How can we ever change the world? Military leaders, such as Genghis Khan or Napoleon have certainly managed to change large parts of it, though generally not for as long as they expected; scientists devising cures and vaccines for disease can spread a more benign influence across whole continents; the thoughts of religious leaders or philosophers, like Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Plato or Confucius, can sweep through generations like fire. But books?
Reading books is generally a solitary, unassuming pastime: bookishness is the very antithesis of the man-of-action qualities that seem to shake the world by the scruff of its neck. The pen may boast of being mightier than the sword, but it is generally the sword that wins in the short term. It is that phrase, though, which gives the game away: in the short term, writers can be bullied, imprisoned or executed, their work censored, and their books burned, but over the long sweep of history, it is books and the ideas expressed within them that have transformed the world.
From the first cave paintings 30,000 years ago, the passing on of thoughts and ideas from one person to another, from one generation to another, has been the key to civilization. For centuries, this could only be done by painstakingly copying one manuscript to another, or by memorizing long screeds of poetry – the works of Homer, for instance, survived for maybe 200 years before being written down. Then there was the transformative technology of print, first in the East, much later in the West. The Diamond Sutra, an ancient Buddhist text printed in China in AD 868, is thought to be the oldest printed book surviving, pre-dating Gutenberg’s Bible in Europe by nearly six centuries. With print, philosophers, theologians, historians, scientists and poets could pass on their ideas – about life, about the world, about eternity and the present moment, about the way that people have thought and behaved in the past, and about how they always think and behave – to hundreds, even thousands of people at a time.
As a result, people who may never have heard of the Flemish cartographer Mercator of Rupelmonde still carry in their heads today a picture of the world that he devised 400 years ago; Odysseus, Don Quixote and Ebenezer Scrooge are familiar characters to children to whom the names of Homer, Cervantes and Dickens may mean nothing. The patient on the operating table may not know about William Harvey, but he has good reason to be grateful for The Motion of the Heart and Blood; because of the compilers of Shakespeare’s First Folio, people who have never seen his plays may still describe themselves as ‘tongue-tied’ or tell others they are ‘living in a fool’s paradise’. In great ways and small, books spread their influence, even among those who never turn their pages.
But which books? There are few better ways of starting an argument than producing a list, whether it purports to rank the best opera singers, the most influential politicians or the greatest footballers, and I have been left in no doubt over the last few months about the passion with which people will defend favourite books and authors whom they feel to have been unjustly excluded. About some on the list, like the Bible and the Qur’an, Shakespeare’s First Folio and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, there can be little argument – but where are Euclid’s Elements or Thomas More’s Utopia? Eliot, either George or T.S., depending on your point of view? How could you choose Dickens’s A Christmas Carol rather than Bleak House or David Copperfield? Or The Pickwick Papers? What about Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man or A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft?
The answer is that any list can only be subjective. These are the books that, in their different ways, have changed my world – but they are also books that I believe have demonstrably changed the world in one way or another for millions of other people. Often, they have enhanced the richness of human experience; sometimes, their civilizing effect, or otherwise, depends on the views one holds, a category that includes the great religious books. And very occasionally, books such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or Mao’s Quotations (better known as the Little Red Book) are remembered like bad dreams, the tools of megalomaniacs and murderers.
Of course there are others – you could compile a list of a thousand books that have changed the world, and someone would still hold up the thousand-and-first, demanding indignantly how it could have been left out – but these fifty have helped to make the world what it is today.
Will they, or any books, help to make the world what it becomes tomorrow? Will books even exist by the end of the 21st century? Back in the 9th century, no doubt, some elderly Chinese intellectual complained grumpily that this newfangled printing nonsense would spell the end of calligraphy and the handwritten manuscript – and today, there are increasing predictions of the end of the book as we know it. Increasingly, books glow softly on the screen of a computer or a hand-held device, with the fingertip turning of each ‘page’ reliant on a piece of behind-the-scenes electronic wizardry. Where yesterday’s scholars struggled with a dozen or so books in a shoulder bag, today’s schoolchildren can carry hundreds in a laptop or a tablet.
But whatever changes come in the future will only be in the way the writing is presented. The words will survive. Future generations may see them differently, but whether they are printed in books, electronically reproduced on screen, or handwritten on parchment scrolls, these fifty books will still be read a hundred years from now, and a hundred years from then. They have changed the world, and they will continue to do so.
c. 8th century BC
The Iliad is the oldest work of poetry in the Western world. Conventionally credited to Homer sometime in the 8th or 9th century BC, it underpinned the astonishing flowering of Greek culture from the 5th century BC onwards, a culture that – via the Romans and the Renaissance – lies at the heart of Western civilization.
