Best history books of 2005?





Appropriately, the subject to which historians returned time after time this year was the troubled relationship between Europe and the east.

Bettany Hughes's Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore (Jonathan Cape Pounds 20) traces the cultural ripples left by Helen: a villain to medieval moralists, rehabilitated by Eleanor of Aquitaine, traduced by Hollywood.

Greeks and Trojans clashed in deadly earnest centuries later. As Tom Holland recounts in Persian Fire: The First World Empire, Battle for the West (Little, Brown Pounds 20), the Emperor Xerxes, leading a force to subdue the rebellious Greek city states, first sacrificed 1,000 oxen to Athena at the supposed site of Troy. In subsequent years, the united defiance of the Greek cities was hailed as a shining moment for democratic "western" values. In fact, as Holland records, the Greeks defeated the Persians by a mixture of luck and some idiosyncratic moments of courage and tactical brilliance.

If the Ionian cities were an affront to Persia, 2,000 years later Constantinople was a "bone in the throat of Allah". Roger Crowley's Constantinople: The Last Great Siege of 1453 (Faber Pounds 16.99) tells of the last days of the city, besieged and taken by the Turkish emperor Mehmet. Once again, stark accounts of a clash between east and west are crude. Western Europeans made little attempt to come to the aid of their orthodox fellows, and other European colonies on the eastern Mediterranean temporised frantically in an attempt not to alienate the Turks.

The frontline shifted. Jonathan Keates takes up the story in The Siege of Venice (Chatto & Windus Pounds 20). In 1848, the disparate parts of Italy revolted against their various masters. Venice was besieged by the Austrians, and held out valiantly for 500 days. Times had moved on since 1453, so the defeated defenders were exiled rather than impaled. But the cause of Italian unification persisted, and drew its rhetorical strength in some part from the language of the Greeks' similar struggle, which dated back to the days of Themistocles.

[Other books: David McCullough's 1776. A.N.Wilson's After the Victorians. James Shapiro's 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.


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