Ancient History by JM Roberts [A Review]

JM Roberts’ Ancient History is epic! A book whose impressive physically size is matched by its ambitious scope and illuminating format.

This is one of those books where you need to put yourself in the mind of the author. When you do you realise that is simply not possible to cover this subject comprehensively; however you define ‘ancient history’, there is an overwhelming amount of information and important choices need to be made about what to include and exclude. This is also true in writing a review. I can only afford to barely skim the surface of describing what this large and long book contains.

Roberts’ stated aim in this book is to describe the events, movements, facts and circumstances which have shaped most human lives. In order to do so, he must begin by pointing out the limitations of writing history – of being selective, of choosing perspectives and narrative forms. Words like ‘ancient’, ‘civilisation’, ‘human’, ‘history’, and many more besides, need to be defined including where each begins and ends.

Human history began when the inheritance of genetics and behaviour which had until then provided the only way of dominating the environment was first broken through by conscious choice.

Ancient History consists of seven parts, each of a few chapters. The first part covers prehistory, beginning with a search for that period when humans branched off from other primates and began having a conscious impact on the environment. It is a story of environmental changes leading to biological evolution producing a series of ape-men and hominids that have since disappeared from life but have left behind their fossilised remains, tools, dwellings and even clues to their culture and lifestyle. Roberts, of course, cannot afford to dwell on these pre-civilisation developments. Soon the question of how civilisation arose must be examined.

What made civilisation possible was the development of agriculture.

Farming truly revolutionised the conditions of human existence.

Roberts discusses the impact of agriculture on humans from population explosions to trade to the invention of war between settled and unsettled peoples. He also makes the point that humans are still largely limited by our environment and that neither our mental or physical capabilities have improved in recent millennia. Instead, it is our ability to draw talent from our growing population and accumulate achievement that paved the way forward.

As we progress, Roberts shares more thoughts on the issues that plague the writing of a history such as this. Issues such as how to distinguish between apes and ape-men, the problems with terms like ‘stone age’, ‘bronze age’ and ‘middle ages’, the resort to using generalisations because universals and absolutes are implausible. Soon after the development of agriculture, Roberts defines what he means by ‘civilisation’.

For the purpose of this book it means that a collection of people have reached a sort of critical mass; where a certain level of complexity and variety of human action and experience has been reached, where there is a surplus of resources and development becomes self-sustaining.

Roberts shares the problems of dealing with civilisations or regions individually. Once people began trading not only goods but ideas and technology, things get confused and boundaries become blurred. So, his method is to deal with the earliest civilisations in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Crete individually but, following the establishment of culturally diverse civilisations, focus on the interactions between civilisations and deal with isolated civilisations, such as India and China, later and by themselves.

So, following prehistory, the second part covers the early civilisations. Roberts begins by looking at ancient Mesopotamia which he says makes the best case for being the first civilisation. So much of what we automatically associate with early civilisation was achieved there – irrigation, the first towns, mass-produced pottery, the development of writing, religion, laws, mathematics, astronomy, bronze, slavery and social classes as well as the first literature with the widely-disseminated story of Gilgamesh and its flood myth. The legacy of the Sumerians and Babylonians live on today with their sexagesimal system by which we still measure time and angles.

Roberts covers ancient Egypt in similar detail before briefly covering ancient Persians, Minoans and others such as the Myceneans. Roberts closes this part on the first civilisations with the arrival of an ancient dark age where many established civilisations fell into decline and collapse, perhaps begun by natural catastrophes such as earthquakes and droughts before the impact of opportunistic raiders.

In the third part, Roberts takes his first diversion to cover ancient India and China. Ancient India, Roberts says, is in some ways still with us. Its social systems and religions are the longest lasting creations of the human mind.

By [Buddha’s] day, an Indian civilisation still living today and still capable of enormous assimilative feats stood complete in its essentials. This was a huge fact; it would separate India from the rest of the world.

Like India, the legacy of ancient China also shows the power of ideas and culture to outlast institutions. As elsewhere, Roberts takes us through their major lasting achievements including widespread literacy, powerful central governance, innovations such as ceramics and iron casting far before anyone else and their great personages like Confucius and Lao Tzu.

