It’s time for those of us who make a living by teaching to get back to the business of turning America’s youth into godless Marxists who despise their country. A lot of us who are specialists in American history will find ourselves outside of our comfort zone, teaching the world history survey courses that have become mandatory at many colleges and universities.
I’ll be teaching two sections of pre-1500 world history this semester, trying to cover everything from the dawn of mankind through the medieval era before Christmas break. Teaching these surveys is fun and challenging at the same time. As I’ve said before, history is a big tent, and the difference between studying classical Athens and studying the Revolutionary War is as profound as the difference between geology and zoology.
I was lucky enough to be able to take a pretty diverse array of world history courses as an undergraduate, but in grad school I focused on the early history of the U.S. Now that my bank account’s replenishment depends heavily on teaching world history, I’ve spent a lot of time going back to subjects I’d neglected for a long time. That has meant reading a lot of general works on ancient and medieval stuff.
Since there are probably quite a few other Americanists out there who’ll find themselves in the same boat, I thought I might change gears here and recommend a few of the resources which have been particularly helpful to me in preparing these courses. Let me stress that these are only general works; I have neither the expertise nor the inclination to build comprehensive bibliographies of this kind. I’m approaching this post not as a seasoned trail guide, but as an often-bewildered and very green hiker who just happens to have found some decent maps to share. I make no claims that any of these books are the best of their kind, only that I’ve found them handy as I’ve grappled with the Herculean task of walking a classroom full of students through the first few millennia of the human past.
The New Penguin History of the World (5th ed.) by J.M. Roberts and Odd Arne Westad. This acclaimed work has gone through several different updates, and the latest revisions actually came after the death of its original and primary author. It’s much stronger on modern history than it is on earlier periods, and much stronger on the history of the West than it is on other civilizations. As a one-volume overview, it’s necessarily brief on pretty much everything, but it’s a handy volume to have on hand when you find yourself putting together an outline on some subject that’s not that familiar to you.
Egypt, Greece, and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean by Charles Freeman. Anybody who’s teaching the first part of the world history survey should get this book. It’s clear and comprehensive, covering the political, social, and cultural aspects of three of the major civilizations that shaped the ancient world. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.
Ancient Iraq (3rd ed.) by Georges Roux. This is a very popular introduction to early Mesopotamia, written by a former petroleum company employee who acquired a love of the ancient Near East. It’s quite readable, and covers most of the major developments in the Fertile Crescent from the beginning of civilization to the later first millennium B.C.
The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, ed. by Ian Shaw. This book, which covers Egyptian history from the earliest archaeological traces through the Roman era, is the result of a collaboration by a group of Egyptologists, each of whom contributed a chapter. Like many such books, the quality of the individual chapters is somewhat uneven, and the text as a whole is pretty dry and sterile. If you’re unfamiliar with the basic outlines of Egyptian history, I’d recommend you read the Egyptian chapters in Freeman’s Egypt, Greece, and Rome before tackling this volume, since the authors seem to assume that the reader already has some familiarity with the subject.
Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History by Sarah B. Pomeroy, Stanley M. Burstein, Walter Donlan, and Jennifer Tolbert Roberts. There are, of course, several good general works on ancient Greece in English. One of my professors assigned an earlier edition of this text for a college course I took on the ancient Mediterranean, and I recommend it highly. It’s very inclusive in its coverage, but it’s also clear and well-organized. The same publisher came out with a similar textbook on Rome that I haven’t read yet.
The Civilization of the Middle Ages by Norman F. Cantor. This has become the go-to introduction to medieval Europe for the interested layman. Cantor is best at guiding the reader through the major intellectual and religious developments, but the whole book is worth the investment of time, and it includes a great list of recommended readings.
A History of Medieval Islam by J.J. Saunders. This book is a little old, and it doesn’t have the high profile of more recent works on the Islamic world by such eminent scholars as Bernard Lewis. But I like it for its conciseness and clarity; it offers a very helpful refresher in an easily digestible package.
Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin. The forgotten half of Christendom that maintained the legacy of the Romans after the empire in the West fell tends to get short shrift in historical memory. This is a fine guide to a surprisingly vibrant society.
I’m still in the market for good overviews of the major eastern civilizations, so if anybody out there would care to recommend some general works on China or India, feel free to do so.