Ashoka the Great (3rd century BCE) of the ancient Indian Mauryan dynasty (4th to 2nd century BCE) remains something of a mystery. He was emperor of one of the largest and richest kingdoms of the ancient times that covered Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northern parts of India. However, he was forgotten in India (while continuing to be revered in China and Southeast Asia, thanks to his appearance in Buddhist narratives) until the 19th century British scholars researching Indian antiquity discovered him as texts and inscriptions in the previously unreadable Brahmi script came to be newly deciphered.
Christopher Beckwith likes to shake up the staid world of archeologists, philologists and historians with big claims. In his Empires of the Silk Road, he argued the debt of world civilization to unfamiliar peoples from inner Asia, changing a Euro-centric or Sino-Centric approach to history into steppe-centricity. The Scythian Empire takes this one step forward by attributing many of the contributions from the steppe to a single people, the Scythians. In Beckwith’s telling, the Wusun, the Xiongnu, the Yuezhi, the Tokharians and the Soghdians are all Scythians, as are the Medes.
A half-century and more ago, when I was growing up, there was a comic book series in the United States called “Classics Illustrated” which retold novels, myths and—my own favorites—history in a format normally reserved for Spiderman. These were probably not the most accurate introductions to Marco Polo or Caesar, but they stirred the imagination.
The Sasanians ruled an empire stretching from the Mediterranean to the Aral Sea. Under them, the Zoroastrian religion developed its most subtle metaphysics. Greek philosophers flocked to their capital in Ctesiphon, while in Babylon, the Jewish Talmud ripened. Iranian painting, metalwork and music were received enthusiastically in China and India.
In the strategy game Civilization VI, where players choose world leaders to be their avatar, Qin Shihuang, the First Emperor of China, has one goal in mind: building wonders (like the Great Wall of China). His workers can build wonders faster and more cheaply, and he hates leaders that build more wonders than he does.
The First Emperor, founder of the short-lived Qin Dynasty (221-207 BCE) and even “China” writ large by some accounts, is a well-known historical figure. The excavation and subsequent global circulation of the Terracotta Warriors, crafted to guard his tomb, have given rise to a certain “Qinomania” Stories of the entombed ruler only heighten the fascination of the mass-produced and life-sized soldiers. Born into a hostage situation, the man known as Ying Zheng broke with the past, burned books, and buried scholars alive as he forged a new kind of centralized state. He survived assassination attempts and became infamously obsessed with a doomed quest for immortality. But how do we really know what we know about this world-shaking unifier of “all under heaven”?
“The cities that shaped the ancient world bore hardly any resemblance to cities as we understand them today, just as the ancient world itself had little in common with that in which we live,” writes the late John Julius Norwich in the introduction to Cities That Shaped the Ancient World.