The Human Story – The Silk Road & Ancient Trade

In the last chapter of this series, upon looking at the life and legacy of Alexander the Great we briefly touched upon the impact that he had on trade and culture across his Afro-Eurasian empire in the centuries following his early death. We will follow up on this and delve into the incredible network of road and sea commerce routes that evolved, in part, from Alexander’s legacy. This trade network is colloquially known as the Silk Road and we shall now take the magnifying glass to this massively significant historical anomaly.

Before we do though, let’s first imagine the life-cycle of the ubiquitous t-shirt. Let’s assume that it was designed in France and contains cotton from both India and Texas which was turned into cloth in China. This in turn was stitched in Haiti, screen printed in England and sold to me in Scotland. When I tire of it then it will find its way to Kenya or Cameroon or possibly back to Haiti. The fact that most t-shirts see more of the world than most people is quite astonishing really! This is possible due to globalisation and international trade.

The Silk Road was how complex international trade was facilitated in the ancient world and it is nearly impossible to overestimate just how important these trade routes were to the human story and the subsequent development of civilisation: the first truly massive cultural exchange.

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Ancient International Trade

The Silk Road was not the beginning of trade in the ancient world, but it radically expanded its scope and the connections formed between the (now mostly unknown and forgotten) traders and merchants arguably changed the world more than any political or religious leader ever did. One of the more amazing things about the Silk Road was that it did not only benefit the rich. To paraphrase one John F. Kennedy speech, “everyone’s boat was lifted by this particular rising tide”. Sure, the rich now had more things from distant lands to spend their money on other than temples and palaces but the poorer citizenry also benefited from the free transfer of ideas across thousands of miles. The Silk Road touched the lives of nearly everyone living in Afro-Eurasia.

Although known as the Silk Road, it is better to think of it as two distinguishable routes with a halfway hub station located in Central Asia. These routes were:

  • Eastern Mediterranean -> Central Asia
  • Central Asia -> China

Han China (207 BCE – 220 CE) expanded their trade routes in the Central Asian section around 114 BCE through the missions and explorations of the Chinese Imperial Envoy Zhang Qian who visited much of the region, including the Bactrian country of Daxia (modern northern Afghanistan, southern Uzbekistan, and southern Tajikistan) with its remnants of Greco-Bactrian rule (the progeny of Alexander’s army at the eastern most extent of his empire). Zhang Qian also provided reports on the countries that he did not visit: India to the south and the lands of Mesopotamia to the west.

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Believe it or not the Silk Road actually came into existence largely due to horses. The Chinese lacked horses strong enough to carry soldiers and so Zhang Qian sought to trade with the nomads of the Eurasian steppes, who in turn sought goods that only agricultural societies produced, such as grain and silk. This Chinese westward expansion and exploitation led to the opening of the Silk Roads which gave people the chance to exchange goods, cultures and ideas.

A Maritime Silk Road equivalent soon opened up, connecting China with Indian and Sri Lankan ports as well as Roman ports via Roman controlled Egypt. Many goods and ideas also found their way from Central Asia to the islands of Japan and even Java (modern Indonesia). According to the Chinese Histories, it was through these sea routes that the first Roman embassies made their way to China in 166 CE during the reigns of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Emperor Huan of Han.

So, we should not think of the Silk Road as a purely land based road but rather as a series of interconnected trade routes.

Just as now, the goods travelled more than the people who traded them (think of the t-shirt analogy). Very few traders traversed the entire Silk Road (there were exceptions of course, such as the Italian explorer and merchant Marco Polo who famously documented his nearly 24,000 kilometre journey of the Silk Road in the 13th century) but rather moved back and forth between towns and trading posts selling their goods and wares to other traders. These new owners would then take the goods to the next town and further along the route and towards its final destination with each trader marking up the prices along the way.

What Was Traded?

What exactly was traded along the Silk Road? Well, silk for starters duh. For thousands of years silk was only produced in China (the earliest example of silk found was in tombs at the Neolithic site of Jiahu and dates back an astounding 8,500 years!).

Silk is spun from the cocoons of mulberry worms and the processes involved in silk making as well as the techniques for using the worms were a closely guarded state secret as much of China’s wealth came from silk production. As an export, it was mostly used for clothes as it feels light in the summer and, yet, keeps the wearer warm in the winter. Silk proved to be the number one way to display wealth in the ancient west.

It may now be known as the Silk Road (the phrase was coined in 1877 by the German traveller and scientist Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen) but the trade flowed in both directions. Some of the Mediterranean world’s exported goods included olives, olive oils, and wine. China, in turn, traded jade, silver and iron as well as silk. India provided fine cotton textiles whilst East Africa traded in ivory and the Arabian Peninsula exported spices, incense, and tortoise shells.

Money, Money, Money

Until this point, we have mainly focused on the city-dwelling “civilised” types but with the opening and growth of the Silk Road the nomadic peoples of the Central Asian steppes became much more important to the human story. The majority of Central Asia is not particularly great for agriculture, but the barren, rocky and mountainous terrain that makes it poor for growing crops also makes it an incredibly difficult region of the world to conquer (even the great Alexander of Macedon failed to meaningfully conquer the lands around the Hindu Kush mountain range).

The lands of the area lend well to herding and seeing as nomadic people are definitionally good at moving around from place to place they made natural traders. They were moving from Point A to Point B anyway; so why not make an extra bit of scratch from simply moving goods with them? Another benefit to all that travel was that it made them a hardier people who became more resistant to disease.

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One group of nomads, the Yuezhi, were defeated and humiliated in battle by a rival group, the Xiongnu, in 176 BCE and split into two separate migrating groups: the Greater Yuezhi and Lesser Yuezhi. The Greater Yuezhi eventually settled in Bactria (modern Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India) and defeated the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom – the aforementioned descendants of Alexander the Great’s soldiers who had previously settled the area. The victorious Yuezhi formed the Kushan Empire (30 – 375 CE) which stretched south into the Indian subcontinent and wrapped east and north around the Himalayan mountain range. The Kushan Empire went on to play an integral role in the development of trade on the Silk Road as well as the introduction of Buddhism to China; particularly through the patronage of Emperor Kanishka the Great who was a great advocate of the religion.

Although trading around the routes that would later become the Silk Road had begun as early as 1,000 BCE it really accelerated in the second and third centuries CE and the Kushan Empire became a huge hub for that trade. By that point nomadic traders were beginning to be eclipsed by professional merchants who travelled the trade routes, often making huge profits, and the cities founded by the once nomadic peoples became hugely significant. They continued to grow because most of the trade along the Silk Road was increasingly being done by caravan and these caravans had to frequently stop for food, water, shelter, companionship – all the usual things that make life possible and worth living really.

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These towns and cities became fabulously wealthy. Palmyra in modern Syria was particularly important as all the incense and silk that travelled to Rome had to go through here. Silk was so popular amongst the Roman elites that the Senate repeatedly attempted to ban it, complaining about trade imbalances and that the material’s delicate characteristics were inadequately modest and immoral. Despite these arguments, all of the Senates attempts to ban silk failed. This speaks volumes to how even in the ancient world, just as it does today, wealth shaped the governance of the society.

Trade provided people with the opportunity to become wealthy without the need to be a king or a lord who took a cut of whatever the citizenry produced through taxes and levies. This new Merchant Class that grew along with the Silk Road even came to acquire a fair amount of political clout. In some ways this new class with its wealth began the tension that is still so obviously present in the modern world between wealth and politics.

How the Silk Road Changed Everything… For Everyone

The goods that were exported along these trade routes only really changed the lives of the wealthy but the Silk Road itself affected everyone else for three primary reasons:

  1. Economic Impact – Relatively few people could afford silk, but a lot of people were employed in the production of it. As the market for silk grew, more people chose to dedicate their lives to the production and exportation of the product. This was true of many luxurious items across Afro-Eurasia: the trade routes provided economic opportunity to a greater number of people.
  2. Trading Ideas – It was not just goods that travelled across the Silk Road, but it also provided the ideal tool for the proliferation of ideas. The Silk Road routes provided a cultural bridge between east and west and no idea benefited more from this than the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama. The trade routes acted as the primary route used for the spread of Buddhism east into China and Japan. The religion was beginning to dwindle in its Indian homeland but the ideas of the Buddha were transported along the routes and it, once again, began to flourish when it came into contact with other traditions and cultures. Today, Buddhism is regarded as one of the Great Religions of the world. Many traders became strong supporters of monasteries which, in turn, became convenient way stations and staging posts for the travelling caravans – all the better for preaching.
  3. Disease – The world-wide interconnection of populations and civilisations led to the spread of disease. Measles, smallpox and bubonic plague all found their way across the trade routes. Terrible outbreaks of bubonic plague travelling from east to west occurred on numerous occasions with the most devastating outbreak beginning in 1347. This was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history and we now know it as the “Black Death” and it is estimated to have wiped out between 75 and 200 million people – two-thirds of the city of London alone died in the outbreak. This plague created a series of religious, social and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history. This probably would not have happened without the Silk Road and its convenient intercontinental transportation for vermin and bacteria.

