Historical History: A History of Egypt by J. H. Breasted

A History of Egypt: From the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest, by Prof. J. H. Breasted.

Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1956.  634 pages plus inserted plates and maps.


This is the 1956 reprint of Breasted’s landmark work, first published in 1905, revised and updated 1909.  So it is over 100 years old in its information, conception and opinions.  It it rooted in the 19th century, when Breasted was an important figure in changing archaeology from exploration into science.

Front cover of my battered copy.

Front cover of my battered copy.

So what is the value of reading ‘outdated’ factual books?  I am not a scholar of Breasted’s work, though he is a major figure and people are, and I am not a professional historian, so I do not read it to learn about the evolution of the disciplines of Egyptology or History.  I read it because it is a lot of fun to read.

The book has many great strengths.  These include detailed maps and drawings, many superb photographs of fascinating places, buildings and objects  — such as this one, a well-fed man who looks ready to turn to face us as we look at his wooden head, sculptured almost 5000 years ago:

Fig 51 from A History of Egypt

Breasted’s writing is very easy to read.  He is evocative and precise at the same time.  I read the book every spare moment; the narrative was as compelling as any thriller, as we saw the rise and fall and rise again of a people. Manetho‘s King List (modified) is included in the back, as is a fold-out map of the region from the Nile Delta to ‘Khartûm’.  As a  coherent picture of the evolution of one of the fundamental sources of ‘Western’ civilisation it is a superb resource — I note it has been reprinted as recently as … well, you can buy it for your Kindle for about $1… or just get it for free.

The book feels like the major work that it is.  It is heavy, beautifully produced on paper that allows high quality reproduction of the figures.  The tipped in photographs are black and white but generous.  The thing cost  £4 in the mid 1950s — a time when the average weekly wage was around £15.

Some things do date the work — he does speak disparagingly of the ‘oriental’ way of running a nation, which seems to be a term historians of a certain vintage use to describe despotic nations and empires where the ruler is akin to a God and court intrigues cause dynasties to rise and fall — I have often come across the term in the context of the Late Roman/Byzantine Empire, where emperors like Diocletian are said to have changed it from the Imperial, Augustine system of emperor as Princeps to a more ‘oriental’ style of Emperor as a figure distant, surrounded by mystery and ritual, and very much apart from his people (I say ‘his’ on purpose, though there were a handful of female rulers of Byzantium).

I am not enough of an expert on Egyptian history to know what of Breasted’s conclusions are wrong, which is perhaps the biggest negative in reading an older work — although many a newer book will paint uncertain or contested results as known, if the author finds them congenial…  Breasted lays out a convincing map of the development from pre-dynastic Egypt through Old Kingdom and troubles and Middle Kingdom and troubles (the ‘Hyksos’) to the empire of the new Kingdom (the Amenhoteps, Ikhnaton, Tutankhamen and Ramseses), and then through the strife-ridden, slow decay prior to Egypt’s absorption into the Persian Empire — a time easy to overlook compared to the the mystery of the Old Kingdom and the glory of the Empire and the drama of Ikhnaton’s religious revolution, but not without bright spots, like the rule of Psamtik I.

I suspect what Breasted puts together here is the template for ensuing attempts to outline Egyptian history — that this work and the body of original research, much of it his own, that it draws upon were for a time the ‘default’ and refinements were undertaken relative to Breasted’s pattern.

There are more typographical errors than I would have expected, and for me the highly modulated font (Baskerville) on shiny paper is not ideal for reading;  these things detract little.

Lastly, since it is an old book and an important book, it is freely available on the web.  Take a look at  https://archive.org/details/historyofegyptfr00brea



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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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