An interview with Tim Whitmarsh, author of Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World

Tim Whitmarsh, author of shortlisted work Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, kindly agreed to an interview.

The title of your book conveys less than it might. You say a lot about belief as well as disbelief: the nature of the ancient Greeks’ belief in their gods, and about their practice of religion, and about “putting the gods in their place”. Could you expand on the title for us in a few lines to convey this wider range?

Yes, it’s a book about both continuity and difference. That’s to say, there are aspects of ancient Greek atheism that are certainly very recognisable now: the centrality of the argument from evil, for example (how could a benevolent, omnipotent deity permit suffering?) But as you imply, the ancient Greco-Roman religious context was very different to anything we find in the modern world, and that does affect the forms in which atheism was expressed. Ancient religions were polytheistic, largely local, based in communal ritual rather than scripture; and priests had less of a hold over personal morality.

Read moreAn interview with Tim Whitmarsh, author of Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World

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An excerpt from Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World by Tim Whitmarsh

Tragedy responded to the sophists in subtler ways, projecting the issues onto a mythical canvas, so that the connections with contemporary culture become suggestive rather than explicit. One of the greatest examples of Greek tragedy, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, seems to be a case in point. The date is not certain, but 428 or so seems likely; this would place it precisely in the eye of the sophistic storm. Sophocles has often been thought to be the most religiously-minded of the three major tragedians, but Oedipus the King paints a more complex, challenging picture than this. Oedipus is centrally about divine prophecy, and humans’ attempts to assert control over lives that have already been predestined.

Read moreAn excerpt from Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World by Tim Whitmarsh

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An interview with John Dillery, author of Clio’s Other Sons: Berossus and Manetho

Author John Dillery, whose book Clio’s Other Sons: Berossus and Manetho has been shortlisted for this year’s Runciman Award, kindly agreed to answer a few questions for us.

Clio’s Other Sons is a scholarly work, liberally annotated with footnotes. How long does it take to research a work such as this? Where do you start?

It took me 16 years to write. I started by thinking hard about why these non-Greek priests – Berossus the Babylonian and Manetho the Egyptian – would want to write a history of their native lands in a language not their own, using in some cases methods of treating the past that were not their own, but from elements that were. What was the purpose of these histories?

Read moreAn interview with John Dillery, author of Clio’s Other Sons: Berossus and Manetho

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An excerpt from Clio’s Other Sons: Berossus and Manetho, by John Dillery

An Opportunity: Hellenization and World History

Something obviously very big happened in the history of the world in the Hellenistic period. Greek, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian cultures, each constituting massive contributions to the achievement of organized human life on our planet, were brought into intimate interplay that, while by no means unprecedented, had not occurred on a similar scale before. Greek culture, the one I know best and with which I am principally concerned, went from being the possession of a relatively small number of people clustered around the shores of the Eastern and Central Mediterranean to a tool of communication and social construction in the hands of many, many more people and in many other places, some quite far from the central Greek homelands.

Read moreAn excerpt from Clio’s Other Sons: Berossus and Manetho, by John Dillery

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This week’s focus: Clio’s Other Sons: Berossus and Manetho by John Dillery

This week we focus on John Dillery’s shortlisted book, Clio’s Other Sons: Berossus and Manetho. Here are some of the questions the author seeks to answer: ‘How did the non-Greek members of the ancient civilizations of the Near East and Egypt view the expulsion of the Persians and the conquest of their lands by the … Read moreThis week’s focus: Clio’s Other Sons: Berossus and Manetho by John Dillery