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Chapter Eight: Religious and Political Transformations (300-600)


East Asia | Rome, Europe and the Byzantine Empire | South Asia 220-280: Three Kingdoms period 235-284: The Third Century Crisis 265-317: Western Jin period 317-589: Northern and Southern Dynasties period 320-550 Gupta Empire 325: Council of Nicaea  395: Permanent division of Roman Empire into Eastern and Western portions 410: Roman army abandons Britain 476: Ostrogothic general Odavacar deposes last Western Roman Emperor 496: Frankish king Clovis converts to Christianity 500s: Anglo-Saxon migration into Britain

597: Christian Missionaries dispatched from Rome arrive in Britain


This chapter tracks the development of the states that “anchored” Afro-Eurasa in the early centuries of the common era, the Roman Empire in the west and the Han Dynasties in the east. As we saw, in the 220s, the Han dynasty collapsed and China entered an age of disunity. Beginning around the same time, leaders of the Roman Empire began to innovate new methods of governing such a large state. One of these innovations was the division of the empire—a development that would contribute to the growing fracturing of the Roman state. In both of these regions, as well as in South Asia, new or developing religious traditions would have an impact and, to some degree, serve as a stabilizing factor as political systems went through periods of chaos and change. In particular, Christianity in the west and Buddhism in China would have a lasting influence in these areas.

Questions to Guide Your Reading

  1. What were the problems that the Roman Empire faced during the third-century crisis, and how did Diocletian attempt to resolve these?
  2. What changes did the Roman Empire experience in the fourth century CE, and what were the causes of these changes?
  3. How did the Church provide a sense of legitimacy to the kings of the Franks?
  4. In what ways could the Gupta period be described as a “classical” age?
  5. How did Buddhism become a major religious tradition in China? 

Key Terms 

  • Augustine, City of God
  • Bhagavad-Gita
  • Body of Civil Law/Justinian Code
  • Byzantine Empire/Byzantium
  • Chandragupta I (Gupta Empire)
  • Constantine
  • Constantinople
  • Council of Nicaea
  • Dharma (Buddhist and Hindu)
  • Dharma Scriptures
  • Gupta Empire
  • Hagia Sophia
  • Northern and Southern Dynasties
  • Ostrogoths
  • Ramayana
  • Three Kingdoms period
  • Vandals
  • Visigoths
  • Yellow Turbans

The Late Roman Empire and the Post-Roman West

Early Christianity in the Context of the Roman Empire

If you recall from Chapter 7, Pliny was a Roman governor who wrote many letters to the Emperor asking for guidance in various political difficulties. One of the problems that arose in Bithynia during Pliny’s time as governor in 111 – 113 CE involved procedural questions on how to treat Christians in the province. Pliny does not seem to have much knowledge about them but is struck by what he describes as their stubbornness in clinging to their faith even when threatened with death. As he points out in his letter on the subject to Trajan, he has judged this stubbornness alone sufficient to merit punishment, presumably because it showed a dangerous level of disrespect towards Roman rule. Pliny’s perspective is one of the earliest non-Christian sources about the new religion and shows how quickly it had spread over the Empire. But how and why did the new religion spread so rapidly over the Empire, and why was it so attractive to different populations? After all, quite a number of different cults and self-proclaimed prophets periodically appeared in the Roman world, yet none had the long-term impact of Christianity, which just two centuries after Pliny’s day became the religion of the Roman emperor himself.

Early Christianity is, in some ways, an ancient historian’s dream: for few other topics in Roman history do we have so many primary sources from both the perspective of insiders and outsiders, beginning with the earliest days of the movement. The New Testament, in particular, is a collection of primary sources by early Christians about their movement, with some of the letters composed merely twenty-five years after Jesus’ crucifixion. It is a remarkably open document, collecting theological beliefs and stories about Jesus on which the faith was built. At the same time, however, the New Testament does not “white-wash” the early churches; rather, it documents their failings and short-comings with remarkable frankness, allowing the historian to consider the challenges that the early Christians faced from not only the outside but also within the movement.

The story of the origins of the faith is explained more plainly in the four Gospels, placed at the beginning of the New Testament. While different emphases are present in each of the four Gospels, the basic story is as follows: God himself came to earth as a human baby, lived a life among the Jews, performed a number of miracles that hinted at his true identity, but ultimately was crucified, died, and rose again on the third day. His resurrection proved to contemporary witnesses that his teachings were true and inspired many of those who originally rejected him to follow him. While the movement originated as a movement within Judaism, it ultimately floundered in Judea but quickly spread throughout the Greek-speaking world—due to the work of such early missionaries as Paul. (Visit this link to view a map of Paul’s missionary journeys).

It would be no exaggeration to call the early Christian movement revolutionary. In a variety of respects, it went completely against every foundational aspect of Roman (and, really, Greek) society. First, the Christian view of God was very different from the pagan conceptions of gods throughout the ancient Mediterranean. While in traditional Roman paganism the gods had petty concerns and could treat humans unfairly, if they so wished, Christianity by contrast presented the message that God himself became man and dwelt with men as an equal. This concept of God incarnate had revolutionary implications for social relations in a Christian worldview. For early Christians, their God’s willingness to take on humanity and then sacrifice himself for the sins of the world served as the greatest equalizer: since God had suffered for all of them, they were all equally important to him, and their social positions in the Roman world had no significance in God’s eyes. Finally, early Christianity was a religion with a clearly defined eschatological viewpoint (eschatology is the branch of theology concerned with the ultimate fate of humanity and the earth). Many early Christians believed that Jesus was coming back soon, and the eagerly awaited his arrival, which would erase all inequality and social distinctions.


Christ as the Good Shepherd in a Third-Century CE Catacomb Painting

Author: User “Waf ws9761”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: Public Domain

By contrast, traditional Roman society, as the conflict of the orders in the early Republic showed, was extremely stratified. While the conflict of the orders was resolved by the mid-Republic, sharp divisions between the rich and poor remained. While social mobility was possible—for instance, slaves could be freed, and within a generation, their descendants could be Senators—extreme mobility was the exception rather than the rule. Furthermore, gender roles in Roman society were extremely rigid, as all women were subject to male authority. Indeed, the paterfamilias, or head of the household, had the power of life or death over all living under his roof, including in some cases adult sons, who had their own families. Christianity challenged all of these traditional relationships, nullifying any social differences, and treating the slave and the free the same way. Furthermore, Christianity provided a greater degree of freedom than women had previously known in the ancient world, with only the Stoics coming anywhere close in their view on gender roles. Christianity allowed women to serve in the church and remain unmarried, if they so chose, and even to become heroes of the faith by virtue of their lives or deaths, as in the case of the early martyrs. Indeed, the Passion of the Saints Perpetua and Felicity, which documents the two women’s martyrdom in Carthage in 203 CE, shows all of these reversals of Roman tradition in practice.

The Passion of the Saints Perpetua and Felicity was compiled by an editor shortly after the fact and includes Perpetua’s own prison diary, as she awaited execution. The inclusion of a woman’s writings already makes the text unusual, as virtually all surviving texts from the Roman world are by men. In addition, Perpetua was a noblewoman, yet she was imprisoned and martyred together with her slave, Felicity. The two women, as the text shows, saw each other as equals, despite their obvious social distinction. Furthermore, Perpetua challenged her father’s authority as paterfamilias by refusing to obey his command to renounce her faith and thus secure freedom. Such outright disobedience would have been shocking to Roman audiences. Finally, both Perpetua and Felicity placed their role as mothers beneath their Christian identity, as both gave up their babies in order to be able to be martyred. Their story, as those of other martyrs, was truly shocking in their rebellion against Roman values, but their extraordinary faith in the face of death proved to be contagious. As recent research shows, conversion to Christianity in the Roman Empire sped up over the course of the second and third centuries CE, despite periodic persecutions by such emperors as Septimius Severus, who issued an edict in 203 CE forbidding any conversions to Judaism and Christianity. That edict led to the execution of Perpetua and Felicity.

Most of the early Christians lived less eventful (and less painful) lives than Perpetua and Felicity, but the reversals to tradition inherent in Christianity appear clearly in their lives as well. First, the evidence of the New Testament, portions of which were written as early as the 60s CE, shows that the earliest Christians were from all walks of life; Paul, for instance, was a tent-maker. Some other professions of Christians and new converts that are mentioned in the New Testament include prison guards, Roman military officials of varying ranks, and merchants. Some, like Paul, were Roman citizens, with all the perks inherent in that position, including the right of appeal to the Emperor and the right to be tried in Rome. Others were non-citizen free males of varying provinces, women, and slaves. Stories preserved in Acts and in the epistles of Paul that are part of the New Testament reveal ways—the good, the bad, and the ugly—in which these very different people tried to come together and treat each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Some of the struggles that these early churches faced included sexual scandal (the Corinthian church witnessed the affair of a stepmother with her stepson), unnecessary quarrelling and litigation between members, and the challenge of figuring out the appropriate relationship between the requirements of Judaism and Christianity (to circumcise or not to circumcise? That was the question, as were the strict Jewish dietary laws). It is important to note that early Christianity appears to have been predominantly an urban religion and spread most quickly throughout urban centers. Thus Paul’s letters address the churches in different cities throughout the Greek-speaking world and show the existence of a network of relationships between the early churches, despite the physical distance between them. Through that network, the churches were able to carry out group projects, such as fundraising for areas in distress, and could also assist Christian missionaries in their work. By the early second century CE, urban churches were led by bishops, who functioned as overseers for spiritual and practical matters of the church in their region.

Third Century Crisis: Diocletian and Late Antiquity

While the second century CE was a time when the Empire flourished, the third century was a time of crisis, defined by political instability and civil wars, which ultimately demonstrated that the Empire had become too large to be effectively controlled by one ruler. Furthermore, the increasing pressures on the frontiers, which required emperors to spend much of their time on military campaigns, resulted in the decline of the importance of the city of Rome. By the end of the third century, an experiment with dividing the empire showed a different model of rule, one which lasted, albeit with some interludes, until the last Western emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in 476 CE. While the political narrative of the third century and Late Antiquity could be described as a story of “the decline and fall of the Roman Empire” (as the British historian Gibbon famously called it), nevertheless, it was a period in which culture, and especially Christian culture, flourished and replaced the traditional Roman pagan mode of thinking. Far from being culturally a time of “decline and fall,” Late Antiquity, rather, was looking forward to the world of the Middle Ages. It was also the period of Roman history that produced some of its most influential leaders, most notably, Constantine.

Although composed during a time of prosperity in the Empire, Apuleius’ novel Metamorphoses showed tensions in the provinces, indicative of the failure of Empire to govern all portions equally effectively. While not visible in the larger urban centers until the third century CE, these tensions manifested themselves clearly during the third-century crisis, a period of almost fifty years (235 – 284 CE) that was characterized by unprecedented political, social, and economic upheaval across the Empire. In effect, the third-century crisis was the year 69 CE repeated, but this time it stretched over half a century. The same secrets of power that 69 CE revealed for the first time— that armies could make emperors and that emperors could be made outside of Rome—were now on display yet again.

Crisis map

Map of the Roman Empire during the Third-Century Crisis

Author: User “Wanwa” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

In 235 CE, the emperor Severus Alexander was assassinated by his troops on campaign, who then proclaimed as emperor their general Maximinus Thrax. Over the subsequent half-century, twenty-six emperors were officially recognized by the Roman Senate, and a number of others were proclaimed emperors but did not live long enough to consolidate power and be officially accepted as emperors by the Senate.

Most of these new emperors were military generals who were proclaimed by their troops on campaign. Most of them did not have any previous political experience and thus had no clear program for ruling the empire. The competing claims resulted in the temporary breaking away from the Roman Empire of regions to the East and the Northwest. The political instability that resulted was not, however, the only problem with which the Empire had to contend. In addition to political upheaval and near-constant civil wars, the Empire was also dealing with increasing pressures on the frontiers, a plague that devastated the population, a famine, and rampant inflation. Roman emperors, starting with Nero, had been debasing the Roman coinage, but not until the third-century crisis did the inflation hit in full force.

The third-century crisis showed that a single emperor stationed in Rome was no longer equipped to deal with the challenges of ruling such a vast territory. And, indeed, so recognized the man who ended the crisis: the emperor Diocletian. Born to a socially insignificant family in the province of Dalmatia, Diocletian had a successful military career. Proclaimed emperor by his troops in 284 CE, Diocletian promptly displayed a political acumen that none of his predecessors in the third century possessed. Realizing that, as the third-century crisis showed, a single emperor in charge of the entire empire was a “sitting duck,” whose assassination would throw the entire empire into yet another civil war, Diocletian established a new system of rule: the Tetrarchy, or the rule of four. He divided the empire into four regions, each with its own capital.

It is important to note that Rome was not the capital of its region. Diocletian clearly wanted to select as capitals cities with strategic importance, taking into account such factors as proximity to problematic frontiers. Of course, as a Dalmatian of low birth, Diocletian also lacked the emotional connection to Rome that the earliest emperors possessed. Two of the regions of the Tetrarchy were ruled by senior emperors, named Augusti (“Augustus” in the singular), and two were ruled by junior emperors, named Caesares (“Caesar” in the singular). One of the Augusti was Diocletian himself, with Maximian as the second Augustus. The two men’s sons-in-law, Galerius and Constantus Chlorus, became the two Caesares. Finally, it is important to note that in addition to reforming imperial rule, Diocletian attempted to address other major problems, such as inflation, by passing the Edict of Maximum Prices. This edict set a maximum price that could be charged on basic goods and services in the Empire. He also significantly increased the imperial bureaucracy.


Map of the Roman Empire under the Tetrarchy

Author: Coppermine Photo Gallery Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0



State Column of the Tetrarchs

Author: Nino Barbieri Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0


In a nutshell, as some modern historians have described him, Diocletian was the most significant Roman reformer since Augustus. Diocletian’s political experiment was most clearly successful in achieving one goal: ending the third-century crisis. The four men were able to rule the empire and restore a degree of political stability. A statue column of the Tetrarchs together displays their message of unity in rule: the four men are portrayed identically, so it is impossible to tell them apart. Showing their predominantly military roles, they are dressed in military garb, rather than the toga, the garb of politicians and citizens, and each holds one hand on the hilt of his sword and hugs one of the other Tetrarchs with the other. While it succeeded in restoring stability to the Empire, inherent within the Tetrarchy was the question of succession, which turned out to be a much greater problem than Diocletian had anticipated. Hoping to provide for a smooth transition of power, Diocletian abdicated in 305 CE and required Maximian to do the same. The two Caesares, junior emperors, were promptly promoted to Augusti, and two new Caesares were appointed. The following year, however, Constantius Chlorus, a newly minted Augustus, died. His death resulted in a series of wars for succession, which ended Diocletian’s experiment of the Tetrarchy. The wars ended with Constantius’ son, Constantine, reuniting the entire Roman Empire under his rule in 324 CE. In the process, Constantine also brought about a major religious shift in the Empire.

From Constantine to the Last Pagans of Rome

While traditional Roman religion was the ultimate melting pot, organically incorporating a broad variety of new cults and movements from the earliest periods of Roman expansion, Christianity’s monotheistic exclusivity challenged traditional Roman religion and transformed Roman ways of thinking about religion in late antiquity.By the early fourth century CE, historians estimate that about ten percent of those living in the Roman Empire were Christians. With Constantine, however, this changed, and the previously largely underground faith grew exponentially because of the emperor’s endorsement. The emperor’s conversion must have seemed nothing short of miraculous to contemporaries, and a miracle is told to explain it in contemporary sources. Before a major battle in 312 CE, Constantine reportedly had a dream or a vision in which Christ himself told Constantine to place the Greek letters X and P (Chi, Rho, the first two letters of Christ’s name in the Greek alphabet) on his soldiers’ shields in order to assure victory.

Constantine Banner

Constantine’s Military Standard | Reconstruction of Constantine’s Military Standard, Incorporating the Chi Rho letters

Author: Nordisk Familjebok

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: Public Domain

Grateful for his subsequent victory, Constantine proceeded to play a major role in the government of the church over the course of his rule, although he was not baptized himself until he was on his deathbed. Constantine, for instance, summoned the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, which gathered major bishops from all over the Empire. The Council settled, among other issues, the question of the relationship of God the Father and God the Son, declaring them to have been one being from the creation of the world, thus affirming the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Council set a significant precedent for communication of bishops in the Empire. It ended up being merely the first of seven major ecumenical councils, the last of them being the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 CE. The councils allowed the increasingly different churches of the Eastern and Western parts of the Roman Empire to work together on key doctrines and beliefs of the church. Last but not least, Constantine’s rule marked the end of the city of Rome as the capital of the Roman Empire. Upon reuniting the Empire in 324 CE, Constantine established his capital at the old location of the Greek city of Byzantium, but renamed it Constantinople. The location had strategic advantages for the Empire at that stage. First, it had an excellent harbor. Second, it was close to the Persian frontier, as well as the Danube frontier, a trouble area that required attention from the emperor. Finally, building this new city, to which he also referred as “New Rome,” allowed Constantine to send the message that his rule was a new beginning of sorts for the Roman Empire, which was now to be a Christian empire.

