Heroes of History: A Brief History of Civilization from Ancient Times to the Dawn of the Modern Ageby Will Durant
Four years before his death, Will Durant began work on an abbreviated version of
In the tradition of his own bestselling masterpieces The Story of Civilization and The Lessons of History, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Will Durant here traces the lives and ideas of those who have helped to define civilization, from its dawn to the beginning of the modern world.
Four years before his death, Will Durant began work on an abbreviated version of his highly acclaimed eleven-volume series, The Story of Civilization. The project was conceived as a series of audio lectures, but Durant soon realized that the dialogues could be developed into a book that would serve as a wonderfully readable introduction to the subject of history.
Durant completed twenty-one of a proposed twenty-three chapters before his death in 1981, at the age of ninety-six. Those chapters span thousands of years of human history -- from Confucius to Shakespeare, from the Roman Empire to the Reformation, finally ending in the eighteenth century. The manuscript was recently found by Will Durant scholar John Little -- twenty years after Durant finished it -- and its discovery is a major event, not only for lovers of his prose, but for students of history and philosophy the world over.
Heroes of History is a book of life-enhancing wisdom and optimism, complete with Durant's wit, knowledge, and unique ability to explain events and ideas in simple, exciting terms. It is the lessons of our heritage passed on for the edification and benefit of future generations -- a fitting legacy from America's most beloved historian and philosopher.
Will Durant's popularity as America's favorite teacher of history and philosophy remains undiminished by time. His books are accessible to readers of every kind, and his unique ability to compress complicated ideas and events into a few pages without ever "talking down" to the reader, enhanced by his memorable wit and a razor-sharp judgment about men and their motives, made all of his books huge bestsellers. Heroes of History carries on this tradition of making scholarship and philosophy understandable to the general reader, and making them good reading, as well.
At the dawn of a new millennium and the beginning of a new century, nothing could be more appropriate than this brilliant book that examines the meaning of human civilization and history and draws from the experience of the past the lessons we need to know to put the future into context and live in confidence, rather than fear and ignorance.
Will Durant's work is marked by his own special quality as a writer -- he is tough-minded, optimistic, courageous, and convinced that without a knowledge of the past there is no wisdom to guide us to the future. Heroes of History was his last word on the subject, and much of it has been aimed directly at the doubts and fears of people today. It is a major, and unexpected, literary and historical event.
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Read an Excerpt
Chapter Four: From the Pyramids to Ikhnaton
Was the civilization of ancient Egypt the oldest and most lasting in history?
So thought Elie Faure, historian of world art: "It is possible," he wrote, "that Egypt, through the solidarity, the unity, and the disciplined variety of its artistic products, through the enormous duration and sustained power of its effort, offers the spectacle of the greatest civilization that has yet appeared on the earth." (I would rank the civilization of ancient Rome as still greater.)
As to age, the oldest date generally -- though still uncertainly -- assigned to the Egyptian calendar is 4241 B.C.; if so, Egyptian astronomy and mathematics had reached considerable development by that time. However, a like development had probably been reached in Mesopotamia; and archeologists are inclined to ascribe "the first civilization in known history" to the lands "midway between the rivers" Euphrates and Tigris. If we reckon the specifically Egyptian civilization to have endured from 4241 B.C. to the Greek conquest of Egypt (332 B.C.), we spread Egyptian civilization over 3,809 years. I know of no other culture, not even the Chinese, that maintained itself through so many centuries.
Egypt, as Herodotus said in 430 B.C., was to doron tou Nilou, "the gift of the Nile." The most famous of rivers watered the settlements that developed on its banks; it offered a liquid road for communication and commerce; and it annually irrigated the lands of the peasants with its dependable overflow. The Greeks called those settlements nomes -- i.e., communities accepting laws -- and each local ruler became a nomarch. When some strong man united several of these nomes under his power, the nomarchs submitted to a monarch, and the political history of Egypt began.
About 3100 B.C., one such monarch, the half-legendary Menes, issued, for the communities under his rule, a body of laws allegedly given him by the god Thoth. He built his capital on the west bank of the Nile, at a place known to us by its Greek name Memphis; and there he established the First Dynasty of pharaohs.
Some four hundred years later Pharaoh Zozer (c. 2680 B.C.) appointed as his chief minister Imhotep -- the first great name in Egyptian history, renowned as both physician and architect. Later generations worshiped him as a god of knowledge, father of their sciences and arts. Tradition ascribed to him the oldest building now extant in Egypt, the step pyramid of Sakkara -- a terraced structure of stone near the ruins of Memphis. This is the father of all extant pyramids.