When we view the Silk Road from these different angles, it becomes clear that the interconnectedness fostered by the Silk Road had a much broader impact on the lives of the every day man or woman than simply buying clothing material or trinkets from far-off lands. Much like globalisation of the modern era affects everyone – from the poor child searching the scrap heap for minute amounts of precious metals in discarded mobile phones in a developing country, to the wealthy businessman transporting his infectious flu across continents in the airplane on the way to his meeting – the Silk Road affected more than just those wealthy enough to afford silk.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?

The Human Story – Alexander… the Great?

We all want to be remembered. We all want to leave a legacy. We all want to be great.

For a long time, history was all about the study of the great men and women throughout time and it was quite common to refer to someone as “the Great”. We are less prone to do this in modern times and we recognise that one man’s “the Great” is most probably another man’s “the Terrible”. There are also misogynistic interpretations that go along with the label as it is almost exclusively applied to men. There was no Cleopatra the Great, Elizabeth the Great or even a Hatshepsut the Great; sure, there was the Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great, but the price for her masculine title was that she has been saddled with the slanderous rumour that she died having sex with a horse. Just type “Catherine the Great” into one specific unnamed internet search engine’s search bar and the first hit to automatically appear is “Catherine the Great horse”.

But we are here to discuss the life and achievements of one man, and not the fairness of historical labelling. That man is, of course, Alexander III of Macedon. Better known to history as Alexander the Great.

Alexander of Macedon

Alexander was born in the ancient Macedonian capital of Pella in 356 BCE and died in the great city of Babylon in 323 BCE at the ripe old age of 32.

Tradition states that Alexander was born on the same day that the Temple of Artemis burned down, and Plutarch later remarked that Artemis was too preoccupied with the birth to save his burning shrine. The legends of Alexander – and there are plenty of them, as we will see – start from his very first day.

The young Alexander was tutored by no less than Aristotle who gave him an annotated copy of Homer’s Iliad which he later took on campaign. His father, King Philip II witnessed his 10-year-old son tame a horse, Bucephalus, that no one else could ride and was so impressed that he supposedly told the boy, “O thy son, look thee at a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself for Macedonia is too little for thee.”

By the time that Alexander was 16 he had become an accomplished general in his father’s army, having put down revolts and even established a town called Alexandropolis; even at this early stage in his career the megalomaniacal streak was evident in the young man.

King Philip was assassinated by one of his bodyguards whilst at a wedding and Alexander was pronounced king on the spot by the nobles and the army. He was 20-years-old. Over the next decade, Alexander expanded his father’s empire with unprecedented speed and the man famously never lost a battle. Upon becoming king, Alexander quickly put down several revolts in his territory and consolidated his power within the Greek peninsula before setting out to conquer Asia. Upon landing with his army on the shores of Anatolia (modern Turkey) Alexander threw his spear into the soil and announced that he had come to accept Asia as a gift from the gods.

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Alexander commenced his campaign very quickly and began winning battles and conquering cities throughout Anatolia. When he arrived at the ancient Phrygian city of Gordium he “undid” an unsolvable knot. Legend had it that the knot would be undone by the future King of Asia. How did Alexander untie the Gordian Knot? He thought outside of the box and simply cleaved it in two with his sword. Alexander continued his march through the Levant and into Egypt where he was regarded as a liberator and pronounced the son of the god Amun at the Oracle of Siwa in the Libyan desert. Next, he moved east into the ancient lands of Mesopotamia and the heartland of the Persian Empire.

Before the Battle of Issus, where Alexander’s army easily defeated the overwhelming numbers of the Persian king Darius’ forces, Alexander provided a speech that just oozed confidence in himself and in his army whilst simultaneously heaping utter scorn and disregard on his enemy:

“Our enemies are Medes and Persians, men who for centuries have lived soft and luxurious lives. We of Macedon for generations past have been trained in the hard school of danger and war. Above all, we are free men, and they are slaves. There are Greek troops, to be sure, in Persian service – but how different is their cause from ours!

“They will be fighting for pay – and not much at that. We, on the contrary, shall fight for Greece, and our hearts will be in it. As for our foreign troops – Thracians, Paeonians, Illyrians, Agrianes – they are the best and stoutest soldiers in Europe, and they will find as their opponents the slackest and softest of the tribes of Asia. And what finally, of the two men in supreme command? You have Alexander, they… Darius!”

After such a rousing speech it really is no wonder that his men followed him in battle after battle, extending his reach to the Indian subcontinent. But they would follow him no further. Alexander’s exhausted and homesick army convinced their king to turn back at the banks of the Beas River soon after the Battle of Hydaspes, where the Macedonians had defeated the Pauravan Kingdom.

Alexander’s Empire stretched from Greece in the west to the Indus River in the east, from Egypt in the south to Alexandria Eschate (literally translates to “Alexandria the Farthest”) in modern day Tajikistan in central Asia in the north. His empire was massive!! And he and his army had accomplished it in only a decade and he was not finished. Well he was, but you know what I mean: if he had not have died, he had plans to conquer the Arabian Peninsula.

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Whether sieging an “impregnable” city, facing an “invincible” army, or solving an “impossible” knot, Alexander steadfastly refused to believe that he could not succeed. He was driven to win by any means necessary and he rarely played by the rules. It is one of history’s great “what ifs” but for better or worse this tenacious, young man died, and we shall never know what accomplishments the elder Alexander would have achieved.

But what exactly is it that made Alexander the Great so great? We will examine the man in three possible definitions of “greatness”.

Great due to Accomplishments

This is an extension to the idea that history truly is the deeds of great men. This notion is itself absolutely ridiculous on the face of it. For starters, half of the human population are women! Secondly, there are tons of incidents that no one person can claim responsibility for; just think of the Bubonic Plague or a natural disaster such as a tsunami.

That being said, Alexander did accomplish an astonishing amount in his short life. The father conquered Greece, but the son destroyed the Persian Empire, conquered all of the land that it held (including Egypt) and marched his armies into the Indian subcontinent, stopping only at the Indus River because his army had had enough.

The reality though is that Alexander was not a particularly great empire “builder”. He was good at tearing things down but not great at building up institutions to replace the things that he had torn down. This is one of the reasons that his empire split into four separate entities after his death; there was no centralising “glue” to hold the empire together other than Alexander himself. The Hellenistic Kingdoms that emerged after his death were led by four of his top generals known as the Diadochi:
Ptolemy – Egypt
Cassander – Macedon
Lysimachus – Thrace & Anatolia
Seleucus – Everything else

Great due to Impact

Alexander had an enormous impact on the world after his death. Much like Tutankhamun, Alexander was amazingly good at being a dead person.

Everyone loved him: from the Romans to Napoleon and even today his ancient battlefield tactics are still taught in modern military academies. Alexander of Macedon has proved to be an immensely important military model for numerous generals throughout history. The third century Roman Emperor Caracalla even went as far as to reintroduce Alexander’s by-then obsolete military tactics in his conquests of the Middle-East and Africa.

His main post-death legacy, however, may be that he introduced the Persian idea of absolute monarchy to the Greco-Roman world which, as we will see later, became a pretty big deal to the development of western history. Alexander also built several cities (over 70), some of which also became pretty big deals after his death. They are easy to spot on the map as he named most of them after himself and one was even named after his horse. Alexandria in Egypt became one of the main centres of learning in the Classical World and home to an incredible library (which Julius Caesar probably, accidently, destroyed, ironically, trying to conquer land to emulate his hero, Alexander the Great).

In death, Alexander also became a huge influencer on culture and gave the region a common tongue – Greek – which helped to facilitate conversations and commerce. Greek became so widespread that archaeologists have unearthed coins in Afghanistan with pictures of their kings but inscribed in Greek! Although Alexander was mostly conquering territory for the glory and heroism of it, in his wake emerged a more closely connected world that was able to communicate with more people, more efficiently than ever before. Alexander did not make these things happen, but they probably would not have happened without him either.

Great because of his Legend

Alexander may also be great due to his legend. There were no accounts of his extraordinary achievements written about him whilst he was alive and so embellishment was easy. Exaggeration of the truth can effortlessly lead to greatness.

The man died at the age of 32 and so never had the chance to grow old, he also never had the opportunity to lose any future battles. Alexander tenaciously pursued the Persian king Darius across modern Iraq and Iran for no other reason than he wanted to kill him. In response to an offer of peace and friendship from Darius, Alexander replied, “I am Lord of Asia. Come to me, and you shall receive all that you can ask. But if you deny me my right as your lord, stand and fight for your kingdom. I will seek you wherever you are.” That was his response to the dude who was offering him peace! In the end, Darius was betrayed and killed by one of his allies, Bessus. Alexander’s focus simply switched, and he chased Bessus around until he could kill him in Darius’ place.

These comical pursuits of glory are accompanied in the classical histories by stories of Alexander walking through the desert and it suddenly beginning to rain; another tale tells of the Amazon Queen bringing a harem of 300 women to Alexander so he could sire a race of children as strong and intelligent as he; and stories of his wife Roxanna, who still a teenager, engineered the assassination of many of Alexander’s fellow wives.

