On Saturday, Dominic Sandbrook — one of our most eminent historians — celebrated the joys of non-fiction by paying tribute to the authors of diaries. Today, he celebrates historians. Whether it’s Edward Gibbon’s magisterial dissection of the fall of the Roman Empire or Ian Kershaw’s devastating portrait of Hitler, these works show it is only by learning the lessons of the past that we can face the future with confidence. Here, Dominic presents his selection of the 20 best ever history books.
Pictures from the television programme: Charles II: The Power And The Passion
A Gambling Man: Charles II And The Restoration
By Jenny Uglow
Yes, there’s a plague in this book — the Great Plague of London in 1665 — but lots of jollier stuff, too. The reign of Charles II is an irresistible subject, all card games and theatres, high-class hookers and Westminster intrigues, and Jenny Uglow recreates it brilliantly. She could hardly want a more entertaining central character — a gambling, hedonistic monarch with an eye for the ladies. But there’s also lots of stuff about wars with the Dutch, the Scientific Revolution and the mad excesses of Restoration fashion. A hugely colourful, panoramic picture of a lost world.
The first history book ever written, and still, some say, the most entertaining. Written in 440BC, Herodotus’s book is ostensibly a history of the wars between the Greeks and the Persians. But it has everything: from mad digressions about gods and monsters to carefully researched descriptions of the ancient world. His analysis of political hubris still resonates today, but much of the fun lies in working out what’s true and what isn’t. ‘There are enormous snakes there,’ Herodotus says of Libya, ‘and also lions, elephants, headless creatures with eyes in their chests…’
The Age Of Illusion
By Ronald Blythe
This classic history of Britain between the wars is trenchant, opinionated and often shamelessly unfair.
That is to say, it’s brilliant. Quite apart from the waspish pen-portraits of politicians and royalty, you should read it for the hilarious chapter on the disgraced Rector of Stiffkey, whose antics horrified Mail readers in the 1930s.
The Rector, says Blythe, was a man with one weakness — girls: ‘Not a girl, not five or six girls even, not a hundred, but the entire tremulous universe of girlhood.’ But he died as he would have wanted, mauled by a lion before an audience on Skegness seafront.
Nicholas & Alexandra
By Robert K. Massie
Unless you’re a cardcarrying Communist, there’s something seductively romantic about the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their five children. Yes, they often seemed spoiled and self-indulgent. But they deserved better than to be murdered in a grimy basement by Bolshevik thugs. Robert K. Massie tells their story with sense and sympathy: alive to their shortcomings, but seeing them as rounded human beings. His book brims with colour, from the mad mysticism of Rasputin to the drama of the Russian Revolution. But at its centre is a loving family doomed to a terrible fate.
Tsarina Alexandra, wife of Nicholas II of Russia, the last Russian Tsar
The Twelve Caesars
Published in AD 121, Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars gives and X-rated account of Rome’s first imperial dynasty. Caligula ‘lived in the habit of incest with all his sisters’, while Nero ‘whenever he rode in a litter with his mother, had incestuous relations with her, which were betrayed by the stains on his clothing’. Is it true? Well, like all historians, Suetonius had his prejudices, and he was no stranger to exaggeration. To be honest, who cares?
Helen Mirren in ‘Caligula’ 1979. Caligula is one of the Caesars featured in The Twelve Caesars
By Charles C. Mann
This is an extraordinary book, which will change the way you think about human history. It’s about what happened after Columbus discovered the Americas. For Mann, this was the most important biological event since the end of the dinosaurs. It’s the story of smallpox and malaria, potatoes and chocolate. The sweep is awe-inspiring. One moment we’re at the great Potosi silver mine in 17th-century Bolivia, where gangs of conscripted Indians toiled miserably in darkness. Then to eastern China, where merchants paid a fortune in porcelain for Potosi’s silver, which they promptly swapped for Virginian tobacco. You’ll never think about the world in the same way again.
