My favourite history books 2013: Peter Jones

In a special supplement in our October issue, leading historians pick their favourite history book of the year so far, their all-time favourite and the title that they're most looking forward to in the coming months

Peter Jones.

Jerry Toner’s Roman Disasters (Polity, 2013) does exactly what it says on the cover. Combining modern disaster-theory with what our sources say about, for instance, the great fire of Rome (AD 64), the devastating 15-year long epidemic of AD 162 (5,000 dying a day), the effect of earthquakes, famines (one every three years somewhere in the Roman world), storms at sea (Toner calculates that annually one in 16 ships were wrecked) and so on, he draws out how Romans responded to and tried to deal with or make sense of a life so vulnerable at so many points.

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Favourite history book of all time

The book I turn to more than any other is Sir Kenneth Dover’s Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle (Blackwell, 1974). Given that virtually all ancient literature was composed by educated male aristocrats for their peers (no one else had the leisure for schooling, derived from Greek skholê, or ‘leisure’), it is a devilish task to excavate what sense the ancient Greek on the Athens omnibus made of his world. Dover saw that the place to begin was the Athenian law-court, where the jury consisted of anything up to 501 Athenian males over the age of 30, straight off the omnibus.

Since no one pleading his own case (no barristers in those days) would surely ever say anything calculated to annoy them, Dover reckoned these speeches would give a sure glimpse of the values of the everyday Athenian. It is an extraordinary achievement: everything you ever wanted to know about Greek attitudes from sex to marriage, conscience to religious belief, free will to responsibility, justice to revenge, punishment to poverty, sympathy to wealth, women to slaves, and much, much more.

Most anticipated history title

Roman Phrygia (Cambridge), edited by Peter Thonemann, may sound a little off-the-beaten-track, but that is precisely the point. It is. Against all expectations this upland area area has yielded a very large number of Latin and Greek inscriptions that open up a detailed picture of a distant rural society in Rome’s imperial period and the growth of Christianity within it. Read about Dainty and Squinty, members of a female group involved with a town’s local administration, the ascetic church which forbade all marrriage and the monument regulating the standard lengths of a foot – all three of them!

The bleak steppe and rolling highlands of inner Anatolia were one of the most remote and underdeveloped parts of the Roman empire. Still today, for most historians of the Roman world, ancient Phrygia largely remains terra incognita. Yet thanks to a startling abundance of Greek and Latin inscriptions on stone, the cultural history of the villages and small towns of Roman Phrygia is known to us in vivid and unexpected detail.

Few parts of the Mediterranean world offer so rich a body of evidence for rural society in the Roman Imperial and late antique periods, and for the flourishing of ancient Christianity within this landscape. The 11 essays in this book offer new perspectives on the remarkable culture, lifestyles, art and institutions of the Anatolian uplands in antiquity.

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Peter Jones’s Veni, Vidi, Vici is out now, published by Atlantic Books. Click here to read further interviews from the feature