Last October J & I visited New York for (nearly) a week, mostly to see the Egyptian stuff in the Metropolitan Museum of Art - but we did do other sightseeing too :) In terms of Ancient Egyptian stuff seen we spent two and a half days in the Met (including time in their exhibition on the Middle Kingdom that opened while we were there), and a day in the Brooklyn Museum. And for non-Egyptian stuff we managed to cram 2 tall buildings, a boat ride past a statue, Central Park (more than once, both walking & running), 2 art galleries & the Natural History Museum and a lot of tasty food & drink, into about a day & two half days. It was the sort of holiday you come back from feeling like you need a week on the beach to decompress before doing anything else ... so instead we went away for a weekend in London with friends (and study days for J) before returning to reality with a bump!

A selection of my photos from the trip are up on flickr, here (or click on any of the photos on this post to go to it on flickr). There'll be more Ancient Egyptian related ones later, but this set has all the sightseeing ones in it.

Day 0

Our journey out seemed to take forever, partly coz we stayed over in a hotel at the airport the night before our flight. But it was uneventful, and eventually we made it to the hotel. When we were booking pretty much every hotel in Manhattan, and particularly in the area near the museums, had reviews that talked about how small the rooms all were so we were kinda fearing the worst, but it was actually a pretty reasonable room and much bigger than we were expecting :)

Me in Our Hotel Room

Day 1

Our original plan was to do city sightseeing on the first day, but the weather forecast said that it was going to turn into the only bad weather day of the trip so we changed things around. We had to pick up the sightseeing passes I'd bought so we walked from the hotel through Central Park to do that, via a breakfast of pancakes and bacon (surprisingly tasty) in a diner along the way.

Me in Central Park

We then spent about 9.5 hours in the Met, and saw a bit more than half of their Egyptian things ... I hadn't actually realised quite how much stuff there was in there. We did pause for lunch btw, and were impressed with the cafeteria they had - loads of proper food options as well as sandwiches. Actually I quite liked the museum as a whole - even though we didn't explore much past the Ancient Egyptian stuff, there was a lot there to see and we could've spent a lot longer than the time we had on this trip. The only annoying thing about it was in the Egyptian sections there were constant tours coming through that were purporting to tell their victims all about Egypt in the Bible. But sadly almost everything one overheard them say was utter bobbins - for instance the scarab beetle hieroglyph has nowt to do with the god Ptah, and the plague of locusts wasn't sent to make Egyptians worry about taking the name of Ptah in vain as they spat locusts out. It wasn't just wrong, it was fractally wrong - every statement I heard had me wondering where to start in deciding what was wrong with it. And as we spent a lot of time there, I had a chance to hear these stories multiple times ...

Naqada II Pottery

Anyway, moving back to the interesting and non-tooth grinding stuff :) The Egyptian galleries are laid out in chronological order and on this first day we managed to get from the prehistoric stuff through to the middle of the 18th Dynasty. I'm going to write up a bigger post about the Met once I've got all my photos from there online, so this post will only have general thoughts. One thing that struck me was that there was a subtle difference in how the objects were presented - the Met (and the Brooklyn Museum) are art museums rather than history museums. And although I can't quite put my finger on how the presentation was different it did feel a bit more like the history was there to contextualise the object one was looking at, rather than the object being there to illustrate the history one was learning.

Model Travelling Boat

Gazelle

Day 2

For our second day we spent half the day doing sight-seeing before returning to the Met for the early evening (to take advantage of the late closing day). We started by getting up very briskly to try and beat the rush to the Empire State Building - which we pretty much did, still a lot of people but we didn't have to queue terribly long.

View from the Empire State Building

View from the Empire State Building

After looking at Manhattan from on high, we next went to look at it from the water ... We'd decided not to actually visit the Statue of Liberty, instead we took the Staten Island Ferry which goes past the Statue and gives you a pretty good view of it and of the iconic Manhattan skyline from below. We had our lunch over on Staten Island - we tried to strike off into the island itself to see if we could find somewhere to eat, but I think we went the wrong way and ended up in a distinctly Not Touristy part so after a bit of a failure of nerve we returned to the ferry terminal and went to one of the restaurants there. Despite it feeling like a bit of a cop out, we actually had a rather nice lunch and the service was possibly the best of the whole trip. We then took the ferry back - having taken lots of photos on the way out I just admired the view on the way back :)

Statue of Liberty

View from Staten Island Ferry

View from the Staten Island Ferry

And then back to the Met - we got round almost all the rest of the Egyptian stuff, except for one suite of galleries that they randomly closed just as we were about to look at it (I think they didn't have enough staff that evening? it wasn't clear what was going on). We even got to the pièce de résistance today - a whole (small) temple. I really liked how they had the room it's in laid out - the temple is surrounded by a moat, with a small handful of carefully chosen pieces of sculpture. One of the walls of the room is glass (from Central Park it looks like a glass pyramid), and so the temple is mostly lit by natural light during the daytime. And looking at the temple I even found some graffiti - that's how you can tell it's a real temple ;) Mostly 19th Century European stuff, but I think some demotic as well.

Head of a Canopic Jar

Temple of Dendur

Graffiti on the Temple of Dendur

Day 3

This was the only day of the trip that we left Manhattan - to spend all day in another museum full of Ancient Egyptian artifacts! We got to Brooklyn a little earlier than the museum opened, so did have a little wander about and a coffee in a nearby cafe. But the rest of the day was spent in the museum :) They don't have anything like as much stuff as the Met but there was still a lot there.

Female Figurine

Block Statue of Ay

I did manage to fit in a look at their Ancient Near East room as well - I was amused to see that among their objects they have some of the same series of reliefs from Ashurbanipal's palace at Nineveh as are in the British Museum. Apparently there were so many found that the BM sold some of them off as they simply didn't have space to display or store them all.

Reliefs from the Palace of Ashur-nasir-pal II

Head of a Snarling Lion

Day 4

After a full day of museuming we spent the next day doing more city sightseeing. For someone who's not keen on heights I was spending a lot of this holiday up tall buildings: we bookended this day with two trips up to the Top of the Rock, so that we could see the views in daylight and after dark. The trip up the Empire State Building was in large part because J felt you can't visit New York without going up the Empire State Building ... and the trip up to the Top of the Rock was because we wanted to see the Empire State Building in the skyline. And we also got a much better view of Central Park than we had from the Empire State Building.

Me at The Top of the Rock

View from the Top of the Rock

After the first trip up a tall building of the day we headed to the Museum of Modern Art. I'd thought in advance that there might not be much there to my tastes - I'm not overly keen on "modern art" as a broad category. But it turned out that there were quite a few things I did like. There was plenty of stuff by Van Gogh, the Jackson Pollack pieces were much better in person than on the telly. I also liked the Rothkos, and several other things. And the Monet waterlily paintings ... which wasn't a surprise, I've always been fond of them :) And other things too. But I still don't like Picasso very much, and that's who always pops to mind first when you say "modern art".

Me with Van Gogh's Starry Night

J with a painting by Paul Klee

"Water Lilies" Claude Monet

We also looked at some of the contemporary stuff in MOMA, but that mostly just reminded us that the passage of time is a useful way of filtering out the good stuff from the dross ;) After that we walked up to the Natural History Museum ... hoping to find lunch on the way, but somehow I'd picked the wrong street for us to walk along as we didn't see a single cafe or restaurant till we were right next to the museum. Still, we got to eat in the end :) And then we saw dinosaur bones :D And some mammals, and early vetebrates. To be honest, whilst I was pleased we went to this museum, it felt much more like a commercial enterprise than any of the other museums - organised primarily to separate you (and any children you might have) from your money. But still, dinosaurs!

