Great empires and war have a strong presence in this list for 2015. First of all, Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Profile Books Ltd) examines how Rome grew from a small village to a power that controlled vast territory from Britain to Syria. Though this is not just a history that covers 1,000 years of political intrigue and warfare. The mechanisms of Roman life, how Romans thought about themselves and I suppose almost everything you ever wanted to ask about ancient Rome is dotted throughout this book. I have read many books on Ancient Rome and this is definitely a gem. As one of the most renowned classicists, Mary Beard sifts through fact from fiction, as if she once lived a Roman life!
Still on the subject of empire, The Lost World of Byzantium (Yale University Press) by Jonathan Harris is a great investment and investigation on why Byzantium lasted so long and how it eventually disappeared as a political institution. Instead of being a straight down the line narrative, Harris chooses to tell Byzantium’s story through ten crucial figures from its long history. Despite the fact that it had often been dragged through the mud and regarded as the poor relation to ancient Rome, this is a valuable resource on a civilization, that always saw itself as Roman. It sits proudly in my personal ‘Byzantine library’.
Roger Crowley is back! A little over two years ago I interviewed him on this blog. Back then I asked him what was he working on? He replied to my question candidly with this thoughtful answer, “I’m writing a book about the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean –the contest with Islam for control of the sea and the spice trade after Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1497. The Portuguese exploration of the world has been rather forgotten, I think – apart from by the Portuguese! It’s been overshadowed by what we might call the rise and rise of the profile of Columbus as the discoverer of the Americas. In many ways the Portuguese story was just as extraordinary – and as terrible – they matched the conquistadors in South America for brutality. This small Atlantic country with a tiny population but unequalled ocean sailing skills really were the first to link the world together –the first globalizers, the first to reach China and Japan, the first people to cross-pollinate cultures, peoples, foods and languages across the world.” It was a wonderful answer to end a perfect interview and he has delivered, as promised his most epic book yet, Conquerors: How Portugal Seized the Indian Ocean and Forged the First Global Empire (Faber & Faber). The genius behind Crowley is that he just has this amazing knack of delivering a great narrative history with revealing detail. One of the best books this year!
My fascination with The Great War is obvious by the many articles that are featured on this blog. I have a small collection of WW1 history books, many of them from an Australian perspective and others that generally focus on the war on the European continent. Though I do often find myself going out of my way to read about the not well-known battles of the Balkans and the Middle East. The events of the Middle East, in particular, are fascinating and important to understand, because there consequences shaped the Middle East arguably to the present. One of the best books I found this year was Eugene Rogan’s The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920 (Penguin Books). Rogan cleverly portrays the death throes of one of the greatest Muslim empires in world history, set against the backdrop of the Great War from Gallipoli to the Armenian genocide. I can’t say I enjoyed reading about the huge loss of Turkish and Armenian life, but Rogan weaves a worthy account that should be read, on the horrors of life in the Ottoman Empire during (and after) the war.
On the topic of war and genocide, If This Is A Woman (Little, Brown) by Sarah Helm is arguably the history book of the year. Even though I read it earlier in the year, it still sends shivers down my spine just thinking about it. It is the story of the often forgotten concentration camp at Ravensburck, exclusively built for women. With most of the original documents of the camp destroyed and a very few of the survivors still alive, Helm’s raced against time to piece together their story in a vivid and haunting account. I don’t know what is more disturbing in this book about this ‘death camp’, the total numbers of deaths (somewhere between 30,000 to 90,000 women), the cruel medical experiments and gas chambers or the trained women guards, who did unspeakable things? Even when the survivors of Ravensburck were liberated they were subjected to the cruelty of Russian soldiers. This is an important book that helps illuminate the Nazis’ crimes against women.
I have two honourable mentions to make about books I have shelved for future reading. These are Tom Holland’s latest book Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar (Little, Brown) and Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads (Bloombury). Both have received positive reviews and I am sure I will enjoy them in good time. If you the reader have any suggestions or want to mention some of your favourite history books published this year, please let me know.
Happy New Year!
The header image is a painting by Alfredo Roque Gameiro showing Vasco da Gama’s departure for India, 1497.