Filling the Neophytes Library (Ancient History)

“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:

  1. That earlier academics were, on the whole, much better writers.
  2. 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 ☹).

Fair? I make no secret of trying to model my longer form writing on Holland’s perhaps a bit too much, but let’s see if we prove Taleb wrong on this.

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)

Ancient Greece

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).


Ancient Rome

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…)

I mean…what is the competition?

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.

Hahaha yeah, eat shit Cicero

(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.)

Late Antiquity

(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)

#Neverbyzantium? We would be so lucky

The antipathy between ‘Byzantium’ (here used as convenient shorthand for the surviving Roman Empire) and the ‘West’ is longstanding indeed. One can trace it, perhaps, in the machinations of the various Germanic tribes who are once mimicking the trappings of civilisations engendered by the Romans – with about as much understanding as a parrot has of a poem. Certainly, this is in evidence by the time of Charlemagne.

Let us be clear. There never was a zweikaiserproblem. Instead, the Bishop of Rome found his ecclesiastical throne to sit on a very mundane plinth indeed: Rome, alone of the ancient sees, stood in the West and thus wielded immense auctoritas. But the mitre and crook was hardly proof against the Lombard’s sword or local politicking, the Emperor’s presence in Italy was hardly to felt and so Leo turned to another protector.

The rest, as they say, is history and resulted in the founding of a state neither Holy, Roman, or in any sense an Empire.

Now, we could talk about how awful the west was. Forgeries such as the false Donatio Constantini, the differing Germanic law-codes which granted native Romans less than second citizen status (why else assimilate?). We could venerate the bravery of honest Romans like Boethius or the dream of Belisarius and Justinian. These things shouldn’t need repeating.

The real antipathy began in 1054, with the bizarre excommunication of the East. Bizarre in the sense that one still can’t understand just how this happened. Constantine, Theodosius, Justinian I and II had all proved decisively that the Emperor, not any single bishop, is the head of the church. On what authority was this carried out? On whose? Part of the reasoning was the omission of flioque in the creed. Omission! That’s #fakenews for you.

We in the West have had several reasons, both temporal and ecclesiastical, to castigate and malign the medieval Roman Empire. I think any putative connection to Russia is a new one, unlearned and pathetic even by the low low standards one holds what passes for the American press these days. 

‘Oh but the workings of the state were ones of occlusion and complexity!’ This from a state which literary hoards terabits of data on both its and foreign citizens. From a state with entrenched civil servants, where corporations may count as personages and wield more influence than federated states. Hmm.

Ah, Byzantium – it’s hard to see what so many could hate about it. The dedication to learning as evidenced by the great academies, monasteries, and law school? The pandidakterion was as much a university as Bologna or Oxford. The welcoming attitude to (assimilating) foreign populations? (I thought this was a virtue we shared?). The wonderful art, poetry, and music? Have you heard the hymns of Kassia?

Even the traditional image, of autocracy and despotism, may not be wholly true as recently argued by Kaldellis in his excellent ‘The Byzantine Republic’. Going by recent news stories, is our democracy really that much better? 

In short, there is much to love and admire about Byzantium and little to castigate from our glass houses. Spitting on the toe of a giant doesn’t make you big, it just makes you uncivilised.

Further Reading

If you’re interested in Byzantium, you’re lucky to have three wonderful introductions. Averil Cameron’s ‘Byzantine Matters’ is a thematic history, characterising the best of recent scholarship. Cyril Mango’s edited volume, ‘The Oxford History of Byzantium’ (section on the Macedonian dynasty is very strong), is of a similar vein. Jonathan Harris’ ‘Constantinople’ is ostensibly about the city herself but reveals a lot about wider history and culture.

If you would like a more narrative driven account, Timothy E Gregory’s addition to the Blackwell Ancient History series is up to date and emphasises the Roman connection beautifully. Ostrogorsky’s ‘History of the Byzantine State’ is old but remains a classic.

Of course if you want to physically experience Byzantium, head to your nearest Orthodox church.

What has Athens to do with Pataliputra?

A recent twitter thread on the iconography of Zeus’ thunderbolt reminded me of earlier musings of mine on the rough similarities between Greek and Indian depictions of thunder-weaponry. Sometimes in ancient Greek art, Zeus’ thunderbolt is very much drawn as a few zigzagging lines – think of how Roman coinage and shields display Jupiter’s thunder or a child might draw lightning – other times it looks like a magic club. That’s what we’re currently concerned with.

Quickly routing around through the Beazley archives will give you an example of what I mean. I’m including links to #6996 and #10683 here, and an image from the British Museum below, since they have a less restrictive usage policy.

Pottery: red-figured neck-amphora: Zeus in pursuit. Reverse: a woman.


