Homer

Gods and Heroes 800 B.C. – 550 B.C.

From island to island and town to town, across the wide new world of the Greeks, the minstrel wandered, with a harp slung across his back and a batch of stories in his hand. When he knocked at the gate of a palace or great house and offered to sing for his supper, he was never refused. There were no shows to see and no books to read. The people relied on the minstrels to entertain them and to tell their stories of the past, which otherwise might be forgotten. The minstrel’s stock of stories was a mixture of tall tales, half-remembered history and myths, the stories of the gods. He collected them wherever he travelled, usually from other minstrels. As the stories were passed along from singer to singer, the history grew a little fuzzier and the tales grew a great deal taller. In the great hall of a palace, where the lord and his guests gathered in the evening, the minstrel was given a place of honour. After dinner, he was invited to sing. Most of his songs began with the Achaean attack on Troy. First, he reminded his listeners of the reason for the war: Paris, a prince Troy, stole Helen, the wife of the king of Sparta, Menelaus and the most beautiful woman in the world. The minstrel told about Agamemnon’s call to arms and the fleet that was made ready to sail. Then he listed the famous heroes who boarded the ships. Each had his own adventures and the minstrel chose different ones to tell about every evening. He might sing about Agamemnon, who came home from Troy victorious, only to be killed by his wife; or Achilles, the greatest of Greek warriors, who slew the Trojan champion Hector; or Odysseus, the craftiest of the …

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Mycenae

Companions of the King 1500 B.C. – 1000 B.C.

Across the plains of Peloponnesus, flashed the swift chariots of knights and warrior-princes. They wore armour of gleaming bronze and bright proud plumes bobbed above their helmets. They were the new men of a new country and they called themselves the Achaeans. Their kings called themselves the Sons of Pelops, the mighty chief and hero who had given his name to the Peloponnesus. Pelops, the Achaeans said, was the son of a god. Probably, however, he was the grandson of an European invader, for many of the Achaeans’ ancestors were barbarian invaders from the north. But they may have seemed like gods to the Shore People when they first hacked their way into the country. Their ragged beards and horned helmets were frightening to look at and they fought like demons, they took the land they wanted, built fortresses and settles down to stay. When Minoan sailor-merchants began to stop at their towns, the warriors went into business, growing olives and squeezing them in presses to make oil. Olive oil was the butter, cooking grease, lamp fuel and hair tonic of the ancient world and the Achaeans began to grow rich. For a hundred years, from 1500 to 1400 B. C., the Achaean kings built a stronghold at Mycenae, not for from the Isthmus, the strip of land that connected the Peloponnesus to the mainland. The new castle, towering above the plain, had room inside to shelter all the people of Mycenae. Its huge walls looked like cliffs and people said that the stones had been put there by the Cyclops, the one-eyed giants whose parents were the gods of the earth and sky. When the king’s trumpets sounded the warning that an enemy was near, farmers ran from their fields and potters and armourers left their shops at the …

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Crete

The Power of Minos 2200 B.C. to 1400 B.C.

Far to the south of the Greek Peninsula lay the large island of Crete. It was the home of a nation of sea-warriors – cruel, dark, handsome men, who claimed the eastern Mediterranean and all the Aegean Sea as their own. For eight hundred years — from 2200 to 1400 B. C. —  they made good on their claim. The Cretan seamen strutted about the decks in loincloths and high bools. They wore clanking jewelry of finely worked gold, curled their long hair and rubbed their bodies with perfumed oil so that they glistened in the sunlight. They were fighters and they knew every trick of sailing and of piracy. With the sharp bronze prows of their warships, they smashed the sides of the ships which dared to meet them in battle. No one could remember when they had first come to Crete. Perhaps they had once been Asians, but the island had been their home as far back as 4000 B. C. At first,  they had been farmers. Then they had discovered the gold that waited at the ends of the sea lanes. They began to settle pottery and olive oil to the rich Egyptians. As they grew more daring, they were trading along the coasts of the Aegean Sea. By 1700 B. C., their sleek merchant ships were the best vessels afloat and their battleships were the strongest. By 1600 B. C., when the Greeks were cautiously trying out clumsy little boats that wobbled in the waves, the king of Crete would call the whole Aegean Sea his private empire. As soon as the little towns in Greece seemed wealthy enough to make good customers, the Cretan merchants came calling with things to sell – delicate pottery, brightly painted with flowers and sea creatures; leather armour with bronze …

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Greece

The Silent Peninsula 3000 B.C. to 1600 B.C.

