As our purpose is not to write a manual of archaeology but simply to outline the development of scientific knowledge in antiquity, there is no point in discussing on the same scale other early cultures than the Egyptian and the Mesopotamian, and the more so that we know practically nothing of the scientific achievements to be credited to other nations (Hindu, Iranian, Scythian, Chinese, etc.) in ancient, pre-Hellenic, times. It is possible that our ignorance will be alleviated later, but that is doubtful, at least as far as the Near East is concerned. The centuries preceding and following the year 1000 B.C. witnessed in that part of the world a tremendous upheaval caused by the introduction of iron, complicated migrations, and widespread turbulences. However, we must try to set forth the conditions obtaining in the Aegean area, which was the cradle of Greek culture.


The Aegean culture flourished in the Archipelago with its southern and eastern outposts, Crete and Cyprus; in the Greek peninsula with the Ionian isles close to it; and in a small part of northwestern Anatolia, Troas. From that territory it radiated, as was unavoidable, to other Mediterranean shores, but we need consider only its original area as defined above. The geographic basis of that culture is the very one that is outlined in any introducton to the study of Greek culture. The Aegean sea might be compared to a great lake studded with islands. The Greek mainland itself is maritime in that no place on it is very distant from the sea, at least as the crow flies. The climate is that of the Eastern Mediterranean, characterized by hot dry summers and mild rainy winters, or let us say, whatever rain there is falls in the winter and early spring.²¹⁹ Human beings living in such an environment tend to become amphibian.²²⁰

The main products are wheat, barley, grapes, figs, and olives; the crops are never very generous and they may fail altogether if the rain is inadequate. Food shortage may then drive the men away to other places. The seaways are often easier to them than the land ones, for the fertile plains are few and small and the shores are hemmed in by mountains. In good weather the sky is perfectly blue and the luminosity and visibility are almost unconceivable to northern barbarians.

The Aegean people enjoyed all the geographic features that are adduced to account for the Greek miracle; this proves that the physical environment does not suffice to explain genius. Or may it be that the Aegean stage was necessary to bring the Greek genius to its splendid maturity?

What kind of people were the early inhabitants of the Aegean area? Anthropologists disagree. Whoever they were, and no matter how many migrations occurred, they cannot have all disappeared. The invaders never wish to obliterate, but rather to assimilate, the conquered people. There must have remained a fair proportion of Aegean chromosomes in the Greek cells.

The Aegean territory was (and is) a bridge between Asia and Europe, as well as between Europe and Africa — not a single bridge, but a hundred. Aristotle’s remark,²²¹ that the Hellenic race, being situated between the races of Europe and of Asia, was intermediate in character, applied equally well to their Aegean predecessors. Whether the latter were the ancestors of the Greeks or not, they were their forerunners and their heralds.

Fig. 28. Map of the Aegean world. [Reproduced with permission from Gustave Glotz, The Aegean civilization (London: Kegan Paul, 1925), map 3.]

Fig. 29. Map of the Phoenician settlements or factories around the Mediterranean Sea. Outside of Phoenicia proper (at the easternmost shores of the Mediterranean), those factories or trading stations were separated from one another with very little, if any, hinterland behind each of them. The situation was the same for the Greek colonies and for most of the European factories in Asia in the early colonial days. There has been considerable discussion about the importance and even the reality of some of those Phoenician factories, but the purpose of the map is rather to illustrate their wide dissemination.


It was remarked in the previous chapter that the study of Mesopotamian archaeology was first (and is still generally) called “Assyriology” because of the accident that Assyrian antiquities were studied before Babylonian and Sumerian ones. A similar accident happened in the investigation of the Aegean culture; our first knowledge of it being due to Heinrich Schliemann’s excavation of Mycenae (1876),²²² it was first called Mycenaean in spite of the fact (which could not then be realized) that Mycenae was a late rather than an early center of that culture. The same Schliemann had already done some digging at Hissarlik in Troas, and the exploration of that site was continued by himself in 1878 and by his assistant Wilhelm Dörpfeld in 1892. In the following year Arthur Evans began his own research in Crete and started it on a larger scale in 1899, the results being finally published in his monumental work The Palace of Minos.²²³ It is now understood that Crete was the very cradle of the Aegean culture and that that culture developed there for a longer time and with more continuity than in any other part of the Aegean area. Thanks to half a century of studies by Evans and many other archaeologists, and in particular to the analysis of pottery and other relics all over that area, we have finally been provided with a rough chronology sufficiently well articulated with Egyptian chronology to inspire confidence (Fig. 30).²²⁴

The Aegean culture which flourished first in Crete and spread gradually over the whole area (mainland and islands) was a culture sui generis, very different from the culture of Egypt (to which it was occasionally indebted) and from that of Mesopotamia. Its existence, that is, its unity, may be surprising at first, considering the natural dispersion of that island world, but is explained by the circumstance that the Cretans had achieved sea power,²²⁵ being the first to do so in the Mediterranean basin. Said Thucydides,

Fig. 30. Comparative chronology as compiled by Richard A. Martin, Curator of Near Eastern Archaeology in the Chicago Museum of Natural History [Isis 34, 164–165 (1942).]

Minos is the earliest of all those known to us by tradition who acquired a navy. He made himself master of a very great part of what is now called the Hellenic Sea, and became lord of the Cyclades islands and first colonizer of most of them, driving out the Carians and establishing his own sons in them as governors. Piracy, too, he naturally tried to clear from the sea, as far as he could, desiring that his revenues should come to him more readily.²²⁶

This Minos is a half-mythical figure, yet a good symbol of the Cretan hegemony for the period of, say, 1700 to 1400. Cretan thalassocracy had begun many centuries earlier (say by 2100) but “Minos” brought it to a climax. Sea power meant not only political but also cultural unity.

That unity was relative; Aegean culture was far from being uniform in its spatial or temporal distribution. For one thing, Cretan manners were always appreciably different from those of the Greek mainland, and each island had its cherished peculiarities, yet they all traded with one another.²²⁷ In the course of time the cultural features never ceased to grow and change. In lieu of the dynastic stages recognized in Egypt and Mesopotamia, the diagnosis of ceramic and other cultural elements enables archaeologists to distinguish three great ages, Early, Middle, and Late Minoan and to subdivide each of those ages into three periods of unequal lengths. For example, what they call Late Minoan II was the golden age of Crete, corresponding to a part of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt (1580–1350).

That culture had a script of its own, or various scripts, which have thus far resisted every attempt at decipherment²²⁸ and will probably remain unreadable unless a bilingual text is discovered. It created artistic monuments that an expert eye recognizes immediately. The rulers built themselves palaces unlike in general structure and in many details the palaces of Egypt and Babylonia; large halls were provided for assemblies. Ingenious methods were devised for bringing fresh water into the living quarters and draining away the soiled water and excreta;²²⁹ there were bathrooms in the palace of Cnossos even as in the earlier ones of Karnak. The beehive tombs and the Cretan coffins in terra cotta were typical. The Aegean people bequeathed no sculpture of large size but many little objects of rare and intriguing appearance — like the Snake Goddess in polychrome faience of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, or the one in gold and ivory of the Boston Museum (Fig. 31), or the gold and ivory statuette in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto (Fig. 32).²³⁰ Such objects once seen are unforgettable; they constitute perhaps the best symbols of the culture that they immortalize. Similar remarks might be made with regard to the frescoes with which the walls were decorated and the scenes painted on pottery. Those paintings reproduce octopuses, flying fish, cockerels, wild ducks, and other animals, as well as various plants, with a very refreshing and astonishing realism. The palace of Minos, if we had been able to visit it when it was new, would have seemed very gay to us (at least the living rooms ) and very modern.

