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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

"The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History" by Colin McEvedy

This is the sort of wonderful book where you look at the maps and marvel at the movements of the Hittites in Asia Minor, the growth of iron working, and the dissemination of literacy. And you tend to ignore the writing on the left hand page. But then. You loom at that and you think. Wow! I never knew that! That is an original perspective. How fascinating. How have I lived all this time and never realised that before.

This held me fascinated from the very beginning. It is a ragbag of scholarship (and it is old so some of it is probably by now outdated: “A race is a population that has been isolated sufficiently long to have to developed characteristics that distinguish members from those of the same species but different provenance.”; p 5) and I loved so much of it:

  • Geography imposed a limit on early-historical movements: Arctic Circle, Atlantic Ocean, Sahara Desert, Arabian Sea. The wastes of Turkestan and the desert of Sind were more porous although “After the expansion of the Iranians into India and Asia in the second millennium BC no western-based power ever extended significantly beyond the Jaxartes or Indus; conversely, only two peoples, the Yue-Chi in the second century BC and the Huns in the 1st century AD, entered Western Asia from the East. In India the desert of Sind was only crossed once, in the fourth century BC by the Mauryas.” (p 4) 
  • Scholars debate whether the island of Thule that lay six days’ sail to the north of Scotland was Iceland or Norway (it was probably only the Shetlands for distances beyond the periphery of usual travel tended to be wildly overestimated)” (p 4)
  • The Canaries were certainly visited and there is a record of an exploratory voyage reaching Sierra Leone; but the Canaries were not occupied” (p 4)
  • The Romans gained a hearsay knowledge of the Niger in its middle, eastward flowing, section. It was speculated that this might be the upper Nile, the course of which was known only as far as the confluence of its White and Blue branches; perhaps it traversed the Sahara from west to east before turning north in Upper Nubia? Nero sent two centurions to Egypt with orders to try and solve the problem; they travelled up the White Nile the point where it emerges from the impenetrable swamps now called the Sudd.” (p 4)
  • "Ptolemy’s map of AD 150 shows the river [Nile] rising in the Mountains of the Moon (the Ruwenzori range?) and flowing north by two large lakes that will do for Victoria and Albert.” (p 5)
  • Once we realise that we are considering the classification of human communities we have no reason to be limited to purely physical measurements but can take social behaviour as our index. ... the study of language enables us to draw up a genetic tree for our sub-racial communities: as Dr Johnson said ‘Languages are the pedigrees of nations’.” (p 6) 
  • Basque: “Place-name and blood-group evidence indicates that once the Basques occupied not only all of Spain, but also France as least as far north and east as the Loire and Rhone.” (p 6) 
  • Etruscan (?): “all that seems certain is that it is not Indo-European”; “The Etruscans claimed that they were immigrants to Tuscany, having come from a Western Anatolia - presumably around 900 BC.” (p 6) 
  • Indo-Europeans: “In the first half of the second millennium BC ... Starting from Transoxiana, one group of Iranians spread across Central Asia, becoming a basal population of the steppe, an environment they were the first to master: another group moved south and invaded India, conquering first the Indus and then the Ganges valleys. It was from the Iranians of Central Asia that the Huns, Turks and Mongols ... originally learnt the specialised form of pastoralism that became their hallmark. In the classical period Central Asia was dominated by Iranian peoples, and it was only towards its end that they began to yield to the Altaians - the sub-race consisting of the Turks and Mongols.” (p 8) “The Danubian culture represents the arrival and establishment of the Indo-Europeans in Central Europe.” (p 9)
  • Archaeology was acclaimed as the science of rubbish and as fast as the rubbish was dug up it was written down.” (p 9)
  • History being a branch of the biological sciences it's ultimate expression must be mathematical.” (p 10)
  • On a straight stretch of coast ... the relationships between sea-shore communities are weaker than their relationships with inland communities by a factor of three to two; whereas ... where the coastline is indented, not only is the number of sea-shore communities greatly increased but the relationships between them frequently outnumber their other relationships and are sometimes exclusive.” (p 10)
  • The concept of the natural frontier is much easier to grasp than the concept of an ecosphere boundary.” In a footnote it is added: “Many wars owe their origin to this type of conflict. A river valley is itself an ecosphere and its division is usually unnatural in social terms; for example, both banks of the Rhine have had a German population ever since Roman times, but to the French the line of the river seems a natural frontier. The Eastern Alps are another homogeneously German zone; the southern boundary on an ecological analysis lies along the foothills whereas the natural frontier in Italian eyes is the watershed.” (p 11)
  • Gordium, the capital of the Phrygian kingdom, covered an area of only about twenty-five acres.” (p 11)
  • Britain throughout the first millennium AD, was a patchwork of county-sized communities, and, though the Romans saw the island as a single province, the inhabitants did not. Consequently, the metropolis disappeared with the end of Roman rule ... London did not retain exceptional status till the eleventh century.” (p 12)
  • Human beings prefer urban to rural poverty, ... big cities have an attraction beyond any economic advantage.” (p 12)

