Appears Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Cambridge University Press published the Cambridge Ancient History with the goal of creating a comprehensive English-language, multiauthored compilation of scholarship in the field of ancient history. Edited by the British historian J. B. Bury, the premiere edition of the Cambridge Ancient History set the standard for historical studies. Revised and expanded since its original edition, it remains the world’s most comprehensive collection of scholarship regarding the ancient world.

Summary of Event

The Cambridge Ancient History (1923-1939; also known as CAH) was published in the context of a profound change in historical thinking and archaeological practices. The study of the ancient world, which had previously been the realm of wealthy aristocrats and amteur archaeologists, had developed into a group of specialized academic disciplines. Early archaeological efforts, consisting mainly of hunts for valuable artworks for private collections, matured into a more scientific endeavor with added attention paid to the accurate recording of stratigraphy and an increased interest in the cultural context of recovered artifacts. Cambridge Ancient History History, study of [kw]Cambridge Ancient History Appears (1923-1939) Cambridge Ancient History History, study of [g]England;1923-1939: Cambridge Ancient History Appears[05750] [c]Publishing and journalism;1923-1939: Cambridge Ancient History Appears[05750] [c]Historiography;1923-1939: Cambridge Ancient History Appears[05750] [c]Archaeology;1923-1939: Cambridge Ancient History Appears[05750] Bury, J. B. Acton, Lord Strong, Eugénie Sellers

These developments arose out of the heady archaeological climate of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which had witnessed the discovery of spectacular archaeological remains, among them the fabled Homeric site of Troy in Asia Minor (now Turkey), the legendary citadel of Agamemnon at Mycenae on mainland Greece, and the palace of the mythological King Minos at Knossos on Crete. News of these exciting finds captured the interest not only of classicists and antiquarians but also of the general public. The study of the ancient world, which had previously been the domain of solely the rich and privileged, became available to virtually any young man. Departments of classics, history, and archaeology expanded as a result of the increased interest in classical education, and new departments were founded.

The increased interest in the study of history and archaeology, along with the growth of academic departments specializing in those fields, created a need for more scholarly and dependable publications than the somewhat sporadic and often inaccurate site reports that had been published previously. At the forefront of this new development in academic historical publication was Cambridge University Press, the oldest publisher in the world, which had received its charter from Henry VIII in 1534. Aware that German, Italian, and Greek publishers were producing scholarly encyclopedias and historical journals in their native languages, the Cambridge University Press began planning a series of historical publications in the English language.

In 1896, the syndics of Cambridge University Press decided to produce a Cambridge Modern History (1902-1912; Cambridge Modern History also known as CMH). They invited Lord Acton to plan and edit the new series. Acton held the position of Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, and he was widely regarded as one of the foremost political historians of his time. Acton’s planning for the CMH established the guidelines for later Cambridge publications, including the Cambridge Ancient History.

For the new CMH, Acton envisioned a multiauthored compendium of modern history, entirely in the English language but without any national bias. In addition, Acton wanted the CMH to be accessible to scholars and interested laypersons alike, which meant that notes of any kind and all foreign-language quotations would be omitted. Acton hoped that a multiauthored publication, with separate specialists writing separate chapters, would avoid the myopic pitfalls that were found in the single-author historical studies available at the time. Acton died before the CMH was published, but his guidelines for the publication remained intact and the resulting volumes, appearing between 1902 and 1912, met with scholarly and public approval.

Following Acton’s vision and guidelines for an English-language, multiauthored compendium with broad reader appeal, Cambridge University Press published the Cambridge Medieval History (1911-1936) Cambridge Medieval History under the guidance of J. B. Bury. A noted British historian and Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University, Bury had written on subjects as widely diverse as ancient Greece and the Byzantine Empire. Bury’s wide range of interests made his writings accessible to a broad audience, from academics to the general public, which made Bury well suited to follow his predecessor Acton’s vision. Published between 1911 and 1936, the Cambridge Medieval History garnered praise from scholars and laypersons alike.

When, in 1923, it was decided to create a similar historical compendium on the ancient world, Bury was invited to oversee its production. At first conception, the Cambridge Ancient History was intended to be eight volumes, however by the time of its final publication, the series had expanded to twelve volumes of text and five volumes of plates. Between 1923 and 1939, volumes were published with the following titles:

Prolegomena and Prehistory

Early History of the Middle East

History of the Middle East and the Aegean Region, c. 1800-1380 B.C.

