Tuesday, July 26, 2016
The History of the Ancient World by Susan Wise Bauer
I really do love history. So anything that deepens my historical knowledge makes it onto my list. I’ve known about Susan Wise Bauer’s history books for a long time. We read all her Story of the World books when homeschooling. I also knew she wrote versions for adults. But a recent conversation included, “You should read Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Ancient World.” Well that sealed it, and out I went to obtain a copy.
Ancient history is somewhat of a lacuna in my historical knowledge. I know Biblical history, and a fair amount about the Greeks and the Romans, but the Sumerians, Babylonians, Hittites, Phoenicians, etc… not so much. Her book was a refreshing look at the people and personalities that made up the ancient world.
I love how Bauer uses personalities to tell the story. Of course dates and maps are essential, but the people are made real. Their stories resonate as human nature has not changed. She manages to use dry historical documents to invite the reader into a long ago world full of fleshed out characters, with dreams and ambitions, faults and strengths, loves and desires. I looked forward to finding out, what happened next!
She eschews “pre-history,” that time before “particular human lives and audible human voices emerge.” She starts off, “Many thousands of years ago, the Sumerian king Alulim ruled over Eridu:…[his] rise to power marked the beginning of civilization, and his reign lasted for almost thirty thousand years.” What a fantastic way to begin! This is what we have recorded so it’s where she starts. It gives us a glimpse of a people who did not separate the material from the supernatural. Their kings, “descended from heaven,” and so a 30,000 year reign over a civilization which had always existed made perfect sense.
Yet civilization did not always exist. It had a beginning and it appears to have begun in “the Fertile Crescent, not because it was an Edenic place overflowing with natural resources, but because it was so hostile to settlement that a village of any size needed careful management to survive.” Someone had to manage food and water in order for the people to live if not flourish.
These Sumerians left us with, “The Earliest Story.” “At some point during the living, storytelling memory of the human race, water threatened man’s fragile hold on the earth. The historian cannot ignore the Great Flood; it is the closes thing to a universal story that human race possesses.” It is as story that echoes throughout every ancient civilization. And, it seems, we have within us the desire to return to the time before the flood. We are also seeking that perfect Eden, whether through prosperity or power, man seeks to remake the world.
After the flood, we return to the Sumerian king list. The thousand-year reigns trail off, and we enter a period known more as “quasi-historical” in a town called Kish which sits between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Kingship is hereditary. An aristocracy begins to develop.
Meanwhile, down in Egypt, the Scorpion King begins to develop an empire. The northern and southern parts of the Nile are eventually united and the first Dynasty begins.
A third area was being settled as people passed through the Khybar pass towards the Indus River of India. The history here is hard to trace because so little exists, but she fleshes out what she can. Here a flood story also exists that tells of the civilization being wiped out and beginning again. Once again, small villages began to grow into towns, but the journey, “took its people that much farther from paradise.”
Over in China, the Yellow River provided the water needed for another civilization. The small settlements were led by three god-kings, followed by three sage-kings. The sage kings recognized that power should not be hereditary, but should flow to the wisest and most deserving. This problem of heredity kingship is a theme which mankind will return to again and again.
Following these accounts of the earliest civilizations known to man, Bauer lists a series of “firsts.” She begins with the first written records. Writing developed from the need to celebrate great events and to determine what belongs to whom. The Sumerians began to make marks indicating how many cows one owned or how many bags of grain were traded. They wrote in triangular shapes called cuneiform. The Egyptians used hieroglyphics which looked like what it meant. These shapes eventually became phonetic and influenced our letters today.
The next first was of a war chronicle. Gilgamesh of Urek, conquers his neighbors. Urek was a Sumerian town and sought to have dominion over the other towns of the plain between the rivers. While Gilgamesh appears to have taken power over the surrounding towns, his accomplishments die with him. So it begins: one ruler seeks power over those outside his purview. Gilgamesh is also the subject of the first epic hero. Although an actual person, he was held to be a god, although not immortal. This semi-mythical king defeats every foe except the final enemy, death.