With a short section on the ‘greatest of ancient empires’ – the Persians of Cyrus and Darius – and the end of the Old World, Roberts concludes the first three parts of his epic. The next two parts of Ancient History are two of the longest and cover what most of us first think about when we think about ancient history; classical Greece and Rome.

Measured in years, more than half the story of civilisation is already over by about 500 BCE. We are still nearer to that date than were the people who lived then to their first civilised predecessors. In the three thousand or so years between them, humanity had come a long way; however imperceptibly slow the changes of daily life in them had been, there is an enormous qualitative gap between Sumer and Achaemenid Persia. By the sixth century, a great period of foundation and acceleration was already over. […]

Only one of the civilisations already discernible by the sixth century BCE in fact showed much potential for expanding beyond its cradle – that of the eastern Mediterranean. It was the youngest of them but was to be very successful, lasting over a thousand years without a break in its tradition. Even this is less remarkable than what it left behind, though, for it was the seedbed of almost all that played a dynamic part in shaping the world we still inhabit.

I don’t want to say much about these sections on Greeks and Romans because even casual readers of Western history will be familiar with much of it. Though that does not make Roberts’ take any less fascinating, with any less potential to learn new things or with any importance diminished no matter how well-tread the ground.

During [the Peloponnesian War] there came to fruition the greatest achievement in civilisation the world had ever seen. Political and military events then shaped that achievement in certain directions and in the end limited it and determined what should continue to the future. This is why the century or so of this small country’s history, whose central decades are those of the war, is worth as much attention as the millennial empires of antiquity.

Greek civilisation was quite simply the most important extension of humanity’s grasp of its own destiny down to that time. Within four centuries, Greece had invented philosophy, politics, most of arithmetic and geometry, and the categories of Western art. It would be enough, even if her errors too had not been so fruitful. Europe has drawn interest on the capital Greece has laid down ever since, and through Europe the rest of the world has traded on the same account.

True to his stated aims in this book, Roberts does not spend much time glorifying the achievements of the Roman Empire or lamenting its decline and fall, except where they are relevant to the shape the future world. Instead he gives at least as much attention on to its most influential legacy – as the nursery of Christianity.

Until the coming of industrial society, in fact, [Christianity] is the only historical phenomenon we have to consider whose implications, creative power and impact are comparable with the great determinants of prehistory in shaping the world we live in.

Roberts considers the factors that made the establishment, survival and dominance of Christianity possible while also showing what aspects Christianity adopted from the Romans and paganism as well as the origins of familiar battles between church and state and its influential figures such as St Augustine and the emperor Justinian.

The last two parts of Ancient history cover the extraordinary achievements of the Arab and Byzantium empires, another catch-up with developments in India and China, before a return to Europe. In medieval Europe, we see the totalitarian dominance of the church reaching its peak but with an appreciation of emerging rivals to its power; the forming of more modern-looking states, rule of law, bureaucracy and a sense of nationhood. Roberts’ epic ends with a glimpse of the coming renaissance in the form of naval exploration, attempts at reconciling Christianity with classicism and, especially, the printing revolution.

No single change marks so clearly the end of one era and the beginning of another.

Having a clear aim that can provide guidance as to what to include and exclude and where to draw lines is essential to a topic like this which can easily snowball out of control. So, it is understandable that Roberts gives space to making the case for his method and that the reader notices and understands. The attention to that which affected the most people and has had the most lasting legacy is a clear focus.

At one extreme, this is why this book has very little on the civilisations of sub-Saharan Africa, pre-European Americas or even pre-Roman Europe. As interesting as these cultures and histories are, especially to those who descended from them, they could not be granted much space by the parameters set in this book.

But for the great areas of which nothing has so far been said, such a chronology would be wholly unrevealing. […]

This is, in the main, because none of them had achieved levels of civilisation comparable to those already reached in the Mediterranean and Asia by 1000 BCE. Remarkable things had been done by then in Western Europe and the Americas, but when they are given due weight there still remains a qualitative gap between the complexity and resources of the societies which produced them and those of the ancient civilisations which were to be found durable traditions. The interest in the ancient history of these areas lies more in the way they illustrate that varied roads might lead towards civilisation and that different responses might be demanded by different environmental challenges than in what they left as their heritage. In one or two instances they may allow us to reopen arguments about what constitutes “civilisation”, but for the period of which we have so far spoken the story of Africa, of the Pacific peoples, of the Americas and western Europe is not history but still prehistory. […]

At the other extreme, this book does spend a fair bit of time on the Byzantine Empire. This may seem disproportionate given the relatively smaller size, strength or longevity of the Empire. But the fact that Byzantine art, architecture and, especially, its role in the development of Orthodox Christianity, all of which extended far beyond its borders and lasted well beyond its time, particularly in later superpower Russia, mean that it is granted a good deal of space in this book.

