The Greek historian Herodotus claimed that every country assumes its own beliefs and culture are superior to others. He felt that this was a natural inclination in the ancient world for it was common to believe that the Gods themselves had founded one’s nation. There are numerous examples of this phenomenon, especially when it came to the governing system, laws and codes of ethics that make up a civilization. This would also explain why the belief systems of ancient Egypt and Greece or the Old Testament are so different as each of these cultures were attempting to define themselves.
By examining texts that belong to each of these cultures, this paper will argue that Herodotus is correct in this claim about the societies that laid the foundations of the Western world being convinced that they were the best when it came to their social order and cohesion. One of the challenges in any country is the ability to create and enforce laws. This is imperative to building civilization as they lay down the foundations of society by establishing the parameters of what is right and wrong, the basic morals and ethics, along with the punishments for any transgressions.
Furthermore, it is difficult to get an entire country on board and therefore once this was achieved, a particular nation would feel like they have the best system. For example, Hammurabi, ruler of Babylon from 1792 to 1750 BC was responsible for unifying the Mesopotamian kingdom through a series of military conquest. Afterwards, he solidified his reign by establish a set of laws, built upon older laws, which are now considered the first set of legal codes in western history. The key was the impact of a written text on society, as this document would shape the actions of Mesopotamia’s elite and the interactions between its citizens, including the concept of an eye for an eye. We need to look no further than the first section, which outlines how to deal with accusations of sorcery and robbery or areas such as debt, wages, contracts, adultery, household/family relationships, divorce, private property, and false testimonies over grain and money. In some cases, transgressions are punishable by death and this was clear attempt by Hammurabi to maintain law and order, along with his reign. From this perspective, if anyone were to ask a citizen of Babylon about the belief system of their nation, they would respond that it came down from the great king Hammurabi in order to grow and development his kingdom. They would also see the Codes of Hammurabi as divinely ordained and essential to the unification and cohesion of their culture.
Western society is largely based on the idea of written laws, judges and punishment. Without them, there would be anarchy and therefore to introduce a set of laws is to basically an attempt to build a nation. This is why Hammurabi has become such an important historical figure for he is credited with enacting codes in order help Mesopotamian civilization prosper. The same applies to ancient Greece and the Spartan Constitution as established by Xenophon (430 to 354 BC). As an aristocrat from Athena, he had long favoured oligarchies over democracy and after serving as military leader for five years and leading an expedition against Persia, Xenophon returned to Greece to write about his experiences. While doing so, he would describe the traditions of the Spartans and why its political and legal systems were able to yield so much power. In the beginning of his text, Xenophon talks about Lycurgus, the individual responsible for establishing Spartan’s laws and how his wisdom helped separate this society from others and make it one of the prosperous in ancient times.
One of the first changes Lycurgus made was to empower local women by emphasizing motherhood and the physical health of women as a way of producing strong children and families. He also wanted women to lead the household and thus limited a man’s ability to choose a wife whenever they wanted. Furthermore, Xenophon credited Lycurgus with improving the local education system for boys by establishing ‘wardens’ from the highest office who would be responsible for educating and disciplining boys instead of slaves. He claimed that this process made Spartan boys more obedient and respectful with an ideal temperament. This education was accompanied by practices that encouraged their independence and built confidence through healthy competition. Overall, Lycurgus wanted to produce honourable citizens, and this started from young where they learned to obey the laws. In fact, Xenophon felt that these laws had produced the most powerful and popular city in Greece. It had contributed to their prosperity and this is why he embraced this specific type of government and methods for maintaining the social order.
A similar situation applies to Egyptian civilization, which like Mesopotamia believed strongly in its founding figures and divine laws. Perhaps, more than other society, Egypt was also obsessed the impact of magic and its role in daily society. As a major empire of the ancient world, it was confident in its place as the most prosperous nation and Egyptians would be quick to attribute the divine to this success. For example, its central text, the Book of the Dead, also known as the Book of Coming Forth by Day, was a funerary narrative of the New Kingdom (1500 BC to 50 BC). It is a collection of tales, magic spells, prayers and rites that helped dead ancestors make their journey to the Duat (afterlife/underworld). A group of local priests put together over two hundred chapters into a single text, with explicit instructions to use them in tombs and burial chambers. Furthermore, reading them shows that Egyptians had a strong sense of right and wrong, morality and ethical behaviour. This would explain the tributes to the ‘Lord of Justice’ and statements from the Book of the Dead about not committing any evil such as murder, theft blasphemy and violence.
There are also commentaries about honouring the gods and remaining pure as a way pleasing the Duat that the Egyptians felt was based on justice. This implied that the Egyptian gods were concerned with fairness and that the key to the success of their civilization was to promote a just society. Like the Book of the Dead, the Torah was an essential text for Judaic culture because Moses wrote it during his encounter with Yahweh around the 14/13th century BC. It tells the story of the Jewish people, from their bondage in Egypt to crossing the Red Sea and wondering the desert until they found their promised land. Along the way, Moses established the tabernacle and covenant, which includes the Ten Commandments that became the foundation of Judaeo-Christian ethics. For this reason, the books of the Old Testament became the moral/ethical basis of a new society that its citizen’s felt was ordained by God. For example, these ancient texts establish Moses as the lawgiver who was directed to liberate his people, find new land and re-establish their relationship with the divine order. Verses like “You should have no other Gods before me” or “Remember the Sabbath” along with “You shall not steal and you shall no bear false witness against me” are just a few lines in the Old Testament describing how to maintain law and order in society.
The point is that like the Code of Hammurabi, the Book of the Dead or the Spartan Constitution, the Old Testament is a text designed to bring structure and establish the foundations of ethical and legal behaviour. As a result, it is a document that formed the basis of Jewish society and one that Jewish people felt made their belief system and laws superior to others. Since it connected this group to God and fulfilled the will of the divine, it was natural for them to assume their culture was the best; something that was very common in the ancient world. Going back to Herodotus and after examining these important documents, we can see why all nations from the past felt they had the most ideal society. They each had a strong belief in the text that formed the basis of their nation while providing them with the necessary instructions to thrive and prosper. The key was how these documents establish a sense of law and order by establishing a set of rules that everyone was expected to follow.
They were needed for social cohesion and unity as well, making them critical to the well-being of society as a whole. This would also explain why those who lived in antiquity had a bias towards their own beliefs and why Herodotus is correct in his statement. Furthermore, these documents are important for their writers became highly influential personages of history and their content helped form the basis of western civilization. In fact, the history surrounding these documents and their impact on the countries that produced them form the foundations of Western history. Therefore, to understand the influence of these ancient text on the citizens of the ancient world is to understand the forces that came together to create the West as we know it.
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