Western Civilization to 1650


Lecture 2:  Near Eastern Empires in the Second Millennium BCE



The Role of Migrations and New Peoples in Establishing Empires


In the second millennium BCE the great empires that dominated Mesopotamia and the Near East were composed mostly of peoples who had not lived in the region a few hundreds of years before.  The Sumerians disappeared, and two new groups of peoples took their place:  "Semitic" speaking peoples and "Indo-European" speaking peoples.   Like the Semites, the Indo-Europeans were composed of many different groups who spoke related languages (which had changed in minor ways over the course of time and with frequent migrations into new areas).


"Indo-European" speakers came from the east, from South Asia (present day India and Pakistan).  In the second millennium BCE some moved into Persia (present day Iran), then into Mesopotamia, then into Anatolia (present day Turkey).  They also moved north to the Black Sea and further west to the Aegean.  As they moved, settled, and moved again, these migrants brought the basic structure of their language.   The languages of Europe (including English) are descended from Indo-European roots.


The Semitic speaking peoples came from the west, from the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.  They included the Phoenicians—expert sailors who lived in present day Lebanon and northern Israel; the Canaanites and Hebrews, semi-nomadic peoples in the interior of the same region; the Assyrians along the border between present day Iraq and Turkey; and the nomadic Amorites, also from north of Sumer. 


Like the Semitic-speaking Akkadians before them (remember Saragon?), the Amorites conquered Sumer, in around 2000 BCE.  The Amorites spoke a different language from the Sumerians, but they used Sumerian cuniform for their system of writing.  They adopted many other elements of Sumerian culture:  they kept Sumer's gods, who they worshiped along with their own; they absorbed and assimilated Sumerian art and technology; they continued to tell the Sumerian mythic stories, and especially the tale of Gilgamesh. 


Amorite kings ruled the Mesopotamian city states (for instance, Ur, Lagash, and Babylon).  From 2000 to 1800 BCE they carried out almost constant warfare against one another for control of water, land, and trade routes (just as the Sumerian city states had battled for the previous thousand years). 




The Amorite Babylonian Empire


The key figure in the history of the Amorites is Hammurabi, who became king of the city of Babylon in 1792 BCE. 


Babylon, a city on the Euphrates, had not been one of Sumer's great powers.  But Hammuarabi shrewdly played the more powerful city-states off of each other, encouraging them to war while he constantly shifted his alliances to his own advantage. 


Hammurabi would continue to use diplomacy with skill and cunning in dealing with other lands during the height of his empire; among his innovations was the regular use of diplomatic correspondence and the preservation of a diplomatic archive.


In the 1780s BCE, Hammurabi began conquering the other Mesopotamian city-states, which had been weakened by constant warfare.  He first conquered lands south to the Persian Gulf, then pushed north.


Like other kings, Hammurabi legitimated his rule by linking himself to the patron god of his city.  Babylon's patron god was Marduk.  One of Hammurabi's many brilliant steps was setting up Marduk as the "chief god" of all lands under his rule; peoples in the conquered lands still had their own gods, and every city had its own patron god, but all had to recognize Marduk as the "first among the gods."


Marduk, the god of Babylon, ruled of all the other gods; Hammurabi, King of Marduk's city, therefore ruled all other cities.  Babylon became the capital of Hammurabi's great empire, which became known as Babylon.


Babylon was a theocracy, like the other societies we have discussed—there was no difference between secular and religious power.  The King's ties the chief god Marduk was symbolized, for instance, in the ritual of his having sex with the temple prostitutes, which symbolically represented the fertility of the lands.


Two minor notes: 

1)      Both men and women were temple prostitutes in Babylonian at this time; same-sex intercourse was seen as normal. 

2)      If you think back to last week's lecture, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, sex with a temple prostitute symbolized (among other things) the taming of nature, as in the story of Enkidu's seduction.


In addition establishing a common religious system for political aims, Hammurabi made brilliant use of a written law code.  Previous kings had decreed law codes (e.g., Shulgi of Ur in 2100 BCE).  Hammurabi's "Code" was similar, in that it recorded the results of judgments that the king had made in various legal cases.  