Even in death, people still attempted to make Alexander live up to the heroic ideal of him. Plutarch tells that Alexander died of a fever but this was in no way an appropriate way for such a masculine conqueror to die and so rumours began to explain how Alexander truly died: either from alcohol poisoning or from assassination poisoning. No great man could possibly die of fever!

Alexander’s Great Legacy

In Alexander the Great we have the story of a man whose birth was attended by the gods, who went on to conquer and unite the world whilst riding a horse that only he could tame across deserts where it magically rained for him as he chased down his mortal enemy and then left in his wake a more enlightened world and a murderous teenage bride.

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It is not just the Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty game franchises that celebrate the idea that ennobled violence can lead to a better world. That takes us to how I personally believe Alexander became immortalised as “Great”. In 1798 Napoleon invaded Egypt. Not because he particularly needed to (although he did argue that it would strengthen French trade interests and weaken British access to British India) but because he wanted to do what Alexander had done. Long before Napoleon, way back in antiquity, the Romans had practically worshiped Alexander, particularly Pompey “the Great” and Julius Caesar who is said to have lamented that he had achieved nothing with his life upon visiting the tomb of Alexander. In addition to copying his military tactics the aforementioned Caracalla also raised a Macedonian phalanx and an elephant division in honour of Alexander.

In short, Alexander became great because others decided that he was great. It was these others that chose to admire and emulate the man. Sure, Alexander was a great general and yes, he conquered a helluva lot of territory, but it was people that made Alexander great. Just as today we make people great when we choose to admire and attempt to emulate them.

Traditionally, history has been in the business of identifying and celebrating great men (and occasionally great women). But this obsession with greatness is a little disturbing. It wrongly implies that history is made, primarily, by men and almost always celebrated men at that. It’s only natural that we all want to be celebrities.

Thankfully, we have left behind the ideas that butchering people and taking others’ land is the best way to become an icon but the ideas that we have embraced instead are not necessarily worth celebrating either. It is us who decide what and who we care about and give attention to. It is us who decide to care about the Kardashians or reality television contestants.

But at the end of the day even Alexander the Great could not have made history in a vacuum: no one can. Fortune, circumstance, a highly trained army and a tenacious and strong character helped Alexander forge his name and glory into history.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China

The Human Story – Imperial China: A 2,000 Year History

You may be wondering how we are just now, at the ninth installment of the series, discussing Ancient China. Weren’t they one of the earliest civilisations? Well, yes but this article will span thousands of years of Chinese history, philosophy and social development.

As an added bonus for your patience and sticking with us up to now we will delve a little deeper into the history of Ancient China than we have done in previous articles.

Let’s go!

China was one of, if not, the first modern state and by that we mean that it had a centralised government with a core of bureaucrats (or Mandarins) who would execute the wishes of the government of the day. This form of civil service lasted in pretty much the same form from roughly 200 BCE to 1912 CE and provided one of the major outlets for social mobility in Chinese society. It would also later serve as the model for the civil service systems developed in other Asian and western countries.

We’re off to a great start: how Ancient China influenced modern western liberal democracies (I’m sure the irony will not be lost on some of you). But where can we go from here?

The Dynastic Tale

The Ancient Chinese were among the first people to write and record their history. In fact, one of the Confucian Classics is called Shujing (Classic of History). This is great news for us as we can see the things that these pioneering Chinese historians recorded as happening, but it is also problematic due to the way that the narrative is told.

Chinese history is, rather conveniently, divided into periods (much like the history of that other super long-lasting civilisation, Ancient Egypt). Most of these periods are named after the dynasties who ruled at the time (but some of the more chaotic periods, as you will see, are not). So long as the family (or dynasty) keeps producing emperors and these emperors keep on ruling then the dynasty continues. However, these dynasties did not last forever and always fell after the emperor was overthrown, usually in the wake of rebellion or war.

Let’s have a quick look at the different periods and the dynasties throughout Ancient China:

  • Xia (2070 – 1600 BCE) Most likely fictional
  • Shang (1600 – 1046 BCE) First dynasty with archaeological evidence
  • Zhou (1046 – 256 BCE) Longest reigning dynasty in Chinese history – although chaotic period
    • Spring & Autumn Period (771 – 476 BCE) Zhou authority over vassal states waning
    • Warring States Period (475 – 221 BCE) Basically a massive civil war that lasted centuries
  • Qin (221 – 206 BCE) Shortest dynasty but hugely influential as first dynasty of Imperial China
  • Han (206 BCE – 220 CE) Widely regarded as a Golden Age for China
  • Three Kingdoms Period (220 – 280 CE) No single dynasty ruled over all of China
  • Jin (266 – 420 CE) Chaotic period – empire split into two, like Rome, with west and east
  • Northern & Southern Dynasties (420 – 589 CE) Political chaos and civil war
  • Sui (581 – 618 CE) Unified north and south and sinocised formerly nomadic tribes
  • Tang (618 – 907 CE) Regarded as a Golden Age of cosmopolitan culture
  • Five Dynasties & Ten Kingdoms Period (907 – 960 CE) Name says it all really
  • Song (960 – 1279 CE) First government in global history to issue paper banknotes
  • Yuan (1279 – 1368 CE) The Mongol dynasty, founded by Genghis khan’s grandson Kublai Khan
  • Ming (1368 – 1644) Famous for vases
  • Qing (1644 – 1912 CE) Final Imperial dynasty with fourth largest empire in history

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So that is a brief summary of what happened throughout Chinese history until the early twentieth century, but the interesting part is why it happened and especially why people writing about it at the time said that it happened.

(Drum roll)

The Mandate of Heaven

The concept of the Mandate of Heaven was first used to support the rule of the kings of the Zhou dynasty way back around 3,000 years ago. Modern scholars believe that it was invented in order to get rid of the Shang dynasty. Before the Zhou, early Chinese society had no concept of heaven, but the Zhou did (they called it Tian) and they wanted to portray the idea of heaven as eternal, so they ascribed the idea of the Mandate of Heaven back to a time before the Shang. This explained why the Shang were able to conquer the Xia. To put it quite simply, the Xia kings had lost the Mandate of Heaven.

The Zhou were fairly specific in how the Xia had lost the Mandate. The seventeenth Xia king, Jie, was a particularly nasty and immoral ruler who, at the behest of his favourite concubine, ordered a lake of wine to be created so they could sail upon it whilst an orgy of drunken men and women bathed. It was said that three thousand men were ordered to drink the lake dry with Jie and the concubine laughing when they all drowned. Other stories of Jie’s cruelty involve very detailed dietary requirements and riding upon one of his minister’s backs as if he were a horse. All the stories involve death.

This was not the behaviour expected of a ruler and therefore heaven saw fit to intervene and strip the Xia of the Mandate to rule and allowed the Shang to take power. But, of course, the Shang, too, lost their Mandate. Why? Interestingly, much of the actions of the final sovereign of Shang mirrored those of Xia Jie. In order to please his concubine, he too ordered the construction of a lake made of wine with naked men and women chasing one another around it. It was also reported that he strung the nearby forests with human meat. Obviously, this is far from acceptable moral behaviour for a ruler and the Shang lost the Mandate of Heaven. Much of this may be hugely exaggerated or may not have happened at all, but it does explain why the Mandate of Heaven passed to the Zhou.

Basically, the fact that one dynasty falling and being replaced by another in a cycle that lasted over 3,000 years can be explained by Divine Intervention based on whether one ruler behaves in a proper and moral manner. It’s very much an after the fact examination that has the virtue of being impossible to disprove as well as explaining some very messy political history. More importantly, though, is that it reinforces the vision of moral behaviour that is the foundation of Confucianism, which we will get to momentarily. Before we do though, let’s see an example of the Mandate of Heaven in action.

The Qin dynasty only lasted for 15 years but it was also one of the most important dynasties. It was so important, in fact, that it gave its name to the country: Qin-a. The great accomplishment of the Qin was that it re-unified China under a single emperor for the first time in 500 years, ending the Warring States Period. As one can imagine, this omelette required quite a few eggs to be broken and the great Qin emperor, Qin Shi Huang and his descendants acquired a reputation for brutality which was justified but probably exaggerated so that the successor dynasty, the Han, would seem more legitimate in the eyes of heaven.

When recounting the fall of the Qin, the historians focused on how a eunuch and the prime minister turned a Qin emperor into a puppet and tricked him into committing suicide. So, the Mandate of Heaven turned away from this suicidal puppet emperor which set up a lovely contrast with the early Han emperors, such as Wen who came to power in 180 BCE and ruled benevolently, avoiding extravagance in personal behaviour and ruled according to Confucian principles. By behaving like a wise Confucian was how Wen maintained the Mandate of Heaven, according to the ancient Chinese way of observing history.

Confucius and his Teachings

So just who was this Confucius guy anyway?

