Lessons from Civilization's Cradle

Article excerpt

HELLENISM IN LATE ANTIQUITY. By G. W. Bowersock, University of Michigan Press, 107 pp., $24.95, 2)ALEXANDER TO ACTIUM: THE HISTORIAL EVOLUTION OF THE HELLENISTIC AGE. By Peter Green, University of California Press, 970 pp., $45, 3)PERICLES OF ATHENS AND THE BIRTH OF DEMOCRACY. By Donald Kagan, Free Press, 287 pp., $22.95

THE names run like worry beads through my fingers: Erbil, with its traces of a town going back to 7000 BC; Nineveh, capital of the ancient empire of Assyria; the Arch of Ctesiphon; Ur, with its royal cemetery from the third millenium; Baghdad. As allied bombs rain down on the land between those immemorial mothers of humanity, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, these and other traces of the cradle of civilization, the discovery and preservation of which is perhaps the chief honor of 20th-century archaeology, are in danger of being destroyed.

Books are more durable than such remains, and these names and others shine brightly in the pages of many histories. The burdens of empire in this part of the world have long attracted historians. Joining this long distinguished line stretching from the fabulous Herodotus (who traveled about Egypt and Persia in the fifth century BC) are two modern historians, G. W. Bowersock and Peter Green.

"I have often asked myself, " writes Bowersock in Hellenism in Late Antiquity, "how it must have felt to have lived through the Islamic conquest (AD 630) with all the accumulated baggage of the Hellenic-Semitic East, both Christian and pagan."

That baggage is the subject of his compact, eloquent, and tightly argued history. Intelligent and inspired interpretation of archaeological remains gives this book great power. Bowersock shows over and over again how the so-called polytheism of the Greek pantheon helped local cultures - whether Arabic or Christian - express their individuality.

Of Greek culture, he says, "In language, myth, and image it provided the means for a more articulate and a more universally comprehensible expression of local traditions." Of Islam, he writes, "In many ways Hellenism prepared the way for Islam by bringing the Arabs together and equipping them with a sense of common identity." Of the Christians, he says, "The rural Christians, no less than the pagans, made use of Greek mythical iconography to adorn both their churches and their homes with mosaics that evoked, in a reassuring and still meaningful way, the old local cults of the region."

A stunning example of this comes from Cyprus, with analogues in Syria. A mosaic consisting of six panels represents Dionysos as the redeemer. Familiar stories are reinterpreted; in one, the Christian figure of "Error" appears. Bowersock comments, "The supremacy of Dionysus suggests a kind of pagan monotheism, responding to Christian monotheism, and with it comes the possibility of error or deviation."

Rich in startling perspectives, Bowersock's book concludes with a quote from Proust that speaks for many who have read it: "My head swam to see so many years below me, and yet within me, as if I were thousands of leagues in height."

If Bowersock is Proustian in his discipline - as catholic towards cultures of the past as he is insightful - Peter Green is more like the Roman satirist Juvenal, whom he translated years ago.

Savage indignation moves his pen - at least sometimes - in his almost 1,000-page history. Alexander to Actium: The Historial Evolution of the Hellenistic Age starts with Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), who, with his armies, spread Hellenism in West Asia Minor, Eqypt, Babylon, Media, central Asia, and India. The book ends with the rise of the first Roman emperor.

The enormous length of the book will not keep it from being read. Opening it at any page, the reader will be glued to the page. Green's flexible, idiomatic style draws one on and on, as does the syncopation of subjects, from politics to medicine to philosophy to sport to business. …