The Ancient Civilization summary



The Ancient Civilization summary


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The Ancient Civilization summary


History 50 -- Class Summaries                                                                                Spring 2003


            The instructor gave the class a timeline.  Mesopotamia and Egypt were the first civilizations, followed closely by the Indus Valley.  Western Civilization picks up from Mesopotamia and Egypt, but is perhaps less continuous that other civilizations.  Civilization in China does not form until about 1500 BCE, but has continuous development up until modern times.  Islamic Civilization does not form until the 7th and 8th centuries, and is very dynamic and powerful during the European Middle Ages.  The course will spend little time on Africa and MesoAmerica.

            Students are urged to come to class and to stay current on their assignments.


Background to Civilization -- the development of homo sapiens sapiens before the Neolithic Revolution.  Our species emerges in about 100,000 BCE, probably in East Africa, competes with Neanderthals, eliminates them; humans live in small communities where life is uncertain but simple and relatively egalitarian.  This is to change with the Neolithic Revolution.

            The Neolithic (Agricultural) Revolution, c. 8000 BCE -- the beginning trappings of civilization, e.g., a             technological revolution (pottery, bronze tools, the wheel, etc.) in which humans settled down, began to live in cities, and invented agriculture and animal husbandry.  Occurred in the Ancient Near East and spread to other areas..

            What are the ingredients of 'civilization?'  Urban (importance of commercial centers, capitals and administrative centers), complex and stratified (advanced division of labor leads to radical inequality among the sexes and classes), literate (starts off as record-keeping and then used in religion), things of the mind and spirit, including painting, sculpture, monumental architecture, epic poetry, etc.


Development of Civilization in Mesopotamia

            Why did it happen in Mesopotamia,/Sumer?  All the early civilizations occurred in river valleys -- water, transportation, fertile ground, long growing season.  Obviously requires organization to put the water to good use.

            Began with Sumerian city-states, which fell to Semitic (Akkadian) invaders after a few centuries.  The perils of disunity; the nomads enter the civilized areas.  Hammurabi the most famous of all Semitic kings, largely because of his law code.  Living around 1700 BCE, his capital was at Babylon.

            Mesopotamia was literate -- cuneiform: wedge-shaped characters on clay tablets which after a while are baked to make them last longer.  A pictographic writing system (similar in principle to the Chinese, but unlike the phonetic Phoenician system).  Used in the beginning for record keeping, but soon turned to religious and literary purposes.  The cuneiform system was used by successive nations in this period to express their language.

            The famous code of Hammurabi was found on a stele by 19th century archeologists.  Hammurabi protested much that he sought to protect the weak and the poor as well as the rich and powerful.

            Mesopotamian society was hierarchic with three castes and great inequalities.  There was a significant mercantile establishment that conducted trade with other parts of the Near East.  Agriculture was the main economic activity.  The legal code showed some signs of humanitarian fairness (e.g., the prevalence of fines instead of harsher punishments), but was basically harsh, employing the 'eye-for-an-eye' principle.  Women were primarily domestic creatures and second-class citizens, but the Code of Hammurabi does discuss their rights extensively and gives them some guarantees.

            Religion is the rather typical anthropomorphic polytheism of the ancient world; the main gods stood mainly for big natural forces.  Mesopotamian religion is quite pessimistic, perhaps reflecting the warfare and natural disasters common to the region (compare the much more favorable climacitc conditions in Egypt).  In the Flood Story from Gilgamesh Enlil sends the waters because earth people are making so much noise that he can't sleep at night (compare to Bible where God is angry at the Hebrews because they have misbehaved ethically and broken the covenant).  In "Lament for Ur" Enlil sends disasters to oppress Ur, but with no indication of why; the text says that he "hates" Ur.  There is no, or little, idea of an afterlife: in the epic Gilgamesh seeks eternal life, but is finally told that there is no such thing.  Death is dark, dank, inert; if there is some survival after death, it appears it would be better to be dead.


