Reviews of

A History of the Ancient Near East

In Ancient Near East, HB/OT, Kurtis Peters, Marc Van De Mieroop, Wiley Blackwell on December 27, 2015 at 4:52 am

111871816X

2015.12.23 |Marc Van De Mieroop. A History of the Ancient Near East: ca. 3000-323 BC. 3rd Edition. Chichester, West Sussex, UK; Malden, MA, USA: Wiley Blackwell, 2016. Pp. Xxii + 400. ISBN: 9781118718162.

Review by Kurtis Peters, University of British Columbia.

Many thanks to Wiley Blackwell for providing a review copy.

Flip open nearly any page of a Hebrew Bible and you will find yourself brushing up against the history of the Ancient Near East. At times it is quite obvious: Sennacherib, king of Assyria, invades Judah in 2 Kings, Isaiah, and 2 Chronicles; Ezra and Nehemiah, in the books named after them, return to Palestine with the blessing of the Persian emperor; Nahum prophesies the fall of Nineveh. Yet, the history of the Ancient Near East (ANE) influences other parts of the Hebrew Bible (HB) in more subtle ways. According to broadly held views, Deuteronomy was composed as a reaction to the suzerainty of Assyria over her vassals in the period of the Neo-Assyrian empire. The opening chapters to Genesis, according to many, are written so as to make sense of the life of exile in Babylon.1 Judges contains a story that presumes that Egypt and the Hittite empire had withdrawn their fingers from the southern Levant so that the small tribes and nations left there could flex their muscles and fight one another for the land. Many Psalms assume a king in Jerusalem, something again dependent upon the empires of the ANE being in a time of weakness and inability to exert their power over the southern Levant. Because the ANE’s history plays such a noticeable role in the text of the HB, it leaves any serious student or scholar of the HB to become familiar with its various twists and turns over the centuries and millennia, from prehistory to the close of the era with the coming of Alexander and his conquest from Greece to the borderlands of India.2 This history, in one accessible volume, is what Marc Van De Mieroop has offered in A History of the Ancient Near East: ca. 3000-332 BC. Third Edition.

Van De Mieroop’s first edition was published more than a decade ago, and since that time this volume has become a classroom standard. What has often been scattered across innumerable other region-specific atlases, history texts, and the like, is now condensed into this single volume, offering interested readers the ability to see the big picture of the ANE’s political history. It is, generally speaking, a political history, in that the majority of the material tracks the movements of city-states, nations, and empires through their rises and their falls. Some periods, though, force the narrative to take a different turn, such as the prehistory period for which one can only describe the archaeological data. Those data lend themselves toward a greater description of culture, broadly defined, rather than politics, narrowly defined. Despite these minor intrusions, the text marches through time alongside the major political players of the ANE, illuminating their actions and the consequences thereof.

In the introduction, Van De Mieroop lays out the parameters of what is to follow. First, he delineates the region of the ANE in such a way that excludes Egypt, except insofar as it interacts directly with the rest of the ANE (p.1). Further, he acknowledges that his text has a Mesopotamian bias, and, more generally, is biased toward the written sources. As written sources are not evenly spread out over time and space in the ANE, the historian inevitably can only account for what evidence there is. Cultures whose texts have not been recovered do not receive much mention (p.1-2). The writing of history is, as well, biased towards written sources as opposed to other archaeological discoveries, etc. Therefore, Van De Mieroop states that he will only give cursory attention to prehistory, and that only as a way to introduce the beginning of writing in the 4th millennium. The endpoint for the history is Alexander’s conquest of the ANE. His justification for ending there is “because while the changes [Alexander] instituted were probably not momentous for most of the people at that time, our access to the historical data is transformed starting in his reign. The gradual shift from indigenous to external classical sources necessitates a different historiographical approach” (p.2).

The introduction maintains a sobre approach to historiography where Van De Mieroop acknowledges the difficulties of periodization in ANE history. Because of our distance in time and culture from the ANE, it is easy either to blur it all together as one rather indistinguishable mass, or to react against such a tendency and divide it into non-continuous discrete units. Both poles have their problems, and so the present volume is designed to chart a path between them, emphasizing both the variety one sees in the ANE, as well as the continuity over time and between peoples (p.2-3).

Van De Mieroop goes on to impress upon his readers some of his wariness of source-bias. That is, most of the political-historical sources from the ANE are written by the powerful and concern their victories. We know that embellishment and appropriation typify these accounts, but we often do not have the other side of the story and so we are left mostly with propagandistic sources that promote a single monarch, for instance, as having accomplished great deeds. We do not hear about failures, or often even about others in the royal entourage who may have been the real actors in some of the periods (p.5-6). The rest of the introduction concerns a setting of the stage. Over the next several pages Van De Mieroop discusses the geography of the ANE and how it relates to the overall historical narrative, as well as the prehistory of the region, the latter of which is paired nicely with a section cocnerning the use of pottery in archaeological research.

The remainder of the volume, excluding the end matter, is divided into three parts: City States; Territorial States; and Empires. The first of these parts opens at the beginning of the 4th millennium with the city of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia, a city which had expanded far beyond the scope of its neighbours (ch. 1). From these beginnings, Van De Mieroop traces the story of our textual sources through the early dynastic period and the Ur III period in the 3rd millennium (chs. 2 & 3). At the end of the 3rd millennium comes the rise of Sargon and the establishment of the Akkad empire (ch. 4), which gave way to several early 2nd millennium regional kingdoms scattered across the ANE from Hammurabi’s Babylon to the old Hittite empire in Anatolia and northern Syria (chs. 5 & 6).

