The history of the earth itself stretches back around five billion years. However, the human chapter of this long story is a relatively short one; the first humanlike apes appeared roughly four million years ago. Relatively recently, the first modern human beings made their appearance about forty thousand years ago. This chapter examines that early period up through the increasing sophistication of the paleolithic and neolithic ages, when humans reached the dawn of the establishment of complex societies.
The oldest known ancestor of humans is Australopithecus, whose remains have been found in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. Australopithecus (“southern ape”) lived from around four million down to around one million years ago. They were hominids, or members of the family Hominidae, which includes humans and humanlike creatures. By walking on their hind legs they freed up their hands to produce simple tools. Australopithecus traveled distances up to fifteen kilometers and produced tools such as choppers and scrapers.
Eventually Australopithecus gave way to the more advanced Homo erectus (“upright-walking human”), the first representatives of the genus Homo. They existed from roughly 1.5 million years ago down to around two hundred thousand years ago. Possessing a much larger brain than Australopithecus, Homo erectus was more advanced in many areas. Homo erectus produced more sophisticated tools, such as cleavers and hand axes, and learned how to control fire. Their greatest accomplishment, however, was the development of language skills, which allowed for the exchange of complex concepts.
In the long term Homo erectus was replaced by a more intelligent human species: Homo sapiens (“consciously thinking human”). With a brain almost as large as that of modern humans and with a well-developed frontal region, Homo sapiens possessed the intelligence to have a profound impact on the world around them. Homo sapiens first appeared roughly 250,000 years ago and had spread to most of the habitable world by around fifteen thousand years ago. They produced knives, spears, and bows and arrows and made themselves such successful hunters that they helped to drive species such as mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, and giant kangaroos into extinction.
Most of human existence falls into the period known as the paleolithic age (“old stone age”). This period, ranging from the first appearance of the hominids down to around twelve thousand years ago, is characterized by the existence of humans as hunters and gatherers. Because of their nomadic lifestyle, paleolithic groups never reached beyond thirty to fifty members. Archaeologists and anthropologists believe that there was very little social inequality or gender distinction during this period. Late in the paleolithic age the Natufian society of the eastern Mediterranean, the Jomon society of central Japan, and the Chinook society of the American Pacific northwest made an early transition from a nomadic to a more settled existence. The most sophisticated people during this time were the Neandertal (one hundred thousand to thirty-five thousand years ago) and the Cro-Magnon (forty thousand years ago). Elaborate Neandertal burial sites like the one at Shanidar cave in Iraq seem to indicate that humans during this period may have wanted to honor their dead; they may also have been preparing them for an existence after death. Cro-Magnon, classified as Homo sapiens sapiens, were the first human beings of the modern type. The existence of Venus figurines and the elaborate cave paintings at Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain tell us much about their view of the world. While some of the paintings may have been done for purely aesthetic enjoyment, it is more likely that the depiction of animals was a form of sympathetic magic to ensure success in the hunt.
Despite the sophistication of the Neandertal and Cro-Magnon, the paleolithic age people were still limited by their hunting and gathering existence. The discovery of agriculture (and to a lesser extent the domestication of animals) around twelve thousand years ago helped give rise to the neolithic age (“new stone age”). Women may have played the most important role in the development of agriculture. This fundamental discovery changed humans from food gatherers to food producers and helped set the stage for the rise of civilization. The mastery of agriculture ensured a more stable food supply and helped fuel a population explosion. It is estimated that the population of the earth increased from five million in 5000 B.C.E. to fourteen million in 3000 B.C.E. Neolithic villages such as Jericho and Çatal Hüyük display an accelerated pace of development, with the rise of such prehistoric craft industries as pottery, metallurgy, and textile production. The eventual rise of true cities, larger and more complex and influential than neolithic villages, left early humans with all the pieces necessary for the construction of complex societies.
Few events in all of history can rival the significance of the rise of the first complex societies in Mesopotamia. Although these early Mesopotamian societies relied on an agricultural foundation, they also developed true cities and lived a thoroughly urban existence. Mesopotamia developed sophisticated political, religious, and social structures that influenced their neighbors and have survived the millennia since.
Mesopotamia, “the land between the rivers”— in this case the Tigris and Euphrates—was the birthplace of the world’s first complex society. The Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia were first in a series of early brilliant cultures in southwest Asia. The cultural and linguistic landscape was enriched and complicated by Semitic migrations. The rapidly growing population of Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium b.c.e. required the establishment of political and social organizations. Without the benefit of earlier examples the Mesopotamians built sophisticated political, social and military structures that allowed them to survive and in fact extend their influence over surrounding regions. Although they never achieved political unification, the Mesopotamian city-states of Eridu, Ur, Uruk, Lagash, Nippur, and Babylon dominated the land between the Tigris and Euphrates for a thousand years. Warfare was common among the Mesopotamian city-states, and occasionally one ruler would temporarily dominate his neighbors and create short-lived empires. In the twenty-fourth century b.c.e. Sargon of Akkad was the first to unite all of Mesopotamia. A more impressive and long-lasting state would arise during the time of Hammurabi (1792–1750 b.c.e.) and the Babylonians. Hammurabi was a powerful ruler, but he is mainly known for his sophisticated law code. Hammurabi’s code was based on lex talionis, or the “law of retribution,” but it was also shaped by class distinctions. Eventually a new power, the Assyrians, rose to dominate Mesopotamia and beyond. Babylon briefly reasserted its prominence in the sixth century b.c.e. under Nebuchadnezzar.
The mastery of agriculture allowed for the development of economic specialization and the expansion of trade. Technological advancements such as innovations in bronze (4000 b.c.e.) and iron metallurgy (1300 b.c.e.), as well as the creation of wheeled vehicles (3000 b.c.e.), also played a role in the expansion of the societies. The Mesopotamians actively pursued long-distance trade with merchants in Arabia, Anatolia, Lebanon, Egypt, Afghanistan, and India.
Another aspect of these developing areas was the increasing distance between the haves and have-nots of society. Agriculture made it possible for individuals to become wealthy. The gulf between rich and poor steadily increased, with the kings and nobles positioning themselves at the top because of their status as warriors. A powerful priestly class, acting as intermediaries between humans and the gods, also emerged. In addition, there arose a large slave population, drawn mainly from prisoners of war, criminals and indebted individuals. These societies were also highly patriarchal.
In many ways the evolution of writing formed the foundation of the cultural achievements of these early societies. The Mesopotamians, through cuneiform, began to experiment with a written language during the fourth millennium. The significance of a written language is clearly seen in Hammurabi’s law code as well as in early work in mathematics and astronomy and the masterful literary and mythological achievement of the Epic of Gilgamesh. At the same time, because of the complexity of these systems, writing would for the most part remain the province of the courtly scribes. The written records also give a glimpse at the creation of organized religion in the region. As was the norm in the ancient world, the Mespotamians were polytheistic, with the gods mainly representing forces of nature. The pessimistic Mesopotamian view of the gods and of people’s place in the universe represents the precarious existence of life between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Seldom in history has a society been as influential as the Mesopotamians. Their relationship with the Hebrews is a classic example. The Hebrew law code was clearly influenced by Hammurabi’s code. At the same time, these later societies built their own unique cultural achievements. The staunch monotheism of Moses was unlike anything that came from the Mesopotamians. Yahweh, the god of the Hebrews, was both a powerful and a personal god. This view of god would later shape the development of Christianity and Judaism. The Phoenicians, in addition to their role as maritime explorers and merchants, invented alphabetic writing.
The Mespotamians were also influenced by other societies, some from regions far beyond the boundaries of the Tigris and Euphrates. The most important were tribes, speaking a variety of Indo-European languages, who migrated into the region at various times during the second and third millennium b.c.e. The Indo-Europeans, originally from the steppe region of southern Russia, left a common linguistic foundation from India through western Europe. Languages such as Sanskrit, Old Persian, Greek, Latin, Hindi, and Farsi as well as most European languages were descendants of the Indo-European language. These tribes had domesticated the horse by around 4000 b.c.e. The most influential Indo-European migrants into the area around Mesopotamia were the Hittites, who settled in central Anatolia around 2000 b.c.e. Their construction of light, horse-drawn chariots and their mastery of advanced iron metallurgy made them formidable warriors. These innovations did not exist in a vacuum, however, and other peoples quickly borrowed them. The Indo-Europeans eventually traveled east to the Tarim Basin in western China, west to Greece, Italy, Germany, and France, and south into Persia and India.
It could be argued that no society in the ancient world possesses the mystique of Egypt. The image of the pyramids is indelibly etched in our collective imagination. However, Egypt’s relation to its African neighbors, most notably Nubia, is often overlooked. Both societies developed an agricultural foundation and later large cities. Both areas developed sophisticated political, religious and social structures. Eventually the Bantu migrations would transform most of Africa.
Twelve thousand years ago the area we now recognize as the Sahara Desert was a grassy steppe region with agricultural potential. By around 8000 B.C.E. early inhabitants of the Sudan stretch began to cultivate sorghum and yams. Eventually a climatic change around 5000 B.C.E. forced the inhabitants into the Nile valley. From this point its really impossible to separate the history of the Nile from that of the Egyptians and Nubians. The Nile fostered trade and early unification. Around 4000 B.C.E. small kingdoms developed in southern Egypt and Nubia. The Egyptians, unlike their contemporaries the Mesopotamians, unified early under the legendary king Menes and eventually created the political and cultural grandeur of the Old (2660-2160 B.C.E.) and Middle (2040-1640 B.C.E.) Kingdoms. As far back as the Old Kingdom Egypt traded, and sometimes fought, with Nubian kingdoms like Ta-Seti and Kush. The Hyksos arrived at the end of the Middle Kingdom and introduced new concepts such as horse-drawn chariots and bronze weapons. Egypt rose to the level of empire during the New Kingdom (1550-1070 B.C.E.). In the eighth century B.C.E. a revival of Kushite power saw King Kashta conquer and rule Egypt for over a century. Eventually a new power, the Assyrians, pushed out the Kushites and brought Egypt into their expanding empire.
Although the picture is less distinct in Nubia, we know that both societies developed true cities and lived an urban existence. Social classes developed as the gulf between rich and poor steadily increased. As with Mesopotamia, the kings and nobles claimed power and prestige because of their status as warriors. A large slave population developed. Both Egyptian and Nubian societies were highly patriarchal. However, some women, most notably Hatshepsut, became pharaohs in Egypt. Nubia had many female rulers, both through direct rule and indirectly through serving as a regent (kandake). The mastery of agriculture allowed for the development of economic specialization and the expansion of trade. Innovations in bronze and iron metallurgy were key. Egyptians actively pursued long-distance trade, ranging from Harappan India to the east African land of Punt.
The Egyptians, through hieroglyphics (Greek for “holy inscriptions”), began to experiment with a written language during the fourth millennium. At the same time, because of the complexity of these systems, writing would for the most part remain the province of the courtly scribes. Still, education carried the potential for a profitable profession. The Kushites, from their capital at Meroe, copied the Egyptian hieroglyphs and adapted them to create Meroitic writing. Unfortunately, this form of writing cannot be read. Egyptian written records give us glimpse of their religious beliefs. With one brief exception, the Egyptians were polytheistic with the gods mainly representing forces of nature. The stable life of the Egyptians in the isolated Nile valley is expressed in their optimistic view of the gods. Even mummification expressed the Egyptians’ desire to continue the pleasure of this life in the next. Pharaoh Akhenaten introduced the revolutionary concept of monotheism with his worship of the god Aten, but this belief was quickly squelched after his death. The lack of written records limits our knowledge of the Nubian religious beliefs, although we get a glimpse at gods such as the lion-god Apedemak and the creator god Sebiumeker. The Nubians, like their northern neighbors, worshipped Amon and built pyramids, albeit small ones.