Confucius was a minor official who lived between 551 and 479 BCE during the Spring and Autumn Period who developed a philosophical and political system that he hoped would lead to a more stable state and society. He spent a great deal of his time attempting to persuade the powerful lords to embrace his system. Unfortunately for Confucius, none ever did. He did, however, get the last laugh as his ideas would later be adopted as the backbone for Chinese governance, the economy and Chinese society as a whole.

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Unarguably one of the most influential thinkers of history, Confucius was conservative and argued that the key to bringing about a strong and powerful state was to look to the past, particularly the sage emperors (who were morally upright mythical kings of pre-Xia China). By following their moral behaviour, Confucius reckoned, the ruling emperor could bring order to China.

Confucius’ idea of moral uprightness essentially boils down to a person knowing his or her place in a series of hierarchical relationships and acting accordingly. Everyone lives their life in relationship to others and is either the other’s superior or inferior.

Confucianism teaches that there are five key relationships:

  1. Ruler to Ruled
  2. Father to Son
  3. Husband to Wife
  4. Elder Brother to Younger Brother
  5. Friend to Friend

The key to understanding Confucius is through his ideas of the Father to Son relationship which includes filial piety: a son treating his father with reverent respect. The father is supposed to earn this respect by caring for the son and educating him. This does not mean that the son has the right to disrespect a neglectful father. Ideally, both act accordingly and harmoniously and the goal is for both to become superior men or “Junzi”. If all men strive to be Junzi, society will benefit.

How to be a Junzi

For a man to become Junzi he must know how to behave properly. How does one learn how to behave properly? You look to the historical antecedents, of course. Particularly the sage emperors who ruled over a period of great peace. The study of history is important to the Junzi and by doing so he will discover all the great things that the sage emperors discovered and invented. For example, the sage emperors helped introduce the use of fire, taught people how to build houses and invented agriculture. These incredible accomplishments do not stop with these men: they extend to the women of their lives too. The wife of one of the emperors is credited with the invention of silk culture: a very important part of the Ancient Chinese economy.

DragonAs well as the study of history, the Junzi is expected to be well versed in poetry and painting in order to truly appreciate the beauty around him.

The Junzi must adhere to the ideas of Ren and Li. Both concepts are incredibly complex but let’s have a stab at explaining them shall we. Ren usually translates as Propriety, meaning the understanding of and practising proper behaviour in every possible situation which of course depends upon who you are interacting with (see the Five Relationships above).

Li translates as Ritual and refers to the rituals associated with Chinese religions, most of which involve the veneration of one’s ancestors. And this brings us back, full circle, to the fundamental problem of how early Chinese scholars wrote their history.

Completing the Circle

Traditional Chinese historians were all trained in the Confucian Classics which emphasised the idea that good emperors behaved like good Confucians. In order to maintain the Mandate of Heaven, the emperor had to refrain from riding their ministers around like horses and stringing human flesh from trees (seems pretty obvious, really, when you think about it). In this way of thinking, the political success of the whole dynasty ultimately rests upon the shoulders of one man and his actions.

The Mandate of Heaven acts as an incredibly flexible explanation for historical causation. It explains why dynasties often fell simultaneously with the coming of terrible weather, floods or peasant revolts. If the emperor had been behaving in the correct manner then surely none of that horrible stuff, upsetting every day society, would have occurred?

Well, not exactly.

As many modern historians have pointed out, the negative effects of floods and peasant revolts often lead to a change in the leadership. However, to take the moral aspect out of Chinese history is to diminish the importance of Confucian scholars because these same scholars can tell you that one of the best ways to learn how to be a good emperor and thereby maintain the Mandate of Heaven is to read the Confucian Classics which were written by – that’s right, you’ve guessed it – Confucian scholars.

In short, the complex circularity of Chinese history is mirrored by the complex circularity of the relationship between those who write it and those who make it. This is something to think about, no matter whose history you are reading. As Winston Churchill is often mistakenly thought to have said, ‘History is written by the victors’ and there is no greater victor in Chinese culture than Confucius. He really did have the last laugh.

The Rest is History

Bonus Round – Noteworthy Chinese Emperors

As promised at the start of the post, here is a little extra for making it this far with us. A country with over 3,000 years of history has obviously had a lot of rulers and we will have a quick look at some of the more prominent imperial rulers of China.

Qin_Shi_Huang_statue

Qin Shi Huang (259 – 210 BCE) was the first emperor of a united China and the founder of the short-lived Qin Dynasty. Defeating the other six Warring States, Qin founded the empire of Qin, unifying, for the first time, all of China under one powerful ruler.

After the unification, the Emperor began to unify Chinese writing, measuring standards and coinage across the empire, facilitating exchanges between the different peoples living there. He also undertook mammoth projects, including expanding and improving the Great Wall to strengthen the empire’s northern border and the Terracotta Army, which was built to defend their emperor in the afterlife.

Wu of Han (156 – 87 BCE) was the seventh emperor of the Han Dynasty and cited as a pioneer of the nation due to the vast territorial expansion that occurred during his reign. He is best remembered for the strong and centralised Confucian state that he organised: if Qin Shi Huang was the emperor who territorially unified China then Wu of Han was the emperor who ideologically unified China.

Emperor Wu dispatched an envoy to Central Asia to seek an alliance against the Xiongnu, a powerful tribe in northern China who posed a formidable threat to the Han. The attempted alliance was a failure, but an unintended consequence of the embassy was the establishment of the Silk Road which served as a route for cultural and economic exchange between the east and the west.

Wen of Sui (541 – 604 CE) was the founder of the Sui Dynasty and unified the country after it had undergone serious splits over hundreds of years, sparing the people from the suffering of war. During his reign Wen began construction of the Grand Canal, connecting the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. At 1,794 kilometres long, this Grand Canal of China is still the longest man made waterway in the world.

Wen also introduced a new system to choose government officials, the imperial examination (the first standardised test) which was the forerunner for the modern examination, providing anxious students with panic attacks since 587 CE. Wen made good use of this new calibre of government official and opened a great period of prosperity not seen since the Han Dynasty. It was said that there was enough food in storage to last for 50 years during his reign.

Tang Taizong (599 – 649 CE) was the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty and is often regarded as the wisest Chinese Emperor due to his full consideration of his subjects, particularly the peasants. The Sui Dynasty had fell due to peasant uprisings and Taizong realised that the peasant masses could provide a dangerous opposition unless treated favourably by the government. Tang Taizong amended the land dividing system which greatly lifted the taxation burden of peasants as well as implemented policies to boost the development of the economy and society.

Under Emperor Taizong, China’s prosperity and openness brought more frequent economic and cultural contacts between the Tang and foreign countries. A great deal of China’s silk, porcelain, tea and paper were sold abroad, and huge numbers of Chinese left the Tang Empire to visit the world. Tang Taizong’s twenty-three-year reign brought the most prominent era of peace and prosperity in Ancient China’s history and the Tang Empire emerged as the most powerful in the world at the time.

Wu Zeitan (624 – 705 CE) was the only female empress in Chinese history to ascend to the throne and ruled her empire for over half a century. Although Confucian beliefs at the time were against a woman ruler and very much in favour of a patriarchal state, Wu Zeitan smashed down the barriers and seized power for herself.

Before Empress Wu, who had been Emperor Tang Taizong’s concubine, became the empress regnant, she had been heavily involved in political affairs when her husband, Tang Taizong’s son Tang Gaozong, had reigned for over thirty years. Zeitan had exiled, murdered (yes, you read that right) and manipulated enough of her children in order to gain the throne for herself and was officially crowned Empress in 690 CE.

During her reign, Wu Zeitan reinforced centralisation and attached great importance to agricultural development. She launched a campaign to elevate the position of women to challenge Confucian beliefs and encouraged talented people to take up posts within her government. In spite of the deadly ambition and ruthless rise and reign of this woman, Empress Wu proved to be a competent ruler and throughout her reign the country prospered.

Kangxi (1654 – 1722) was the second emperor of the Qing Dynasty and the longest reigning emperor in the history of China, ruling for 61 years. During his early reign, Kangxi cracked down on the rebellious plot of one of the ministers appointed to assist him in governing the country when he ascended to the throne at the age of eight. He later suppressed the Revolt of the Three Feudatories, forced the Kingdom of Tungning in Taiwan and assorted Mongol rebels in the north to submit to Qing rule, and blocked Tsarist Russian expansion at the Amur River.

Emperor Kangxi’s reign brought about long-term stability and relative wealth after years of war and chaos. He initiated a period of prosperity known as “High Qing” which lasted for several generations after his death. His court also compiled the Kangxi Dictionary in 1710 which became the standard Chinese dictionary for the 18th and 19th centuries.

Now we have seen some of the great men and women of Chinese history, next week we will be turning our attention back west to visit the life and times of another great man. A man who by the age of thirty had conquered most of the known world and then wept for there was nothing left to conquer. I am, of course, talking about Alexander the Great.