The first civil war occurred between the north and south of Egypt. As it became clear that the first dynasty kings were not really gods, the empire began to split up. It would not be reunited until the third dynasty reconquered all the territory again. This newly unified nation begins the Old Kingdom. We also see in Egypt the first attempts to overcome death occur with the great pyramids. They created these massive structures as a place to house their souls and remind the Egyptian people that the spirit and might of the Pharaoh was ever present and death was not the end.
Around 2350 BC, we get our first reformer. Urukagina of the Sumerian town of Lagash decided it was time for some serious societal changes. He “got rid of most of the tax collectors and lowered the taxes. He cancelled fees for basic services. He forbade officials and priests to seize anyone’s land or possessions in payment of debt, and offered amnesty to the debtors. He slashed Lagash’s bureaucracy, which was bloated with pork-barrel positions. He also, apparently, took authority away from the priests by dividing religious and secular functions, thus preventing exactly the kind of authority that had allowed [previous king] Mesilim to set up his stele by the authority of the god Sataran.” Where is Urukagina when you need him now?
Meanwhile, in the nearby Sumerian town of Kish, we find our first military dictator. Sargon played into the weaknesses found in the surrounding cities, the kind of weaknesses that Urukagina sought to alleviate. He could appeal to the inequalities found in the area and turn that from “a loose coalition of cities into an empire.” That didn’t take long.
Although civilizations had been fighting internal enemies and neighboring towns for a while, Naram-Sin faced the first barbarian invasion. He ruled the now-combined Sumerians and Akkadians, a group slowly changing from a “spreading army that occasionally stopped to eat” into more of a nation. The Gutian hordes attacked. They are referred to as “barbarians” because they had no written language, therefore no inscriptions or tradition or histories we can point to. In addition, they did not come to set up their own culture and displace another, but simply to destroy.
Eventually, we meet the first monotheist. While the peoples of Sumerian Ur struggled with the Gutians, a man named Terah, together with his family and son Abram, set off for the west, at the command of God. This begins the history of the Jewish people. “Plenty of races have claimed to trace their ancestry back to one particular god-favored individual, but this is the first time it happens within recorded history… by divine fiat he was separated from the rest and began something new: one Semite out of the rest, one God rising above the chaos of polytheism. He was the first monotheist.”
Meanwhile, Mesopotamia is starting to see its first empires. Assyria is on the rise in the north, Babylon, under Hammurabi, is starting to build an empire in the south. While Hammurabi is not the first law-giver, his laws are the most complete to survive. They concern themselves over an amazingly long-range of problematic behavior. This incarnation of a Babylonian empire would not last long, only to arise later as another short-lived empire. But Assyria would continue to grow and clash with its neighbors.
Over in China, the Shang family supplanted the Xia. “Just as the prehistoric Longshan culture itself extended overtop of the Yang-shao and the Xia grew up overtop the Longshan, so the Shang state lay overlapping the Xia land.” This pattern would repeat time and again. As a dynasty seemed to lose the Mandate of Heaven (an idea conveniently begun by the group which replaced the Shang) through corruption, another family or group would take the helm, promising to restore order and justice. The Shang dynasty experienced a bit of jockeying for power from the nearby feudal lords. As a result, it shifted its capital numerous times. This kind of flexibility allowed to hold onto power for over 600 years.
In Egypt, the Middle Kingdom comes to an end and the Semetic Hyksos rule over a not-quite-united kingdom. These northern rulers still had to contend with a competing dynasty in the southern city of Thebes. Eventually, Ahmose of Thebes takes back Lower Egypt and reunifies the country. This begins the New Kingdom in 1570. It was at this time, in the chaos of succeeding rulers that Egypt gives us its first woman Pharaoh, Hatshepsut. Several years after her, the son of Amenhotep IV, Akhenaten, arises and tries to change the national religion of Egypt to the worship of the sun god Aten. However, this campaign appears to have barely out-lived him, undone by his replacement, Tutankhamun. It also appears that it was during this New Kingdom time that the Egyptians lost their Semetic (Jewish) slaves in what has become known as the Exodus. Eventually internal battles, battles for succession, and battles with the Mediterranean Sea Peoples so weaken Egypt, that the New Kingdom collapsed into chaos by 1070.
