Chapter 1 - Section 7

The Lydians

     People who lived north of the Aramaeans in Asia Minor were the Lydians. They inherited the ancient homeland area of the Hittites. The zenith of their power and kingdom occurred during the seventh and sixth centuries BCE. The Lydians enjoyed wealth and high standards of living. They farmed, raised animals, mined, and above all controlled favorable trade routes. The trade routes ran west to the Aegean Sea, eastward to central Asia and southeast to Mesopotamia. Directly south lay the kingdoms of Syria, Phoenicia, those of the Hebrews and ultimately Egypt. A favorable location for thriving businesses was the great source of Lydian power and wealth. Their land was also known as Phrygia in ancient times. Their most famous king, Croesus, was considered by the ancients themselves to be the richest man of the time. This was no small accomplishment in light of the tremendous wealth piled at the feet of the kings and emperors of that era.

     Lydian Contributions to the Cultural Heritage: The Lydians were active business people. They were not mariners like the Phoenicians. They were land oriented merchants of considerable skill. They interacted with the astute businessmen of the Aramaeans and the Phoenicians, however, were soon making many economic innovations themselves. From farmers and merchants, from artisans and soldiers, people sought after a much faster and more efficient method of completing business transactions. The Lydians believed that the ancient traditional system of barter was too slow and very cumbersome. Private coins, contracts, invoices and bills of credit were useful but often untrustworthy, inconsistent and inaccurate.

     It was up to the ancient Lydians to develop a milestone of progress along the road to a higher civilization. The Lydian government decided to create for itself and for the first time in history, the exclusive power to mint coins at set values, standard weights and to guarantee the true values of its coinage. The coinage system of the Lydian government not only improved the efficiency and speed of doing business but significantly raised the royal revenues. Let us recall the gold underlying the saying, “the Midas touch” after Midas, one of the legendary kings in the Lydian tradition. Most of all, through the process of cultural diffusion or cultural borrowing, the Lydians taught other civilizations the huge economic, social and political benefits of using an effective, standardized and uniform coinage system under the administration of a strong central government.

The Chaldeans or Second Babylonian Empire

     The Empire of the Chaldeans lasted from about 616 BCE until its conquest and absorption by the Persians in 539 BCE. It has remained in our memory for its powerful king Nebuchadnezzar, who built the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Chaldeans, following the now very ancient traditions of the Sumerians and old Babylonians, continued the study of astronomy and recorded detailed observations of the movements of the heavenly bodies. They became famous as astrologists and astronomers and were believed to be able to predict the future based upon this knowledge.

Wonders of the Ancient World - Hanging Gardens of Babylon

     Forming an alliance and uniting with the neighboring Medes, the Chaldeans attacked and finally destroyed the Assyrian Empire for all time in 612 BCE. One can only imagine the celebrations in Babylon and elsewhere when the end of Assyrian rule finally occurred.

The Persians

     The Indo-European speaking Persian peoples from the Iranian plateau region to the east of Mesopotamia succeeded to conquer and unite the entire Middle Eastern cultural area. Beginning in the sixth century BCE, they overran the Medes, Chaldeans, Lydians, Syrians, the Hebrew states and finally Egypt. They pushed their boundaries eastward into India, along the Indus River Valley. The Persians moved north into the land of the Scythians bordering the Black and Caspian Seas. They even secured a toehold in Europe but failed to conquer the Greeks. This vast empire lasted approximately from the sixth century BCE until its conquest by Alexander the Great in 330 BCE.

     Cyrus the Great, Darius and Xerxes were among its famous rulers. They bore the title, King of Kings which gives some idea of the power and vastness of the Persian domain and the authority of its rulers over the ancient Middle East. However, the Persian rulers were generally known for their kind and humane treatment, in contrast to say the Assyrians, of conquered people. They also built upon the Assyrian system of governors called “satraps” by the Persians.

     The Persians expanded the military system of royal roads to include development of commercial highways. Thus prosperity, commerce, cultural blending and a sense of peace and security prevailed under the Persian administration. The earliest royal postal service, a pony express of Persia, was also established as the king’s messengers who traveled the royal roads covering about 250 miles in 24 hours. The Persian kings were generally conscientious rulers who insisted on good government, honesty and fairness throughout the empire and respect for local customs and traditions of the subject peoples. The kings appointed inspectors, the king’s eyes and ears, to check on provincial government and to report back to him. The local magistrates had to stay respectable in order to avoid the displeasure of the great King of Kings.

     The Persian rulers adopted many features of the cultures they controlled. Later, the Greeks under Alexander the Great were in turn, able to inherit the rich traditions of the previous civilizations of the Middle East as preserved by the Persians. The Greeks fused their cultural traditions with those of the Middle East through Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire in the fourth century BCE. This new blended culture is termed Hellenistic. Now we must turn to examine our substantial debt to the ancient Greeks.

The Ancient Greeks

     The contributions of the ancient Greeks to the modern world of Western Civilization can never be underestimated. In virtually every area of cultural accomplishment, the Greeks remain the prime originators. They set the standards and precedents for everyone else who followed them on the tapestry of history. An overview is provided here to remind Western Civilization the great debt owed to these ancient people.

     Athens and Democracy: The city state or polis, of ancient Athens slowly transformed itself from a monarchy, an aristocracy, to a period of tyranny and dictatorship and finally, to the world’s first democracy commonly associated with ancient Athens. The process of political change took about 200 years from the seventh to the fifth century BCE. The democracy, rule by the people, reached its peak or Golden Age under the leadership of its most popular figure, Pericles in the years 461 to 429 BCE. The form this government took is termed “direct democracy”. There were no representatives speaking for number of constituents as in the American system. The Athenian system of direct democracy was characterized in part by the following features:

  • Government service open to all adult male citizens
  • All adult male citizens were members of the legislature and jury system
  • Government magistrates and officers received a salary from the public treasury
  • Citizenship was based upon Athenian ancestry and descent
  • No foreigners could become citizens
  • Women possessed no voting rights and could not hold office
  • Slavery was permitted as was common in the ancient world
  • Unpopular citizens could be ostracized, exiled, by a popular vote from Athens
  • All adult males were required to serve as soldiers or sailors to defend the city
  • Ideals of democracy and individual freedoms were popularized among the people
Section 6   Section 8