Mesopotamia is comprised in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Here, a very impressive culture developed beginning with the year 6.000 BCE. Akkad and Sumer are the most important kingdoms which emerged on these lands. These civilizations’ development was closely connected to geographical and climatic specificities of the area. The weather in the area is very hot, rains are scarce and the two rivers often cause floods. People had to develop irrigation systems to be able to cultivate the land and thus, to survive (Ross-Nazzal, 2015). Another important cultural characteristic is the polytheistic belief. Both the geographical location and religious beliefs shaped the characteristics of the Mesopotamian culture, which is both advanced and deeply pessimistic.
Sumer emerged as an important civilization in 3200 BCE. Although the land was not welcoming, the rivers provided the necessary resource to transform the land into a fertile land, and the society was able to grow and to develop. Irrigation was the basis of the Mesopotamian civilization (“Mesopotamia”, 2012) When there is enough food, there is also time for creativity and thinking. Therefore the civilizations of Mesopotamia were able to develop into one of the cradles of civilization (“Mesopotamia, 2012). Many of their numerous scientific advancements and ideas about life and the world still survive and remain an amazing example of ancient wisdom. Sumerians invented the cuneiform writing system. Even though initial writing was pictographic, Sumerians felt this style was unsatisfactory because they could not represent abstract notions. Therefore, they started to associate sounds to symbols (Ross-Nazzal, 2015). Writing gave Sumerians the possibility to transmit their stories and religious beliefs further. Sumerians developed math, were able to calculate time, and developed a lunar calendar. They were therefore an advanced civilization, but the geographical area where they lived shaped their thinking about life and death, justice and the gods.
One of the first kings in Sumer was Gudea, who ruled in Lagash, in the late third millennium. He was wealthy and he was a religious man, constructing numerous temples. Religious was particularly important for Mesopotamians because they associated the will of the gods with natural elements and phenomena and therefore, they felt that their own survival depended on the will of the Gods. The religious leader emcee Gilgamesh ruled Uruk in 2700 BCE and the epic tales that survive to this day describe his miraculous deeds, which are very close to the stories of the Old Testament, such as the story of the flood. Gilgamesh’s epic tale also talks about the worldview of the ancient Mesopotamians, who perceived the gods as unforgiving and cruel. Both the story of Gilgamesh, and the myth of Adapa, another important tale of the Mesopotamian culture, demonstrates this people’s obsession with death and the possibility to live forever. However, they are deeply pessimistic in that none of the heroes manages to obtain this gift, which seems reserved for the gods only.
As time went by, religion became more important in ruling the state, until the political leaders came to be perceived as living gods. Another important ruler in the Mesopotamian culture is Hammurabi, whose code of laws is based upon the “Eye for an eye” type of retaliation. (Ross-Nazzal 2015). The laws that this code contained made reference to punishments which involved physical pain, which are forbidden nowadays. These severe punishments were inspired by the cruelty and unforgiving quality of nature which they associated with Godly punishments. Therefore, the realities of the daily struggle to tame nature, and their religious beliefs influenced their worldview from mythology to daily life. Warfare was endemic in Mesopotamia for two thousand years and the violence it implied also made people harsher and more prone to using physical punishments. However, the code of law had the purpose of protecting the weak and the poor against the abuses of the most powerful, which is an early example of a body of rights. This principle of protecting the rights of the poor also comes from religious beliefs, which merged with the political field in the person of the king whose divine nature made him the guardian of the rights of all those in his command. Therefore, the physical environment and the religious beliefs of the Mesopotamians governed to a great extent, the development of their culture.