The Bantu, probably because of population pressures, began to migrate out of an area near modern Nigeria and Cameroon around 3000 B.C.E. A mastery of agriculture gave the Bantu an advantage over their hunting and gathering rivals. Agricultural surpluses, along with a mastery of the canoe, obviously benefited the Bantu. During the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. the Bantu mastered iron metallurgy and they spread this skill throughout Africa by their migrations. In the same way the Bantu spread the cultivation of grains and yams throughout east and south Africa. The Bantus also spread their belief in a single impersonal divine force that had created the world and then stepped back from it.
India is a country with an extraordinarily brilliant, in some ways almost unmatched, cultural and religious tradition. At the same time, the Indian political world, marred by fragmentation and invasion, has been chaotic. India is also one of the oldest societies, with the unique Harappan civilization stretching back to at least 2500 B.C.E. The arrival of the Indo-European Aryans around 1500 B.C.E. brought profound political, religious and cultural change. Eventually the combination of native Dravidian and Aryan concepts gave rise to a rich and varied intellectual world. Hinduism, the dominant religion in India, is the best example of this evolving process.
The Harappan society, centered around the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, extends back to around 3000 B.C.E. While their written records can not yet be read with any certainty, it is assumed that they spoke a Dravidian language. These sites, in relation to their size and layout, are the largest for their age and unlike any other cities of the ancient world. Mohenjo-Daro possessed a population of up to 40,000. Religiously their main gods and goddesses were fertility deities, and there is evidence that these figures and concepts survived in various forms in later Hinduism. Population pressures and ecological degradation led to their decline around 2000 B.C.E.
The total collapse of the Harappan society coincided with the arrival into India of an Indo-European tribe, the Aryans (“noble people”). The Indo-Europeans, originally from the steppe region of southern Russia, left a common linguistic foundation from India through Europe. Languages such as Sanskrit, Old Persian, Greek, Latin, Hindi, Farsi and most European languages are descendants of Indo-European. Aryans subdued the native Dravidians, but also fought amongst themselves. Eventually the Aryans, arguably the first people to domesticate horses, came to rely more on agriculture than herding. They also began to establish more structured political institutions and built regional kingdoms, but never came close to substantial political unification. Much of our information about the Aryans comes from the collection of religious hymns known as the Vedas, especially the Rig Veda.
Eventually the Aryans established the caste system in India. The Aryans used the term varna, meaning color, to refer to the different social classes, which leads scholars to assume that the first distinctions may have been based on race. By around 1000 B.C.E. the four main castes were the brahmins (priests), kshatriyas (warriors and nobles), vaishyas (artisans and merchants), and shudras (peasants and serfs). A few centuries later the untouchables were added. Eventually thousands of sub-castes (jati), based mainly on occupation, would arise. The society would remain staunchly patriarchal as expressed in the Lawbook of Manu and the practice of sati.
The religious views of the Aryans at the time of their entry into India are best expressed in the Rig Veda. Indra, a violent and militaristic storm god, was the main god in the early days of the Aryans. However, questions of ethical behavior were not completely ignored. Varuna watched over human behavior and sent sinners to the House of Clay and rewarded the virtuous by admitting them into the World of the Fathers. Nevertheless, the most important aspects of these early religious views centered around the performance of rituals, many of them dealing with sacrifice.
Eventually some Aryans, both dissatisfied by the rituals and inspired by Dravidian notions such as reincarnation, brought about a startling transformation of religious thought. The best indication of this evolution of Aryan religion is the collection of writings known as the Upanishads. The emphasis shifted away from the heroic adventures of Indra and towards an examination of the relationship between every individual and Brahma, the universal soul. Concepts such as samsara, the transmigration of the soul, and karma, the sum of good and bad deeds that would determine one’s position in the next life, came to dominate Indian thought. As expressed in the Upanishads, the main goal was to escape the pain and suffering of eternal rebirth and reach the state of moksha. Asceticism and meditation were the two principal means of achieving this goal. Indian religious thinkers emphasized that the material world was an illusion and stressed the virtues of self-control, mercy and honesty. Pacifism and vegetarianism played a role in this life.
Human beings have inhabited east Asia since at least two hundred thousand years ago. The domestication of rice began around 7000 B.C.E., and Neolithic societies such as the Yangshao rose in the valley of the Yellow River by approximately 5000 B.C.E. Early dynasties such as the Xia, Shang, and Zhou saw the rise of a distinctive and in many ways uniquely secular society. Politically, none of the early dynasties could achieve centralization until the Qin unification in 221 B.C.E. Nevertheless, despite centuries of unstable political decentralization and at times outright warfare, the Chinese moved inexorably toward the establishment of a remarkably sophisticated political and social structure. Works such as the Zhou classics, and especially the Book of Songs, would remain foundations of Chinese thought for centuries.
The first societies in China developed along the fertile banks of the Yellow River, despite the fact that its long history of devastating flooding has earned it the nickname “China’s Sorrow.” The Yangshao society, centered around the neolithic village at Banpo, provides the earliest complete archaeological evidence. Around 2200 B.C.E. the first recognized dynasty in Chinese history, the Xia, began in the Yellow River valley. Until the recent discovery of sites such as Erlitou, however, this dynasty has been more legend than reality. Much more is known about the Shang dynasty, which lasted from 1766 to 1122 B.C.E. Sites such as Ao and Yin provide valuable information, especially the large and elaborate tombs of the rulers. At the heart of Shang power was their monopolization of bronze metallurgy, which allowed for the rise of a powerful military state.
With the rise of the Zhou dynasty (1122–256 B.C.E.) the main streams of Chinese civilization come into much sharper focus. Many of the foundations of Chinese thought and society came into existence during the Zhou period. One of the most important is the concept of the mandate of heaven, which proposed that heavenly powers, although indistinct, granted emperors the power to govern. Consequently, the emperors served as a connection between heaven and earth and had to therefore maintain high standards of honor and justice as well as provide order. In practice this theory never achieved more than decentralized authority during the Zhou period. Eventually the Zhou emperors lost control to regional princes, best shown through the imperial failure to monopolize iron metallurgy, and this loss of power resulted in a long period of political decline. As early as 771 B.C.E. the western half of the empire collapsed, and the last two centuries are known as the “Period of the Warring States.” Order would not be restored until the rise of the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C.E.
As early as the Xia dynasty the royal family rose to a prominent social position. The largely decentralized political structure of the Shang and Zhou periods allowed for the rise of a powerful aristocratic element. Craftsmen and merchants, fueled by a long-distance trade that extended back to the Xia period, held important positions in society. In this society, like in the other early societies, the vast majority of the population was made up of peasants and slaves. The extended family unit played a crucial role in Chinese society, partly because of the profound influence of the veneration of ancestors. This practice led to a strong sense of family solidarity and eventually translated into a strong patriarchal system. Without an organized religion or powerful priestly class, it fell to the patriarchal leader to carry out the rites designed to honor the family’s ancestors.
China, unlike most of the other ancient societies studied so far, created a very distinctive secular cultural tradition. While recognizing the importance of heavenly support for the emperor, the early Chinese never developed these ideas into a firmly structured religious tradition. This attitude is seen very clearly in Confucius’s admonition to revere the gods while also keeping a distance from them. Writing, which goes back to at least the Shang period, played a very important role in the formation of the Chinese cultural framework. Most of the early evidence of Chinese writing comes from the hundreds of thousands of Shang oracle bones. Although they were designed as a means of divination, the bones also provide valuable information about Chinese writing and thought.
Despite (or maybe because of) the political chaos of the Zhou dynasty, this period served as the foundation for many of China’s cultural and literary traditions. Thinkers during this period tried to find order in a seemingly anarchic world and produced important contributions such as the Zhou classics. Collections such as the Book of Changes, the Book of History, and the Book of Rites would remain seminal works for thousands of years. The most important of these Zhou classics is the Book of Songs, which, despite stories of famous kings and heroes, also dealt with crucial social and political issues that were near to the hearts of common people.
Although isolation caused by mountains, deserts, and seas stood in the way of the establishment of long-lasting or stable long-distance trade, China nevertheless influenced its neighbors. The nomadic tribes of the north and west, the early ancestors of the Turks and Mongols, traded and sometimes warred with the Chinese. However, because of environmental differences the nomadic tribes of the north and west did not imitate Chinese traditions as thoroughly as did the peoples of southern China. Eventually peoples in the south, such as, the state of Chu, grew to be competitors to the Zhou.
Seldom in history have societies been as influenced by changing climatic conditions as the early cultures of the Americas and Oceania. The lowering of water levels allowed for the initial exploration and settlement of these areas, whereas the melting of the glaciers around twenty thousand years ago worked to leave these societies isolated. The result was the rise of totally unique and fascinating societies. It would be centuries before a downside to this unmatched isolation—increased susceptibility to disease—would manifest itself with the appearance of invaders.
The Olmecs were the first recognized society in Mesoamerica. Olmec civilization stretches as far back as 1200 B.C.E. and featured important political and religious centers such as San Lorenzo, La Venta, and Tres Zapotes. Colossal humanlike heads, sculpted from basalt, remain their most characteristic creation. Their invention of a calendar would later be copied by succeeding Mesoamerican societies. There is no evidence of a complete system of writing, although scholars suspect that the Olmecs experimented with writing and used written symbols to store information. Although the situation is still a mystery, it is believed that the Olmecs destroyed their own centers at San Lorenzo and La Venta. By 400 B.C.E. the Olmecs were clearly in a state of decline.
Mesoamerican civilization reached its peak with the flowering of the Maya from 300 to 900 C.E. Tikal, with a population of around forty thousand, was one of several important Mayan capitals in a politically fragmented landscape. The Maya made important contributions in astronomy, which played a pivotal role in their efforts to foretell the future. Their calendar was the most precise in the Americas and was one of the most accurate and complex in the world. Math, based on a vigesimal system, would prove to be a strong point for the Maya. Like the ancient Babylonians and the Hindu scholars of India, the Maya invented the concept of zero. The Maya also developed the most sophisticated and comprehensive writing system in the Americas. Tragically, many of the Mayan books were destroyed by the later conquistadores. Fortunately the Mayan epic of creation and heroism, the Popol Vuh, survived in an oral tradition. While probably related to constant warfare, overpopulation, and ecological degradation, the collapse of the Maya after 900 C.E. still remains in many ways a mystery.
Along with the Maya, the other great Mesoamerican heir to the Olmecs were the people of the massive city of Teotihuacan. At its peak, between 400 and 600 C.E., Teotihuacan had a population of almost two hundred thousand people. Included in the city was the Pyramid of the Sun, the single largest building in Mesoamerica and two-thirds the size of the great pyramid of Khufu in Egypt. It is thought that these people developed a complete system of writing, but unfortunately only a few examples remain in stone carvings to hint at the complexity and sophistication.
By as early as 12,000 B.C.E. people had begun to migrate into South America and by 7000 B.C.E. they had made it all the way to the southern tip. Still, much of this early history remains shrouded in mystery. For example, historians know that a new religion, the Chaύin cult, became very popular in the years after 1000 B.C.E. However, the true nature of the Chaύin cult is still not completely known. The Chaύin cult, with its emphasis on maize and fertility, does show the increasing importance of agriculture in the lives of the early South American tribes.
The earliest South American state was the Mochica. Although these people had no system of writing, which was typical for South America, the brilliant artwork of the Mochica tells us much about their culture and society. Mochica pottery remains among the most expressive and sophisticated ever created. Elaborate ceramic heads represent portraits of individuals’ heads as well as those of the gods and demons. The artwork also speaks of the complexity of Mochica society, with representations of people ranging from aristocrats to beggars.
