In the ancient world, agriculture was supported by the technologies related to irrigation.

The history of human beings on this planet is, geo-logically speaking, very short. The history of their coming together in groups for their common good is even shorter, covering a span of perhaps 25,000 to 50,000 years on a planet that scientists estimate to be between 4 and 5 billion years old. We call these groups, as they become more and more sophisticated, civilizations. A civiliz ation is a social, economic, and political entity distinguished by

the ability to express itself through images and written lan- guage. Civilizations develop when the environment of a region can support a large and productive population. It is no accident that the first civilizations arose in fertile river valleys, where agriculture could take hold: the Tigris and the Euphrates in Mesopotamia, the Nile in Egypt, the Indus on the Indian subcontinent, and the Yellow in China. Civilizations require technologies capable of supporting the

The Ancient World and the Classical Past P r e h i s t o r y t o 2 0 0 c e

Nebamun Hunting Birds, from the tomb of Nebamun, Thebes, Egypt (detail). ca. 1400 bce (see Fig 3.2 in Chapter 3).


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principal economy. In the ancient world, agriculture was supported by the technologies related to irrigation.

With the rise of agriculture, and with irrigation, human nature began to assert itself over and against nature as a whole. People increasingly thought of themselves as mas- ters of their own destiny. At the same time, different and dispersed populations began to come into contact with one another as trade developed from the need for raw materi- als not native to a particular region. Organizing this level of trade and production also required an administrative elite to form and establish cultural priorities. The existence of such an elite is another characteristic of civilization. Finally, as the history of cultures around the world makes abundantly clear, one of the major ways in which socie- ties have acquired the goods they want and simultaneously organized themselves is by means of war.

If a civilization is a system of organization, a culture is the set of common values—religious, social, and/or politi- cal—that govern that system. Out of such cultures arise sci- entific and artistic achievements by which we characterize different cultures. Before the invention of writing sometime around the fourth millennium bce, these cultures created myths and legends that explained their origins and relation to the world. As we do today, ancient peoples experienced the great uncontrollable, and sometimes violent, forces of nature—floods, droughts, earthquakes, and hurricanes. Pre- historic cultures understood these forces as the work of the invisible gods, who could not be approached directly but only through the mediating agency of shamans and priests, or kings and heroes. As cultures became increasingly self- assertive, in the islands between mainland Greece and Asia Minor, in Egypt, in China, on the Indian subcontinent, and on the Greek mainland, these gods seemed increasingly knowable. The gods could still intervene in human affairs, but now they did so in ways that were recognizable. It was suddenly possible to believe that if people could come to understand themselves, they might also understand the gods. The study of the natural world might well shed light on the unknown, on the truth of things.

It is to this moment—it was a long “moment,” extending for centuries—that the beginnings of scientific inquiry can be traced. humanism, the study of the human mind and its moral and ethical dimensions, was born. In China, the for- malities of social interaction—moderation, personal integ- rity, self-control, loyalty, altruism, and justice—were codified in the writings of Confucius. In Mesopotamia and Greece, the presentation of a human character working things out (or not) in the face of adversity was the subject of epic and dra- matic literature. In Greece, it was also the subject of philos- ophy—literally, “love of wisdom”—the practice of reasoning that followed from the Greek philosopher Socrates’ famous dictum, “Know thyself.” Visual artists strove to discover the perfections of human form and thought. By the time of the rise of the Roman Empire, at the end of the first millen- nium bce, these traditions were carried on in more prac- tical ways, as the Romans attempted to engineer a society embodying the values they had inherited from the Greeks.

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