“But the familiarity of bad academic writing raises a puzzle. Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?”
Steven Pinker (Chronicle)
Why indeed? The question has attracted answers innumerable, illegible, and incontinent (including Pinker’s own, frankly), but I have been asking myself this recently, with especial consideration of our shared discipline. I am not going to venture my own answer here, but I did form two hypotheses:
- That earlier academics were, on the whole, much better writers.
- That Latinists would have better prose than Hellenists.
The first hypothesis – let us be honest – was hardly long on the odds, this seems to consistent across all the humanistic disciplines: I have recently been reading C. S Lewis’ The Discarded Image and it strikes me that few could write like this now about literature or history (Classical or Medieval) and retain their ivory capped curule seats. The bet on Latinists over Hellenists may seem odd, less sure, but I think my calculated risk taking here paid off (as you will see below). I based this on the long tradition of Latin energising English poetry and prose, whereas I cannot help but find e.g the effect of Thucydides on Hobbes enervating and of Herodotus on many (Grote included) bloviating. If I could travel back in time, I would beat the shit out of Keats with a Grecian urn.
I wanted to put together a reading list for the neophyte Classicist, fresh from genuinely brilliant books such as Tom Holland’s Rubicon and Mary Beard’s SPQR and ready to start hitting the stacks and getting their fangs into academic volumes. My criteria were simple. Academic books with a capital A that you could happily find yourself reading on the beach. The lodestone was the great writers of yesteryear such as Ronald Syme (whose Roman Revolution manages to be Tacitean in outlook and in prose). No edited volumes, no disjointed volumes of the essays (the latter rule forced me to eject one of my favourites, Wiseman’s Catullus and his World from the list ☹).
To limit bias, and expand our palette, I took to twitter to crowdsource this list. This list deliberately focuses on ancient history (often the gateway), should there be interest we can repeat the experiment for archaeology, literature, and philology proper (I promise you that Meillet is a good read! Meanwhile @mattitiahu has a great resource on lexica here).
Again, this list is not a list of foundational or must-read texts, you can find them elsewhere (e.g university reading lists; G Kantor’s blog post on Roman History); my main focus was on prose. Because men like Wissowa and Mommsen and Wilamowitz and Gibbon etc etc wrote beautifully and we have lost something. This list will not render unto you mastery of any culture, period, or phenomenon. You could not construct a course from them, but you can be entertained.
Please feel free to comment and tweet, either to annotate the list or make suggestions.
Warning: I pulled these, uncorrected, from an online auto bibliographic database. Dates, publishers, place of publishing etc are wrong passim. If you happen to be a student, do not use this list to cite.
With massive thanks to @_paullay, @peter_sarris, @GMcCor, @GeorgyKantor, @Nakhthor, @ProfSimonton, @Kleisthenes2, @DrMichaelBonner, @DrPeterJMiller @sasanianshah (and others, probably, sorry).
Outside the Classical Mediterranean
(Not the original date, but that of the reprint. A multi-volume history from a more genteel time)
Bonner, M. (2020). The Last Empire of Iran. Gorgias Press.
(Conflict of interest to include? probably! But it exhibits a mixture of that older, gentlemanly style, and the incisiveness of modern academe, there are few narrative studies of the entire period. The Sassanians were important and Latinists and Late Antiquenerds should know more about them.)
Briant, P. (2002). From Cyrus to Alexander: A history of the Persian Empire. Eisenbrauns.
(Technically a translation, perhaps it does not belong on this list. But the contents therein are fascinating. Most books on the Achaemenids are absolute doggrel)
Bryce, T. (2005). The kingdom of the Hittites. Oxford University Press.
(Suspicious of this one having read his latest, but we’re going to trust @sassanianshah on this!)
Debevoise, N. C. (1969). A political history of Parthia TX.
Thapar, R. (2003). The penguin history of early India: From the origins to AD 1300. Penguin Books India.
(Thapar is a good stylist, and a brilliant historian of India. Probably the best)
Bevan, E. R. (2015). The house of Seleucus. TX: Cambridge University Press.
Bresson, A. (2015). The making of the Ancient Greek economy: Institutions, markets, and growth in the city-states. Princeton University Press.
(Have my doubts! Never seen a Classicist, or a Historian, write sensibly about Economics but ok)
Chadwick, J. (1976). The Mycenaean world. Cambridge University Press
(Material vs prose, brings this out on top. He’s essentially writing about inventory lists)
Dodds, E. R. (1956). The Greeks and the Irrational. University of California Press.
Dover, K. J. (1989). Greek Homosexuality.
(Do not blame him for his shitty epigones)
Green, P. (1993). Alexander to Actium: The historical evolution of the Hellenistic age. University of California Press.
(Yes, yes, massively dated on art and culture but one of the best encompassing narratives around. What a writer).
GUYS LOOK HOW BARE THIS SECTION IS, THESIS VINDICATED!?
Athanassiadi, P. (1992). Julian: An intellectual biography. TX.
(Like the Memoirs of Hadrian but not made up, and with less fucking hippies)
Daube, D. (1969). Roman Law. TX.
(Seems an odd addition, but so many reviews and tweeters talk about this book as being humorous. Yes, Roman Law…)
MacMullen, R. (1992). Enemies of the Roman order: Treason, unrest, and alienation in the empire. Routledge.
(This often comes on lists. Definitely an interesting take. Does accidentally make me more pro-Roman though.)
Millar, F. (1993). The Roman Near East, 31 B.C.-A.D. 337. Harvard University Press.
(Millar was generally a brilliant writer, I personally would have chosen his Emperor in the Roman World – which dramatically changed how I saw the office, but twitter spoke. Actually, just read all of Millar. Honestly if you make it through Weinstock’s Divus Julius you deserve to).
Syme, R. (1939). The Roman Revolution. OUP Oxford.
(This may well be the best written Roman history in the English language, excepting Gibbon. His later work was sadly not so wonderful to read.)
(It is an inevitable category)
Brown, P. (1989). The World of Late antiquity: AD 150-750. W. W. Norton.
(Brown’s name came up again, and again, and again. I found him enjoyable, though perhaps to a lesser extent).
Treadgold, W. T. (1997). A history of the Byzantine state and society. TX: Stanford University Press.
(How many narrative studies of Byzantium are there? How many are actually good? Exactly)