Ancient-history phases

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Several ancient histories follow a schema of three ages or epochs or phases, with no clear dividing lines between them:

  1. Gods and creation
  2. Legendary heroes
  3. Ordinary people

Gods often meddle with heroes, and heroes often found cities and dynasties and the like.

Here are examples:


In the Sumerian King List, after monarchy descended from Heaven, the first kings reigned for a few tens of thousands of years, and then the Flood happened. After that, the kings started reigning for less and less time, declining to the normal reign lengths of the latest kings. One can see an echo of this in the long-lived heroes of the earlier chapters of the Book of Genesis in the Bible.


Manetho's history of Egypt starts out with it being ruled by various deities, then soon gets into human rulers -- a very large number of them.

Greek Mythology

Greek mythology fits that pattern fairly well, though it lacks an overall chronology. It starts with the creation of the Universe (Hesiod's Theogony) and continues with the adventures of various heroes. After the Trojan War, we start getting more ordinary sorts of leaders, and eventually, well-documented history.

History of Rome

Rome's history starts out with Romulus founding the city, its Senate and its army. Romulus was described as the son of a god and a virgin, he mysteriously disappeared in a storm, and he briefly returned to assure Rome's citizens that the Gods intend for them to rule the world and that they should go out and conquer it (Livy, History of Rome).

Rome was then ruled by some very virtuous kings, starting with Numa Pompilius, who set up Rome's calendar and some of Rome's religious rites. Rome's last king was a bad one, Tarquinius Superbus, whose overthrowers founded the Roman Republic.

Romulus was clearly first phase, and Numa Pompilius first or second phase, with Tarquinius Superbus and his overthrowers being second or third phase. When we start getting lots of inscriptions, we are already into the Republic; there are only a few pre-Republic ones.

Ancient China

China's history also fits that pattern fairly well, starting out with various creation stories, and continuing with the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. The first of those emperors was the Yellow Emperor or Huang Di, who invented the Chinese calendar and Chinese traditional medicine, whose wife invented collecting silk from silkworms, and whose chronicler invented Chinese writing. Huang Di's conception was announced with a thunderclap in a clear sky.

They were followed by the Xia Dynasty, and then by the Shang Dynasty; the first Chinese inscriptions are in the later part of the Shang Dynasty.

The Old Testament

The Old Testament fits the pattern fairly well also. It starts off with God creating the Universe and continues with God doing such things as making a big flood, making people speak different languages at the Tower of Babel, and destroying Sodom and Gomorrah. But at that point, the interest starts shifting to human heroes like Lot and Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses, going from the first phase into the second phase.

After not doing very much for a while, God starts meddling again, helping out Moses by sending the Ten Plagues of Egypt, drowning the pursuing Egyptian army, revealing a law code to him, and raining manna on him. But God slacks off again; the most he does is to stop the Sun and the Moon for Joshua. The interest continues to be focused on human heroes like Joshua, various Judges people, Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon. With the breakup of Solomon's kingdom, we get the Dual Monarchy, which is third phase -- and which is where we start getting a good archeological record.

Early Christian History

Early Christian History also fits that schema. The first phase is Jesus Christ, the second phase is the apostles, like Peter and Paul, and the third phase is ordinary churchmen.

Modern Ideas

Tthe idea of lowly origins is a modern one; it is rare in premodern histories. Also modern is a sort of evolutionary rather than creationist view, the idea of a community or a society growing rather than being created by some lawgiver or founder figure. Premodern histories often feature founder figures, legendary lawgivers, and culture heroes, usually in their god and hero phases.

That is not to say that there are no well-documented people who may plausibly qualify as community creators or great lawgivers. Some revolutionaries, like the American and Russian ones, may qualify, and also such leaders as Sheikhs Maktoum and Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The latter gentlemen had led the transformation of Dubai from a small fishing village to a major commercial center and Las Vegas imitation.

Shyness Effect

Around 1750, philosopher David Hume noted in Of Miracles that miracles are largest and most common in out-of-the-way places that are far from good documenters. The god and hero phases of ancient histories show a similar shyness effect. They almost always occur out of the sight of literate contemporaries. There aren't any contemporary chroniclers of Romulus or Achilles or Moses or Huang Di or the like whose accounts of them have survived independently of the canonical accounts of them.

However, there are some almost-exceptions, cases where documenters were in the neighborhood of these events, even if not exactly at the site.

The Israelite Exodus

This is the biggest one; it was described as occurring in New Kingdom Egypt. However, there is no record of a large population of Israelite slaves in Egypt or their departure. The closest thing to Israelites was the Hyksos, who had ruled northern Egypt at the beginning of the New Kingdom period. The Exodus account at least possibly contains very garbled memories of the Hyksos and their expulsion as told by the Hyksos themselves and later dramatized and exaggerated. Hyksos expeller Pharaoh Ahmose's name sounds like "Brother of Moses" in Hebrew, which more-or-less fits. Later storytellers would then have filled in a lot of the blanks of the story, like who was Moses.

The Red Sea or Reed Sea was possibly a big marsh near Eilat, one where the Egyptians likely quit pursuing and went home. A marsh so large that it seemed like a sea of reeds. An alternative is some cove smaller than the Red Sea where a Tsunami happened, the Israelites got across during the early stage when the waters receded and because they were in a hurry they did not stay long. The Israelites were lucky and got across before the waters came back but the Egyptians were not so lucky.

Early Rome

According to Marcus Terentius Varro's calculation, Romulus founded Rome in 753 BCE. Though that has become the canonical date, some other Romans had found 745 BCE (Ab urbe condita). Turning to archeology, the oldest inscription in the Latin language is the Forum Inscription from around 550 BCE (Old Latin), two centuries later. However, Rome had some nearby literate contemporaries, the Etruscans and the Greek colonists (Colonies in antiquity). Etruscan has only a fragmentary survival, while Greek has a literary tradition that continues to the present. Greece became literate a second time in the 8th cy. BCE, and Greeks started founding colonies elsewhere in the Mediterranean, and also in the Black Sea. The first nearby Greek colony was Pithecusae on the island of Ischia near Naples, Founded in the 8th cy. BCE. Cumae was founded on the nearby mainland not long after, though Naples itself (Neapolis, "New Town", originally Parthenope) was founded in the 6th cy. BCE. Naples is about 220 km / 140 mi from Rome, and the Greek colonists in that area were the first Greeks that Romans contacted. So might some Greek living there have written about Rome back then? Possibly, though not much survives from the Greek colonies.

Mycenaean Greece

It had some literate neighbors, though more distant ones: the Hittite Empire and New-Kingdom Egypt. The Hittite Empire had ruled the interior of Anatolia, and some Hittites refer to a kingdom to their west called Ahhiyawa. Besides the phonetic similarity to Mycenaean Greek *Akhaiwoi (Achaeans), we don't have much on them in the surviving documents.

Likewise, the Egyptians mentioned Keftiu and the "islands in the Great Green" (the Mediterranean Sea), and depicted visitors from there, but they did not say much more.

Mycenaeans themselves had been literate, though their surviving documents are entirely bookkeeping records. There were no monuments or tablets or stelae with inscriptions on them or even vase paintings with annotations on them. That is worth mentioning because there are numerous annotated vase paintings from later centuries. Their writing system, Linear B, disappeared with the Mycenaean palace society in the "Sea Peoples" strife around 1200 BCE, further consistent with its very limited use.

Who first pointed this out?

It has been difficult to discover who first pointed it out. Can anyone find out more?

This article was originally at the Beacon Library (now defunct).

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