Australia and New Guinea were visited for the first time by humans as early as forty thousand to fifty thousand years ago. Limited migration, mainly because of low water levels, also stretched out as far as the Solomon Islands. The aboriginal population of Australia remained hunters and gatherers while the tribes of New Guinea developed agriculture. The chore of exploring and settling Oceania fell to Austronesian-speaking tribes from southeast Asia. This language group is related to Malayan, Indonesian, Filipino, Polynesian, and the Malagasy language of Madagascar. By as early as 4000 B.C.E. these tribes began to sail out into the Pacific, eventually reaching Vanuatu (2000 B.C.E.), Samoa (1000 B.C.E.), Hawai`i (first century B.C.E.) and New Zealand (middle of the first millennium C.E.). The Austronesians, arguably the most skilled and daring sailors in history, established agricultural societies and left political, religious, and cultural influences.
Classical Persian society has its origins in the sixth century B.C.E. with the rise of the dynasty of the Achaemenids (558–330 B.C.E.) under Cyrus the Great. Later rulers such as Cambyses, Darius, and Xerxes would create the largest, most stable, and in many ways most tolerant empire of its age. The Persian political, social, and religious influences would transcend the centuries. Eventually the Achaemenids would be followed by the Seleucids (323–83 B.C.E.), the Parthians (247 B.C.E.–224 C.E.), and finally the Sasanids (224–651 C.E.). When the Sasanids were defeated by Islamic invaders in 651 a new age in Persian history dawned.
Two related Indo-European tribes, the Persians and Medes, migrated into Persia in the centuries before 1000 B.C.E. Although these tribes originally had limited political organization, they were great horsemen and militarily powerful. Expansion began under the Achaemenids during the reign of Cyrus, known both for his brilliance at military strategy and his enlightened and tolerant view of empire. Areas such as Media, Lydia, Bactria, and Babylonia fell to Cyrus. Later Cambyses would add Egypt, and Darius, the greatest of all Persian kings, would extend the empire in the east into northern India and in the west into Thrace and Macedonia. The Achaemenids used an efficient bureaucracy and an elaborate spy network to maintain order. The empire reached its peak under Darius, who made use of regularized tax levies, centralized coinage, and an elaborate law code. The Persian Royal Road was the centerpiece of an expansive road system that allowed for easy communication.
The Achaemenid state began to decline under Xerxes, who displayed little of the toleration of his predecessors such as Cyrus or Darius. The Persian Wars (500–479 B.C.E.) with Greece, while hardly a devastating defeat for the huge Persian empire, marked an end to the period of expansion. Alexander of Macedon’s invasion in 334 B.C.E. brought about the end of Achaemenid rule. Alexander claimed the Persian kingship and hence a continuation of power, but his early death prevented any true lasting unification. The empire fell to pieces. Seleucus, one of Alexander’s generals, started the Seleucid state, which included most of the old Achaemenid empire. The Seleucids eventually fell to the Romans in 83 B.C.E. Earlier than this, however, the Seleucids had lost Iran to the Parthians and their most powerful king, Mithradates I. The Parthian state, centered around Ctesiphon, lasted until their conquest by the Sasanids in 224 C.E. Claiming to be the true heirs of the Achaemenids, the Sasanids would reach their peak under Shapur I. For a time the Sasanids stood as serious rivals to the later Romans. Arabic warriors would bring about the end of the Sasanid dynasty in 651 C.E.
The demands of empire had forced the Achaemenids to leave behind the simple political and social structures of their early nomadic past. To run an empire the size of the Persian state it was necessary to create a class of educated bureaucrats, including tax collectors, record keepers, and translators. A more sedentary agricultural existence helped lead to the rise of profound differences between rich and poor. A complex society of both free citizens and slaves developed. The formation of such a huge unified empire was a tremendous boost to trade. A rich trade network carried goods through the Persian empires from India, Mesopotamia, Iran, Anatolia, Phoenicia, Arabia, Greece, Ethiopia, and Egypt.
In addition to items such as grain, textiles, spices, gold, and ivory, religious concepts were also traded back and forth across the Persian empires. In their early stages the Persians worshipped nature gods and performed ceremonies similar to those of their Indo-European cousins in India, the Aryans. A profound change occurred through the philosophies of the seventh-century thinker Zarathustra. His philosophy was preserved by priests, known as magi, through the Avestas and Gathas. Zarathustra saw the universe and the human soul as a battleground between Ahura Mazda, who represented good and truth, and Angra Mainyu, who stood for evil and deception. This philosophy emphasized the significance of every individual’s choice because there would be a final judgment. Zarathustra did not tell his followers to renounce the world, but instead viewed the world as a material blessing from Ahura Mazda. Zoroastrianism eventually became the main religion of the Achaemenids but mainly spread throughout the empire on its own merits. The Sasanids would later use Zoroastrianism as a means of emphasizing their connection to the earlier Achaemenids. Although worship of Zoroastrianism declined after the Islamic invasion in the seventh century C.E., the main philosophies of Zarathustra have outlasted the centuries to influence Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
The four centuries from 221 B.C.E. to 220 C.E. brought extensive political, social, and intellectual change to China. Confucianism, Legalism, and Daoism were philosophies that grew out of the confusing final days of the Zhou dynasty and that profoundly influenced this age. In 221 B.C.E. the emperor Qin Shihuangdi brought unification to China for the first time. Although the Qin empire lasted barely two decades, it succeeded in laying the foundation for lasting political success and later cultural brilliance under the Han dynasty. The Han, through the efforts of Liu Bei and Wudi, carried on the centralizing policies of Qin Shihuangdi while replacing the harsh Legalism with a more traditional Confucian approach. Despite the political and cultural success of the Han dynasty, terrible economic times and a dramatic widening of the gap between rich and poor led to the eventual collapse of the dynasty.
The political chaos of the later Zhou period led many Chinese thinkers to reconsider the basic questions of social and political order. This intellectual foment provided the motivation for a very rich philosophical age. The most permanently influential of these thinkers was Kong Fuzi (Confucius), whose practical philosophy is best expressed in the Analects. Confucius believed that the proper balance and order in human relationships would bring about social and political harmony. He worked to create junzi, “superior individuals,” who would possess the needed education and dedication to staff governmental positions. Certain core values such as ren (benevolence), li (propriety), and xiao (filial piety) were central to Confucius’s philosophy. It was difficult for later Chinese thinkers to ever escape Confucius’s lengthy shadow. The most influential of these post-Confucian thinkers was Mencius. He believed that human nature was essentially good and therefore called for a government based on benevolence and humanity to bring out this goodness. Others, such as Xunzi, took a different approach. Xunzi believed that humans were naturally selfish and called for a government ready to impose harsh social discipline. Even though Mencius and Xunzi held opposing views of human nature they still operated within the traditional Confucian framework.
This turbulent age inspired other philosophical schools as well. Laozi is accepted as the traditional founder of Daoism. The Daoists criticized the social activism of the Confucians and instead proposed a life of reflection and introspection. The Daoists, like other Chinese thinkers, discussed the importance of living in accordance with the dao (way), although the definition often varied. In this instance the Daoists discussed wuwei, which is a removal from the world. Instead of action, the Daoists suggested inaction. The last influential Chinese school of thought is Legalism. Thinkers such as Shang Yang and Han Feizi wrote persuasively on statecraft and suggested that the state’s foundation were the armed forces and agriculture and that clear and strict laws were essential to control human nature.
Although Legalism was undeniably harsh, it also proved essential for the unification of China. The Qin from western China, inspired by Legalist philosophers such as Shang Yang and Han Feizi, created a centralized imperial administration that allowed for the first unification of China. Qin Shihuangdi, the “First Emperor,” united China in 221 B.C.E. by crushing local autonomy and centralizing authority. He standardized laws, currencies, weights, and measures and built an extensive network of roads that unified the country. Arguably his most important achievement in standardization related to the establishment of one Chinese script. Even the splendor of his magnificent tomb has transcended the centuries. His harsh rule, including the burning of books, execution of scholars, and drafting of millions for huge public works projects such as the precursor to the Great Wall of China, inspired resistance and the Qin state collapsed quickly.
A centralized state did not disappear with the Qin, however. The Han dynasty, started by Liu Bang in 206 B.C.E., copied many of the Qin governmental techniques but replaced the Qin use of Legalist terror with a more traditional Confucian approach. The Han dynasty would reach its peak under the “Martial Emperor,” Han Wudi (141–87 B.C.E.). In addition to overseeing a period of incredible territorial expansion, Han Wudi also opened the imperial university that was designed to prepare young men for government service. The Confucian scholars that this system generated poured into the government and formed one of the foundations of Chinese political greatness for centuries.
During the Qin and Han periods China remained very strongly patriarchal in its social structure. Works such as the Classic of Filial Piety and Admonitions for Women stressed the dominant role of males in society. Trade, fueled by iron metallurgy and silk manufacture, made for a period of general economic prosperity. However, a rapidly expanding population and a widening gap between rich and poor led to tremendous social disruption. The usurpation and reforms of Wang Mang (9–23 C.E) are emblematic of the societal pressures. The Later Han dynasty collapsed in 220 C.E. and centuries would pass before true unification was reestablished.
Sections from Confucius’s Analects can be used to spark interesting conversations. For example, Confucius’s admonition that a “man is wise who reveres the gods while keeping his distance from them” is classic Confucianism. It clearly expresses the uniquely secular Chinese view of the world. At the same time, you may need to give a hands-on introduction to the Analects because its structure can be confusing to first-time readers. Since the Analects is a loose collection of anecdotal tales, students can sometimes miss the essential message. Nevertheless, once the students understand the basic approach of Confucius they can appreciate and understand his philosophy. Plus, Confucius’s emphasis on structure can lead into a discussion of why that concept would have been so important to him and to China during the turbulent years of the Zhou period.
The chapter opening on Sima Qian provides an excellent opportunity to understand both the history of the Han and the very intimate life of one individual. Use this story to expand into a more general discussion of the times in history during which the individual stands up for higher principles: Socrates choosing truth over life, or Martin Luther risking his life because of his own religious convictions, or Sima Qian accepting mutilations and shame because his historical work was more important. Quite simply, Sima Qian chose knowledge over honor and pain. Sima Qian wrote to a friend, “A man has only one death. That death may be as weighty as Mount T’ai, or it may be as light as a goose feather. It all depends upon the way he uses it . . . the reason I have not refused to bear these ills and have continued to live, dwelling in vileness and disgrace without taking my leave, is that I grieve that I have things in my heart which I have not been able to express fully, and I am shamed to think that after I am gone my writing will not be known to posterity . . . If it may be handed down to men who will appreciate it, and penetrate to the villages and great cities, then though I should suffer a thousand mutilations, what regret would I have?” (Burton Watson, tr., Records of the Grand Historian of China [New York, 1961], p. 2.) Such passages bring history home to the students as something very human and personal.
Daoism also makes for an interesting topic, especially considering the nearly pop status it has achieved; seemingly a million self-help books mention “Dao” in the title. You could even read passages to the students from these works to show how ancient concepts don’t disappear, but also to show how the majority of these works miss the point so egregiously. More important, you could use the topic of action versus inaction as a starting point for a discussion about the nature of Daoism. You could also carry the discussion over into Indian thought and examine how Hinduism is actually a call for passive action. For that matter, the varying definitions of what the Dao means, from the more political Confucian use to the more ethereal Daoist interpretation, can lead into a general discussion of Chinese thought.
Finally, the simple question of government, both what it is and how is it supposed to rule, is certainly a pertinent discussion in regard to Chinese thought. From the very beginning, Chinese philosophy has been marked by a secular view of the societal and political worlds. Is the Confucian or Legalist approach best? Is the Legalist approach necessary in the early stages of political development? Once again, you can bring in comparisons to Assyria and Persia or early Indian history. Or maybe the best strategy is to take the Daoist approach and withdraw from the entire process?
