With Christmas and New Year’s upon us, I thought I would give some book recommendations. As always a few caveats and explanations about my criteria. I almost never read political books or any books about the contemporary world. I read history almost exclusively and usually at least a few centuries in the past. My criteria are deeply subjective. The books I recommend ones that held my attention to the end (most don’t), books I found engrossing and from which I learned new things. A number of the books below I’ve recommended before. Others are new.
Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. Nicholas Ostler.
We tend to think that languages spread or recede because of migration or conquest, military or economic power. The history of the ebb and flow of languages and language families is not nearly so clear. I found this book fascinating, sophisticated, clear. It gave me new tools for thinking about the role of language in history and as a driver of history. Are some languages simply more functional, more adaptable than others? Are some intrinsically more able to grow into new areas without the engines of conquest or wealth?
Here’s one question to consider. Before the Macedonian conquest in the late 4th century BC, the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Israel) was dominated by a related set of Semitic languages, mostly variants of Aramaic. Then for a thousand years Greek became the language of education, culture, business, a lingua franca for the entire Eastern Mediterranean, first under Hellenistic kingdoms and then under the Roman Empire. Then with a generation or two of the Muslim conquest in the 7th century AD Greek was entirely washed away and Arabic rapidly became the dominant language it remains today. In contrast, Arabic’s march to the east stopped on the Iranian plateau where the native languages were Indo-European Iranian languages. It stopped where another Semitic language like Arabic had never been the dominant language.
This books isn’t about these topics. It literally covers most of human history and most of the globe. These are just questions it gave me new ways to think about. Aramaic and its related Semitic languages turn out to be an example of the relative success of certain languages that aren’t easily explained by being harnessed to a dominant power like Rome, for instance.
Also highly interesting to me on the front of language history is Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization by Paul Kriwaczek. As the title suggests, this is a history of Babylon and Mesopotamian civiliation from the earliest urban settlements more than 6000 years ago to the end of civilizations based on the Cuneiform writing system first devised for the Sumerian language.
I was going to say that if you want to learn about this period, I strongly recommend this book. And I do recommend it. But calling this a ‘period’ isn’t quite right. It lasts thousands of years. Long enough that in many ways our civilization or ‘period’ is something more like an outcrop of this stretch of civilizational continuity, defined by a geographic region, a common religious and ritual world and the dominance of a system of writing, cuneiform.
This is mainly history, era’s defined by written records. The Ostler book mixes history and pre-history. Pre-history has been an increasing obsession of mine in recent years. Three other great reads in this area are Barry Cunliffe: By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia,Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration, and David Anthony: The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World
Some related subject matter related to the above.
Eric H. Cline: 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Turning Points in Ancient History): Fascinating work of historical archeology, the crisis of a world that existed in the eastern Mediterranean before what most of us consider the most ancient history. This comes relatively late in the period covered in the Babylon book and further to the west – Egypt, the Levant, Greece and Anatolia. I first recommended this a few years ago. But I keep coming back to it in my head as well as in subsequent reading about archaic Greece, ancient Canaan and the rest of the eastern Mediterranean. Simply fascinating.
Then there’s another issue I mentioned above: the imposition of Greek and Greek culture in the eastern Mediterranean in the wake of Alexander’s conquest and premature death.
James Romm: Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the Bloody Fight for His Empire: What happened after Alexander died was in many ways more interesting and more consequential than his own brief life.
Some miscellaneous good reads.
Roger Crowley: Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World: The Ottoman Siege of Malta, a great, fast-paced engrossing narrative of a key turning point event in the history of the Mediterranean, Europe and the lands of Islam. This is the kind of book I wish I could read for the first time ten more times.
David Abulafia: The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean: A broad ranging history of the whole history of human interaction with the Mediterranean sea. Fascinating. A book you can lose yourself in.
Peter Heather: The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians: Great narrative and interpretative history. Highly influential and one book that has shaped all of my subsequent understanding of the collapse of the Western Roman state and analogous developments in the 7th century Middle East and the 21st century global order.
Peter Heather: Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe: The story continued.
Peter Heather: The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders: And continued more.
For lighter and contained subject matter, I recommend this.
Lionel Casson: Libraries in the Ancient World: A small, fascinating, virtuoso book by a highly respected ancient historian. How did libraries work in the classical Greco-Roman world?
Casson also wrote a book on ancient seafarers (The Ancient Mariners). The seafaring book is the one he’s most known for as an expert on ancient maritime archeology. The libraries book he wrote very late in life, long after he retired. I’ve read each book a few times. They’re relatively short but a pleasure to read. When I say they’re ‘light’, I don’t mean insubstantial or unserious. It is more their clarity and the lightness with which Casson carried a deep erudition. Imagine if you took a clotted, jargon-filled thicket of academic writing and handed it over to a clear-thinking writer who boiled it down and rewrote in simple, clear sentences. That’s reading Lionel Casson.