Sunday, April 30, 2006

Those moments in history we keep returning to

There are some times and places in history where the drama is so palpable, and the issues so compelling, that serious people return to them again and again, hoping to learn something vital from them.

One of those times is democratic Athens in antiquity. The great crisis of the Peloponnesian War is a favorite in any time of crisis where issues of war and democracy occur together. In yesterday's Guardian the historian Mary Beard opines that "the glorious myth of ancient Athens is a poor model for re-creating the virtues of government in the 21st century."

On the other hand, I'm sure that she would agree that just about anyone seriously interested in war, democracy, or history would benefit from reading Thucydides' near contemporary account of the Peloponnesian War. And throw in some plays by Aristophanes while you are at it.

Another classic subject is the French Revolution. The number of books written about it is uncountable. Two are worth mentioning: Simon Schama's Citizens (original cover above), which you can easily order from your favorite bookseller; and the much older but still compelling two-volume set by R.R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution. Both of these are incredibly well-written, and both were produced by great historians in command of a vast amount of material. Palmer's book is about more than the French Revolution, in fact. Its whole point is that the revolutionary movement swept the entire Atlantic world.

Both are in the NU collection.

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