Beginning around 500 B.C.E. India developed a classical society with political, religious, and social features that would continue to influence the subcontinent for centuries. The creation of two new religions, Buddhism and Jainism, and the continuing evolution of a third, the older Hinduism, left India with an astonishingly complex religious landscape. The caste system ensured a well-defined social structure, but even in this area developments in trade and industry threatened the traditional hierarchy. India unified for the first time, but centralized government proved fleeting and the Indians were unable to leave a political legacy to match the religious one. Nevertheless, the Mauryans, under Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka Maurya, and the Guptas, under Chandra Gupta II, created powerful and influential states. Works such as the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the Bhagavad Gita were representative of one of the great cultural flowerings in world history.
Even under the Aryans India had never moved toward unification and remained a series of small kingdoms. Profound changes began around 520 B.C.E. when the arrival of Cyrus the Achaemenid brought increasing Persian trade and the introduction of new techniques of administration. Alexander of Macedon’s invasion in 327 B.C.E. brought chaos and created a political vacuum. The void would be filled by Chandragupta Maurya and the founding of the Mauryan dynasty in 321 B.C.E. Chandragupta Maurya’s harsh centralizing philosophy, as expressed in the Arthashastra, ensured that India would be united for the first time. The Mauryans would reach their peak under Ashoka Maurya, who completed the process of unification with the bloody conquest of the Kalingans. Ashoka Maurya built roads, promoted agriculture, collected taxes efficiently, and created a well-run bureaucracy in Pataliputra. However, he is best remembered for his conversion to Buddhism and his efforts to make it a world religion. The Mauryans collapsed fairly quickly after the death of Ashoka, and India would not be reunified until almost five hundred years later. Rulers such as Chandra Gupta II witnessed a brilliant cultural age, but overall the Guptas never approached the level of centralized authority reached by the Mauryans. Invaders such as the White Huns helped to bring an end to Gupta power beginning in the fifth century C.E., and India would not be reunited for another thousand years.
The growth of trade and manufacturing encouraged the rise of towns. Increasing long-distance trade between India and the larger imperial states in China, Persia, and southwest Asia led to greater economic but also cultural integration. Economic transformation did not change everything immediately. For example, India remained strongly patriarchal, and works such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana portrayed women as weak-willed. Child marriages became increasingly common. In other areas, however, economic pressures were bringing an evolution of society. Guilds essentially served as subcastes (jati) and played a role in shaping the social order. Some vaishyas and shudras grew wealthy enough through trade or industry to challenge the brahmans and kshatriyas, the traditional leaders of society.
This economic transition had tremendous religious implications because some thinkers began to question the authority of the brahmans and the validity of traditional religious beliefs. For example, the Charvada sect believed that all gods were figments of the imagination and that the brahmans were charlatans. Other thinkers would take a more spiritual approach, but still come up with answers that shook the foundations of traditional Hindu thought and in some cases created new religions. The Jains, inspired by Vardhamana Mahavira, believed that everything in the universe possessed a soul and therefore practiced ahimsa (nonviolence to other living things). While their ascetic lifestyle was too strict to attract a mass following, they provided a definite challenge to Hinduism by refusing to recognize social distinctions based on caste. A much more popular religion would be the Buddhism of Siddharta Gautama. The Buddha preached the Four Noble Truths: (1) life is pain, (2) this pain is caused by desire, (3) eliminating desire eliminated suffering, and (4) and following the Noble Eightfold Path eliminated desire. The Noble Eightfold Path called for leading a balanced and moderate life and avoiding extremes. Passionless Nirvana was the final goal. From this simple beginning Buddhism would eventually grow more complex and a split would develop between the Mahayana (“greater vehicle”) and Hinayana (“lesser vehicle”) schools. Although Hinduism predated Buddhism and Jainism, it too went through a period of transition during these years. The traditional power of the brahmans was challenged by the evolution of concepts that appealed to a much wider audience. Religious and literary classics such as the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the Bhagavad Gita from this period express this change.Chapter 10
Arguably no society has cast a longer shadow over the Mediterranean, European, and American worlds than that of the ancient Greeks. The influences of Greek democracy, tragedy, and philosophy have transcended the centuries and continue to shape minds today. At the core of the Greek mind was an inquiring spirit and refusal to accept anything less than the truth. After escaping near disaster in the Persian War, the Greeks went on to create one of the world’s most glorious cultural epochs. In the end, unfortunately, the Greeks’ own arrogance and warlike manner led to their destruction in the Peloponnesian War. The conquests of Alexander of Macedon led to the creation of the Hellenistic age and a perpetuation of Greek brilliance.
The early Mycenaeans were influenced by the extraordinary Minoan society centered around the city of Knossos on Crete. For example, the earliest Greek writing style, Linear B, was adopted from the Minoan Linear A. Egyptian and Phoenician concepts also reached the Mycenaeans indirectly through their contact with the Minoans. The Mycenaeans were incredibly warlike and spent much of their time fighting among themselves as well as launching campaigns against the Minoans in Crete and the Trojans in Anatolia. Considering their contentious nature, it is not surprising that the Mycenaeans never unified and instead settled into an uneasy alliance of city-states. The city-state, or polis, would remain the foundation for the Greek political world throughout their history. Of the many poleis the two most important were Sparta and Athens. The Spartans, because of the fear of an uprising by the helots, reworked their society to remove all social distinctions and eventually became the greatest soldiers of the Greek world. The Athenians, while exhibiting little of the characteristic calm of the Spartan character, gave the world gifts such as democracy and tragedy. Athens would reach its peak during the fifth century B.C.E. under the leadership of Pericles.
The inquiring spirit that so marked Greek philosophical thought also carried over into exploration. Greek mariners explored widely and set up extensive colonies that would have, if the Greeks had been able to unify, turned the Mediterranean into a Greek lake. In addition to playing a key role in trade, these explorations also helped to spread the Greek language and cultural traditions around the Mediterranean. Expansion also brought the Greeks into conflict with the Persian empire. The Persian War, while serving mainly as an annoyance to the Persians, turned out to be the turning point in Greek history. Unfortunately, the Greek inability to unify eventually led to a bloody civil conflict, the Peloponnesian War, that brought an end to the Golden Age of Greece. The Greeks were so weakened that they easily fell to the Macedonian leader Philip II. Eventually, however, the conquests of Philip’s son Alexander laid the groundwork for the Hellenistic age by spreading Greek culture from Egypt to India. Alexandria in Egypt would serve as the center for this new age. Politically Alexander would not be so fortunate, and his empire split up among the Antigonids, Ptolemaics, and Seleucids.
Trade, in addition to making the Greeks wealthy, also fostered a sense of unity among the different poleis. Panhellenic festivals such as the Olympic games achieved the same goal. Greek society, despite the occasional efforts of writers such as Sappho, remained strictly patriarchal. Sparta provided women the greatest opportunity for freedom in the Greek world. As in the rest of the ancient world, slavery in Greece played an important economic role.
While building on Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Phoenician traditions, the Greeks branched off to leave a unique and lasting cultural legacy. Philosophically the Greeks attempted to construct a system based on pursuing the truth at all costs through human reason. Socrates’ proposal that “The unexamined life is not worth living” perfectly represents the Greek quest for truth. Plato turned inward to the World of Forms for intellectual perfection. While writing on fields as varied as biology, astronomy, psychology, politics, and ethics, Aristotle created a worldview so comprehensive that he became known as “the master of those who know.” Playwrights such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides examined the parameters of human nature. Later Hellenistic philosophical schools also examined the role of the individual in relation to society.
For an incredibly long period of time the Romans were able to unite the Mediterranean world to an extent unmatched in history. By the first century C.E. the Romans had extended their control over the entire Mediterranean basin, including parts of southwest Asia, north Africa, continental Europe, and Britain. Through the combination of a centralized authority and a normally tolerant regime, the Romans were able to foster close connections between the different ethnic and religious groups of this cosmopolitan empire. Roman control also allowed for a rich cultural and religious interchange. The rise of Christianity to a world religion is closely connected to the Roman empire.
The history of Rome stretches back to around 2000 B.C.E. and the arrival of Indo-European tribes into Italy. While scholars have serious doubts about the epic legends of Aeneas and Romulus, they do acknowledge the influence of the Etruscans on the early Romans. The Etruscans, who sometimes served as kings, dominated Rome until driven out by Roman nobles in 509 B.C.E. The Romans established a republican constitution with power in the hands of two consuls chosen by the patricians, or wealthy classes. Later, because of social tensions, the plebians, or common people, won the right to choose tribunes and then even consuls from their own ranks.
From these rather humble origins the Romans began to expand in the fourth and especially the second century B.C.E. While the Romans may have expanded militarily, they also treated the peoples of their conquered regions in an unusually generous and tolerant fashion that inspired loyalty. As the Romans expanded into the Mediterranean they came into conflict with the Carthaginian empire in northern Africa. A victory in the bloody Punic Wars left the Romans the masters of the western Mediterranean. The eastern Mediterranean fell to the Romans after successful wars with the Antigonid, Seleucid, and Ptolemaic empires.
While the conquest of the Mediterranean world may have brought immense wealth into Rome, it also increased tensions caused by the unequal distribution of that wealth. Wealthy patricians turned captured land into latifundia and dominated smaller landowners. The attempts of the Gracchi brothers to bring about land reform and use state subsidies to help the poor only led to their assassinations. The wars of Marius and Sulla were vivid proof of the societal tensions tearing the Roman state apart. Even Julius Caesar, too often recognized only for his military conquests and political aspirations, attempted to extend Roman citizenship and create jobs for the urban poor through huge building projects. Julius’s victory in 46 B.C.E. after a civil war created order but also essentially ended the republic. His own assassination in 44 B.C.E. threw Rome into another round of civil strife until order was restored by his nephew Octavian.
When Octavian received the title Augustus in 27 B.C.E. the empire was born. While keeping the remnants of the old constitutional framework, all power actually belonged to the emperor. The pax romana, or Roman peace, an almost unprecedented period of economic expansion, cultural brilliance, and political stability lasting over two and a half centuries, began with Augustus. Roman law, based on principles such as the presumed innocence of the accused until proven guilty, brought stability to the empire as well as influenced centuries of legal thought.
Like other empires, the Roman empire built roads that facilitated trade and cultural transmission. Roman control over the Mediterranean was so complete that they simply referred to it as mare nostrum, or “our sea.” The roads and sea lanes, along with the stability of the pax romana, inspired economic specialization and integration. Trade promoted the rise of cities, but no city grew as large or powerful or splendid as Rome itself. Romans enjoyed fresh water from aqueducts, a sophisticated sewage and plumbing network, and spectacular public events in the Circus Maximus and Colosseum. In regard to family structure, the Romans were strongly patriarchal but women did have many rights both inside and outside the home. Slaves constituted up to one-third of the empire’s population.
The Romans were greatly influenced by Greek culture. This influence is clearly seen in early Roman religion, where gods like Jupiter and Mars mirror their Greek counterparts Zeus and Ares. Hellenistic philosophy also impressed the Romans. The writings of Cicero show the influences of Stoicism. As the empire became more cosmopolitan, other religious concepts—such as Mithraism, Judaism, and Christianity—began to spread and became more influential. The rise of Christianity especially is almost impossible to separate from later Roman history. The successes of Jesus of Nazareth and Paul of Tarsus are intricately tied to Roman unification.
Societies within a huge area, ranging from China through the Mediterranean basin, were linked by long-distance trade along the silk roads. Trade introduced wealth and new products to societies along the routes and encouraged economic specialization. The trade routes also fostered the spread of Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian religious thought. Finally, the spread of disease over the trade routes helped to bring closure to the classical societies.
