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November 03, 2005

Asia Minor

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I just finished the final tape of Kenneth Harl's lecture series "Great Ancient Civilizations of Asia Minor," which qualifies as one of my Teaching Company favorites. The series is a history of the region we now think of as Turkey, from prehistoric times to around 1400. Talk about a crossroads of civilizations: Asia, Greece and Rome, the empires of the Middle East, the Tigris-Euphrates civilizations, and whoever was calling Asia Minor home collided and collaborated in the area.

I was very happy to learn something about the Persian Empire, which to me had never been anything but the mysterious bully that was always threatening and failing to crush Greece. In fact, according to Harl, Persia was one of the most benign and appealing of the major empires; part of the reason the Persians were flummoxed by the Greeks was that the Persians simply weren't used to subjects chafing under their rule. And I was especially intrigued to learn that the Turks themselves aren't native to Turkey. In fact, they invaded and settled the area, in the same way that Europeans invaded the Americas.

Harl is terrific at delivering scads of facts while keeping the big picture in helpful focus; he's an enthusiastic and likable presenter; and he's refreshingly modest about what can and can't be known definitively. I notice that the series is now on sale. At its current price, it's a sensational bargain. I plan to treat myself to Harl's other series, too. Hmm, which will be next: "Byzantium," or "Rome and the Barbarians" ...?

I recommend some other Teaching Company lecture sets here. Mark, one of our visitors, does a Guest Posting about his favorite Teaching Company courses here. In the commentsfest on his posting, many visitors volunteer suggestions too.



posted by Michael at November 3, 2005


Did your course get into the economics and population of Asia Minor? As I remember it, when the Romans took over the westernmost sector of what is now Turkey (which they called "Asia") they turned their tax collectors loose on what was an extraordinarily rich region (at least by their somewhat underdeveloped Western Mediterranean standards). Presumably much of that wealth ended up in the pockets of the Senatorial elite of the Roman Republic, a kleptomaniacal crew if there ever was one. At some point, a regional king stirred up the 'Asian' locals who seem to have massacred many thousands of Roman officals and businessmen, which suggests the depth of resentment Roman income redistribuion had stirred up. Nonetheless, after repacification, "Asia" seems to have stayed well-to-do for many centuries, but eventually to have gone downhill(?)in the Byzantine era, and eventually to have suffered an almost(?) complete population replacement as a result of the Turkish conquest under the Ottomans. This account however leaves me asking as many questions as it answers. Did Rome ultimately run this wealthy region into the ground via its piratical extractions? Or did the Pax Romana make up for the costs inflicted on the locals by rapacious tax farmers? Did the Turks really replace the Byzantine population of Asia Minor lock, stock and tomahawk? If so, what happened to the original inhabitants? Had the lasting Roman influence ground the local economy and population down, or did they all flee the Arab raids of the Moslem era, or like what? Or was it like in Roman France, where the Germanic conquerors just moved in and took control of the existing population, in no sense replacing it? In other words, did the Turks just boss the more numerous Byzantine population? What does the genetic data show for Modern Turks? The lack of population and economic data for the ancient or even the medieval world is extraordinarily frustrating.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 4, 2005 10:29 AM

I'd recommend a look at John Julius Norwich's three-book history of the Byzantine Empire. (He also has a one-book history, but I've not read that.) Norwich is an excellent writer and the Byzantines a fascinating subject. The eastern empire was much afflicted with aggressive enemies (Persians, Bulgars, Rus, Armenians, Muslims, Venetians, Genoese, Crusaders, Normans, etc.), religious disputation between many different forms and heresies of Christianity, corruption (including the tax-farmers that Friedrich mentions), internal unrest, and civil war.

And that's during only a thousand years of the history of Asia Minor.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on November 4, 2005 1:30 PM

I'd also recommend Speros Vryonis' The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor, which is focused directly on the question about the changing population and culture of Asia Minor during the gradual changeover from Byzantine to Turkish control. (Quick answer: it's complicated!)

Posted by: language hat on November 5, 2005 11:10 AM give an idea just how complicated, take a look at this thread (thank you, LH, for finding it!) - especially the comments.

Posted by: Tatyana on November 5, 2005 1:34 PM

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