- When we say “ancient society”, we mean that society when “the state” began to emerge from within the civil society. That means that within the civil society class antagonisms have sharpened to such a degree that violence was the order of the day. The ancient society was preceded by the “primitive society”, which we discussed in our section on anthropology.
- The ancient society began to appear in a number of different regions around the globe. These were in: A) Mesopotamia, i.e. the region between the two rivers, Tigris and Euphrates; B) Egypt, i.e. again a region along a river, this time Nile; c) civilization of ancient India; C) civilization of ancient China; D) civilizations in Latin America.
- Let’s start with the geographic region of Mideast. The ancient civilization there is called “Mesopotamia”, which in Greek means between two rivers. The rivers which this refers to are the Tigris and the Euphrates. These rivers would provide irrigation for the farms of the first civilization in human history.
- The first civilization to develop was called Sumer in southern Mesopotamia. Sumer was a collection of city-states (just like later in ancient Greece), most of them with thick defensive walls because the city-states were often at war with one another. Major cities included Eridu, Uruk, Ur, and Lagash. Uruk was one of the largest cities; at one time it may have had 80,000 people living in and around the city. At the center of each town was a religious temple called a ziggurat.
- The social structure of the Sumer society reminds us of ziggurat. It was slaves and criminals, at the bottom. Then there were farmers and artisans, up above them. Then, there were government officials, landowners and wealth merchants. Then, at the very top, there was a king and the priests.
- In fact, architecture reflects the social structure of any society. Thus, the architecture of a modern capitalist city reminds us of the great capitalist wealth of the “downtown”, and general depression on the outskirts (see photo below of industrial portion of Brooklyn, a neighborhood of New York, and Manhattan, the center of New York, in the background).
- Wikipedia writes of Sumerians: “They were the first to use the wheel. The wagon was a transportation revolution for farming and trade. They developed a number system based on 60–this explains why we have 60 seconds in minute and 60 minutes in an hour. They used a 12 month calendar with a 7 day week. Astronomers studied the stars an mapped the first set of constellations. Early writers wrote the earliest known literature called the Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells the tale of the struggle between man and the Gods. They also created architectural structures such as the dome, the column, and the arch.”
“The earliest writing was based on pictures that represent words or phrases—these are called pictograms. Pictograms were used to communicate basic information about crops, taxes, and lending (loans). This type of writing required hundreds of symbols. Over several hundred years, the pictures developed into a type of writing we call cuneiform. Cuneiform was different because the symbols now stood for sounds, similar to our alphabet.” An old Sumerian proverb averred that “he who would excel in the school of the scribes must rise with the dawn.”(Wikipedia)
“In his book, History Begins at Sumer, Samuel Noah Kramer lists 39 `firsts’ in recorded history that can be credited to the Sumerians and the culture they created” (326). Among these `firsts’ are Man’s First Cosmogony and Cosmology, The First Moral Ideas, The First Biblical Parallels, The First `Noah’, `Moses’, and `Job’, Man’s First Epic Literature, The First Case of Library Borrowing, The First Legal Precedent, The First Aquarium, and The First Proverbs and Sayings” (source.)
- Babylonia came into power when King Hammurabi created an empire out of the former kingdoms of Sumer and Akkad. King Hammurabi is also known for creating a system of laws called the “Code of Hammurabi” that has had a lasting influence on legal thought. Only one example of the Code survives today on a seven foot, four inch tall basalt stone slab. The Code is considered an early form of what is now known as a constitution. There are 282 laws in the Code of Hammurabi.
- A Babylonian king named Nebuchadnezzar II built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar II supposedly built these around 600 BC because his wife missed the forests and jungles of her home. The gardens didn’t actually hang—they were simply built on top of towers, platforms, and temples (see below).
- Babylon is also known for “the tower of Babylon”. According to Wikipedia, “Some modern scholars have associated the Tower of Babel with known structures, notably the Etemenanki, a ziggurat dedicated to the Mesopotamian god Marduk by Nabopolassar, the king of Babylonia circa 610 BCE. The Great Ziggurat of Babylon was 91 metres (300 ft) in height. Alexander the Great ordered it to be demolished circa 331 BCE in preparation for a reconstruction that his death forestalled”.
