Ancient History & Civilisation

A Motley of Nations


The ethnic scene—Mitannians—Hittites—Armenians—Scythians—Phrygians—The Divine Mother—Lydians—Crœsus—Coinage—Croesus, Solon and Cyrus

TO a distant and yet discerning eye the Near East, in the days of Nebuchadrezzar, would have seemed like an ocean in which vast swarms of human beings moved about in turmoil, forming and dissolving groups, enslaving and being enslaved, eating and being eaten, killing and getting killed, endlessly. Behind and around the great empires—Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria and Persia—flowered this medley of half nomad, half settled tribes: Cimmerians, Cilicians, Cappadocians, Bithynians, Ashkanians, Mysians, Mæonians, Carians, Lycians, Pamphylians, Pisidians, Lycaonians, Philistines, Amorites, Canaanites, Edomites, Ammonites, Moabites and a hundred other peoples each of which felt itself the center of geography and history, and would have marveled at the ignorant prejudice of an historian who would reduce them to a paragraph. Thoughout the history of the Near East such nomads were a peril to the more settled kingdoms which they almost surrounded; periodically droughts would fling them upon these richer regions, necessitating frequent wars, and perpetual readiness for war.1 Usually the nomad tribe survived the settled kingdom, and overran it in the end. The world is dotted with areas where once civilization flourished, and where nomads roam again.

In this seething ethnic sea certain minor states took shape, which, even if only as conductors, contributed their mite to the heritage of the race. The Mitannians interest us not as the early antagonists of Egypt in the Near East, but as one of the first Indo-European peoples known to us in Asia, and as the worshipers of gods—Mithra, Indra and Varuna—whose passage to Persia and India helps us to trace the movements of what was once so conveniently called the “Aryan” race.*

The Hittites were among the most powerful and civilized of the early Indo-European peoples. Apparently they had come down across the Bosphorus, the Hellespont, the Ægean or the Caucasus, and had established themselves as a ruling military caste over the indigenous agriculturists of that mountainous peninsula, south of the Black Sea, which we know as Asia Minor. Towards 1800 B.C. we find them settled near the sources of the Tigris and the Euphrates; thence they spread their arms and influence into Syria, and gave mighty Egypt some indignant concern. We have seen how Rameses II was forced to make peace with them, and to acknowledge the Hittite king as his equal. At Boghaz Keui they made their capital and centered their civilization: first on the iron which they mined in the mountains bordering on Armenia, then on a code of laws much influenced by Hammurabi’s, and finally on a crude esthetic sense which drove them to carve vast and awkward figures in the round, or upon the living rock. Their language, recently deciphered by Hronzný from the ten thousand clay tablets found at Boghaz Keui by Hugo Winckler, was largely of Indo-European affinity; its declensional and conjugational forms closely resembled those of Latin and Greek, and some of its simpler words are visibly akin to English.§ The Hittites wrote a pictographic script in their own queer way—one line from left to right, the next from right to left, and so forth alternately. They learned cuneiform from the Babylonians, taught Crete the use of the clay tablet for writing, and seem to have mingled with the ancient Hebrews intimately enough to have given them their sharply aquiline nose, so that this Hebraic feature must now be considered strictly “Aryan.”4 Some of the surviving tablets are vocabularies giving Sumerian, Babylonian and Hittite equivalents; others are administrative enactments revealing a close-knit military and monarchical state; others contain two hundred fragments of a code of laws, including price-regulations for commodities.5 The Hittites disappeared from history almost as mysteriously as they entered it; one after another their capitals decayed—perhaps because their great advantage, iron, became equally accessible to their competitors. The last of these capitals, Carchemish, fell before the Assyrians in 717 B.C.

Just north of Assyria was a comparatively stable nation, known to the Assyrians as Urartu, to the Hebrews as Ararat, and to later times as Armenia. For many centuries, beginning before the dawn of recorded history and continuing till the establishment of Persian rule over all of western Asia, the Armenians maintained their independent government, their characteristic customs and arts. Under their greatest king, Argistis II (ca. 708 B.C.), they grew rich by mining iron and selling it to Asia and Greece; they achieved a high level of prosperity and comfort, of culture and manners; they built great edifices of stone, and made excellent vases and statuettes. They lost their wealth in costly wars of offense and defense against Assyria, and passed under Persian domination in the days of the all-conquering Cyrus.

Still farther north, along the shores of the Black Sea, wandered the Scythians, a horde of warriors half Mongol and half European, ferocious bearded giants who lived in wagons, kept their women in purdah seclusion,6 rode bareback on wild horses, fought to live and lived to fight, drank the blood of their enemies and used the scalps as napkins,7 weakened Assyria with repeated raids, swept through western Asia (ca. 630-610 B.C.), destroying and killing everything and everyone in their path, advanced to the very cities of the Egyptian Delta, were suddenly decimated by a mysterious disease, and were finally overcome by the Medes and driven back to their northern haunts.8* We catch from such a story another glimpse of the barbaric hinterland that hedged in every ancient state.