After the golden age of Crete, about the sixteenth century, the Aegean culture was inherited by ungrateful Mycenaens who continued it somehow for a few more centuries (say from 1500 to 1200); then that splendid culture was submerged by northern barbarians (Dorian invasion). The Bronze Age, which had lasted some two millennia, was now brutally replaced by a new age — the Age of Iron.²³¹ The revolutionary period marking the transition between those two ages is the ”dark interlude ”mentioned in the title of this chapter. It is neither possible nor necessary to locate it exactly on the chronological scale, for its occurrence and length varied from place to place, but we may say that obscurity, confusion, and chaos obtained in various degrees according to localities during the centuries immediately preceding and following the year 1000. The iron industries had been invented about the middle of the second millennium by the Hittites, and from the Hittite territory in Anatolia they had reached Syria and Egypt in the South and Macedonia in the West. The rude Dorian invaders were probably able to establish their domination over the Aegean peoples because of their iron weapons and iron tools.²³²

Fig. 31. Cretan snake goddess of the Middle Minoan Age (Cnossos). Statuette in gold and ivory. [Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.]

Fig. 32. Gold and ivory statuette from Crete; same age as that shown in Fig. 31, say the sixteenth century. The original height was c. 26 cm. [Reproduced with kind permission of the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto; for a fuller description see the Bulletin of that Museum (March, 1932).]

Similar statuettes exhibiting the same kind of sophistication and modernity exist in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and in the Museum of Cnossos, the last one in polychrome faience (reproduction in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).

The Dorian invasion and the other migrations that it released introduced endless confusion, reaching at some times and in some districts the limit of hopeless chaos, yet we should not take an exaggerated view of those phenomena. Thucydides warns us at the beginning of his history that migrations were of frequent occurrence but on a small scale. We may assume that those migrations were always incomplete and fragmentary; they concerned chiefly the more restless part of the population, those men who were not yet definitely settled, or were at odds with their neighbors, and who were always ready to move. Of course, those men displaced others, who might have preferred to stay where they were, but they never displaced all the people of the invaded territories. Hence the culture discontinuity caused by migrations, whether these were voluntary and quiet, or unexpected and violent, was never accompanied by a complete anthropological discontinuity.

The intimate knowledge of Aegean culture that we owe primarily to a great variety of monuments is confirmed by allusions in Egyptian, Hittite, and Babylonian records, by folkloric remains in the Aegean area, by reminiscences in the Homeric poems, and by vague references in later authors, such as Thucydides and Herodotos (V B.C.), Virgil and Strabon (I–2 B.C.), Plutarch (I–2), Pausanias (II–2). Both the vagueness and the scarcity of those references prove the depth of the discontinuity between the Aegean and Greek civilizations, yet the latter was to a large extent an unconscious inheritor of the former. The past, even the distant past, can never be completely obliterated.


The Aegean dispersion was accompanied toward its end by a Greek one, and when it ceased altogether it was continued by Greek colonization. In most cases the same populations were partly involved but Aegean patterns of culture were gradually replaced by Greek patterns. The mixture of the two types can be appreciated at its best in Cyprus, where the Minoan culture survived longer than anywhere else. As far as those dark events can be reconstructed at all, archaeologists agree that there were three main waves of early southward migrations. First, tribes coming from the western coast invaded Thessaly and displaced other tribes, which moved to Boeotia. Second, northern people, the “Dorians,” overran a large part of the Peloponnesos and many of the islands as far south as Crete and as far east as Rhodes. Third, northwestern tribes moved from Epiros across the Ionian sea to Apulia, while others conquered the territories just above the gulf of Corinth and Elis in the northwestern part of the Pelononnesos. According to Thucydides,²³³ the first two waves occurred some sixty and eighty years after the Fall of Troy. Those waves excited other waves, the outstanding ones being the Dorian migration (continuing the Dorian movements already mentioned), the Aeolian migration leading to the occupation of Tenedos, Lesbos, and Mysia (on the mainland opposite Lesbos), and the Ionian migration carrying displaced inhabitants from the northern Peloponnesos and Attica to the Cyclades, Chios, Samos, and parts of the mainland opposite (Halicarnassos, Cnidos).

It is well-nigh impossible to follow the details of those migrations in time and space; it suffices for our purpose to refer to them in their totality. During the Dark Age, many populations displace one another from one part of the old Aegean area to another, and maybe some of them transgress the early limits of that area. Greek colonization continues in a different way the old Aegean one.

In most cases the migrants or colonists were not opening new trails but following more assiduously and in greater numbers trails that were traditionally known to them. They were not plunging into the darkness but aiming at places of which vague but enticing reports had come to them. For example, we hear of Dorian colonies in Bithynia (southwestern angle of the Black Sea) and in Crimea; Ionian colonies were scattered all around that sea. This linkage of Russia with the Mediterranean was not by any means a novelty. Communications had existed between Russia and the Caucasus on one hand and between Russia and Egypt on the other.²³⁴ Such communications were probably continued under Minoan patronage, and when the Minoan world crumbled to pieces, echoes of its fall must have reached Russia. The Greek unrest destroying Aegean culture was accompanied by a similar unrest destroying the Stone Age Tripolye ²³⁵ culture of southern Russia and replacing it by a new one. Nor was this the end. Human waves, like mechanical ones, never stop completely; that is, if new energy is added to them from time to time they go on for ever, the vibration passing from one system to many others. The violent waves of the Iron Age were transmitted across Scythia and beyond, all the way to China.²³⁶

Before leaving the shores of the Black Sea it is well to bear in mind that the use of iron originated probably with the Hittites, by whom or from whom it was transmitted in the middle of the second millennium to Mesopotamia and Egypt. When it reached the Aegean area and caused the revolution of the Iron Age, and when ripples of that upheaval disturbed the shores of the Black Sea, a remarkable cycle had been completed. The Hittites flourished mostly within the crescent of the Red River;²³⁷ iron products were probably carried down that river to the Black Sea, and hence across the straits to the Aegean Sea. We have already remarked above that the Hittites spoke a language not very distant from ancient Greek, related to it through a common parentage. In short, an Asiatic Indo-European people discovered the value of iron metallurgy, and kindred European tribes developed that discovery to its first climax.

If the Greek upheaval of the Dark Age was caused by the use of iron (it was concomitant with the beginning of the Iron Age), we must give much credit for that to the Hittite predecessors.

To return to the Mediterranean Sea, it so happens that when the Minoan sea power came to an end, the Greek descendants were not, as one might have expected, the only heirs. Their inheritance was immediately disputed by a people of an entirely different ancestry, the Phoenicians, a Semitic nation established along the Syrian coast, north of Palestine.²³⁸

Those Phoenicians spoke a language closer to Hebrew than to any other language of the Semitic family. The mysterious Hycsos who invaded Egypt in the seventeenth or sixteenth century may have been identical with the Phoenicians (or Arabs?) or related to them.²³⁹ At any rate, the Phoenicians themselves are revealed without ambiguity when the Pharaoh Ahmose I (first king of the Eighteenth Dynasty; 1580–1557) invaded their country. From then on, but not for very long, they were subjected to the Egyptian rule. They are frequently mentioned in the ‘Am rna cuneiform tablets; some of them were trying to throw off the Egyptian yoke and were intriguing with the Hittites, whose growing strength and apparent friendship increased their own hopes of liberation. After the rule of our old friend Amenhotep IV, or Ikhnaton (1375–1350), Egyptian power collapsed. Ramses II (fourth king of the following Nineteenth Dynasty; 1292–1225) reconquered Phoenicia as far as Beirut and began the unforgettable series of inscriptions engraved on the rocks of the Nahr al-Kalb, just north of that city.²⁴⁰ Under Ramses III (Twentieth Dynasty; 1198–1167), the Phoenicians took advantage of new foreign invasions to emancipate themselves from Egyptian control and they remained independent until the Assyrian conquest (c. 876).