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great

The Human Story – Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great

When we study history, we tend to focus on unified polities such as Egypt, France or the League of Nations. This emphasis on unity often leads to labels that mask much of the historical differences associated with the institution in question. One needs only think of Europe and the many different cultures spread across time to understand this idea. I mean, what even is Europe when analysed through a historical dimension?

Today we are going to attempt to tackle something that is even more complicated and hazy than European history: Ancient India. Indian history is comprised of many diverse and distinct cultures which existed over thousands of years and as such, it is rather difficult to put together a clear, coherent and unified history. But we will try.

The (Very) Basics of Hinduism

Hinduism, as with all other world religions, is extremely complex and this article could never, in no way, do justice to the intricacies of it. That being said, hopefully you will understand a little more of the religion (if you don’t already know much) as it is important to comprehend the basics of Hinduism to understand the evolution of history on the Indian subcontinent. So, let’s go.

The Vedas

Remember our old friends, the Indus Valley Civilisation from the fourth instalment of this series? Remember how they were one of the earliest civilisations, but they basically just disappeared under a veil of mystery around 1750 BCE? Well their civilisation was replaced by migrating Aryans (not to be confused with the Nazi’s “master race”) wandering east from the Caucasus. The reason that we know about these guys is because, unlike their predecessors, they left behind some of the earliest religious texts, the oldest of which are known as the Vedas. These Vedas lie at the core of what would later become known as Hinduism.

Not much is known about the authors of these texts as they tend to focus on the ideas rather than on the authors themselves. This allows the reader to look at the message without being influenced by the messenger. There are tonnes of stuff in the Vedas which we do not have time to look at but one of the more culturally important messages to come from the scriptures is the idea of the caste system.

The Caste System

The caste system is one of India’s most enduring and fascinating (and from a western point of view certainly, unjust) establishments. One of the Vedas speaks of Purusha, the cosmic man, whose sacrifice by the gods led to the creation of all life on earth. This parable puts forward a divine explanation for the caste system known to Hindus as the Varna:

  1. Brahmins – the top class are represented by Purusha’s mouth as they are the ones that speak to the gods.
  2. Kshatriyas – the arms of Purusha represent the ruling class, including the warriors and administrators.
  3. Vaishyas – the third caste are the merchants and artisans who provide the money for the priests and the warriors. This caste come from Purusha’s thighs.
  4. Shudras – the bottom class are represented, unsurprisingly, by the feet of Purusha. This class consists of labourers and farmers who are the foundation of the social order.

The caste system is infinitely more complex and intricate than this but this division into four basic classes remains constant throughout much of India’s history. The caste system lays the foundation for another huge concept in Hinduism: dharma.

Dharma

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One’s role in life and society is predestined and defined primarily by birth and by caste. Someone must fulfil the role that they were born into, even if they are terrible at it. It is better to be an awful warrior than the world’s greatest actor if your role in life is to be a warrior. This is dharma, and someone is better fulfilling their own dharma poorly than playing the part of someone else’s, no matter how well.

Samsara, Moksha and Karma

There are both personal and social reasons for performing your own dharma. The social reasons are rather obvious: dharma and caste combine for excellent social cohesion. There will always be the exact correct number of priests and the exact correct number of farmers and the exact correct number of toilet cleaners (I think you get the picture).

Samsara is the cycle of rebirth (or reincarnation), the idea that when we die our soul is transferred to another living thing as it, itself, is being born. If one fulfils his or her dharma, then they are born into a higher being. This would lead someone, not of this culture or religion, to believe that being reincarnated as a brahmin is the ultimate goal but this thought would be incorrect. The eventual goal of dharma is to be released from the merry-go-round of reincarnation altogether. This release is known as moksha and the law that holds all of this together is karma.

These laws are a great way to organise the social order from top to bottom. Everyone has a role to play in the community and society stays in balance because there is a religious element to it.

Hinduism does have one major design flaw though for those ambitious brahmins and kshatriyas wishing to forge an empire. Originally the brahmins had tried to set themselves up as the political elites but Hinduism does not place a premium on its worshipper’s obeying the leaders because everyone’s path to salvation is an individual and personal experience (perhaps giving a religious tinge to Margaret Thatcher’s famous quip that “…there is no such thing as society.”)

Buddhism

Budha

Historians cannot pinpoint the beginnings of Buddhism exactly but according to traditional biographies the story begins in the sixth century BCE with a prince who had known wealth and opulence his whole life. Prince Siddhartha Gautama’s father had locked him in the palace because a prophecy foretold that the family would lose the kingdom if the young prince ever left. This was, however, extremely comfortable as house arrests go: he had fine foods, entertainment and a beautiful wife. Naturally, however, the curious prince began to believe that there must be more to life and snuck out from the palace on several occasions. The legend tells that on his travels, Siddhartha encountered an old man, a sick man, and, finally, a corpse. Having realised the ubiquity of suffering and death, Siddhartha decided to leave the palace and renounce the crown and seek out the holiest men to discover how it was that life could come to such a miserable end.

Siddhartha became an ascetic, abstaining from much of life’s pleasures and fasting and meditating for days on end hoping to find enlightenment. Finally, after meditating for seven weeks under a tree it finally came to him: Siddhartha had achieved nirvana.

He finally understood the meaning of life and began to teach it to people who became his disciples. Siddhartha had become the Buddha (which means Teacher) and taught the Four Noble Truths. These are the principles that form the foundation of Buddhism and they are:

  1. All life is suffering
  2. The source of suffering is desire
  3. To stop suffering, one must rid themselves of desire
  4. The eightfold path – the path to freedom from suffering:
  • Right View
  • Right Intention
  • Right Speech
  • Right Action
  • Right Livelihood
  • Right Effort
  • Right Mindfulness
  • Right Concentration

As a religion Buddhism requires a lot of meditation and moderation and not much fun rituals and Buddhist monks have literally no power unlike the priests of other religions and they must renounce everything. (The exception being Shaolin monks: I mean, who doesn’t want to be a Kung Fu monk!?)

However unattractive Buddhism may have seemed to the higher classes, it was an exceptionally attractive option to the lower caste Hindus. In theory, anyone who follows the eightfold path can be free of suffering and achieve nirvana, maybe even in this life rather than having to be reborn for potentially thousands of years.

Ashoka: the Buddhist Emperor

  For the vast majority of history on the Indian subcontinent, India was not one place but rather many different principalities and city-states. India did, however, experience indigenous political unification twice in its long history: the Mauryan Dynasty (321 – 185 BCE) and the Gupta Dynasty (320 – 550 CE). One particular ruler of the Mauryan Dynasty, Ashoka the Great, is worth mentioning as he attempted to rule through quasi-Buddhist principles.

Initially, Ashoka had been a great warrior who expanded the empire that his grandfather had founded but experienced a conversion to Buddhism after witnessing his own army devastate the vanquished kingdom of Kalinga. Ashoka built stupas (mound like monuments to the Buddha) all over the kingdom to show his devotion. He also erected pillars that proclaimed his benevolent rule and described how he was going to rule through something called “Dhamma” which was his policy for public welfare.

1597px-The_great_stupa

Ashoka’s empire was not governed with individualistic goals in mind like we see in Hinduism but was rather run through relational goals. This is one of the reasons that his empire was not all that Buddhist; Buddhism is not concerned with the order of the world but argues that fulfilment of the self will lead to the order of the world.

In the end, Ashoka’s empire did not outlast him by much and Buddhism declined in India, almost to the point of extinction.

The Bigger Picture

Hinduism is the most flexible of the world religions largely down to it being polytheistic and the belief that the many gods can, equally, take many forms. This makes it easy for Hindus to assimilate other religious traditions. This is precisely what happened with Buddhism and in time the Buddha became worshipped as another incarnation of one of the Hindu gods rather than as a mortal teacher. In the end Hinduism enveloped the Buddha rather than eradicating him. This meant that Hinduism, with its tremendous amount of variety and flexibility with it’s core values of samsara, karma and the caste system have provided an incredible amount of cultural and social unity to the Indian subcontinent for millennia.

As unfortunate as it was for the Buddha to have his teachings disregarded in his homeland of India, it was also fortunate that his teachings migrated east to China. And next time, we will follow his teachings and make the same journey eastward.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East

The Human Story – West Vs East

In this, the seventh article of the Human Story series, we are going to explore the horrible and totalitarian Persians and their conflict with the virtuous and democracy loving Greeks. I mean that is what millennia of teachings have told us right – that the Greeks were good whilst the Persians were bad? I mean the Greeks gave us Plato with his Republic and the idea of the righteous Philosopher King and Socrates who knew that he knew nothing whilst the Persians did not even philosophise. Clearly West is Best… right?

Well that is exactly what we are going to find out today.

The Combatants – Persia

Let’s start with dissecting the awful Persians, shall we? The Persian Empire would end up becoming the model for most contiguous land-based empires throughout history. Much of what we know about the Persians and their empire comes to us from an outsider writing about them. That is, of course, the Father of History himself, Herodotus: the first true historian. The fact that Herodotus is Greek is important as it also introduces us to the concept of historical bias for the first time.

