Ancient Worlds

A Global History of Antiquity


By Michael Scott

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“As panoramic as it is learned, this is ancient history for our globalized world.” — Tom Holland, author of Dynasty and Rubicon

Twenty-five-hundred years ago, civilizations around the world entered a revolutionary new era that overturned old order and laid the foundation for our world today. In the face of massive social changes across three continents, radical new forms of government emerged; mighty wars were fought over trade, religion, and ideology; and new faiths were ruthlessly employed to unify vast empires. The histories of Rome and China, Greece and India-the stories of Constantine and Confucius, Qin Shi Huangdi and Hannibal-are here revealed to be interconnected incidents in the midst of a greater drama.

In Ancient Worlds, historian Michael Scott presents a gripping narrative of this unique age in human civilization, showing how diverse societies responded to similar pressures and how they influenced one another: through conquest and conversion, through trade in people, goods, and ideas.

An ambitious reinvention of our grandest histories, Ancient Worlds reveals new truths about our common human heritage.

“A bold and imaginative page-turner that challenges ideas about the world of antiquity.”
Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads





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 roadmap. 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.

The Acropolis, in fact, had been the scene of a relatively recent siege two years before, in 510 BCE; and on that occasion Cleomenes and his troops had fought alongside Athenians. The object of their ire, hiding amongst the towering temples and gleaming statues, had been Hippias, brutal tyrant ruler of Athens who had held onto power by increasingly violent means since the death of his father Peisistratus seventeen years earlier. That siege could have proved an unbreakable stalemate, had it not been for a curious twist. An attempt to smuggle Hippias’s sons out of Athens to safety was thwarted, and the sons fell instead into the hands of the Spartan army. The Spartans and their Athenian supporters now had leverage, and they bartered Hippias’s surrender in return for the lives of his offspring. Within five days Hippias had abandoned the Acropolis and fled Athens, eventually to end up in the court of the mighty Persian king Darius I, who commanded his vast empire across the sea in Asia Minor. Athens, however, had not seen the last of Hippias and his urge to hold power over the city.4

Still, Hippias’s departure at the time left a political vacuum in Athens, which had been almost exclusively under the control of a single family since Peisistratus first took the reins in 560 BCE. Now, as Athenians basked in the relief of release from tyranny, they faced the problem of what should fill its place.5 The Spartans under Cleomenes – involved in Athenian politics at the behest of the sacred oracle at Delphi, which had passed on the command of the gods that Sparta insert itself in the Athenian struggle – had little interest in controlling Athens directly, but they did have a preferred candidate in Isagoras.

Isagoras’s main rival was another aristocrat – Cleisthenes, scion of the powerful high-born Alcmaeonid family, which had been infamous in Athens for more than a century. He was also the grandson (on his mother’s side) of a tyrant – after whom he had been named – from the nearby polis, or city-state, of Sicyon. Newly sixty at the time of Hippias’s expulsion, Cleisthenes was arguably an unlikely candidate for the historic role of democracy’s vanguard revolutionary.

In those two years between sieges of the Acropolis the fight over the direction of Athens’ future raged like an inferno. Isagoras gained the advantage, though, when he was appointed from amongst an elite body of aristocrats to the position of chief magistrate for the year from mid-508 to mid-507 BCE. As eponymous archon, Isagoras had the power to legislate on how the city should be run. The only avenue left to Cleisthenes was to propose his ideas within Athens’ more representative (but less powerful) public assembly, and to seek support for his cause among the mass of male citizen Athenians who came from a wider range of social classes. The open-air environment of the public assembly was a hard one in which to make headway for a relatively elderly Athenian. First he had to make himself heard and understood above an often-vocal crowd; then he had the grander challenge of convincing his fellow Athenians of the need for a radical shake-up of the city’s political structures, at a time when many would have felt there was already quite enough change in the air. And yet, according to Herodotus, something remarkable happened. Though the demos (the mass of the people) had been ‘formerly despised’ by the leading men in Athens, Cleisthenes ‘added the demos to his faction’.6

What this means has been hotly debated by historians, not least because the Greek word Herodotus employs to describe ‘adding to one’s faction’ is proshetairizetai.7 At the root of this word is hetaireia, denoting a small band of intimate comrades, nothing less than an aristocratic peer group. Thus we might see the birth of democracy having been attended by a familiar kind of Athenian aristocratic political manoeuvring: not a revolution but, rather, business as usual.

