From Democrats to Kings: The Downfall of

Athens to the Epic Rise of Alexander the Great

Delphi and Olympia: the Spatial Politics of Pan-Hellenism
in the Archaic and Classical Periods

Space and Society in the Greek and Roman Worlds

Delphi: A History of the Centre of the Ancient World

About the Author

Dr Michael Scott is an Associate Professor in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. He received his doctorate from Cambridge, and was the Moses Finley Research Fellow at Darwin College, Cambridge, before taking up his role at Warwick.

He has written a number of books and presented a range of television and radio programmes, including Guilty Pleasures: Luxury in Ancient Greece (BBC4); The Mystery of the X Tombs (BBC2); Who were the Greeks? (BBC2); Spin the Globe (BBC Radio 4); Roman Britain from the Air (ITV); and Rome’s Invisible City (BBC1).

About the Book

Historian Michael Scott challenges our traditionally western-focused perception of the past, connecting Greco-Roman civilisation to the great rulers and empires that swept across Central Asia to India and China – resulting in a truly global vision of ancient history.

With stunning range and richness, Ancient Worlds illustrates how the great powers and characters of antiquity shared ambitions and crises, ways of thinking and forms of governing: connections that only grew stronger over the centuries as political systems evolved, mighty armies clashed, universal religions were born and our modern world was foreshadowed.

Scott focuses on three epochal ‘moments’ across the ancient globe, and their profound wider significance: from 509-8 BCE (birth of Athenian democracy and Rome’s republic, also the age of Confucius’s teachings in China); to 218 BCE (when Hannibal of Carthage challenged Rome and China saw its first emperor); to 312 CE (when Constantine sought to impose Christianity on the Roman world even as Buddhism was pervading China via the vast trading routes we now know as the ‘Silk Roads’).

A major work of global history, Michael Scott’s enthralling journey challenges the way we think about our past, redraws the map of the classical age to reveal its hidden connections, and shows us how ancient history has lessons for our own times.



An Epic History of East & West



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Epub ISBN: 9781473506794

Version 1.0

Published by Hutchinson 2016

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Copyright © Michael Scott, 2016
Cover image: Achaemenid Gilded Silver Rhyton with a Stag Protome © Miho Museum, Kyoto, Japan;
background image © Alamy

Michael Scott has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

First published in Great Britain in 2016 by Hutchinson

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Hutchinson is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies whose addresses can be found at

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 9780091958817

For Alice and the bean

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

KHALIL GIBRAN, The Prophet (On Children)


A book such as this is impossible without the support and encouragement of others. From the inception of the idea my agent Patrick Walsh at Conville & Walsh has offered tremendous (and humorous) support; and my editors at Hutchinson, Sarah Rigby and Richard T. Kelly, alongside Jocasta Hamilton and the rest of the fantastic Hutchinson team, have been indefatigable in their encouragement, ideas, comments, suggestions and good humour. Thank you to you all for believing in me and in this book.

I am grateful also to Mandy Greenfield for her copy-editing, and to Jeff Edwards for drawing the maps.

To research such a vast expanse of history requires access to some of the great library institutions in the UK and abroad. I have been privileged to work in the British Library, London Library and Institute of Classical Studies Library in London; the University Library and Classics Faculty Library in Cambridge; the Sackler and Bodleian Libraries in Oxford; the University Library in Warwick; the British School at Athens library in Greece; as well as the Green Library at Stanford University in California. Thank you to all these institutions, and to their wonderful staff, for making the research such a joy.

But a book of this kind also requires the ongoing support and input of scholars from a vast array of specialist fields, who have kindly given their time and energy to open up their worlds of study for me and help develop my ideas in discussion, both in person and via email. It is without doubt one of the best aspects of this profession, and particularly this project, to have the opportunity to engage with such a broad range of fascinating and insightful people from across the world, and I have been deeply heartened by the enthusiasm with which they have responded in kind to this project. My thanks go to Prof. Robin Osborne; Prof. Paul Cartledge; Dr John Patterson (Cambridge); Prof. Giorgio Riello and the Global History and Culture Centre team (Warwick); Prof. Lee Dian Rainy (Memorial University of Newfoundland); Prof. Jeffery Lerner (Wake Forest University); Dr Christopher Baumer (Switzerland); Prof. Julia Shaw (UCL); Prof. James Hegarty (Cardiff); Prof. Simon Payaslian (Boston University); Dr Peter Frankopan (Oxford); and Prof. Ian Morris (Stanford). In particular, my sincerest thanks also go to Prof. Walter Scheidel at Stanford for hosting me during my visit and for his encouragement, insight and advice.

My rock during the writing of this book – and of many more years besides – has been my wonderful family, and especially the woman I am now lucky enough to call my wife, Alice. Her energy, loyalty and love give inspiration and resolve, comfort and enjoyment in equal measure. Alice and I are now expecting our first child. And so while this book is a history of ancient worlds for our present global times, I also hope that it will be of use to our child, growing up in a future which, while we cannot comprehend it, will without doubt be even more globally interconnected.

