Geography plays a significant role in human history, with the physical features of land creating opportunities for civilizations to grow and natural defences against encroaching empires. This can be seen in a comparison between Mesopotamian and Greek civilizations. This paper will argue that geography played a pivotal role in shaping the former to be imperial and the latter to be mercantile.
The geographical features of Mesopotamia and Greece influenced their historical development. Mesopotamian civilizations including the Sumerian city-states, the Akkadian Empire, and the Babylonian Empire flourished between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers which provided freshwater for agriculture. Controlling these rivers meant controlling this region, and it was relatively easy for successive military powers to arise and dominate the entirety of Mesopotamia. Greece, on the other hand, is a peninsula with many hills and mountains that made overland trade more difficult. Looking at the map, it is striking how much coastline it has because of its unusual shape. This made it harder for any military power to conquer all of Greece. Greek city-states remained independent longer than Sumerian ones had as a result. This shows how geography influenced the historical development of these regions.
This geography also made certain historical developments less likely to happen. As noted, Greece’s imposing geography made it difficult to conquer or unify. This can be seen during the Peloponnesian War, when Athens was unable to turn its alliances into an Empire that controlled all of Greece. This tendency towards independence made Greece a centre of freethinking and political experimentation. This was less likely to occur in Mesopotamia because this region’s geography made it extremely vulnerable to conquest. Mesopotamia was tied into regional river-based trade routes which allowed for the transmission of ideas and technologies. But this influence pales in comparison to the Greek colonies that spread throughout the Mediterranean and Black Seas, allowing for a greater transmission of ideas and technologies. Geography made political unity less likely in Greece, but it made political and technological innovation less likely in Mesopotamia.
Geography also was important in influencing the spread of empire. During the Sumerian period, Mesopotamia consisted of city-states similar to those in Greece. Sargon of Akkad was able to conquer these city states and create the first territorial empire. Mesopotamia would continue to be dominated by different empires because its geography made it vulnerable to overwhelming power. Greece’s geography helped it to resist the spread of empire. Aside from the failed Athenian Empire during the Peloponnesian War, Greece successfully resisted invasion from the Persian Empire. While Persia was much larger and commanded more people and resources, the Greeks were able to halt their advance at the Battle of Thermopylae because of the restrictive geography of that region and then used to naval advantage to end Persian aggression during the Battle of Salamis. Greece’s geographical advantages made it difficult to conquer, in contrast to the vulnerability that Mesopotamia had to spreading empires.
Geography played a pivotal role in shaping the histories of Mesopotamia and Greece. Mesopotamia’s agricultural advantages supported large populations but made it vulnerable to imperial powers. This made it more likely to form larger states held together by military aggression. Greece’s geography isolated cities from one another and encouraged a maritime economy. This made it resistant to empire and allowed for greater political and intellectual experimentation.
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