Ancient Civilizations to 300 BC
Introduction: The Invention and Diffusion of Civilization

Civilization began to appear about 5,500 years ago in the river valleys of the Nile (North Africa) and the Tigris-Euphrates (the present-day Middle East); slightly later, Civilization appeared in the Indus Valley (present-day Pakistan, ca. 2400 BC) and in the Yellow River Valley in China (ca. 2000BC).  Other civilizations developed independently and considerably later in the Americas.  From these original Cradles of Civilization, civilization spread outward in a series of stages over the course of the next 3,000 years.  Each of these early peoples bequeathed to those who came after them a rich tradition of civilization and culture, one the belongs to present as well as to the distant past.  World Civilizations I accordingly begins with an account of how man invented civilization and how civilization then spread.


Prehistory is a term that refers to all of human history that precedes the invention of writing, ca 3,500BC, and the keeping of written records, and it is an immensely long period of time, some ten million years according to current theories.  The earth itself may well be between five and six billion years old, some say billions of years older. Hominids, the immediate ancestors of human beings, appeared more than ten million years ago. During Pre-history, four key developments took place.  1) Ancestors of humans originate in Africa; 2) Homo Sapiens (our species) emerges ca. 200,000 BC after a lengthy process of evolution – details in dispute: brain grows in size and complexity; man learns to make and use simple tools; man develops a spiritual sense; 3) Man begins to migrate out of Africa and settle most of the world, including Australia and the Americas; and 4) Man begins to invent “culture”.  Unlike other animals, humans are able to modify nature to fit their needs and they are able to create and transmit culture to future generations.  “Culture may be defined as the ways of living built up by a group and passed on from one generation to another.  It may include behavior, material things, ideas, institutions, and religious truth.  The source of human creativity is our large and convoluted brain.  We create ideas and institutions.  We formulate our thoughts in speech, allowing us to transmit our culture to future generations.  We also can bring together our fingers and thumb, enabling us to make and hold tools.  The combination of speech and material invention was necessary for the development of human culture.” [Craig, etc. Heritage, 3rd ed, 3]

In the pre-history of mankind, there are two important periods, the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) Era and the Neolithic (New Stone Age) era.  Characteristics of the Paleolithic Era (2,000,000 to 10/9,000 BC): 1) name from the type of primitive stone tools used by early men and women; 2) Homo sapiens appeared about 200,000 year ago; 3) their migration out of Africa to Australia and the Americas (32,000-13,000 BC) was made possible by an Ice Age, which created land bridges; 4) Paleolithic lifestyle was a result of their relationship to nature.  They were nomadic hunters, gatherers, and fishers; they did not produce their own food and they lived precariously as peoples completely dependent on their environment.  Discoveries include the use of fire for light, heat, and cooking; the invention of stone weapons and tools such as daggers, spear points, axes, choppers, and scrapers; the use of spoken language for communication and the preservation of culture; and religious rituals; and probably the invention of primitive social, political, and economic institutions.  Shelters and clothing were made from animal skins and plants.  Works of art, ranging from decorated tools and weapons to small (fertility?) figures like the Venus of Willendorf

The Venus of Willendorf.

to large-scale animal paintings on the walls of the Lascaux Caves (c. 14,000-13,500BC) in southwestern France and the Altamira Cave (c. 14,000-9,500BC) in Spain.  These peoples left no written records, so the meaning and purpose of this art can only be guessed at.  At the end of the Paleolithic era, there were perhaps over five million inhabitants of the earth.


Bulls and Horses from the Caves at Lascaux.

The Neolithic or Agricultural Revolution followed the Paleolithic Era, and it began in the ancient Near East [=West Asia] about 10,000BC; not long afterwards, Neolithic settlements appeared in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Western Hemisphere.  During the next 3,500 years, men and women all over the world radically transformed their relationship to nature, from a dependent one to more independent one.  Human beings learned to manipulate nature, they invented agriculture, which allowed production of a food surplus, they manufactured new types of tools, and they domesticated animals, like dogs, sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, and so on.  And, once a food surplus was produced, human beings began to live in such fixed village settlements as Jericho,

An artist's reconstruction of Jericho at the time of the Old Testament.

a walled village of 2,000 inhabitants living in sun-dried brick houses in Palestine, or Çatal Hüyük [=chuh-TUL hoo-YOOK], a village of 3,000-6,000 located in modern Turkey.  Innovations included a division and specialization of labor, the emergence of an artisan class, such as weavers or potters, the development of trade, the invention of private property, and the development of basic political and social institutions.  Neolithic people also created impressive megalithic constructions, such as Stonehenge

Stonehenge Stonehenge from the Air.

