Harry Mount

Worlds apart

Michael Scott’s Ancient Worlds is an admirable study of Greece, Rome, China and India which shows how little really connected them

Classics is a boastful subject. Even the name — classics — has an inner boast; as does the classics course at Oxford, Literae Humaniores (‘more humane letters’), and the course’s second half, Greats.

Michael Scott, a classics professor at Warwick University and a telegenic media don, tries to put an end to the boastfulness in this book. It has always understandably annoyed him that, in the field of Greek and Roman studies, book titles often include the words ‘Ancient World’ — as if there were only one ancient world, and it only included Greece and Rome.

And so he attempts an ambitious reordering of ancient worlds — thus the book’s title — and brings the study of Greece and Rome together with Central Asia, India and China. He begins with the late 6th century BC — the early years of Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic, and the Confucius era in China. Then he jumps to 218 BC, when China had its first emperor and Hannibal took on Rome. And he finishes in 312 AD, when Constantine began to convert the Roman world to Christianity, just as Buddhism was spreading through China thanks to the Silk Roads.

It is a thoroughly admirable ambition but it doesn’t really work — because it isn’t until the end of his period that there is any real overlap of the different strands Scott longs to plait together. Yes, there are a few early collisions, and Scott begins with one of the best: Megasthenes, a 3rd century BC Greek who wrote of Indian legends, linking the birth of their society to the Greek gods of the Mediterranean. Among them was Dionysus, who, according to one legend, taught the Indians to make wine, build cities and establish law.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in