Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.02.37 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.02.37

Michael Scott, Ancient Worlds: A Global History of Antiquity.   New York:  Basic Books, 2016.  Pp. xvi, 411.  ISBN 9780465094721.  $29.99.  

Reviewed by Salvatore Tufano, Sapienza Università di Roma (


Chinese historians of the late third century CE claimed that the Romans came from China.1 Connections among cultures had long fascinated Greek and Roman historians, who used myths to express kinship. In our time, the interactions between classical civilizations and Near and Far Eastern cultures have been studied in two ways, either through specific study of actual networks of trade and real moments of contact (as the Persian Wars, or cities like Palmyra), or through a comparison of their reciprocal political systems: in other words, even when there was not an actual connection, Roman and/or Greek societies were compared with different political systems in the East. In this second case, phenomena like the administration of the Han empire viz. the Roman were studied to better understand our Western perspective and to move to a study of World History, less focused on ancient western history.2

Michael Scott’s book adopts both these perspectives, namely the study of the actual entanglements of the Western and Eastern ‘worlds’ (Parts II and III, respectively on the late third century BC and on the fourth century CE) and an analysis of contemporaneous political revolutions (democracy in Athens, republic in Rome, Confucianism in China), as possibly resulting from similar circumstances (Part I, on the sixth century BCE). The general goal is to show that the ancient world was a largely connected one. The demonstration of this growing connectivity should justify and enhance the use of a global perspective in the study of ancient history (pp. 358-9) and provide a possible lesson to our age.

Part I, “Politics in an Axial Age”, focuses on the political dimension and on parallel, but not necessarily connected, solutions found to similar political circumstances: political turmoil, economic stress and the need of accommodating to new social instances caused profound changes in Rome, in Athens, and in the State of Lu. The first chapter deals with the birth of Athenian democracy and how this evolution had an impact in Rome: in the remoulding of the Roman republic which occurred in Rome in the fifth century BC, in fact, the Athenian democracy was a source of inspiration when a Roman mission came to Athens (454 BC). As argued in the second chapter, however, this narrative of the Classical sources contrasts with the actual similarities, since the Roman political system could only be seen as similar to the 'pre-democratic' Athens of Solon, for the presence of census classes and the poor participation of the people. The second chapter focuses more closely on the Roman republic and on the direct connection suggested by the tradition of a Roman mission to Athens (454 BC): the Roman elites were actually more interested in finding a balance among the classes (the concordia ordinum later adumbrated by Cic. resp. 2.67-9).3 The third chapter is dedicated to Confucius' life and thought, with excursuses on the previous history of China and on the other political philosophies developed in China after Confucius. The “Coda” to this part suggests that the political innovations, which occurred in Rome, in Athens, and in China, were indeed fragile. The quests for political change had been answered in different ways, despite possible similarities in the original causes (civil unrest; debts and food shortage; breakup of traditional systems); only later would Romans and Greeks agree on the necessity of a single ruler as in China.

Part II, “War and A World in Change” analyses ancient globalisation in action, as the result of different military actions, achieved in different settings during the period from 229 BC (death of Hamilcar Barca) to 145 BC (Ai Khanoum’s takeover by nomadic invaders, the Yuezhi). Chapter 4 retells the history of the first Punic war, of Antiochus II's rule, of the birth of the kingdom of Bactria, of the Mauryans, and of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, in China, without an explicit connection among these different events and figures: these parts serve as a prelude to explain the main characters of later events, and how Hannibal or the first Hans would come to power. In Chapter 5 ('Making Connections'), the second Punic war is analyzed through the different alliances sought by Carthage, mainly with Philip V. Two further sections on Antiochus III's internal and external threats, and on the first contests between the Hans and the Xiongnu in the North, highlight why, by 205 BC, these military commanders had spread wars across multiple theatres. They were all trying to defend fragile borders and to expand their empires, as discussed in the sixth chapter, where we find that the end of the second Punic war and the Roman victory over Philip V explain the Roman expansion and how some figures not connected in the past were coming to wage war against common enemies. As the Hans were to surrender against the Xiongnu, a domino effect caused the invasion of Bactria, retold in detail in the Coda. The main conclusion of this section is that globalisation could result from the combination of defensive and aggressive military policies.

The main point of Part III is that religion is an important aspect for understanding the increased interconnection among these ancient cultures; it adds to those other aspects which help this understanding, namely politics (Part I: through parallelisms and feeble direct connections, only for Rome and Athens), and warfare (Part II: direct military encounters; migrations and building of roads as the results of wars). Part III, “Religious Change in a Connected World” is the most inclusive section, as it focuses in detail on the history of Armenia and India as well as continuing to focus on the history of China and Rome in the fourth century CE. The religious dimension is chosen to show how different political actors reacted to religious innovations, especially in the case of Rome and Armenia. This section considers moments of actual connection, for instance when the wandering Buddhist monks moved between China and India and helped the reciprocal knowledge, and pure parallels between distant realities (Western Christian monks in contrast with the wandering Buddhists). The focuses of this part are Christianity (in particular, how it was faced by Roman emperors, and in Armenia) and Buddhism (which was tolerated in a pluralistic society in India; variously adapted, accepted or refused in the various Chinese states). Scott begins with chapter 7 on the historical backgrounds of India, Rome, China and Armenia at the beginning of the fourth century CE and also anticipates how the Hindu Guptas used the diffusion of Buddhism to challenge and modify the traditional caste system. Other areas of interest are how Constantine tried to intervene in the Christian theological debate, how the Chinese translated, literally and metaphorically, Buddhist ideas, and Armenia's difficult balance between Christianism and Zoroastrianism. The following chapter on 'Enforcing, Mixing and Moulding Religion' explains in detail why rulers could not simply get rid of the previous religions in their country, from paganism in the West to traditional societal divisions in China and India that were now challenged by Buddhism. Chapter 9 proceeds to the end of the century, when different figures (from the Chinese dynasts who had Buddhist advisers, to Chandragupta II in India and Theodosius in the West) and events like the division of Armenia in 387 showed the dramatic challenges raised by religion in an ever more connected world. The evolutions of the classical worlds and the Eastern societies had reached a point of conjunction that was to continue.

