I find it hard to believe I’ve never mentioned Neal Ascherson here before; had LH existed in the late ’90s, when I was reading his amazing Black Sea, it would have provided plenty of post material, and when I reread it one day, as I intend to, it will doubtless do so. At the moment I want to share the very first paragraph in the book, the start of the acknowledgments, which I happened to glance at in the course of looking something up and thought represented my own intellectual aims quite well:
Many people, living and dead, have helped me to write this book. The germ of the idea, as I now realise, came to me when I was sixteen years old, as I read Mikhail Rostovtzeff’s classic work about the Black Sea past, Iranians and Greeks in South Russia. At the time, I was being taught Latin and Greek literature, and I felt it was important not to be stereotyped as a ‘classicist’. I tried to find some private niche from which I could understand the classical world not as a Graeco-Roman — or as a forced into some post-Victorian version of a Graeco-Roman mind-set — but as a knowing outsider. I wanted to be a monk who wrote Latin in rhyme, or a dangerous Scythian who travelled light and put down no roots. In any case, the result of opening Rostovtzeff was an imaginative invasion and occupation which I have never since thrown off. Most of a lifetime passed before I could carry out the invader’s command, before I could stand on the burial mound of a nomad king above the outfall of the Dnieper or the Don. But it was Rostovtzeff who issued the original order.
I urge everyone with even a vague interest in that part of the world to read the book; it’s an ideal combination of scholarly and reportorial virtues (according to his Wikipedia article, Eric Hobsbawm called him “perhaps the most brilliant student I ever had,” but after graduating “he declined offers to pursue an academic career” and “chose a career in journalism”), and damn well written to boot.