Recommend some good readable histories of the ancient Near East

I’d kind of forgotten about those Hardcore History podcasts (and for me the topics are hit or miss - I’m not very interested in 20th century or military history) but wanted something to keep me awake for the drive back from Atlanta to Columbia yesterday - did not think to check the length of the episode and it lasted me from the Decatur Waffle House to the turn onto my own street.

So anyway, now I realize I honestly knew more about the Assyrians and such from art history than from history history (medieval Europe was more my area), and I’d like to know more. There’s a reading list on Dan Carlin’s website but a lot of it’s military, and it isn’t annotated - I want something that isn’t insanely dense, and ideally something that’s more social history. I know there are some good popular works on Alexander the Great and such, I’d like more on the Assyrians and Persians and such. Any good suggestions?

For the ancient Mesopotamians, Edward Chiera’s They Wrote on Clay, while no longer very up-to-date, is a great bathroom read and still highly informative.

If you like edited volumes with somewhat disjointed but interesting essays by different authors, try Daniel Snell’s Companion to the Ancient Near East in the Blackwell series.

One of its contributors is Mario Liverani, who is also the author of the 2013 monograph that’s probably what you’re looking for, The Ancient Near East: History, Society and Economy.

Ouch, textbook prices! I guess I can interlibrary loan…

Way, way, way out of date, and dealing with the discovery of the ancient Near East [and Egypt] through archaeology rather than its history is C.W. Ceram’s Gods, Graves and Scholars.

Rub any archaeologist of a certain age and there’s a fair chance that the bright yellow cover with the Etruscan chimera statue will figure among their seminal influences.

Despite its age and focus it unfolds the story in a way that helps make sense of the different empires and cultural areas in a series of ripping yarns.

I’ll check my bookshelf the next time I visit my office for a more detailed list, but off the top of my head, I highly recommend Lost Languages by Andrew Robinson. It discusses the decipherment (and non-decipherment) of various ancient scripts, and is very engaging and well-written.

Would you be willing to consider the Greek Bronze Age and not just the Ancient Near East? That opens up a ton of great book possibilities and it’s not a period in history that gets much publicity these days.

Well, I am, because I’m not not interested in it, but I feel like I learned a lot more about the Greeks in school than anything to the right of them on the map. I just dropped down a Wikipedia rabbit hole with Darius this morning, had never heard of the Behistun Inscription let alone its importance in deciphering ancient languages. Whereas I’m hardly an expert on the really-ancient Greeks but I can tell you a bit about them, if only from art history (the ones playing with the bulls are the Minoans, the ones killing the bulls are the Mycaneans, etc.)

ETA - I mean, I guess I do also have some art history stuff going eastward, the bulls with five legs are Babylonian, the really good looking bas reliefs with lions and shit are Assyrian? But I had no idea that we got the Stele of Hammurabi out of somebody else’s Museum of Shit We Conquered, that sort of thing.

Ah, you might like The East Face of Helicon by David West, about how many of the famous Greek myths are borrowed from the Ancient Near East.

Also, if you like primary sources, Hittite Diplomatic Texts, Hittite Myths, and Letters from the Hittite Kingdom. Generally I find Hittite texts to be very lively and engaging, not long boring things that are just agony to try to read through. And the prices for these books are really reasonable-- I’m used to paying $100+ for such things.

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For example, here’s a somewhat paraphrased exchange between the Hittite King and King Tut’s Widow.

King Tut’s Widow: My husband died on me. I need you to send me one of your sons so I can marry him.

Hittite king: Well this has never happened to me before. Are you for real?

King Tut’s Widow: OF COURSE I’M FOR REAL!!! Are you kidding me? Do you really think I’d be doing this if I wasn’t desperate?

Hittite king: Well, um, OK then! I’ll see what I can do!

Ha, maybe I should pick some of those up! I do enjoy, for example, Icelandic sagas.

I just finally got around to the copy of “They Wrote on Clay” I picked up and I wanted to thank you for the recommendation - what a delightful little book!

Probably this recommendation would earn scorn from professionals in the field as being hopelessly out of date, but it is highly readable: Our Oriental Heritage, by Will Durant, the first volume in his “Story of Civilization”. The first third of the book is on the ancient near east.

I’m currently reading Lost Worlds by Leonard Cottrell on my Kindle. It’s a survey of several ancient civilizations. The only drawback is while the publication date is listed as 2015, it was originally published in 1962, so some of the presented theories are a little outdated, but overall well worth the two bucks I dropped on it.

This was my focus in college, but in casting my memory back over everything I’ve read, nothing leaps out as fitting the OP’s bill, except maybe Ancient Iraq, by Georges Roux. It’s been so long since I’ve read it that I’m not sure, but I think it was readable and fascinating.

I am in no way an expert, but I listened to a Great Course lecture on the Ancient Middle East (ending with the rise of Greece) which I found interesting, and I’m reading the novelization of Gilgamesh by Stephan Grundy, which the reviews say has accurate history and follows the poem.
It is a different take in focusing more on details of life and having a lot of sex. And what is striking is the absolute absence of Judeo-Christian morality.

I had already decided to read a history after finishing Gilgamesh, so thanks for the “They Wrote on Clay” recommendation.

Ain’t it fun? Glad you enjoyed it! :slight_smile:

It’s sort of a written-out lecture by an engaging Assyriologist, published in 1936, and just so charming.