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The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome

November 1st, 2010

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Book Overview:

A lively and engaging narrative history showing the common threads in the cultures that gave birth to our own. This is the first volume in a bold new series that tells the stories of all peoples, connecting historical events from Europe to the Middle East to the far coast of China, while still giving weight to the characteristics of each country. Susan Wise Bauer provides both sweeping scope and vivid attention to the individual lives that give flesh to abstract assertions about human history. Dozens of maps provide a clear geography of great events, while timelines give the reader an ongoing sense of the passage of years and cultural interconnection. This narrative history employs the methods of “history from beneath”—literature, epic traditions, private letters and accounts—to connect kings and leaders with the lives of those they ruled. The result is an engrossing tapestry of human behavior from which we may draw conclusions about the direction of world events and the causes behind them. 13 illustrations, 80 maps

Book Review

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out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12796 user reviews
History Books A lively and engaging narrative history showing the common threads in the cultures that gave birth to our own. This is the first volume in a bold new series that tells the stories of all peoples, connecting historical events from Europe to the Middle East to the far coast of China, while still giving weight to the characteristics of each country. Susan Wise Bauer provides both sweeping scope and vivid attention to the individual lives that give flesh to abstract assertions about human history. Dozens of maps provide a clear geography of great events, while timelines give the reader an ongoing sense of the passage of years and cultural interconnection. This narrative history employs the methods of “history from beneath”—literature, epic traditions, private letters and accounts—to connect kings and leaders with the lives of those they ruled. The result is an engrossing tapestry of human behavior from which we may draw conclusions about the direction of world events and the causes behind them. 13 illustrations, 80 maps

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  1. M. Murphy
    November 2nd, 2010 at 04:36 | #1


    After college, I have been drawn to reading more and more history because of books like this. This isn’t your standard textbook-style history that we all remember as dry and boring. It is a very readable text with helpful maps and time-lines aimed at those folks who are just beginning to rediscover history.

    Mrs. Bauer does not inundate you with useless facts and trivia but instead teaches us history through the literature and letters of the time. We don’t waste time hearing about the “average Joe” but instead get a glimpse into the minds of ancient leaders by becoming familiar with their inscriptions and those works of old historians like Herodotus. While most of the book is devoted to Mesopotamia, Northern Africa, and Europe, there are some great chapters on India and China to add a little variety.

    One very nice feature of this book is its short chapters. There are over 80 chapters in this book and they break up the story into easily digested pieces. You’ll find yourself reading a half-dozen chapters at a time with ease and I have even caught myself reading over a chapter while waiting for dinner to cook. You feel like you are making progress, and while I can’t explain it, the shorter chapters seem to help me stay focused and remember more of what I have read.

    Overall, it is a very good book that makes history enjoyable for those of us that remembered it being so dry. I’ll be waiting for a second book to get me into the Renaissance – if she writes it, I’ll buy it!

  2. Kurt A. Johnson
    November 3rd, 2010 at 13:08 | #2


    I am a student of Ancient Mesopotamia, so I am always checking out new book on ancient history. This fat little book is crammed full of information on the Ancient and Classical worlds. Organized in the form of discrete essays, the essays are then presented by subject – The Edge of History, Firsts, Struggle, Empires and Identity – with the essays then sorted into chronological order. Each of the essays is very interesting and quite informative, and along the way the reader is treated to a good number of pictures, timelines and maps.

    Overall, I found this book to be an excellent book, giving the reader a good feel for ancient history in the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, India, and China. (The last two are often under-represented in older books.) I think very highly of this book, and recommend it to all students of history.

  3. Shawn M. Ritchie
    November 3rd, 2010 at 18:50 | #3


    This may be the finest general introduction to Ancient History for the non-specialist I’ve yet read. Ms Bauer impresses out of the gate by declaring that she will a) focus on personalities and their roles in ancient cultures and b) disregard any civilization’s story from the pre-literate era. These are two EXCELLENT decisions for the writer of a general, introductory history to stick with, regardless of how much they may upset the modern specialists out there.

    In choosing to simply accept that the vast majority of our available records cover the rulers of the ancient era at the expense of almost any documentation on the lives of the common man, Bauer weaves a narrative that covers that which we reasonably know in a lively, fast-moving fashion, pulling off the tricky feat of acknowledging the gaps in the historical record without getting bogged down in them. The primary movers of the ancient era come alive as the author takes us on a trip through the Sumerian List of Kings, the Bible as a historical document, the disappointing dearth of records of ancient Indian civilizations, and the wealth of Greek and Roman sources. The small, manageable chapters each cover a logically broken-up chunk of a given region’s history, with helpful charts at the end of each showing the overlap in events between the current chapter’s region and the same timeframe for the previous chapter’s region.

