Western Civ. to 1650 


Week One lecture, main points:


Human origins/Paleolithic era

~modern humans spread out from Africa across most of the planet beginning about 70,000 years ago

~Those migrant bands of human were hunter gatherers

~the hunter-gatherer “economy” shaped the social organization of these migrant bands


Neolithic era (approx. 11,000-4,000 BCE)

~Critical importance of “Neolithic revolution” (the development of livestock husbandry and agriculture), which developed gradually in several world regions between 10,000-5,000 BCE.

~The shift towards agriculture was probably (in part, at least) a consequence of global climate change

~Agricultural settlements in the Fertile Crescent (and Egypt) dates back to  at least 7,000-6,000 BCE

~agriculture and livestock husbandry made it possible for large numbers of people to settle in villages, with very important social and cultural implications  (e.g., the accumulation of private property and the idea of property in the form of land and resources)

~Agricultural settlement led to the production of surplus food and to the specialization of work (economic) tasks (farming, metalworking, masonry, weaving, etc.).  Surplus and specialization also promoted trade between villages,

~Surplus production involved social divisions/stratification based upon ownership (control) over property and resources as well as stratification based upon economic function.  Elite groups formed that controlled land and labor (such as the labor of slaves).

~Parallel to growing complexity of social strata, there probably also developed complex forms of governance and of religious practice, and it is very likely that the same group of people (elites) served village chiefs, military leaders, and priests.

~Although the introduction of agriculture to Europe came somewhat later, peoples in Europe in this period did practice livestock husbandry and did develop an economy with complex crafts, trade, social organization, etc.


The First “Western Civilizations”

~We refer to the city-based cultures that developed in Mesopotamia and Egypt around 3500 BCE as “civilizations”

~These were characterized (among other things) by complex division of labor; a hierarchy of governance that extended out beyond the city itself and dominated a region’s villages/countryside; complex trade relations; and the development of new technologies—in particular irrigation and writing

~Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilization both developed in rich river valleys/flood plains, and both developed sophisticated systems of irrigation to carry water to farmland.  (That required considerable mathematical and engineering skill, as well as the ability to mobilize and coordinate large and complex labor forces.)

_Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilization both developed systems of writing (based on stylized pictogram systems) that allowed priests/government scribes to make records of taxes, trade, laws, religious doctrines, etc.  (And were used by people for communication and the needs of “daily life)


Mesopotamia circa 3500-1600 BCE (the Bronze Age)


~For the period 3,800-2,700 BCE, the whole region of the lower Tigris and Euphrates river valley is known as “Sumer” and the people as “Sumerians”—but that period is divided into sub-periods based upon which city state in the region seemed to be dominant (e.g., the period 3,800-3200 BCE is called the Uruk period after the city state called Uruk.

~In Sumer there were about 30 city-states (cities that ruled the surrounding villages and countryside) {there was a city called Sumer, too}; these city states competed for control over land, labor, resources, and trade routes (in other words, for power).

~Among the many technological developments of the Sumerian city states were the wheel, the plow, and bronze metalworking (plus irrigation and writing, of course!).  Along with innovations in agriculture (e.g., orchards), these yielded more surplus and allowed cities to have larger and larger populations

~Each city state shared elements of a common polytheistic religion, but each also had its own patron god who “lived” in that city’s main temple.

~Sumer had multiple gods with a complex mythology.  For most of this period, the chief god was the “air god” Enlil….

~People believed that gods had power over man’s daily life and affairs, and that the gods had to be appeased by proper prayers and rituals.  But they also believed that pleasing the gods could not prevent death and an eternity in darkness—they had no concept of salvation.

~temples to the cities’ patron gods were huge and complex sets of buildings; building them required great engineering and mathematical skill as well as the ability to mobilize mass labor and resources over long period of time

~temples were the center of life for each city, and also were centers of learning, science, the arts, and culture

~the temples as institutions also were large property (land) owners.

