I have always had an interest in reading classic literature, particularly classic histories. By reading these classic histories, one can garner a semester’s worth of college history, and usually at no cost to himself given that most classics are now available at either little or no cost in electronic format via Amazon.com.
However, many of these classics can be intimidating, given their length as well as the older styles of English in which most were written or translated. These are legitimate concerns, especially given that each of us is pressed for time nowadays, and therefore must be economical in terms of how we choose to invest the time we dedicate to reading. Be that as it may, the following four books are essential to one’s understanding not only of Western civilization, but of human nature, and the human condition.
This masterful work spans the more than fourteen centuries of Roman history from the beginning of the Empire to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The wealth of information this book contains is enormous. Gibbon’s history covers everything from Roman laws and social mores, to Roman (and their enemies’) military tactics. There are countless pearls of wisdom throughout the work:
On Roman discipline:
“It was an inflexible maxim of Roman discipline, that a good soldier should dread his officers far more than the enemy.”
“That public virtue, which among the ancients was denominated patriotism, is derived from a strong sense of our own interest in the preservation and prosperity of the free government of which we are members. Such a sentiment, which had rendered the legions of the republic almost invincible, could make but a very feeble impression on the mercenary servants of a despotic prince; and it became necessary to supply that defect by other motives, of a different, but not less forcible nature – honor and religion.”
On Military Preparedness
“They preserved peace by a constant preparation for war; and while justice regulated their conduct, they announced to the nations on their confines, that they were as little disposed to endure, as to offer, an injury.”
You will not regret the investment of time it takes to read the entire Decline & Fall, but be prepared that it will be somewhat slow reading as you will want to note and highlight frequently throughout the book.
History of the Conquest of Mexico by William Prescott
Prescott, an American historian, suffered from severe vision problems, and therefore never visited the sites that were the topics of his most famous histories, Mexico and Peru. That did not, however, impact the quality of his work which is still supreme among all the histories of the Spanish conquista. Like Gibbon’s Decline & Fall, Prescott’s works are full of detailed descriptions of the major parties involved, the Spanish and the natives, as well as extensive pre-histories, if you will, that serve as context for the clash that is at the heart of the work.
The reader will find Prescott’s History full of interesting anecdotes, such as this, that illustrate that the Spanish and their native foes were perhaps not so different from each other as we might think:
“It is remarkable that [the Aztecs] administered the rites of confession and absolution. The secrets of the confessional were held inviolable, and penances were imposed of much the same kind as those enjoined in the Roman Catholic Church [the religion of Spain].”
It is remarkable, too, that the Aztecs were a quite advanced civilization, and were accomplished traders:
“But the occupation peculiarly respected [by the Aztecs] was that of the merchant. It formed so important and singular a feature of their social economy, as to merit a much more particular notice than it has received from historians. The Aztec merchant was a sort of itinerant trader, who made his journeys to the remotest borders of Anahuac, and to the countries beyond, carrying with him merchandise of rich stuffs, jewelry, slaves, and other valuable commodities.”
The driving theme of the History, however, is the fortitude of Hernan Cortes, whose single-minded ambition was to topple the Aztec empire, and which he accomplished more through sheer will and ingenuity than by technological superiority over the natives.
Plutarch, a Roman citizen who wrote around the first century A.D., influenced many subsequent writers with his comparative biographies of famous Greeks and Romans. The Lives is set up such that there is a description of the life of an important Greek, then that of a Roman of similar consequence, and finally a comparison of the two, with lessons to be learned from their compared lives. The reader will find a wide array of biographies and comparisons of men from all parts of society. There are such military men as Alcibiades and Coriolanus, both famous for their military victories as well as for their treachery to their homelands, and there are Demosthenes and Cicero, both famous orators whose opposition to popular tyrants ultimately cost them their lives. Plutarch’s Lives is replete with lessons on ambition, human nature, and the cautionary tales of those who did not practice humility, and so led themselves and many others to ruin.
History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
This classic on the conflict between Athens and Sparta is a must-read for any student of political and military history. The personalities involved are almost larger than life: Pericles, the Athenian statesman and gifted orator, who led Athens early in the Peloponnesian War; Alcibiades, a charismatic and brilliant military leader, whose personal ambition led to Athenian ruin in Sicily, and who betrayed Athens to save himself from the wrath of Athens; and Lysander, the Spartan admiral, who ultimately defeated Athens. The History of the Peloponnesian War can be viewed as sort of the first historical work that discussed such geopolitical ideas as the balance of power and hegemony, and it is famous for the realpolitik it describes in perhaps its most famous line:
“The strong will do what they will, and the weak will suffer what they must.”
There are many other classic histories such as those by Tacitus and Josephus that warrant our attention even today, but these four books described above are essential to the library of any serious reader of history, not just for their magnificent recounting of important historical events, but because of the wisdom they contain regarding the timeless lessons of the human experience.