Hammurabi's innovation was to have these judgments carved into stone, on monuments ("stela") placed in major cities and tablets distributed to his administrators, so that they could use his decisions as a guide for settling other legal cases.  Hammurabi's code was based upon actual cases that had come before the king, so it gives us a great deal of information on Babylonian society.  It tells us (for instance) about forms of property ownership, legal differences between different social castes, the status of women in various strata of society, marriage practices, divorce, attitudes towards sex, etc.


The law code (like the new religious system) served to legitimate the king and increased his authority.  Hammurabi portrayed himself the link between the people and their gods, handing down justice from the gods.  He portrayed himself as the protector and preserver of good order (his patron god, Marduk, kept order in the heavens).  He portrayed himself as protector of all the people, including the weak. 


And his law code made the state more important by asserting its role in deciding all sorts of matters of daily life, from the very private (e.g., sexual relations) to the very public (property ownership), from those related to religious practice to those that related to economic transactions.


Babylon's economy was based upon agriculture, which depended upon irrigation of land with waters from the Tigris and Euphrates.  The king and the gods (in other words, the temples) owned almost all farm land, although the aristocrats also owned great estates.  The temples coordinated the collection and storage of grain and other food, as well as its distribution (as in Sumer).


As in Sumer, craft production and commerce were concentrated in the cities.  Levels of production appear to have been even greater in Babylon than they had been in Sumer.  Babylon's traded extensively with other lands—it bought, sold, and traded goods with peoples as far north as the Caspian, as far east as present day Pakistan, and as far west as Egypt.


Babylonian society was extremely hierarchical.  At the top stood the aristocrats (military, religious, and government officials and big merchants).  All served the King (and the gods, since, again, this was a theocracy).  The aristocrats were a small minority of the population but controlled huge amounts of land and wealth and a great number of slaves. 


Beneath the elite, but free people, were a much larger group of artisans, petty merchants, and farmers "attached" to the temples or to the royal palace—they either leased land from the temple/the palace, or they produced or sold goods under the supervision of the temple/palace.  Beneath the free artisans, merchants, and farmers in status were slaves, just as in old Sumer. 


Slavery in Babylon was more wide spread and harsher than in Sumer (slaves now were branded like cattle, for instance).  In Sumer, most foreign slaves had been war-prisoners.  But Babylon's elites bought and sold slaves on what we might call "the international market."  They also made slaves of natives who had fallen into debt in far greater numbers than had been true in Sumer..  In Sumer, most native slaves were held in bondage only temporarily; in Babylon, much larger numbers of native people fell into hereditary slavery.


Hammuarabi's unified Amorite Empire lasted for two hundred years after his death (in about 1750 BCE).  It lasted so long in large part because 1) of the way that he tied the Mesopotamian cities together under one chief god; and 2) because of his creation of a more unified, effective system of centralized government (such as having one law code to serve as the basis for all local legal decisions).  When his empire did collapse, it was because of invasion by other migrant peoples.



Northern Kingdoms:  The Assyrians, Hurrians, Hittites, Kassites, and Mitannians.


North of Babylon, several emergent civilizations (both Semitic and Indo-

European) exerted their influence over the history of the second millennium BCE, and helped spread accomplishments of Mesopotamian culture west towards Europe.


One of these was the Assyrians, a Semitic people who had settled in northern Mesopotamia and in the rich mountains of eastern Anatolia.


Like the Amorites, the Assyrians had been strongly influenced by Sumerian culture:  they also used Sumerian as their written language (but spoke their own Semitic tongue); they adopted many of the Sumerian gods; and they absorbed Sumerian mythology, art, and literature.


The Assyrians established their own cities in northern Mesopotamia and outposts in Anatolia, which linked to Mesopotamia to western trade routes. 


Along with trading goods, the Assyrians helped spread the urbanized culture of Mesopotamia in Anatolia.  The Assyrians had a great influence on the Hurrians, a people who established city-states (but no centralized kingdom) in Anatolia and northern Syria, who in turn introduced elements of Mesopotamian culture to the Hittites.


The Hittites were a militaristic, nomadic Indo-European people who had reached western Anatolia in about 2000 BCE.  Within a century or so they began to adapt to life in the Hurrian and Assyrian cities of Anatolia.  From the Hurrians they learned Sumerian cuniform and other elements of Mesopotamian culture.  Although they were outnumbered by the local population, by 1700 BCE the Hittites took over large portions of Anatolia.  In about 1650, they formed a centralized kingdom in Anatolia. 


