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Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World

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Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World
Editors: G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown and Oleg Grabar. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press - Harvard University Press Reference Library, 1999. Pp. xiii, 780. Illustrations, Maps.) ISBN: 0-674-51173-5.


Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - June 1, 2000

Many historians view the postclassical period (250-800 C.E.) as a period of decline. They tend to take the ‘glass is half empty' perspective because the greatness that was once the Roman Empire is quickly fading to dust. In Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, the editors take a refreshing ‘glass is half full' approach to the postclassical period. The editors, G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown and Oleg Grabar, are all distinguished professors at Princeton University. Rather than viewing the postclassical periods solely as a period of decline of the Roman and Sassanian empires, they see it as a period of advancement and development for other cultures.

Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World is really two books in one, the first ‘book' is composed of a series of wide-ranging essays. Each of the eleven essays tackles a different aspect of the postclassical world, such as ethnicity or scared landscapes. Each essay covers a distinct topic and they are presented to tantalize the reader to pursue further study on the topic at hand. Each essay warrants repeated readings. The essays included are,

The second ‘book' is a comprehensive encyclopedia with more than 500 entries covering a copious amount of material. Topics not only include the basics such as India, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism but also unified topics such as magic and prostitution, delineating how these topics were treated by the various cultures.

It is difficult to find anything bad to say about this book. It provides the reader with a wealth of information and is an excellent reference book for anyone interested in Roman and Sassanian history and the postclassical world. Late Antiquity is unique in that it offers a world perspective to the period, rather than just a western outlook. It also treats the period as a unique and substantial time period that should be treated as a subject of inquiry on its own merits, not just as the tail end of one period or the beginning of another.

While written with scholarly vigor, this book is accessible to a wide readership. For the layman, the text is lucid and not overly pedantic and will serve as a handy reference book. For the scholar or researcher, Late Antiquity will prove to be a fertile basis from which to pursue your studies. Each essay ends with an extensive bibliography from which you can expand your inquiry into the subject matter. In addition, the encyclopedia entries also contain bibliographical references.

I must warn you, once you take a peak at this book, you'll be hooked. It is a "must have" for anyone even remotely interested in the postclassical period. In addition to the value inherent in the text, the book is well illustrated with both color plates and black and white illustrations and maps.

From the start, the editors clearly state that this book is a guide, one which they hope will lead the readership to pursue further study on the topic.

"If this Guide inspires, in those who read it, a wish to continue to study the distinctive period of late antiquity in its many aspects, to follow the directions into new territory to which it points, eventually to add to the areas sketched inevitably so briefly in its pages and to attempt, by their own further efforts, to remedy its omissions, then the editors will consider that this volume will have served its purpose." (Pg. xiii.)

I feel that the editors underestimated the value of their work. Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World is a treasure trove, one in which you will continually return to see what new treasures await. Even if you come to this book without an ingrained interest in the postclassical world, you may find that despite your best efforts, that the book has cast a spell over you and that you are henceforth compelled to delve deeper into this energetic and vibrant period in time.


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