In the traditions of the Indigenous Australian peoples, their ancestors were created with the land, at the dawn of what is called the Dreamtime, the Dreaming or Alterjinga.
Science tells it a little differently. The original ancestors of the people now known as the Australian Aboriginals emigrated to Australia at some point between 40,000 and 120,000 years ago. Due to the wide variation of dates, it is unclear whether they arrived here after a sea crossing, or via a landbridge now submerged. It is not known where they first set foot in Australia, nor how many separate waves of migration occurred.
What is for certain is that these people dwelt in Australia with little or no contact with the rest of the world (the Macassar fishing fleets being one of the few exceptions), for thousands of years before European settlement in 1788. Whether or not one accepts the Dreamtime legend, there remains an undeniable case for considering them to be the traditional owners of the land, displaced and disenfranchised by European imperialism.
Gilgamesh is the title character of one of the oldest known literary works, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates from approximately 2150 BCE. The most complete surviving version of the Epic was recorded on twelve clay tablets in the library of Ashurbanipal, a later Mesopotamian king.
Gilgamesh was the fifth king of Uruk, an early Sumerian realm that encompassed what is now Kuwait and southern Iraq. His parentage was partially divine – he was two thirds god and one third man. As a result of this, he was abnormally strong and long-lived – some sources describe him as immortal. He seems to have been based on actual historical figure, and several details in the Epic appear to derive from historical figures who were his contemporaries. However, despite his reality, it is unlikely that he reigned for the 126 years attributed to him by Sumerian historians.
Gilgamesh was the king of Uruk for many years, but was not well-loved by his subjects, as he was an oppressive ruler, who insisted of the privilege of sleeping with the young women of the city on their wedding nights. The goddess Arura, seeking to humble Gilgamesh, created a man named Enkidu, who was his opposite in all ways: wild where he was civilised.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu became fast friends, and the two journeyed together from Uruk to the Cedar Forest, where they faced and slew Humbaba. Later, after the gods slew Enkidu, Gilgamesh pleaded for his return, and later journeyed to the underworld to rescue him. Gilgamesh prays to the gods to restore Enkidu’s life, and moved by his humility, they accede.
Sargon the Great became the king of Akkad by murdering his predecessor. As king, he led a military conquest of Mesopotamia and neighbouring regions, covering modern Iraq and Kuwait, as well of parts of Iran, Arabia and even Anatolia and Syria, reaching all the way to the Mediterranean coast of the latter. This was the first centrally-controlled multi-ethnic empire in world history.
Sargon’s origin, much like that of Julius Caesar, has been mythologised. In particular, there is a portion of it that describes him as being set adrift upon a river in a basket woven of rushes – a tale strikingly similar to that of Moses (as described in Exodus), and predating the Book of Exodus by around two centuries.
The first ruler of the Akkadian empire, which covered most of Mesopotamia by the time he was done, Sargon was also the builder of Babylon (which is probably his most lasting mark on history). Sargon’s reign lasted for 56 years, an impressively long figure by the standards of his era.
In Sargon’s later years, much of the conquered territories rose in rebellion, seeing his old age as weakness. Sargon proved them decisively wrong, restoring his rule with considerable bloodshed and brutality. Sargon’s death led to another round of rebellions, naturally, but the Akkadian Empire lived on for nearly another century.
Hammurabi is perhaps the best-remembered king of Babylon’s first dynasty. Although he was the sixth of that house, he was the first one to actually be called a king, largely as a result of his military victories, Aside from the simple fact of his kingship, his greatest claim to fame is the Code of Hammurabi.
One of the oldest known written codes of law in the world, it predates Mosaic law (i.e. the Bible) by centuries, and was a direct influence on that code. The code consists of 282 individual laws, and states the punishments for each infraction. The law was revolutionary in three aspects:
It was written in the common tongue (Akkadian, in this case) so that any literate citizen could read it.
It standardised punishments, ensuring that the law was consistent (albeit rather harsh by modern standards – it is also one of the earliest known examples of the “eye for an eye” principle, which appears to have been intended to limit vengeance to an equitable level.).
It is one of the earliest known examples of the presumption of innocence, a cornerstone of our modern legal system today, and required that both sides provide evidence to substantiate their claims.
As a result of Hammurabi’s pivotal role in the history of the law, his likeness is often found in courts and parliaments, as a famed law-giver. In many such depictions, he is the earliest historical figure shown.
Hammurabi was born in 1792 BCE and became the sixth king of Babylon that same year when his father abdicated. He ruled for his entire life (presumably with a regency at first), and despite the war town nature of Mesopotamia in that era, he is best known for the relative peace of his reign, his public works programs and, of course, his legal code, which is the earliest known one.