(c. 2,800-1,800BC) in England, some of which were for tombs, while others served religious or astronomical purposes.  This change from hunting-gathering to agricultural production produced a population explosion.  By 5,000 BC, the world’s population was 10 million; by 1,000 BC, it was between 50 and 100 million; and by the birth of Christ, it was 200 million.

Next came the Urban Revolution (Mesopotamia and Egypt about 3,500BC.  1) It forms the symbolic boundary between pre-history and history and 2) during it mankind invented civilization.  We of course know when and where it took place, but we do not know; accordingly, we can only guess. Historians suggest that the Urban Revolution took place because: 1) a favorable geographical and ecological setting (i.e. a setting such as the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, the Nile Valley, the Indus Valley, or the Yellow River Valley in China made the production of a substantial food surplus relatively easy) and 2) a cultural factor, i.e. a people with the knowledge and drive to respond to the challenge presented by these environmental settings.  What these peoples, the peoples of these valleys, had to learn to do was organize themselves to solve the basic problems of sustaining settled human existence, and in the process they invented civilization.

Artistic Recreation of the City of Lagash.

Some characteristics of civilization: 1) the creation of permanent urban and administrative centers; 2) the invention of basic political (a political system based on territory instead of kinship), social, and economic institutions (which then attempt to solve man’s basic needs: food, shelter, and security); 3) a method of taxation; 4) the division and specialization of labor; 5) external trade; 6) a hierarchical system of classes; 7) the development of the arts and sciences; 8) the creation of a complex religious life; and 9) the invention of a written language for communication, record keeping, and the transmission of culture.  Civilization possibly first appeared among the ancient Sumerians and then among the Egyptians.  We will look at these two civilizations and their contributions to Western Civilization.  First we will survey their respective histories, emphasizing political events, and then we will examine their contributions in the areas of religion, art and architecture, language, mathematics and science, and law.

Sumerian and Egyptian Civilizations


The first breakthroughs to civilization took place in the Fertile Crescent, in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and in the valley of the Nile River during the middle of the fourth millennium BC.  The land is flat, and the climate there alternated between the hot and the dry and the very wet, the latter producing flooding of the rivers and swamps.  In Mesopotamia, the behavior of the rivers was violent and unpredictable, while in Egypt, the flooding of the Nile was more predictable.  The problem facing these peoples inhabiting these lands was to control the water of these rivers by constructing a complex system of canals, dikes, ditches, and reservoirs.

Egyptian Pump Model of an Egyptian Pump.

There were, in short, challenges to be overcome by human skill and ingenuity.  Once the rivers were more or less under control, then agriculture flourished, providing the sustenance for a large and growing population.  Invented in the process were the ox-drawn plow, the wheel and axle, and the sail.  They also developed metallurgy, learning to use copper, tin, and bronze.  Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations share a number of feature, some of which will be noted in the course of this class.  Important differences also exist.  In Mesopotamia, life was uncertain (the rivers were difficult to control and the land was open to invasion) and the outlook of the people was pessimistic; in contrast, the Egyptians were more optimistic (the Nile was predictable and the desert shielded them from invasion).


An Outline Chronology of Sumerian Civilization, ca. 3300-1550 BC

I. Archaic Sumerian Civilization, ca 3300-2400 BC.

A. Theocratic City-states, ca. 3300-2700 BC.

Original Sumerians lived in city-states (like Ur of the Chaldees or Lagash); they consisted of cultivated land with walled towns of sun-dried clay bricks that housed between 10,000 and 50,000.  Sustenance was agriculture, made possible by irrigation and the reclamation of land.  Commerce soon developed, and they exchanged agricultural products for various necessities and luxuries.  These cities were probably theocracies, that is cities ruled by religious leaders who organized and controlled the production of food.

