Two thousand years ago, a traveler on his way to Rome — one of the greatest cities of all time and the administrative center of one of the most significant civilizations — was greeted by its citizens long before entering one of its fames gates. All along the highways leading into the capital, columned tombs, shrunken sarcophagai, and walled masoleums lined the streets. Tombs of the dead addressed themselves to the passersby, like billboards from the beyond:
You are human, stop and contemplate my tomb, young man, in order to know what you will be. I did no wrong. I performed many duties. Live well, for soon this will come to you. Goodbye hope and fortune. There will be no more prayers from me, so have your sport with others.
These tombs greeted everyone seeking entrance to the great city and were so situated because Roman law prohibited burials within the walls (only Caesar won a dispensation to be buried within the walls). Cities are for the living, and space always at a premium; but the tombs outside Rome served as poignant reminders that the living participate in a much grander chain of existence, that the lives of individual men, however short, nasty, and brutish, exist within a much larger and more significant context.
This course will investigate the connections between the city and that ‘more significant something’ that we term a civilization. We will discover that ancient civilizations, more often than not, organized themselves around specific cities rather than any modern notion of national identity. It was the City that reshaped nature itself, the City that provided a radically new way to live, the City that cultivated the genius of man and gave vibrancy to the commonalities of life. Throughout this semester, therefore, we will be looking at ancient history through the lens of the urban environment, i.e. the city.
At certain times throughout history, individual cities have been so instrumental in fostering major developments in religion, politics, art and science, that they achieved a status of greatness. What makes a particular city, at a particular time, suddenly become immensely creative, exceptionally innovative, and universally important to humanity? This is the overriding question we will address over the course of the semester as we study the civilizations of ancient Sumer, Greece, and Persia and the cities that defined them.
For class you will always need to bring a single notebook and a pen with you. You will find almost all of the material for this course right here on this site, so please take some time to familiarize yourself with the blog format. I will usually post your homework for an entire week so you can judge how to manage your time.
Course description: Since the 14th century, the development of the modern nation-state has left an indelible imprint upon the consciousness of most of the world’s population. A person need only skim today’s newspapers to find evidence of how much political importance is given to the idea of a functioning territorial and national unit. Talk of “nation-building” in Afghanistan, of how to reconstitute the nation of Iraq, of a Palestinian homeland, or the issues surrounding nationalist conflict in places such as Ossetia, Kosovo and Kashmir are poignant examples. Historians, too, have often focused upon the nation-state as a way to study history, producing such notable works as James West Davidson’s Nation of Nations: A Narrative History of the American Republic or Norman Davies’ A Short History of Poland. However relevant the histories of nations may be, there are indeed other ways to conceptualize history. Indeed, we will discover that ancient civilizations more often organized themselves around specific cities rather than any modern notion of national identity. Throughout this semester, therefore, we will be looking at ancient history through the lens of the urban environment, i.e. the city.
At certain times throughout history, individual cities have been so instrumental in fostering major developments in religion, politics, art and science, that they achieved a status of greatness. What makes a particular city, at a particular time, suddenly become immensely creative, exceptionally innovative, and universally important to humanity? This is the overriding question we will address over the course of the semester as we study the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Greece, and Persia.
Course goals: Because we can not hope to cover every aspect of the history of ancient civilizations in a single term, we will instead focus our attention upon only a handful of directive questions. Among these are:
- How does geography shape cities and civilizations?
- How do urban political and economic systems develop?
- What is the definition and function of citizenship and does it differ from place to place?
- What role does cultural identity, religion, conflict, and personality play in history?
- How has our own world been shaped by ancient civilizations and what can we still learn from studying them?
- close reading for comprehension and retention
- effective listening and note taking
- developing coherent and cogent arguments
- analyzing historical data and drawing informed conclusions
- translating your thoughts and knowledge into proper and effective writing
- organizing materials and time for maximum academic success
- Geographic Determinism: The Creation of Civilization in Ancient Mesopotamia
- Myth and Cosmogony: The Gods of the Cities Between the Water
- Law and Order: Babylon during the reigns of kings Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar
- Wealth and Culture: the Exceptionalism of Minoan Crete
- Politics and Citizenship: The Greek City-States
- Identity and Defense: Spartan Hegemony and Excellence
- Imperialism and Liberty: Persia and the Hellenic League
- Clash of Empires: Athens, Sparta and the Peloponnesian War