Hittite efforts to control the region's trade brought them into competition with the Assyrians to the east.  But they were much more militaristic than the Assyrians and used superior bronze weapons to conquer and plunder territory to their north and west.  Within fifty years, Hittite armies had pushed south into Syria, where they plundered the Hurrian city states.  They then marched south-east towards Babylon.

In 1595 BCE the Hittite king Mursilis conquered Babylon, sacked the capital city, plundered its wealth, took its people as slaves, and left it an abandoned shell.  Mursilis rushed back to his own capital, which was in upheaval.  He soon was murdered and his kingdom began collapsing.


After the Hittites left Babylon, another migrant people seized the city, the Kassites.  We know little of their origins or their language.  Once in Babylon, they too absorbed Sumerian culture and traditions.  The Kassites would rule Babylon until the first millennium BCE.


At about the same time that the Kassians moved into Babylon, a new people moved into the devastated Hurrian lands of Syria—the Mitannians


The Mitannians were a militaristic, nomadic, Indo-European people like the Hittites.  Just as the Hittites had taken power over the more numerous peoples of Anatolia, the Mitannians seized power in the Hurrian cities.  And like the Hittites, they created a centralized kingdom:  Mitanni.


The Mitannians proved just as fierce at warfare as the Hittites; their cavalry and chariot-born archers made their armies quicker than those of their neighbors.  They used this quick style of war to smash the infantry of the much larger Assyrian empire, then forced the wealthy Assyrians to pay them tribute.  Their army also helped them stave off invasion from the Hittites, at least for a while.  To dissuade the Hittites from invading, they also formed a temporary alliance with an even more powerful kingdom—Egypt.



Egypt in the Second Millennium BCE


Remember that Egypt had collapsed into chaos and disarray in about 2170 BCE.  Again the country became divided between two separate kingdoms, a weak kingdom in the north, and a rival kingdom in the south (with its capital in Thebes).


Nomads from the east had overrun much of the Nile Delta in the Lower Kingdom, and pharaohs in both kingdoms refused to recognize each other's claim to rule. 


That situation came to an end in 1983 BCE, when Upper Kingdom pharaoh Mentuhotep II conquered the Lower Kingdom and reunited all Egypt under one ruler.


What historians call "Middle Kingdom" Egypt (1983-1795 BCE)—the united state founded by Mentuhotep—differed in many ways from the Old Kingdom.  The Old Kingdom had its capital in Memphis in the north; the Middle Kingdom's capital was in Thebes in the south.  Although the new dynasty portrayed itself as "traditional Egyptian," they had been influenced by Nubian culture (e.g., matriarchal lineage).


Under Mentuhotep's dynasty (the 11th dynasty) and that of Pharaoh Amenemhet (the 12th dynasty), Egypt radically changed its approach to the outside world.  Before, it had treated outsiders as barbarians, good for trade or as slaves, but in general to be ignored.  Now they looked at the rest of the world as a danger, to be conquered and defended against.  Egypt became aggressively imperialist. 


The Egyptians now conquered and absorbed territory to the south, including Nubia.  They moved their armies to the East into Palestine and Syria.  They did not absorb Palestine and Syria into the Egyptian kingdom—instead, they forced its kingdoms into becoming Egyptian vassal states, whose economy and political structure became dependant upon Egyptian overlords.


The nature of the pharaoh's rule changed, too.  He was still considered a god, but he was no longer supposed to be distant from the world of ordinary men.  Like the kings of Babylon, his legitimacy came in part from the idea that he protected his people.  His authority rested on the idea that he would zealously (and ruthlessly) guard Egypt from external threats.


One of those threats was Babylon under Hammurabi, which worried Egypt during Dynasty 13 (1786-1633 BCE).  And in fact, people who probably were related to Hammurabi did invade Egypt at the end of the 13th Dynasty.


About 1650 BCE a people called the Hyksos became the first "foreigners" to conquer Egypt.  They established a kingdom in the Nile delta, from which the ruled much of the country.  A small independent Egyptian remained in Thebes, and Nubia broke free of Egypt. 