Placed as they were along the shores of the eastern end of the Mediterranean, Sea, it is not surprising that the Phoenicians developed very early a deep interest in navigation. Look at the map! It is as if they were standing on a balcony overlooking the whole of Mediterranean life. On a clear day they could see the hills of Cyprus; Egypt, which was still the outstanding center of culture as well as the largest market, was close to their left. However, as long as Minoan thalassocracy continued, Phoenician sailors were restrained or, if they ventured too far, were treated as pirates. About the twelfth century, when the Cretans lost the strength to rule the sea, Phoenician sailors were ready to succeed them and they did. Their readiness to take over and their efficiency are sufficient proof of a long preparation. As their liberation from Egyptian bondage coincided with the fall of Crete, they could exploit the situation fully. They soon became the masters of Mediterranean trade, with no rivals except the Greeks. It is probable that the trade of the Greek colonies was handled by Greek sailors, and hence Phoenicians were obliged to establish colonies or factories (that is, trading stations) of their own. The main center of Phoenician trade was the harbor of Tyre, whose glory is still reflected in the lines of Ezekiel (27:13–25). The Tyrians had factories ²⁴¹ in Cyprus, Rhodes, Thasos, Cythera, Corfu, Sicily, Gozo (near Malta), Libya, Pantelleria, Tunisia, Sardinia, and other islands. Almost everywhere they were competing with Greeks, and their rivalry was not only commercial but naval. The Greeks hated them and accused them of greed and unfairness; these accusations and the hatred prompting them were probably reciprocated. The most famous of these Phoenician outposts was Carthage, their first settlement on the African coast, established in a strategic location, half-way across the sea, in the ninth century if not before. The rivalry between Greeks and Phoenicians which began in the twelfth century remained under one form or another one of the main themes of ancient history; the war between the Greeks and the Persians (499–478) was to a large extent a war between the Greek and the Phoenician navies; the Punic wars (264–146) between the Romans and the Carthaginians were the final tests, which ended with the victory of the Western power.²⁴²

To return to Phoenician colonization, it extended to Spain and even to the western coast of that country beyond the Pillars of Hercules.²⁴³ According to Strabon ²⁴⁴ this was done soon after the Trojan war. The Tyrian merchants exported and distributed around the Mediterranean Sea an abundant selection of goods — glass and earthenware, metal objects made of Cyprus copper, textile fabrics, which they embroidered. Their main specialty, and, in fact, monopoly, seems to have been the dyeing of textiles with the purple obtained from murex.²⁴⁵ Most of the wares sold by them were obtained from Egypt, Arabia, Mesopotamia, or the islands, but credit was often given to them for inventions (such as that of glassware) which they had not made but had simply helped in diffusing. The Phoenician arts were derived to a large extent from Egyptian models.

Indeed, the Phoenicians were not creators as the Greeks proved to be at a later time; they were primarily merchants, international brokers.²⁴⁶ They were very active and intelligent and the development of the arts in the Mediterranean sea (the cradle of our civilization) was largely due to their ministrations.

The outstanding service that they rendered mankind — and its importance cannot be overestimated — was the invention of the alphabet; we may call it the masterpiece of brokerage. As we have explained in previous chapters, alphabetic or syllabic symbols were invented and used separately by Egyptians and by Sumerians, but there is an immense difference between the use of such symbols and the exclusive use of them. That invention was probably made independently by the Cretans and by Phoenicians or by some of the latter’s neighbors ( in R s Shamr or the Sinai). The Cretan syllabary cannot yet be interpreted and it left no descendant except the Cypriot syllabary of a much later time. The Asiatic invention was completed certainly before 1000 and perhaps as early as 1500; the Phoenician alphabet, if it was not the very first, was the one that triumphed, the only one that emerged by the end of the eleventh century; after having suffered countless vicissitudes it survives in most of the alphabets used today. Let us consider it more carefully.

The Phoenician alphabet was consonantal; every one of its symbols stood for a consonant or for a long vowel (which might have a consonantal value, like w and y). There were no signs for short vowels; hence the symbol for b might be used for a final b or for a syllable like ba, bi, bu, be,bo. The same kind of alphabet is still used in Hebrew and Arabic and causes no great difficulty for people who know the words and their inflections sufficiently well. In the course of time, the Greeks imitated the Phoenician alphabet ²⁴⁷and improved it by adding to it new symbols to designate short vowels.

The essence of the invention is the idea of representing every sound of the language with as few signs as possible and without ambiguity. The Phoenician scribe who invented the alphabet knew his own language perfectly well and tried to reduce the number of symbols to its minimum; as there was no ambiguity in his own mind concerning the vocalization, he thought that it was superfluous to indicate it; his error was corrected later by the Greeks. The Phoenicians were too economical, but we should pause before blaming them. The alphabetic economy so clear to them was not understood by other nations, and is not completely understood to this day by nations whose writing is alphabetic. The early Western printers did not realize at first that they could print every Latin book with a series of twenty-odd letters; as they tried to imitate the ligatures and abbreviations of the copyists they used over one hundred fifty different characters! The Arabic printers of today still need a far greater variety of type than the Arabic alphabet (28 letters) would require, for many letters must be written differently at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a word, or when they are used in conjunction with certain other letters.

This example illustrates the immense trouble involved in persuading men to accept a great invention, which would simplify their work and economize their strength. To summarize the story, we witnessed the tentative efforts of Egyptians and Sumerians; ineffectual inventions by the Cretans and other peoples; the Phoenician oversimplification imitated in other Semitic alphabets; the Greek perfect solution, followed by imperfect adaptations to other languages and by the futile overelaborations that exist to this day. Those inclined to underrate the Phoenician invention because it was not perfect should think of our own alphabets and especially of the English one which is a real monstrosity, and be a little humbler. The Phoenician alphabet did not indicate the vowels, but the English as often as not indicates the wrong ones; is that much better? Alphabetic economy consists in reducing the writing of a language to the combination of a minimum number of signs. The English alphabet is very small; in fact, it is too small, just as the Phoenician was; and its use involves a large number of ambiguities, perhaps a greater number than in any other language. There is nothing in that to be proud of.²⁴⁸

Before abandoning this subject a final remark may be inserted. It should be possible to devise a single alphabet that would be suitable for transcribing phonetically every language. An international alphabet of that kind was proposed at the Copenhagen conference of 1925, and after a few modifications was accepted by the International Phonetic Association (last revision, 1951).²⁴⁹ Unfortunately, it has not yet obtained any popularity and probably never will. The difficulties involved are very great and perhaps insuperable. A humbler purpose, but easier to attain, would be the invention of an unambiguous alphabet for each language. When the English-speaking peoples complete such a reform for their own language, English will have a far better chance of being adopted as a second language by the other peoples.

This digression may serve to illustrate the pregnancy of the Phoenician invention; it was so simple, yet so deep, that some of the most civilized nations of our days have not understood its implications.²⁵⁰

My account of that stupendous invention is of necessity oversimplified. Claude Schaeffer has discovered in Ras Shamr an Ugaritic ABC that may be older than the Phoenician; at any rate, these two alphabets are closely connected, and the order of letters is the same. This order has remained the same throughout 3,000 years as in our own alphabet, except that z was moved to the end in Cicero’s time.

When studying the art of alphabetic writing (or the art of writing in general), we must bear in mind that a high degree of illiteracy ²⁵¹ continued for long periods of time in spite of the fact that the art had been discovered and was actually practiced by rare individuals. This was because mnemonic traditions were so satisfying that many people, including highly educated ones, did not feel the need of writing. For example, such traditions must have been very strong in the golden age of Hellenism; otherwise, Socrates’ diatribe against the art of writing in Phaidros²⁵² would hardly be intelligible. Another curious fact, underlined by Max Müller,²⁵³ is that in no Greek writer do we meet any expression of wonder at the most wonderful invention of antiquity, the alphabet. Of course, all the fundamental discoveries of early times were taken for granted, even as our own children take for granted the marvels of our own time.

