Ancient Near East

Asia, Europe, and North Africa
in 1 C.E.
• The Development of systems of writing was
integral to the development of civilization
• With writing came effective long-distance
communication and the ability to build nation
and empires. Writing could be used to:
– Create records
– Record history
– Preserve imaginative works
Cities, Nations, and Empires
The agricultural revolution
– Primitive people were hunters and
– Between 8,000 and 6,000
B.C.E. people began to
settle and cultivate crops.
– With the increased food
supply, civilizations were
able to develop specialist
(non-agricultural roles) in
– Over time, vast
civilizations emerged.
The Great Ziggurat at Ur Today.
Credit: Ur, Photograph 17th January 2004, by Lasse Jensen. The Great
Cities, Nations, and Empires
• Early civilizations grew up near water
– Mesopotamia: takes its name from the Greek phrase “between
the rivers”
• Tigris and Euphrates rivers, on their banks were:
– Egypt (on the banks of the Nile River)
– China (on the banks of the Yangtse River)
– India (on the banks of the Indus River)
• Water was important for trade and communication
Travel, Migration, and Trade
• People were on the move throughout the
ancient period.
– Armies of conquest
– Traders
– Waves of migration in search of resources
• Much of ancient literature plays to people’s
fascination with hearing about distant
peoples and their unusual customs.
Lyric and Epic
• Lyric poetry gets its
name from the Greek
poet’s custom of
signing their poems to
the accompaniment of
a lyre, a small harp.
• The poetic impulse
seems to be universal
all ancient cultures in
the anthology recorded
lyric poetry long before
prose emerged.
Funerary relief with a lyre player. A young boy, reading in a
book role, recites a poem on the melody. Magna Graecia
(South Italia), ca. 420 BC.
Lyric and Epic
• Poetry was composed in many different
– Religious ceremonies
– Entertainment at banquets
• Poets could be seen as powerful verbal
• In China poetry was seen as integral to the
daily life of any educated person.
Lyric and Epic
• Epics are long, narrative poems that concern a
series of great struggles or adventures of a hero
or group of heroes, aided and opposed by
different gods, often leading to the forming of a
people or nation.
• Epic poetry is found in the ancient cultures of:
Lyric and Epic
• The oldest epics are collective
– They were developed over time, carried on
and revised through oral tradition
Deogarh. Here you see the five
Pandava princes- heroes of the epic
Mahabharata - with their shared wifein-common named Draupadi (although
some had their own wives too). Vishnu,
incarnated as Krishna , was advisor
and their charioteer in battle. The
central figure is Yudhishthira ; the two
to his left are Bhima and Arjuna .
Nakula and Sahadeva , the twins, are
to his right. Their wife, at far right, is
Draupadi . These heroes are
themselves incarnations: Yudhishthira
manifests Dharma, the Sacred Order of
Life. Bhima represents the Wind God,
Vayu. Arjuna is Indra. Nakula and
Sahadeva incarnate the twin
“Horseman Gods” (The Greek
Dioscuri). Draupadi is Indrani , the
queen of the gods and wife of Indra- a
very old Vedic (Pre-Hindu) god.
Credit: Bob King. This file is licensed
under Creative Commons Attribution
2.0 License
Myth, Legend, and History
• “Myth” is a term with many meanings.
– Today, sometimes used for anything that isn’t
– In ancient Greek, any story
– A certain group of stories about the gods
• Myth in the ancient world can be thought
of as a story of ultimate truths
– Often used to explain origins
Myth, Legend, and History
• Ancient literature mixes material that we usually
think of as distinct.
– Myths, legends, history
• The ancient texts that we have today are rare
exceptions that survived the centuries
– They were so treasured that they were widely
– They simply happened to be preserved in a tomb or
The Ancient Near East
• The “Fertile Crescent” is a broad band of
settled lands stretching from the Tigris and
Euphrates rivers into what is now Iraq, up
into Asia Minor, and down through
The Ancient Near East
Due to a unique combination of favorable
environmental conditions and human
ingenuity, the world’s first great cities were
Ruins of Babylon, 1932.
Library of Congress
The Ancient Near East
• As rulers sought to create empires and
merchants trading, writing developed to solve
communication needs.
• Around 3200 B.C.E. early Sumerians developed
a form of writing that used symbolic
representations of objects, and later of sounds.
– By 3000 B.C.E. the world’s first fully developed writing
systems had emerged
– Eventually, language became simplified to alphabetic
symbols and dropped visual signs; creating the first
phonetic alphabets
The Ancient Near East
• Scribes achieved great
– Highly skilled counselors
– Diplomats
– A sort of civil service elite
• Early writing systems were
complex and difficult to
– Involved carving hundreds of
symbols on stone or clay
tablets, later brushed onto
Cuneiform Clay Tablet.