Note on Transliteration

Greek and Roman names and terms have been transcribed in English using their most common (mostly Romanised) forms, with key terms italicised for ease of reference. Chinese names and terms have been transcribed using the Hanyu Pinyin system (although popular alternatives are sometimes given in brackets), again with key terms and literary titles italicised. Names, terms and literary titles in all other languages (e.g. Armenian, Pali and Sanskrit) have been transcribed using their most well-recognised English counterparts, again with key terms and literary titles italicised.

List of Maps

1. Mediterranean to China c. 300 BCE

2. Mediterranean c. 509-490 BCE

3. China in ‘Late Spring and Autumn Period’ c. Hegemony of Wu 506–496 BCE

4. Campaigns of Hannibal and Territories of Contemporaneous Young Rulers c. 200 BCE

5. Eastern Hemisphere c. 200 BCE

6. Seleucid Empire, Greco-Bactria, Mauryan India c. 200 BCE

7. The Era of Constantine c. 306-337 CE

8. Central Asia, India and China c. 4th Century CE

List of Plate Illustrations

1. Marble bust of Solon, Athenian law-maker and poet. (The Art Archive / DeA Picture Library / L. Pedicini)

2. Statues of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, known as the ‘Tyrannicides’. (akg-images / Mondadori Portfolio / L. Pedicini)

3. Horatius Coclès défendant le pont du Sublicius by Charles de Brun c. 1642–43. (akg-images)

4. Silk painting (probably Song Dynasty) showing Confucius lecturing students circa 500 BCE. (Getty Images / Howard Sochurek)

5. Der Schwur Hannibals by Januarius Zick, circa 1785–1795. (© Städtische Museum: Augustinermuseum-Freiburg)

6. Hannibal’s march across the Alps, from the Illustrated History of the World for the English People (c. 1880s). (Bob Thomas/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

7. Bust of Antiochus III ‘the Great’, Seleucid king, 241–187 BCE. (Alamy)

8. Silver tetradrachm of Philip V of Macedon, 238–179 BCE. (The Art Archive / DeA Picture Library)

9. Qin Shi Huangdi, First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty, 260–210 BCE. (Universal Images Group / Getty Images)

10. The ‘Terracotta Warriors’ of Qin Shi Huangdi, as preserved in Xian, China. (Alamy)

11. Bust of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, Roman consul and general, 236–183 BCE. (G. Nimatallah / Getty Images)

12. Silver coin of Eucratides I, King of Bactria. (Getty Images)

13. The Battle of the Milvian Bridge, a fresco in the Vatican painted to a design of Raphael’s by Giulio Romano c. 1520–24. (Godong / robertharding / Getty Images)

14. Gold coin of Gupta ruler Samudragupta, depicting his father Chandragupta I and Queen Kumaradevi. (© Trustees of the British Museum)

15. Copper engraving circa 1700 depicting the baptism of Armenian king Tiridates the Great by Gregory ‘the Illuminator’. (akg-images)

16. Head of the ‘Colossus of Constantine’, now residing in the Musei Capitolini in Rome. (Getty Images)

17. Gold coin of Samudragupta, depicting the ritual of ashvamedha (horse sacrifice). (© Trustees of the British Museum)

18. ‘Asoka’s Pillar’, a monolith located at Allahabad Fort in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. (British Library)

19. Relief from the Temple at Deogarh in Uttar Pradesh, built circa 500 CE, known as the Dashavatara Temple as it represents the ten avatars of the god Vishnu. (Alamy)



THE ANTS WERE as big as wild foxes and they bored tunnels into the earth, mole-like, excavating soil into towering piles on the surface. It was said to be dangerous for any human to look directly at these piles, for they were laced with gold – the best and brightest in the world, shining with lethal lustre under the burning sun. The local people, however, could not be dissuaded from desiring the gold for themselves.

Mounting wagons attached to their fastest horses, they would approach at midday – while the ants were busy digging deep below – and cart off as much earth-and-gold mix as they could. They had to move quickly and silently, though, lest they alert the ants, who would then swarm back to the surface to attack and pursue the thieves across the landscape. The locals would scatter chunks of flesh in the hope of distracting the ants from the chase, but not all of these wily insects were taken in. Some made directly for the humans and their wagons, and engaged in close combat to the death . . .1


Welcome to India – at least as it was described by a Greek called Megasthenes, on the cusp of the third century BCE.2 Megasthenes paints a vivid picture of a world full of remarkable creatures, capable of extraordinary feats. The gold-digging, man-killing ants, he claimed, fought so hard against the human thieves because they understood the worth of gold and were willing to sacrifice their lives rather than part with it.3 In other parts of India, as Megasthenes relates, one might encounter tigers twice the size of lions; monkeys larger than the largest dogs; winged scorpions, and flying serpents whose urine could blister and putrefy human skin; other serpents so huge they could swallow stags and bulls whole; and dogs with jaws strong enough to hold lions fast in their grip.4 Towering over them all was the Indian elephant, larger than any elephant of Africa, whose counterpart in the sea was the whale, five times the Indian elephant’s size.

