History, they tell us, is about the past. But the study of history shows an oft-repeated cycle of events. Since human beings have not changed over thousands of years, they have reacted time after time in the same way to events as we do today. The emphasis in the teaching of history in schools and universities has always tended to be on political history (monarchs, wars, treaties, laws) and has perhaps made us forget that history is about people like ourselves, trying desperately to get on with their lives in spite of what their rulers, neighbours, the climate, etc etc may throw at them.
Today’s world, at least for most of us, is an urbanised, industrialised one, with a sophisticated governmental, social, economic, legal, and educational system. We tend to forget that when the first urban civilisations developed in the Middle East over 5000 years ago they too had to develop systems parallel to our own in order to survive. They experienced the need to have adequate food, clothing and shelter, to plan their environment, to evolve a legal code which enabled society to run efficiently. They were concerned not just with survival but with “getting on” in the world. They deplored the lack of discipline and respect in the “younger generation”. They despaired of the lack of interest in education in the young. They rejected malign “foreign” influence on their lifestyle. As states grew wealthy the “haves” competed with one another for bigger, better, and more beautiful possessions. The “have-nots” either strove to emulate their better-off neighbours or expressed their anger and resentment at those who had done better for themselves. Social classes evolved, usually based on wealth, privilege, birth, and ownership of property, (traditionally land).
Wars took place — sometimes through sheer “need” — at other times through sheer “greed”. Prosperity brought with it all sorts of problems — not least such questions as “who inherits your property after you’re gone?” I.e. — what happens to the share of the children of the original marriage if the mother dies and the father remarries, producing more children? (Pliny’s Letters Ist. Cent. AD).
Modern states have for the most part only just solved, over the last 150 years, the age-old problem of the fact that ownership of land gave one a higher status in society than ownership of, for example, a business. The industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries has put status firmly in the ownership of business, money, and property generally . But has this “solution” made us any happier? Is the power conferred by economic status much different from that once obtained from land? Just how “democratic” is our system today, where on paper in most places everyone has equal rights?
Our ancestors spoke strange languages, wore funny clothes, did not have our present means of transport, communicated by speech and writing without electronic assistance. Yet they faced and tackled the same issues as ourselves in a parallel environment. Intricately carved ornaments and cave paintings of 40,000 years ago show manual and artistic skills even in the less sophisticated societies of that time.
We tend to regard present-day issues, whether personal, national, or international as unique to our current time and situation. This is only natural — and yet the same situations have been affecting people and society for thousands of years. Perhaps it should make us more optimistic when we realise that the human race has survived all this time in spite of such recurrent problem situations. On the other hand some folk may feel depressed that mankind has not yet solved such problems and driven them away for all time — “Will we never learn?”
A few points are worth bearing in mind. The first is that human intelligence over the last, for example, 10,000 years has not changed. Whether a culture is or was more sophisticated or less sophisticated has no relation to the IQ of its members. The second is that human society evolving from the basic family situation shares common elements equally with the early hunter-gatherers and with today’s urban dwellers. Concepts of acceptable behaviour and of right and wrong are permanently and universally valid. Thirdly, human personality, psychology — call it what you will — has remained unchanged for thousands of years.
Many things have changed over the millennia — government in particular has evolved from the tribal assembly to that of the city state, through the nation state, to that of the international community (European Community). But what we tend to forget is that our generation didn’t invent the city, the nation, or even the “empire”. The process of urbanisation began between 4000 and 3000 BC – possibly in Iraq (Mesopotamia), the Indus Valley (north-west India), Iran (Persia), and Egypt. As these areas developed cities they evolved written, legal, government, economic, and religious systems on a par with our own. They handled diplomatic relations, international trade, war, employment, price and quality control, town planning, building standards (to name but a few), on a daily basis. Such areas as religion, recreation and social welfare were all catered for.
From 2000 BC this more sophisticated lifestyle began to spread to the fringes of Europe, with Cretan, Phoenician and Anatolian (Turkish) cultures creating “modern” systems and in particular international trade. By 700 BC in Greece urban areas (city states) began to grow, with a prosperity based on the manufacture and exchange of agricultural and other products. These cities were independent of each other and each set up colonies (mirror images of itself) all around the Mediterranean Sea. These cities — in particular Athens — began to gain a reputation for philosophy, literature, and above all experiments in government (democracy).
It is not always appreciated however that the “classical” Greeks in the time of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle etc. went for their tertiary education to Egypt — providing a link between the early Middle Eastern cultures and Western Europe. (Links between the Cretan culture of 2000 BC and Egypt were strong and Crete influenced Mycenae and Greece).
In the centre of Italy the town of Rome began to expand from around 300 BC, over the centuries taking over Italy, Greece, North Africa, West Asia, and a great part of Western Europe (excluding Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia). This Roman culture produced an international language (Latin) which is still the basis of many European tongues, a legal system on which much modern European law is based, a government system which has been adapted right up to modern times. Many Roman concepts and ideas in themselves were borrowed from Greece.
One point about these cultures over the past 6000 years is that they faced the same problems as we do today. Since they had evolved writing systems we can follow their recognition of these issues which we are still coping with today and their attempts to solve them. Surviving written material is more limited from Egypt and Mesopotamia, much less limited from Greece and Rome. (Even there a vast amount of material was lost during the Dark Ages after Rome fell). Because of the greater amount of source materials is from Greek and Roman sources we tend to make the mistake of thinking that their civilization was in some way on a higher plane than older cultures such as Sumeria.
Nor should we think that urban cultures parallel to our own represent a higher level of intelligence. For example the Celtic tribes of the Upper Danube and Alpine areas had a more rural-based culture which in intellectual achievement was on a par with their neighbours and contemporaries in Greece and Rome. Although literate, they preferred to learn by heart, and to learn through live discussion and argument, rather than via books. This indicates to us that we will probably never learn the real capacity of cultures such as that of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey around 8000 BC. We tend to judge a culture by the amount and quality of three-dimensional material remains it leaves behind. Perhaps the fact that the science of archaeology evolved in the materialistic Victorian Era has a lot to answer for!