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Ancient Near East
• Cultural production centered around court
and temples
– Kings were often seen as partly divine
– Tensions between court and temples over
– Extensive texts were written to record the
affairs of both
• Royal annals, medical and astronomical texts,
hymns, prayers, etc.
Ancient Near East
Divinities varied throughout the ancient near east
but there are strong family resemblances
– A primordial generation that created the world and
gave birth to a further generation of gods that now
– A few major divinities and a host of minor
• Major divinities
– Sun: Utu (Sumarian), Shamash (Akkadian), Amon Re or Aten
(Egypt), Apollo (Greece)
– Fertility/Love: Inanna or Ishtar (Mesopotamia), Isis (Egypt),
Aphrodite (Greece), Venus (Rome)
– Cosmic systems relied on a male/female
Example of the Greek Divine Lineage
Birth of Monotheism
• The worship of many gods often tempered by
devotion to a particular god (patron deity)
• Among the Hebrew tribes, devotion to Yahweh
gradually evolved into monotheism
– United Israel under Saul in 1020 B.C.E. His son Solomon
strengthened the kingdom but civil wars erupted at his
death and the country was ruled by a series of foreign
– During Solomon’s reign, writers composed chronicles and
wisdom texts of their own, inspired by older Canaanite,
Babylonian, and Egyptian sources. They continued
throughout the years of foreign rule and exile.
– The Hebrew Bible became an extraordinary compendium
of historical writing, law, poetry, and reflection on
fundamental questions of human existence.
Language, Cities, Empires
• The ancient world was instable, with
constant political and social instability
– Empires grew and fell through wars with rivals
– Natural disasters led to mass migrations
• Created an ethnic, linguistic, and cultural milieu
• Example: Flood stories (Gilgamesh, Bible, etc.)
– Egypt remained a single country with an
unbroken history for 3,000 years – a record
only matched by China.
Early China
Early China
• Early China usually thought of as lasting until the
first millennium B.C.E.
– Confucius lived at midpoint
• Mythological record credits a series of sage
emperors with innovations and principles that
guide the development of Chinese civilization
– Focus on historical beings and world, rather than
– Insistence on respect for one’s parents and ancestors
– Importance of agriculture, writing, ritual, arts
– Conviction that morality, rather than genealogy,
validated one’s right to govern
Early China
• Shang Dynasty: begins the actual historical
record at 1550-1040 B.C.E.
– Scapulimancy: reading of cracks in heated bones or
– Demonstrates continuities in Chinese language
• Zhou Dynasty: came to power after a tyrannical
Shang ruler claiming a mandate of heaven
– Like Shang, agrarian people with regulated city
– Sacked by a non-Chinese tribe
– A new capital of a revived Eastern Zhou remained for
five centuries divided into Spring and Autumn period
and Warring States period
Early China
Confucius: enormous respect
for Zhou ideals
– Primacy of a family-based
morality and an extension of
this into other relationships
• Government for the good of
governed; governing by moral
• Priorities of group over individual
• Proper roles in a social hierarchy
led to social harmony
Early China
Daoists, most important early thinkers to take
issue with Confucian ideals
• Sought harmony with the “way”
• Privileged natural over human
• Thoroughgoing relativity undermined active
commitment of any kind
Legalists, believed that human nature was not
inclined to be good.
• Only power could succeed in ordering the state
Early China
Qin dynasty
– Short-lived and busy
• Standardized writing
system, weights and
measures, coinage, width
of carriage axles
• Construction projects,
including Great Wall
• Centralized imperial power
through agents dispatched
across the country
• Also ordered all classical
texts burned, searched for
elixirs of immortality, and
commissioned a elaborate
– Civil war erupted and the Han
Dynasty was born.
Herbert Ponting (1870-1935)
Early China
• The Han Dynasty rejected the excess of
the Qin, but built up the administrative
structure more
– Implemented the civil service exam
– Identified the Five Classics (each associated
with Confucius in some way), which were the
basis of the exam, and became the required
reading of all educated people
Early South
• History of Early
South Asia is
obscure until
around 500 B.C.E.
– Asoka (third
Maurya king) is the
first that we have
solid information
– Mauryan empire
ended about 2nd
century B.C.E., but
we have only a
shadowy idea of
Early South Asia
• Although Indus Valley civilization appears to
have been literate. They left only seals that are
– Part of Indo-European language family – Roots of
which can be traced from Iran to Ireland
• The Veda (“wisdom”) is one of the oldest
remaining texts. It comprises materials used in
the complex liturgy of domestic and communal
– Transmitted orally for 3 millennia (samskrita)
– Much of the Veda is verse – same 11 meter found in
ancient Greek poetry
Early South Asia
• The Ramayana was composed in the late Maurya
epoch, around 200 B.C.E.
• The Mahabharata, ascribed to the sage Vyasa, is usually
thought of as a history. Probably created a century or
two before Asoka, but continued to grow.
