Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.11.03 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.11.03

Ralph W. Mathisen, Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations. From Prehistory to 640 CE. Second Edition (first published 2011).   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2015.  Pp. 608.  ISBN 9780199384457.  $62.95 (pb).  

Ralph W. Mathisen, Sources in Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations. Documents, Maps, and Images.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2016.  Pp. xxi, 578.  ISBN 9780190280918.  $49.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Katherine Blouin, University of Toronto (

Publisher’s Preview for Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations
Publisher’s Preview for Sources

Anyone who has taught a survey course on ancient Mediterranean history has faced the challenge of finding a satisfying textbook. Such publications dedicate at best 25% of their pages to what precedes the Minoans and follows Justinian.1 In other words, they remain “Classical” history textbooks, albeit ones endowed with bonus chapters that act as prologue and epilogue to an essentially Graeco-Roman narrative. As a result, whoever seeks to offer students a more balanced initiation to the wide-ranging sets of cultures, states, and historical dynamics that made up the ancient Mediterranean is forced to complement the said textbook with a selection of readings for all the weeks where something else than Greek and Roman history is planned. That was certainly my case, until I came across Ralph W. Mathisen’s second edition of Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations (hereafter AMC). According to Mathisen, AMC “strives to go beyond the standard ‘Greeks and Romans’ approach” (viii). Compared to other recent textbooks available in English, AMC does indeed offer the broadest and most thorough coverage of ancient Mediterranean history, and a significantly less Graeco-Roman-centric outline. Based on this, I assigned AMC to the c.200 students who enrolled in my Fall 2016 course “The Ancient Mediterranean World”. This review therefore stems from both a scholarly and a pedagogical perspective.2

The volume has five sections: Part I, “The origins of history” (ch. 1), is an introductory synthesis of prehistory in Europe, the Near East, and North Africa, from the Palaeolithic to 3,000 BCE. Part II, “The ancient Near East” (ch. 2-5), consists of four chapters: “Mesopotamia and the Bronze Age”, “Egypt and the Bronze Age”, “Coastal civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean”, the “Iron Age Empires” (i.e. “Assyria, Babylonia and Persia”). Apart from ch. 9 (see below), Parts III to V, which amount to 10 of the book’s 15 chapters, offer a mostly chronological survey of Graeco-Roman history.

AMC aims to incorporate both Mathisen’s “own ideas and philosophy” on ancient history and the interactions he’s had with students over his long teaching career (vii). To achieve this, four dynamics are emphasized: Evolution and continuity, connections, causality, cultural diffusion and diversity (viii). The volume is enhanced by numerous pictures, maps, and learning aids, two of which ("Digging Antiquity" and "Looking Back") are new to this edition. The second edition also includes new or lengthier discussions on numerous topics or historical figures (xiii). Each chapter comes with a selected bibliography in English, and there is a handy glossary at the end. A lengthy sourcebook also accompanies the volume. Due to a lack of space, I shall however focus on the textbook.

Mathisen does not specify what his ideas and philosophy on ancient history are, but the textbook offers a paradoxical testimony to his historiographical positioning. On the one hand, the variety of cultures and regions covered and the volume’s chronological breadth indicate a genuine commitment to the “de-Classicization” of ancient Mediterranean history. On the other hand, the volume reproduces several outdated, Orientalist stereotypes that undermine its overall reliability. Some statements were so shockingly wrong that I had to dedicate time in class to their deconstruction. Such moments became opportunities to teach students about the importance of critical reading. Given the current state of the world, this was certainly not a waste of time.

The situation is particularly problematic in Part II, which includes a series of overly sweeping statements about “the Mesopotamians” and “the Egyptians” Echoing at times V. Gordon Childe and K. A. Wittfogel, they amount to a combination of environmentally-deterministic, Eurocentric and Orientalist topoi that betray a lack of engagement with most recent scholarship in ancient environmental and socio-economic history. Thus, the idea that the Mesopotamian population developed “in spite” of socio-environmental “difficulties”—“extreme emphasis on grain production” that “could lead to unbalanced diets,” diseases, risks of raids from “pastoralists short of food,” salinization, sand dune encroachment (41)—conveys several stereotypes (the passive Orientals, association between pastoralism and banditry, colonial theories on desertification 3) and retrojections (overemphasis on grain production). We also read that due to these “difficulties,” the Sumerians had a “pessimistic mindset” (48), whereas the Egyptians, who were blessed by the bountiful Nile, were by nature optimistic (97). This comparison of civilizations is given more attention later on, in a paragraph whose content reminds one of early 20th century historiography:

