History books for a general audience in 2023 concentrated on the 250 years since the American and French revolutions. Yet, looking back some centuries earlier in Emperor of Rome (Profile, £30), Mary Beard shows, through rich use of anecdote and decades of scholarship, what the traits and insecurities of the Roman emperors teach us about today. It brought to mind the observation of another Classics professor, Enoch Powell: all political careers end in failure. In Pax: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age (Abacus, £30), Tom Holland depicts Rome at its peak, albeit in a more novelistic fashion than Beard, but with her gift for bringing antiquity to life – not least when describing a court’s inspection of the private parts of a 90-year-old man.
Two fine medieval histories appeared this year. The second volume of David Carpenter’s life of Henry III, Reform, Rebellion, Civil War, Settlement 1258-1272 (Yale, £30) begins with the civil war, in which Simon de Montfort opposed him, and describes the power struggle leading to the calling in 1265 of the “great parliament” and “the debasement of Henry’s kingship”. Carpenter’s definitive study ends with the King’s death, in his bed, suaviter et sanctissime – “serenely and in a most saintly way”. The fifth and final volume of Jonathan Sumption’s acclaimed history of the Hundred Years War, Triumph and Illusion (Faber, £40), starts with the accession of the infant Henry VI in 1422, seven years after Agincourt, and runs to the loss of every square inch of English territory in France bar Calais, 30 years later. A highlight of this revelatory book concerns the fate of Joan of Arc, a brutal act for which the English are blamed but which was, as Sumption shows, a French deed.
The Middle Kingdoms: A New History of Central Europe, by Martin Rady (Allen Lane, £35) examines the Holy Roman Empire and its successor nations, their common culture – what they have created in art, literature, architecture and music – as well as what the tensions of race and religion among its different peoples have caused, both for good and ill, over two millennia. Our island may have avoided this, but Jonathan Healey’s The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England (Bloomsbury, £30) discusses with wit and provocation the upheavals of our turbulent 17th century, of which the civil wars and Glorious Revolution were but two landmarks. Obsessions among religious sects and with witchcraft complement great political struggles, and Healey tells his story through the great and powerful as well as those at the other end of society borne along on the currents their “betters” created.
The events of the decades before the French Revolution are described by Robert Darnton in The Revolutionary Temper: Paris 1748-1789 (Allen Lane, £35). He studies Paris as a crucible of ideas and discourse, and how the flow of information undermined trust in established institutions, particularly as they suppressed dissent. There were more predictable problems: “Much of the aversion to Louis XV derived from the notoriety of his mistresses,” Darnton writes, although he adds that “Parisians found nothing objectionable about royal mistresses in general.”