'sumerian' Episodes

The Evolution and Spread of Science and Philosophy from the Bronze Age to The Classical Age


Science in antiquity was at times devised to be useful and at other times to prove to the people that the gods looked favorably on the ruling class. Greek philosophers tell us a lot about how the ancient world developed. Or at least, they tell us a Western history of antiquity. Humanity began working with bronze some 7,000 years ago and the Bronze Age came in force in the centuries leading up to 3,000 BCE.

By then there were city-states and empires. The Mesopotamians brought us the wheel in around 3500 BCE, and the chariot by 3200 BCE. Writing formed in Sumeria, a city state of Mesopotamia, in 3000 BCE. Urbanization required larger cities and walls to keep out invaders. King Gilgamesh built huge walls. They used a base 60 system to track time, giving us the 60 seconds and 60 minutes to get to an hour. That sexagesimal system also gave us the 360 degrees in a circle. They plowed fields and sailed. And sailing led to maps, which they had by 2300 BCE. And they gave us the Epic, with the Epic of Gilgamesh which could be old as 2100 BCE. At this point, the Egyptian empire had grown to 150,000 square kilometers and the Sumerians controlled around 20,000 square kilometers.

Throughout, they grew a great trading empire. They traded with China, India and Egypt with some routes dating back to the fourth millennia BCE. And commerce and trade means the spread of not only goods but also ideas and knowledge. The earliest known writing of complete sentences in Egypt came to Egypt a few hundred years after it did in Mesopotamia, as the Early Dynastic period ended and the Old Kingdom, or the Age of the Pyramids. Perhaps over a trade route. 

The ancient Egyptians used numerals, multiplications, fractions, geometry, architecture, algebra, and even quadratic equations. Even having a documented base 10 numbering system on a tomb from 3200 BCE. We also have the Moscow Mathematical Papyrus, which includes geometry problems, the Egyptian Mathematical Leather Roll, which covers how to add fractions, the Berlin Papyrus with geometry, the Lahun Papyri with arithmetical progressions to calculate the volume of granaries, the Akhmim tablets, the Reisner Papyrus, and the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, which covers algebra and geometry. And there’s the Cairo Calendar, an ancient Egyptian papyrus from around 1200 BCE with detailed astronomical observations. Because the Nile flooded, bringing critical crops to Egypt.

The Mesopotamians traded with China as well. As the Shang dynasty from the 16th to 11th centuries BCE gave way to the Zhou Dynasty, which went from the 11th to 3rd centuries BCE and the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age, science was spreading throughout the world. The I Ching is one of the oldest Chinese works showing math, dating back to the Zhou Dynasty, possibly as old as 1000 BCE. This was also when the Hundred Schools of Thought began, which Conscious inherited around the 5th century BCE. Along the way the Chinese gave us the sundial, abacus, and crossbow. And again, the Bronze Age signaled trade empires that were spreading ideas and texts from the Near East to Asia to Europe and Africa and back again. For a couple thousand years the transfer of spices, textiles and precious metals fueled the Bronze Age empires. 

Along the way the Minoan civilization in modern Greece had been slowly rising out of the Cycladic culture. Minoan artifacts have been found in Canaanite palaces and as they grew they colonized and traded. They began a decline around 1500 BCE, likely due to a combination of raiders and volcanic eruptions. The crash of the Minoan civilization gave way to the Myceneaen civilization of early Greece. 

Competition for resources and land in these growing empires helped to trigger wars. 

Those in turn caused violence over those resources. Around 1250 BCE, Thebes burned and attacks against city states cities increased, sometimes by emerging empires of previously disassociated tribes (as would happen later with the Vikings) and sometimes by other city-states.  This triggered the collapse of Mycenaen Greece, the splintering of the Hittites, the fall of Troy, the absorption of the Sumerian culture into Babylon, and attacks that weakened the Egyptian New Kingdom. Weakened and disintegrating empires leave room for new players. The Iranian tribes emerged to form the Median empire in today’s Iran. The Assyrians and Scythians rose to power and the world moved into the Iron age. And the Greeks fell into the Greek Dark Ages until they slowly clawed their way out of it in the 8th century BCE. Around this time Babylonian astronomers, in the capital of Mesopomania, were making astronomical diaries, some of which are now stored in the British Museum. 

