Western Civ to 1650


Week 2 sessions, main points


ISSUE:  The Levant and Anatolia in 2500-1150 BCE


~The city states of the Levant were centers of commerce (trade) and crafts production. 

~A key point is that these cities had a mix of merchants, traders, artisans, sailors, etc., from across the whole Eastern Mediterranean, and so they had a mixed (diverse) culture for which trade was central

~This led to the development of a PHONETIC ALPHABET in these cities, as a quick way to learn to read and write for the purposes of trade.  The first examples date back to about 1300 BCE.  (in places like Byblos)

~The Levant city states had polytheistic religions, with temple gods and main patron gods, complex rituals, powerful priesthoods, etc.

~The Levant city states were probably ruled by oligarchies made up of the most powerful commercial families, and developed a form of kingship in which the king served as a kind of “chief administrator” (as in Ebla and Ugarit)


~In Anatolia, the group I’d like you to focus on is the Hittites (1650-1180 BCE)

~Most of the peoples we’ve discussed so far were from the “Semitic” and the “Afro-Asian” families of language groups, but the Hittites were speakers of an INDO-EUROPEAN language. 

~They probably were the descendents of peoples from around current-day Afghanistan, who had migrated north into the region we now call Ukraine, and then sometime around 1800 BCE invaded Anatolia.

~What made the Hittites powerful was the way that they organized and carried out war, especially their use of horse-drawn battle chariots and IRON weapons.

~Hittite history is divided into 4 periods:  the Old Kingdom (1650-1450), the Middle Kingdom (1450-1380), the New Kingdom (1380-1180), and the Neo-Hittite Period, when they were broken up into many small states (1180-700 BCE).

~At the height of the New Kingdom, the Hittites ruled all of Anatolia and Syria and large portions of Northern and Central Mesopotamia, and they were the major rivals of the Egyptians.

~The Hittites were ruled by Kings, but the power of the kings was limited by a very well-organized warrior nobility.

~Like everybody else we’ve discussed, the Hittites had a polytheistic religion.


~As the text points out, the Hittites and the Egyptians were the main players in a regional diplomatic system in the second millennium BCE,

~The kings of the great powers referred to one another as “brothers”; but they treated weaker client states as supplicants,

~diplomacy was based upon the use of negotiated treaties (and marriages) to build alliances, which these great powers preferred over war (war disrupted trade and wasted resources).

~But wars did happen, like the major battles between the Hittites and Egypt (e.g., the battle of Quadesh in Syria in 1274).


This whole diplomatic system, and the entire social order of the second millennium, came crashing down in 1200-1150 BCE; the raids of the SEA PEOPLE, who disrupted trade and ravaged cities along the whole Mediterranean cost, was tied to that collapse.




Issue:  What made the Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian and Persian Empires more effective at sustaining their power over a large territory than had been previous empires?


~Each of the multi-ethnic empires combined new methods of warfare with new methods of administration.   But the finest example of this was the Persian Empire.

~The Persian Empire exercised tolerance towards conquered cultures, so long as they “stayed in line”—it made use of local elites to administer conquered lands, and it tolerated local customs and religions. 

~The Persians made use of administrative methods borrowed from the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Medes; they also borrowed the idea of a “universal” Emperor from the Sumerians.


~The Assyrians were a Semitic culture centered in Anatolia on the Tigris River (named after the city of Ashur).  For much of the second millennium BCE had been under the rule of the Akkadians and the Babylonians. 

~The Assyrians began to assert themselves as a dominant warrior culture after the collapse of the Hittite Empire and the decline of Egyptian power at the start of the first millennium BCE.  In the 900s BCE the Assyrians ruled a minor empire in northern Mesopotamia, but at its height the Neo-Assyrian Empire (934-609 BCE) ruled almost all of Mesopotamia and Anatolia as well as the Levant all the way to Egypt.

~The Assyrians had mastered iron metalworking, and they weapons and armor were superior to that of their rivals. 

~The Assyrians combined the use of fast-moving attacks by chariots, archers, and spearmen with siege warfare that depended upon sophisticated engineering (e.g., to undermine the walls of their enemies’ cities).  They also had a huge standing army.