Megasthenes’ interests were not confined to beasts: his India was home to exotic humans, too. He records tales of tiny men, and men as tall as giants; some men with no noses, and other men without mouths who fed by inhalation, but could be killed by too harsh a smell; men whose feet – sporting eight toes on each – were turned backwards; men whose heads were canine, and who made conversation by barking.5

Megasthenes’ text is not the fanciful concoction of a Greek slumbering in the far-flung afternoon sun of Athens or Sparta. In fact, it is the first ever eyewitness account by a Western observer of the plains of India surrounding the Ganges.6 And while his narrative survives to us today only in fragments as repeated by later writers (who often, understandably, challenge the veracity of his account), he remains fundamental to our understanding of ancient India, offering us an in-depth analysis of how Indian society worked in comparison to his own.7 Megasthenes, after all, was not some random traveller who stumbled into India by accident. He was the first official Greek ambassador to the royal court that ruled over the majority of northern India at this time, based in the city of Pataliputra (modern-day Patna). This was the court of the man whom Greeks called King Sandrocottus, better known in Indian history as Chandragupta Maurya, founder of one of India’s great dynasties.

Megasthenes was appointed to his position by Seleucus Nicator (‘the Victor’), former general of Alexander the Great, subsequent ruler of the Seleucid Empire that stretched from the coast of Asia Minor on the Mediterranean, deep into central Asia (via modern-day Afghanistan) and down over the Hindu Kush into north-western ancient India (today’s Pakistan). From his privileged vantage point, Megasthenes presents us with a highly informed insight into how the physical magnificence of Chandragupta’s palace compared to that of rulers in the West.

Pataliputra, he tells us, was situated at the meeting place of the great Ganges and Erannoboas Rivers and was laid out like a parallelogram, its wooden walls perforated by sixty-four gates and supporting 570 watchtowers. A deep ditch was dug all around, serving not only as a defence against attack, but also as a handy receptacle for all of the city’s sewage (the stench of which must have assailed the eyes and nostrils of visitors, especially in the warmer months). But the splendour of the interior of the king’s palace, Megasthenes claimed, far surpassed that of the great Persian palaces of Susa or Ecbatana in Asia Minor, hitherto considered by the Greeks to be the summit of luxurious extravagance. The royal parks abounded with tame peacocks and pheasants, shady groves and evergreen trees. Parrots followed the king, hovering above him in large numbers, and huge artificial lakes, brimming with fish, were exclusively for the pleasure of the king and his son.8

Megasthenes even records how King Chandragupta spent much of his day: judging legal cases while continually being massaged with wooden rollers to keep his blood flowing and his muscles loose. When not in session, he could be found sacrificing or hunting, which he did within his own parks (by shooting arrows from a platform) or out in the wild on the back of his favourite elephant. His every move, Megasthenes tells us, had repercussions for his people: when he washed his hair, a great festival was celebrated by the population of Pataliputra. For the king’s person embodied the power of his royal city: it was the tradition for Indian rulers, Megasthenes explains, to take the name of the city as part of their royal title. Chandragupta was Pataliputra, just as Pataliputra was Chandragupta.9

Megasthenes describes the local populace as generally tall and of proud bearing, attributes that he credited to the abundant and fertile local soil. He relates, to his own amazement, how everyone seemed to be free and that no one was a slave – a state of society unheard of in the West. Law and order, he argued, were very simply maintained: no one could write, so everything was recited from memory, and anyone shown to be guilty of providing false witness had their hands and feet cut off. Anyone who maimed another person was punished in kind and their hands cut off, too. If anyone took the eye or hand of an artisan, they were put to death. The result – to Megasthenes’ astonishment – was a society in which, unlike his own, almost no theft took place.10

Naturally curious as to how this very different world had come to pass, Megasthenes refers to Indian legends that link the birth of their society to his own Greek gods of the Mediterranean. Dionysus, he tells us, once invaded India with an army and, having settled there, taught the Indians how to make wine, build cities and establish law and justice.11 Fifteen generations later, according to the same legends, the Greek hero Heracles was born among Indians and founded Pataliputra.12 It appeared, then, that India and Greece, far from being disparate worlds, had been explicitly interwoven from the earliest times, sharing gods, traditions and practices in kind.

