Recovering Submerged Worlds

Werner Forman Archive/Bridgeman Art Library
A relief depicting the triumph of the Sassanian Emperor Shapur I over the Roman emperors Valerian and Philip the Arab, one of seven large reliefs showing Sassanian monarchs at Naqshe-e Rustam, Iran, third century CE

These three books, each in its different way, deal with the centuries in which a very ancient world suddenly and unexpectedly turned upside down. In Empires in Collision and The Throne of Adulis, Glen Bowersock takes us far to the south of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean—to Yemen, Axum (the capital of the nascent empire of Ethiopia), and to the dangerous waters between the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa, better known to Somali pirates than to classical scholars. Patricia Crone’s Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran takes us further east—in a huge sweep of diverse, little-known landscapes from Mesopotamia across the Iranian plateau as far as Central Asia.

Both Bowersock and Crone are supremely accomplished scholars. Each deals with the dramatic sequence of events that preceded and followed the unforeseen emergence of Islam in a corner of the world to which the ancients had paid little or no attention.

Bowersock has long shown how much we can learn about the ancient world by viewing it from its peripheries. Like Sir Ronald Syme, but going further afield than he did, Bowersock has insisted on seeing Rome from its provinces: in the provincial elites of the Greek world; in Roman Arabia; in the strange mutations of Hellenism in non-Greek regions; in the delicious joie de vivre of the mosaics of the late antique Middle East. And every time that Bowersock looks back into the centers of the classical world from his carefully chosen viewing points along its edge, the Greco-Roman world as a whole (center and periphery alike) is made to seem more diverse, more adaptable, more filled with surprises.

The Throne of Adulis shows Bowersock at full bent. In it, he reveals an unimaginably distant world, where the Indian Ocean touched societies caught between equatorial Africa and the deep desert of Arabia. Byzantines knew of these strange lands as sources of their incense, gold, and ivory. Occasionally, even a giraffe from the wide savannahs of East Africa and the Sudan would appear in Constantinople, to be placed in the menagerie of the imperial palace. There the gangly and voracious beast would be fed with leafy branches from the hand of the emperor himself, to symbolize the wide reach of a ruler capable of taming exotic beasts from the far ends of the earth—whether these were giraffes or barbarians.

This is where Bowersock begins—in Adulis (on the modern Gulf of Zula, in Ethiopian Eritrea) and in Axum, a royal capital set back from the coast, in the foothills of the mountains of Ethiopia. He studies a remarkable series of inscriptions. These inscriptions are in three languages—in Greek and in two languages…

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