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Lecture 3  The Hebrews, The Assyrians, and the Persians

The Phoenicians and the Philistines

The invasions of the Sea Peoples (remember the last lecture) had helped destroy the system of great states of the second millennium BCE.  At the start of the first millennium BCE the Egyptians still limped along in a weakened state, as did the Assyrians, but in general the world of the 2000s (BCE) had crumbled.

Several "new" peoples now asserted themselves on history's stage.  A major change in technology (the shift from Bronze to Iron) would give rise to powerful and expansionist new empires.  And a new conception of god emerged—monotheism, the belief in one god whose relationship to humans was understood very differently than had been the true in pantheistic faiths.

One of the peoples who took advantage of the decline of the great powers in the late 2nd millennium was the Phoenicians, a Semitic people who lived in present day coastal Lebanon.  Most of what we know about the Phoenicians comes from what other peoples said about them.  The land of the Phoencians—Canaan—had been plundered by the Sea Peoples.  But the invaders had also broken the power of the Egyptians and the Hittites over Canaan, and so the Phoenicians were able to assert themselves, become independent from their Egyptian overlords, and gain control over the coastal sea trade.  They did not create a single unified state, but instead had many independent city-states (Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre).  Each city-state had its own king and aristocracy and colonies along its major Mediterranean trade routes.  The colonies were established by powerful merchants clans and peopled by that city's "overflow" population.  Carthage and Utica in North Africa, for instance, were colonies of Tyre, settled and dominated by Tyrian merchants. 

Among the dozens of other colonial trade centers founded by the Phoenicians were Palermo in Sicily, Genoa in Italy, Marseilles in France, and Cadiz in Spain.  The colonies shipped locally made goods, foods, and raw materials back to the Phoenician city-states and became markets for goods from the city-states. They remained loyal to Phoenicia, on whom they depended for defense, but by 800 BCE were ruled in practice by colonial aristocratic elites.  The Phoenicians' power came from control of sea routes.  Their ships carried luxury goods to and from all corners of the Mediterranean—papyrus, timber (cedar), glass, pottery, textiles, dyes (esp. "purple"), etc..   Their cities also had large populations of artisans famous for their shipbuilding and metalwork (e.g., tool and weapons making).

The Phoenicians wrote in a simplified alphabet, which allowed merchants and government officials to keep track of complex, fast-paced trade and colonial administration.  They had to be able to write quickly, in a way that people across their trade empire could learn and understand.  The Phoencian alphabet influenced the alphabetical script of other peoples as it spread throughout the Phoenician colonies.  In particular, it spread to the Greeks, and through them shaped the Latin.

Phoenician religion also had an impact on the history of the Near East.  The Phoencians worshiped many gods, some of whom were closely related to gods of Mesopotamia.   The "head" or "chief" Canaanite god was "El."  But the gods who seem to have had the biggest cults were the fertility gods Ba'al (the male god of weather) and Ashtart (the female fertility and war goddess).  Among their other gods were Shamash and Yahweh (whom the Hebrews recognized as their god—the God of Jews, Christians, and Muslims).

Just to the south of the Phoenicians on the coast of eastern Mediterranean lived the Philistines.

The Philistines were the Pelest, the Sea Peoples, who ravaged the Mediterranean world at the end of the second millennium BCE.  They had retreated to the coast of present day southern Israel (south of the Phoenicians) after being defeated by the Egyptians.  They set up fortress cities like Gaza and Ashkelon, which then established their control over the farmland and villages around them. 

Each Philistine city state had its own king and aristocracy, and frequently warred against its neighbors.  They probably had a redistributive economy, in which the king and the temples controlled all property and then dolled it out to the population.  Their culture was most likely a mix of Mycenaean traditions and new ways learned from the Canaanites.

Among the local peoples whom the Philistines conquered were the Hebrews.  Around 1000 BCE, the Philistines defeated the Hebrew tribes, forced them to pay tribute, and sought to impose on them the Philistine gods. Philistines often show up as "bad guys" in the Bible (e.g., Goliath). 

