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.

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68 Comments on "Essential Knowledge: IV"

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Member
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%… Read more »
Darryl Licht
Guest

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.

Historian
Guest
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… Read more »
Drake
Guest

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.

Doug
Guest

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.

Severian
Guest
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… Read more »
james wilson
Guest
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… Read more »
alzaebo
Guest

Wish I could live another hundred years, or a thousand. I’d love to see what they say about us.

tamaleman
Guest

Upvoted for that last pithy sentence in particular.

Jim Gates
Guest

Victor Hanson’s “A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War” is an excellent read.

Many of his other works have an interesting take on history.
– Carnage and Culture
– The Savior Generals
– The Soul of Baattle

https://www.amazon.com/War-Like-Other-Athenians-Peloponnesian/dp/0812969707/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1486135803&sr=8-6&keywords=peloponnesian+war

Doug
Guest

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.

Jim Gates
Guest

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.

Doug
Guest

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.

Doug
Guest

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.

Lulu
Guest

I add my thanks to Doug’s. A great reading list with the added benefit of your recommendations.

notsothoreau
Guest

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: https://www.thebritishhistorypodcast.com/category/podcast-episodes/

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.

Doug
Guest

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?

notsothoreau
Guest

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.

Doug
Guest

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.

Member
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… Read more »
Rod1963
Guest

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

Member

Just got a set for a dollar a month ago. There’s a lot of Jacob Burkhardt out there, too.

Member

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.

alzaebo
Guest

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.)

LetsPlay
Member

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.

Member
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… Read more »
Dutch
Guest
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… Read more »
Doug
Guest
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… Read more »
Solomon Honeypickle IV
Guest
Solomon Honeypickle IV

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 🙂

JohnTyler
Guest

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.

Leverage
Guest

Victor Davis Hanson is outstanding on ancient Greek history

LetsPlay
Member
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.… Read more »
Ken Eiler
Guest

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 – http://victorhanson.com/wordpress/

L Garou
Guest

(there’s no such thing as Dwarka)

Member
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… Read more »
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[…] Reprinted from The Z-Man Blog. […]

Member

There is also a Landmark Thucydides.

Audacious Epigone
Guest

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”

TWS
Guest

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

thor47
Guest

” 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.

Bill
Guest

What about parallel universes and nonlocality?

Christopher
Guest

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.

Christopher
Guest

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.

Ned2
Member

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.

Joe Mac
Guest

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