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 "Three Accounts of Ancient History",
a review by Carroll Quigley in The Washington Evening Star, May 6, 1969,
of three books:
ASPECTS OF ANTIQUITY: Discoveries and Controversies,
by M. I. Finley
New York: Viking Press, 196x
and
FORGOTTEN SCRIPTS: How They Were Deciphered and Their Impact on Contemporary Culture,
by Cyrus H. Gordon.
New York: Basic Books, 196x
and
THE DECLINE OF ROME,
by Joseph Vogt.
New York: New American Library, 196x

 

"Three Accounts of Ancient History"

 

 

ASPECTS OF ANTIQUITY: Discoveries and Controversies.
By M. I. Finley.
Viking Press. 228 pages. $5.95.

FORGOTTEN SCRIPTS: How They Were Deciphered and Their Impact on Contemporary Culture.
By Cyrus H. Gordon.
Basic Books. 175 pages. $6.95.

THE DECLINE OF ROME.
By Joseph Vogt.
New American Library. 340 pages. $12.50.

 

   Few persons will be attracted to a collection of 16 essays on ancient history, but anyone who samples a chapter of Professor Finley's new volume will certainly go on to read most of it.

   All the essays have been published before, half of them in Horizon, and the rest in general periodicals such as The Listener or The New York Review of Books. They cover the whole span of ancient history from Cretan civilization and the Trojan War to the Emporer Diocletian and early Christianity. Others are on "Thucydides the Moralist"; "Socrates and Athens"; "Diogenes the Cynic"; and "The Silent Women of Rome."

   They are all very well written and show their author's unusual, if not unique, ability to present the ancients simultaneously as human beings like ourselves, yet operating within a structure of outlook and values so different from ourselves as to be almost incomprehensible. This appears most clearly in the essay on Roman women, where we are told that, until late in Roman history, women were so indistinguishable from the family or the man to whom they were attached that they were given no individual names of their own, but merely carried the feminine form of the family name: all of them, no matter how numerous, having the same name within each family.

   Professor Gordon's book is equally readable, but is concerned with only one aspect of ancient history, the process by which scholars have gradually learned to read ancient writings from Egyptian hieroglyphs and Old Persian cuneiform to Hittite, Ugaritic, and Minoan Linear B.

   The final chapter, on Gordon's own discovery that the language of Minoan Linear A, written in Crete about 1700 B.C. is a West Semitic dialect of Caananite, a kind of very early Phoenician, is the best part of the book. It is written as an autobiographical account of this great work of modern scholarship. The most interesting part of this account is the description of Gordon's own education in New York during the Jazz Decade, when he learned Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, and German before he finished high school, added the study of Greek, Arabic, and Swedish in college, learned to read six other languages (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and Danish) in a single summer, well enough to obtain sight-reading certificates in all of them from the University of Pennsylvania that September.

   In graduate school, where he specialized in Semitic languages, he learned more languages as he needed them, and accepted without complaint a professor's assignment to read a book in a language and a script he did not know (Syriac) as part of the normal educational process. Obviously, Gordon had no time for student riots or for the equivalent student distractions of 1928.

   "The Decline of Rome," translated from a German version which appeared in 1965, is a sequel to Michael Grant's "The Climax of Rome" (New American Library, 1968). Not as well written as Finley or Gordon and much less readable, it is, however, a more significant volume in terms of the crises in which we live today. Vogt's story of Roman history in the third, fourth, and fifth centuries of our era is presented as straight narrative with no effort to draw any parallels with the present, but the reader cannot avoid seeing these from his own knowledge.

   The story of how a way of life whose power, prosperity, and general success was accepted without challenge suddenly finds that everything is beginning to go wrong and that even the most sacred beliefs are being questioned and replaced by the ideas and allegiances of previously despised minority groups is too familiar for comfort. Roman armies who take victory for granted suddenly can no longer defeat crude and ignorant barbarians, the Roman political system no longer functions without question but is challenged, and increasingly unable to maintain order or to collect taxes, efforts to find a remedy in detailed legislation and a growing bureaucracy lead to inflation and popular efforts to escape from the system, all morality collapses and the most esoteric and alien doctrines are embraced by members of established families.

   The whole story seems at the same time so familiar and yet so alien, but its essential lesson is clear: no society can long survive nor cope with its growing problems when its people begin to abandon their basic allegiance to its structure and outlook. Readers may well dispute the significance of all this to our own day, but they will find that Vogt's account provides all the needed information to fuel their arguments.

 

 

Scan of original review

 

 


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