 The Hebrews and Monotheism

The man who slew the giant Goliath, King David, ruled a Semitic people known as the Hebrews in about 1000 BCE.  The Hebrews probably included an amalgam of peoples who had been living in Canaan with Canaanite migrants who had fled the Egyptian Nile Delta region during the invasions of the Sea Peoples. 

Much of what we know about the ancient Hebrews comes from their Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament).  The "final" form of the text of the Hebrew Bible was joined together by various editors over the period from about 100 BCE to 100 CE, but it is based upon older texts, which themselves are based upon both written and oral Hebrew mythology (which often blended in stories from other, older cultures). 

A blending of Hebrew stories and older mythology occurs in particular in the first five books of the Bible—what Jews call the five books of Moses or the five books of the Torah:  Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  For instance, the story of Noah and the Flood in Genesis probably comes from Sumer; the Moses story in Exodus is probably based at least in part on Assyrian legends.  The Five Books are the myth-history of the Hebrews from the Creation to the Moses' death (as his people enter the "Promised Land" of Canaan). As edited in the Second Temple period (we'll get to this in a bit), they emphasized the Hebrews' relationship with God and the legal-ethical guidelines governing the Hebrew peoples.  The later books of the Hebrew Bible follow the story of the Hebrews as they conquered, settled, and tried (unsuccessfully) to hold on to Canaan, and present highly mythologized versions of actual events. 

 The Hebrews appear in history in about 1200 BCE, when their semi-nomadic tribes organized twelve tribal territories. Each tribe probably originated in a clan (an extended family); each has a family name (e.g., Dan, Reuben, etc.)  These were herding peoples, whose lives revolved around the cycles of pasturing their cattle and goats.  Each tribe had what the Hebrews called a Judge—a combination leader, religious leader (priest), and judge in disputes.  Cooperation between the clans was limited, but by 1100 BCE two loose Hebrew kingdoms (really federations of tribes) existed—Israel in the north, and Judah in the south.

 The Hebrews found themselves victims of the military expansion of the Philistines starting in about 1050 BCE.  (According to the Bible, the Hebrews had had begun to worship other gods alongside Yahweh, who punished them by allowing the Philistines to overrun their lands).  The judge Samuel organized a movement to unify the Hebrews against the invaders.  He backed Saul (a judge from one of the northern tribes) in creating a unified Israel, with its capital in the north.  But King Saul failed to defeat the Philistines, which cost him popular support.  Samuel shifted support to a more successful young war leader—David (a leader from Judah in the south).  Saul exiled David, who then actually fought for the Philistines before killing Saul and taking power as king of the Hebrews.

 King David was a real historical figure, although accounts of him in the Bible embellish historical events with mythology, including some "borrowed" from other peoples (e.g., Greek heroic tales--the Greeks were influencing Hebrew society at the time that the Bible was edited). When David became king in 1000 BCE, he united Israel and Judah into one kingdom--Israel.  He then used military methods and technology he had learned from the Philistines to make the Hebrew state into a formidable military power.  David's armies defeated the Philistines and conquered all of Canaan as well as the eastern kingdoms of Moab, Ammon, and Edom, creating a very large state that included almost all of present day Israel and Palestine (except for Philistia) and parts of present-day Lebanon and Syria.  Under David, Israel changed from a land of semi-nomadic herders to a land of villages, farmers, and artisans. 

In two very important political moves, David founded a capital in the city of Jerusalem, between the old northern and southern kingdoms, and made Jerusalem the center of the cult of the god Yahweh.  David's state was a theocracy—like other ancient societies we have discussed.  Like other Near Eastern kings, he gave his state legitimacy and authority by linking it to the cult of a patron god, whose temple was in the capital city.  David used taxes (and compulsory labor) to begin building a massive temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem.  One of his aims was probably to create a stronger sense of unity among the Hebrew tribes by endorsing the worship of Yahweh.  But worship of other gods did continue among the tribes.

The Temple that David had began was completed under his son, King Solomon.  The Temple was a center for religious rituals, such as regular sacrifice of animal offerings to Yahweh.  It was the heart of the Yahweh Cult.  In its inner-most sanctum was kept the Ark of the Covenant, with the 10 Commandments to Moses by Yahweh at Mount Sinai.

