History, to me, is a source of inspiration. My desire to learn more about ancient civilizations and all aspects of their cultures is driven by an inner passion that is hard to rationalize. I view people who try to make history relevant by drawing far-fetched and forced parallels between past and present or using it for political purposes with suspicion. It’s not that I think we cannot learn from the past, but the lessons that we draw from history are highly subjective and they will always be. Of course we as historians will always try to get as close as possible to objective truth about the past, but I am sure that all of us have chosen the field of history out of a love for the object of our study. Therefore, the best way to teach children – or anyone for that matter – about history is by inspiring an interest in them that will make them find out more. In order to illustrate this concept, I will discuss the book that inspired me, as a child, to learn more about ancient history: the Children’s Encyclopedia of History – First Civilisations to the Fall of Rome.
An illustration speaks a thousand words
I’m not sure who gave me this book. Since it dates back to 1977 it probably belonged to my parents or my nanny. I do remember that this book drew me in immediately. Drawings of Roman legionnaries, naked cavemen, an Egyptian war chariot, an Indian war elephant and a Roman quinquereme adorn the front cover. The first page contained black-and-white drawings of the Great Wall of China being attacked by nomadic invaders, an unfinished Stonehenge, the Ziggurat of Ur with people lining up in a procession, the Parthenon and the Pharos of Alexandria. The following 93 pages consist mostly of colorful drawings depicting lively scenes from daily life, warfare, and mythology. Architecture and clothing are depicted in minute detail. The warm ground tones make the drawings seem even more alive.
As a child I could spend hours looking at those drawings, imagining what life was like back then. In fact, I still do. It reminds me that my research on ancient civilizations is actually about human societies that had existed for centuries and who likely viewed themselves as the center of world history. I do have to warn you, though, that there are some graphic scenes in the book depicting scenes, like an Assyrian army massacring the population of a conquered city and a Sumerian teacher beating one of the school boys for not doing his homework, as well as a lot of functional nudity. Of course these images had an impact on me as a child, but they made me realize early on that these ancient civilizations were very different to our own, which aroused my interest even more.
Less is more
Although the illustrations play a major role in the book, each illustration is accompanied by a small text of no more than 50 words. Reading these texts today, I am still baffled how the author can summarize complex developments from ancient history, like the rise of agriculture, the rise of cities, the origin of writing and all those things that we take for granted in no more than a few hundred words and a few images. The author also describes complex archaeological concepts like stratigraphy, radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology in this clear an concise way, using the cross section of a fictional ‘tell’ (archaeological mound) as an example. Considering how much words and how many technical terms historians and archaeologists use today without making things any clearer, I think we can all learn from this.
One of the things I like most about the Children’s Encyclopedia of History is that it is very wide in scope. Of 93 pages, the first 32 deal with only with the primordial civilizations, like Sumer, Akkad and the Old Babylonian Empire, pre-Hyksos Egypt, the Indus Valley civilization and pre-Hittite Anatolia. The following 31 pages deal with ‘oriental’ civilizations like New Kingdom Egypt, the Hittites, the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian Empires and other ‘Old Testament peoples’, as well as the Mycenaeans, pre-Celtic Western Europe, Shang and Zhou China, the Olmecs and Vedic India. Only pages 64 to 73 deal with the Greeks and the Persians, after which 12 more pages follow on ancient China, India, sub-Saharan Africa, the Olmecs and the Mayans, Scythians, Mongols and Celts. The final 8 pages are about the Romans and the early Byzantines. Almost every ancient civilization is covered. Obscure civilizations are highlighted, the classical Greeks and Romans do not occupy an unnecessarily high amount of pages and the ancient ‘oriental’ civilizations get the attention they deserve. It was this book that got me interested in oriental civilizations and made me realize their importance. It is also the reason why I try to cover as many civilizations as possible on this website.
The best history book for children?
Of course my enthousiasm for this book is mostly due to nostalgic feelings, but there is no denying that the Children’s Encyclopedia of History awakened my interest in the ancient world and shaped my identity as a researcher. To me, it is the best history book for children, but maybe one of you knows of an even better one? Please let me know in the comments.