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5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining history with a thesis., 30 April 1997
By A Customer
This review is from: Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity (Paperback)
Styles in historiography come and go. For the classical Greek historians, history was
partly the clever strategies of great generals, partly the well-cadenced speeches that
should have been made, some descriptions of strange cultures, some geography. For the
medieval chroniclers, history was melodrama: great battles, duels between heroes,
treacherous murders. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Enlightenment,
history was the progressive improvement of forms of government. For a while in the
1980s, history was a counterpoint between the psychology of the Chosen Figure and a
description of his social milieu. Later came the history of attitudes of women to
housework and the detailed history of underwear (no, I'm not kidding).
Ideas about
the forces controlling history also change. Caesar was certain that Roman military
strategy and tactics brought about the conquest of Gaul. Josephus probably really
believed what he repeatedly wrote, that God determines the details of history as reward
and punishment for people's actions. Most readers today probably believe that history is
determined by material facts, mainly economic facts. Probably this is another aspect of
our Enlightenment heritage.
Garth Fowden has returned to two older ideas, that a history book should have a thesis, and that beliefs
have a powerful influence on history. In Empire to Commonwealth, his main thesis is
that universalist, monotheistic religions helped bring about world conquest in late
antiquity, and that their opposite had the opposite effect. Who are the monotheistic
universalists? For example, the Byzantine Christians and the Muslims. Who are not?
The Achaemenids, the particularist Jews.
On the way, he discusses several other
interesting questions in the history of ideas. The question of whether only the saintly are
the chosen of God, or whether the highest levels of religion are open even to sinners by
virtue of their chosen position, was an important question in early Christianity. Mr.
Fowden could have pointed out that the Jews were arguing the same question at about
the same time (see Berachot 28a, 34a).
Mr. Fowden has great knowledge of cultures
which even people well educated in the Western tradition know little about, e. g., the
ancient Iranian religions and the monophysite Christianity of medieval Ethiopia. As in all
good histories, there are also diversions along the way, discussions of the moral one-upmanship among the Romans and Iranians in respecting the chastity of each other's
harems, and of the amazemant caused by a royal progress of the Black Christian king of
Aksum among the oppressed Christians of neighboring lands. And who but Mr. Fowden
knows about the synod of monophysite Christians called in 1965 by the Emperor of
Ethiopia and the Metropolitan of Aksum.
Mr. Fowden knows how to write. The
history of late antiquity, especially outside of Europe and Asia Minor, is a weak spot in
the education of most of us. It's also pleasant to return to the historiography of ideas
sometimes. I haven't seen the paperback, but the hard-cover edition includes high-quality
photographs of both artistic and historical significance. I'm glad I read the book, and hope to
read it again.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining history with a thesis., 30 April 1997
By A Customer
Styles in historiography come and go. For the classical Greek historians, history was
partly the clever strategies of great generals, partly the well-cadenced speeches that
should have been made, some descriptions of strange cultures, some geography. For the
medieval chroniclers, history was melodrama: great battles, duels between heroes,
treacherous murders. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Enlightenment,
history was the progressive improvement of forms of government. For a while in the
1980s, history was a counterpoint between the psychology of the Chosen Figure and a
description of his social milieu. Later came the history of attitudes of women to
housework and the detailed history of underwear (no, I'm not kidding).
Ideas about
the forces controlling history also change. Caesar was certain that Roman military
strategy and tactics brought about the conquest of Gaul. Josephus probably really
believed what he repeatedly wrote, that God determines the details of history as reward
and punishment for people's actions. Most readers today probably believe that history is
determined by material facts, mainly economic facts. Probably this is another aspect of
our Enlightenment heritage.
Garth Fowden has returned to two older ideas, that a history book should have a thesis, and that beliefs
have a powerful influence on history. In Empire to Commonwealth, his main thesis is
that universalist, monotheistic religions helped bring about world conquest in late
antiquity, and that their opposite had the opposite effect. Who are the monotheistic
universalists? For example, the Byzantine Christians and the Muslims. Who are not?
The Achaemenids, the particularist Jews.
On the way, he discusses several other
interesting questions in the history of ideas. The question of whether only the saintly are
the chosen of God, or whether the highest levels of religion are open even to sinners by
virtue of their chosen position, was an important question in early Christianity. Mr.
Fowden could have pointed out that the Jews were arguing the same question at about
the same time (see Berachot 28a, 34a).
Mr. Fowden has great knowledge of cultures
which even people well educated in the Western tradition know little about, e. g., the
ancient Iranian religions and the monophysite Christianity of medieval Ethiopia. As in all
good histories, there are also diversions along the way, discussions of the moral one-upmanship among the Romans and Iranians in respecting the chastity of each other's
harems, and of the amazemant caused by a royal progress of the Black Christian king of
Aksum among the oppressed Christians of neighboring lands. And who but Mr. Fowden
knows about the synod of monophysite Christians called in 1965 by the Emperor of
Ethiopia and the Metropolitan of Aksum.
Mr. Fowden knows how to write. The
history of late antiquity, especially outside of Europe and Asia Minor, is a weak spot in
the education of most of us. It's also pleasant to return to the historiography of ideas
sometimes. The book is also well printed and well bound, and includes high-quality
photographs of both artistic and historical significance. I'm glad I read it, and hope to
read it again.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


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