Tag Archives: civilization

  • A Short History of the Ancient World, Part Two: Igniting Curiosity

    To mark the publication of our new and beautifully illustrated textbook, A Short History of the Ancient World, we are featuring two back-to-back posts by the authors. Today, Heidi E. Kraus discusses the importance of using history, art, and literature together to help inspire students to ask meaningful questions and to pursue answers.

    I recently attended a session at an academic conference dedicated to undergraduate teaching. A question arose related to curiosity: how do liberal arts professors teaching an undergraduate audience inspire curiosity in our students? I have often joked that if I could find the answer to this omnipresent question, I could make a million dollars and retire. How do we reach students in today’s culture—one consumed with the instant gratification that digital technology affords—let alone inspire them? How do we ignite a fire in them to ask questions or to pursue answers to the seemingly unanswerable?

    One could argue that this is not our job as college professors. We deliver the material, we present the facts, and we facilitate the connections that might fan the flames of curiosity. Rather, this argument might go, students need to take the initiative. We cannot be responsible for making our students curious. But, while the student must be in the driver’s seat of their own education, what if we as professors worked to make the material we profess more relatable to our students? What if we were decidedly interdisciplinary and collaborative in our approach to teaching and scholarship, informed by our fields of expertise but not restricted to them? What if we modeled for our students why this material matters?

    A Short History of the Ancient World is a textbook that models this collaborative, interdisciplinary approach. With classicist Nicholas K. Rauh’s uncompromising manuscript as a foundation, I was invited to join the project as an art historian, interjecting over fifty images and art historical analysis wherever appropriate. The text is supplemented by sidebars similar to what you will find in art history textbooks: Art in Focus, Materials and Techniques, and Primary Sources. For example, Chapter 2 provides the reader with a chronological survey of Ancient Egypt from circa 3100 to 1069 BC. Framed within Rauh’s broader discussion of why ancient civilizations rose and fell, this chapter considers the character and conduct of Egyptian art by examining works like the Palette of Narmer and The Book of the Dead of Hunefer. I sought to bring the relevancy of antiquity forward to the Modern period by discussing the impact of Napoleon’s monumental Description de l’Égypte on Western culture and the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone by Champollion in 1822. By highlighting visual culture both in this chapter and throughout the book, we wanted to put forward a more complete version of history, and one that chooses to emphasize the culture and society in the creation of that history.

    While the story of antiquity is often told through the lens of Greece and Rome, A Short History of the Ancient World exposes the student to ancient non-Western civilizations in Africa, China, Iran, and the Indian subcontinent. In addition to the impact of visual culture on these civilizations, literature serves as an important thread throughout the book. Nearly every chapter contains a sidebar dedicated to a primary source. One of my favorite chapters is Chapter 4, which focuses on the Iron Age Ancient Near Eastern civilizations and includes a discussion of Phoenician and Assyrian art, an analysis of the Palace of Darius at Persepolis, as well as an excerpt from an account of the destruction of Persepolis from the ancient historian Diodorus Siculus. The passage is accompanied by Joshua Reynold’s 1781 painting of Thais setting fire to the city, giving a powerful textual and visual connection to an otherwise distant historical event. Using literature, history, and art, the book encourages students to connect to the material via multiple avenues.

    The book begs the question: what can we learn about our own civilization by studying those that came before, how they rose to power, how they functioned, and why they fell? Useful for surveys, upper-level courses, and seminars, the book’s versatility is among its many strengths. A Short History of the Ancient World does not come with a guarantee to spur the curiosity of our undergraduates or to solve the problems of our present, but it does try an exciting new way.

    Heidi E. Kraus is Assistant Professor of Art History and Director of The De Pree Gallery at Hope College.

  • A Short History of the Ancient World, Part One: The Growth and Collapse of Civilizations

    To mark the publication of our new and beautifully illustrated textbook, A Short History of the Ancient World, we will be featuring two back-to-back posts by the authors. Today, Nicholas K. Rauh provides background on his own archaeological research and how it informs the narrative of the book—particularly the book's emphasis on how civilizations rise and fall, and what we can learn from this today.

    For the past 22 years, I have conducted archaeological survey on the south coast of Turkey. Survey is a uniquely non-intrusive field activity that locates and records the remains of past human activity as it survives on the existing landscape. Typically, these remains lay hidden by dense vegetation in remote rural areas. Ruined buildings, scraps of wall, and debris fields strewn with bits of pottery, glass, roof tile, and bone help to confirm the existence of what was formerly an isolated farmstead, a village, or perhaps a small city. An underlying principle of survey archaeology assumes that the current landscape represents a palimpsest of past disturbances, the result of various energies—natural, animal, and human—that worked to transform the landscape over thousands of years. Ruined temples in remote canyons, large fortification walls hidden today by dense forests, and random sherd scatters in the middle of cultivated fields all need to be assessed within the context of a continually changing landscape. Only by analyzing things in context can we hope to determine their appearance, not to mention their purpose in earlier times.