“If Mesopotamia was characterized by cultural change resulting from constant contacts with foreign peoples, Egypt was generally isolated from foreign contact and was marked by cultural continuity. The only easy means of access into Egypt were via the Nile River either in the north or the south. As long as these approaches were protected, Egypt was safe from invasion and even to some degree from outside influence. The predictable replenishment of the soil, coupled with the lack of fear of floods or invasions, gave the Egyptians a completely different outlook on life from the Mesopotamians. The Egyptians were supremely optimistic, convinced that they were the best people, with the best life, on Earth. In fact, they thought that foreigners were somehow not quite human.” (75; see also 105-106)

As this quote shows, AMC promotes the Orientalist idea of a static, closed Egypt (“things did not change very quickly, if at all” [89]) and adopts a Nilocentric conception of Egyptian history. For Mathisen, “unity coupled with a degree of geographical isolation meant that Egyptian civilization could develop in peaceful conditions” (85). One also reads the unfounded idea that the Nile Delta was “less politically sophisticated” than the Nile Valley; that we have less spectacular evidence from the region does not mean it was less sophisticated politically speaking. 4 Further, and contrary to what scholarship has amply shown regarding Predynastic contacts between Egypt and its neighbors 5, we are taught that for the Egyptians, “contamination by foreign cultures was something to be avoided as much as possible” (88), and that they were only “forcefully exposed to the wider world” after the Hyksos invasion (16 th c. BCE), leading them to realize “that henceforth they could ignore what went on beyond their frontiers only at their peril” (99-100). Finally, the assertion that Egyptians “felt no need to issue law codes because everyone already knew what the laws were” goes against available evidence, which are not decisive on the matter yet testify to a true ancient Egyptian legal tradition. 6

Many passages about the Greek world are equally puzzling: e.g. the uncritical use of the outdated theory of the Dorian invasion (168), the claim of the potential historicity of the Trojan War and its association with the “Sea Peoples” (118-119), a series of assertions based on ex silentio arguments (the Minoans “seem to have a nonviolent nature” [111] and they turned to commerce because Crete was not suitable for large scale farming,7 a description of Mycenaean bureaucracy as “extraordinarily obsessive” [115]). The chapter also includes essentializing statements (e.g. “as a result of stasis […], Greeks were unable to get along with each other” (173); “Greek women could be mistreated by their husbands, especially if the husband was doing badly in his perpetual competition with other men” [175]). That the Classical Age of Greek history saw “the Greeks” reach “the highest point of their own civilization” (196) is an idea worth debating in the light of postcolonial theories. The same goes for the claim that Egypt “sank into obscurity” after the reign of Ramses’ II (120).

In general, passages such as these highlight two methodological issues. First, Mathisen ignores most recent scholarship and has a propensity to use lack of evidence as evidence. Second, many ensuing generalizations are of a speculative nature and follow an outdated, teleological view according to which civilizations are both hierarchical and resemble biological beings (they sprout, grow, blossom, then fade).

More troublesome are the sections dedicated to the Hebrews and the Philistines (ch. 4). Given current issues surrounding the politically motivated use of Biblical texts and archaeological data coming from the “Holy Land,” one expects this topic to be treated with utmost rigor. This is not the case here. While Mathisen specifies that “the Bible is treated here like any other historical source, without any preconceptions about its historical accuracy” (127), his section on the ancient Hebrews is essentially an uncritical summary of the Bible. As for the Philistines, who, Mathisen acknowledges, did not leave written records, one reads that the Bible depicts them as “threatening warriors […] who were always eager to take advantage of weaker peoples who lived around them;” they were “primarily farmers,” “lacked good seaports” and thus “never became sailors,” yet somehow managed to tax “the sea and land traffic” (127). “Philistine buildings” are also mentioned, without any discussion of the issues surrounding the attribution of ethnic labels to ancient remains. The section on the Hebrews covers seven pages, while less than a page is dedicated to “the Aramaeans and Philistines” and less than two pages to the Phoenicians. The chapter’s conclusion also contains a statement that is especially problematic given the political implications it bears: “the disruption caused by the end of the Bronze Age also provided a niche of opportunity for the Hebrews/Israelites to create not only their own identity but also their own independent nation” (134; my italics). Such a unbalanced outline cannot be justified by lack of evidence, so one wonders what else but personal biases lie behind the decision to feature the Hebrews so prominently, especially compared to the Philistines and, more still, the Phoenicians.