With the Emperor’s backing, Christianity seems to have grown exponentially over the course of the fourth century CE, much to the chagrin of Julian the Apostate, Rome’s final pagan emperor, who tried hard to restore traditional Roman paganism during his brief rule (361 – 363 CE). Finally, the Emperor Theodosius gradually banned paganism altogether by 395 CE. Thus a mere eighty-three years after Constantine’s initial expression of support for Christianity, it became the official religion of Rome. Paganism continued to limp on for another century or so, but without state support, it slowly died out.

The Decline of the Empire: Looking Forward while Looking Back with Augustine and Last Pagans of Rome

Imagine that you are a citizen of the greatest empire on earth. In fact, you reside in the greatest city of the greatest empire on earth. You feel protected by the pact that was made between the founders of your state and the traditional gods. The pax deorum, or peace with the gods, struck a clear bargain: as long as you and your state worshipped the gods and maintained peace with them, they would make it prosper. And prosper it did! Starting out as a tiny village on the marshes of the Tiber, the Roman Empire at its height encircled the entire Mediterranean, extending to Britain and the Rhine and Danube frontiers to the north, and including a wide strip of North Africa in its southern half. But something went so terribly wrong along the way, testing the gods’ patience with Rome. A new sect started out in Judaea in the first century CE, one which followed a crucified Messiah. Spreading outward like a wildfire to all parts of the empire, this sect challenged and gradually replaced the worship of the traditional gods, bringing even the emperors into its fold, starting with Constantine in the early fourth century CE. This outright violation of the thousand-year old pact between the Romans and their gods could have only one outcome: the ultimate punishment would come from the gods upon this rebellious state.

And come it did; in 410 CE, the unthinkable happened. The city of Rome, untouched by foreign foe since the early days of the Republic, was sacked by the Goths, a Germanic tribe, led by the fearsome Alaric. How could something so terrible happen? And how could the Roman Empire recover from it? Such was the thought process of the typical Roman pagan, and especially the pagan aristocrat, as few of those as were left by 410 CE. And it was in response to these questions that Augustine, veteran theologian, philosopher, and bishop of Hippo in North Africa, wrote the final magnum opus of his career, the monumental twenty-two-book effort that he appropriately titled De Civitate Dei Contra Paganos, or On the City of God against the Pagans.

It is no coincidence that Peter Brown, the scholar credited with creating the academic field of study of Late Antiquity, began his career as a researcher by writing a biography of Augustine. Indeed, no other figure exemplifies so clearly the different culture that emerged in Late Antiquity, a culture of rethinking the Roman past, with an eye to a future in which Rome no longer existed as the capital of the Roman Empire. Born in North Africa in 354 CE, Augustine was educated in Rome and Milan, and, after a wild youth—about which he tells us in his Confessions—he rose to the post of the Bishop of Hippo in 396 CE. A famous figure by 410 CE, he was ideally suited to address the tragedy of the sack of Rome and the concerns that this event inspired in Christians and pagans alike.


Fresco Painting of Augustine, Sixth Century CE

Author: User “Mladi lozof”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: Public Domain

In his book, Augustine presented an argument that challenged the core of Roman traditional beliefs about the state. Challenging the fundamental Roman pagan belief that Roman success was the result of the pax deorum, Augustine effectively argued that there was nothing special about Rome. It only prospered in its earlier history because God allowed it to do so. Furthermore, argued Augustine, obsession with Rome, emblematic of obsession with the earthly kingdom and way of life, was the wrong place for turning one’s attention. The City of God was the only place that mattered, and the City of God was most definitely not Rome. By turning away from this world and focusing on the next, one could find true happiness and identity as a citizen of God’s kingdom, which is the only city that is everlasting and free from threat of invasion or destruction.

Augustine’s message would have made the Republican hero Cincinnatus weep. For Cincinnatus, nothing was more valuable than Rome. For Augustine, however, nothing was less valuable than Rome.

From Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages

After the death of the Emperor Theodosius in 395 CE, the Roman Empire became permanently divided into Eastern and Western Empires, with instability and pressures on the frontiers continuing, especially in the West.

E and W Empires

The Eastern and Western Roman Empires in 395 CE

Author: User “Geuiwogbil”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The sack of Rome by the Goths in 410 CE, which so shocked Augustine’s contemporaries, was followed by an equally destructive sack of Carthage by the Vandals in 439 CE, as well as continuing raids of Roman territories by the Huns, a nomadic tribe from Eastern Europe, the Caucasus region, and south-eastern China. The Huns experienced an especially prolific period of conquest in the 440s and early 450s CE under the leadership of Attila. While they were not able to hold on to their conquests after Attila’s death in 453 CE, their attacks further destabilized an already weakened Western Roman Empire. Finally, the deposition of the Emperor Romulus Augustulus in 476 CE marked the end of the Roman Empire in the West, although the Eastern half of the Empire continued to flourish for another thousand years.

Empire 477

Map of the Roman Empire in 477 CE

Author: Thomas Lessman

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The fall of the Roman Empire in the West, however, was not really as clear and dramatic a fall as might seem. A number of tribes carved out territories, each for its own control. Over the next five hundred years, led by ambitious tribal chiefs, these territories coalesced into actual kingdoms. Rome was gone, yet its specter loomed large over these tribes and their leaders, who spoke forms of Latin (albeit increasingly barbaric versions of it), believed in the Christian faith, and dreamed of the title of Roman Emperor.

Successor Kingdoms to the Western Roman Empire

The Germanic peoples who had invaded the Roman Empire over the course of the fifth century had, by the early 500s, established a set of kingdoms in what had been the Western Empire. The Vandals ruled North Africa in a kingdom centered on Carthage, a kingdom whose pirates threatened the Mediterranean for nearly eighty years. The Visigoths ruled Spain in a kingdom that preserved many elements of Roman culture. In Italy, the Roman general Odavacar had established his own kingdom in 476 before being murdered by the Ostrogoth king Theodoric, who established a kingdom for his people in Italy, which he ruled from 493 to his death in 526. Vandal, Visigoth, and Ostrogoth peoples all had cultures that had been heavily influenced over decades or even centuries of contact with Rome. Most of them were Christians, but, crucially, they were not Catholic Christians, who believed in the doctrine of the Trinity, that God is one God but three distinct persons of the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. They were rather Arians, who believed that Jesus was lesser than God the Father. Most of their subjects, however, were Catholics.

The Catholic Church increasingly looked to the bishop of Rome for leadership. Over the fifth century, the bishop of Rome had gradually come to take on an increasing level of prestige among other bishops. Rome had been the city where Peter, whom tradition regarded as the chief of Christ’s disciples, had ended his life as a martyr. Moreover, even though the power of the Western Roman Empire crumbled over the course of the 400s, the city of Rome itself remained prestigious. As such, by the fourth and fifth centuries, the bishops of Rome were often given the title of papa, Latin for “father,” a term that we translate into pope. Gradually, the popes came to be seen as having a role of leadership within the wider Church, although they did not have the monarchial authority that later popes would claim.


Successor kingdoms

The Roman Empire and Barbarian Europe 500 CE

Author: Ian Mladjov

Source: Original Work

License: © Ian Mladjov. Used with permission.

In the region of Gaul, the Franks were a Germanic people who had fought as mercenaries in the later Roman Empire and then, with the disintegration of the Western Empire, had established their own kingdom. One key reason for the Frankish kingdom’s success was that its kings received their legitimacy from the Church. In the same way that the Christian Church had endorsed the Roman Emperors since Constantine and, in return, these emperors supported the Church, the Frankish kings took up a similar relation with the Christian religion. King Clovis (r. 481 – 509) united the Franks into a kingdom, and, in 496, converted to Christianity. More importantly, he converted to the Catholic Christianity of his subjects in post-Roman Gaul. This would put the Franks in sharp contrast with the Vandals, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths, all of whom were Arians.

In none of these kingdoms, Visigothic, Ostrogothic, Frankish, or Vandal, did the Germanic peoples who ruled them seek to destroy Roman society—far from it. Rather, they sought homelands and to live as the elites of the Roman Empire had done before them. Theodoric, the king of the Ostrogoths (r. 493 – 526), had told his people to “obey Roman customs… [and] clothe [them] selves in the morals of the toga.”1 Indeed, in the generations after the end of the Western Empire in the late 400s, an urban, literate culture continued to flourish in Spain, Italy, and parts of Gaul. The Germanic peoples often took up a place as elites in the society of what had been Roman provinces, living in rural villas with large estates. Local elites shifted their allegiances from the vanished Roman Empire to their new rulers.

But even though the Germanic kings of Western Europe had sought to simply rule in the place of (or along with) their Roman predecessors, many of the features that had characterized Western Europe under the Romans—populous cities; a large, literate population; a complex infrastructure of roads and aqueducts; and the complex bureaucracy of a centralized state—vanished over the course of the sixth century. Cities shrank drastically, and in those regions of Gaul north of the Loire River, they nearly all vanished in a process that we call ruralization. As Europe ruralized and elite values came to reflect warfare rather than literature, schools gradually vanished, leaving the Church as the only real institution providing education. So too did the tax-collecting apparatus of the Roman state gradually wither in the Germanic kingdoms. The Europe of 500 may have looked a lot like the Europe of 400, but the Europe of 600 was one that was poorer, more rural, and less literate.

The British Isles: Europe’s Periphery?

In many of the lands that had been part of the Roman Empire, the Germanic peoples who had taken over western Europe built kingdoms. Although not as sophisticated as the Roman state, they were still recognizable as states. This situation stood in sharp contrast to Britain. To the northwest of Europe, the Roman Army had abandoned the island of Britain in 410. The urban infrastructure brought about by the Roman state began to decay almost immediately, with towns gradually emptying out as people returned to rural lifeways that had existed prior to Rome’s arrival.

At nearly the same time that the Roman Army withdrew from Britain, a group of Germanic peoples known as the Anglo-Saxons were moving into the island from the forests of Central Europe that lay to the east, across the ocean. Unlike the Franks, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths, each of whom had kingdoms, the social organization of the Anglo-Saxons was comparatively unsophisticated. They were divided up among chiefs and kings who might have only had a few hundred to a few thousand subjects each.

Over the period between about 410 and 600, the Anglo-Saxons gradually settled in and conquered much of southeastern Britain, replacing the Celtic-speaking peoples and their language. The island of Britain was one that was completely rural. All that remained of the state-building of the Romans was the ruins of abandoned cities.

And yet, it would be England (called England because the name is derived from the word Anglo- Saxon) and the island of Ireland to its west that would lead to an increase of schools and literacy across Western Europe. In the fifth century, Christian missionaries traveled to Ireland and converted many of its peoples. In the early 600s, Pope Gregory the Great sent missionaries to the island of Britain. The English peoples adopted Christianity (usually under the initiative of their kings) over the course of the next several decades, which in turn led to the founding of monasteries. These monasteries would usually have attached schools so that those seeking to live as monks could have access to the texts of the Bible, the liturgy, and the writings of other churchmen. English churchmen like Benedict Biscop (c. 628 – 690) traveled south to Rome and returned to England with cartloads of books. English and Irish monks would often copy these books in their own monasteries.


Manuscript of Bede’s History of the English Church and People

Author: User “Apex infinity”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: Public Domain

Indeed, England saw not only the copying of older books, but also the composition of original literature, which was rare elsewhere in Western Europe of this time. The English churchman Bede (672 – 735) composed a history of England’s people. He wrote this history to show how the Anglo-Saxons had adopted Christianity. Within a few decades of the island’s peoples converting to Christianity, English and Irish monks were traveling to Western Europe, either to establish monasteries in lands already Christian or to serve as missionaries to those still-pagan peoples in the forests of central Europe.

Byzantium: The Age of Justinian

An observer of early sixth-century Italy would have thought that its Ostrogothic kingdom was the best poised to carry forward with a new state that, in spite of its smaller size than the Roman Empire, nevertheless had most of the same features. But the Ostrogothic kingdom would only last a few decades before meeting its violent end. That end came at the hands of the Eastern Roman Empire, the half of the Roman Empire that had continued after the end of the Empire in the West. We usually refer to that empire as the Byzantine Empire or Byzantium.


Mosaic of Justinianus I from the Basilica San Vitale

Author: Petar Milosevic

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The inhabitants and rulers of this Empire did not call themselves Byzantines, but rather referred to themselves as Romans. Their empire, after all, was a continuation of the Roman state. Modern historians call it the Byzantine Empire in order to distinguish it from the Roman Empire that dominated the Mediterranean world from the first through fifth centuries. The Byzantine Empire or Byzantium is called such by historians because Byzantium had been an earlier name for its capital, Constantinople.

By the beginning of the sixth century, the Byzantine Army was the most lethal army to be found outside of China. In the late fifth century, the Byzantine emperors had built up an army capable of dealing with the threat of both Hunnic invaders and the Sassanids, a dynasty of aggressively expansionist kings who had seized control of Persia in the third century. Soon this army would turn against the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy.

The man who would destroy the Ostrogrothic as well as the Vandal kingdom was the emperor Justinian (r. 527 – 565). Justinian had come from the ranks not of the aristocracy of the Eastern Roman Empire, but rather from the Army. Even before the death of his uncle, the emperor Justin I (r. 518 – 527), Justinian was taking part in the rule of the Empire. Upon his accession to the imperial throne, he carried out a set of policies designed to emphasize his own greatness and that of his empire.

He did so in the domain of art and architecture, sponsoring the construction of numerous buildings both sacred and secular. The centerpiece of his building campaign was the church called Hagia Sophia, Greek for “Divine Wisdom.” His architects placed this church in the central position of the city of Constantinople, adjacent to the imperial palace. This placement was meant to demonstrate the close relationship between the Byzantine state and the Church that legitimated that state. The Hagia Sophia would be the principle church of the Eastern Empire for the next thousand years, and it would go on to inspire countless imitations.

Haga Sophia

Haga Sophia Interior

Author: Andreas Wanhra

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: Public Domain

This Church was the largest building in Europe. Its domed roof was one hundred and sixty feet in height, and, supported by four arches one hundred and twenty feet high, it seemed to float in the diffuse light that came in through its windows. The interior of the church was burnished with gold, gems, and marble, so that observers in the church were said to have claimed that they could not tell if they were on earth or in heaven. Even a work as magnificent as the Hagia Sophia, though, showed a changed world: it was produced with mortar rather than concrete, the technology for the making of which had already been forgotten.

While Justinian’s building showed his authority and right to rule which came from his close relations with the Church, his efforts as a lawmaker showed the secular side of his authority. Under his direction, the jurist Tribonian took the previous 900 years’ worth of Roman Law and systematized it into a text known as the Body of Civil Law or the Justinian Code. This law code, based on the already-sophisticated system of Roman law, would go on to serve as the foundation of European law, and thus of much of the world’s law as well.

Although the Justinian Code was based on the previous nine centuries of gathered law, Roman Law itself had changed over the course of the fifth century with the Christianization of the Empire. By the time of Justinian’s law code, Jews had lost civil rights to the extent that the law forbade them from testifying in court against Christians. Jews would further lose civil rights in those Germanic kingdoms whose law was influenced by Roman law as well. The reason for this lack of Jewish civil rights was that many Christians blamed Jews for the execution of Jesus and also believed that Jews refused out of stubbornness to believe that Jesus had been the messiah. A Christian Empire was thus one that was often extremely unfriendly to Jews.

As Byzantine emperor (and thus Roman emperor), Justinian would have regarded his rule as universal, so he sought to re-establish the authority of the Empire in Western Europe. The emperor had other reasons as well for seeking to re-establish imperial power in the West. Both Vandal Carthage and Ostrogoth Italy were ruled by peoples who were Arians, regarded as heretics by a Catholic emperor like Justinian.

During a dispute over the throne in the Vandal kingdom, the reigning monarch was overthrown and had  ed to the Eastern Empire for help and protection. This event gave Justinian his chance. In 533, he sent his commander Belisarius to the west, and, in less than a year, this able and capable general had defeated the Vandals, destroyed their kingdom, and brought North Africa back into the Roman Empire. Justinian then turned his sights on a greater prize: Italy, home of the city of Rome itself, which, although no longer under the Empire’s sway, still held a place of honor and prestige.

