Illud autem vide, ne ista lectio auctorum multorum et omnis generis voluminum habeat aliquid vagum et instabile. Certis ingeniis immorari et innutriri oportet, si velis aliquid trahere quod in animo fideliter sedeat. Nusquam est qui ubique est.

But ware, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every genre has you [become] wandering and unsteady. You ought to remain amongst and be nourished by certain masterly authors, should you wish for something to be lodge more faithfully in your mind. Everywhere is nowhere.

Seneca Epistulae 1.2.2

“…and I said to him when you learn to read then you learn everything you didnt know before. But when you write you write only what you know allready so patientia Im better off not knowing how to write because the ass is the ass”.

Umberto Eco Baudolino

Ah books! Where else does one learn that, truly, the ass is the ass?[1] I thought I would try to jump in on the current trend of nominating 10 books read during 2021 that have been worth their while. Straight away there are problems with this. I read like I knit wool: far too much speed and aggression and far too little attention paid to my surroundings, so it is surprisingly difficult for me to remember what I have read. This is compounded by the fact that without the usual calendar of feast days – both secular and religious – and thanks to the misdemeanours of a conservative government neither conservative (ask the wildlife, oh wait) in nature nor capable of governing, I have very little idea of when 2020 ended and 2021 started. Not so much an ouroboros as an ἐν ἑαυτῷ τῷ κώλῳ βινεόμενος.

Ground rules and assumptions. I will try to get to 10 books, I may, I may not. Look I no longer even pretend to edit these things, so if it stops at 5 or 6, you have been warned. Whilst, lector dulcissime, the list will be ribbed numbered for your convenience the books are in no way to be ranked. Since I am not an NPC I will not solely be listing books published in 2021. As I said earlier, I am barely cognisant of the elision between 2020-1 as it is, and I am not exactly on the receiving end of free books and ARCs from publishers, hot off the press. I will endeavour not to list books I have re-read,[2] or mentioned elsewhere. Lastly, I will try to cite only books directly concerning or potentially useful to Classics. I know why the five or six readers I have stop by her occasionally, and it’s not to hear my musings on economics or poetry such like.

This is surprisingly difficult by the way! I must have ploughed through 100 books or so. Admittedly, not all are on the Classics, but it is alarming how few I feel comfortable recommending. It helps to keep Skallas’ axiom about the 4HL in mind: if people have such limited leisure time, recommending something bad to read/watch is tantamount to eating up their life. An act of micro-violence, if you will.

Tom Holland Dominion

What a great start. A book that I read near two years ago and have indeed re-read. This book, hitherto, has defied my abilities as a reviewer and I really want to get a few remarks down on the blog at some point. Dominion is magisterial, perhaps the height of Holland’s power as a historian. Purportedly a history of Christianity it comes across more as a vindication of the idea that secularism and modernity are just one more Christian heresy. Holland proves himself sympathetic to and understanding of pagan and Christian, ancient and modern (how many books cite both Origen and Angela Merkel?).

He may not be Spider-Man, but he is – I think – Britain’s best historical writer and you could do a lot worse than read through his oeuvré.

Camilla Townsend Fifth Sun

Revisionist history should not be a dirty word. After all, as our evidence improves and our tools for assessing said evidence with it, we should be capable as a society of producing better histories. Should. When I came across this project to retell the history of the conquest of the Aztecs I was rather sceptical. My antipathy to those demon worshippers is well known. However, Townsend’s biases are laughably evident in this book that nonetheless shows its historical working. As a result, this may be the single best presentation and study of the Nahuatl evidence in a narrative history and for that alone it is worth the price of entry.

Bonus: Michael Launey/Christopher MacKay An Introduction to Classical Nahuatl>

I picked this book up directly thanks to reading the above. It is a recent(ish) translation of the French original and can be acquired cheaply. I have no intention of gaining real proficiency in Classical Nahuatl: unlike these “polyglot” morons on YouTube I know full well what it takes to get halfway decent at a corpus language and I have neither time nor inclination here. HOWEVER, for anyone wanting the mental exercise of learning a very different grammatical and syntactical system and getting a taste of an interesting language, this is a great book.

James Hankins Virtue Politics

Do you know what struck me this year? Most historians of the renaissance are functionally illiterate. That is they are neither capable of reading Latin to any real degree nowadays or, just as bad, are poorly read in the literature of the period. Hankins is not such a one and this book deserves to stand (at least) toe to toe with Burckhardt’s triptych of books on the subject.

Bruni, Flavio, Filelfo…even George of Trebizond (!!!) gets a look in. Hankins shows renaissance was so much more than Petrarch and Machiavelli. This book is the single best introduction to renaissance thought as it concerns – in the author’s formulation – both statecraft and soulcraft.

Gesine Manuwald, L. B. T. Houghton, Lucy R. Nicholas An Anthology of British Neo-Latin Literature

Should this be here? Have I added this out of guilt? Nationalism? Ah well. Britons of the renaissance and early modern wrote Latin too. Some even in good Latin.[3] In addition to the obvious candidates like Moore and Milton, this book provides a broad overview of authors, styles, and genres (a satire on the clergy next to some funerary verse and an ethnography of the highlands). It is generous in that it provides text and translation both, prefaced with some insightful introductory essays.