The Normans In The South and The Kingdom In The Sun
By John Julius Norwich
Today, far too many historians forget that their subject is meant to be fun. Nobody could say that about the late John Julius Norwich, whose medieval narratives — all kings, battles, plots and murders — make Game Of Thrones look drab. For sheer escapism, his history of the Normans in Sicily is hard to beat.
Its two volumes cover almost 200 years, in which these FrancoScandinavian adventurers carved out their own kingdom on the Mediterranean island. Their subjects (Italians, Arabs and Byzantines) built soaring cathedrals and sumptuous mosaics which you can still see today.
Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658) Leading Parliamentarian in the English Civil Wars
Cromwell, Our Chief Of Men
By Antonia Fraser
Oliver Cromwell remains the most intriguing political character in British history: a born-again farmer who became a rebellious MP, Parliamentarian general, military dictator and our only non-royal head of state.
Antonia Fraser tells his story with tremendous brio and sympathy.
There are lots of bloody Civil War battles, obviously. But Fraser also writes about Cromwell’s religious convictions, his fondness for music and his gnawing feelings of self-doubt.
He emerges as a flawed, very human character, but also a genuinely great one.
The Conquest Of The Incas
By John Hemming
First published half a century ago, this classic account of the Spanish conquest of the Inca empire is still an outstanding historical narrative. John Hemming takes you not just into the cities and jungles of 16-century Peru, but into the hopes and fears of the Spanish and the Incas, showing you just what made the two sides tick. The drama of Francisco Pizarro’s journey into the unknown, the exotic mystery of the Inca civilisation, the tragedy of the captured emperor Atahualpa — it all makes for enormously exciting reading.
The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire
By Edward Gibbon
‘Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble!’ exclaimed the Duke of Gloucester on seeing the second volume of Edward Gibbon’s masterwork.
It’s lucky Gibbon ignored him, because the result is the greatest history book ever written.
This grand narrative of the fall of the Roman Empire took him 23 years, from 1776 to 1789, but it was worth it.
Covering centuries of history, and sweeping from Hadrian’s Wall to the deserts of Africa, it’s an epic unlike any other, told with gloriously dry wit.
Last Letters Home
By Tamasin Day-Lewis (ed.)
Many of these letters from World War II are so moving you’ll never forget them.
They include messages between parents and children, brothers and sisters, soldiers and their sweethearts. ‘I want no flowers …no tears.
All I want is for you to remember me and feel proud of me; then I shall rest in peace, knowing that I have done a good job,’ writes Ivor Rowberry to his mother, just before he goes into action at Arnhem.
But by the time it got to her Wolverhampton home, Ivor was dead.
Beyond The Northlands: Viking Voyages And The Old Norse Sagas
By Eleanor Rosamond Barraclough
This is a lovely book, written by a young Oxford historian who clearly adores her subject.
Her story sweeps from Iceland and Greenland to Russia and the Black Sea, taking in manuscripts, monsters, dragons and runestones.
It’s learned, engaging and beautifully illustrated, and she’s brilliant at exploring the real history behind all those blood-curdling stories of Odin, Loki and Thor.
Nelson: A Dream Of Glory and Nelson: The Sword Of Albion
By John Sugden
If the thought of Horatio Nelson pacing the deck of HMS Victory doesn’t stir your blood, there’s something wrong with you. John Sugden’s titanic two-volume life, one of the greatest biographies ever written, takes the great man from his boyhood in a Norfolk rectory to the foaming seas of the Mediterranean. True, Nelson often comes across as a bit of a pain, for ever moaning about his dodgy bowels and mooning over Emma Hamilton. But by the time you reach Trafalgar, the tension and excitement are almost unbearable. As the sea air fills with blood, the masts splinter and crack and the French sniper takes aim, you can’t help hoping that, somehow, England’s greatest hero is going to dodge that bullet.
