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The Greeks

Athena, Goddess of Wisdom

Let’s travel north from Egypt, across the Mediterranean Sea, to the island of Crete and the Greek mainland. It’s the Bronze Age, everybody!—from 3200 to 1100 bc—because some genius figured out smelting. Smelting is melting down 2 or more metals at very high heat, then combining them so when they cool, they’re a new metal, called an alloy. If you smelt the metals copper and tin, you get the alloy bronze. Bronze is stronger than copper or tin. Bronze was a handy material for making weapons and armor.

Like the Sumerians and Egyptians, the Greeks were farmers. Because Crete and the Cyclades are islands, they spent some time zipping around the Mediterranean in ships and trading with other people who lived along the sea. They used coins for conducting business—first made out of electrum, an alloy of gold & silver, later replaced with coins of pure gold and pure silver.

When we talk about the Greeks as a civilization, we’re talking about a bunch of individual city-states—like Athens, Sparta, Thebes and Corinth—who shared language, religion and culture. Sometimes they fought with each other, sometimes they banded together to fight a common enemy.

The Greeks were polytheistic—they worshiped many gods. Polytheism: poly= many; theo/deo=god.

These city-states were ruled by kings, but in Athens they began a system of government called democracy, where citizens can vote on who rules them.

The Greeks introduced theater; created statues and pottery; wrote epic poetry and songs; and developed a style of architecture using weight-bearing columns.

Measuring length in ancient Egypt

One thing about a civilization: people are always building things or buying & selling things. The Egyptians built some impressively big things. When you’re putting together something as big as a pyramid, you need to get all the measurements right. The Egyptians traded things as well. If you’re selling or buying a plot of land, or a roll of fabric, or a quantity of wheat, both buyer and seller need to agree on how much is being traded.

What you need are standardized measurements. Before the Egyptians started building a pyramid, they had to figure how big the base of it would be so that the sides could come to a point at the top at the right height. If an Egyptian were buying a roll of fabric, she’d need to use the same measurement as the seller to describe how much fabric was being sold.

What do you do if you don’t have a ruler or a tape measure or a yardstick? Or, what if you have a ruler or a tape measure or a yardstick but yours is different from somebody else’s?

Here’s what the ancient Egyptians did: they used the good old human body for measuring.

A grown man’s foot is more or less the same length as every other grown man’s foot. Sure, some are longer, some shorter—but not by very much. The average grown man’s foot can be used as a standard measurement. Those clever Egyptians imaginatively named this measurement a ‘foot.’

The length of a grown man’s forearm—from elbow to the tip of the middle finger—is more or less the same length as every other grown man’s forearm. This measurement was known as a ‘cubit.’ The Latin word ‘cubitum’ means elbow. In the Hebrew Bible, cubits are used to describe the size of Noah’s Ark, or how tall Goliath was, or how long to make the curtains for the Tabernacle.

From the middle of a man’s chest to the tip of his middle finger is two cubits. From fingertip to fingertip of both outstretched hands is four cubits.

Using a grown man for measuring.

One ‘palm’ equals 4 digits (fingers) of a grown man’s hand. There are 7 palms in a cubit, or 28 digits. A digit is roughly 3/4 of an inch. A palm is just under 3 inches.

That’s how the Egyptians standardized their measurements. You can find grown men just about anywhere! If not, they had cubit rods marked with cubits, feet, palms and fingers.

Cubit rod.

Time & space

Yes, yes, I know—my phone has been ringing off the hook with people calling to complain that this history of Western Civilization seems to be a history of telling time. Maybe you have a point. Maybe I have been concentrating too much on how the ancients reckoned time.

This history is about ideas. I want to tell how Western Civilization was shaped by innovation and invention. Look, would it make you all happier if I added a second topic? I admit, so far (even though we’ve only gotten as far as the Sumerians and Egyptians) I *have* been a little obsessed with timekeeping. How about if I start talking about how we’ve measured space?

What if we discovered that there’s a connection between time and space?

For instance: how far can you walk in an hour? If you keep up a steady pace, you’ll cover 3 miles. A long time ago, this unit of measurement was called a league. Most people traveled by walking. They knew that in an hour they could be somewhere 3 miles away. They were using time to measure distance.

Egyptian calendar

An Egyptian man plows a furrow so the lady can sow seeds into it.

Both the Sumerians and Egyptians had economies that depended on agriculture—they grew crops for their food. If you ever planted tomatoes—or onions, or zucchini, or those two-ton pumpkins you see at the state fair—in a garden, you’ll have seen on the seed packages instructions about when to plant. If you plant your tomatoes too late, the fruit will never ripen in time before the first frost. This is why calendars are so important.

The Egyptians’ planting schedule was built around their river, the Nile. Every year the Nile would flood. After the floodwater receded, it left behind nutrient-rich silt that improved the soil. Egyptian farmers had to plant crops as soon as the Nile receded so they could harvest before the Nile flooded again.