In 535, the Roman general Belisarius crossed into Italy to return it to the Roman Empire. Unfortunately for the peninsula’s inhabitants, the Ostrogothic kingdom put up a more robust fight than had the Vandals in North Africa. It took the Byzantine army nearly two decades to destroy the Ostrogothic kingdom and return Italy to the rule of the Roman Empire. In that time, however, Italy itself was irrevocably damaged. The city of Rome had suffered through numerous sieges and sacks. By the time it was fully in the hands of Justinian’s troops, the fountains that had provided drinking water for a city of millions were choked with rubble, the aqueducts that had supplied them smashed. The great architecture of the city lay in ruins, and the population had shrunk drastically from what it had been even in the days of Theodoric (r. 493 – 526).

The Aftermath of Justinian

Justinian’s reconquest of Italy would prove to be short-lived. Less than a decade after restoring Italy to Roman rule, the Lombards, another Germanic people, invaded Italy. Although the city of Rome itself and the southern part of the peninsula remained under the rule of the Byzantine Empire, much of northern and central Italy was ruled either by Lombard kings or other petty nobles.


Europe 565

Map of The Roman Empire and Barbarian Europe 565 CE

Author: Ian Mladjov

Source: Original Work

License: © Ian Mladjov. Used with permission.


But war was only one catastrophe to trouble Western Europe. For reasons that are poorly understood even today, the long-range trade networks across the Mediterranean Sea gradually shrank over the sixth and seventh centuries. Instead of traveling across the Mediterranean, wine, grain, and pottery were increasingly sold in local markets. Only luxury goods—always a tiny minority of most trade—remained traded over long distances.

Nor was even the heartland of Justinian’s empire safe from external threat. The emperor Heraclius (r. 610 – 641) came to power in the midst of an invasion of the Empire by the Sassanid Persians, who, under their king Khusrau (see Chapter Eight), threatened the Empire’s very existence, his armies coming within striking range of Constantinople itself. Moreover, Persian armies had seized control of Egypt and the Levant, which they would hold for over a decade. Heraclius thwarted the invasion only by launching a counter-attack into the heart of the Persian Empire that resulted, in the end, in a Byzantine victory. No sooner had the Empire repelled one threat than another appeared that would threaten the Empire with consequences far more severe.

Under the influence of the Prophet Muhammad, the tribes of the Arabian deserts had been united under first the guidance of the Prophet and then his successors, the caliphs and the religion founded by Muhammad, Islam (see Chapter Nine). Under the vigorous leadership of the first caliphs, Arab Muslim armies invaded both Sassanid Persia and the Byzantine Empire. At the Battle of Yarmouk in 636, although the Byzantines and Arabs were evenly matched, the Byzantine field army was badly beaten. In the aftermath, first Syria and Palestine and then Egypt fell from Christian Byzantine rule to the cultural and political influence of Islam.

The seventh century also saw invasions by various semi-nomadic peoples into the Balkans, the region between the Greek Peloponnese and the Danube River. Among these peoples were the Turkic Bulgars, the Avars (who historians think might have been Turkic), as well as various peoples known as Slavs. The Avars remained nomads on the plains of central Europe, but both Bulgars and Slavs settled in Balkan territories that no longer fell under the rule of the Byzantine state. Within a generation, the Empire had lost control of the Balkans as well as Egypt, territory comprising an immense source of wealth in both agriculture and trade. By the end of the seventh century, the Empire was a shadow of its former self.

Indeed, the Byzantine Empire faced many of the social and cultural challenges that Western Europe did, although continuity with the Roman state remained. In many cases, the cities of the Byzantine Empire shrank nearly as drastically as did the cities of Western Europe. Under the threat of invasion, many communities moved to smaller settlements on more easily defended hilltops. The great metropolises of Constantinople and Thessalonica remained centers of urban life and activity, but throughout much of the Empire, life became overwhelmingly rural.

Even more basic elements of a complex society, such as literacy and a cash economy, went into decline, although they did not cease. The Byzantine state issued less money and, indeed, most transactions ceased to be in cash at this time. The economy was demonetized. Even literacy rates shrank. Although churchmen and other elites would often still have an education, the days of the Roman state in which a large literate reading public would buy readily-available literature were gone. As in the west, literacy increasingly became the preserve of the religious.

Europe 750

Map of The Roman Empire and Barbarian Europe 750 CE

Author: Ian Mladjov

Source: Original Work

License: © Ian Mladjov. Used with permission.

Perspectives: The Post-Roman East and West

In many ways, the post-Roman Germanic kingdoms of Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire shared a similar fate. Both saw a sharp ruralization, that is, a decline in the number of inhabited cities and the size of those cities that were inhabited. Both saw plunges in literacy. And both saw a state that was less competent—even at tax collection. Moreover, the entire Mediterranean Sea and its environs showed a steady decline in high-volume trade across the ocean, a decline that lasted for nearly two and a half centuries. By around the year 700, almost all trade was local.

But there remained profound differences between Byzantium and the Germanic kingdoms of Western Europe. In the first place, although its reach had shrunk dramatically from the days of Augustus, the imperial state remained. Although the state collected less in taxes and issued less money than in earlier years, even in the period of the empires’ greatest crisis, it continued to mint some coins and the apparatus of the state continued to function. In Western Europe, by contrast, the Germanic kingdoms gradually lost the ability to collect taxes (except for the Visigoths in Spain). Likewise, they gradually ceased to mint gold coins. In Britain, cities had all but vanished, with an island inhabited by peoples living in small villages, the remnants of Rome’s imperial might standing as silent ruins.

Disunity in Post-Han China

The situation of some of the successor states of the Han Dynasty, in which an invaders took up a position as the society’s new warrior aristocracy, was analogous to that of Western Europe as the Barbarian successor states replace Roman control. However, in many ways, the post-Roman world stands in contrast to post-Han China. Although the imperial state collapsed as it had in Rome, in China, literacy never declined as drastically as it had done in the Roman Empire, and the apparatus of tax collection and other features of a functional state remained in the Han successor states to an extent that they did not in either Rome or Byzantium.

The Introduction of Buddhism to China

Aside from the shifting configuration of kingdoms, perhaps the most notable development during the Period of Division was the introduction of Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”) Buddhism into China (for the development of Mahayana Buddhism, see Chapter Six). Beginning from the second century CE, at the end of the Han Dynasty, Buddhist merchants and monks from India and Central Asia brought their faith and scriptures to China by the Silk Roads and maritime trading routes.

Spread of Buddhism

Expansion of Buddhism | This map shows how Buddhism spread to China and the rest of East Asia via land-based routes in Central Asia and maritime routes.

Author: Gunawan Kartapranata

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The impact was immense and can be compared to the Christianization of the Mediterranean region and spread of devotional forms of Hinduism in South Asia during this same period of time. Historians estimated that by the time the Sui Dynasty reunited China four centuries later, China had approximately 33,000 Buddhist temples and two million monks and nuns. Buddhism had become a large-scale religious organization with these temples, clerics, and scriptures, as well as a widespread popular faith capturing the imagination of common people and rulers alike.

Image from World History Cultures States and Societies to 1500 page 155

Giant Buddhas

Author: User “WikiLaurent”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Historians have also hypothesized why this spread occurred. First of all, Buddhism clearly met a spiritual need. During the Period of Division, turmoil from rapid political change and constant warfare brought much suffering and instability to people’s lives. Now, here was a religion that explained their suffering with notions of karma and rebirth and also offered hope with paths to salvation and enlightenment. Buddhism placed the world amidst visions of multiple hells and heavens where merciful Buddhas and Bodhisattvas worked for the salvation of all beings.

Buddhism appealed to people in different ways. For scholarly elites living in capital cities or as hermits in mountain retreats, Buddhist doctrines about the nature of reality, self, and enlightenment were appealing because they seemed similar to concepts in Daoist philosophy. Both philosophies questioned the reality of ordinary understandings of the self and world, emphasized that our desires create an illusory world, and offered techniques for achieving liberation. Nirvana, for instance, was compared to the Dao (Daoist “Way”).

For rulers, Buddhism served political purposes. Since the faith became so popular, rulers who took vows and sponsored temple construction and the ordination of monks looked good because they were upholding the dharma, that is, the Buddhist law. Some even went so far as to have monks recognize them as incarnate Buddhas. Lastly, Buddhist monks–whether foreign or Chinese–were some of the most educated people at their courts and could assist rulers with mundane matters, like international relations, but also esoteric ones, such as spells and divination. Monks won support by promising that their rituals and incantations had magical potency.

Lastly, for most people, Buddhism was a devotional religion. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were merciful beings to be worshipped because their good karma redounded to the bene t of all beings. By going to a temple and burning incense or praying and making offerings before a Buddha statue, the faithful might have a simple wish granted: an illness cured, loved ones helped, or a better rebirth ensured.

The Three Kingdoms Period (220-260)

During the second century CE, a combination of factors led to massive rebellions against the Han Dynasty by lower classes living in the countryside. Many once thriving, independent farmers who fell on hard times lost their land to powerful local families who used their political connections to amass large estates. A series of floods and droughts and the famines and epidemics they caused only worsened these farmers’ plight, and the government was ineffective in providing relief. During the later Han, government revenue had fallen because local magnates kept their growing estates off the tax rolls. Also, many later Liu emperors were mere youths dominated by quarreling factions of imperial in-laws and eunuchs, so the quality of governing declined.

Desperate to escape poverty and starvation, many villagers  ed their homes or joined roving bandit gangs. Some rallied behind individuals who promised the dawn of a new age, thereby becoming part of large, militarized religious societies with political goals. One was the Yellow Turbans, a society named after the yellow cloth members wrapped around their heads. The founder, Zhang Jue [jawng joo-eh], claimed he was a devoted follower of the legendary Daoist philosopher Laozi, who had by this time been deified and envisioned living in a Daoist heaven. Zhang accrued a following of disciples by instructing them in faith healing, establishing a rudimentary organization, and prophesying an impending apocalypse. He led his followers to believe that the apocalypse would be followed by an age of peace when the sky would turn yellow and all would be equal. The movement grew into the tens of thousands. Some followers proclaimed 184 CE was propitious, daubing the characters for that year in mud on the gates to government offices. The Yellow Turbans rebelled, and unrest spread across north China. Other similar millenarian religious movements followed.

The Han Dynasty was in crisis but lacked the strong leadership of earlier rulers like the founder Liu Bang or Emperor Wu. Youthful emperors were forced to rely on generals who commanded permanent standing armies around the empire as if they were private possessions. But by empowering military strongmen to suppress rebellions, Han rulers sealed the fate of the dynasty. Generals feuded amongst each other and competed to impose a military dictatorship on the court. Eventually, in 220 CE, one general deposed the Han emperor, but he failed to unite the realm because by that time the country had been divided up by three kingdoms and their rival warlords.

Within their realms, each warlord sought to strengthen his hand against the others by restoring order and establishing a functioning state. After all, they needed fighting men and revenue. Cao Cao (155 – 220 CE) was the most e ective in achieving these goals. He was the adopted son of a Han court eunuch and eventually entered the military. As a commander, he earned his spurs leading Han armies against the Yellow Turbans. As the dynasty fell apart, he gained control over it and established a dictatorship in northern China. It was his son who removed the last Han ruler and established the Wei [way] Dynasty (220 – 265 AD), one of the Three Kingdoms.

3 kingdoms

Map of the Three Kingdoms | These took shape as the Han Dynasty ended. Cao Cao was the founder of the northern state of Wei.

Author: Ian Mladjov

Source: Original Work

License: © Ian Mladjov. Used with permission.

By this time, as a result of the rebellions and civil wars, much land in north China had gone to waste. So Cao Cao turned it into huge state farms where he could settle his soldiers, landless poor, and, most importantly, tribes of nomadic herders from the steppe lands to the far north who had served him as he came to power. Thus, Cao rulers created colonies of farmers who supplied tax revenue and, as hereditary military families, soldiers for Wei armies. Such state- owned land and hereditary soldiers became the mainstays of warlord dynasties throughout this time.

The two other kingdoms, Wu and Han, were located in the south. Over the course of decades, the ruling warlords of all three states fought each other in campaigns involving much treachery and stratagem. In 263 CE, the Han kingdom fell to the invading forces of Wei commanders. But then, just two years later, a powerful Wei family–the Sima– usurped the throne and changed the kingdom’s name to Western Jin [jean] (265 – 317 CE). The Western Jin conquered Wu in 280 BCE, thereby bringing to an end the Three Kingdoms period.

The Western Jin (265-317)

The Western Jin had reunified China, but that unity wasn’t to last. The policy of settling tribes of non-Chinese nomads in north China backfired. Among them, rebel chieftains rose up, carved out kingdoms of their own, and expanded their power all across the north. One Xiongnu chieftain, Liu Yuan [lee-oh you-anne], even declared he was a descendant of a Han Dynasty imperial princess and therefore had the right to restore the Han Empire. His son descended on the Western Jin court at Luoyang and eventually, in 317 CE, forced it to flee east to Jiankang [jee- an cawng] (today’s city of Nanjing).

The Northern and Southern Dynasties (317-589)

N + S Dynasties


China during the Northern and Southern Dynasties | The Eastern Jin was the first of the southern dynasties, all of which had Jiankang as their capital. The north was divided up among shifting kingdoms established by non-Han chieftains. The names of these ethnic groups are indicated on the map.

Author: Paul Noll

Source: Original Work

License: © Paul Noll. Used with permission.

China was again divided up among competing dynasties, a state of a airs that would persist until 589 CE, during a time referred to as the Northern and Southern Dynasties (317 – 589). Six successive Southern Dynasties were all located at Jiankang, and had as their base of power the Yangzi River basin. But their rulers were usually militarily weak and lacked revenue, due to southern China’s comprising a colonial frontier dominated by powerful families with large estates and private armies. These families highly valued their pedigrees, intermarried, and saw themselves as the heirs to Confucian civilization. At the southern court, they dominated high offices, thus constituting a hereditary aristocracy. The ruling family was always limited in power by their influence. The situation was even more complex in the north during those three centuries.

The kingdom established by Liu Yuan along the Yellow River was just one of numerous short-lived Northern Dynasties established by non-Chinese chieftains of different ethnicities. The Liu rulers, for instance, were Xiongnu, while others were of Turkic ancestry. At times, the north was divided among numerous, rival regimes, while, at others, it was unified. But all of these kingdoms shared similar characteristics. They were ruled by military dynasts who wanted to restore the Chinese empire. Their armies consisted of an elite, heavily armored cavalry drawn from aristocratic military families that was supplemented by Chinese foot soldiers. They employed educated Chinese to serve as civil officials and administer their territories.

N wei soldier

Terracotta figurine depicting a Northern Wei soldier on horseback | The Northern Wei was one of the Northern Dynasties

Author: Guillaume Jacquet Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The Northern and Southern Dynasties came to an end in 589 CE after Yang Jian [yawng gee- an], a general hailing from the ruling clan of a northern kingdom, first established control over all of north China and then defeated the last southern dynasty. He ruled his new Sui [sway] Dynasty as Emperor Wen [one]. China was once again united under one dynasty, as we will seeing Chapter 9.

South Asia: The Transformation of Hinduism and Rise of New States

Hinduism into the Common Era

Hinduism also saw new developments during this period and throughout the first millennium CE. In fact, many scholars see these centuries as the time during which Hinduism first took shape and prefer using the term Vedic Brahmanism for the prior history of this religious tradition. Vedic Brahmanism was the sacrifice-centered religion of the Vedas where, in exchange for gifts, Brahmins performed rituals for kings and householders in order to ensure the favor of the gods. It also included the speculative world of the Upanishads, where renunciants went out in search of spiritual liberation.

But something important happened during these later centuries. An additional religious literature was compiled and shrines and temples with images of deities were constructed, pointing to the emergence of new, popular forms of devotion and an effort to define a good life and society according to the idea of dharma. With this transition, we can speak more formally of Hinduism. One important set of texts is the Dharma Scriptures, ethical and legal works whose authority derived from their attribution to ancient sages. Dharma means “duty” or proper human conduct and so, true to their title, these scriptures define the rules each person must follow in order to lead a righteous and devout life and contribute to a good society. Most importantly, these rules were determined by the role assigned to an individual by the varna system of social classes, the caste system, and gender. For example, for a male, dharma meant following the rules for their caste and varna while passing through four stages in life: student, householder, hermit, and renunciant. In his youth, a man must study to prepare for his occupation and, as a householder, he must support his family and contribute to society. Late in life, after achieving these goals, he should renounce material desires and withdraw from society, first living as a hermit on the margins of society and then as a wandering renunciant whose sole devotion is to god.

A woman’s roles, on the other hand, were defined as obedience to her father in youth and faithful service to her husband as an adult. For this reason, historians see a trend in ancient Indian history whereby women became increasingly subservient and subordinate. Although women were to be honored and supported, the ideal society and family were de ned in patriarchal terms. That meant men dominated public life, were the authority figures at home, and usually inherited the property. Also, women were increasingly expected to marry at a very young age—even prior to puberty—and to remain celibate as widows. In later centuries, some widows even observed the practice of burning themselves upon the funeral pyre of the deceased husband.

