Five Ancient Histories that Make the Past Fantastical

Look, I know this is supposed to be a series on dynamite fiction books that will pad out your reading list in preparation of the long, dark winter days ahead. I understand that history is not fiction, but I would like to present two reasons why it’s okay for me to violate Tor.com’s prime directive here:

(1) Leslie Hartley’s quote that “the past is a foreign country” is absolutely true, and the further back you go, the more foreign it gets. I’m going to stretch the envelope here and say that, if the past is a foreign country, the ancient past qualifies as a full-blown secondary world—which qualifies it as fantasy. ALSO:

(2) I do what I want.

We’re used to reading history told by our own people, with all of the modern habits, biases and assumptions that seem so natural to people living in 2017 A.D. In the 4th century B.C., many Greek cities considered the Successors (Alexander the Great’s top generals, now kings in their own right) to be gods. Ridiculous, right? Can you imagine thinking of an American President or a UK Prime Minister as an actual god?

But ancient people did believe this, and it isn’t until you hear them talking about it in their own words that it starts to make sense. This is, every bit as much as fantasy, a transporting experience, a chance to interact with something so foreign and wild that it doesn’t feel real.

But it was. And that, more than anything, makes ancient history even more satisfying, on a fictional level, than a lot of fiction. Reading history by modern historians can’t possible capture this. In order to feel this true sense of the weird, you have to read works by writers working at the same time as the events they were describing. Ancients, talking about being ancient. Fortunately, most of these writers are available in translation, online and totally free.

Here’s five of the greats to get you started:

 

Herodotus – Histories

Herodotus was a 5th C. B.C. Greek historian (he was actually born in modern-day Turkey, in what was then the Persian empire), who is popularly known as “The Father of History.” Did you see the movie 300? Remember all the awesome Spartan one-liners in there? “The Persian Arrows will blot out the sun!” Response: “Then we will fight in the shade,” or “Proud Xerxes does not want your land, only your arms.” Response: “Come and take them.” All of that is lifted straight out of Herodotus, and it gives a great impression of one of the world’s first master prose stylists. He writes mostly about the history of the Greco-Persian Wars, which gave us the story of the famous 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.

 

Thucydides – History of the Peloponnesian War

Another 5th C. B.C. Greek. If Herodotus is credited with fathering all of history, Thucydides gets the laurel for “scientific history” (meaning that he pays attention to standards of objectivity and checks his sources). He’s also called the father of realpolitik, a fancy way of saying cruel or immoral politics, mostly for the famous Melian Dialogue section in his history. I quote from this section in my forthcoming book from Tor.com Publishing, The Armored Saint. Thucydides is as close to a “grimdark” history as you’ll get. Rough and practical, he’s been called “devoid of moral sensibility” by scholars. It provides an interesting tint on ancient history that fans of dark works like A Song of Ice and Fire might find satisfying.

 

Xenophon – The March Upcountry (Anabasis)

Xenophon was a 4th C. B.C. Greek historian and warrior, who was famously involved with the March of the 10,000—a rearguard action fought by 10,000 Greek mercenaries stranded in the middle of Persian territory, trying to make their way across roughly 500 miles of hostile terrain, fighting all the way, to the shores of the Black Sea, and then home. Xenophon’s dramatic retelling of events is matched by a slick and dramatic prose style, making it a really gripping read. Best part—if you like it, there’s lots more. He’s got four other books and a few essays as well.

 

Polybius Histories

Polybius was a Greek nobleman and warrior whose family made some bad political calls during the 2nd C. B.C. As a result, he wound up living as a hostage in Rome. Being a hostage back then was a much nicer experience, and you could say Polybius went native, tutoring the kids of one of the leading families and writing one of the most comprehensive and detailed histories of the Roman republic. Polybius isn’t much a dramatist, but the sweeping landscape of his subject matter: wars, intrigues, ambitious kings, marriages, alliance and treachery, more than makes up for it.

 

Titus Livius (Livy) From the Founding of the City (ab Urbe Condita)

Livy, a 1st C. B.C. Roman, was also probably a member of the elite, though he never served in the military and was never a hostage. Unlike Polybius, Livy is a dramatist. His narrative is seriously pulse-pounding, with a lot of attention lavished on personal drama, speeches made by commanders on the eve of battle, with dramatic accounts of battlefield dead. Modern historians hotly debate his reliability, but his history provides a huge piece of what we know about Rome and the Mediterranean world.

 

As a security contractor, government civilian, and military officer, Myke Cole’s career has run the gamut from counterterrorism to cyber warfare to federal law enforcement. He’s done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He recently joined the cast of the TV show Hunted on CBS as part of an elite team of fugitive hunters. All that conflict can wear a guy out. Thank goodness for fantasy novels, comic books, late-night games of Dungeons & Dragons, and lots of angst-fueled writing. Myke is the author of Siege LineJavelin Rain, and Gemini Cell, prequels to his Shadow Ops series, which includes Breach ZoneFortress Frontier, and Control Point.

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