Why history? Part Two – Towns



The breakthrough came with taming animals and the raising of crops.  People were not tied up just staying alive.  They could do more by dividing their labour.  They could live together in towns.  Petra was one of them starting about 300 BC, but there are traces of settlements at Jericho nine thousand years before that time and many thousands of years before the time when the events described in the book of Genesis could have taken place.  Disputes about native title in that part of the world are therefore likely to be resolved by arms.

Settling in towns and farming with the seasons gave people a sense of order.  The development of bronze then iron led to better tools and more killing.  Writing started.  People could record their myths.   (Our aborigines relied mainly on Songlines.)  Trade started.  People had to count things.  Coins were made to replace barter – and to allow the ruler to take his cut.  People learned pottery and cloth-making.  They invented the wheel and the plough, and their animals served the people.

Settled life, if not civilisation, started in what we call the Middle East and North Africa while savages still roamed over what we call Europe. From about 4000 BC, the Egyptians developed papyrus for writing, a calendar and arithmetic.  People in Syria built a library and an army.  In Babylon, they looked at the stars and made clocks. The Phoenicians were a trading people who created an alphabet that the Greeks then Romans developed.

A form of civilised life started in India in about 2500 BC and the first of the great dynasties of China started in about 1500 BC.  Slavery somehow sprung up with the arrival of order and security.  Class in India gave way to caste.  The Brahmins, or priests, were at the top and the Pariahs, or outcasts were at the bottom.  Religion became a source of power over people, and across the world its exponents would seek a monopoly of knowledge.  Priests of all kinds commonly felt fear and jealousy when confronted with knowledge outside their realm.  In China, the leading position of Mandarin was obtained by merit and learning.  The Chinese script was hard to learn and this affected the spread of reading and writing.  The Chinese locked themselves in behind the Great Wall.

Tribes of the people of Israel overran what came to be called Palestine. They occupied land between the great powers of Egypt and Babylon.  Moses said that God gave him his ten commandments.  These tribes claimed to be chosen by God, and that God had promised them the land of Palestine.  They proceeded to act on that promise with their swords.  Their God was fearfully personal and jealous, and by our standards brutal, but this people had and still have an amazing capacity to stick together.  They were people of the word, and they developed books that contained their entire history and moral code.

There was only one God, but his laws were universal.  The Ten Commandments are close to the root of what we call western civilisation. They underlie our view of the sanctity of life and what we now see as equality before the law.  Two prophets, that we will come to, would give rise to the most populous faiths in the world.  Sadly, conflict within and between these three faiths would cause indescribable cruelty and misery across the history of mankind.

In the sixth century BC in India, Gautama gave up the life of the rich and powerful. People called him the Buddha.  He told people the Way, and this religion then spread through India and the rest of Asia. Buddha preached against caste, but it prevailed in India.  Confucius was teaching in China at about the same time.  He spoke of respect for the past and for the aged – very Chinese virtues.

We have been looking at what we might call the alphabet of civilisation, the bread and butter of settled life.  This is a very large statement, but people in those times do not look to us to have been big on big ideas or high art.  They were bent on forms and appearances, and lurks or magic – just like so many in government or business today.

Too many accounts of civilisation look too much on art and architecture.  It’s not much good having beaut pictures if you can be murdered in your bed.  Let us look then at the phases of law-giving described by Sir Henry Maine in his book Ancient Law. 

First, the law consists of little more than judgments given by a king with divine inspiration.  What the king gave, at least in the first instance, was a judgment (or ‘doom’), not a law; he was a judge, not a law-maker. Next, we have an aristocracy that becomes the keeper of the law. The aristocrats’ monopoly is not of divine instruction or inspiration, but of knowledge of the laws.  In the third phase, habit becomes custom and custom becomes law, a kind of unwritten law.  The Pharaoh would make a decree in a given case.  Repeated enough, this decree would become a decree in the broader sense.

The next phase is the codes.  The best known are The Code of Hammurabi, The Laws of Moses, The Laws of Solon of Athens, The Twelve Tablets of Rome, and later the Corpus Iuris of Justinian.  The Code is some form of protection against fraud and abuse by the aristocracy (or the priesthood).  But the codes get widened in their application by the process of analogy.  As a result, a prohibition of a specific act for the purposes of promoting cleanliness can descend into ceremonial abstinence or ritual ablution, and a division of people by status can degenerate into ‘the most disastrous and blighting of all human institutions, Caste.’

These problems are worse where the ruling body, the aristocracy, draws its power from religion rather than politics, or the military. These generalisations are dangerous, but this may be one of the great differences between East and West, that the ruling parties were able to divorce themselves from the power of religion earlier in the West than in the East.

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