I'm a Dinosaur!

Me & My Turtley Friend

And then we walked once more. Back down towards Top of the Rock to while away the time till the sun set. We popped into Central Park on the way past to see the memorial to John Lennon. And then walked down Broadway for a bit, and had a drink in a bar around there. Once it got dark we headed to Times Square to walk through there (so, so, so tacky, but a box we felt we should tick), before going back up the Top of the Rock. We'd been pleasantly surprised at the speed the queues moved in the morning, but the evening showed us we'd just timed it right. The view was pretty good tho - worth queuing for! The Empire State Building was lit up in the colours of the Italian flag for the evening - because it was Columbus Day, and the New York Italians have a parade that day (we managed to not find out about it till later in the day, tho we had seen the barriers earlier and wondered what it was about).

J at the Memorial to John Lennon

Times Square at Night

View from Top of the Rock at Night

View from Top of the Rock at Night

Day 5

This was our last full day in New York, so obviously we spent it in the Met with the Egyptian stuff again! We did also pop into a couple of the other galleries - I wanted to see the Monet paintings they had, having seen the ones in MOMA and been reminded how much I like them. (I also bought a waterlily painting t-shirt as a souvenir!) In terms of Egyptian stuff we finished off the few rooms we hadn't had a chance to see when they shut them on our last visit, but the main reason we'd gone there on that particular day was to see the special exhibition that had just opened about the Middle Kingdom. It was actually a surprisingly big exhibition - the Met is a huge space, and so what had looked like a medium size room on the floorplan turned out to be much bigger. The exhibition looked at how the art and iconography of Egypt was transformed during the Middle Kingdom period. The best known Pharaohs these days are from the New Kingdom (e.g. Tutankhamun, Ramesses II) or the Old Kingdom (e.g. Khufu and his Great Pyramid), but to the (later) Egyptians themselves the Middle Kingdom was their classical golden age. I plan to write up a more detailed post about it later :)

Coffins of Mistress of the House of Amun, Tabakenkhonsu

Statue of Senwosret III as a Sphinx

Day 6

We didn't need to leave for the airport until mid-afternoon, so had a little bit of time on our last day to do a bit more touristy stuff. This was our opportunity to fit in a run round Central Park - we did a 6 mile loop at my speed (so slow for J) which was rather fun. There are an astonishing number of runners in New York, particularly in Central Park itself (which is also well set up for runners & cyclists with designated paths for them). And then after packing and checking out of the hotel we still had more time to kill so we popped into the Guggenheim Museum using up the last visit on our Explorer Passes. If we hadn't been looking for something relatively near the hotel I don't think we'd've visited this - it hadn't sounded to our tastes, and turned out to be even less so than anticipated. Most of the galleries were closed because they were installing exhibitions, so the majority of what was visitable was an exhibition of work by Alberto Burri who was a 20th Century Italian who made paintings that were generally only one colour and the canvas would also have bits of plastic on it or holes in it to create texture. One, in isolation, might've been quite striking - there were one or two of the black ones that I almost liked. But fifty, laid out up a spiralling gallery, one after another after another, grouped chronologically (and thus all reasonably similar to their immediate neighbours) got rather relentless. There was also a small gallery open with some of their permanent collection which was more to my tastes - more like the range I'd liked in MOMA. Including a Picasso I actually liked!

And then it was time to go home - it had been a good holiday. I'd been ambivalent in advance, I'd been underwhelmed on my first short visit over 20 years ago, plus a lot of what people talk about when they talk about New York is shopping (which I wasn't interested in) and there's a distinct lack of medieval or early modern architecture (being as the city didn't exist back then) which is often what I want to see when I'm sight-seeing somewhere. But I did enjoy it, although I think it may be a once-(properly)-and-done city for me :)

Me in Central Park

Hans Holbein the Younger was one of the foremost portrait painters to work in England during the Tudor period (and perhaps ever), and it's his paintings that shape how we see the court of Henry VIII. Discussing his time at the Tudor court on In Our Time were Susan Foister (the National Gallery), John Guy (Clare College, University of Cambridge) and Maria Hayward (University of Southampton).

They started the programme by setting the scene for the Tudor court of 1526, when Holbein first arrives. At this point Henry VIII has been on the throne for 17 years. Cardinal Wolsey is still his right hand man, and Anne Boleyn has just arrived on the scene. In terms of international politics there has just been a bit of a shake up. Previously Henry VIII was allied with the Spanish against the French - there had been a plan that the two countries would co-ordinate an attack on France, and once successful Henry VIII would get to keep northern France (and be crowned King of France) and the Spanish would claim southern France. However the Spanish had won a victory over the French, but then not divided the spoils with England as Henry VIII thought they'd agreed. So the alliance had broken down, and now Henry VIII was allied with France. Which is another factor in the waning influence of Henry's Spanish wife, Katharine of Aragon, and in the rising influence of the French educated Anne Boleyn. I don't think I'd heard anyone explicitly point out this political connection before, the narrative generally focuses on the need for an heir and "true love".

Hans Holbein's father was also called Hans Holbein and was also an artist, so generally "the Younger" and "the Elder" are appended to their names to disambiguate them. I don't think they said on the programme where Hans Holbein the Younger was born, but it was in continental Europe (Germany, if I remember correctly). He was probably educated alongside his brother, by their father, in a wide variety of artistic techniques and media. This included goldsmith designs and techniques, frescos and other sorts of painting, and producing illustrations for printed books. This last was particularly emphasised by the experts on the programme as a new and lucrative market for an artist at the time. In early adulthood Holbein and his brother move to Basel (Switzerland) where they make a living mostly from illustrations and engravings, but also from religious paintings.

Holbein was looking for an opportunity to become a court painter (as it was a lucrative and prestigiuos position to hold). I think they said he had tried to get employment at the French court, but not had much success. In 1526 he moved to London, with a letter of introduction from Erasmus to Thomas More. He had probably sent ahead his portrait of Erasmus as a showcase for what his skills were. Thomas More was apparently not very optimistic about Holbein's chances of employment in London. He wrote that England was "not fertile ground" - tapestries and theatrical sets where the dominant arts in the country at the time, not portraiture. But the experts suggest that with the benefit of hindsight this may have been because there wasn't an accomplished portrait artist available until Holbein arrived.

During this first stay in London there doesn't seem to've been much work - he started by being employed to paint theatrical sets, and he also undertook some commissions from Thomas More and from some other members of the elite (although not necessarily the court). Holbein returned to Basel - they weren't clear on the programme why, nor if he originally intended to stay there. I'm not sure if that's coz it isn't known, or if it's just that the programme was concentrating on his time in Tudor England so they were skipping lightly over the other information.

In 1532 Holbein returned to London. This is just as Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII finally get married, and there is some evidence that Anne Boleyn is a patron of his. There are no records available to say whether or not she actually paid him for anything, but there are several paintings with links to her. Including one painting of her in her nightgown (for which read "dressing gown" not "nightie") - so he had access to her in informal settings such as her bedchamber which is a distinct mark of her favour. He is also first recorded on Henry VIII's payroll during this time - so he has achieved his ambition of becoming a court painter. Although apparently he wasn't paid as well as he might like - the French court painters received more money and more privileges from their king!