By around 2450 bc the Egyptians had developed a calendar whose year was twelve months. Each month was thirty days long (12 x 30 = 360 days). The year was divided into three seasons—Inundation, when the Nile was flooded (Akhet), Emergence, time to plant the crops (Peret), and Harvest, time to gather the crops (Shemu)—of four months each, with five days added to the end of the year.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Egyptian calendar used Base Sixty for counting the days. I’d like to think they sent a nice thank-you note to the Sumerians.

How to build a better water clock

Ctesibius of Alexandria. Believe it or not, this guy’s dad was a barber.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll remember that a couple of posts ago I ranted about how Egyptian water-clocks seemed impractical and I didn’t see how they could even function as clocks at all.

Well, apparently back around 270 bc, an inventor named Ctesibius (Teh-SEE-bee-us) of Alexandria thought the same thing. He identified two problems:

One) The water-clock wasn’t a clock, but rather a timer. It only worked while there was water in it.

Two) The water came out of the bung-hole at the bottom at different rates of speed: quickly when the jar was full, slowly as it grew empty. That’s because the weight of the water on top pushed down on the water that was escaping—less water, less pressure, slower dripping of water. That made it unreliable for keeping time.

So how did Ctesibius fix these problems? Well, he figured in order to keep constant pressure on the hole at the bottom, the water clock should always be full. So he set up a second jar of water to keep the first one filled. The second jar had a hole at the bottom that leaked water into the first jar.

THEN, a third, empty jar was placed under the first jar. Instead of telling the time by how much water had leaked out, this empty jar told time by how much water had leaked into it.

Ctesibius even made a float to put into the empty jar. As the water level rose, an arrow—attached to the float—pointed to the hour.

A tip of the hat to Heidi K. for sending me a link to this video!

Egyptian water clocks

Sundials tell time during the day, when it’s sunny. How did the Egyptians tell time at night?

Way back around 1500 bc (over 3,500 years ago) some clever Egyptian invented the water clock so they could tell time at night. A water clock is a jar with sides that taper from a wide brim to a small base. Almost at the bottom is a small hole. The idea is: you fill the jar with water and water leaks out the hole. There are marks on the inside of the jar for every hour. As the water level slowly sinks, it reaches each mark and that’s how you know what time it is.

It sounds like a swell idea, but I have a few problems with it. Number One: I don’t know exactly how big these jars were, but it doesn’t seem like there’d be nearly enough water inside them to last all night long. Even if the hole at the bottom were a mere pinhole, I think the water would run out in an hour. Did they wake up every hour to refill the water clock? That seems like a pain in the neck.

Number Two: to function as an accurate time-measurer, that jar would need to be filled precisely on the hour. You’d need to coordinate with a friend outside looking at a sundial so he could tell you the moment to fill it up.

Number Three: where did the water go after it leaked out? Did they just let it run all over the floor; did they collect it in another jar?

Number Four: Did their dogs see puddles of water on the floor and think, “What the heck, it must be okay to pee in the house now?”

Number Five: Didn’t the sound of dripping water keep them from sleeping?

This one has a cute little baboon sculpture. But how much water could you put in the reservoir? What is it, an egg-timer?

Dots on the inside walls mark the time as the water level sinks.

Egyptian sundials


An Egyptian lady catching some rays from Ra.

Let’s travel west from Sumer, away from the MidEast, along the northern coast of Africa to Egypt. About 1,000 years after civilization was up and running in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, the Egyptians got started on their civilization which thrived from 3100 bc to 332 bc. Like the Sumerians, Egyptians depended on a river—the Nile—and a system of irrigation to water their crops to keep the economy going. Their writing system was hieroglyphics—symbols that represented sounds, or ideas, or things. Their government was monarchical—they had a single ruler, called a Pharaoh. The Egyptians worshiped a pantheon—which means a bunch of gods and demi-gods. The Pharaoh was worshiped as a god, too.

The Sumerian culture must have influenced the Egyptians somewhat. The Egyptians divided the day into two halves, each having 12 hours—twelve is an easy Base Sixty number. The Egyptians are thought to have invented the sundial. The earliest example of a sundial has 12 hours marked using lines on a semi-circle, 15° apart.



A fragment of a limestone sundial. The gnomon goes into the hole at top.


This sundial is a half-bowl cut out of a block of stone.

A sundial is a simple way to measure the passage of the Sun. There’s a post (called a gnomon, pronouced NOM-ON) sticking up from a flat, horizontal surface. Lines are drawn on the flat surface, radiating out from the gnomon. When the Sun is shining, the gnomon casts a shadow on the lines. Each line represents the passage of an hour.

The Egyptians built huge obelisks—big stone monuments. These were sundials, too. The obelisk cast a shadow on the ground, which was marked for every hour. As the Sun moved across the sky, the shadow would move along the dial, showing the time. Of course, sundials only work when there’s daylight. How did they tell time at night?