The Persian Achaemenid dynasty was founded in 539 BCE after King Cyrus the Great conquered much of Mesopotamia, including Babylon. Cyrus freed the Jews that had been exiled in the city by the Neo-Assyrian Empire (who you will recall had a fetish for displacing huge groups of people in an effort to control them), thus ending a sad period of Jewish history known as the Babylonian Exile (he gets some great coverage in the bible by the way, sometimes he is even referred to as messiah!). This humanitarian act had an upside for Cyrus: with the Jewish elites allowed to return home Cyrus gained a loyal buffer state between Persia and the ever-threatening Egyptians to the southwest.

As great as Cyrus was, his son-in-law Darius I became even greater and extended his father-in-law’s empire east as far as India, west as far as Egypt (with loyal Israel within its sphere of influence) and north to Anatolia. There were Greeks already living in Anatolia when Darius’ armies marched in to occupy and these people were known as Ionian Greeks and will shortly become relevant to the narrative.

Standard of Cyrus.png

The Achaemenid kings ruled their empire with a light touch and conquered kingdoms could keep their kings and elites so long as they pledged allegiance to the Persian king and paid their taxes. Therefore, the Persian king was often referred to as the “King of Kings”. Persian engineers improved the infrastructure of the conquered kingdoms with a better road system that allowed for a very impressive postal service to relay messages back and forth across the colossal empire. The Persian elites embraced Freedom of Religion, a very basic human right that even nowadays is not fully implemented across much of the modern world. The Persians were Zoroastrians (a religion that still exists and claims to be the earliest form of monotheism). Zoroastrianism introduces the idea of the good versus evil dualism that we all know so much about (God/Satan, Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker, elves/orcs). However, the Persians were not interested in converting people to their own religion. Perhaps the most surprising fact of all, given how awful this empire was, is that Zoroastrianism forbids slavery so there was not a slave to be found in the whole of the Persian Empire.

It seems that the Persians were probably not all that bad after all and their empire would probably not have been a bad place to live in the fifth century BCE. That is of course, unless you believe Herodotus and the Greeks.

The Combatants – The Greeks

We all know about the Greeks: the incredible architecture, the meaningful philosophy, the powerful drama, the evocative literature, the very words for astronomy and biology derive from Greek, as does so much more in modern society. The Ancient Greek culture that so many of us in the west still associate with was one founded by poets, mathematicians, philosophers and architects. The Greeks gave us the language to discuss politics, the fist dedicated history books, and gifted us with democracy.

When we think about the high point of Greek culture we tend to think of the Parthenon and the surviving tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. However, what we are really thinking of is Athens in the fourth century BCE, right after the Persian Wars. Athens valued individualism and disdained anyone who could not argue political opinion. Athenians were citizens first before they were anything else and the elites of their society were politicians guiding the state by persuading this free-thinking populace to vote for proposed legislation.

Acropolis-panorama-night.jpg

Ancient Greece was so much more than just Athens, however. The Greeks lived in city-states, most of which featured some form of slavery and in each and every one of them, citizenship was limited to males. Each city-state had its own form of governance, ranging from democratic (unless you happened to be a slave or a woman) to completely dictatorial and the people who lived within these city-states would have considered themselves citizens of that city, not of anything that would ever be called Greece.

One of the greatest contradictory Greek city-states to Athens was that of Sparta. Along with Athens, Sparta is the other Greek city-state that springs to mind when people think of Ancient Greece. This is, in part, due to the huge success of Frank Miller’s 300 graphic novel and the subsequent Zack Synder movie of the same name. As sensationalised as 300 is, there is no denying that ancient Sparta was one of the most extreme societies that has ever existed. Spartan society could best be described as a sort of eugenic warrior state. When each new citizen was born the elders would inspect the child, killing it if they perceived any imperfections. At the age of 7, each Spartan male entered into the state education system, known as the agoge, which drilled them in the arts of war. The agoge was both mentally and physically brutal, sometimes to the point of death. This was all to create an effective and unquestioning soldier, loyal to the state. The result of this torturous education system was the best Heavy Infantry of the ancient world. The ideals of duty to state and self-sacrifice were paramount whilst individualism was discouraged.

Who tilled the land and did the menial jobs of ancient Sparta if all male citizens were off soldiering? The Helots did, of course. We cannot discuss Spartan culture without mentioning the Helots. These were a massive caste of enslaved people upon whose backs Spartan society was built. The Helots are the reason that Sparta could devote their whole culture toward producing perfect soldiers. By 480 BCE, there were about 7 Helots for each Spartan and this imbalance left the government in a perpetual state of fear of a slave revolt. The irony of producing this perfect warrior culture was that the Spartan army was not one to fight abroad, but rather to prevent the Helots from rising up in revolt at home. These unfortunate people were treated abysmally in order to keep them in constant fear of their masters and it was Spartan law to brutally beat (and even murder) Helots. Life would have been unbearably  sucky for the Helots of ancient Sparta!

The Greco-Persian Wars

From 499 until 492 BCE the abovementioned Ionian Greeks, supported by the Athenians, rebelled against their Persian overlords. In 490 BCE the Persians invaded mainland Greece but were decisively crushed by an outnumbered Athenian army at the Battle of Marathon. The Persian King Darius I began preparations for a second invasion. However, he died before the preparations were complete, thus leaving the task to his son, Xerxes I.

Xerxes invaded mainland Greece in 480 BCE and at the Battle of Thermopylae, a small force of Greek warriors led by King Leonidas I of Sparta resisted the much larger multi-ethnic Persian force for two full days before finally succumbing on the third day of battle.

After the battle, Xerxes captured Athens and burned the city to the ground. However, almost all the inhabitants of the city had fled to the island of Salamis at the news of the Greek army’s collapse at Thermopylae. Xerxes attacked the Greek fleet under unfavourable conditions and was soundly defeated at the naval Battle of Salamis. After this defeat Xerxes pulled the majority of his army back to Asia, leaving a contingent to finish the campaign. This army was defeated by the Greeks at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BCE, ending the Persian offensive on Greece for good.

The War is Won! What now? More War!

Aphrodite.jpg

In the wake of the shared Greek victory, the people began to see themselves more as Greeks and less as Athenians, Spartans or Corinthians etc. Athens emerged as the de facto capital and then flourished under a new Golden Age. When we combine the high-minded rhetoric with the undeniable power and beauty of Ancient Athenian art and philosophy, it is easy to visualise the foundations of western civilisation. If you buy into this then you must be happy that the Greeks won the Persian Wars.

However, even if you put slavery and the other social injustices aside, Ancient Greek society still had a whole slew of problems.

The Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BCE) was a 27-year conflict between the democracy loving Athenians and the kingship embracing Spartans. The war was fought, as so many are, over power and resources and the Athenians did not come across all saintly as evidenced in the Melian Dialogue. The Athenian navy sailed to the island of Melos, a Spartan colony, to demand that the Melian people submit to Athenian authority. The Melians argued that they had never actually fought alongside the Spartans and intended to remain neutral throughout the conflict. Unimpressed with the Melian response, the Athenians declared: ‘The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.’ Obviously this was not a terribly democratic nor enlightened position to take. So, what exactly did the democratic and meritocratic Athenians mean by such a statement and what did they intend to do to the Melians who only wanted peace? Tragically, and unsurprisingly, they killed all the men and enslaved the women and children of the island.

So yes, Anaximander gave us cartography, Thales gave us geometry, Hippocrates gifted humanity with a better understanding of disease and physiology and Pythagoras gave me a sore head with angles, but the true legacy of Ancient Greece is one of deep ambiguity. All the more so because it was the tyrannical Spartans and their allies who triumphed in the Peloponnesian War.

Did the Right Side Win the Greco-Persian Wars?

Did the correct side really win the Persian Wars? Most classicists and defenders of the west will argue that of course they did. After all, winning these wars set off a cultural flourishing that gave us the Classical Age. Additionally, if the Persians had won then they may have strangled democracy in its infancy.

This is certainly a possibility but as a counter argument to the classicists let’s consider three things:

1. Life under the Persian Kings was pretty good and if we consider the previous five thousand years of human history then there have been far more successful and stable empires than there have been democracies.

2. Life in Ancient Athens was not all that great, especially if you were unfortunate enough to be a slave or born a woman. The government was notoriously corrupt and ultimately this government derived its power not from the citizenry but rather from the imperialist notion that ‘might makes right’ – look no further than their awful abuse of the people of Melos. It is true that Athens gave us Socrates, but one must also remember that that same Athens also forced him to kill himself too.

3. Under Persian rule, the Greeks may have avoided the Peloponnesian War which, ultimately ended up weakening the Greek city-states so much that Macedonia (a state that had been under Persian influence until they were kicked out of Europe) and its king Philip II were able to conquer all of them. Philip’s son, Alexander III, would then go on to make more bloody conflict with the Persians and Greece would not glimpse democracy for a further two millennia. All of this could have been avoided if they had just lost to Persia in the first place!!

So, did the good guys truly win the Persian Wars? It is one of history’s great ‘What Ifs?’

