I’ve never taken a college-level course in world history. What I remember from high school (which was so long ago it practically counts as history itself) amounted to, “The Greeks invented philosophy, and then the Romans conquered everything. Oh, and before that there was Egypt, where they had funny writing.” End of story.
The reality was, inevitably, a whole lot more complex. I recently got interested in Minoan Crete, on account of a story I’m thinking of writing. The local public library has, I’m sad to report, nothing of any consequence on Crete in the Bronze Age. But I did spot, and borrow, a copy of Civilization Before Greece and Rome, which surveys the beginnings of the modern world going back to the very first cities in Mesopotamia.
Myths of the Golden Age notwithstanding, it was a dark and bloody time. Armies on the march. Burning, looting, the taking of conquered populations into slavery. Thanks to the widespread and indefatigable efforts of legions of dedicated archaeologists (whose work has suffered, oh, maybe a tiny setback in the past decade owing to the criminal and despicable behavior of one George W. Bush, whose personal obsession with Iraq was a disaster for science as well as for the Iraqi people and the U.S. federal budget), we know quite a lot about how people lived in those dim and distant days.
There’s a lot we still don’t know, and maybe never will — not just because some sites are in war zones but because some of the more important parts of people’s lives don’t leave solid remnants that you can dig up after 3,000 years. But the idea that before Egypt and Greece there was basically nothing more sophisticated than mud-brick villages populated by smiling goddess-worshipers tending their flocks and vineyards is no longer tenable, if it ever was. People had all of the passions and prejudices then that they do now, and more — and there were no restraints. The gloves were off, because they hadn’t yet invented gloves. (Metaphor, but probably also literal truth. Did you know the Romans didn’t use soap, because soap hadn’t yet been invented? Neither had the chimney. Roman kitchens were smoky.)
How my own ancestors, the proto-Indo-Europeans, ended up spread out everywhere from Ireland to India … do you think they did it by trudging down a dusty road with their families and saying, “Excuse me, would you mind if we started a new village here?” Not a chance. They did it by domesticating the horse. Infantry never stopped being important, but when you could muster out horse-drawn war-chariots, the world was your oyster. And the hell with oysters — let’s grab all that gold, and the jewels too.
The thing about gold and jewels: Hunter-gatherers like collecting and showing off nice things too. And they’re not above stealing nice things from one another, I’m sure. But if you’re a hunter-gatherer, your inventory of possessions is pretty much limited to what you can carry. When settled towns appeared, it became practical for men who were especially smart, powerful, or lucky to gather up troves of precious possessions. Once that trend got under way, other men who had followers with spears had every reason to sack the town. Pretty soon all of the rich guys had legions of followers carrying spears, and they all started building walls around their towns, and welcome to the modern world.
We’re all descended from barbarians. I don’t think I would have survived a year in the Bronze Age. I mean, they did have scribes, so it’s possible. But I don’t think I would have liked it much.