It was not only in Mesopotamia and the Nile Valley that men were settling down to agriculture and the formation of city states in the centuries between 6000 and 8000 B.C. Wherever there were possibilities of irrigation and a steady all-the-year-round food supply men were exchanging the uncertainties and hardships of hunting and wandering for the routines of settlement. On the upper Tigris a people called the Assyrians were founding cities; in the valleys of Asia Minor and on the Mediterranean shores and islands, there were small communities growing up to civilization. Possibly parallel developments of human life were already going on in favourable regions of India, and China. In many parts of Europe where there were lakes well stocked with fish, little communities of men had long settled in dwellings built on piles over the water, and were eking out agriculture by fishing and hunting. But over much larger areas of the old world no such settlement was possible. The land was too harsh, too thickly wooded or too arid, or the seasons too uncertain for mankind, with only the implements and science of that age to take root.
For settlement under the conditions of the primitive civilizations men needed a constant water supply and warmth and sunshine. Where these needs were not satisfied, man could live as a transient, as a hunter following his game, as a herdsman following the seasonal grass, but he could not settle. The transition from the hunting to the herding life may have been very gradual. From following herds of wild cattle or (in Asia) wild horses, men may have come to an idea of property in them, have learnt to pen them into valleys, have fought for them against wolves, wild dogs and other predatory beasts.
So while the primitive civilizations of the cultivators were growing up chiefly in the great river valleys, a different way of living, the nomadic life, a life in constant movement to and fro from winter pasture to summer pasture, was also growing up. The nomadic peoples were on the whole hardier than the agriculturalists; they were less prolific and numerous, they had no permanent temples and no highly organized priesthood; they had less gear; but the reader must not suppose that theirs was necessarily a less highly developed way of living on that account. In many ways this free life was a fuller life than that of the tillers of the soil. The individual was more self-reliant; less of a unit in a crowd. The leader was more important; the medicine man perhaps less so.
Moving over large stretches of country the nomad took a wider view of life. He touched on the confines of this settled land and that. He was used to the sight of strange faces. He had to scheme and treat for pasture with competing tribes. He knew more of minerals than the folk upon the plough lands because he went over mountain passes and into rocky places. He may have been a better metallurgist. Possibly bronze and much more probably iron smelting were nomadic discoveries. Some of the earliest implements of iron reduced from its ores have been found in Central Europe far away from the early civilizations.
On the other hand the settled folk had their textiles and their pottery and made many desirable things. It was inevitable that as the two sorts of life, the agricultural and the nomadic differentiated, a certain amount of looting and trading should develop between the two. In Sumeria particularly which had deserts and seasonal country on either hand it must have been usual to have the nomads camping close to the cultivated fields, trading and stealing and perhaps tinkering, as gipsies do to this day. (But hens they would not steal, because the domestic fowl – an Indian jungle fowl originally was not domesticated by man until about 1000 B.C.) They would bring precious stones and things of metal and leather. If they were hunters they would bring skins. They would get in exchange pottery and beads and glass, garments and suchlike manufactured things.
Three main regions and three main kinds of wandering and imperfectly settled people there were in those remote days of the first civilizations in Sumeria and early Egypt. Away in the forests of Europe were the blonde Nordic peoples, hunters and herdsmen, a lowly race. The primitive civilizations saw very little of this race before 1500 B.C. Away on the steppes of eastern Asia various Mongolian tribes, the Hunnish peoples, were domesticating the horse and developing a very wide sweeping habit of seasonal movement between their summer and winter camping places. Possibly the Nordic and Hunnish peoples were still separated from one another by the swamps of Russia and the greater Caspian Sea of that time. For very much of Russia there was swamp and lake. In the deserts, which were growing more arid now, of Syria and Arabia, tribes of a dark white or brownish people, the Semitic tribes, were driving flocks of sheep and goats and asses from pasture to pasture. It was these Semitic shepherds and certain more negroid people from southern Persia, the Elamites, who were the first nomads to come into close contact with the early civilizations. They came as traders and as raiders. Finally there arose leaders among them with bolder imaginations, and they became conquerors.
About 2750 B.C. a great Semitic leader, Sargon, had conquered the whole Sumerian land and was master of all the world from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. He was an illiterate barbarian and his people, the Akkadians, learnt the Sumerian writing and adopted the Sumerian language as the speech of the officials and the learned. The empire he founded decayed after two centuries, and after one inundation of Elamites a fresh Semitic people, the Amorites, by degrees established their rule over Sumeria. They made their capital in what had hitherto been a small up-river town, Babylon, and their empire is called the first Babylonian Empire. It was consolidated by a great king called Hammurabi (circa 2100 B.C.) who made the earliest code of laws yet known to history.
The narrow valley of the Nile lies less open to nomadic invasion than Mesopotamia, but about the time of Hammurabi occurred a successful Semitic invasion of Egypt and a line of Pharaohs was set up, the Hyksos or “shepherd kings,” which lasted for several centuries. These Semitic conquerors never assimilated themselves with the Egyptians; they were always regarded with hostility as foreigners and barbarians; and they were at last expelled by a popular uprising about 1600 B.C.
