An Audio-Book Review: Back to School!

Ancient Empires Before Alexander

Lectures by Professor Robert L. Dise Jr.

Published as part of “The Great Courses Series” by The Teaching Company


The Lectures:


This was a series I was definitely interested in listening to. It is not that most of this is new to me. My archaeological Master’s thesis specialized in the set of weapons from a very specific period during the Bronze Age in the Levant. I will not go into the details of that here since this is not a review of my thesis. However, in order to get that far I took a fair number of classes on the archaeology of Egypt, Mesopotamia and the lands in between as well as those peoples the cultures involved were (or may have been) in contact with. However, what I learned was from the point of archaeological scholars and Professor Dise is an historian. I knew there would be differences in perspective, but I was happy to get the chance to listen to them.

Now many of the cultures discussed in this series are what I would call pre-historic civilizations. That doesn’t mean historians cannot study them, but they must do so indirectly. Sometimes puling the history together from monumental inscriptions, or even documents from other cultures. Sometimes all we have is a list of kings and the order they rules in, and in many cases that list includes kings would ruled contemporaneously with each other, but which are not mentioned as such. It is a difficult and challenging way to put a history together.

Archaeology, on the other hand is more strongly interested in the material culture; those artifacts and graves and ruins, etc. that we dig up. Archaeologists too are interested when a document is found and it is sometimes amazing to discover that what a culture says about itself does not always get support from the material finds. Both Historians and Archaeologists must deal with these deficiencies and they do not always agree on the best way to do it.

I do not mean to imply that one is right and one is wrong, however. Frequently, subsequent finds have proven that all parties were wrong and often both are right even when their interpretations conflict. Fun, huh?

So, as a one-time archaeology student I really wanted to hear the historical perspective on these cultures I have learned about. Sometimes the view of Historians is simpler than that of the archaeologists and sometimes it is more complex. An archaeologist will find dozens of pots, for example, as he digs down into the ruins of an ancient settlement. The artistic motifs on those pots can be indicative of who made them (or rather which culture of people produced them). They can be used to show that trade was common throughout a period between two cultures or if locally produced will show which culture the people there are a part of and when. This can also be misinterpreted. For example, if you find one sort of pot with a certain shape and a specific decoration and no others like it you don’t know how it got there. It might have been bought by a traveler and brought back. It might have been stolen by a raider. It might even have been made locally by a person who originated elsewhere and was either sold into slavery or kidnapped, brought home to meet the folks or whatever. The pot cannot tell you that, but do not worry, there will be scholars everywhere ready to come up with theories!

I did, however take some issue with Professor Dise’s marginalization of archaeological evidence. He used the “a pot can’t tell you how it got there,” repeatedly. This is true if you only find a single pot, but if you find a dozen such pots, they can speak rather eloquently. What he never mentions is that except when he uses the Bible as a history book, and the few late Greek and Roman histories that have survived into the modern world, nearly all the historic texts and inscriptions he builds his history out of are archaeological artifacts. So without archaeologists, some of the ancient empires he covers would be completely unknown while some others would be thought of nothing but fanciful tales by Herodotus.

The situation is actually quite complex and constantly changing because archaeologists are always finding more, linguists are constantly translating more documents and scholars on every side of every aisle are using everything they learn to interpret and reinterpret what we know.

Another problem is chronology. When you dig through a tell, you do not have too much trouble telling what came before what. Unless someone came along later and started digging holes (which does happen especially during an active building period) everything is neatly arrayed in layers and the lower layers came before the ones on top of it. When you study the finds from several tells in the same region you see similarities in tool and weapons types, pot shapes, materials and decorations. If you’re really lucky you might find documents on clay tablets or inscriptions on monuments, but it’s amazing how many literate cultures failed to write things down on materials that lasted through the ages. Anyway, using these similarities you can tell which levels are contemporaneous and archaeologists name the levels by the age they represent. When there are texts those levels often name themselves, but if not they get Early Bronze IV, perhaps or Middle Bronze II, or Iron Age I and when you find a certain sort of artifact you can pinpoint the age relative to that area. For example a “Duck-billed” axe is typical of the Middle Bronze age in the Levant, so when you find it, you know exactly the age of the level (or tomb) is that you find it associated with. Even so, archaeologists are still arguing whether to call that age Middle Bronze I or IIa (and maybe other designations as well) and there is also some debate as to exactly when that period took place, but we do not what came before and after in those locations.

