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I have a (much beloved) colleague who calls all history about things before AD 1900 “that old stuff.” Of course she means it as a gentle jab at those of us who study said “old stuff.” Gentle, but in some ways telling. Many historians and history readers genuinely have a bias against the older periods, and particularly against the history of the pre-Hellenic Ancient World (roughly 10,000 BCE to 500 BCE). That’s really too bad for a whole host of reasons. For the sake of brevity, I’ll just list three "biggies": 1) The Ancient World witnessed the greatest single break in the history of humankind, that is, the transition from hunter-gather to sedentary agricultural life; 2) The deepest roots of our civilizations (Western, Eastern, you name it) are mostly to be found in the Ancient World; 3) Finally, the basic institutions of what we think of as “modern” life were all hammered out for the first time in the Ancient World.
Take, for example, diplomacy. As Amanda Podany shows in her engaging new book Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient Near East (Oxford University Press, 2010), the rulers of Sumer, Akkad, Syria, Egypt and the rest developed a way of dealing with one another that will be strikingly familiar to anyone who follows modern international relations. They regularly sent envoys to one another. Those envoys were given safe passage, provided with diplomatic immunity, and treated as special guests. Royal representatives followed strict instructions from their masters. They negotiated formal treaties, which included such things as the conditions for international trade. They presented gifts from their masters to their hosts and expected gifts in return. They arranged for diplomatic marriages of the kind any student of European history would recognize. All this is nothing if not strikingly “modern.” Yet, as Amanda points out, the entire system was invented over 4,000 years ago. And, thanks to Amanda, you can read all about it.
If you do, you won't think of "that old stuff" as really that old, or at least odd.
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