“A bold, sweeping bird’s eye view of thousands of years of history that provides a truly global perspective of the past. A fantastic achievement.”—Peter Frankopan, internationally bestselling author of The Silk Roads
Prize-winning historian Naoíse Mac Sweeney delivers a captivating exploration of how “Western Civilization”—the concept of a single cultural inheritance extending from ancient Greece to modern times—is a powerful figment of our collective imagination. An urgently needed emergent voice in big history, she offers a bold new account of Western history, real and imagined, through the lives of fourteen remarkable individuals.
In this groundbreaking, story-driven retelling of Western history, Naoíse Mac Sweeney debunks the myths and origin stories that underpin the history we thought we knew. Told through fourteen figures who each played a role in the creation of the Western idea—from Herodotus, a mixed-race migrant, to Phylis Wheatley, an enslaved African American who became a literary sensation; and from Gladstone, with a private passion for epic poetry, to the medieval Arab scholar Al-Kindi—the subjects are a mind-expanding blend of unsung heroes and familiar faces viewed afresh. These characters span the millennia and the continents, representing different religions, varying levels of wealth and education, diverse traditions and nationalities. Each life tells us something unexpected about the age in which it was lived and offers us a piece of the puzzle of how the modern idea of the West developed—and why we've misunderstood it for too long.
The concept of “the West” is present in every daily interaction you have, from entertainment and politics to world markets and world history. This engagingly intimate history will reshape the way you see the world around you. At this moment of civilizational redefinition, if we are to chart a future for the West, we must properly understand its past.
About the Author
Naoíse Mac Sweeney is professor of classical archaeology at the University of Vienna, having previously held posts at both Leicester and Cambridge Universities, and been a researcher at Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies. She has won numerous academic awards for her work on classical antiquity and origin myths, her previous book on Troy was shortlisted for a major prize, and she has appeared on BBC television and radio.
Praise for The West
“A bold, sweeping bird’s eye view of thousands of years of history that provides a truly global perspective of the past. A fantastic achievement.”—Peter Frankopan, internationally bestselling author of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
"A highly readable, vigorous repudiation of the Western-centric school of history...[Mac Sweeney] argues convincingly that it was a departure from Greek and Roman senses of who they were and how they fit into the world."—Kirkus (starred review)
"Some years ago, amid the geopolitical turmoil following 9/11, we heard a good deal about the clash of civilizations—about the West against the Rest. As it happens, this opposition is still at the heart of a good deal that is going on in the world today, but it deserves to be better understood. Naoíse Mac Sweeney’s “The West” is thus well-timed. It seeks to show, among much else, what exactly Western civilization is—and was—and to illuminate the challenges it now faces, both without and within.... All this is presented in fluent and accessible prose, and Ms. Mac Sweeney skillfully blends analysis, erudition and anecdote."—Wall Street Journal
"Naoise Mac Sweeney argues Western foundations of are less stable than we tend to believe. And that is okay.... Her capsule biographies…present a number of fascinating counterfactuals. The story Mac Sweeney tells…is a rejection of how both Western traditionalists and their counterparts in the rising East view cultural history."—Washington Post
"One by one [Mac Sweeney] takes on hoary old myths – about the character of the ancient world, the nature of the Crusades, or the superiority of European powers in imperial contests – explodes them with panache, and leaves us instead with a richer, fuller understanding of epochs, worldviews and fascinating individuals from the past.... Mac Sweeney’s gift for sparkling synthesis and gripping personal vignettes never flags.... I imagine that lots of people will enjoy this clever and thought-provoking account."—The Guardian
The West is an awe-inspiring book. The established narrative of Western Civilization has cast its shadow across our collective histories for centuries, without challenge, yet here Mac Sweeney probes at the very core of the issue, revealing its shaky foundations. Deeply researched, wonderfully well written and immensely thought-provoking, this is an important book which reshapes our understanding of the past.”—Dr Janina Ramirez, author of Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages Through the Women Written Out of It
"What Naoíse Mac Sweeney does in The West is what we hope from all writers: to deliver a new and better vision of the world. By those standards, this is an incredibly successful and impressive book. Here is an honest, painstaking, and thrilling story that upends almost everything we think we know about the world and replaces it with actual information, compelling figures, and ideas that are destined to change everything. I cannot recommend this book more."—Jared Yates Sexton, author of American Rule and The Midnight Kingdom
“This is a book to savor. Naoise Mac Sweeney challenges us to rethink what it means to be of the West, by illuminating how views about geographical and cultural origins have shifted from antiquity to the present day, by exploring the biographies and ideas of some surprising, intriguing and often little-known individuals. The writing is as accessible as the argument is pointed.”—Lawrence Freedman, author of Strategy: A History
“Bright, expansive, and iconoclastic, this deliciously witty book has the potential to upset the applecart of “Western Civilization” itself. It offers a bold, fresh, and scholarly way of conceptualizing the past, bringing to the fore individuals - both famous and unsung - who together give us a very different vision of history. It’s a magnificent achievement.”—Suzannah Lipscomb, author of 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII
“Naoíse Mac Sweeney sets the record straight on the modern myth of Western Civilization. Authoritative and impassioned, this glorious book takes us beyond prejudice and preconception to a new story about the world in which we live.”—Jo Quinn, author of The Hellenistic West
"[Mac Sweeney] skillfully synthesizes a wealth of scholarship and draws vibrant character sketches. It’s a case to be reckoned with."—Publishers Weekly
“The well-researched revisionist history is recommended for serious students of history.”—Booklist
"It is an in-your-face hard-hitting account for which Mac Sweeny makes no apologies in her presentation. Instead, Mac Sweeney makes her thesis plain and lends strength to her premise by examining fourteen powerful historical figures with a lasting impact on shaping the ideology of Western Civilization.... This work provides a fresh perspective similar to Netflix’s recent offering of African Queens or the 2022 cinematic marvel The Woman King starring Viola Davis. It raises thought-provoking questions, leading readers to examine accepted ideologies and frameworks to formulate a deeper, more rounded understanding and truth."—The Red Eye Media Group
"Prize-winning historian Naoíse Mac Sweeney delivers a captivating exploration of how Western Civilization...is a powerful figment of our collective imagination. Naoíse Mac Sweeney’s enthusiasm for history is refreshingly engaging and a delight to listen to."—WMNF-Florida