Hellenistic Period (323-30 BC)

More Inventions of the Ancient Near East

Part 1 – A Gallery of Inventions: Some Lesser Known Firsts from the Ancient Near East.
Part 3 – Tatian, Clement of Alexandria and the Battle for History.

My post from last month highlighting a number of less well known inventions from the ancient Near East proved quite popular, so a sequel is of course forthcoming. Once again, this series avoids covering well known innovations like cities, writing, schools, agriculture and the wheel. Here are some more inventions that you may not know came from the ancient Near East.

1. Investment Banking

The Great Ziggurat of Ur. Sumerian temples played a major role in the ancient Mesopotamian economy.

Modern banking traces its origins to Babylonian temples in the early 2nd millennium BC. Ancient Mesopotamian temples always had a redistributive economic function. Temples took in donations and tax revenue and amassed great wealth. They then redistributed these goods to people in need such as widows, orphans, and the poor (sometimes the temples became corrupt and hoarded wealth, but that’s a topic for another article).

After a thousand years of this, the priests who ran the temples were literally sitting on giant piles of money. So around the time of Hammurabi (in the 18th century BC), they began to make loans. Old Babylonian temples made numerous loans to poor and needy entrepreneurs. The loans were made at reduced below-market interest rates lower than those offered on loans given by private individuals, and sometimes arrangements were made for the creditor to make food donations to the temple instead of repaying interest.[1]

Nevertheless, the temples still lacked many of the features of a full bank. They did not take deposits, issue checks, or engage in fractional reserve banking. They were religious institutions offering loans as a charity service, closer to modern microfinance initiatives than to Goldman Sachs.

Something closer to modern banking emerged in the neo-Babylonian period in the 7th century BC. Banking was conducted by certain families who passed the trade on from parents to children. The Ea-iluta-bani family of the city of Borsippa was active from 687 to 487 BC. Beginning as mid-level land owners possessing several tracts of agricultural land, the men of the family married well, received decent sized dowries, and invested their liquid assets (mostly silver and food products) in loans.

Cuneiform tablet detailing a loan of silver, c. 1800 BC. The text reads:
“3 1/3 silver sigloi, at interest of 1/6 sigloi and 6 grains per sigloi, has Amurritum, servant of Ikun-pi-Istar, received on loan from Ilum-nasir. In the third month she shall pay the silver.”
1 sigloi=8.3 grams.

Numerous contract documents have been recovered which list recipients of loans, the amount loaned, the term of the loan and the interest rate to be paid. When the loan was repaid, the tablet was usually broken. This gives us a possibly skewed picture of loans, because the only tablets we can read are from the loans that were not repaid.

What we can tell is that the Ea-iluta-bani family generally loaned at 20% annual interest. In other cases, possibly when the debtor was less reliable, items were taken as security in lieu of interest. If the loan was not repaid, the item would be kept and sold. Sometimes the security was an item that increased in value, such as a slave that could perform service for the creditors for the duration of the loan. This was in effect a disguised form of interest.

The Ea-iluta-bani family tended to make about half of their loans in silver and the other half in food products. There were no coins in use, so silver was measured by weight and purity. Silver had the advantage of having a fairly constant value. Food products on the other hand tended to decrease in value shortly after the harvest time and increase in value during times of the year when they were less plentiful. The family, therefore, tried structure contracts so as to lend out foodstuffs when they were cheapest and get repaid when they were more more expensive, making a greater profit.

Silver, on the other hand, could be loaned out at any time. 80% of our surviving contracts are for periods six months or less, but this may simply indicate that short term loans were less likely to be repaid. The Ea-iluta-bani family women would often loan out their dowry as a long term investment in order to make a steady stream of profit from interest payments.