Ross-Nazzal, J. (2015). “Ancient Mesopotamia” HUMA 1301 Lectures. [audio file] Retrieved from: http://eo2.hccs.edu/mod/folder/view.php?id=1516392
“Mesopotamian myths”. (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://eo2.hccs.edu/mod/folder/view.php?id=1516393
“Mesopotmia” (2012). [documentary]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKs5Wvv1-14
The Characteristics of the Greek Culture: The Interest in the Humanistic Subjects and the Glorification of the Human Body
The Greek culture is famous for having developed philosophy. They were preoccupied with “the order in the meaning of nature and human life” (Ross-Hazzal, “Ancient Greece, part I” 2015), which determined them to develop science, philosophy and the arts. They believed in moderation in all matters of life, because excess was likely to lead to “nemesis”, or retribution. The religion of the Egyptians was polytheistic. First, the gods were associated with the forces of nature, being harsh, impulsive and sometimes portrayed human flaws like jealousy and greed. However, as time passed, the gods’ characteristics changed to become more sophisticated, rewarding or punishing people according to their deeds(Ross-Hazzal, “Ancient Greece, part I” 2015). The art of persuasion also evolved as a civilized way to debate. Hippocrates, also called “the Father of Medicine”, developed the first ideas regarding the human body, drawn from his observations on the human body. Herodotus on the other hand, was “The Father of History”. His records were rather impartial, but are extremely important in documented the events of the classical period in Western civilization. The Greek civilization is particularly hard to characterized because it was extremely complex and varied according to geographic and temporal settings. However, it was particularly characterized by the interest it developed for humanistic subjects, such as politics, history, literature, philosophy and rhetoric, by the complexity of its religion and mythology, and the glorification of physical strength and capacities.
Cultural development in Greece can be dated according to the literary periods in which different poetic forms evolved. Homer’s important epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey were written in the 8th century BC and it glorifies heroic bravery and physical strength, particularly against the capricious gods. Lyrical poetry developed as the Greek civilization continued to evolve. They stopped praising the bravery of legendary heroes, but rather, they tackled then-contemporary issues. Finally, drama represented the height of Greek literature. Drama was divided into tragedies and comedies, and the plays illustrated types of human behaviors and characters. They had moral underpinnings and tried to warn people about the dangers of transgressing divine laws. Euripides reflected the rational aspect of the Greek culture of the 5th century BCE and his recurrent theme was that religion is ridiculous and cannot make anyone happy. The large and complex architectural works, such as the major temples, illustrate the advanced and prosperous civilization in which they emerged, partly as a result of colonization. The gymnasiums, the theaters and the stadiums illustrated the Greek style of life, with their circular form suggesting a less stratified society and a smaller distance between leadership and common people, as compared to the Egyptian culture, for example, but also to the earlier period of the Hellenistic world, when the aristocracy formed an elite cast that exercised their power in the detriment of the commoners. By 500BCE, Athens had developed a democratic system of government, which represented the summit of previous philosophical and politic thought (Ross-Hazzal “The Hellenic Civilization, 2015).
As compared to Athens, Sparta developed a different kind of civilization, which emphasized military achievements in the benefit of the state. Women were also encouraged to pursue physical activities in order to become good mothers of warriors. Aristotle criticized the fact that, as compared to other states, in Sparta women run the households and the entire city belonged to them, as men were busy with military actions. However, Aristotle also complained that in Sparta, women were neglected from the legislative act, which made them unruly and prone to excess (Aristotle, 1990). Spartans were culturally backwards because they did not encourage the arts and literature, and they prohibited travels in order to protect the regime from the contaminating ideas of the democratic states (Ross-Hazzal “The Hellenic Civilization, 2015). They thus led to extreme the Greek appreciation of the human body, by transforming their own bodies into war machines. In all their fields of interest, Greeks strived for excellence, and in many ways, became models of civilization for the future Western civilizations.
Arisotle (1900). The Politics of Aristotle, book 2. Trans. B. Jowett. London: Colonial Press. Retrieved from: http://eo2.hccs.edu/mod/folder/view.php?id=1516404
Ross-Nazzal, J. (2015). “Ancient Greece, part I” HUMA 1301 Lectures. [audio file] Retrieved from: http://eo2.hccs.edu/mod/folder/view.php?id=1516403
Ross-Nazzal, J. (2015). “Ancient Greece, part II” HUMA 1301 Lectures. [audio file] Retrieved from: http://eo2.hccs.edu/mod/folder/view.php?id=1516403
Ross-Nazzal, J. (2015). “The Rise of Hellenic Civilization” HUMA 1301 Lectures. [audio file] Retrieved from: http://eo2.hccs.edu/mod/folder/view.php?id=1516403