B. Warfare and the Origins of the Secular State, ca. 2700 BC.

Sumerian cities prospered and their populations grew; conflicts developed, probably over land and water; about 2700BC the secular state, one ruled by a king or a prince replaced, the theocracies.  Wise rulers, nonetheless, maintained good relations with the priestly elite.

II. The Akkadian Period, ca 2350-2150: Creation of the First Empire.
A. The Empire of Sargon I of Akkad and his Successors.

Despite the development of rival secular monarchies, the Sumerian city states retained their independence until about 2400BC; no one city was able to conquer all of his neighbors and establish an empire.  This situation changed during the Akkadian period, when a secular ruler, Sargon I of Akkad, a Semite people up river from the original Sumerian cities which had assimilated the culture of the more advanced Sumerians, conquered his neighbors, uniting them into a single empire with Akkad, later Babylon, as its capital.

Sargon of AkkadSargon of Akkad

Sargon took the title of King of Sumer and Akkad.  His Empire extended to the Mediterranean Sea.  This conquest of a peaceful and cultivated people by a more warlike people on their outer borders is an early example of cultural diffusion and it established a pattern that would oft be repeated through history.

III. The Neo-Sumerian, ca 2150-1950 BC.
A. The Third Dynasty of Ur, 2112-2004 BC:  Revival of traditional Sumerian Culture.
IV. The Amorite or Old Babylonian Era, ca 1950-1550 BC.
A. The Reign of Hammurabi, r. 1792-1750 BC.

Sumerian civilization ended with the collapse of the Third Dynasty of Ur, and a period of disorder followed that ended only when the Hammurabi (ca 1792-1750BC) established the Old Babylonian Empire, an empire which extended some 700 miles from the Persian Gulf to Assyria.  The Babylonians assimilated many of the Sumerian achievements, once again an example of cultural diffusions.  Hammurabi’s single greatest contribution was a written law code.  Under Hammurabi and his successors, Babylon became a symbol of wicked behavior and lavish living.  The Old Babylonian kingdom collapsed about 1550BC, when it was invaded by the Hittites and the Kassites, two peoples who would then establish kingdoms that would last in Mesopotamia for the next five hundred years.

An Outline of Egyptian Civilization (ca. 5,000-30 BC)

1.  Pre-dynastic Period (ca. 5000-3100 BC).

Writing, a system of irrigation, a calendar, and a decentralized system of government developed; Egypt divided into provinces (called nomes), each ruled by a nomarch; conflicts and feuds were common.
2.  Early Dynastic Period [Dynasties I-II] (ca. 3100-2850 BC).
Menes, legendary unifier of Upper & Lower Egypt, ca. 3,100BC
Capital established at Memphis; civilization centered on the Nile
Government centered on the person of the Pharaoh as a god-king

 The Cataract on the Nile.
3.  Old Kingdom [III-VI] (ca. 2850-2150 BC).
Further development of the Pharaoh as an absolute god-king & son of Amon-Ra, the sun god; pharaoh and officials controlled political, economic, military affairs;
Main features of Egyptian religion develop;
Egyptian social structure was hierarchical and pyramidal; most jobs were unpleasant;
Erection of Pyramids at Giza, incl. the Pyramid of Khufu (2600 BCE)

The Pyramids at Giza.
Further development of hieroglyphics.
4.  First Intermediate Period [VII-X] (ca. 2150-2050 BC): Decentralization and Political Chaos.

5.  Middle Kingdom [XI-XII] (ca. 2050-1750):  Order Restored; Capital at Thebes

6.  Second Intermediate Period [XII-XVII] (ca. 1750-1550 BC):  Hyksos invasion.

7.  New Kingdom [Imperial Period, XVIII-XX] (ca. 1550-1150 BC).

Egyptians create an empire, both southward and to the Tigris-Euphrates; wealth flowed in from tribute and trade; massive temple complexes built at Karnack and Luxor or Abu Simbel (p. 30) and tombs cut into the cliffs in the Valley of Kings; the most notable was the tomb of Tutankhamon (1352-1344 BC); Religious experiments of Akhenaton (14th cent BC), who attempted to establish a new religion based on the worship of the sun; it resembled monotheism.

The Valley of the Kings (Egypt).

The Preparation of a Mummy by Anubis.

  Mummy Case of King Tut.

