Formation of Ancient Societies Essay

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Formation of Ancient Societies

The Ancient Near-East

The different religious beliefs of the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Hebrews, and Assyrians tell us many things about the differences in these societies. However, since there was much cultural contact in the Fertile Crescent, similarities exist between the various religions and rules as well. The Mesopotamian cultures (Assyria and Babylon), for example, like the Egyptian culture had several gods: the deities influenced the way cultural perceptions were formed (for example when it came to burying the dead and preparing them for the afterlife): Egyptian beliefs featured Isis and Osiris, Amun and Ra; and Egyptian rulers were believed to possess a certain kind of divinity (Johnston 9).

The Hebrew religion, however, was strictly monotheistic -- and the Hebrew peoples were often at war with the other cultures of the Mesopotamian region. The Hebrew history is full of occupation, freedom, fleeing, warring, and independence. Many stories are recorded in the Hebrew history, which tells of the different ways in which the Hebrews interacted with other cultures.

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In 1900 BC, for example, Joseph was sold into Egyptian slavery, but quickly rose (through prophecy, it is told) to power in Egypt. The Hebrew rise in Egypt, however, was short-lived and by 1400 BC, the Hebrews were being led out of Egypt by the leader Moses. A century earlier, in India, the Hindu Scriptures (the Rig-Veda) were being completed, and two centuries later, the Trojan War was taking place between Troy and Greece.

Essay on Formation of Ancient Societies Assignment

The first king of the Hebrews was Saul, and he was followed by the war hero and poet David (the greatest of the Hebrew kings). His son built the famous Temple -- showing the importance that religion played in the lives of the Hebrews. When the Assyrians conquered the Hebrews in 700 BC, the Hebrews were oppressed, and Isaiah prophesized of a Redeemer. Babylon conquered Assyria a century later, however, and the Babylonians in an effort to suppress the Hebrew culture destroyed the Temple. When Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon, he allowed the Hebrews to restore their culture and rebuild the Temple. But in most cases, the clash of cultures led to wars and suppression on the side of the victorious side.


The social structure of India was essentially divided into four parts consisting of the Brahmins (the highest), the kshatriyas, vaisyas, and sudras. The lowest of the castes were the Untouchables (as the name describes, they were virtually untouchable and members of the higher castes had no dealings with these poor). The system of the Hindu religion made for a certain level of indifference in the society: since there was no conception of the common good, but rather of karma, individualism holds the highest sway in Indian society.

As Jack Sikora suggests, Dharma was like the duty that a Hindu was obligated to undergo -- and it was related to one's karma. One's karma, in the great cycle of life, could be affected by deeds or misdeeds in this life as well as in former times. If, for example, one was of a low caste -- this was the unfortunate result of bad karma -- perhaps the effect of misdeeds of the person in his other life. Controlling one's self and doing good would, over time, result in a better karma: thus, through a series of "many incarnations one can master and overcome one's evil tendencies and control one's karma" (Sikora 12). By controlling the karma, one gains liberty of the cycle -- the samsara -- and achieves moksha -- liberation from the life cycle and union with the divinity. If one is suffering -- it is the result of karma; it is his job to bring himself to a better state: no one else can do it for him.

Thus one sees in the Hindu religion (and in Indian society itself) the effects of Hindu spirituality: there is little sense of community or common good. Religion is individualistic, not communal, even if worship and sacrifice is set at times for communal participation. Such may have only to do with the fact that it is because the Brahmin priest in this manner can facilitate individuals' relation with the gods and effect better karma. Karma and the unending cycle -- samsara -- hold great sway with the Hindus. The entire religion may be viewed from this aspect and it helps explain the persistence of the caste system in India: each caste deserves what it has in life according to karma.

The Mandate of Heaven: Philosophy, Religion, and Social Structure in Ancient China

The Mandate of Heaven (although similar to the supposed divine right of kings in medieval Christendom) actually had more in common with Jean Wycliffe's two treatises On Divine Dominion and On Civil Dominion written near the end of the 14th century: these works essentially "argued that all human authority (whether in government or in the church) is derived directly from God and is conditional on God's approval. An official whose life is marked by sin forfeits the grant of authority from God" (Haaren 80). This was the same case with the Mandate of Heaven in ancient China: as long as the ruler was just and ruled justly, the Mandate continued on without expiration. However, war, poverty, draught, and other natural disasters were considered as signs from Heaven that the ruler was unjust and needed to be replaced.

The Mandate of Heaven gave very precise rules for Chinese society to follow: first, the right to rule came from Heaven; second, there could be only one ruler; third, that ruler had to be virtuous; fourth, rule could be passed from father to son. The ways in which this Mandate affected society are clear: rulers were expected to be just and to try to pacify subjects: exterior acts of virtue were of prime importance. Thus, in China, the Mandate was part and parcel of the Chinese philosophy: and the transitions from Shang dynasty to Zhou dynasty to Qin dynasty to Han dynasty were all because of social belief in moral corruption. Each dynasty ruled well for a time and saw its share of prosperity, but rebellion often developed when persecutions or sufferings became too much to bear.

These philosophical and religious beliefs also affected the social structure of ancient China. A clear hierarchy existed dispelling all notions of equality (which are a modern product of Enlightenment doctrine anyway): men, just as in ancient Athens, ruled society, and God ruled over men.

Persia and the Zoroastrian Religion

It is not known exactly when the Zoroastrian religion was founded but Herodotus first makes mention of it in his Histories. It is known, however, that Zoroastrianism was concerned, like Albigensianism, with dual powers -- good and evil -- which were equal and separate. The priests of Zoroastrianism had some political sway in Persia in the 6th century BC in the time of Cyrus the Great. These priests were the Magi class -- and when Cyrus assumed the throne of Persia, he suppressed their power. The Zoroastrian priests therefore tried to set up a separate government. Herodotus writes of how the priests succeeded in drawing the Persians to follow their chosen ruler rather than the son of Cyrus the Great. Finally, Darius towards the end of the 6th century BC suppressed the Magi.

This religion spread rather widely -- and to some degree it says something of the philosophy of Persian rule. Cyrus, for example, is said to have freed the Jews and allowed them to return to their homeland because of his desire to follow the good of Zoroastrianism. However, when Alexander the Great ruled over Persia, Zoroastrianism had less influence on the ruler who was educated instead by Aristotle of the Greeks. Zoroastrianism rose to prominence again after Christianity came into being. The Sassanid dynasty attempted to promote the Zoroastrian religion (Wigram 34) and suppress Christianity.

Ancient Greece

The role of women in the social structure of ancient Greece is most discernible in the city-states of Athens and Greece. Plato, for example, the great Athenian philosopher, "held that women had a very poor mind but a strong emotional realm" ("Women in Ancient Greece") and thus advocated that they have their own guardian -- whether fathers, husbands, or brothers.

Women did own property but it was not their place to be the owner of any land and women did not have the right to vote in Athenian politics. In Sparta, however, the situation was quite different because men in Sparta had a great deal more time to spend in military service. Because Spartan men were often drilling and taking military exercise, Spartan women had much more range of movement and freedom to run the household. Spartan women, in fact, "could inherit on equal terms as their brothers. There was no law that forbade them owning property. In fact, they owned more than a third of land in Sparta" ("Women in Ancient Greece").

Spartan women also had a kind of boldness, which was not common in other Greek city-states -- but… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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