The most famous of these date from the Fourth Dynasty (c. 2613-c. 2494 B.C.). Herodotus celebrated two of its pharaohs as Cheops and Chephren, now more accurately renamed Khufu and Khafre. By their time, Egyptian entrepreneurs had built commercial fleets, and had developed trade with several ports on the Eastern Mediterranean; they had exploited the timber and other resources of Lebanon, and had opened up the mines of Sinai; they had carved out great quarries of stone in the Nubian desert and at Aswan.
The pharaohs became rich and lavished wealth on their palaces and tombs. Herodotus tells how Khufu (r.c. 2590 B.C.) erected the oldest of the many pyramids that adorn the desert near Giza, a suburb of Cairo. So far as we know, this is the largest single structure ever raised by man. It covers thirteen acres, and rises to the height of 448 feet; within its space Rome's St. Peter's, London's Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's, and the cathedrals of Florence and Milan, could all be enclosed.
It is not beautiful, except in the accuracy of its stonecutting and in the symmetry and precision of its geometrical measurements. It impresses us chiefly by its size and history. As a work of engineering it was a miracle of its time: 2,300,000 blocks of stone -- each weighing, on the average, two-and-a-half tons -- were drawn for miles over the eastern desert and then across the Nile; granite blocks, mostly from Aswan, were carried 555 miles north. Apparently these masses were raised to higher and higher levels of the pyramid by hauling them, on rollers or sledges, along a rising embankment of bricks and earth. According to Herodotus, this rising road took two years to build, and the pyramid itself required the labor of 100,000 men through twenty years. The Greek traveler and historian transmitted an inscription which he claimed to have found on one pyramid, recording the quantity of radishes, garlic, and onions consumed by the workmen in that one enterprise.
Why did the pharaohs and others build pyramids? The Egyptian believed that he had in himself a spiritual counterpart or double which he called his ka, and which he hoped would survive indefinitely if his flesh were preserved against hunger, violence, and decay. Hence his corpse was to be embalmed and mummified with expert care; the viscera would be removed by a kind of Caesarian operation; the brains would be drawn out through the nose; the interior would be cleansed with wines and perfumes and aromatic spices; then the body was to be sewn up, steeped in antiseptic chemicals, rubbed with adhesive gum, and wrapped tightly with bandages of waxed cloth; finally it was deposited in a coffin. The ideal tomb should be of stone, of sufficient quantity to make a solid mass impenetrable except for a secret passage to an inner chamber furnished with food, weapons, and a lavatory, and with carved or painted figures which, by a magic formula known only to the priests, would attend to the body, soul, and ka forever.
Near the pyramid of Pharaoh Khafre (c. 2550 B.C.) stands the famous monster known to history by its Greek name Sphinx. Apparently, at the ruler's command, a corps of mechanics and sculptors carved out of stone a massive figure with the body of a lion and the head, allegedly, of Khafre himself. The face is dark with a frown, as if to frighten marauders from the royal tomb.
There is something barbarically primitive about the Pyramids -- their brute grasp for size, their vain lust for permanence. It may be the memory and imagination of the beholder that, swollen with history, makes these monuments great. Perhaps pictures have too much ennobled them; photography can catch everything except dirt, and enhances man-made objects with noble vistas of land and sky. The sunset at Giza is greater than the pyramids.
Life in ancient Egypt was pleasant for the pharaohs; we see in the pictures and reliefs, and gather from the scrolls, their wealth, luxury, and power.
The clergy cooperated -- declared them to be gods, inculcated popular obedience to the royal rule, and received in return a captivating share of the royal revenue. A thousand trained scribes served as a clerical bureaucracy to the pharaohs and clergy, and to the feudal nobles who ruled the provinces as fiefs of the kings. So aided, the government organized a regular postal service, collected taxes, accumulated capital, developed a credit system of finance, distributed funds to agriculture, industry, and commerce, and in some measure achieved a planned economy regulated by the state.
Industry was manned by free labor as well as slaves under the jurisdiction of the provincial governors. The wars brought in thousands of captives, most of whom were sold into bondage; their labor facilitated the exploitation of mines and the triumphs of engineering. Class wars flourished; strikes were frequent. One manuscript preserves the plea of some workers to their overseer: "We have been driven here by hunger and thirst; we have no clothes, no oil, no food. Write to our lord the Pharaoh, and to the governor who is over us, so that they may give us something for our sustenance." However, we hear of no class revolution -- unless we describe as such the historic walkout of the Jews.
