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Epic narrative history, told with a light-hearted personal slant.
Ever wanted to know more about ancient history but didn’t know where to start? The Battles are the Best Bits will take you on a journey from the beginnings of civilisation in Mesopotamia and the glory days of Ancient Egypt, through the brutal rise and fall of Assyria and the epic struggle between Greece and Persia, to the spectacular triumphs and calamitous disasters of the Roman Empire and finally to the shock-wave of the Arab conquests. With passion and humour, the author relates how he set out wanting to know more and found himself captivated by the greatest story ever told.
It all started with a film called Gladiator.
From the very first scene I was captivated. The howling barbarian horde confronts the heavily armed and disciplined legions across a snowy, wind swept battlefield. The general calmly gives his orders. The artillary sends firey death whistling through the air and then the shields lock together, the short swords rasp from their scabbards in unison and as one the imperial cohorts advance upon the enemy.
When the credits rolled I rewound the VHS and watched it again. Then I made a decision: I was going to find out more.
I had always enjoyed history, I liked to go to museums and to watch documentaries on the History Channel and I enjoyed reading the odd historical novel. That used to be far as it went. Not in my wildest dreams did I ever expect to write a book on the subject but in the end it was something that I just had to do. Having absorbed so much information I had to let it all out again or my head would have burst.
Gladiator reintroduced a period of history which had somewhat faded from the public consciousness and which has subsequently become far more popular and I am not ashamed to admit to being a product of that popular revival. Certainly, watching Gladiator made me realise how little I knew about the Roman world, or indeed when I came to think about it, early history in general. More importantly, it made me want to know more. Seeing the world of Ancient Rome brought to life so spectacularly in Gladiator, I realised that my knowledge of this incredible civilisation which had dominated the known world for hundreds of years, which had built such wonders and conquered thousands of square miles of territory, was practically nonexistent. I did not know where the life of Marcus Aurelius fitted into the whole scheme of things. I had no idea of who came before him or after him or how far from the beginning or the end of Roman history his reign occurred. Yet this was an era which had profoundly influenced the history of Europe. I therefore resolved to make an effort to find out more in an attempt to improve my knowledge.
That was how it began. Although to be honest at first I did not do much about my resolution. It just sat there in the back of my mind. Neither however did I forget about it altogether and as time went by a little voice in my head became louder and more insistent. When was I going to do something about the appalling state of my basic understanding of early history? After all, I liked to think of myself as a man with good general knowledge; a man not to be lightly left out of your local pub quiz team. Even so, the enormity of just how much I did not know was beginning to dawn on me. To my horror I found that there were whole millennia in the sweep of human history prior to 1066 about which I knew absolutely nothing.
As an Englishman I felt that I could be partially forgiven for having a knowledge of history that began in 1066, so central is that famous date to our understanding of history. So much emphasis is placed upon it as the starting point for learning about history at school, and so epoch making is its place in British history that the four thousand years of human endeavour which preceded it seem to be ignored most of time. Indeed, my knowledge of this four thousand year period was almost non-existent upon leaving school and had improved little since.
For my failings I blamed the much criticised education system and its obsession with the Norman Conquest, the Tudors and the Second World War for not giving me a sufficient grasp of the bigger picture. To be fair however I did not go to the greatest school in the world and my history teacher; a splendid chap with bristling whiskers by the name of Mr Bastable who did much to foster my love of the subject, was faced with something of an uphill struggle. This is a true story:
One day in history class Mr Bastable was explaining for what seemed like the umpteenth time how, in 1066, a Norman invasion fleet had landed on the south coast, slaughtered the Anglo Saxon nobility at Hastings, and taken over the country. As he paused to gather his thoughts and to glare at the fidgeters and whisperers at the back of the classroom, one of the less bright kids stuck up his hand and asked in all seriousness;
‘But Sir! Why didn’t the Americans come over and help us?’ Twin emotions of amusement and disgust played across Mr Bastable’s face. I am not sure he could bring himself to answer and the kid was left wondering how the US administration could have abandoned poor King Harold in his hour of need.
Nothing which happened prior to 1066 was ever mentioned in my school history lessons. We then moved on swiftly to Henry VIII and the reformation with no explanation of the events of the intervening centuries before we plunged into the modern age and the Industrial Revolution with no background or continuity. Not that I blame Mr Bastable. He was only following the National Curriculum and he made it all fascinating, with limitless enthusiasm and energy.
I therefore realised that I had to be grateful to the education system for giving me an introduction to history and making it interesting enough to prompt me to want to know more. Even though, with the exception of the Twentieth Century it was all a bit jumbled, they had shown me the way. The rest was up to me and I was now a man with a mission: To educate myself properly in the history of human civilisation, thereby gaining a better understanding of the world that I live in. I have no doubt that it will take me the rest of my life and I will still have only scratched the surface.
This then is the record of my subsequent attempt to fill the gaps in my knowledge. It is a strictly amateur effort, for I remain painfully aware that the fact that I have read a few books does not make me a proper historian and although I may have ended up better informed than I was when I started, I remain an example of what the professionals cuttingly refer to as ‘The General Reader’. I therefore can make no claim to be an authority of any sort. The following chapters describe what I considered to be the most important and interesting events which took place between around 3000bc and 750ad. It is not intended to be a definitive historical text but something rather less grand. For me this book is an account of an experience, relating what I have learned and how I felt about it at the time. This started off as a few notes and eventually evolved into a far more substantial project.
What I have not done, since the task would take a lifetime and still not be finished, is to attempt to write an absolute history of the entire world. Far greater men have tried and failed in such endeavours. As a result the events described in this book take place predominantly within the lands around the Mediterranean and occasionally stray further afield when relevant. I had originally intended to include chapters covering events in the wider world but decided that it would be impossible to do other great civilisations justice by shoehorning them in as an afterthought. I have therefore chosen to limit my scope and implore you to remember that this story is not the whole story. I have but shone a torch into one corner of a dark room rather than flipped the light switch on.
What I really hope that I have been able to do is to share my passion for history with you Dear Reader and perhaps even encourage you to pick up a few books by proper historians which you may not otherwise have done. It has been an incredible journey so far and the best thing about it is that there is still so much for me to learn. I have only just begun and I can go back and back again, discovering new stories each time. History is a wonderful place to visit. It is always there at the end of a long and boring day in the present, ready to welcome you in and immerse you in another time and place, take you to far off lands and tell you incredible stories. From my experience, the pages of history are filled with far better stories and more incredible characters than any fiction author or Hollywood screenwriter could invent. I try to make time every day for a little bit of history. Indeed, if I don’t get my daily history fix I have a tendency to become very grumpy. I find that taking a look at the broad canvas of history and the choices which fell upon the shoulders of its great protagonists is very healthy for one’s sense of perspective.
So shut out the annoyances of the Twenty First Century for a while and join me on my journey. I hope you enjoy it.