If revolution was not intended in those heady days of 508–7 BCE, what Cleisthenes seems to have proposed to get the people to join his faction was, for sure, dramatically new. His proposal is thought to have consisted of two main elements. First, Cleisthenes suggested that the smallest civic units – the demes (roughly equivalent to modern-day boroughs) – should form the basis for all civic engagement, rights and responsibilities. Second, much more controversially, those demes were to be grouped into a new series of ten tribes, replacing Athens’ four traditional tribal groupings, which would form the basis of the way in which Athenians contributed their time, energy and ideas to the state.8 What made these new tribes so revolutionary was that their composition was engineered so as to explicitly break up the aristocratic power-blocs inherent in the old tribal structure, giving each tribe an equal say and equal power in the running of the state. Even more radically, the choice of who from among these tribes was to be entrusted with helping to run the state (in most of, but not all, the roles) was to be made not by election, but by random lot, so ensuring everyone stood a fair chance.

Cleisthenes’ ideas must have captured the Athenian imagination, for when the battle with his aristocratic rival Isagoras came to a head, it was he who had sheer numbers on his side and a legitimate claim to be the aristocratic leader of the people. Still, one must remember there was never any official motion in the name of ‘democracy’ put down for consideration by the organs of Athenian government. This was an idea carried on the wind, repeated, discussed, debated in private homes, in the fields, around the public fountains in the city’s market place, at the theatre and in the gymnasium. A desire to empower the local community was not, however, the only thing on people’s minds that drove them to give their backing to Cleisthenes’ plan.

Despite Sparta’s help in ridding them of a tyrant, the Athenians resented continued Spartan intrusion in their lives, distrusted Sparta’s former ties to Isagoras and feared what the Spartans might do next. They were painfully aware of Athens’ military shortcomings compared to Sparta, and even to nearer neighbours. In terms of the great bulk of Spartan and Spartan-allied military might that could be marshalled to march upon Athens, 700 soldiers was merely the tip of the iceberg.

Cleisthenes’ ideas for civic reform, however, went so far as to make the demes


  • "[An] impeccably researched and authoritative study of the world 500BC to AD300.... Scott's scholarly but accessible style manages to make this sweeping saga enthralling throughout, as he traces the stories of everyone from Hannibal to Confucius, debunking myths and cliches along the way."
    -The Guardian (UK)

    "Offering the Mediterranean and the Far East as a giant chessboard-with individual moves impacting the whole-astute analysis is matched with acute prose."
    -Prospect Magazine (UK)

    -The Times (UK)

    "The presentation of events revealing unfamiliar connections and comparisons, as well as the inclusion of less-familiar topics such as the Seleucid Empire and Armenia, provides a fascinating perspective that many readers should find intriguing."
    -Library Journal

    "A welcome broadening of our understanding of antiquity.... Scott teaches us that the past is a work in progress influenced by political and religious ideas and powerful rulers and individuals, and he proves that we need to continue to study and learn."
    -Kirkus Reviews
  • "This vivid and engaging book brings to life some of the most important moments in ancient history, moments that have shaped not only the politics and culture of bygone eras, but the institutions, thoughts and fantasies of our time."
    -Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens

    "This is a pathbreaking contribution to the going interest in seeing the ancient world as a whole, embracing China and India as much as Greece and Rome. And what's more, it's a joy to read!"
    -Ian Morris, author of Why the West Rules-For Now

    "As panoramic as it is learned, this is ancient history for our globalized world."
    -Tom Holland, author of Dynasty and Rubicon

    "A bold and imaginative page-turner that challenges ideas about the world of antiquity."
    -Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads

    "Michael Scott puts the western past in global perspective. He pursues patterns and entanglements that crossed ancient continents and continue to shape us today. His fascinating account brings together Confucius and the Battle of Marathon, Hannibal and Ashoka, Buddhism and Christianity-as well as Hollywood and the Chinese movie industry. As big-picture history it is dazzling and delightful."
    -Barry Strauss, author of The Death of Caesar: The Story of History's Most Famous Assassination

On Sale
Nov 1, 2016
Page Count
448 pages
Basic Books

Michael Scott

About the Author

Michael Scott is an Associate Professor in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick, UK. He is the author of Delphi, Delphi and Olympia, Space and Society in the Greek and Roman Worlds, and From Democrats to Kings. Scott has written and presented a range of television and radio programs for National Geographic, History Channel, Nova, and BBC.

Learn more about this author