But the Semites had come into Sumeria for good and all, the two races assimilated and the Babylonian Empire became Semitic in its language and character.
The earliest boats and ships must have come into use some twenty-five or thirty thousand years ago. Man was probably paddling about on the water with a log of wood or an inflated skin to assist him, at latest in the beginnings of the Neolithic period. A basketwork boat covered with skin and caulked was used in Egypt and Sumeria from the beginnings of our knowledge. Such boats are still used there. They are used to this day in Ireland and Wales and in Alaska; sealskin boats still make the crossing of Behring Straits. The hollow log followed as tools improved. The building of boats and then ships came in a natural succession.
Perhaps the legend of Noah’s Ark preserves the memory of some early exploit in shipbuilding, just as the story of the Flood, so widely distributed among the peoples of the world, may be the tradition of the flooding of the Mediterranean basin.
There were ships upon the Red Sea long before the pyramids were built, and there were ships on the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf by 7000 B.C. Mostly these were the ships of fishermen, but some were already trading and pirate ships – for knowing what we do of mankind we may guess pretty safely that the first sailors plundered where they could and traded where they had to do so.
The seas on which these first ships adventured were inland seas on which the wind blew fitfully and which were often at a dead calm for days together, so that sailing did not develop beyond an accessory use. It is only in the last four hundred years that the well-rigged, ocean-going, sailing ship has developed. The ships of the ancient world were essentially rowing ships which hugged the shore and went into harbour at the first sign of rough weather. As ships grew into big galleys they caused a demand for war captives as galley slaves.
We have already noted the appearance of the Semitic people as wanderers and nomads in the region of Syria and Arabia, and how they conquered Sumeria and set up first the Akkadian and then the first Babylonian Empire. In the west these same Semitic peoples were taking to the sea. They set up a string of harbour towns along the Eastern coast of the Mediterranean, of which Tyre and Sidon were the chief; and by the time of Hammurabi in Babylon, they had spread as traders, wanderers and colonizers over the whole Mediterranean basin. These sea Semites were called the Phoenicians, They settled largely in Spain, pushing back the old Iberian Basque population and sending coasting expeditions through the straits of Gibraltar; and they set up colonies upon the north coast of Africa. Of Carthage, one of these Phoenician cities, we shall have much more to tell later.
But the Phoenicians were not the first people to have galleys in the Mediterranean waters. There was already a series of towns and cities among the islands and coasts of that sea belonging to a race or races apparently connected by blood and language with the Basques to the west and the Berbers and Egyptians to the south, the Aegean peoples. These peoples must not be confused with the Greeks, who come much later into our story; they were pre-Greek, but they had cities in Greece and Asia Minor; Mycene and Troy for example, and they had a great and prosperous establishment at Cnossos in Crete.
It is only in the last half century that the industry of excavating archaeologists has brought the extent and civilization of the Aegean peoples to our knowledge. Cnossos has been most thoroughly explored; it was happily not succeeded by any city big enough to destroy its ruins, and so it is our chief source of information about this once almost forgotten civilization.
The history of Cnossos goes back as far as the history of Egypt; the two countries were trading actively across the sea by 4000 B.C. By 2500 B.C., that is between the time of Sargon I and Hammurabi, Cretan civilization was at its zenith.
Cnossos was not so much a town as a great palace for the Cretan monarch and his people. It was not even fortified. It was only fortified later as the Phoenicians grew strong, and as a new and more terrible breed of pirates, the Greeks, came upon the sea from the north.
The monarch was called Minos, as the Egyptian monarch was called Pharaoh; and he kept his state in a palace fitted with running water, with bathrooms and the like conveniences such as we know of in no other ancient remains. There he held great festivals and shows. There was bull-fighting, singularly like the bull-fighting that still survives in Spain; there was resemblance even in the costumes of the bull-fighters; and there were gymnastic displays. The women’s clothes were remarkably modern in spirit; they wore corsets and flounced dresses. The pottery, the textile manufactures, the sculpture, painting, jewellery, ivory, metal and inlay work of these Cretans was often astonishingly beautiful. And they had a system of writing, but that still remains to be deciphered.
This happy and sunny and civilized life lasted for some score of centuries. About 2000 B.C. Cnossos and Babylon abounded in comfortable and cultivated people who probably led very pleasant lives. They had shows and they had religious festivals, they had domestic slaves to look after them and industrial slaves to make a profit for them. Life must have seemed very secure in Cnossos for such people, sunlit and girdled by the blue sea. Egypt of course must have appeared rather a declining country in those days under the rule of her half-barbaric shepherd kings, and if one took an interest in politics one must have noticed how the Semitic people seemed to be getting everywhere, ruling Egypt, ruling distant Babylon, building Nineveh on the upper Tigris, sailing west to the Pillars of Hercules (the straits of Gibraltar) and setting up their colonies on those distant coasts.
