Historical Background: General
By the waters of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.…How could we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.(Psalm 137:1, 4–6; NRSV)
Despite the despair expressed by the author of Psalm 137, the Judeans who were exiled to Babylonia in 586 B.C.E. not only adjusted to their new setting but also managed to preserve their religious identity under community leaders called elders. Some scholars believe that the institution of the synagogue originated during the Babylonian exile, providing a framework for the dissemination and study of God's laws. These laws are contained in the Torah (Pentateuch = the Five Books of Moses), which may have been edited in Babylonia together with the books of the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings).
By the second half of the sixth century, Babylonia and the rest of the ancient Near East had come under the rule of the Persian (Achaemenid) Empire, which was based in the area of modern Iran. Persian rule extended as far as the western coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), which was inhabited by Greeks. In 499 B.C.E., with the encouragement and backing of Athens, the East Greeks rebelled against Persian rule (the Ionian revolt). After subduing the uprising, the Persians retaliated by invading mainland Greece, first in 490 B.C.E. and again in 480 B.C.E. Despite sustaining heavy losses, including 300 heroic Spartan troops at the pass of Thermopylae, and despite being hugely
outnumbered, the Greeks managed to defeat the Persians and preserve their independence. Thanks to its leadership role during the Persian wars, Athens emerged as a political force at the head of an alliance of Greek city-states, which eventually became a de facto empire (the Delian League). The Athenian acropolis, which had been ravaged by the Persians, was rebuilt, its ruined temples replaced by iconic Classical monuments such as the Parthenon and the Erectheum. Athens witnessed a flourishing of the arts with rapid advances in architecture, sculpture, wall painting, vase painting, literature and drama, and philosophy.