the intelligentsia revising and manipulating history do not want the art of war known. It tends to enlighten people to the cause and ways of dignity of the individual sovereign and attaining freedom from tyranny.

  22. I tend to consider the “history is bunk” idea when I read any historical work.

    Many of the ancient works you refer to are fragments, copies of copies, written by the victors, losers or wealthy in one sided fashion or so isolated that we cannot really tell if they really give an accurate idea of a people or culture. I have read lots of the works you suggest and mostly educated myself as to what educated men think is a good education and been vastly entertained as well. The Satyricon by Petronius, is dirty, and laugh out loud funny.

    90% of everything academics write is nonsense, engineering and technical advances have done much more to shape history than politicians and warlords and historians are usually innumerates who know little of engineering and other math based sciences. I suggest “The Ancient Engineers”, by L. Sprague de Camp, and similar.

    40 years ago when I was at university, none of this was force fed into us. I read all of these ancient works, all of the academic historical works on my own, and did not start until I was in my thirties. My father dragged me off to his home town in Germany and to some of the ancient medieval and Roman sites in Europe, especially the site of the “clades Variana”, and I was hooked.

    One of the frightening things today is the gigantic ignorance of the young about the history and roots of our civilization and the fragility of civilization as shown by multiple past collapses. Humans manged to forget how to make concrete from 500 to 1400, or perhaps become unable to make it. Without concrete our current civilization would be nothing, gone in the blink of an eye. If the loons manage to end oil and gas production then most of our billions will die within a year.

    • My general impression is that very little history is taught in primary schools. American kids are given morality tales about racism and other bogeymen of the New Religion, but otherwise learn very little of the past. I suspect mine was the last generation to get anything resembling a proper education in primary school. That said, I learned the word “ethnocentrism” in the second grade during social studies so my cohort got fed plenty of nonsense too. I was probably lucky to a) have developed a thing for reading at an early age and b) have been born with a disagreeable disposition. The latter led me to challenge everything and look it up for myself.

      • In my fairly extensive experience of undergrads, you’re right. I’ve been everywhere from the bush leagues to the Ivy League, and I routinely get asked questions like “what’s Parliament?” and “who is Karl Marx?” They’re aware that the American Civil War happened — that’s when the Democrats beat the Nazis and freed Rosa Parks — but big stuff like the Russian Revolution, World War I, the Roman Empire… zilch. Which is why I drink. A lot.

      • I could post a bunch of dittos to what you have to say about primary schools. “Social Studies” was a pathetic mishmosh of whatever a particular teacher’s causes and biases happened to be. I remember in junior high the daily “read 100 pages – there will be a quiz tomorrow” – and that was History. No teacher discussion or enhancement, no discussion at all. My curiosity and my orneriness, plus what my son calls “Mom’s love affair with the printed word”, have caused me to “challenge everything and look it up for myself”. I don’t see many like us coming down the country’s pipeline.

        • My husband and I volunteer at a local elementary school attended by children whose parents cannot afford to live in a better part of town. However, the jokes on those folks b/c this school is staffed by some of the most outstanding and dedicated master teachers we have ever met. We share our love of history w/ the kids and the teachers tout our expertise and life experience every time we visit. The kids, about 1/3 Af-Am, 1/3 Spanish speaking/Laotian, 1/3 white, are VERY respectful and listen so carefully. It is like they are little sponges for knowledge, which is heartening. It does me good to get out and volunteer when I fear the world/US situation is going from bad to worse;-)

      • My primary school was in the British Empire tradition. Think of the Harry Potter experience only in Africa. Much different perspective.

    • Amen with regards to concrete. For a “simple” two thousand year old technology it’s really not so simple. The Soviets could put rockets in orbit but struggled mightily with the subtleties of concrete – their primary building material.

      And again, all of us should say a prayer every morning for the continued well-being of our local petroleum refinery engineer. You think that’s easy? Just try brewing up a batch of moonshine without killing yourself or going blind and then get back to me on how civilization is gonna relearn fractional distillation of oil when that knowledge is lost.

    • It is worth noting that the water supply of the city of Rome still depends in some measure (around 1/3, IIRC) on waterworks engineered over 2500 years ago. Using pozzolanic cements, in part. It wasn’t until the 1800s that modern mass-produced ‘Portland’ cement was invented.

      And they were not by any means the most accomplished ancient engineers.

      Fast forward to the technology that really put the industry into the Industrial Revolution, steam. How many people know anything about building steam engines? How many manufacturers of steam engines are there currently? THAT technology was still in widespread use less than 100 years ago, yet where is it today?

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