Of Megasthenes the man, we know little.13 He was not, however, a pioneering figure. The first books on other parts of India had been written back in the sixth century BCE, for the Persian kings who had ruled what was now Seleucid territory and who, indeed, named the people living in the region of the Indus River as ‘Indians’ (a name the Greeks then applied to people from all over India).14 The Greeks themselves had been talking about India since the fifth century BCE, the age of the ‘father of history’, Herodotus (who had also heard tell of the gold-digging ants). By the following century Greek physicians were aware of, and using, Indian remedies for the treatment of eye and tooth disease, even bad breath.15

Before Megasthenes’ time, however, no one had realised the true extent of Indian territory, or of the wider world in which they lived. When in the 330s–320s BCE Alexander the Great conquered all in his path, from Greece to the shores of the Indus, he and his comrades expected to find the end of the world, and instead were left to wonder at how much further the earth might stretch.16 It is testament to an extraordinary expansion of horizons that, thirty years later, Megasthenes was a Greek envoy to the Indian dynasty that ruled the greater part of this vast expanse.

The court of Pataliputra, moreover, was well accustomed to entertaining ambassadors.17 Megasthenes tells us that an entire department of Chandragupta’s government was dedicated to looking after foreigners resident in India: to seeing that no wrong was done to them, dealing harshly with anyone who took unfair advantage of them, tending to them when they were sick and ensuring they were properly buried when they died.18

India was not the only place where the boundaries of the world were being pushed back at this time.19 Megasthenes’ contemporaries were sent to investigate other societies at the margins of the known world, and their reports, too, survive for us today in fragments. A man called Patrocles went sailing round the Caspian Sea; another, Demodamas, explored central Asia.20 We know that after Megasthenes’ retirement, his successor as Seleucid ambassador to Chandragupta’s court was Deimachus, who wrote his own reports on what he observed.

The flow of information was not solely in the direction of the curious West. Two centuries after Megasthenes, a Greek king called Menander, who ruled a kingdom in the area of ancient north India (whose power extended perhaps as far as the royal capital of Pataliputra), became the principal character in a written dialogue with an Indian Buddhist monk called Nagasena.21 This question-and-answer session between king and monk became an important Buddhist text in the following centuries (some even claim it as one of the finest works of Indian prose), and it spread far beyond India. In fact the text is known to us today through its inclusion in the Burmese and Chinese canons of Buddhist literature.22 One Greek king’s questions in northern India were, it seems, read very widely indeed.

The Ancient ‘World’ – or ‘Worlds’?

Megasthenes’ story poses a question for anyone interested in history, and particularly ancient history. When do we ever hear about such interconnected history, in schools, at university or in the public domain? Where are the courses, curricula, syllabi and books that cover these kinds of interactions between cultures in the ancient – or even more modern – periods? So much of what we study about the past is defined by strict disciplinary, temporal, geographical or thematic boundaries, which means that knowledge about our past is uncovered, written about and taught in clearly demarcated silos, seemingly detached from one another, and into which the interconnected worlds witnessed and explored by the likes of Megasthenes, Deimachus, Patrocles and Demodamas simply do not fit.23

We have accepted this delineated and divided picture of history to such an extent we have even convinced ourselves that, in studying one piece of the past, we are really studying it all. In my field of Greek and Roman studies, books are often published with titles ending ‘. . . in the Ancient World’.24 Yet on closer inspection what is really meant by that title is the Greco-Roman world of the Mediterranean basin, where Greeks and Romans lived like frogs around a pond. ‘The ancient world’ has become an accepted shorthand for a very narrow zone of human interaction, centred around a single sea: our self-imposed boundaries have lured us into mistaking a part for the whole.

Of course, some scholars of the Greco-Roman worlds have attempted to look further afield – with limited success.25 Despite, for example, Braudel’s breakthrough writings on the connectivity of the Mediterranean basin, few have followed him in seeking to tie the Mediterranean as a ‘unit’ into a wider global perspective.26 Those who have tried – and so challenged the distinctive ‘Europeanness’ of Greek and Roman ancestry – have, on occasion, met with stiff and vocal resistance.27 Instead, comparative and connective studies of ancient cultures (particularly between Greece, Rome and China) have taken place in particular thematic silos, such as on the issues of trade and travel,28 on the comparison of empires and systems of state power,29 in attitudes to war and peace30 and (by far the most energetically) in the field of literary, philosophical, legal, musical and scientific endeavour and discovery.31

Such a narrow focus must look bizarre to any onlooker, when we can point to the testimonies of men such as Megasthenes who engaged with a larger world that they perceived as fundamentally linked (in this case, by shared gods and heroes) to their own. That Chandragupta’s court had a special department to handle foreign visitors surely ought to make us painfully aware that our highly delineated approach to history simply does not represent the reality of our past.

Those who study the Greeks and Romans are not, of course, the only culprits. We know lots about ancient civilisations in China, central Asia, India and elsewhere, all fervently studied in schools and universities and discussed in ever-growing volumes of scholarship. But in all these arenas scholars have concentrated overwhelmingly on their given civilisation, as if each were its own ancient world.32 Across university departments, across countries, whole tribes of historians study and write about their worlds without feeling the need to raise their eyeline to the wider context of the different human civilisations living and breathing at the same time around the globe, even when the connections sit glaringly before us.33 We are, in the twenty-first century, a global community.34 And yet, at the same time, ironically, we seem to prefer to write and read about our history as if it happened in unconnected, compartmentalised chunks.35 But what if we undertook to tell a bigger story – not of a monolithic ‘Ancient World’, but of many and diverse ancient worlds?

