The Development of Civilization Before the Greeks

The Development of Civilization Before the Greeks. Archaeological research over the last several decades-and this research has by no means come to an end-has greatly increased our knowledge of the ancient world. While the man in the broad sense seems to have been born in Africa, a threshold crucial to our discussion was crossed somewhere in the neighborhood of 6500 B.C. in the Middle East.

Here man, the hunter, the gatherer, the herder became for the first time and man the farmer in a straightforward way. The simple farming techniques seem to have spread steadily until by 3000 B.c. Grain-growing agricultural communities could be found along the coast of North Africa, Europe, India, and across Iran’s plateau into Central Asia.


Agriculture became civilization only under particularly favorable circumstances, growing on the flood plain of great rivers-the first of which was apparently that of the valley of the Tigris-Euphrates. Civilization by definition requires social activities above the level of reproduction and subsistence farming, so it is easy to see that the greater fertility created by spring floods of a great river could provide an agricultural surplus capable of supporting characteristically “civilized” forms of human activity.

More important, perhaps than merely increased fertility, the flood plain provided a circumstance in which man could employ his ever-present ingenuity to develop relatively elaborate systems of irrigation. Irrigation projects required coordinated effort on a large scale, which means developing a group of “managers,” whether priests, Chiefs, or military leaders, who would presumably have some claim on the surplus created by the irrigation. Once the surplus falls into Managerial hands, men can be hired to dig irrigation canals and perform as craftsmen or artists or musicians, that is to say, as professionals devoted to perfecting and developing activities that had always been characteristically human to a level we call civilized.

Therefore, it is no accident that one of the most important of man’s extensions, writing, was developed somewhere around 3100 B 2. by the Sumerians riding on the back of an agricultural surplus in the Tigris-Euphrates valley.

Simple subsistence farming could spread steadily out from the Middle East into Africa, Europe, and Asia. Once basic agricultural skills ad been acquired, there was no special problem involved in carrying out new fields. Given minimally suitable soil and climatic conditions, a continuous agricultural belt might be developed over time. Civilization in its original form was, however, quite different because it was tied to special conditions.

Civilization had to leap-f from one irrigable flood plain to another, and there were, in fact, relatively few areas where such conditions were present. While a numb, of cities’ that could for awhile, stave off the onslaught of the hill and desert barbarians developed along smaller rivers, only the Nile and Indus (adjacent to the Middle East but accessible by sea from Sumer could sustain massive civilized communities.

It is possible that the Oxus-Jaxartes valley beyond the Caspian Sea was the scene of parallel development, but so far, little is known of the area. Comparable development came later on the banks of the Yellow in China and much later still along river banks in what is now Cambodia.

Inevitably, considerable contact and conflict occurred over time between these highly developed river bank areas and the less developed neighbors. Elements of the civilization that were detachable tended to spread. When the quest for development among the surrounding barbarians took the form of armed attack on the civilized areas, resistance was a necessity, but it did not always succeed.

Political arrangements in the Tigris-Euphrates valley changed focus repeatedly during the period 3000 B.c. To 1700 B.c., the general pattern seems to have been a northward expansion of civilization’s area as successive circles of barbarians were first attacked and absorbed by the irrigation civilization.

Thus, around 3000 B.C., the political center was Sumerian and very close to the river mouth in the south; but by 1700 s.c. The center was a good many miles to the north in Babylon under the hegemony of the Amorite “barbarian” Hammurabi.

While much less is known of the Indus people, they, too, presumably had their problems with surrounding groups. However, the Egyp tians were relatively isolated along the Nile and were thus able to perfect a relatively static life and thought style. The Egyptian style of thought provides an important and illuminating contrast to thé Greek invention of philosophy. We shall return to it shortly, but first, we need to be clear about the circumstances under which the Greeks came onto the world stage.

Beginning around 1700 b.c., a wave of invasions from the north opened a new phase in humanity’s development. Men speaking one of a common family of languages-the Indo-European-swept into the Indus valley and destroyed the development there.

They moved into the Middle East, where ultimately, leading a collection of local tribesmen, they conquered Egypt. To the West, the Indo-European language was an early form of Greek, and these warriors moved into Attica and the Peloponnesus.

These invasions that lasted roughly two hundred years drastically altered the situation in the Middle East. Egypt could no longer remain isolated. With the breakdown of ancient cultural and geographic barriers, what can perhaps be called a cosmopolitan civilization incorporating Egypt, Mesopotamia, and everything in between came a being.

While the Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultural, intellectual, and political styles remained powerful and in some measure Separate, in the years between 1500 B.C. and 500 B.C., a common, “great society” came to extend from the Nile to the Tigris-Euphrates and beyond.

Early in this period-around, around 1200 B.C.-that, the leader of a desert tribe, trained and educated by Egyptian priests, teg his people out of Egypt across the Sinai, searching for a Promised Land. At about the same time, another group of Semites on the fringes between Egypt and Mesopotamia, apparently unable to grapple success. The complex Egyptian and Mesopotamian writing styles simplified writing into twenty to thirty marks representing basic sounds and invented the alphabet. At about the same time, a new wave of barbarian Greek speakers, the Dorians, descended from the north. The battle for Troy recorded in the Illiad of Homer is traditionally dated at 1184 B.C.

In the first half of the first millennium B.C., while the Middle East continued its cosmopolitan unification, moving toward actual political unification under the Persians around 500 s.c., the future was developing in the form of three peripheral civilizations: China that produced Confucius, India that produced the Buddha, and Greece that eventually produced Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Discussing Persian hegemony over the Middle East under Cyrus and Cambyses (shortly before 500 B.C.), historian William H. McNeill concludes:

With this achievement, the ancient Orient’s political evolution came to a logical, if not to a historical conclusion. The anciently civilized world was united under one administration; the barbarian world was effectively overawed. But on their northwest frontier, the Persians faced a problem that turned out to be beyond their power to solve.

Even before Cyrus’ time, a cluster of petty Greek city-states had begun to create a civilization which, while drawing upon the Orient for many of its elements, was nevertheless profoundly different in quality. This civilization 500″ became a lodestar for barbarian peoples in Macedonia, Thrace, and southern Russia, and indeed, began to be admired even mn Persia.

As. early as 479 B.c., unexpected Greek victories in the battles of Salamis and Platea forced the Persians onto the defensive s century. A half later, Hellenized Macedonians and thee Greek allies broke into the Persian empire and destroyed it (334-330 B.C.), bringing a new and potent cultural force to bear upon the age-old. The civilization of the Middle East.

The rise of Greek civilization from a peripheral offshoot of the Middle East to equality and superiority over that ancient center marked a fundamental turning point in civilized history. The era of Middle Eastern dominance thereby came to an end, and a complicated cultural interplay began among the major civilized communities of Europe, the Middle East, India, and China. Something like a balance of cultures arose in Eurasia, a balance which was to last until after 1500 A.D. when Europe began to assert a new dominance over all of the peoples and cultures of the world.

Any termination date assigned to the era of Middle Eastern pre-eminence must, of course, be arbitrary. But 500 s.c. offers a convenient sound number, representing the high point of Persian power and prestige on both the Greek and Indian frontiers of the ancient Oriental world, before the Ionian revolt of 499 8.c.

Challenged the Great King’s might. By 500 8.c..also, Greece, India, and China’s civilizations had attained many of their distinguishing characteristics. Greek art and philosophy had put in an appearance; while Confucius in China and Buddha in India were then bringing to expression much that remained distinctive of Chinese and Indian civilization.

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