Before reviewing the book I'd like to discuss the series which it is a part of. The problem with the Penguin History of Europe series is that they are terribly inconsistent. This book is designed as a basic introduction for beginners while others attempt a serious overview of the era in question. The book immediately following this one (even though it was written before it) was The Inheritance of Rome. It covered the Dark Ages, or more precisely the period from 400-1000 AD. This book covers 1750 BC-425 AD. That's 600 years vs. 2175! Admittedly most of the Bronze Age material is dismissed in a chapter, but the section on Classical Greece doesn't even start until page 113. So after covering over 1200 years of history in 100 pages they have 200 pages in which to cover 900 years. The later ones cover even less time than Inheritance. Europe in the High Middle Ages covers about 300 years while The Pursuit of Glory covers about half that. I know it makes sense to spend more time on fewer years as we get closer to the present since the quality and number of the sources increase, but they have seriously limited the value of the Classical era and relegated it to little more than an introductory volume to their series. In my opinion, if you're going to do something then do it properly. If you don't want to cover the Classical Era then you don't have to.
This brings us to the question of intent. What is the purpose of these books? What audience are they written for? This one will never be used by scholars as a serious source. Which is fine, except that the other books don't match. The Inheritance of Rome is a very detailed book which, while comprehensible for a beginner, is useful for the scholar as well. The Pursuit of Glory is even less like this in that it is divided up by topics instead of being a narrative. The length is also a difference. While this book clocks in at under 400 pages, both Inheritance and Glory are around 700. That is despite the fact that they cover smaller time periods. While enforced and absolute consistency is not to be desired in a series such as this, a basic agreement on the target audience and depth would seem essential.
So having said that, what do I think of the book? It's alright. It serves its purpose which is to detail the early history of Europe as a background to the later books in the series. As an introduction it's pretty good too. It is easy to read and includes the material expected of it. As you might guess I'm not particularly enthused about this book, but if I have little praiseworthy to say then similarly I have little to condemn. The book does serve its basic purpose well, and anyone who's read little or nothing on this period could read far worse books on the topic than this.
One of the good features about this book is how up-to-date it is. I don't just mean that it is a new book, but that it includes the most recent scholarly information on this period. Generally books such as this are a decade or so behind the times, but this one manages to stay on top of its sources and for that it should be praised. Another good feature is that it connects the events of the Bronze and Dark Ages to the Classical Age. A lot of general books start with the Trojan War and then jump to the 500s and deal with the Classical Greeks. Which has always seemed somewhat cheap. As if nothing happened in between! It may not cover that period in much detail but it does cover it and this definitely makes it easier to understand the connection. Another major plus is the number of illustrations. These consist of maps, diagrams and photos and show up all over. The maps are particularly useful while the photographs are very nice and provide images of many of the places discussed. The description under the photos are good as well. Each photo usually demonstrates something with only a few thrown in there just as a nice view.
A feature of this book which I don't remember seeing in the others of this series are the digressions on various topics. These sections are highlighted and pop up as separate blocks of text. This is similar to what they include in modern textbooks, which seems to confirm my theory about the intended readership. These sections are usually interesting points that would be irrelevant and distract from the narrative if they were included in the main text. I'm not completely convinced of their effectiveness. In a textbook with its bigger pages and denser printing its possible to have these digressions on the side without interrupting the text. Since this is a shorter book it takes over the book completely until it is finished. On the whole I think that these sections should have been deleted or streamlined into the text. I liked the way that Wickham in his 'Inheritance of Rome' book did it. He put these quotes and digressions at the beginning of the chapter to serve as an introduction to the subject. Something like that would have served him better here.
I honestly don't understand the purpose of books like this. They cover too wide a period in too short a space and are bound to be superficial. The only use would be if the author pushes a certain overarching interpretation of human history (like H.G. Wells did) and uses the history as proof. This book doesn't really push any one angle and generally follows the traditional interpretation. I guess that books like this provide a basic outline, but even so being a little longer would help. If I were the publisher I'd have made room for two books of this length and covered the Greeks and Romans separately. That would at least have given them room to get into a little depth. As it is it seems like a series of isolated incidents thinly connected together. They could easily have written twice as much and still only have cracked the surface. While I can't blame the authors for not splitting their topic into multiple books since the nature of the series prohibited it, I still feel that they should have written much more. If this book had been as long as those other two it might have achieved something. As it is they cover about six and a half years with every page. It feels diluted almost to the point of uselessness.
So there you have it. If you want a general history of Ancient Europe then this is an excellent place to start. If you want something that will cover the material that you might find in a textbook without the tediousness of that medium then thus might be the book for you. If you've read up on the era before then this work will provide nothing new for you.