Tag: Ancient Near East

Diplomacy among the aliens

By Razib Khan | July 6, 2010 12:53 pm

brotherhoodOne of the structural difficulties with any systematic study of civilizations is that the sample size of the category is rather small, as is clear in the few attempts to examine their progression (see Arnold Toynbee). Additionally, there’s always the problem with how one generates a typology for something as fluid as civilization. Where does antiquity end, and the medieval period begin? One can get a rough sense of the discontinuities impressionistically. Consider the appearance of the Column of Phocas, erected in 608 AD. It may be correct that chronologically the Byzantine state and society on the eve of the expansion of Islam in the early 7th century was closer to the era of Charlemagne than Constantine, but many would argue that it was basically a Late Antique society more than an Early Medieval one. Certainly the Byzantines of that age would have agreed with that assessment (though one has to be careful about taking people at their word, the last Byzantines before the Ottoman conquest in 1453 famously still referred to themselves as Romans).

But such typologies remain a matter of art, and are subject to great dispute. Any inferences one generates or generalities one perceives will be subject to the reality that the individuals engaging in the act have a strong impact on the size and distribution of the sample (this is obviously true in ecology or empirical social sciences, but the methods here are generally more explicit and easy to critique). With all that said I think at the boundary condition we can agree upon some civilizational distinctions if such typologies have any meaning or utility. The world of the ancient Near East was on a deep level culturally alien to our own, and the period between 1200 and 800 spans a extremely sharp rupture between what came before, and what came after.

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