By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: The Great Courses
Narration by: Professor Robert Garland
Professor Robert Garland has made a career of piecing together cultural details of ancient civilizations. Garland’s journey back in time is highly speculative. It addresses the lives of losers and the underclass of social groupings and civilizations that have no written records of their thoughts, feelings, or life struggles. Any written record of the early years of human events are revealed as legend, or surmised from preserved remains.
As Winston Churchill said, “History is written by the victors.” Garland acknowledges Churchill’s observation while offering educated guesses about what life was like for the unsung and defeated. He goes back to the beginning of the human race by noting that Homo Sapiens were the only human species to survive in the family of great apes. Though Neanderthals and Denisovans once roamed the earth, the purity of their genetic makeup is overwhelmed by the DNA of North African Homo Sapiens. Though Neanderthals and Denisovans had similar brain sizes, were bipedal, and similar to Homo Sapiens, they disappear as a distinct species of human either through internecine war, or evolutionary selection. Garland suggests it may have been both; i.e. warfare and evolution, with a cognitive growth burst for the singular hominid called Sapiens. No one really knows.
Garland suggests the early lives of Neanderthals, Denisovans, and Homo Sapiens is precarious. They are hunter/gatherers largely dependent on small family groups for food. They are not as strong or agile as other members of the animal kingdom. However, with larger brains, their bipedal height, and their cognitive growth (particularly Homo Sapiens) they develop an advantage over other predators.
Garland includes humankind in the predator class but suggests, in the early years, hominids were just like most animal species; i.e. singularly motivated by the instinct to survive. Garland notes evidence of cannibalism in the bone markings of family members that appear to have been eaten by their own. Evidence of intelligence is shown by both Neanderthals and Denisovans in the tools found with their remains but Garland suggests cognitive growth of Sapiens’ outstrips their competition. Garland suggests early hominids lived in small tribes and developed in relative isolation until Sapiens crossed into Europe from Africa. DNA evidence shows that some Neanderthals and Denisovans mated with Sapiens but not in proportion to their relative population size which infers evolutionary selection is a part of their reason for extinction.
Garland uses the next several lectures to reflect on the rise of ancient Egypt (3100-332 BC). Remains and the beginnings of early records show evidence of slavery as a dominant feature of life in the known world. The Pyramids of Egypt are a testament to the existence of slaves but also, according to Garland, are monuments to religious ties of poor Egyptians. Garland reflects on the deep regard for an afterlife on the part of Egyptian culture.
He notes the wide gap between royalty and the day-to-day lives of the poor. Until 525 B.C., Egypt is led by Egyptian Pharaohs. Amenhotep IV (1379-1362 B.C.) attempts to create a religious revolution by replacing many gods with one god (the sun-god, Aton). This is a precursor to a great change in the history of religion.
The Exodus of Moses and the Israelites occurs during the reign of Ramses II (1304-1237 B.C.) Garland suggests the rule of the Pharaohs begins to decline with increasing demand for local rule. The consequence for the poor and slave populations are unlikely to have changed much but one presumes the Egyptian empire became more fragmented and regionally competitive.
Persia invades and conquers Egypt in 525 B.C. Much of the “many gods” religion is reinstated but the tyranny of Xerxes (486-465 B.C.) raises the discontent of native populations. Egyptian rule re-establishes itself for a short period of time but in 332 B.C., Egypt is conquered a second time by Alexander the Great, a Macedonian Greek.
Garland moves on to Greece. He notes the great volcanic eruption on Santorini (between 1650 and 1500 B.C), the ancient Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations that prospered from 3000 to 1100 B.C. as centers of trade. Today, Santorini is one of the most beautiful places in the world. One can sip a glass of wine while the sun sets on the Mediterranean, across the massive caldera left from the great eruption.
The center of Minoan civilization is in Crete as revealed in the excavation of Knossos. As in Egypt, Greece is heavily populated by slaves that work for wealthy and middle class Greek citizens. Garland notes that hardly any Greek citizen is without at least one slave. The wealthier a Greek became, the more slaves he employs. Slaves are generally paid; not well, but they are paid. Owners have complete control of a slave’s life. There are brutal as well as benevolent slave owners but freedom can only be bought by the slave or given by his/her owner.