Famous Indian epics also illustrated the theme of duty. The Ramayana (“Rama’s Journey”) tells the story of Prince Rama and his wife Sita. Rama’s parents—the king and queen—wished for him to take the throne, but a second queen plotted against him and forced him into exile for years. Sita accompanied him, but was abducted by a demon-king, leading to a battle in consequence. With the help of a loyal monkey god, Rama defeated the demon, recovered his wife, and returned with her to his father’s kingdom, where they were crowned king and queen. In brief, throughout this long story, Rama exemplified the virtues of a king and Sita exemplified the virtues of a daughter and wife. They both followed their dharma.

A similar theme dominates the Bhagavad-Gita (“Song of the Lord”). This classic of Hindu scripture is included as a chapter in another Indian epic, the Mahabharata (The Great Bharata). It tells of wars between cousins who are fighting over the title to their kingdom’s throne. As a battle was poised to commence, one of these cousins—Prince Arjuna—threw down his weapons and refused to fight because he did not wish to harm his kinsmen. But Krishna, his mentor and charioteer, delivered a speech on the nature of duty for a warrior like himself, one that illustrated the religious basis for observing dharma. Arjuna was thus moved to action.

Religious texts and temples also signal the rise of a powerful devotional Hinduism centered upon a few supreme deities. Stone temples were erected for the purpose of housing representations of a god or goddess.

Hindu temple

An early Hindu temple in Deogarh, India

This temple was erected to worship Vishnu during the Gupta period, c. 500 CE. Ruins from earlier temples dating to the period 200 BCE-300 CE are not well preserved.

Author: Byron Aihara

Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 2.0

Peoples of all classes could go to the temple to view the deity, pray, and offer fruits and flowers. By so doing, they showed their love for this lord and their desire to be saved by his or her grace. The most popular deities were Shiva and Vishnu.

Growing up, devotees of these supreme deities would hear countless myths and legends about their origins, exploits, and powers from Brahmins at the temples or story-tellers in their hometown. Vishnu preserves the universe and watches over it; in times of unbridled evil, he assumes the form of an avatar to remove it and return the world to righteousness. King Rama of the Ramayana and Krishna of the Bhagavad-Gita are in fact two such incarnations of Vishnu. Shiva is both benevolent and protective but also destroys all things. Whereas Vishnu preserves the universe, Shiva destroys it at the end of a cycle. A third deity, Brahma, then recreates it. Combined, this Hindu trinity— Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer—represent different facets of the one divine reality behind the great cosmic cycles and also life and death. They each have female counterparts. Shiva’s wife Parvati, for instance, is a goddess of love and devotion.


Relief of Shiva and his wife Parvati in a rock-cut Hindu cave-temple (c. 800) | This relief also dates to a later age but well captures traditions of iconic representations of Hindu deities dating back to the early centuries CE.

Author: User “QuartierLatin1968”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0

In sum, during this period and the first millennium CE, several elements come together to make up the religion outsiders later labeled Hinduism. These elements include the sacrificial religion of the Brahmins, the renunciants’ spiritual pursuit of Self and divine reality (atman and brahman), a social order shaped by the varna and caste system, notions of law and duty embodied in each individual’s dharma, and devotion to supreme deities and their avatars. Hinduism thus thoroughly shaped the social and spiritual life of the peoples of India and of Indian society. Therefore, the rulers of ancient India supported the Brahmins, built temples, upheld the varna system, and assumed titles declaring their devotion to the supreme deities. Hinduism became part of the king’s dharma, and fulfilling that dharma brought the approval of his subjects.

The Gupta Empire and India’s Classical Age


The Gupta Empire in the third and fourth centuries CE | Most territorial expansion occurred during the reign of Samudragupta, although many local rulers were left in place as subordinate kings.

Author: User “Javierfv1212” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The pattern of regional states characteristic of post-Mauryan times and the early centuries of the Common Era will persist in India until the sixteenth century. At any one time, India had many kings. But on occasion, one king might forge a substantial regional power and assume grand titles that elevated him over others. The political scene, therefore, consisted of not only a mosaic of royal powers but also a political hierarchy. Some rulers held power over others, making for a pattern of paramountcy and subordination among kings and princes of many different dynasties across the land. These paramount powers could then take advantage of the stability they established and the wealth they accrued to patronize the arts and promote a cultural renaissance. The Gupta Empire is the pre-eminent example of such a power during the period 300 – 600 CE; indeed, some historians see the time during which they dominated northern India as a classical age.

As is the case for so much of India’s ancient political history, details concerning Gupta rulers have been reconstructed largely from coins, inscriptions, and seals. The dynasty begins in obscurity with two kings of a minor state located along the Ganges River, but then explodes on the scene with the next two kings: Chandragupta I (c. 320 – 335) and his son Samudragupta (c. 335 – 375). Through conquest and marital alliances, Chandragupta I forged a larger empire in the old Ganges heartland. A gold coin provides some of the evidence detailing the Gupta Empire. This coin displays Chandragupta standing next to a certain Queen Kumaradevi. He has taken the title “Great King of Kings,” which signifies imperial power, while she is identified as the princess of a powerful neighboring kingdom.

Gupta coin

Gupta period coin depicting Chandragupta I and Queen Kumaradevi | This coin evidences a marital alliance between the Guptas and a powerful neighboring state. Author: User “Uploadalt”

Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

During his forty-year reign, Samudragupta made the empire great, a feat most forcefully evidenced by a royal eulogy inscribed on one of the old edict pillars of King Ashoka. This eulogy, which describes Samudragupta as “conqueror of the four corners of the earth,” tells of how he subdued dozens of kings across the subcontinent. Closer to home, along the Ganges, many rulers were slain and their territory was annexed, while farther out across northern India and to the southeast, others were “captured and liberated.” These captured and liberated kings were recognized as “servants,” which meant they could continue to rule their own lands as subordinates, on the condition that they paid tribute and homage. Gupta rulers thus directly administered a core territory along the Ganges River while adopting a model of tributary overlordship for the rest. The Gupta imperial court in effect presided over a society of tributary rulers.

After Samudragupta’s time, two more Gupta rulers enjoyed long reigns of forty years, with the empire reaching a peak of power and prosperity. But in the sixth century, decline set in. A series of weaker rulers faced internal dissension at home and foreign invasion from abroad. A great nomadic power known as the Huns emerged out of Central Asia and invaded the northwest, destabilizing Gupta rule. Subordinate rulers then began to break away, and smaller kingdoms replaced the empire. After the sixth century, India entered a new stage in its history.

But there is more to these centuries than high politics. Again, the Gupta era is often labeled as a classical age for India. A period in the history of a civilization’s being labeled as classical generally means it was a time of artistic and intellectual excellence, with its having attained standard-setting achievements in a number of fields. Classical also suggests a certain level of maturation for a civilization. It should be noted, however, that some scholars question the use of this term because all ages produce great works, and sometimes choosing one period as classical simply represents the biased judgment of a later time.

Yet, during the Gupta era, India did produce important scientific discoveries and works of art and literature. The exquisite sculptures of the Buddha portraying his serene enlightenment and teaching were the epitome of the classical achievement in art.

Gupta buddha

Gupta period coin depicting Chandragupta I and Queen Kumaradevi | This coin evidences a marital alliance between the Guptas and a powerful neighboring state.

Author: User “Uploadalt”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0

India also saw an outpouring of literary masterpieces. Kalidasa is one of India’s greatest Sanskrit poets and playwrights. His play The Recognition of Shakuntala, a world masterpiece, tells the story of a girl who lived in a hermitage in the countryside after being abandoned by her parents. One day, a king was out hunting and chanced upon her. They fell in love and married. But then he hurried back to his palace and when she later came to him he no longer knew her because he had been cursed. The only solution for her dilemma was for her to present a ring he had left her. Unfortunately, it had slipped off her finger. The play tells of how this love story concluded, along with the involvement of many higher powers.

In the field of medicine, Ayurveda matured as more complete editions of ancient medical texts were compiled. Ayurveda (meaning “knowledge for longevity”) is India’s ancient medical science. It provides a systematic effort to explain the origins of diseases in dislocations of bodily humors (substances) and to prescribe cures for them. India also saw advancements in the fields of astronomy and mathematics. Aryabhata (476 – 550 CE), for instance, was the first astronomer to propose that the earth rotated on an axis and a scientific explanation for eclipses. He calculated pi to 3.1416 and the solar year to 364.3586805 days. His work demonstrates the contemporary use of a sophisticated system of decimal notation, which was also an ancient Indian discovery.

Works Consulted and Further Reading

Rome, the Byzantine Empire, and Europe

Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.

———. The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150 – 750. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989.

Cameron, Alan. The Last Pagans of Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Harper, Kyle. From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Meeks, Wayne. First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Ostrogorsky, George. History of the Byzantine State. Translated by Joan Hussey. Revised ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1969.

Potter, David. Constantine the Emperor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Rautman, Marcus. Daily Life in the Byzantine Empire. London: Greenwood Press, 2006.

Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. San Francisco: Harper, 1997.

Wickham, Chris. The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400 – 1000. The Penguin History of Europe 2. New York: Penguin, 2009.

Wilken, Robert. The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.


East Asia

Lewis, Mark Edward. China between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties. Cambridge: Harvard

University Press, 2010.

Robinet, Isabelle. Taoism: Growth of a Religion. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.


South Asia

Basham, A.L. The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism. Edited and Completed by Kenneth G. Zysk. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Knott, Kim. Hinduism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Links to Primary Sources

Rome, the Byzantine Empire, and Europe

Passion of the Saints Perpetua and Felicity Pliny, Correspondence with Trajan about Christians in Bithynia South Asia Dharma Scriptures (Dharmashastra): The Laws of Manu

From Berger, Eugene; Israel, George; Miller, Charlotte; Parkinson, Brian; Reeves, Andrew; and Williams, Nadejda, “World History: Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500″ (2016). History Open Textbooks. Book 2.

World History: Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Chapter Seven: Imperial Anchors–The Roman Empire and Han Dynasty China (300 BCE-300)


211 BCE-210 BCE: Qin Dynasty

202 BCE-9 CE: Western Han Dynasty

141 BCE-87 BCE: Reign of Emperor Wu

133 BCE-44 BCE: The Late Republic

44 BCE: Julius Caesar assassinated

31 BCE: Battle of Actium—Octavian gains sole control of Rome

27 BCE: Octavian given title Augustus

44 BCE-68 CE: Julio-Claudian Dynasty

9 CE-23 CE: Rule of Wang Mang

25 CE-220 CE: Eastern Han Dynasty

69 CE: Year of the Four Emperors

69 CE-96 CE: Flavian Dynasty

96 CE-180 CE: Reign of the Five Good Emperors


Crossing from BCE to CE, you’ll notice a change in where the “action” takes place in Afro-Eurasia. So far in this history of the world, the cultural, political, and economic activities and innovations had been centered on what we might roughly consider “the middle”—Mesopotamia and Egypt. Following Alexander’s destruction of the Persian Empire, things began to change.

As we saw in Chapter 6, Alexander’s empire didn’t really last beyond his death. The states that emerged from his conquests were fractured and contentious. In the heartland of what was once the Persian Empire, the Parthian Empire emerged, supplanting the Seleucid Empire. While the Parthians were militarily powerful and economically prosperous, they—and the entire region—now functioned as more of a crossroad than anything. The centers of economic, military, and political innovation had largely moved to the margins of Afro-Eurasia; to the Roman Empire in the west and Han Dynasty China in the east.

This chapter focuses on those two powers. As you read, pay attention to the similarities and differences in how each of these major states governed their territory and expanded their possessions. What qualities did they value? What strengths and weaknesses did each possess?

Questions to Guide Your Reading

  1. Why was the Qin Dynasty so important to the history of China? What did the First Emperor of Qin accomplish?
  2. Describe prominent features of Han Dynasty society and governing.
  3. What were the key civic con icts and civil wars of the Roman Republic? What did each of these conflicts demonstrate about the changing nature of Roman politics?
  4. When and why did the Roman Republic fall? What were some key differences between the Roman Republic and the Age of Augustus?

Key Terms

  • Commanderies
  • Eastern Han
  • Emperor Wu
  • First Emperor of Qin
  • The Gracchi (or, Gracchus brothers)
  • Imperial Confucianism
  • Julius Caesar
  • Legalism
  • Liu Bang
  • Marius
  • Octavian/Augustus Caesar
  • Pax Romana
  • Shang Yang
  • Sulla
  • Wang Mang
  • Western Han

The Qin Dynasty and the Transition from Ancient to Imperial China

In 219 BCE, while touring his realm, the First Emperor of Qin [cheen] (259 – 210 BCE) erected a stone tablet atop a mountain with an inscription proclaiming:

They [the Qin ministers] recall and contemplate the times of chaos: When [regional lords] apportioned the land, established their states, And thus unfolded the pattern of struggle.

Attacks and campaigns were daily waged;

They shed their blood in the open countryside. . . .

Now today, the August Emperor has unified All-under-Heaven into one family— Warfare will not arise again!

Disaster and harm are exterminated and erased,

The black-headed people live in peace and stability, benefits and blessings are lasting and enduring.

Indeed, just two years prior, in 221 BCE, the First Emperor had brought the Warring States Period to a close by defeating the last remaining state. Hence, he had realized the aspirations held by the many rulers he subjugated, that is, to unify the known world under one powerful monarch and, by so do- ing, to initiate an age of peace and prosperity, one rooted in obedience to a sagely ruler.

The title “First Emperor of Qin,” however, was assumed by this conqueror only in the wake of his final victory, and it made sense. Having crushed the many warring kingdoms, the First Emperor did indeed create something new and more significant: an immense territorial state centrally administered from his capital, by a monarch with unchallenged sovereignty. So how did his state–the Qin kingdom–prevail?


The Qin Empire in 210 BCE | The capital was located along the Wei River Valley at Xianyang.

Author: User “Itsmine”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0

When the First Emperor inherited the Qin throne at the age of 13 in 246 BCE, he became King Zheng [jung], young ruler of the most powerful of the seven remaining Warring States. Looking back, he would understand that he had inherited a state whose origins dated back to the Western Zhou Period, when land to the west of the Zhou kings was granted as a fief to his chieftain forbears. The Qin star first rose when a Qin lord assisted King Ping in relocating to the eastern capital during the transition from the Western to the Eastern Zhou Period (c. 770 BCE). At that time, the old Zhou heartland was granted to him, and he was elevated to the status of a regional lord, the Duke of Qin.

The Dukes of Qin were important players throughout the centuries of warfare and alliances so characteristic of the Eastern Zhou, and especially after the reforms of Duke Xiao [she-ow] (r. 361 – 338). These reforms were based on the advice of his chancellor Shang Yang [shawng yawng], an individual famed for being one of the founders of another major intellectual tradition that developed during the Warring States Period: Legalism. The legalists were in tune with the efforts rulers were putting forth to strengthen their states. Their goal was to devise the best techniques for organizing a state’s territory and people so as to maximize a ruler’s power and control in times of both war and peace. Legalists believed that the best way to do so was to concentrate authority in one central administration governed by an absolute monarch. Shang Yang was not the only Legalist thinker of the period—Han Feizi was another whose writings influenced Qin policy.

Warring states

Warring States & Qin Conquest | This map shows states that yet remained at the end of the Warring States Period, when the state of Qin was unifying China through massive military campaigns. Dates for the fall of each state are indicated, the last being the state of Qi in 221 BCE

Author: Ian Mladjov

Source: Original Work

License: © Ian Mladjov. Used with permission.

To these ends, Shang Yang introduced many measures, laying the foundations for future Qin greatness. He believed that the basis for state power lay with an obedient and disciplined farming population, because that was the principal source of revenue and conscripts for the army. So he organized villages across the land into units of five families each, and made the members of each unit responsible for each other. Every member would be rewarded based on the amount of grain the unit produced or the number of severed heads returned from the battle eld. For meritorious service to the state, a unit could advance along a system of ranks, each of which bestowed certain privileges. But should any member commit a crime, everyone would be severely punished. To make this more effective, the Qin state developed a legal code with clear lists of penalties for specific crimes, made it publicly available, and applied it uniformly to people regardless of their social status. Also, the Qin was among the most effective in establishing a civil service and county system to administer the law. Qin subjects lived under a regime with a transparent set of expectations, and also a system of rewards and punishments. Such rationality in matters of efficiently organizing a state through the uniform application of laws and regularizing administration, as implemented by Shang Yang, were a mark of legalist thinkers’ methods.

