Dispelling any lingering belief that civilization began with the Greeks and Romans, Saggs surveys cultural achievements in the ancient Near East and the Indus Valley before the heyday of Greek and Roman civilization. In an informative and engaging style, Saggs builds primarily upon textual finds from archaeological excavations. He systematically introduces the reader to various aspects of life in the wider ancient Near East: city-states and kingdoms, pyramids and ziggurats, writing, education, urban life, trade, law, international policies, natural resources, mathematics and astronomy, medicine and ancient religion.
Many ancient texts are quoted in translation, providing a good flavor of their ancient cultural setting. Saggs has been careful to indicate which issues are still being debated by historians and which are generally considered settled. As a result the reader can understand the problems inherent in historical reconstruction from limited evidence and better appreciates the historian’s need to temper most conclusions in light of possible future discoveries.
Like all scholars dealing with the reconstruction of ancient cultures, Saggs is forced to use whatever source material has fortuitously become available from a variety of ancient Near Eastern cultures. The materials cover a 2,000-year time span, from approximately 3500 to 500 B.C.E. Although Saggs is careful to include dates for the literary material, the organization of the book into chapters devoted to specific aspects of culture forces him to combine source materials from widely divergent time periods and places. The reader should always bear in mind that the ancient Near East was home to many cultures. Contrary to the impression that a novice may receive from Saggs’ presentation, there really was no larger common ancient Near Eastern culture that remained unchanged throughout millennia.
To his credit, Saggs has relied heavily upon texts other than the Bible for the bulk of his reconstruction. Some sources are more objective than others. Taxation lists, private archives, legal codes, cultic manuals and ritual texts can probably be taken at face value. However, official royal documents and historiographic compositions, which inevitably reflect contemporaneous ideologies, cannot. Similarly, the Bible is not the most reliable source, because certain segments of its text are difficult to date and its historical evidence is hidden beneath layers of ideology. Unfortunately, the few times that Saggs does quote the Bible he treats it as an objective historical record. This usage suggests that Saggs may have treated other biased texts in a similarly literalistic way. Readers ought to keep in mind the intended function and audience of each text.
As a reference source for more detailed information on particular topics, Civilization Before Greece and Rome is a disappointment. The notes are few and the short bibliography lists other introductory works rather than technical or specialized studies. However, it is a helpful starting point. Those fascinated with ancient history should definitely add this volume to their collections.