Some biblical scholars have speculated that the Hyksos were Hebrews, but most historians think that they were Amorites (like Hammurabi).  They adopted some Egyptian political traditions, but they did not meld their culture into Egyptian culture the way the Amorites had melded into the culture of Sumer.


Egyptians later portrayed the period of Hyksos rule (approx. 1650-1550) as disastrous, but actually the Hyksos and their extensive trade around the Mediterranean helped make Egypt an even greater international power at the very same time that the Hittites were beginning to decline.


In about 1550 BCE, the pharaoh Ahmose of the independent kingdom based in Thebes began successfully to drive the Hyksos out, uniting Egypt under his rule in the process.  This was the beginning of the New Kingdom period (1550-1075 BCE).


Ahmose established a new ruling dynasty (Dynasty 18), that lasted from 1550 to about 1300 BCE.  Egypt now became even more war-like and expansionist.


The first target of Egyptian expansion was Nubia to the south, the site of important gold mines.  Objects made of gold had become the basic "currency" in trade across the entire Near East).  In the in reign of Thutmosis I (1504-1491 BCE), the Egyptian armies drove further to the south than they ever had before.


They also invaded lands further to the northeast then ever before (further into Palestine and Syria).  Unlike the earlier invasions to the north, this time the Egyptians kept a constant military presence in the region.


The pharaohs of the New Kingdom period emphasized the legitimacy of their rule by making "political" use of history—they built huge monuments to celebrate the greatness of Egypt's culture and past.  The point was to stress continuity—that the pharaohs who ruled Egypt now were part of an unbroken line of god-rulers who went back to the beginning of time.


At the same time (again), they were much more expansionist and much more militaristic than any previous rulers of Egypt.  They adopted military tactics from the Hyksos:  in particular, they learned to use the wheel and began building war chariots. They began making what we now call "pre-emptive strikes"—in other words, invasions—against neighbors who they feared might one day pose a threat.  After the shock of the Hyksos invasion, the New Kingdom pharaohs' foreign strategy was to try to make Egypt "safe" by gaining and keeping military dominance over the rest of the "world" (as they knew it).  This proved a very short-sighted strategy.


One victim of this policy was the kingdom of Mitanni, which previous had maintained an alliance with Egypt.  From about 1460 to the 1390s BCE, Egypt repeatedly invaded the Mitanni kingdom.  But the long-term results were negative for Egypt:  within a century, the Hittites and the Assyrians stepped in to fill the vacuum left by the Mitanni and posed a greater threat to Egypt.


New Kingdom militarism had important consequences for Egyptian society.  The pharaohs' armies plundered conquered lands and brought back riches and slaves.  All this went to the pharaohs, who then distributed spoils to their favorites and their retainers.  One group that enjoyed the pharaohs' largess was army commanders, who became some of Egypt's wealthiest hereditary aristocrats.


The New Kingdom pharaohs also spent huge sums on massive building projects, creating monuments to themselves, huge royal tombs, and massive temples to their gods, like the temple of Karnak near Thebes.


Karnak and other of the largest temples were dedicated to Amon ("the Hidden"), or Amon-Ra (Amon as the sun god).  New Kingdom pharaohs claimed close connection to Amon:  the name of the pharaoh Amenhotep (I, II, and III) meant "Amon is pleased." For about 150 years, Amon was the most important of Egypt's gods. 


As a result, the pharaohs put great resources at the disposal of Karnak and its priests, who became major players in royal politics.  The Priesthood of Amon was the highest level in the Egyptian aristocracy.


The priests of Karnak preached that all other gods were manifestations of Amon.  Ra and Ptah were aspects of Amon.  This has parallels in other ancient religions, such as Hinduism, and in the concept of the Trinity that emerged in early Christianity around 200 CE.)


In about 1350 BCE, though, this theology underwent a dramatic upheaval. 


Pharaoh Amenhotep IV broke with the cult of Amon.  Instead, he worshiped Aten (Ra made visible) as the first of gods (not as an aspect of Amon). He changed his own name to Akhenatan—"He is effective for Aten."  He moved the capital to a new city named after Aten.  And he introduced major changes to Egyptian theology.


The cult of Aten was based on the belief that there was only one god, Aten, the source of all light and of all life.  Akhenatan changed the symbol of the sun god.  Before, Ra had been depicted as a falcon.  Now he was depicted either as the disk of the sun, or simply as rays of light.


