How the Kushan Empire Spread Buddhism Via the Silk Road

Episode 6: Kushans, Sacae and the Silk Road

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

In this lecture Harl describes how the Tocharians, under pressure from the Xiongnu (who were under pressure from China) pushed the Sacae to migrate west and south.

Harl believes the Sacae were present on the central steppes from the beginning of the Iron Age (900-600 BC) and likely domesticated the Bactrian camel used on the Silk Road. The Sacae had a close trading relationship with both Sogdiana**  and Bactria (with its dense settled cities) in Transoxiana. The latter was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 BC. Alexander’s successors set up a Greek kingdom in Bactria that issued Greek coins and relied on trade with Sacae nomads for its prosperity.

In 145 BC the Sacae began migrating from the central steppes into Transoxiana, sacking cities and torching fields as far east as the Greek cities Alexander the Great founded in India.

The Tocharian-speaking Kushans are discussed at length in India’s ancient Buddhist texts. We know a little about their emperors from the coins they issued and the Rabatak Inscription erected by the Kushan emperor Kanishka (127-147 AD). In addition to likenesses of their emperors, Kushan coins feature a variety of Greek, Hindu and ancient Persian gods.

The Kushan, largely responsible for extending the Silk Road into India, eventually conquered and controlled the Indus Valley and the western part of the Tarim Basin. Their construction of Indus Valley cities and Buddhist monasteries led to the translation of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into vernacular languages. This, in turn, led to the spread of Buddhism along the Silk Road into Central Asia.

The Kushan are also well known for their art, which is a composite of Greek and Indian styles. Although they were tolerant of all religions, the Kushan were great patrons of Buddhism and the first to produce images of Buddha in human form.

*The Yeuctzi, a nomad tribe just north of China, maintained a cavalry of 100,000 – 200,000 mounted archers. It was this tribe the Han dynasty sought to ally with in their battles with the Xiongu.

**Sogdiana was an ancient Iranian civilization in present-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan known for both cultivated farmlands and Silk Road caravan cities.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

Mesopotamia: The Third Dynasty of Ur


Episode 11: Ur III, Household Accounts and Zyggurats

Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization

Dr Amanda H Podany

Film Review

The Third Dynasty of Ur lasted between 2112 and 2004 BC. It’s renowned for the 120,000 written tablets it left behind, shared among 545 contempory museums.

Its residents created dozens of new tablets everyday, recording the receipt and distribution of all economic goods, as well as all worker payments and taxes paid. Types of workers included soldiers, farmers, artisans, administrators, scribes and priests/priestesses. Ur III employed many immigrant workers, including Amarites, Martu and Indus Valley natives,

King Ur-Namma built the first large central government after the fall of the Arkaddian Empire. By 2100 BC, military rulers were already using the phony language of “liberating” the kingdoms they conquered. They portrayed themselves as “kind shepherds” whose main motivation was to protect conquered peoples from other powerful institutions that might exploit them.

Ur-Namma’s Law Code included specific provisions to protect orphans, widows and the indebted. It also prescribed specific penalties for criminal behavior. Homicide was punished with death, and a man who divorced his first ranking wife was required to pay her 60 shekels of silver. This Law Code was based on legal precedents from well-established law courts in existence for centuries.

During his reign, Ur-Namma also standardized weights and measures, the calendar, the size of bricks and norms of building construction. He also commissioned giant pyramid-shaped temples called zygurrats and massive royal tombs. It’s estimated that 1000 laborers worked for five months to complete the first story of one of Ur-Namma’s zygurrats. Under the Ur III dynasty, temples continued to to farm large plots of land and run community workshops producing leather, wool, and boats.

Mesopotamia was very decentralized during this time. Provincial governors, who lived in smaller palaces, also ran workshops to meet the material needs of their communities. The king allowed generals to run their own armies, rather than the king. Twenty merchants in Umma controlled nearly all the trade. They oversaw the import of copper and gold from Magan (modern day Oman). They also provided credit, especially to farmers, in the form of seed grain or silver.

The Ur III dynasty had political control over Susa (west of the Euprhates in modern day Iran) and princesses of Ur sere sent to marry Elamite princes.

The film can be viewed free with a library card at Kanopy.

Mesopotamia: Arts and Gods in the Akkadian Empire

NumisBids: Classical Numismatic Group ...

