The subject of this book is catnip for melancholics. There is no better spur for contemplating the vanity of human ambition than thinking on the fates of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Bettany Hughes certainly does not omit to describe the thousand shocks, natural or otherwise, suffered by the wonders: the wrenching of the silvery limestone casing stones from the Great Pyramid at Giza to build medieval Cairo; the earthquakes, fires, invasions by Goths and Scythians, Christian vandalism, Byzantine looting and Sasanian conquest which combined to lay low the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Yet in explaining what the Seven Wonders meant to the ancients and how memories of them still affect us today, Hughes mitigates thoughts of their loss. The book is a meditation on the enduring idea of wonder, as well as being about the Seven Wonders themselves.
The first known list of the Seven Wonders dates to the second century BC. It is found in a fantastical dialogue between Alexander the Great and a group of Indian gymnosophists. This text, Laterculi Alexandrini, contains lists of sevens: the world’s seven most important islands, seven most beautiful rivers, seven best artists and so on. Such wonder lists became a subgenre for Greek and, later, Roman authors.
For the Greeks, these lists served as an encomium to the spread of Hellenistic culture across the known world following the conquests of Alexander, after which once-exotic regions were now within reach. They embodied the Hellenistic talent for taxonomy and empirical investigation which Aristotle nurtured in Alexander, who was his