There is little doubt that historians have

April 1, 2019 Geography

There is little doubt that historians have an extraordinary number of tools and methodologies at their disposal; these tools have helped them construct (and in some cases reconstruct) the events of the past. While historians still rely on written records, the work of archeologists, anthropologists, and demographers has helped broaden the understanding of the distant past. We will never fully understand “how things really were,” but the historian still tries to put together seemingly random pieces of evidence from the past into a coherent narrative to help place contemporary events into an appropriate historical context.
By the end of the Neolithic Age, and as a result of humans learning how to domesticate plants and animals, an important early civilization was able to flourish in an area known as the Fertile Crescent. This agricultural revolution gave birth to a collection of independent city-states known collectively as Mesopotamia. The people of this area—Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, and others—were able to solve the problems of irrigation, build massive temples to their many gods, and organize their lives in a way that permitted the future growth of permanent settlements. They also invented the wheel and the first form of writing, cuneiform. Intense warfare between city-states led to the formation of the Akkadian Empire, the first empire in Western history. Following the accomplishments of the Akkadians, the Babylonian king Hammurabi came to appreciate the importance of the written word. He elevated Marduk as patron deity of Babylon and went on to unite his people under his code of laws.
While the Akkadians created an empire in Mesopotamia, another ancient civilization developed along the banks of the Nile River. The Egyptians created an empire based, not on conquest, but upon the development of a highly unified society that would come to be dominated by the pharaoh. His magnificence and divinity were reflected in massive public buildings such as the Great Pyramids at Giza. An extremely confident people, the Egyptians created a worldview based on the cyclical nature of life, death, and the afterlife.
The Mesopotamians and Egyptians created societies in which religious beliefs and politics were interconnected. Although these civilizations had contact with one another, there was very little political or cultural interaction between them. By 2000 B.C.E., however, this isolation would give way to something completely different as developing empires in the ancient Near East moved to expand and transform the ancient world.
By the second millennium B.C.E., the Sumerians had ceased to exist, having been assimilated by Sargon and the Akkadians. Over time, the Sumerian legacy was transmitted to other areas in Anatolia and the Levant. In Egypt, political weakness and division were underscored by a series of invasions from the Nubians and the Hyksos. Although Egypt never suffered large-scale invasion, the Egyptian world had somehow become much smaller and the Egyptians became aware that their world was not the center of the cosmos, as they had once believed. The Hyksos invasion also prompted a radical departure in leadership during the period of the New Kingdom. A new type of nobility appeared-an aristocracy of military commanders. Meanwhile, Egyptian pharaohs such as Akhenaten attempted to elevate their own position of power and influence by reformulating the pantheon of Egyptian gods.
In the early Iron Age, the Phoenician, Philistine, Assyrian, Persian, and Hebrew states emerged; they inhabited the eastern Mediterranean, an area known as the Levant. While some of these kingdoms were aggressive colonists, such as the Phoenicians and Assyrians, two of them, the Hebrews and the Persians, fashioned new religious outlooks that would have a remarkable impact on the future development of Western society.
Although very little is known about the origins of the Persians, it is known that they occupied the western half of Asia Minor and spoke an Indo-European language. They were also intent on creating a large empire: having assimilated the Assyrians, Cyrus quickly took Mesopotamia while his son, Cambyses, conquered Egypt in 525 B.C.E. As can be expected, such acts of conquest had broad ramifications for the further assimilation of “foreign” cultures. By the middle of the fifth century, Persian encroachment upon mainland Greece ended in utter failure. The Persians were responsible for developing a new universal religion called Zoroastrianism, a dualistic religion that had close affinities with the ideas of the Hebrew prophets. The significance of resemblance is that Zoroastrianism did not develop in a vacuum, nor did its influence begin and end in Persia. The international synthesis mentioned in the previous chapter made it possible for Zoroastrianism to influence the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions.