After Duke Xiao’s and Shang Yang’s time, Qin rulers assumed the title of king and engaged in numerous battles, destroying several neighboring states. Some of these were major engagements. According to one account, after the Qin kingdom defeated the state of Zhao, a Qin general ordered 400,000 captured soldiers buried alive. Also, the Qin put an end to the Zhou royal line after conquering their territory in 256 BCE. Hence, King Zheng was heir to a kingdom whose success in battle derived in part from legalist reforms. In line with that tradition, he too employed a legalist advisor.

As of 230 BCE, only six other Warring States remained. Over the next decade, King Zheng led a series of massive campaigns each of which entailed both sides fielding over one hundred thousand soldiers. This was a bloody time, as one state after another fell. By 221 BCE, the Chinese realm was unified under Qin rule.

Although the Qin Dynasty (221 – 207 BCE) was brief-lived, it had a lasting effect on China because of the stable administrative foundation it laid. The First Emperor of Qin and his advisors invented the title used by all subsequent rulers. They made newly conquered territory a part of their centralized bureaucracy. From his royal court and central administration, the emperor governed a land organized into a hierarchical system of commanderies (provinces that began as military outposts) and counties. His regime standardized currency and the system of writing, and issued regulations for uniform weights and measures.

The emperor was also a great builder. Over 6800 kilometers of road were laid to connect the capital at Xianyang to each province and the northern border. Walls built by former northern states to protect against non-Chinese nomads to their north were linked together in an earlier version of the Great Wall. All of these measures served to facilitate communication and commerce across the land and, therefore, political stability and cultural uni cation. As a symbol of his power, the First Emperor also constructed an imposing palace and mausoleum. For all these reasons, historians mark Qin unification as the beginning of China’s imperial era.

The Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE)

After the First Emperor died in 210 BCE, the Qin Empire rapidly disintegrated. Historians debate causes but highlight weak successors manipulated by the intrigues of a high minister and court eunuch; excessive demands on the population for building projects, tax revenue, and military conscription; and a climate of fear created by the harshly punitive legal system. Regardless, by 207 BCE revolts were breaking out across the land, as rebels accrued armies, seized territory, and even declared themselves kings. China then fell into a state of civil war for five years until the intervention of Liu Bang [lee-oh bawng] (d. 195 BCE). A former farmer and village headman who rebelled and built an army and kingdom through his military acumen and charisma, Liu Bang defeated his adversaries and declared himself emperor of a new dynasty.

Government and Society during the Han Dynasty

The Han Dynasty, ruled by 24 successive emperors from the Liu imperial family, is normally divided into a Western Han (202 – 8 BCE) and Eastern Han (25 – 220 CE) because for a brief time an imperial in-law usurped the throne and established his own short-lived dynasty. This brief interregnum aside, the Han Dynasty lasted 400 years, making it second in length only to the Zhou Dynasty. So important was the Han to establishing a pattern in Chinese civilization distinguishing people belonging to it from those around them that Chinese people today refer to their ethnic group as Han Chinese. Also, after adopting the foundations laid by the Qin Dynasty, the Han further strengthened them, cementing an imperial pattern that persisted in China until the fall of the last dynasty (Qing) in 1911.


Map of the Han Dynasty in 2 CE | During the Western Han, the capital was located at Chang’an, while during the Eastern Han, it was located at Luoyang. Note the location of the Xiongnu confederation of nomadic pastoralists living on the steppe lands to the north of China. Han China also extended control far into Central Asia in order to secure the Silk Road trade routes. Most of the dependent states and tributary cities indicated by green and orange dots were brought under the control of China during the reign of Emperor Wu.

Author: Yeu Ninje

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0


As opposed to studying a chronology of important events during these centuries, let’s consider the general picture for the political system and society of the Han Empire. The majority of people– as much as 90 percent of the population–were farmers, living out their lives in villages of a dozen to over 100 households. Some were independent farmers who owned small farms; some, tenants who leased land from owners of larger farms; and some, local magnates with large estates. The government relied heavily on the  rst group for revenue and conscription and therefore tried to keep these owner-farmers in business with low taxes, relief in times of hardship, and improvement in their agricultural methods. Unfortunately, over the course of the dynasty, many farmers fell on hard times and were forced to sell their land to powerful landlords, thus becoming their tenants or even slaves. Landlordism thus became a major social and political problem, as local great families dominated ever more dependent poor, undermining the central government’s revenue base.

The remaining ten percent of the population lived in urban areas–the towns and cities of Han China–as artisans and traders or officials and garrison soldiers. By some estimates, the total population during these centuries hovered at 60 million, which means about six million were urban residents. Many cities, such as the capitals of both the Western and Eastern Han, had over 100,000 residents. The first imperial capital, Chang’an [chawng-an] (“Forever Peace”), was a walled city with twelve gates, watchtowers, market places, residential wards, administrative buildings and, of course, the imperial palace. Some of the agricultural produce, manufactured goods, and raw materials filling up the marketplaces testify to what artisans and traders were busy making, buying, and selling: cooked meats, pickled vegetables, fish, and grains; utensils and tools made of wood, brass, and iron; lacquer ware, jade, and furs; and textiles fashioned from silk and hemp. Imperial highways and lesser byways, and canals and other waterways, provided the routes for moving these goods both within and beyond China. Ever suspicious of the profit motive and believing in the foundational importance of the farmer, government officials supervised city markets and established agencies to regulate the most important industries.

These commoner classes–farmers, artisans, and traders–were governed by a highly organized state and its corps of educated, professional civil servants. For administrative purposes, the empire was eventually divided into roughly 100 commanderies and 1300 counties. 130,000 officials constituted the bureaucracy. At the lowest level, working with village and town leaders, county magistrates handled such matters as tax collection, population registration, conscription for military service, law and order, and public works. They submitted reports to, and took orders from, commandery level military and civil officials, who then did the same with the nine ministries of the central government. These ministries handled such matters as revenue, justice, and foreign relations. The heads of each of these ministries, as well as two chancellors, routinely held audiences with the emperor to decide all policy matters. An independent branch of government, the censorate, audited the rest and reported directly to the emperor. From the outset, the Han Dynasty inherited the Qin legalist system of government, with its emphasis on rational and e cient methods of administration and use of systems of rewards and punishments to promote order. However, early in the Han, Confucian scholars criticized Qin governing for lacking humaneness, and Han rulers increasingly saw the benefit of Confucian ideas to governing. This change was particularly the case with Emperor Wu [woo] (r. 141 – 87 BCE). During his reign, Confucius’s ideas were molded into an ideology that legitimated monarchy and a hierarchical social order. This ideology is called Imperial Confucianism. As an ideology, it simply provided a blueprint for how the political and social order should function.

Rulers saw the benefit in having officials who were highly educated, loyal, of good character, and who understood the formalities of ritual and etiquette. An Imperial Academy was founded at the capital in 124 BCE so that students could be educated in classical Confucian texts, including the Analects. Across the country, these students were nominated by local officials based on their learnedness and virtuous conduct. Successful graduates went on to serve as officials, and, because that conferred the highest prestige and status on an individual in Han China, Confucian values penetrated society. Texts were compiled explaining good etiquette, conduct, and ritual requirements for each family member and members of society based on their superior or subordinate status. Filial piety was celebrated in both art and texts, and law codes reinforced social norms by, for example, supporting the authority of the family patriarch, division of property among sons, and arranged marriages.


Filial piety

Painting depicting paragons of filial piety on a box excavated from a Han Dynasty tomb 

During the Han Dynasty, Confucian values penetrated society, especially the idea that a child should actively demonstrate their reverence and respect for parents.

Author: User “PericlesofAthens”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: Public Domain


In brief, over the course of the Han Dynasty, Chinese increasingly identified themselves as defenders of a Confucian civilization.

The emperor was at the pinnacle of both Han society and the political system, while the imperial family and in-laws constituted a privileged aristocracy. The emperor’s authority derived in theory from his having received the mandate of Heaven, his virtue, and his role as mediator between the celestial realms and human world; as such, he could expect his subjects’ obedience and loyalty. He resided within the walls of the imperial palace at the capital city, attended by eunuchs who handled his personal needs, palace administration, and the imperial harem. Emperors had numerous consorts but also a principal wife–the empress–who held a special status and was quite influential, usually because she bore the heir to the throne, but also because she and her in-laws were an intimate part of the emperor’s palace life. Often, the imperial family, imperial in-laws, eunuchs, and high o cials broke apart into squabbling factions fighting for power and influence; this contention had deleterious consequences for the smooth functioning of the political system.

China and the Outer World during the Han Dynasty

Strengthened by its ever more confident political system and society, Han China also became an expansive empire, occupying and colonizing territory all along its borders. Sometimes this process was gradual: as migrants and merchants moved into neighboring areas, the government followed by setting up garrisons to protect them and eventually counties with civil servants to govern them. In other cases, armies were sent to subdue unstable borders or to secure trade routes. Regardless, as the dominant power in the region, China’s actions profoundly influenced and shaped the history of peoples and states in neighboring areas of Central and East Asia.

Traditionally, the biggest threats to the settled agricultural population of China came from non-Chinese nomadic pastoralists scattered about the steppe lands along the northern border, as discussed in Chapter 6. These skilled horsemen and hunters tended their herds from horseback, resided in mobile campsites made up of yurts, and organized as tribes. These tribes usually selected the most skilled male warriors as their chieftains and also periodically organized into confederations so as to raid Chinese villages and towns. During the Han, the most threatening confederation was knit together by Xiongnu [she-ong-new]. The founding emperor, Liu Bang, sought to subdue them with his armies but was defeated and forced to pay tribute and offer imperial princesses in marriage to their chieftains. Emperor Wu, however, enjoying a stronger government, sent massive armies of over 100,000 soldiers campaigning deep into Xiongnu territory, breaking up their confederation and forcing them to relocate. Although his armies suffered great losses, Emperor Wu established garrisons across the northern border to consolidate his gains and protect China.

As Emperor Wu brought the Xiongnu under control, he became curious about Central Asian territories lying to the west of China. Interested in  nding allies that might support him in his e orts to control nomad confederations, he sent envoys on exploratory missions. They returned with news of trade routes extending from oasis city-states ringing the forbidding deserts of the Taklamakan Desert to countries lying beyond the Pamir Mountains. What they were speaking of were the earliest Silk Roads. Merchants had been using camels to carry such goods as silk from China to distant civilizations while bringing back gold, horses, and various handicrafts and foodstuffs.

Silk Road

Map of the Silk Road trade routes during the Han Dynasty

Author: Wikimedia Commons User “Алый Король” and Leo Timm Source: Wikimedia Commons and The Epoch Times

License: CC BY-SA 4.0


For that reason, beginning in 104 BCE, Emperor Wu dispatched armies to subdue the region as far as the Pamir Mountains, making the Han Dynasty overlords to Central Asian states, which were now obligated to send tribute and hostages. A frontier network of walls and watchtowers was then extended partway into the region. The Silk Roads were thus secured, and, because it could be conducted more safely, the volume of traffic grew. During the Han Dynasty, China demonstrated its intention of being a dominant player in Central Asia.

The End of the Han Dynasty

Despite the economic prosperity of Han China, rising concerns about land distribution and wealth inequity led to unrest. In 9 CE, Wang Mang, a Han official, seized control of the government, declaring himself emperor and  temporarily ending the Han Dynasty. His reforms included land redistribution programs, attempted to control the prices of food and cloth, enacted numerous new taxes, and introduced a new (and very confusing monetary system). Corruption, a lack of confidence among his allies, and continued rebellions and uprisings spelled doom for Wang Mang’s regime. Mang died in battle in 23 CE, and Han power was restored 25 CE.

The “Eastern” Han era would continue to see economic inequalities rise, as tax exemptions for the wealthy and well-connected became the norm. Rebellions would continue and increase in intensity and frequency. The Han rulers, gradually, lost control of their extensive holdings and power became increasingly decentralized.

These are some of the outstanding features of the Han Empire, and ones that can also be compared to other empires that existed at this time in other parts of the world, such as Mauryan Empire in India, Persian Empire in the Middle East, or Roman Empire. Each empire conferred a special status on rulers, had an organized imperial administration with an educated civil service, maintained a large army to defend an expanding and increasingly well-defined territory, and developed an ideology and legal codes that justified authority and reinforced social order. Confident in the superiority of their organized governments, powerful militaries, and worldview, each of these empires proceeded to extend control over neighboring states and peoples.

While the Han Dynasty was born out of the ruins and chaos of the short-lived Qin Dynasty, there was continuity between the two regimes. The standardization, organization of commanderies, and goals of unification and expansion survived the transition from Qin to Han. At the other end of Eurasia, a similar transition took place, as the Roman Republic declined, fell, and then arose as the Roman Empire.

The Fall of the Roman Republic

The victory over Carthage in the Second Punic War allowed Rome to “close” the circle of the Mediterranean almost completely, acquiring control over all territories that had previously belonged to Carthage. The destruction of Carthage in the Third Punic War, while largely a symbolic gesture, further cemented Rome’s control over the entire Mediterranean. The late Republican historian Sallust, though, grimly saw the Roman victory in the Punic Wars as the beginning of the end of the Republic. As Sallust and some other conservative politicians of his day believed, this victory corrupted the noble Roman character, traditionally steeled by privation. More importantly, the abundance of resources that flowed in following the victories over Carthage raised the question of distribution of this new wealth and land. The disagreements over this question dominated the politics of the Late Republic, creating two new political factions: the Populares, or those who protected the interests of the people, and the Optimates, or those who protected the interests of the best element of the populace—namely, themselves.

The Gracchi and the Beginning of Political Violence

It is striking to consider that political violence was minimal in the Roman Republic until 133 BCE. Indeed, if the legends are true, even the expulsion of the kings in 510 BCE was a bloodless event. Starting with 133 BCE, however, the final century of the Roman Republic was defined by political violence and civil wars.

In 133 BCE, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, a scion on his mother’s side of one of the oldest and most respected families in Rome, the Cornelii Scipiones, was one of the ten annually elected plebeian tribunes. Alarmed that the lands acquired through recent Roman conquests had largely been taken over by rich landowners at the expense of poorer Romans, Gracchus proposed a land distribution law, known as the Lex Sempronia Agraria. Gracchus argued that the advantages of such land redistribution would have benefited the state, since land-ownership was a pre-requisite for military service (see Chapter 6). Aware that the Senate’s Optimates faction opposed his proposal, Gracchus took his law directly to the Plebeian Council, which passed it. This measure resulted in escalating conflict between Gracchus and the rest of the Senate. At a meeting of the Senate, the pontifex maximus, who was Tiberius Gracchus’ own cousin Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, ultimately argued that Gracchus had attempted to make himself king; thus, he had to be stopped. Since weapons were banned inside the Senate building, enraged Senators grabbed whatever was on hand, including chair and table legs, and clubbed Gracchus to death. As the biographer Plutarch states, this was the first instance of civic strife of this kind in ancient Rome.

The death of Tiberius Gracchus also meant the death of his proposed law. Ten years later, however, Gracchus’ proposed reforms gained a second life in the hands of his younger brother, Gaius Gracchus, who was elected plebeian tribune in 123 BCE and served a second term in that office in 122 BCE. Gaius Gracchus’ revived agrarian reform proposal was even more ambitious than his brother’s a decade earlier. Especially controversial was Gaius Gracchus’ proposal of granting full Roman citizenship to Rome’s Italian allies. Finally, in 121 BCE, alarmed at Gaius Gracchus’ popularity with the people, the consul Lucius Opimius proposed a new measure in the Senate: a senatus consultum ultimum, or the final decree of the Senate, which amounted to allowing the consuls to do whatever was necessary to safeguard the state. Realizing that the passing of this law amounted to his death sentence, Gaius Gracchus committed suicide.

The proposed reforms of Gaius Gracchus were overturned after his death, but the legacy of the Gracchi for the remainder of the history of the Roman Republic cannot be underestimated. First, their proposed laws showed the growing conflict between the rich and the poor in the Roman state. Second, the willingness on the part of prominent Senators to resort to violence to resolve matters set a dangerous precedent for the remainder of the Republic and fundamentally changed the nature of Roman politics. Finally, the support that the Gracchi received from the Roman people, as well as the residents of Italian cities who were not full citizens, showed that the causes that the Gracchi adopted were not going to go away permanently after their death. Indeed, Rome’s Italian allies went to war against Rome in 90 – 88 BCE; the result of this Social War, after “socii,” meaning “allies,” was the grant of full Roman citizenship rights to Italians.

The Civil war of Marius and Sulla and the Conspiracy of Catalina

The affair of the Gracchi was the first clear instance of violent conflict between the Populares and Optimates in the late Republic. Forty years later, a conflict between two politicians, representing different sides in this debate, resulted in a full-fledged civil war.