This epic poem adopts the ‘hexameter’, a form of stately poetic metre that later became known as ‘heroic verse’, though it was a form rarely adopted by English poets. Its subject is both a great military campaign and a single man. In its 24 books, it tells the story of the ten-year Greek siege of Troy, which followed the abduction of Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Spar ta, by Paris, the son of the Trojan King Priam; but it also concentrates on one brief episode in the final year of the siege.
More specifically, it describes a quarrel in the Greek camp between Menelaus’s brother, King Agamemnon, and the Greek champion Achilles, over Agamemnon’s seizure of a captive slave girl. As a result, the Greeks are defeated in an assault on the city as Achilles and his forces keep out of the fight. Eventually, he relents and sends his friend Patroclus to rescue the struggling Greeks. When Patroclus is killed by Hector, another Trojan prince, Achilles joins the battle in a fury, kills Hector and defiles his body by dragging it behind his horse outside the city walls. Eventually, with the Greeks victorious, Hector’s grieving father, King Priam pays a ransom.
In this passage, near the end of the Iliad, Achilles finally agrees to return Hector’s body to Priam, who has come in disguise to the Greek camp. When Achilles praises Priam’s ‘hear t of steel’, there is an ironic echo of Hector’s dying words to him. At last, the pitiless champion has attained the ability to feel sympathy.
Alas, what weight of anguish hast thou known,
Unhappy prince! Thus guardless and alone
To pass through foes, and thus undaunted face
The man whose fury has destroyed thy race!
Heaven sure has armed thee with a heart of steel,
A strength proportioned to the woes you feel. Rise,
then: let reason mitigate your care:
To mourn avails not: man is born to bear.
Such is, alas! The gods’ severe decree:
They, only they are blest, and only free
. . . Lo! To thy prayer restored, thy breathless son;
Extended on the funeral couch he lies;
And soon as morning paints the eastern skies,
The sight is granted to thy longing eyes.
the iliad, book 14, translated by alexander pope, 1720
The epic ends with the funeral of Hector.
The poem is traditionally thought of as the greater of a pair by Homer, the other being the Odyssey, an account of the journey back to Greece of the Greek commander Odysseus, who also figures in the Iliad. The story the Iliad, which tells of military virtues and the dealings between gods and men, was treated by the later Ancient Greeks as a kind of defining history, and knowledge of the poem was considered an essential part of a young man’s education. It is possible that it was dictated by its author to a scribe; however, it may well be that the poem’s 15,000 lines were not written down for decades after their original composition, having been composed to be recited from memory, probably in several sessions. By the 6th century BC, written versions did exist and were used at the Panathenaea, the great five-yearly festivals of poetry and athletics held in Athens.
The Iliad’s influence continued – helped by the editorial efforts of later Greek scholars who collated existing versions – through the Roman Empire, and Virgil’s Aeneid, written around 25 BC, was an attempt to create a Roman myth to match Homer’s. The earliest surviving full manuscript of the Iliad was written during the 10th century AD and is believed to have been brought west from Constantinople (Istanbul) some 500 years later. A printed version appeared in 1488, and Homer was gradually rediscovered by the humanist scholars who were learning Greek.
Its literary legacy is huge. In its dramatic conflicts, the Iliad prefigures the great historical and tragic works of Western theatre, another art form with its roots firmly in the Greek world. In the intertwined conflicts of individual soldiers, armies and gods, and in the subtle interplay between the pride, bitterness, anger and savage remorse of Achilles, it has the beginnings of the fascination with plot and character which, centuries later, would feed the development of the novel. And the intensity of the poem’s language looks forward to the whole range of European poetry, not just the long narrative epic.
Among its great and enduring themes are the relationship between men and the gods, the fragility of human life and the nature of warfare. Most of all, however, it is a poem about fury – the fury of military combat, the passionate anger of a proud man who believes he has been wronged, and the wrath that is engendered when each of two implacable sides believes in its own rightness.
Little is known about Homer himself. Early Greek legends suggested that he was blind, and that he may have been a wandering aoidos, or singer, who would have recited his work, accompanying himself on the lyre, to the guests at great feasts. We know that the Ancient Greeks themselves confidently ascribed the Iliad and the Odyssey to him although they also credited him with many other works that modern experts agree could not possibly have been written by the same man. By the 5th century BC, various authors were writing his biography, although none of the ‘facts’ they included can be verified.
