Ancient Worlds, by Richard Miles

Review published on December 27, 2010. Reviewed by Rachel Neaum

His stated aim is to show the similarities between past civilisations and ourselves, to draw out the origins of the civilisation we are living in now. He presents a picture of civilisations surviving almost in spite of themselves as the majority of human beings seem to have instinctively clumped together, choosing to ‘live among strangers’, despite the obvious problems this arrangement creates. The history of civilisation becomes a history of how we have tried in different ways to accommodate this instinct.

Miles has a good eye for personalities, and for the eccentricities of different civilisations. The book is very close to the narrative of the T.V. series, so watchers of the latter might find it a bit over-familiar. It makes for a very engaging, absorbing read, but following the T.V. script so closely leaves you short of detail. For example, Miles states that the Phonecians invented the alphabet; the reality is a little more complicated. The earliest evidence of the alphabet is found in what is now Lebanon, and once was part of the Phonecian Empire, but at the time the earliest known users of this brilliant new system were Semitic slaves of the Egyptians, using their kind of writing inside a mine. The Phonecian civilisation that developed out of this area took the alphabet and spread it through its trading networks across the Mediterranean world where, as Miles relates, it was taken up by the Greeks and therefore came to us.

This may seem like nitpicking, but it’s interesting to know more about what is, when you think about it, one of the cleverest inventions in the world. Drawing no distinction between the slaves who invented the alphabet and the wealthy Phonecian descendants who promulgated it is understandable in a T.V. programme, but this sort of detail would have been good to have in the book.

Over half of the chapters are dedicated to the Greek and Roman civilisations. The sections on Alexander and his aftermath are particularly good, as Miles draws a distinction between the blistering conquest of Alexander and the more sober yet lasting, legacies of those who came immediately after him, such as Ptolemy in Egypt. Yet I was disappointed by the balance of this book, and of the series: over half dedicated to the well-worn histories of Greece and Rome, with the other civilisations, from Sumer to the Parthians, struggling for space in the rest. Our debt to Greece and Rome has been widely known and acknowledged ever since the collapse of the Roman Empire; I would have been more interested to see what we had in common with the Parthians, to see if they have bequeathed us more than the phrase ‘Parthian shot’. I would have liked to see Richard Miles visit the site of Nisa in Turkmenistan, to tell us more about the amazing ancient Parthian civilisation there. Instead the Parthians appear only as enemies of more familiar civilisations, and we galloped through the very early civilisations of Mesopotamia that offered the world the first cities.

Miles’ discussion of these very ancient civilisations was rushed, as though he was in a hurry to get to Greece. This echoes a centuries-old Greco-Roman focus which was understandable, as the cuneiform scripts of the earlier civilisations were yet to be deciphered. But we have had more than a century of studying the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians now, and as they tended to write on clay rather than delicate papyrus, we have a vast library of knowledge about them. And yet while the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans are studied in schools, these civilisations, the inventors of writing, the wheel, the city, and countless other foundations of our own world, are not. I found it disappointing that Miles chose to repeat this Greco-Roman centricity rather than break out of it, and focus on the truly ancient, pre-Classical world. This is an interesting and engaging introduction to the ancient world, but not as groundbreaking as it might have been.

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