The Tangled Cultural History of the Axial Age

A Review of Jan Assman’s Achsenzeit (2018)


  • Anders Klostergaard Petersen Aarhus University



Ancient History, Axial Age, Cultural Evolution, Historiography


Jan Assmann’s Achsenzeit is the most thorough presentation of thinkers who reflected on the Axial Age available today. Although the label ‘Axial Age’ was coined by Karl Jaspers in 1946, other scholars had touched upon the issue as early as 1771. From the beginning, socio-historical analyses rested on a presentist framework according to which the Axial Age was interpreted as a positive historical legacy that could be exploited to make up for the deficiencies of the present. Achsenzeit excels in the discussions covering the time span from Anquetil-Duperron to Vögelin (1975), but it disappoints in relation to current debates. Unfortunately, Assmann’s book ignores contemporary gene-culture co-evolutionary perspectives, as well as current research which argues for the convergent evolution of axial-age societies based on increased affluence, enhanced urbanization processes, and higher population density. These criticisms aside, the book is indispensable for the necessary knowledge of the pre-2000s discussion on the topic, and it is a highly pleasurable read. 

Author Biography

Anders Klostergaard Petersen, Aarhus University

Anders Klostergaard Petersen is professor at the Department for the Study of Religion at Aarhus University, Denmark. He has published extensively in the fields of Late Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity, and on methodological and theoretical questions pertaining to the overall study of religion and culture. He is currently involved in projects on biocultural evolution with a special focus on the history of religion.


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How to Cite

Petersen, A. K. (2019). The Tangled Cultural History of the Axial Age: A Review of Jan Assman’s Achsenzeit (2018). Journal of Cognitive Historiography, 4(2), 257-271.




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