And that is just the introduction! Thenceforward the maps are dated:

50,000 BC
  • South of the glaciated zone, rainfall tended to be heavy because of the interaction of warm southern air and air from the ice-chilled north, and this heavier rainfall supported a fairly vigorous flora and fauna in the Sahara and other areas that are now desert.” (p 16)
8500 BC
  • During the ninth millennium BC ... there was a rapid, though largely transitory, improvement in the climate ... thereafter the reindeer and the upper paleolithic tradition only survived near the diminishing icecap ... and the majority of the inhabitants of Europe passed into a new cultural phase, the mesoolithic ... The largest quarry available were deer and oxen, and mesolithic man, to make ends meet, spent most of his time hunting the inglorious snail and frankly sessile nut.” (p 18)
  • As the sea-level rose above the Bosporan shelf, salt water diffused into the Black Sea and killed the freshwater life it contained. The decomposed remains of this ice-age population still poison the lower levels of the stagnant Black Sea which is devoid of life below 250 feet.” (footnote, p 18)
  • The boat was probably an invention of this period. The dog, which presumably was suffering from the disappearance of its prey in much the same way as man, first appears as a mesolithic camp-follower.” (footnote, p 18)
4500 BC
  • The innovations of the Neolithic are many: the cultivation of wheat and barley, the domestication of goats, sheep, pigs and cattle, the use of fired pottery and of polished (as opposed to chipped) stone tools.” (p 20)
  • All of the sites in the pre-pottery neolithic so far discovered are within the fertile crescent.” (p 20)
  • Some of the mesolithic populations of the Baltic and Spanish coasts ... established permanent communities whenever there was a sufficient supply of shellfish.” (p 20)
  • No one has ever challenged the aboriginal status of the Semites in Arabia, and whether or not the related Hamites were neolithic immigrants or merely converts to agriculture ... their dominance in North Africa from this time on is equally certain.” (p 20)
2250 BC
  • Trade was rudimentary. “Such exchanges as took place did not lead to the appearance of a merchant class, for they were fixed price affairs, regulated by temple or palace. Similarly, when there was a shortage of a necessary material, the response ... was not merchant venturing but the mounting of a military expedition.” (p 26)

1600 BC
The migration of the clan of Abraham from the bend of the Fertile Crescent is usually, and plausibly, referred to the first period of Amorite expansion; Joseph's successful move into Egypt to the time of the Hyksos pharaohs, with their presumably favourable attitude to Semitic immigrants. The term ‘Hebrew’ (apiru) is used by Egyptians of the second millennium to describe all aliens of nomadic habits and only became a specific designation after the Exodus.” (p 30)
In the Rig-veda, the Aryans have left a fairly full picture of an early Indo-European horde of the stock-breeding type. The most significant addition to the repertoire at this time is the horse-drawn chariot.” (p 30)
Scandinavia, South-Western France and Atlantic Spain remained at the calcolithic level, while North Africa stagnated in the neolithic until the arrival of the Phoenicians.” (p 30)