There were some active arid curious minds in Cnossos, because later on the Greeks told legends of a certain skilful Cretan artificer, Daedalus, who attempted to make some sort of flying machine, perhaps a glider, which collapsed and fell into the sea.
It is interesting to note some of the differences as well as the resemblances between the life of Cnossos and our own. To a Cretan gentleman of 2500 B.C. iron was a rare metal which fell out of the sky and was curious rather than useful – for as yet only meteoric iron was known, iron had not been obtained from its ores. Compare that with our modern state of affairs pervaded by iron everywhere. The horse again would be a quite legendary creature to our Cretan, a sort of super-ass which lived in the bleak northern lands far away beyond the Black Sea. Civilization for him dwelt chiefly in Aegean Greece and Asia Minor, where Lydians and Carians and Trojans lived a life and probably spoke languages like his own. There were Phoenicians and Aegeans settled in Spain and North Africa, but those were very remote regions to his imagination. Italy was still a desolate land covered with dense forests; the brown-skinned Etruscans had not yet gone there from Asia Minor. And one day perhaps this Cretan gentleman went down to the harbour and saw a captive who attracted his attention because he was very fair-complexioned and had blue eyes. Perhaps our Cretan tried to talk to him and was answered in an unintelligible gibberish. This creature came from somewhere beyond the Black Sea and seemed to be an altogether benighted savage. But indeed he was an Aryan tribesman, of a race and culture of which we shall soon have much to tell, and the strange gibberish he spoke was to differentiate some day into Sanskrit, Persian, Greek, Latin, German, English and most of the chief languages of the world.
Such was Cnossos at its zenith, intelligent, enterprising, bright and happy. But about 1400 B.C. disaster came perhaps very suddenly upon its prosperity. The palace of Minos was destroyed, and its ruins have never been rebuilt or inhabited from that day to this. We do not know how this disaster occurred. The excavators note what appears to be scattered plunder and the marks of the fire. But the traces of a very destructive earthquake have also been found. Nature alone may have destroyed Cnossos, or the Greeks may have finished what the earthquake began.
The Egyptians had never submitted very willingly to the rule of their Semitic shepherd kings and about 1600 A.D. a vigorous patriotic movement expelled these foreigners. Followed a new phase or revival for Egypt, a period known to Egyptologists as the New Empire. Egypt, which had not been closely consolidated before the Hyksos invasion, was now a united country; and the phase of subjugation and insurrection left her full of military spirit. The Pharaohs became aggressive conquerors. They had now acquired the war horse and the war chariot, which the Hyksos had brought to them. Under Thothmes III and Amenophis III Egypt had extended her rule into Asia as far as the Euphrates.
We are entering now upon a thousand years of warfare between the once quite separated civilizations of Mesopotamia and the Nile. At first Egypt was ascendant. The great dynasties, the Seventeenth Dynasty, which included Thothmes III and Amenophis III and IV and a great queen Hatasu, and the Nineteenth, when Rameses II, supposed by some to have been the Pharaoh of Moses, reigned for sixty-seven years, raised Egypt to high levels of prosperity. In between there were phases of depression for Egypt, conquest by the Syrians and later conquest by the Ethiopians from the South. In Mesopotamia Babylon ruled, then the Hittites and the Syrians of Damascus rose to a transitory predominance; at one time the Syrians conquered Egypt; the fortunes of the Assyrians of Nineveh ebbed and flowed; sometimes the city was a conquered city; sometimes the Assyrians ruled in Babylon and assailed Egypt. Our space is too limited here to tell of the comings and goings of the armies of the Egyptians and of the various Semitic powers of Asia Minor, Syria and Mesopotamia. They were armies now provided with vast droves of war chariots, for the horse – still used only for war and glory – had spread by this time into the old civilizations from Central Asia.
Great conquerors appear in the dim light of that distant time and pass, Tushratta, King of Mitanni, who captured Nineveh, Tiglath Pileser I of Assyria who conquered Babylon. At last the Assyrians became the greatest military power of the time. Tiglath Pileser III conquered Babylon in 745 B.C. and founded what historians call the New Assyrian Empire. Iron had also come now into civilization out of the north; the Hittites, the precursors of the Armenians, had it first and communicated its use to the Assyrians, and an Assyrian usurper, Sargon II, armed his troops with it. Assyria became the first power to expound the doctrine of blood and iron. Sargon’s son Sennacherib led an army to the borders of Egypt, and was defeated not by military strength but by the plague. Sennacherib’s grandson Assurbanipal (who is also known in history by his Greek name of Sardanapalus) did actually conquer Egypt in 670 B.C. But Egypt was already a conquered country then under an Ethiopian dynasty. Sardanapalus simply replaced one conqueror by another.