Akkadian cylinder seals were one inch tall and when rolled out on clay tablet documents left a distinctive identifying image (used in lieu of a signature)

Episode 10: Akkadian Empire Arts and Gods

Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization

Dr Amanda H Podany

Film Review

Third millenium BC clay tablets from Agade, the capitol of the Akkadian Empire, claim the city was as filled with gold and silver and that granaries were used to store copper, lead and slabs of lapis lazuli. Except for silver, these materials, along with tin and diorite (a mineral used in sculpture) were imported from Dilmun, in modern day Bahrain. Pearls, carnelian, silver, elephants, monkeys and water buffaloes were imported from the Indus Valley.

As animists, Akkadians believed all forces of nature (including non-living entities such as rocks) were alive and manifested as gods. All sculpture was focused around the gods and the royal family and most art was limited to jewelry, rich textiles, cylinder seals and other luxury goods for the ruling elite.

Sculpture became more naturalistic during this period, in part due to technological innovations that allowed sculptors to carve figures in wax to create a clay mold that could be filled with molten (arsenic)* bronze.

Akkadians believed their statues embodied a life force incorporating the essence of the subject’s soul. For this reason, the multiple statues kings erected in distant settlements were believed to have the same authority as the king himself. Many statues dating from the Empire are missing heads, as decapitating a statue was felt to destroy its power. Likewise praying to the statue of a god was comparable to praying to the god or goddess themselves.

Although most people were illiterate, creation myths and other god-related mythology related to the life of the gods began to be written down in Akkadia. Apprentice scribes learned to write by copying these myths in special schools.

The world’s first self-identified author, Enheduanna (daughter of King Sargon) dates from this time. A high priestess of the moon god, she wrote (and signed) hymns used in worship.

*With arsenic bronze, arsenic was added to copper instead of tin to make it harder and more durable.

Film can be viewed free with library card on Kanopy.

Mesopotamia: The Collapse of the Akkadian Empire

Episode 9: The Fall of Akkad and Gudea of Lagash

Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization

Dr Amanda H Podany

Film Review

In 2150 BC, the Akkadian Empire collapsed and broke into smaller kingdoms. Its fall is blamed on the sacking of the capitol Agade by hordes of Gutian nomads from the Zagros mountains to the west.

Some historians believe a severe drought affecting northern Mesopotamia around 2200-1900 BC triggered numerous empires to collapse, including the Old Kingdom in Egypt, the Harappan civilization in the Indus valley and numerous states in the Aegean Region and southern Levant.

With the collapse of the Akkadian empire, the Gutians established their own state in northern Mesopotamia.

Unlike Egypt, Mesopotamia consisted of separate city-states for much of its history, and life changed very little for its southern residents after the Akkadian empire broke up. Many southern city-states had retained their own kings under the oversight of the Akkadian king. Also the drought was less severe in the south, resulting in less disruption from crop failure.

Following the collapse, the Second Dynasty of Lagash came to power in the kingdom’s capitol city Girsu. Gudea, the founder of the Second Dynasty, reigned from 2144-2124 BC and is extremely well known to modern scholars. Calling himself “governor” rather than “king,” Gudea is renowned both for his humility and his commitment to looking after his subjects. He protected women and orphans, freed people from debt and allowed women to inherit property. He engaged in only one military campaign in his entire reign.

His kingdom is believed to have been extremely rich, based on the E-ninnu Temple he built to the warrior god Ningirsu in the capitol city. Black wood from the Indus Valley was used in its construction, as well as gold, bitumen and lapis lazuli from other Near East countries.

Gudea also commissioned buildings in Ur, Nipur and Uruk, which means they must have been part of his kingdom.

Many stone statues of Gudea persist to the present day. The metal statues of other kings were melted down after their dynasties left power.

The son of Gudea was overthrown by the Third Dynasty of Ur.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

Akkadia: The World’s First Empire

Episode 8: Lugalgagesi of Umma and Sargon of Kish

Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization

Dr Amanda H Podany

Film Review

This lecture concerns Mesopotamia’s most famous kings, Lugalgagesi of Umma and Sargon of Kish. Umma continued to have border wars with the city-state of Lagash (see
Mesopotamia’s First Kings/) for several centuries. Around 2350 BC, Lugalgagesi totally sacked Lagash, burning its temples, destroying its treasury and barley fields belonging to one of the temples.

