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.