If one had a series of political maps of this long period of history, this interval of ten centuries, we should have Egypt expanding and contracting like an amoeba under a microscope, and we should see these various Semitic states of the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Hittites and the Syrians coming and going, eating each other up and disgorging each other again. To the west of Asia Minor there would be little Aegean states like Lydia, whose capital was Sardis, and Caria. But after about 1200 B.C. and perhaps earlier, a new set of names would come into the map of the ancient world from the north-east and from the north- west. These would be the names of certain barbaric tribes, armed with iron weapons and using horse-chariots, who were becoming a great affliction to the Aegean and Semitic civilizations on the northern borders. They all spoke variants of what once must have been the same language, Aryan.
Round the north-east of the Black and Caspian Seas were coming the Medes and Persians. Confused with these in the records of the time were Scythians and Samatians. From north-east or north-west came the Armenians, from the north- west of the sea-barrier through the Balkan peninsula came Cimmerians, Phrygians and the Hellenic tribes whom now we call the Greeks. They were raiders and robbers and plunderers of cities, these Ayrans, east and west alike. They were all kindred and similar peoples, hardy herdsmen who had taken to plunder. In the east they were still only borderers and raiders, but in the west they were taking cities and driving out the civilized Aegean populations. The Aegean peoples were so pressed that they were seeking new homes in lands beyond the Aryan range. Some were seeking a settlement in the delta of the Nile and being repulsed by the Egyptians; some, the Etruscans, seem to have sailed from Asia Minor to found a state in the forest wildernesses of middle Italy; some built themselves cities upon the south- east coasts of the Mediterranean and became later that people known in history as the Philistines.
Of these Aryans who came thus rudely upon the scene of the ancient civilizations we will tell more fully in a later section. Here we note simply all this stir and emigration amidst the area of the ancient civilizations, that was set up by the swirl of the gradual and continuous advance of these Aryan barbarians out of the northern forests and wildernesses between 1600 and 600 B.C.
And in a section to follow we must tell also of a little Semitic people, the Hebrews, in the hills behind the Phoenician and Philistine coasts, who began to be of significance in the world towards the end of this period. They produced a literature of very great importance in subsequent history, a collection of books, histories, poems, books of wisdom and prophetic works, the Hebrew Bible.
In Mesopotamia and Egypt the coming of the Aryans did not cause fundamental changes until after 600 B.C. The flight of the Aegeans before the Greeks and even the destruction of Cnossos must have seemed a very remote disturbance to both the citizens of Egypt and of Babylon. Dynasties came and went in these cradle states of civilization, but the main tenor of human life went on, with a slow increase in refinement and complexity age by age. In Egypt the accumulated monuments of more ancient times – the pyramids were already in their third thousand of years and a show for visitors just as they are to- day – were supplemented by fresh and splendid buildings, more particularly in the time of the seventeenth and nineteenth dynasties. The great temples at Karnak and Luxor date from this time. All the chief monuments of Nineveh, the great temples, the winged bulls with human heads, the reliefs of kings and chariots and lion hunts, were done in these centuries between 1600 and 600 B.C., and this period also covers most of the splendours of Babylon.
Both from Mesopotamia and Egypt we now have abundant public records, business accounts, stories, poetry and private correspondence. We know that life, for prosperous and influential people in such cities as Babylon and the Egyptian Thebes, was already almost as refined and as luxurious as that of comfortable and prosperous people to-day. Such people lived an orderly and ceremonious life in beautiful and beautifully furnished and decorated houses, wore richly decorated clothing and lovely jewels; they had feasts and festivals, entertained one another with music and dancing, were waited upon by highly trained servants, were cared for by doctors and dentists. They did not travel very much or very far, but boating excursions were a common summer pleasure both on the Nile and on the Euphrates. The beast of burthen was the ass; the horse was still used only in chariots for war and upon occasions of state. The mule was still novel and the camel, though it was known in Mesopotamia, had not been brought into Egypt. And there were few utensils of iron; copper and bronze remained the prevailing metals. Fine linen and cotton fabrics were known as well as wool. But there was no silk yet. Glass was known and beautifully coloured, but glass things were usually small. There was no clear glass and no optical use of glass. People had gold stoppings in their teeth but no spectacles on their noses.
One odd contrast between the life of old Thebes or Babylon and modern life was the absence of coined money. Most trade was still done by barter. Babylon was financially far ahead of Egypt. Gold and silver were used for exchange and kept in ingots; and there were bankers, before coinage, who stamped their names and the weight on these lumps of precious metal. A merchant or traveller would carry precious stones to sell to pay for his necessities. Most servants and workers were slaves who were paid not money but in kind. As money came in slavery declined.
A modern visitor to these crowning cities of the ancient world would have missed two very important articles of diet; there were no hens and no eggs. A French cook would have found small joy in Babylon. These things came from the East somewhere about the time of the last Assyrian empire.
Religion like everything else had undergone great refinement. Human sacrifice for instance had long since disappeared; animals or bread dummies had been substituted for the victim. (But the Phoenicians and especially the citizens of Carthage, their greatest settlement in Africa, were accused, later of immolating human beings.) When a great chief had died in the ancient days it had been customary to sacrifice his wives and slaves and break spear and bow at his tomb so that he should not go unattended and unarmed in the spirit world. In Egypt there survived of this dark tradition the pleasant custom of burying small models of house and shop and servants and cattle with the dead, models that give us to-day the liveliest realization of the safe and cultivated life of these ancient people, three thousand years and more ago.
