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His doctorate, at Oxford was on Augustus and the Greek world. He is the author of over a dozen books and has published over articles on Greek, Roman and Near Eastern history and culture as well as the classical tradition. The list of his honours is long and impressive and the titles of his books and the number of his scholarly articles are alike the stuff of open-mouthed awe on the part of any aspiring student of classical civilisation. This is a wonderful body of work and an indication of what our best universities in the West have been able to produce, even if all too many of our students in the twenty-first century read very little of it.

I had expected mature insights and fresh perspectives from this book, concise though it is, at only pages.

Classical Antiquity in the Historical Poetry of Constatine P. Cavafy and Wystan H. Auden

Instead, I found myself astonished by its errors and omissions and recoiling from its deference to Islam. He makes the sardonic remark that:. The birth of Mohammed was fortunately placed in the most degenerate and disorderly period of the Persians, the Romans and the barbarians of Europe: the empires of Trajan, or even of Constantine or Charlemagne, would have repelled the assault of the naked Saracens, and the torrent of fanaticism might have been obscurely lost in the sands of Arabia.

These lines have a curious and disturbing resonance in our time, a generation after the end of the Cold War and in the midst of violent upheavals in the name of Islam, not least in the Middle East. The first of these books throws light into some rather dark corners of standard Western historiography. The second is a far more questionable contribution to our understanding of the ancient world.

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It would be, in some respects, ungracious to direct too withering a broadside at Professor Bowersock, given his distinguished career and great learning. But the errors and the general tone of this book on Islam cannot go without comment. They are certainly a cause for concern about failures of editorial assistance at Harvard University Press.

But above all, they need correction for the sake of the common interest we all have in understanding accurately how Islam arose and what it represents as a force in history. The errors that struck me most forcefully are of a kind that would surely have been corrected had any competent scholar or editor checked the book before it was published.

How they were committed by an emeritus professor of classical history at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies and overlooked by the editors at Harvard University Press quite eludes me. Yet the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66 AD, which lasted until the sack of Masada in 73 or archaeologists and historians tell us, perhaps 74 AD, was in no sense a revolt against Titus. Given the weight of his classical learning, Bowersock has to know this.

Who is Cosmas Indicopleustes?

Reading Bowersock, one cannot readily tell whether Titus is supposed to have been emperor at the time of the revolt, or perhaps the governor of Judaea against whom the Jews rebelled. He was neither. They revolted against the taxation policies of the Roman governor Gessius Florus. After local efforts to quell it had failed in 66, Vespasian was appointed, in 67, to conduct a large-scale counter-insurgency operation.

Titus was his son and second-in-command. When Vespasian departed for the west in 69 to bid for imperial power in the famous Year of Four Emperors, Titus took command of what was already a three-year campaign against the Jews. He then took Jerusalem and completed the suppression of the Jewish rebellion.

There are two solecisms here. Constantinople was not generally known as Byzantium at that time, even if that had been its name before Constantine made it his capital. But this is a minor point. Far more significant is the reference to Baghdad as the Persian capital, when Baghdad did not exist at all until after , when it was built by the Abbasid caliphs.

The Persian capital was Ctesiphon. Again, Bowersock has to know this. How many of his readers will be jarred by this kind of error and how many will entirely fail to notice it? It is disturbing to think that his general readership will take it to be no error at all and will imagine Baghdad to have indeed been the Persian capital. Evidently, neither of them noted his strangely anachronistic references to Baghdad or his description of Titus as the object of the Great Revolt by the Jews.

How is it possible that a scholar of ancient history in an Ivy League university could make so basic an error as to state that the Assyrians took the Jews to Babylon? Assyria had ceased to exist a generation before that date, destroyed by the Babylonians themselves and the Medes; the climax being the destruction of the Assyrian capital at Nineveh. This is such a famous story that it is astonishing to see a senior and distinguished scholar get it so obviously wrong.

From Gibbon to Auden : essays on the classical tradition / G.W. Bowersock - Details - Trove

If Bowersock was just starting out, publishing a book marred by such howlers would surely obstruct the development of his academic career. Well before I finished reading the book, however, I was shaking my head in disbelief. Yet it is not only the obvious mistakes that trouble one. It is the consideration that, if he can get things like this wrong, how can we rely on his judgment and accuracy in points of more minute detail, regarding the obscure origins and controversial rise of Islam at the end of the classical era?

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Nor is it only errors of fact that mar this book. Drawing upon well over a century of scholarship that has been seeking to pin down the actual history of early Islam, as distinct from the myths and dogmas hallowed by Muslim tradition, Bowersock consistently fails to display any of the qualities of irony, literary flair or sardonic humour that make Gibbon such an education to read. This is especially so with regard to Islam as a set of beliefs and practices.

Gibbon has been much berated for his slyly irreverent asides about Christian theology, if not for his salacious footnotes often disguised, as William Beckford long ago observed, in the obscurity of the original Greek and Latin. Regrettably, no one could accuse Bowersock of such things in his work on Islam.

It seems vanishingly unlikely that he actually believes these things, yet he betrays not an iota of scepticism or irony as he slips such phrases into an otherwise resolutely secular and earnest history. Why is this? Salman Rushdie notoriously suffered a fatwa condemning him to death for writing The Satanic Verses and publishers and distributors of the book were verbally and physically attacked for doing so. Its Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, for example, was stabbed and killed. Its Italian translator, Ettore Capriolo, was seriously injured in a stabbing, and there were quite a few other acts of incredible violence committed under the sign of the fatwa by fanatics.


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Many incidents of violence have occurred since, in which critics of Islam or Muhammad have been assaulted for their words or drawings. It seems disturbingly possible that Bowersock, eminent scholar of Harvard, Oxford and Princeton, was pulling possible punches and avoiding all irony in order to avoid incurring the anger of fanatical Muslims, whether Sunni or Shia. Search the catalogue for collection items held by the National Library of Australia. Bowersock, G. From Gibbon to Auden : essays on the classical tradition.

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