12 Great Books of Western History

Much of what we know of the past three thousand years relies largely on the great historians of the millennia. Through excellent scholarship, tedious compilation, clear prose, and entertaining color commentary (sometime at the expense of accuracy), these historians and their famous works have shaped the western world’s ideas about its development. Though the bulk of historical scholarship is done by the hands of the many lesser known historians, some few have told the western world’s story in works of enduring fame. Here are a handful of historical works I think exceptional, with an eye toward breadth of the historical time periods covered as well as toward the era of the historian’s vantage point.

1. The Histories, Herodotus (484 – 425 BC)

One of the most famous works of history of all time, Herodotus’ The Histories tells of the wars, culture, politics, and geography of Greece, the Middle East, and northern African regions. Historian Barry Strauss sums up the fame of Herodotus thus, “He is simply one of the greatest storytellers who ever wrote. His narrative ability is one of the reasons…those who call Herodotus the father of history.” Herodotus was a historian who did not shy from long travels to complete his work, in time visiting such regions of Persia, Egypt, the home of the Scythians, and all over his homeland of Greece. Strauss continued to write of Herodotus:

“Herodotus takes the reader from the rise of the Persian Empire to its crusade against Greek independence, and from the stirrings of Hellenic self-defense to the beginnings of the overreach that would turn Athens into a new empire of its own. He goes from the cosmos to the atom, ranging between fate and the gods, on the one hand, and the ability of the individual to make a difference, on the other. And then there is the sheer narrative power of his writing…The old master keeps calling us back”

Barry S. Strauss, [1]

2. History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides (460-400 BC)

As the title suggests, Thucydides’ greatest work covered the Peloponnesian War, the struggle between the Spartan-led Peloponnesian League and the Athenian-led Delian League. Thucydides’ writings were based largely on firsthand experience as an Athenian general. His work gives us great insight into one of the most interesting times in Greece, when its greatest powers went to war, when Socrates inspired citizens to look up, and when a great struggle between democracy and aristocracy brewed in Athens.

3. Anabasis, Xenophon (430-355 BC)

Anabasis details Cyrus the Younger’s mercenary army and their journey to overthrow Cyrus’ brother, the Persian King Artaxerxes II at the end of the 5th century BC. Written in seven books around 370 BC, Anabasis is often translated as “The March Up Country” or “The March of the Ten Thousand”. Famously, Xenophon attempted, according to Plutarch and most modern scholars, to separate his authorship from the work given he was also the subject of the work. Xenophon’s had profound impact on generation to follow, with some suggesting it inspired Philip of Macedon to consider how a small but well-trained cohort of Greek soldiers might stand up to a much larger Persian army.

4. The Jewish War, Josephus (37- 100 AD)

Josephus, a first century Roman-Jewish historian, wrote his most famous work in seven books to span from approximately 168 BC to 73 AD. Published in 75 AD, the work details the struggles between the Jews and the Romans, including tribulations of the Jews under Roman occupation and the subsequent revolt. Josephus has tremendously influences Christianity for his independent witness to events corroborating the New Testament. Historian Steven Mason has called Josephus’ work “perhaps the most influential non-biblical text of Western history” [4].

5. Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Plutarch (46-119 AD)

Plutarch approached history from a different perspective than his predecessors by writing his great work Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans not with a narrative of historical events, as most historians write, but instead with an unorthodox focus on select historical figures. Further, Plutarch injects his own art into the storytelling of history by comparing pairs of figures, one from the Greek world and one from the Roman world. Hence, the work is also known as Parallel Lives and comprises 48 biographies of figures such as Lycurgus and Numa Pompilius, Lysander and Sulla, and Alexander and Julius Caesar. The work excels in bringing such figures to life through unparalleled characterization while also yielding significant insights into the world surrounding these great men.

6. The Annals and Histories, Tacitus (56-120 AD)

Compared to other works on this list, Tacitus’ The Annals and details a relatively narrow span of Roman history from 14-68 AD. His sequel, Histories, covers the remaining years of the first century, 69-96 AD. Tacitus, Roman senator and historian, likely had privileged access to the Acta Senatus, the Senate’s records, from which to base much of his work. Historian Ronald Mellor calls the Annals “Tacitus’s crowning achievement…[It is the] pinnacle of Roman historical writing” [2].

7. Church History, Eusebius of Caesarea (260-339 AD)

Church History is a 4th century work (~ 313 AD [5]) by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, attempting a chronological account of Christianity’s early development. Because Eusebius had access to the Theological Library of Caesarea and direct access to documents, letters, and extracts from earlier Christian writings, Eusebius’ work provides some of the best preservations of early Christian sources to this day given many of the cited works no longer in existence. Eusebius’ goal was to present Christian history from the time of the apostles to his time. Though the work is not comprehensive in its treatment of early Church history, it yields great insight into such details as the succession of bishops, the history of many Christian teachers and prominent Jews, the development and decline of various heresies, relations between Christians and pagans, and the martyrs.

8. Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577 AD)

First published in 1577 AD, the Holinshed’s Chronicles is a comprehensive history of England, Scotland, and Ireland, each described in their own volumes. Curiously, the Holinshed’s Chronicles may have impacted the literary world more than merely the advancement of historical scholarship, as it may have influenced such contemporaries as William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, and George Daniel [3]. Though the work’s name bears that of Raphael Holinshed, credit for its writing goes to several British contributors. The work’s themes encompass nationalistic and monarchical ideals, mixed with medieval ideas of chivalry and heroic actions.

9. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon (1737-1794 AD)

Easily the greatest work of Roman history within the last 300 years, Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a masterpiece detailing the age of decline in the Roman Empire in incredible detail. The work, organized in six volumes beginning with the empire at its peak and concluding with the fall of Byzantium in the 1400s, was published sequentially between the years of 1776 and 1789. Gibbons highlights the loss of virtue in the Roman leadership and in its people as a leading reason the Roman Empire slowly succumbed to barbarian pressure. Specifically, Gibbon had this to say of the Roman degradation:

“After a diligent inquiry, I can discern four principal causes of the ruin of Rome, which continued to operate in a period of more than a thousand years. I. The injuries of time and nature. II. The hostile attacks of the Barbarians and Christians. III. The use and abuse of the materials. And, IV. The domestic quarrels of the Romans.”

Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Though Gibbon’s work generated much criticism, particularly for its bare antagonism to virtually all organized religion, his work survives as one of the greatest historical works of all time.

10. The Autumn of the Middle Ages, Huizinga (1872-1945)

Written by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga in 1919, The Autumn of the Middle Ages describes the life, thought, and art of the French and Dutch in the 14th and 15th centuries. A central takeaway from the work, not without criticism, is that the pomp and formality of the medieval courts was a reaction to an increasingly violent society. Though likely the least known work on this list, Huizinga’s work nonetheless gives the reader a unique look into the French and Dutch medieval world.

11. The Story of Civilization, Durant & Durant (Will, 1885-1981 AD)

Few historians can compete with the immense breadth of Will and Ariel Durant. The husband and wife wrote the 11 volume set The Story of Civilization beginning with a work covering Eastern history of Persia until the 300s B.C. and a history of the great empires of the far East: India, China, and Japan. Subsequent volumes then begin with a focus on the Western world, beginning with ancient Greece and proceeding to the Roman Empire and Christ (Vol. III), the Middle Ages (Vol. IV), the Renaissance (Vol. V), The Protestant Reformation (Vol. VI), the age of reason (Vol. VII), the reign of King Louis XIV of France (Vol. VIII), the Enlightenment (Vol. IX), the age of Rousseau (Vol. X), and the life and times of Napoleon I, (Vol. XI). The Durants, unlike many historians of previous times, wrote largely for a lay audience rather than for scholars. Hence, in terms of historical scholarship, the Durants’ work is largely insignificant. However, their work was incredibly important for bringing a general understanding and appreciation for history to the reading public.

12. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Shirer (1904-1993 AD)

Written by American journalist William Shirer, this 20th century work details the rise and fall of Nazi Germany and its infamous leader, Adolf Hitler. The book utilized many firsthand accounts within the Nazi party, including original documents, the diaries of Goebbels and General Halder, and external sources from the Italians, including testimonies from the Nuremburg trials, British intelligence, and his own journalistic experience in Germany in the latter half of the 1930s. Shirer traced what he believed to be a logical historical procession from Martin Luther to Adolf Hitler and rejected the idea that Hitler’s rise to power was a mere result of a totalitarian fever but rather a result of Germany’s desire to restore their national character post-WWI. Shirer’s masterpiece, though not without its many criticisms from historians opposing his conclusions, remains the more illustrious historical works of our modern era.

Other Notable Histories and Their Authors

  • Histories, Timaeus
  • Roman History by Cassius Dio
  • History of Rome, Ammianus Marcellinus
  • The Anabasis of Alexander, Arriaan
  • Bibliotheca Historica, Diodorus Siculus
  • The Histories, Polybius
  • From the Founding of the City, Livy
  • The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius
  • The Conquest of Gaul, Caesar
  • Histories (and other works), Duris of Samos
  • On the Erythraean Sea, Agatharchides
  • History of the Empire from the Death of Marcus, Herodian
  • Works of Philo of Alexandria
  • History of Byzantium, Priscus of Panium

Sources

[1] https://offtheshelf.com/2014/06/greatest-storytellers-who-ever-lived/

[2] Mellor, Ronald (2010). Tacitus’ Annals. Oxford: Oxford University press. p. 23. ISBN 978-0-19-515192-3.

[3]  “Holinshed’s Chronicles, 1577”The British Library. Retrieved 30 January 2019.

[4]  Mason, Steve (19 January 2016). “Josephus’s Judean War”. In Honora Howell Chapman and Zuleika Rodgers (ed.). A Companion to Josephus. John Wiley & Sons. p. 13. ISBN 978-1-4443-3533-0.

[5]  Louth, Andrew (1990). “The date Of Eusebius’ Historia Ecclesiastica“. Journal of Theological Studies41 (1): 111-123.  doi:10.1093/jts/41.1.111JSTOR 23964888.

Published by Christian Poole

Catholic | Father | Husband | Founder of ThinkingWest .com

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