This is the first in a series of articles explaining the heritage of America and the West.
When tracing the Western heritage and Judeo-Christian tradition, most begin with Athens and Jerusalem. Yet the Athens of Socrates and the Jerusalem of King David followed thousands of years of history, some of it newly rediscovered.
Human history traces back to three early civilizations: Sumeria in Mesopotamia, Egypt on the Nile, and the Indus Valley Civilization in modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Around 1500 B.C., the Ancient Near East (Egypt, Hittites in modern Turkey, Mycenaean Greeks, Babylonians, the Phoenicians, and the Elamites in modern Iran) experienced a flourishing of trade and culture amid a context of grinding poverty and oppression.
Athens and Jerusalem grew out of this context, in opposition to the polytheism and oppression of the Ancient Near East.
Cities first took root in the Ancient Near East. Bureaucrats wrote most of the oldest surviving records, and kings claimed the title “Ruler of the Universe.” Priests claimed a direct connection to the local god, and kings built grand temples for them. Kings built empires by conquering neighboring peoples and forcing them to pay tribute.
As empires grew, local gods became absorbed into pantheons. Even so, religious freedom was rare. Slavery, oppression, and human sacrifice were widespread. The Code of Hammurabi set forth some of the oldest recorded laws, and the punishments are harsh, often involving maiming or death. “If a man has struck his father, his hand shall be cut off.” “If a man has helped a male or female palace slave, or a commoner’s male or female salve to escape out of the city gate, he shall be put to death.”
As I noted last week, grinding oppression and poverty were the norm for most of human history. While French Enlightenment philosophes theorized about the social contract, in which people would voluntarily consent to be governed in exchange for certain rights and protections, history suggests government was often foisted upon people.
Endemic war plagued the Ancient Near East. Kings went “on campaign” every year, forcing subjects to pay tribute. If the subjects resisted, the kings would subdue them with force. The Assyrians were particularly notorious for impaling men on pikes while sending women and children into slavery. These pikes were the early forerunners of the ancient Roman cross.
Even in this horrid context, culture, trade, and art emerged. Poets composed the Enuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh, merchants carried goods throughout the eastern Mediterranean world, linking Greece and Egypt to Babylon. Archaeology has unearthed truly remarkable artifacts from these ancient civilizations.
According to Genesis, God called Abraham out of Mesopotamia to the land that would become Israel. After Joseph gave his family sanctuary in Egypt, the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews, but God freed them from their slavery by sending ten terrible plagues on the Egyptians. It is difficult to connect the Exodus to a specific time in history, but at some point, the Hebrews did indeed conquer the Promised Land and become an independent people in Israel.
Most Mesopotamian creation myths involve multiple gods bringing order out of chaos, but the God of Israel created the universe out of nothing. His law gave the Hebrews an impressive grasp on morality and an identity separate from all the other peoples on Earth.
While Israel and Judah remained independent kingdoms for centuries, the Assyrians defeated the northern kingdom of Israel and Babylon defeated the southern kingdom of Judah. The Babylonians sent the Israelites into exile, yet God promised the Jews they would return. The Persian Empire conquered Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to Israel. This exile shaped the Jewish identity, enabling the Jews to maintain their faith and identity when the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D.
The Persians gave their subjects a broad degree of religious freedom. They even helped rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple.
The same Persian Empire that allowed the Jews to return from exile menaced the freedom of the Greek city-states across the Hellespont from Anatolia (modern Turkey). As Persia shaped the Jewish identity as an ally, it shaped Greek identity as an adversary.
The Greeks defeated Persia in three epic battles: Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea. According to legend, a Greek messenger ran the first Marathon, from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news that the Greeks had prevented the Persian conquest. The better-known battle of Thermopylae — in which 300 Spartans and roughly 1,000 allies died to slow the Persians’ advance — helped buy the Greeks time to defeat the Persian army in the battle of Plataea.
Americans often look with nostalgia on the Greek city-states, particularly Athens. Yet we must remember that these were slave societies. While Athens had a democratic government, it also had slavery and only the men could vote. Its democracy did not always work out well, either. While Sparta had a noble warrior culture, it ran on slavery and subjugating its enemies.
After the Greeks secured victory and freedom from Persia, Athens and Sparta formed separate alliances and engaged in the decades-long Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.). Sparta ultimately prevailed, but Athens nonetheless dominated Greek cultural identity. The enigmatic Socrates (470-399 B.C.) essentially founded philosophy, while his student Plato systematized it and his student Aristotle — known for generations as “the Philosopher” — mastered it.
The works of Plato defined philosophy. Plato’s theory of the forms synthesized the teachings of Parmenides and Heraclitus. Parmenides taught that everything that seems to change has a root in eternal being. Heraclitus taught that all is change, being is essentially fire. Plato argued that everything in existence is a shadow of a true Form in a real world beyond this one. These logical leaps helped enable the basic science of Aristotle and the theology of early Christianity.
Aristotle also taught Alexander the Great, the Macedonian king who defeated the Persians and brought Greek culture to the East in the process of Hellenization.
Athens and Jerusalem in conflict
Alexander the Great did not live long. After he died, his empire broke into four parts — with the eastern part under the general Seleucus, who established the Seleucid Empire. Each of the post-Alexander Hellenistic kingdoms imposed Greek culture, requiring knowledge of Greek among the ruling elite. Greek became the lingua franca of the East, which is why the New Testament was written in Greek.
The Seleucid Empire ruled over Israel, but Israel actually won its independence from the Hellensitic empire following an epic religious freedom clash. Emperor Antiochus IV “Epiphanes” wanted to make the Jews Greek, so he brought a statue of Zeus into the Temple and sacrificed a pig in front of it. This utter sacrilege led the Jews to revolt and inspired the holiday of Hannukah.
For about 80 years, the Jews were independent again, until the Romans conquered them. Yet the Romans allowed them more religious freedom than Antiochus had.
As Rome grew to dominate the Mediterranean world, Greek culture and Jewish faith spread. Some Jews never returned to Israel after the exile, and others went to live in cities across the Eastern Mediterranean. In the Greek Egyptian city of Alexandria, Jews translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek, making Jewish history and law available to Gentiles. Many Gentiles sought to worship Yahweh and became God-fearers, part-Jews. These people were primed to accept Christianity when it arose.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.