Books in brief: 'Ancient Worlds: An Epic History of East and West' by Michael Scott

"This book reminds us that our own futures have been long written in the narratives of our global neighbours."
July 13, 2016
Ancient Worlds: An Epic History of East and West by Michael Scott (Hutchinson, £25)

There is a new confidence among historians. Following on from Peter Frankopan’s magisterial The Silk Roads (note the plural) we now have Michael Scott’s Ancient Worlds. Scott has identified three game-changing moments in antiquity within a wide world that spanned the Indian subcontinent, China, Greece and Rome. Via piquant examples—the book starts with an ancient Greek’s eyewitness account of man-eating ants in India —we hear how politics, war and gods catalysed the story of civilisation in the sixth and third centuries BC and again in the fourth century AD.

Scott’s plangent point is that we must look at the past as the ancients experienced their presents—with a keen interest in broader horizons. And so in the 400-odd pages we meet new, colourful, historical players (one favourite is Bactrian Diodotus, the westward-gazing, self-proclaimed ruler of third-century BC Afghanistan) and re-calibrate our perception of old ones; an aging Hannibal camped out in Ephesus with the Seleucid ruler Antiochus the Great, angrily plotting to overthrow Rome.

Offering the Mediterranean and the Far East as a giant chessboard—with individual moves impacting the whole—astute analysis is matched with acute prose: Confucius, a contemporary of the Buddha and Socrates, the man who cautioned against learning without thinking, finds himself in Scott’s estimation, “a prophet without honour in his own land.”

Archaeological and physiological evidence suggests that as a species we are driven to connect and to seek disturbance; that we must all enjoy moments in both the sun and the shade. As the west wanes and the east waxes—this book reminds us that our own futures have long been written in the narratives of our global neighbours.