The Hebrews also fell under the sway of Near Eastern influences. One should not be surprised by this since the Near East was their place of origin. The Jews lived in a polytheistic world-even after Yahweh had been proclaimed the supreme God, he was in a world inhabited by many other gods. The prophets Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah ,and Ezekiel were perhaps most responsible for turning Hebrew monolatry into a rigid monotheism. Few people can deny the influence of Hebrew monotheism and ethics on the development of Near Eastern culture, nor on the development of yet another universal religion that appeared during the golden age of Rome: Christianity.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of ancient Greece in the history of the West. Much of that which is “modern” has its roots in the ancient Greeks-their democracy, philosophy, science, and literature all seem to be much more “modern” than they are ancient. But such a judgment says more about contemporary observers than it does about the ancient Greeks. What is often forgotten is that ancient Greece developed under significant Near Eastern influence from the days of the Mycenaeans through the tumultuous aftermath of Alexander’s empire. The appearance of the Greeks serves nonetheless as a turning point in the development of Western civilizations. From the Greeks, modern societies have inherited the values of human dignity, rational thought, participatory government, and the creative powers of the human mind.
An excellent insight into early Greece can be provided by Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. It was Homer who portrayed the values of Greek civilization in their starkest form, and thanks to Homer that one can identify their fixation upon the cultivation of virtue. A citizen who cultivated virtue would result in the development of a virtuous city-state, which in many ways was a Greek or Hellenic ideal. Although the path to virtue was difficult, it was the Greeks who made the quest for virtue a uniquely human quest.
Although the Hellenic world was little more than a collection of semi-independent city-states, two of these poleis have always deserved special attention. On the Peloponnesus, the Spartans created a society led by a dual monarchy organized for war. The Athenians, who inhabited the Attic peninsula, created a democratic form of government based on the direct participation of all citizens. Both poleis became powerful, and by the end of the fifth century, tensions between them resulted in a “cold war,” which became “hot” during the Peloponnesian War. In the wake of that war, Athens was destroyed and Sparta became the hegemonic force in the Hellenic world.
In spite of the fact that the fifth century began and ended with war, this century, the Classical or Hellenic Age, has always been considered something of a golden age as well. In the wake of Persian defeat, Pericles rebuilt the city of Athens. At the same time, Greek dramatists like Sophocles and Euripides developed the literary form known as tragedy. Herodotus and Thucydides wrote their histories and the Sophists could be found on the streets of the agora “selling” their wisdom. Then there was Socrates-who, in 399 B.C.E., was sentenced to death for challenging anyone to defend his beliefs. He drank the fatal dose of hemlock, but not before urging subsequent generations of people to question everything, for “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Profound as the Greek achievement certainly was, we cannot forget that slavery and the subjection of women were common in the Hellenic world. Greece remained a militant and intolerant society. Just the same, the Greeks were the first to develop the concept of eleutheria (freedom), and they certainly elevated the primacy of human intellect. The Greeks made a lasting impact on Western civilizations; it can be argued that none was more important than the concept of paideia—the concept of becoming a total person, something Socrates understood when he asked us, above all, to “know thyself.”
The expansion of Greece from polis to cosmopolis is the story of significant, and at times painful, change. One of the most difficult transitions in the course of Hellenic civilization was when the Greeks realized that the polis was not compatible with long-term expansion. There were significant structural and philosophical differences that had to be reconciled. Even Socrates was aware of this: how could the Athenians create a polis based on virtue when no one could define what was meant by virtue in the first place? The effects of this discovery on the Greeks were profound and resulted in despair and cynicism; this was compounded by the fact that between the fifth and third centuries, the Hellenic polis gave way to the Hellenistic cosmopolis.
Of course, this despair and cynicism were fashioned in an environment that also produced two of the most important philosophers in world history: Plato and his student Aristotle. In his many dialogues, Plato tried to create a world above and beyond the world we perceive with our senses. This transcendent world is one we can know, but only if we have grasped the Idea of the Good. Aristotle, on the other hand, was a scientist who trusted his senses and believed in the objective reality of all things. Together, Plato and Aristotle fashioned two opposing views of human knowledge: rationalism and empiricism. These schools of thinking have helped to frame political and philosophical debates throughout Western history.
During this period, the reigns of Philip II of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great, were transformative. Philip II stabilized the region’s borders through a combination of warfare and diplomacy; however, he was viewed as an aggressor by some and was ultimately assassinated. Under Alexander, the Greek world expanded as far west as the Indus River, before he died from fever at the age of thirty-three. Alexander’s legacy long outlived him. Alexander and his armies succeeded in Hellenizing the ancient Near East and Egypt, thus mixing Greek ideas and culture with ideas from civilizations with a much lengthier history. Again, the tendency seems to be toward internationalism (something we have noted in previous chapters). As a result, some difficult social and cultural challenges had to be addressed.