Ancient Greek religion includes many gods who care nothing for humankind and act arbitrarily in respect to mortals. Gods are attended by chosen and trained Greek citizens who ritualistically appease and praise the gods; i.e. gods whose existence makes them arbiters of human life. A Greek is honored to be one of the chosen to attend a god in his temple. Other than the chosen caretakers, only the high-born are allowed inside the temples; i.e. others are restricted to a foyer at the entrance. Caretakers work for three months and are given a several month sabbatical for their service before returning for another three months. Garland suggests it is a coveted job in Greece.
After decline of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations, there is a period of darkness until the formation of the Greek City-State. Garland defines the Greek City-State as an independent jurisdiction with its own Greek identity. Garland notes that. as in all ancient civilizations, Greece is deeply misogynistic. Women are stay at home baby makers who were nearly always several years younger than their husbands. The age of marriage for a girl could be as young as 12. They are denied education and expected to bear male children to continue the family name.
Women are severely punished and sometimes put to death for extramarital affairs, while men do as they please. Homosexual relationships are socially accepted and become part of mentor-ship liaisons between older and younger men. Child mortality is high. Boys that survive the rigors of youth are prized by their families but are raised by their mothers until beginning their formal education at 7. Wealthy families’ children are provided tertiary education if they reach 16 years of age. Education focuses on rhetoric and philosophy. In contrast girls are provided little education; generally cannot read or write, and are relegated to training as household keepers and baby makers and caretakers.
Garland touches on the Greek City-State of Sparta; its militaristic emphasis, and eventual domination of Greece. At age 6, Spartan boys leave their parents to become educated by the City-State. At 12, they are housed in barracks to receive military training and to learn how to steal food to survive without being caught. At 16, they become part of what Garland describes as a military police system. Their hardened military training leads to Sparta’s domination of the Greek world.
Garland returns to the plight of slaves who have no political or legal rights. Slavery extends to the poorest Greek citizens that often have at least 1 slave. Garland reports on a slave rebellion in 464 B.C. that takes the Spartans 5 years to defeat. Life as a Greek is based on creating a sense of citizen security in an insecure world. In return for security, the indigenous population is willing to give up many private rights and freedoms.
The agora is a meeting place for civic, legal, religious, and commercial activity in Athens. Philosophical and political education and discussion among the men of Greece takes place in the agora. The agora also serves as a market place for food and commercial exchange. Local taverns become the gathering place for symposia where men congregate to discuss politics and philosophy while leisurely sipping diluted wine. At times Garland suggests symposia devolve into debauchery. Women are not invited except for the rare woman who flaunts sexual mores of the times. The majority of Greek women experience leisure only by visiting female friends or, on some occasions, participating in religious festivals. Little leisure or entertainment is afforded women in ancient Greece. Life is short; i.e. either threatened by disease or war. Average age at death is 40 with few living to be 60.
Next, Garland addresses the rise and fall of the Persian empire around 539 B.C. Contrary to the way Persians are depicted in modern movies, they are assimilators more than destroyers of other cultures. Rather than brutal subjugation like that practiced by the later Roman Empire, the Persians accept, influence, and are influenced by other cultures. Garland notes that the Persians understood the limits of acculturation but were exemplars of assimilation. The Persian, King Cyrus is said to have treated the conquered fairly. Garland notes that Jews, who had been living in Babylon for many years, were allowed to stay and prosper. Cyrus allows the Jews to rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem (a temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar). Egypt is ruled by the Persians for nearly 3,000 years. Persians cultivated the land, raised sheep, goats, cattle, and other live stock. Some became scribes that provided much of what is known about Egyptian culture. Though Persian Kings were autocrats, their rule is not challenged until Alexander the Great conquers Persia in 330 B.C.
Garland notes that Alexander attempts to integrate Egyptian and Macedonian cultures by marriage but the effort fails with Alexander’s death. Garland suggests this is one of the greatest social experiments ever tried in the history of conquered nations. Garland suggests the greatest city on earth is created at the direction of Alexander. (However, Garland notes that Alexander never saw the completed city.) It became known as Alexandria. It becomes the capital of Egypt for almost 1000 years.
One of the seven wonders of the world (the Lighthouse of Alexandria) is created to mark the way to the port of Alexandria on the Mediterranean. Alexandria becomes home for the Great Library (the largest in the world) before it is burned to the ground (possibly when Pompey’s armies attack Caesar in 48 B.C.). Many ancient scrolls were lost. Garland imagines a librarian running from the flames with a handful of scrolls. Alexander’s general, Ptolemy and his descendants rule Egypt until the last famous Ptolemaic leader, Cleopatra, surrenders to Octavian (later known as Augustus, who becomes Emperor of Rome) in 31 B.C.
