G.W. Bowersock is Professor Emeritus of Ancient History at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. His most recent book, with Gideon Avni, is The Lod Mosaic: A Spectacular Roman Mosaic Floor.
 (December 2015)

Who Was Saint Paul?

Parmigianino: The Conversion of Saint Paul, circa 1527
I doubt that Karen Armstrong really believes that Saint Paul is “the apostle we love to hate,” as the subtitle of her book proclaims, not least because her view of him is so balanced and well informed. But she shows clearly that he is the most enigmatic and controversial figure in the early history of Christianity.

The Venice of the Sands in Peril

The ancient city of Palmyra, a day after ISIS began its siege, May 18, 2015

The fall of the ancient city of Palmyra before the brutal forces of ISIS last week raises the terrifying prospect of damage that could potentially eclipse the recent destruction at Mosul, Nimrud, and Hatra in Iraq. The tragedy of all this is the calculated disregard of a tradition of Palmyrene achievements that really means something to the Arab world.

Money and Your Soul

Sandro Botticelli: Saint Augustine in His Study, 1480
Faith and money lie at the core of all religious institutions, and although faith can exist without money, religious institutions cannot. It was hardly surprising that the French theologian Alfred Loisy declared in 1902 that although Jesus proclaimed the coming of the celestial kingdom, it was the church that actually …

Please Pass the Blood

Frans Snyders: Three Monkeys Stealing Fruit, circa 1640
Until recently food was largely of interest to economists, sociologists, and anthropologists, whereas historians have tended to view the subject as marginal, if not downright frivolous. Ever since Claude Lévi-Strauss drew attention to the symbolism of the raw and the cooked, allusions to cooking have made their way into social …

What a Saga!

‘Exodus and the Crossing of the Red Sea’; wall painting from the Dura-Europos Synagogue, Damascus, Syria, third century
Simon Schama’s new book is by no means a history of the Jews, despite its roughly chronological structure and distinct geographical frames. It is, as its title proclaims, a story, for which mere words barely suffice. What Schama has written demonstrates yet again his prodigious ability to write with fluency and panache, and to structure his work in surprising ways. It begins not with Abraham or Moses, or the parting of the Red Sea, but rather with a small group of Jewish mercenaries clustered, far from friends and relatives, on an island near the first cataract of the Nile in the service of the Persians.

On the Road with Heracles

‘Heracles Driving Off the Cattle of Geryon’; engraving by Giulio Bonasone, sixteenth century
Middle Earth in a book title would suggest to most readers that it was about J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, and it is likely that the publisher of Graham Robb’s book had an eye on this market. Robb has taken the phrase over to describe the European …

Storms Over Byzantium

Book cover with Christ Pantokrator surrounded by saints (detail), Constantinople, late tenth–early eleventh century
When the British Byzantinist Judith Herrin published her book The Formation of Christendom in 1987, many historians suddenly discovered that early medieval Christianity was far more complex than they had ever imagined. The concept of Christendom embraced not only medieval European Christianity, which ultimately led to the Crusades, but also …

A Different Turning Point for Mankind?

‘Confucius and Buddha Cradling a Qilin,’ Ming Dynasty (left), and Gustave Doré: Isaiah, 1865 (right)
Reflecting on human history over the previous millennia, a few European thinkers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries noticed a surprising conjunction. Many of the world’s most influential figures—Confucius, Buddha, the prophets of Israel (Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah), Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Zoroaster all emerged in their respective nations—China, India, Judaea, …

The Magical Donkey

Jacques-Louis David: Cupid and Psyche, 1817
Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, wrote to his mistress Louise Colet in 1852: If there is any artistic truth in the world, it’s that this book [The Golden Ass] is a masterpiece. It gives me vertigo and dazzles me….It smells of incense and urine. Bestiality is married to mysticism.

