Antiquity: The Civilization of the Ancient World


Norman Cantor delivers this compact but magisterial survey of the ancient world, from the birth of Sumerian civilization around 3500B.C. in the Tigris-Euphrates valley (what is now present-day Iraq) to the fall of the Roman Empirein A.D. 453. In Antiquity, Cantor covers such subjects as Classical Greece, Judaism, the founding of Christianity, and the triumph and decline of Rome.

In this fascinating and comprehensive analysis, the author explores social and cultural history, as ...

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Norman Cantor delivers this compact but magisterial survey of the ancient world, from the birth of Sumerian civilization around 3500B.C. in the Tigris-Euphrates valley (what is now present-day Iraq) to the fall of the Roman Empirein A.D. 453. In Antiquity, Cantor covers such subjects as Classical Greece, Judaism, the founding of Christianity, and the triumph and decline of Rome.

In this fascinating and comprehensive analysis, the author explores social and cultural history, as well as the political and economic aspects of hisnarrative. He explains leading themes in religionand philosophy and discusses the environment, population, and public health. With his signature authority and insight, Cantor highlights the great books and ideas of antiquity that continue to influence culture today.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
An NYU emeritus professor of history, sociology and comparative literature, Cantor does for antiquity what he did for medieval times in his acclaimed The Civilization of the Middle Ages. With his characteristic eloquence and lucid insights, he offers a majestic introductory survey of the major empires of the ancient world, divided into two parts. The first provides a basic narrative of Hellenistic culture, the Roman Empire and Christianity. In clear prose, Cantor outlines the development of each of those cultures without many details about the evolution of each society. In the second part, he offers a more detailed exploration of the development of each of these ancient cultures, as well as ancient Judaism and Egypt. For example, in his chapter on Rome, Cantor discusses in detail the rise of jurisprudence and the Roman emphasis on civil society that can be traced to Cicero and Caesar. Cantor offers some wonderfully rich characterizations of ancient Greek philosophers: Socrates was a "hippie stonecutter who expounded on philosophy in the Athenian marketplace, perhaps to avoid going home to face his shrewish wife"; Plato was "part of a fast crowd of rich young men"; his Academy was the first talk show. Although Cantor makes a few missteps-the Gnostics are not also called the Manichees, though the latter might have practiced Gnosticism-Cantor offers a splendid and accessible portrait of the cultures of the ancient world. Maps not seen by PW. (Sept. 19) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Unintimidating, adroitly structured grounding in the enduring legacies of ancient civilizations. Although best known as an energetic medieval scholar (In the Wake of the Plague, 2001, etc.), Cantor (History, Sociology, and Comparative Literature Emeritus/New York Univ.) has made enough previous literary forays into the various civilizations of antiquity so that integrating and contrasting them is a cinch for him. Furthermore, he makes some fairly provocative educated guesses (labeled as such) with ease and confidence. While other academics fret, for example, over why Hebrew society would invent the Jews' Egyptian bondage-it's now generally accepted that there's no evidence for it after decades of archaeological and related scientific research-he suggests that the progenitors of "elitist" Judaism may not have been above laying a guilt trip ("We deserve . . .") on the rest of civilization. The impact of recent DNA studies on anthropological theory is also evident in Cantor's conclusions, although he seems to embrace a more extended time frame for the seminal African emigration than some scientists do. The author has helpfully rendered his work in two sections. The chapters in "Basic Narrative" present fundamental information about how major civilizations originated, waxed, and waned in the Near and Middle East, Greece, and Rome. Cantor sees Rome's decline, for example, as primarily due to plagues during the second century a.d. that killed off irreplaceable taxpayers; he also notes that societies heavily dependent on slave labor tend to stifle their own capacity for technological innovation, a crucial factor in the wars against the Visigoths. The second section, "Societies and Cultures,"probes more deeply into the religions, philosophies, laws, politics, and arts of the same key civilizations. A final case for the melding of Hellenic culture and Judaism as the central pillar of Western civilization is dazzlingly put. A lifetime's worth of crib notes for late-blooming history buffs.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060174095
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/28/2003
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.62 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.89 (d)

Meet the Author

Norman F. Cantor was Emeritus Professor of History, Sociology, and Comparative Literature at New York University. His many books include In the Wake of the Plague, Inventing the Middle Ages, and The Civilization of the Middle Ages, the most widely read narrative of the Middle Ages in the English language. He died in 2004.

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Table of Contents

Author's Note
1 Basic Narrative 1
1 Hydraulic Despotisms 3
2 The Greeks 9
3 Four Worldviews from Antiquity 16
4 The Romans 23
5 The Classical Heritage 30
6 The Christians 36
7 Decline of the Ancient World 43
8 Cities 47
2 Societies and Cultures 55
9 Egypt 57
10 Ancient Judaism 68
11 Athens 102
12 Rome 144
13 Christian Thought 177
14 The Civil Law 200
15 Remembering Antiquity 222
A Guide to Further Reading 229
Index 233
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First Chapter

The Civilization of the Ancient World

Chapter One

Hydraulic Despotisms

A very long time ago, some 2.5 million years B.C., the mother of human species as we know it, our ultimate ancestor, appeared in East Africa. She walked erect and was able to close her thumbs and forefingers to make tools for doing what her limbs were unable to do. She was four feet tall and probably black. This is what the science of paleontology told us during the last four decades of the twentieth century.