8.  Post-Empire [XXI-XXXI] (ca. 1150-30 BC).

Conquest  by powerful neighbors and Middle Eastern Empire builders; these include the Kushites, the Assyrians, the Macedonians, and the Romans.
Sumerian and Egyptian Achievements in Government and Law

Sumerian cities and city-states were ruled by kings or by king-priests, and there was virtually no check on their power.  The Egyptian Pharaohs governed in a similar manner.  These kings or priest-kings commanded the army, controlled the economy, administered justice, and served as intermediaries between their people and the gods.  Some, especially the Pharaohs, even established themselves as divine and were worshiped as gods.  In short, secular and divine power were united.  One of the most important tasks undertaken by the government was economic planning.  All of this planning required a large educated and literate bureaucracy, the ability to observe and record natural phenomena, a knowledge of mathematics, a calendar, and a system of writing.

In the area of law, the most notable contribution was made by the Amorite king Hammurabi, who provided his people with a law code engraved on steles so all could see it.  Before Hammurabi laws were generally not public and were the word of the ruler.  Hammurabi’s Code had 282 articles covering wages, divorce, land transfers, commerce, and, of course, crime; it was a harsh law code, decreeing that the punishment should fit the crime (“an eye for an eye”, etc.) and punishment differed depending on the social class of the offender.

Stele with Hamurabi's Law Code.

Three articles illustrate this point: “If a lord has destroyed the eye of a member of the aristocracy, they shall destroy his eye.”  But: “If a lord has destroyed the eye of a lord's slave or broke the bone of a lord's slave, he shall pay one-half his value.”  And: “If a builder has constructed a house for a man but has not made his work strong with the result that the house which he built collapsed and so caused the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.  If it caused the death of the son of the owner of the house, they shall put to death the son of the builder.”

Sumerian and Egyptian Religion

The Sumerians and the Egyptians, like almost all early peoples, were polytheistic, and they worshiped god who often were human-like (anthropomorphic), only larger than life.  Cities often had a patron deity, the forces of nature (Amon-Re was the Egyptian sun god), like the annual flooding of the Tigris-Euphrates, were embodied by gods, and good and bad fortune were ascribed to the unpredictable activities of the gods.  In short, much of what people do not understand in nature and in the social and political world, they explained using religion.  Religious ceremonies were organized by the state, and prayers were said and complex rituals performed to appease the gods.

Sumerian religion was highly pessimistic, a probable reflection of the uncertainty of Sumerian life (uncertain both in terms of natural phenomena, like the flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and human, like the rise and fall of empires).  One Sumerian poem reads: “Mere man—his days are numbered; whatever he may do, he is but wind.”  The Sumerian concept of death and the afterlife reflected this pessimism; the afterworld was a gloomy and sad place, and there was little comfort and no hope of resurrection.  The Sumerians also created a myth--the Epic of Gilgamesh--that described the creation of the world, a flood which almost destroyed the world, the expulsion of the god Enki from an island paradise for eating forbidden plants, and the adventures of Gilgamesh, who sought immortality and the meaning of life.  In the course of his adventures, he learned to enjoy what he had been given and to cease pursuing what one cannot have, i.e. immortality.

Egyptian religion, in contrast to that of the Fertile Crescent, was remarkably optimistic, and Egyptians believed that the afterlife was a continuation of this life.  Hence the Egyptian dead were mummified and their tombs were filled with everything a man or woman would need for the enjoyment of life, from armies to cattle to boats to mistresses.  Jackal-headed Anubis was the god of embalming and the process of mummification.

The Jackal-headed Anubis.

Examples of such tombs are the great pyramids at Giza or those like the tomb of Tutankhamon in the Valley of the Kings.  In addition to being polytheistic and to focusing on death, the Egyptians developed and added to their religion a concept of judgment, according to which the deceased was judged as to whether he/she had lived according to a code of ethical behavior (Ma’at).  While speaking of Egyptian religion, we must also note the short-lived attempt of the Pharaoh Akhenaton to replace polytheism with a sort of universalist monotheism, i.e. the worship of Aton; the experiment failed, and only the ancient Hebrews developed a truly monotheistic religion.

Anubis Anubis weighing the heart of the deceased (Ma'at).

