An Olympic Parade of Nations

Like Sochi, a Black Sea resort north of the Caucasian Mountains, Neal Ascherson’s admired trNeal_aschersonavelogue-cum-history of the Black Sea: Birthplace of Civilization and Barbarism celebrates its own Olympian Parade. Ascherson’s visits to cities, towns, villages and archaeological sites along the Black Sea prompt well-researched and fluidly written essays about the cavalcade of nations and ethnicities settling the region. The list is long: Scythians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Goths, Huns, Turks, Venetians, Mongols aka The Golden Horde and Tartars, Genoese, Germans and Lithuanian Poles, among others. Ascherson illustrates along the way that when one “barbarian” group becomes the colonizer, they, of course never having considered themselves “barbarians” in the first place, discover a new group of barbarians in a second place, a place butting up to the first one.

Ascherson observes that

On the shores of the Black Sea, there were born a pair of Siamese twins called “civilization” and “barbarism.” This is where the Greek colonists met the Scythians… The gestation of the twins was a long one. The first Greeks reached the northern Black Sea coast and set up permanent trading posts there in the eighth century BC. But the encounter lasted for several hundred years before the Siamese twins were born – before “different” came to mean “inferior,” and before the “otherness” of the steppe peoples whom the Greeks met on the Black Sea became a mirror in which Greeks learned to see their own superiority. That event – a sudden conceptual leap – took place in Athens in the first half of the fifth century BC, as the Athens of Pericles beat off the Persian invasions and became itself an imperial power.

Ascherson continues the oldest tradition of travel literature, first recorded with Herodotus: I came; I saw; I listened; I investigated; I wrote.

Space limits my praise of this masterful work. It is full of good, interesting stories – female Amazonian warriors, a diverting, weird sect of transvestites, Poland’s struggle for nationhood, and the plight of the Pontic Greeks, children of Byzantium, being just a few.

Above all is Ascherson’s narrative about the Black Sea itself, woven throughout the text and in the concluding chapters. He transforms the Sea into a metaphor for the Olympian trials and errors humankind experiences… repeatedly.

— Tucker Cox


The accompanying photo is of Neal Ascherson, 1987,courtesy of the Folio Society ( via images.

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