The industrial arts in ancient Egypt were as advanced and varied as anything in Europe before the Renaissance. Egyptian artisans made weapons and tools of bronze, including drills that bored through the toughest diorite stone and saws that cut the massive slabs of the sarcophagi. They were masters in carving wood: they made merchant vessels a hundred feet long, and coffins so handsome that they almost invited men to die. Egyptian engineering surpassed any before 1800 A.D.; it built canals from the Nile to the Red Sea, and transported over great distances obelisks weighing a thousand tons.
The moral code in Egypt made no objection to incest. We hear of many cases where a man married his sister. Many pharaohs did this, apparently to keep the royal blood pure, or to keep the family property unimpaired -- for property was transmitted through the female line. The pharaohs and some nobles kept a harem, but commoners found this impossibly extravagant. Prostitutes abounded, but many pictures celebrate marital love.
Women enjoyed a legal status higher, and a moral and social freedom greater, than in any European state before our time, possibly excepting Imperial Rome. The Greeks, who confined their women narrowly, were astonished to learn that Egyptian women went about their social and business affairs publicly, unattended and unharmed. They used every cosmetic device, even to painting their nails and their eyes; some of them covered breasts, arms, and ankles with jewelry. They spoke of sex with a directness rivaling that of the freest women of today. They could take the initiative in courtship, and could be divorced only for proved adultery, or with ample compensation. Some of them, like Nefertiti, earned immortality by their beauty. Some ruled the empire imperiously but well, like Hatshepsut (r. 1503-1482 B.C.), or recklessly like Cleopatra. Motherhood was revered as woman's title to nobility.
Egyptian art is rivaled by the Greek and Roman, but it preceded them by a thousand years, and in a hundred items led the way. I needn't describe -- for many of you must have seen them or photographs thereof -- the temples, palaces, colonnades, and tombs that rose along the banks of the Nile in the thirty centuries between the age of the pyramids and the time of Cleopatra. At Karnak and Luxor a veritable forest of pillars was raised by Egyptian royalty. The columns seem too plentiful to us, but apparently their obtrusive proximity was intended to break the domineering impact of the sun. Here, long before the Greek flowering, the arch and vault, the column and capital, the architrave and pediment, gave example and challenge to architecture in the Mediterranean world.
I would not equate Egyptian sculpture with that of classic antiquity, but I know of nothing in Greek statuary finer than the diorite bust of Khafre in the Cairo Museum. It is now forty-two hundred years old, and seems immune to time. It may be idealized, but it probably represents in its essential features the second pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty. Even more famous is the stone statue of the Scribe, now in the Louvre. Squatting on his haunches, almost totally nude, he holds a pen behind his ear as reserve for the one he holds in his hand. He keeps a record of work done and goods paid for, of prices and costs, of profits and losses, of taxes due or paid. He draws up contracts and wills, and makes out his employer's tax report. His life is monotonous, but he consoles himself by writing essays on the hardships of the manual worker's existence and the princely dignity of those whose food is paper and whose blood
Beneath and above everything in Egypt was religion. We find it in every stage and form from totemism to theology; we see its influence in literature, government, art -- in everything except morality. And its gods were almost as numerous as in India. In the beginning, said the priests, was the sky; and to the end this and the Nile remained the chief divinities. All the heavenly bodies were the external forms of mighty spirits, whose wills ordained their complex and varied movements. The sun was the god Ra or Re or Amon, who had created the world by shining on it; as the god Horus, it was a gigantic falcon flying across the heaven day after day as if supervising its realm. The Nile was the great god Osiris; and -- perhaps because the Nile fertilized the adjoining earth -- Osiris was also worshiped as the god of male sexual power.
Isis, the sister and wife of Osiris, was the goddess of motherhood; and, as fertilized by Osiris-the-river, the soil of the Delta was one of her forms. Vegetables and animals, too, were worshiped as gods; the palm tree for its shade, the goat and the bull for their reproductive energy, the serpent as a symbol of wisdom and life; at least he knew how to make ends meet. The pharaoh, too, was worshiped as a god, the son of Amon-Re; he was a deity transiently taking the earth as his home. It was through this supposedly divine lineage that he was able to rule so long and with so little use of physical force.
