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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

“The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome”, Susan Wise Bauer

896 pages, W. W. Norton &Company, ISBN-13: 978-0393059748

Themost compelling history book I've read in a long time, Bauer's book hits wheremany other books miss: She doesn't assume anything, just because it's the"accepted" theory of history. Bauer's narrative starts and ends withthe primary source materials available to us, and where she makes conjecture,she tells you its conjecture and she supports her reasoning with logic,intelligence and without obvious bias. Moreover, she clearly identifies all ofthe source material from which she draws her narratives. Add to that solidfoundation a crisp, bright, and engaging narrative style, and this book mayjust be the finest historical work in decades.

Bauerbites off a very large mouthful but manages to digest it in a way that is bothreadable and entertaining. With TheHistory of the Ancient World she delivers on her promise to deal withhistory based on written sources, leaving the dusty archaeological details to others.This approach can be a little disconcerting if you are used to reading dryacademic histories. Particularly in the study of the ancient Middle East, theusual academic history of Egypt, Sumeria and the Assyrians tends to be heavy onpottery shards and light on plot. I was at first disturbed by Bauer's smoothflowing, light touch; she dwells almost exclusively on the story and avoidedinconvenient archaeological facts and scholarly debates. At times the historyseemed to be more an interpretation of mythology or a retelling of the grandstory of human civilization, rather than an objective investigation ofhistorical truth. But, of course, this seems to be what was intended here. Inspite of the excellent use of maps (possibly the simplest and yet mostcomprehensive example I have ever seen; no place name mentioned in the text isleft off of a map found nearby), and the extensive cited works section, thisbook is all about drama.

Theplay's the thing, and not the facts. And this is what makes this book so good.Once you realize you are being told a story, you stop worrying and let Bauersweep you away. From the ancient glory of Sumeria, through the incestuousDynasties of Egypt (did you know Ramses II had his mummy's nose packed withpeppercorns), the brutal Assyrians, the mysteries of the Phoenicians, Alexanderthe Great, and the rise of a small town named Rome, it is all told with verve,biting wit and an eye for the picaresque detail.

Whilethis is definitely not an academic work, its vast scope and the way it followsa narrative through time make it an exciting and interesting read – somethingyou will enjoy as someone new to this time period, or as a scholar who wantssomething that ties together all that academic material you have tried todigest over the years. Of course, experts will quibble about this detail orthat. There are probably large swathes of material here that would be contestedby serious historians. But I would suggest relaxing, sitting back, putting upyour feet and enjoying this book as the rich, old, flowing tale that it is. Youcan always ferret out the details later.

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