Greeks were Gauls to Persians

The past didn’t all happen at once

A problem I frequently have in my mental landscape is compressing large parts of the past together as all happening at once. I assume I’m not the only one. As a macro example, we kind of all think of “dinosaurs” as all happening at the same time until they all died, but that’s not how it worked: there were more years between the last Stegosaurus and the first T Rex than between the last T Rex and the first human.

The story I mentioned yesterday about the protests against the ancient Mediterranean course at Reed reminded me of how bad my mental ancient Near East timelines are. I’m not remotely a scholar or expert here, but I just wanted to kind of lay the years out for posterity, because I think that will help me remember this more.

Start with the bronze age

So, the bronze age in the mediterranean lasted, roughly, from 3000 BC to 1200 BC. This is the period of non-alphabetic writing systems, bronze (duh), calendars, and megaliths (the Great Pyramid was 2560 BC; mammoths wouldn’t be extinct for another century, bizarrely). 2700 BC was when Knossos on Crete reached a population of 80,000; that’s also roughly when the Old Kingdom began in Egypt.

The Old Kingdom fell in 2200, and the Middle Kingdom rose around 2000 (This is the traditional year of Abraham’s birth). Stonehenge was finally completed in 2200 or so, after several centuries of work.

Around 1600, Knossos disappears and the Mycenaeans appear. The Middle Kingdom falls and is replaced by the New Kingdom. This is when the Hittites establish themselves in Anatolia. This is also when the Rigvedas were composed, and when the Olmecs started building their cities. Greeks spread all over the eastern Mediterranean, first as mercenaries and traders.

And then the iron age

Around 1200, the Bronze Age suffered a pretty rapid collapse; this unsettled period is the setting of the Iliad and Odyssey. There’s a long “dark age” of about 500 years with much worse sourcing than earlier or later periods. During this 500 years, the Greek mercenaries and traders start setting up permanent colonies all over Anatolia (and Italy and Sicily). By the time we start getting archaic Greek sources (Homer and Hesiod, call it 700 BC), a lot of the Greek religion and civic culture had fully formed (there were oligarchies and tyrannies and democracies in the city-states, there were Olympic games every four years, etc.) The use of iron became widespread and largely replaced bronze in armor and weapons. The chariot more or less disappeared from the battlefield, and horses began to be bred big enough to carry an armored soldier (Homer apparently didn’t understand how chariots actually were used in Bronze Age warfare). Despite what Civ V tells you, the phalanx was definitely an iron age unit.

There are some traditional but not-exactly-firm dates during this period. The first Olympic games were supposedly in 776 BC. The founding of Rome was 753 BC. The Medes took over Persia in 728, and established the Persian Empire in 650; this is not coincidentally when the Assyrian Empire fell. It’s also when the Mediterranean started to enter the “classical” period.

I prefer Herodotus’s earlier work

Around 550 or so you get a generation that produced Confucius, Siddharta Gautama, Mahariva, Jeremiah, and Cyrus the Great. Interestingly, both Athens and Rome expelled some tyrants and established a democracy and republic, respectively, in 508 or 509 BC. Athens went on to rule most of the eastern Mediterranean within a few decades, while Rome floundered around in Latium for the next 200 years.

The years around 500 were another impressive generation: Euclid finished his Elements, Panini finished his Grammar, and Pingala introduced a positional number system with a zero and a variable base. This was also when King Aristagorus incited the Anatolian Greeks to rebel. We start to get much clearer sourcing from this point on.

Marathon was 490, and Aeschylus fought at it. Sophocles was too young to fight but alive. Herodotus was a child in Anatolia; he lived in a Halicarnassus, which never rebelled, so he stayed a Persian subject his whole adult life until he retired to Italy because of local political problems. Thermopylae and Salamis were in 480. Socrates was born in 470.

The Persian War ended in 450 and the Golden Age of Athens began; Aeschylus only saw one year of that age; Plato didn’t see any of it because he was born in 427 after it ended. Socrates died in 399; Aristotle was born in 387, the same year Rome was sacked by Gauls. Alexander the Great defeated Persial in 331 and died in 323.

Despite the sacking, Rome was by this point the dominant city-state in Italy, but had not started to throw its weight around outside of the peninsula. They were still busy with the struggles of the orders, and the Plebian order was in the process of forming. It wouldn’t be until 260 that they began the Punic Wars and expanded their reach into the Mediterranean; 60 years after Alexander died.

Greeks were Gauls to Persians

The thought that led to this post’s title was about Rome and Greece constantly facing incursions from less urbanized peoples to their north and west. To a very crude approximation, there was something of an axis running from Italy through Greece to Anatolia and the Levant, and the civilizations became increasingly urbanized and sophisticated as you move east along it.

Rome was sacked by Gauls in 387, but almost immediately started using Gauls as soldiers (not as much as they would later, but it began quite early). Similarly, Greeks were sacking Eastern Mediterranean cities right and left, but were very quickly hired by Near Eastern empires as mercenaries – Xerxes may have had more Greek soldiers in his expedition than the Greeks did.

Greeks were Gauls to the Persians, and it really changes the sense of a lot of the Classical era writings when you remember Europe was the uncivilized periphery of a very sophisticated Near Eastern world.

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