Holbein clearly had a knack for politics, or rather for staying out of politics. He remained in the employ of Henry VIII until his death in 1543, through the downfall of Anne Boleyn, and even weathered the storm surrounding Henry's brief marriage to Anne of Cleves. When Henry was looking for his fourth wife, Holbein was the man sent to the courts of Europe to paint the potential brides. The two best known paintings are that of Anne of Cleves and that of Christina Duchess of Milan (who turned Henry down). It's known that Holbein didn't actually get to paint the whole Christina's portrait from life - he had one 3 hour sitting with her, and quite probably only brought drawings back to London which he subsequently turned into a painting. It's really quite remarkable that Holbein didn't fall into disfavour after Henry's marriage to Anne of Cleves failed almost before it began. Henry's complaint was that he found Anne too ugly, but there's no indication that he blamed Holbein for misrepresenting her (he did blame Cromwell, however). And the experts said that Holbein probably didn't misrepresent Anne - despite Henry's distaste she seems to've been regarded by contemporaries as a handsome woman. Probably the most Holbein did was minimise the German-ness of her clothing and headdress, so she would look more fashionable to English eyes.

As well as this overview of Holbein's career in England the experts also discussed some of his better known paintings - you'd think that would be quite hard on a radio programme but I recognised all the works they discussed from having seen them previously, so had the right mental images. One of them was one of my favourite things in the Portrait Gallery when I visited it last year: the surviving half of the cartoon for the Whitehall Mural. The finished piece (which doesn't survive) was a large dynastic portrait of the Tudors so far. On the left were Henry VIII and his father Henry VII, and on the right were their wives - Elizabeth of York for Henry VII and Jane Seymour for Henry VIII. The timing of this portrait is around or just after the birth of Edward VI, Henry VIII & Jane's son. The cartoon is the same size as the painting was, so we can see that the viewer would've been presented with a lifesize image of the King standing directly in front of them - apparently terrifying for those who saw it. Inspection of the cartoon shows that originally the figure wasn't full frontal, but Henry apparently wanted that changed so it would have the maximum impact.

Another of the paintings they discussed was the girl with a squirrel that we'd seen in the British Museum's Germany exhibition in 2014. This portrait combines a clever use of symbols with a warm & touching portrait - the squirrel is not just the girl's pet, it's also part of her family's coat of arms. And they also discussed The Ambassadors, which I think of as "the one with the weird skull in front". This painting is also not just a portrait of the two men - it also showcases Holbein's skill at painting many different objects. Including the distorted momento mori motif of the skull, which looks just right if viewed from the side of the painting.

Even at the time of Holbein's death he was regarded as a particularly good portrait painter, and his reputation has only increased since. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Holbein's portraits are how we see Henry VIII's court. Those paintings are what shape our mental image of "the Tudors" and are what take them from a collection of dates and facts and turn them into people in our collective imagination.

The next section of this chapter of the Middle East book covers the second half of the 2nd Millennium BCE and focuses on the kingdoms in the west of the region - for instance the Hittites & the Mitanni. It also looks at their interactions with Egypt, because this is the era of the Amarna letters and the era of the Battle of Qadesh.

Orientation Dates:

  • 1600-1046 BCE: The Shang Dynasty of China (post).
  • 1650-1550 BCE: The Second Intermediate Period in Egypt.
  • 1550-1069 BCE: The New Kingdom in Egypt.
  • 1479–1458 BCE: Reign of Hatshepsut in Egypt.
  • 1351–1334 BCE: Reign of Akhenaten in Egypt.
  • 1332–1323 BCE: Reign of Tutankhamun in Egypt.
  • 1279–1213 BCE: Reign of Ramesses II in Egypt.

Power Struggles: The Western States

We start with the Old Hittite Kingdom in which parts of Anatolia, northern Syria and Upper Mesopotamia were ruled over by Hittite kings from their capital in Hattusa. It last from around 1650 BCE to 1400 BCE, and is known from their own records: thousands of cuneiform texts were found in Hattusa dating from this period. The original origins of the Hittite people isn't known, but they had probably been living in Anatolia for a few centuries by the time the Old Hittite Kingdom rose to prominence - Assyrian texts from before this period mention individuals with Hittite names in Anatolian cities. The Hittite language is an Indo-European language (so from the same broad family as English, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit etc). Most of the other peoples in the region spoke Semitic languages (like Egyptian and Akkadian), or spoke Sumerian (which is a language with no known relatives). Rather conveniently for modern scholars some of the records discovered in Hattusa were bilingual and written in both Hittite and Akkadian.

The first king of the 15 or so who ruled the Old Hittite Kingdom was Huttusili I who conquered territory as far as the Euphrates River. His successor Mursili extended the kingdom as far southeast as Babylon but after his assassination the Hittites abandoned the territory across the Euphrates River. The next few kings all took the throne by assassinating their predecessor (or his heirs) and knowledge of this period mostly comes from a text known as the Proclamation of Telepinu. In this the new king (Telepinu) attempts to lay out rules for how the succession should work in the future, making it a strictly patrilinear succession. However he died without a direct male heir, and so these rules failed at the first hurdle. The second hundred years of the Old Hittite Kingdom seems to've been almost as turbulent politically as the first!

The kingdom of Mitanni is the next state the book considers. They started out as a confederation of Hurrian states in inland Syria & northern Iraq around 1600 BCE. The Hurrian language is part of a now extinct language group, and the people who spoke it are believed to've migrated from the Trans-Caucasus region. By 1450 BCE the Mitanni Kingdom was a prominent player in Upper Mesopotamia. Sadly none of their own records have been discovered so they're mostly known from what the Hittites & Egyptians had to say about (and to) them. By 1500 BCE the Mitanni state had expanded into most of Syria, and this later brought them into conflict with an expanding Egypt (during the reign of Tutmosis III). Relations between the Mitanni and the Egyptians were somewhat warmer by the reign of Akhenaten - perhaps because the Hittites and Assyrians were both expanding again by this stage, and with these northern neighbours the Mitanni could do with southern allies. But not long after this the Mitanni state began to fragment and was subsequently defeated by the New Hittite Kingdom. It did continue to exist as a small buffer state between the Hittites and the Assyrians until around 1290 BCE, but the Mitanni's days as a major state were over.

The power vacuum left in Babylon by the sacking of the city by the Old Hittite ruler Mursili was eventually filled by a Kassite dynasty who ruled c. 1570-1155 BCE. Quite a lot of evidence for these kings comes from their diplomatic correspondence (and diplomatic marriages) with the rulers of nearby states including the Egyptians and the Hittites. As well as the diplomatic evidence for these kings internal affairs are known from the administrative archives of Nippur. The Kassite people originally came from north-eastern Syria and had migrated into Mesopotamia sometime around the 18th Century BCE. The Kassite rulers of Babylon were thoroughly Babylonised, building temples to Babylonian gods, collecting & creating the Babylonian literary canon and preserving the Babylonian scribal tradition.