Part II (Territorial States) describes a time in the ANE with unspeakable wealth and political integration. This is the time of the Late Bronze kingdoms of Babylon, Mittani, Assyria, Hatti, and Egypt, each having times of significant political and economic influence in the entire ANE. We learn much of what happened during this period in the early 2nd half of the 2nd millennium from the archive of letters found at Tell el-Amarna containing correspondence between Egypt and its fellow royal courts of the ANE or its vassals in the Levant. Because of the vastness of data available to us, Van De Mieroop changed from a strictly chronological arrangement to a more regional arrangement for this part. First he explains the whole of the ANE and its intricate inter-workings at the time (ch. 7). He then focuses on the western states of Mittani, the Hittite New Kingdom, and the various political players in Syria-Palestine (ch. 8). Next he surveys the Kassites, the Assyrians, and the Elamites further to the east (ch. 9). Lastly, he dedicates an entire chapter to fall of this elaborate and integrated political system toward the end of the 2nd millennium (ch. 10).

Part III (Empires) is concerned primarily with the events of the 1st millennium until the conquest of Alexander. This section returns to a largely chronological framework after an initial overview of the ANE at this time (ch. 11). Assyria’s rise to imperialism is marked with several bumpy moments, but they and their war machine set a remarkably effective precedent, and were able to maintain their prominence for several centuries (chs. 12 & 13). The mountainous Medes and the Babylonians of the plain, however, conspired together against Assyria in the 7th century, which ultimately led to what is known as the neo-Babylonian dynasty (ch. 14). This latter dynasty did not endure for nearly so long as did the Assyrians before it, and by the late 6th century, Persia had risen and conquered much of the known world, including Babylon, and went about setting up an empire the size of which pushed the borders of the imaginable. They continued as the regional superpower until the late/mid-4th century when young Alexander the Great entered Asia and changed the ANE forever (chs. 15 & 16).

The end matter of the book is also worth reviewing. A brief epilogue illustrates rather thoughtfully that after Alexander’s conquest, the culture of the ANE did not simply die out, but continued on in various ways under a new guise of European leadership. Perhaps just as helpful for the book is the following king lists – mere dynastic flow charts with dates – which help to make sense of the many twists and turns of the political landscape described throughout the book. There is a guide to further reading keyed to each chapter, though this could easily have been appended to the end of each chapter along the way. The bibliography, comprehensive time-line, and the index are all very helpful, though the time-line could have been displayed with a more user-friendly layout.

On the whole, this third edition is an improvement on an already valuable scholarly contribution. Beyond the minor changes to content throughout the chapters (due in part to new research), the two major changes have been dividing Persia into two chapters and the inclusion of the “debate” sections at the end of each chapter. In these, Van De Mieroop isolates a scholarly debate related to the content of the chapter and discusses it, weighing the various viewpoints scholars tend to take. Some of the more notable debate topics include the literary nature of the code of Hammurabi (ch. 6), the identification of the habiru attested mostly in the Late Bronze Age (ch. 8), the reason for the fall of the Hittite state and how it relates to the so-called “Sea Peoples” (ch. 10), and why the Assyrians built an empire (ch. 12).

As to be expected from any volume with this array of data, there are some shortfalls. An overarching, and rather noticeable, shortfall is that the text is very weighted toward Mesopotamia. While Van De Mieroop does indeed lament that there is a bias toward Mesopotamia in the ancient sources, given that most of our documents come from that region, it seems as though this becomes a permission not to wrestle with the smaller set of data that come from the Levant, for example. Of course, historiography is primarily concerned with written sources and so when there are no such sources out of the Levant, there is not much one can do to remedy that. However, it is not impossible to spend the majority of a chapter discussing the movements of Mesopotamian politics and and then to include a section of what one knows about the Levant for that time period from archaeological research – even if those connections are less firmly datable. A largely chronological history of the ANE should include mention of each of the territories that make up the region in each chronological stage. Other historical accounts, such as Anson Rainey’s The Sacred Bridge, 2006,3 demonstrate that there is more than enough material concerning the Levant to dedicate at least a section of each chapter to it.

Another point on which Van De Mieroop could have improved was his treatment of non-elites in the ANE. Again, these peoples do not show up very often as major actors in the drama, but there is enough data to warrant discussion. The masses show up as labour forces , or hordes of new incomers (Amorites, Aramaeans, etc.), or sometimes they show up in their own texts, such as the text from the southern Levant concerning the worker who complains of a garment kept unfairly in pledge. These kinds of things are by no means difficult to include. There are, of course, exceptions to this criticism. In chapter 14, for example, there is a text box on the topic of neo-Babylonian private contracts, offering a small glimpse into the life of ordinary people in the mid-1st millennium (p.303). More such things would be quite beneficial to the overall project of the book and would assist in steering the volume away from a “great man” history, to a history of the region as a whole, both in the political sphere and in the sphere of average people.

Perhaps Van De Mieroop could have made room for the above suggestions, and perhaps could one day do so in a fourth edition. Whether he does so or not, however, this remains an outstanding resource for studying the history of the ANE, not only in the information found in its pages, but also for the way in which it is presented. It is remarkable to find a volume with this subject matter that is as clear and as engaging as what Van De Mieroop has offered here. At certain moments, particularly in Part II and the Late Bronze Age regional kingdoms, the text moved from engaging to captivating, so well was the story told. For these reasons and for many more, this volume deserves considerable praise and lasting admiration.

Kurtis Peters

University of British Columbia,

Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories,

Canada

 

 

1Or, at the least, Genesis 1-11 seems to engage directly the dominant Mesopotamian traditions regarding cosmology. This would make the most sense in a world where a Mesopotamian civilization is making its influence felt on the region around it, thus sparking responses to its narratives.

2This is a debatable endpoint for the history of the ANE, and is discussed below.

3A text that Van De Mieroop interestingly never mentions in any citation or recommended reading.

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