Greek and Mesopotamian societies weren’t the only ones flourishing. The Indus Valley Civilization had blossomed from 2500 to 1800 BCE only to go into a dark age of its own. Boasting 5 million people across 1,500 cities, with some of the larger cities reaching 40,000 people - about the same size as Mesopotamian cities. About two thirds are in modern day India and a third in modern Pakistan, an empire that stretched across 120,000 square kilometers. As the Babylonian control of the Mesopotamian city states broke up, the Assyrians began their own campaigns and conquered Persia, parts of Ancient Greece, down to Ethiopia, Israel, the Ethiopia, and Babylon. As their empire grew, they followed into the Indus Valley, which Mesopotamians had been trading with for centuries. 

What we think of as modern Pakistan and India is where Medhatithi Gautama founded the anviksiki school of logic in the 6th century BCE. And so the modern sciences of philosophy and logic were born. As mentioned, we’d had math in the Bronze Age. The Egyptians couldn’t have built pyramids and mapped the stars without it. Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar couldn’t have built the Mesopotamian cities and walls and laws without it. But something new was coming as the Bronze Age began to give way to the Iron Age. The Indians brought us the first origin of logic, which would morph into an almost Boolean logic as Pāṇini codified Sanskrit grammar linguistics and syntax. Almost like a nearly 4,000 verse manual on programming languages. Panini even mentions Greeks in his writings. Because they apparently had contact going back to the sixth century BCE, when Greek philosophy was about to get started.

The Neo-Assyrian empire grew to 1.4 million square kilometers of control and the Achaeminid empire grew to control nearly 5 million square miles. 

The Phoenicians arose out of the crash of the Late Bronze Age, becoming important traders between the former Mesopotamian city states and Egyptians. As her people settled lands and Greek city states colonized lands, one became the Greek philosopher Thales, who documented the use of loadstones going back to 600 BCE when they were able to use magnetite which gets its name from the Magnesia region of Thessaly, Greece. He is known as the first philosopher and in the time of Socrates even had become one of the Seven Sages which included according to Socrates. “Thales of Miletus, and Pittacus of Mytilene, and Bias of Priene, and our own Solon, and Cleobulus of Lindus, and Myson of Chenae, and the seventh of them was said to be Chilon of Sparta.” 

Many of the fifth and sixth century Greek philosophers were actually born in colonies on the western coast of what is now Turkey. Thales’s theorum is said to have originated in India or Babylon. But as we see a lot in the times that followed, it is credited to Thales. Given the trading empires they were all a part of though, they certainly could have brought these ideas back from previous generations of unnamed thinkers. I like to think of him as the synthesizers that Daniel Pink refers to so often in his book A Whole New Mind. 

Thales studied in Babylon and Egypt, bringing thoughts, ideas, and perhaps intermingled them with those coming in from other areas as the Greeks settled colonies in other lands. Given how critical astrology was to the agricultural societies, this meant bringing astronomy, math to help with the architecture of the Pharoes, new ways to use calendars, likely adopted through the Sumerians, coinage through trade with the Lydians and then Persians when they conquered the Lydians, Babylon, and the Median.

So Thales taught Anaximander who taught Pythagoras of Samos, born a few decades later in 570 BCE. He studied in Egypt as well. Most of us would know the Pythagorean theorem which he’s credited for, although there is evidence that predated him from Egypt. Whether new to the emerging Greek world or new to the world writ large, his contributions were far beyond that, though. They included a new student oriented way of life, numerology, the idea that the world is round, numerology, applying math to music and applying music to lifestyle, and an entire school of philosophers emerged from his teachings to spread Pythagoreanism. And the generations of philosophers that followed devised both important philosophical contributions and practical applications of new ideas in engineering.

The ensuing schools of philosophy that rose out of those early Greeks spread. By 508 BCE, the Greeks gave us Democracy. And oligarchy, defined as a government where a small group of people have control over a country. Many of these words, in fact, come from Greek forms. As does the month of May, names for symbols and theories in much of the math we use, and many a constellation. That tradition began with the sages but grew, being spread by trade, by need, and by religious houses seeking to use engineering as a form of subjugation. 

Philosophy wasn’t exclusive to the Greeks or Indians, or to Assyria and then Persia through conquering the lands and establishing trade. Buddha came out of modern India in the 5th to 4th century BCE around the same time Confucianism was born from Confucious in China. And Mohism from Mo Di. Again, trade and the spread of ideas. However, there’s no indication that they knew of each other or that Confucious could have competed with the other 100 schools of thought alive and thriving in China. Nor that Buddhism would begin spreading out of the region for awhile. But some cultures were spreading rapidly.