The Ancient Civilization of Egypt

Brief discussion of the NOVA website on the Internet.  The author argues that the pyramids were built by native Egyptians using their own labor, architects and technology; it is not necessary to posit unknown civilizations, etc. that mysteriously constructed these great monuments.  The author has also discovered the remnants of bakeries and fish-processing plants that prepared "loaves and fishes" for the Egyptian laborers drafted to work on the pyramids.

Egyptian geography was kind to Egypt.  The gentle flooding of the Nile brought water and nutrients to the soil on an annual predictable schedule.  Enormous amounts of warm weather and sunshine making for a long growing season. The Nile was an effective superhighway uniting Upper and Lower Egypt; a boat's progress upstream (south) enabled by northerly winds. Egypt was relatively isolated from exterior threats thus contributing to the famous stability and continuity of Egyptian civilization.

The rough chronology of Egyptian history: 1) the Old Kingdom in the middle of the 3rd millennium BCE; 2) the Middle Kingdom in the first part of the 2nd millennium BCE; 3) the New Kingdom in the second part of the 2nd millennium BCE; 4) various periods of foreign domination culminating in the Hellenistic Ptolemies and Cleopatra. The Romans take over in the first century BCE, followed by the Arabs in the 7th century CE.

The Old Kingdom is the classical period of Egyptian history.  The pharaoh reigned supreme over the land; he was a god himself and the key to a good relationship with the major gods.  Egypt was administered by an effective bureaucracy (look at the pyramids!), was primarily an agricultural economy, and was a hierarchical society with the bulk of the population being serfs under the rule of their landlords and who owed labor service to the state.  Egypt's form of writing was hieroglyphics that was used first for religious incantations but evolved into a general writing system.  Like cuneiform it was originally pictographic.  Modern archeologists were first able to decipher old hieroglyphics with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by French archeologists in Egypt in 1799.  Later versions of Egyptian writing, known as hieratic and then demotic, usually appeared on papyrus rolls.

Ancient Egyptian religion was, like Mesopotamia's, polytheistic.  Re, the sun disc, was the chief god.  The story of Isis and Osiris points out 1) the presence of romantic relations between the sexes in Egyptian society, and 2) a pervasive search for immortality in this culture.  Osiris becomes the god of the Underworld after his "resurrection" by his wife.  The cult of Isis becomes very popular in the Roman Empire, and is perhaps a transition to adherence to Christianity.

In the Old Kingdom the pharaoh and the very rich were able to attain eternal life by going through elaborate funerary and burial rituals so as to identify themselves with Osiris.  This was particularly important for the pharaoh since Egypt needed an advocate in the afterlife.  Mummi-fication, incantations, amulets, scarabs, wall paintings, etc. were all important to achieve eternal life.  The mummy must be preserved since the spiritual ka must have a physical one to reside in in the afterlife; the mummy should also physically resemble the dead person, and preferably wall paintings should include the facial features of the dead.  The funeral chamber should be equipped with wall paintings and other artworks that provide the deceased with the necessities and pleasures of life; suitable prayers and incantations should be said to ease the deceased's passage to the afterlife.  Security of the burial chamber was of course indispensable; grave robbers were common even in ancient Egypt.

            There was little ethical content to the Old Kingdom formula for eternity, but in the New Kingdom good behavior was considered indispensable: souls recently died appeared before the Judge of the Dead and established that they had been morally good in their lifetimes.

Egyptian sculpture was very famous and influential. It had elements of realism, but the formulaic, stylized characteristics stand out.  The statue of Menkaure and his wife is stiff, formal and frozen (unlike "natural" Greek sculpture).  The iconography of painted subjects often included three simultaneous views in one depiction of a human subject, presumably to facilitate the ka's recognizing the person.

