Tag: ancient history

Summer Reading Recommendation, Mithras Edition

The running through of the bulls

Someone asked me the other day whether I had read any books for fun recently. Caught up as I was in compiling the lit review for one project and writing lectures for an introductory class, I couldn’t think of anything–the words “fun” and “reading” at the moment were almost precise antitheses. (Having read large numbers of scholarly treatises is enjoyable. Plowing through large numbers of monographs is tedium.)

And then it struck me that I had in fact read completely unrequired books recently. And that one of them was fantastic–so good, in fact, that it was worth a recommendation to our readership.

Like many people who enjoy history and were raised on Greek and Roman mythology, I have always known that Mithras exists. Yet I knew little about Mithras or Mithraism besides some likely inaccurate assertions of the similarities between the religion and early Christianity. Thus, when the Oxford University Press catalog came by mail a few months ago, I was right in the target demographic for their The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World by David Ulansey, a professor of religion.


The details of Mithras’s origins and Ulansey’s thesis are available elsewhere, for  instance on the Wikipedia page about the mythology, but I won’t link to them here because I think that it gives away the fun. One of the reasons that a lot of us, including myself, were attracted to academia was the notion of learning new things, and after a while we arrive at a place where we are treated to seemingly endless reinterpretations of old facts (Fashoda, the July Crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and so on). The delight in the Mithras book was both that it was a coherent account of something that I knew absolutely nothing about, even though I knew the setting and many of the characters fairly well, and also that Ulansey has structured the book as something like a murder mystery on a cosmic scale.

Again, without spoilers, the book is in part a reconstruction of how a discovery about the universe–not a mystical one, but one that would have seemed almost so to ancient Greeks–transformed itself into a religion. It is, at the same time, an investigation of how to use that knowledge, and offers insight into how sincere intentions might instantiate themselves as a mystery religion. The book also, inter alia, reminds us that the people of the ancient world were complex and rather well  educated–something that I had known intellectually but is a little hard to recall on an emotional scale.

And, best of all, it’s short–really only about 150 pages.

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Wine, War and Alexander

As the Ashmolean Museum shows in its latest exhibition, Alexander of Macedon was the spectacular bearer of Hellenism into Asia who inspired dreams of a unified humanity. His royal dynasty boasted a rich court life in vast palaces with ample room for dinner parties. The tombs of the Temenids contained beautiful artifacts.On slow afternoons they would graduate into manhood by hunting big lions.

Less prominent in the exhibition is the flip-side: that the same warriors liked getting drunk, razing cities, and beating the crap out of each other.
The urge to project humanist ideals onto Alexander and his brethren is odd but enduring. Oliver Stone has dabbled in it, as did W.W. Tarn, a classicist and liberal gentleman who saw his own liberal and gentlemanly values reflected in the world conqueror, whom he recast as the forerunner for twentieth century dreams of enlightened internationalism.

This is odd, because Alexander’s activities and temperament were not exactly in the spirit of the League of Nations at prayer. This was a man who annihilated Thebes. In the name of Pan-Hellenic vengeance he went on a murderous and enslaving blitz through the Persian empire. Beyond winning consent and obedience, he showed little interest in the art of government, was only turned back from his endless expansionist project by a disgruntled army whom he punished by force-marching through a desert, and who was so unbothered about the long-term stability of his new multi-civilisational empire that he refused to name a successor. The man who fancied himself a god-king who reincarnated the spirit of Achilles was not centrally driven to the cause of human emancipation.

In short, he was a conqueror and bringer of death on an epic scale. Sure, his exploits might have excited some philosophers to dream of the unity of mankind, but the lived experience of his rampages might have tasted a little different.

As Peter Green nicely put it: ‘Philip’s son was bred as a king and a warrior. His business, his all-absorbing obsession through a short but crowded life, was war an conquest. It is idle to palliate this central truth, to pretend that he dreamed, in some mysterious fashion, of wading through rivers of blood and violence to achieve the Brotherhood of Man by raping an entire continent.’

Nevertheless, the idea of Alexander the benign multiculturalist is continually reintroduced. There is the urge to find an ancient exemplar of internationalism and the cosmopolitan, to reinvent Alexander with all the blood, wine and tears rinsed out.

And as hinted in the Ashmolean pamphlet, the exhibition happens under the ‘aegis’ of the “Prime Minister of the Hellenic Republic, Mr George A. Papandreou, in collaboration with the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism, 17th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities.”

In other words, we can hardly expect a proud civilization enduring economic turmoil and humiliation to support an exhibition showing off the primal brutality of its most famous warlord.

Do I want exhibitions that provide an even-handed, scholarly, and impartial account of history? Not particularly. Like movies and football games, I go to be entertained on the cheap, and taken in medium-sized doses, propaganda like bias keeps life interesting.

But exhibiting Alexander without the background music of ceaseless violence and alcohol-fuelled hubris seems to miss something, offering us the tonic without the gin.

Go and see the exhibition, but imagine also what it was like for the inhabitants of a small town in Persia which reputedly had done something to annoy Alexander’s ancestors, when the unifier of mankind turned up muttering of revenge and without a peacekeeper in sight.

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