Base Sixty

Today we count using Base Ten (1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10, then 11-12-13-14-15-16-17-18-19-20, 21 to 30, 31 to 40, 41 to 50 and so on). Here’s something really interesting about the Sumerians. They counted numbers using Base Sixty! Fractions hadn’t been invented yet, so 60 was actually a handy base for counting. Sixty can be divided by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, and 60. Try it!

Base Sixty is natural, it occurs in the world around us. By watching the sky, the Sumerians saw the Moon make a complete cycle 12 times a year. Each cycle (month) takes about 30 days (one day = the time it takes Earth to completely revolve around her axis). That’s about 360 days per year (one year = the time it takes Earth to travel around the Sun). These numbers fit neatly into the Base Sixty way of counting.

Do we still use Base Sixty? You betcha! A ruler is 12 inches long—12 x 5 = 60. We buy eggs and doughnuts by the dozen. Can you think of any other examples?

How about a clock? There are 12 hours on the face of an analogue clock—12 x 5 = 60. Sixty minutes in an hour; sixty seconds in a minute. What about 24 hours in the day—does that work? Nope, sixty doesn’t evenly divide by 24. But a protractor uses Base Sixty—a circle is divided into 360 degrees. If you were to mark 24 hours around a protractor, each hour would use 15 degrees (hang onto that thought—it will become important later on in the show).

I bought this one at Protractor Supply.

I can hear you saying, “Hold on, Manders. Years aren’t 360 days long. They’re 365 days and six hours!” Okay, I have to admit, that’s a good point. Sumerian astronomers were fantastic at math and did mostly everything right—but they got one really important piece of information wrong. They thought the Earth was the center of the universe with the Sun, Moon and planets revolving around her. It’s impossible to make the lunar year (12 cycles of the Moon) agree exactly with the solar year (Earth’s trip around the Sun), so we had to add 5 extra days, plus one day every fourth year, to make it work on a calendar. That’s not really the best solution, as we will see.


Gilgamesh subduing a lion who was probably minding its own business.

I decided Gilgamesh deserves his own post. It helps to get a handle on a culture by looking at its heroes and stories. Gilgamesh the king was an actual historical figure. Gilgamesh the hero of the epic was two-thirds divine and one-third mortal.

The story begins in Uruk, a city in Ancient Sumer (Mesopotamia) where Gilgamesh rules as king. Though Gilgamesh is known to be stronger than any other man, the people of Uruk complain that he abuses his power. The gods hear these complaints, and the god Aruru creates Enkidu, a man as strong as Gilgamesh. Aruru forms Enkidu out of water and clay, out in the wilderness. Enkidu lives in nature, in harmony with the wild animals.”

So Gilgamesh and Enkidu meet, wrestle, become best buds. They defeat the awful giant Humbaba. The goddess Ishtar proposes marriage to Gilgamesh—when he turns her down she sics the Bull of Heaven on him and Gilgamesh and Enkidu defeat him, too. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh works out his grief by searching for the meaning of life and the source of immortality.

I taught a unit on Gilgamesh to high-schoolers in Sunday school, just because there are so many echoes of Bible stories in Gilgamesh, particularly in Genesis. There’s a Great Flood; a guy who survives the flood by loading his family and animals into a big boat; a plant that holds the essence of Life (with a treacherous serpent hanging around nearby); Enkidu is a hairy strongman who is tamed by a seductress and loses his hair. My point in teaching Gilgamesh wasn’t to diminish the Bible stories, but to show how the Bible stories grew from a tradition of ancient MidEast literature into a narrative that tells the story of all us mortals, not just divine, semi-divine and immortal characters. The Bible is a radical departure from that tradition.

We get Gilgamesh from pieces of clay tablets that have survived through the ages. A library fire, which would mean a disastrous loss of literature today, actually preserved many ancient books by firing the clay they were written on. Gilgamesh is a fun read, although there are adults themes in there, so be warned.


Okay, now we know what Western Civ is, so let’s get started. We’re going all the way back to 4,000-2,000 bc. That’s 4,000 to 6,000 years ago. Sumer is considered to be the world’s first civilization. The Sumerians lived between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers—today it’s the southern part of Iraq.


‘The land between the rivers’ (Mesopotamia) was fertile—the Sumerians could grow crops there because they figured out how to divert water from the rivers into the dry desert—so there was food for everybody. Sumeria had a government, a religion, and a writing system called cuneiform.


Cuneiform means ‘wedge-shaped.’ You use a wedge-shaped tool to press wedge-shapes into soft clay. I don’t know what it says; I made it up.

There was a big city called Ur; today we still describe city things as ‘urban.’ Sunday school students will remember that Ur was the city Abram moved away from so he could become Abraham.


I’m not positive luggage had been invented at this time.

The epic hero, Gilgamesh, lived in Ur. The Epic of Gilgamesh has been translated from pieced-together fragments of clay tablets, so you can still read it today. I have a paperback copy. The story has themes that can be found in the Biblical book of Genesis—a Tree of Life, a Tree of Knowledge, a great flood. Gilgamesh and his pal, Enkidu, gad about the ancient MidEast searching for the meaning of life and a way to become immortal.