I recently asked this question:

How can we be certain of customs in the primitive age?

Here it was stated that the Durants' work is flawed and outdated to a certain extent.

Is there a more modern alternative to this broad series, which also serves as an introduction to (western) civilization? I am especially interested in ancient Greek and Rome, but I like the fact that the Durants's work builds a base first.

  • 3
    Requests for general sources have always been a problem for us. "good introduction" is an inherently opinion related phrase. What is "good" from the perspective of a historian depends on the training and viewpoint of the historian. Marxist historians work from different assumptions than Whig historians. How does one select an authoritative answer? meta contains long discussions of this topic. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 13 at 10:12

For the purpose of getting a good thorough grounding in Western ancient history, I highly suggest picking up a copy of Colin McEvedy's The New Penguin Atlas of Ancient History*.

It takes a base map that covers all of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East, and shows it on every other page. The only thing that changes on the map is the year it depicts, and the cultural/political boundaries drawn. The other page opposite is a discussion of what happened between the previous map and that one to make it look like that.

One thing you tend to really miss reading most History works is how various societies interrelated with their contemporaries, how they changed over time, and what else was going on around them during those changes. This Atlas gives you those things. When you are done, at a macro level you will feel like Neo: "Whoa...I know history."

In addition it is:

  • Relatively short, at about 120 text pages
  • An entertaining read (McEvedy was a hell of a writer).
  • An invaluable reference.
  • Cheap (most I can see it selling for online is $25. $11 is more typical)

Its main drawback is that this is an evolving field, and I believe the last revision was two decades ago. So some details will be a little dated. However, this still gives him at least a few years on the Durants.

* - Goodreads link to the (non-"New") unrevised edition. While the differences are interesting, get the "New" revised edition.

  • Even though it's not quite up to date as T.E.D. says, I'd definitely second this recommendation. The maps really complement the text very well. – Lars Bosteen Sep 15 at 6:38

One might be better off regarding the Durants as the Newton or Maxwell, not the Feynman or Fermi, of history. Newtonian Mechanics and Classical Electromagnetism is just fine for building a highway, or even putting an astronaut into orbit, but will simply mislead in attempts to build semiconductor devices or nuclear reactors.

In your earlier question you rightly identified an anomalous statement by Will Durant, writing in 1935. I see nothing wrong with using the Durants as an introduction to Western Civilization, with the proviso that it is now several decades old. As with any introductory work, for a deeper analysis one should corroborate with more recent publications. Also, always be sure that the resources one chooses for a task are suitable for the intended use.

So in reading any work of history:
- Understand the biases of an author, and of the time in which they wrote; and
- Attempt to recognize the biases of our own time, as we certainly have as many as our predecessors had.

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