Lessons From Civilization's Cradle

HELLENISM IN LATE ANTIQUITY. By G. W. Bowersock, University of Michigan Press, 107 pp., $24.95, 2)ALEXANDER TO ACTIUM: THE HISTORIAL EVOLUTION OF THE HELLENISTIC AGE. By Peter Green, University of California Press, 970 pp., $45, 3)PERICLES OF ATHENS AND THE BIRTH OF DEMOCRACY. By Donald Kagan, Free Press, 287 pp., $22.95

THE names run like worry beads through my fingers: Erbil, with its traces of a town going back to 7000 BC; Nineveh, capital of the ancient empire of Assyria; the Arch of Ctesiphon; Ur, with its royal cemetery from the third millenium; Baghdad. As allied bombs rain down on the land between those immemorial mothers of humanity, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, these and other traces of the cradle of civilization, the discovery and preservation of which is perhaps the chief honor of 20th-centu ry archaeology, are in danger of being destroyed.

Books are more durable than such remains, and these names and others shine brightly in the pages of many histories. The burdens of empire in this part of the world have long attracted historians. Joining this long distinguished line stretching from the fabulous Herodotus (who traveled about Egypt and Persia in the fifth century BC) are two modern historians, G. W. Bowersock and Peter Green.

``I have often asked myself, '' writes Bowersock in Hellenism in Late Antiquity, ``how it must have felt to have lived through the Islamic conquest [AD 630] with all the accumulated baggage of the Hellenic-Semitic East, both Christian and pagan.''

That baggage is the subject of his compact, eloquent, and tightly argued history. Intelligent and inspired interpretation of archaeological remains gives this book great power. Bowersock shows over and over again how the so-called polytheism of the Greek pantheon helped local cultures - whether Arabic or Christian - express their individuality.

Of Greek culture, he says, ``In language, myth, and image it provided the means for a more articulate and a more universally comprehensible expression of local traditions.'' Of Islam, he writes, ``In many ways Hellenism prepared the way for Islam by bringing the Arabs together and equipping them with a sense of common identity.'' Of the Christians, he says, ``The rural Christians, no less than the pagans, made use of Greek mythical iconography to adorn both their churches and their homes with mosaics t hat evoked, in a reassuring and still meaningful way, the old local cults of the region.''

A stunning example of this comes from Cyprus, with analogues in Syria. A mosaic consisting of six panels represents Dionysos as the redeemer. Familiar stories are reinterpreted; in one, the Christian figure of ``Error'' appears. Bowersock comments, ``The supremacy of Dionysus suggests a kind of pagan monotheism, responding to Christian monotheism, and with it comes the possibility of error or deviation.''

Rich in startling perspectives, Bowersock's book concludes with a quote from Proust that speaks for many who have read it: ``My head swam to see so many years below me, and yet within me, as if I were thousands of leagues in height.''

If Bowersock is Proustian in his discipline - as catholic towards cultures of the past as he is insightful - Peter Green is more like the Roman satirist Juvenal, whom he translated years ago.

Savage indignation moves his pen - at least sometimes - in his almost 1,000-page history. Alexander to Actium: The Historial Evolution of the Hellenistic Age starts with Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), who, with his armies, spread Hellenism in West Asia Minor, Eqypt, Babylon, Media, central Asia, and India. The book ends with the rise of the first Roman emperor.

The enormous length of the book will not keep it from being read. Opening it at any page, the reader will be glued to the page. Green's flexible, idiomatic style draws one on and on, as does the syncopation of subjects, from politics to medicine to philosophy to sport to business.

Yet the burden of this beautifully illustrated book, the echoing tone, is pessimistic. If Bowersock experiences a kind of ecstasy as he contemplates the Hellenic past, Green is gloomy. The ``whole Alexandrian search for ataraxia'' - the mood of not caring, of indifference - depresses him. In a vivid thumbnail sketch, (the book is full of them) we meet one Cercidas, lawgiver, soldier, statesman, and satirist. Cercidas railed against spendthrifts, lawyers, and Stoic activists. Green notes th at Cercidas lashed out at the nouveaux riches not for neglecting the proletariat but for neglecting their own intellectual and spiritual welfare. Cercidas lacked the public-mindedness of the golden age of Greece when Aeschylus, the tragedian, would prefer to be remembered for his military service in defense of Athens rather than his prize-winning plays.

Critics have pointed out that Green neglects warfare. He does not do justice to the cost of maintaining the various Hellenistic kingdoms. But his book is a cultural history. That point of view can be found in Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy, by Donald Kagan. Author of a four-volume ``History of the Pelopennesian War,'' and dean of Yale College, Kagan paints a portrait of the first democracy as embodied by Pericles.

At the time of Pericles, the Athenian empire stretched throughout the eastern Mediterranean. This book is offered as a moral tale for emerging democracies. ``Only in ancient Athens and in the United States so far has democracy lasted for as much as 200 years,'' says Kagan.

Kagan's portrait of Pericles is laid out in a mosaic of variously shaded pieces: aristocrat, politician, democrat, soldier, imperialist, peacemaker, visionary, educator, private man, statesman, crisis manager, strategist, and hero. Thus Kagan solves the enormous problem: how to present a compact portrait of this many-sided hero of Western culture. Each section can be savored on its own, and the whole has a brilliance that complements Kagan's clear, straight-shooting prose.

The democracy of Pericles was not universal of course: Women and slaves could not participate. His vision was to translate into democratic terms the key qualities of the aristocratic life - glory and honor, Kagan says.

Despite oppostion, Pericles kept himself in power for 30 years. He passed a law by which the city had to pay citizens for attending the national assembly and for jury duty. He also limited citizenship to children having citizens for both parents, thus reserving for fewer people the riches of the democratic welfare state.

As Kagan notes, Pericles's vision is laid out in his great funeral oration, delivered during the Peloponnesian war. He would die long before the war was over; he could not know that the war, which was the result of his policy, would finish the glorious chapter he had helped write. Kagan sees his strategy as a failure but defends Pericles as the enabler of the democracy. Kagan's reader is led to draw the perhaps disturbing conclusion: Pericles's vision of citizenship was, finally, a vision of himself. B ut the main point is no less timely: Democracy, Kagan concludes, requires strong leadership.

From Pericles to Muhammed, the ancient Greek world offers many lessons. If I take less comfort in Kagan's vision of Pericles than in Bowersock's view of Hellenism, it's not out of disrespect for this ``vision thing.'' There are many visions.

Indeed, the Western contact with the East has produced many stories. Our great writers pass along these visions, these stories, in shining sentences. One sentence I cherish at this time of tribulation involves the Julian Apostate, the Roman emperor identified with his attempt to revive paganism.

Bowersock notes of the Emperor Julian, ``Julian's famous attempt to stop the Christians from teaching the pagan classics was a decision of diabolical cunning, the kind of decision that only a former Christian could have made.'' The lesson in all this? The Middle East is our common heritage.

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