    During the past decade, I have investigated more than a dozen ruined settlements in the remote highlands of south coastal Turkey. The extant remains of cemeteries, houses, baths, temples, inscribed dedications, and fortification walls indicate that Roman-era settlements in these highlands once sustained sizable populations. Today these same highlands support scattered villages of perhaps a few dozen inhabitants. In other words, during Roman times the rural landscape of south coastal Turkey was populated far more densely than it is today. Admittedly, modern urban centers such as Antalya and Alanya on the Turkish coast compensate for this disparity by accommodating far larger populations than anything conceivable in ancient times. Nonetheless, the results of my archaeological survey indicate that Roman-era settlement carpeted the rural landscape far more densely than today, with the inhabitants seemingly leaving no viable resource unexploited. This reminds us that in the space-time continuum, human settlements grew in size and complexity and forested terrain was cleared and converted into well-manicured landscapes. Eventually, these same settlements fell abandoned, and the landscape gradually reverted to some semblance of its natural state. Investigating the remains of 2000-year-old habitats in these remote rural hillsides helps to instill a profound sense of history in what I do.

    Nick Rauh investigating the remains of an Iron Age fortification wall on Dana Island.

    The fact that these abandoned country sides harbor vestiges of past civilizations holds important lessons for our current era of unprecedented population growth. Contemporary pursuit of economic expansion with its inordinate dependence on energy and natural resources calls to mind the inability of past civilizations to transcend unforeseen barriers or thresholds to growth. This theme is precisely what my book with Heidi Kraus, A Short History of the Ancient World, attempts to address. At several points during the ancient experience, societal, and most probably ecological disturbances, interrupted growth by setting in motion sudden epochs of societal collapse and reorganization. Recurring patterns characterized by long fore loops of societal expansion and conservation followed by sudden back loops of release and reorganization appear to have transpired during the Bronze Age and again at the end of the Roman era. These patterns suggest that from a material standpoint societal trajectories of expansion and collapse are largely unavoidable. During antiquity the duration of growth fore loops was sometimes prolonged through active lines of communication between neighboring civilizations (something referred to as interconnectivity). While interconnectivity conceivably extended growth and prosperity in participating societies, it ultimately synchronized their trajectories and rendered the inevitable back loop of collapse and reorganization all the more chaotic. While interesting in and of itself, this recurring pattern of expansion and collapse among macroregionally connected civilizations furnishes a useful bell weather for contemporary global concerns.

    A Roman-era rock-cut tomb at Direvli.

    In A Short History of the Ancient World, Heidi Kraus and I lean heavily on evidence for the inherent systems and structures used to forge ancient civilizations. We enumerate the cultural attributes of each ancient civilization according to an established set of criteria. We carefully describe the resource potential of each society’s ecological niche. We explore the ideological mainsprings employed by ancient hierarchies to justify their religious and political ascendancy. We evaluate the success with which these hierarchies utilized the fine arts to express their ascendant ideologies. Most importantly, we calibrate the growth fore loop of emergent civilizations by employing constructs of state formation, world systems, and resilience theory. As coeval civilizations achieved the conservation phase of growth fore loops, we explore the admittedly limited evidence for interconnectivity on a macroregional scale. We argue that, while initially conducive to prolonging growth, ancient globalization inevitably synchronized the back loops of interconnected civilizations during the collapse phase of the cycle. Last, we take care to observe how the influx of new peoples, cultural influences, and technologies insured that the processes of renewal would occur under modified conditions of scale and complexity.

    Much of what is stated in A Short History of the Ancient World is theoretical and open to debate. We readily concede that our interpretation of the ancient experience represents one of several ways of looking at the past. Our purpose in doing so has been to recount the history of theancient world in a manner that is as meaningful as it is relevant, as approachable as it is compelling.

    Nicholas K. Rauh is Professor of Classics at Purdue University and an award-winning teacher. He is the author of The Sacred Bonds of Commerce: Religion, Economy, and Trade Society at Hellenistic Roman Delos (1993) and Merchants, Sailors, and Pirates in the Roman World (2003).

  • Why the Renaissance Matters

    To mark the publication of the new edition of her classic textbook, A Short History of the Renaissance in Europe, Margaret L. King discusses why this time period holds so much interest and why studying it is important.

    Short History of the Renaissance in EuropeThe Renaissance—which means “rebirth,” “renewal,” or “revival,” and comes very close as well to “enlightenment,” “illumination,” and even “transfiguration”—still matters because its opposite is death. As the term “renaissance” has most often been applied to human civilization, its absence means the stagnation, decay, diminution, and finally the death of civilization. We cannot live as human beings—for humans alone create culture, which broadly shared and aggregated constitutes civilization—if we do not periodically experience a “renaissance,” which is to say, if we are not periodically reborn.