Well before this, we get our first glimpse of Greek civilization in Crete. Little is known about the semi-mythical time of King Minos. Hints are derived from the Minoan myths about a half-bull creature sent human sacrifices by local tribute-paying islands. This seems to indicate that Crete was a center of power. Natural events like a volcano eruption may have led to its quick demise around 1628. Eventually the northern Mycenaeans became the most powerful Greeks in the area. These would be the Greeks who battled the city of Troy to a fairly devastating conclusion and gave us the legends told in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The weakened Greeks were eventually invaded by the nomadic Dorians from the north. So began a Greek dark age.
In India, northern Aryan nomadic tribes crossed the mountains and settled in the crumbling Harappan cities. There the cultures mixed, eventually giving us the Indian people. These Aryan people were instrumental in defining Hinduism and the caste system in India. They eventually gave the land oral compositions written down in the Rig Vedas. Eventually they migrated east, taking power in more and more of India giving us the foundations for the epic tale of the Bharata War.
In Mesopotamia, the constant warfare between the Assyrians and its neighbors continues. They battle the growing power of the Hittites to their west and the Elamites to their east. In addition, Babylon in the south is the scene of constant struggles for power and begins to establish itself as a powerhouse. However, like the Greeks, the Mesopotamians entered their own dark age as barbarian tribes invaded and overtook all three powers, the Hittites, the Assyrians, and the Babylonians.
Eventually the Shang dynasty grew corrupt. A neighboring tribe, the Zhou, decided it was time to displace the oppressive ruling family and replace it with a new dynasty. The Mandate of Heaven was then given to the Zhou. It would remain with the Zhou until it was lost to a competing group. This very circular reasoning allowed whatever group that came to power to justify its reign. Almost immediately the Zhou experienced a threat and had to split into the western Zhou and eastern Zhou.
After escaping from Egypt, the Jewish people eventually make their way into their ancestral homeland on the eastern Mediterranean shore. There the 12 tribes conquer the land and King David unites them as the nation of Israel. Soon, however, the kingdom is divided and weakened. Eventually a rejuvenated Assyrian kingdom began to attack and defeat the northern tribes of Israel. It wasn’t long before all 10 northern tribes were slaughtered or carried off into captivity.
While not quite uniting as a nation, as the Greeks came out of their dark period, they began to create a shared past. Now three different people groups, the Mycenaeans, the Ionians (Greeks on the eastern Mediterranean coast), and the Dorians claimed a similar heritage. It was because of the Iliad, which praised the joining together of disparate Greek-speaking peoples in order to defeat a common enemy, that a kind of Greek vs. non-Greek identity began to arise, although this ancient oral tale had not yet been written down. The Olympic games were designed at this time to lessen conflict between the groups and further solidified their identity.
But while the Greeks competed in the games, over on the Italian peninsula, the tiny city of Rome was taking shape. It would not remain independent for long as the Etruscans had their eye on it. Meanwhile, Assyria finally mastered all of Mesopotamia, claiming kingship over Assyria and Babylon, even forcing a puppet ruler on Egypt. However, the victories were marred by the inability to conquer the southern tribes of Israel. And the Chinese fought with outside barbarians while feudal lords jockeyed for position within the Zhou dynasty.
At the height of the Assyrian empire, Ashurbanipal constructed a glorious library of almost 30,000 tablets. But the ascendence died with him as the very normal struggle for power ensued. This weakening gave an opening to two groups of people in the east known as the Medes and the Persians to begin to assert authority.
Despite the attempts to unify, some Greek cities began to assert themselves as the center of Greek authority. Lack of land had forced Greek people to migrate all over the eastern Mediterranean. As small settlements began, larger urban centers like Sparta and Athens sought to establish dominance over them.
