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Inventions of the Ancient Near East, Part 3: Tatian, Clement of Alexandria and the Battle for History

January 31, 2013

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Be not, O Greeks, so very hostilely disposed towards the Barbarians, nor look with ill will on their opinions. For which of your institutions has not been derived from the Barbarians? The most eminent of the Telmessians invented the art of divining by dreams; the Carians, that of prognosticating by the stars; the Phrygians and the most ancient Isaurians, augury by the flight of birds; the Cyprians, the art of inspecting victims. To the Babylonians you owe astronomy; to the Persians, magic; to the Egyptians, geometry; to the Phoenicians, instruction by alphabetic writing. Cease, then, to miscall these imitations inventions of your own.[1]

Thus the philosopher Tatian began his Address to the Greeks. An Assyrian by birth who was living in Rome in the mid 2nd century AD, Tatian first joined a pagan mystery cult before encountering the Christian Bible. He later described his conversion to Christianity:

I happened to meet with certain barbaric writings, too old to be compared with the opinions of the Greeks, and too divine to be compared with their errors; and I was led to put faith in these by the unpretending east of the language, the inartificial character of the writers, the foreknowledge displayed of future events, the excellent quality of the precepts, and the declaration of the government of the universe as centred in one Being.[3]

As a result, Tatian jumped into the role of a cultural critic of the society that he once embraced. The Greeks saw themselves as the height of human civilization, but Tatian argued that many of their cultural and technological triumphs originated amongst the “barbarians” that 2nd century Greeks looked down on.

Cuneiform star chart from the Royal Library of Nineveh. From the British Museum in London.

Cuneiform star chart from the Royal Library of Nineveh. From the British Museum in London.

Where we can check Tatian’s claims many of them prove to be accurate. Babylonian astronomy is well known to pre-date Greek civilization by thousands of years. Mathematical texts show us that the Egyptians made numerous advances in geometry and were able to calculate volume, the area of a triangle, and may even have developed a basic understanding of the Pythagorean Theorem long before Pythagoras.[4] And all the alphabets in the world are descended from the writing system of the Canaanites and Phoenicians which developed in the 2nd millennium BC.

So, why dispute the ages of inventions with the Greeks? Tatian’s main argument was that Judaism, and by extension Christianity, pre-dated Greek paganism and was therefore more likely to be true. Moses, after all, pre-dated Homer, for no one could agree when Homer actually lived while the histories of the Babylonians and Phoenicians established the early date of the Jews.[5]

Furthermore, he argued that Greek paganism was not only a recent invention but also immoral:

Aristotle, who absurdly placed a limit to Providence and made happiness to consist in the things which give pleasure, quite contrary to his duty as a preceptor flattered Alexander, forgetful that he was but a youth; and he, showing how well he had learned the lessons of his master, because his friend would not worship him shut him up and and carried him about like a bear or a leopard He in fact obeyed strictly the precepts of his teacher in displaying manliness and courage by feasting, and transfixing with his spear his intimate and most beloved friend, and then, under a semblance of grief, weeping and starving himself, that he might not incur the hatred of his friends.[6]

Criticism of Alexander the Great as an egomaniac and a tyrant cannot have gone over well in 2nd century Greece, when the sophist movement had taken Alexander hagiography to new heights. Yet, it is easy to see that this was how Alexander was viewed by those “barbarian” inhabitants of the Near East who as a result of Alexander’s boundless ambition saw their cultures were overrun with Hellenism and governed by tyrannical self-proclaimed god-kings.

Saint-clement-of-alexandria

Clement of Alexandria

Such are the battle lines that Tatian drew through world history. In the west, there was pagan Greece, snotty elitists who followed a multitude of gods and were not really sure why. In the east, there were a multitude of cultures from the Egyptians to the Jews to Tatian’s own Assyrians whom  the Greeks looked down on as barbarians but who had invented civilization and possessed more ancient and correct philosophies for understanding the world.