Long-distance trade became far less risky and far more profitable during the classical age for two main reasons. The rulers of powerful classical states built roads and bridges that facilitated easier movement of goods and people. Plus, the empires grew to such an extent that they often shared common borders, reducing the dangers and uncertainties of trade. The tempo of trade increased along land routes maintained by the Seleucids and Ptolemies. Mastery of the monsoon patterns in the Indian Ocean increased trade along the water routes.
The most prosperous and important of the trade routes were the silk roads that linked Eurasia and northern Africa. From the eastern terminus at the Han capital of Chang’an the trade routes ran to the Mediterranean ports of Antioch and Tyre. Sea routes connected Guangzhou in southern China with southeast Asia, Ceylon, the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea. Silk, fine spices, cotton textiles, pearls, ivory, horses, jade, and manufactured goods were actively traded from one end of the silk roads to the other. Although a few merchants occasionally traveled the entire distance, the trade was usually carried out in stages.
Besides trade goods, the merchants traveling along the silk roads also brought religious concepts to a wider world. The support of Ashoka had allowed Buddhism to spread to Bactria and Ceylon. The real expansion of Buddhism, however, would occur as the religion followed the trade routes to Iran, central Asia, China, and southeast Asia. Indian influence would be profound in southeast Asia, with the appearance of Sanskrit as well as Hinduism and Buddhism. Christianity would also be spread in a similar fashion farther west. Christian missionaries made use of the Roman roads and sea lanes to spread the gospel throughout the empire to Anatolia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, north Africa, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Gaul. The influence worked both ways. For example, the ascetic practices of the Mesopotamian and Iranian Christian communities influenced other Christian thinkers. Similarly, the actions of Egyptian hermits influenced the rise of Christian monastic communities. Eventually a split would develop, and most of the Christians in southwest Asia became Nestorians. The rise of Manichaeism and its syncretic blend of Zoroastrian, Christian, and Buddhist elements says a great deal about the increasingly cosmopolitan world brought about by trade.
Contagious diseases also spread rapidly along the trade routes. The Han and Roman empires suffered tremendous losses during the second and third centuries C.E. through the outbreak of epidemic diseases such as smallpox, measles, and bubonic plague. The population of the Roman empire dropped from sixty million during the time of Augustus down to around forty million by 400 C.E. China’s population decreased from sixty million in 200 C.E. to approximately forty-five million in 600 C.E. Despite the loss of life, the outbreaks of disease brought other changes. Trade decreased dramatically, and the economies in both areas contracted and moved toward regional self-sufficiency.
After four centuries of almost unprecedented cultural and political brilliance, the Han dynasty collapsed in 220 C.E. Internally the Han dynasty was torn apart by factional violence. The economic and social implications of dramatically unequal land distribution may have been the most important factor in the Han decline. The efforts of Wang Mang to rectify this problem didn’t survive his own life. Uprisings such as the Yellow Turban rebellion painfully expressed the suffering of the peasants but only caused more social unrest. Traditional centers such as Chang’an and Luoyang were devastated. Nevertheless, important changes were shaping the Chinese social and cultural landscape. Nomadic tribes fell under Chinese influence and became more sinicized. Traditional Confucianism, in the face of political chaos, lost some of its vigor, and the Chinese increasingly turned to Daoism and Buddhism for hope in a desperate age.
The Roman empire was also going through a long period of decline. This topic, the decline and fall of the Roman empire, is obviously one of the most popular for historians. Despite many theories designed to explain this collapse, the reality is that a complex combination of factors brought an end to Roman power. Internal dissension, best represented by the twenty-six “barracks emperors,” tore Rome apart. Diocletian’s decision to split the empire in half speaks to the fact that Rome had grown so huge as to be almost unmanageable. Although Constantine tried to reunify Rome, his choice of Constantinople as the new capital shows that the western half of the empire was in serious decline. Germanic invasions by tribes such as the Visigoths placed pressures on the decaying Roman state that were only increased by the appearance of Attila the Hun. Finally, in 476 C.E., the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was overthrown by the Germanic general Odovacar. Arguably the most important cultural change during this period was the rise to prominence of Christianity. By 380 C.E. the emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of Rome. The hope for salvation made Christianity popular among the masses while St. Augustine’s efforts to harmonize the new religion with Platonic thought appealed to the educated classes. Eventually Rome, with the Pope at its head, became the center of the Christian world.
A series of problems, including political and social turmoil as well as military threats from outside forces, brought an end to the classical societies in the centuries after 200 C.E. The lone exception was the Byzantine empire. After the collapse of the western half of the Roman empire the Byzantine eastern section survived for another millennium. The Byzantine empire developed into a dramatically different society than its Roman predecessor was. Far more than merely surviving, however, Byzantium dominated the eastern Mediterranean world politically and economically for centuries. Even after its collapse the Byzantine empire’s influence could be seen in the Slavic peoples of eastern Europe and Russia.
Byzantium began as the Greek village of Byzantion, a small trading town important only for its strategic position on the Bosporus. Eventually Constantine chose Byzantion, renamed Constantinople, to be the capital of the Roman empire because of its position as the center of the wealthy eastern half of the empire. At its height Byzantium would include Greece, Anatolia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, northeast Africa, and the Balkans. Byzantium faced threats from the Sasanid dynasty in Persia but managed to escape the Germanic invasions that had devastated the western half of the empire.
Politically, the Byzantine state was marked by a highly centralized rule centered around a remarkably powerful emperor. Byzantine emperors wielded a mixture of political and religious authority known as caesaropapism. At least in theory, the emperor possessed absolute authority in all political, military, judicial, and religious affairs. Justinian, despite humble origins, would be the most influential of the Byzantine emperors. Ably advised by his wife Theodora, Justinian attempted to re-create the Roman empire. Hagia Sophia is representative of the brilliant building program started by Justinian to reconfigure Constantinople. Justinian’s codification of Roman law, as seen in the Corpus iuris civilis, was the emperor’s most influential legal and political contribution. The general Belisarius’s conquests reconstructed most of the Roman empire. In the end, however, a combination of limited Byzantine resources and Arabic expansion made holding the old empire together impossible. Nevertheless, the theme system allowed for a temporary reinvigoration under Basil II in the early eleventh century. The former western half of the empire increasingly fell to successor states. The Frankish king Charlemagne received an imperial crown from the pope in 800 and Otto of Saxony claimed to rule the west in 962.
While its political authority fluctuated over the centuries, Byzantium continually remained an economic power. Anatolia and the area around the lower Danube produced enormous supplies of wheat. Byzantium was at its strongest when free peasants formed the engine that drove the state. The position of the free peasants was bolstered by the theme system that provided land in return for military service. The consolidation of power and land in the hands of the nobles not only hurt the peasants but also damaged the Byzantine empire militarily. Constantinople remained the major center of trade and industry in the Mediterranean world. One of the major innovations was the rise of a silk industry. Byzantium’s domination over trade is probably best shown by the fact that the bezant became the standard currency in the Mediterranean for centuries. Constantinople—the largest city in Europe, with a population of around one million—stood in the center of everything and was a worthy successor to Rome as “the city” of the Mediterranean basin.
Despite its early connection to Rome, Byzantium was most strongly influenced by Greek culture. Greek became the official language. Philosophy was shaped profoundly by Greek thought. Byzantine education clearly showed the Greek influence, and a state-supported school system provided for widespread literacy. A school for the study of law, medicine, and philosophy in Constantinople survived for a thousand years.
The differences between the western and eastern halves of the empire are probably most obvious in ecclesiastical matters. The Byzantine emperors played a very active role in religious issues, as seen in Constantine calling together the Council of Nicaea to attack Arian views on the nature of Jesus. The patriarchs of Constantinople were chosen by the emperor and remained firmly under imperial control. Leo III’s iconoclasm is a classic example of imperial meddling in religious affairs. Monasticism, shaped by the rule of St. Basil, grew rapidly during the Byzantine age. Byzantine monasteries were known less for their scholarly contributions than for their spiritual and social aid to their communities. Tensions over issues ranging from doctrine to power led to the patriarch and pope mutually excommunicating each other in 1054, the date still accepted for the beginning of the schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.
Byzantine power was threatened by internal social problems as well as challenges from the west and east. The sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 devastated Byzantium and only increased tensions between the old halves of the Roman empire. The victory of the Saljuq Turks at Manzikert in 1071 eventually led to the loss of Anatolia and economic devastation. After centuries of decay Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. While Byzantium’s direct hold on the Mediterranean world was threatened by Islamic expansion, its influence on the Slavic peoples of eastern Europe and Russia only increased. Greek Orthodox missionaries spread the faith northward. Two missionaries, Saints Cyril and Methodius, adopted the Greek alphabet to the Slavic tongue to create the Cyrillic alphabet, which allowed for the further spread of religious as well as secular thought. Prince Vladimir’s conversion turned Kiev, the first center of Russian power, into a center of Byzantine culture. By the sixteenth century Russians spoke of Moscow as the world’s third Rome.
After the decline and collapse of the classical empires, new societies rose to take their place. A series of these states were inspired by a new religion, Islam. From its origins in Arabia, Islam quickly spread to the Sasanid empire in Persia and even into parts of Byzantium. Muslims, or “ones who have submitted” to the will of Allah, spread their religious convictions but also drew inspiration from the Persian, Greek, and Indian worlds. Eventually the dar al-Islam (“house of Islam”) would cover a cosmopolitan world ranging from Spain in the west to India in the east.
The heartland of this new religion would be the desert peninsula of Arabia, populated by the nomadic Bedouins. Arabian merchants played an important role in long-distance trade. Muhammad (570–632 C.E.) was born into this merchant tradition. Although an orphan, Muhammad eventually achieved a position in society through his marriage to the wealthy widow Khadija. In a series of visions Muhammad learned from the archangel Gabriel that he was Allah’s prophet, although he did not set out to create a new world religion. After coming into conflict with the Meccan wealthy classes, Muhammad led his followers in 622 to the northern city of Yathrib (renamed Medina). This journey, called the hijra, was the turning point in Muhammad’s career and is still recognized as the starting point of the Islamic calendar. In Medina Muhammad served as the religious, political, and social leader of his community (umma). In 630 Muhammad and his followers conquered Mecca and destroyed the idols at the Ka’ba. Two years later he led the first pilgrimage, or hajj, to the Ka’ba. His plans to unite Arabia and spread Islam beyond its borders were cut short by his death in 632.
Muhammad was a very strict monotheist, believing that Allah was the one true god. His revelations from Allah were recorded in the Quran. Although he displayed immense respect for the Jewish and Christian religions, Muhammad came to see himself as the “seal of the prophets.” As the final prophet, he was the only one who recognized the complete revelation of Allah. The Five Pillars of Islam formed the basic obligations of the faith: (1) acknowledgment of Allah as the only god and Muhammad as his prophet, (2) prayer to Allah while facing Mecca, (3) fast during the holy month of Ramadan, (4) Alms for the weak and poor, (5) A pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during a Muslim’s lifetime. The sharia, or Islamic holy law, provided guidance on issues ranging from family life to commercial relationships.
After the death of Muhammad political authority passed to Abu Bakr as caliph. A century of tremendous expansion followed, as Islamic armies seized Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Egypt, north Africa, Persia, Sind in northwestern India, and the Iberian peninsula. Despite the military success, political problems, usually centering around the selection of caliphs, remained a constant challenge. A fundamental split in Islam between Sunni (“traditionalists”) and Shia (“party”) grew out of this conflict. The majority Sunni felt that leadership could be held by any true believer. Shia began as a sect that believed that the caliphate had to be in the hands of descendants of the assassinated fourth caliph Ali, who was a cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad.