1300 BC
  • Egypt, preoccupied with the religious revolution of Akhenaten, allowed her Palestinian province to drift to the edge of obedience.” (p 32)
  • Rameses II is the usual choice for the pharaoh of the Exodus because the Hebrews toiled on extensions to Avaris, the old Hyksos capital which Rameses renamed after himself. Many ‘Apiru’ are attested among his slave labourers.” (p 32)
  • About 1500 northern China passed straight from the neolithic into a full Bronze Age.” (p 32)
1300 BC Towns and trade
  • In northern China ... by 1300, the Shang kings were ruling a vigorous urban society and their priests were beginning to use a transitional script that is as clearly dependent on Near-Eastern prototypes as it is ancestral to modern Chinese.” (p 34)
  • The cities song by Homer are revealed by the spade as no more than citadels while the Achaean's surviving accounts proclaim their simple self-sufficiency. Their ships certainly reached as far west as Sicily". (p 34)

1300 BC Literacy
  • Even the pharaohs of the proud eighteenth dynasty conducted their foreign correspondence in cuneiform (and in the Akkadian language, the recognised diplomatic mode of the era).” (p 36)
  • When the Achaeans conquered the Aegean area, they modified Linear A in order to use it for the writing of Greek, the result being the recently deciphered Linear B” (p 36)
  • The consonantal alphabet [was] a Syro-Palestinian invention that followed naturally from the use of an open syllabary for writing a language like Semitic in which the vowels occur in regular relation to the consonants.” (p 36)
1200 BC
  • The Dorians, the northernmost of the Greek tribes, broke into the peninsula and methodically sacked Achaean strongholds; they then took to the sea and meted out the same treatment to Crete and Rhodes. The Phrygians, a Thracian people who crossed to Anatolia in the middle of the thirteenth century, were held in the north-eastern corner by the Hittites until 1200.” (p 38)
  • In the1180s, a horde of what the Egyptians called ‘sea peoples’ overran Palestine and was only beaten back with difficulty from Egypt itself.” (p 38)
  • The dark age that the barbarian invaders brought to the Aegean and Anatolia was to last for some four centuries.” (p 38)
1000 BC
  • About 1000 the Philistines were attempting to guarantee the military inferiority of the Hebrews by forbidding them to use the new metal [iron]” (p 40)
  • About this time the Iranians of the Transoxian region of Asia found that a skillful rider could manage his horse on the battlefield, a discovery that was ultimately to put an end to the chariot as a useful weapon.” (p 40)
825 BC
  • The resurgence of Phoenicia was powered by the Tyrian discovery of Spain with its abundant minerals (c 1000)” (p 42)
  • About 800, the Phoenicians voyaging to Spain founded permanent stations on either side of the Sicilian channel, the halfway point on their route.” (p 42)
560 BC
  • c595 “Nebuchadnezzar ... conquered the Van region ... just after the Caucasian kingdom has been finally overthrown and the country settled by the Thraco-Cimmerian people who later became known as Armenians.” (p 48)
  • Croesus, Lydia’s last and greatest king, subdued Ionia in toto. The metropolitan Greeks lacked the political organization that might have enabled them to support their overseas compatriots.” (p 48)
  • It was probably in the seventh century that Buddha began his teaching in the Hindu principalities of the upper Ganges; Zoroaster is thought to have lived in the Oxus region towards the end of the same century.” (p 48)
375 BC Town and Trade
  • The key feature of a primitive economy is “a sort of rationing system that is not egalitarian but hierarchical, you are allowed three strings of beads if and when you are entitled to wear them. Consumption is both conspicuous and mandatory and its primary purpose is to express rank. The Communists have partly reverted to this system in protest at the destructive social effects of laissez-faire economics, but the price of re-tribalization is liberty.” (p 54)
  • “The node of the Greek trading network lay at the Peloponnesian isthmus, where goods were easily trans-shipped or, especially after 600 when a paved way was built, the ships themselves would be hauled across. The first major town in Greece was the isthmian capital, Corinth.” (p 54) 
  • "On land Athens was never strong enough to protect her farmers whose concentration on the cash crops of the Mediterranean world, wine and oil, was not so imprudent as appears at first sight; the walls of the city would resist any assault and while the Athenian navy ruled the waves the grain supply was assured and the cheaper for being imported.” (p 54)
  • Tyre dwindled as the Med was split into Carthaginian and Greek zones and “when the Athenian grip on the Aegean was finally broken, the beneficiary was not Tyre but Rhodes ... by then the mines of Laurion were exhausted; their place in the Greek economy was taken by the alluvial deposits in the north which were worked to the profit of Philip of Macedon.” (p 54)
  • Electrum is a gold-silver alloy that occurs naturally in Anatolia.” (p 54 footnote)
323 BC
  • Philip II of Macedon could afford the increase in size of his army because of the discovery of gold; his fighting efficiency increased when he “refused to recognise two conventions of Greek warfare ... the restriction of campaigning to a recognized season and of siege technique to a blockade.” (p 58)
  • While the Etruscans never really recovered from the onslaught of the Gauls, Rome ... beat back the invaders.” (p 58)