Towards the end of the ninth century B.C. a new power arose in Asia Minor, inheriting the remains of the Hittite civilization, and serving as a cultural bridge to Lydia and Greece. The legend by which the Phrygians tried to explain for curious historians the foundation of their kingdom was symbolical of the rise and fall of nations. Their first king, Gordios, was a simple peasant whose sole inheritance had been a pair of oxen;* their next king, his son Midas, was a spendthrift who weakened the state by that greed and extravagance which posterity represented through the legend of his plea to the gods that he might turn anything to gold by touching it. The plea was so well heard that everything Midas touched turned to gold, even the food that he put to his lips; he was on the verge of starvation when the gods allowed him to cleanse himself of the curse by bathing in the river Pactolus—which has given up grains of gold ever since.

The Phrygians made their way into Asia from Europe, built a capital at Ancyra, and for a time contended with Assyria and Egypt for mastery of the Near East. They adopted a native mother-goddess, Ma, rechristened her Cybele from the mountains (kybela) in which she dwelt, and worshiped her as the great spirit of the untilled earth, the personification of all the reproductive energies of nature. They took over from the aborigines the custom of serving the goddess through sacred prostitution, and accepted into their mythical lore the story of how Cybele had fallen in love with the young god Atys, and had compelled him to emasculate himself in her honor; hence the priests of the Great Mother sacrificed their manhood to her upon entering the service of her temples.11These barbarous legends fascinated the imagination of the Greeks, and entered profoundly into their mythology and their literature. The Romans officially adopted Cybele into their religion, and some of the orgiastic rites that marked the Roman carnivals were derived from the wild rituals with which the Phrygians annually celebrated the death and resurrection of the handsome Atys.12

The ascendency of Phrygia in Asia Minor was ended with the rise of the new kingdom of Lydia. King Gyges established it with its capital at Sardis; Alyattes, in a long reign of forty-nine years, raised it to prosperity and power; Croesus (570-546 B.C.) inherited and enjoyed it, expanded it by conquest to include nearly all of Asia Minor, and then surrendered it to Persia. By generous bribes to local politicians he brought one after another of the petty states that surrounded him into subjection to Lydia, and by pious and unprecedented hecatombs to local deities he placated these subject peoples and persuaded them that he was the darling of their gods. Crœsus further distinguished himself by issuing gold and silver coins of admirable design, minted and guaranteed at their face value by the state; and though these were not, as long supposed, the first official coins in history, much less the invention of coinage,* nevertheless they set an example that stimulated trade throughout the Mediterranean world. Men had for many centuries used various metals as standards of value and exchange; but these, whether copper, bronze, iron, silver or gold, had in most countries been measured by weight or other tests at each transaction. It was no small improvement that replaced such cumbersome tokens with a national currency; by accelerating the passage of goods from those that could best produce them to those that most effectively demanded them it added to the wealth of the world, and prepared for mercantile civilizations like those of Ionia and Greece, in which the proceeds of commerce were to finance the achievements of literature and art.

Of Lydian literature nothing remains; nor does any specimen survive of the preciously wrought vases of gold, iron and silver that Crœsus offered to the conquered gods. The vases found in Lydian tombs, and now housed in the Louvre, show how the artistic leadership of Egypt and Babylonia was yielding, in the Lydia of Crœsus’ day, to the growing influence of Greece; their delicacy of execution rivals their fidelity to nature. When Herodotus visited Lydia he found its customs almost indistinguishable from those of his fellow-Greeks; all that remained to separate them, he tells us, was the way in which the daughters of the common people earned their dowries—by prostitution.13

The same great gossip is our chief authority for the dramatic story of Croesus’s fall. Herodotus recounts how Crœsus displayed his riches to Solon, and then asked him whom he considered the happiest of men. Solon, after naming three individuals who were all dead, refused to call Croesus happy, on the ground that there was no telling what misfortunes the morrow would bring him. Croesus dismissed the great legislator as a fool, turned his hand to plotting against Persia, and suddenly found the hosts of Cyrus at his gates. According to the same historian the Persians won through the superior stench of their camels, which the horses of the Lydian cavalry could not bear; the horses fled, the Lydians were routed, and Sardis fell. Croesus, according to ancient tradition, prepared a great funeral pyre, took his place on it with his wives, his daughters, and the noblest young men among the surviving citizens, and ordered his eunuchs to burn himself and them to death. In his last moments he remembered the words of Solon, mourned his own blindness, and reproached the gods who had taken all his hecatombs and paid him with destruction. Cyrus, if we may follow Herodotus,14 took pity on him, ordered the flames to be extinguished, carried Crœsus with him to Persia, and made him one of his most trusted counsellors.

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