Similarly, a fair bit of space is given to the ancient Hebrews even though they were so insignificant there is little than can be known for sure. However, they are included for the obvious reason that their culture and beliefs, though they would undergo centuries of evolution and clarification, would have enormous influence in the future.

Somewhere between these extremes lie some others like the ancient Persians. Before reading this book and looking over the contents page, I was surprised how little space was going to be given to the Persians despite Roberts calling them the greatest of all ancient empires. The impact of the Persians on the ancient Greeks, and hence all of the West, through the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae and the campaigns of Alexander not withstanding; in Roberts’ view, despite their size and power, the ancient Persians were not great innovators but rather absorbed and applied the innovations of those they conquered and traded with. Unlike the territory subsequently conquered by Alexander’s Greeks, which established a long-lasting Hellenic culture, the Persians left little legacy to the regions of their empires beyond their homeland.

While I think this book was mostly factual rather than analytical, it did give much to think about. The massive scope of the book makes possible the identification of long-term trends and arcs. One I will share here is where Roberts compares three Eastern civilisations. Compared to European and Middle-Eastern civilisations, India was relatively isolated, was difficult to invade by land and, until technology developed, virtually impossible to invade by sea. When invasions were successful, the invaders did not have much impact on Indian culture. Instead the invaders became Indian themselves. There are, of course, a few exceptions; the arrival of Islam being a notable one.

The same was more true for China. China was even more isolated, even more difficult to invade and Chinese culture was even more impervious to outside influence and exceptions are rarer. This resilience, a lack of meaningful cultural change over long periods of time, is also a reason why the is relatively less on India and China in this book than other civilisations. Then you have Japan; even more isolated, even more difficult to invade, yet paradoxically, Japan has generally been more open to outside influence and today has arguably more in common with the West than the East. Perhaps the extreme isolation meant less antagonism towards aliens and less discrimination between what was ‘Eastern’ or ‘Western’.

Another idea that will stay with me is about the relative ease or difficulty of agriculture and what that meant for establishing civilisation. It is certainly true that early successes in civilisation began around river-valley agriculture – the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Indus and the Yellow river. But contrary to a common conclusion that it must have been easier to establish a food surplus in these areas, the evidence suggests it was more difficult. Perhaps it was the lessons in the solutions to the difficulty – by developing organised labour for instance – that provided the means for civilisation.

The relative ease of simple agriculture in Europe may have had a negative effect on social evolution; in the great river valleys men had to work collectively to control irrigation and exploit the soil if they were to survive, while in much of Europe an individual family could scratch a living on its own. There is no need to fall into extravagant speculation about the origins of western individualism in order to recognise that there is something very distinctive and potentially very important.

There is little I can fault or criticise this book for. There are times when I wished for more detail, but one must remember the scope and aims of this large book prevent that. My main criticism is that there were times when I felt Roberts was a little too credulous and I wished for more scepticism. He is willing enough to admit where there are significant gaps in our knowledge but sometimes seems less inclined to question the information we do have.

At 28, 24, 5 (h,w,d, in cm), this book is a little cumbersome. Far too big to read in bed or on a couch. You either have to read it at a table or like I did; lying on the floor, often prompting my two-year old to sit on my back and read her own book.

Putting aside the impressive content, this book’s greatest advantage is its format. I imagine many historians would love to be offered a mandate to produce a book like this. It is heavily illustrated with amazing photographs, maps, feature boxes of key persons and events and time charts to give perspective. Another advantage, given that a stated aim of the book is to focus of the events and innovations that affected the most people, there is a genuine emphasis on the lives of ordinary people and not just the succession of rulers.

Though I have now read this massive book from cover to cover, it is not one to be put back on a shelf and rarely thought of again. Instead, I think it will be regularly pulled down and used as the general reference is undoubtedly is.


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