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