However, unless you find artifacts from one region in another (such as a duck-billed axe in Mesopotamia – I don’t think any have been found there, although an earlier form of that axe, the fenestrated axe did exist in Mespot. and at least one example of it cast in gold has been found. The original axe shape probably originated there) we have to guess which levels in Mespot. were contemporaneous with levels in Egypt and Anatolia, etc. Sometimes we get very lucky and find something like the “Armarna letters,” a trove of clay tablets from Anatolia and Mesopotamia in Egypt from the reign of Akhenaton during the 18th Dynasty of Egypt, and we actually get the names of foreign lands and their leaders who lived at the same time. We can extrapolate for a few generations before and after that period but after a century we’re guessing again. There are levels at Megiddo, for example that archaeologists and historians give a range of +/-200 years to their estimates of absolute dates, so depending on which chronologies you accept, the difference on what is happening elsewhere is tremendous. Well that 200 year range is a bit extreme and I think most manage to get their estimates to within 30 years, but even so, we still have a lot to learn. So I was curious as to which chronologies Professor Dise would use.

His chronology was rather conservative, which for a series of lectures is a good thing. They were not always the chronologies I was taught, but as I just said, absolute dates are debatable, especially during the Bronze Age.

I also took some issue with his habit of briefly stating that we cannot entirely trust the claims of some monumental inscriptions or the descriptions by ancient historians as the numbers are too high to be believable, but then he goes on to trust the accuracy of the events in those accounts. The ancients, kings and historians alike were not above tailoring their historical accounts to suit their own egos (or those of their rulers), claiming victory where they fought to a draw at best, or calling a small raid a decisive military encounter. His use of the Bible as a history book for the reigns of David, Solomon and the kings who came after them was also a little too trusting except when there have been corroborating texts from elsewhere. This is not to say that Biblical accounts are wrong, but some passages may suffer from the same bias as other ancient histories. As I often say, history may not be written by the winners, but it is always written by the survivors! And such histories will always be somewhat biased by the views of the writer. Facts may be facts, but what those facts mean is open to interpretation.

However, Professor Dise states the history of the United Israelite Monarchy (Saul through Solomon) like a passage from the Cliff Notes version of the Bible. He also makes a very bad mistake later on while discussing the rise of the Persian Empire. The early Jews who were taken into the Babylonian exile when the Kingdom of Judah was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar. A couple generations later (43-57 years depending on which of three deportations you’re talking about), however, the Neo-Babylonian empire was crushed by Cyrus the Great who allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and many of them did gradually return. That much is fairly established, but on several occasions, Professor Dise uses descriptions by the Prophet Isaiah to both describe Cyrus and document the end of the exile. The problem is, Isaiah had died roughly a century before the conquest of Judah and even had he still been alive, would have been over two hundred years old by the time Cyrus came around. Now I do not mean to offend anyone who believes the Bible is the word of God and therefore completely accurate, but let’s remember that Isaiah was a prophet and no matter how much you truly believe, it is generally a bad idea to use a prophecy as documentation for a later historical events. However, for some reason Professor Dise describes Isaiah as though a contemporary of Cyrus. He never quite says that, but the implication is strong.

Now, to be fair, it is almost certain that the Bok of Isaiah was not entirely written by the Prophet Isaiah and some pats do seem to have been added in by others during and after the Exile. But I do maintain that Professor Dise should have been specific about that and not just mention, “Isaiah says this or that,” to document what is in his lecture. Once again; Who writes history? The survivors!

A friend of mine points out I know too much about this sort of stuff and perhaps she is correct. Admittedly I am nit-picking at the points I take issue with. I also do not agree with his characterization of some of the cultures he covers as empires, but his definition of “empire” is the most liberal I have ever heard. It is so loose that it would include the grandiose claim of an asocial hermit living in a shack on an acre of land in backwoods Minnesota should he declare, “This is my empire!” Well, as that same friend pointed out, “empire” is frequently self-deterministic, so maybe I’m wrong. (I can be wrong, by the way, I am very good at it!). In any case, I did not really think all these cultures were imperial in nature, but “Empires before Alexander” is a snappier title than “A Survey of Important Cultures that Rose Before the Conquest of Alexander the Great.”

It should be noted that the lectures actually include about half of Alexander’s conquest, which is fair since it involved the fall of Persia, but then there was more about Greek history than Persian during his discussions of the Persian Empire, which is likely due to the fact that the Greeks wrote histories, but the Persians either did not or did not do so on media that has survived.

Also because he includes Carthage, which did rise to power before Alexander so deserves mention here, his lectures actually stretch historically into the late Roman Republican period, but once again, “Empires before Alexander” is a snappier title and might have been that of the publisher, not of the lecturer.

In spite of my nit-picking (I really do know too much), this was an interesting set of lectures and Professor Dise delivered them in an interesting manner that even when I disagreed, kept me listening. I suspect that I should not have listened to them all end-on-end. I suggest listening to them every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at, say, 10 AM, as though taking a college class. Professor Dise’s lecture style is quite engaging, but perhaps any lecture series of this sort needs some time to absorb what you have learned before going on to the next. In fact the publisher suggests you listen to one each day. They are about forty-five minutes long, so that is not a big chunk of time to devote to furthering one’s education.

So all told, I actually recommend this series. It was fun, informative and engrossing and if it leads you to disagree with the lecturer (or me) well, that is what scholarship really is about – learned discussion and debate.

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