~the temples as institutions were intertwined with the government (these were THEOCRATIC states), although the government itself was probably made up of councils of elites (priests, warriors, wealthy landowners, etc)

~KINGSHIP evolved in Sumer around 2700-2600 BCE, when warriors  (like Gilgamesh in Uruk) displaced the ruling councils

~Kings claimed to rule as the instruments of the city’s patron god, and their legitimacy rested on the idea that they preserved divine justice (the laws)

~Kings could not rule such complex societies without the use of an extensive state/temple bureaucracy (trained scribes, etc)

~The first EMPIRE (kingdom that ruled over many city states) was that of King Sargon of Akkad (2371-2316 BCE), an invader from outside Sumer who used diplomacy and military force to conquer all of the region’s other cities

~Sargon and his dynasty of Akkadian kings ASSIMILATED the Sumerian systems of governance and religion and also adopted the Sumerian system of writing (which they applied to their own language, Akkadian)

~Similarly, the Amorites who conquered the region after the collapse of the Akkadian Empire and who founded the Babylonian Empire (in around 2000 BCE) also assimilated Sumerian culture, religion, governance, and writing.

~For example, one the most famous of the Babylonian kings, Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE), incorporated Sumerian and Akkadian legal customs into the Babylonian into a written law code that was inscribed in Sumerian writing on stone posts placed around his vast empire.

~The Hammurabi law code reveals that Babylonian society (like Sumerian and Akkadian society) was very hierarchical—the seriousness of crimes and their punishments depended upon the social status of the victims and perpetrators.

~Each of the Mesopotamian societies had hierarchical social casts:  elites (like the priests, the royal household and court, the bureaucrats, and the wealthy landowners); a free “middle” class of farmers, merchants, and crafts-people, and a lower class of landless, property-less laborers and slaves.


Egypt circa 310-1100 BCE


~just as the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were central to the development of Mesopotamian civilization, so the Nile River was critical to the development of Egyptian civilization


~just as Mesopotamia was peopled (at different times) by peoples from different ethnic groups (the Sumerians, the Akkadians, the Amorites), so Egypt was settled by people from different regions (from the Eastern Mediterranean and from North Africa)

~There was a historic distinction between the cultures of “Upper Egypt” in the South (the higher land closer to the source of the Nile) and “Lower Egypt” in the North (the lower plains closer to the Nile River delta)

~In both regions, agricultural villages existed by 4000 BCE and people were developing systems of irrigation in large settlements that had complex divisions of labor.

~By the mid 3000’s BCE, city states in Egypt probably developed kingship, and two, distinct monarchies took shape in Lower and Upper Egypt.

~The first monarchy to unite all of Egypt took power in about 3000 BCE

~As in Mesopotamia, in Egypt the kings were patrons of the arts and sciences and promoted a very complex and sophisticated culture (e.g., complex mathematics, medical studies, astronomy, painting, sculpture, poetry, etc)

~As in Mesopotamia, the Egyptian kings depended upon a large bureaucracy of scribes, treasurers, generals, judges, priests, etc., to run their territory, collect the taxes, maintain the temples, etc.

~As in Mesopotamia, the Egyptians made use of writing for all of the above purposes, and produced a body of written laws (as well as religious books, poems, etc)

~Like the Mesopotamia kings, the Egyptian kings were expected to preserve divine justice and order (ma’at).

~UNLIKE the Mesopotamian kings, the kings of Egypt were considered the actual physical manifestations of gods (not just representatives of the gods)

~Like Mesopotamia, Egypt had a polytheistic religious system with a complex mythology and with elaborate rituals.

~UNLIKE Mesopotamia, in Egypt religion emphasized the possibility of redemption after death (eternal life/immorality of the soul) if one was judge by the gods as having lived a good life.

~As in Mesopotamia, Egypt’s elaborate temple complexes were centers of life, culture, and economic activity, and were tied to government power.  Building the temples (and other monuments) required control and direction of massive human and material resources over long time periods.

~Another cross-culture similarity was the complex social hierarchy.  For most of this time period, the temples and the kings were the largest landowners, but there also was private landownership in Egypt.  The society’s elites included the royal family and court/retainers, the bureaucrats, army officers, and temple priests (who often managed to exercise great political power, which is clear in the story of what happened to the Amarna reforms).  The middle classes included free crafts-people, farmers, and traders,  Egypt also had a slave labor system, and slaves were the basis of the lower classes.

~Just as Mesopotamian history is divided into periods based upon the rise and fall of dynastic empires, so Egyptian history is divided into three main periods:  the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom.  Each period is subdivided into a number of dynasties, as ruling kingly families rose and fell from power.

~As in Mesopotamia, the rise and fall of dynasties could be tied to domestic (internal) problems or outside invasion.

~By the Middle Kingdom era, Egypt was a major power throughout the Mediterranean, but also had used trade, diplomacy, and warfare to project its influence and power in west Asia.