Civilization: Drawbacks And Limits
The Rise Of Civilization In The Middle East And Africa
Because civilizations are by definition well organized compared to the
societies that preceded them, it is not surprising that almost all history is
about what has happened to civilized societies. We know most about such
societies, and we are likely to be particularly impressed by their great art
or powerful rulers. It is also true that civilizations tended to be far more
populous than noncivilized societies. Because civilizations depend on some
trade, they allow greater specialization that increases productivity and
sustenance of larger populations. Their political structure allows whole
regions or even a number of regions to be unified. But the history of
civilization does not embrace everybody. In the days of the river-valley
civilizations, even long after Sumer, most inhabited parts of the world were
not in the civilization orbit.
There is inevitable confusion between defining a society as a
civilization and assuming that civilization produces a monopoly on higher
values and controlled behavior. In the first place, civilization brings losses
as well as gains. As the Middle East moved toward civilization, distinctions
based on social class and wealth increased. This was clearly the case in
Sumer, where social structure ranged from slaves, who were treated as
property, to powerful kings and priests. Civilizations typically have firmer
class or caste divisions and greater separations between ruler and ruled than
"simpler" societies. Civilizations also often create greater inequality
between men and women than noncivilized societies do. Many early
civilizations, including those of the Middle East, went to considerable pains
to organize the inferiority of women on a more structured basis than ever
before, treating women as the property of fathers or husbands. Finally, as
Sigmund Freud noted, civilizations impose a host of restraints on people in
order to keep them organized in a complex social unit. Such restraints can
create a great deal of personal tension and even mental illness.
"Civilization," then, should not be taken as a synonym for "a `good' or
Furthermore, people in noncivilized societies may be exceptionally well
regulated and possessed of interesting, important culture. They are not
"merely" barbarians or uncouth wild men. Some societies that were most eager
to repress anger and aggression in human dealings, such as several Eskimo
groups, were not part of a civilization until recently. In contrast, many
civilized societies produce a great deal of aggressive behavior and build
warlike qualities into their list of virtues. While some noncivilized
societies treat old people cruelly, others display respect and veneration. A
civilized society does not invariably enhance the human capacity for
restrained, polite behavior or an interest in the higher values of life.
Civilizations do not even clearly promote greater human happiness.
The development of civilization continued the process of enhancing human
capacity for technological and political organization, and the production of
increasingly elaborate and diverse artistic and intellectual forms. In this
quite restricted sense, the term has meaning and legitimately commands the
attention of most historians. Because of the power and splendor civilizations
could provide, they did tend to spread as other societies came under their
influence or deliberately tried to imitate their achievements. Early
civilizations, however, spread slowly because many peoples had no contact with
them and because their disadvantages, such as greater social inequality, might
be repellent. Thus the initial advent of civilization, while an important
historical milestone, came in clearly circumscribed regions like the
Tigris-Euphrates valley. The history of early civilization focuses attention
on the generation of the first forms of civilized activity - writing and city
administration - and on the construction of linkages in medium-sized
The Course Of Mesopotamian Civilization: A Series Of Conquests
The general characteristics of civilization, from economic surplus to
writing, cities, and social inequality, are vital, but must be combined with
the specific qualities of particular civilizations such as those of
Mesopotamia, where writing was of a certain style; social organization was
distinctive, for example, in the power of priests; and overall culture had
some special qualities.
A key ingredient of Mesopotamian civilization was frequent instability as
one ruling people gave way to another invading force. The Sumerians,
themselves invaders of the fertile river valleys, did not set up a
sufficiently strong and united political force to withstand pressures from
outside, particularly when other peoples of the Middle East began to copy key
achievements, such as the formation of cities.
Later Mesopotamian Empires
Shortly after 2400 B.C. a king from a non-Sumerian city, Akkad, conquered
the Sumerian city-states and inaugurated an Akkadian Empire. This empire soon
sent troops as far as Egypt and Ethiopia. The initial Akkadian ruler, Sargon
I, the first clearly identified individual in world history, set up a unified
empire integrating the city-states into a whole, and added to Sumerian art a
new style marked by the theme of royal victory. Professional military
organization expanded since Sargon maintained a force of 5400 troops.
Extensive tax revenues were needed to support his operations. The Akkadians
were the first people to use writing for more than commercial and temple
records, producing a number of literary works. The Akkadian empire, however,
lasted only about 200 years, and then it was overthrown by another invading
force. Sumerian regional states reappeared, in what turned out to be the final
phase of this particular civilization. It was then that the Epic of Gilgamesh
was written. By this time, around 2000 B.C., kingdoms were springing up in
various parts of the Middle East, while new invading groups, including Indo-
European tribes that came from the Balkans in southeastern Europe, added to
the region's confusion. A civilization derived from Sumerian culture spread
more widely in the Middle East, though political unity was rarely achieved in
the expanded setting.
Another new empire arose around 1800 B.C., for the first time unifying
the whole of Mesopotamia. This Babylonian Empire was headed by Hammurabi, one
of the great rulers of early civilized history. Hammurabi set up an extensive
network of officials and judges, while maintaining a separate priesthood. He
also codified the laws of the region, to deal with a number of criminal,
property, and family issues. Large cities testified to the wealth and power of
this new empire. At the same time, Sumerian cultural traditions were
maintained and elaborated. The famous Hammurabic code thus was built on
earlier codifications by Sumerian kings.
A Babylonian poem testified to the continued sobriety of the dominant
culture: "I look about me and see only evil. My troubles grow and I cannot
find justice. I have prayed to the gods and sacrificed, but who can understand
the gods in heaven? Who knows what they plan for us? Who has ever been able to
understand a god's conduct?"