The New Hittite Kingdom starts immediately after the end of the Old Hittite Kingdom, but it sounds like the first three or four kings are more of a transitional period. The true start of the return to prominence of the Hittites comes when Suppiluliuma I successfully carries out a coup against his brother in 1344 BCE. Most of what is known about this ruler comes from "The Deeds of Suppiluliuma", which was written during the reign of his second successor. He ruled for nearly 20 years, and re-established the Hittite kingdom as a marjor state. He not only re-conquered Anatolia, he also conquered the Mitanni and several other kingdoms in Syria, and forced these states to sign long lasting peace treaties. He is also the King of the Hittites who a Queen of Egypt apparently wrote to asking for one of his sons to marry after the death of her husband (the Pharaoh) without an heir so that she could avoid being forced to marry a commoner. Suppiluliuma I is said to've been suspicious, but then sent one of his sons who was promptly murdered after he crossed the border - and this is the justification for subsequent tensions between the Hittites and the Egyptians. The Queen in question is often supposed to be Ankhesenamun (Tutankhamun's widow). However (and the book sadly doesn't mention this) the story is only known from one text dating from the reign of one of Suppiluliuma I's successors, and I think there's significant doubts about its truthfulness - it's actually more likely to be Hittite propaganda. (Charlotte Booth talked about this a bit in the talk she gave to the EEG in July about Horemheb.)

According to texts from his son Mursili II's reign called the Plague Prayers, Suppiluliuma I and his son (and first successor) Arnuwanda II both died of an epidemic of plague brought back with captives from a successful Syro-Palestinian military campaign. Which Mursili II believed was due to divine disfavour regarding the fratricide which let his father take the throne, and the campaign itself being in violation of a treaty with Egypt. This latter concern didn't stop Musili II's successor Muwatalli II from antagonising the Egyptians further, resulting in the Battle of Qadesh (more on this later in this post). The treaty after the battle was signed between Ramesses II and Hattusili III, who had usurped the throne from Muwatalli II's son. Quite a lot of what we know about his reign (and his immediate predecessor's) comes from his "Apology", an autobiographical text that explains why he thought he should depose his nephew (who subsequently fled to Egypt, much to Hattusili III's disgust). Hattusili III's wife is also known from texts - in particular letters between herself and Ramesses II after Hattusili III's death. She was acting at that point as Queen Mother, and is accorded the same sort of respect as Hattusili III by Ramesses II. It's not clear if she was unusually respected for a Queen Mother, or if it's just that she's the only Hittite Queen Mother whose correspondence survives.

The capital of the Hittite kingdom was the city of Hattusa, which was located near the modern town of Bazkoy in northeast Central Anatolia (in Turkey). It was founded at some point early in the 2nd Millennium BCE, and was originally relatively small compared to other ancient Near Eastern cities. It was sacked a couple of times between 1750 BCE and 1400 BCE, then rebuilt extensively by Suppiluliuma I. This later city had two main regions: the royal acropolis (including large temples), and the lower city. Population estimates for this period range from 10,000 to 40,000 inhabitants.

Having made a comprehensive tour of the major players in the western part of the Middle East during this period the book now devotes a few pages to the minor Mediterranean and Syro-Palestinian states each of whom get a couple of paragraphs. I'm pretty much going to name check them here, rather than devote much attention to them. Ahhiyawa is considered a diplomatic equal to the Hittites, given the correspondence during the New Hittite Kingdom period. Both textual and archaeological evidence suggests these people may be the Mycenean Greeks. The Luwians lived in Western Anatolia and were at times a vassal state of the Hittites, and the language (a close relative of Hittite) was dominant in the region after the fall of the New Hittite Kingdom. Carchemis and Aleppo were both part of the array of small Syro-Palestinian states, as were Astata, Alasiya (modern Cyprus) and Alalakh. All of these states were at times vassals of the Hittites and at times more independent. The state of Ugarit was caught between the two superpowers of the Hittites & the Egyptians - and thus were courted by both with offers of support against the other. The Amurru people were further south, and in the Egyptian sphere of influence - and a thorn in the sides of their neighbours, who complained to the their mutual overlords about the Amurran's employment of bands of mercenary warriors known as the 'Apiru to harass their neighbours.

The last couple of double-page spreads of this section look more closely at the interactions of the Middle East with their Egyptian neighbours. The first of these talks about the Amarna Letters - a collection of cuneiform tablets discovered in the Egyptian city of Akhetaten (modern Tell el-Amarna) which was briefly the capital of Egypt during Akhenaten's reign (and only existed for that 20 years). 90% of the 380 surviving tablets are copies of the diplomatic correspondence between Egypt and their neighbours from Year 30 of Amenhotep III's reign through Akhenaten's reign, Smenkhare's reign and into the first year of Tutankhamun's reign. Most of them are the incoming correspondence, although some are outgoing (either unsent or copies, it's not known which), and all are composed in Akkadian which was the diplomatic lingua franca of the era. Some of these letters are to rulers that the Egyptians at least superficially regarded as their peers - addressing each other as "brother". However it's notable that in the marriage alliances Egyptian women never married foreign princes, instead the default was vice versa. Other letters are between Egypt and its vassal states.

The Battle of Kadesh

And the section finished with a closer look at the Battle of Qadesh - which Ramesses II depicted on several temple reliefs (the above picture is from the Ramasseum). The site of the battle was strategically important - it sat on the crossroads of two major trade routes, and dominated the fords of the Orontes River. It had been significant in Egyptian foreign affairs even before Ramesses II's campaign - for instance it lead the coalition of rebellious towns that Tutmosis III defeated at Megiddo c.1457 BCE. During the reign of Akhenaten the Egyptians made two unsuccessful attempts to remove the Hittites from the region, and for the next generation or so the city swapped allegiances several times. By the time of Ramesses II the Egyptians felt it necessary to make a concerted effort to recover Qadesh and reassert their power in the region. The Battle of Qadesh took place in c.1275 BCE, and the Egyptians record several accounts of it - all of which talk about Ramesses II annihilating the Hittites. But if you read between the lines, and remember that the Egyptians didn't tend to write down bad things, you can see that the truth is more of an inconclusive draw. About 15-20 years after this the two sides signed a peace treaty - which rather astonishingly not only survives in both Hittite and Egyptian documents, but the two versions are also in agreement with each other! There was indeed peace (relatively speaking) for the remainder of the time that the Hittite state existed. This section of the chapter finishes with the note that "Soon thereafter, Qadesh was destroyed, probably by the Sea Peoples". I don't imagine the Qadeshian citizens had enjoyed any of its turbulent history, however!

The next (and last) part of this chapter of the book is about the rise of the Assyrians, on their way to be the first large scale empire in the Middle East.

This is an index and summary of the things I've talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it's before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.

Books

Fiction

"Darkover Landfall" Marion Zimmer Bradley. Part of the Darkover series, a combination of space colonisation, lost colonies and pyschic powers. Part of Read All the Fiction, boxed up.

"Stormqueen!" Marion Zimmer Bradley. Part of the Darkover series, a combination of space colonisation, lost colonies and pyschic powers. Part of Read All the Fiction, boxed up.

"Hawkmistress!" Marion Zimmer Bradley. Part of the Darkover series, a combination of space colonisation, lost colonies and pyschic powers. Part of Read All the Fiction, boxed up.

"Prince of Dogs" Kate Elliott. Epic fantasy set in an analogue of medieval Europe, part of the Crown of Stars series. New.

Total: 4

Non-Fiction

"The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed" Stephen Bourke. Part of the Thames & Hudson Ancient Civilisations series.

Total: 1

Radio

Akhenaten. In Our Time episode from 2009 about Akhenaten and his religious and political changes to Ancient Egypt.