Sumerian and Egyptian Achievements in Art and Architecture

Most examples of ancient art and architecture originally something to do with religion or politics.  The Ziggurat, the most important architectural contribution of the Sumerians, also was a product of their religion.  These stepped towers topped by a temple may have represented a sort of cosmic mountain that many cultures believe sits at the center of the universe.  One Ziggurat measured 245’ by 100’ and rose some 35’ high, and it was capped by a temple.  Near of the base of the Ziggurat were found houses for the priestly class and for the artisans who served the temple and the court.  The Ziggurat was accordingly also at the center of Sumerian social and economic life.

A reconstruction of the Ziggurat at Ur.

The most famous Egyptian buildings are of course the pyramids, built during the Old Kingdom as tombs for the Pharaohs; the Pyramid of Khufu (or Cheops)

The three pyramids at Giza.

built in 2600 BCE required the labor of 100,000 men for 20 years, and it was build of 2.3 million blocks of stone; its base measures 755’ by 755’ and it rises some 460’; tombs such as the pyramids were filled with glorious examples of Egyptian art.  Most unfortunately were looted by grave robbers; to date, only the tomb of Tutankhamon in the Valley of the Kings has been found unopened.  Other notable Egyptian buildings include the great New Kingdom temples at Karnack and Luxor and at Abu Simbel, buildings that would later influence the Greek use of the column.  Examples of political art are statues of rulers, such as the Pharaohs.

A Temple at Luxor.

Sumerian and Egyptian Mathematics and Science

The contribution of the Sumerians in the area of mathematics and science were notable.  They counted flocks, measured grain, and surveyed fields.  They also developed methods for measuring time, distance, area, and quantity.  The Sumerians created, for example, a number system based on 60, which gives us our 60 minute hour and our 360 degree circle; they also developed a lunar calendar, with a year of 12 months and 360 days.

Sumerian Cuneiform Writing and Egyptian Hieroglyphics

The Sumerian form of writing is called cuneiform.  It consisted of several hundred symbols, and scribes “wrote” by cutting wedge-shaped pictures onto wet clay tablets and then allowing them to dry.  Before the middle of nineteenth century, scholars were unable to read this language.  In the 1840s, Henry Rawlinson found the same message written on a cliff called Behistun Rock [=bay-his-TOON] written in three languages, two of which scholars could read.  Working backwards, he succeeded in deciphering cuneiform.  The invention of writing allowed the preservation of factual data; it also gave permanence to religious traditions, beliefs, and rituals; to preserve social customs; and made possible accumulation of a body of myths and stories.

A cuneiform tablet.

The Egyptian written language is called hieroglyphics, or sacred carvings; it is a type of picture writing.  Hieroglyphics are found on wall paintings and carvings; the Egyptians also wrote on a form of paper called papyrus.  A written languages, among other things, makes possible both the stabilization and the communication of culture; they strengthened government, making record keeping and taxation possible; they regularized religious ideas and rituals; and they made possible the transmission of literary works like the Book of the Dead, a collection of spells to help the dead reach the next world.  Other written works include hymns, myths, magical spells, travel stories, and “wisdom literature,” or books of advice.  Following the disappearance of Egyptian society, the ability to read hieroglyphics vanished; only with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by Napoleon's troops in 1799 allowed scholars to learn to read hieroglyphics.  The Rosetta Stone (ca. 196 BC) contained one message in two languages and three scripts, including ancient hieroglyphics, a more recent Egyptian script (demotic), and Greek.  Since they knew what the message said, scholars like the Frenchman Jean François Champollion could use it to decipher the hieroglyphics.

 The Rosetta Stone.

Sumerian and Egyptian Society

Sumerian and Egyptian society was hierarchical and stratified, like that of almost all societies before the modern era, and it can best be conceptualized as pyramidal in shape.  Sumerian social structure will serve as an example.  It was legally divided into three strata or classes:  the awilum:  free, landowning nobles, warriors, priests, merchants, and some artisans and shopkeepers;  the mushkenum:  dependent farmers and artisans who did most of the work and were legally attached to the land owned by the king, the temple, and the noble elites; and the wardum:  slaves.  The number of slaves was probably large.  One could be captured in war, punished for committing a crime, or sold into slavery, usually as a pledge for a loan.  Slaves worked for the state and for individuals, and they performed a variety of functions, ranging from construction work to domestic tasks.  Some slaves were permitted to own property and engage in business; they could marry free women, with the result that the children were free.  Slaves could also purchase or gain their freedom.  In short, slavery was a functional social and economic system, one that existed in most parts of the world until very recent times.