After sacking Lagash, Lugalgagesi declared himself ruler of all the land between the Upper Sea (Mediterranean) and the Lower Sea (Persian Gulf). However in reality, he only controlled a confederation of six southern Mesopotamian city-states: Lagash, Umma, Uruk, Larson, Ur and Zabalam.

King Sargon of Kish* ended Lugalgagesi’s reign in 2334 BC after conquering the cities Lugalgagesi controlled and establishing the Akkadian empire (the world’s first).

The exploits of both kings were recorded in cuneiform script on clay tablets (in both Sumerian and Akkadian**). It was during this period that scribes began using cuneiform to record historical narratives (especially those of kings) as well as for keeping records of transactions.

Sargon is best known for establishing a well-functioning bureaucracy to govern the captured city-states, standardizing the writing system and establishing direct trade links with Dilman (modern day Bahrain) and the Indus Valley.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

*Like Moses, Sargon was the secret son of a princess who floated him down the river in a reed basket. He was rescued by a different queen who raised him as her own child.

**The wealthy elite of the Akkadian empire spoke both languages.

How Alexander’s Conquests Perpetuated Global Greek Influence

Pyrrho of Elis Founds Dogmatic Skepticism - Global Firsts ...

Episode 23: Alexander’s Conquests and Hellensim

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

In this lecture, Benjamin explores how Alexander’s father, Phillip II transformed Macedonia from a rustic outpost to a cosmopolitan kingdom that captured military control of the entire Greek peninsula.

At 21, Alexander assumed the throne following his father’s assassination. A brilliant military strategist, in 334 BC Alexander marched east to conquer Persia and south to conquer Egypt (332 BC). After receiving a rapturous reception for ending Persian occupation, he appointed his boyhood friend Ptolemy to the Egyptian throne and marched into Mesopotamia, the economic heart of the Persian empire.

After conquering Samarkand (modern day Afghanistan) in 329 BC, he crossed the Hindu Kush mountains via the Kyber Pass into the Indus Valley. Although his troops rebelled against a further military push into India (327 BC), the limited excursion successfully opened India to Greek cultural and economic influence.

He withdrew from India to take up residence in Nebuchadnessar II’s palace in Babylon. He died at age 33 from excessive feasting and drinking.

Over the next 50 years, his generals divided up the massive Hellenistic empire he had created. Benjamin believes most modern day Greek influence stems from the half dozen or so Greek cities Alexander established and the generals who succeeded him. Alexandria in Egypt is an excellent example, with its large ethnically diverse population, its major sea trade and its stellar intelligentsia centered around the Alexandrian library.*

Major inventions stemming from this period include gears, screws, rotary mills, the water clock, the water organ, the torsion catapult, a chart to find prime numbers and pneumatics (the use of steam to operate machines and toys). The latter technology would vanish from human culture for 2,000 years until 1763 when James Watts invented the modern steam engine.

Benjamin identifies three major Greek philosophies arising during this period: epicureanism, stoicism and skepticism. The epicureans believed the greatest good was to seek modest, sustainable pleasure by understanding how the world works and limiting desires. The stoics believed that because so aspects of life are beyond human control, happiness is best achieved by aiming for moderation in all things. The skeptics taught that absolute knowledge is impossible.

Over time most Greek-controlled regions gained independence, including Bactria (Afghanistan), Persia and Egypt. Around 250 BC, the Greek city-states regained independence briefly prior to Roman conquest 100 years later. In Egypt, the Ptolemy dynasty ruled until 33 BC, when Egypt fell to Roman rule following Cleopatra’s suicide.

*The Alexandrian library was destroyed by fire either by Julius Caesar (accidentally) in 48 BC, by the Roman emperor Aurelian in 275 AD, or the emperor Theodosius in 391 AD during his campaign to destroy all the empire’s pagan sites.

The film can be viewed free on Kanopy with a library card.

The Prehistory of India

Pin on Re

Episode 13 South Asian Civilizations and Beliefs

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

Benjamin begins this lecture around 1500 BC, when Indo-Aryans from northern Asia invaded the Indus Valley civilization. They battled with indigenous Dravidians for 500 years. Eventually they abandoned their nomadic way of life for a sedentary lifestyle, assuming control of most of India as a new ruling elite.