The Etruscan Civilisation. In Our Time episode about the Etruscans who were the dominant culture in (modern-day) Tuscany for 8 centuries from around 800 BCE.

Perpetual Motion - In Our Time episode about perpetual motion machines and why they're impossible.

The Roman Republic - In Our Time episode from 2004 covering the broad sweep of the history of the Roman Republic.

Total: 4

Talks

"Living in a Liminal Zone: The 'Town' of Queen Khentkawes at Giza" Ana Tavares - talk at the March EEG Meeting.

Total: 1

See note about the author here.

Hawkmistress! is tagged in my head as "the cross-dressing one", and that's a fairly accurate tag. It's set a little after Stormqueen! in the chronology of Darkover, and tells the story of Romilly a daughter of the MacAran family. Their family laran (psychic power) is to do with animal control/empathy and she's got a large helping of it. The trouble is, not only is her father suspicious of laran users but also tending hawks and horses is man's work and thoroughly unsuitable for a young lady. This is a fairly archetypal coming of age story - Romilly runs away from an arranged marriage and after overcoming several obstacles and growing up she finds her place in the world. It's also a somewhat Shakespearean story - to try and stay safe in a dangerous world she disguises herself as a man. With varying amounts of success, and of farce.

Unlike Stormqueen! this book is actually about its titular character. We see the story through Romilly's eyes, and she has considerably more agency than Dorilys could even dream of. Romilly not only escapes from an unwanted arranged marriage she also rescues herself when she's trapped by a rapey farmer (yes, it's still a rapey book). She's valued by herself and by the other characters for her skills rather than her bloodline - although obviously she first proves herself to them when they think she's a boy but she retains respect after the reveal. She even rescues the, er, "love interest".

Sadly the romance element to the plot is made of WTF?! In summary: Romilly falls in love with an older man (Orain), but it turns out that he was only interested in sex when he thought she was a prepubescent boy. After more plot happens she rescues him from torture and they reconcile, he still wouldn't want sex so he suggests she marry his (estranged) son coz the lad is her age and likes girls. (The son is the product of his own arranged marriage and I think they're estranged coz Orain never quite forgave the boy for being the living reminder that he'd had to have sex with a woman to get an heir.) And there's a strongly implied happily ever after (delayed but not derailed by Romilly's wishes to do other things first before marrying). I always did think it was a subplot of farce and WTF?! - I mean, "oh I don't fancy you so marry my son instead" is more than a bit bizarre. I had, however, previously missed the implications of Orain thinking Romilly was a "beardless boy" - by assuming that Orain thought Romilly was a young adult man rather than a boy. But given what I now know about Bradley's second husband's convictions for molesting pre- and peri-pubescent boys, it reads completely differently. Orain is definitely positioned as a good guy, someone we should empathise with and identify with ... just a good guy that has sex with adolescent (at best) boys.

So a bit of a mixed bag of a book. I liked the centring of the female protagonist - in particular in comparison to Stormqueen!. But the "romance" and all its implications are more than a bit horrifying.

Perpetual motion would be a wonderful thing, if only it were possible - being able to set some machine going and then it would power itself and just carry on & on without end. Free energy from nothing! Which is, of course, why it is impossible - but this wasn't provable until relatively recently. Discussing the search for, and disproof of, perpetual motion on In Our Time were Ruth Gregory (Durham University), Frank Close (University of Oxford) and Steven Bramwell (University College London).

Before the modern understanding of physics there didn't seem to be any reason why perpetual motion should necessarily be impossible. In the Aristotelian view of the universe the stars were in perpetual motion in the heavens - so there must surely be some way to replicate this on earth with earthly machinery. This wasn't (solely) the province of charlatans - people like Leonardo da Vinci, Robert Boyle and Gottfried Leibniz were all involved in attempts to design machines that could power themselves forever. Various approaches were tried - like trying to design a waterwheel that not only ground corn but also pumped the water back uphill so it could flow down again. Or a bottle that siphoned liquid out of itself in order to refill itself. Or some sort of machine that was constantly over-balancing - like an Escher drawing of a waterwheel with buckets labelled 9 travelling down one side, and when they reach the bottom they flip round to now read 6 so they're lighter. Which works beautifully in the illusory world of Escher's art but rather less so in our mundane reality. As well as people genuinely trying to investigate the possibility there were also those who claimed to have achieved success - normally with machines that conveniently couldn't be inspected to expose their charlatanry.

Once physicists started to gain a greater understanding of how the universe worked it became clear that perpetual motion machines were fundamentally impossible. All proposed perpetual motion machines violate either the first or second law of thermodynamics. Before moving on to explain how these laws affect perpetual motion machines they digressed slightly to explain some of the background to the formulation of the laws of thermodynamics. First they gave us the technical meaning of the word "work" in a physics context - important in understanding the rest of the discussion. Work is the energy that is applied to do something. For instance if you want to move something then work = force x distance. Or if you're heating something up then work refers to the energy you need to cause the temperature change. Experiments by Joule were key to showing a link between heat and energy. Before his work the prevailing theory was that heat was a thing (called calor) that could be transferred between objects - so a fire heated a pot because calor was transferred from flames to pot. But Joule showed that you could generate heat using energy, and later it was realised that heat was a form of energy. Reception of his work at the time (the mid-19th Century) was mixed - the temperature changes he was study were very small and not everyone believed it was possibly to accurately detect them.

The First Law of Thermodynamics is that energy must be conserved in a closed system. I.e. you don't get something for nothing. When work is done it all turns into motion or heat or some other form of energy. Many perpetual motion machines violate this law, and they are termed "perpetual motion machines of the first kind". An example of this is a waterwheel that both grinds corn and pumps the water back up to the top to start over again. In order to pump all the water back up you need to use just as much energy as it generated for you on the way down - so there none left over for your corn grinding, even if your machine is perfectly efficient (see below).

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is that entropy always increases or remains the same, it never decreases. Gregory used the example of a room that's either tidy (a single ordered state) or untidy (many possible disordered states). In order to move from disordered to ordered you need to do work, otherwise over time the random chance will move objects from their positions in the room and it will become more disordered. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is associated with time - it provides directionality to the universe, if things are getting more disordered then they're moving forwards. Perpetual motion machines which violate this law are categorised as "perpetual motion machines of the second kind".

Another way that perpetual motion machines can violate the laws of physics is by being too efficient. I touched on that above - in the real world no machine operates without losing some energy (generally in the form of heat due to friction). And so even if you aren't trying to do anything useful with the energy other than keep the machine moving you'll still fail to achieve perpetual motion as you won't have quite enough energy to return to the starting point.

So perpetual motion is impossible, as it would violate the laws of physics. There are some loopholes at the quantum level (aren't there always?). Implications of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle mean that it's possible to "borrow" energy temporarily from the future, which means the First Law of Thermodynamics doesn't quite apply. But at the macro level these laws are inviolable and perpetual motion is impossible. They finished by saying that if a way to make a perpetual motion machine work was found then it wouldn't just be a case of minor tweaks to physics-as-we-understand-it. Instead it would require a re-writing of pretty much all science we've ever conceptualised - the laws of thermodynamics are that fundamental to our understanding of the universe.