Eventually this political chaos led to the establishment of the Umayyad dynasty (661–750), centered around the city of Damascus. The Arab military aristocracy enjoyed a favored position under the Umayyad, which caused tensions among the different ethnic and religious groups of the dar al-Islam. Conquered peoples were allowed to practice their own religions but were forced to pay the jizya. Non-Arabic Muslims also felt restrained under the Umayyad rule.
A rebellion in Persia led by Abu al-Abbas brought an end to the Umayyad dynasty and the beginning of the Abbasid dynasty (750–1258). The Abbasid dynasty was both more tolerant and more cosmopolitan than its predecessor. Even though the Abbasid caliphs did not actively push for expansion, Crete, Sicily, the Balearic Islands, Cyprus, Rhodes, Sardinia, Corsica, southern Italy, and southern France were added to the empire. The Abbasid state, centered around the new city of Baghdad, copied administrative techniques from the Persians. Officials such as the ulama and gadis created a standing army and oversaw taxation, finance and postal, services. The reign of Harun al-Rashid (786–809) would serve as the high point of Abbasid economic and artistic splendor. Decline followed quickly, however, and for the last two centuries the Abbasids were effectively ruled by the Saljuq Turks. The Mongols brought a definitive end to the Abbasid state with their conquest in 1258.
A zone of trade and communication stretching from Spain to India was created by the conquests of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. New crops, including sugarcane, rice, spinach, oranges, lemons, bananas, cotton, and new varieties of wheat, were introduced into different regions along this route. The result was an increase in good supplies and a richer and more varied diet. Cotton would prove to be the most important of the new crops. Increased trade and agricultural production fostered the rapid urban growth of cities like Delhi, Isfahan, Baghdad, Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo, and Cordoba. Industrial production, most notably of paper, was part of this general expansion. Muhammad’s admiration for merchants only helped to promote the creation of this huge trading zone. Maritime trade, bolstered by the use of the compass, astrolabe, and lateen sail, also expanded. Banking and innovations in business organization provided the capital for trade. Even distant Spain, known as al-Andalus, shared in the prosperity. Cordoba quickly became one of the great Islamic cities of the world.
The status of women fluctuated during this period in the Islamic world. Although undeniably members of a patriarchal society, Arab women had enjoyed the right to inherit property or engage in business dealings. The Quran presented women as honorable individuals and had outlawed female infanticide. At the same time, the Quran, and especially the sharia, stressed male dominance. Men determined the nature and extent of the social and sexual lives of women. If anything, Islam’s expansion into Mesopotamia and Persia brought even greater patriarchal influences, most notably veiling.
In the face of an increasingly cosmopolitan Islamic world, the Quran and the sharia promoted cultural unity. Officials such as the ulama and gadis and institutions of higher education like the madrasas attempted to do the same thing. The Sufis, with their emphasis on an emotional and mystical rather than intellectual connection to Allah, served as effective missionaries. Sufi thinkers like al-Ghazali stressed that the human intellect was too weak to truly understand Allah. A more heartfelt devotion was the key. The hajj, by bringing pilgrims from all over the Islamic world to Mecca, also created a sense of unity.
While Muslims may have spread the faith to distant lands, they were also influenced by other cultures. The Persian influence comes through most clearly in literature, poetry, history, and political theory. The Arabian Nights and Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat were very popular in the Islamic world. Indian mathematical innovations passed through the Islamic world and on into Europe. Greek philosophy, including Plato and most notably Aristotle, provided an intellectual challenge for Islamic thinkers. In turn, Ibn Rushd’s work on Aristotle shaped the rise of European scholasticism.
The collapse of the Han dynasty brought an end to centralized rule in China for three and a half centuries. Order would be restored in the sixth century with the rise of the Sui. Eventually, the Tang and Song dynasties would oversee a booming economy based on improved agricultural production and technological innovations. Increased trade led to growing interaction between China and the rest of the world. Buddhism formed the most important import into China during these centuries. In turn, the Chinese profoundly influenced the development of Korea, Vietnam, and Japan.
Regional kingdoms contested for power during the three and a half centuries after the fall of the Han dynasty. Reunification came about in 589 through the efforts of Yang Jian and the formation of the Sui dynasty (589–618). The Sui built a strong, centralized state while remaining militarily active and implementing huge public works projects. Arguably the most impressive and important Sui contribution was the construction of the Grand Canal during the reign of the emperor Sui Yangdi. The canal, stretching over 1,200 miles, connected the Huang He and Yangzi Rivers as well as the cities of Hangzhou, Chang-an, and Zhou. While promoting political and cultural unity, the Grand Canal remained the economic heart of China for over a millennium. Unfortunately for the Sui, projects of this size resulted in discontent caused by the high taxes and forced labor, and in 618 the last Sui emperor was assassinated.
A new dynasty, the Tang (618–907), rose to take the Sui’s place. The foundations of Tang success were established by Tang Taizong, a violent but surprisingly dedicated Confucian ruler. Tang Taizong and his successors followed three basic policies. The Tang, like most empires, established an elaborate network of roads to facilitate transportation and communication. Second, the Tang used the equal-field system to distribute land more equitably. Third, the Tang built on Han patterns to extend the imperial civil service examination system to a greater extent, resulting in a large class of well-educated loyal officials to run the state. Militarily, the Tang extended their influence into portions of Manchuria, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet, and far western China. Eventually the Tang emperors established a tributary relationship with these areas. A combination of internal and external challenges led to the decline of the Tang. Uprisings by An Lushan and Huang Chao caused political chaos while a deterioration of the equal-field system led to peasant unrest. The last Tang emperor abdicated in 907.
Song Taizu restored order and established the Song dynasty (960–1279). In an effort to secure his position, Song Taizu convinced his generals (with generous gifts) to enter early retirement. This decision would eventually come back to haunt the Song because it left China militarily weak. However, the Song more than made up for a weak army with brilliant achievements in civil administration, industry, education, and the arts. The Song further expanded the civil service examination system to reach well beyond the wealthy classes. In the end, economic problems at home and invasions by the Khitan and Jurchen tribes left the Song easy prey for later Mongol conquest.
The Tang and especially the Song enjoyed tremendous economic prosperity. Agricultural production increased, driven by the introduction of new crops such as fast-ripening rice and new agricultural techniques. This increase in turn, led to the rise of a commercialized agricultural economy. The population rose rapidly, increasing from 45 million in 600 to 115 million in 1200. Urbanization went hand in hand with the population explosion. Chang-an, the imperial capital, became the world’s largest city, with a population in excess of two million. As China became more urban it also became more patriarchal, probably best shown by the growing popularity of foot binding.
Technological advancements outpaced the agricultural improvements. Innovations in the production of porcelain led to trading opportunities as chinaware became a valued commodity. Similar advances were made in the iron and steel industry. The invention of gunpowder led to the production of bamboo “fire lances” and primitive bombs. These inventions, however, probably pale in comparison to the Song creation of reusable, moveable type in the eleventh century. More efficient means of printing led to less expensive texts and an increase in scholarship. The range of Chinese sailing increased dramatically because of innovations such as the “south-pointing needle,” or magnetic compass. Chinese merchants began to sail to ports in India, Persia, and east Africa. Increased trade led to greater specialization in food production and manufacturing. Trade was aided by the establishment of increasingly sophisticated banking instruments such as paper money.
Buddhism was introduced into China by merchants travelling along the silk roads as early as the second century B.C.E. The Buddhists would later be joined by Nestorian Christians, Manichaeans, Zoroastrians, and Muslims. Buddhism would eventually have the greatest appeal of the new religions, but not until the chaotic years after the collapse of the Han dynasty called into question the legitimacy of traditional Confucian or Daoist thought. The Chinese would become interested in Buddhism because of its moral standards, intellectual sophistication, and promise of salvation. At the same time, Buddhism provided challenges to traditional Chinese thought. In the end, syncretic versions of the new religion, most notably Chan Buddhism, arose. An attempt by the Tang emperors to drive out the Buddhists in the 840s failed. The threat posed by Buddhism caused Chinese thinkers to reexamine traditional Confucian doctrine. Philosophers such as Zhu Xi helped to create the Neo-Confucian school of thought.
Through economic and intellectual exchange China influenced the neighboring societies of Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. While China’s first connection with Korea and Vietnam during these years was a military one, the more lasting influences would be political and intellectual. The Korean Silla dynasty entered into a tributary relationship with the Tang dynasty in the seventh century. Concepts such as Confucianism and Buddhism became popular in Korea, although a bureaucracy based on merit was never established. The story was similar in Vietnam, although the Chinese-Viet relationship was never as amiable as the Chinese-Korean one.
Early Japanese history was also shaped by the Chinese example. The Japanese of the Nara and Heian periods copied Chinese Buddhist, Confucian, and literary patterns. The Chinese written script, much like Greek or Roman in the Mediterranean basin, became the language of scholarship. Interestingly, women, because they rarely received a classical Chinese education, had more flexibility to create because they used the developing Japanese script. For example, the first novel in history, Murasaki Shikibu’s extraordinary The Tale of Genji, was written during the Heian period. Despite the cultural achievements of this age, Japan remained a politically fragmented and warlike land. In 1185 the powerful Minamoto clan defeated their long-time rivals and established the Kamakura shogunate (1185–1333). Real political authority passed from the emperors to the shoguns. Japanese feudalism, with its warrior class (samurai) and code of conduct (bushido), reached its peak under the Muromachi shogunate (1336–1573).
India, just as did Greece, Rome, Constantinople, and China, played an influential role in shaping neighboring societies, in this case south and southeast Asia. The great difference between the situation in India and that of the other states was that no Indian state would develop to rival the political authority of the Tang or Roman states. Nevertheless, India’s distinctive political, cultural, and religious traditions continued to evolve and influence its neighbors. For example, Indian merchants carried Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam to southeast Asia.
Centralized political rule in India collapsed in 451 C.E. when the Guptas were overrun by White Huns from Central Asia, and it would not return until the sixteenth century. Internal wars and frequent invasions by Turkish-speaking nomads left northern India chaotic and politically fragmented. Brief reunification in the seventh century by the scholarly Buddhist emperor Harsha did little in the long run to change the political pattern in the north. This lack of political unity in the north made foreign incursion easy, and in 711 the Sind was incorporated into the Umayyad empire. The region eventually passed to the Abbasids and remained, although often only marginally, under their control into the thirteenth century. Islam also came into India via Muslim merchants and Turkish-speaking migrants from central Asia. Mahmud of Ghazni launched seventeen major invasions of India in the early eleventh century. The main goal of Mahmud was plunder, so he won very few converts to Islam. However, his invasions proved disastrous for Buddhism. A more stable Islamic state would eventually rise in Delhi in the thirteenth century. The Delhi Sultanate (1206–1526) restored order in northern India and was much more successful at spreading the Islamic faith.
While remaining politically divided, the smaller Hindu kingdoms of southern India were generally spared the constant invasions that tore apart the north. The Chola kingdom (850–1267) became rich from sea trade and eventually became powerful enough to extend marginal control over much of southern India. At its height the Chola kingdom controlled Ceylon as well as most of the area from the South China Sea to the Arabian Sea. The kingdom of Vijayanagar (1336–1565) dominated southern India after the collapse of the Chola kingdom. Harihara and Bukka, ironically two converted Muslim emissaries from the Delhi sultan, returned to their Hindu roots and carved off their own southern kingdom. Neither state could rival the power of the earlier Mauryan or Gupta empires.