The intense rivalry that obtained between the Greeks and the Phoenicians did not separate them so much that they could not influence one another. We have just given the main proof of the influence of the latter upon the former; there is no doubt that the Greek alphabet is derived from the Phoenician. Moreover, a number of Phoenician (or at least Semitic) words are imbedded in the Greek language, not by any means rare words, like chrysos (gold), cypros (copper), chitõn (man’s garment), othon (fine linen), baitylos (meteoric stone), byssos (flax, linen), gaylos (a kind of ship),mna (mina, weight or sum of money), myrra (myrrh), nabla (musical instrument, with 10 or 12 strings), and — most important of all–byblos or biblos (papyrus, book; hence our word Bible).²⁵⁴


Before proceeding any further it is well to warn our readers once more that the Oriental influences should not be conceived as anticipating the Greek achievements, and then stopping short. Much of the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Phoenician work was obviously prior to Homer, but we should always remember that those ancient cultures continued in one form or another until the Roman conquests and that they even survived the latter. In addition to the pre-Hellenic influences, there were thus many others throughout the course of Greek history, or rather there was an endless give-and-take between East and West.

To understand the situation, ask yourself how you would answer the queries, “Have the French influenced the Italians?” and “Have the Italians influenced the English?” Obviously, the answers are not simple and easy. When two cultured nations flourish together there is tug of war between them; at one time one is dominant and the other imitative, at another time the situation is reversed, and so on.

In a way, every stream of thought, once started, continues to flow, and even when the flow has almost completely stopped, it deposits silt which recalls the past. In every language there are words that are like the fossil remains of earlier life. For example, in English, Isidore, Susannah, megrim, ebony, gum, adobe are witnesses of ancient Egypt.²⁵⁵

Egyptian ideas, arts, and customs were transmitted throughout the Dark Age not only by the Egyptians themselves, but by the Aegeans, the Phoenicians, and the Greeks trading or having any kind of intercourse with them. To be sure, the wars and revolutions destroyed many of those traditional links, but they could not destroy them all and enough remained to constitute in the hearts of men a kind of Egyptian model or mirage. The Egyptian traditions were kept alive by craftsmen, travelers, storytellers, and gossips, and from time to time they were given a new currency by great writers such as Herodotos in the fifth century, Plato, Aristotle, Theophrastos, Nearchos in the fourth, Agatharchides of Cnidos in the second, Caesar, Posidonios, Diodoros, Strabon and Vitruvius in the first, and even by various men of our own era, such as the author of the Periplos of the Red Sea, Dioscorides, Josephos, Columella, Tacitus, Lucanus, and above all Pliny in the first century, and Athenaeos and Zosimos in the third.

In the land of Egypt, the relations between Greeks and natives become more frequent and intimate during the Twenty-sixth (or Saitic) Dynasty (663-525) and during the Persian regime (525–331);²⁵⁶they became even deeper after Alexander’s conquest. The consequences of that conquest, the Orientalization of the West as well as the Westernization of the East, are so ample and numerous that we need not insist upon them;²⁵⁷ moreover, they concern a period later than that covered in this volume. We mention them here only to illustrate the continuity of Eastern-Western interchanges in every age. The interchanges never stopped, and continue to this day, but their intensity and their rhythm in either direction vary from time to time.


Examples of the survival of pre-Homeric scientific ideas have already been quoted in the preceding chapters whenever it was found convenient to adduce them. In this and the following sections we will now try to bring all such examples together, whether already quoted or not, after having classified them broadly by subject. Some of those examples are relatively late in date but that does not matter, because if old Egyptian ideas survived let us say in Hellenistic times, they must have existed in a latent way during the whole of the intervening period, however long. This is especially true of written ideas, which may be forgotten, that is, the papyrus or tablet on which they were written may be lost and buried for centuries, then be rediscovered and take a new lease of life. The most ancient traditions, however, were very largely oral and oral traditions cannot be interrupted at all without dying.

Whether an ancient idea never ceases to live and circulate, or on the contrary disappears for a while, or seems to disappear, and pops up only at long intervals, in any case credit must be given to the early inventors. Many such ideas vanished in silence and obscurity, and managed to weather the vicissitudes of the Dark Age in the manner of tough-coated spores surviving unfavorable seasons, then reappeared in Homer and Hesiod or in the reported sayings of the Ionian philosophers, or later still.

When an old Egyptian idea is expressed in a Greek book, we must assume that it was reinvented by the Greeks or else that it was transmitted to them, regularly or irregularly, in the open or underground. If it is not expressed, we cannot conclude that it did not exist or that it was not transmitted. Arguments a silentio are always weak and often worthless. The kind of argument to be avoided is the one used by no less a man than Zeuthen ²⁵⁸when he remarked that no pentagon or decagon is to be found in Egyptian monuments, and hence that Egyptian geometry could not have been very highly developed. It is highly probable that the Egyptians did not know the geometrical construction of a pentagon, for that would imply a relatively high degree of geometrical sophistication.²⁵⁹ However, the fact that they did not use the pentagon in the arts does not prove such ignorance nor would their use of it prove their knowledge of its geometrical construction. Indeed, it is easy enough to divide a circle into five equal parts without geometrical consciousness of any kind. It may be added that pentagonal ornaments occur in Mycenaean art, that a regular dodecahedron of Etruscan origin was found on Monte Loffa, near Padua, and that no fewer than twenty-six objects of dodecahedral form and Celtic origin have been recovered.²⁶⁰In brief, elaborate geometrical ornaments can be drawn without explicit geometry; the lack of such designs proves only the lack of interest in them. Incipient geometers may have played with pieces of wood shaped like regular triangles and squares and built solid angles with them. The combination of those solid angles would lead them to the construction of regular polyhedra (except the dodecahedron). The base of a solid angle made of five regular triangles would naturally be a regular pentagon. Four solid pentagonal angles brought together would make a regular dodecahedron.

There are Babylonian prisms of pentagonal and even of heptagonal base, but we do not for that reason think of ascribing a knowledge of the geometrical construction of those bases to the Babylonian geometers.²⁶¹ The earliest treatise on the construction of the regular heptagon was probably the lost one of Archimedes (III–2 B.C.) preserved in the Arabic version of Th bit ibn Qurra (IX–2).²⁶²

Egyptian arithmetic. We have explained that the Egyptians had a preference for fractions the numerator of which was the unit and tended to express other fractions in terms of the former. The fractions of that simpler and preferred type, like , were called “part 72.” The Greek representation of those fractions was equally simple; was written oβ′ or oβ″ (as if we wrote 72′). The Egyptians had separate symbols for ½ and and so did the Greek. These can hardly be coincidences. Moreover, we can detect Egyptian traces in Greek mathematics down to the beginning of medieval times.

According to Psellos (XI–2) — a late witness, I admit — Anatolios and Diophantos, who both flourished in Alexandria at the same time (III–2), wrote treatises on the Egyptian method of reckoning. Two late mathematical papyri, the Michigan papyrus No. 621 of the fourth century and the Akhmim one of the sixth or seventh century, as well as Coptic ostraca from Wadi Sarga (near Asy t) dating from the same period, contain unmistakable examples of Egyptian computations.²⁶³ Moreover, Ptolemy (II–1),²⁶⁴ and even Proclos the Successor (V-2), the most illustrious philosopher and teacher of his time, and one of the last heads of the Academy,²⁶⁵ were still writing fractions in the Egyptian manner. For example, Proclos wrote ½ for

Fig. 33. Minoan arithmetic: percentage tablets. [From Sir Arthur Evans, The Palace of Minos (London: Macmillan, 1921–1935) ; see Isis 24, 375–381 (1936).]

Fig. 34. Minoan arithmetic: example of signs of addition. [From Evans, The Palace of Minos.]

Minoan arithmetic.²⁶⁶ Our knowledge of Minoan mathematics is very restricted because the Minoan scripts have not yet been deciphered. Yet it is clear that many tablets contain numerals, which it has been found possible to interpret.²⁶⁷ Their numerals were different from the Egyptian ones, yet their methods of reckoning were definitely Egyptian. Both systems were decimal, but the Minoan symbols stopped at the thousands or ten thousands while the Egyptians reached the million level. The most interesting feature of Minoan computations was a system of percentages, amounts mentioned in many tablets being arranged so as to make up 100. For example, on one tablet, the two sums of the upper register 57 + 23 total 80; in the lower register we have 20 with the “throne” sign. Does that mean that the royal share was 20 percent? The Cretans seem to have developed an elaborate system of registration and accounting; they were as business-minded and as fussy about such matters as we are (Figs. 33 and 34).