    Ms Bauer’s style of writing is also commendable. She has a lively sense of phrasing that keeps the reader moving through the centuries at a fast clip. Some of her footnotes are actually chuckle-worthy, which helps to break up the overall slog of warfare, drought, famine, enslavement, et al.

    While not chock-full of new interpretations, the book does precisely what it sets out today: a full overview of the ancient era of human history. As each culture discovers the ability to literately track its own history, it is folded into the wider scope of the book’s narrative. By its end, when the Roman Empire goes Christian under Constantine, the reader will have absorbed a good, thorough if high-level overview of how humanity developed once each group began getting its letters.

    Of course, this means that the entire Western Hemisphere and large swaths of Africa and Asia (Egypt, China and some of India excluded) simply don’t feature in the story. Before the howls of Eurocentrism are let loose, please consider that this lies strongly within the author’s own boundaries for the work: once a society became literate in a way we can understand today, it gets folded into the story. Otherwise, we’re just guessing at the hows and whys of that society’s motives, and that is work better left for specialists in other fields. To cram even a few pages on what we think the Native Americans or proto-Japanese were up to millennia before we actually have any sort of provable record would simply muddy the book up.

    As this is just the debut volume of what is shaping up to be an excellent and comprehensive history of the world, everybody will get their due as their time comes, I am sure. For now, I’ll simply give this book my highest recommendation for anyone looking to gain a knowledge of the ancient world that they may have never examined before, anyone looking to refresh the musty memories of Egypt, Greece and Rome from their high school history classes, or just anyone who enjoys the human story told well.

  4. D. Montgomery
    November 4th, 2010 at 19:24 | #4


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

  5. Neutiquam Erro
    November 5th, 2010 at 04:55 | #5


    Bauer bites off a very large mouthful but manages to digest it in a way that is both readable and entertaining. With “The History of the Ancient World” she delivers on her promise to deal with history based on written sources, leaving the dusty archaeological details to others. This approach can be a little disconcerting if you are used to reading dry academic histories. Particularly in the study of the ancient middle east, the usual academic history of Egypt, Sumeria and the Assyrians tends to be heavy on pottery shards and light on plot. Having just read Trevor Bryce’s Kingdom of the Hittites, in which an entire civilization is reconstructed from partial inscriptions, archaeological sites and guess work – a difficult task indeed – I was at first disturbed by Bauer’s smooth flowing, light touch. She dwells almost exclusively on the story and avoided inconvenient archaeological facts and scholarly debates. At times the history seemed to be more an interpretation of mythology or a retelling of the grand story of human civilization, rather than an objective investigation of historical truth. But, of course, this seems to be what was intended here. In spite of the excellent use of maps (possibly the simplest and yet most comprehensive example I have ever seen – no place name mentioned in the text is left off of a map found nearby), and the extensive cited works section, this book is all about drama.

    The play’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 Bauer sweep you away. From the ancient glory of Sumeria, through the incestuous Dynasties of Egypt (did you know Ramses II had his mummy’s nose packed with peppercorns), the brutal Assyrians, the mysteries of the Phoenicians, Alexander the 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.

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

  6. M. L. Townliand
    November 6th, 2010 at 06:25 | #6


    My sons and I have read and enjoyed Bauer’s Story of the World series, so when I saw that this book was coming out I pre-ordered it. I thought it might be over our heads but we have enjoyed it immensely. The 11 yo snagged it and read 18 chapters the first day! I am not a history buff but I homeschool my kids so I am always on the lookout for good books. I found The History of the Ancient World to be much more readable, enjoyable, and cohesive than the high school and college history texts we have used previously. This book could be used to homeschool high school, but you don’t have to be a homeschooler to enjoy it. I think anyone with an interest in ancient history would enjoy this book. The plethora of maps and timelines really make it easy to see connections. Highly recommended!

  7. Jonathan Burack
    November 7th, 2010 at 13:47 | #7


    This book is a breath of fresh air.

