Two assumptions prevalent these days among contemporary social critics are, first, that multiculturalism is a necessary and long-overdue antidote to the Euro-American chauvinism and racism characteristic of Western civilization and, secondly, that chauvinism and racism have been uniquely virulent in the West. The planted axiom behind this second assumption, in turn, is that other societies have not based their identity on racial or ethnic hierarchies to the degree those of Europe and North America have and that the norm in history is in fact a lack of racial discrimination. The reality, as serious scholars have long been aware, is both more complicated and more interesting. Indeed, the notion that the norm outside Europe and America has been religious, racial, and political toleration and openness and a lack of xenophobia would surprise most historians, who traditionally have identified the consistent effort to overcome xenophobia and racism as a unique feature precisely of Western civilization, with its roots in medieval Christianity, the Reformation, and the secular Enlightenment. And the most important cultural antecedents of modem, liberal Western society were the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome. Therefore, whether or not Western societies are in fact exceptionally tolerant or exceptionally racist, one would expect to find origins of those features in what some people still call classical civilization, especially the “golden ages” of fifth-century B.C. Athens and first-century B.C. Rome. Of course, the ancient world was hardly subsumed in those two short eras, and they should not be regarded as peaks surrounded by valleys of decadence. But they have assuredly had the strongest influence on later eras of Western history.
Ancient Mediterranean civilization is worth examining for another reason as well, namely, that it is an example of a culture remote, in time at least, from the modem West and therefore can serve as a test case of the proposition that non-western cultures have been less ethnocentric and more hospitable to multiculturalism than our own.