The eventual decipherment of Minoan writings may give us more information about their mathematical or scientific ideas, whether original or of Egyptian derivation, but in any case Egyptian ideas might and did reach Greece also through other channels.

Egyptian geometry. The invention of geometry and its transmission to Greece was explained by Herodotos in terms often quoted:

This king²⁶⁸ moreover (so they said) divided the country among all the Egyptians by giving each an equal square parcel of land, and made this his source of revenue, appointing the payment of a yearly tax. And any man who was robbed by the river of a part of his land would come to Sesostris and declare what had befallen him; then the king would send men to look into it and measure the space by which the land was diminished, so that thereafter it should pay the appointed tax in proportion to the loss. From this, to my thinking, the Greeks learnt the art of measuring land; the sunclock and the sundial and the twelve divisions of the day, came to Hellas not from Egypt but from Babylonia.²⁶⁹

Of course, geometry was invented not only in Egypt but in other places, for the need of it was soon obvious to any civilized nation. The Egyptian account is plausible grosso modo; it was repeated by Strabon (1–2 B.C.) and by Proclos (V–2). Socrates in Phaidros made a wider claim.

I heard, then, that at Naucratis, in Egypt, was one of the ancient gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called the ibis, and the name of the god himself was Theuth.²⁷⁰ He it was who invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters. ²⁷¹

Socrates then proceeds to explain that the most important of those inventions was that of letters grammata, that is, writing. Said Thoth to the king of Egypt, “This invention, 0 king, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered,” but the king was not convinced and feared that the invention of writing would impair the memory instead of improving it and that the people would read without understanding.²⁷² This is one of the earliest criticisms of learning and technique as opposed to wisdom — a criticism that has been repeated time after time apropos of every great innovation.

The Egyptian invention of mathematical and physical sciences is implied in many of the Greek fragments referring to the Ionian philosophers. We shall come back to that when we speak of each of them. Egypt was generally considered by early Greek writers as the cradle of science, and the Greeks who had intellectual ambitions would try to visit that country and to spend as long a time as possible interrogating the men of learning and the priests. They were probably disappointed, because their hopes were a bit wild and because the priests could not or would not communicate much knowledge to infidels and barbarians. Nevertheless, the Greek visitors learned something and their ambitions were sharpened and focused. What does one get from teachers anyhow? Mainly inspiration and hints; real knowledge must be conquered by each man for himself; as to wisdom, if it be not in him, whence will it come?

The most curious reference to Egyptian mathematics is that of Democritos of Abdera (V B.C.), as reported unfortunately by a very late witness, one of the fathers of the church, Clement of Alexandria (155-220).²⁷³ According to Clement, Democritos declared,

I have roamed over the most ground of any man of my time, investigating the most remote parts. I have seen the most skies and lands and I have heard of learned men in very great numbers. And in composition no one has surpassed me, in demonstration not even those among the Egyptians who are called harpedonaptai, with all of whom I lived in exile up to eighty years.

Who were those harpedonaptai or rope stretchers? Were they land measurers, or architects? It has been suggested ²⁷⁴ that they knew the art of drawing perpendiculars on the ground by means of a rope divided by four knots in the proportion 3, 4, 5. That is possible but there is nothing to prove it.²⁷⁵ It is more probable that they were land measurers, and charged with the proper orientation of buildings, to which the ancient Egyptians attached a deep religious importance. The ceremony of “stretching the cord” (Egyptian term) was the astronomical determination of the axis of a temple along the meridian.²⁷⁶ A priest or clerk took a sighting of the pole star through a cleft stick; another one stood in front of him with a plumb line and moved until the plumb line and the star were seen in the same direction.²⁷⁷ Then each drove a stake in the ground, and a cord stretched between the stakes determined the meridian. It is possible that the perpendicular east-west direction was determined afterward by means of a 3, 4, 5 rope, as suggested above, or otherwise.²⁷⁸ The cooperation of the rope stretchers might be asked for frequently during the construction of a large building, or any other architectural project. The same rope stretchers may or may not have been used also for the redetermination of land boundaries after the flood. It is remarkable that we do not hear of them any more in Greek literature.

Babylonian mathematics. It is relatively easy to discuss the survival of ancient Egyptian mathematics because there was no other. Later documents known to us only repeat less well the ancient ones. The Babylonian situation is very different; there was a great mathematical and astronomical revival in the last two or three pre-Christian centuries. The Chaldean (Chaldaioi) mathematicians of that later period did not disregard the ancient ideas but developed them so much that they created definitely new departures. The mathematics that influenced the Greek authors like Hypsicles (II–1 B.C.) and Geminos (I–I B.C.) were definitely Chaldean. It is true that Heron of Alexandria (1–2) may have inherited older geometrical ideas, but his example is isolated.

As to algebra, some of it may have reached Hipparchos ( II–2 B.C.) ²⁷⁹ and some of it did reach Heron of Alexandria (1-2) and Diophantos ( III–2 ) , but the inventions of Archimedes (III–2 B.C.) were probably his own.²⁸⁰ When one tries to explain how Babylonian ideas could have reached Heron and Diophantos and yet have remained unnoticed by other Greek mathematicians, one keenly realizes how little the ancient mathematical traditions are clear to us; we get only a few glimpses of them here and there. Perhaps the wonder must be looked for in the opposite direction; is it not almost miraculous that so much of the highest ancient mathematics, which could never have interested more than a very few people, has been preserved for us?

The sexagesimal ideas go back to high antiquity, and though the Greeks may have obtained them from the Chaldeans, we may consider the Greek usage as a distant continuation of the Sumerian one. For example, Ptolemy divided the circle into 360 degrees²⁸¹ and divided the hour into 60 parts.²⁸² Now the division of the equator into 360°, comparable to that of the day into 360 gesh, is very ancient. The division of the ecliptic into 360°, on the contrary, dates only from Achaemeni-dian times.

The Greeks inherited the sexagesimal system from the Sumerians but mixed it up with the decimal system, using the former only for submultiples of the unit and the latter for multiples, and thus they spoiled both systems and started a disgraceful confusion of which we are still the victims. They abandoned the principle of position, which had to be reintroduced from India a thousand years later. In short, their understanding of Babylonian arithmetic must have been very poor, since they managed to keep the worst features of it and to overlook the best. This must have been due to deficient tradition rather than to lack of intelligence, or else to the fact that, as we should remember, intelligence is always relative. The Greeks used their intelligence in a different way and did not see simple things that were as clear as daylight to their distant Sumerian and Babylonian predecessors.


The Greeks inherited immemorial Egyptian ideas; the stimulation that they received from Babylonia was at once much greater and much later. As far as we can judge, pre-Homeric astronomy was very largely of Egyptian origin. Yet consider the theory of the five ages of the world outlined by Hesiod (VIII B.C.) at the beginning of his Works and Days. The first age, according to him, was a divine golden age; evil increased in every following age until it reached a maximum in his own days, and the old poet lamented, “Would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them.”²⁸³ This suggests two remarks. Why did Hesiod call the people of his own age “a race of iron”? ²⁸⁴ The Iron Age had begun many centuries before, but the introduction of iron was remembered by him as a new and ominous departure; he spoke of the Iron Age as we do of our own age when we call it the machine age, or the age of steam and electricity. In the second place, does not his description of the first age remind us of the Sumerian tale of man’s golden age quoted in the previous chapter? ²⁸⁵ It is true the same conceit might have developed independently in different places. The idea that everything goes from bad to worse is not unnatural to old men witnessing their own decay and feeling less and less able to cope with the changing world.

