10 Things About Ancient History You Should Really Know

For this “10 things” I am going to constraint the historical period to the period before 1000 BCE. Basically all that came before Greece and Rome (from a Western perspective).

1) The Bronze Age Near East had its own equivalent of a Westphalian system. See The Brotherhood of Kings.

2) Even in the 3rd Millennium BCE the world was quite international. There are references in Sumerian tablets to expatriate communities of merchants from Meluhha. Meluhha almost certainly referring to what we call the Indus Valley civilization.

3) The relationship between Sumerians and Akkadians prefigures the relationship between the Greeks and Romans. Mesopotamia had long had Semitic speaking groups like Akkadians, as evidenced by their prominence in lists of rulers to an early date, but in the most antique period Sumerians were dominant. Over time though Sumerians disappeared as a distinct ethnicity, and the language was preserved as one of liturgy for thousands of years after their extinction.

4) The longstanding antagonists of Sumer, the nation of Elam in southwest Iran, persisted for 1,500 years after the Sumerians left the scene. They were finally absorbed by the Medes and Persians in the 6th century BCE.

5) Because cuneiform tablets can be baked and preserved our documentary evidence from some earlier periods in Near Eastern history is much better than more epochs, simply due to preservational differences.

6) The Hittite polity, which lasted for nearly 1,000 years as the dominant rival of many other Near Eastern powers, was analogous in some ways to the Hungarian kingdom, with a very distinct ruling class. The Hittites called themselves the Nesa, and ruled over various non-Indo-European popualtions, in particular the Hatti.

7) Sumeria likely had a larger population than the same area after the Mongol sack of Baghdad (there may also be an issue with salinization of lower Mesopotamia over time).

8) The Biblical Philistines may in part have been Bronze Age Greeks (bonus: the political units of Bronze Age Greece may have been larger than during the Classical period because bronze forging requires more mobilization of resources than iron).

9) Pleistocene “megafauna” survived into the Bronze Age.

10) Indo-Europeans of an Indo-Aryan variant called the Mittani were the ruling class in much of the territory ruled by ISIS for the past few years. They even worshipped Indo-Aryan gods.

Addendum: I invite readers to give me better suggestions. I’m not an ancient historian, just an enthusiast!

13 thoughts on “10 Things About Ancient History You Should Really Know

  1. 11) Even as early as the Bronze Age, there had already appeared the perennial meme: “Just two generations ago, men could lift rocks twice the size of any man alive today!”

    But seriously, when do “blondes, having more fun” show up in the Ancient Near East archeological record — given the fairly recent discovery that blue eyes started out in the Black Sea region sometime around time of the saltwater breach of the Bosporous (aka maybe Noah’s flood).

  2. Bleeds into the next millennium, but it’s interesting that Bronze Age Greece’s city-state system was recapitulated in a similar form in the Iron Age, but the Bronze Age Levant’s city-state system gave rise to proto-national states in the Iron Age (w/exception of Phoenician and Philistine cities).

  3. 5. We probably know more about periods of the Bronze Age than we do about early Republican/Late Monarchist Rome (before around 250 BCE).

    8. I found out about the international trade component of the Ancient World from a book about the history of metallurgy. Bronze required extensive trade for the copper (sourced heavily from Cyprus) and tin (sourced from all over the place).

    9. Mammoths were gone from anywhere except isolated cold islands by the 3000-1000 BCE period. Other Ice Age megafauna (such as Irish Elk) lasted longer, but they were still gone before anything we’d called a civilization emerged.

      1. 1. What book? Could you be so kind to pass a link?
        2. From that perspective, Eurausian megafauna survives even now (in wisents and, err, domesticated aurochs) 🙂

    1. “5. We probably know more about periods of the Bronze Age than we do about early Republican/Late Monarchist Rome (before around 250 BCE). ”

      Yes, but wasnt Rome basically a barbarian backwater at that time, similar to how the Gauls and Germans were in the later periods of Classical Rome?

      “8. I found out about the international trade component of the Ancient World from a book about the history of metallurgy. Bronze required extensive trade for the copper (sourced heavily from Cyprus) and tin (sourced from all over the place). ”

      Those Bronze Age tin trading routes went all over the place, even as far as Cornwall, and probably even farther.

  4. Around 7000 BC England and Ireland were connected to Europe via a land bridge and sea level at that tine was much lower that it is today.

  5. 12. Sumerian, the Elamite language of the Zargos Mountain, and Hurrian and Kassite – languages of highlands adjacent to Sumeria, were all languages with a grammatical feature call “ergativity” which is now found pretty much only in some of the Caucasian languages and Basque, although there are traces of ergativity in some Western Berber languages probably due to a substrate influence there.

    13. The Biblical story of Moses as an infant has an earlier parallel in Sumerian mythology.

    14. In the Hittite era, Egypt and its tributary states controlled territory in the Levant as far north as modern Lebanon.

    15. Most of the people of both Anatolia and the Aegean region spoke a variety of non-Indo-European languages until sometime after 2000 BCE.

    16. The Hittites managed to keep the secrets of iron metallurgy to themselves as state secrets from ca. 2000 BCE to ca. 1200 BCE when their empire collapsed.

    17. Much of the Persian Gulf was not submerged until about 6000 BCE. http://www.livescience.com/10340-lost-civilization-existed-beneath-persian-gulf.html

    18. The Harappan civilization appears to have been a unified political unit that was free of warfare between its major cities until its civilization collapsed.

    19. The Philistines were settled in the Levant as part of a deal with the Egyptians around the time of Bronze Age collapse ca. 1200 BCE.

    20. Egypt was ruled by Semitic Hyskos people during its 15th dynasty which marks the beginning of the Second Intermediary Period in Egypt from ca. 1650 BCE to 1550 BCE.

    1. A lot of Indo-Iranian languages are partially ergative as well, with the Kurdish languages, Pashto, and Baloch in particular showing this. One wonders if some substrate was absorbed into a branch of Indo-Iranian fairly early on.

      I’ve always been fascinated by the now submerged river valley of the Persian Gulf. Partially because it’s possible that there were older civilizations there than even Sumeria, as your link notes. But also because it means the likely ANI migration to the Indus Valley could have taken a much shorter route than would be needed today.

      1. There is also ergativity in Northeastern Neo-Aramaic dialects, which I’m pretty sure is the only case in the whole Semitic family. Probably the result of Kurdish influence (1,000-2,000 years of diglossia, in some cases)—but possibly a direct holdover from the Iron Age ergative highlands?

        1. Looks like you three ergavity enthusiasts might be able to knowledgeably respond to the question I posed at Razib’s later main post, viz., the video of the fellow singing Gilgamesh in purported Sumerian tongue. See you up there.

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