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An excellent, very readable introduction to ancient history.
on July 23, 2007
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of the ancient era come alive as the author takes us on a trip through the Sumerian List of Kings, the Bible as a historical document, the disappointing dearth of records of ancient Indian civilizations, and the wealth of Greek and Roman sources.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.