History Lessons


Novelist Neal Stephenson is a cult figure among libertarians, thanks to books such as Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, with their canny looks at the past and future of technology, markets, and the nation-state. His most recent project, The Baroque Cycle, is set during the Enlightenment, but lately he's been training his gaze on classical Greece and Rome, civilizations whose experiences with war, militarism, representative government, and empire are forever relevant. reason asked him to recommend three essential guides.

1 Thermopylae: The Battle for the West, by Ernle Bradford (Da Capo, 1980). "Bradford, a masterful writer, is duly skeptical of Herodotus' account but avoids excessive cynicism. He explains why the battle really mattered without coming off as sentimental or credulous."

2 The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece, by Paul Cartledge (Overlook, 2003). "Explains just how profoundly weird this society was. It is the Spartans' contradictions that make them interesting: macho militarists, yet radical feminists; heroes of Western freedom, yet oppressive slave owners. Any effort to talk about them fails unless it embraces their ambiguity."

3 The Battle That Stopped Rome, by Peter S. Wells (W.W. Norton & Company, 2003). "Provides a concise, focused account of one event that happened in a single day: the annihilation of three entire Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D. by a coalition of German tribes under the turncoat general Arminius."