Narrative history at its best, Adrian Goldsworthy’s Rome and Persia is informative, readable, carefully sourced, and cautious in its judgments about events that occurred between 90 BCE and the 600s CE in the Mediterranean world, north Africa, and western Asia. It is also instructive about imperial rivalries, geopolitical competition, and human nature across the ages—including our present one. 

The history of the Kushan Empire long remained shrouded in mystery. In the 19th century, Orientalist scholars in Calcutta deciphered the ancient Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts and used numismatic evidence to shed a first ray of light on the dynastic succession of the Kushans. Previously obscure and semi-legendary figures such as Vima Kadphises, Kanishka and Huvishka entered the annals of world history as rulers of an empire that stretched, in the first centuries CE, from Central Asia deep into the Indian subcontinent.

“In the early summer of 1819, a British hunting party was heading through thick jungle near Aurangabad when the tiger they were tracking disappeared into the chasm of a deep ravine.”  With that romantic and somewhat Indiana Jones-like opening, William Dalrymple begins his Foreword to this new and updated edition of Benoy K Behl’s classic The Ajanta Caves: Ancient Buddhist Paintings of India.

The Book of Esther, one of the historical books in the Torah and the Old Testament, is known as a story of community, discrimination, and human ingenuity. It’s core to the Jewish holiday of Purim, with singing, feasting, and other merriment. And it’s unique as one of the few books in the Bible that doesn’t mention God. At all.

On the Jewish festival of Purim, revelers are encouraged to get so drunk that they cannot distinguish between Mordechai and Haman, the hero and the villain of the Book of Esther. Sobriety is required to appreciate Llewellyn-Jones’s erudite and encyclopedic retelling of the story. By piling detail upon detail, Llewellyn-Jones brings to life the sumptuous feasts and intrigues of the court of Susa, the seat of Persia’s great kings. While a veritable renaissance in the study of ancient Persia has been going on for a while, this is the first time a scholar has used the Jewish Bible as a primary source. The Book of Esther is easily dismissed as a trite, orientalizing fairytale. What if it turns out the author wrote from direct experience of the great king’s court?