The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome
Susan Wise Bauer
W. W. Norton & Company, 2007
896 pp., $35.00
Writing History in Public
"Public intellectual." If the term irritates you, get over it—or substitute your own coinage. What matters is the reality being pointed at, argued over, catalogued. Google the term and you'll find what at first appears to be a lively conversation. On closer inspection, you may be struck by the narrow boundaries of most of the talk. Who qualifies for the title, and what kind of work counts in the public conversation: those crucial matters get defined in very cramped ways.
And contrary to some widely circulated jeremiads, the species is thriving. Consider Susan Wise Bauer, whose books The Well-Educated Mind (2003, written with Jessie Wise) and The Well-Trained Mind (2004) found a ready audience among homeschooling families and intellectually curious souls more generally, and who now is engaged on nothing less than a history of the world in four volumes, intended for the common reader.
Writing history in public is a bold enterprise, even when your subject is relatively modest in scope, but Bauer is up to the challenge. In the first volume of the series, The Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome, she lightheartedly acknowledges the audacity of her project, clearly undaunted. Within the first few paragraphs she's briskly taking charge: "I understand why many historians choose to use bce and ce in an attempt to avoid seeing history entirely from a Judeo-Christian point of view, but using bce while still reckoning from Christ's birth seems, to me, fairly pointless."
Perhaps her four-volume children's series on world history was a necessary preparation for this text. In The Story of the World Series: History for the Classical Child (already in revised and second editions since 2003), she mastered the art of deciding "what to leave out." And writing for children, a historian learns how to hold her readers' attention. Pick up Bauer's new volume on the ancient world and compare her treatment of Peisistratus, the tyrant who ruled Athens for several decades ...