Monday, January 31, 2011

On "The History of the Ancient World" by Susan Wise Bauer *****

In this first of a planned multivolume series, Bauer tells the history of the world from the "earliest accounts" to ascension of Constantine. She does this all in about eight hundred pages. Centuries pass in twenty pages or less. And when placed in that kind of abbreviated form, the history of mankind becomes a sad one indeed--full of wars and attempts to gain power (and the various accoutrements that come with it), in which--in scope of all time--nothing much lasts for long.

Despite its scope and brevity, the book is fascinating. Bauer keeps the text from becoming a mere list of this ruler succeeded that ruler by choosing her details carefully and by spicing the narrative with moments of humor. The footnotes--items one might be tempted to skip in many a book--are not only often fascinating but hilarious. She knows that the general reader is often not going to really care that much about the official names of the Roman emperors, but she footnotes them anyway, showing how their ludicrously long nature would make her own narrative unreadable. In the text, she draws parallels to contemporary culture or across cultures to make a point--David and Solomon get compared respectively to a Pentecostal preacher and to a megachurch pastor, for example. Looks also for comparisons to Star Trek plots.

The history also doesn't limit itself to the western world. Bauer focuses on any area where sufficient history has been written down to present a narrative. Hence, China gets full scope here, as does, to a lesser extent, India. Unfortunately, without adequate written sources, the Americas and Africa (outside of Egypt) get little play here. But that is as it should be. Bauer has made a choice to focus mostly on cultures with written histories--one reason that the West and China get so much play. Archeology plays second fiddle, as it must, given that we are left to guess what a given artifact means when nothing written is there to back up our understanding.

I won't begin to summarize what is already a book of summary. The material inside the book is put together so well, however, that the whole series would seem to me to be a good one for reference in personal libraries. This is especially true because the book is full of useful maps--sometimes I even wished for more--and timelines, tying events around the world together, so that readers can know that the Han dynasty in China, for example, is falling apart about the same time that the Roman empire is beginning its decline.

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