History Began With the Greeks
“When [the Persian king] Cyrus entered Babylon in 539 B.C., the world was old,” wrote the historian Albert T. Olmstead. “More significant, the world knew its antiquity.”
In Mesopotamia and Egypt, the written record of the deeds of rulers, the thoughts of learned men, the elaboration of culture and the arts, and the fears and ambitions of ordinary people reached back almost two and a half thousand years before the time of Cyrus. People lived amid the physical remains of this antiquity—ruin-mounds and standing monuments—and in the hundred years before Cyrus, consciousness of antiquity was widespread. Around 640 BCE, the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, had compiled a library at Nineveh that aimed to include all the work of Mesopotamian scribal tradition; around 520 BCE, the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus, sought, found, and reported the foundation inscriptions of ancient Babylonian kings; in the 600s and 500s BCE, Saite art in Egypt echoed millennia-old forms and styles with loving precision; in Judea, the Deuteronomic laws presented a vision of society as a dispensation of the founder, Moses.
Some ancient scholars ordered time present and past with compilations of chronological and dynastic information, and with carefully managed calendars. Some edited chronicles for significant periods of their peoples’ histories. But efforts to account for the past to contemporary members of the societies—one idea of historical consciousness—were rarely, if ever, systematic until these societies came to be ruled by people whose cultural roots and identity lay outside the Near East, in Greece and Rome, people to whom the ways of life, cultural traditions, and antiquities of Near Eastern societies were unfamiliar.
Ashurbanipal Library Phase 1. British Museum. Link to resource (accessed June 24, 2010).
Matthew W. Stolper
Professor of Assyriology and the John A. Wilson Professor of Oriental Studies
1. The author is clearly suggesting that recording the past within the civilizations of the ancient Near East is different than what has become the study of history modeled on the Greek tradition of Thucidides and Herodotus. What other notions of “historic consciousness” exist or have existed to “account for the past to contemporary members of society? ” In what ways have these competing methods of accounting caused conflict?
2. What purpose did history serve the rulers of these civilizations of antiquity?