In 605, the Babylonians took advantage of Assyrian weakness and experienced a brief renaissance under Nebuchadnezzar, as Assyria is conquered and brought under Babylonian rule. Eventually the reinvigorated Babylonians do what Assyria failed to do and take Jerusalem. But not long after, Nebuchadnezzar II loses his mind. (See: Daniel) “And so that ancient Sumerian unease with kingship is resurrected in the tale of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness… men are frightened by kingship because every man desires power, and desiring, is ruined by it.” Cyrus the Great of the Medes and the Persians waited at the doorstep for an opportunity to seize control. Eventually he would rule most of the near east, freeing the Jews to return to their homeland under his protection.
However, the makings of a Persian rival were appearing in Italy. Rome broke free of Etruscan kingship and began a Republic around 509. Invasions from the barbarian Gauls led to a return to dictatorship. Although a temporary position, it shows the republic struggled from the beginning with power dispersion.
Further east, fighting for power led to philosophical discussions. In India, small kingdoms began to fight for territory and power. Even the Persians moved into as much of India as they could conquer. Into this chaos was born a prince disillusioned with what he saw. Siddhartha rejected the traditional Hinduism for not providing hope in this life and began a more enlightened religion known as Buddhism. In China, the five hegemonies had ended the Zhou dynasty and created a similar chaos. “In a world where force of arms seemed to be the only glue holding a state together, Confucius offered another way for men to control the society that surrounded. The man who understood his duties towards others and lived them out became the anchor of a country.” Virtue topped power. Sun-tzu also despaired of war and wrote the Art of War as an attempt to help powers avoid fighting. But the fighting and constant warfare continued.
Not content with much of the near east, Persia moved in to take over the Greek cities on the Mediterranean coast. The other Greek cities united, temporarily, to defeat this threat. While barely mentioned in Persian history, these Persian Wars constitute a significant time period in Greek history. From this time we read about the Battle of Marathon, Thermopylae, the 300, Salamis, and the ultimate defeat of the Persians at Plataea. This unity was short-lived as once again Athens and Sparta sought hegemony among the Greek city-states. From this we get the Peloponnesian Wars, where a series of brutal battles between Sparta with her allies versus Athens and her allies. While Sparta ultimately won, the “victory” greatly weakened both powers. It is within these two periods of constant fighting that we find the golden age of Greece. Pericles, Leonidas, Socrates, Alcibiades, Lysander, Themistocles, and Thucydides among others gained their fame at this time.
While Greece was consumed with infighting, Rome was expanding and simultaneously weakening. This provided the opening for the first sack of Rome by the barbarians. The republic, like all bodies of men, squabbled over power and direction. The Gauls took advantage of this vacuum in 390. Thirty years later, the Romans had rebuilt and restructured their republic to give the plebeians more power. They also engaged in the Latin Wars which were their attempt to sustain hegemony over the other Latin speaking peoples. As they grew in power, they began to threaten the Phoenician port city of Carthage, just across the Sea from them.
Far to the east, the warring states of China began to fall to the law and order Ch’in. This despotic people banned music and poetry as well as philosophical works like those of Confucius. But they grew powerful, ushering in the next dynasty. Their ruler Cheng became the first Emperor as he united all the disparate kingdoms. To protect it, he linked all the walls that had been built to repel invaders into one Great Wall. In death, he made sure his final resting place was fit for the first emperor, filling his tomb with almost 7,000 life-sized porcelain soldiers and horses. But the brutality of this dynasty meant they quickly lost the Mandate of Heaven. After the second emperor died, it was gone.
Greek weakness opened the door to the Macedonians to the north. Philip II and eventually his son, Alexander, were able to claim all of Greece as their own. In fact, the Greeks could barely even muster the will to fight back. Alexander went on to conquer almost all of the known world with the exception of the growing Rome. Yet he died young and his empire immediately devolved into a series of warring factions. The near-eastern portion, the Seleucids, would go on to engage in near constant battle with the Egyptian section, ruled by the various Ptolemys.