So what can we deduce about the Iliad’s author? It is likely, although not certain, that he would have been illiterate and would have composed his poems orally, for recitation. Linguistic evidence from within the poems, and descriptions of particular artefacts, suggest that they date from later than 1000 BC and before 700 BC. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey are written in a dialect that was spoken in Ionia, on the western coast of modern Turkey. This is at least consistent with the traditional account that Homer was born on the island of Chios in the eastern Aegean, although other islands also claim to be his birthplace.
There remain, however, arguments about whether the Iliad and the Odyssey were written by the same man, although the Greek philosopher Aristotle suggested in the 4th century BC that the Iliad seemed to have been written in the poet’s maturity, and the Odyssey in his middle age. Further than that, though, we do not even know whether either poem had a single author, or was rather an accretion of versions by unnamed and unknown poets adding to each other’s work over the centuries.
About Agamemnon, Achilles and the Greek siege of Troy, too, there is little certainty. Do the poems – almost certainly based on tales and legends that were already centuries old – carry echoes of the exploits of real people in a real military campaign? Archaeological excavations, particularly at the ancient city of Hisarlik on the Turkish coast, have revealed a succession of settlements on the site, which might correspond with ancient Troy, or ‘Ilion’ as the Greeks knew it. In its last incarnation, this city seems to have been destroyed by fire around 1250 BC, which roughly corresponds with Ancient Greek historians’ dating of the Trojan War.
In the end, though, Homer’s life – even his existence – is mysterious, and the events of Troy are lost in prehistory. What remains is the poetry and all that it inspired, directly and indirectly – from Aeschylus’s tragic masterpiece the Oresteia in 458 BC to the Holly wood blockbuster Troy in 2004.
5th century BC
The Histories of Herodotus, written in the 5th century BC, are the earliest prose work of Ancient Greece to survive intact. They tell the story of the expanding Persian Empire and the Graeco-Persian struggles of the 6th and 5th centuries. But beyond that, they are the source of much of our knowledge about the ancient world and the foundational work of history in Western literature.
It was Herodotus, the ‘Father of History’, who established the idea of investigating the past. He coined the term for the genre, the Greek word historiai translating as ‘investigations’, or ‘inquiries’. With Herodotus, writers began to find first-hand accounts, look for evidence and describe what happened, and why, without reference to godly intervention or miracles.
Herodotus’s first words in the Histories are a declaration that the work will concentrate on what actually happened.
These are the researches of Herodotus of Helicarnassus, which he publishes in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feud . . .
But elsewhere, in digressions from his main story of the Greeks and Persians, he describes the religious rites, flora and fauna, and topography of ‘exotic’ peoples, in often colourful – if sometimes fanciful – evocations:
The rites which the wandering Libyans use in sacrificing are the following. They begin with the ear of the victim, which they cut off and throw over their house: this done, they kill the animal by twisting the neck . . . The eastern side of Libya, where the wanderers dwell, is low and sandy, as far as the river Triton; but westward of that, the land of the husbandmen is very hilly, and abounds with forests and wild beasts. For this is the tract in which the huge serpents are found, and the lions, the elephants, the bears, the aspicks, and the horned asses. Here too are the dog-faced creatures, and the creatures without heads, whom the Libyans declare to have their eyes in their breasts; and also the wild men, and wild women, and many other far less fabulous beasts.
the histories, book 1, introduction, and book 4, pp. 188 and 191, translated by george rawlinson, 1860
The first five of the Histories’ nine books cover the background to the Persian invasions of Greece, beginning in the mid-6th century BC. Book 1 describes Persian Emperor Cyrus’s conquest of Lydia, in western Anatolia (Turkey), while Books 2 and 3 extend to Egypt and the expansion of the Persian Empire under Cambyses and then Darius I. Book 4 follows Darius into North Africa, while Book 5 contains the (unsuccessful) revolt of the Ionian Greek cities on the Anatolian coast in the 490s. The final four books then deal with the Graeco-Persian Wars (490–479 BC), until, as Herodotus says at the end of Book 9, ‘the Persians departed with altered minds’.
The traditional date for Herodotus’s birth is 484 BC, at Helicarnassus, an Ionian Greek city on the site of Bodrum, southwestern Turkey – and much of the Histories is written in Ionian dialect. But little is known about Herodotus’s life. He seems to have lived at various times on the north Aegean island of Samos, in Athens, and in the southern Italian city of Thurii (modern Taranto). Both Thurii and Pella, in Macedonia, claimed to have been the place of his death, sometime between 430 and 420 BC. (The last events mentioned in the Histories occur in 430 BC.)
Herodotus was thus about five years old when the wars he describes in Books 6–9 concluded. They began with an invasion of the Athenian hinterland by Darius I in 490 BC, in retaliation for Athenian support of the Ionian revolt. Herodotus describes in Book 6 how, even though the Persians ruled most of the known world at that time – their empire stretching from Asia Minor through the Middle East to Egypt – their expeditionary force was defeated by the Athenians on land at the Battle of Marathon (490 BC).
