Unintimidating, adroitly structured grounding in the enduring legacies of ancient civilizations.
Although best known as an energetic medieval scholar (In the Wake of the Plague, 2001, etc.), Cantor (History, Sociology, and Comparative Literature Emeritus/New York Univ.) has made enough previous literary forays into the various civilizations of antiquity so that integrating and contrasting them is a cinch for him. Furthermore, he makes some fairly provocative educated guesses (labeled as such) with ease and confidence. While other academics fret, for example, over why Hebrew society would invent the Jews’ Egyptian bondage—it’s now generally accepted that there’s no evidence for it after decades of archaeological and related scientific research—he suggests that the progenitors of “elitist” Judaism may not have been above laying a guilt trip (“We deserve . . .”) on the rest of civilization. The impact of recent DNA studies on anthropological theory is also evident in Cantor’s conclusions, although he seems to embrace a more extended time frame for the seminal African emigration than some scientists do. The author has helpfully rendered his work in two sections. The chapters in “Basic Narrative” present fundamental information about how major civilizations originated, waxed, and waned in the Near and Middle East, Greece, and Rome. Cantor sees Rome’s decline, for example, as primarily due to plagues during the second century a.d. that killed off irreplaceable taxpayers; he also notes that societies heavily dependent on slave labor tend to stifle their own capacity for technological innovation, a crucial factor in the wars against the Visigoths. The second section, “Societies and Cultures,” probes more deeply into the religions, philosophies, laws, politics, and arts of the same key civilizations. A final case for the melding of Hellenic culture and Judaism as the central pillar of Western civilization is dazzlingly put.
A lifetime’s worth of crib notes for late-blooming history buffs.