By the time of the Persian Empire, finance was a major business in the cities Babylon, Borsippa, Sippar, Uruk, Nippur, Uruk, Larsa and Ur. Banking families such as the Egbi in Babylon, Iddin-Nabu of Babylon and Murashu of Nippur became very wealthy and even engaged in international commerce with countries outside of Mesopotamia. The Murashu broadened their investments under Persian rule, in addition to simple loans they branched out into real estate and managed and rented land. Due to their large land holdings, the Murashu family became extremely powerful in Persian-controlled Mesopotamia. They may have become too powerful. All record of their activity ceases after the 10th year of Darius II in 413 BC. Either the records are lost, or Darius moved to end their power.[2]

2. Poison Gas

In AD 256, the Sassanid Persians under Shah Shapur I laid siege to the Roman border fortress town of Dura-Europos in Syria on the Euphrates River. During the assault, the Persians built several siege ramps. They also dug a number of mines to try and cause the walls of the fortress to collapse.[3]

Aerial view of the fortress town of Dura-Europos, on the west bank of the Euphrates on the border of Roman Syria. Tower 19 was situated in the middle of the wall to the left side of the picture.


The Edge of the World: Life in the Phoenician Colony of Gadir

In ancient Greek and Roman geographic texts, Gadir (known in Latin as Gades, in Greek as Gadeira, and in modern Spanish as Cadiz) stands out as a marker, a boundary. Here was the end of the line, the western edge of civilization, the last traces of urban, settled familiar society. Gadir was inhabited by “people who dwell at the limit where the world ends.” To the north were the barely explored coasts of Iberia, Gaul, Britainnia and mysterious Hibernia (Ireland). To the south lay the even less well known shores of Africa, a land of inhospitable terrain, strange peoples and terrifying wildlife. Due west lay the great Ocean which ran around the edges of the world. Rumors and legends persisted of land across the waters to the west, of Hesperides, of Fortunate Islands or Islands of the Blessed, but none had been there, for the gods did not permit man to cross.[1]

What was life like on this colony at the edge of the world? Archaeological excavation of the city has been limited, because the site has been continuously inhabited and any large-scale excavation would involve unacceptable demolition of the modern city of Cadiz. We are left with the descriptions of ancient historians and what archaeological evidence is available.

Gadir is situated on the Atlantic coast of Spain, just outside the Straits of Gibraltar. Oddly, given its location on the far edge of the Mediterranean world, the ancient sources indicate that the city was the first Phoenician colony founded in the western Mediterranean. The dates given by Velleius Paterculus and Pomponius Mela indicate that the colony was founded shortly after the Trojan War, at around 1100 BC.[2] This would mean Gadir was founded before Carthage, before Utica, before Lixos or any of the other Phoenician colonies. Archaeologists have long disputed the early dates given to Phoenician colonization, but more recent discoveries have placed the founding of the first Phoenician colonies back to at least the late ninth century, definitely prior to Greek colonization of the western Mediterranean.[3] The earliest colonial outposts were likely small and would have left little to no archaeological evidence behind. Alternately, the founding date could have been the date of first contact with the area and establishment of trade, with permanent settlement structures being built at a later date. Whether Gadir was founded in 1100 BC or several centuries later, its great age and precedence over the western Greek colonies seems assured.

The Pillars of Herakles: The Rock of Gibraltar in the foreground and Jebel Musa in the background.

The people of Gadir traced their history to an oracle received by the people of Tyre directing them to set up a colony at the “Pillars of Herakles” (the strait of Gibraltar). They sent out an exploratory expedition, which reached the strait but assumed that the passage marked the edge of the world and did not dare to go further. They landed on the Mediterranean side of the straits, but the omens from their sacrifices proved unfavorable and they returned to Tyre. A second expedition was dispatched some time later, which plucked up the courage to venture through the straits and along the Atlantic coast of Spain for 1500 stadia. They found an island, but once again the omens proved unfavorable and the expedition returned. The third Tyrian expedition to the region founded the colony of Gadir.[4] Despite the founding story’s emphasis on the role of oracles, the tale as handed down to us does not mention any favorable omens associated with choosing the successful site. While other texts such as the Voyage of Hanno attest to the great influence given to divination and oracles in Phoenician exploration, one can also safely assume that the third expedition built on the discoveries of the first two. The idea of several scouting expeditions being made in preparation for finding an area for permanent colonization is entirely plausible.

Phoenician colonists were careful and shrewd in selecting the locations for their cities. They preferred to site colonies on small offshore islands or peninsulas, where they could be secured against sieges and attacks. They chose islands with good harbors and easy access to favorable trade winds. Because Phoenician colonies were primarily trade-driven rather than settlement-driven, they only needed small outposts rather than large land areas.[5]

Map of the island of Gadir as it appeared in ancient times.

