Prospect’s books of the year 2023: History

From understanding the role of the Roman Emperor to accounts of East Germany and life in Ukraine and China
December 6, 2023

There have been many fine books about the Romans this year, including Tom Holland’s Pax and Peter Stothard’s Palatine, but Mary Beard’s Emperor of Rome still stands out.

Which emperor is it about? Ah, but that is the point. Beard is not examining a single person but the role itself: who was this figure, what was expected of him, and what judgements can we cast now? In exploring these questions, she draws not just on a career’s worth of classical-historical knowledge, but on a career’s worth of thinking about how classical history itself—with its truths, lies and unknowns—should be approached. The result could be a manifesto for the discipline’s future.

Similarly, John Guy and Julia Fox’s Hunting the Falcon takes a familiar subject—the Tudors, or, more specifically, the union of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn—and still manages to shed new light on it. The book’s understanding of and sympathy for the personalities involved is impressive, but its explication of the grand politics behind this most politically momentous of marriages is surely unsurpassable.

Cat Jarman’s The Bone Chests is less traditional in form but is no less insightful, and rather more poetic, for it. It tells the story of the building of Anglo-Saxon England not event by event nor date by date but through the contents of half a dozen “bone chests”:  remains of 7th-century rulers and courtiers that have been exhumed from Winchester Cathedral. It pairs well with Jessica Rawson’s Life and Afterlife in Ancient China, which unearths the societies and mores of pre-imperial China by excavating fascinating tombs.

Leaping forward millennia, to the 17th century, Nandini Das’s Courting India is a revelation. Das is a professor of literature at Oxford, and she brings to this history of the early diplomatic relationship between England and India a profound understanding of texts and cultures. On one side, there is the impoverished yet still arrogant monarchy of King James I and VI. On the other, the power and splendour of Mughal emperor Jahangir. And in the middle? A diplomat called Thomas Roe, with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Britain had become a more confident and more terrible global power by the 19th century. As for other countries, they had their convulsions. Christopher Clark’s Revolutionary Spring is a majestic account of the uprisings that spread across mainland Europe in 1848, from Sicily to Prussia to France. Its main argument is persuasive: although these revolutions and attempted revolts might not have been successful on their own terms, they had world-changing consequences.

On to the 20th century. Bernard Wasserstein’s A Small Town in Ukraine starts with the deportation of his Jewish grandfather from Nazi Germany, then ranges backwards and forwards to reveal the war-torn history of the Ukrainian settlement where that grandfather came from. Julian Jackson’s France on Trial grapples with the life and (mis)deeds of Philippe Pétain—the French general who led the Vichy regime during the Second World War—and the country’s dark feelings of hatred and guilt after the war. Meanwhile, Tania Branigan’s Red Memory uncovers the atrocities inflicted by the Chinese state on its own people during the Cultural Revolution.

It is not all horror in Beyond the Wall by Katja Hoyer—and that is the point. This is a from-start-to-finish account of the East Germany where Hoyer was born, which means not just the Stasi but also day jobs, picnics and rock albums. The result is a complete reconstruction of a country that stopped existing 23 years ago.

But where is all this history leading? One of the most esoteric, enjoyable and enlightening history—or should that be prehistory?—books of the year, Ludovic Slimak’s The Naked Neanderthal, attempts to teach us about ourselves by teaching us about the mysterious, dead creatures we call Neanderthals. It’s possible that our species-ancestors had a massive impact on the Neanderthals’ world back then, just as we’re having a massive impact on our own world now.

Read more

Books of the year 2023: Politics & Reportage
Books of the year 2023: Ideas
Books of the year 2023: Lives