The Rig Veda, a sacred text of the Hindu religion, comes out of this period. From 1000 BC on, the population of India was divided into four varas (Sanskrit for color):*

  • Brahmans – priests
  • Kshartryas – nobles and warriors
  • Varshyas – artisans and merchants (ie commoners)
  • Sidras – serfs

“Untouchables,” the fifth vara was added later. “Untouchables” performed unclean work and touched dead animals (tanners and butchers).

In the 7th century BC, a radical Brahman sect emerged that embraced mysticism, yogic meditation and reincarnations. They recorded their teachings in the Upanishads. Jainism and Buddhism emerged about a century later.

Jainism, which teaches that all living beings (including plants and insects) have a soul and forbids any form of violence. The Jains rejected caste systems and lived extremely ascetic lives.

Buddhism, founded by Siddhārtha Gautama during the 6th century BE, also rejected caste systems but were less ascetic than the Jaines. Initially more a philosophy than a religion, Buddhism teaches that renouncing desire and rampant ambition is the only way to end human suffering. Because Siddhārtha and his disciples taught in local dialects, rather than Sanskrit, his teachings quickly spread throughout India, China, Japan, Korea and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Eventually the entire Indus Valley was broken up into city-states, with each having its own maharaja (king).  Villages surrounding the city-states were self governing with elected village committees.

Women had virtually no rights. They could only be in public with a male protector and were were forbidden to participate in religious life (except as nuns). After 500 BC, widows were expected to practice Suti (ie leaping into their husband’s funeral pyre).

Between 522 and 486 BC, the Persians expanded their empire into the Indus Valley and occupied much of modern day Pakistan.

Alexander the Great liberated the Indus Valley when he conquered Persia. Once Alexander withdrew (322 BC), Chandragupta Maurya united most northern India city-states into a single state. The Mauryan empire engaged in irrigation agriculture, manufacturing, road construction, timber harvesting, cattle breeding and inter-indregional trade.

Following the death of Chandragupta’s son Ashoka in 232 BC, the Mauryan empire began to decline. It collapsed in 185 BC, with northern and southern India breaking into separate regional city-states.

*After the Portuguese colonized India in the 16th century, the word “caste” was adopted from the Portuguese word “castas”)

The film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy

The Mysterious Indus Valley Civilization

Everything you need to know about Indus Valley Civilization

Episode 11: Early Mediterranean Civilizations

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

Benjamin attributes the immense success of early Indus Valley civilization (located in modern day Pakistan and northern India) to a uniquely positive environment. The recurrent flooding of the Indus and Ganges rivers by seasonal monsoons created a flood plain with the richest alluvial* deposits in the world. This combined with the natural protection the Himalayas provided against invasion.

According to archeological evidence, grain cultivation began as early as 7000 BC and cotton domestication by 5000 BC. A tripling of the population between 3000 and 2500 BC led to rapid urbanization, gradually progressing from villages to towns to cities. A written language, consisting of roughly 400 symbols, developed. It has never been deciphered.

The two biggest Indus Valley cities were Harappa and Marenjo-Davo. Around 2300 BC, they each had 40,000 inhabitants each. Both produced exceptional pottery, sophisticated street layouts, drainage systems, multistoried buildings, marketplaces, indoor bathing facilities and toilets, and pipes to carry wastes. The cities collected grain (wheat, millet and barley) surpluses as a form of tax, which they stored in granaries.

From early on, Indus Valley cities and towns engaged in a vigorous maritime trade with Persia, Central Asia and Mesopotamia. By 2000 BC, they were also trading with Africa, Persia and the Arabian Peninsula. With Mesopotamia, they traded copper, ivory and pearls for wool, leather and olive oil. With Persia they traded semi-precious stones for gold, silver and copper.

Although the growth of the international trade led to the emergence of social classes, there is no evidence they they formed powerful kingdoms or engaged in military warfare. The richest residents lived in mutistoried homes with large courtyards, while the poor were crowded into one-room tenements. Society was extremely patriarchal. Unlike Sumer, under the code of Hammurabi, and Egypt, women had no legal rights no public life outside the home.

After 1900 BC, Indus Valley civilization began to decline (possibly due to deforestation, climate change, or epidemic malaria or cholera) and the cities were gone by 1500 BC. There is evidence of major migration of Indo-Aryan into the area starting around 1800 BC. It’s unclear where a major invasion took place or if the Indo-Aryans were gradually assimilated into the original Dravidian population.

*Alluvial deposits are nutrient rich sand and soil left behind by rivers and floods.

The film can be viewed free on Kanopy.