Age of heroes: How violence between mediterranean civilisations became the stuff of legends

The period between 1400BCE and 1100BCE set the stage for some of the most epic military struggles of all time, including the legendary Trojan Wars, supposedly fought between a confederation of small Greek states and the people of Troy, a city in western Asia Minor. Accounts of the wars are contained in the Greek poet Homer's
Iliad and
Odyssey which, although partly mythological, provide a vivid account of the chaos and violence of the late Mediterranean Bronze Age.

Another famous piece of literature tells of more violence and distress that was erupting further south, in Egypt, Jordan and Israel, at about the same time.

Like Homer's poems, the first five books of the Bible were written down many hundreds of years after the events they describe are supposed to have taken place. These religious texts are sacred to Jews and Christians, some of whom believe every word they contain to be literally the true word of God. As a piece of history, however, they are as confusing as they are vivid.

The most dramatic historical events in these early books are the exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt and the plagues sent by God through Moses to punish the Egyptian Pharaoh for enslaving his chosen people. No one really knows quite when these events are supposed to have happened. Estimates range from 1650BCE to about 1200BCE, which is when the first archaeological evidence of the Israelite settlement of the Promised Land of Canaan (now Israel) can be traced.

The scriptures tell how Jewish people were descended from Abraham, a nomadic herdsman from the Mesopotamian city of Ur who, it is said, was instructed by God to travel to the land of Canaan. In return for being worshipped as the only true God, He gave this land to Abraham and his "seed" forever. The scriptures go on to say that Abraham had two sons by two different women. Ishmael was his first, born to a servant girl called Hagar. Then came Isaac, born to Abraham's wife Sarah. One of Isaac's children, Jacob, had 12 sons, each of whom became leader of one the 12 tribes of Israel from which Jewish people claim their descent.

After the Jewish people settled in their Promised Land (from c1000BCE), a series of conflicts ensued with neighbouring civilisations, including the Assyrians and Babylonians. The end result was the sacking and burning of both Jewish capitals – Samaria (722BCE) and Jerusalem (586BCE) – following which the surviving Jews were enslaved in Babylon, under King Nebuchadnezzar (creator of the famous Hanging Gardens). At this point it looked as if God's chosen people could leave the books of history for ever. But just 70 years after their eviction from Jerusalem they were saved by a Persian emperor called Cyrus, one of the first rulers in recorded history that posterity has called "the Great".

Cyrus's Persian Empire was remarkable for its respect for other cultures and religions. Local rulers, called satraps, were installed as the governors of conquered lands. After capturing Babylon, Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and ordered the building of a new temple "with the expense met out of the King's household". As a result, Cyrus is the only non-Jew to be honoured in the Bible as a Messiah, a divinely appointed king sent by their one god, Yahweh.

Meanwhile, the Jews, almost driven to extinction twice, were determined to lay claim to their Promised Land once and for all. The stories of the Old Testament – called the Tanakh in Hebrew – were written down by scribes, edited and finally canonised as the official word of God in about 500BCE. Anyone dispossessing the Jews from now on could do so only against a background of absolute divine displeasure.

Meanwhile, Cyrus had trouble back up north, where nomads from the steppes were threatening the borders of his empire. In 529BCE, an offshoot of the Scythians, called the Massagetae, were in full attack at the head of the Tigris River. Their revolt was led by Queen Tomyris (who supposedly had one of her breasts cut off so she could fight more effectively). According to Greek historian Herodotus, Cyrus's troops began their fight back well, killing both of the Queen's sons and many of her troops. But the battle swung against them, and eventually Cyrus was slain. So bitter was the Queen at the death of her sons that she had Cyrus's head chopped off and his skull made into a goblet from which, it is said, she drank fine wine until the day she died.

Despite Cyrus's death, the Persian empire he created thrived for the next 200 years. Darius I (also called the Great) ruled from 522BCE to 485BCE and is credited with reorganising the empire and building a magnificent new capital Persepolis, in modern-day Iran, with walls 20m high and 10m thick. Darius also dug the first Suez Canal, allowing ships to pass from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea through a channel which, according to Herodotus, was wide enough for two triremes to pass and took four days to navigate.

However, like Cyrus, Darius was plagued by perpetual incursions and invasions by northern nomadic tribes, who, unbeknown to the Persians, were themselves being pushed westwards by other nomads eager to find wetter lands for grazing their animals. Continual harassment in the end dragged Persia into what became the biggest and bloodiest conflict yet to take place in human history, one which ultimately led to the collapse of the once proud Persian Empire and precipitated the rise of the Greeks in the West.

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