Fifty years later, Clement of Alexandria advanced a similar argument partially based on Tatian’s work. His Stromata featured an even longer list of innovations often attributed to the Greeks which were actually invented by various barbarian peoples. Astrology? Oil lamps? The twelve-month calendar? Medicine? Geometry? Required bathing before entering temples? All of these were invented by the ancient Egyptians. The trireme, the archetypal Greek warship? That came from Sidon. Flutes, notes, and diatonic harmonies? Those came from Phrygia. Hair dye came from Colchis, boxing gloves from Bithynia, chariots from Persia, and stonecutting and alphabetic writing from Phoenicia.[7]

"We have heard that the Persians were the first who fashioned the chariot, and bed, and footstool; and the Sidonians the first to construct a trireme." -- Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 1.16.

“We have heard that the Persians were the first who fashioned the chariot, and bed, and footstool; and the Sidonians the first to construct a trireme.” — Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 1.16.

Furthermore, Clement argued that among the famous Greek philosophers “most of them were barbarians by extraction, and were trained among barbarians.” Pythagoras was a Tyrian or a Tuscan, and anyhow he studied in Egypt and with Persian Magi, and also consulted with Indian Brahmins. Antisthenes was a Phrygian. Thales was a Phoenician who studied under Egyptian priests. Plato studied under Sechneuphis of Heliopolis. Democritus, often called “the father of modern science,” studied in Babylon, Persia and Egypt to learn from the wisdom of all those great civilizations.[8]

We could debate how accurate this list is. Stonecutting definitely pre-dated Phoenician culture, our earliest known solar twelve-month calendar comes from Sumer instead of Egypt, and the chariot originated in Mesopotamia. On the other hand, the origin of the trireme in Phoenicia is given serious weight by naval historians and we have already discussed the Phoenician origins of the alphabet and Egyptian origins of geometry.[9] But that is beside the point. Why did these learned men of Greece travel to the East to sit at the feet of Magi, Brahmins and priests? Because the East had something to offer to the West. Clement sought to show that the east had its own rich traditions of philosophy:

Thus philosophy, a thing of the highest utility, flourished in antiquity among the barbarians, shedding its light over the nations. And afterwards it came to Greece. First in its ranks were the prophets of the Egyptians; and the Chaldeans among the Assyrians; and the Druids among the Gauls; and the Samanaeans among the Bactrians; and the philosophers of the Celts; and the Magi of the Persians, who foretold the Saviour’s birth, and came into the land of Judaea guided by a star. The Indian gymnosophists are also in the number, and the other barbarian philosophers. And of these there are two classes, some of them called Sarmanae;, and others Brahmins. And those of the Sarmanae; who are called Hylobii neither inhabit cities, nor have roofs over them, but are clothed in the bark of trees, feed on nuts, and drink water in their hands. Like those called Encratites in the present day, they know not marriage nor begetting of children.

Some, too, of the Indians obey the precepts of Buddha; whom, on account of his extraordinary sanctity, they have raised to divine honours.

There are also among the Germans those called sacred women, who, by inspecting the whirlpools of rivers and the eddies, and observing the noises of streams, presage and predict future events. These did not allow the men to fight against Caesar till the new moon shone.

Of all these, by far the oldest is the Jewish race; and that their philosophy committed to writing has the precedence of philosophy among the Greeks…very clearly the author Megasthenes, the contemporary of Seleucus Nicanor, writes as follows in the third of his books, On Indian Affairs: All that was said about nature by the ancients is said also by those who philosophise beyond Greece: some things by the Brahmins among the Indians, and others by those called Jews in Syria.[10]

Unlike Tatian, Clement’s purpose in writing was not to convince the West that they should adopt the wisdom of the East so much as to remind the East that they, too, had made valuable contributions to human knowledge. Philosophy and science were not the exclusive properties of any one culture, they were part of the shared human experience. Pythagoras, Zoroaster, Buddha, Democritus, Plato, Moses…all of these men had something to offer. Clement’s real fear was that eastern Christians would associate philosophy and science with Greco-Roman paganism and throw out everything associated with it:

Some, who think themselves naturally gifted, do not wish to touch either philosophy or logic; nay more, they do not wish to learn natural science. They demand bare faith alone, as if they wished, without bestowing any care on the vine, straightway to gather clusters from the first. Now the Lord is figuratively described as the vine, from which, with pains and the art of husbandry, according to the word, the fruit is to be gathered.