145 BC Town and trade
  • Macedon, its gold deposits exhausted and its manpower weakened by wars and emigration, could barely hold its place among the great powers.” (p 70)
  • Rome “had no natural resources, no manufactures, no trade; in sum, no commercial justification for growing ...Yet grow it did and the beginnings of this growth seem to have preceded the conquests that in economic terms provide a justification for size. ... The need for cheap corn in ever-increasing quantities can be accepted as an important factor in Rome’s overseas aggressions.” (p 70)
AD 230
  • The Roman frontier in Europe, as it does more obviously in Africa and the East, by and large corresponds with the limit of intensive agriculture. Economically the rational frontier in Britain was about halfway up and Hadrian's Wall was a fair military translation of this, but there was always a feeling that, after all, the place was an island, and if you could get to the end you wouldn't need a frontier at all. Accordingly, the annexation of Scotland was attempted at intervals but always failed because the legions could not supply themselves in such a sparsely populated country.” (p 82, footnote)
AD 230 Town and Trade
  • Chinese silk had an instant success in the west despite its high price ,,, the only Mediterranean equivalent, the rough silk of Cos, was driven off the market and forgotten so completely that the nature of silk became a subject for rumour and speculation.” (p 84)
AD 362 Town and trade
  • After Diocletian's division of the Roman empire into East and West “Rome herself, after fattening on the produce of the entire Mediterranean basin for three hundred years, lost the corn of Egypt, the tribute of the East and even, as the headquarters of the mobile army at Milan became the seat of the Western court and civil government, its capital status and the official expenditure that this had entailed. The city became a backwater, the home of the lost causes aristocracy and paganism.” (p 90)
  • The reversion to self-sufficiency and barbarism was all too easy; taxation, most readily inflicted on the city dweller, encouraged the process.” (p 90)
  • The government’s price-fixing had made many professions profitless, and its attempts to avoid the economic consequences of its acts by making the practice of such professions obligatory and the liability hereditary, must have created many outlaws.” (p 90)
  • In the Orwellian twilight of the West, citizenship had become slavery and the paradox was completed when serfdom became the free man’s aspiration. To protect himself from the summary requisitions of the tax-gatherer the small farmer bought the protection of the local magnate by the gift of his freehold.” (p 90)
  • Only the evolution of a scientific stance - one foot inside the boundary of the known, the other just outside - could have guaranteed the superiority, and consequently the integrity, of Mediterranean society, and the world was still too young for that.” (p 92)
  • In the early days of her empire Rome did less than nothing for the urbanization of her provinces ... In the already developed areas the legions brought disasters. Carthage and Corinth were razed and Syracuse so treated that it never regained its former rank.” (p 92)
An astounding and outstanding work of reference. How one many can cover so many bases staggers me.

Brilliant. July 2018

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