Writing Ancient Worlds

For me, the clinching argument as to why we should think about ancient worlds rather than any individual ancient world is twofold. First, the story of Megasthenes is only one strand in a connected web of entanglement and interaction that bonded ancient humanity together. As recent narratives of trade across the ancient world have shown us, by the first century CE Chinese silk was being worn by the aristocrats (both women and men) of Rome and Carthage. Roman merchants were sailing as far as southern Arabia and Tamil India, and it was claimed that fifty million sesterces annually were passing from Roman coffers into India, in exchange for precious spices, incense and other luxury goods. Rome, too, was exporting: worked glass, silver and gold, as well as precious stones, the worths of which were well known to the Chinese Han emperor (as were the delights of Indian spices).36 And with the movement of these goods, and the people who transported them, travelled a cornucopia of ideas, knowledge and beliefs that would change the very fibre of ancient cultures from the Mediterranean to China and beyond.

But even more importantly, as we stand in the eddies of a new era of globalisation in the twenty-first century, with China keen to build a new Silk Road to connect East and West through trade, it is crucial that we realise we have been here before. As goods were travelling from the Mediterranean to China and vice versa at the beginning of the first millennium CE, ancient Mediterranean historians, such as Diodorus Siculus (the first author to quote the works of Megasthenes on India), Strabo and others, sought to write a new kind of ‘universal history’ that could encompass the entirety of their known world.37 As such, studying our ancient past not only opens up for us a world of entanglement and global connectivity, but offers us, amid the tempestuous waters of our own global age, an exemplar of how humankind has reacted to and thought about the interconnectedness of humanity previously – so helping to contextualise the dangers and opportunities that we now face.38

This book seeks to remind us of an era of emerging world consciousness in our ancient past, which in many ways mirrors the position we find ourselves in today. Its focus is not on the objects that were transported, but on the developing relationships within and between human communities, as well as those between human and divine worlds, from the sixth century BCE to the beginning of the fifth century CE.

Within that span, my focus is upon three specific ‘moments’. Part I concerns the sixth century BCE and focuses on man’s relationship to man, as negotiated through politics; Part II concerns the third and second centuries BCE, examining the relationships forged between ancient communities through warfare; and Part III concerns the fourth century CE, investigating the developing relationship of man and god(s), as played out through adoption, adaption and innovation in religious belief. Each part takes as its point of departure a date and event crucial to these developing relationships, and made famous in the conventional annals of Western ancient history that remain so dominated by study of the Greeks and Romans: for Part I, it is 508 BCE, and the invention of democracy in Athens; for Part II, 218 BCE, when Hannibal the Carthaginian crossed the Alps with his elephants to invade Italy; and for Part III, 312 CE, when the Roman emperor Constantine fought the Battle of Milvian Bridge, paving the way for his takeover of the entire Roman Empire and, in turn, for Christianity’s ascent towards becoming the official religion of the Roman world.

I have chosen to examine these particular moments in time not merely because important things happened then in the Mediterranean, but because what makes these moments so remarkable is that similar developments in human relationships were also occurring at these times in cultures stretching from the Mediterranean through to China. Moreover, these three moments – and the relationship developments they represent – also signify stages in the developing connectivity of an ancient globalised world. From separated parts of the world seemingly turning to consider similar issues at similar times in the sixth century BCE, we will see how, increasingly, individuals had to make decisions based on ever-wider spheres of interaction (in the third to second centuries BCE), and how the emerging links between ‘worlds’ had in turn a profound effect upon the ability of ideas to spread, and on the ways in which man’s relationships with this world and the next developed in the fourth century CE. And through it all, we will also see how this developing globalisation – and the debates in man’s relationships that it sparked, enabled and influenced – in turn changed the way ancient societies thought about the achievements, institutions and beliefs created in their own past.

In Part I we will investigate how democracy came about in Athens as a revolutionary form of government, at the same time as a republican constitution was born in Rome; and at the same time as Confucius, in China, was at the height of his influence, developing his own political philosophy about how society should be run, how man should interact with his fellow man, and trying to convince those in charge to follow his ideas. Confucius was not aware of contemporary developments in the Mediterranean, but Rome and Athens were strongly connected. (As we will see, politically speaking, Rome even briefly studied at the feet of Athens.) In each arena, the desire for political change seems to have been motivated by a similar set of circumstances, but a very different kind of political settlement was established, subject to the particular cultural landscape and current events. These settlements, however, proved momentous.