 The Diffusion of Ancient Near Eastern Civilization, ca 1750-800 BC


Between about 1750 and 800BC, the institutions, techniques, and ideas formed in the river valleys of the Tigris-Euphrates and the Nile began to spread outward.  For the next 1,000 years, the major theme of ancient Near Eastern history is the process of Cultural Diffusion, the process by which the zone of higher civilization expanded and new peoples joined the ranks of the civilized.  The process of cultural diffusion is complex, and it occurs in various ways:

Travelers, such as merchants, soldiers, and diplomats carry ideas and techniques from one people to another;

Peoples on the fringe of civilization admire and imitate their more advanced neighbors, often adopting military techniques first;

Invasion and conquest; often a less civilized but more warlike people conquers their neighbor and then adopts and spread its culture.

The period from 1750 to 800BC has three major chronological divisions:

The Era of Invasions, ca 1750-1600 BC

During this period, we find two major groups of invaders.  1) the Semites, peoples from the Arabian desert who migrated into Northern Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt; 2) the Indo-Europeans, or the Ayrians—the same peoples who crossed into India about 1800BC—,

Indo European MigrationsIndo-European Migrations

who came from the Eurasian steppe and brought with them new techniques of warfare, the horse-drawn chariot, and a new language, which has influenced the development of Sanskrit, Persian, Greek, Latin, and modern European languages.  These Indo-Europeans moved into Central Europe, Italy, Greece, Iran, India, and the Near East, where they settled down and established kingdoms  and later the Persian Empire.

The Establishment of New Kingdoms, ca 1600-1200 BC

Numerous new kingdoms, such as the Kassite, the Mitanni, and the Hittite, were established during this four hundred year period.  More important was the flourishing of Minoan civilization on the island of Crete: it was named after its legendary founder Minos.  Although its origins reach back to ca 3,000BC, this civilization reached its peak about 1600BC, as the great palaces in such cities as Knossos reveal.  Their buildings and their art reveal the influence of Syria, Asia Minor, and Egypt.  The economic base for Minoan civilization was trade, and as travelers, the Minoans helped civilization diffuse.  The sea provided the Minoans with protection, and they were able to build unfortified cities, filled with lavish palaces; some even had running water and bathroom facilities.  Minoan art was lively, colorful, and full of movement; in short, it reflected an optimistic and secular civilization.

The Palace complex at Knossos.

Minoan customs: Bull Jumping.

Era of Small Nations, ca 1200-800 BC

By about 1200BC, the various kingdoms and empires established during the preceding 400 years had declined or collapsed, and for the next 400 years, there was no great centralized power in the Near East.  The absence of a great empire allowed several small peoples to assert themselves and play their role in the process of cultural diffusion.  In this period, the Phoenicians, the Aramaeans, and the Hebrews all flourished, and although each people left behind notable achievements, such as the Phoenician alphabet, it is the Hebrews who are the most important, at least from the point of view of the development of western civilization.

Hebrew Civilization, ca 1800 BC-AD 135

From this most important of the ancient Near Eastern peoples, Western Civilization has inherited, among other things: 1) historical background to Christianity, 2) concept of universal monotheism, 3) idea of ethical monotheism (i.e. the concept of a transcendent God as a moral law-giver and judge), and 4) a sacred text (the Old Testament).

The history of the Hebrew people can be divided into periods.

1) Origins (1950BC-1020 BC):  It begins with their migration, perhaps after 1950BC, under the leadership of Abraham to Palestine from their probable place of origin in the Arabian desert to Moses (ca. 1400BC).

Next comes the Exodus, important for the covenant between God and the Israelites and the forging of the Israelites into a nation with a common identity and purpose.  The Era of the Judges (ca. 1200-1020 BC) followed.

2) United Monarchy (1020-925 BC):  Next comes the unification of Israel at the beginning of the reign of Saul (1020BC) and the century of the united Hebrew monarchy (1020-925BC) under Saul, David, and Solomon.