~The Assyrians had zero tolerance policy for resistance or rebellion.  They ruled by terror and destroyed all resistance.  They also made a practice of deporting entire populations and of carefully picking out the most useful people in conquered territories to send back to Assyria as slaves.

~In the mid-700s, the Assyrians conquered the rich Semitic trading city-state cultures of the Levant.  The Phoenicians (the Levant city states) had dominated sea-going trade across much of the Mediterranean, and had colonies in present-day North Africa, Sicily, France and Spain.  They also had periodically dominated the Canaanite peoples, including the kingdom of Israel.  When the Assyrians conquered the Canaanites and the Levant cities in the mid-700s, they also overran the northern half of Israel.


~In 612 BCE, an alliance of the Neo-Babylonian Empire and the Medes (in present-day Iran) joined forces against the Assyrians and conquered the Assyrian capital, Nineveh.  Soon afterwards, the Babylonian-Mede alliance defeated an allied army of Egypt and Assyria, and the Assyrian Empire collapsed completely.

~After the collapse of the Assyrian Empire, the Neo-Babylonians (612-539 BCE) ruled over Mesopotamia.

~The Neo-Babylonians also ruled by terror, deported entire populations, etc.  (Example, they destroyed the southern Israeli kingdom of Judea and took much of its population—especially its skilled artisans—to Babylon as slaves).

~The Assyrians and Neo-Babylonians both were polytheists with very elaborate religious cultures, huge cities with massive temples and monumental architecture, sophisticated arts (etc). 

~The both were ruled by monarchies, with kings who claimed to rule over their huge empires as the representatives of the gods and the keepers of divine justice, and with extensive bureaucracies.


~The greatest of these three empires was that of the Persians (550-330 BCE).

~Like the Medes, the Persians were a people who moved into Iran in about 1000 BCE. 

~The Persians, who settled on the Red Sea coast, for a time were subjects of the Medes’ empire, but under the Persian King Cyrus the Great (559-530  BCE), the Persians conquered the Medes.

After that, they conquered most of Western and Central Asia,

~Cyrus the Great was the first ruler of what is called the Achaemenid Persian Empire.  At its height, under Kings Darius (521-486 BCE) and Xerxes (486-465 BCE), this Persian Empire ruled almost all of the territory from India to Egypt.  Until it was conquered by Alexander the Great, theirs was the ancient world’s greatest empire.


~SO, what gave the Persians so much success?

~A great WARROR aristocracy and a huge army led by great horsemen and bowmen, as well as by “special forces” (the Immortals).  Although they made less use of chariots than had the Assyrians, they had a much greater navy (based upon ships of Phoenician design, often sailed by Phoenicians…)

~But warfare was only part of the story—the Persians made many POLITICAL innovations.  In particular, they used tolerance instead of terror.  Rather than destroy local traditions and religions of conquered peoples, they adapted them so that they served the interests of the Persian king. 

~One great example is the way that Cyrus explained his invasion of Babylon in a decree to the Babylonian people:  he said that the Babylonian gods, especially the chief god Marduk, had invited him to rule over Babylon because the king there had failed to keep order and preserve divine justice.  So, Cyrus said that he was coming to return the kingdom to the kind of rule that Babylon’s gods wanted.  In Babylon, he became known as the “King of Sumer and Akkad.”

~Another example is that Cyrus freed the Hebrews from Babylon, let then return to Judea, and did not interfere with their religion.

~Persians also were innovators in ADMINISTRATION. 

~Darius broke his empire up into 23 provinces (satrapies).  Each had its own administration, and taxes were collected by governors (satraps) who often were from the local elite, and who answered back to the king.

~From the Lydian Empire, the Persian borrowed the idea of minting gold and silver coins and requiring that taxes be paid in money.

~Darius began the practice of sending out royal secretaries to visit and inspect the provinces and report back to him, so he had control over his entire realm.

~The Persian also developed a system of roads (the Royal Road) and messengers (the first “postal” system) to provide the king with information about the provinces and to deliver the kings orders to his governors.