After the collapse of the Ur III Dynasty in the Middle East around 2000 BCE the region fragmented into several different rival states which fought amongst themselves trying to establish overall political control. This lasted throughout the Middle Bronze Age and the Late Bronze Age, until the Assyrian Empire rose to control the whole region in the late 8th Century BCE. This chapter of the book is split into three sections, and this blog post is only really about the first of these which covers the earlier and more southern & eastern states in the region.

Orientation Dates

  • 2100-1600 BCE - the Xia Dynasty in China (post)
  • 2055-1650 BCE - Egypt's Middle Kingdom

Power Struggles: Kingdoms at War

The chapter as a whole is positioned as being about power struggles between the various polities, although it is mostly a geographical and temporal survey of the states in question. In fairness to the book it seems hard to draw out a narrative for this period that covers the whole region. Before there were either a collection of culturally related but politically distinct city states, or the Akkadian Empire or Ur III Dynasty empire. After this, there will be the Assyrian Empire, the Babylonian Empire and then the Persian Empire. But this intermediate period has some key players and a whole selection of minor or temporary states - followed by the rise of the Assyrians (which is interrupted by the Bronze Age Collapse around 1200 BCE). So despite my increasing tendency to judge this book harshly (it really needed a stronger editorial hand at the tiller) it also seems a complex period to distil into a single chapter overview.

The Growth of City States

One of the themes immediately after the collapse of the Ur III Dynasty is that the Amorites infiltrate into the pre-existing settlements and city states of the region. The Amorites are a cultural group from what's now Syria and in contrast to the many city states of Mesopotamia they were still nomadic to some degree until the Middle Bronze Age. They first show up in the historical record during the Akkadian Empire, and are also one of the peoples against whom the Ur III kings built their walls. During the Middle Bronze Age they seem to have had a knack for integrating into and coming to dominate the elites of many city states. For instance there are 17 Amorite "kings who dwelt in tents" who become part of the Assyrian King List, despite the fact that they are clearly not from Assur and not Assyrian.

One of the cities the Amorites ruled was Eshnunna - located in the Diyala River Valley in modern east central Iraq, with a modern name of Tell Asmar. This city had been a significant Sumerian city in the Early Dynastic period, but after becoming independent from the Ur III Dynasty c.2017 BCE it is ruled over by a series of 19 Amorite kings. The penultimate one of these was Dadusha who issued a legal code that has survived in two copies. Like the slightly later (but better known) code of Hammurabi the laws are of the format "if X occurs, then Y shall be done". The 60 or so laws cover a wide variety of subjects from loans and deposits to sexual offences and marital rights.

Around 1766 BCE Eshnunna was captured by the Elamites whose heartland was to the north in modern southwestern Iran. The Elamites had been ruled over first by the Akkadians and then the Ur III Dynasty, from whom they won their independence around the same time as Eshnunna did. They spoke a language that is an isolate with no known relatives either modern or ancient. Their conquest of Eshnunna and thus foothold in Mesopotamia made them a "power-broker" in the politics of the region. But c.1500 BCE their ruling dynasty collapses (for unknown reasons) and subsequently they are less important politically. They continue to exist as a culture, however - 500 years later Elamite archers are referred to as an important part of the Persian army.

The city of Assur was captured by Amorites around 1814 BCE, the conqueror (Shamshi-adad I) went on to add most of Upper Mesopotamia to his kingdom before he died in c.1781 BCE. Before he took over Assur he was king of an Amorite city to the south by the bank of the Tigris River. However, the Eshnunna discussed above captured his city driving him into exile in Babylon. Once he returned and captured Assur he took pains to retroactively integrate himself and his father into the pre-existing Assyrian elite - both of them appear on the later Assyrian King List and he claimed descent from the earlier rulers of Assur. He reigned as "Great King" or "King of the Universe", installing his sons as subsiduary kings in strategic locations (one in his original city, and one in Mari which was a prominent city on the Euphrates River). His empire didn't long outlast him - his sons failed to rule the territory as a cohesive unit and some of their subject cities took advantage of the disruption. One of these sons (Ishme-dagan) was put back on his throne in Ekallatum with the help of Hammurabi but this reduced his status from king in his own right to a vassal of the Babylonians.

Hammurabi had come to the throne of Babylon c.1792 BCE when it was a small state surrounded by more powerful rivals - by the time he died in c.1750 BCE he ruled over the whole of Mesopotamia proper. He wasn't the first ruler of the First Dynasty of Babylon, but we don't know much about the rulers for the hundred or so years preceding him. Judging by Hammurabi's name, and the names of some of his predecessors they are likely to've been Amorites originally. At the start of Hammurabi's reign he concentrated on internal affairs - infrastructure, his code of laws - rather than on expansion of his empire. Babylon was at this time a "junior partner" in an alliance with Shamshi-adad I of Assyria, a situation to be reversed later in Hammurabi's reign as I discussed above. By 1763 BCE Hammurabi was starting to flex his muscles (metaphorically speaking), and he unified Southern Mesopotamia under his rule shortly after - starting to call himself King of Sumer and Akkad in the style of the Akkadian empire from the 3rd Millennium BCE. He went on to conquer much of the north as well over the next decade. When he died his large state didn't long outlast him with various territories declaring independence during the reign of his successor. However the book (rather vaguely) still positions this as the start of some sort of continuity for the next 1,000 years of Babylon as a key political player in the region albeit with interruptions and changes of dynasty.

Documentary sources for life in Hammurabi's Babylonian state come from a couple of different sources. One of these is a large number (thousands) of legal contracts discovered at several different sites throughout southern Mesopotamia. These cover subjects such as purchase of property, loans of silver or barley, marriages, divorces and so on. As well as contracts there are also lawsuits, and most famously the Code of Laws set down by Hammurabi in the early years of his reign. These give evidence of the day to day life of the state which is complemented by a collection of hundreds of letters between Hammurabi and his subordinates (and amongst those subordinates). The letters mostly date to the last dozen or so years when the empire was at its largest and discuss things such as tax collection, the repair & dredging of canals and so on - the bureaucratic minutiae of running a large empire. A third source is less bureaucratic - the literature of the era also survives, including copies the scribes made of literature from earlier times. This includes the creation of the Epic of Gilgamesh from several different earlier Sumerian sources. The scribes didn't just translate or copy the original Sumerian stories, they wove them together into a cohesive single narrative.

This section of the chapter also includes a double page spread about iron. The Iron Age isn't considered to start in the Near East till around 1200 BCE, later than the scope of this chapter, but there is some sporadic use of iron before this (even going back as far as the 5th Millennium BCE) . This is known both from objects that've been discovered by archaeologists, and also by textual references (such as a gift of an iron ring from the King of Mari to a neighbouring king around 1780 BCE). Early iron objects were probably mostly made from meteoric iron, but some iron would also have been produced as a by-product of copper smelting. Even at the time iron was considered superior to bronze, it was just harder to produce and to work. Once the appropriate techniques had been discovered they remained specialised knowledge in a few regions before gradually spreading throughout the Middle East in the late 2nd Millennium BCE. The book also mentions in passing that the current chronology of iron working may be too conservative - there are iron working installations discovered in Georgia that at the time this book was written were tentatively dated to 1500 BCE, which pushes back the iron age in that area by a few centuries.

Prince of Dogs is the second book in Kate Elliott's seven book Crown of Stars series. The first was King's Dragon (which I wrote about twice, most recently in this post). I know I've read Prince of Dogs before but that was a long time ago, probably in the early 00s, and I didn't remember much about it when I started it this time. As with my post about King's Dragon, this is not so much a review as a collection of thoughts.

