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. 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.
©2007 Susan Wise Bauer (P)2013 Audible, Inc.
I grew up on Golden Age Radio, and while I love to read, I typically consume more books via audio thanks to a job that lets me listen while I work. As an aspiring writer, I try to read a great deal of non-fiction in addition to a variety of fictional genres. I especially love history, historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and old-style gothic horror.
I find that in my studies of history, comprehensive and sweeping overviews are invaluable, both to help keep people and events in perspective, and to give me an idea of where I might want to dig deeper later on. I've gone through a number of such overviews over the years, though not one as ambitious as this one. From the mists of legend through to the fall of Rome as the title suggests, Bauer weaves together all of the broad strokes of human history in this time period. For the earlier accounts, history is extrapolated from mythology and archaeology, translating symbolism into human events. Another high point of praise is that most overviews like this will pick a single nation or perhaps a hemisphere. This covers East and West, putting the rise and fall of various dynasties on a timeline that allows the reader to compare and contrast in an way that I've not seen with such effectiveness. Bauer has similar titles for Medieval and Renaissance history, and I'm looking forward to connecting those stories as one larger tapestry.
Colourful, In-Depth, Informative
Considering this book covers a vast portion of early human history it is impossible to assign particular value to a single character.
Picking just one episode is difficult, but the most memorable to me was the exchange between King Croesus of Lydia and King Cyrus of Persia on the night the Persians looted the fabled wealth of the Lydians. Noting that the defeated monarch was quiet as his city burned, Cyrus asked how he felt about losing his wealth in this manner. "It is not my wealth they are stealing," Croesus replied. "It is yours." Valuable insight into the nature of conquest even today.
Although my field is 19th century Victoriana, I have an interest in many periods of history, in particular the Aegean Bronze Age and the early Celts in Europe. This book blends ancient historical accounts, myths, legends, religious texts to weave a tapestry of early human history, including civilizations as diverse as Mesopotamia, India, China and Europe. It is a massive undertaking.
I accept that accuracy is not always possible when the only texts available are those that have been translated, interpreted, and even deified. While experts may disagree on the finer points, the overall effort is worthy of credit. To keep all these many threads separate and clear is a mighty undertaking and I applaud the author for the attempt.
No historical account can be perfect as new discoveries come to light all the time, from archeological digs and manuscript finds to revisions of classic literature. If we waited for historians to agree on the details, no history would ever be written. And that would be a great loss. This is a fine historical overview and what it lacks in depth is more than made up for in breadth.
A remarkable piece of work which gives an extraordinary overview and manages give a taste of the subject matter without getting lost in the details. The last 400 years were a bit rushed but I don't think it was necessary to do that bit. The author could comfortably stopped with the effective establishment of the Roman Empire. Pace was generally speaking good - there were few places where I just wanted to get on with it. I have come away having learned a great deal and feel that an important contribution has been made to my already 67 year old education. Then also I have to say that while I found the reader's delivery irritating on occasion, his pronunciation of those middle eastern and Chinese names with I believe perfect consistency was amazing and, perhaps surprisingly, made its own independent contribution to my enjoyment of the book.
So why "almost" ? Alright, I bought into the premise that while we have little in the way of historical documentation surviving from the three or four thousand years BC we do have myths and it is possible that within those myths there may lurk the kernel of the truth so why not let's pretend that they are actual history. So when we got to talking about David and his achievements, I could not help but recall a recent BBC documentary which argued with some force that the almost total lack of archaeological evidence for David's architectural accomplishments stongly suggests that the Biblical David is a construct designed with political intentions and with little real history behind it. Not that I believe everything that is put in front of me, but The History does at some level purport to be an academic work. The uncritical acceptance of the Biblical version of David suddenly made me a whole lot less inclined to accept myth as the basis for history, even with tongue in cheek.'
Still, I doubt if there are many works around where the author demonstrates such a grasp of her subject matter, such an ability to put it into context and such a fund of well-selected material to illustrate her work..
I found this book a cluttered mess. Not because it was poorly written--it wasn't--but because the author tried to cover far too much material. The reader is bounced from Mesopotamia to China to India and back, told story after story of kings and emperors, with little or nothing to connect the stories (understandable, since most of the regions she tries to cover were isolated from each other at the time).
Additionally, the author seems only mildly critical of her sources, and not critical at all when it comes to Biblical sources (she did her undergrad at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, if that tells you anything). She starts the book trying a bit too hard to present evidence for the Great Flood, and makes a number of unsupported assertions regarding certain Biblical figures. Fine, I get it. Sources for some of these times and events are sparse, and the Bible has some value as a historical source. But her willingness to use it so uncritically made me wonder immediately whether she had a religious agenda.