Mathisen’s conclusion on the effects of Christianity and Islam on the “unity” of the Mediterranean world contrast with his enthusiasm for the ancient Hebrews of the Bible. After rightly highlighting the fact that the ancient world did survive in many ways, he writes: “As of the seventh century, much of the history of the Mediterranean world would be influenced or even determined by religious differences among Catholic Christians, Orthodox Christians, and Muslims, which would prevent, and indeed continue to prevent, the kind of cultural unity of the Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds that had its origin with the Persians, developed during the Hellenistic period, and came to full fruition during the Roman Empire.” (532-533) This statement contains a series of selective, simplistic, and myopic generalizations and retrojections that are shaky at best. What “kind of cultural unity of the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world” is alluded to here? To whom, where, when does it apply? What is meant by “full fruition”? While religious differences do matter, they are not all that matters, and one ought not to equate religion and culture. Furthermore, despite the official rhetoric, religious diversity did indeed survive in several areas of the early Medieval Mediterranean world, especially in what AMC calls the “Islamic world” (533).

Finally, despite—or because—of its ambition, ch. 9, which is new to this second edition, testifies to the practical challenges associated with the de-Classicization of ancient Mediterranean history at a time when the “ancient Mediterranean” is still understood by most as a “Graeco-Roman” world. Contrary to the other chapters, it does not adopt a chronological outline. Instead, it offers a potpourri of synthesis on a large selection of ancient peoples (Scythians, Parthians, Nabateans, Etruscans, Celts), regions (India, Bactria, Punt, Saharan world, northern Europe), states (Kush, Carthage) and cultures (Spain’s Iberian culture). While it certainly has the merit of widening the cultural scope of the book, students found its reading confusing because of the numerous, and sometimes unrelated, topics discussed and of the superficial coverage of each of them. I agree.

Regardless of its uneven, often outdated, and at times biased content, especially when it comes to non-Classical and Biblical material, one must recognize AMC’s genuine attempt to break away from traditional narratives on the ancient world. Yet, while it does allocate more space than any other such English-speaking volume to the many peoples who made up the ancient Mediterranean, its often Orientalist, essentialist subtext seriously undermines its claim to novelty. It is to be hoped that a third edition will resolve these issues. This also extends to the sourcebook, which is heavily text-centered and includes a large number of outdated translations. 8


1.   Winks, R. W. and S. P. Mattern-Parkes. The Ancient Mediterranean World. Oxford: OUP, 2004; de Blois, L. and R. J. van der Spek. An Introduction to the Ancient World. London; NYC: Routledge, 2008; Nagle, B. D. The Ancient World. A Social and Cultural History., Eighth edition. Boston: Pearson, 2010.
2.   I benefitted greatly from in-class feedbacks and discussion with my students, whom I am grateful to. I also wish to thank Dimitri Nakassis for his constructive comments.
3.   See notably Davis, D.K. Resurrecting the Granary of Rome. Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007.
4.   Tristant, Y., Midant-Reynes, B., “The Predynastic Cultures of the Nile Delta” in Teeter, E. (ed.), Before the Pyramids. The Origins of Egyptian Civilization, OIMP 33. Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2011, 45-54.
5.   See for instance Guyot, F. 2010. “Les dynamiques d’échanges entre l’Égypte prédynastique et le Levant sud au 4e millénaire” Archéo-Nil 20, 87-96.
6.   The bibliography is abundant, but see notably Versteeg R. The Law in Ancient Egypt. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, and Schafik Allam’s and Bernadette Menu’s work.
7.   See p.124, for the more general and simplistic idea whereby manufacture and trade developed to compensate for the inability of all cultures located “outside the fertile river valleys” to expand through agriculture.
8.   It also reproduces pictures printed sideways (67). Most of the translations provided are so old that they are now in the public domain (for instance: a passage from Wallis Budge’s 1895 Ancient Egyptian Religion (81), a 1893 translation of Sappho (181) and a 1874 translation of Pindar's Odes (187)). This is the case even when more recent, and better, English translations are available. We also find translations of translations (91, 108). Mathisen specifies in the preface that the translations have been "edited for readability, sense, consistency, and flow, with superfluous and repetitive information edited out" (xviii). Overall, such an approach to translated texts does not make pedagogical or scholarly sense. One can't help but wonder whether it rather stems from the publisher's desire to save copyright fees.

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