By William Urban
This book by Paul Collins, a curator at the British Museum, is subtitled The International Age 1550-500 BC. It differs from traditional histories of the ancient world in that it is not centered on the Bible, but on archeology. Archeology is not new — Monmouth College had its Classical Collection well over a century ago. About that same time a Monmouth College alum arranged to have one of the three plaster copies of the Canopus Stone sent to Monmouth (the other two copies went to the Louvre and the British Museum); it is on display in the Hewes Library, which has also a nice collection of newer donations. Charles Speel taught Biblical Archeology for decades, Bernice Fox kept Latin and Greek alive through the decades following the nationalization of the women’s colleges in Egypt where many Monmouth College graduates had taught, and I was hired to teach Greek and Roman history. Tom Sienkewicz organized a local chapter of the American Institute of Archeology that has been strongly supported by a series of Monmouth College presidents and deans. Each year he brings in a half-dozen nationally-known speakers to talk about their work in the field — talks that are open to the public — and for several years now students have given programs about their summer experiences in various digs. He takes students each year to Italy, Greece, or this coming May, with Cheryl Meeker, to Troy. The students I have taken to the great museums of western Europe are always enthusiastic, as have been the local high school Latin students my wife took to the museums in Chicago.
This prepared me well to follow the complicated stories in Paul Collin’s book. In his first chapters the societies are well-known — Egypt and Mesopotamian states (modern Iraq) — but quickly new states come to the fore — Assyria, the Hittites — then yet newer ones which reflect the results of modern excavations. Archeologists have become expert at reading inscriptions, particularly the boastful claims of rulers to have conquered neighboring cities; this is one basis of Collin’s political history. Archeologists can also identify imported goods, thus allowing them to recognize when trade or tribute bring foreign objects to a site. By comparing the quantity of foreign goods in various city ruins, and looking through the garbage dumps and what fire and looting have left, archeologists can see when economic times were good and bad.
Collin’s overview of the rise and fall of states is densely written. His is not a book for those who like a straight-forward plot line. If you want good stories, read the Bible, but many names will be familiar to those who do know the Old Testament. This ancient world is very different from the present Middle East. There were no Arabs, no Turks, no Kurds, and the Hebrews show up only from time to time. Moses, who left no archeological evidence, gets a single line; Solomon and David only a few more. Older histories emphasized the fact that the Hebrews were at the crossroads of Egypt and Mesopotamia, but Collins describes fully how many armies marched across these roads. Assyrians rampaged through the region century after century, Hittites moved in, the Sea Peoples destroyed coastal cities.
Greeks don’t get much more coverage than the Jews. The Trojan War is barely mentioned, and Homer’s heroes are truly marginal figures to the great narrative of the mainland empires. When the Persians finally conquered everyone else, they brought order, unity and good government until they ran into the Greeks (a story which viewers of the cartoon-like 300 will recognize, or maybe not). Collins perhaps should have used Persians in his title instead of Babylon, but Babylon is much better known to potential purchasers.
It’s not an easy book to read, but the illustrations are first-rate. No one who works through the text will ever see Egypt as eternally stable and unchanging, but it may not be easy to look at the pictures and see exactly what changed — art resisted change even as the empires of the pharaohs evolved.
This is a story of brutal wars, famines, epidemics and climate change. Some may find in these depressing records a reason for despairing of the human condition — can we ever learn to avoid the mistakes of the past, or are we doomed to defending ourselves forever against evil and aggressive men, a new one always appearing as soon as we defeat the last? Abject surrender seems to work as badly as fighting overwhelming odds, and political choices are always problematic. Others may find solace in comparing our own comparatively minor problems to those of the distant past, but it may help to remember that between the years of disaster and suffering there were long periods of peace when people planted trees and vines, plowed fields and built cities. Without the belief that life must go on there would have been no artifacts for archeologists to dig up.
Review Atlas (July 18, 2009), 4.