As shown by the summary of Part III, a possible criticism which can be addressed about the entire book concerns the limits of the actual connectivity: in terms of actual interactions, these can only be observed after the fourth century BC. Two other points, moreover, need consideration. On the one hand, current trends in world history have already gone beyond the traditional approach to the study of the Mediterranean in the sixth century BC:4 Scott hardly mentions, for example, the scholarship on the Achaemenids and on their multiethnic kingdom. In particular, the first part of the book does not escape the risk that a meta-historical comparison glosses over the actual events in the sixth century BC.5 On the other, the book often omits the historical problems concerning uncertain events, such as the Peace of Callias (presented as an undisputed fact at p. 68), or the Roman mission to Athens in 454 BC. The Roman ‘debts’ to Greece require a more careful consideration of the Italian colonies, while the connections with the Etruscans were not limited to military clashes in the Sixth and Fifth Centuries BC. 6

Nonetheless, Ancient Worlds provides rich examples, useful to a wide audience interested in world history, enhanced by eight maps and 19 illustrations. A general readership will not be bothered by the absence, in the scholarship, of almost any title not written in English.7

In sum, while specialists will be concerned by the lack of problematisation of the single events, general readers and classicists less versed in Chinese and Indian history will certainly gain from exposure to these ancient connections, for instance the Kushan empire of the Yuezhi, in Bactria, with its artistic debts to Hellenistic ancestors and to its Chinese neighbours (pp.222-223), but also the cosmopolitan Buddhist monastery and university at Nalanda, founded in India in the fifth century CE (pp. 326-327), both of which testify to the ancient preludes to modern globalisation.


1.   So Yu Huan, Wei lüe, 11, as quoted by the later Sanguozhi (429 CE); see an English translation here and Krisztina Hoppál, “The Roman Empire According to the Ancient Chinese Sources”, AAntHung 51, 2011, pp. 263-305.
2.   On the advantages of the comparative approach, for the study of Greek and Roman political institutions, see David Konstan, “Reading the Past (On Comparison)”, in Dean Hammer (ed.), A Companion to Greek Democracy and the Roman Republic, Malden (MA) – Oxford 2015, pp. 8-19.
3.   A comparison between Solon’s laws and the Twelve Tables was possibly already in Aristotle (fr. 696 Gigon), before Cicero repeated it (de leg. 2.59 and 64): the parallel, however, was limited to funerary norms. Despite the commonly accepted view that the Twelve Tables betray a Greek influence, the historicity of the Roman mission to Athens is extremely debated; nothing rules out the possibility of the role of Magna Graecia in the process. On the historicity of the mission and the parallel between Solon’s laws and the Twelve Tables, see Robert Maxwell Ogilvie (ed.), A Commentary on Livy: Books 1-5, Oxford 1965, pp. 459-460; Emilio Gabba, “Considerazioni sulla tradizione letteraria sulle origini della Repubblica”, in Les origines de la république romaine, «Entretiens Hardt» 13, Genève 1967, pp. 133-169, at p.167; Michael C. Alexander, “Law in the Roman Republic”, in Nathan Rosenstein & Robert Morstein-Marx (eds.), A Companion to the Roman Republic, Malden (MA) – Oxford 2006, pp. 236-255, at p.239 (BMCR 2007.05.30.)
4.   Cf. e.g. Lieve Donnellan, Valentino Nizzo & Gert-Jan Burgers (eds.), Contexts of Early Colonization, I, «Papers of the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome» 64, Rome 2016 (reviewed BMCR 2017.05.42.)
5.   On the risks of an excessive comparison among different cultures, cp. e.g. Mario Liverani, Oltre la Bibbia. Storia antica di Israele, Roma – Bari 2003, at p.223.
6.   On the Forum Boarium as an early point of contact with outsiders, see Charlotte R. Potts, Religious Architecture in Latium and Etruria, c. 900-500 BC, Oxford 2015, pp. 90-1 (BMCR 2016.07.36); on the impact of the Greek colonisation, still valid Timothy J. Cornell, The Beginnings of Rome. Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000-264 BC), London; New York 1995, pp. 86-92 (BMCR 97.3.26.)
7.   For instance, given the importance of the Bactrian kingdom to the general skeleton of the book, the specialist will note the absence of Omar Coloru, Da Alessandro a Menandro: il regno greco di Battriana, Pisa; Rome 2009 (BMCR 2010.10.33.)

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