Apocalypse Then

Nicolas Poussin: Landscape with Saint John on Patmos, 1640
The Book of Revelation, which closes the New Testament, describes a nightmare of apocalyptic visions. These famously include beasts, serpents, a bottomless pit, warfare in heaven, wild horsemen, and other horrors that are only partially relieved by the ultimate arrival of the New Jerusalem. (“And I saw the holy city, …

The Audacious Historian

Hugh Trevor-Roper, when he was serving as a national director of the London Times
Adam Sisman’s biography of the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who entered the House of Lords as Dacre of Glanton, was widely noticed when it appeared in England last year. It has now been published in North America with a new title, although the book itself is essentially the same. It …

The Tremendous, Ferocious Bentley

Richard Bentley, from the book Gallery of Portraits, 1833
Among the literary giants of eighteenth-century England Richard Bentley is less famous today than Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, or Edward Gibbon, but his reputation was huge at the time. Gibbon referred to him as “the tremendous Bentley.” Even before 1700, when he began, at the age of thirty-eight, a stormy …

The Lod Mosaic

It’s not easy to make sense of the remarkable Lod Mosaic, a large, ancient floor newly discovered in Israel and now on display in the United States for the first time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But the very difficulty of interpretation, together with the excellent state of preservation, is what makes it so fascinating. We simply don’t know whether it was part of a residence or an official building, and we can’t even say whether the owner or owners were Jewish, Christian, or pagan. The date is not secure either, although the excavator proposes about AD 300 because late third-and-fourth-century coins and ceramic scraps were found immediately above it. Miraculously, what is on display at the Met survived intact apart from one large gash near the bottom that the excavator considers ancient damage, although not everyone agrees. The mosaic at the Met is the main part of an ensemble of floor mosaics that the Israeli Antiquities Authority uncovered in 1996 at Lod (ancient Lydda) during the construction of a road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Measuring some twenty-three and a half feet by thirteen feet, the mosaic consists of a large square containing a central octagonal medallion, with narrow rectangular panels above and below the square.

The Rise of ‘Decline and Fall’

The historian Edward Gibbon; painting by Joshua Reynolds, circa 1779
At the middle of the eighteenth century the writing of history had neither prestige nor practitioners in England. With his unmatched talent for creating memorable phrases to convey eccentric ideas, Samuel Johnson wrote in The Rambler of May 18, 1751, that writing history was simply too easy to attract anyone …

Men and Boys

From antiquity to the present, nothing has given admirers of the Greeks so much embarrassment and caused so much downright revulsion as the widespread Greek practice of men making love to young boys. We owe the word “pederasty” for this activity to Greek pais for boy and erastês for lover.

The Scholar of Scholars

Anthony Grafton, Princeton, New Jersey, March 2007; photograph by Ricardo Barros
In late 1977, classical scholars turned the pages of their newly arrived Journal of Roman Studies, a flagship publication of the profession, to find an eloquent and devastating assault on a book by E.J. Kenney, the highly respected professor of Latin at the University of Cambridge. The book was a …

Court Poet & Pornographer

Drawing by Aubrey Beardsley for The Yellow Book, 1895
Lord Byron lavished four memorable stanzas on the classical education of Don Juan in the first canto of his epic satire. After cataloguing authors such as Catullus and Ovid, whose indecencies served to corrupt his adolescent hero, the poet asks: And then what proper person can be partial To …

The Classicist’s Eye

On the cover of Daniel Mendelsohn’s new book, the lower part of a broken portrait bust from ancient Egypt confronts the reader with still smoldering intensity. The bust belongs to the Metropolitan Museum and is all that is left of a glamorous queen who reigned in the fourteenth century BC.

Brilliant, Beautiful & Byzantine

Anyone who invokes Byzantium these days is not likely to be saying anything positive. Strictly it denotes the ancient city located on the site of modern Istanbul, the former Constantinople, and it serves as a general designation for the Christian Greek empire that was based there, with one major interruption, …

The Art of Risk

In early 406 BC the news reached Athens that far away in Macedonia the great dramatist Euripides had died. The leader of the chorus at the festival of the Dionysia that year happened to be his old rival, the aged Sophocles, who, in a public gesture of mourning, had his …

Junius Q. Publicus

From its beginnings in a small, hilly enclave near the west coast of central Italy, Rome became, over some five centuries, the ruling power of the entire Mediterranean world. By the end of the sixth century BC, the Romans had already expelled their kings—about whom we know very little—in favor …

The Emperor of Roman History

In a large volume that appeared in the late summer of 1939 a thirty-six-year-old Oxford don from New Zealand undertook to reassess the whole tumultuous transition of the Roman state from republic to empire. The focus of the work was Caesar Augustus, whom Mussolini’s Italy had lavishly celebrated just two …