King Solomon can be seen as a typical ancient Near Eastern monarch: 

Solomon's attempt to dominate Israel's neighbors came at a great cost.  Heavy levels of taxation and conscription of soldiers led to internal rebellions soon after Solomon's death.  In 942 BCE the unified kingdom the broke up into two kingdoms:  Israel in the north, which would remain independent until 722 BCE; and Judah in the south, which remained independent until 586 BCE. 

In both Israel and Judah, the Yahweh cult dominated religious life but did not yet eliminate worship of other gods.  The Hebrew religion was not yet really monotheistic (the belief that there is only one god); it was monolatry (the worship of one god while admitting that others exist).  The Bible reveals that the Hebrews recognized the existence of other gods in the First Temple period.  God tells the Hebrews (through Moses) that he is their god and they must have no other gods that go before him…  this is not the same as saying that there are no other gods…  Other gods are mentioned in the Bible as rivals to Yahweh (in particular, Ba'al and Shamash), and the goddess Ashtart is referred to as the "queen of heaven."

But in the First Temple period, hard-core members of the Yahweh cult insisted that Yahweh (also known as Adonai) was the only true god of the Hebrews.  This was especially true among the Levites, the tribe most closely associated with Yahweh.  (In Jewish tradition, the Levites had special status as going back to the time that Moses received the God's commandments on Mt. Sinai; when Levi's tribe refused to worship the golden calf made in Moses' absence and helped to slay the idolaters, Moses then declared them servants of God.)  Again, there is a political side to this:  the Levites often served as temple scribes, and their ability to read and write gave them some influence over the evolution of religious doctrine and interpretation. Promoting Yahweh as THE god of Israel aided in the growing power of the Levite tribe. 

 The worship of Yahweh underwent great changes in the centuries after David and Solomon built the first temple.  Many of these changes were consequences of external events, to which we will return in a bit… In David's era, Yahweh was seen as the most powerful of the gods, but not yet all-powerful; Yahweh often took human form and had many human emotional attributes, as did the gods of other peoples in the Near East.  (Much of this left its mark in the Biblical text—"You shall have no Gods before me, for I am a jealous God," etc.) But by the end of the 500s BCE Yahweh was considered the only true God.  This was monotheism.

Monotheism was strongest among the Levites and the priests (Cohanim) of Judea, the southern Hebrew kingdom.  The Assyrians, as we will see, conquered Israel in the north in the 800s BCE; Judea became a vassal state of the Assyrians, but had its own king and was allowed to keep its own god until conquered by the Babylonians in the 500s BCE.  The Assyrians, however, did insist that Judea recognize the Assyrian god Assur alongside Yahweh.  Much of the anti-Assyrian sentiment of the population became focused on the worship of Yahweh and Yahweh alone, in total rejection of (and hostility towards) Assur.  Hebrew activists may have understood this as a way of preserving Hebrew identity and preventing total assimilation.  Many of the prophets of the Bible can be seen as Hebrew activists, trying to purify their faith against the threat of losing any identity as a people.

The Prophets preached that Yahweh was the only God, just and righteous, and that the Hebrew people must worship only him and do so correctly, following the ethical precepts of his law as handed down to Moses (including the laws supposedly given to Moses and set down later by Josiah in the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Bible).  In the 500s BCE, when the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple and took thousands of Hebrews to Babylon as slaves (which we will discuss more later), the prophet Ezekiel argued that the only true path to salvation was through pure religious devotion—devotion to the laws and principles the God had given to Moses.  All that mattered was that the Hebrew people followed God's laws—states and empires would come and go, but God was eternal.