The Greeks had lost something in the development from polis to cosmopolis-and what they lost was fundamentally human, fundamentally Hellenic. A period of despair, cynicism, and anxiety ensued; in this atmosphere of dejection came new philosophies that proved therapeutic to those who felt lost in a world they thought they knew. The Stoics taught that there was a divine plan to the cosmos and that in order to find peace, man must submit to that order. Duty and self-discipline, then, were the highest Stoic virtues. The Epicureans taught that there was no rational order and that the highest good was pleasure. These modes of thinking were helpful for the citizens, the most literate of Hellenistic culture. The broad masses had different needs. A number of mystery cults developed, the most influential of which was the Persian cult of Mithraism, which had similarities with early Christianity.
One cannot underestimate the influence of the Hellenistic Greeks. Not only did they make startling discoveries in science, mathematics, geography, physics, and medicine, they also demonstrated that despair and anxiety manifest themselves when traditional values break down. The Hellenistic Age is a transitional one between the Greeks and the Romans. Perhaps the most important legacy was Alexander the Great himself. What would Rome have become without his example?
There was, of course, one civilization that shared a high degree of closeness with the ancient Greeks: the Romans. Although they became a highly distinctive civilization on their own, there is no denying the influence of the Greeks. The Romans may have faced some of the same challenges as did the Greeks, but for some reason—perhaps their native Stoicism—the Romans were much better prepared to move forward and create the kind of world they wished to inhabit. Perhaps the Romans were cosmopolitan by nature? Perhaps the Romans were able to create the kind of world the Greeks had only dreamed about?
After expelling the last Etruscan king, the Romans attempted to build a republican form of government. Such a task was precipitated by social inequalities between patricians and plebeians. It was possible that the patricians could have subjugated their social inferiors, but instead they did something typically Roman—they accommodated them. In fact, this idea of accommodation is manifest throughout the Republic and offers at least one explanation for Rome’s greatness. Rather than subject conquered peoples to their way of life—as Alexander had done—the Romans sought accommodation. And with accommodation came some form of citizenship. Upon this edifice, the strength and durability of Rome was perhaps insured.
By the first century B.C.E., and following the defeat of the Carthaginians and the Greeks, the republic faced its greatest challenge. Military generals, tired of dealing with members of the Senate, as well as the powerful equestrians, made their own bids for power by marching on Rome with their own armies. This pattern of aristocratic reaction ended when Julius Caesar proclaimed himself emperor for life. With his murder in 44 B.C.E., the first triumvirate appeared, only to be crushed by Octavian, Caesar’s grand nephew, who soon became known as Augustus Caesar (“blessed leader”).
Under Augustus, the Roman Republic was transformed into the Principate, an empire by any other name. Augustus was a smart man who tried to accommodate everyone, but only if that accommodation left him with absolute power, which it did. Although he died in 14 C.E., Augustus managed to lay the foundation for that more glorious period of Roman history—the Pax Romana. Of course, Augustus was a difficult leader to replace and despite the period of the Five Good Emperors (96-180), there was no one emperor who could match the strength or skill of Augustus. The Romans were, perhaps, aware of this and also had need, as did the Hellenistic Greeks, for therapies (Stoicism and Neoplatonism) as well as diversions (gladiatorial contests at the circus).
As is well known, mainly thanks to the works of Edward Gibbon, Rome eventually fell to Germanic invasions. The causes of that fall are varied and debatable. For Gibbon, the main point of contention was, not that Rome fell, but that it lasted so long. Although we may never arrive at the definite reason for Rome’s collapse, a few things are certain: the Romans never determined a clear law of succession, and as a result, when times got tough, the Romans resorted to violence and palace intrigue.
After the rule of the Five Good Emperors (96-180) the strength of the Roman Empire declined, but the empire did not collapse. With the reign of Diocletian, Rome entered a period of rejuvenation in which the empire was divided in half. Diocletian also “Orientalized” the empire by assuming Near Eastern styles: he ruled from Nicomedia and ruled as dominus, or lord. Constantine continued the tendencies of Diocletian with one important exception: it was Constantine who converted to Christianity and made Christianity the favored religion of the Roman Empire. It was perhaps this single event, which was neither Roman nor medieval, that ushered in an age that historians call Late Antiquity. The major cultural trend of this period was Christianity; this chapter traces its early history through the emergence of the Byzantine Empire under Justinian.


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