Call of Ctesiphon

In her last post, Michele suggested that Mohenjo-Daro might be the coolest city name ever. I’m afraid must disagree: the city with the coolest name is clearly Ctesiphon, capital of the Parthian Empire. (It gets bonus points for sounding like something out of an HP Lovecraft story.)

The trouble with women

In which I invent a new, or at least not usually acknowleged, genre: the historical editorial.

I have been teaching a quarter-long class on “Women in the Ancient World.” It’s a little odd that I should be teaching such a class, since I have never studied women as a separate subject in my own career as a student, nor do I think much of feminist historical theory, insofar as I have experienced it. But the class has been quite eye-opening, in that I have learned a lot both about attitudes toward women in history and the attitudes of my students towards women in history.

In thinking how to sum up my experience with the class, I think that one way to categorize what I’ve learned is that historically, women have been viewed not as partners and co-pilgrims in the journey of life (whether equal or unequal ones), but quite often as a problem to be solved. I think this view is easy to substantiate, and has nothing to do with man-bashing or extreme feminist theories; but that this view is difficult to wrap modern heads around because it differs substantially from modern viewpoints–those of modern defenders of traditional gender roles and even those of modern misogynists, as well as those of feminists and believers in gender equality.

In class, it seems that the most diverse viewpoints–the most feminist as well as the most ardent defenders of traditional gender roles and relations–agree that women are different from men. Women are different biologically, they are typically not as physically strong and, in premodern times, spend much of their adolescence and adulthood either pregnant or caring for small children. Hence, a division of labor is virtually mandated by biology. Further, women are different temperamentally.

Both the feminist and traditionalist views seem to want to view these differences as complementary and equally good. But it seems to me that in antiquity, the differences between men and women–or rather, the differentness of women–was viewed as a problem to be solved, or at least endured.

To begin from the time when people began to think about things in a way we today would recognize as rational (as opposed to religious or practical), in Classical Greece, the problem of women was put by men in terms which are impossible to misinterpret. Women are the cause of all evils in the world, as typified by the myth of Pandora. Women are biologically and intellectually inferior to men. Women are frequently compared to animals, and while it’s not denied that they are humans, they are certainly more animal-like than men are. Marriage, for men, is to subject oneself to the tyranny of an irrational and demanding entity. Marriage was to be undertaken as a duty to the state, not to be expected to be a source of personal enjoyment or fulfillment. Some, though not all ancient writers concede that a good wife is indeed a great good for a man, but she is so rare than no man should expect to get one.

Women are good for only one thing, and that thing is not what more modern misogynists think it is–young boys are much better for that. It’s not what defenders of complementary gender roles think it is, either–women in general make very poor companions, and they are very unlikely to be diligent in their work, preferring to gossip with the servants and sneak around with other men whenever they can. The only thing women are good for is procreation. And they are not so much good for that purpose, since they are liable to try to contracept or abort without the husband’s permission (with the husband’s permission, there’s no problem with either of these things, nor with exposing an infant to die if the husband decrees it). Rather, they are the only option for that purpose. One ancient male writer wonders why Zeus saw fit to saddle them with women as the only way to produce an heir. Wouldn’t it be better, he wonders, to procure an heir by making a donation in a certain amount to the temples? Despite the gods’ undeniable avarice, it seems they didn’t respond to this suggestion.

In the ancient view, women were not fragile and in need of protection, as in the Victorian or Islamic formulation. Rather, they were cloistered, veiled, denied citizenship or virtually any public role, because they were dangerous. A later Roman writer, writing at a time when women had begun to take on more public although not political roles, wonders nervously what is to become of the men if the women were to get equal rights?

In the pre-Graeco-Roman Ancient Near East, the female gods are at least as fierce and cunning as the male gods, perhaps even more so. Inanna of Mesopotamia, Anat of the Canaanites, and Bastet of the Egyptians are like ancient berserkers, losing all capacity for rationality or mercy when exacting revenge on enemies. Isis tricks the aging Ra into giving her his power by poisoning him and offering the antidote if he tells her his secret name.

Of course, the ANE goddesses were also seductive and sexual, whereas the Graeco-Roman goddesses, with the exception of Aphrodite, were much less so. Artemis seems in some ways like a continuation of the antisocial ANE goddess, and was a “virgin” (meaning she was unmarried), and as such was not a threat to men as human women (who did not have the option of being unmarried) were. Athena is representative of how great it would be if a woman could indeed be more like a man–but real women aren’t like Athena. Hestia is the embodiment of the perfect wife and mother, except for one thing: she was neither married nor a mother. Hence, she was the perfect woman: she kept to female roles without imposing her presence on any poor man. Hera was married, and her marriage can easily be seen as representative of the trouble with marriage: though subject to Zeus, she continually chafed at this, and was eternally jealous, quarrelsome, and sought to throw spokes in the wheels of any of the various wacky enterprises Zeus undertook.