The New Kingdom was a time of change, at least more than usual in Egyptian history.  Famous rulers include Hathshepsut (Egypt's only queen and the builder of a spectacular funerary temple not far from the Valley of the Kings), and Ramses II, the great conqueror of the 13th century BCE.  Major changes:

            1) Egypt acquired an Empire, all the way from Syria and Palestine and up the Nile River to Nubia.  New military technology (bronze and wheeled chariots) is introduced.  It is in this period that the Hebrews are brought as slaves to Egypt.

            2) The power of the priest caste is greater than in the Old Kingdom, as witnessed by the great temple complexes at Thebes and Luxor (these were not burial chambers, but specialized buildings for the worship of the gods).  Pharaohs and others abandon the pyramids as too expensive and insecure, and instead bury (using more or less the same rites) in underground chambers carved in the cliffs of the Valley of the Kings.

            3) Akhnaton tries religion experiment in the 14th century BCE -- worship of the sun disc (Aton), who is essentially the only God.  An interesting experiment in monotheism that did not outlast the life of the pharaoh; the old rites and priests were restored under the reign of his successor, Tutankhamon, famous mainly because of the "good" fortune of having his tomb discovered and raided by the English archeologist Carter in the 1920's.


Ancient Civilization in India

Be familiar with the essential geography of India: its extent; the Ganges and Indus Valleys; the Deccan Plateau, the island of Sri Lanka; the monsoon climactic pattern in East India; India as unified more as social and cultural whole rather than politically; the present-day religious divisions of India.

The enigma of the Harappan Civilization in the Indus Valley: passed through the Agricultural Revolution about 6500 BCE, and then to civilization by the 3rc millennium BCE.  Western archeologists did not discover any remains until the 1920's.  The civilization seems in many ways similar to Sumer.  Agricultural economy, walled cities, autonomous city-states that traded and probably warred among themselves.  Two major cities -- Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. 

Harappa apparently went though a period of decay in the 2nd millennium BCE, and was progressively overrun by the Aryans, a subgroup of the Indo-European tribes (origins around the Black Sea) who migrated to areas such as Ireland, France, Germany, Italy and Greece in this period. The Aryans were relatively light-skinned and established themselves as a kind of elite over the dark-skinned native peoples, sometimes called Dravidians (descended from the Harappans?).  The peoples of southern India remained more dark-skinned.  The Aryans brought their chiefs (rajas) who often coalesced larger political units under maharajas.  They brought iron implements and turned the Ganges Valley into one of the great fertile regions of world agriculture.

The true Aryans had very little to do with the Aryan racial theories advanced by Nazis and other European and North Americann racists in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Mauryan Empire was created by Chandragupta Maurya at the end of the 3rd century BCE.  It was quite despotic in structure with a large army and bureaucracy.  The Mauryans followed the Hindu practice of ruling benevolently in the interests of their people.  Most of the information we have about his reign comes from the Greek writer Megasthenes.  The Greeks love to investigate and write!

The caste system in ancient India is a particularly rigid version of ancient hierarchical societies.  Much of it is based on color distinctions between upper caste Aryans and lower caste Dravidians.  The four main castes (brahmins, kshatriya, vaisya, sudras, and untouchables, the last of which is not really part of the caste system) are rigorously separated, not eating together, not intermarrying, performing assigned economic functions, etc.  The Untouchables perform the worst jobs and are true outcasts. (In the 20th century Mohandas Gandhi campaigned against the caste system.  Discrimination against the untouchables was outlawed by the 1946 Indian constitution.)

Women had a particularly low status in Ancient India (always considered minors, cannot own property, etc.).  Note the tradition of the sati where women are expected to sacrifice themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands.  Codified by the Law of Manu.