History of the Middle East and the Aegean Region, 1380-1000 B.C..

The Prehistory of the Balkans: The Middle East and the Aegean World, Tenth to Eighth Centuries B.C.

The Assyrian and Babylonian Empires and other States of the Near East from the Eighth to the Sixth Centuries B.C.

The Expansion of the Greek World, Eighth to Sixth Centuries B.C.

Persia, Greece, and the Western Mediterranean c. 525-479 B.C.

The Fifth Century B.C.

The Fourth Century B.C.

The Hellenistic World

The Rise of Rome to 220 B.C.

Rome and the Mediterranean to 133 B.C.

The Last Age of the Roman Republic, 146-43 B.C.

The Augustan Empire, 43 B.C.-a.d. 69

The High Empire, a.d. 70-192

The Imperial Crisis and Recovery, a.d. 193-324

Even though the new series was to be published in English, the goal of the CAH was to present an overview of ancient history that was not wholly English in focus. As the series developed, the authorship expanded to include non-English authors such as Robert Armstrong Stewart Macalister of Dublin and William Scott Ferguson of Harvard. As publication progressed further, authors from numerous countries were invited to contribute. The first edition had only one female contributor, Eugénie Sellers Strong, who contributed a section on Roman art. Although it was unusual at the time for a woman to contribute to a premier scholarly publication such as the CAH, Strong was well qualified for the task. Strong was a graduate of Cambridge University, one of the very first women in England to acquire a university education. Strong was a professional archaeologist; she served as the assistant director of the British School at Rome, and she was a noted author in the field of art and archaeology. Other women were permitted to contribute to the first edition of the CAH by making English translations of articles contributed by men writing in other languages.

As a testimony to the popularity of the new CAH series, many of the first editions went into second editions by the year following that of their initial publication. Still, not all scholars were pleased with the new CAH. Some complained that it was too academic for the general public, while others complained that it was not academic enough for professional scholars. Because the CAH was a compendium of chapters written by different authors, some subjects were repeated in different chapters, while other subjects were omitted altogether. Disconcerting to many readers was the fact that in various sections some authors actually disagreed with one another. Probably the most sharp criticism of the original CAH was that the coverage had too heavy an emphasis on political and military history. Through careful editorial oversight, these weaknesses were rectified in later editions.


The concept of a multiauthored compendium of historical scholarship revolutionized academic publishing. Within the covers of a single volume, readers could compare the theories of multiple specialists and witness how those specialists grappled with historical evidence, argued their points, and even disagreed with one another. By examining the various editions, students of history experienced the process by which historians construct history. The CAH reflects the evolution of historical thinking, and it contains the combined scholarship of the finest historians of the ancient world.

One of the greatest strengths of the CAH is its adaptability to change. For the later editions of the CAH, authors were permitted to add scholarly notes to their texts, which provided academics with the depth they demanded, and the weighty emphasis on political and military history of the earlier volumes gave way to a more complete and balanced coverage of the various areas of ancient studies. In response to other perceived weaknesses in the early editions, later editors exercised more oversight on the continuity of the narrative throughout the volumes, thereby eliminating many lacunae in the information provided and avoiding much of the repetition contained in the original texts. The original edition dealt with the ancient world up to the year 324 c.e., whereas later editions were expanded to cover history through 600 c.e. In keeping with accepted historical practice, the editors continued to allow contributing authors to express opposing opinions. Careful and substantive changes have kept the CAH abreast of current historical thinking without jeopardizing its high academic standards. In its broad scope, sound scholarship, and wide appeal, the CAH remains the definitive publication on the history of the ancient world. Cambridge Ancient History History, study of

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    Cambridge Ancient History. 1st-3d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1923-2001. The individual volume introductions, the selection and scope of coverage of the text, and the organization of the chapters provide a good overview of the development of the discipline of ancient history through the decades.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chadwick, Owen. Acton and History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Compilation of the writings on Lord Acton’s contributions to the fields of history and historiography by the foremost expert on the subject. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rhodes, P. J. “The Cambridge Ancient History.” In this lecture summary, Rhodes presents an overview of the origins and development of the Cambridge Ancient History, and he discusses the shift in scholarly emphases from the time of the original publication through the intervening editions.

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Categories: History