It doesn’t seem to be primarily women’s sexuality that was a problem for the Greeks, as it was for the ancient Hebrews, Christians, and modern Muslims. Rather, it is the fact that by their very nature they were a threat to men. Not a potential threat, but a very real and immediate threat, both right this minute and for all time, written into the cosmology. Women were the source of all problems that men encounter in life, said the Greeks, in so many words.

Women were a problem for the Greeks. Of course, men were a problem too, and in one sense the solution to both problems were the same: men were a problem to be solved by men, and so were women. Men solved the problem of themselves through politics and philosophy (note the rise and prevalence of Stoicism, a male pursuit). They solved the problem of women in similar ways. Sumptuary laws limited the public appearances of respectable women to none at all–since wives were a luxury commodity like other forms of conspicuous consumption. The roles of nonrespectable women, slaves and prostitutes, were clearly delineated from those of respectable ones. Both of these nonrespectable categories had much more varied and interesting lives, and simultaneously much worse ones, for the most part, than respectable wives.

There were exceptions to this view of women, of course. Socrates had all sorts of good things to say about a heterae (a kind of geisha-like woman) of his acquaintance, and nothing at all good to say about his own wife, and seemed to prefer the sexual companionship of boys to that of women. But he did believe that women were or could be the intellectual equals of men, and for this and other peculiar opinions was executed as a danger to the morals of the young. Plato followed his lead on this. He proposed a utopia in which family relationships were so diametrically opposed to anything actually practiced anywhere in the world–women holding all societal roles equally to men, and this equality protected by the abolition of the family–that one wonders where in the world this was coming from, and who in the world would want to live that way. The answer, apparently, was that nobody did. Finally, the Epicureans, the main rival to the Stoics, accepted women students on the same basis as men–but nobody every thought very highly of Epicurus or his philosophical school.

During the Hellenistic and the later pre-Christian Roman periods, women had much broader public roles than in the classical Greek or republican Roman periods, but they were still potentially dangerous creatures. The devoted wife and mother finally did get her due, and women were more able to control their own lives rather than to pass from the absolute control of her father to that of her husband. There was also more freedom for women to not be respectable, if they liked, and still lead reasonably pleasant lives. Women had more economic and legal powers.

But there were two things women could never do: hold political power through voting or holding public office, or serving in the military. The reasons for the latter are fairly obvious. What were the reasons for the former? For one, military success was one sure way of garnering political influence, and that was not possible for women. For another, there were still doubts about women’s intellectual capacity and ability to control their emotions, although women’s intellectual ability was now more recognized.

Finally, women were dangerous. As noted above, Romans feared the consequences of giving women political power–they didn’t know what might happen, but they were pretty sure it wouldn’t mean anything good for them. Whether or not one believed women were capable of taking on traditionally male roles, it was better to keep women under men’s thumb as much as possible. It was more “seemly,” it kept the established social order from descending into an unpredictable chaos, it was, above all, safer.

The appearance and rise of Christianity fundamentally challenged the Graeco-Roman notion of the nature and proper roles of women, and it too made the Romans nervous. The early Christians were persecuted because they threated the established Roman order, both as pertains to women and in more important ways. And when the church inherited the project of ordering society from pre-Christian Rome, it too had to tackle the trouble with woman–leading to an entirely new formulation of the problem as well as a new set of solutions, which I hopefully will eventually favor you with my interpretation of.

The Uruk period

With the Uruk period in ancient Mesopotamia we see the very beginnings of writing and are, therefore, almost into a historical period! How exciting! I’m sure that’s how the ancient Mesopotamians felt about it.

As in the Ubaid period, the term “Uruk” refers to three things: a time period, an ancient city (now an archaeological site), and a material culture. The time period is ca. 4000-3000 BC, and the city is the main and almost the only source of information we have for the period.

The Uruk period saw the development of several cultural factors which marked the transition from relatively egalitarian, sedentary agricultural towns to what we would call a “civilization.”

One of these was the development of public architecture. This architecture was “monumental,” in that it was built to impress; it was “public” because it was meant to serve, belong to, or encompass the whole community rather than a single family (even if not everybody got to participate directly in what went on in these buildings).

The city of Uruk had two major public complexes in the Uruk period. One of these was the Anu ziggurat and White Temple, both dedicated to the Mesopotamian sky-god Anu. Several architectural features of the building complex had appeared first in the Ubaid period, showing the continuity between the two phases.

Several hundred meters from the Anu ziggurat is the “Eanna precinct,” dedicated to the rather alarming goddess Inanna, who was the patron goddess of Uruk.

Along with monumental architecture, monumental art made its first appearance in the Uruk period. The best-known of these artifacts is the Warka vase (Warka being another version of the word Uruk). It depicts a procession of people bringing offerings to Inanna. The difference between this object, which shows specialized knowledge and excellent workmanship, and earlier art which mainly consisted of small clay figurines, marks a change in the way society worked.

Along with these changes, the Uruk saw a continuation of the trend of social complexity (professional specialization and differences between socio-economic classes). This can be seen in the production of the above monumental buildings and art; and also in such texts as the “Standard Professions List,” which lists various jobs held by people (though most people’s livelihood still came from agricultural pursuits both now and throughout Ancient Near Eastern history).

The Uruk also saw an increased settlement hierarchy (large cities surrounded by smaller towns which are themselves surrounded by smaller hamlets, each playing a part in the centralization and distribution of various kinds of goods). Cities were still independent at this stage, and most likely in various relationships of cooperation and competition with each other.

Most important to the beginning of a truly historical period, the Uruk saw the origins of writing in the form of cuneiform script representing the Sumerian language. Cuneiform consisted of impressions made with a reed stylus in carefully prepared, moist clay. It began as a pictographic text, and may have had a three-dimensional precursor in the from of bullae and tokens (scroll down for pictures, but read the text if you like). Both bullae and tokens and the earliest writing were probably ways of keeping track of things: stored goods, goods being shipped from one place to another, etc. The development of cylinder seals at this period is another aspect of such record-keeping bureaucracy: officials in charge of such things had their own seals, and used them to make impressions on bullae, tablets, and other pieces of ancient red tape to show that whatever transaction was taking place was officially approved.

Much as there was an “Ubaid expansion” in the previous period, there was an “Uruk expansion”: a period in the middle to late Uruk in which characteristic Uruk artifacts are found in western Iran, northern Mesopotamia, northern Syria, and parts of Anatolia. It is not clear what type of interaction this “expansion” represents. The most prominent theory, promoted by Guillermo Algaze, is that the Uruk expansion represents a Marxist-style World System. According to this theory, the Uruk enclaves represented by the Uruk material culture were trading colonies intended to ensure access to foreign resources for Mesopotamian cities. The Uruk peoples dominated the regions they touched through economic means rather than through military or political might.

There are, as you might imagine, a number of objections to this theory. First, there is no evidence of power asymmetry between the Mesopotamian “core” and the Anatolian (for example) “periphery”: the Anatolians controlled production of Anatolian traded goods and their side of the exchange. The terms of the exchange were not set by the Mesopotamian side of things.

Second, the Marxist model suggests that long-distance trade would have fundamentally changed the societies it touched, re-forming them along the lines dictated by the needs of the “core” entity. But this has not been established, as Algaze himself concedes.

Finally, the model assumes the existence of a political entity with the level of organization and resources needed to control a far-flung region. But Mesopotamia was not unified at this period, rather it consisted of several competing city-states. Algaze suggests the existence of several “cores” controlling parts of the “periphery,’ but this is a theory for which we will probably never have enough documentation to prove its truth or falsity.

Next: the Early Dynastic period
(Objections to the World Systems model from Gil Stein and Piotr Steinkeller).

History of the Middle East (the two-minute version)

Via Maps of War, a very cool animated map of the major military conquests that defined the history of the Middle East. (Press ‘Play’ on the map below to see the animation.)

Hat tip to Google Blogoscoped.

The Ubaid period

Long ago, I posted about the environment and landscape in Ancient Mesopotamia. Now, finally, I’ll continue with the development of the earliest historical periods in Mesopotamian history. I’ll begin with the Ubaid period. Although the Ubaid period itself was prehistoric (meaning that writing had not yet been developed), there were several significant developments during the Ubaid period that set the stage for the beginning of history.

The term “Ubaid” is used for three things: a time period, an archaeological site, and a culture. The time period is ca. 5000-4000 BC. You can see the archaeological site of Tell al-Ubaid and other important Ubaid sites in southern Meospotamia on this map. The Ubaid “culture” was first identified at this site by Sir Leonard Woolley, based on the presence of a certain kind of painted pottery .