The art of astronomic observations was well developed both in Egypt and in Mesopotamia and some knowledge of it or sufficient hints may have reached the Aegean peoples from either side. Yet, the problems involved are so natural and the solutions so well determined that rediscovery of the same art is possible without need of imitation, or at least without consciousness of imitation. The Egyptian legacy was largely in the form of its decans and of the constellations and the stars pertaining to each; that legacy can be traced throughout the ages. The Egyptians, we may recall, divided the whole horizon into 36 decans; each division corresponds to one-third of a sign of the zodiac. The decanic division referred to the equator, while the later zodiacal one refers to the ecliptic, but as the extent in latitude of the decads and zodiacal signs was not clearly stated, the star groups and the star lore relative to them could easily flow from one system to the other.²⁸⁶

We must assume that some knowledge or awareness of the Babylonian tables also percolated westward. As to the calendar, it accompanied the Egyptian or the Babylonian merchants wherever they went. The ancient Greek calendar was lunar, but with some consideration of the seasons, that is, of the year. The only way of reconciling the lunar and solar cycles was to take into account common multiples of each. In this the Greeks had Babylonian examples or they could avail themselves of Babylonian experience.

We have seen that the Babylonians had also discovered the synodic periods of Venus and Mercury, and they originated the idea of the “great year,” the cycle of 36,000 years which would reappear so curiously many centuries later in Plato’s Republic (see p. 71). The conception of the saros,as a period of 3,600 years may also be of early origin, but when people use the word saros they think almost always of a much shorter period, of which neither the Babylonians nor the Greeks had any idea before the fifth or fourth century B.C.²⁸⁷

There are such deep and persistent misunderstandings on the subject that it is necessary to clear them up here and now. The early Babylonians, it was believed, had discovered an 18-year period,²⁸⁸ at the end of which the Sun and the Moon occupied the same relative positions as at the beginning. Each saros completed a cycle of possibilities of those relative positions, and hence the eclipses that occurred in one cycle would, or at least might, be repeated in every other. However, there is no mention of this saros in early Babylonian documents. Such a period would have been exceedingly difficult to discover, if only because it does not embrace a whole number of days but 8 hours more.²⁸⁹ To get eclipses at about the same time of day the period must be trebled; after 54 years²⁹⁰the visible eclipses return to a great extent in the same order. If we arrange the visible eclipses in series of 54 or of 18 years, it is then not difficult to establish the existence of the saros. But it is quite another matter to find or to discover this period. If someone who knew nothing of this period was given the task of finding from a complete list of lunar eclipses, e.g. from Oppolzer’s Canon, a period after which they would return in the same manner, he would certainly find it a very difficult one.” ²⁹¹ for the early Babylonians, even if they had had complete lists of all the visible eclipses (which is very doubtful), the discovery of the saros was not simply difficult but impossible.

Scientific astronomy, by which we mean a system of rational explanations of the movements of celestial bodies, owed little to the early Babylonians and Egyptians, except experimental data and perhaps the means of obtaining more data. The desire for such explanations seems typically Greek and their elaboration occupied Greek minds for many centuries. The knowledge that some Greeks, like Hypsicles (II–1 B.C.), Geminos (1–1 B.C.), and Diodoros of Sicily (1–2 B.C.), obtained from Mesopotamia does not enter into account, for that was late knowledge, after the formulation of Hellenic astronomy. Scientific astronomy, we might say, was Greek or perhaps late Babylonian, Chaldean.

The “scientific astrology” that obtained so much popularity in the last centuries preceding our era was Chaldean and Egyptian; it was also Greek, being a perverse synthesis of all the rational and irrational knowledge which had accumulated up to that time. The success of astrology among intelligent and educated people was due to its scientific structure and appearance, while all the fables that it carried and its fantastic purpose appealed to the natural imbecility of men and their love of marvels. The purpose was as old as the hills. Man has always been anxious to know the future, and, with admirable inconsistency, if some misfortune was foretold, he hoped to avert it. Many fairy tales are based on that very theme: at the time of the hero’s birth, soothsayers predict that he will die in a definite kind of accident; pains are taken to avoid the possibility of such an accident; yet it occurs and the hero dies as had been foretold.

The words Chaldean and Egyptian have retained an occult flavor, because of the astrology and other superstitions connected with them. We have already explained that Chaldean refers to a late epoch; the word Egyptian is more ambiguous, yet, in its occult meaning, it refers rather to Ptolemaic than to ancient Egypt. It was during the Ptolemaic period (which coincided roughly with the Chaldean) that the astrologic ideas which have come to us in Greek, Latin, Arabic, and almost every vernacular were first elaborated and clearly expressed.²⁹² The “Egyptian days” often quoted in medieval writings, for example, in Anianus (XIII–2?), are simply the dismal days (dies mali) of that age.²⁹³

Ptolemaic astrology was largely of Chaldean origin, but it embodied ancient Babylonian and ancient Egyptian conceits mixed up with Greek astronomy. The creation of that astrological Weltanschauung which dominated late ancient and medieval thought and is not yet extinct today proves the survival through the Dark Interlude of some astronomical ideas of immemorial antiquity.


Ideas concerning life and death, health and disease, and the means of lengthening life or of restoring health when it is lost, must be among the first to exercise human minds anywhere. We would expect such ideas, or at least some of them, the most agreeable and felicitous, to be transmitted from generation to generation for thousands of years. Unfortunately, they are not as tangible or specific as, say, astronomical ideas, and the existence of definite traditions is more difficult, if not impossible, to prove. Many of them are so simple and natural that they might (and did) occur independently in many places.

D‘Arcy W. Thompson, the learned translator of Aristotle’s Historia animalium,²⁹⁴ has pointed out that many of the “vulgar errors” which escaped the master’s critical mind must have been very ancient ones, errors so deeply rooted in his unconsciousness that he did not think of challenging them. The stories concerning ”the goats that breathe through their ears, the vulture impregnated by the wind, the eagle that dies of hunger, the stag caught by music, the salamander which walks through fire, the unicorn, the mantichore” would not surprise us in a medieval bestiary, but we are shocked to find them in Aristotle. “Some of them” said Sir D’Arcy, “come through Persia from the farther East: and others (we meet them once more in Horapollo,²⁹⁵ the Egyptian priest) are but the exoteric or allegorical expression of the arcana of ancient Egyptian religion.” The mantichore can be easily recognized as Persian, for Aristotle had its story from Ctesias (V B.C.) and its name is Avestan;²⁹⁶ some of the other stories might be traced to Egyptian or other oriental sources, or they might not. The tradition of such fables might be purely oral; it would not be weaker on that account but would leave no traces. In any case, we can hardly imagine Aristotle inventing such stories; it was bad enough for him to give them a new currency and a kind of scientific prestige.

Another story told by him ²⁹⁷ has been traced to an Egyptian source in an unexpected way. Aristotle spoke of edible sea urchins whose ova grow in bulk at the time of the full Moon. That was then as now a part of the fishermen’s folklore ²⁹⁸ and Aristotle tried to rationalize it. In 1924 an English zoologist, H. Munro Fox, investigated the facts and established that the Mediterranean sea urchins do not “increase and decrease” with the Moon, but that their Red Sea cousins spawn regularly at each full Moon during the breeding season. In other words, the story is true in the Red Sea but false in the Mediterranean; it had passed from Egyptian to Aegean folklore, probably in very early times, and has remained there unchecked until our own day.²⁹⁹

Let us pass to medicine. The Egyptian Imhotep, who might possibly be identified with a vizier of King Zoser (Third Dynasty, beginning of thirtieth century), was glorified by his people and finally accepted by them as a medical god. The apotheosis of Imhotep prefigured that of Asclepios.³⁰⁰ Medical usages being of immediate interest to any intelligent visitor or to any one whose health was jeopardized, we may assume that they had many chances of being transmitted to the Aegean people and to their Greek successors. The relations between Greece and Egypt increased considerably during the Twenty-sixth Dynasty (663–525), the so-called Saitic Renaissance. The capital was then in Sais in the western Delta (on the Rosetta arm of the Nile). One of the kings of that dynasty, Ahmose II (called Amasis in Greek; ruled 569–525), allowed the Greeks to build themselves a city in Naucratis (on the Canopic arm of the Nile), and they soon made of that city the most important commercial center in Egypt. That Greek center, not very far from the capital, was the means of abundant interrelations between Greece and Egypt.³⁰¹ The two cities, Sais and Naucratis, constituted an anticipation of Alexandria. Of course, all this occurred late in the sixth century, yet before the time of Herodotos and of Hippocrates.

