Magazine article The Spectator

'Ancient Worlds: An Epic History of East and West', by Michael Scott - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Ancient Worlds: An Epic History of East and West', by Michael Scott - Review

Article excerpt

Classics is a boastful subject. Even the name -- classics -- has an inner boast; as does the classics course at Oxford, Literae Humaniores ('more humane letters'), and the course's second half, Greats.

Michael Scott, a classics professor at Warwick University and a telegenic media don, tries to put an end to the boastfulness in this book. It has always understandably annoyed him that, in the field of Greek and Roman studies, book titles often include the words 'Ancient World' -- as if there were only one ancient world, and it only included Greece and Rome.

And so he attempts an ambitious reordering of ancient worlds -- thus the book's title -- and brings the study of Greece and Rome together with Central Asia, India and China. He begins with the late 6th century BC -- the early years of Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic, and the Confucius era in China. Then he jumps to 218 BC, when China had its first emperor and Hannibal took on Rome. And he finishes in 312 AD, when Constantine began to convert the Roman world to Christianity, just as Buddhism was spreading through China thanks to the Silk Roads.

It is a thoroughly admirable ambition but it doesn't really work -- because it isn't until the end of his period that there is any real overlap of the different strands Scott longs to plait together. Yes, there are a few early collisions, and Scott begins with one of the best: Megasthenes, a 3rd century BC Greek who wrote of Indian legends, linking the birth of their society to the Greek gods of the Mediterranean. Among them was Dionysus, who, according to one legend, taught the Indians to make wine, build cities and establish law. And, by the 1st century AD, Roman toffs were wearing Chinese silk, with Roman merchants sailing to southern Arabia and Tamil India.

But, for the most part, particularly in the early period in Scott's book, East and West rarely met in any significant way. As Scott himself, too honest to push his thesis, says, 'We believe Greece and Rome had no direct knowledge of China until after the fourth century BCE.'

Scott, then, is forced to make pretty broad generalisations about the parallels between the civilisations: that, in Greece, Rome and China, they all felt 'a nagging sense of injustice... towards governance that was overwhelmingly autocratic'. Well, you could easily say that of countless civilisations in countless periods. …

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