What does it mean when I refer to the Ubaid “culture”? The word “culture” is meant in the anthropological sense. It’s one of those abstract concepts that is difficult to define, but here is one definition. Now, the Ubaid culture was extinct long ago, so there is no way we can observe these “shared beliefs, values, and customs” directly; and the Ubaid was prehistoric, meaning we don’t have any written accounts of these things. The only thing recoverable from extinct cultures are the “artifacts,” hence, an archaeological “culture” refers to a particular assemblage of similar artifacts. (An assemblage is just a term meaning a group of things–any group of things. The stuff sitting on my desk right now could be called a “Michele’s desk assemblage.”)

It is assumed by archaeologists that when they find groups of diagnostic artifacts (such as pottery made or decorated in a distinctive way, or other distinctive types of art, architecture, or tools), the people who made them belonged to a common “culture” with people in other places who made the same kinds of things. The Ubaid “culture” is defined by the type of painted pottery mentioned above, a kind of tool made of clay referred to as bent clay “nails” or “mullers,” cone-headed clay figurines (boo! Happy Halloween), and sickles made out of clay used for harvesting crops. There was also a characteristic form of Ubaid architecture: a tripartite house with a T-shaped center room.

When we speak about the “Ubaid period,” then, we are referring to the time period during which this characteristic assemblage is found in southern Mesopotamia and surrounding areas.

Although the Ubaid period was prehistoric, several Ubaid developments paved the way for the following historic periods:

1. Although settled agricultural life had existed in northern Mesopotamia and other parts of the Near East for thousands of years before the Ubaid period, no cultural remains earlier than the Ubaid have been found in southern Mesopotamia. Some scholars believe that this is because people simply didn’t live there before that, perhaps because the Gulf coast was farther inland and the land was too marshy to be habitable; others believe that earlier settlements haven’t been found. We discussed earlier several ways in which early sites can be obscured in the alluvial plain: they can be buried under silt deposited by the rivers or by sand dunes.

Regardless of which theory is correct, two things about the origins of the Ubaid are notable: first, the Ubaid culture is native to southern Mesopotamia; and second, it is interesting that the first complex societies arose in a region which may not have had nearly as long a history of habitation as other regions of the Near East.

2. Another reason to begin with the Ubaid period is that we can see a significant cultural continuity between the Ubaid period and the following period, the Uruk. One particularly dramatic, archaeologically visible example of the direct development of the Uruk and later historical period from the Ubaid period occurs at Eridu. Here, a series of temples were built, one on top of each other and becoming more and more elaborate over time, beginning in the Ubaid period and ending in the historic period.

3. The final reason to consider the Ubaid period is that the Ubaid saw the appearance of non-egalitarian societies which perhaps somehow paved the way for the urban civilizations that would appear in the next period.

One way in which to view the Ubaid phenomenon is with in the band-chiefdom-state cultural evolutionary model we looked at last time.

First, let’s look at the evidence for the emergence of what we call “complexity” in southern Mesopotamia:

Settlement hierarchy: One indicator archaeologists look for when determining the level of complexity of a society is the emergence of a settlement hierarchy. In the Ubaid period, a two-level settlement hierarchy appears on the alluvial plain: there were a few large sites covering 10 ha or more, and numerous small 1 ha sites. This apparently indicates a pattern of city centers surrounded by village communities, which may have been politically subordinate to the centers. In more complex societies, we see settlement hierarchies with more levels—three, four, or more, representing a nested set of centers with satellite communities, which each have their own satellite communities.

Architecture and artifact distributions suggest differences in levels of wealth between different people, another factor in an increasingly complex society. At Tell Abada in Ubaid 203, one building located in the center of town was much larger than the other houses at the site. This large house shows evidence for different, special burial practices and high concentrations of artifacts which were apparently prestigious: maceheads, carved gypsum vessels, and administrative artifacts such as clay tokens and clay “proto-tablets” which are found only in this building.

Ritual public architecture: The Ubaid period sees Mesopotamia’s first ritual public architecture. This takes the form of rectangular temples with corners oriented towards the cardinal points of the compass with similar architecture. These temples appear in the first phase of the Ubaid period and become larger and more elaborate over time as we saw at Eridu; such temples appear at other sites including Uruk and Tell Uqair.

Taking this evidence into account, let’s consider the Ubaid period in terms of the cultural evolutionary model I posted about earlier. This evidence of settlement hierarchy shows a differentiation in function between settlements. Evidence of prestige artifacts and different house sizes and functions, and the presence of “public” architecture, all suggest that Ubaid societies were non-egalitarian. But it did not fulfill the criteria for being a “state”.