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt

The Human Story – Ancient Egypt

Today, we move onto the final and most influential of the River Valley Civilisations: Ancient Egypt. Most people would not recognise Mesopotamian cuneiform or know the names of any Babylonian kings, but chances are that they would recognise hieroglyphic symbols when they see them and have most likely heard of King Tutankhamun. When we think of ancient civilisations, it is often Ancient Egypt that our minds wander to. There are several reasons for this. For example, the Great Pyramid of Giza is the last remaining of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but more importantly, Ancient Egyptian Civilisation lasted a really long time: over 2,500 years!

Due to the longevity of the civilisation, Egyptologists tend to decompartmentalise Ancient Egypt into neat packets of time:

• Early Dynastic Period (3050 – 2686 BCE)
• Old Kingdom (2686 – 2181 BCE)
• First Intermediate Period (2181 – 1991 BCE)
• Middle Kingdom (2055– 1690 BCE)
• Second Intermediate Period (1674 – 1549 BCE)
• New Kingdom (1549 – 1069 BCE)
• Third Intermediate Period (1069 – 653 BCE)
• Late Period (672 – 332 BCE)

The history of Ancient Egypt occurred as a series of stable periods (the Kingdom periods), separated by periods of relative instability (the Intermediary periods). For the purposes of this post, we will be focusing on the Old, Middle and New Kingdom periods of Ancient Egyptian civilisation.

Harnessing the Nile

The fertile floodplain of the Nile had been the lifeline of its region for much of human history and it gave humans the opportunity to develop a sophisticated agricultural economy and a more complex and centralised society. Early nomadic hunter-gathering homo sapiens had begun living in the Nile region of northeast Africa as early as 120,000 years ago. As the arid north African climate became increasingly warmer and dry, populations were forced to concentrate on the shores of the Nile.

Egypt-Hieroglyphs

So far in our discussions of the River Valley Civilisations, we have been focusing on the distribution of resources and geography. Just as the violent and unpredictable Tigris-Euphrates River System had shaped the world view of early Mesopotamians, the Nile shaped the world view of the Ancient Egyptians. Unlike the two great rivers of Mesopotamia, the Nile is regular, easily navigable and gentle. Each summer the river flooded fields at precisely the right time leaving behind nutrient rich silt for the planting season, making it one of the richest and safest agricultural regions of the ancient world.

Unlike the labour intensive, complicated hydraulic engineering projects required in Mesopotamia to irrigate the crops, the Nile was so chilled that the Egyptians used a simple form of water management, known as Basin Irrigation, where the farmers used the flood waters to fill earthen boxes and canals used for irrigation. Planting was so easy in the region that farmers would throw seeds around their fields and then let animals tread over to press the seeds into the ground: no need for the back-breaking tilling that the Mesopotamians relied on their slaves to do.

The predictability and benign nature of the Nile allowed the Egyptians to produce large food surpluses with relative ease and little work allowing time and energy to be spent elsewhere: think incredible monumental projects. It has been suggested that the nature of the Nile may also be the cause of Ancient Egypt’s optimism. One example of this can be seen in the contrasting views of death; whereas the Mesopotamians saw the afterlife as a gloomy and dark place to fear, their Egyptian counterparts viewed the afterlife as nothing more sinister than a continuation of the current life.

The Old Kingdom

The Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt can be viewed as the glory age of the civilisation. It was during this time that the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx were erected. The Sun-King Ra and the idea of Divine Kingship also have their roots in this period of Egyptian history. Divine Kingship stated that the pharaoh was either a god or very close to a god which sounds like a good gig to have if you are the pharaoh, but they were not expected to act like a person, instead they were expected to act like a god. In Ancient Egypt this meant behaving like the River Nile – cool, calm and benevolent.

The pyramids are impressive to behold but they also represent an extraordinary degree of political and social control over the population. After all, it can not be easy to convince thousands of people to dedicate their own lives to constructing a massive tomb for someone else: unless they believe that person to be a deity. The most famous of the pyramids are the Pyramids of Giza which were built between 2575 and 2465 BCE. The grandest of these, the Great Pyramid was built to entomb the pharaoh Khufu. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Great Pyramid was built by a workforce of 5,000 permanent, salaried employees and up to 20,000 temporary workers who were summoned under a system of national service to work on a three or four month shift before returning home. These temporary workers were housed in a nearby camp and received payment in the form of food, drink, medical treatment and, for those who died on duty, burial in the nearby cemetery.

Now we need to ask the question: Why would you build such a colossal structure in the first place?

It boils down, like so much throughout history, to religious beliefs. If humans did their jobs well then the pantheon of gods would maintain the cosmic order of things and seeing as the pharaohs became gods upon death it was only logical that the populace would want to please their pharaoh. So, if Khufu wants a tomb 150 metres high, then Khufu shall receive a tomb 150 metres high.

Pyramids_of_the_Giza_Necropolis

When Khufu left this earthly plain to join the gods he would have found Ra at the head of the proverbial table. Ra began as a regional god to the Egyptian city of Heliopolis but eventually became the central figure of the pantheon of gods. He was the god of both the sun and creation and represented light, warmth and growth.

To move away from religion, the Old Kingdom was unusually literate and possessed two forms of writing: hieroglyphs for sacred writing and a form of demotic script for contracts and other administrative duties. The Egyptians of the Old Kingdom had much use for contracts and governing administration as they were ridiculously rich. However, like all good things, Ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom came to an end and around 2250 BCE a series of droughts led to infighting over power which then led to the first Intermediate Period.

The Middle Kingdom

When the civilisation emerged from the first chaotic Intermediate Period, after roughly a century, the Middle Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt blossomed and saw pharaonic rule return to the land but with some distinct changes. Firstly, the rulers were outsiders from the south: Nubia to be precise. And secondly, this new ruling class fostered a new pantheon of gods, of which Amen replaced Ra at the head of the table… only to later merge with Ra and become Amen-Ra.

The Middle Kingdom Egyptians developed a new hobby: conquering. More specifically, they conquered the homeland of the new rulers, Nubia, with its rich goldmines and quarries. In turn, they themselves were conquered by Semitic-speaking peoples wandering west from the Levant who dominated the natives with superior weaponry. These people brought weapons made of bronze, composite bows and chariots. One of these wandering groups, the Hyksos (meaning “ruler(s) of foreign lands”) were able to conquer all of Egypt, but rather than destroy the native culture, they assimilated into it. In a cruel twist of fate (from the Hyksos point of view at least) the angry and conquered Egyptians adopted these advanced military technologies brought over by the Hyksos and campaigned against them until they were able to expel these foreign rulers. This period of instability was known as the Second Intermediate Period.

The New Kingdom

By 1549 BCE Egypt, once again, had an Egyptian pharaoh, Ahmose I, and after all the warring, Egypt emerged from its position of geographical isolation. This New Kingdom Egypt continued the military expansion and began to take the form of a proto-empire.

Interestingly, the most expansive pharaoh was a woman, Hatshepsut, who expanded Egyptian influence, not through conflict, but through trade. However, most pharaohs, being men, focused their efforts of expansion through military means. This would eventually bring the Egyptians into conflict with the Assyrians, the Persians, Alexander the Great and finally, the Romans.

One pharaoh, Akhenaten, attempted to force a previously obscure god, Aten, onto the people as the supreme deity and suppressed the veneration of most other gods. Soon after Akhenaten’s death the cult of Aten was abandoned, and the traditional religious order was restored. One leading figure of this divine restoration was Akhenaten’s son, Tutankhaten, who changed his name to Tutankhamun. This was pretty much all that the young king did, however, before dying at the age of 17. The only reason that Tutankhamun is so famous is because his tomb was plundered by 20th century British archaeologists whereas most other pharaohs had their graves robbed by ancient people.

The last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt worth mentioning is Rameses II or Rameses the Great (although as you are about to see, Rameses the Creator would be a more appropriate epithet). He ascended to the throne in around 1279 BCE and went on to build more temples, and erect more obelisks and statutes and sire more children than any other pharaoh in history (Photo below shows the Great Temple of Rameses). Rameses was a bold military leader and led his army against the Hittites in the largest chariot battle ever fought at Kadesh (in modern Syria) and, after fighting to a stalemate, agreed to the first recorded peace treaty in history. Rameses II is also believed by many to be the Pharaoh of the Exodus story.

Temple_of_Rameses_II,_eight_Osiris_pillars

The story of Moses’ departure from Egypt with the Israelites leads us perfectly to the most crucial aspect of Ancient Egyptian culture. Rameses and Moses lived around the same time as the Pyramids of Giza were being built, right? Wrong. The Pyramids were built around 2500 BCE during the Old Kingdom, whereas Rameses died at the grand old age of 90 in 1213 BCE… 1,300 years later! The fact that Egyptian culture remained so similar for such an extensive period means that it all sort of blends together when we tend to imagine it.

