A Factual Travel Through Time: 5 Best Nonfiction Books from Ancient Times

“The challenge of nonfiction is to marry art and truth.”

– Phyllis Rose

Phyllis Rose was absolutely right when she said this. The genre, nonfiction, refers to a body of work whose primary aim is to present the truth. Nonfiction books are all based on facts, research, and expertise. However, a dry factual book would only be monotonous for its readers. The author of a nonfiction book has to wield their creative prowess to make their work appealing to readers. Nevertheless, the accuracy of the truth can never be compromised in the process.

The genre of nonfiction has gained a lot of prominence since the late 20th century. We see some amazing nonfictions coming up our way every day. Many consider this genre to be the product of modernity. However, that is not the case. Authors had been producing great works of nonfiction since ancient civilizations. One of the earliest works of the genre was The Babylonian Chronicles. It was produced by the people of the Akkadian Civilization in 740 BC. Pliny the Elder came up with the Naturalis Historia in the first century AD. It recorded contemporary art, history, and science. With time, the genre continued to evolve. Now, we have a wide array of sub-genres under the umbrella of nonfiction.

Let us go back in time and look at five astounding pieces of nonfiction from ancient times.

It’s Time for Some Philosophy

Book: Republic

Author: Plato

One of the greatest proponents of Greek philosophy, Plato continues to shape the world through his works years after his death. His Republic is one of the world’s greatest works of philosophy and political theory. It is a Socratic dialogue that explores a plethora of topics that are applicable in today’s world as well. Plato compiles his teacher and friend, Socrates’, views on justice, dialectical forms of government, and the ideal individual. Divided into ten books, the tome talks about the ways to create the perfect state. Surprisingly, Socrates’ dialogue with three interlocutors is one of the earliest works advocating the equality of genders. Though not feminists by any measure, both Socrates and Plato advocated the education of women. They also thought that women should play a larger role in politics. It is no wonder that the Republic is one of the cornerstones of western philosophy.

Politeia beginning. Codex Parisinus graecus 1807

Photo credit: Plato, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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The First Book on Literary Theory

Book: Poetics

Author: Aristotle

Greek philosopher extraordinaire, Aristotle was one of the sharpest minds that ever existed on this earth. It is no wonder that when he decided to explore the intricacies of dramas, he did it with great aplomb. Written in 335 BC, his Poetics is the earliest work on literary criticism. Despite this, it is one of the easiest works to understand. Aristotle presents his comprehensive work in Poetics to help us understand the basics of literary theory. Even I had to explore it in detail while in college. In his twenty-page treatise, Aristotle talks about plot, character, language, mimesis, and catharsis. Mimesis means imitation while catharsis refers to an unexplainable feeling that gives rise to pity and fear. The unity of time, place, and action is talked about in detail as well. Aristotle explains his theories by giving detailed examples from contemporary tragedies authored by Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus. Even though the book was written centuries ago, it is still relevant today. Aristotle’s Poetics can easily be used to analyze contemporary novels, dramas, films, and television series.

Aristotle poetics

Photo credit: Aristotle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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A Tome on Medicine from Ancient India

Book: Sushruta Samhita

Author: Suśruta

The esteemed practice of medicine and surgery has existed for a long time. With the constant advancements in the field of medicine, we tend to forget the foundation on which it stands. Accept it or not, Ayurveda has played a significant role in the evolution of surgery and medicine. Sushruta Samhita, penned by Suśruta, is one of the basic texts of Ayurveda. This unique book is of great historical relevance as it outlines descriptions of surgical training, instruments, and procedures that are still in practice today. Penned in Sanskrit, it is one of the few texts on medicine and surgery to have survived from the ancient world.

The Susruta-Samhita or Sahottara-Tantra (A Treatise on Ayurvedic Medicine) LACMA M.87.271a-g (1 of 8)
Photo credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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A Chinese Classic

Book: Book of Documents

Author: Confucius

Confucius was one of the greatest philosophers of all time. The Book of Documents, also known as Shangshu, is one of the Five Classics of Confucianism. Many consider it to be the earliest compilation of the history of Ancient China. It explores over 1636 years of Chinese history, spanning from the reign of Emperor Yao to the Mid Zhou dynasty. The book talks about the knowledge, customs, and policies of the people of Ancient China. Divided into Yu Book, Xia Book, Shang Book, and Zhou Book, the rhetorical tome forms the basis of Chinese political philosophy. The relevance of this book is undeniable even today.

Guwen Shangshu TNM

Photo credit: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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The Lives of Emperors

Book: The Twelve Caesars

Author: Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus

One may think that biographies are a more recent phenomenon. However, that is as far from the truth as possible. Penning the life stories of enigmatic personalities has been practiced since ancient times. One such eloquent collection of biographies is The Twelve Ceasars, also known as De vita Caesarum. Penned between AD 119 and AD 121, this Latin tome is one of the greatest works by Emperor Hadrian’s private secretary, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus. The extensive book chronicles the great lives of the first eleven Caesars of the Roman Empire. Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian are all immortalized in the pages of The Twelve Ceasars. The book gives us a vivid insight into the lives of the elite during the Roman Period. Astoundingly, the book still makes for an enjoyable read centuries after its publication.

Suetonius, De vita Caesarum, Berlin, Ms. lat. fol. 28

Photo credit: Suetonius, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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“Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing.”



Even though many people deem nonfictions to be tedious and preachy, their value is undeniable. The genre has been there since the beginning of civilization. Like any great fiction, nonfiction, when written in an artistic manner, stands the test of time. As Joan Didion rightly said, “Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing.”

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