~The Persians established a system of universal law and their government used a universal language.  Under Persian rule, all subject peoples continued to have their own customs and laws, but they also had to follow a set of “universal” royal laws that applied to all of the empire.  All government business was conducted in the Aramaic language—a Semitic language that was not the native language of the Persians.  Aramaic was widely spoken by merchants and other elites across the empire, so it was more useful than Persian (which was not spoken outside Persia).

~ALSO, the Persian Empire made use of the idea of UNIVERSAL KINGSHIP.  They fostered a cult of the Persian King as the “King of Kings,” and they developed an elaborate court ritual to emphasize the glory of the king.  One example of this was the use of monumental sculpture to represent the power of the king (and all the world coming to pay him homage) at the royal palaces as Susa and Persepolis.


~What limited the power of the Persian Empire and the Persian King?

~Their system depended upon a charismatic ruler (king) who had to prove himself through warfare, so they always needed to expand and conquer more territory.  Eventually, they over-extended themselves.

~Despite the image of absolute power that the Persian king projected, in fact the king’s power was limited by the law and by the Persian nobility, which controlled the state bureaucracy.

~There always was a great deal of factionalism and infighting in the royal court, which at times could undermine the king’s power.


ISSUE:  The Persians’ religious ideas (Zoroastrianism)


~Zoroastrianism was an ethical religion founded at some point between 1000 and 550 BCE, based on the teachings of the prophet Zarathustra.  His teachings are the foundation of their holy book, the Avesta.  It is important to note that this religion (like Judaism, etc) changed and developed over time, so all of the beliefs of Zoroastrians today are not identical to those of the 500’s BCE.  (So I am leaving out a lot of details that are important to the religion today.)

~Zoroastrian melded together elements of local polytheistic beliefs into the belief in one universal god who wanted people to follow ethical principles.  They were not really “monotheists,” because they did believe that there were other gods as well.  Their belief in tolerance meant that they accepted the idea of a pantheon of pagan gods, all of whom were inferior to their god.

~The god of the Zoroastrians is Ahura Mazda, the universal god of all places and times, the uncreated-creator, the force of pure good. 

~But they also have a concept of evil—so their system can be described as ETHICAL DUALISM.  Good and Evil exist in a constant struggle.  Humans have free will, and can chose good or evil.  Spiritual purity pulls people towards good, and materialism pulls people towards evil.

~The Zoroastrians also developed the idea that all of history has a direction—that there will be an “end time” when Ahura Mazda will judge all souls and the god will be rewarded with eternal life (and the evil will be punished).

~Zorastrianism also developed the idea that a god will send a savior who will bring about the final struggle between good and evil.

~Although we don’t know if Cyrus the Great was a Zoroastrian, we know for certain that kings Darius and Xerxes were, and that they portrayed themselves as pious men devoted to purity and righteousness.



Issue :  Hebrew religion before the influence of the Greeks.


~The Hebrews were one of the many Semitic groups settled in Canaan. There is a lot of controversy about who they were and where they came from.  The Hebrew Bible says that they came originally from Mesopotamia.  Many experts now believe that they were an amalgam of poor and disaffected Canaanites (run-away slaves, the poor, etc.) who banded together and formed tribes that, through the development of a common religious mythology, forged a sense of identity as a distinct people.  In this historical analysis, the building-up of the Hebrew religion was of major importance to the making of the Hebrew people.

 ~The key Hebrew religious text is the Bible (the Torah, or 5 books of Moses, plus the 19 “historical” books and the books of “Writings”—which include poems/psalms, proverbs, etc.).

 ~Jewish, Christian, and Islamic teachings hold that the first books of the Bible were written by Moses (with God’s guidance) in about 1300 BCE.  Whether there was such a person as Moses is unclear from history.  (There are Egyptian documents that mention the Hebrews, but not the events of the book of Exodus, etc.)  We do know from other documentary evidence that the various books of the Torah had been compiled by 662 BCE and that an edited (redaction) “standard” version had been created by 423 BCE. 