The series is the sort where the books are really sections of one long story published separately so each one picks up pretty much immediately where the last one left off. And as such is both nearly impossible to talk about this one without spoilers for the first one, and the exact boundaries between the books are a little fuzzy in my head at times. In some ways this book is still setting up the epic fantasy "Save the World" plot that is going to come along in the later books - in fact, I'm not sure I realised there was going to be one at this point in the series. This is not in any sense a flaw. All the way through the series I was interested in the big epic plot because I wanted to see how these particular characters were going to deal with it.

The plot in this book is still strongly rooted in the intrigues and military matters of a medieval court under seige from without and within. The king's bastard son - Sanglant - is presumed dead in battle against the Eika invaders. Liath has found a place for herself in the Eagles, but she still can't tell who it's wise to trust. Alain's actually doing pretty well - he's been acknowledged as son & heir to Count Levastine, which is an incredible change in status. And by the end of the book he's even betrothed to the King's neice - perhaps a dubious prize (particularly as she's the daughter of the woman who had led the opposing side in the recent civil war) but nonetheless a mark of the King's favour (and Alain even fancies the girl!).

One of the threads running through the book is the two linked pairs of characters. Liath and Sanglant don't really realise they're linked as such. But Liath dreams of Sanglant - dreams that as the reader we know are true; and Sanglant's means of hanging on to sanity is daydreams of Liath. There'd been an attraction between them before his near death and capture, and it gets stronger through this book despite the distance. The other linked pair know they're linked - Alain and Fifth Son (an Eika) have visions of what the other one is doing, and they know that what they see is real. Alain's father even uses this when planning an attack on the city the Eika hold. Fifth Son, and the Eika in general, are one of the intriguing puzzles the series has. It's clear in the first book that they're a Viking analogue, and that they're not precisely human. By this book we're getting more intriguing hints about their biology and their society. In retrospect we also start to see how the link between Alain and Fifth Son is changing Fifth Son.

Another of the threads running through the book is dogs. The title, Prince of Dogs, has an obvious subject: the Prince, Sanglant, is chained up with the Eika dogs and has had to fight his way to being pack leader in order to survive. He's a prince among dogs and a prince of the dogs. But after having finished the series I could see how it might also at least tangentially apply to Liath, Alain and Fifth Son. I think it's clear by this book that the Eika dogs and the Eika are biologically closer than we'd expect - and so Fifth Son, as the son of the leader of this pack of Eika, is in some senses the Prince of Dogs. Alain's status as Levastine's son hinges round the fact that Levastine's dogs will obey him - heir to a Count is not exactly a Prince, but nonetheless his high status is because of command of dogs. And as Liath's heritage is gradually revealed over the series, her status also has links to this same dogs.

One thing that struck me after finishing this book is that it could've been wrapped up here as a "happy ending". Obviously I knew it wasn't the end as there are another five books - but I think even without that it'd be clear this must be the calm before the storm. Several of the characters have got what they think they want ... and in the next book we'll find out just how well that works out.

The Roman Republic was the subject of an In Our Time episode all the way back in 2004 - we listened to it last August while there weren't any new In Our Times airing. It's a pretty broad subject for a 45 minute programme - 500 years of history plus its rise and fall - so of necessity it was painting with fairly broad brushstrokes and looking at themes and commonalities across the centuries. Tackling it were Greg Woolf (St Andrews University), Catherine Steel (University of Glasgow) and Tom Holland (historian and author). (NB: Institutions presumably out of date, it being 12 years ago.)

They started by talking about the foundational myths of the Republic as the stories they told themselves shaped how the Republic functioned. This isn't Romulus and Remus - they are a foundational myth for the city - instead the two key stories are the rape of Lucretia and Horatius on the bridge. Lucretia was raped by the son of the King of Rome, and afterwards she committed suicide whilst calling on her kin to avenge her. This sparked an uprising (led by a man called Brutus) which drove out King Tarquin. Following this the Romans declared they would have no more kings. The second legend follows on directly from this one* - Tarquin didn't take kindly to losing his kingdom like this, and enlisted the support of one of the nearby Etruscan cities. He returned to Rome at the head of an army and it seemed like the Romans were going to be forced to take their king back. However before this could happen Horatius stepped forward to stand on the bridge the army were marching over. He and two companions held off the army for long enough for the bridge to be destroyed behind them, preventing the army from reaching the city. So you have this ideal that the people will rule themselves (with no kings) and when a hero is needed a citizen will step forward to give his own life for his city.

*Well, that's the way they told the legend on the programme, when looking it up on wikipedia to check spellings of names I saw that there it's set much later in the Republic's history - the point remains the same though.

The Roman Republic was the first constitutional democracy meaning that people were voted into positions of responsibility. (Athens was a direct democracy, where everyone voted on what should be done.) The political structure was based on sharing power around in two different ways. Firstly the many powers that a king had once had were distributed between several people. Secondly any given person only held a particular office for a short term (rather than for life). The ephemerality of power and glory were a key concept for the Republic. A consul was consul for a year. A general who'd won a victory was given a triumph and treated like a god for a day. Theatres and celebratory buildings (like triumphal arches) were temporary structures. Even the permanent infrastructure buildings weren't built of stone but of more ephemeral materials. Which puts the Emperor Augustus "coming to Rome a city of brick and leaving it a city of marble" (as discussed on the In Our Time about the Augustan Age (post)) in a different light: that's not just an upgrade to the buildings, that's a change of ethos.

Clearly the Republic wasn't static over its 500 years of history - in particular the balance of power between the people and the aristocracy was constantly shifting and evolving. But it was at heart a very conservative society which looked back to a prior Golden Age. Much was written in later days in the Republic about how it had been better in the early days (before whatever the most recent crisis had been) - and this genre includes most of the surviving texts written about how the Republic was founded. Changes were often brought in by announcing that they were returns to the ways things were done in the past - whether or not this was actually true. This continues after the Republic as well - they brought up on the programme that Augustus's propaganda cast the beginning of the Empire as a restoration of the good old days of the Republic.

The end of the Republic can be thought of as it becoming a victim of its own success. Before they went out and conquered such vast lands it was possible for every key political figure to come back every year to Rome and vote for the new Consuls and so on. And when your campaigns only last a year and are nearby then the army can be based on the idea of farmer-soldier citizens. Every able-bodied land-owning male citizen was supposed to enlist - easily done when he comes back in time for harvest, but what do you do about his farm if he's on campaign for 5 years at a time? And once the land-owning requirement was abolished where do long term soldiers retire to when they're done in the army? The Senate generally prevaricated over the provision of awards and recompense to these retired soldiers - which left a gap for the generals of the armies to fill. And if your reward would come from the charismatic general you were serving under, then your loyalty would be to him first rather than to Rome or to the Senate.

The Triumvirate of Pompey, Crassus and Caesar (the first stage in the transition from Republic to Empire) can be seen as having grown out of Pompey not liking his downgrade in status when he returned to Rome. Whilst out campaigning in the East he had been treated like a king, back home in Rome he was only one amongst equals. And not a particularly important one at that - having been away he was out of the loop, politically speaking. The experts said that Caesar's motivation was probably that he saw there as being only so many "slots" for important people in any new regime and he wanted to make sure he occupied one of them.