In 107 BCE, impatient over the prolonged and challenging war against the Numidian king Jugurtha, the Romans elected as consul Gaius Marius. While Marius had already enjoyed a distinguished military career, he was a novus homo, or “new man,” a term the Romans used to refer to newcomers to Roman politics, meaning individuals who have not had any family members elected to political office. Even more shockingly, Marius was not even from Rome proper, but from the town of Arpinum, located sixty miles south of Rome. Marius bene ted from the sense of frustration in Rome over the length of the war and the perceived corruption of the aristocratic leaders abroad. Once elected, he took over the command in the war and implemented comprehensive reforms.


Bust of Gaius Marius

Author: User “Direktor” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

First, Marius abolished the property requirement for military service, allowing landless Romans to serve in the army for the first time in Roman history. A second and related change was the new commitment on the part of the Roman state to arm its troops and also pay them for service. Henceforth, the military became a profession, rather than a seasonal occupation for farmers.

Marius’ reforms, while controversial, proved immensely successful, and he swiftly was able to defeat Jugurtha, ending the war in 104 BCE. As a result of his victories, Marius had gained unprecedented popularity in Rome and was elected to five more successive consulships in 104 – 100 BCE. While a law existed requiring ten years between successive consulships, Marius’ popularity and military success, in conjunction with the Romans’ fear of ongoing foreign wars, elevated him above the law. While Marius began his military career fighting for Rome, though, he ended it by causing the worst civil war Rome had seen to that point.

In 88 BCE, the Roman Senate was facing a war against Mithridates, king of Pontus, who had long been a thorn in Rome’s side in the Eastern provinces of the empire. Sensing that Marius was too old to undertake the war, the Senate appointed instead Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a distinguished general who had started his career as Marius’ quaestor in the Jugurthine War and was now a consul himself. Marius, however, had another trick up his sleeve. Summoning the Plebeian Council, Marius overturned the decision of the Senate and drove Sulla out of Rome. Instead of going lightly into exile, however, Sulla gathered an army and marched on Rome—the first time in Roman history that a Roman general led a Roman army against Rome!



Bust of Lucius Cornelius Sulla (with missing nose)

Author: User “Direktor”

Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain


Sulla took over Rome, swiftly had himself declared commander of the war on Mithridates, and departed for the Black Sea. In 86 BCE, Marius was elected consul for the seventh and final time in his career then promptly died of natural causes, just seventeen days after taking office. The civil war that he started with Sulla, though, was still far from over.

In 83 BCE, victorious over Mithridates but facing a hostile reception from the Senate, Sulla marched on Rome for the second time. This time, he truly meant business. Declaring himself dictator for reforming the Roman constitution, Sulla ruled Rome as a dictator for the next three years. His reforms aimed to prevent the rise of another Marius so significantly curtailed the powers of the plebeian tribunes. In addition, he established the proscriptions—a list of enemies of the state, whom anyone could kill on sight, and whose property was confiscated. Incidentally, one name on Sulla’s list was the young Julius Caesar, whose aunt had been married to Gaius Marius. While Caesar obviously survived the proscription, and went on to become a prominent politician himself, the confiscation of his property by Sulla ensured that he remained painfully strapped financially and in debt for the rest of his life.

After enacting his reforms, Sulla just as suddenly resigned from politics, retiring to a family estate outside of Rome in 79 BCE, where he appears to have drunk himself into an early grave—based on Plutarch’s description of his death, the symptoms appear to fit with cirrhosis of the liver. Over the next several decades, some of Sulla’s reforms were overturned, such as those pertaining to the plebeian tribunes. Most historians of the Republic agree, however, that the Republican constitution never afterward reverted to its old state. The Republic after Sulla was a different Republic than before him.

The civil war of Marius and Sulla showed the increasingly greater degree of competition in the Republic as well as the lengths to which some Roman politicians were willing to go to get power and hold on to it. Furthermore, it demonstrated one dangerous side effect of Marius’ military reforms: before Marius, Roman farmer-soldiers did not feel a personal affinity for their generals. After Marius’ reforms, however, because soldiers were paid by their generals, their loyalty was to their generals, as much or more than to the Roman state. Finally, Marius’ incredible political success—election to a record-setting and law-breaking seven consulships over the course of his life—showed that military ability had somewhat leveled the playing  eld between old patrician families such as Sulla’s—that had dominated the consulship for centuries—and the newcomers to Roman politics. This challenge by the newcomers to the old Roman political families was an especially bitter pill to swallow for some.

In 63 BCE, Lucius Sergius Catilina, a patrician who had unsuccessfully run for consulship and who was defeated that very year by another newcomer from Arpinum, Marcus Tullius Cicero, banded with other frustrated Senators to plan a conspiracy to assassinate the consuls and take over the state. Catilina’s conspiracy failed, and modern historians can read Cicero’s own reports to the Senate and the people about how he discovered and stopped this conspiracy. Catilina’s frustration, just like that of Sulla twenty years earlier, nevertheless shows how difficult it was for Roman “old-school” political families to accept that their competition for the consulship now was not just against each other. Catilina’s plan to resort to violence to achieve power also shows just how quickly political violence became the “normal” solution to problems in Roman Republican politics after the Gracchi.

The First Triumvirate and the Civil War of Caesar and Pompey

The political careers of Marius and Sulla, as well as Catilina, show the increased level of competition in the late Republic and the ruthlessness with which some Roman politicians in the period attempted to gain the consulship. In 60 BCE, however, a group of three politicians tried to achieve its goals by doing something atypical of Roman politicians who had largely only looked out for themselves: the three formed an alliance in order to help each other. Spectacularly, their alliance even transcended the usual division of Populares and Optimates, showing that, for these three men at least, the thirst for political power was more important than any other personal convictions.

Marcus Licinius Crassus was the wealthiest man in Rome, son of a consul, and consul himself in 70 BCE. His colleague in the consulship in 70 BCE, Gnaeus Pompey, achieved military fame in his youth, earning him the nickname “Magnus,” or “the Great,” from Sulla himself. By 60 BCE, however, both Crassus and Pompey felt frustrated with their political careers so joined forces with a relative newcomer to the world of politics, Gaius Julius Caesar. The three men formed their alliance, secret at first, an alliance which Cicero later dubbed the Triumvirate. To cement the alliance, Caesar’s daughter, Julia, married Pompey. Together, they lobbied to help each other rise again to the consulship and achieve desirable military commands.

The alliance paid immediate dividends for Caesar, who was promptly elected consul for 59 BCE and was then awarded Gaul as his province for five years after the consulship. Crassus and Pompey, in the meanwhile, were re-elected consuls for 55 BCE, and, in the same year, Caesar’s command in Gaul was renewed for another five years. One modern historian has called it “the worst piece of legislation in Roman history,” since the renewal did not specify whether the five-year clock started afresh in 55 BCE—in which case, Caesar’s command was to end in 50 BCE—or if the five years were added to the original  ve-year term—in which case, Caesar’s command would have ended in 48 BCE.

A talented writer, as well as skilled general, Caesar made sure to publish an account of his Gallic campaigns in installments during his time in Gaul. As a result, Romans were continually aware of Caesar’s successes, and his popularity actually grew in his absence. His rising popularity was a source of frustration for the other two triumvirs. Finally, the already uneasy alliance disintegrated in 53 BCE. First, Julia died in childbirth, and her baby died with her. In the same year, Crassus was killed at the Battle of Carrhae, fighting the Parthians. With the death of both Julia and Crassus, no links were left connecting Caesar and Pompey; the two former family relations, albeit by marriage, swiftly became official enemies.


Bust of Pompey the Great | Pompey the Great with Alexander the Great’s Hairstyle

Author: User “Robbot”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: Public Domain

Late in 50 BCE, the Senate, under the leadership of Pompey, informed Caesar that his command had expired and demanded that he surrender his army. Caesar, however, refused to return to Rome as a private citizen, demanding to be allowed to stand for the consulship in absentia. When his demands were refused, on January 10th of 49 BCE, Caesar and his army crossed the Rubicon, a river which marked the border of his province. By leaving his province with his army against the wishes of the Senate, Caesar committed an act of treason, as defined in Roman law; the civil war began.

While most of the Senate was on Pompey’s side, Caesar started the war with a distinct advantage: his troops had just spent a larger part of a decade fighting with him in Gaul; many of Pompey’s army, on the other hand, was disorganized. As a result, for much of 49 BCE, Pompey retreated to the south of Italy, with Caesar in pursuit. Finally, in late 48 BCE, the two fought a decisive battle at Pharsalus in northern Greece. There, Caesar’s army managed to defeat Pompey’s much larger forces. After the defeat, Pompey fled to Egypt, where he was assassinated by order of Ptolemy XIII, who had hoped to win Caesar’s favor by this action. When he arrived in Egypt in pursuit of Pompey, Caesar, however, sided with Ptolemy’s sister Cleopatra VII and appears to have fathered a son with her, Caesarion.

Caesar CW

Map of Caesar’s Campaigns in Gaul

Author: User “Semhur” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0


Map of Caesar’s Final Campaigns During the Civil War

Author: User “historicair”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0

With Pompey’s death, the civil war was largely over, although Caesar still fought a number of battles across the Roman world with the remnants of the senatorial army. It is indeed striking to look at a map of Caesar’s military career. While his military actions on behalf of Rome were largely limited to Gaul, with a couple of forays into Britain, his civil war against Pompey and his allies took Caesar all over the Roman world from 49 to 45 BCE.

The Aftermath of the Civil War, the Second Triumvirate, and the Age of Augustus

Victorious in the civil war against Pompey and his supporters, Caesar was faced with the challenging question of what to do next. Clearly, he was planning to hold on to power in some way. Based on previous history, there were two options available to him: the Marius model of rule, meaning election to successive consulships, and the Sulla model, meaning dictatorship. Initially, Caesar followed the first model, holding the consulship first with a colleague in 47 BCE and 46 BCE then serving as sole consul in 45 BCE. By early 44 BCE, however, Caesar appears to have decided to adopt the Sulla model instead. In February of 44 BCE, he took the title of dictator perpetuo, or “dictator for life,” and had coins minted with his image and new title. His was the first instance in Roman history of a living individual placing his likeness on coinage.

Caesar coin

Coin of Caesar from 44 BCE | Note Caesar’s Image on One Side, and Venus on the reverse. Author: User “Medium69”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0

This new title appears to have been the final straw for a group of about sixty senators who feared that Caesar aimed to make himself a king. On the Ides of March (March 15) of 44 BCE, the conspirators rushed Caesar during a Senate meeting and stabbed him to death. But if the conspirators had thought that by assassinating Caesar they were going to restore the Republic, they turned out to be sorely mistaken.

Caesar’s will, in which he left money to each resident of the city of Rome and donated his gardens for use by the public, only further increased his popularity among the people, and popular rioting ensued throughout the city. Since Caesar did not have legitimate sons who could inherit— Caesarion, his son with Cleopatra, was illegitimate—he adopted an heir in his will, a common Roman practice. The heir in question was his grand-nephew Gaius Octavius, whose name after the adoption became Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (or Octavian, in English). It is interesting to note that Caesar’s will also named a back-up heir, in case the main heir would have died before inheriting. The back-up heir was none other than Brutus, one of Caesar’s assassins.

At the time of his adoption as Caesar’s heir, Octavian was nineteen years old; thus, he was too young to have had much military or political experience. Quickly, though, he showed political acumen, initially using an alliance with two much more experienced former allies of Caesar: Marcus Antonius and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Forming what became known as the Second Triumvirate, the three men renewed the proscriptions in 43 BCE, aggressively pursuing the enemies of Caesar and also  ghting a small-scale civil war with Caesar’s assassins. The triumvirs defeated Caesar’s assassins at the Battle of Philippi in northern Greece in 42 BCE; they then carved out the Roman world into regions to be ruled by each. Marcus Antonius, who claimed Egypt, although it was not yet a Roman province, proceeded to marry Cleopatra and rule Egypt with her over the following decade. Ultimately, however, another civil war resulted between Antonius and Octavian, with the latter winning a decisive victory in the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. From that moment until his death in 14 CE, Octavian—soon to be named Augustus in 27 BCE, the name he subsequently used—ruled what henceforth was known as the Roman Empire, and is considered by modern historians of Rome to have been the first emperor.

While modern historians refer to Augustus as the first emperor of Rome, that is not the title that he himself had, nor would he have said that he was inaugurating a new form of government in Rome. Rather, throughout his time in power, Augustus claimed to have restored the Roman Republic, and, with the exception of a few elected offices, he did not have any official position. How did he manage to rule the Roman Empire for over forty years without any official position? Some answers can be found in the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, an autobiography that Augustus himself composed in the year before he died and which he ordered to be posted on his Mausoleum in Rome, with copies also posted in all major cities throughout the Empire. Reflecting on his forty-year rule in this document, Augustus described himself as the first citizen, or princeps, of the Roman state, superior to others in his auctoritas. In addition, he was especially proud of the title of “Pater Patriae,” or “Father of the Fatherland,” voted to him by the Senate and reflecting his status as the patron of all citizens. It is striking to consider that other than these honorary titles and positions, Augustus did not have an official position as a ruler. Indeed, having learned from Caesar’s example, he avoided accepting any titles that might have smacked of a desire for kingship. Instead, he brilliantly created for himself new titles and powers, thoroughly grounded in previous, Republican tradition. In addition, he proved to be a master diplomat, who shared power with the Senate in a way beneficial to himself, and by all of these actions seamlessly married the entire Republican political structure with one-man rule. The question remains: when did the Roman Republic actually fall? Different historians have proposed several possible answers. One minority position is that the Republic had fallen with the dictatorship of Sulla, since it fundamentally altered the nature of the Republican government and permanently destabilized it. Another possible answer is the assassination of Caesar in 44 BCE, since afterwards, the Republic was never quite the same as it had been before the civil war of Pompey and Caesar. Another possible answer is 27 BCE, when the Senate granted Octavian the title of Augustus, recognizing his unofficial consolidation of power. Finally, yet another possible answer is the death of Augustus in 14 CE. Overall, all of these possible dates and events show the instability of the Roman state in the late first century BCE.

Roman Culture of the Late Republic and the Augustine Age

While the political structure of the Roman Republic in its final century of existence was becoming increasingly unstable, the period from the end of the Second Punic War on was actually one of increasing flourishing of entertainment culture and literary arts in Rome. Although much of Roman literary culture was based on Greek literature, the Romans adapted what they borrowed to make it distinctly their own. Thus, while adapting Greek tragedies and comedies and, in some cases, apparently translating them wholesale, Romans still injected Roman values into them, thus making them relatable to Roman Republican audiences. For example, in one fragment from a Roman tragedy, Iphigenia at Aulis, adapted by the Roman poet Ennius from the Greek tragedian Euripides’ play by the same name, the chorus of frustrated Greek soldiers debates the merits of otium, or leisure, and negotium, or business (a specifically Roman concept). Similarly, while Roman philosophy and rhetoric of the Republic were heavily based on their Greek counterparts, their writers thoroughly Romanized the concepts discussed, as well as the presentation. For instance, Cicero, a preeminent rhetorician and philosopher of the late Republic, adapted the model of the Socratic dialogue in several of his philosophical treatises to make dialogues between prominent Romans of the Middle Republic. His De Republica, a work expressly modeled on Plato’s Republic, features Scipio Aemilianus, the victor over Carthage in the Third Punic War.

While the late Republic was a period of growth for Roman literary arts, with much of the writing done by politicians, the age of Augustus saw an even greater flourishing of Roman literature. This increase was due in large part to Augustus’ own investment in sponsoring prominent poets to write about the greatness of Rome. The three most prominent poets of the Augustan age, Virgil, Horace, and Ovid, all wrote poetry glorifying Augustan Rome. Virgil’s Aeneid, finished in 19 BCE, aimed to be the Roman national epic and indeed achieved that goal. The epic, intended to be the Roman version of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey combined, told about the travels of the Trojan prince Aeneas who, by will of the gods, became the founder of Rome. Clearly connecting the Roman to the Greek heroic tradition, the epic also includes a myth explaining the origins of the Punic Wars: during his travels, before he arrived in Italy, Aeneas was ship-wrecked and landed in Carthage. Dido, the queen of Carthage, fell in love with him and wanted him to stay with her, but the gods ordered Aeneas to sail on to Italy. After Aeneas abandoned her, Dido committed suicide and cursed the future Romans to be at war with her people.

The works of Horace and Ovid were more humorous at times, but they still included significant elements from early Roman myths. They thus served to showcase the pax deorum that caused Rome to flourish in the past and, again now, in the age of Augustus. Ovid appears to have pushed the envelope beyond acceptable limits, whether in his poetry or in his personal conduct. Therefore, Augustus exiled him in 8 CE to the city of Tomis on the Black Sea, where Ovid spent the remainder of his life writing mournful poetry and begging unsuccessfully to be recalled back to Rome.