In Part II we ‘sing of warfare’, great maker and unmaker of worlds. While the Carthaginian Hannibal crossed the Alps with elephants to challenge Rome for supremacy of the Mediterranean, rulers in Asia Minor were struggling to maintain the integrity of their empires from attacks on all sides; new kingdoms were being born by the sword in central Asia; and in China the First Emperor (a man who would be buried with a bodyguard of terracotta warriors) strove to unify the Chinese people by force into one world against the nomadic communities to the north and west. Rome’s republican constitution was facing its greatest test, while in China the ideas of Confucius were at risk of being effaced from human memory. The glory days of the democracy of Athens, meanwhile, had become merely that: a memory. This was an era in which the fate of the ancient world lay in the hands of a small group of young male warriors and rulers, whose lives would be dedicated to reshaping the boundaries of their realms and the relationships between the communities they strove to control. But their decisions were increasingly shaped by events further afield, as the ancient world from the Mediterranean to China became steadily more interconnected – until, in the 140s BCE, its history was soldered together once and for all.

In Part III we see religious change and innovation sweep across that now-connected ancient world, as man rethought his relationship to the divine. As Christianity began to be accepted in the Roman Mediterranean and some outposts in Asia, Hindu worship was being fundamentally reorientated under India’s ruling Gupta dynasty, while Buddhism was spreading to, and attaining the status of an official religion in, China. In some cases these were new faiths that had reached communities along a flourishing web of connective tissues linking the ancient world. Others had developed over long periods within their respective realms. Yet all of them had to operate and evolve under the auspices of individual rulers, kings or emperors governing from the Mediterranean to China. And by the efforts of these leaders to stabilise, unify and expand their realms within this now-connected world, these religions – including their practitioners and hierarchies, and the art and architecture they inspired – would be refashioned as if in the fires of a crucible and given new positions within their respective societies, always in intriguing relationships to power.

In the spirit of Megasthenes, I hope this book can help to open our eyes to ancient worlds: how they functioned, developed and interacted, and how they helped to shape our world today.39 It is a story of beauty, diversity and glory – also, it should be said, one of violence, ambition and avarice – but I believe the telling of it can only deepen our appreciation, from the perspective of today’s globalised world, of how much we have always owed to interaction with one another.




776 BCE:The First Olympic Games
771 BCE:Start of the Eastern Zhou dynasty (and the ‘Spring and Autumn Annals’ period) in China
753 BCE:The Founding of Rome
594 BCE:Solon is appointed archon of Athens and proposes popular reforms; a system of land taxation introduced in the state of Lu, China
575 BCE:Servius Tullius becomes King of Rome
560 BCE:Peisistratus seizes the Acropolis, makes himself tyrant of Athens, but is deposed.
556 BCE:Peisistratus becomes tyrant for second time, with help of Megacles
551 BCE:Confucius is born in Lu State, north-east China.
546 BCE:Peisistratus re-establishes himself as tyrant of Athens for third time.
534 BCE:Lucius Tarquinius Superbus becomes King of Rome
520 BCE:Cleomenes I becomes King of Sparta
517 BCE:Political crisis in Lu: Duke Ding and Confucius exiled from the state of Lu and go to the state of Qi
514 BCE:Hipparchus, co-tyrant of Athens, is killed by Harmodius and Aristogeiton
510 BCE:Hippias, co-tyrant of Athens, is expelled by a popular revolt supported by Cleomenes
510–09 BCE:The ‘Rape of Lucretia’ leads to the ousting of Tarquinius and the birth of Rome’s republic
509 BCE:Battle of the Arsian Forest for future of Rome
509 BCE:Duke Ding and Confucius return to the state of Lu
508 BCE:Etruscan king Lars Porsenna tries and fails to take Rome; Horatius Cocles defends Rome
508–7 BCE:Would-be tyrant Isagoras is expelled from Athens and democratic reforms are instituted under Cleisthenes
501 BCE:Confucius receives his first government appointment under Duke Ding
497–5 BCE:Confucius and his disciples quit Lu after Duke Ding receives 80 beautiful girls from powerful Lu families. Confucius starts his second period of exile
496 BCE:Battle of Lake Regillus – Roman consul Aulus Postumius repels Tarquinius
494–3 BCE:Two ‘Tribunes of the Plebs’ are elected for the first time in Rome
490 BCE:The Battle of Marathon: Darius I, King of Persia, defeated by the Athenians
487 BCE:Athenian archonship becomes elective by lot
487–5 BCE:Confucius returns to the state of Lu
486 BCE:Xerxes I succeeds Darius I as Great King of Persia.
481 BCE:End of the ‘Spring and Autumn Annals’ period in China
480 BCE:Battle of Thermopylae, costly victory for Xerxes over Spartans
480 BCE:Battle of Salamis, Greek naval fleet defeats the armada of Xerxes
479 BCE:Battle of Plataea, Persian forces conclusively defeated by Greeks
479 BCE:Death of Confucius
475 BCE:Beginning of the ‘Warring States Period’ in China
454 BCE:A Roman delegation visits Athens to study its democratic functions. The treasury of the Delian League is moved from Delos to Athens
451 BCE:The First Decemviri come to power in Rome to judge findings of Roman delegation to Athens and to review the constitution
450 BCE:A Second Decemviri chosen to continue deliberations, who then refuse to give up power
449 BCE:Romans revolt against the Decemviri; Enacting of the Twelve Tables
447 BCE:The Athenians start to build the Parthenon