For comparison, here is an Indian variant. Note, the original Indic depiction has since, via the spread of Buddhism, generated variants in Thailand, China, Tibet, Nepal, Japan et al. The word for thunderbolt, vajra, is also a very fecund onomastic element across these cultures, historically.

Image result for vajra

Zeus and Indra

Let’s provide a bit of context before we go further. I suspect, quite strongly, that the Indo-European connection here is more than well known to anyone reading this but it can’t hurt to go over this in precis.

While Greek Zeus is cognate with Dyauṣ Pitṛ, in many ways they’re functionally distinct. ‘Indian Zeus’ is a very laid-back kind of king, mentioned largely in archaising ‘riddling’ hymns in the Rg Veda, like 1.64. In terms of activity, for all intents and purposes his son Indra is in charge.

Like Zeus, Indra originally seems to have been largely a rain god. It may also have been near eastern influence that emphasised his role as god of thunder. The earliest depictions have him going around with his mannerbund, the maruts (minor storm deities), and fighting various great beasts: as Zeus fights Typhon, he slays the engulfing wyrm Vritra. The story is detailed in hymns 1.32 and 4.18, much the greatest heroic poetry in any ancient Indo-European language. If there’s any interest, I’ll do some translations here on the blog. Within Indo-European studies, these stories (along with Thor vs Jormungandir and Teshub vs Illuyanka) have accrued a lot of interest over the years.

Later poetic versions have Indra act a little like the Zeus of pop culture, quaffing rivers of mead, soma (an intoxicant? A brew made of ephedra root and honey?) and despoiling the wives of priests. None the less, he is still the king of the gods and not a force to be trifled with.

There are some similarities in their divine armament too. Both wield thunderbolts made by divine smiths and are described in similar terms. Famously, the bolts of Zeus are made by the cyclopes and entrusted to him in thanks for freeing them from bondage:

οἳ οἱ ἀπεμνήσαντο χάριν ἐυεργεσιάων,
δῶκαν δὲ βροντὴν ἠδ᾽ αἰθαλόεντα κεραυνὸν
καὶ στεροπήν: τὸ πρὶν δὲ πελώρη Γαῖα κεκεύθει:
τοῖς πίσυνος θνητοῖσι καὶ ἀθανάτοισιν ἀνάσσει.

They remembered with gratitude, his kindly deeds

and gave him thunder, dazzling lightning

and the thunderbolt, which monstrous Earth had hitherto concealed

Trusting  to these, he reigned over both gods and men.

Hesiod, Theogony, 503-6

The earlier, explanatory, (interpolated?) lines about the cyclopes even gives them names to do with thunder and lightning (Brontes, Steropes, Arges, ll139). Between the cyclopes and lightning then, there was evidently a very close link. Later sources (e.g Pseudo-Apollodoros, Kallimakhos) confirm this and extend to them a more general divine handiness.

Indra’s vajra is made by a divine smith called Tvastr, whose name means something like craftsman/artificier. It is arjuna ‘bright’ (cf. ἀργής ) and the effect it has on Indra’s enemies is very much like the fate of Typhon described by Hesiod in the Theogony.

As an aside, Indra vs Vritra and Zeus vs Typhon is one of the most interesting set of compranda in Classical Philology. Both because it’s brilliant poetry, and because of the interpretive challenges. While there is most likely an Indo-European, or at least a Greco-Aryan, ‘template-myth’ here, the Greek version has been heavily influenced by near Eastern traditions, like Marduk vs Tiamat.

These parallels are both surprising, given the time depth, and underwhelming given that these are two closely related languages. I’m not necessarily positing any sort of genetic filiation between these two sets of (physical) iconography, just because the poetic language is similar. Years ago, M. West managed to convince me of a sort of lateral influence from the near East being the likeliest culprit. I wish I took notes since I can’t remember his reasoning or his evidence in anything like detail.

Lately, however, I’ve been wondering if one might posit a more direct route? From Greece to India during the Hellenistic age. After all, we know of the immense influence Hellenistic form and figuration had on Gandharan art. Who knows?  it’s a possibility. I’ll end with an image of someone whom specialists often refer to as an Indian depiction of Herakles. Apart from being beautiful to look at, it’s a perfect example of ancient Greek influence on Indian artwork.

Herakles here is a stand in for a strong, protective, companion of the Buddha in early Buddhist folk-lore, often thought to be a semi-secularised adaption of Indra – Indic thought after all is one big continuum, and though the Vedic pantheon may have lost prominence, they’re still important. He’s not wielding thunder, but like Herakles (and Meleagros) he is wielding a club with which to defend his guru.

His name by the way, was Vajrapani, or in English, Thunderbolt-Hand.

Image result for vajrapani gandhara