We don’t know why Akhenatan made these changes in Egyptian religion, although it probably had something to do with breaking the political power of the priests of Amon.


The new cult of Aten did not catch on, and it did not last much longer than the rule of Akhenatan and his famous queen, Nefertiti.  Akhentanan's "reforms" created hostility among the Amon priests and were unpopular among the army officers. 


Once in power, his son, the pharaoh Tutankhaten, changed his name to Tutankhamon and restored the link between the king and the god Amon.  He probably did so under the influence of the Amon priests, who declared his father a heretic. He abandoned his father's capital and destroyed his father's monuments.


Akhentatan son, the boy king we know as "King Tut," died while in his teens, which brought an end to Dynasty 18.



International Relations in the Second Millennium BCE


Egypt during Dynasty 18 was one of several great powers that related to one another not only through warfare, but also through diplomacy and trade.  We have already discussed the other big powers of the era:  the Mitanni, whom the Egyptians weakened; the Hittites, who dominated the north once the Mitanni collapsed; the Assyrians in the northeast; and Babylon under the Kassites.


The leaders of these great powers kept in regular correspondence.  Much of this was simply to keep lines of communication open.  But subtleties of the correspondence (in Sumerian) reinforced the relative standing of the monarchs:  kings of the big powers addressed one another as "brother" (much as world leaders now refer to one another as "my friend"); kings of lesser states were supposed to refer to the "big" kings as "father."


They also constantly exchanged gifts.  This reinforced status differences:  gifts from the smaller states were really a form of tribute to their "superiors."  Kings also used marriages as diplomatic tools:  royal households married their daughters into other royal households (into a foreign king's harem) to cement power relations.  For a small or weak state, marrying into the royal family of a great power could secure its favor and support.


Note:  Marriage is a topic that we have not discussed explicitly.  Polygamy was the rule among elites across the Near East during the Bronze Age.  Pharaoh, for instance, married his sister, but had children with other wives in his harem.  This was true not only in the great states like Egypt and Babylon, but also among smaller peoples (for instance, the Hebrews).


Trade also connected different civilizations.  In addition to great land-caravan routes that linked east (Persian and India) to the west (Egypt and the Mediterranean), there were great sea routes across the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean in the East, the Black Sea and Caspian Sea in the North, and the Mediterranean in the West.


No great societies of the late Bronze age was insulated, and the elites of each desired luxury goods imported from other lands—glass from the Palestine (Canaan), silverwork and precious stone work from Egypt, pottery from the Aegean, etc.  Archeologists have found such imported goods at excavation sites across the ancient world.


Much of this  trade came through port cities on the eastern Mediterranean coast, which evolved into wealthy city states.  Ships carrying goods from across the known world came and went from Byblos, for instance.  One of the main exports from Byblos was papyrus (for writing); the city's name became the Greek word for Book, which is where we get the word Bible.   


These trade ports were places where languages and cultures blended—places where you might hear sailors, merchants, and artisans speaking a dozen different languages.  In the cities of Byblos and Ugarit, merchants developed simplified versions of Sumerian cuniform writing—consonant alphabets easier to memorize and faster to write than Sumerian.  They used these to record commercial transactions.  They were the first of many simplified alphabetical systems.

Most peoples considered trade and diplomacy a superior option to warfare; even the militaristic Egyptians saw warfare as wasteful destruction and sought peaceful commercial treaties with the rivals.


Late Bronze Age trade brought the Egyptians and other Near Eastern civilizations into greater contact with the peoples of the Aegean.


The Minoans and Mycenaeans


Sea-going trading peoples had lived in the Greek islands in the Neolithic period and had traded goods (such as obsidian) across the eastern Mediterranean.  In the early Bronze Age, sea-going trading peoples began building cities on the Island of Crete.  Crete would be the center of the Minoan civilization.


The Minoan civilization existed in approximately 1900-1500 BCE.  Its name came from that of its mythic king, Minos, and its strength came from dominating Aegean waterways.  Minoa had a great navy as well as a large merchant fleet.


The heart of Minoan civilization was the fortress city of Knosos.  Here, and in other Minoan cities, merchants carried out trade in food, wine, pottery, metalwork, cloth, and luxury goods, which came and went not only to all of the Aegean, but to Egypt and other great centers of civilization as well. 