Herodotos ³⁰² noticed that “the practice of medicine is so divided among the Egyptians, that each physician is a healer of one disease and no more. All the country is full of physicians, some of the eye, some of the teeth, some of what pertains to the belly, and some of the hidden diseases.” This piece of information is confirmed from Egyptian documents of the Old Kingdom (c. 3400–2475), wherein we find the hieroglyphic names of the medical branches mentioned in the Greek text.³⁰³

Some of the temples of Egypt were very early applied to medical purposes. The sick and the afflicted, sterile women desiring children, and patients of every kind would spend the night in the temple, sometimes many nights and days, and try to obtain healing or comfort from the gods. Priests would look after them, pray with them, use incantations, and sometimes alleviate their troubles with “proved” remedies or gentle treatment. The very fact of resting a long while in the temple, of enjoying significant dreams, and of being bathed, as it were, in the divine effluvia did often suffice to quiet the patient’s mind, to improve his condition, and even to cure him completely. Holy books and medical ones might be kept in such temples for the guidance of the intercessing and nursing priests. Indeed, two Berlin medical papyri (one dating from the Nineteenth or Twentieth Dynasty, 1350–1090, the other from Ramses II, 1292–1225) probably belonged to the temple of Ptah at Memphis. Greek travelers would visit such temples, and even if they were unable (as was likely) to understand the books or the formulas intoned by the priests, they could not help seeing the sick people lying in the temple yards or witnessing the priestly ministrations. Linguistic barriers could not impede the transmission of such knowledge. A good account of the healings due to Isis is given by Diodoros of Sicily (1–2 B.C. ) .³⁰⁴

The practice of incubation (encatheudein and many other Greek expressions) was popular in the Greek temples, chiefly those devoted to the Greek Imhotep, Asclepios. It was continued throughout the Middle Ages in Western and Eastern churches, and can still be witnessed today in the Aegean islands or in provincial churches of the Greek mainland.

The accumulation of knowledge was nowhere as slow as it was in the empirical study of the plants growing around us, the rejection of the dangerous ones and the recognition and adoption of those that were useful as food or medicines. That process of selection took place throughout the prehistoric ages, and the Egyptians and Sumerians of the first dynasties were already enjoying much knowledge of that kind bequeathed to them by their distant ancestors. In their times they must have bequeathed at least a part of their experience to all the peoples they were dealing with — Aegeans, Phoenicians, Greeks, and others.

In order to measure the debt of the Greeks, say of Homer’s age, to their Oriental predecessors, we still lack an instrument of prime importance, to wit, a good etymological dictionary including lists of foreign Greek words grouped according to their several origins,³⁰⁵ It is probable that such lists would reveal the Oriental provenience of many plant or animal names. From it one might conclude that the Greeks became acquainted with this or that herb or this or that animal from their contacts with Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, and so on. However, one should be careful not to employ such a method too rigidly. The herbs that the Greeks would have appreciated first and most might have received new Greek names. Thus herbs could have been transmitted without their original names, and conversely, names might be transmitted without the herbs or attached by mistake to other herbs.³⁰⁶


The Egyptians and the Babylonians were great builders and ingenious artisans and as such had been obliged to solve a good number of technical problems. The monuments created by them would be obvious to any visitor, and the objects exported to and by Aegean or Phoenician middlemen would diffuse technical ideas wherever they were carried. The Aegean builders may have taken lessons from their Egyptian forerunners, and they may even have borrowed Egyptian workmen.

Consider mining, in which the ancient people of the Near East had acquired considerable experience; the tradition of it was transmitted to the rest of the Mediterranean world by Phoenicians. At any rate, some local stories seem to confirm that hypothesis. The half-mythical Cadmos, son of a Phoenician king, is said to have brought the art of mining to the Greeks. He was the first to work the gold and silver mines of the Pangaion mountains in Macedonia. Another Phoenician prince, Thasos, worked gold mines in an island of the northern part of the Aegean Sea which was named after him, the island of Thasos.³⁰⁷

After the fall of Crete, Cyprus became the metallurgical center of the Aegean world, and on account of its proximity to the Syrian coast it received some of the earliest Phoenician settlements. The great Samian builders and engineers, the most famous of whom was Eupalinos (VI B.C.) , may have derived their knowledge from very early sources, for Eupalinos himself came from Megara.³⁰⁸

Each separate invention would require a special study, which would confirm Greek dependence on Oriental examples or demonstrate Greek originality. Let us examine two cases. The invention of a way of soldering iron is traditionally ascribed to Glaucos of Chios (VI B.C.) . It is difficult to believe that the early Hittite metallurgists would have overlooked that problem, the solution of which was often urged upon them by circumstances. The soldering of gold was perfectly done by Egyptians at the beginning of the first dynasty.³⁰⁹ The people of Chios had the advantage of being able to use mastic ³¹⁰ to keep the air away from the surfaces to be fused together. This may have enabled Glaucos to perfect the invention, if he did not make it.

The other case is that of the level. The invention of that tool and other tools used by masons and stonecutters was ascribed to Theodoros of Samos (VI B.C.). Now the Greek level (diab t s, libella) is identical with the one used by the ancient Egyptians.³¹¹

Many recipes described in the book of Zosimos of Panopolis³¹² (III–2) and in the chemical papyri of Leyden and Stockholm (III–2) are of Egyptian origin, though it is not yet possible to determine their antiquity. (Some may be Ptolemaic, and Greek rather than Egyptian.) The excellence of the ancient Egyptian artisans and of their competitors in Western Asia suggests that they had made many experiments in the manipulation and combination of substances. Technical experience of that sort could easily be transmitted for thousands of years, from father to son, from master to apprentice, from place to place, without the formality of writing. We may safely assume that the Greeks inherited much of it in various ways.

Finally, we hear of an Achaean prince visiting the Hittite court about the fourteenth century to study the training of horses and the handling of chariots.³¹³ Other contacts between Hittites and Achaeans suggest that the latter may have drunk straight from Hittite sources instead of depending always on Phoenician brokers.


Though mythology is out of our field, it cannot be omitted in any study of the influences of their Oriental forerunners to which the ancient Greeks may have been submitted. In all times and places foreign cults have exerted a peculiar fascination upon certain people. It would seem that the Greeks, or let us say, some Greeks, were very early captivated by the gods of Egypt and Syria. As compared with scientific ideas which are often esoteric, and with technical ideas which are implied in objects but require a kind of rediscovery, the religious ceremonies and rituals were celebrated with a great wealth of public and private illustrations. No visitor could escape them, and if he had in him occult tendencies he was likely to be charmed and allured. Were not those Egyptian gods, worshiped in such spectacular manner, especially powerful? Would they not help his own salvation, or at least fulfill some of his desires? The visitor might return home half-converted, carrying in his heart new aspirations and new hopes.