• For both the principle theme is meaning and extent of
– The nature of kingly rule and the limits of the world within which
this rule makes sense
• Sanskrit poets and scholars produced literature and
theory about literature that dominated the cultural scene
in South Asia
Early South Asia
• Vedic tradition encountered a crisis of belief in
the middle of the first millennium B.C.E.
– One reaction was an ascetic renunciation and
physical self-mortification
– Another reaction was a new and profound reflection
on life and death
• Ideas of redeath and rebirth (transmigration or samsara) , in
accordance with deeds committed in a previous life (karma)
• Upanishads and Four Noble Truths
– Vedic thinkers tried to synthesize there many
tendencies into a doctrine called “the four-life goals”
• Spiritual attachment to various gods remained, but three
main gods: Brahma (creator), Vishnu (sustainer – note his
avatara, or descent into human form), and Shiva (beneficent
destroyer) – sometimes merged into a triple godhead
Classical Greece
The Greeks lived in
pockets of what is
now mainland
Greece, throughout
the islands of the
Mediterranean and
along the shores of
the Mediterranean
Classical Greece
Mycenaean civilization came in contact with
Minoan civilization in the late Bronze age
through trading
– The earliest writing dates back to this period
– Clay tablets used to meet the record-keeping
needs of large bureaucracies
– Greek speakers later conquered them and
adopted their writing system to record the
sounds of Greek
– The Greeks later looked back on this period
as their heroic age
Classical Greece
• Epic poetry was by far the most important Greek
– Aethiopis or Amazonia
– Iliad and the Odyssey
• There appears to have been a dark age where
written language was lost. Stories passed orally
and recaptured in 8th century B.C.E.
– Began to use alphabet borrowed from Phoenicians
– Writing often seen as something dangerous (used by
Classical Greece
• Greek society was really a mosaic of many
varied micro-cultures
• We know the most about Athens thanks to the
rich written record they left behind.
– Following Mycenaean era, city-states ruled by
– Some aristocrats eventually set themselves up as
– In a sharp break from traditional forms of governance,
democracy rose (esp. in Athens). All free male
citizens chose their magistrates by lot (no women,
slaves, or non-citizens).
Classical Greece
• Dramatic festivals were central to Athenian life.
– Celebrated Dionysos, god of wine
– Committees of citizens chose the plays and awarded a winner
• Tragedy dramatized the epic cycle in music, dance, and
spoken dialogue
• Comedy featured fantastic plots and direct references to
their contemporary world. There was also a good deal of
obscenity and phallic humor.
Greece, Athens, Dionysus
theater, seen from the
Classical Greece
• After the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, a period of
relative peace was established by Philip of Macedon.
• His son, Alexander, inherited his kingdom. Relentlessly
trying to conquer the Persian empire, Alexander
conquered the Greeks, Egypt, deeply into barbarian
lands, and east to the Indus River.
– At his death, his generals divided his fragile empire.
• I.E. Alexandria, under the Ptolemies
• Eventually Hellenistic empire fell under the Romans
• Mythological origins
– Romulus and Remus
– Aeneas
• Local magistrates expelled the last Tarquin
kings and gained independence from the
Etruscan Empire in 510 B.C.E.
– The republic, governed by the Senate, lasted
until Augustus in 27 B.C.E.
• By 1st century C.E. Rome had grown from
tiny republic to the dominant power in the
– Rome itself had an unmatched population
• Problems of overcrowding, supply, and waste
• Inspired necessary advances in water and sewage
• Multicultural: almost all residents came from
somewhere else
• The republic’s troubles
began with the Gracchi
brothers’ attempts to
address growing social
inequality with land
redistribution and
citizenship for all Latins.
– This launched a series of
reform measures and
attempts to grab power that
eventually end in Caesar’s
Modern bronze statue of Julius Caesar, Rimini, Italy
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• Caesar’s power based on
his army and track record
of victories
• After Caesar’s assassination in 44 C.E.
war broke out among potential heirs.
• Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, defeated
Mark Antony and his ally and lover
Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium, and
became sole ruler
• The Roman Empire was born
• The Roman Empire was a complex
combination of military prowess and
political savvy.
– Roman legions highly-trained, well-equipped,
and effective
– Constructed carefully laid-out provincial
capitals and paved roads and aqueducts to
link the empire.
– As long as conquered rivals paid heavy taxes
they were given relative autonomy
Expansion continued through the 4th century.
– At its height, borders extended into Scotland, the
Rhine and Danube in Europe, and throughout the
Overtime, emperors became more autocratic powers
and godlike status, but the military played an
increasingly important role in selecting emperor often
resulting in a series of military coups.
The Roman Empire
Fall of Rome: Invasion by northern barbarians led
by Alaric in 410.
• Military relied on peoples of conquered nations
• Conversion of Constantine in 324 eventually shifted power
• The rule of Germanic tribes was less centralized
and often at odds with Eastern Empire
• Rome continued to decline, although somewhat
strengthened by the medieval papacy