In addition to sponsoring literature, the age of Augustus was a time of building and rebuilding around Rome. In his Res Gestae, Augustus includes a very long list of temples that he had restored or built. Among some new building projects that he undertook to stand as symbols of renewal and prosperity ordained by the gods themselves, none is as famous as the Ara Pacis, or Altar of Peace, in Rome. The altar features a number of mythological scenes and processions of gods; it also integrates scenes of the imperial family, including Augustus himself making a sacrifice to the gods, while flanked by his grandsons Gaius and Lucius.

Ara Pacis

The Ara Pacis

Author: User “Manfred Heyde” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The message of these building projects, as well as the other arts that Augustus sponsored is, overall, simple: Augustus wanted to show that his rule was a new Golden Age of Roman history, a time when peace was restored and Rome flourished, truly blessed by the gods.

The Early Roman Empire

The period from the consolidation of power by Augustus in 27 BCE to the death of the emperor Marcus Aurelius in 180 CE was one of relative peace and prosperity throughout the Roman Empire. For this reason, the Romans themselves referred to this time as the Pax Romana, or Roman peace. During this period, the Empire became increasingly more of a smoothly run bureaucratic machine when commerce prospered, and the overall territory grew to its largest extent in the early second century CE. Of course, some of the Roman subjects did not feel quite as happy with this peace and what it brought to them. The Roman historian Tacitus narrates a speech of a British tribal rebel leader, Calgacus, to his men before they fought—and were defeated by—the Romans in 85 CE: “they (the Romans) make a desert, and call it peace.” Other evidence from the territories in the periphery of the Empire also shows that Romanization was not absolute, as some remote rural areas in provinces far from Italy did not really feel the impact of the Empire. Finally, the period of the early Empire witnessed the rise of a new religion, Christianity. This new religion did not have a profound impact on the state yet at this point, but the seeds planted in this period allowed for fundamental changes to occur centuries later, as we will see in Chapter 8. This is, after all, one of the marvels of history. It can take centuries to see the long-term impact of events that seem so small and insignificant at first.

The Julio-Claudian Dynasty

The historian Tacitus describes in detail the emotions in the Roman Senate upon the death of Augustus. Some Senators were hoping for the return of the Republic, while others assumed that Augustus’ stepson would inherit his nebulous yet amazingly powerful position. The scales were heavily weighed in favor of the latter option: as Tacitus points out, most Senators by 14 CE—fifty years after Caesar’s assassination—had never lived under a Republic; thus, they did not really know what a true Republic looked like. Still, the question that all were pondering in 14 CE was: how do you pass on something that does not exist? After all, Augustus did not have any official position. The  first succession was a test case to see if the imperial system of government would become the new normal for Rome or if Augustus would prove to have been an exception.

Augustus himself seems to have been worried about appointing a successor for his entire time in power. Because of untimely deaths of all other possible candidates, Augustus eventually settled on adopting his stepson Tiberius Claudius Nero (not to be confused with the later emperor Nero), son of his wife Livia from her first marriage. Over the  nal years of his life, Augustus gradually shared more of his unofficial powers with Tiberius, in order to smooth the process of succession. Augustus’ plan appears to have worked, as after a brief conversation in the Senate, as Tacitus reports, the Senators conferred upon Tiberius all of Augustus’ previous powers. Tiberius’ succession is the reason for which historians refer to the first Roman imperial dynasty as the Julio-Claudians.

Tiberius, a decorated military general in his youth, appears in our sources as a sullen and possibly cruel individual, whose temperament made Augustus himself feel sorry for the Romans for leaving such a ruler in his stead—or so Suetonius tells us.

He also appears to have been a rather reluctant emperor, who much preferred life out of the public eye. Finally, in 26 CE, Tiberius retired to Capri for the final eleven years of his rule. It is a testament to the spectacular bureaucratic system that was the Roman Empire that the eleven-year absence of the emperor was hardly felt, one exception being a foiled plot against Tiberius by his chief trusted advisor in Rome, Sejanus.

Similarly to Augustus, Tiberius had a difficult time selecting a successor, as repeatedly, each relative who was identified as a candidate died an untimely death. Ultimately, Tiberius adopted as his successor his grandnephew Gaius Caligula, or “little boot,” son of the popular military hero Germanicus, who died young.

While Caligula began his power with full support of both the people and the Senate, and with an unprecedented degree of popularity, he swiftly proved to be mentally unstable and bankrupted the state in his short rule of just under four years. In 41 CE, he was assassinated by three disgruntled officers in the Praetorian Guard, which ironically was the body formed by Augustus in order to protect the emperor. Caligula’s assassination left Rome in disarray. The biographer Suetonius reports that, while the confused Senate was meeting and planning to declare the restoration of the Roman Republic, the Praetorian Guard proclaimed as the next emperor Claudius, uncle of Caligula and the brother of Germanicus.

While Claudius was a member of the imperial family, he was never considered a candidate for succession before. He had a speech impediment; as a result, Augustus considered him an embarrassment to the imperial family. Claudius proved to be a productive emperor, but his downfall appears to have been pretty women of bad character, as he repeatedly weathered plots against his life by first one wife and then the next. Finally, in 54 CE, Claudius died and was widely believed to have been poisoned by his wife, Agrippina the Younger. Since the cause, as Suetonius tells us, was mushrooms, a popular joke thereafter in Rome was that mushrooms were the food of the gods—a reference to the deification of most emperors after their death.

Although Claudius had a biological son from an earlier marriage, that son was poisoned soon after his death. His successor instead became Nero, his stepson, who was only sixteen years old when he gained power.

Showing the danger of inexperience for an emperor, Nero gradually alienated the Senate, the people, and the army over the course of his fourteen-year rule. He destroyed his own reputation by performing on stage—behavior that was considered disgraceful in Roman society. Furthermore, Nero is believed in 64 CE to have caused the great fire of Rome in order to free up space in the middle of the city for his ambitious new palace, the Domus Aurea, or Golden House.

The last years of Nero’s reign seem to have been characterized by provincial rebellions, as a revolt broke out in Judea in 66 CE, and then the governor of Gaul, Gaius Julius Vindex, also rebelled against Nero. The revolt of Vindex ultimately proved to be the end of Nero, since Vindex convinced the governor of Spain, Servius Sulpicius Galba, to join the rebellion and, furthermore, proclaim himself emperor. While the rebellion of Vindex was quickly squashed, and Vindex himself committed suicide, popular support for Galba grew just as quickly. Finally, terrified by rumors of Galba marching to Rome, Nero committed suicide in June of 68 CE. His death marked the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

The Year of the Four Emperors, the Flavian Dynasty, and the Five Good Emperors

The year and a half after Nero’s death saw more civil war and instability throughout the empire than any other period since the late Republic. In particular, the year 69 CE became known as the year of the four emperors, as four emperors in succession came to power: Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian. Each challenged his predecessor to a civil war, and each was as swiftly defeated by the next challenger.

Rome 68 69

Map of the Roman Empire 68-69 CE | Year of the Four Emperors Author: User “Fulvio314”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0


In the process, as the historian Tacitus later noted, the year of the four emperors revealed two key secrets that continued to be a factor in subsequent history of the Empire. First, emperors could now be made outside of Rome, as seen, for example, with Galba’s proclamation as emperor in Spain. Second, the army could make emperors; indeed, each of the four emperors in 69 CE was proclaimed emperor by his troops. These two arcana imperii, or “secrets of empire,” as Tacitus dubbed them, continued to play a strong role in subsequent history of the Roman Empire. Their unveiling showed the declining importance of Rome as the center of political power and the concomitant decline in the importance of the Senate, once an advisory body to the entire empire, but now increasingly confined in its authority to Rome proper alone.

Several reasons caused Vespasian, a mere son of a tax-collector, to be the only successful emperor of 69 CE and the founder of the Flavian dynasty. First, a talented military commander, Vespasian proved to be already in command of a major military force in 69 CE, since he had been working on subduing the Jewish Revolt since 67 CE. Ironically, Nero had originally appointed him to command the Jewish War because of Vespasian’s humble family origins—which to Nero meant that he was not a political threat. Second, Vespasian was the only one of the four emperors of 69 CE who had grown sons, and thus obvious successors. Furthermore, his older son, Titus, was already a popular military commander in his own right and cemented his reputation even further by his conquest of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

The Flavian dynasty did not last long, however, as it ended in 96 CE with the assassination of Emperor Domitian, Vespasian’s younger son. The period from 96 CE to 180 CE saw a different experiment in determining imperial succession, instead of establishing traditional dynasties in which sons succeeded their fathers. Known as the period of the “Five Good Emperors,” the trend in the second century CE was for each emperor to adopt a talented leader with potential as his successor. The result was what Edward Gibbon, the nineteenth-century British historian of Rome, called “the happiest age” of mankind. But was life everywhere in the Roman Empire in the second century equally happy for all? The evidence suggests that while Rome and other major urban centers flourished, life in the periphery could be a very different experience.

Center verus Periphery in the Roman Empire: The Evidence of Pliny and Apuleius

Much of extant evidence from the Roman Empire comes from Rome and Italy. As is so often the case with empires, though, life in Rome was not representative of everyday life in the empire. The problems with which residents of Rome had to contend were a far cry from those with which residents of distant provinces had to deal. Careful examination of two sources from the second century CE reveals that the relationship of the Roman Empire to the provinces in the periphery was often uneasy. Writing about two different provinces within a half-century of each other, the two sources, Pliny the Younger and Apuleius, show the complicated blessings of living in a province far away from Rome that was yet under Roman rule.

It is shocking to consider today that most Roman governors setting out for the job received just one type of personnel to assist them with their duties: a flute-player, whose job was to play during sacrifice ceremonies. Since military forces were expensive to maintain and needed for emergencies in those areas of the Empire considered to be the most at risk for rebellion or outside attack, most governors did not have a legion stationed in their province. Compare this to the extensive, relatively consistent bureaucracy of Han Dynasty China. While of similar sizes and populations, the Roman Empire was, in many ways, severely understaffed. So how did governors resolve problems, and what resources did they find when they arrived? The single best sources of information about Roman provincial government is the prolific letter-writer Pliny the Younger, who served as governor of the province of Bithynia on the shore of the Black Sea in 111 – 113 CE. Pliny was a cautious and conscientious governor, and thus believed in consulting the emperor Trajan on every single issue that he encountered in his province. Luckily for us, their correspondence survives.

Pliny’s letters reveal a myriad of problems that the governor was expected to solve: staffing personnel for prisons (is it acceptable to use slaves as prison guards?), building repairs and water supply, abandoned infants and their legal status (should they be considered slave-born or free?), fire brigades (are they a potential security risk to the Empire?) and, most famously, what to do with Christians in the province. The emperor Trajan patiently responded to each letter that he received from Pliny and appears to have placed stability and peace in the province foremost in his concerns. Thus, for instance, with regard to the issue of Christians in Bithynia, Trajan recommends that Pliny not worry about tracking down Christians in his province, as they were not a threat.

Another perspective from the periphery comes from the novel Metamorphoses or Golden Ass, written by the North African intellectual Apuleius sometime in the later part of the second century CE. The protagonist of the novel, Lucius, is a curious intellectual who is traveling through Greece and, through a magic experiment gone wrong, accidentally is turned into a donkey. For the remainder of the novel, Lucius, in his donkey form, is repeatedly stolen, traded, beaten, and abused, until  nally being rescued at the end of the novel by the Egyptian goddess Isis, whose service he then enters as a priest. Throughout his travels, though, Lucius’ observations reveal the limits of Romanization in the remote parts of Greece. Law and order are largely absent, highway robbery is simply a normal part of life, and on the one occasion when a poor farmer runs into a Roman soldier on the road, the soldier forcibly requisitions the farmer’s sole possession: his donkey. Overall, the picture that Apuleius paints reveals the dark side of the Pax Romana. Yes, the Empire was at peace, and few attacks were happening on the frontiers. Yet life in the provinces was anything but truly peaceful.

Works Consulted and Further Reading


Champlin, Edward. Nero. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2005.

Flower, Harriet. Ancestor Masks and Aristocratic Power in Roman Culture. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Galinsky, Karl. Augustan Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Gruen, Erich. The Last Generation of the Roman Republic. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Morgan, Gwyn. 69 AD: The Year of Four Emperors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Scullard, H. H. From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 133 BC to AD 68. New York: Routledge, 1982.

Qin and Han China

Hardy, Grant and Anne Behnke Kinney. The Establishment of the Han Empire and Imperial China. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005.

Pines, Yuri et al. eds. Birth of an Empire: The State of Qin Revisited. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

Links to Primary Sources


Appian, Selections from Civil Wars on the Gracchi Augustus, Res Gestae Divi Augusti Caesar, Gallic Wars and Civil War Cicero, First Oration Against Catiline Pliny, Letters Sallust, The Conspiracy of Catiline 

Qin and Han China

Ban Zhao, Lessons for a Woman

Han Fei, Legalist Writings


From Berger, Eugene; Israel, George; Miller, Charlotte; Parkinson, Brian; Reeves, Andrew; and Williams, Nadejda, “World History: Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500″ (2016). History Open Textbooks. Book 2.

World History: Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Chapter Six: Connecting East and West (8th Century BCE-3rd Century CE)


753 BCE: Founding of Rome

c. 753-510 BCE: Regal Period

510-44 BCE: Roman Republic

338 BCE: Battle of Chaeronea, the Macedonians conquer Athens and Thebes

331 BCE: Alexander the Great defeats Persian Emperor Darius III

327 BCE: Alexander the Great invades India

323-146 BCE: Hellenistic Period

321-184 BCE: Mauryan Empire

264-146 BCE: The Punic Wars

c. 2nd Century BCE-3rd Century CE: Kushan Kingdom


Global trade and connections between different parts of the world may seem like a relatively modern phenomenon, but as we see in this chapter, connections developed between the eastern and western parts of Eurasia thousands of years ago. In the west, “Hellenization” spread Greek language and culture throughout the Mediterranean and, thanks to the conquests of Alexander, all the way to South Asia. Mahayana Buddhism travelled along with monks and merchants along trade routes from India to China and beyond.

Questions to Guide Your Reading

  1. How and why did the Macedonians conquer the Greek world? Why did the empire conquered by Philip and Alexander disintegrate after Alexander’s death?
  2. What were some of the strengths and weaknesses of the Hellenistic kingdoms as political entities? Why did they prove to be inherently unstable?
  3. What were some of the achievements and legacies of the Hellenistic period?
  4. In what ways did the geography and topography of Rome and the Roman Empire impact the history of the ancient Roman world?
  5. What primary sources are available for the study of Roman history, and what are the limitations of these sources?
  6. How was the Mauryan Empire governed?
  7. How was India impacted by other regions of Afro-Eurasia, and how did it impact them?

Key Terms

  • Alexandria
  • Antigonid Dynasty
  • Archimeses of Syracuse
  • Arthashastra
  • Ashoka (Mauryan Empire)
  • Carthage
  • Chandragupta Maurya
  • Conflict of the Orders
  • Dharma (Buddhist and Hindu)
  • Etruscans
  • Great Hunt
  • Great Library
  • Hannukah
  • Khagan
  • Kingdom of Pergamon
  • Mahayana Buddhism
  • Mauryan Empire
  • Nomad battle strategy
  • Pastoral nomadism
  • Pataliputra
  • Patricians
  • Pharos
  • Phillip II
  • Plebeians
  • Plutarch
  • Punic Wars
  • Romulus & Remus
  • Romulus
  • Seleucid Empire
  • Septuagint
  • Theban Hegemony
  • Theravada Buddhism
  • Xiongnu

The Rise of Macedonia and Alexander the Great

The early fourth century saw a power vacuum emerge in the Greek world for the first time since the early Archaic Period. Defeated in the war, Athens was no longer an Empire, while the winner, Sparta, had suffered a catastrophic decline in its population over the course of the Peloponnesian War. At the same time, Thebes had revamped its military, introducing the first two significant changes to the hoplite phalanx way of fighting since its inception: slightly longer spears, and wedge formation. The final key to the Theban military supremacy was the Theban Sacred Band, formed in 378 BCE. An elite core of 300 warriors, the band consisted of 150 couples, based on the assumption that the lovers would fight most bravely in order not to appear to be cowardly to their beloved. In 371 BCE, the Thebans demonstrated the success of their military reforms by defeating the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra. They continued an aggressive program of military expansion over the next decade, a period known as the Theban Hegemony.

