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Hardcover: UK: A chip off the old block

Richard Miles’ sojourn in the ancient world combines a common touch with scholarly inquiry

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing Reporter

By Richard Miles
301 pages
Allen Lane

The first thing to greet me on opening this book was the stink. Many modern full-color books printed on glossy paper share the same problem, but in the case of Ancient Worlds it was extreme. Maybe I’m especially sensitive to printing inks, but I hadn’t been reading this book long before my lips began to smart and the tip of my tongue to tingle. The partial solution was a sheet of transparent plastic draped over the book. Unfortunately, every time I came to turn over a page I had to lift the plastic and expose myself to the fumes (were they toxic?) once more.

Finally I managed to get some sort of a hold on the contents. Ancient Worlds, published as a companion volume to a recent TV series, is a survey of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean civilizations from the Sumerians to the later days of the Roman Empire. The author, Richard Miles, who on TV presumably could be seen walking over the ancient sites while expatiating on the manner of their demise, is both learned and possessed of the common touch, and so stands in a long line of British TV historian-presenters from AJP Taylor to Simon Schama. The result no doubt made excellent television, and it also makes for a very readable book.

By civilizations Miles means societies, almost invariably located in cities, that are based on cooperation in order to achieve long-term goals such as irrigation or the rule of law, enterprises that are beyond the capacity of families or small villages. He’s fond of saying things are “a triumph of hope over experience,” an expression that originated with Samuel Johnson who wittily used it to describe the behavior of a man who’d opted to get married for a second time. Miles finds it useful, though, because one of his big themes is that, though civilizations keep being destroyed, humans time and again try to create new ones.

That having been said, it’s also true that Miles is aware that referring to affluent societies as being “civilized” and poorer ones as being “primitive” is deemed politically incorrect. He defends the idea of civilization, nonetheless, as standing for the kind of development that mankind has constantly striven for and that created the world’s most magnificent artifacts.

He begins with the Sumerians who, just under 6,000 years ago, were the first people to move into cities. Uruk, in the south of today’s Iraq, was the world’s first city that we know of. We know a lot about it because the Sumerians also invented a form of writing, and city life, Miles surmises, isn’t really possible without this crucial technology.

At this point I began to wonder about the Chinese. The earliest we know of them for certain also comes from their first writings, inscribed on the so-called “oracle bones” at around 1,500 BC. But the reason Chinese civilization is so extraordinary is its continuity, not its age. Still going strong, it’s by far the world’s longest continuous civilization. But the honor of being the first goes, it seems, to the Sumerians.

We next learn that there are far more documents for Bronze Age Mesopotamia (the age of the Sumerians) than for classical Greece, that when the UK’s Stonehenge was probably completed (around 2,500 BC) 80 percent of Mesopotamians were already living in cities, that the demise of the Bronze Age cities was brought about by a group so mysterious they’re only referred to as “the Sea People,” and that when these cities and their writing disappeared so, for a time, does the historical record.

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