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Book Review


Stanley M. Burstein, The World from 1000 BCE to 300 CE. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. ix + 156. Chronology, Notes, Further Reading, Index. $19.95 (paper).


     Teaching upper-level or introductory world history courses presents many challenges, and one of them is the need to temper breadth and depth with an eye toward engaging students lacking historical context. Such challenges make selecting texts a critical task, which is especially true for survey courses that can benefit from concise narratives that inform, not overwhelm or disengage students facing an avalanche of historical information. These challenges are often compounded when newly minted instructors, or veteran professors, must offer the first half of World Civilizations and, often for the first time, need to teach ancient world history. Layered over this is the fact that most world history graduate programs focus on modern periods and themes, not the ancient past, and while those challenges have been written about and continue to deserve attention, it is very much appreciated when books are found that effectively engage complex topics in antiquity. In this regard, those charged with teaching about the ancient world will find a gem in the New Oxford World History Series offering, The World from 1000 BCE to 300 CE written by Stanley M. Burstein, Professor Emeritus, California State University, Los Angeles. Professor Burstein has written one of the most concise works I've read in quite a long time. In just 130 pages of main text, The World from 1000 BCE to 300 CE, effectively introduces readers to major developments in the history of Afro-Eurasia as societies underwent extraordinary changes in their politics and cultures.

     The World from 1000 BCE to 300 CE establishes its mission directly in the opening pages when referring to the book's central theme of examining interactions and connections across Afro-Eurasia: "By the early centuries CE, increasing connections among these empires had made this period the world's first global era. Trade routes both by land such as central Asian Silk Roads and by sea through the South China Sea and Indian Ocean connected the great Afro-Eurasian empires to each other and to lesser states in the southeastern and southern parts of Asia, southern Arabia, northeast and east Africa, and the Sahara and the Sahel" (xii). Of course, by the first global era, Professor Burstein recognizes the entire globe was not integrated during this time, but his work presents the years from 1000 BCE to 300 CE as a time when interactions across regions occurred with increasing frequency, forming linkages and creating frameworks that integrated Afro-Eurasian cultures, economies, and political systems.

     In general, the World from 1000 BCE to 300 CE structures each chapter with brief area introductions highlighting the major political and cultural issues, the interactions with peoples from other areas, and the conditions for social, cultural, economic, or political changes. In seven short chapters, the reader travels across selected cultures in the ancient Mediterranean and is introduced to Afro-Eurasian connections and cultural borrowings. For instance, when discussing changes within Afro-Eurasia during the Iron Age, Professor Burstein shows how climate change was connected to population growth, while also referencing how new state systems appeared as models for later antiquity and how technological developments shaped economic and cultural changes.

     The World from 1000 BCE to 300 CE gives us a window on cultural developments and the ebb and flow of dominance by empires in their turn: the Egyptians, Nubian, Assyrians, Babylonians, Indus, Greeks from the Bronze Age through Alexander and the Hellenistic Kingdoms, the Shang, Western Zhou, Persian, Roman, Parthian, Shaka, Han China/Xiongnu, Kushan, Nok, and Maurya. It simultaneously introduces us to the development of Afro-Eurasian caravan and maritime networks that traded in ideas, religions, technologies, and the entire complex of social-cultural exchanges that is the undercarriage, the setting of the life of empires during this period. Along the journey, we see how empires became agents, whether they intended to or not, for migrations and cultural interchange, which is an important thread in Burstein's work. Across Afro-Eurasia we are introduced to religions grounded in the written word with commonalities as well as differences in their rituals, beliefs, and iconic motifs: Judaism, Christianity, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism all have a place as cultural forces in antiquity and platforms for the ages to follow up to our own.

     This is a great book and one I highly recommend; it is a testimony to the erudition and clear writing style of its author and would be a solid addition to any library whether for students or faculty just starting out or those who want a refresher on just how integrated and foundational the period covered by this book was in the past and continues to be as it reaches to the present. However, each sentence, each paragraph, each page, each chapter of this little gem is filled with meaning and important milestones, so it takes time to distill and is not something that can be read quickly by the first-time reader. Professor Burstein's work would be a good primer for an upper-level ancient history course or a useful part of an introductory world history survey; in fact, I will try it out in my World Civilizations course next year. However, for students without any historical context, this lovely book could be overwhelming and requires careful engagement with the instructor. It would be a useful pedagogical tool to have ancillary materials that include outlines of each chapter illustrating salient themes with more maps. Nonetheless, for an introductory course, even without such materials, The World from 1000 BCE to 300 CE is worth using as part of your teaching as long as you help the reader along the way. After all, no intellectual journey in world history should be solitary and as this work clearly demonstrates, no culture, no society has ever developed as a solitary unit, but has always been a by-product of interactions and connections.

David M. Kalivas is Professor of History and Director of the Commonwealth Honors Program at Middlesex Community College (, co-editor for H-World, H-Net for the Humanities and Social Sciences, and currently president of the New England Regional World History Association (NERWHA).


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