February 7, 2017
In this age of growing nationalistic reaction to globalization and the effects of international trade upon nations, it’s good to step back and gain a broader historical perspective about mutual influences that have occurred from antiquity. This new book by Michael Scott, Ancient Worlds: A Global History of Antiquity, provides that needed perspective. And it reminds us that interconnection and interdependence has always existed throughout history, but has become a daily, living reality in our global community.
Reviewed in The Wall Street Journal by Peter Thonemann, Scott’s book presents an illuminating and fascinating exploration of the multitude of connections and communications between Eastern and Western societies — long before the Silk Road: “From Carthage and Rome through Iran and Afghanistan to Xiaanyang and the Ganges basin.”
In his review, Thonemann writes:
Three and a half thousand miles east of Athens, near the modern city of Bhopal in central India, stands a brown sandstone pillar, 21 feet tall. Carved into its surface is a seven-line Prakrit-language inscription from the late second century B.C., giving us a fleeting glimpse into a life of unimaginable strangeness and wonder. “This Garuda-pillar of Vasudeva, the god of gods, was constructed here by Heliodoros the devotee, son of Dion, of Taxila, the Greek ambassador who came from the Great King Antialkidas to King Kasiputra Bhagabhadra, the Savior, prospering in his fourteenth regnal year.”
Heliodoros the Greek ambassador: what a person to find in central India! We are all too accustomed to think of ancient history as the history of Greece and Rome, with Europe and the Mediterranean at its center. But as Michael Scott reminds us in his sweeping “Ancient Worlds: A Global History of Antiquity,” the Greco-Roman world formed only a small part of a vast, interconnected network of highly sophisticated and literate Old World cultures, stretching from Carthage and Rome in the west through Iran and Afghanistan to Xianyang and the Ganges basin in the east.
These far-flung societies engaged in a long, slow-moving conversation with one another. The pillar of Heliodoros shows us a Greek from northern Pakistan proudly proclaiming his status as a “devotee” of the Indian god Vasudeva-Krishna. A century earlier, the Indian king Ashoka had placed a long inscription at the Greek city of Alexandria in Arachosia (modern Kandahar, Afghanistan), proclaiming his Buddhist faith in immaculate Hellenistic Greek prose; a century later, 120 merchant ships were sailing from Roman ports on the Red Sea to the Indian subcontinent each year. Mr. Scott’s book is an ambitious attempt to evoke this “big” ancient world, from the sixth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D.
Mr. Scott has relatively little to say about long-term trading links between China, the Indian subcontinent and the Mediterranean, focusing instead on three distinct moments of crisis and tumult across the entire breadth of ancient Eurasia. In the decades around 500 B.C., radical political ideas emerged almost simultaneously in Athens, Rome and China. At Athens, the last decade of the sixth century B.C. saw the rise of a disruptive new ideology of “people-power,” demokratia; at Rome, the line of kings came to an end, to be replaced by a distinctive new republican system of government; and half a world away in the Chinese state of Lu, Confucius was sketching out a powerful and coherent new ethical conception of politics.
Leaping forward to the late third century B.C., Mr. Scott describes a world in upheaval. In the Far East, Qin Shi Huangdi established a tremendous new imperial state in central China; in the Far West, Hannibal’s doomed attempt to conquer Italy (recounted by Mr. Scott in bravura fashion) set Rome on the path to Mediterranean dominion; and in the Near East, the young Antiochos III made a final attempt to reunite Alexander the Great’s Asiatic empire under a single ruler. Finally, Mr. Scott takes us to the religious revolutions of the fourth century A.D., when Christianity was adopted as the state religion of the Roman Empire, Buddhism spread across much of southern China, and the Gupta dynasty of north India promoted a pluralist and tolerant form of Hinduism as a new national religion.
All this makes for an exhilarating read. If there is a problem with “Ancient Worlds,” it is that the precise nature of the links between these remote societies is all too often left frustratingly vague. It is all very well to speak, as Mr. Scott does, of “pulsating trade routes,” of “knowledge surging along these umbilical cords joining East and West,” and of ancient Eurasia as “a newly enmeshed organic whole.” But these metaphors assume precisely what needs to be shown.
Without doubt, there was a flourishing trade in high-value commodities (such as pepper, ivory and silk) between India and China and the Mediterranean; in the third century A.D., as Mr. Scott notes, the Roman Empire was well known to the Han dynasty as a source of fine linen and excellent gold and silver coins. But prestige goods have always traveled extraordinarily long distances. Indian peppercorns were found in the nostrils of the mummified Ramesses II (who died in 1213 B.C.); no one would argue from this that New Kingdom Egypt and second-millennium-B.C. India formed any kind of “enmeshed organic whole.”
When it comes to specific examples of the transfer of knowledge, ideas or religious practices between the Mediterranean and China or India, Mr. Scott is, I fear, evasive. It is true that Confucius (551–479 B.C.) was a close contemporary of the democratic reformer Cleisthenes of Athens (ca. 570–500 B.C.). Both Confucius and Cleisthenes were indubitably men with Big Ideas. But as Mr. Scott well knows, we have no reason to think that any single object (let alone a living person) had ever traveled between Lu and Athens by the time of Confucius’ death. So is this synchronism simply a matter of chance—two men on opposite sides of the globe happening to have Big Ideas at around the same time—or does it indicate some deep subterranean connection between the history of Classical Greece and Zhou China?
On this crucial question, Mr. Scott havers. He flirts nervously with Karl Jaspers’s old conception of the mid-first millennium B.C. as a unified “Axial Age,” an era of philosophical and spiritual revolution across the entire Eurasian Old World. Socrates and Buddha, Zarathustra and Confucius, Isaiah and Laozi all lived within a few (well, quite a few) generations of one another: Must there not have been some general spirit of innovation in the air, everywhere from Greece to China? Many historians find this whole notion of a globe-spanning Axial Age to be so much mystical waffle. But Mr. Scott offers no coherent alternative model of ancient globalization to put in its place.
Still, this remains a big, generous-minded book, underpinned by a distinctively humane and liberal vision. In the final pages of “Ancient Worlds,” Mr. Scott writes: “I hope that the vision of our ancient past offered here will encourage people to see places such as modern-day Afghanistan—such a fixture of our news cycle, yet so seemingly remote—in the context of a geographical region that once played host to Greek cities, Greco-Bactrian riches, great empires and the meeting of East and West . . . ; one that, moreover, acted for centuries as a cultural roundabout for objects, ideas and beliefs for societies from the Mediterranean to China.” As a first draft of a new ancient history for our globalized age, “Ancient Worlds” is a resounding success; let us hope that others will follow in its wake.
Credit: Wall Street Journal/Bridgeman Images