Picture from That Hamilton Woman (1941) starring Vivien Leigh as Emma Lady Hamilton and Laurence Olivier as Lord Horatio Nelson
Germania: A Personal History Of Germans Ancient And Modern
By Simon Winder
It’s rare to find a genuinely hilarious history book, which is why Simon Winder’s idiosyncratic exploration of Germany’s past is such a treat. Propelled by boyish enthusiasm, he roams through churches, castles, beer halls and restaurants, turning up weird stories about apocalyptic sects and demented barons. The ghastly moment when he orders the ‘slaughterhouse platter’ in a Frankfurt restaurant is so funny I defy you to read it with a straight face. But there’s plenty of wisdom and learning here, too, as Winder reminds you that there’s more to Germany’s colourful history than the crimes of the Nazis.
Battle Cry Of Freedom
By James McPherson
The first genuinely modern conflict, the American Civil War is a cracking story. James McPherson’s award-winning history covers it all in glorious detail: the slave plantations of the Deep South, the enigmatic personality of Abraham Lincoln, the gallantry of the rival commanders, the high drama of Gettysburg and Bull Run, and the appalling human costs of industrialised warfare.
Unlike some military historians, he never gets bogged down in tedious blow-by-blow battle narratives, but you get a sense of the stakes. Had the war gone differently, as it might well have done, our world would look very different.
A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889
By Frederic Morton
I can never understand why this book isn’t better known, because it’s absolutely superb.
It whisks us back to the crowded coffee houses and theatres of fin-de-siècle Vienna, where we meet the likes of Sigmund Freud and Gustav Klimt.
But the most compelling character is Crown Prince Rudolf, the tortured heir to the imperial throne, who makes a suicide pact with his teenage mistress.
Exactly what happened at Rudolf’s Mayerling hunting lodge has fascinated writers and composers ever since.
And Morton does a brilliant job of setting it against the background of a febrile, glittering city on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
The White War: Life And Death On The Italian Front, 1915-1919
By Mark Thompson
This book explores a side of World War I we don’t often hear about: the bloody struggle between Italy and Austria-Hungary among the snow-capped peaks of the Dolomite Alps. In less than four years, a million men died. Yet even by the standards of the time, it was completely unnecessary. The Italians didn’t need to declare war on Austria; they did it out of vainglorious nationalism. Mark Thompson tells the story with great pathos, showing how the Italians’ hubris turned to nemesis, and paved the way for the rise of Mussolini. It’s a model of how to write about war, full of memorable little details but never blind to the bigger picture.
The Life of Samuel Johnson
By James Boswell
First published in 1791, Boswell’s life of his great friend Dr Johnson, famous for his groundbreaking dictionary, is often seen as the first modern biography.
And it brings its eccentric, shambling subject alive as no book had ever done before.
By the end, you feel you know Johnson, with all his tics and quirks.
But it’s also a marvellous window on to mid-18th century England, from Johnson’s boyhood in Lichfield to the swanky salons of literary London — a world stuffed with corrupt politicians, narcissistic writers and pompous actors. Nothing changes, eh?
By Ian Kershaw
Condensed from the original two volumes into a single epic book, Sir Ian Kershaw’s biography of the Nazi dictator is one of the great historical achievements of our time. Not only does he look behind Hitler’s bombastic facade to find the lonely, lazy, bitter human being within, but he explores why so many intelligent Germans supported him, and exactly how his blood-drenched dictatorship worked. Even if you think you know the story, it’s an utterly engrossing, if terrifying read. The final chapters, in which the pace quickens, the Nazi empire crumbles and the beleaguered tyrant retreats to his bunker, are breathtakingly well done.
Historical image: Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), German statesman, in Berchtesgaden
By Svetlana Alexievich
Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Svetlana Alexievich has a unique method, bringing together the voices of countless interviewees to create an extraordinary literary chorus.
Her previous books covered subjects such as World War II and Chernobyl, but this is her most moving and ambitious yet, a history of life and death in the Soviet Union.
Some of her subjects’ memories are almost unbearably heartrending, especially when they describe the rigours of wartime or the horror of Stalin’s camps.
But it’s a sign of her skill and judgment that you keep reading, drawn back to the raw humanity of her stricken characters and their unforgettable stories.