The Tyrian colonists founded Gadir on what was then three small islands at the mouth of the Guadalete River. In today’s city of Cadiz, the islands have since filled in with sediment and connected to the mainland to form a narrow peninsula. The city of Gadir was built on the northern end of the islands, farthest away from the mainland. There was a temple to Ba’al Hemmon in the city proper, but on the tip of the south side was situated a temple to the god Melqart, which would grow to great size and become world famous by time of the Roman Empire. The nearby Guadalquivir River allowed easy access to the interior of Spain for communications and trade

The economic benefits of the site were enormous. The island was just offshore of the Spanish kingdom of Tartessos. The Tartessans appear to have been on friendly terms with the Phoenicians at Gadir and traded heavily with them. Tartessos was rich with mines that produced lead, tin, silver, copper and gold. The most valuable of these minerals was tin. Tin is required for the manufacture of bronze, yet it is a very rare mineral. On the other hand, bronze was used to make almost everything in the ancient world, even after the introduction of iron. Tin was only found in significant amounts in a few locations known to the ancient Mediterranean world, notably Britain, Spain and Germany.[6]

Two of these three locations were most easily accessed through the ocean route. Ships can move faster and carry more goods than caravans of pack animals moving overland. The colony at Gadir put the Phoenicians in prime position to trade not only with Tartessos but with the entire Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula as well as the mysterious “Cassiterides”, the “tin islands” commonly associated with the coast of Cornwall. What’s more, the location of Gadir meant they were now in a prime position to monopolize this trade by controlling the Straits of Gibraltar. At first, there was no competition, for no other nation thought to sail this far to trade. By the 6th century BC, all the Phoenician colonies in the western Mediterranean became part of the Carthaginian empire, and from then on Carthage set their foreign relations and national trade policy. The Carthaginian treaty with newly Republican Rome in 508 BC set spheres of influence and trade for each nation. The Romans were forbidden from trading or traveling anywhere west of what is now the north coast of Tunisia. Polybius speculates that this was to prevent the Romans from becoming familiar with the area, and he was probably right. What’s more, archaeological evidence indicates that the Greek colonists in Massalia (modern day Marseilles, France)  ceased trading with Tartessos at around 500 BC. It seems that the Carthaginians had a general policy by 500 BC of prohibiting non-Carthaginian trade in their western territories.[7]


The Battle of Carrhae, 53 B.C.

Scarcely had Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian Empire than it began to rise from the ashes. While most former Persian territory was under the control of the Seleucid Empire, in 247 BC, Shah Arsaces I founded the Arsacid Dynasty in Parthia. Parthia had been a minor outlying province in what is now northeastern Iran, but after much hard fighting they seized Iran from the Seleucids, and finally allied with the Roman general Pompey the Great to finish off the Seleucid Empire in 63 BC, leaving Parthia and Rome as the major powers in the Near East. Between them lay minor buffer states and client kingdoms.

At this point, the two sides were at peace. The Parthian king Mithridates III wanted no further territorial expansion, and Rome had its hands full consolidating its newly acquired territory in the East and did not want trouble with another great power.

Yet by the 50′s B.C., Rome’s internal political machinations spilled over into Parthia. In 59 BC, Julius Caesar, Pompey Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus formed a powerful but informal political alliance known as the First Triumvirate. Crassus and Pompey were both elected consuls in 55 BC after instigating mob violence against their opponents on election day. Their first acts were to extend Caesar’s term as governor of Gaul (which he was still in the process of conquering), and make themselves the governors of Spain and Syria once their term in office expired. They cast lots to see who would govern which territory. Pompey won Spain, and Crassus won Syria.[1]

Bust of Marcus Crassus.