This idea transformed religion.  God now became abstracted from nature—the creator of nature who stood apart of nature.  (Theologians call this "divine transcendence.")  Hebrews now believed that God had created the heavens, the earth, etc., and then created man, to whom he gave dominion over the earth.  God more or less stood back and watched mankind as it developed, stepping in from time to time to punish (e.g., kicking Adam and Eve out of Eden, wiping out all but Noah's family in the flood, destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, etc.) or to reward (e.g., allowing Abraham's wife Sarah finally to have a child—Isaac—in her old age).  God also established a special relationship with the Hebrews by giving them laws and rules (given by God to Moses at Mt. Sinai). 

In addition to the most basic ethical precepts of the faith (the 10 commandments—don't kill, don't give false testimony, etc.), Hebrew religious practice evolved to include some 600 laws governing the correct ritual preparation of food, the times of the month when intercourse was and was not permissible, etc.  The Hebrews were to follow these commandments and laws, and the God that stood apart from time as space would keep his covenant with them.

What had begun as a rather typical Near Eastern religious cult had turned into a monotheist faith that emphasized the importance of individual behavior according to ethical principles taught by a transcendent God so as to fulfill God's promise of salvation.  We will return to this…

The Assyrian Empire, 1360s-600 BCE

When we last saw the Assyrians, the peoples who ruled Mesopotamia north of Sumer, their kingdom was in decline. The Assyrians went through a centuries-long period, from the 1300s-800s BCE, in which their power rose and fell depending upon the military success of their warrior kings (the most famous was Tukulit-Ninurata, known in the Bible as Nimrod).  The Assyrians military goal was to plunder conquered lands and then exact tribute (payments to the Assyrian king). 

Their well-organized army had the advantage of a new technology—iron.  They had figured out how to smelt raw iron oar into an extremely hard form of steel, so that their weapons could smash their enemies' bronze swords.  Also, the Assyrians organized their armies into special units: the fiercest soldiers in front line spear units, archer and javelin throwing units, chariots-born archer, and engineering units that built siege catapults, battering rams, and mobile battle towers.  The Assyrian army could move faster than its enemies, out-flank them in the field, harass them as they retreated to their walled cities, smash their way into the cities, and devastate soldier and civilian alike in close combat inside the city walls.  Once they took a city, they often raped, tortured, mutilated, and butchered the inhabitants.

In the mid-800s BCE the Assyrians, who seemed unstoppable, turned their army against the Phoenicia, Israel, and Syria.  These kingdoms joined forces to fight the Assyrians, and actually fought them to a draw.   But one hundred years later (in the 740s BCE), new Assyrian invasions punished kingdoms to Assyria's west that had stopped paying tribute.  Under King Tiglath-Pilser III, they conquered all of southern Anatolia (Turkey) and much of Syria, Phoenecia, Israel (the northern part), and Philestia.  The Assyrians forced defeated kingdoms to pay tribute.  Any resistance they crushed completely.

The height of Assyrian conquest came under King Sargon II (722-705 BCE), who named himself after the first great ruler of Sumer (see notes for lecture 1).  He deliberately claimed to be linked to the kings of old to give greater legitimacy to his own rule and that of his descendents. Sargon II's armies and those of his dynastic successors conquered all of Sumer, then drove south into Egypt and Nubia.   In the 600s BCE, Assyria was only great "super power" in the Near East.

The Assyrians ruled conquered peoples by brute force and terror.  They imposed their god, Assur, on all conquered lands.  To make conquered peoples pay tribute, they kept them in constant fear of invasion.  If a city resisted in any way, the Assyrians attacked savagely, butchered the men, raped and butchered the women, burned the children alive, etc.  Assyrian kings ruled their own people in the same way.  They kept huge "standing armies" in their homeland, training year round.  These soldiers would crush any hint of rebellion or resistance at home.   The central government recruited soldiers from Assyria's provinces, which were ruled in the king's name by governors.  The governors also had the responsibility of upholding the laws, which also made use of terror to keep the population in line:  beatings, mutilation, and death were frequent punishment for those who transgressed. 

Like other Near Eastern Kingdoms, this was a theocracy, in which the king served both as warrior chief and as head priest f the cult of the god Assur.  Assur was Assyria's main god, but their religion was polytheistic. The aristocracy in Assyria like others that we have seen in ancient Near Eastern societies—the elites were made up on the priesthood of Assur, who also served as the army's office and as government bureaucrats. 