Model of the Temple.

3) Division of Israel, Conquest, and Occupation (925BC-AD 132):  Then comes the period between the collapse of the united Hebrew monarchy and the establishment of the Roman Protectorate in 63BC.  During this latter period, Israel split into two kingdoms (the Kingdom of Israel [the 10 northern tribes] and the Kingdom of Judah [the two southern tribes]); both kingdoms were conquered by a succession of great empire builders, ranging from the Assyrians to the Chaldeans to the Persians to the Macedonians of Alexander the Great to, finally, the Romans; following a number of Hebrew rebellions against Roman rule, including those in AD 70 and AD 132, the Hebrews were dispersed throughout the Roman world (the Diaspora), and there was no independent Hebrew or Jewish state until the founding of Israel in 1948.

The Fortress at Masada.

More important for the development of Western Civilization than the turbulent and tragic history of the Hebrew state is the development of Hebrew religion.  A product of a long period of historical evolution, it constituted a revolution in the way mankind thinks about the human condition, the meaning of life and history, and the nature of the divine.  This religious tradition has four key features:

1. Universal Monotheism:  the claim that the God worshiped by the Hebrews is the God for all mankind; there is, in other words, a single, all powerful God, who is the creator, sustainer and ruler of the universe;

2. Ethical Monotheism:  according to the Hebrews, the purpose of religion was ethical; it guides man in the choices he has to make to live the good life;  further, God is a law-giver (the 10 Commandments and the contents of the Pentateuch) who establishes a just moral order in the universe; He punishes those who defy His laws; and He loves his people;

3. History:  God's plan for mankind is manifest in the history of the Hebrew people, His chosen people;

4. Sacred Text:  the Old Testament, especially the Torah or Pentateuch, which combines the history of the Hebrews with the law, the teachings of God.

Judaic monotheism survived the dispersal of the Hebrew people, and it would fundamentally influence the rise of two later religious traditions, Christianity and Islam.

Era of Great Empires, ca 800-300 BC

The era of small kingdoms, when nations like the Hebrews and others were able to flourish briefly, ended with the emergence of Assyria as a empire builder.  The Assyrians, a Semitic people who migrated from the Arabian desert about 3,000BC, first settled in the Upper Tigris Valley and then spread to the Zagros Mountains; geography became a key factor in their history, for their land was inhospitable, limited in natural resources, and exposed to foreign attack.  As a consequence of their quest for security, the Assyrians became a warlike people, one that developed sophisticated weapons like iron swords, battering rams, horse-drawn chariots, and wheeled fortresses and that hungered for new lands.  The Assyrians also earned a reputation for cruelty by skinning captives alive or by impaling them on sticks.

After a notable victory, one Assyrian king declared:

With the help of Assur, my lord, I gathered my chariots and my troops.  I looked not behind [and] I fought in the land of the Kutmuhi and I defeated them.  The corpses of their warriors I hurled down in a destructive battle like the Storm god.  Their blood I caused to flow in valley and on the high places of the mountains.  I cut off their heads and I piled them up like heaps of grain outside their cities.  I carried off their goods and their possessions in countless numbers. [Adapted from Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylon, I, 74]
The Assyrian Empire, which began to emerge in the 9th century BC, reached its height between 745 and 612BC under rulers like Sargon II (8th century BC), Sennacherib (704-681 BC), and Ashurbanipal (669-626BC), and it included Babylon, Israel, Egypt, not to mention numerous other peoples.  The Assyrians ruled by terror.  Hence, when given the opportunity, their conquered peoples rose in rebellion and utterly destroyed Assyrian civilization, including such great cities as Ninevah (612 BC).

The Assyrian Empire.

Four Achievements of the Assyrians

1. Established an empire with a centralized government and system of laws, thus breaking down local traditions and encouraging cosmopolitanism.

2. Spread Aramaic as a common language.

3. Built great cities and architectural monuments that symbolized Assyrian power; the Palace of Sargon II at Ninevah covered 1/2 square mile and had miles of sculpted reliefs.

4. Library of Ashurbanipal at Ninevah contained all the records and literature of the ancient Near East (22,000 cuneiform tablets); these copies had given us much of what we know of this literature, a reminder that cultural monuments often outlive political ones.