Hence the priests of Egypt were the necessary props of the throne and the secret police of the social order. Through the piety of the people and the politic generosity of the king, they became in time richer and stronger than the feudal aristocracy, or even the royal family itself. They educated the young, accumulated and transmitted learning, and disciplined themselves with rigor and zeal. Herodotus described them almost with awe:
They are of all men the most excessively attentive to the worship of the gods, and observe the following ceremonies...They wear linen garments, constantly fresh-washed...They are circumcised for the sake of cleanliness, think it better to be clean than handsome. They shave their whole body every third day, that neither lice nor any other impurity may be found upon them...They wash themselves in cold, cold water twice every day and twice every night. (Histories 2.37)
Their frailty was a hot devotion to power, and their willingness to recommend, or sell, magic incantations, rites, or charms to the faithful as instruments of earthly welfare or eternal happiness.
According to our great American Egyptologist Professor James Breasted:
The dangers of the hereafter were now greatly multiplied, and for every critical situation the priest was able to furnish the dead with an effective charm which would infallibly cure him. Besides many charms which enabled the dead to reach the world of the hereafter, there were those which prevented him from losing his mouth, his head, his heart; others which enabled him to remember his name, to breathe, eat, drink, avoid eating his own foulness, to prevent his drinking-water from turning into flame, to turn darkness into light, to ward off all serpents and other hostile monsters, and many others...Thus the earliest moral development which we can trace in the ancient East was suddenly arrested, or at least checked, by the detestable devices of a corrupt priesthood eager for gain.
Such in part was the condition of religion in Egypt when a poet, lover, and heretic came to the throne and announced to a shocked clergy and people that there was only one god.
Amenhotep IV was hardly designed to be a king: he cared more for art than for war, wrote the most famous poem in Egyptian literature, and indefatigably loved his wife, Nefertiti. He allowed artists to show him riding in a chariot with the queen, engaged with her in pleasantries with their children.
On ceremonial occasions Nefertiti sat beside him and held his hand, while their daughters frolicked at the foot of the throne. She gave him seven daughters, but no son; he still loved her and took no secondary wife. He spoke of her as "Mistress of my happiness, at hearing whose voice the King rejoices"; and for an oath he used the phrase "As my heart is happy in the Queen and her children."
Next to her he loved the sun. The Egyptians had long worshiped it as the father of all earthly life; but they had also worshiped Amon and a hundred other gods, from the evening star to the onion and the baboon. He was revolted when he saw the high priest of Amon sacrifice a ram to the god; he scorned the traffic of the clergy in magic charms and their use of the pretended oracle of Amon to support their plans.
He abominated the indecent wealth of the temples and the growing hold of a mercenary hierarchy on the nation's life. With a poet's audacity he threw compromise to the winds and announced that these deities and ceremonies were a vulgar idolatry and that there was only one god, Aton -- the sun. He threw off his inherited name of Amenhotep, which contained the word Amon, and called himself Ikhnaton, meaning "Aton is satisfied."
Helping himself with some monotheistic poems composed in the preceding reign, he wrote passionate songs to Aton, the god-sun; the longest of these now surviving is the most remarkable remnant of ancient Egyptian poetry:
Thy dawning is beautiful in the horizon of the sky.
O living Aton, Beginning of life.
When thou risest in the eastern horizon,
Thou fillest every land with thy beauty.
Thou art beautiful, great, glittering, high above every land,
Thy rays, they encompass the land, even all that thou hast made.
They are Re, and thou carriest them all away captive;
Thou bindest them by thy love.
Though thou art far away, thy rays are upon earth;
Though thou art on high, thy footprints are the day.
When thou settest in the western horizon of the sky,
The earth is in darkness like the dead;
They sleep in their chambers,
Their heads are wrapped up,
Their nostrils are stopped,
And none seeth the other,
All their things are stolen
Which are under their heads,
And they know it not.
Every lion cometh forth from his den,
All serpents they sting...
The world is in silence,
He that made them resteth in his horizon.
Bright is the earth when thou risest in the horizon.
When thou shinest as Aton by day
Thou drivest away the darkness.
When thou sendest forth thy rays,
The Two Lands are in daily festivity,
Awake and standing upon their feet
When thou hast raised them up.
Their limbs bathed, they take their clothing,
Their arms uplifted in adoration to thy dawning.
In all the world they do their work.
All cattle rest upon their pasturage,
The trees and the plants flourish,
The birds flutter in their marshes,
Their wings uplifted in adoration to thee.
All the sheep dance upon their feet,
All winged things fly,
They live when thou hast shone upon them.