The Ramayana provides opportunity for class discussion.  The discussion focused on four topics. 1) Rama as the "typical" Indian hero.  He was a great warrior, but also had important civilian virtues such as conscientiousness, concern for the well-being of his subjects, fidelity to his word, a certain amount of prudence....  He does make some mistakes (carelessly allowing Sita to be kidnapped, unjustly accusing Sita of infidelity, etc.), but they are always corrected, and he appears to learn from them.  2) Divine and mortal in the world of Indian myth.  The two are thoroughly mixed (contrast with modern secular assumptions of western society).  The world in peopled with devils.  Human and divine natures are often mixed as in the case of Rama (avatar of Vishnu) and Sita.  Combat takes place with supernatural weapons, incantations, mantras, etc.  If someone appears to you, you always ask the question of whether it is a supernatural illusion.      3) The status of women.  In general women should remain in the private sphere, stay at home.  They are powerful because of their influence over men (men don't resist female beauty); they are dangerous because of their willfulness and must be resisted.  Many of the bad decisions made by men in the story are because of the influence of women such as Kaikeyi and Soorpanaka (she is an asura).  Sita is the ideal of the woman, beautiful, sensible, restrained, virtuous, domestic and faithful.  4) Every person in the story is subject to dharma, his duty, his own moral code (which in Hindu tradition can vary from caste to caste).  The story is fascinated with moral debate of which there are several; characters stop fairly often to discuss what is right, wrong or proper; no one seems to have any compunction about speaking out on important subjects, e.g., whether it was proper for Rama to have killed Vali.  The story is a strong melodrama -- the good guys are clearly separated from the bad guys, and the former win in the long run; the story has a happy ending; even the evil characters tend to repent from their evil ways when they are dying.


Indian Religion has had a particularly powerful impact on the world.  Yoga, vegetarianism, and Zen Buddhism are quite popular in contemporary USA.

Hinduism is the original religion that grew out of the experience following the Aryan invasion.  Its classic texts are the Vedas and the Upanishads.  There was a great reform flux in Hinduism about the time of Siddhartha (6th century BCE).  It is very complex and constantly changing shape (e.g., just who are the chief gods in the Indian pantheon?).  It is polytheistic, the main gods often being Brahman (creation), Vishnu (preserver), and Siva (destroyer).  It has two sets of practices for ordinary Indians; 1) the way of sacrifice: accept success and comfort in the world and satisfy the gods with animal and other sacrifices; the priests are very important for knowing what you need to do to attain salvation; 2) asceticism, kind of the opposite extreme: deny oneself all pleasure of life -- sex, meat, comfort, etc., even some forms of self-mutilation.  Mostly brahmins are active here.  Modern-day yoga comes out of asceticism, although self-mutilation was not the norm among ascetics.

            Hinduism believes in reincarnation, i.e., the individual soul (atman) may move up the ladder of creation to final fulfillment, union with Brahman.  The scale more or less corresponds to the different ranks of the caste system, with animals listed below (the most exalted animal is the cow).  At each level the individual has a dharma that is peculiar to that stage; you accumulate karma while alive; if you have good karma, you may move on to the next stage through (apparent) death and reincarnation.  You eventually escape from the world to union in a "dreamless sleep" with Brahman.  It may however take a long time!

Buddhism.  Siddhartha Gautama, "The Buddha" founded this "religion," although he probably did not mean to found a new religion.  He was dissatisfied with Hinduism, which he found too complex, too hierarchical, and too extreme.  After living lives of secular enjoyment and then of extreme asceticism, he experienced "enlightenment" as a young man under a bo tree.  Buddhism is probably best seen as reformed Hinduism (admittedly a rather radical one).  Buddha accepted the Hindu ideas of karma, reincarnation and fulfillment, which he called nirvana.  Nirvana would bring peace and serenity as individuals renounced their individuality and dependence on material things.  He denied the objective existence of the individual soul, and proclaimed the individual and the material world an illusion; reality was spirit.  In his Benares Sermon, he proclaimed the Four Noble Truths and the Middle Way, in which he opted for a more consistent, simpler and egalitarian religious way: as an ethic he preached renunciation without self-mutilation.  Buddha did not claim to be God, but in later centuries, many of his followers did state that he was a worldly manifestation of the World Spirit.