- Assyrians were the first to manufacture metal wheels, which was much more durable and therefore able to be used in war. The core of the Assyrian army was their war-chariots. The Assyrians were also the first to use camels in war.
- A nice selection of Assyrian art can be seen at the site of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
- “The oldest surviving royal library in the world is that of Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria (668-around 630 BC). British Museum archaeologists discovered more than 30,000 cuneiform tablets and fragments at his capital, Nineveh (modern Kuyunjik). Alongside historical inscriptions, letters, administrative and legal texts, were found thousands of divinatory, magical, medical, literary and lexical texts. This treasure-house of learning has held unparalleled importance to the modern study of the ancient Near East ever since the first fragments were excavated in the 1850s.”
- Assyrians were defeated by Persians (see map of the Persian empire).
- Persia developed in the area of modern day Iran. Persia controlled an area that stretched from the Indus River (modern Pakistan) to beyond the Nile. The Persian Royal Road was an ancient highway that allowed rapid communication throughout this very large empire. Messengers on horseback could travel the 1,677 miles in seven days; it took ninety days on foot. The road also helped Persia increase long distance trade and eventually became a major part of the Silk Road.
- An attempt by one of the kings of Persia, to conquer Athens, in 490 B.C. is recorded in “History” of Herodotus.
- Zoroastrianism was the religion of Persia, and it was one of the first monotheistic religions. It was founded in the second millennium B.C. It was the official religion of Persia from 600 B.C. to 650 CE. In Zoroastrianism, the purpose in life is to “be among those who renew the world”, hence, it’s central idea is very revolutionary.
Knowledge in ancient Mesopotamia
- Mesopotamian mathematics and science was based on a sexagesimal (base 60) numeral system. This is the source of the 60-minute hour, the 24-hour day, and the 360-degree circle. The Sumerian calendar was based on the seven-day week. This form of mathematics was instrumental in early map-making. The Babylonians also had theorems on how to measure the area of several shapes and solids. They measured the circumference of a circle as three times the diameter and the area as one-twelfth the square of the circumference, which would be correct if p were fixed at 3.
- The Babylonian astronomers were very adept at mathematics and could predict eclipses and solstices. Scholars thought that everything had some purpose in astronomy. Most of these related to religion and omens. Mesopotamian astronomers worked out a 12-month calendar based on the cycles of the moon. They divided the year into two seasons: summer and winter. The origins of astronomy as well as astrology date from this time.
- The only Greek-Babylonian astronomer known to have supported a heliocentric model of planetary motion was Seleucus of Seleucia (b. 190 BC). Seleucus is known from the writings of Plutarch. He supported Aristarchus of Samos’ heliocentric theory where the Earth rotated around its own axis which in turn revolved around the Sun. According to Plutarch, Seleucus even proved the heliocentric system, but it is not known what arguments he used (except that he correctly theorized on tides as a result of Moon’s attraction).
- The most extensive Babylonian medical text, however, is the Diagnostic Handbook written by the ummânū, or chief scholar, Esagil-kin-apli of Borsippa, during the reign of the Babylonian king Adad-apla-iddina (1069-1046 BC). Along with contemporary Egyptian medicine, the Babylonians introduced the concepts of diagnosis, prognosis, physical examination, and prescriptions.
- Mesopotamian people invented many technologies including metal and copper-working, glass and lamp making, textile weaving, flood control, water storage, and irrigation. They were also one of the first Bronze Age societies in the world. They developed from copper, bronze, and gold on to iron. Palaces were decorated with hundreds of kilograms of these very expensive metals. Also, copper, bronze, and iron were used for armor as well as for different weapons such as swords, daggers, spears, and mace.
- Mesopotamians believed that the world was a flat disc, surrounded by a huge, holed space, and above that, heaven. They also believed that water was everywhere, the top, bottom and sides, and that the universe was born from this enormous sea. In addition, Mesopotamian religion was polytheistic. However, they also developed one of the first monotheistic religions – Zoroastrianism.
- Babylonian text Dialogue of Pessimism contains similarities to the agonistic thought of the sophists, the Heraclitean doctrine of contrasts, and the dialectic and dialogs of Plato, as well as a precursor to the maieutic method of Socrates. The Ionian philosopher Thales was influenced by Babylonian cosmological ideas.