The defining point for the end of the Republic was the crossing of the Rubicon by Caesar and his army. The Rubicon is a river between Italy and Gaul, and it marked the boundary between the provinces (where a general could be a king in all but name) and the core territories (where the general was no more important than any other aristocrat). The tradition was that you could not bring your army with you into the core - and so Caesar camps on the other side, which makes the Senate nervous. He's given the choice between dismissing his army and crossing himself, or taking his army and leaving. But Caesar knows that if he does this then he loses all the power he's worked for - and so he brings his army across the Rubicon.

I said that was the defining point of the end, but as they discussed on the programme that's only obvious with hindsight. It probably wasn't clear to the Romans that the Republic was gone forever until one Emperor inherited from another ... and perhaps not even until an Emperor was deposed and yet still the Republic was not not restored.

The last part of the Mesopotamia chapter in this book covers the Third Dynasty of Ur, which was a Sumerian empire that arose a short time after the fall of the Akkadian Empire. The book doesn't give dates for the empire - having looked at the wikipedia page I think that's because there's a high degree of uncertainty about when the dates were. Two different possibilities are 2112-2004 BCE or 2055-1940 BCE.

Orientation Dates:

  • 2181-2055 BCE - Egypt's First Intermediate Period
  • 2100-1600 BCE - the Xia dynasty of China (post)
  • 2055-1650 BCE - Egypt's Middle Kingdom

The City of Ur

The Third Dynasty of Ur rose to prominence in Mesopotamia a little while after the Akkadian Empire fell. In between the region was dominated by the Gutians, who were a mountain people and we know little about them. The ruler of Uruk eventually raised an army to drive out the Gutians, but it was Ur-Nammu from the city of Ur who founded a new empire. It's not clear how Ur-Nammu actually came to power - there's evidence he might've been a governor under the king of Uruk, or perhaps a military leader. And then he either inherited from or lead a coup against the king of Uruk and founded the only Sumerian Empire in Mesopotamia's history. The empire (often referred to as Ur III) reached as far as Syria and Elam and was divided into two parts. The core of the empire was under the king's direct rule, and the peripheral territories were independently ruled but economically controlled by the empire (i.e. paying tribute).

When Ur-Nammu died (perhaps in battle) after a reign of 17 years he was succeeded by his son Shulgi, who reigned for 48 years. One of these two rulers wrote a code of laws that still survives in fragmentary form, and is the first we know to've existed. Traditionally it's ascribed to Ur-Nammu, but the book suggests that Shulgi is more plausible given his longer reign (over an empire that already existed rather than needing to be conquered). Shulgi also reorganised the administration of the empire - under his rule the city state rulers became governors with no military power, and he stationed garrisons in particularly troublesome regions. He instituted a practice of using an army of foreign mercenaries to control the outlying territories. He was deified during his lifetime, although most of his achievements as listed in the book seem prosaic rather than godly! These included standardising tax collection, developing state archives and a state army.

Shulgi was succeeded by his son Amar-Sin, who fought many wars against the Amorites and the Hurrians. He only reigned for 10 years before dying of natural causes and being succeeded by his brother Shu-Sin. The Amorites continued to fight against the Ur III empire, and pushed them back to their heartlands. Shu-Sin actually constructed a wall between the two rivers to try and hold back the Amorites. The book doesn't say if this worked or not ... After Shu-Sin died (after a decade on the throne) he was succeeded by his son Ibbi-Sin who was to be the last of the kings of Ur III. He built walls too, round cities rather than between rivers however. Despite a fairly long reign (perhaps 20 years) he wasn't a strong king and the empire began to crumble almost immediately.

At its height the empire of the Ur III dynasty was a sophisticated and prosperous society. Taxes were collected across the empire on crops, livestock, labour and land. Any surpluses (I'm unclear if the book meant from the taxation or more generally) were redistributed fairly - not just to the temple bureaucracies but also to the poor. How much the common people actually benefited from the prosperity of the empire isn't entirely clear, nor is their precise place in society. An older theory is that they were pretty much just indentured servants, but more recent analysis is that it's more complicated. In theory it should be possible to find out a lot about the Ur III economy as thousands of texts detailing commercial transactions such as loans, leases of land and slave purchases etc have been found from this period. But the book says that no-one has done a systematic analysis of them in order to gain a complete picture (reading between the lines it sounds like the author of this particular section doesn't agree with what analysis has been done). One thing these texts demonstrate at even a cursory level of analysis is that despite this being a Sumerian Empire, Akkadian is the language of administration. The book says that Sumerian was still the language of literature and every literate citizen had to learn it, but Akkadian was the language that people actually used for their day to day lives.

Why did the Ur III empire fall? The book says that it might better to cast this as "how did it ever succeed in the first place?", but sadly doesn't answer that question but goes on to consider why it fell. The suggestion is that it was a perfect storm of adverse conditions including climate change, attacks from nomadic groups from outside the empire (for instance the Amorites) and urban restlessness, combined with a king whose administrative & leadership weren't up to the (admittedly difficult) job. Despite the broad brush strokes being unclear the details of the last king's downfall are quite well known - royal correspondence, poetry and an administrative archive from the period have all survived. Ibbi-Sin had been persuaded to appoint Ishbi-Erra as governor of some of the cities of the empire whilst Ibbi-Sin was away fighting the Elamites. Ishbi-Erra began to assume royal privileges and he eventually proclaimed himself ruler over all of southern Mesopotamia including Ur itself where Ibbi-Sin still ruled. The Ur III empire took another 14 or so years to properly fizzle out, finished off by a famine. There's surviving poetry recording the end of the empire that is similar to the later Book of Lamentations in the bible.

As well as this historical trot through the rise & fall of Ur III this section of the book also includes a couple of sections on the arts & architecture of this period. The first of these is about ziggurats which were the longest lasting temple designs in the Middle East: the earliest known date to at least the 4th Millennium BCE and they were still being built in the 6th Century BCE. They are monumental structures composed of two to seven tiers of platforms rising high into the sky. Access was via ramps, and at the topmost level there was an altar for making burnt offerings (or alternatively for cooking meals for the gods). As with Egyptian temples (and in contrast to Christian churches) these were not places for public worship, instead they were a place for the god to live. The platforms emphasised the separation from humanity on the ground and the gods in the sky, and only priests and rulers were permitted to go up to the top.

Replica Headdress & Jewellery

The last double page spread of the chapter looks at the precious metal working and jewellery of Mesopotamia from it's earliest known examples through to the end of the Ur III empire (I think, the dating isn't clear in the text). Gold and silver aren't found in Mesopotamia, but precious metal working still starts early in the 4th Millennium BCE with imported raw materials. The preferred designs were natural and geometric motifs, like leaves or spirals. Jewellery was made from gold or silver leaf and set with semi-precious stones. It was worn by both men & women, and possibly children too, as well as by statues of the gods. Jewellery might confer protection on the wearer - for instance lapis lazuli items meant you were protected by the sky god Anu. The picture above shows a replica of a headdress found by Leonard Woolley in the 1920s in the royal tombs at Ur (it's in the British Museum now). These tombs are the source of a lot of our knowledge of Sumerian jewellery, in particular the tomb of Queen Pu'abi (and all her (young, healthy) attendants who were all interred at the same time).

The fall of the Ur III empire is considered the dividing line between the Early Bronze Age and the Middle Bronze Age, and the next chapter on the book is about the power struggles between the various kingdoms of that period.

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