Monday, July 2, 2012

The Long View

I've found myself reading a lot of ancient history recently. I read a lot of history in general, but for some reason the Ancient World seems particularly interesting right now, and I wondered why.

I talked to G about it. It's the long view, she says. It's some perspective on deeper trends.

I think that's absolutely right. It is far away and different, but also familiar, our own roots.

Add to that an interest in previous episodes where civilization eroded and societies fell. One of the most terrifying is around 1200 BC, when the old socieites of the Eastern Mediterranean were attacked and burned by the "Sea Peoples". I talked about it here.

The Trojan War was fought just a few decades before this, around 1260, and indeed it may have been connected. I read Michael Wood's In Search of the Trojan War yesterday, an older book from 1984, just because I wanted to know a little more about this era when civilization faltered.

One thing which comes across was what a fragile and violent world it was. Homer's war was not the first time Troy fell. It had been repeatedly attacked, burned, destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt for over two thousand years. The mound at Hisarlik in northwestern Turkey, which we identify as Troy, has at least five (or six, depending on which you identify as Homeric) layers of cities before the war. And several cities come after, a Greek colony in the 700s and a Roman/Byzantine city.

Bronze Age cities rarely escaped destruction. All the palaces the victorious Greeks sailed home to, like Mycenae and Pylos and Sparta and Tiryns, were themselves burned and destroyed within fifty years or so. Greece went into a dark age that lasted five hundred years. Writing itself was forgotten - although the Linear B script was probably only known to a few administrative scribes in the palaces. When the palaces fell, the scribes did too.

It's still not clear why it happened. Maybe short-run climate change set peoples on the move, whose names we know from Egyptian accounts.The Sherden. The Sheklesh. The Aqaiwasha. The Tjerkeryu. The Tursha. The Pulsati.

The Aqaiwasha may be Achaens, Homer's "Achaiwoi" -the Greeks. The Tjerkeryu may be Teucrians - Trojans. The Sherden may have moved west and given their name to Sardinia. The Tursha may be Tyrsenoi, Tyrrhenians- Etruscans. But we don't know for sure.

The Romans, of course, believed they were descended from the refugees from Troy, as the The Aeneid tells. Julius Caesar visited the site in 48 BC to mourn his "ancestors."

No matter who they were, a whole world of civilizations vanished under their onslaught. The huge Hittite empire fell, and lay forgotten for thousands of years. Indeed, the Trojan War may have been just one skirmish in a wider pattern of Greek tensions with the Hittite Empire in the Anatolian interior.

The Syrian Coast was devastated. Egypt narrowly escaped invasion in 1210 and 1180 BC.

The Egyptians ended up settling one group of failed invaders, the Pulusati, on their frontiers as a buffer. We can identify this group. We know them as the Philistines. They were settled in the Gaza area, and they were probably of Aegean/Greek origin. Goliath's armor, says Wood, had features which linked it to Mycenean Greece.

That Greece long before classical Greece was driven by slavery and war. Warrior kings needed plunder to reward their followers, and they needed slaves to produce textiles and olive oil and other goods to export in exchange for bronze and luxury goods. The slaves were mostly women, as the males in conquered cities were slain.

That is the backdrop to the Iliad. Destruction and War were built in. And a whole world disintegrated.


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