    In this we are like and unlike trees and flowers and all vegetation. They die and are reborn each spring. The trees whose lives flamed forth and died the previous autumn leaf out again in vivid green in the spring. Flowers die and bloom again on the same shrub, or from seeds or bulbs generated by living plants in which are stored the ingredients for their later rebirth.

    But while plants die and are reborn annually, human civilizations follow no such regular pattern. They flourish and grow for centuries, building on past achievements, until at some point—because of political failure or natural disaster or some internal inadequacy—they falter and weaken, perhaps continuing for centuries more, until they either undergo a renaissance, or die.

    Western civilization has undergone such deaths of civilization, or near-deaths. Two great “dark ages” come to mind. The first prevailed following a time of troubles in the eastern Mediterranean region around 1200 BCE, when the Mycenaean civilization that had taken root in Greece languished. Reading and writing were lost, artistic creativity atrophied, and political and economic systems failed. The second, not quite so bleak, occurred as the Roman Empire in western Europe withered away, leaving in its wake a deracinated rural warrior elite, an impoverished peasantry, massive economic deflation, broken communications, and chronic crime and disorder, amid which the not-yet-mature institutions of the new Christian churches supplied the main principle of organization.

    Equally, Western civilization has experienced many episodes of “renaissance”: the Carolingian Renaissance of the ninth century, the Ottonian Renaissance of the tenth, the Macedonian (Byzantine) Renaissance of the tenth to eleventh; and before these, the uniquely creative Athenian civilization of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE and that of Rome of the last republican and first imperial centuries (first century BCE–first century CE); and such later, localized occurrences could be added as the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.

    But the Renaissance of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries is unsurpassed. It recovered nearly the whole corpus of ancient Greek and Latin thought by editing, translating, commenting upon, and in some cases discovering previously unknown texts. It developed the genres of the oration, the dialogue, the letter, the treatise, and more, in which scholars expert in the classical tradition brought their learning to bear on contemporary culture and society. It refined techniques of book production and put them to work as soon as print technology was sufficiently developed to publish, first, the works of antiquity in their original languages and in modern translations, and second, in due course, the original works of contemporaries on a vast array of issues. It developed an educational system grounded in classical learning that was adopted throughout Europe and prevailed through the nineteenth century. It developed the main genres and themes of modern Western literature, including the forms of lyric poetry, drama, epic, and romance. It experimented with new techniques and themes in the visual arts, filling churches, palaces, and the homes of the well-off with splendid works of art that today, mostly removed to museums, attract visitors in multitudes from all over the globe. It created the theater, dance, and music that would flourish in centuries to come, stepping out of courts, cathedrals, and public squares to fill the concert halls and opera houses of the modern world.

    Interestingly, a matter that has confused and irritated many historians, the Renaissance did not drive political, economic, and social change, but was, instead, its consequence. The era of dynamic change was earlier: the twelfth through early fourteenth centuries, when it was cut short by the terrible Black Death, a mass epidemic that struck Europe in 1347-1352 and then recurred sporadically over the next three hundred years and more. Those changes laid the ground for the arrival of the Renaissance. And on the foundation of the same political and economic dynamism, its surge of intellectual and artistic culture further powered, nearly two centuries after it began, religious change and reformation, a new cosmology that reshaped the boundaries of consciousness, and imperial expansion westward across the Atlantic and eastward to the ancient civilizations of Asia. These were the foundations of the modern world system. Every one of them was rooted in Renaissance innovations in thought, religion, and political and economic systems.

    Those innovations, ironically, while they powerfully shaped the modern era that lay ahead, were all rooted in cultural achievements long since left behind. To create them required looking backward, energetically and profoundly, to understand and appropriate Greek and Roman civilization that had dwindled and fallen long before, and to integrate once again those ancient perspectives with the Christian thought of the intervening millennium. All human creation involves imitation—the study, replication, and further development of inherited texts and artifacts. To move forward necessitates looking backward. New generations must recapture the intellectual, moral, literary, philosophical, and artistic legacy of the past, enhance it, and then transmit it to generations to come.

    Are we in a Renaissance now? Do the enormous progress in electronic communications, the development of alternate energy technologies, and recent gains in the exploration of space point to a new surge of human creativity? Or to the rebound from the horrors of twentieth-century wars and the dismantling of colonial empires? These are all impressive achievements. But there are grounds for skepticism. The Internet, while it offers great opportunities, also encourages the illusion that knowledge—let alone wisdom—can be acquired instantly, as so much is available at the click of a mouse, though often unvetted, anonymous, and error-laden. Our college curricula, outside of the fields of economics, science, and technology, have been disastrously diminished and our elementary and secondary systems of education, in the US, are a shambles. We shall see; we shall not know for sure for many years, perhaps for centuries. The outlines of large movements in the development of civilizations are not reliably apparent to those who live within them.

    Certainly a new integration is needed, for this generation, of what we now know and our cultural legacy. Renaissances matter. And we could use another one, right now.

    -Margaret L. King, Brooklyn College, City University of New York

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