One area Alexander did not take completely was India. Here the Mauryan Empire had managed to unite most of the sub-continent. One particular king, Asoka, seems to be the first to ever acknowledge that taking over another area and subjugating the people was wrong. He had become a convert to Buddhism and after eschewing further conquest, spent his time pursuing “the Way, the Rightness, the Duty, the Virtue.” Unfortunately this did not have the desired unifying effect and his kingdom collapsed upon his death.
When Rome humiliated Carthage by taking its possessions, a young son of the king, Hannibal was raised to forever hate the Romans. One fought in the first Punic War and the son in the second. Hannibal ruled in the portion of the empire on the Iberian peninsula. He famously took his elephants over the Alps intending to finish the war once and for all. He did not defeat his hated Rome however. And his single-minded focus led to the weakening of Carthage and its ultimate fall.
With an ascending Rome, Carthage humiliated, and Greece/Macedonia in disarray, Antiochus III of the Seleucids was the new enemy of Rome. The Macedonian Wars tell the story of the two foes fighting for control of the country between them. With Macedonia destroyed by the Romans, the Seleucids turned their attention once again to Egypt. In the middle of this constant war, Israel was run over roughshod.
With the short-lived Ch’in empire gone, the Han empire expanded its borders and sought to send ambassadors out into the world to report back on what was happening. These kinds of travels to the west eventually led to the creation of the famed Silk Road. While the Han faltered for a few decades, they were eventually restored to power. During this second phase, they introduced Buddhism into China. It was also during the Han empire that thousands of “poor, desperate, landless, and angry Chinese“ rose up in a futile attempt to gain power. This battle eventually led to the splitting up of China into three kingdoms.
Finally, Rome heeded the words of Cato and destroyed the resurrected Carthage. Next they swallowed Greece with little resistance. But as more lands were conquered and more people brought into the Roman republic, the strain between the haves, the have nots, and the slaves become obvious. People demanded the full rights as citizens. Into this scene stepped Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, fighter for the common people. Of course the elitist Senate would not stand for this. “The wound dealt to the Republic by Tiberius Gracchus’s death ... widened and festered. The only men ruthless enough to fight against tyranny were themselves inclined to it.” Eventually men like Pompey, Cicero, and Caesar would come to power and seem to be the hoped for reformers. Yet it was one of these very men, Julius Caesar, who would destroy the Republic and lead to the first emperor, Octavian, Caesar Augustus, upon his death. The Roman Empire had begun. However, this empire had a problem with succession. It tried valiantly to think of itself as still a Republic. Successors would be hand selected and “adopted” by the currently reigning Emperor. But as the military gained in power and status, they demanded a say. As the reigning Emperors appeared to lose their mind at some point, the military would feel the need to step in. Yet they rarely spoke with a united voice and some Emperors ruled for just days. “The empire was now run by something like a secret Junta: a band of powerful soldiers who could put up or remove a figurehead ruler, but who held the real power themselves.”
Into the Roman milieu entered a Jewish prophet named Jesus of Nazareth. This poor son of a carpenter, who if not for the following he inspired, would have never made it into the history books. But a political death and miraculous resurrection secured his place as the one person around whom all of history revolves. Interesting to see him in a history book, because his real history-making power was to come.
In 209 AD, Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome, named his sons as co-rulers after his death. It seems, he “had dealt the empire an almost-fatal wound. The Republic had died, but the empire had grown up to replace it, like an adopted cousin with a faint family likeness. The empire had sickened, under Caligula and the emperors who followed him, but it had made an unlikely recovery. The Romans had managed to figure out how to combine imperial rule with republican trappings, while avoiding the sort of dynastic declines which had been a problem ever since the Chinese had first cautioned about it back on the banks of the Yellow river valley three thousand years earlier. But now, the principle of hereditary succession was about to pull the power of the empire apart.” Eventually Diocletian would divide it into an Eastern and Western half. Constantine would attempt to reunite it, but it was now something altogether different.
So the book ends.
I really enjoyed Bauer’s storytelling abilities. This is how history should be told. She makes people come alive and pop off the pages. My only regret is that it is just SO MUCH history and I can’t possibly summarize or remember it all. Oh well. That's why I write about it. On to the The History of the Medieval World.