About 3000 B. C., when the Pharaohs ruled Egypt and Babylon was the home of mighty kings, bands of sailors set out from Asia Minor. They followed a little chain of islands that led northward across the unexplored sea that, centuries later, would be called the Mediterranean. If the islands had not been there, the sailors would never have dared to sail so far from home. Asia, the only world they knew, stopped at the eastern store of the sea. Some of the men were afraid that they might suddenly reach the end of the world and drop over it into nothing, but their captains ordered them to sail on. Their own countries were becoming crowded and it was important to find new lands. So long as another island lay ahead of them, it seemed safe to go on. At last, their ships did indeed come to the end of the sea — but it was not the edge of the world. The sailors sighted a new mainland. It was the mountainous peninsula that would be given the name of Greece. It was a strange and silent country of white stone peaks that disappeared into the clouds. Its thick forests of oaks and pines ran down to an oddly ragged coastline. The mountains, too, were jagged, as though an angry giant had smashed them. Gods and Giants Years later, the people of Greece told a story about evil giants who fought a great battle with the gods to see which of them would rule the earth. The giants were defeated and the gods locked them forever in a cave far under the ground, but the giants lived on, the storytellers said. When their anger took hold of them, they beat against the roof of their prison and the earth shook. …

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CHINA

The Land of the Great Wall 4000 B.C. to A.D. 220

For many generations, the ancestors of P’an Keng had considered themselves kings in northern China. Yet this family of kings, the Shang Dynasty, had never governed from a central capital. About 1380 B. C., P’an Keng decided it was time to set up a capital. He found what seemed to be the perfect site at Anyang. Situated near a bend in China’s Yellow River, the fertile plains were ideal for farming and pasture, while the mountains behind it had timber and wild game. Only one thing remained: P’an Keng had to find out if the move was approved by the gods and his ancestors. P’an Keng sent for a diviner, one of the wise men who could read the will of the spirits. Everyone consulted the diviners for help in making decisions, whether it was the king planning a battle or a farmer wanting to know when to plant. Usually the diviner used animal bones in which small oval pits had been drilled. The diviner would heat a bronze rod in a fire and touch its point to the side of a pit. The heat cracked the bone slightly and by examining the size and angles of the cracks, the diviner interpreted the message of the spirits. For special occasions in China, the diviner used a large piece of tortoise shell in place of bones and the choice of the capital was such an occasion. P’an Keng began to ask his questions, “should the capital be set up at Anyang?” “Was the dream a good sign?” “Does Shang Ti, the great god approve?” “Will Tang, founder of the Shang Dynasty, aid this move?” P’an Keng was overjoyed to hear the diviner interpret the answer to each question as “Yes” or “Fortunate”. This meant that the spirits approved. Since this was …

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Civilization comes to India 3500 B.C to 200 B.C.

For thousands of years during the Stone Age, only scattered groups of people had lived in India. With only the simplest tools of bone, wood and stone, they hunted and gathered food. Cut off from other peoples by the mountain and the sea, the first Indians made few advances in their primitive way of life. Then, sometime between 3500 B. C., new settlers began to appear along the Indus River Valley in northwestern India, a region that would be called West Pakistan thousands of years later. It seems almost certain that these newcomers were from the mountains and plateaus to the northwest, the modern lands of Iran and Afghanistan. When they arrived, the new commers were already able to make pottery, to farm and to raise animals. Most likely too, some of them knew of the cities far to the west, on the plains of Mesopotamia. From those more advanced cities, the Indus valley people learned about new objects, such as copper and bronze tools. They also heard tales about how those distant peoples controlled the river’s water, or how they scratched signs in clay tablets to record words. However much they may have borrowed, the Indus Valley people worked out their own ways. By 2500 B. C., a distinctive civilization had begun to develop along the Indus River. The river itself played an important part in this civilization. Sometimes it flooded so badly that it wiped out villages and fieldworks, or even changed its course entirely. Usually however, it overflowed just enough to leave a rich soil for each season’s crops and the people worked together to take advantage of it. The river also made it easy for the various settlements to exchange goods and ideas. The People of the Indus Of the dozens of villages, two soon grew …

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PERSIA

A New People, a New Faith 650 B. C. – 330 B. C

BABYLON, the final capital of Mesopotamia civilization, had fallen to warrior tribesmen from the east, the Medes and Persians. The Medes and Persians were descended from the Aryan peoples who for centuries had been moving out of the grasslands of central Asia with their horses and herds. Some of the Aryans settled in the valleys and slopes of the mountains surrounding the great arid plateau between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. From them the region took its name, Iran, or Land of the Aryans. The Aryans who lived in the mountains northeast of Mesopotamia were the Medes, familiar to their prosperous neighbours as breeders of horses and as raiders of cities and trade caravans. Other Aryans settled south of the Medes, in the region of Parsa along the valleys, foothills and plains of the Zagros Mountains and these people became known as Persians. About 650 B. C., one of the Persian chieftains, Achaemenes, organized a small kingdom. His descendant, Cyrus, later brought the various tribes of Persians and Medes under his rule and led the united forces into Babylon. Before Cyrus formed the Persian nation, a man appeared who would influence the Persians in another way. He was Zoroaster or Zarathustra, who around 600 B. C. began to preach a new religion to the people of Iran. The Aryans had always worshipped many gods, especially Mithra the sun god and they often sacrificed animals. The priests who supervised the many rituals became a privileged group. Among the Medes, these priests were known as the Magi. Zoroaster introduced no new rituals and started no new priesthood; he was a prophet and reformer. Zoroaster was most active in eastern Iran, perhaps as a priest of the old Aryan religion, but he soon withdrew from society and went to live on …

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ASSYRIANS

The Rise of the Assyrians 1600 B. C. – 539 B. C.

