Ancient Worlds: An Epic History of East and West – Michael Scott
There is a tendency, at least here in the West, to view ancient history as being principally about the Greeks and the Romans. After all, their achievements had some resonance in the Victorian mind with the British Empire, bringing the so-called benefits of (ahem) civilization to underdeveloped parts of the globe and the concept of democracy. Rightly, modern historiography seeks to bring to the attention of the general reader and student what was going on in more far-flung parts of the world such as the Indian sub-continent and what we now know as China at around the same time. This is Michael Scott’s attempt.
Scott takes three significant dates and tries to establish a connection between what was going on in the Mediterranean basin and the East. Firstly, he picks out 508 BCE which is when the seeds of what became the Athenian democracy were sown, when the structure of the Roman republic was established and when, in China, Confucius was at the height of his influence. Then we move to 218 BCE and the titanic struggle between Rome and Carthage, Hannibal et al, and when China and India saw empires emerging from periods of bloody and brutal internecine strife. The third significant date in Scott’s thesis is 312 CE when Constantine converted to Christianity (if he really did) and when Buddhism and Hinduism became the dominant religions in their respective territories.
The book is a very agreeable read and Scott displays his intellectual prowess in an engaging fashion, although there are too many recaps and repetitions for my taste. There are many interesting parallels in Development in different parts of the globe which Scott points out and he is persuasive that there was much more interconnectivity between three worlds than we might have thought hitherto. Having tramped around southern India I was aware of the trading reach of the Greeks and Romans and silks and ceramics from the Orient were prized in the Roman Empire. Peter Frankopan in the Silk Roads has already argued persuasively, in my view, that the trade routes running from East to West were a sort of information super highway along which ideas as well as artefacts moved from one culture to another.
What troubles me and Scott doesn’t establish conclusively is whether these contemporaneous developments were just the result of happenstance or whether there was really a meaningful exchange of theories and influences. After all, as Scott admits, there is no real evidence to suggest that the Greeks and Romans were aware of what was out there in the east until the 4th century BCE so that pretty much defeats his argument in respect of political developments. It may be that in settled communities, however defined, there is a natural tendency to structure governance, religious thought and warfare that seems to best suit the circumstances at the time. No more or no less.
If we start to look for bigger pictures and greater connectivity than might otherwise have been there, we end up with a reductio ad absurdum that there is one controlling entity that structures the affairs of humans and their communities and we don’t want to go there.
Scott’s book is thought-provoking and taught me much I didn’t know about the development of Hinduism and Buddhism. I enjoyed the first part the most, perhaps because I was more familiar with the period. But as for Scott’s overriding thesis, I think the jury is out. If I was sitting in the agora of Athens I would cast my psephos against it.
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