IN 1981 THE polymathic American writer Gore Vidal published a novel called Creation, in which he mischievously mixed up recorded ancient history with some clever inventions of his own. The novel follows an imagined Persian named Cyrus, reared in the court of the (very real) King Darius I, whose war against Athens would lead to the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. On account of his talent for languages, Cyrus is saved from the battlefield and sent by Darius as Persian ambassador to India (an assignment of the sort later entrusted to Megasthenes as Seleucid ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya). By the time Cyrus returns to Persia, his old schoolfriend Xerxes, son of Darius, has assumed the throne and is poised to embark on his own invasion of Greece, which will culminate in the battles of Salamis and Plataea. Again, though, Cyrus is sent out in the opposite direction, this time as Xerxes’ ambassador to China. Come the completion of that diplomatic mission, Cyrus is serving Xerxes’ successor, after a peace settlement between Persia and Greece, and he is despatched to fulfil one last ambassadorial role – in Athens.

During his extensive travels Cyrus is fascinated less by the humdrum business of ambassadorial duties than by the stunning range of political and religious ideas that he encounters across the expanse of the ancient world. And here Vidal cunningly tinkers with, and elides the timeline of, history so that his fictional Cyrus does what no individual in the ancient world could truly have done: namely, meet and spend time with some of the foremost thinkers of the fifth century BCE – Zoroaster in Persia, Confucius in China, the Buddha in India, Socrates in Athens. Through this privileged position Cyrus is able to bear personal witness to a revolutionary epoch in the history of human thought.

This epoch has been a great and obvious boon to the cause of global history – notably so ever since 1949 when the German historian Karl Jaspers published his hugely influential Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (The Origin and Goal of History). Therein Jaspers outlined his concept of an ‘Axial Age’ in the ancient world from the Mediterranean to China, dating from 800 to 200 BCE – a time when, across cultures and civilisations not necessarily themselves connected, there was an overlapping rejection of old wisdom and a search for new understandings and explanations across philosophy, science, religion and politics. For Jaspers, this was a beacon age in the landscape of human history, noteworthy for similar circumstances across Greece, China, India, central Asia and what we today know as the Middle East.1 Two of the key religious innovations of this era – Zoroastrianism and Buddhism – we will meet in Parts II and III of this book. But this Part focuses on the revolutions in political ideas and societal governance that broke out, not in Darius’s Persia, but in Athens, Rome and the state of Lu in China at the end of the sixth century BCE. In these crucial centres across the ancient world, as part of this Axial Age of thinking, the way in which man related to man was being rethought, and in some cases reborn in the furnace of revolution.

In Athens, an angry mob of Athenians gathered in a three-day riot against those in charge of the city, their grievances roused by the way Athens was being run and the people were being treated. All were convinced of the need for change; not one could have imagined they were on the cusp of inventing a new form of politics, one that defines our Western world today. In fact the individual who was to prove the crucial agent of change in this story – a wealthy sexagenarian aristocrat named Cleisthenes – was not even in Athens during the citywide riot. But in the heady days that followed, a vague proposal that Cleisthenes had made some time previously for the extension of power and influence to local communities and people was taken up and tried out. It was the world’s first step towards democracy.2

In Rome, another angry mob of citizens – disgusted by the vile behaviour of their royal family, which had driven a much-admired aristocratic woman to suicide – had shut the gates of their city to their king. Led by aristocratic nobles, the Roman citizenry struggled to develop a new system of republican political governance, even while the king sent wave after wave of troops against the city walls in an attempt to take back his realm. The system that emerged from this struggle would steer a middle path between the injustices of kingship and the notion (seen as unpopular and impractical) of direct ‘people power’. In time it would guide Rome to become the undisputed power of the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, for the small state of Lu in what is today’s eastern China, it was a time when state was pitted against state. Lu’s duke was an ineffectual ruler, and its principal families exercised overwhelming and corrupt power. A man already in his early fifties took up his first official appointment within the state bureaucracy. His goal was a new form of governance and order, motivated by humaneness and justice, to be embodied in the figure of a wise and righteous ruler. His was a lonely fight – there were no avid crowds of citizens to back him up, just a few dogged supporters – and he would not live to realise his dream. But his ideas and teachings never died. He would be remembered across all China as ‘the illustrious and perfect sage’ and his influence begat a system of governance and a wider world-view that we still recognise today: one that bears his name, which was Confucius.

One cannot overestimate the impact that these three parallel births of new ways of envisaging man’s relationship to man, in three very different societies, have had on our human story. In China, Confucius remains a towering figure who has for centuries defined much of the country’s attitude towards education, philosophy, law, justice and governance.3 We need look no further than Washington DC’s Capitol Hill, home to the United States Congress, or to modern Italy where the office of ‘praetor’ only became obsolete in 1999, to see the lasting influence of the geography and politics of republican Rome.4 And when in 1993 the 2,500th anniversary of democracy was marked to much hurrah across the democratised world, the debt to ancient Athens and the durability of demokratia (‘rule of the people’) was abundantly clear, for all that debates persist over how well the largely representative democracies of our time compare to the direct (if exclusive) participation of Athenians in their assembly (ekklesia).