The spread of Greek philosophy reached a zenith in Athens. Thales’ pupil Anaximander also taught Anaximenes, the third philosopher of the Milesian school which is often included with the Ionians. The thing I love about those three, beginning with Thales is that they were able to evolve the school of thought without rejecting the philosophies before them. Because ultimately they knew they were simply devising theories as yet to be proven. Another Ionian was Anaxagoras, who after serving in the Persian army, which ultimately conquered Ionia in 547 BCE. As a Greek citizen living in what was then Persia, Anaxagoras moved to Athens in 480 BCE, teaching Archelaus and either directly or indirectly through him Socrates. This provides a link, albeit not a direct link, from the philosophy and science of the Phoenicians, Babylonians, and Egyptians through Thales and others, to Socrates.  

Socrates was born in 470 BCE and mentions several influences including Anaxagoras. Socrates spawned a level of intellectualism that would go on to have as large an impact on what we now call Western philosophy as anyone in the world ever has. And given that we have no writings from him, we have to take the word of his students to know his works. He gave us the Socratic method and his own spin on satire, which ultimately got him executed for effectively being critical of the ruling elite in Athens and for calling democracy into question, corrupting young Athenian students in the process. 

You see, in his life, the Athenians lost the Peloponnesian War to Sparta - and as societies often do when they hit a speed bump, they started to listen to those who call intellectuals or scientists into question. That would be Socrates for questioning Democracy, and many an Athenian for using Socrates as a scape goat. 

One student of Socrates, Critias, would go on to lead a group called the Thirty Tyrants, who would terrorize Athenians and take over the government for awhile. They would establish an oligarchy and appoint their own ruling class. As with many coups against democracy over the millennia they were ultimately found corrupt and removed from power. But the end of that democratic experiment in Greece was coming.

Socrates also taught other great philosophers, including Xenophon, Antisthenes, Aristippus, and Alcibiades. But the greatest of his pupils was Plato. Plato was as much a scientist as a philosopher. He had works of Pythagoras, studied the Libyan Theodorus. He codified a theory of Ideas, in Forms. He used as examples, the Pythagorean theorem and geometry. He wrote a lot of the dialogues with Socrates and codified ethics, and wrote of a working, protective, and governing class, looking to produce philosopher kings. He wrote about the dialectic, using questions, reasoning and intuition. He wrote of art and poetry and epistemology. His impact was vast. He would teach mathemetics to Eudoxus, who in turn taught Euclid. But one of his greatest contributions the evolution of philosophy, science, and technology was in teaching Aristotle. 

Aristotle was born in 384 BCE and founded a school of philosophy called the Lyceum. He wrote about rhetoric, music, poetry, and theater - as one would expect given the connection to Socrates, but also expanded far past Plato, getting into physics, biology, and metaphysics. But he had a direct impact on the world at the time with his writings on economics politics, 

He inherited a confluence of great achievements, describing motion, defining the five elements, writing about a camera obscure and researching optics. He wrote about astronomy and geology, observing both theory and fact, such as ways to predict volcanic eruptions. He made observations that would be proven (or sometimes disproven) such as with modern genomics. He began a classification of living things. His work “On the Soul” is one of the earliest looks at psychology. His study of ethics wasn’t as theoretical as Socrates’ but practical, teaching virtue and how that leads to wisdom to become a greater thinker. 

He wrote of economics. He writes of taxes, managing cities, and property. And this is where he’s speaking almost directly to one of his most impressive students, Alexander the Great. Philip the second of Macedon hired Plato to tutor Alexander starting in 343. Nine years later, when Alexander inherited his throne, he was armed with arguably the best education in the world combined with one of the best trained armies in history. This allowed him to defeat Darius in 334 BCE, the first of 10 years worth of campaigns that finally gave him control in 323 BCE.

In that time, he conquered Egypt, which had been under Persian rule on and off and founded Alexandria. And so what the Egyptians had given to Greece had come home. Alexander died in 323 BCE. He followed the path set out by philosophers before him. Like Thales, he visited Babylon and Egypt. But he went a step further and conquered them. This gave the Greeks more ancient texts to learn from but also more people who could become philosophers and more people with time to think through problems. 

By the time he was done, the Greeks controlled nearly 5 million square miles of territory. This would be the largest empire until after the Romans. But Alexander never truly ruled. He conquered. Some of his generals and other Greek aristocrats, now referred to as the Diadochi, split up the young, new empire. You see, while teaching Alexander, Aristotle had taught two other future kings : Ptolemy I Soter and Cassander. 

