Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations

The early civilizations of the Near East during the Bronze Age (3500-1000 B.C.) and Early Iron Age (1100-500 B.C.) have been the preserve of archaeologists and linguists. Before the late 19th century, these civilizations were unknown, save for brief, often inaccurate biblical references. To modern readers, these civilizations are remote and forbidding, in contrast to Classical Greece and Rome. Yet each year, discoveries and scholarly publications have revealed the fundamental contributions of the ancient Near East to later Western civilization. Therefore, this course presents the main achievements and contributions of these early civilizations from Sumer to Achaemenid Persia.

The first six lectures deal with the emergence of urban-based, literate civilizations in the Early and Middle Bronze Ages (c. 3500-1550 B.C.). Three such civilizations in the river valleys of the Tigris- Euphrates, Nile, and Indus. All three owed much ti earlier Neolithic villages, yet each represented a significant break in previous patterns of life. The Sumerians and Egyptians are known through their writings, whereas the glyphs used in the Indus valley are as yet undeciphered.

The next three lectures deal with the achievements and collapse of the late Bronze Age (1550-1000 B.C.). In this period, civilization had expanded by trade and imperial wars far beyond the river valleys of Egypt and lower Mesopotamia (Iraq). The pharaohs of Dynasty XVIII and XIX forged a great empire in the Levant, but they succeeded because other peoples-Canaanites, Hurrians, and Hittites-had long adapted Mesopotamian civilization. Great bureaucratic states emerged, foremost the Egyptian and Hittite Empires, as well as the kingdoms of Assyria and Babylonia. The Aegean world, future home to Classical Hellenic civilization, was also part of this wider political and cultural order, although the order collapsed in the two centuries following 1200 B.C.-a period often compared to the Dark Ages following the collapse of imperial Rome.

The last three lectures deal with the achievements of the empires and states of the Early Iron Age. Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians, in turn, built more effective imperial orders and reinterpreted Near Eastern cultural traditions. Phoenicians and Aramaeans revived trade, on the sea and land, respectively, and promoted alphabetic writing, while the Hebrews defined the religious and ethical future of Western civilization. The reign of Darius I (521-486 B.C.), Great King of Persia, represented the climax to 35 centuries on Near Eastern history, for he ruled the most successful empire to date, stretching from the shores of the Aegean Sea to the Indus Valley. Yet Darius I also marked a turning point, when he and his empire were drawn into a conflict with distant Greeks, who had evolved along quite different lines since the end of the Late Bronze Age.