The civilisations we study were not all fully aware of one another. The earliest accounts we have of the foundation of the Roman Republic make reference to the overthrow of tyranny in Athens, and Rome even sent envoys to Greece to examine its new constitution and draw lessons. Confucius, though, knew nothing of such struggles, drawing solely upon his own society’s history for examples and inspirations to progress.

What drove change in all three worlds at this time was a nagging sense of injustice felt towards governance that was overwhelmingly autocratic, and a search for a better, even ideal society, against a background of conflict and civil unrest. In Greece and Rome these political revolutions were community-led and began without any kind of road-map. In China, by contrast, Confucius sought to change the way the state was governed, with a very precise plan in his mind. Indeed he is arguably the first person in Chinese history to make absolutely clear what were his principles and ideas, despite the fact that Confucius always presented himself as a ‘transmitter’ of old ideas, rather than as an innovator of new ones.5

But whatever rhyming motivations were present in Rome, Athens and the state of Lu, what emerged – thanks to the particular traditions of each society and the specific nature of its contemporary problems – were three fundamentally different systems of government, based on different social contracts and different conceptions of man’s relationship to man, ranging from power in the hands of one venerable ruler (China), through a ‘middling solution’ in Rome that balanced the powers of different parts of society, to direct mass people-power in Athens.

From our vantage point today, the survival of all three of these systems of government seems natural. Yet in unpicking their stories we will see that each was, in its infancy, extraordinarily fragile, its endurance by no means assured, extinction a risk at every turn. Not one of them – not even the pre-formulated ideas of Confucius – was born in its finished form: perfection required decades, if not centuries. Crucially, too, the stories of their development have often come to us only in later ancient sources, sometimes conflicting and influenced by the purview of those later times. We cannot forget that to study history is also to scrutinise historiography and to observe how societies prefer to tell stories about themselves – stories that, ultimately, we are still reformulating today.

The end of the sixth century BCE is without doubt a fascinating moment in the history of not just one ancient society, but a much wider ancient world. It is a turning point in the development of human civilisation and in the conception of how we can, and should, relate to one another and act as a community. Even more importantly, the debates that took place then not only still guide us, but echo with surprising vitality in our modern world today. ‘The past’, in Faulkner’s famous words, ‘is never dead. It’s not even past.’6 How best to govern human society, to establish man’s relationship to man, is a question we will never stop asking.



Athenian Democracy and the Desire for People-Power

508 BCE: THE sun rose on the third day of the siege, and on the Acropolis – that ancient hulk of limestone protruding from the high ground at the heart of Athens, casting its shadow across great swathes of the community below. For centuries this towering rock had been both a beacon and a haven for those who lived by it. First conceived as a palace of kings, it was now crowned by a temple and a teeming forest of statuary dedicated to the all-powerful gods. It was this sacred, impregnable heart of their own city to which the people of Athens – united and resolute, according to Herodotus – now laid siege.1 For up above them, in hiding on the citadel, were the Spartan king Cleomenes and a small Spartan army. Sparta was nestled deep in the Peloponnese, more than 200 kilometres from Athens. It’s likely some of the Spartan soldiers were now asking themselves what they were doing so far from home. But Cleomenes had tied their fortunes to the political goals of a man now holed up beside them in the Acropolis – the Athenian aristocrat Isagoras, the city’s chief magistrate (known as the eponymous archon). And, it was whispered, Cleomenes and Isagoras shared something else: Isagoras’s wife, whom Isagoras was said to have ‘loaned’ to Cleomenes as part of their alliance.2

Isagoras and the Spartans had orchestrated the expulsion from Athens of some 700 families who were unsympathetic to Isagoras’s leadership, along with his chief political rival. They had even tried to abolish the supreme governing council in Athens – the boule – in favour of placing political power in the hands of Isagoras’s own supporters. But so badly had this sat with the mass of Athenian people that Isagoras and his Spartan supporters, vastly outnumbered and fearing for their lives, had headed for the high ground of the Acropolis. The people of Athens had united in a spontaneous revolt that would shake the city to its foundations and change the course of history.3

Herodotus read these events as the fuse to the fire of political revolution in Athens that would eventually lead to the creation of a new political system: democracy. Yet Athens’ journey to this moment had begun more than a century before, and the system of democracy created after 508 BCE would undergo a long evolution even afterwards. Crucial to the story of democracy’s emergence are the actions and intentions of key individuals, actions that ought to make us wonder if the end result was something anyone ever intended. In such matters the ancient sources do not always agree, even with themselves, and are susceptible to influence by the political outlook of their own times.