April Reading List

By Owain Williams

Spring has finally sprung! We are leaving winter and the long nights behind, which means more time for reading! There have been plenty of books released in the last few years that have been on my radar. This April, I am getting around to reading some of them. Here is my ancient history reading list for April. As you can see, it is quite a mixed bag, stretching from Bronze Age Mesopotamia to Late Antique Rome, but they all promise to be good reads.

What are you reading this April? 

Nikolaus Leo Overtoom, Reign of Arrows: The Rise of the Parthian Empire in the Hellenistic Middle East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020). 

From its origins as a minor nomadic tribe to its status as a major world empire, the rise of the Parthian state in the ancient world is nothing short of remarkable. In their early history, the Parthians benefitted from strong leadership, a flexible and accommodating cultural identity, and innovative military characteristics that allowed them to compete against and even overcome Greek, Persian, Central Asian, and eventually Roman rivals. Reign of Arrows provides the first comprehensive study, in almost a century, dedicated entirely to early Parthian history. Assimilating a wide array of especially recent scholarship across numerous fields of study, Nikolaus Overtoom presents the most cogent, well rounded, and up-to-date account of the Parthian empire in its wider context of Hellenistic history. It explains the political and military encounters that shaped the international environment of the Hellenistic Middle East from the middle third to the early first centuries BCE. This study combines traditional historical approaches, such as source criticism and the integration of material evidence, with the incorporation of modern international relations theory to better examine the emergence and expansion of Parthian power. Relevant to historians, classicists, political scientists, and general readers interested in the ancient world and military history, Reign of Arrows reimagines and reconstructs the rise of the Parthians within the hotly contested and dangerously competitive international environment of the Hellenistic world. 

Amanda H. Podany, Weavers, Scribes, and Kings: A New History of the Ancient Near East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022).

In this sweeping history of the ancient Near East, Amanda Podany takes readers on a gripping journey from the creation of the world's first cities to the conquests of Alexander the Great. The book is built around the life stories of many ancient men and women, from kings, priestesses, and merchants to brickmakers, musicians, and weavers. Their habits of daily life, beliefs, triumphs, and crises, and the changes that people faced over time are explored through their own written words and the buildings, cities, and empires in which they lived. 

Rather than chronicling three thousand years of rulers and states, Weavers, Scribes, and Kings instead creates a tapestry of life stories through which readers will come to know specific individuals from many walks of life, and to understand their places within the broad history of events and institutions in the ancient Near East. These life stories are preserved on ancient clay tablets, which allow us to trace, for example, the career of a weaver as she advanced to become a supervisor of a workshop, listen to a king trying to persuade his generals to prepare for a siege, and feel the pain of a starving young couple and their four young children as they suffered through a time of famine. What might seem at first glance to be a remote and inaccessible ancient culture proves to be a comprehensible world, one that bequeathed to the modern world many of our institutions and beliefs, a truly fascinating place to visit. 

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, Persians: Age of the Great Kings (London: Hatchette, 2022).

The Great Kings of Persia ruled over the largest Empire of antiquity, stretching from Libya to the Steppes of Asia, and from Ethiopia to Pakistan. At the heart of the Empire was the fabled palace-city of Persepolis where the Achaemenid monarchs held court in unparalleled grandeur. From here, Cyrus the Great, Darius, Xerxes, and their heirs passed laws, raised armies, and governed their multicultural Empire of enormous diversity. 

The Achaemenids, however, were one of the great dysfunctional families of history. Brothers fought brothers for power, wives and concubines plotted to promote their sons to the throne, and eunuchs and courtiers vied for influence and prestige. 

Our understanding of the Persian Empire has traditionally come from the histories of Greek writers such as Herodotus – and as such, over many centuries, our perspective has been skewed by ancient political and cultural agendas. Professor Llewellyn-Jones, however, calls upon original Achaemenid sources, including inscriptions, art, and recent archaeological discoveries in Iran, to create an authentic ‘Persian Version’ of this remarkable first great empire of antiquity – the Age of the Great Kings. 

Olivier Hekster, Caesar Rules: The Emperor in the Changing Roman World (c. 50 BC – AD 565) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022). 

For centuries, Roman emperors ruled a vast empire. Yet, at least officially, the emperor did not exist. No one knew exactly what titles he possessed, how he could be portrayed, what exactly he had to do, or how the succession was organised. Everyone knew, however, that the emperor held ultimate power over the empire. There were also expectations about what he should do and be, although these varied throughout the empire and also evolved over time. How did these expectations develop and change? To what degree could an emperor deviate from prevailing norms? And what role did major developments in Roman society – such as the rise of Christianity or the choice of Constantinople as the new capital – play in the ways in which emperors could exercise their rule? This ambitious and engaging book describes the surprising stability of the Roman Empire over more than six centuries of history. 

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