Ancient Worlds: A Global History of Antiquity by Michael Scott

We are invited to adjust our angle of vision to consider multiple ancient worlds in Central Asia, India, and China.

Ancient Worlds: A Global History of Antiquity opens with an episode from the life of the ancient Greek diplomat Megasthenes who, at around the third century BCE, wrote the earliest known Western account of ancient India and the surrounding plains of the Ganges in lively prose. Scott weaves this anecdote into terse statements on the nature of interconnectedness itself. “We stand on the eddies of a new globalization in the twenty-first century,” he writes, and yet we still tend to perceive history “as if it happened in unconnected, compartmentalized chunks.” The title itself is a subtle polemical jab at certain historians of antiquity, for whom a singular ancient world probably begins with the The Odyssey in the eighth century BCE and ends with the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE.

Modern people may exhibit a vain tendency to associate such developments with a grand unfolding of progress and liberty, from darkness into light, but such achievements are not necessarily favored by history.

So we are invited to adjust our angle of vision to consider multiple ancient worlds in Central Asia, India, and China. The threads between them are plentiful in the fourth century CE and numerous enough in the third century BCE for Scott to carefully adduce them for insight. He also has refreshingly forceful commentary on lessons that might be usefully drawn from history. But the connections are tenuous the further we wind back through time, and the generalizations required to massage them into the argument at times feel strained. If Scott’s task is to demonstrate that the respective kingdoms, republics, and empires of these regions were not only contemporaneous with those of the Greeks and Romans, but also linked to them by cultural and geopolitical ties, he is largely successful.

The challenge at the heart of Ancient Worlds is the same faced by all historians who choose to work with big questions on wide canvasses: amassing the right resources and material to fill it, holding it in the balance, and drawing appropriate conclusions from it. Scott goes an admirable distance towards meeting the challenge. Hannibal’s overland trip across the Alps to Rome in 218 BCE, for example, despite its well-preserved place in our cultural memory as a feat of daring and valor, is described with a storyteller’s skill that opens it up to new meanings. Scott deftly moves between contexts, showing Hannibal’s personal dramas, his filial piety, as well as his sad, slow exhaustion and defeat in Italy, unequipped to conquer Rome and alienated from the Carthaginian senate back home.

It’s the wider regional context, however, that furnishes Scott with his essential material. When Hannibal set the Second Punic War into motion he might have imagined a reordering of the Mediterranean basin in a manner that reflected the glory of Carthage. He might not have imagined that, through a combination of strategic alliances, fissiparous borders and allegiances, and the vagaries of fate and happenstance, the conflict would culminate in the world’s first “mega empire”, and that by 183 BCE the Mediterranean would belong to Rome. In carrying out their dramas in their own respective domains at the edges of their own borders, the supporting cast in the conflicts leading up to this “new kind of geopolitics” — namely, the various independent Greek city-states, Philip V of Macedon, Ptolemy of Egypt, Antioch of the Seleucid Empire (part of present day Iraq), and Diodotus of Bactria (part of present day Afghanistan) — pushed the conflict and its consequences eastward into India and China. The Ancient Greek term that captures this dynamism is symploke — interweaving, unity, interconnectedness — apparent and increasing enough that Polybius himself commented on it after the Second Punic War.

Scott has a light touch on matters of historiography and he does not advertise his assumptions explicitly. But he does repeatedly insist on the role of contingency in historical change and indicates why it matters for readers looking to draw lessons from history. “A lifetime’s effort to unify and solidify an empire under a single rule,” Antiochus was to learn, “could be undone by a couple of poor outcomes on the battlefield.” “We ought to be keenly aware,” he writes, “of the uncertainty and fragility inherent in these systems we now so often take for granted.” Most explicitly, according to Scott, we should note the “chance-like nature of human civilization, and of the need not to assume the inevitable survival of any aspect of our society but, rather, to fight actively for what we wish to remain part of our world.”

I do not wish to impute too much to Scott on this basis, but this approach to history and to philosophy expresses the consummate conservative worldview. From Edmund Burke’s ancient principles to Micheal Oakeshott’s ship of state, this tradition recommends vigilance on behalf cherished institutions. Scott shows that religious freedom, for example, is not a natural or inevitable product of history, but rather a fragile achievement arising out of a specific constellation of interconnected forces and pressures. It appears and disappears throughout history, and it exists in the modern West today still underpinned by Jewish ideas of the spirit, Greek ideas of political freedom, and Roman law. It was also a fact of life in ancient India and reached its fullest expression during the reign of Chandragupta II in 380 BCE. Modern people may exhibit a vain tendency to associate such developments with a grand unfolding of progress and liberty, from darkness into light, but such achievements are not necessarily favored by history. They can be squandered, lost, sacrificed, or surrendered; they are more easily destroyed than established.

Scott falters at times with overly broad generalizations. The journey of Megasthenes is striking, certainly, but alongside it there are thin reeds upon which to make a case for interconnected ancient worlds before the third century BCE. Scott’s caveat that “the flow of information was not solely in the direction of the curious West” does not entirely succeed in obscuring the apparent fact that it was not until two centuries after Megasthenes that the boot of cultural exchange was on the other foot, and a Greek appeared as a principal character in a Buddhist dialogue. Might this reflect something unique about early Hellenistic inquisitiveness, rather than the interconnectedness of ancient peoples in general?

In the book’s last section Scott also writes somewhat slackly that in the Roman world the conflict between the Church and secular leaders would become “a near-perpetual conflict between spiritual and earthly authority”. A full accounting of this point extends well beyond Scott’s narrative. But it is truer to say, at least, that there is a long history here whereby the heavenly and the earthly kingdoms were pried apart by Europeans using secular law, liberty of conscience principles, Enlightenment philosophy, and various other tools available to them from out of the deep well of Europe’s Greco-Roman and Christian legacy.

These are forgivable drawbacks for such a wide-ranging project, and Scott is generally adept with contexts and details, both large and small. The stories of Rome, Athens, and China are most prominent in Ancient Worlds, and weaving them together is an impressive feat in itself. Lesser known names and cities are given their place too: Antioch, Bactria, Seleucia, Carthage, and Parthia, for instance. They may now seem as lost to us as Atlantis. But like Rome and Athens, they were key points in the wide tapestry of antiquity, and for Scott, that means they are part of a single shared history that still stretches to the present day.

RATING 7 / 10