Crassus was fabulously wealthy, with a net worth in 54 B.C. of an estimated 7,100 talents or about $142 million. He made much of his fortune through seizing the property of those murdered in Sulla’s purges of 88 BC. Other sources of income included his ownership of silver mines as well as a profitable business in real estate development.[2] Crassus was fond of saying that no man was truly wealthy unless he could buy his own army.[3]

Crassus was also brazenly ambitious. Plutarch would later condemn this as “foolish ambition, which would not let him rest satisfied to be first and greatest among many myriads of men, but made him think, because he was judged inferior to two men only, that he lacked everything.” After he was assigned the governorship of Syria, he immediately began laying plans for the conquest not only of Parthia, but of Bactria and India as well until Rome’s borders stretched all the way to the “Outer Sea.” Crassus was exceeding his authority here, as the law making him governor of Syria carried with it no authorization for war with Parthia. What’s more, his plans were highly unpopular with the Roman public. Many people viewed Crassus’ plan to launch an unprovoked surprise attack on a Roman ally who presented no immediate threat to Rome’s interests as both dishonorable and unwise. The anti-war faction was led by the tribune Ateius Capito, who tried to have Crassus arrested to prevent him from leaving Rome for Syria. He was dissuaded by the other nine tribunes, and had to content himself with placing a ritual curse on Crassus as he passed through the city gates.[4]

Coin of Shah Orodes II.

In Parthia, on the other hand, in 54 BC Mithridates III was overthrown in a coup d’etat and fled from the capital of Ctesiphon across the river to Seleucia. His brother Orodes seized the throne and besieged Mithridates III in Seleucia with the aid of his brilliant general Surena, finally forcing the city’s surrender and seizing full control of the throne of Parthia. He was still in a shaky position, which led Crassus to think that victory would be easy and that many Parthian cities needed only a little prodding to revolt and side with Rome.[5]


The Jewish Queen

In all of history, only three women have governed an independent Jewish state: Athaliah, who ruled Judah from 842 to 837 BC, Salome Alexandra, who ruled from 76 to 67 BC, and Golda Meir, who was Prime Minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974.

In 163 BC Judas Maccabeus led a revolt against the Greek Seleucid Empire of Antiochus IV Epiphanes due to Antiochus’ repressive policies against the Jewish people. Judas Maccabeus’s successors were constantly at war to retain their independence, and succeeded not only in preventing a new Seleucid invasion but expanded the borders of the kingdom to contain many of the areas controlled by ancient Israel. The first Maccabees served as high priests rather than royalty. It was not until the reign of Simon Maccabeus in 140 that the royal Hasmonean dynasty was established. Simon and his successor John Hyrcanus held the office of prince and High Priest simultaneously.

Despite the anti-Greek character of the Maccabean revolt, by the end of the 2nd century BC Greek cultural influences had begun to affect the ruling Hasmoneans. This led to conflict between the Hellenized Jews of the ruling class and the Pharisees, a religious sect which advocated strict adherence to the Torah and Mosaic Law. The Pharisees viewed the Hellenized Jews as traitors who flouted the Mosaic Law, translated the Old Testament out of its original language and brought in dangerous foreign influences, while the Hellenized Jews tended to view the Pharisees as dangerous religious fanatics. The rift began to deepen under the rule of John Hyrcanus’ son Judah Aristobulus, whom Josephus called “a lover of the Greeks.” Aristobulus was the first Hasmonean to call himself a king and wear a crown, despite the fact that he was not a descendant of King David. He then ruled as just another near Eastern autocrat. His mother had been designated John Hyrcanus’ successor, so she was imprisoned and starved to death. Aristobulus also viewed three of his younger brothers as threats to his rule and had them imprisoned in irons.[1]

It is here that Salome Alexandra first enters into the picture. She was born in 139 BC, and was married to Judah Aristobulus at an unknown date. Despite her clearly Greek second  name and marriage to a Hellenized Jewish king, she was the sister of the influential Pharisee Rabbi Simeon Bin Shetach.[2] She was 36 when Aristobulus became king.


The Power of the Catapult

The fourth century B.C. saw a massive proliferation in catapults throughout the Mediterranean world. Catapults were fielded by the Greeks of Syracuse in 399 B.C. and quickly spread. The early Syracusan catapults were in fact early crossbows meant to be used by a single soldier. In order to fire larger stones and massive arrows (called bolts), double-arm torsion catapults (called ballistas or scorpions) were invented:

The catapult works by pulling back on the rope which connects the two arms. Each arm is attached to a spring made of tightly wound tensile material, usually animal sinew or horse hair. The rope is pulled back by a system of gears and pulleys, which causes the arms to bend back against the tensile material. When the trigger is pulled, the rope is released and the arms snap back into place, rapidly propelling the projectile forwards towards the target.



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