"Antiquity" by Norman F. Cantor

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Subtitle: From the Birth of the Sumerian Civilization to the Fall of the Roman Empire - -

Author Norman F. Cantor says at the outset of his useful and outstanding book “Antiquity” that he will avoid a simple recitation of names and dates, and focus instead on the major influential trends that formed the ancient world. He keeps this promise, and the resulting book stands as an exceptional example of writing history for the layman. Any non-academic or non-historian interested in a concise, persuasive, and highly readable history from early Egypt and Iraq to the fall of Rome - this is definitely for you.

Cantor divides his work into two main sections. The first he calls the Basic Narrative, and it contains a straightforward recounting of the known ancient Western civilizations, from the “Hydraulic Despotisms” which grew up along the Nile, and in the fertile plain between the Tigris and Euphrates. He then takes up Greece and Rome, followed by the role and hegemony of the Christians, and finally the decline of the ancient world. He indicates that a relatively well-rounded person who is the product of a Western education will not find much that is new in this section. His presentation of it, however, gratifies this reader, who has longed for such an economical treatment and found it, blessedly, here.

He calls his second section Societies and Cultures. Here, Cantor assesses and affirms the lasting contribution of the various cultures from Western antiquity. Sections include Egypt, Ancient Judaism, Athens, Rome, Christian Thought, The Civil Law, and Remembering Antiquity. His discussion ranges over a plenitude of well-thought-out observations, deep and various, unblinking and thought-provoking. These insights run to some length and recapping them here any more deeply than the “35,000-foot” level is just beyond my scope. I’m going to highlight the barest minimum here, to give you an idea.

Egyptian genius found practical engineering solutions to very challenging projects, but was not a creative or embellishing energy. The Hebrews alone in the ancient world practiced a religion without resorting to the “magic” of sacramental miracles or the touching of holy talismans, and this led to distrust and ostracization by other religious groups. What we consider the genius of the Greek world was really Athenian; unsurpassed and foundational achievements in drama, philosophy, mathematics, polity, and architecture flourished for a time only to fall to Persian pressures and competition from nearby city-states. The Roman genius for administration, engineering, and warfare extended its power beyond anything that had come before, but suffered from over-extension and exhaustion before establishing the geographic and economic pattern seen throughout medieval Europe.

Cantor also spends ample time and energy on the very pervasive influences of Christianity and legal codes on the ethical and civic structures that rule the world today. These sections are worth the price of admission by themselves.

The author adeptly balances the sweep of roughly fourteen centuries with the effects on Western culture of a handful of specific over-arching influences. I’m not in a position to judge the relative importance of these influences, so I will leave that to others. I want to point out that this is an admirable book, a concise recap for the intelligent lay person of the civilizations, cultures, and intellectual traditions that shape the West to this day. If you’re interested, it’s hard to imagine a better entry.

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