 Like other ancient Near Eastern societies, in Assyria the state-priesthood controlled the economy and all of its resources. The economy was based upon agriculture in the irrigated lands of Mesopotamia and foods imported from conquered lands in the Fertile Crescent.  The Assyrian empire at its height controlled virtually ALL of the commerce of the Near East, since it controlled all of the major trade routes and all of the great port cities.  And of course, the Assyrian kings raked in the riches of conquered territories in the form of tribute.

 The Assyrian kings also promoted artisan production and the arts in the empire's many great cities.   This included the most advanced iron smelting and weapons making of that time period.  But it also included elaborate construction projects, like the walled palace in the capital city of Niveveh.  The Assyrian kings were great patrons of the arts, filling their temples and palaces with sculpture.  One king in particular, Assurbanipal, was a patron of scholarship, and built one of the greatest libraries of the ancient world in Niveveh.

Assurbanipal died in 627 BCE.  About two decades after his death, his empire was gone—crushed by invading conquered peoples who had joined forces against brutal Assyrian colonial rule.  Armies from southern Babylon (the Chaldeons, a Semitic people) and from east in Iran (the Medes, an Indo-European people) defeated the Assyrians and burned their cities.   The Babylonian Chaldeons then took over the Assyrian empire, which they ruled with the same viciousness as had the Assyrians. But the Chaldeons, even under their most ruthless king (Nebuchadnezzar), were only a shadow of the Assyrians, and in the 500s BCE several other kingdoms began to emerge as great powers.  The strongest of these would be the Persians. 

Introducing the Persian Empire

 We will talk more about the Persians in the next lecture, in connection to their wars against the Greeks.  The Persians were a semi-nomadic, tribal people who lived in present day Iran, which in the 600s BCE was ruled by the Medes (who we just mentioned).  In the mid-500s, a tribal chief, Cyrus, united all of the Persian tribes and overthrew the Medes, much as Kings Saul and David had united the Hebrew tribes and overthrown the Philistines. From the Persian homeland along the Persian Gulf, King Cyrus attacked and conquered the Median kingdom to his north, and then the Armenians to the northwest.

Cyrus then moved his armies towards the kingdom of the Lydians in western Anatolia (present day western Turkey).  Lydia was one of the wealthiest and most culturally advanced kingdoms of the 500s BCE.  It dominated western Anatolia's wealthy Greek merchant cities, it stood at the crossroads of several important trade routes, and it was very rich in gold and silver.  The Lydians were the first people to make coins out of precious metals, which they used in commerce in exchange for goods (in other words, they invented money).  In 546 BCE the Lydian king, Croesus, launched a "preemptive attack" against the Persians.  But the Persians under Cyrus smashed his army and conquered his lands.  Next, Cyrus invaded and conquered Babylon in 539 BCE.


Note: This brings us back to the history of the Hebrews and to an event that left a huge impression on the Hebrew religion.  In 586 Nebuchadnezzar, the Chaldean king of Babylon, conquered Jerusalem.  He destroyed the Temple (Solomon's Temple) and took tens of thousands of Hebrews to Babylon.  These may have been hostages, but it is more likely that he simply took people (as slaves) who had trades and skills that he needed back in Babylon—this was common practice for the Assyrians and the Chaldeans.  In the Bible, this is referred to as the Babylonian Captivity. 

The Hebrews taken to Babylon still communicated by writing with their families, as is clear from biblical references.  In Babylon, the worship of Yahweh was cut free entirely from kingship and political power, so Babylonian Judaism focused much more on ethical practice—living by the laws of God—than it did on Temple rituals.  That made it very very different from other Near Eastern religions.

When Cyrus took Babylon, he released the Hebrews, who were then able to return to Jerusalem.  .  He restored Judea as state (under Persian oversight) and gave the Hebrews permission to rebuild their temple (the Second Temple, completed in 516 BCE).  Those returning from Babylon, and those who had followed the prophets and practiced monotheism, became the leading force behind the new Judean monarchy.  They competed fiercely with the old temple priesthood for control over religious doctrine, and their ideas would come to dominate Jewish theology in the period of the Second Temple (from 516 to about 100 CE), which is the period in which the Hebrew Bible was compiled a edited. 