Alexandria becomes a Greek City, run by Greeks in a foreign country. With the death of Cleopatra, the remaining lectures address the ascension of the Roman Empire and the rise of Great Britain. The size of the Roman Empire is not exceeded until the 19th century by Great Britain, according to Garland. (One wonders about the Mogul Empire in respect to that assertion but nothing is noted by Garland.)
Garland again addresses the underclass to reaffirm his theme of “The Other Side of History”. He is now on somewhat firmer ground because of the increase in written records of the time. The Roman Empire takes the best of what Greece offers to the history of the world by adopting their gods (only with different names), and many of the good and bad characteristics of Greek culture. Women are equally suppressed in Rome. Slaves remain a staple of the Roman Culture and economic system. The art of Greece is accumulated by the Romans but the Romans add many architectural improvements to Rome that equal and surpass the Greeks. Greek slaves are coveted by the Roman wealthy because of their education, culture, and customs. Garland notes that Roman life is unsanitary, uncomfortable, overcrowded, and hazardous just as it was in Greece. There is a wide gap between the rich and poor. Bread and Circuses become a staple of Roman entertainment.
However, the Roman Empire offered economic stability through jobs created by its ever-expanding territory, public works, and growing acceptance of satellite administrations; i.e. that is as long as the basic tenants of Roman law were followed. Several lectures cover what it meant to be a criminal, rich, poor, or famous as a Roman citizen. Garland sticks with the Roman Empire to explain the rise of a single-god religion, Christianity, and the ongoing conflict with Jewish leaders.
The last chapters address the ascension of Great Britain as a world power. The Roman Empire leaves Great Britain in the 4th century. Garland suggests that the Roman Empire offered a period of stability to Britain that became the first inkling of what it would take for Britain to become a strong independent country. The stability created by Rome is replaced by the British Celts which have mixed results among local British citizens. That value of Roman Rule’s totalitarianism is reinforced with the conquest of Great Britain by the Normans (the French) in 1066.
The Normans bring a single-god religion to Great Britain. At the same time, they provide a level of economic stability that had been lost when the Romans left. Viking raids, before the Norman invasion, wore down British settlements created by the Celts and Anglo-Saxons (German tribesman that emigrated to Great Britain in the 5th century). The Vikings are generally illiterate, rapacious, and cruel but the Celts and growing Anglo-Saxon population of Great Britain resisted Viking terror and adapted to Norman rule until Norman rule became too oppressive.
Finally, Garland recounts Great Britain’s rise to power after defeat of Norman rule. Though Norman rule shows the Anglo-Saxons the value of centralized government, they rebel in 1069. Eventually the Anglo-Saxons defeat the Normans but a relationship with the continent is cemented with blood and kinship. Garland notes that Great Britain, after a 1,000 years of invasion, is never conquered again.
The final lectures address the Middle Ages; some call them the dark ages. Hell, fire, and brimstone are preached by a growing religion that devolves into greed that is exemplified by paid indulgences for a place in heaven. The Norman Conquest left an aristocracy in Great Britain that joins the Crusades for Christianity based on the Pope’s guarantee of a place in heaven for aristocrats who join the Crusades. Henry the II murders Thomas Beckett and Henry the VIII confiscates the Catholic Church’s wealth that starts the protestant reformation.
Life in these tumultuous times remains a struggle for survival. Women are still discriminated against; rule is hierarchical, and the gap between rich and poor remains in place. Slavery is somewhat diminished but poverty becomes the new form of citizen enslavement. Agriculture is the main source of wealth but growth of cities like London, Norwich, and York begin the march toward mercantilism, industrialization, and the rise of the middle class.
One concludes from these lectures that “The Other Side of History” is as brutal for a small minority of victors as the general population. The threat of disease and death seem equally prevalent for victors and the poor; however the victors live a life with many more pleasures than the vanquished or poor while they are alive. Perhaps, a minuscule middle class, that is destined to become a dominant population cohort, lives best by neither being a beggar or an aristocratic leader. Garland notes that leaders are many times more likely to die from murder than the general population.