Finally, Babylonian scientists extended the Sumerian work in astronomy
and mathematics. Scholars were able to predict lunar eclipses and trace the
paths of some of the planets. Babylonians also worked out mathematical tables
and an algebraic geometry of great practical utility. The modern 60-minute
hour and 360-degree circle are heritages of the Babylonian system of
measurement. The study of astronogy is another Babylonian legacy.
Indeed, of all the successors of the Sumerians, the Babylonians
constructed the most elaborate culture, though their rule was not long-lived.
The Babylonians expanded commerce and a common cultural zone, both based on
growing use of cuneiform writing and a shared language. During the empire
itself, new government strength showed both in the extensive legal system and
in the opulent public buildings and royal palaces. The hanging gardens of one
king dazzled visitors from the entire region.
The Babylonian empire fell by about 1600 B.C. An invading Hittite people,
pressing in from central Asia, adapted the Sumerian cuneiform script to their
own Indo-European language and set up an empire of their own. The Hittites
soon yielded, and a series of smaller kingdoms disputed the region for several
centuries, between about 1200 and 900 B.C. This period allowed a number of
regional cultures, such as the Hebrew and the Phoenician, to develop greater
autonomy, thus adding to the diversity and the achievements of the Middle
East. Then, after about 900 B.C., another series of empires began in the
Middle East, including the Assyrian Empire and later the Persian Empire based
on invasions of new groups from central Asia. These new invaders had mastered
the production of iron weapons and also used horses and chariots in fighting,
sketching a new framework for the development of empires and a new chapter in
the history of the Middle East and of civilization more generally.
[See Head Of Sargon: This bronze head of Sargon, founder of the Akkadian
dynasty, dates from about 2350 B.C. The elaborate metalwork displays the
artistic talent acquired by leading craftsmen.]
Document: Hammurabi's Law Code
Hammurabi, as king of Babylon, united Mesopotamia under his rule from
about 1800 to 1750 B.C. His law code, the earliest such compilation still in
existence, was discovered on a stone slab in Iran in A.D. 1901. Not a
systematic presentation, it was a collection of exemplary cases designed to
set general standards of justice. The code provides vital insights into the
nature of social relations and family structure in this ancient civilization.
Examples of the Hammurabic code follow:
When Marduk commanded me to give justice to the people of the land and to
let [them] have [good] governance, I set forth truth and justice throughout
the land [and] prospered the people.
At that time:
If a man has accused a man and has charged him with manslaughter and then has
not proved [it against] him, his accuser shall be put to death.
If a man has charged a man with sorcery and then has not proved [it against]
him, he who is charged with the sorcery shall go to the holy river; he shall
leap into the holy river and, if the holy river overwhelms him, his accuser
shall take and keep his house; if the holy river proves that man clear [of the
offense] and he comes back safe, he who has charged him with sorcery shall be
put to death; he who leapt into the holy river shall take and keep the house
of his accuser.
If a man has come forward in a case to bear witness to a felony and then has
not proved the statement that he has made, if that case [is] a capital one,
that man shall be put to death.
If he has come forward to bear witness to [a claim for] corn or money, he
shall remain liable for the penalty for that suit.
If a judge has tried a suit, given a decision, caused a sealed tablet to be
executed, [and] thereafter varies his judgment, they shall convict that judge
of varying [his] judgment and he shall pay twelve-fold the claim in that suit;
then they shall remove him from his place on the bench of judges in the
assembly, and he shall not [again] sit in judgment with the judges.
If a free person helps a slave to escape, the free person will be put to
If a man has committed robbery and is caught, that man shall be put to death.
If the robber is not caught, the man who has been robbed shall formally
declare whatever he has lost before a god, and the city and the mayor in whose
territory or district the robbery has been committed shall replace whatever he
has lost for him.
If [it is] the life [of the owner that is lost], the city or the mayor shall
pay one maneh of silver to his kinsfolk.
If a person owes money and Adad [the river god] has flooded the person's
field, the person will not give any grain [tax] or pay any interest in that
If a person is too lazy to make the dike of his field strong and there is a
break in the dike and water destroys his own farmland, that person will make
good the grain [tax] that is destroyed.
If a merchant increases interest beyond that set by the king and collects it,
that merchant will lose what was lent.
If a trader borrows money from a merchant and then denies the fact, that
merchant in the presence of god and witnesses will prove the trader borrowed
the money and the trader will pay the merchant three times the amount
If the husband of a married lady has accused her but she is not caught lying
with another man, she shall take an oath by the life of a god and return to
If a man takes himself off and there is not the [necessary] maintenance in his
house, his wife [so long as] her [husband is delayed], shall keep [herself
chaste; she shall not] enter [another man's house].
If that woman has not kept herself chaste but enters another man's house, they
shall convict that woman and cast her into the water.
If a son strikes his father, they shall cut off his forehand.
If a man has put out the eye of a free man, they shall put out his eye.
If he breaks the bone of a [free] man, they shall break his bone.
If he puts out the eye of a villain or breaks the bone of a villain, he shall
pay 1 maneh of silver.
If he puts out the eye of a [free] man's slave or breaks the bone of a [free]
man's slave, he shall pay half his price.
If a man knocks out the tooth of a [free] man equal [in rank] to him[self],
they shall knock out his tooth.
If he knocks out the tooth of a villain, he shall pay 1/3 maneh of silver.
If a man strikes the cheek of a [free] man who is superior [in rank] to
him[self], he shall be beaten with 60 stripes with a whip of ox-hide in the
If the man strikes the cheek of a free man equal to him[self in rank], he
shall pay 1 maneh of silver.
If a villain strikes the cheek of a villain, he shall pay 10 shekels of
If the slave of a [free] man strikes the cheek of a free man, they shall cut
off his ear.