We must lop, dig, bind, and perform the other operations. The pruning-knife, I should think, and the pick-axe, and the other agricultural implements, are necessary for the culture of the vine, so that it may produce eatable fruit. And as in husbandry, so also in medicine: he has learned to purpose, who has practiced the various lessons, so as to be able to cultivate and to heal. So also here, I call him truly learned who brings everything to bear on the truth; so that, from geometry, and music, and grammar, and philosophy itself, culling what is useful, he guards the faith against assault. Now, as was said, the athlete is despised who is not furnished for the contest. For instance, too, we praise the experienced helmsman who has seen the cities of many men, and the physician who has had large experience; thus also some describe the empiric. And he who brings everything to bear on a right life, procuring examples from the Greeks and barbarians, this man is an experienced searcher after truth, and in reality a man of much counsel, like the touch-stone (that is, the Lydian), which is believed to possess the power of distinguishing the spurious from the genuine gold.[11]

Eventually Christianity, originating in the East, out-competed and conquered paganism while absorbing some of its fruits. The philosophical heritage of Plato and Aristotle was harnessed to defend Christian orthodoxy, just as Clement had desired. The Eastern church retained its mystics, while the Western church embraced reason as a tool for understanding God.

In the 2nd century, Tatian asked the Greeks “For which of your institutions has not been derived from the Barbarians?” In the 21st century, Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr responded to Saudi criticism of his country by exclaiming “Iraq is the cradle of civilization that taught humanity reading and writing, and some Bedouin riding a camel wants to teach us!” Clement may have proposed a way forward by recognizing all philosophy as a search for truth, but a search for truth does not remove basic aspects of human cultural identity. People will still take pride in their own culture’s accomplishments and compare them to other cultures. Arguments about who owns history, who invented what, and what culture contributed the most will go on forever. But as a side effect of the debate, one can hope that many people will take Clement of Alexandria’s message to heart and “bring everything to bear on the truth, culling what is useful.”

Part 1 – A Gallery of Inventions: Some Lesser Known Firsts from the Ancient Near East.
Part 2: More Inventions of the Ancient Near East

References:

[1] Tatian, Address to the Greeks, trans. by J.E. Ryland (http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tatian-address.html, accessed Jan. 27, 2013), 1.

[2] Tatian, Address to the Greeks, 29, 42; “Tatian,” The Catholic Encyclopedia (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14464b.htm).

[3] Tatian, Address to the Greeks, 29.

[4] Luke Mastin, “Egyptian Mathematics,” Story of Mathematics (http://www.storyofmathematics.com/egyptian.html); J.J. O’Connor and E.F. Robertson, “An Overview of Egyptian Mathematics,” (http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/HistTopics/Egyptian_mathematics.html); Marshall Claggett, Ancient Egyptian Science: A Sourcebook, Volume 3, Ancient Egyptian Mathematics (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1999), 196-197.

It must be noted that the Egyptians were concerned with practical mathematics. While they discovered Pythagorean triples, they did not formally describe an abstract theorem the way that Pythagoras did.

[5] Tatian, Address to the Greeks, 31, 36-39.

[6] Tatian, Address to the Greeks, 2.

[7] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, trans. by William Wilson, 1885, NewAdvent.org, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0210.htm (accessed July 5, 2011), 1.16.

[8] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 1.15.

[9] Peter James & Nick Thorpe, Ancient Inventions (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994), 489; H.T. Wallinga, Ships and Sea Power before the Great Persian War: The Ancestry of the Ancient Trireme (Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1993), 112-114.

[10] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 1.15.

[11] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 1.9.

Image Sources: (Banner) http://aleppocodex.org/aleppocodex.html; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Saint-clement-of-alexandria.jpeg (Body) Photo by Author © Christopher Jones 2012; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Saint-clement-of-alexandria.jpeg; http://ferrebeekeeper.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/a-trireme-in-new-york-harbor/

Article © Christopher Jones 2013.

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