Such was the ancient world before the coming of the Aryans out of the northern forests and plains. In India and China there were parallel developments. In the great valleys of both these regions agricultural city states of brownish peoples were growing up, but in India they do not seem to have advanced or coalesced so rapidly as the city states of Mesopotamia or Egypt. They were nearer the level of the ancient Sumerians or of the Maya civilization of America. Chinese history has still to be modernized by Chinese scholars and cleared of much legendary matter. Probably China at this time was in advance of India. Contemporary with the seventeenth dynasty in Egypt, there was a dynasty of emperors in China, the Shang dynasty, priest emperors over a loose-knit empire of subordinate kings. The chief duty of these early emperors was to perform the seasonal sacrifices. Beautiful bronze vessels from the time of the Shang dynasty still exist, and their beauty and workmanship compel us to recognize that many centuries of civilization must have preceded their manufacture.
Four thousand years ago, that is to say about 2000 B.C., central and south-eastern Europe and central Asia were probably warmer, moister and better wooded than they are now. In these regions of the earth wandered a group of tribes mainly of the fair and blue-eyed Nordic race, sufficiently in touch with one another to speak merely variations of one common language from the Rhine to the Caspian Sea. At that time they may not have been a very numerous people, and their existence was unsuspected by the Babylonians to whom Hammurabi was giving laws, or by the already ancient and cultivated land of Egypt which was tasting in those days for the first time the bitterness of foreign conquest.
These Nordic people were destined to play a very important part indeed in the world’s history. They were a people of the parklands and the forest clearings; they had no horses at first but they had cattle; when they wandered they put their tents and other gear on rough ox waggons; when they settled for a time they may have made huts of wattle and mud. They burnt their important dead; they did not bury them ceremoniously as the brunette peoples did. They put the ashes of their greater leaders in urns and then made a great circular mound about them. These mounds are the “round barrows” that occur all over north Europe. The brunette people, their predecessors, did not burn their dead but buried them in a sitting position in elongated mounds; the “long barrows.”
The Aryans raised crops of wheat, ploughing with oxen, but they did not settle down by their crops; they would reap and move on. They had bronze, and somewhen about 1500 B.C. they acquired iron. They may have been the discoverers of iron smelting. And somewhen vaguely about that time they also got the horse – which to begin with they used only for draught purposes. Their social life did not centre upon a temple like that of the more settled people round the Mediterranean, and their chief men were leaders rather than priests. They had an aristocratic social order rather than a divine and regal order; from a very early stage they distinguished certain families as leaderly and noble.
They were a very vocal people. They enlivened their wanderings by feasts, at which there was much drunkenness and at which a special sort of man, the bards, would sing and recite. They had no writing until they had come into contact with civilization, and the memories of these bards were their living literature. This use of recited language as an entertainment did much to make it a fine and beautiful instrument of expression, and to that no doubt the subsequent predominance of the languages derived from Aryan is, in part, to be ascribed. Every Aryan people had its legendary history crystallized in bardic recitations, epics, sagas and vedas, as they were variously called.
The social life of these people centred about the households of their leading men. The hall of the chief where they settled for a time was often a very capacious timber building. There were no doubt huts for herds and outlying farm buildings; but with most of the Aryan peoples this hall was the general centre, everyone went there to feast and hear the bards and take part in games and discussions. Cowsheds and stabling surrounded it. The chief and his wife and so forth would sleep on a dais or in an upper gallery; the commoner sort slept about anywhere, as people still do in Indian households. Except for weapons, ornaments, tools and suchlike personal possessions there was a sort of patriarchal communism in the tribe. The chief owned the cattle and grazing lands in the common interest; forest and rivers were the wild.
This was the fashion of the people who were increasing and multiplying over the great spaces of central Europe and west central Asia during the growth of the great civilization of Mesopotamia and the Nile, and whom we find pressing upon the heliolithic peoples everywhere in the second millennium before Christ. They were coming into France and Britain and into Spain. They pushed westward in two waves. The first of these people who reached Britain and Ireland were armed with bronze weapons. They exterminated or subjugated the people who had made the great stone monuments of Carnac in Brittany and Stonehenge and Avebury in England. They reached Ireland. They are called the Goidelic Celts. The second wave of a closely kindred people, perhaps intermixed with other racial elements, brought iron with it into Great Britain, and is known as the wave of Brythonic Celts. From them the Welsh derive their language.
Kindred Celtic peoples were pressing southward into Spain and coming into contact not only with the heliolithic Basque people who still occupied the country but with the Semitic Phoenician colonies of the sea coast. A closely allied series of tribes, the Italians, were making their way down the still wild and wooded Italian peninsula. They did not always conquer. In the eighth century B.C. Rome appears in history, a trading town on the Tiber, inhabited by Aryan Latins but under the rule of Etruscan nobles and kings.
At the other extremity of the Aryan range there was a similar progress southward of similar tribes. Aryan peoples, speaking Sanskrit, had come down through the western passes into North India long before 1000 B.C. There they came into contact with a primordial brunette civilization, the Dravidian civilization, and learnt much from it. Other Aryan tribes seem to have spread over the mountain masses of Central Asia far to the east of the present range of such peoples. In Eastern Turkestan there are still fair, blue-eyed Nordic tribes, but now they speak Mongolian tongues.
Between the Black and Caspian Seas the ancient Hittites had been submerged and “Aryanized” by the Armenians before 1000 B.C., and the Assyrians and Babylonians were already aware of a new and formidable fighting barbarism on the north-eastern frontiers, a group of tribes amidst which the Scythians, the Medes and the Persians remain as outstanding names.
But it was through the Balkan peninsula that Aryan tribes made their first heavy thrust into the heart of the old-world civilization. They were already coming southward and crossing into Asia Minor many centuries before 1000 B.C. First came a group of tribes of whom the Phrygians were the most conspicuous, and then in succession the Aeolic, the Ionic and the Dorian Greeks. By 1000 B.C. they had wiped out the ancient Aegean civilization both in the mainland of Greece and in most of the Greek islands; the cities of Mycene and Tiryns were obliterated and Cnossos was nearly forgotten. The Greeks had taken to the sea before 1000 A.D., they had settled in Crete and Rhodes, and they were founding colonies in Sicily and the south of Italy after the fashion of the Phoenician trading cities that were dotted along the Mediterranean coasts.
So it was, while Tiglath Pileser III and Sargon II and Sardanapalus were ruling in Assyria and fighting with Babylonia and Syria and Egypt, the Aryan peoples were learning the methods of civilization and making it over for their own purposes in Italy and Greece and north Persia. The theme of history from the ninth century B.C. A.D. onward for six centuries is the story of how these Aryan peoples grew to power and enterprise and how at last they subjugated the whole Ancient World, Semitic, Aegean and Egyptian alike. In form the Aryan peoples were altogether victorious; but the struggle of Aryan, Semitic and Egyptian ideas and methods was continued long after the sceptre was in Aryan hands. It is indeed a struggle that goes on through all the rest of history and still in a manner continues to this day.
We have already mentioned how Assyria became a great military power under Tiglath Pileser III and under the usurper Sargon II. Sargon was not this man’s original name; he adopted it to flatter the conquered Babylonians by reminding them of that ancient founder of the Akkadian Empire, Sargon I, two thousand years before his time. Babylon, for all that it was a conquered city, was of greater population and importance than Nineveh, and its great god Bel Marduk and its traders and priests had to be treated politely. In Mesopotamia in the eighth century B.C. A.D. we are already far beyond the barbaric days when the capture of a town meant loot and massacre. Conquerors sought to propitiate and win the conquered. For a century and a half after Sargon the new Assyrian empire endured and, as we have noted, Assurbanipal (Sardanapalus) held at least lower Egypt.
But the power and solidarity of Assyria waned rapidly. Egypt by an effort threw off the foreigner under a Pharoah Psammetichus I, and under Necho II attempted a war of conquest in Syria. By that time Assyria was grappling with foes nearer at hand, and could make but a poor resistance. A Semitic people from south-east Mesopotamia, the Chaldeans, combined with Aryan Medes and Persians from the north-east against Nineveh, and in 606 B.C.—for now we are coming down to exact chronology – took that city.
There was a division of the spoils of Assyria. A Median Empire was set up in the north under Cyaxares. It included Nineveh, and its capital was Ecbatana. Eastward it reached to the borders of India. To the south of this in a great crescent was a new Chaldean Empire, the Second Babylonian Empire, which rose to a very great degree of wealth and power under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar the Great (the Nebuchadnezzar of the Bible). The last great days, the greatest days of all, for Babylon began. For a time the two Empires remained at peace, and the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar was married to Cyaxares.
Meanwhile Necho II was pursuing his easy conquests in Syria. He had defeated and slain King Josiah of Judah, a small country of which there is more to tell presently, at the battle of Megiddo in 608 B.C., and he pushed on to the Euphrates to encounter not a decadent Assyria but a renascent Babylonia. The Chaldeans dealt very vigorously with the Egyptians. Necho was routed and driven back to Egypt, and the Babylonian frontier pushed down to the ancient Egyptian boundaries.
From 606 until 589 B.C. the Second Babylonian Empire flourished insecurely. It flourished so long as it kept the peace with the stronger, hardier Median Empire to the north. And during these sixty-seven years not only life but learning flourished in the ancient city.
Even under the Assyrian monarchs and especially under Sardanapalus, Babylon had been a scene of great intellectual activity. Sardanapalus, though an Assyrian, had been quite Babylon-ized. He made a library, a library not of paper but of the clay tablets that were used for writing in Mesopotamia since early Sumerian days. His collection has been unearthed and is perhaps the most precious store of historical material in the world. The last of the Chaldean line of Babylonian monarchs, Nabonidus, had even keener literary tastes. He patronized antiquarian researches, and when a date was worked out by his investigators for the accession of Sargon I he commemorated the fact by inscriptions. But there were many signs of disunion in his empire, and he sought to centralize it by bringing a number of the various local gods to Babylon and setting up temples to them there. This device was to be practised quite successfully by the Romans in later times, but in Babylon it roused the jealousy of the powerful priesthood of Bel Marduk, the dominant god of the Babylonians. They cast about for a possible alternative to Nabonidus and found it in Cyrus the Persian, the ruler of the adjacent Median Empire. Cyrus had already distinguished himself by conquering Croesus, the rich king of Lydia in Eastern Asia Minor. He came up against Babylon, there was a battle outside the walls, and the gates of the city were opened to him (538 B.C.). His soldiers entered the city without fighting. The crown prince Belshazzar, the son of Nabonidus, was feasting, the Bible relates, when a hand appeared and wrote in letters of fire upon the wall these mystical words: “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin,” which was interpreted by the prophet Daniel, whom he summoned to read the riddle, as “God has numbered thy kingdom and finished it; thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting and thy kingdom is given to the Medes and Persians.” Possibly the priests of Bel Marduk knew something about that writing on the wall. Belshazzar was killed that night, says the Bible. Nabonidus was taken prisoner, and the occupation of the city was so peaceful that the services of Bel Marduk continued without intermission.
Thus it was the Babylonian and Median empires were united. Cambyses, the son of Cyrus, subjugated Egypt. Cambyses went mad and was accidentally killed, and was presently succeeded by Darius the Mede, Darius I, the son of Hystaspes, one of the chief councillors of Cyrus.
The Persian Empire of Darius I, the first of the new Aryan empires in the seat of the old civilizations, was the greatest empire the world had hitherto seen. It included all Asia Minor and Syria, all the old Assyrian and Babylonian empires, Egypt, the Caucasus and Caspian regions, Media, Persia, and it extended into India as far as the Indus. Such an empire was possible because the horse and rider and the chariot and the made-road had now been brought into the world. Hitherto the ass and ox and the camel for desert use had afforded the swiftest method of transport. Great arterial roads were made by the Persian rulers to hold their new empire, and post horses were always in waiting for the imperial messenger or the traveller with an official permit. Moreover the world was now beginning to use coined money, which greatly facilitated trade and intercourse. But the capital of this vast empire was no longer Babylon. In the long run the priesthood of Bel Marduk gained nothing by their treason. Babylon though still important was now a declining city, and the great cities of the new empire were Persepolis and Susa and Ecbatana. The capital was Susa. Nineveh was already abandoned and sinking into ruins.
And now we can tell of the Hebrews, a Semitic people, not so important in their own time as in their influence upon the later history of the world. They were settled in Judea long before 1000 B.C., and their capital city after that time was Jerusalem. Their story is interwoven with that of the great empires on either side of them, Egypt to the south and the changing empires of Syria, Assyria and Babylon to the north. Their country was an inevitable high road between these latter powers and Egypt.
Their importance in the world is due to the fact that they produced a written literature, a world history, a collection of laws, chronicles, psalms, books of wisdom, poetry and fiction and political utterances which became at last what Christians know as the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. This literature appears in history in the fourth or fifth century B.C.
Probably this literature was first put together in Babylon. We have already told how the Pharaoh, Necho II, invaded the Assyrian Empire while Assyria was fighting for life against Medes, Persians and Chaldeans. Josiah King of Judah opposed him, and was defeated and slain at Megiddo (608 B.C.). Judah became a tributary to Egypt, and when Nebuchadnezzar the Great, the new Chaldean king in Babylon, rolled back Necho into Egypt, he attempted to manage Judah by setting up puppet kings in Jerusalem. The experiment failed, the people massacred his Babylonian officials, and he then determined to break up this little state altogether, which had long been playing off Egypt against the northern empire. Jerusalem was sacked and burnt, and the remnant of the people was carried off captive to Babylon. There they remained until Cyrus took Babylon (538 B.C.). He then collected them together and sent them back to resettle their country and rebuild the walls and temple of Jerusalem.
Before that time the Jews do not seem to have been a very civilized or united people. Probably only a very few of them could read or write. In their own history one never hears of the early books of the Bible being read; the first mention of a book is in the time of Josiah. The Babylonian captivity civilized them and consolidated them. They returned aware of their own literature, an acutely self-conscious and political people.
Their Bible at that time seems to have consisted only of the Pentateuch, that is to say the first five books of the Old Testament as we know it. In addition, as separate books they already had many of the other books that have since been incorporated with the Pentateuch into the present Hebrew Bible, Chronicles, the Psalms and Proverbs for example.
The accounts of the Creation of the World, of Adam and Eve and of the Flood, with which the Bible begins, run closely parallel with similar Babylonian legends; they seem to have been part of the common beliefs of all the Semitic peoples. So too the stories of Moses and of Samson have Sumerian and Babylonian parallels. But with the story of Abraham and onward begins something more special to the Jewish race.
Abraham may have lived as early as the days of Hammurabi in Babylon. He was a patriarchal Semitic nomad. To the book of Genesis the reader must go for the story of his wanderings and for the stories of his sons and grandchildren and how they became captive in the Land of Egypt. He travelled through Canaan, and the God of Abraham, says the Bible story, promised this smiling land of prosperous cities to him and to his children.
And after a long sojourn in Egypt and after fifty years of wandering in the wilderness under the leadership of Moses, the children of Abraham, grown now to a host of twelve tribes, invaded the land of Canaan from the Arabian deserts to the East. They may have done this somewhen between 1600 B.C. and 1300 B.C.; there are no Egyptian records of Moses nor of Canaan at this time to help out the story. But at any rate they did not succeed in conquering any more than the hilly backgrounds of the promised land. The coast was now in the hands, not of the Canaanites but of newcomers, those Aegean peoples, the Philistines; and their cities, Gaza, Gath, Ashdod, Ascalon and Joppa successfully withstood the Hebrew attack. For many generations the children of Abraham remained an obscure people of the hilly back country engaged in incessant bickerings with the Philistines and with the kindred tribes about them, the Moabites, the Midianites and so forth. The reader will find in the book of Judges a record of their struggles and disasters during this period. For very largely it is a record of disasters and failures frankly told.For most of this period the Hebrews were ruled, so far as there was any rule among them, by priestly judges selected by the elders of the people, but at last somewhen towards 1000 B.C. they chose themselves a king, Saul, to lead them in battle. But Saul’s leading was no great improvement upon the leading of the Judges; he perished under the hail of Philistine arrows at the battle of Mount Gilboa, his armour went into the temple of the Philistine Venus, and his body was nailed to the walls of Beth-shan.
His successor David was more successful and more politic. With David dawned the only period of prosperity the Hebrew peoples were ever to know. It was based on a close alliance with the Phoenician city of Tyre, whose King Hiram seems to have been a man of very great intelligence and enterprise. He wished to secure a trade route to the Red Sea through the Hebrew hill country. Normally Phoenician trade went to the Red Sea by Egypt, but Egypt was in a state of profound disorder at this time; there may have been other obstructions to Phoenician trade along this line, and at any rate Hiram established the very closest relations both with David and with his son and successor Solomon. Under Hiram’s auspices the walls, palace and temple of Jerusalem arose, and in return Hiram built and launched his ships on the Red Sea. A very considerable trade passed northward and southward through Jerusalem. And Solomon achieved a prosperity and magnificence unprecedented in the experience of his people. He was even given a daughter of Pharaoh in marriage.
But it is well to keep the proportion of things in mind. At the climax of his glories Solomon was only a little subordinate king in a little city. His power was so transitory that within a few years of his death, Shishak the first Pharaoh of the twenty-second dynasty, had taken Jerusalem and looted most of its splendours. The account of Solomon’s magnificence given in the books of Kings and Chronicles is questioned by many critics. They say that it was added to and exaggerated by the patriotic pride of later writers. But the Bible account read carefully is not so overwhelming as it appears at the first reading. Solomon’s temple, if one works out the measurements, would go inside a small suburban church, and his fourteen hundred chariots cease to impress us when we learn from an Assyrian monument that his successor Ahab sent a contingent of two thousand to the Assyrian army. It is also plainly manifest from the Bible narrative that Solomon spent himself in display and overtaxed and overworked his people. At his death the northern part of his kingdom broke off from Jerusalem and became the independent kingdom of Israel. Jerusalem remained the capital city of Judah.
The prosperity of the Hebrew people was short-lived. Hiram died, and the help of Tyre ceased to strengthen Jerusalem. Egypt grew strong again. The history of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah becomes a history of two little states ground between, first, Syria, then Assyria and then Babylon to the north and Egypt to the south. It is a tale of disasters and of deliverances that only delayed disaster. It is a tale of barbaric kings ruling a barbaric people. In 721 B.C. the kingdom of Israel was swept away into captivity by the Assyrians and its people utterly lost to history. Judah struggled on until in 604 B.C., as we have told, it shared the fate of Israel. There may be details open to criticism in the Bible story of Hebrew history from the days of the Judges onward, but on the whole it is evidently a true story which squares with all that has been learnt in the excavation of Egypt and Assyria and Babylon during the past century.
It was in Babylon that the Hebrew people got their history together and evolved their tradition. The people who came back to Jerusalem at the command of Cyrus were a very different people in spirit and knowledge from those who had gone into captivity. They had learnt civilization. In the development of their peculiar character a very great part was played by certain men, a new sort of men, the Prophets, to whom we must now direct our attention. These Prophets mark the appearance of new and remarkable forces in the steady development of human society.