When Darius’s successor, Xerxes, returned with an army ten years later to sack their city and conquer much of the Greek mainland, his initial success was over turned by the Athenian naval victory at the Battle of Salamis (480 BC), the turning-point of the war. The bulk of the Persian army withdrew, cut off from its supplies by the loss of the navy, and the remainder was finally defeated at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC. Athens now began a period of imperial domination of, and competition with, other Greek city-states. The fact that Herodotus was writing during this period, with the Athenian forces now under increasing pressure from Sparta, has encouraged some commentators to suggest that the underlying purpose of the Histories was to warn his contemporaries about the transience of military power.
Within his work’s broad structure, Herodotus introduces many digressions in which he explains how various peoples came into contact with their Persian conquerors, and he passes on travellers’ tales – some more believable than others – about far-off tribes, their customs, their lands, and the animals that live there.
The Histories are thus both more and less than history as we understand it today. They are more, because Herodotus’s interest ranges far more widely than his declared subject, the invasions of Greece. He was no bookbound researcher, but a traveller, whose journeys around the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt and the Persian Empire would have taken him many years; and his subjects included not just history, but also geography, biology and ethnography, loosely bound together as a description of the lands and peoples conquered by the Persians.
But they are also less than what we think of as history, because Herodotus frequently appears to be carried away by his enthusiasm for a good story, and so the reader finds ‘fabulous’ headless creatures with mouths in their chests (as illustrated on page 10) and great ants bigger than foxes scrabbling gold up from the earth. Additionally, Herodotus puts imagined speeches into the mouths of the often heroic protagonists as if they were characters in a drama.
In this respect, his closest literary ancestor is Homer. But in the Histories, unlike the Iliad, there are no sudden direct interventions by the gods to change the outcome of battles or rescue hard-pressed heroes. Although Herodotus, like Homer, appears to believe in the divine punishment of human greed, cruelty and arrogance, he concentrates on the effect of human actions on events – the first time such a realistic, rationalist approach had been seen in Greek literature.
Furthermore, Herodotus does at least attempt to evaluate the information he is given. Sometimes he admits that what he is reporting sounds unlikely; and at others, he offers his own restrained seal of approval: ‘This seemed to me likely enough.’
There are also eye-witness accounts of his own from his travels, either to demonstrate the truth of what he is saying or simply for dramatic effect. In Egypt, for example, he describes a visit he made to the scene of the Battle of Pelusium, at which the Persians had seized the Egyptian town of Memphis more than a century earlier. There, he says, he saw the skulls of the dead soldiers, Persians in one part of the field, Egyptians in another, scattered where they fell – providing a sombre introduction to his account of the Egyptian defeat. Herodotus’s infectious passion for information and insatiable appetite for tales, opinions, and theories make him the forerunner of today’s travel writers as much as historians.
Plutarch, the author of Parallel Lives five centuries later and the founder of another historico-literary genre, biography, took a dim view of Herodotus’s accuracy. But there are occasions when the claims Herodotus makes carry the ring of truth, even if unknown to him.
On one occasion he repeats – disbelievingly – a claim that Phoenician sailors had travelled westwards and around the southern tip of Africa. On his own travels in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun would always have been on his left when he was sailing west, and he describes how the Phoenicians claimed that on their journey they ‘had the sun upon their right hand’. For Herodotus, this disproved their story, but ironically, this is the detail that proves it is true: Herodotus did not know that the earth was round, and so could not realize that in the Southern Hemisphere the apparent position of the sun changes.
Despite the strong Greek national feeling that runs through the Histories, Herodotus attempts to be evenhanded in his treatment of Greeks and Persians, to such an extent that in the 1st century AD the biographer-historian Plutarch accused him of being philobarbaros, a ‘lover of the barbarians’. This has not, though, saved him from complaints by modern historians about a lack of objectivity in writing about other cultures.
The themes underlying Herodotus’s writing – the dangers of absolute power, the importance of religion in society (although he is always reticent about his own beliefs) and the human cost of war – are also among the important themes of Western literature in the centuries that followed him. Herodotus, for all the inaccuracies and tall stories (which led him to be derided later as the ‘Father of Lies’ too), set the literary and philosophical agenda for centuries to come.
Excerpted from Books that Changed the World by Andrew Taylor. Copyright © 2014 by Andrew Taylor.
First published in hardback 2008 by Quercus Editions Ltd. This paperback edition published in 2014 by Quercus Editions Ltd, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
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