Cyrus' son Cambyses conquered Egypt in 525 BCE.  His successor, Darius I then consolidated these conquests by dividing the great Persian empire into several provinces, each governed by a local person whom he appointed.  Unlike the Assyrians and Chaldeans, the Persians allowed conquered peoples to keep their own laws, gods, and customs, so long as they paid tribute to the Persian king.  The Persian Empire worked so well for so long in part because the Persians did not treat conquered peoples viciously, did not force them to worship the Persian gods, etc. 

Darius concentrated on developing the greatness of his kingdom, spending great sums on huge building projects, irrigating lands that had been desert, building canals to make trade faster and easier (including a great canal linking the Nile to the Red Sea), and constructing roads to tie together his massive empire.  The most important of these roads was the Royal Road, which linked the capital city of Persepolis to the Aegean Sea. Darius created the first system for the delivery of "mail"—messengers who carried correspondence and goods from post to post along the Royal Road (a "postal" system).  These royal messengers were also supposed to keep their eyes and ears open and keep the King's government informed of news and events taking place across the empire (they were spies—this would be one of the functions of the postal system in many countries, and still is:  in England, for instance, the post department has always randomly opened and read people's mail as a way of collecting "intelligence" for the government, and still does this today).

Darius faced revolts in the Greek portions of his empire, and the efforts of Darius and his son Xerxes to keep the Greeks in line would be critical moments in Greek history, which we will discuss in the next lecture.  Persian rule over such a large area meant that the Persian system of government and administration—in particular, their way of ruling over foreign lands by accommodating local customs--would have a great influence on history (we will see this influence when we discuss the Greek and the Romans).

Their religion would also have a major impact on history:  Zoroastrianism was one of the three most widely spread religions in the ancient world (together with Buddhism in Asia and Judaism in the Near East). Zoroaster was an actual historical figure, a scholar of religion who lived in the 700s BCE.  He deliberately synthesized elements of the tribal religions of the Persian peoples to create a new religion.  But his new religion eliminated many of the elements of previous tribal beliefs—for instance, he said that there was only one god, and that god was not concerned with rituals like animal sacrifices, but instead wanted people to behave according to ethical laws. In other words, Zoroastrianism had a lot in common with the new beliefs that were taking shape in Judaism, the religion of the Hebrews…

 Zoroaster preached that god—Ahura-Mazda—was a force of light, a god of goodness, justice, and love.  All evil came not from God, but from another force, a dark force called Ahriman--the equivalent to the idea of Satan in Christianity and Islam (there is no devil in Judaism).  According to Zoroaster and the teachings of his faith, recorded later in the Avesta (the Zoroastrian bible), the worship of God is private and involves personal behavior in keeping with God's teachings.  People have free will, and can sin or be righteous, but God wants them to be righteous. This, again, would have much in common with Judaism (Hebrew monotheism). Zoroaster taught that those who behave righteously will be rewarded by God when the dead are resurrected on judgment day.  (This, again, was an idea echoed in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).

From the very beginning, though, Zoroaster's version of God had no ties to any kingdom or land—it was the "real" God, he said, and thus the god of all peoples and places.  In other words, Ahura-Mazda was understood as a "universal" God.  That idea that ethical behavior was the heart of one's obligation to a "universal" God shaped the conduct of the Persian kings.  Cyrus and Xerxes—the kings of kings, as they called themselves--were devout followers of the faith, and this probably helps explain their relatively tolerant form of rule over conquered peoples.  And it helps explain their willingness to learn and borrow from the cultures of conquered lands—they learned to use coins from the Lydians, they learned the mathematics of astrology [not yet astronomy!] from the Babylonians, they decorations and borrowed architectural ideas from the Egyptians and the Greeks, etc. 

 Still, they were kings of empires, and they aimed to control their empires even if that required force.  And their use of force against the Greeks will be part of our next lecture.