            The spread of Buddhism was sure and persistent, although sometimes slow.  The Mauryan king Asoka, after spending his earlier years fighting, converted to Buddhism; thereafter, he ruled in a more public-spirited manner, and promoted Buddhism (missionaries and monasteries) throughout India.  He renounced public violence, and proclaimed tolerance in his reign; all "conquests" were to be made by persuasion.  He erected inscribed pillars throughout his domains to explain his values.  His son carried the religion to Sri Lanka.  Buddhism later spread to Asia: first to Southeast Asia (Thailand and Myanmar), and then over the Silk Road to China, where it became the quintessential Chinese religion.  From China it continued to Korea and Japan, and later to Indochina.  Buddhism became enrooted in India, but was never practiced by more than a small minority of the Indian population.

The Mauryan Empire split up shortly after the death of Asoka, and India returned to a 500-year period of political disunity.


Ancient China

The oldest continuous civilization (contrast with the instability of the West), although it originated at least a millennium after the older civilizations.

The geography of ancient China.  Civilization originated first on the Yellow River, later spreading to the Yangtze River Valley under the Zhou Dynasty.  China is relatively isolated from the rest of the world.

The mythology of the founding of China: the gifts brought by the gods Fu Xi, Shen Nung and Huang Ti.

The Shang Dynasty (c. 1700 BCE - 1100 BCE).  Grew up in North China.  Some speculation by archeologists that the civilization might be influenced by Indo-European invaders, whose remains have been discovered recently in Xinjiang Province.  Governance was largely feudal (aristocratic) in this period.  Contrast the tradition of bureaucratic central rule (typical of most phases of Chinese history) and a feudal system (government by personal relationship), which is much less effective as central government.  The Shang known for their bronzes.

Overthrown around 1100 BCE by the Zhou Dynasty: a bigger state that embraces the Yangtze Valley and which decreases the power of the nobility.  The state is more centralized, and the Emperor is thought to rule with the "Mandate of Heaven," (Tian Ming) by which he has responsibility to implement the laws of the universe in China.  If the Emperor doesn't do a good job, he is subject to being overthrown and replaced by a ruler who will do better.  The last phase of the Zhou was characterized by internal conflict, "The Era of the Warring States."  The economy was prosperous: development of a merchant class (closely supervised by the state) that exported silk products along the Silk Road; invention of coinage; technological innovations such as iron plowshares and natural fertilizer; a strong tradition of public works, especially to control flooding along the rivers and to provide irrigation water.

About this time the Chinese develop their ideographic and pictographic language that soon has thousands of characters.  Chinese never evolves into a phonetic system, partly because of the beauty of Chinese writing (calligraphy), but mainly because the written language is an important unifying force in China.  Development of a privileged and valuable class of scribes/scholars who make up the backbone of the future Chinese bureaucracy.  The high prestige of scholars and learning in traditional Chinese society.

The Hundred Schools of Ancient Philosophy.  Things going poorly in the late Zhou -- the period of the "Warring States."  This prompts a rethinking of the basics of ethics and political theory, and leads to the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy.  These thinkers interested less in religion, theology, metaphysics, etc., and more in principles of right behavior (ethics), and political and social theory.  They influence educated folk and intellectuals, and hardly at all the common people.

1) The most conservative of the schools was Legalism.  The most famous proponent was Han Fei, a noble educated under the Confucian system, who advised Shi Huangdi before he became Emperor; Shi Huangdi had him executed before taking over his ideas! Legalists believed that human nature was essentially destructive, and that the only way to attain a certain level of harmony and happiness was by detailed legal codes with draconian punishments that would deter anti-social behavior.  The most important political factor is doing the will of the ruler, not looking to some code of behavior.

