Thursday, 29 October 2020

Book review: Age of Conquests, Angelos Chaniotis (2018)

I bought this book at Abbey’s Bookshop in the CBD one day as they have a well-stocked ancient history section. I had wanted something to give me the same kind of broad overview of the early Greeks as the other, recent, reads had given me of the Roman political system. Other, similar reviews will follow this one …

The cover image is a mosaic from Italy in the Classical period, and the story the book tells includes that period, starting with Alexander the Great. His expansionist exploits – inspired by literature – formed a model for other Greeks, as well as Romans once they began to consolidate territory under their laws.

For the Greek city states, Rome’s involvement in local politics was part of a wider and older process of war. In fact, the Romans were invited to participate in the East by a group of city states who wanted to keep the Macedonians out of their territories, so it’s difficult to fault the Romans for “conquering” this part of the world. It’s difficult to see, on the surface, if anything at all was given up by conquered people, once they became of the pax Romana. Even before this political development, war was constant for most Greeks. In fact, the coming of the Romans seems to have allowed many people to live, for a change, in peace.

Chaniotis marshals an impressive array of facts in order to tell his story, and he does better than most in linking such ideas as religion, war, and kingship. But this book is, as the title says, mainly about politics, and for the most part the interests of ordinary people are only reflected inasmuch as they are mentioned as part of treaties, say, or celebrations. 

The role of religion was bound up with the idea of conquest, however, so it’s salutary to restrict the purview to bellicose activities. All adult men in the community were, presumably, involved in the processes of war and alliances, and women and children are largely absent from the records; occasionally a daughter is married off in order for a king to cement an alliance with a foreign city state. 

Philosophy at the time in question had to do with politics as much as learning (Aristotle was Alexander’s teacher), and art was mainly practiced in the service of a higher secular or holy power. 

There are sections on women, education, slavery and religion but the texture of daily social interaction might’ve been more consciously studied. When discussing political matters, it’s infrequently that the book addresses religion – Jews are an exception and, later, Christians – but for people alive at the time politics, identity and religion were all part of the same set of ideas that animated their thoughts. Just as the stories written by Homer and preserved over time by the Greek city states fomented action by such men as Alexander, the stories of the gods provided guides for the conduct of the same people.

The book nevertheless penetratingly chronicles how alliances were formed and broken among the collection of city states in the region. Such alliances made it possible for Alexander to achieve what he did, and they also ushered in the Romans (a notoriously tolerant people, who gave equal rights to waves of foreigners over a period of hundreds of years). The idea of the ecumene that began to gain a foothold in the popular imagination during the Classical period became more important during the Hellenistic period and, under the Roman emperors, even more so.

The nature of the world was changed by Alexander. It became possible to imagine the ecumene – the inhabited world, however vast. Then, subsequently, the ascendancy of the Romans in their pursuit of a universal peace and of booty (and other revenue streams), changed the world again. Hence the inclination of both the Greeks and the Romans to deify their leaders. The reach of empire encouraged encomium. Praise grew from conquest, but conquest grew also from praise.

No comments: