China ranks as one of the world’s oldest civilizations. With continuous history documented for thousands of years, it is considered one of the cradles of human civilization. An ancient Xia dynasty is mentioned in old texts such as the Bamboo Annals and Records of the Grand Historian, both a little over two millennia old. Though written records from that dynasty have not survived, it is thought to have been the first dynasty in China’s long history of dynastic successions, in place between 2070 and 1600 BCE. According to tradition it was established by Yu the Great, after the throne was given to him by Shun, the last of five legendary emperors.
The Shang dynasty succeeded the Xia and held power from about 1600 to 1046 BCE. Its earliest writing dates from around 1250 BCE under the reign of Wu Ding, cited as “twenty-first king” under the Shang dynasty. The Shang ruled in the Yellow River Valley, commonly called the cradle of Chinese civilization.
Neolithic societies pre-dating the Xia and Shang have been excavated along the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, notably the Jiahu settlement situated in China’s central plain. Jiahu is one of the earliest Neolithic cultural sites, and there are claims that earliest forms of Chinese writing appeared there. This is uncertain, given their status as artifact markings which indicate use of signs rather than systematic writing, but there is no doubt such early sites developed original aspects of Chinese culture. Early rice farming, winemaking and flutes are attributed to Jiahu.
Human cultural evolution passed a landmark around three thousand years ago. This sort of landmark, identification of “ages,” is an invention of modern historians—so although no one living then was aware of it, it is a valid accompaniment to our chronology of civilizations. I introduce it here with the arrival of the “Iron Age,” i.e. the time when iron came into widespread use for making tools and weapons. Two previous ages—the Stone Age and the Bronze Age—had elapsed by the time iron supplanted the use of bronze.
The Stone Age, in brief, lasted nearly 300,000 years since the dawn of humanity, during which increasingly sophisticated uses of rock, shale and flint distinguished modern humans form their non-modern predecessors. It was followed by The Bronze Age, an ill-defined five millennia lasting from somewhere between five and six thousand years ago to roughly 1200-to-600 BCE (few people quite agree on the dates), and is divided into three eras suitably known as “Early, Middle and Late” Bronze Ages. For those who don’t know, bronze is made of copper alloyed with tin which hardens it so it makes axes, daggers and halbards that hold a better edge for cutting and stabbing. Iron edges are of course better still, and so eventually put the Bronze Age out of business. Quite a few other “ages” would follow, and so they are respectfully named below. I have started with the Iron Age simply because it was so profoundly important at the time—as indeed it still is, because iron and iron-as-steel are foundational in modern human societies for everything from pipelines to bridges to screwdrivers.
The Iron Age began locally as one after another curious and inventive villagers across Eurasia and parts of Africa discovered how to mine iron ore from the ground and smelt it in very hot furnaces. Increasing the heat and oxygen intake, while adding carbon to the mix, removed impurities and turned out the hardened alloy known as steel, the fine sharp edge of which is barely dulled even after felling a hundred enemies in battle. It also, coincidentally, makes better plowshares for farming. The earliest known steel production has been found at a 4000-year-old archeological site in Anatolia, from whence it quickly spread about the Mediterranean Basin, then to central and south Asia, and eastern Europe. Iron didn’t reach northern Europe until around 500 BCE, centuries before the Vikings would so enthusiastically adopt it for their widespread raiding adventures.
The Axial Age, those six centuries between about 800 and 200 BCE, is considered by some to be pivotal in terms of the emerging-rising evolution of Homo sapiens. During these centuries, new ways of thinking in religion and philosophy seem to have developed in close parallel—though independently and without apparent cultural contact—in civilized places as distant from each other as China, India, Persia and the Greco-Roman world surrounding the Mediterranean. Nobody knows why, it just happened. Perhaps it was coincidence, or perhaps humankind was “just ready”—not unlike the big bang which “just happened.” A quick look back at the conglomeration of religions in Chapter 3, and the dates of their respective origins, will make the axial point better than any argument.
Greece—that peninsular fat tail down at the far southeast end of the dog of Europe. Greece—bounded by the Adriatic-Ionian Seas to the west and Aegean to the east, thereby accomplishing the separation of Italy from Turkey. Greece—the alleged cradle of western civilization, even though our mere cursory examination here leaves no doubt at all that “western civilization” in its rich diversity arose in many cradles situated all over the map.
The Romans called the Greek peninsula and its islands Hellas. Then enjoying the role of the barbarian imperialists they were, and deeply impressed by those philosophical Greeks, Rome’s bullying ways turned the entire Mediterranean into Roman provinces. They adopted the Greek gods as Roman Gods with new Latin names, and everywhere planted the idea that the Greeks were just a cut above. The Greeks had philosophers and deep thinkers, had even flirted briefly, minimally, with the concept of democratic voting. It seems as if Romans never felt they quite measured up to Greek finesse. But what did that matter to Rome so long as its Greek province paid its heavy taxes on time?
The idea of Greek superiority had staying power. It took hold. To this day the textbooks teach children to misbelieve that Greece was the cradle of all western civilization because Socrates and Plato and Aristotle lived there. With due credit and respect to Socratic method and Plato’s unusual ideas on political structure, Aristotle has just got to be the dumbest philosopher in all history, a truly remarkable quantity of his ideas and misguided deductions having been hare-brained wrong. As for originating the concept of voting democracy, dozens of pre-literate tribes that shared ruling and decision making among both men and women have been far more democratic than the Greeks ever dreamed of.
Notwithstanding all that, the world we live in today is not without remnant influences handed down for better or worse from Greek culture. Among the best of these is the value we place on education. The Greeks held attainment of knowledge in high esteem—and so do I, believing that our purpose for living is to 1) attain knowledge and 2) help others. Over a few centuries and with limited population, the Greeks managed to make significant progress in many fields we today would call science, mathematics, philosophy, knowledge in general—and their progress constituted the foundation atop which knowledge would be pursued for millennia thereafter. But it was a mixed foundation. Lacking any concept of separation of church and state, their multi-gods “religion” and what they called science were so thoroughly blended they thought getting closer to truth meant getting closer to the gods. They considered mathematics a refined tool for obtaining “divine knowledge.” I think that sort of muddled confusion hasn’t quite faded away to this very day and in fact rather impedes knowledge. What do you think?
It was the Macedonian named Alexander (“the Great”) whose constant vainglorious warring and conquesting initially imposed acquaintance with Greek culture on peoples from Gibraltar to India. Social turbulence followed his untimely death in 323 BCE just as the new Roman Empire was coming into its strength. Alexander’s short-lived empire fell apart as Rome annexed eastern Mediterranean polities one by one, including Macedonia which—failing to remain peaceful toward Rome—was decisively annexed in 148 BCE. Thus did Hellenistic imperialism succumb to the spread of Roman imperialism, but Rome itself perpetuated the notion of Greek superiority which continues in full blossom today.
Carthage and the Punic Wars. On the Mediterranean south shore of what today is Tunisia, the city-state known as Carthage was founded by those mysterious Phoenicians in the year 814 BCE—a precise date historians claim to know. Carthage was originally a dependency of Tyre, another important city-state, also founded by Phoenicians, on an island just off what is today the southern coast of Lebanon. It perhaps reminded them of their old legends of an island home in the mid-Atlantic. Carthage became independent of Tyre around 650 BCE, soon grew in power, and extended its hegemony over numerous settlements all around the western Mediterranean where people of that same mysterious Phoenician heritage were most numerously located—the part nearest the Atlantic Ocean.
A (second?) bitter end then began in what is termed the Punic Wars—so-called after the Latin word “Punicus,” a label the Romans’ used to connote the Carthaginians’ mysterious Phoenician ancestry. Between 264 and 146 BCE a series of three increasingly savage wars—bigger wars than any known up to that time—took place between Rome and Carthage, each intent on its own empire and hegemony over the Mediterranean region. After suffering severe defeat in the first war, the seafaring Carthaginians resolved to avoid further land-based battles. Despite Carthaginian strategies, the Romans had the better of it and exacted their most total victory in the third Punic War of 146 BCE. It is said the victorious Roman general Scipio Africanus heaped humiliation on defeat by ordering the city sacked, burned, plowed over, and salt sowed so nothing would grow there again. With conventional Roman justice, Carthaginian survivors were enslaved. And that was truly the final end of the descendants of the survivors of that mythical island three times larger than Ireland located in mid-Atlantic beside today’s Azores—except for those other survivors whose children live on in Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine.
Rome. The legend of Romulus and Remus originated with either the Greeks or early Romans around 750 BCE—experts of course differ on where and when. The twins’ mother Rhea Silvia, an attractive vestal virgin who got visited in a sacred grove by the verile war god Mars, birthed the twins near the future site of Rome. Her evil brother-in-law King Amulius, fearing them as a threat to his illegitimate rule, ordered them snatched and abandoned by the river Tiber to die, a common solution for unwanted infants. Saved by the river god Tiberinus, local goodfolk helped them survive and, by some means not altogether clear, they were suckled by a she-wolf in a cave at the future site of Rome—an image that became and today remains the city’s symbol. Then fortunately adopted by the shepherd Faustulus and his wife, the boys grew up tending sheep, unaware of their fantastic identities. But they soon developed into natural leaders and attracted followers.
After many adventures, they restored their grandfather to the throne and set about building their own city on the very fields where they had long tended sheep. Disagreeing about which of seven hills to first build on, one thing led to another and Remus was killed by either Romulus or a Romulus supporter. Romulus then went on as he pleased to found the village named after himself, establish its government, religious and military traditions, and reign for many years as King of Rome Village. At this point we transition to written history for the village that would grow into a great city that lasted in all “more than a thousand years.” (For narrative purposes we will ignore here the city that survived a truly transitional Germanic ravaging in 476 BCE and today has ordinary traffic jams.)
“Classical” Rome had three periods: 1) 244 years as a primitive but thriving kingdom from 753 to 509 BCE, 2) 482 years as an expansionist republic from 509 to 27 BCE, and 3) 503 years as a powerful empire ruled by dictators called caesars from 27 BCE to 476 CE. Rome thus evolved culturally from 1) a simple monarchy to 2) a complex democratic republic to 3) an extended sequence of military dictators who were autocratic, semi-responsive to Rome’s power brokers, and changed as often as not by assassination. The very first of these, one Julius Caesar who overthrew the republic and installed himself as dictator, set the trend with his own assassination by resentful republicans on March 15, 44 BCE during “the Ides of March.” It has never been clear to me why Julius or at least his name is consistently treated in the modern American republic with such apparent reverence as if he, a common lowlife dictator and over-thrower of an almost-democratic republic, were a great man. The degenerative example Julius Caesar represents may be considered a warning to all, not heeded by any, including modern Americans who cannot be trusted not to elect a Caesar-minded dolt.
At its zenith around 117 CE, the Roman Empire ruthlessly controlled, and heavily taxed, some fifty to ninety million people inhabiting perhaps two million square miles around the Mediterranean and beyond—roughly one-fifth of the known world population at the time (not counting the unknown quantity of people then populating the unknown Americas). Rome’s conquests involved cultural and linguistic assimilation of peoples full across north Africa and southern Europe, much of the Middle East, the Balkans and Crimea, and most of western Europe right up to the Scottish border where Hadrian built his famous wall in futile attempt to exclude those savage Highlanders who would not cease their awful attacks on Romans occupying what they deemed Celtic territory. Rome customarily declared its conquered peoples to be Roman citizens—almost everywhere, excepting a few citizenries who stubbornly refused to be Romanized such as the Scots, Celts in general, and an ever-troublesome sect in Palestine known as the Jews. The whole thing came to be called the Greco-Roman world, though the Greeks too were conquerees.
The Roman Empire ended de facto when Germanic tribes after many tries finally succeeded in invading and sacking Rome in the year 476 CE. The Roman precedent has had much influence on western civilization ever since, this being evident in modern western languages, the Christian religion (adopted by and later headquartered in Rome), architecture, engineering, law, government, and military tactics to name but some. Features of its old republic greatly influenced modern republics, notably the United States and France. Old Rome lives on today deep in the psyche of all modern Europe, and in the modern metropolis still known as Rome. There’s a bit more to its history if you’re interested. I suggest starting with Gibbons: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.