2) By far the most popular and influential was Confucianism, developed by the great teacher Confucius in the 6th century BCE.  He was a pragmatist and a moderate, and concerned primarily with secular rather than religious issues.  Every individual has the duty to follow his dao (the way), which is the proper behavior for a person of that station; even the ruler must follow his dao, which was to see universal law brought down to earth.  If the individual does his duty, then the family does its duty, and so on up the line to the ruler.  He developed ethical values of humanity, which included compassion, empathy, the Golden Rule ("Do not do unto others as you would not have them doing unto you!") tending toward "serene repose" and "calmness of mind."  He thought the state must be reformed, mainly by giving preference to the meritorious, who would dominate the state at the expense of the nobles and those of hereditary influence.  The rule of merit became a key part of Chinese political tradition after Confucius.  The ruler was expected to reflect the virtues of the scholar -- an enlightened educated gentleman.  Confucians generally preached the value of tolerance. They stressed obedience to those in positions of authority -- children should obey their parents, peasants their lords, etc.\

3) Daoism has much less influence on ethics, social and political theory, and more on personal religion and ritual.  Daoism is individualistic and anarchic.  It is anti-rational and to some extent anti-social.  Individuals should seek to conform to their own dao by "inaction" and a kind of spontaneous conformity with the impulses of their own nature.  Daoism has certain resemblances with extreme manifestations of European Romanticism.  It is later influenced by Buddhism when it makes its way into China.  Daoism more or less leaves the political and social field open to Legalism and Confucianism.

Most of these religious movement have little to do with the common people, who maintain a sort of polytheism with an emphasis on honor and sacrifice to ancestors (so-called "ancestor worship").


The Qin Dynasty identified almost entirely with the rule of Qin Shi Huangdi, 221-206.

This was an attempt to set up in China a sort of totalitarian state, in which the state would dominate most areas of life.  The Emperor was a sort of megalomaniac who thought he could completely dominate Chinese society through an extreme application of Legalism.  He set up a highly centralized bureaucracy, and under his rule eunuchs became highly influential at the court.  The state made an attempt at thought control, and the historian Sima Qian reports book burnings and other measures to control the opinions of Chinese people.  Qin Shi Huangdi pursued an aggressive foreign policy pushing Chinese dominion south into Vietnam and constructing the first version of the Great Wall aimed at the nomadic horseman operating to the north. His megalomania demonstrated by his enormous tomb that was begun to be unearthed in the 1970's: so far terra cotta representations of 6000 palace guards have been uncovered with much more to come.  The scale of the tomb reminds one of the pyramids of ancient Egypt.  The Qin Dynasty collapsed within a couple years of the Emperor's death.

The Han Dynasty succeeded the Qin and lasted for about 400 years.  This restoration of a more traditional regime was met with great relief; Chinese historians have treated this period as one of the gold ages of China.  The Han maintained the Legalist framework of Qin law and administration, but did away with the thought control and persecution of dissent.  Confucianism with its moderation and its concern for the public welfare was adopted as a kind of official ideology.  In 165 BCE the first civil service exams were administered: henceforth, young people acquired jobs in the Chinese bureaucracy based on their knowledge of Chinese language and the classics.  The Han was a time of great prosperity: many technological innovations, for example in the are of ship navigation; maintenance of the imperial expansion of the Qin; pursuit of trade with points west along the Silk Road; the population of China climbed from about 20 million to about 50-60 million.  Problems set in in the last decades of the dynasty, with the Han disappearing in the 3rd century CE.  Court intrigues, especially centered around the eunuchs, became a problem in the central government.  The provinces saw an increasing impoverishment of the peasantry, and a rise of the influence of the nobility at the expense of the central government.

After the fall of the Han, the country entered a period of weakness and instability that lasted almost 400 years until the unification of China under the Tang in the 7th century.

The family had great importance throughout Chinese history.  An exception was under the Qin, who tried to reduce the significance of the family vis-à-vis the state, but official favor was restored under the Han.  The family was adopted by Confucianism as the center of its social philosophy: it was the most basic of the "five relationships" stressing filial piety and obedience.  Women remain quite subordinate and domesticated in Chinese society; as the poet says, "how sad it is to be a women." (p. 86)



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