During the century after the Hittites had raided Babylon and rose to power in Turkey and Syria, Mesopotamia was a divided unproductive land. In the south, Babylonia fell under the rule of foreigners, first the Kassites from the northeast and then the Elamites from the southeast. Neither of these people seemed able to make any advances in civilization. Northern Mesopotamia came under the Mitanni kingdom, which at least introduced trained horses and chariots to the Near East. By the time the native Babylonians regained control and the Mitanni kingdom fell, another people was disturbing the land – the Assyrians. The Assyrians who wrote and spoke Akkadian, were close relatives of the Babylonians and had played a minor part in Mesopotamian affairs for some time. They made their home in the upper reaches of the Tigris River, where once had been some of the earliest farming communities in the world. The region later came under the influence of various early Sumerian and Babylonian kingdoms to the south. By about 2000 B. C., the Assyrians themselves became independent enough to carry on a thriving trade with people in Turkey. But around 1800 B. C. the Hittites put an end to that and then the Mitanni kingdom set itself over Assyria. The Warrior Kings Centuries passed and the Assyrians overthrew a weakened Mitanni kingdom, but even before this they were struggling with Babylonia for control of Mesopotamia. Year after year, lands, cities, trading routes and outposts changed hands, until the Assyrians gradually won out. By 1100 B. C., under their king Tiglath-Pileser I, the Assyrians were strong enough to begin expanding. Fighting off enemies on all sides, Assyria began to dominate the metal trade with the north and the commercial centres of the Syrian coast. Loot and tribute made Ashur, the capital of …

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The People of One God 3000 B. C. – 30 B. C.

On the plains of Mesopotamia, a young man stood gazing up at the stars that glittered from the dark sky of night. He was Abraham, a native of the Sumerian city of Ur. Abraham was a Hebrew, one of the many tribes of Semites said to have been descended from Shem, the son of Noah who had been saved from a great flood many years before. Like all people of his time, Abraham believed in many gods throughout nature. As he studied the pattern of the great stars for the god’s message, Abraham began to feel he was in the presence of a Lord God who was above all gods with idols and temples and sacrifices. Abraham felt, too, that this Lord God would take special care of those who lived up to his demands. Abraham became so devoted to this idea that years later he was inspired to leave Mesopotamia and start a new nation whose people would worship only the Lord God. With his family and tents and flocks, he made his way westward to the land of Canaan. After many setbacks, Abraham died there, content to know that his son Isaac would carry on the family. Isaac prospered and was followed by his son Jacob, whose life was such a struggle that he was honoured with the name Israel, meaning “struggler of god”. Jacob had twelve sons, each of whom founded a tribe and they and all their descendants became known as Israelites. One of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, became an important official in the Egyptian court and when a famine in the land of Canaan threatened to wipe out the Hebrews, they all joined Joseph in Egypt. This was the story told in the Bible and the traditions of the people who honoured Abraham, Isaac and Jacob …

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NILE

The Gift of the Nile 3300 B.C. – 30 B.C.

It was around 3500 B.C. and as it did every year around the middle of July, the Nile had begun to rise. Carrying tons of soil, the waters poured down from the mountains of Africa, where the rain and melting snow fed the streams that surfed northward into one great river. Wherever it ran free of the rocky canyons, the river overflowed onto the dry fields along its banks. It lapped against the villages on high ground and spread to market towns on the edges of the dessert. Moving northward, the river engulfed the entire Delta region and then emptied into the Mediterranean Sea. By mid-November the waters receded, leaving a thick, dark mud on the fields and in the canals. Near one of the largest towns far up the Nile, the farmers stood waiting at the edge of the fields. Then from the town came the king, followed by guards, priests and servants carrying large fans. The king wore a high white crown and carried a hoe. Scooping some fresh mud out of an irrigation ditch, he placed it in a basket held by an attendant. While the priests chanted, the mud was spread over the field. Now the farmers could plant in the fertile earth left by the floodwaters. The king, who was responsible for the well-being of his people, had performed a great duty. As his white crown indicated, this king ruled only in Upper Egypt. In the Delta to the North there was another king, who wore a red crown. For many years the people of Lower and Upper Delta had been fighting and raiding each other’s towns. However, they all had common ancestors who had come from Africa to the south, from Libya to the west and from Asia to the north and east. Through …

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