Trade within and beyond the Indian Ocean basin increasingly forged links between India and other societies. Once farmers mastered sophisticated irrigation techniques, such as the reservoir at Bhopal, the agricultural foundation for expanded trade was in place. This food production helped India’s population double between 600 and 1500 (53 million to 105 million), which in turned fueled a corresponding urban expansion. By the fourteenth century, Delhi, with a population of over four hundred thousand, had become the second biggest Islamic city in the world. Increasingly specialized agricultural (i.e., cotton) and manufacturing production (i.e., high-carbon steel) followed. The locations of Ceylon and southern India ensured that these areas would benefit tremendously from the trading market. Temples served as financial, social, and agricultural centers and facilitated trade. The changing patterns of the monsoon seasons made India’s central location a perfect place to construct emporia. The east African kingdom of Axum benefited from Indian Ocean trade and eventually replaced Kush in significance. The caste system itself underwent a transformation as guilds became incorporated into its complex structure. Trade also helped to spread the caste system into southern India.
The postclassical age brought profound religious change in India. The popularity of Buddhism and Jainism decreased dramatically while Hinduism and the late-arriving Islam came to dominate society to a greater extent than ever before. Although several powerful Indian emperors had tried to make Buddhism the main religion of India over the centuries, it had never seriously competed with the more firmly entrenched Hinduism. The sacking of the Buddhist center of Nalanda in 1196 by Islamic forces was the beginning of the end for Buddhism in India.
The continued evolution of Hinduism, especially the growth of devotional cults dedicated to Vishnu and Shiva, helps to explain its growing popularity during these years. Worship of Vishnu, the Hindu preserver god, and Shiva, a god of both fertility and destruction, would bring salvation. The ninth-century Shiva devotee Shankara proposed that only through disciplined logical reasoning could an individual grasp the ultimate reality of the world spirit. Ramanuja, a later Vishnu devotee, mistrusted a coldly logical attempt to understand the reality of Brahman and instead recommended a path of intense devotion in order to reach union with the deity.
In its early centuries in India, Islam did not have the same appeal, mainly because it was the religion of the conquerors. Plus, leading positions in society inevitably fell to Muslims, causing even greater Hindu anger. By 1500, however, about one-fourth of India’s population had converted to Islam. The classic Islamic notion of the equality of all souls was very appealing to the members of lower castes. As was the case in many other areas of the growing dar al-Islam, in India Sufi mystics, because of their emphasis on a personal and emotional connection to Allah, became the most successful missionaries. Another explanation for Islam’s growing success was that it became less exclusionary. The bhakti movement worked to eliminate the distinction between Hinduism and Islam. Guru Kabir, a Sufi thinker, proposed that Shiva, Vishnu, and Allah were all manifestations of a single deity.
The islands and mainland of southeast Asia were influenced so profoundly by Indian thought that they are sometimes referred to as “Indianized states.” Religious concepts―Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic―were brought to southeast Asia by merchants and missionaries. At the same time Indian political and cultural traditions shaped neighboring societies. Funan, a wealthy trading kingdom along the Mekong River from the first to the sixth century, called their king a raja, wrote in Sanskrit, and worshipped Shiva and Vishnu. The Sumatran kingdom of Srivijaya (670–1025) dominated a sea trade route from China to India. A myriad of kingdoms followed, as complex as the Indian civilization from which they borrowed. Angkor in Cambodia displayed Hindu influences in its capital at Angkor Thom and Buddhist influences in its later capital at Angkor Wat. The powerful trading state of Melaka became Islamic.
During the early middle ages (500–1000 C.E.) Europe recovered from centuries of invasion and the collapse of Roman hegemony. Three foundations of European society came out of the early medieval years. First, while no European state was powerful enough to restore centralized imperial rule, the age did witness a return to political order. A decentralized, political structure rose instead. Second, increased agricultural production led to economic recovery and expanded trade. Third, the Christian church inspired religious leadership and cultural unity in western Europe.
After the fall of Rome several Germanic tribes established small states, but none of them came close to extending their authority and centralizing power. Spain fell to the Visigoths while the Ostrogoths and eventually the Lombards controlled Italy. The Burgundians and Franks divided up Gaul and the Angles and Saxons moved into England. Of these tribes, the Franks would have the greatest influence. With the rise of the Franks the center of political power moved north of the Mediterranean basin. Clovis (481–511), the most powerful Frankish leader, extended his empire through military conquest. More important, however, was his decision to convert to Christianity. This decision worked to unite his peoples as well as strengthen his tie to the popes. Unfortunately, Clovis would be the last effective Frankish king for centuries.
Beginning in the eighth century the Carolingians, named after Charles “the Hammer” Martel, temporarily restored order. Charles Martel’s grandson, Charlemagne (768–814), would prove to be the most powerful Carolingian king as well as one of the most influential European rulers of all time. While primarily known for his military successes in conquering northeastern Spain, Bavaria, and northern Italy, there are were many aspects to Charlemagne’s personality. Through the use of the missi dominici he worked to restore political order. Despite, and maybe because of, his own limited education, Charlemagne tried to bring about educational reform. On Christmas Day 800 he received an imperial crown from Pope Leo III. Historians still debate Charlemagne’s role in the crowning. The unified empire barely outlived the reign of Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious (814-840). Political power fell to the counts and local authorities, and the empire fractured.
Invasions by Muslims, Magyars, and Vikings certainly hastened the process of political fragmentation. Of these invaders the Vikings, who raided Russia, Germany, England, Ireland, France, Spain, and Constantinople, would prove the most troublesome and influential. Around the year 1000 they even established a short-lived colony in Newfoundland. After the collapse of Charlemagne’s empire, regional kingdoms rose to take its place. King Alfred (871–899) unified England. In the German lands King Otto I of Saxony (936–973) defeated the Magyars and extended his kingdom into northern Italy. The Holy Roman Empire began when Otto received an imperial crown from the pope in 962.
In the absence of centralized imperial rule, the decentralized political system rose to provide some order. Historians once used the term feudalism to refer to the political and social order of medieval Europe, although many are moving away from it because it oversimplifies a remarkably complex world. Local authorities such as counts increased their power after the fall of the Carolingian empire. At the heart of this system was the reciprocal lord-retainer relationship. As part of the agreement the lord provided the retainer with justice and protection. The lords granted to the retainers benefices, usually sections of land called fiefs. In return the retainer owed the lord loyalty, obedience, and military service. From a simple beginning this system eventually developed into a complex structure, with individuals acting as both lords and retainers in the evolving pyramid. While the system had the potential for chaos, it also provided the opportunity for the kingdoms of England and France to develop into powerful states.
The military contingent of the feudal system comprised only a small percentage at the top. The vast majority of the population lived as serfs on the manors of the nobles. The serfs, while not chattel slaves, existed as semifree individuals and were legally tied to the manors of the great nobles. Their obligation to the nobles in labor service and produce made them the agricultural foundation of the feudal system. Before the reinvigoration of European cities the manors, mainly self-sufficient, served as the main form of agricultural organization. Innovations such as a heavier plow, along with watermills and new methods of crop rotation, eventually allowed for increased agricultural production. This, in turn, sparked increased trade and urbanization as well as an increase in population. By the year 1000 the European population had returned to the Roman high in 200 C.E. of 36 million.
Its conversion to Christianity provided Europe with a unifying force as well as an invaluable connection to the ancient world. Clovis’s conversion to Christianity intricately tied the Franks to Roman Catholicism as well as papal policies. The northern German kings, including Charlemagne, viewed themselves as protectors of the papacy. In return for his support Charlemagne received the imperial crown. Charlemagne used the monasteries and church officials to further his own educational reforms. The church, in turn, benefited from Charlemagne’s efforts to spread the faith. A series of strong popes, most notably Gregory I (590–604), oversaw a strengthening of papal power. The notion of papal supremacy was one of the foundations of Gregory’s thought. The schism in 1054 between the popes and the patriarchs of Constantinople is representative of the growing strength and independence of the Roman church. Christianity also spread through the growing popularity of monasticism. Church leaders such as St. Benedict (480–547) and St. Scholastica (482–543) instituted rules that strengthened the social mission of the monasteries. The monasteries served as orphanages, hospitals, and schools as well as agricultural and scholastic centers.
Nomadic tribes played a dominant role in Eurasia between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries. Persia, Anatolia, and India were transformed after conquests by Turkish tribes. The Mongols created the largest empire of all time, stretching from China to Russia, during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Even after the collapse of the Mongol empire in the fifteenth century, a resurgence of Turkish power continued the influence of these nomadic tribes. The Turkish and Mongol conquests inspired closer connections between the Eurasian lands by facilitating cross-cultural communication and exchange, with increased trade being the best example.
The Turkish peoples formed a collection of loosely structured heterogeneous tribes with the emphasis on clan or tribal loyalty. Although the tribes spoke related languages, they were nomadic and never approached true centralized rule. The central Asian environment and resulting Turkish nomadic lifestyle made large-scale agriculture or craft manufacturing impossible. However, the Turkish tribes made perfect trading partners for settled communities, and they played a key role in the long-distance trade networks. Turkish nomadic society remained both simple and fluid, with passage between noble and commoner status possible. Shamanism dominated early Turkish religion. The Turks would later be influenced by Buddhist, Nestorian Christian, Manichaean, and Islamic thought.
Military expansion became possible when the Turkish tribes began to unify into confederations. The Khan, or leader of the confederations, ruled indirectly over increasingly large groups. Their equestrian and archery skills made the Turks substantial military threats. The Saljuq Turks were originally drawn to the Abbasid empire because of trading opportunities. By 1055 the Abbasid caliph accepted the Saljuq Turk leader Tughril Beg as sultan, or “chieftain.” The Saljuq Turks continued to expand and eventually reduced the Abbasid caliphs to mere puppet rulers. In the north other Saljuq Turks turned their attention to the riches of the Byzantine empire, inflicting a painful defeat at Manzikert in 1071. The defeat left Anatolia in Saljuq control, and the Byzantine empire never recovered. Further east the Ghaznavid Turks, under the control of Mahmud of Ghazni, pushed into northern India. Mahmud’s main goal was plunder, and he wrought tremendous destruction, especially with his plundering of Hindu and Buddhist temples. Later Turks would establish more permanent rule with the creation of the Delhi Sultanate.
Turkish expansion was interrupted by the rise of the powerful Mongol empires. From the wilds of the high steppe lands of east central Asia the Mongols roared across Eurasia to create the largest empire of all time. Temujin, better known as Chinggis Khan (“universal ruler”), united the Mongol tribes in 1206. He was a brilliant general as well as a master of steppe diplomacy, a complex mixture of courage, loyalty, and deceit. By breaking down tribal affiliations and promoting officials based on talent and loyalty, Chinggis Khan created a powerful Mongol fighting force, even though his army never numbered more than around 125,000. Like the Turks, the Mongol forces depended on surprising speed and legendary archery skills.
From his capital at Karakorum Chinggis Khan began to expand. By 1215 he had pushed into northern China and defeated the Jurchen, who had dominated the later Song period. The renamed Khanbaliq (“city of the khan”), the former Jurchen capital, served as the Mongol capital in China. At the same time, Chinggis Khan drove into Persia. In 1219 his forces slaughtered hundreds of thousands in Persia in revenge for a slight from the Khwarzam shah. Despite the extraordinary military success, Chinggis Khan was no administrator and didn’t attempt to create a truly centralized empire. After Chinggis Khan’s death in 1227 his empire split into four regional states: the great khans in China, the Chaghatai khans in central Asia, the ilkhans in Persia, and the khans of the Golden Horde in Russia.
The wealthiest region was, not surprisingly, China, under the control of Chinggis Khan’s grandson Khubilai Khan. Besides being a fierce warrior, Khubilai Khan also supported his subjects culturally and religiously. By 1279 he had conquered southern China and proclaimed the Yuan dynasty. His attempts to conquer Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, Japan, and Java were less successful. Russia was dominated, although not occupied, by the Golden Horde from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. Hülegü, Khubilai Khan’s brother, defeated the Abbasids and devastated Persia during the thirteenth century. There were several key differences between the Mongol rule in Persia and in China. The ilkhans made use of the brilliant Persian bureaucracy whereas the great khans in China preferred foreign administrators. Islam became the favored religion of the ilkhans whereas the Mongols in central Asia and China were drawn to the Lamaist school of Buddhism. Through a combination of trade, diplomatic missions, and the resettlement of skilled conquered peoples, the Mongols facilitated greater integration in Eurasia. Internal rebellions, disease, and crippling inflation helped to bring an end to the brief reigns of the Mongols in Persia and China. The Chaghatai khanate remained a threat until the eighteenth century.