Bonus: Sarah Knight, Stefan Tilg The Oxford Handbook to Neo-Latin Literature

These Oxford handbooks are evincing some real staying power on my shelves I must say, and for those with any further questions on the authors contained above this is a great compendium. The book is tripartite, focusing on language and genre (Moul and Sidwell definitely worth reading); cultural context and, finally, a regional overview. Handy bibliography too.  

Julian Maxwell Heath Warfare in Neolithic Europe

Do let’s have something at least hinting at archaeology if hardly stinking of it. This book suffers slightly from trying to draw the reader into an academic debate about which they are unlikely to care (i.e many archaeologists still seem to think of the neolithic as a period with little conflict – what?!?)[4], however it is thoroughly engaging. The book starts with a global outlook and theoretical overview and then moves onto looking at specific sites and countries within Europe. It is hardly going to replace more technical overviews, but it was enjoyable. The chapter on neolithic Greece will be of particular interest to readers here.

Robin Waterfield The Making of a King

I have been a fan of Waterfield’s ever since I read his Taken at the Flood, which covered the Roman conquest of Greece in a readable way. This book fills a much needed gap in the market. Not only is Antigonus Gonatas an interesting character, his reign is set during the real fragmentation of Alexander’s empire, it was the crucible of the Hellenistic period and all that came after. The combination of character biography and more traditional history works incredibly well here. The best book I have read on the Hellenistic period in quite some time.  

Ian Rutherford Hittite Texts and Greek Religion

It is a genuine shame that the import of the Syro-Anatolian region, its history, and languages, for the study of archaic Greece is becoming more and more evident at a time when we are granting PhDs to classicistuli who can barely read Latin and Greek, let alone pick up sorely needed ancillary languages.[5] If this book does not inspire you to hit van den Hout’s The Elements of Hittite then nothing will.

This is a deep, systematic, probing of the contexts and evidence for Hittite religion and its interrelationship with its Mycenaean contempory and Greek epigone. Even when not eliciting actual influence and interaction, it manages to provide useful heuristic models based on real evidence. Easily, easily, one of the best books on ancient Greece I have recently read.

Richard Eaton India in the Persianate Age

What happened to ancient India? To non-specialists like ourselves the disjunction between the Sanskrit (and, I guess, sub-Sanskrit) world and the sudden emergence of a highly Persianate culture seems a schizophrenic one. The ancient world is actually rife with these jostling bilingual cultures and the situation with Latin and Greek (utraque lingua!) is hardly unique or novel, despite the growing academic focus: Sumerian and Akkadian, Akkadian and Aramaic etc etc. I picked up this book hoping to both increase my knowledge of the Persianate world and read something more linguistically, culturally, and historically, informed than the shit I have been reading on Greek and Latin.[6] Eaton’s book traces the complex, interwoven, lines of anxiety, influence, and competition between Sanskrit, Persian and the emergence of medieval/early modern Indian culture. If you want to understand the world which occupies the diaries of Niccolao Manucci, this is the book for you.

I am sure I got a lot less out of this book than someone with a good familiarity of the subject would, but it was an enjoyable read.

Marie Favereau The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World

Recall my comments on revisionist history above. This book is like the Fifth Sun but better. It is altogether more capable and less outright motivated by the need to rehabilitate her subject than to explain it to us. Favereau marshals an array of sources, using a systematic and comprehensible theoretical framework – even if her wrangling over words and their definition at times will not be to everyone’s taste.

The Horde focuses on the westernmost part of the Mongol empire (the Ulus Jochi), the mechanics of its administration, its ideological framework and its long-lasting effects on emerging states (not just the Russians!). They really did manage to rule from horseback and this books shows you how. Also, Mongols were just cool you fucking nerd.

Coda: Reading in the New Year

You would have to be a fool to try and predict the future, but eh why not. I suspect next year’s list will be even less weighted towards the Classics. At the academic level, at least, the subject is moribund. I could have produced a list solely of books pertaining to Greco-Roman antiquity, but such a list would either be highly weighted to the, well, not very recent or books by ageing scholars. This is not a a healthy sign. This is not a town vs gown thing either, I have very little time for most “popular” offerings. I read impulsively. I am no great watcher of films or television, I have no particular interest in the back catalogues of Netflix et al. I read impulsively and this, coupled with chronic insomnia, means that seldom does a week pass without my having (re)read a book or two. I do not think there are enough good, new, books on the subject to sustain this. Ah well.

So moving forward I suspect that I will continue my habit of a) largely sticking to primary texts and old commentaries and monographs and b) reading extensively from other fields. Over 2020, the major theme – thanks in part to being inspired by @ByzantinePower @ByzHistoryTweep @TheHillpaul and others – was Byzantine literature. 2021 has seen a dramatic increase in post-Roman Latin (somewhat hinted at in this list) and I think this will continue in the near future.

That is it for me. What were your must reads of the year? Have any suggestions? Do let us know.


[1] Look, nobody cares what happens in your JCR, be polite.

[2] This rule, tbf, saves you from a lot of technical books on Homeric philology and Greek dialectology.

[3] “On every level except physical, I am basil and oregano”.

[4] Men will fight over anything. I’ve literally had a fight over who was the better pacifist. Lads, lads, lads.

[5] No learning enough German to read Brecht but non Mommsen doesn’t make you learned you fucking commies.

[6] One bold exception, though hardly recent, stands out: the work of J. N. Adams. RIP.

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