Assyrian Successor States, 612-550 BC

The Lydians

The Medes

Chaldeans:  among their greatest rulers was Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 BC); he captured and destroyed Jerusalem in 587 BC; this empire = last great flourishing of the Near Eastern cultural tradition that originated with the Sumerians, ca 3500 BC.

Model of the City of Babylon.

The Istar Gate, Babylon (now in Berlin).

The Persian Empire, ca 550-330 BC

1. Origins and early history:  a) Persians = Indo-European people who settled in present-day Iran about 1100BC; b) they adopted Mesopotamian culture and became peaceful farmers until they were conquered by the Medes in the 7th century BC.

2. Rise to greatness began with Cyrus about 559 BC:  after years of rule by the Medes, the Persians were united by Cyrus (ruled 559-530 BC), who became king of a small Persian tribe in 559BC.  He first overthrew the Medes and then began the conquest of an empire larger than any previous one.  It united the Persian areas with the ancient Mesopotamian.   Later rulers added Egypt and extended the Empire east to the Indus River.  Cyrus founded the Achaemenid Dynasty [= a-KE-muh-nid] (559-331 BC).

Map of the Persian Empire.

3. Darius I became the Persian ruler (521- 486BC).

Darius the Great

His achievements: a)  increased the size of the empire; b) more important, he established a successful de-centralized government that became a model for imperial rule (the Persians combined absolutism with toleration, allowing conquered peoples to retain their customs and culture so long as they paid allegiance and taxes to the central government); c) he also provided a standardized currency and a system of weights and measures, both of which stimulated trade and other economic activity; d) government and communication were made possible by the Royal Highway, a road linking Sardis and Susa, some 1200 miles distant; e) by uniting various peoples into an empire that endured for almost 200 years, the Persian helped bring about a synthesis of ancient near Eastern culture.


4. Persian expansion halted during the reigns of both Darius and his successor Xerxes, both of who were defeated by the Greeks.  Nevertheless, the Persian Empire lasted until it was conquered by Alexander the Great  in 330BC.

5. Zoroastrianism:  The religion of Zoroastrianism, the work of the prophet Zoroaster (?628-551BC) or Zarathustra, sometimes called the “first theologian in history.”  Its scriptures are called the Avesta.  Zoroaster was similar to the Hebrew prophets, he preached a message of moral reform.  Four of its major characteristics:

A. Dualism:  the universe is ruled by two spiritual ideas, the idea of the good represented by Ahura-Mazda, the Wise Lord, and the idea of evil represented by Ahriman; these two would battle throughout history; Ahura-Mazda would win.

B. Ethical:  man has free will and is able to choose between good and evil;

C. Judgment:  all men are judged by their deeds; but, unlike the Christian religion, at the end of time Ahura-Mazda would prevail and all would ultimately be saved.

D. Messiah:  A messiah would come before the world ended.

Zoroastrianism would have a great influence on the development of future religions, specifically the Jewish, the Christian, and the Islamic.  Particularly important were its messianic elements, the concept of a messiah, ideas of devils and angels, and the afterlife.
Summary:  Ancient near Eastern Civilization to 330 BC

The “urban revolution” or the leap into civilization was made about 3500BC; over the next 3,000 years, civilization spread throughout the ancient Near East.  The peoples of the ancient Near East learned to master their environment and create a food surplus.  These ancient peoples “invented” civilization and developed early forms of government, law, society, and economies.  These peoples created notable works of art and architecture, from the Ziggurat to the Pyramids to the palaces of Minoan civilization.  They invented writing: cuneiform and hieroglyphics.  They created sophisticated regions, ranging from the polytheism of most peoples to the ethical monotheism of the Hebrews.  As it did so, great empires rose and fell, creating a pattern that will be imitated throughout history;  most peoples, when given the opportunity, become aggressive and expansionist and build empires; each empire is then destroyed by the ambitions of the people who built it.  Surviving the collapse of Empires was the culture created by these peoples--and it will have an impact on our next cluster of civilizations, the Hellenic, the Hellenistic, and the Roman.  Collectively called Classical Civilization, these three dominated the Mediterranean world from ca 500 BC to AD 500.

Text ©Robert W. Brown

This Page is Maintained by Robert W. Brown;
Last Update: 23.I.2006

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