Ancient Worlds: An Epic History of East and West by Michael C. Scott

Ancient Worlds Michael Scott

Rating: 3 Stars ★★★☆☆

The ants were as big as wild foxes and they bored tunnels into the earth, mole-like, excavating soil into towering piles on the surface.

About

With stunning range and richness Ancient Worlds illustrates how the great powers and characters of antiquity shared ambitions and crises, ways of thinking and forms of governing: connections that only grew stronger over the centuries as political systems evolved, mighty armies clashed, universal religions were born and our modern world was foreshadowed.

Scott focuses on three epochal ‘moments’ across the ancient globe, and their profound wider significance: from 509-8 BCE (birth of Athenian democracy and Rome’s republic, also the age of Confucius’s teachings in China); to 218 BCE (when Hannibal of Carthage challenged Rome and China saw its first emperor); to 312 CE, when Constantine sought to impose Christianity on the Roman world even as Buddhism was pervading China via the vast trading routes we now know as the ‘Silk Roads.’

Review

A lot of histories about that time are focussed on the Greeks or on the Roman empire. This book, however, sets out to show the connections between east and west in the ancient world. The focus is mainly on ancient Rome, China, India and Armenia.

Within decades this network connected China (from the massive ‘nine markets’ within the new Han capital at Chang’an) to Tyre (ancestral hime of the Carthaginians on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean), and eventually to Rome. It would become known, in honour of the principal good that it carried, as the Silk Roads.

The book is split into three parts:

  • Part I: the emergence of ideas that would shape history for years to come
  • Part II: the impressive personalities that put their stamp onto the ancient world
  • Part III: the connection between the emerging world religions and politics

Michael Scott shows parallel developments in east and west. From personalities like Hannibal and the first Chinese emperor who put their respective stamps on their worlds to the emergence of ideas such as democracy, Confucianism, Christianity and Hinduism.

This is a moment in human history (from the end of the third century BCE to the middle of the second) when a handful of rulers and military commanders from the Mediterranean, across Asia and all the way to China – many of them notably young – marched, sailed, fought, schemed, ruled and died in their quest to redraw the maps of their dominions, carve out new territories and secure themselves against extinction.

It was fascinating to read about similar developments across the ancient world and, particularly, about what happened in other countries during the time of the Roman empire. However, I wish the book hadn’t been so short. I finished it wishing there had been more depth.

Sure, the time covered is huge, so the author had to make a choice about what to cover and choosing the three areas as he does makes sense. Still, there are many historical gaps between those times and, particularly with the histories of not so well-known ancient civilizations such as Bactria, it would have helped to have more context.

Conclusion

A fascinating connection of the ancient history of east and west, though too short in parts.

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