I Wish I Had Been There: European History


Byron Hollinshead and Theodore K. Rabb




Date Reviewed:

September 12, 2009

he premise of this book is intriguing: twenty prominent historians were asked this question: "If you could witness one event in European History, what would that event be, and why?" The responses are the twenty essays in this book. The sub-title of this book is Book 2: European History; this is a companion volume to Book 1, which was American History. I will have to hunt down Book 1. Hopefully they write a Book 3 on Asian History, and Book 4 on Latin America, and Book 5 on the Middle East.

History can be such a fascinating subject; it is too bad the subject is often taught by uninspired teachers in our classrooms. Memorizing dates is dull, but when we are told the significance of events and learn the reasons for the actions of famous people and what consequences resulted - that is what makes history interesting. That is the reason the History Channel gets a big audience.

Not all twenty essays in this book were appealing to me, but most were pretty good. The first essay describes the death of Alexander the Great (which takes place in Asia, not Europe, but I am still glad this story was included in this book.) After Alexander the Great died, his empire fell apart. Alexander was still a young man when he died (was he poisoned?) - what new conquests would he have undertaken? Already his empire stretched from Greece, to Egypt, and all the way across the Middle East to India. This essay made me want to learn more about Alexander the Great, I will have to find the definitive book on his career.

My favorite essay was by Tom Holland, describing Hannibal's crossing of the Alps with his war elephants. Yes, like Tom Holland, I too would like have to witnessed that epic event. I realize that I know almost nothing about the Punic Wars (Carthage vs Rome), other than that Rome eventually won and utterly demolished Carthage. Here is another subject about which I will have to read more.

Other essays that were intriguing: the description of Charlemagne's crowning as the Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day in 800 A.D.; the explanation of the likely authors of the Magna Carta and how and why it came to be written; the story of the resistance by the Florence citizens to the invading army of Charles VIII; the council of war by the leaders of the Spanish Armada after the disasterous first day of the battle; the story of the acting of Shakespeare's play Richard II at the Globe Theater in Feb 1601, and why that was important to the Earl Essex, who plotted to overthrow Queen Victoria; the background of Sir Isaac Newton's publication of the Principia; and the description of the post-WW1 peace treaty - and how Europe and the Middle East were reconfigured in the post war world, and the consequences that still echo today.

With only twenty essays, obviously there will be topics left out, but I was suprised that some huge topics were completely ignored: the Byzantium Empire, the Black Death, the Crusades, the revolutions of 1848, the birth of democracy in Greece. Other than the story of Hannibal, the 1000 year history of Rome is ignored. Perhaps there will be another book in this series to cover those topics.