    All too many world historians and world history teachers today pat themselves on the back for what they see as a spiffy new anti-eurocentric all-encompassing approach to world history (and approach that is in fact not even that new). Whatever the politically correct merits of this “New World History” approach, its near exclusive emphasis on sociological and economic trends and generalizations — trade interactions, cultural diffusions, broad cross-cultural comparisons, gender roles, labor systems, belief systems — has rendered it horribly dull. The College Board Advanced Placement world history guidelines actually insist that teachers avoid any focus on leaders, individuals in general, warfare and political history. In doing so, they avoid the heartland of human agency in history!

    These are the very things above all that have moved history and that move us in reading history. Thank goodness then for Susan Bauer’s bucking of the trend here. She is relentlessly old-fashioned in offering up dramatic narrative, the stories of kings, pharaohs, warlords, prophets, poets and more. Of course she does sketch out the environmental, cultural and technological context within which individuals had to act. But Bauer understands, as all too few world history people now seem to, that what drives the rise and fall of ancient civilizations ultimately are the quirks and insights and wills of flesh and blood individuals.

    She also understands how this content-rich and human story telling is what makes history comprehensible and memorable.

    A nice feature of this book is its interweaving of key myths and religious texts (Gilgamesh, the Rig Veda, the Bible, Homer) into the story, and its use of these to provide insight into the facts as historians and archaeologists know them. One caveat about the book is that Bauer is not always entirely clear about which aspects of such myths she thinks can and cannot be confirmed by more solid evidence. Did the Jews wander in the wilderness for forty years? Bauer does realize it’s unlikely they did, but she is not always clear where the mythological accounts must be left behind. Yet this is only occasionally confusing.

    One other challenge Bauer does not always entirely meet is how to tell the entire story chronologically. She does this pretty well, but not without breaking off from one region to jump to another and back again in ways that make it a bit hard for the reader to hold things together.

    But these are minor problems. This book is easily the most vivid and effective interweaving I know of, of all key strands in mankind’s story in the ancient world.

  8. WTMCassandra
    November 8th, 2010 at 10:34 | #8


    Written in Susan’s inimitable style, this is a very readable book that just carries you along. If you think history is just a boring list of places, dates, and wars, this book will change your opinion in a hurry! This series promises to be just as wonderful as her Story of the World series for children–none of us are too old for great stories! The maps and timelines are great aids to understanding the flow of history.

  9. César González Rouco
    November 10th, 2010 at 00:21 | #9


    If political history is the narrative of political (and so often military) events and leaders, this is certainly a political history. It has got the advantage of presenting not only Mesopotamia and Egypt plus Greece and Rome, but also China and India,showing the progress of each part of the Ancient World in paralell. It is concise, interesting and highly readable.

    Of course, the author’s approach implies choosing a somehow narrow scope: no social or economic history is included, although some religious flavour is, for she masterly uses the myths of each civilization as clues to understand its politics. Taking that into account, I would reccomend also to read (as a complement to this book) “The History of Government. Volume I. Ancient Monarchies and Empires” by S.E. Finer, “Life after Death. A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion” by Alan F. Segal and “Gem in the Lotus.The Seeding of Indian Civilisation” by Abraham Eraly, to mention but a few.

  10. Michael Gunther
    November 10th, 2010 at 18:20 | #10


    Following up on the success of her children’s homeschool history series, Susan Wise Bauer offers this large-scale (750 pages) introduction to ancient history for adults. Bauer, a “print historian” for whom the written record is paramount, tells the story of five ancient civilizations – Egypt, Mesopotamia/the Middle East, Greece/Rome, India, and China – that have left us the most extensive written records. Her narrative focuses entirely on political history: kingdoms, empires, and their rulers; this writer will have no truck with artists, poets, philosophers, architects, or mathematicians; much less with archaeology, anthropology, sociology, or any other of the numerous disciplines that have revolutionized the study of history in the last 50 years.

    Rulers and Empires is her only story, but she tells it well; the book is a pleasant read, and the author deserves full credit both for the huge effort involved in producing such a volume, and for the accuracy (the undoubted product of years of sleepless nights spent digesting hundreds of primary reference works) of her narrative. I liked the book, and enjoyed reading it. But it is very limited. There is a kind of imbalance, and tunnel-vision, that becomes more apparent the more one reflects on it. This is a book that has no fewer than eight index entries on Merodach-baladan, an obscure 8th century BC king of Babylon, but not one word on Euclid, and only two sentences on the Parthenon!

    To sum up, Bauer’s volume, while competently written, perversely omits nearly all of the artistic and intellectual achievements of the ancient world, that alone make that world truly great and worthy of study.