Commerce brought great wealth, much of which went into the construction of massive palaces for the elites.  But although a good deal of Minoan artwork has survived, historians know relatively little about this civilization.


What do we know?  Minoa was a unified kingdom, with a hereditary ruler.  The king's palace bureaucracy controlled all artisan production and agriculture, which it redistributed to the population (as we have seen elsewhere).  Minoa had an aristocracy of priests, warriors, and merchants. 


Minoan society was entirely patriarchal (male dominated).  The Minoans had many gods, and they influenced the religious system of mainland Greece.   We do not know much about their language, which was neither Indo-European nor Semitic.  But they did have a system of writing.  From goods found in their cities, it is clear that they had a high level of artistic ability for their time period.  Because of this, their culture had a huge impact on that of the Greek mainland.

Minoan mythology influenced Greek mythology and the heroes of Minos became the basis of many subsequent Greek legends.


The peoples of Greece had a different origin than did the Minoans.  By abut 6000 BCE, Indo-Europeans called Pelasgians established villages in Greece; the spoke a language related to ancient Greek.  Around 2000 BCE they were invaded by new group of migrants who were not Indo-Europeans.  And another major migration-invasion took place in about 1600 BCE. 

It is likely that the peoples known as the Mycenaeans were the result of the mixing of these various migrants over the course of several centuries. 


Mycenaean culture is dated back to around 1500 BCE.  Its early city states were really little more than fortresses dominated by war lords.  In these early warrior settlements, wealth came as much from plunder and piracy as from trade or agriculture.


But by the 1300s BCE the influence of the Minoans appears to have changed Mycenaean culture a great deal.  The Mycenaeans had built a number of large and well populated cities, including Mycenea, Thebes, Athens, and Sparta.  These had thriving agricultural and trade economies. 


Eventually, all of these cities fell under the power of a single king.  Even Crete fell under the Mycenaean rule.  The Mycenaean king was a warrior who led a warrior aristocracy, and who ruled through a system of appointed governors and bureaucrats.  His palace controlled the economy and redistributed property to the population (as in other societies we've discussed so far).


In addition to the aristocratic elite, the population of Mycenaean cities included free people known as the damos, who had the right to own property and some limited political rights.  (This was the precursor to the later Greek concept of the demos, the basis of our word democracy). 


Mycenaean culture had very strong influence on later Greek culture.  The Greeks would worship many Mycenaean gods (like  Zeus, the chief of the gods; Poseidon, the god of the sea; and Dionysos, the god of wine).  The stories of the great heroes of the Iliad and the Odyssey—of King Agamemnon, Odysseus, Achilles, Hector, Paris, etc., the stories of the Trojan War—are based on mythologized versions of Mycenaean people and events.  Other great figures of Greek myth, like Hercules, also come from the shadowy Mycenaean past. 


At its height, the Mycenaean kingdom was a player in late Bronze Age international relations and had diplomatic as well as trade relations with the great powers.  But from 1350 to 1200 BCE, the Mycenaeans fell into almost constant internal warfare (the Trojan War is one example), and their cities suffered from several famines, epidemics, fires, and other disasters.  Although the Mycenaeans established new cities in this period (for example, in northern Italy), the kingdom fell apart in about 1200 BCE.


The Sea Peoples


One of the main causes for the collapse of the Myceneans and other great Mediterranean civilizations of the late Bronze Age was that they came under attack by the Sea Peoples.  The Sea Peoples traveled along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean, plundering everything in their path. 

They were more than just pirates:  they were an entire people in search of a new homeland (men, women, and children, with all of their livestock and property). 


The Sea People were probably the Pelest.  They probably started out in the Aegean, where they attacked, plundered, and finished off the Mycenaeans.  They cut off the sea trade routes in eastern Mediterranean and helped bring down the Hittite kingdom.  They attacked and destroyed the coastal cities of Ugarit and Byblos.  In about 1170 they attacked Egypt.  The Egyptians defeated them, but then Egypt too went into decline, in part because of the breakdown in international trade.  Soon the Assyrians and the Babylonians also went into decline.


The Sea Peoples in the meantime retreated to the lands between Lebanon and Egypt, which became known as Palestine (after the Pelest).


The world created by Hammurabi and his peers had crumbled.