Tag Archives: history


Siege of Troy—tight sketch

The Iliad

The Iliad is an epic poem written by the blind poet Homer in the 4th century bc, about events that happen during the siege of Troy—known back then as Ilium—in the 12th century bc.

In those days poems like the Iliad were recited in front of an audience. They were written with a specific rhythm and often-repeated phrases in order to help the poet memorize the whole thing. The Iliad is mostly about war, the destruction it causes, and a code of honor that was part of Greek culture.

Because I’m a swell guy, I condensed the whole Iliad in to one sentence. You can take a really deep breath and recite it without stopping:

Nine years into the Trojan War the Greeks attack a town on Troy’s side and make off with a couple of Trojan girls Chryseis and Briseis Agamemnon takes Chryseis and Achilles who is the Greeks’ best warrior takes Briseis to be their girlfriends Chryseis’s dad offers to pay to get her back but Agamemnon says no dice Dad prays to Apollo Apollo inflicts a plague on the Greeks and a lot of them die Agamemnon figures out making Chryseis his girlfriend is the cause of this plague so he gives her back but he still wants a girlfriend so he makes Achilles give him Briseis this ticks Achilles off so he says he’s not going to fight for the Greeks anymore and even asks his mom Thetis who is a sea-goddess remember she married the mortal Peleus and wouldn’t invite Eris to their wedding to ask Zeus to help the Trojans who are the Greeks’ enemies so Zeus is on Troy’s side now and Achilles won’t fight so the Greeks get their hats handed to them there’s lots of fighting with some featured fights between Paris the shepherd with the good judgement who stole the beautiful Helen and Menelaus who is Helen’s husband and Hector and Ajax the Greeks don’t do so good the Trojans beat the Greeks back as far as their ships Diomedes and Odysseus get some inside info about the Trojans’ battle plans but the Trojans set one of the Greek ships on fire so things are looking pretty bad for the Greeks because without the ships how do they get back home Achilles still won’t help his pals but Nestor says let Patroclus wear Achilles’ armor so the Greeks will think yay Achilles is back in the game Patroclus is good but Apollo sees what’s going on and knocks Patroclus’ armor off of him and Hector kills him the Greeks and Trojans fight over the body and armor Hector gets the armor the Greeks get Patroclus’ body Achilles feels like a heel and tells Agamemnon okay I’ll fight those Trojans now Achilles’ mom Thetis the sea-goddess gets the god Hephaestus to make Achilles some new armor and Achilles goes out to fight the Trojan army who for some reason are sleeping outside the city walls and when they see Achilles coming they say feet do your stuff and try to beat it back inside Troy but they’re not fast enough and Achilles kills every Trojan he sees he even fights the god of the river Xanthus who complains about all the dead bodies Achilles sees Hector and chases him around the city three times until Hector stops running and fights Achilles but Achilles kills Hector and ties Hector’s body to the back of his chariot and drags it back to the Greek camp Patroclus gets a big funeral Achilles drags Hector’s body in circles around Patroclus’ coffin every day for the next nine days Hector’s dad the king of Troy tells Achilles come on man that’s not right Achilles says yeah you’re right I’m sorry and returns Hector’s corpse to the Trojans Hector gets a big funeral and everybody stops fighting for a while.

The reason I’m telling you this is because I’m interested in how people thought about time. Homer’s poem is about things that happened 800 years before he was born. Maybe the Iliad was a comment on wars happening in Homer’s own time. It was definitely a way of remembering events long gone.

The Iliad is an epic story, but too fanciful to be considered a history. We’ll have to look to another Greek to see who invented the idea of history.

Thanks to Spark Notes

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space

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.

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.


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.


Where In The World Is Western Civilization?

mapWhen I talk about the part of the globe that is Western Civilization, I mean from the Tigris/Euphrates valley to the Mediterranean to Europe to the Americas. Western Civ was born in Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the southern part of Iraq. Civilization spread westward from there to lands around the Mediterranean Sea: Egypt, Israel and Phoenicia to the city-states of Europe and northward to the British Isles. From there it extended to the New World—the Americas and Australia.

So, Western Civ is made up of many people and cultures. It grew from the first civilization—the Sumerians in Mesopotamia—to the Egyptians; the Jews; the Greeks; the Romans, whose empire split into east and west; the western half of the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire which reorganized itself into separate European countries. Some of those countries in turn created empires mainly by colonizing the New World. The British Empire includes Canada and Australia. The United States of America declared its independence from Britain in ad 1776.

Of course there are other non-western civilizations around the world today and throughout history. This history is simply about Western Civilization. Most important to me are the ideas. How did ancient people develop an alphabet? Whose idea was it to smelt copper and tin together to make bronze? How did they come up with literature that we still read today? How did they figure out how to measure time, or the circumference of the Earth?

What is a ‘civilization?’

Okay, gang—before we get started talking about Western Civilization, we should agree on what a ‘civilization’ is. I’m going to keep this kind of loose. Generally, a civilization is a big group of people—in cities, a country, or countries—who share government (a system of keeping law & order and protecting its people);


a religion (belief in a god or gods with a set of rituals and priests to perform them);









an economy (enough food for everyone plus some left over for trading);


a written language (symbols to communicate without speaking);


and art, science and technology (inventions that make life easier and more enjoyable).


Every civilization has a ‘culture’—its own way of living and doing things.

That’s it. A rough definition to understand what separates a civilization from simply a big group of people. Now we can start thinking about what Western Civilization is.

Time to get serious

I’ve sorta-kinda joked on this blog about saving Western Civilization. Even my motto reads: “Saving Western Civilization through kid’s book illustration.” And I’ve honestly meant to get started on that. I have, in a modest way, been promoting Western Civ by teaching Sunday School and posting some historical stuff here once in a while. I haven’t been very serious about that motto, though. But it’s a new year; a good time to get serious.

Why does Western Civ need saving, anyway? We have Shakespeare and quantum physics and cell phones. We have crop rotation and the alphabet and Broadway. That’s good, right? Why can’t I just be happy?

The problem is: I meet very few people who understand how we got Western Civ. There are too many people who think Western Civilization is not such a good thing, and is maybe an embarrassment, or should be apologized for. That way of thinking saddens me, if only because it’s so easy to point to how much human beings have benefited from Western Civilization.

I think it’s important to understand how we’ve achieved all the things that we have. It’s important to recognize our incredible inheritance—gifts we’ve been given by amazing people who are long gone. Why were moveable type or symphonies or Greenwich Mean Time invented in the West? It’s vital for young people to understand how Western Civilization works, so that they may prosper in it.

This is my mission. If I can’t save Western Civ, at least I can document her glories. I like history, so I’m going to be writing a history of Western Civ—particularly a history of ideas. I’ll post the stuff I’m writing here on this blog, as a way of test-marketing. My goal is to write and illustrate a book that presents the history of Western Civ in a fun format. You must know by now that I’m a smart-alec, so of course it will be funny. Lots of gags. Lots of pictures. I expect to learn and discover new info as I do the research.

I invite you all to come with me.