In a previous section we spoke of incubation from the medical point of view, but incubation was primarily a religious ceremony. To the Egyptians, the sleeper was a temporary guest of the Other World, a temporary companion of the dead. While he was slumbering in the temple, he could commune with the gods and with the spirits. That idea can be traced in the Greek religion as well as in the Egyptian. It gave a peculiar value to dreams, especially to temple dreams. We may assume that the Greeks inherited it from the Egyptians.³¹⁴

It is probably that the influence exerted by the Oriental religions was at first general and vague. Yet Isis began her foreign conquests in the seventh century, if not before. Herodotos ³¹⁵ say that the women of Cyrene worshiped her. The diffusion of the Egyptian religion was much intensified when the Naucratis settlement was established in the Delta in the sixth century, and from that time on it increased steadily. Temples and inscriptions to Isis and other Egyptian gods can be found in many of the Islands, even in the sacred Delos. Gradually the Egyptian and Greek gods were brought together and sometimes assimilated. Herodotos identified Amon with Zeus, Isis with Demeter, Osiris with Dionysos, the cat-headed Pasht with Artemis, Thoth with Hermes, Ptah with H phaistos. He seemed anxious to trace Greek rituals and theology to Egyptian models. We have already explained that Asclepios was the Greek counterpart of Imhotep.³¹⁶

One cannot appreciate Greek culture in its full complexity without attaching great importance to the sacred mysteries, the celebration of which satisfied the emotional needs of the people. Those mysteries which constituted the inner life of religion were to a large extent of foreign origin. They permeated not only the folklore at every level of society, but the arts, poetry, the drama, even philosophy. The Eleusinian mysteries originated probably in Egypt.³¹⁷ The main gods of Eleusis were Demeter, the glorification of motherly love (cf. Isis) and Triptolemos, god of cornsowing, inventor of the plow (cf. Osiris). The comparisons between Egyptian and Greek myths should not be carried too far; the transmission of inventions (whether religious or technical) is often restricted to a mere hint, but that hint is like a spark which may start a conflagration. The Eleusinian mysteries might be largely independent of the Egyptian religion, but they came back very close to it. Indeed, some of the feelings expressed in the Homeric hymn to Demeter, or in the writings of Pindar, Sophocles, Plato, or Plutarch might have been expressed by Egyptian priests. Let us recall only Sophocles’ words, “Thrice blessed are the mortals who will go to Hades after having contemplated those mysteries; only they will know life immortal, for the others there will be nothing but sufferings.” ³¹⁸

Orphism was of Thracian and Phrygian origin and the Dionysian mysteries were probably derived from Crete and Egypt. The “sacred heart” of Dionysos Zagreus symbolized immortality and the migration of souls. From the fifth century on, Orphism and the Dionysian mysteries tended to combine with the Eleusinian mysteries.

The religious influence of Egypt was greater upon the Old Testament than upon Greek literature. There is tangible evidence of it in the Books of Wisdom and in the Psalms. In the third century, thanks to the Septuagint, those Egyptian ideas rejoined in the Greek minds the Egyptian seeds that had been sown in them more directly centuries or even millennia earlier.

In the days of Hammurabi the old Sumerian god Enlil had been replaced by the god Marduk (or had been renamed Marduk), and associated with the latter was Ishtar,³¹⁹ goddess of beauty, of love and fruitfulness. Ishtar was a Moon goddess who was able to influence the seas (tides) and women (menstruation). The Phoenicians introduced her worship in the islands, chiefly in Cyprus and in Cythera (southeast of the Peloponnesos ) . Later the Greeks believed that she had risen from the foam of the sea near Cythera (hence her name Aphrodit Cyth reia). Astarte’s connection with the Moon had soon been transferred to another nature goddess of Asiatic origin, Artemis (Diana, to whom the famous temple of Ephesos was dedicated). The cult of Aphrodit and Artemis was well established in Greece before the Homeric age.

It is unnecessary to extend this mythological digression. We may conclude in a general way that Greek religion was shot through and through with foreign — Egyptian and Asiatic — elements. The foreign gods brought with them foreign notions of many kinds which the Greek people accepted without repugnance and almost unconsciously. Does one doubt the gods?


This chapter is suggestive and tantalizing, rather than instructive; it cannot throw much light upon the Dark Age. Even if that age was not intrinsically dark, it is very dark to us, and never more, it seems, than for the period that immediately precedes the Homeric dawn. We know little if anything for certain; we can only guess, but we must guess and there is no harm in that as long as we do not confuse our guesses with certainties. The reader will have noticed that many of our guesses are based on facts of relatively late date. As we have no texts dating from the Dark Age itself, we must depend on later ones, trusting that those late testimonies represent to some extent earlier conditions.

I think that out of all those guesses, which strengthen one another, one can build a fairly strong case for the reality of Oriental (and especially Egyptian) influences upon the creators of the new Greek civilization. We should be careful not to exaggerate those influences, in quality or quantity, but also not to minimize them overmuch, and we should always bear in mind the warning given previously, to wit, we should never conceive those influences as completely preceding Greek culture. Some of them did certainly precede that culture, but the Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek cultures coexisted for centuries, and hence exchanges of influences could continue and did continue throughout the golden age of Greece and even beyond that, during Hellenistic and Roman days. In fact, they reached a climax during those later days, but those are outside the scope of this volume.

Scholars who would pooh-pooh Egyptian influences remark that the ancient Greek travelers never learned hieroglyphics ³²⁰ and had to depend upon the gossip of interpreters. That is probably true; it is also true that interpreters are undependable. Yet interpreters do sometimes tell the truth, or enough of it to put intelligent men on the right track. The stories written late enough by Herodotos, or those written six centuries later still, by Plutarch, contain many errors, but I am more tempted to marvel at the amount of truth that they managed to convey. In judging the past we should never forget the difficulties and uncertainties of any kind of tradition, even the safest. As to the hieroglyphics, the Greeks shared their ignorance of them with all but a very few of the Egyptian people; ³²¹ yet for one Egyptian who could decipher the Book of the Dead there were thousands who knew the essential meaning of that book. They knew it by oral tradition, and they could transmit it in the same way. When the Greek-Egyptian osmosis began in good earnest in the sixth century, the decantation of knowledge from Egyptian into Greek vessels increased rapidly. We may be sure that one of the reasons of that swift increase was the slow incubation which had prepared it for a thousand years or more.

Uncritical friends of Hellas like to insist on the profound difference obtaining between the applied, empirical, adulterated knowledge of the Egyptians and Babylonians on one hand and the rational science of the Greeks on the other. I trust that those who have read my account, however brief, of the earliest Egyptian and Sumerian science will already be able to answer such criticism; much in that early science was genuine and admirable, some of it was on a higher level than early Greek science. It is unfair to exaggerate the irrational aspects of the early Oriental science and to compare them with the most rational aspects of Greek science, leaving Greek mysteries and other irrationalities in the darkness.

If the Greeks owed so much to their Oriental predecessors, asked the late John Burnet, how is it that the Greek progress was not more rapid? ³²² That is a clever but two-edged query. As far as it can be answered at all, one might say that the Greeks did not receive immediately the best, nor the most complete tradition (how could they?), but only hints, and one might say also that the Greeks were not ready at once to receive such tradition, let alone to improve it. Teaching is always a two-way business; much depends on the teacher and quite as much on the pupil. The tradition of Oriental knowledge was, we may be sure, incomplete, corrupt, and capricious. Every tradition is like it, and therefore, however much we respect it, we must never respect it blindly. We must always be prepared to accept the best and reject the worst. The early Greeks were too unsophisticated to do that; teachers and pupils were equally crude. And then it was the usual vicious circle. One can learn well only what one already knows.

If pre-Homeric knowledge derived from foreign nations was still very vague and uncertain, if it amounted to little more even among the intellectual elite than an awareness of the existence of old and rich civilizations to the south and east of them, together with an itching curiosity, that was already far from negligible. Whenever the desire for knowledge has been awakened in good minds by a few teasing hints, the road to that knowledge is open, and progress toward it, however slow at first, is bound to accelerate.

It would seem that the burden of proof would now rest at least as much upon the shoulders of those who deny or belittle Oriental influences as upon those of their contradictors. Great civilizations, like the Egyptian and Babylonian, radiate outward, and it is hardly conceivable that, intelligent and eager as the early Greeks were, those radiations would have been completely lost on them. Those who deny such possibilities lack sufficient appreciation of the old Oriental cultures, and above all they lack anthropological experience. Both shortcomings were excusable a century ago; they are no longer now.

During the Dark Age that preceded the Homeric dawn, the Greek people were not inactive. They were slowly imbibing the ideas that Aegean wanderers and Phoenician traders had distributed among them. In this respect that Dark Age resembles the Christian Middle Ages; both were periods of unconscious assimilation and preparation. Homer and Hesiod did not come out of nothing.

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