After further reading, my feeling is that she doesn't to have an agenda, other than to write a history book. Also on the positive side, she has at the very least woven the many disparate strands of ancient history into a single (if extraordinarily busy) tapestry, and she is not unskilled as a writer. I feel as if she could write an entertaining and informative volume if she could just get away from the "history of everything" premise and stick with a certain topic. It feels like a gimmick, and it doesn't really work. Frankly, in fact, I don't think anyone could pull this off; human history is just too vast and complex.
The narrator has a difficult job, but he manages to trot along. Someone else here said he sounds like he's just trying to get through the book as quickly as he can, and I agree that it feels like that sometimes. But he must also be given credit for pronouncing the names of ancient Chinese warlords and complex Middle-Eastern place-names with a rapid fluency that doesn't bog the narrative down.
I am hesitant to say this, because it sounds more negative than it is, but I use this book quite often to help me fall asleep at night. Since there's nothing to really focus on for any length of time, the rapid, disjointed narrative has a strong soporific effect on me. It's interesting for a while, then I start to feel drowsy, and the next thing I know it's morning.
The people who would do anything to anyone for power
Just finished reading Ancient World by Susan Wise Bauer. If you enjoy reading about history I can recommend this book. It was an easy read that moved quickly and gave good portrayals of the people who made history. The story line runs from the beginning of recorded history to about the time of Constantine. The unvarnished truth about the greed, lust for power and the things people did to each other and family members to get it is dark and depressing. If the past is truly prolog, we as a species are doomed.
The narrator seems to be trying to get through the text as quickly as possible, with no thought to the content of what he is reading, while trying to make it all sound "dramatic".
The content is pretty much standard ancient history, with the exception of the chapter on "Abraham" who is introduced as "the first monotheist" and followed by an uncritical rehash of the Biblical story in Genesis.
Well, that's all for now
"Entertaining and informative"
I love Susan Wise Bauer's dry sense of humour, which crops up in the most unexpected places.
The book covers ancient civilisations around the world, based on stories, histories, writings on stones and bones ... and gives a clear insightful view of what can perhaps be considered 'true' history and what can't. There are some lovely insights into people's characters - my favourite being Zimri Lim and his relationship with his younger daughter.
John Lee reads quietly and steadily, changing his voice subtly when he reads quotes.
"A long and winding road - but worth the journey"
What I most liked about this ambitious study is that, unusually, it does not present a timeline of a single location but moves from place to place as time goes on – so that, for example, you can learn what was in the news in China, India or Egypt just when Troy was falling. You do however need to be aware that Susan Wise Bauer is not a historian, but a teacher of American literature. Her introduction announces slightly ominously that she is not interested in ‘scientific’ history, and prefers a story-telling approach. Consequently, the early chapters, made up of the outlandish mythologies of dead cultures, had me worried. But there was no need to be. Though she largely ignores the latest archaeological, genetic and linguistic data that make some of her old textual sources look quite misleading, you still get an engrossing and flowing account of events, as reported by the ancients themselves, that gives you a feel for the big picture. And there’s nothing to stop you delving deeper into ‘scientific’ details if the fancy takes you.
Narrator John Lee does a good, solid job with this huge project, lending the story a suitably grand air and attempting all those exotic ancient names colourfully. Unfortunately, I felt he didn’t quite pass the acid test of a great narrator, which is to add colour to the narrative without distracting. You needn’t be a pedant to wonder why he pronounces Latin the way they do in the Vatican instead of the way the Romans did. And, although he has an appropriately RP accent for the project, his articulation of every syllable is strangely precise, as though he were desperate to get top marks in an elocution exam. Yet some of his vowels remain incongruously northern English; and, when he lobs in a bunch of random US pronunciations, as though educated North Americans will otherwise be bamboozled, you wonder whose side of the ocean he’s on. Maybe an American female might have captured Ms Bauer’s tone better?
"Refreshingly honest and different"
I was skeptical before starting the book due to negative comments. I have gone thru many history books over the years, and this one is different. In a good way. I have always distressed over the presentation of ancient history as a fact.Susan Bauer upfront states that her history is taken from the first written accounts. Anything prior to this is intelligent guessing and over many years I have seen swing first one way then another. Her approach to stick to what is written, from whatever source, adds a level of credibility that is refreshing. I have used her references to go and read extra on a poem, a business transaction a Biblical account, and found her to be fair, unbiased and honest in her narrative. The reader is fast paced, and has excellent pronunciation. His style is a little different but I quickly got used to it, without detracting from the account. It is not a mistake to make this a first world history listen.
"Really enjoyed this"
It's informative and entertaining. It covers a huge range but still manages to have a good level of detail.
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