The barks sail upstream and downstream.
Every highway is open because thou dawnest.
The fish in the river leap up before thee.
Thy rays are in the midst of the great green sea.
Creator of the germ in woman,
Maker of seed in man,
Giving life to the son in the body of his mother,
Soothing him that he may not weep,
Nurse even in the womb,
Giver of breath to animate every one that he maketh!
When he cometh forth from the body...on the day of his birth,
Thou openest his mouth in speech,
Thou suppliest his necessities...
Thy rays nourish every garden;
When thou risest they live,
They grow by thee.
Thou makest the seasons
In order to create all thy work;
Winter to bring them coolness,
And heat that they may taste thee.
Thou didst make the distant sky to rise therein,
In order to behold all that thou hast made,
Thou alone, shining in the form as living Aton.
Dawning, glittering, going afar and returning.
Thou makest millions of forms
Through thyself alone;
Cities, towns and tribes,
Highways and rivers.
All eyes set thee before them,
For thou art Aton of the day over the earth...
Thou art in my heart,
There is no other that knoweth thee
Save thy son Ikhnaton.
Thou hast made him wise
In thy designs and in thy might.
The world is in thy hand,
Even as thou hast made them.
When thou hast risen they live,
When thou settest they die;
For thou art length of life of thyself.
Men live through thee,
While their eyes are upon thy beauty
Until thou settest.
All labor is put away
When thou settest in the West...
Thou didst establish the world,
And raised them up for thy son...
Ikhnaton, whose life is long;
And for the chief royal wife, his beloved,
Mistress of the Two Lands, Nefer-nefru-aton, Nefretiti,
Living and flourishing for ever and ever.
This is not only one of the great poems of history, it is the outstanding expression of monotheism 640 years before Isaiah. Ikhnaton's god is not tribal, like Jehovah; Aton feeds and rules all the nations of the earth. It is a vitalistic conception of deity, as a creative living power animating all things; its heat is the warmth of life and the ardor of love; it nourishes and fertilizes every plant, energizes every animal, and "creates the man-child in woman." It is a god for all nations, for all forms of growth.
Ikhnaton spoiled this by letting egotism cloud his vision: "There is no other that knoweth thee save thy son Ikhnaton...Thou didst establish the worlds, and raised them up for thy son Ikhnaton." Confident of his new religion, he ordered that the names of all gods but Aton should be carved or blotted out from every public place in Egypt. He cut out from his father's name the word Amon, as being a deity now dead; he declared all creeds illegal but his own.
The official hierarchy fumed and plotted; the people, seeing Ikhnaton's monotheism as a wholesale slaughter of the gods, muttered and rebelled. Even in his palace his ministers hated him, for his scorn of war had weakened the army, and his generals impatiently awaited his death. Subject states refused their customary tribute; one by one they deposed their Egyptian governors and became free; Egypt suddenly fell apart. Ikhnaton found himself almost deserted except for his wife and children. He was hardly thirty years old when he died, mourning his failure as a ruler and the unworthiness of his race.
Two years after his death his son-in-law, Tutenkhamon, a favorite of the priests, ascended the throne. He changed the name Tutenkhaton, which his father-in-law had given him, made his peace with the powers of the Church, and announced to a rejoicing people the restoration of the ancient gods. The words Aton and Ikhnaton were effaced from all the monuments, the priests forbade the name of the heretic king to pass any man's lips, and the people referred to him as "the Great Criminal." The names that Ikhnaton had removed were recarved upon the monuments, and the feast days that he had abolished were renewed. Everything was as before.
Egypt had another great age, under Rameses II, who showed his mettle by reconquering the Egyptian colonies, building immense temples, begetting one hundred sons and fifty daughters on his multiple wives, and leaving behind him a statue of himself as a proud relic of his power. Originally it was fifty-six feet in height; now it is fifty-six feet in length, for the centuries eroded its earthy pediment and let it fall.
Shelley described that statue in a sonnet both beautiful and terrible, entitled by one of Rameses' many names, "Ozymandias":
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert...Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Copyright © 2001 by John Little and the Estate of Will Durant
Meet the Author
Will Durant (1885–1981) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (1968) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977). He spent more than fifty years writing his critically acclaimed eleven-volume series, The Story of Civilization (the later volumes written in conjunction with his wife, Ariel). A champion of human rights issues, such as the brotherhood of man and social reform, long before such issues were popular, Durant’s writing still educates and entertains readers around the world.
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