When he died, at the ripe old age of 42, he had also expanded the borders of his kingdom enormously, leaving his own son a realm that was more than six times the size of the city state he had inherited, one that stretched from the shores of the Persian Gulf to Mari, hundreds of miles up the Euphrates.
Tutankhamun, the boy king, was considerably less important in history than his prominence in our time would indicate. The boy king died at just the age where he could actually start to rule in his own name, apparently killed by those who had run the kingdom in his name since the death of his controversial father.
Akhenaten, the father of Tut and his predecessor as pharoah, had attempted to reform Egypt’s religion, turning from the traditional pantheon of deities headed by Osiris and Isis to a more monotheistic worship of the sun god Aten. Like his son, he too seems to have been murdered, and the major events of Tutankhamun’s reign aside from his coronation and death concerned the rolling back of his father’s changes and the re-establishment of the traditional priest class’ rulership of the kingdom.
The best known of all of the Egyptian Pharoahs, largely due to the sensational circumstances of his tomb’s discovery in 1924. At the time he was placed in it, Tutankhamun is believed to have been about 18 years old, and to have been Pharoah for about a decade. His age has led many to speculate that he may have been assassinated by his regents, who wished to keep power and legally would not be able to do so once the Boy King reached adulthood.
However, recent research points at a combination of diseases (chiefly malaria, which he seems to have suffered from several times in his short life) and congenital defects (most likely due to the inbreeding that was common in many pharaonic dynasties) as the actual cause of his death – although the political advantages remain the same regardless of the cause.
At least, according to the calculations of Eratosthenes, it ended on this date.
You know the story: Paris and Helen, Menelaus and Agamemnon, Hector and Achilles, Ulysses and a huge wooden horse. Ten years of war before the walls of Troy, ended finally by gambling on a deception.
In the end, the Greeks swept in, destroying the city and leaving very few survivors. Legend holds that some of them went to Carthage, and then to found Rome; another group of survivors founded London. Being descended from a Trojan was like the first millennium equivalent of being descended from convicts in Australia is today – it was thought cool.
When Ashurbanipal inherited the throne of Assyria from his father, Esarhaddon, he also inherited the war between Assyria and the alliance of Egypt and Nubia. Ashurbanipal was a etter general and king than his father, and defeated the Egyptians handily in a series of battles. By 660 BCE, he ruled almost all of the Middle East with the exception of southern Arabia.
Ashurbanipal was renowned for his cruelty to his defeated enemies. It was not enough to take their lands and sell them into slavery (although he did that too), Ashurbanipal was notorious for the sadism and brutality of his tortures – and this in an age where torture was considered more or less normal. Perhaps because of this, he was the last strong ruler of Assyria.
Legend says that he was the only king of Assyria who ever learned to read or write. Be that as it may, it is known that Ashurbanipal gathered one of the world’s greatest libraries of cuneiform tablets in his palace at Nineveh. However, although he was apparently unusually literate, Ashurbanipal was also an unusually cruel king (which is saying something, since Assyria was noted as an unusually cruel realm even in its barbarous day).
When Ashurbanipal died in 627 BCE, strife was already rising in Assyria, and outright civil war soon broke out – in less than two decades after his death, the Neo-Assyrian Empire over which he had ruled – and which had lasted three centuries by that time – was gone, never to returned, subsumed into the Persian Empire and its successor states.
So guess what, it turns out that 300 was actually based on a true story…
…but you know that, of course. The Battle of Thermopylae was fought between the invasion forces of Persia under Xerxes I, which numbered about 200,000 or so, and an alliance of Greek forces under Leonidas I of Sparta. The Greeks held a narrow pass – the Thermopylae, or “Hot Gates” – that formed a natural choke point. (Indeed, as recently as 1941, it was used in a similar way by Greek and British Commonwealth forces to slow the Nazi advance.)
On the third day of the battle, the Greek forces realised that they were on the verge of being out-flanked by the Persians. The Phocian contingent, who guarded the passes, withdrew. Leonidas ordered his 300 members of the Spartan Royal Guard to stand and fight, and advised the rest of his allies to withdraw also.
700 Thespians, 400 Thebans, and assorted others, including Spartan helots, also stayed. Although the Greeks lost the battle, the larger strategic victory was theirs: they had slowed the Persian advance into Greece, allowing time for other forces to gather, and although 2000 men were lost on the Greek side, they inflicted casualties ten times that number upon the invaders.