The reality is that the Pyramids were more ancient to Julius Caesar than Julius Caesar is to us by an additional 500 years (let that sink in for a moment). Ancient Egypt lasted 1,000 years longer than Christianity has even been around and it lasted longer than western civilisation has so far too and its time had ended before the idea of western civilisation was even a twinkle in Herodotus’ eye.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia

The Human Story – Mesopotamia

Today we are going to look at the ancient lands of Mesopotamia. This historical region in west Asia is situated within the Tigris-Euphrates river system and located in modern day Iraq, Kuwait, parts of northern Saudi Arabia, the eastern reaches of Syria and stretched to south eastern Turkey.

Mesopotamian sites provide evidence for the earliest developments of the Agricultural Revolution from around 12,000 years ago. It has also been identified as the place where much of history’s greatest and most important early developments occurred: innovations such as the wheel; the planting of the first cereal crops; development of cursive script; astronomy; and mathematics.

Taming the ‘Land Between the Rivers’

Around 3000 BCE, cities began to pop up in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, just like they had done so in the Indus River region. The name itself is taken from Ancient Greek: “meso” meaning “between” or “middle” and “potomas” being “rivers”, so translating as “[Land] between the/two rivers”.

Map

The early Mesopotamian cities engaged in a basic form of socialism where the farmers contributed their crops to the public granaries, out of which the workers such as metalsmiths, builders, doctors or merchants were paid uniform wages of grain. This supply of food meant that if someone lived in the city then they could put their talents to work as something other than farmer or shepherd and thanks to this form of proto-socialism they could be sure that they would eat.

Although a farmer or shepherd could give up his harvest or flock respectively, they did not have to. One of the legacies of Mesopotamia is the enduring conflict between country and city and can be seen in the adventures of Enkidu and Gilgamesh in the Epic of Gilgamesh. This epic poem is one of the oldest known works of literature and its main theme is mortality, but another important theme throughout is the conflict between nature and civilisation and the epic ends with Gilgamesh singing the praises of the city of Uruk. What this allegorical tale tells us is that the people of Mesopotamia were proud of their accomplishments and their domination of the natural environment.

They had every right to be proud of their achievements too as we shall soon see!

City Life

El-zigurat_(1)

So, what were the cities of Mesopotamia like? Let’s take a quick look at Gilgamesh’s home city of Uruk. This was an impressive city with massive walls and an extensive canal system used to transport goods around. Archaeologists reckon that 90% of the city would have been buildings whilst only 10% would have been streets, so it is easy to see why the canals were so important for the trade of the city. Several monumental temples would have towered over the Uruk skyline. These massive temple complexes were known as ziggurats. The priests who ran these ziggurats initially held most of the power in the city as it was believed that they had a direct communication line with the gods.

The Tigris and the Euphrates rivers were pretty decent for agricultural development, but they paled in comparison to the reliable, on-schedule flooding and easy irrigation of the Indus Valley. Lots of slave labour was required to make the Euphrates-Tigris river system useful for irrigation. They were hard to navigate and flooded unpredictability and violently. The Epic of Gilgamesh talks of a great deluge of biblical proportions that may have been inspired by a particularly devastating flood. The poem claims that this near-extinction level flood was brought about by the gods when the people were making too much noise as the gods tried to sleep. So, it stands to reason that the gods are both violent and unpredictable (much like the rivers) and therefore it was only natural that the priests who led the religious rituals that were designed to placate the gods held so much power.

Roughly 1,000 years after the first temples had sprung up, we find that Mesopotamian cities began to create another structure to rival them: the palace. Responsibility for the well being and success of the social order was beginning to shift from the gods to men. This power shift between god to man – man to god is one that we will see throughout history for…. well, probably forever.

These new kings, who most likely started out as military leaders or very rich land owners, took on a quasi-religious role. How did they do this? Usually by engaging in a ‘Sacred Marriage’ ritual; in other words, they had sex with the High Priestess of the city’s temple. How do we know that the kings and priestesses engaged in sexual rituals? It was all written down and recorded. Of course, it was!

Writing: Really that Great? Yes!

The Mesopotamians gave us writing. Very early in Mesopotamian history (around the middle of the fourth millennium BCE) cuneiform was invented for the Sumerian language. Cuneiform literally means ‘wedge-shaped’ due to the triangular tip of the stylus used to impress symbols onto wet clay. The earliest, yet, discovered texts are in the form of seven archaic tablets that were found in a temple dedicated to the goddess Inanna at the city of Uruk.

Although the earliest texts were found in a temple, cuneiform itself was initially invented to record transactions: for example, ‘I exchange X bushels of wheat for Y amount of your sheep.’ Most remaining cuneiform tablets are some form of receipt. Nothing more exciting than the receipt you receive from the supermarket, really except very, very old.

Cuneiform

Why did this happen in Mesopotamia? Well the Fertile Crescent may be very fertile, but it lacks pretty much everything else. To get metal for tools, stone for buildings and sculptures, cotton for clothing or wood for burning the Mesopotamians had to trade. Writing evolved as a (very fortunate for human advancement) by-product of this trade as a means for accounting and recording each transaction.

We cannot overestimate the importance of writing, but it is important to note two points:

1. Writing leads to elites. Reading and writing are not things that everyone can do, and it helps build a class distinction. Foraging societies were relatively egalitarian, but Mesopotamia had class stratification (including slaves as pointed out earlier). The development of the written language played a huge part in widening the gap between the different classes.

2. Writing leads to actual history. Once writing enters the picture, humanity can record events. Prior to writing, history is mostly guesswork and archaeology; you just need to look at the Indus Valley Civilisation to see this (and they had a written language, it just has not been deciphered yet).

The Boring Stuff – Laws and Taxes

The city-state period of Mesopotamia ended around 2000 BCE. Perhaps due to drought caused by a shift in the course of the rivers and their tributaries led to rural nomads passing through and conquering the environmentally weakened cities. They settled these existing cities and founded new cities. These new Mesopotamian city-states were similar to their predecessors in that they still had temples and writing but they were also different in other ways. Firstly, the proto-socialism of the earlier culture was replaced with private enterprise: people could produce as much as they liked so long as they gave a cut of it to the government. And thus, humanity had entered the age of taxes!

The political landscape of Mesopotamia changed too. Tribal chiefs became kings who tried to extend their power beyond their city walls and pass this power onto their sons. The most famous of these kings was Hammurabi who ruled Babylon from 1792 – 1750 BCE. Hammurabi is famous for his Law Code which established everything from the wages of surgeons and ox drivers to the punishment for adultery. Nearly half of Hammurabi’s Code deals with matters of contract, one third addresses issues concerning household and reproductive issues, such as paternity, divorce, inheritance and sexual behaviour. Perhaps one of the most significant innovations to criminal law, the presumption of innocence, is first found in the Code. The Code is seen as an early example of a fundamental law regulating a government, i.e. a primitive form of constitution.

Hammurabi attempted to portray himself in a dual role through his Law Code. He saw himself as the shepherd and the father of his people. Sound familiar? If you were brought up in a Christian household then it should.

I am indeed the shepherd who brings peace, whose sceptre is just. My benevolent shade was spread over my city, I held the people of the lands of Sumer and Akkad safely on my lap…

The Exciting Stuff – Empire and Conquest

Even though territorial kingdoms like Babylon were more powerful than any cities that had come before them, they were still not actually all that durable. Babylon was soon taken over by the wandering Kassites. They literally wandered into the kingdom and just took over!

The Assyrians have the deserved reputation of being the brutal bullies of ancient Mesopotamia, but they did provide us with an early example of probably the most important and durable form of political organisation in world history: The Empire.

The biggest problem for an empire is that they are diverse and multi-ethnic which makes them hard to unify. Just wait until we reach the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the late 19th and early 20th century – ay ay ay!

The Neo-Assyrian Empire (911 – 612 BCE) grew from the home cities of Ashur and Nineveh to encompass the whole of Mesopotamia, the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea and even parts of Egypt. They conquered these lands through the most brutal and efficient army that the world had seen up to that point. Perhaps the most seminal aspect of the Neo-Assyrian army was that it was a meritocracy: that is, the generals and officers were selected not along familial lines, but rather, by their abilities to lead. These leaders were often very nasty and would displace hundreds of thousands of people, separating them from their family and their history. The army also engaged in the usual activities of conquering armies such as raping and pillaging, but interestingly also chopping off the appendages of their enemies; apparently, they had a penchant for noses.

This brutality was all done in the name of Ashur, the great god of the Neo-Assyrian pantheon, whose divine regent on earth was the king. Through the king, Ashur kept the world going and as long as conquest continued then the world would not end. However, if the conquering ever stopped then the world would end. When your world view is based on the apocalypse happening if you ever lost a battle and then you lose a battle, your whole world view implodes. This is what eventually happened and in 612 BCE the city of Nineveh was captured, and the Neo-Assyrian Empire came to an end. Long live the Neo-Babylonian Empire.

The empire as a political structure was here to stay!

The Rest is History

Next time we will be exploring the land of the pharaohs. That’s right ladies and gentlemen  we’re off to visit Ancient Egypt.

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation