10 best history books
From Mary Beard on Ancient Rome to tales of Soviet espionage, delve into the past with these recently published works
We may earn some commission if you click on a link in this article and buy a product or service, but we never allow this to influence our coverage.
Despite the past staying firmly where it is, that doesn’t stop great scholars from endlessly returning to excavate old terrain, to carefully study it from all angles and prod it gently with a stick. As a result, there have been some fantastic history books written in the last couple of years, from Mary Beard’s energetic, fresh look at Ancient Rome, to Andrew Roberts’ enormously impressive new study of a certain Monsieur Bonaparte. Here, we select some recently published page-turners for anyone with a thirst for knowledge.
1. The English and Their History by Robert Tombs: £14.99 RRP, Penguin
Clocking in at over a thousand pages, it might seem strange to describe this as a condensed history of England, but in essence that’s what it is. There’s not an ounce of fat on it, as Tombs embarks on an epic voyage through the ages to uncover what being English really, actually means.
2. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard: £9.99 RRP, Profile Books
The charismatic historian breathes fresh life into Ancient Rome – from its early days as a relatively innocuous little village, to its fire-breathing peak as one of history’s most notorious superpowers. This covers 1000 years of civilization at a canter, and is hugely rewarding.
3. Headstrong - 52 Women Who Changed Science and the World by Rachel Swaby: £12.99 RRP, Broadway Books
Everyone has heard of Marie Curie, but here are dozens of impressive scientific pioneers who may have slipped under the radar over the years. Freelance journalist Rachel Swaby gives a potted history of 52 remarkable women, each overdue a moment in the spotlight, such as the great mathematician Ada Lovelace and DNA science genius Rosalind Franklin.
4. Beautiful Idiots and Brilliant Lunatics by Rob Baker: £14.99 RRP, Amberley Publishing
A collection of strange, insightful and intriguing stories from Rob Baker’s fabulous London history website, Another Nickel in The Machine. The book celebrates the history and culture of the capital in the 20th Century, from the socialites to the criminals. All of the stories are presented with great glee and gusto.
5. The Sea and Civilisation: A Maritime History of the World by Lincoln Paine: £20 RRP, Atlantic Books
A history of the world told through man’s relationship with the sea, this takes you back to pre-Columbus travel and then far beyond it. It looks at seafaring’s place in globalisation, and how the oceans aren’t just used to trade goods, but also to spread cultures, languages, religions and people.
6. Stalin's Englishman by Andrew Lownie: £9.99 RRP, Hodder & Stoughton
This biography of Guy Burgess – the “Cambridge Spy”, recruited in the 1930s, who passed intelligence on to Soviet Russia - plays out as not only an impeccably researched biography, but also as an in-depth cultural study and a spy thriller of genuine, knuckle-gnawing tension. His drunken philandering to espionage ratio occasionally brings to mind a certain 007.
7. Men at War: What Fiction Tells us About Conflict, From The Iliad to Catch-22 by Christopher Coker: £27.50 RRP, C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd
LSE professor Coker has put together a study of war myths and fiction, looking at the archetypes depicted, and what they can tell us. Among them, the victims, the heroes, the warriors, the survivors, and the villains from great works by the likes of Tolstoy, Homer, Shakespeare and Vonnegut.
8. Magna Carta by David Starkey: £8.99 RRP, Hodder and Stoughton
The popular historian made a TV show of the same name, which has essentially been adapted into this punchy, concise read, which offers an account of the political happenings that changed the course of history in 1215. The question is: were they as successful as everyone would have us believe? Not so much.
9. Night Walking by Matthew Beaumont: £20 RRP, Verso Books
This weighty academic collection looks at life (mainly in London) when the lights go out, and the dispossessed take to the streets. From Chaucer, to Shakespeare, to the undisputed king of wandering around after dark, Charles Dickens, this takes you on dark – but at the same time illuminating – journeys.
10. Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts: £12.99 RRP, Penguin
While many would struggle to label a man responsible for millions of deaths “great”, it’s hard to counter-argue this thrilling and frequently inspiring proposal from the historian Andrew Roberts. A strategical genius who attempted to conquer the world, an emperor in his 30s and a writer of pretty decent love letters, Napoleon certainly over-achieved.
If it’s a ripsnorting page-turner you’re after, go for Stalin’s Englishman. If you’re in the market for something to dip in and out of, Beautiful Idiots and Brilliant Lunatics and 52 Women are perfect, and wonderfully digestible. But, if you’re in the market for something really meaty and packed with historical reference, park the bus and embark on a journey through The English and Their History by Robert Tombs, which manages to cram buckets of information into practically every sentence, while somehow still being elegant and enormously readable.