Turkish expansion continued after the Mongol collapse. Timur the Lame, better known in English as Tamerlane, took Chinggis Khan as a model and launched a massive period of conquest in the late fourteenth century. Within the space of a few years Tamerlane dominated the Chaghatai khanate; weakened the Golden Horde; sacked Delhi; carried out campaigns in Asia; in Anatolia, and along the Ganges; and launched an invasion of China. Only Tamerlane’s unexpected death in 1405 stopped his expansion. As with the earlier Turks and Mongols, Tamerlane was a conqueror and not an administrator. His empire fell apart shortly after his death, although his legacy would be felt in the later rise of the Islamic Mughal, Safavid, and Ottoman empires. The Ottomans, founded by Osman in the late thirteenth century, proved to be the most powerful of these empires, and they profoundly influenced history through their conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
Throughout most of the classical age, sub-Saharan Africa participated in the economy of the eastern hemisphere to a limited degree. Geographic factors, most notably the Sahara desert, restricted trade and communication between sub-Saharan Africa and its neighbors to the north. Despite these boundaries, the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa developed “stateless” societies and intricate religious concepts. The migration of the Bantu-speaking tribes brought languages and iron metallurgy to most of the sub-Saharan region. Later the rise of trans-Saharan trade helped to transform African life by inspiring larger, more centralized kingdoms and introducing new religions such as Islam and Christianity.
By the year 1000 Bantu-speaking people had spread throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa. During the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. the Bantu mastered iron metallurgy, and they spread this skill throughout Africa by their migrations. Between 400 B.C.E. and 1000 C.E. the population of sub-Saharan Africa expanded from around 3.5 million to over 22 million, partially because of agricultural advancements such as the domestication of the banana. By around 1000 C.E. the Bantu had spread throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa, and their language differentiated into around five hundred different tongues. Early Bantu political organization was marked by a structure often referred to as “stateless societies,” which meant that there was no elaborate bureaucracy or hierarchy of officials. This does not mean, however, that there was no governmental structure. Rather, family and kinship units played a much more strategic role in providing a governing structure. Male family heads made up a village ruling council, with the most prominent member acting as chief. Groups of villages would join together to form a district, but apparently the government was more collective and less truly centralized. After the year 1000 C.E. increasing population pressures and military challenges led to the rise of more centralized governments and larger kingdoms. The best example of a Bantu kingdom would be Kongo, which reached its peak in the fourteenth century.
The rise of trans-Saharan trade, precipitated by among other things the increasing domestication of the camel, profoundly influenced the world of sub-Saharan Africa. In addition to more tangible trade goods such as gold or slaves, religious concepts such as Islam also crossed the desert. A series of powerful and dynamic Islamic kingdoms, beginning with Ghana, rose to dominate west Africa. Ghana, centered around its capital of Koumbi-Saleh, controlled the gold trade across the Sahara. In the thirteenth century Ghana was superseded by Mali under the leadership of the legendary lion king Sundiata. Mali dominated the trade routes and west Africa from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. The peak of Mali’s power came during the reign of Mansa Musa, whose pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324–1325 is probably the single most dramatic moment in medieval African history. Despite being a very conscious display of his wealth and splendor, Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage was also indicative of his tremendous devotion to Islam and the religion spread rapidly during his reign.
East Africa was also dependent on trade, except in this instance the trade went through the Indian Ocean. Swahili city-states such as Mogadishu, Lamu, Malindi, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Mozambique, and Sofala dominated east Africa politically and economically. Islamic merchants exchanged goods from Persia, India, and China with the city-states. Eventually the Swahili leaders converted to Islam. The most prosperous of the Swahili city-states was Kilwa, which was influential from around 1300 until the city-state was sacked by the Portuguese in 1505. Central African kingdoms such as Zimbabwe also indirectly shared in the trading prosperity. The magnificence of stone complexes such as Great Zimbabwe speaks to the power and wealth of this kingdom.
Africa has always been, and continues to be, a land of extraordinary diversity. This diversity expresses itself politically and linguistically but also socially and culturally. The larger kingdoms developed social classes similar to most other societies studied so far, while the smaller states and stateless societies created a more fluid social situation. In these smaller states, conditions such as kinship, age groupings, and sex and gender expectations played a more important role in establishing social position. Even considering the dominant role played by men politically, women in sub-Saharan Africa possessed more opportunities than did women in other parts of the world. Even the arrival of Islam did not substantially worsen the condition of women in sub-Saharan Africa. Private ownership of land was not an established institution. This fact made the possession of slaves an important barometer of personal wealth. As many as ten million African slaves were shipped north as part of the trans-Saharan slave trade between 750 and 1500 C.E. The Zanj slave revolt led by Ali bin Muhammad expressed the important role that slavery played in Islamic society. African religious life also mirrored the complexity of the continent. Certain factors, however, such as the existence of a distant creator-god, the possibility of reaching lesser gods and spirits associated with nature, and the role of diviners in making that connection, were common motifs. The arrival of Islam and to a lesser extent Christianity, as seen in the kingdom of Axum, brought about a transformation of African religious life. Nevertheless, these new religions never completely eliminated the native traditions and often, in fact, took on aspects of the original African beliefs.
Europe made great advances in the centuries after the year 1000 C.E. From a chaotic, bloody, and largely isolated land during the early middle ages, Europe saw the rise of a powerful political, economic and cultural world during the high middle ages. While the dream of re-creating Roman unification may have been the ideal, European political leaders never passed beyond the establishment of regional states. The population rose rapidly as a result of agricultural advancements. Vibrant economic growth developed hand in hand with the establishment of long-distance trade and urbanization. Philosophy and theology reflected the excitement of the age. Maybe the best proof of an expanding and powerful Europe was the crusades, as the Europeans began to play a much more aggressive role in the world.
Although Roman unification never returned, the rise of powerful regional states brought a greater sense of stability to Europe. Otto I of Saxony conquered large sections of Germany, Poland, and the Czech lands and received an imperial crown from Pope John XII in 962. While the resulting Holy Roman Empire had the potential to restore unity, its incessant battles with the papacy left the empire internally divided and externally weak. The church versus state controversy, highlighted by the investiture contest, reached its peak with the struggle between Pope Gregory VII (1073–1085) and the Holy Roman emperor Henry IV (1056–1106). Their confrontation at Canossa marked the high point of the medieval papacy and left the Holy Roman emperors weakened. Frederick Barbarossa (1152–1190) also saw his power limited when the popes forced him to withdraw from Lombardy. In the end, the Holy Roman Empire never lived up to the glories inherent in its name. Similar processes, of lesser or greater success, were also at work elsewhere. The Capetian monarchy in France may have begun with Hugh Capet in 987, but it took centuries for the French kings to centralize authority. The process would move quicker in England, mainly because the Normans transferred existing centralized institutions across the Channel after William’s conquest in 1066. The Italian states, both secular and ecclesiastical, remained politically weak and divided even as they began to develop economically. Islamic control over the Iberian peninsula faded with the rise of Castile, Aragon, and Portugal.
Economic advancement mirrored and in fact outpaced the political development of Europe during the high middle ages. An increase in agricultural production played a huge role in this process. The clearing of forests and draining of swamps led to more arable land. Improved techniques, such as new crops, and technological advances, such as the horseshoe and horse collar, increased productivity. The result was a marked increase in population. The European population rose from around 29 million in 800 C.E. to over 79 million in 1300. This population explosion provided the impetus for a resurgence of towns and trade after the earlier decline following the fall of Rome. Labor specialization was a natural result of the new urbanization. Italy, with the rise of Venice, Genoa, Pisa, and Naples, was the chief recipient of the revival of towns. These Italian city-states also founded colonies in the major ports of the Mediterranean. The Hanseatic League was a similar trading network that promoted trade in the North Sea and Baltic Sea. Improved business techniques, such as letters of credit and partnerships, played as much of a role in this evolution as they did in economic and trading expansions in other parts of the world.
Europe also transformed socially during these pivotal centuries. The three estates, or classes, were represented by the old saying about “those who pray, those who fight, and those who work.” By its very definition, the system was politically, socially, and economically unequal. Nevertheless, the rise of chivalry did demonstrate a transformation of medieval society as the nobles were expected to achieve high ethical standards. Women such as Eleanor of Aquitaine avidly supported troubadours, a concept drawn from the Islamic world, who played on these courtly values. This social transformation was most noticeable in the cities, which increasingly won charters of incorporation and thus independence from noble control. Guilds, which regulated the sale and quality of goods as well as the training of apprentices, expressed the growing influence of the urban working classes. Women also possessed more freedom in the cities. The majority of guilds accepted female members.
Not surprisingly, the Christian church and doctrine provided the inspiration for most of the literature, art, and music of the high middle ages. Growing economic prosperity provided the means for the rise of the cathedral schools, which ensured a more structured environment for learning than had been available in the earlier centuries of the middle ages. These cathedral schools promoted a formal curriculum based on the study of Latin, the liberal arts, and the writings of the early church fathers. The early universities in Bologna, Paris, Salerno, Rome, Naples, Seville, Salamanca, Oxford, and Cambridge expanded on these educational opportunities. At the same time European scholars came into contact with many of the works and ideas of Aristotle from Byzantine and Islamic sources. Thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas attempted to reconcile Christian beliefs with the intellectual logic and rigor of Aristotle. If God could be proven rationally, then the Christian did not have to depend on blind faith alone.
The precise logic of St. Thomas Aquinas mattered much less to the average Christian than did the growing popularity of the observance of the sacraments and devotion to the saints. The Virgin Mary proved to be the most popular saint during the high middles ages. Relics and pilgrimages also were popular. The Dominicans of St. Dominic and the Franciscans of St. Francis rebelled against the materialism of many Christians and instead encouraged spiritualism and service. Other groups, most notably the Waldensians and Cathars (Albigensians), criticized the church and operated so far outside the mainstream Catholic world that they were branded heretics. The Waldensians criticized the immorality of many members of the clergy and promoted the right of the laity to preach. The Cathars called for an ascetic lifestyle and a rejection of the Catholic church.
For good or bad, maybe the best proof of Europe’s rise was its expansion, in regard to both exploration and military invasion, into other lands. The Vikings sailed to Iceland, Greenland, and eventually to Newfoundland. Back home the Scandinavians converted to Christianity. Through a combination of military might and religious zeal, military-religious orders such as the Templars, Hospitallers, and Teutonic Knights spread Christianity to the Slavic peoples of the Baltic region. The expansion also stretched south into the Mediterranean world. In the eleventh century two brothers, Robert and Roger Guiscard, gained control over southern Italy and Sicily, respectively. By 1492 the reconquista was complete and the Iberian peninsula was back under Christian control. The crusades, whether against non-Christian Slavs, Cathar heretics, or Muslims in Palestine, were part of this expansion. Pope Urban II’s call in 1095 for European knights to retake the holy land provided the inspiration for the crusades. The only crusade that reached its goal was the the first crusade, which captured Jerusalem in 1099. The victory proved fleeting, however, because the Islamic leader Saladin recaptured Jerusalem in 1187. Later crusades fell far short of their goals, with the disastrous fourth crusade managing only to sack Constantinople. The political and religious failures of the crusades would be made up for by increased economic and commercial opportunities resulting from greater contact between the Europeans and the eastern Mediterranean.