Cassander would rule Macedonia and Ptolemy ruled Egypt from Alexandria, who with other Greek philosophers founded the Library of Alexandria. Ptolemy and his son amassed 100s of thousands of scrolls in the Library from 331 BC and on. The Library was part of a great campus of the Musaeum where they also supported great minds starting with Ptolemy I’s patronage of Euclid, the father of geometry, and later including Archimedes, the father of engineering, Hipparchus, the founder of trigonometry, Her, the father of math, and Herophilus, who codified the scientific method and countless other great hellenistic thinkers. 

The Roman Empire had begin in the 6th century BCE. By the third century BCE they were expanding out of the Italian peninsula. This was the end of Greek expansion and as Rome conquered the Greek colonies signified the waning of Greek philosophy. Philosophy that helped build Rome both from a period of colonization and then spreading Democracy to the young republic with the kings, or rex, being elected by the senate and by 509 BCE the rise of the consuls. 

After studying at the Library of Alexandria, Archimedes returned home to start his great works, full of ideas having been exposed to so many works. He did rudimentary calculus, proved geometrical theories, approximated pi, explained levers, founded statics and hydrostatics. And his work extended into the practical. He built machines, pulleys, the infamous Archimedes’ screw pump, and supposedly even a deathly heat ray of lenses that could burn ships in seconds. He was sadly killed by Roman soldiers when Syracuse was taken. But, and this is indicative of how Romans pulled in Greek know-how, the Roman general Marcus Claudius Marcellus was angry that he lost an asset, who could have benefited his war campaigns. In fact, Cicero, who was born in the first century BCE mentioned Archimedes built mechanical devices that could show the motions of the planetary bodies. He claimed Thales had designed these and that Marcellus had taken one as his only personal loot from Syracuse and donated it to the Temple of Virtue in Rome. 

The math, astronomy, and physics that go into building a machine like that was the culmination of hundreds, if not thousands of years of building knowledge of the Cosmos, machinery, mathematics, and philosophy. Machines like that would have been the first known computers. Machines like the first or second century Antikythera mechanism, discovered in 1902 in a shipwreck in Greece. Initially thought to be a one-off, the device is more likely to represent the culmination of generations of great thinkers and doers. Generations that came to look to the Library of Alexandria as almost a Mecca. Until they didn’t. 

The splintering of the lands Alexander conquered, the cost of the campaigns, the attacks from other empires, and the rise of the Roman Empire ended the age of Greek Enlightenment. As is often the case when there is political turmoil and those seeking power hate being challenged by the intellectuals, as had happened with Socrates and philosophers in Athens at the time, Ptolemy VIII caused The Library of Alexandria to enter into a slow decline that began with the expulsion of intellectuals from Alexandria in 145BC. This began a slow decline of the library until it burned, first with a small fire accidentally set by Caesar in 48 BCE and then for good in the 270s. 

But before the great library was gone for good, it would produce even more great engineers. Heron of Alexandria is one of the greatest. He created vending machines that would dispense holy water when you dropped a coin in it. He made small mechanical archers, models of dancers, and even a statue of a horse that could supposedly drink water. He gave us early steam engines two thousand years before the industrial revolution and ran experiments in optics. He gave us Heron’s forumula and an entire book on mechanics, codifying the known works on automation at the time. In fact, he designed a programmable cart using strings wrapped around an axle, powered by falling weights. 

Claudius Ptolemy came to the empire from their holdings in Egypt, living in the first century. He wrote about harmonics, math, astronomy, computed the distance of the sun to the earth and also computed positions of the planets and eclipses, summarizing them into more simplistic tables. He revolutionized map making and the properties of light.

By then, Romans had emerged as the first true world power and so the Classical Age.

To research this section, I read and took copious notes from the following and apologize that each passage is not credited specifically but it would just look like a regular expressions if I tried: The Evolution of Technology by George Basalla. Civilizations by Filipe Fernández-Armesto, A Short History of Technology: From The Earliest Times to AD 1900 from TK Derry and Trevor I Williams, Communication in History Technology, Culture, Leonardo da vinci by Walter Isaacson, Society from David Crowley and Paul Heyer, Timelines in Science, by the Smithsonian, Wheels, Clocks, and Rockets: A History of Technology by Donald Cardwell, a few PhD dissertations and post-doctoral studies from journals, and then I got to the point where I wanted the information from as close to the sources as I could get so I went through Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences from Galileo Galilei, Mediations from Marcus Aurelius, Pneumatics from Philo of Byzantium, The Laws of Thought by George Boole, Natural History from Pliny The Elder, Cassius Dio’s Roman History, Annals from Tacitus, Orations by Cicero, Ethics, Rhetoric, Metaphysics, and Politics by Aristotle, Plato’s Symposium and The Trial & Execution of Socrates.

(OldComputerPods) ©Sean Haas, 2020