Does this make Ubaid societies “chiefdoms”? They are often considered as such by scholars, but the Ubaid societies display some important differences from the characteristics of classical “chiefdoms”.

A Near Eastern archaeologist named Gil Stein argues that Ubaid societies can be considered “chiefdoms,” but that they were a different kind of chiefdom from the classical type. He argues that the classical chiefdom model was formulated based on Polynesian and American examples, and that the Ubaid chiefdoms had a different socio-economic basis which caused it to display somewhat different characteristics.

How does Stein argue that the Ubaid is different from the classical chiefdom model?

(1) In what I’m calling the classical chiefdom model, chiefs pursue a particular type of warfare to bolster their status and maintain their rule. There is no evidence for warfare in the Ubaid period. The most obvious signs of warfare that archaeologists look for are signs of violent destructions at ancient sites and the presence of site fortifications: heavy walls, towers, and gates; and these are not present in the Ubaid. There are also no signs of warfare in the iconography of the period.

(2) A second characteristic of the classical chiefdom is the long-distance exchange of exotic goods as status markers. We do not see evidence that exotic trade goods obtained by long-distance trade played a tremendous social role. I described a couple of prestige items above, but one of important ones was objects related to administration-tokens and proto-tablets, which were simply made of mud.

(3) Finally, classical chiefdoms tend to be unstable, with frequent societal collapse. But the Ubaid social system seems to have lasted for a millennia or more with only minor changes in settlement, subsistence, and material culture.

Stein argues that Ubaid society represents a different kind of chiefdom. The classical chiefdom relies on what he calls “wealth distribution”: the power of the chiefs was bolstered by the manufacture or procurement of high-status objects which are exchanged for staple goods (food etc.), and are redistributed among the elites as rewards for loyalty and service to the chief.

The Ubaid system, however, was based on “staple finance”: which was the power to command surplus staples such as grain to support the elite.

Stein offers the following picture of Ubaid society based on this model: The notable characteristics of the Ubaid period are the simultaneous emergence of an irrigation-dependent farming system, economic differentiation, regional centralization, and ritual elaboration. Power would have been based on access to good agricultural land and the ability to mobilize labor to maintain the irrigation systems necessary for farming. This would have been done both through kinship and through the temples which appeared at this time. The temples are evidence of a shared religious ideology. Temples could have provided a buffer against crop failure by storing surplus agricultural products and redistributing them as necessary.

The power of the Ubaid chiefs remained focused on local resources, based on ritual sanctification of authority, which avoids the tendency toward instability of classical chiefdoms, which are dependent on their ability to access exotic trade goods. The result would be numerous small-scale but stable chiefdoms.

Next up: The Uruk Period

Setting the stage: environment and landscape in Mesopotamia

It’s been a while! I’m starting again on converting my class lectures to Historicity posts. Since history begins in Mesopotamia, I will too, by discussing the physical setting of the earliest civilizations. Here’s a map to consult along the way.

The earliest instance of the emergence of complex societies that we would call “civilization” occurred in southern Mesopotamia—aka Iraq south of the river bends at modern Baghdad. Because all ancient civilizations, including that in Mesopotamia, were shaped in so many ways by the geographies and environments in which they arose, I’ll begin by describing the major components of the physical landscapes of the different regions of the Near East.


delicious history

So the rest of my lectures are a little too long to post here, and I haven’t had time to whittle them down yet. But, I thought I’d post a few links to web resources I’ve found for the class, with my commentary (of course). They’re mostly more interesting than my lectures anyway.

A page I made of Ancient Near East links.

Here are a couple of works of Sumerian literature (in translation, of course) online. Will be back later with some Egyptian stuff.


What is civilization?

This semester I am teaching a class on the Ancient Near East at A Local College. I plan on posting some or all of my lectures here. I can see that these are going to be somewhat long so will figure out what to do about that later. Here is Lecture #1.


Uncovering the (very) early Christian church

A quick item of interest: archaeologists have uncovered what might be the earliest Christian church yet discovered in Israel–it apparently predates Constantine by several decades.

concatenation: 1.b. An instance of chaining or linking together (OED)

Just another concatenation of links for you.

The American School of Oriental Researches list o’ links to museums, journals, and archaeological excavations. Be sure to check out Ashkelon (there’s more content in the National Geographic article) and Bethsaida–I’ve dug at both, and have the T-shirts to prove it. I might have been at the site of Tell Atchana (ancient Alalakh) in the Amuq Valley in Turkey, had things been different; and might find myself there yet some time. Alas, no new dig shirt for me this year.