  11. Michael Little
    November 10th, 2010 at 22:18 | #11


    Bauer has done it. Although no ONE book can capture the entire Ancient World, this author get you to understand the time period before she moves on. I LOVE the way this book is layed out. Instead of 5 chapters on Sumer then 5 on Egypt then 5 on India, etc…Bauer breaks it down into managable times – does 100 years of Sumer then 100 of egypt of the same time, then 100 of India at the same time period then back to Sumer, etc. you get a real sence of how and who and when the world changed and began to evolve. Although I have only been able to hammer out half of this 800+ page book in the 3 weeks I have been reading it…I have no intention of putting it down, and look forward to reading it again some time from now. Well done Bauer!

  12. D. Myers
    November 11th, 2010 at 09:28 | #12


    In the run-up to the Iraq War, I read several articles discussing the historical treasures at risk if the war went forward. Reading these, I realized that for a reasonably well-educated person I had very little understanding of ancient history. Since then I have, in addition to re-reading the college textbook I obviously had not paid enough attention to, read a number of popular histories about ancient subjects. This is one of them.

    Bauer’s book covers a lot of ground in fair but not overwhelming detail. It does a good job of giving the reader a basic outline of history, with the important dates and touchstones, as well as illuminating the vast amount of information that is simply unknown and lost. For this, it gets an easy three stars – really three and a half.

    It fails to get four or five stars, however, for two reasons. First, as noted in another reader review, the book totally ignores as outside its scope artistic and social developments such as the flowering of Greek culture or the art of Egypt. Anyone who is interested can certainly get works that fill this gap, of course, but it seems that this is a subject that should have had more treatment.

    Second, the book suffers from a serious editing problem. In addition to sloppy grammar errors that were missed and the odd misspelling, occaisional factual errors snuck through the editing process. At one point, Bauer states that the king of Assyria was “the undisputed king of Babylon” immediately after stating that Babylon was in rebellion. Obviously she meant Assyria, but just as obviously the reader shouldn’t have to figure that out. Subsequent editions of this book will undoubtedly sort most of that out, so if you are looking at buying the second edition or later, this caution may no longer apply.

    All in all, a valuable book for the casual reader.

  13. Herodotus777
    November 11th, 2010 at 21:31 | #13


    This really is a world history of ancient cultures–it ranges from Mesopotamia all the way east to the Chinese coast and all the way west to the British Isles. Bauer uses original sources as well as plenty of myths and legends to illuminate the bare-bones facts of history, fulfilling her promise to give us a glimpse not only of what ancient peoples did, but what they thought and feared. As an avid reader, I’ve read plenty of history, and I’ve delved deep into some areas. The wonderful quality of THIS book is that it allows me to link my knowledge of my favorite historical eras with my much sketchier and sometimes nonexistent knowledge of others. There’s plenty to think about here, and plenty to disagree with–Bauer doesn’t just give facts. She tells an interpretive story that centers around why and how some men–and much less frequently, women–are able to gain power over others. But agree or disagree, you’ll find yourself constantly going back to her framework as you plug in other pieces of historical knowledge.

  14. Arthur Hughes
    November 14th, 2010 at 00:20 | #14


    Susan Bauer has produced one of the best history books I have ever read. We all know something about the Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans, but what Susan does is to tell you about hundreds of kingdoms that existed that you never heard of. Beginning about 3,600 BC there grew up hundreds of kingdoms which fought with each other for century after century. What is clear from this history is that Kings (or Dukes) were the only form of government for almost five thousand years. When these countries were not fighting each other, they were having civil wars. Whenever a king died, the selection of the next ruler was more often than not a cause for hundreds or thousands to be killed trying to decide the next ruler. Murder was one of the most common ways to select a ruler in the middle east. Unless you read Susan’s book, you really don’t know where civilization came from or how we got where we are now. I highly recommend this book. Susan has a great sense of humor which you will enjoy as you read it.

  15. Mary Squires
    November 15th, 2010 at 18:51 | #15


    I will be using this work as a history text for my homeschooled 10th grader. Over the summer I reviewed this work, prepared study questions, and other assignments. The writing is compelling and exciting. The editing and fact-checking is not good. I did not get past the first section, The Edge of History, without finding date discrepancies and an incorrect river directional flow. I am not mentioning other problems found in subsequent sections.

    Even if these problems were originally written by the author, it was the editor’s responsibility to catch them. Since I get one set of stars to choose from I will be selecting three overall. I would prefer to give the author five and the editor zero. Zero because this is a history and accuracy, when available, is vital.

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