The earliest humans were related to primates, the apes and monkeys. Humans and gorillas share 92 percent of their DNA. The genetic conformity between humans and chimpanzees is significantly greater. Humans and chimpanzees share 98 percent of their DNA. It is possible that humans and chimpanzees are descended from the same species of animal long ago extinct. Or that humans evolved out of chimpanzees who gave up swinging from trees in order to find food on the ground. Like chimps, humans tend to migrate in colonies. Gorillas are more individualistic, but they, too, are often found to be migrating and living in small groups.

That humans are a species of primate is indisputable. The earliest humans lived and traveled in small groups. They were hunters and gatherers. They gathered fruits and vegetables growing wild in the then-great forests and savannas of East Africa and they hunted animals that they could kill and eat.

Like most humans today, they were carnivorous, but not entirely so. As long as there were vegetables and fruits in abundance, they were satisfied with a vegetarian diet. But fresh meat, eaten both raw and cooked, appealed to them.

Out of stones and bones, they made weapons to kill animals. Their throats and larynxes could utter sounds that allowed for communication between these humans, and over time, these sounds were shaped into organized languages.

Frequently on the move in search of food, the humans very slowly drifted northward and moved up the great rivers that flowed together to form the Nile valley. Around a hundred thousand years ago, the humans reached the Nile delta and the Mediterranean Sea and began to spread east and north from there. By this time they had learned to be farmers, to plant seeds, to irrigate their croplands, and to build villages and towns, drawing their sustenance from the cultivated earth. But they did not cease to hunt and gather.

The humans reached Europe -- at first, the territory adjacent to the Crimea and the northern shores of the Black Sea -- about 10,000 B.C.

Based on their excavations, archaeologists tell us that earlier, around 6000 B.C., two centers of rich and highly developed civilization had emerged in the Near East -- in the northern extremity of Egypt and in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, in what is today southern Iraq.

The availability of irrigation systems to water the land and produce grain and other food crops was the material foundation for these two great river-valley societies, Egypt and Iraq. They were hydraulic despotisms, in which a small ruling class, with the aid of soldiers and priests, commanded the material resources that gave sustenance to these civilizations and allowed them to build cities, palaces, and tombs.

The soldiers made sure that the peasants and laborers did what had to be done to maintain irrigation systems, harvest crops, and erect buildings. The priests assured the masses that this forced-labor system was dictated by the gods, who were represented on earth by kings.

The Nile valley was for the most part a natural irrigation system, in which the great river overflowed once a year, covering the land with rich silt brought from East Africa, but pharaohs, as the Nile kings were called, also built some major canals to improve upon natural irrigation. The Tigris-Euphrates valley was a scene of massive and complicated irrigation systems built by human labor to pull the water inland from the rivers.

We know about these two large and prosperous settlements of Iraq and northern Egypt exclusively from the material records offered by archaeology. It was not until around 3500 B.C. that writing emerged in both societies. Each developed its own distinctive forms of writing.

For another millennium, these written records consisted entirely of state business-accounts and letters, and panegyrics to the mightiness and divinity of kings. (By the dawn of writing, a half million people were settled in each of the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates valleys, where huge temples and palaces were erected for kings, priests, and aristocrats, while the common people lived in small houses made of sun-dried bricks, or in tents.)

The forces for change in the two great societies of Egypt and Iraq were, with one exception, external rather than internal. That one exception was the attempt by Pharaoh Akhenaton (around 1330 B.C.) to create a new monotheistic religion (with similarities to Judaism) and eliminate the power of the traditional priests who served a multitude of deities. This theological revolution was immediately reversed after Akhenaton's death.

Otherwise, what happened in the two river-valley civilizations was determined by wars spurred by invasions from without. In Egypt, dynasties enduring for centuries presided over irrigation and cultivation, huge edifices built by forced labor, and the manufacture of exquisite paintings and jewelry. For a century, around 1100 B.C., Egypt was invaded and ruled by a "sea people," from western Asia, but then effective power returned to a native dynasty.

The history of the ancient Tigris-Euphrates valley was shaped by a series of invasions from the north. As Sumerians, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Babylonians succeeded one another, the structure of severely class-ridden societies and agriculture-based economies did not change. The series of invasions and conquests ended around 500 B.C. with Iraq absorbed into the expanding Iranian (Persian) empire to the east.

In the first century B.C., Egypt was absorbed into the expanding Roman empire, and remained its wealthiest province until the Muslim Arabs took it over in the seventh century A.D.

The Civilization of the Ancient World
. Copyright © by Norman F. Cantor. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 21, 2006

    Good Summary Overview of Antiquity

    The Kirkus reviewer had it right - a lifetime's worth of crib notes for history buffs. Very readable and enjoyable, despite some mistakes (particularly about early Christianity).

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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