~The Hebrew Bible contains a sort of history of the Hebrews (although there is no evidence to substantiate any of the events described before the life of King David in the 900s BCE).  It contains a lot of material that seems to be borrowed from other cultures—both from the cultures that “became” the Hebrews and from cultures with whom the Hebrews had a lot of contact (like the flood story). 

~But the main point of the Bible of to explain God’s COVENANT with the Hebrew people—the “deal” between the god of the Hebrews and his chosen people:  God gives man laws to follow, and man is supposed to chose (through free will) to follow those laws and love the Hebrew’s god. 

~The Bible says that the Hebrew patriarch, Abraham, made a covenant with the god Yahweh, that he would follow Yahweh and no other god.  The Hebrews wound up slaves in Egypt, the Bible says, and were freed through the God’s intervention (with Moses as intermediary…).  Moses then made a new covenant with God at Mt. Sinai, in the form of the Ten Commandments.  Again, the “deal” is that the Hebrews were to follow God’s law, and in return would be his chosen people.

~The essence of the law are ethical guidelines for every aspect of life—rituals, justice, family and community relations, etc.

~The early Hebrews clearly were not monotheists—the early books of the Bible often mention other gods.  A big part of the Bible story is the “purifying” of the Hebrews when they go astray and worship other gods.  Yahweh clearly was their main god, but the idea that there was only one god (monotheism) took centuries to develop.

 ~When the Hebrews first appear in historical documents, it is as a group of tribes in Canaan who were ruled by “judges.”  The tribes first moved to unify as one people under King Sail (1020-1004 BCE), in response to threats from the Philistines.  The Hebrew kingdom then took form under King David (1004-965 BCE) and his son, King Solomon.

~Solomon built the first temple to Yahweh, in the capital city of Jerusalem.  The temple was tended by priests who performed sacrifices to God.  God “lived” in the temple, in an inner sanctum (the holy of holies); the temple also contained the Ark of the Covenant with the Ten Commandments.

~So, in many ways, the Hebrew kingdom was another theocratic monarchy, with the temple of the patron god at the center of daily life.  The big difference was  that idea of the covenant….

 ~After Solomon, the Hebrew kingdom was divided into two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judea in the south.  The Assyrians conquered Israel in 722, deported its skilled artisans to Assyria, and then demanded that the Hebrews build temples to the Assyrian gods.

~That experience led to calls in Judea for a purified form of the Hebrew religion (the prophets led this process), which emphasized that the Hebrews could only worship Yahweh.  Our evidence of the compilation of the Torah is from this period, and that was part of the process of defining the Hebrew believes more clearly.

~The teachings of the Hebrew prophets  stressed, among other things, that the law of God was superior to the law of kings (like the Assyrian kings)—that God is the only true king and al men must serve God.  In this way, the Hebrew prophets introduced the idea that religion was separate from and greater than government.

~In 598 BCE the Neo-Babylonians conquered Judea, took hostages and slaves back to Babylon, and demanded that the Hebrews build temples to gods of Babylon.  In 586 BCE they destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. 

~Many of the Hebrews were held in captivity in Babylon, and the center of their religious rituals, the temple, was gone.  That led to a huge and important shift in their religion.

~The Hebrews now developed the idea that God did not live in a temple:  God was everywhere.  And what was most important to God was not temple rituals and sacrifices—what was most important was the covenant; God wanted above all for the Hebrews to keep the law.

~That shift allowed the Hebrew religion (Judaism) to survive in the Diaspora.  God was the only god and was universal and would outlast any empire or kingdom.   SO, the Jews had developed a monotheistic religion based on a universal god who was the un-created creator.

~The Jewish faith at this point also stressed the absolute authority of the law and the equality of all Hebrew men.   The ancient Hebrews did not believe that women were equal to men, but they did believe that women must be treated with justice according to the law.  They also insisted that non-Hebrews must be treated justly.  Justice could be harsh—the law punished many crimes by demanding that people be stoned to death, for instance.  But Hebrew law also was sensitive to ambiguities and grey areas of the law (thus the importance of the stories of wise King Solomon, etc.).