Thebian hegemony

Map of The Theban Hegemony

Author: User “Megistais” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain

Sometime in the 360’s BCE, a young Macedonian prince stayed for several years in Thebes as a hostage. While there, he caught the eye of the military reformer, Epaminondas, who took the prince under his wing. Circa 364 BCE, the prince returned to Macedon, and, in 359 BCE, he ascended to the throne as king Philip II. Up until that point in Greek history, the Macedonians had largely been known for two things: drinking their wine undiluted, which had marked them as complete and utter barbarians in the eyes of the rest of the Greeks, and being excellent horsemen. With Philip at the helm, this estimation was about to change. As soon as he came to the throne, Philip began transforming the Macedonian military into a more successful image of what he had seen at Thebes. Philip further lengthened the already longer spears used by the Thebans, creating the Macedonian sarissa, a spear of about eighteen feet in length, double that of the traditional Greek hoplite spear. He retained the Theban wedge formation but also added heavy cavalry to the line, thus incorporating the Macedonians’ strongest element into the phalanx.

Macedonian Phalanx

The Macedonian Phalanx | The wedge formation using the Macedonian sarissa, a spear about eighteen feet in length

Author: User “Alagos”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: Public Domain

The results spoke for themselves, as over the next twenty years, Philip systematically conquered all of mainland Greece, with the exception of Sparta, which he chose to leave alone. Philip’s final great victory, which he shared with his teenage son Alexander, was at the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BCE), in which the Macedonian armies defeated the combined forces of Athens and Thebes. Philip’s conquest of the entire mainland was the end of an era, as for the first time, the entire territory was united under the rule of a king.

Philip conquests

Map of the Conquests of Philip | The Kingdom of Macedon at the death of Philip II (336 BC)

Author: User “Marsyas”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0

By all accounts, it appears that Philip was not going to stop at just conquering the Greek world. He did not, however, have this choice. In 336 BCE while on his way to a theatrical performance, Philip was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards. His son Alexander, then twenty years old,  succeeded and continued his father’s ambitious program of conquests. Alexander’s first target was the Persian Empire, motivated in part by his love of Homer’s Iliad, and the perception among the Greeks that this new campaign was the continuation of the original, mythical war against Asia. Moving farther and farther East in his campaigns, Alexander conquered the Balkans, Egypt, and the territories of modern-day Lebanon, Syria, and Israel before he achieved a decisive victory over Darius III at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BCE.


Alexander the Great | Alexander fighting Darius in the Battle of Issus (333 BCE). Mosaic from the House of the Faun, Pompeii. Note Alexander on the left side of the mosaic, fighting on horseback, while Darius, almost at the middle, charges in a chariot.

Author: User “Berthold Werner”

Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Continuing to move eastwards, Alexander invaded India in 327 BCE, planning to conquer the known world and assuming that he was close to this achievement, since the Greeks of his day were not aware of China’s existence. His war-weary troops, however, rebelled in 326 BCE and demanded to return home. It appears that this mutiny was not the  rst that occurred in Alexander’s army; indeed, over the course of his rule, Alexander had also been the target of a number of failed assassinations. However, this mutiny forced Alexander to give in. Leaving several of his officers behind as satraps, Alexander turned back. In 323 BCE, he and his army reached Babylon, the city that he had hoped to make the new capital of his world empire. There, Alexander fell ill and died at the ripe old age of thirty-three.

While Alexander’s rule only lasted thirteen years, his legacy reshaped Greece and the rest of ancient Eurasia for the next several centuries. A charismatic leader, albeit one prone to emotional outbursts, Alexander redefined what it meant to be king and general. His coinage reflects this reinvention. On one coin minted during his lifetime, for instance, appears Alexander dressed as the hero Heracles, while Zeus, whom Alexander alleged to be his real father, appears on the other side. In addition, by conquering territories that were previously not part of the Greek world, Alexander spread Greek culture farther than had anyone else before him. At the same time, by marrying several non-Greek princesses and encouraging such marriages by his troops, Alexander also encouraged the creation of a “melting-pot” empire; he further cemented this creation by founding new cities named after himself all over his new empire. In particular, Alexandria, the city that he founded in Egypt, became a center of Greek civilization—albeit with an Egyptian twist—was seen as a new Athens well into the Roman Empire. Alexander’s brief time in India produced a significant impact as well, as in 321 BCE, Chandragupta Maurya was able to unify India into a single kingdom for the first time, establishing the Mauryan Empire. Finally, in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Greek world, Alexander’s generals divided his conquests into several kingdoms that they and their descendants continued to rule until the Romans conquered these respective areas. It appears that Alexander’s melting-pot empire, burning up as a phoenix upon his death, actually allowed several new empires and kingdoms to arise from its ashes.

Alexander campaigns

Map of the campaigns and conquests of Alexander

Author: User “IrakliGuna” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The Hellenistic Period

Historians today consider the death of Alexander to be the end point of the Classical Period and the beginning of the Hellenistic Period. That moment, for historians, also marks the end of the polis as the main unit of organization in the Greek world. While city-states continued to exist, the main unit of organization from that point on was the great Hellenistic kingdoms. These kingdoms, encompassing much greater territory than the Greek world had before Alexander, contributed to the thorough Hellenization of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. The age of the Hellenistic kingdoms also coincided with the rise of Rome as a military power in the West. Ultimately, the Hellenistic kingdoms were conquered and absorbed by Rome.

Hellenistic Kingdoms

Although Alexander had several children from his different wives, he did not leave an heir old enough to take power upon his death. Indeed, his only son, Alexander IV, was only born several months after his father’s death. Instead, Alexander’s most talented generals turned against each other in a contest for the control of the empire that they had helped create.



Map of the Initial partition of Alexander’s empire, before the Wars of the Diadochi

 Author: User “Fornadan” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0


These Wars of the Diadochi, as they are known in modern scholarship, ended with a partition of Alexander’s empire into a number of kingdoms, each ruled by dynasties. Of these, the four most influential dynasties which retained power for the remainder of the Hellenistic Age, were the following: Seleucus, who took control of Syria and the surrounding areas, thus creating the Seleucid Empire; Antigonus Monophthalmos, the One-Eyed, who took over the territory of Asia Minor and northern Syria, establishing the Antigonid Dynasty; the Attalid Dynasty, which took power over the Kingdom of Pergamon, after the death of its initial ruler, Lysimachus, a general of Alexander; and Ptolemy, Alexander’s most influential general, who took control over Egypt, establishing the Ptolemaic Dynasty.

The most imperialistic of Alexander’s successors, Seleucus I Nicator took Syria, swiftly expanding his empire to the east to encompass the entire stretch of territory from Syria to India. At its greatest expanse, this territory’s ethnic diversity was similar to that of Alexander’s original empire, and Seleucus adopted the same policy of ethnic unity as originally practiced by Alexander; some of Seleucus’ later successors, however, attempted to impose Hellenization on some of the peoples under their rule. These successors had difficulties holding on to Seleucus’ conquests. A notable exception, Antiochus III, attempted to expand the Empire into Anatolia and Greece in the early second century BCE but was ultimately defeated by the Romans. The empire’s story for the remainder of its existence is one of almost constant civil wars and increasingly declining territories. The Seleucids seem to have had a particularly antagonistic relationship with their Jewish subjects, going so far as to outlaw Judaism in 168 BCE. The Jewish holiday Hannukah celebrates a miracle that occurred following the historical victory of the Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, over the Seleucids in 165 BCE. Shortly afterwards, the Seleucids had to allow autonomy to the Jewish state; it achieved full independence from Seleucid rule in 129 BCE. In 63 BCE, the Roman general Pompey  nally conquered the small remnant of the Seleucid Empire, making it into the Roman province of Syria.

Hellenistic kingdoms

Map of the Hellenistic Kingdoms c. 303 BCE

Author: User “Javierfv1212” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain

Antigonus Monophthalmos, Seleucus’ neighbor, whose holdings included Macedonia, Asia Minor, and the northwestern portion of Syria, harbored ambitious plans that rivaled those of Seleucus. Antigonus’ hopes of reuniting all of Alexander’s original empire under his own rule, however, were never realized as Antigonus died in battle in 301 BCE. The greatest threat to the Antigonids, however, came not from the Seleucid Empire, but from Rome with whom they waged three Macedonian Wars between 214 and 168 BCE. The Roman defeat of king Perseus in 168 BCE at the Battle of Pydna marked the end of the Third Macedonian War, and the end of an era, as control over Greece was now in Roman hands.

The smallest and least imperialistic of the successor states, the kingdom of Pergamon, was originally part of a very short-lived empire established by Lysimachus, one of Alexander’s generals. Lysimachus originally held Macedonia and parts of Asia Minor and Thrace but had lost all of these territories by the time of his death in 281 BCE. One of his officers, Philetaerus, however, took over the city of Pergamon, establishing there the Attalid dynasty that transformed Pergamon into a small and successful kingdom. The final Attalid king, Attalus III, left his kingdom to Rome in his will in 133 BCE.

Lasting from the death of Alexander in 323 BCE to the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BCE, the Ptolemaic kingdom proved to be the longest lasting and most successful of the kingdoms carved from Alexander’s initial empire. Its founder, Ptolemy I Soter, was a talented general, as well as an astronomer, philosopher, and historian, who wrote his own histories of Alexander’s campaigns. Aiming to make Alexandria the new Athens of the Mediterranean, Ptolemy spared no expense in building the Museaum, an institution of learning and research that included, most famously, the Great Library, and worked tirelessly to attract scholars and cultured elite to his city. Subsequent Ptolemies continued these works so that Alexandria held its reputation as a cultural capital into Late Antiquity. One example of a particularly impressive scientific discovery is the work of Eratosthenes, the head librarian at the Great Library in the second half of the third century BCE, who accurately calculated the earth’s circumference. But while the Ptolemies brought with them Greek language and culture to Egypt, they were also profoundly influenced by Egyptian customs. Portraying themselves as the new Pharaohs, the Ptolemies even adopted the Egyptian royal custom of brother-sister marriages, a practice that eventually percolated down to the general populace as well. Unfortunately, brother-sister marriages did not prevent strife for power within the royal family, as we will see when the Hellenistic rulers of Egypt become embroiled in a Roman civil war in Chapter 7

The history of the successor states that resulted from the carving of Alexander’s empire shows the imperialistic drive of Greek generals, while also demonstrating the instability of their empires. Historians do not typically engage in counter-factual speculations, but it is very likely that, had he lived longer, Alexander would have seen his empire unravel, as no structure was really in place to hold it together. At the same time, the clash of cultures that Alexander’s empire and the successor states produced resulted in the spread of Greek culture and language further than ever before; simultaneously, it also introduced the Greeks to other peoples, thus bringing foreign customs—such as the brother-sister marriages in Egypt—into the lives of the Greeks living outside the original Greek world.

Hellenistic Culture

The Hellenistic kingdoms spread Greek language, culture, and art all over the areas of Alexander’s former conquests. Furthermore, many Hellenistic kings, especially the Ptolemies, were patrons of art and ideas. Thus the Hellenistic era saw the  ourishing of art and architecture, philosophy, medical and scientific writing, and even translations of texts of other civilizations into Greek. The undisputed center for these advances was Alexandria.

Combining the practical with the ambitious, the Pharos, or Lighthouse, of Alexandria was one of the most famous examples of Hellenistic architecture and has remained a symbol of the city to the present day. Constructed in 280 BCE, it was considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and was one of the tallest buildings in the world at the time. While its practical purpose was to guide ships into the harbor at night, it also exemplified the bold advances and experimental spirit of Hellenistic architecture. Indeed, it was located on a man-made mole of  the coast of the city. The building comprised three layers, the top one of which housed the furnace that produced the light.

The structure of the Pharos shows an interest in straight lines and orderly shapes, while its function symbolized the ability of man to subdue the sea, even by night. Similarly, both the scientific and medical texts from the Hellenistic Period reveal a fascination with an ordered universe and an interest in discovering how it worked. Herophilus of Chalcedon, for instance, pioneered dissection in the early third BCE and was especially interested in the human brain and the nervous system. The mathematician Euclid, who lived and worked in Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy I (323 – 283 BCE), wrote the Elements, an encyclopedic work of mathematics that effectively created the discipline of geometry. Going a step further than Euclid in his research, the third-century BCE scientist and inventor Archimedes of Syracuse specialized in applying mathematical concepts to create such devices as a screw pump and a variety of war machines, including a weapon that functioned as a heat ray.



The Pharos, or Lighthouse, of Alexandria

Author: Emad Victor SHENOUDA

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: © Emad Victor SHENOUDA. Used with permission.


Heat ray

The Archimedes Heat Ray

Author: User “Pbrokos13” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The same fascination with studying the order of the universe appears in Hellenistic philosophy and stems ultimately from the philosophy of Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE), considered to be the last Classical Greek philosopher. Aristotle was a prolific polymath, who wrote on political theory, poetry, music, and a variety of sciences, to list just some of his interests. Engrossed in seeing all disciplines as part of a larger world order, Aristotle speci cally argued for empiricism, that is, the belief that knowledge is acquired from sensory experiences rather than from intuition. In the sciences, for instance, this approach required experiments and the careful gathering of data. While Aristotle’s influence on the Hellenistic

philosophers is undeniable, the alternate theories that some of the philosophers developed regarding the structure of the universe and the place of humanity in it differs drastically from Aristotle’s view. For instance, Skepticism, especially as formulated by Pyrrho in the third century BCE, argued that it was impossible to reach any accurate conclusions about the world and the key to happiness was to stop trying. Cynic philosophers, starting in the fourth century BCE, advocated the ascetic life of simplicity and freedom from possessions. A related philosophy, Stoicism, argued for letting go of all emotions and developing a self-control that would allow one to live in accordance to nature. On the other hand, the third-century philosophy of Epicureanism argued for the absence of pain as the ultimate goal in life and saw the universe as ruled by random chance, separate from the intervention of the gods. All of these philosophies, and many others that co-existed with them, aimed to provide a coherent system that made sense of the world and provided a purpose for human life.

Hellenization and the Influence of the Greeks

In a testament to the deep influence of the Hellenistic language culture on the conquered regions, the Hellenistic Period saw the translation of texts of other civilizations into Greek. One particularly influential example was the translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek. Jews formed a significant minority of the population of Alexandria, the capital of Ptolemaic Egypt, as well as other major cities around the Mediterranean, such as Antioch. By the third century BCE, these Jews appear to have largely lost the knowledge of Hebrew; thus, a translation of the sacred texts into Greek was necessary. In addition, as later legend has it, Ptolemy II Philadelphus allegedly commissioned seventy-two scholars to translate the Old Testament into Greek for his Royal Library. Whether indeed solicited by Ptolemy II or not, the translation was likely completed over the course of the third through first centuries BCE. Named after the legendary seventy-two (or, in some versions, seventy) translators, the text was titled the Septuagint. The completion of this translation showed the thorough Hellenization of even the Jews, who had largely kept themselves apart from mainstream culture of the cities in which they lived.

“Captive Greece has conquered her rude conqueror,” the Roman poet Horace famously wrote in the late first century BCE. This comment about the deep influence of Greek culture on the Roman world, even after the Roman conquest of Greece was complete, continued to be the case well after the days of Horace. Ultimately, the impact of the Hellenization of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, which started with Alexander’s conquests, lasted far beyond the Hellenistic kingdoms, as the Greek language continued to be the language of the Eastern Roman Empire and, subsequently, the Byzantine Empire up until the conquest of that territory by the Ottomans in 1453 CE. In some respects, this spread of the Greeks and their civilization ultimately changed what it meant to be Greek–or, rather, it created a more universal Greek identity, which largely replaced the polis-specific view of citizenship and identity that existed before Philip’s conquest of Greece. And yet, certain cultural constants persisted.

The first of these was Homer, whose epics continued to be as great an inspiration to the Greeks of the Roman world as they were to their Archaic Age counterparts. For instance, the Homeric values were likely the reason for the minimal advances in military technology in the Greek world, as honor was more important than military success at all cost. The second cultural constant was the work of the philosophers Plato and Aristotle, in whose shadows all subsequent philosophers of the Greco-Roman world labored. Even as the Greek-speaking portions of the Roman Empire turned to Christianity, they could not abandon their philosophical roots, resulting, for instance, in the Gnostic heresies. Horace’s cheeky comment thus proved to be true far longer than he could have expected. The origins of the Romans, however, extend further back into the past than the Hellenistic period, and it’s to the early Romans that we now turn.

The Emergence of the Roman Republic

The development of Rome, is a sprawling story that we will tell within the context of wider events in the Mediterranean and, later, Eurasia. In this chapter, we will examine the roots of the Roman Republic, including a discussion of the types of sources historians use to explore those origins. In Chapter Seven, we will look at the shift from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire, comparing and contrasting it with the emerging power at the other end of the Eurasian landmass, Han Dynasty China. Chapter Eight sees the fragmentation of the Empire and the end of its Western portion.

Geography and Topography of Rome

As the title of one recent textbook of Roman history puts it, Roman history is, in a nutshell, the story of Rome’s transformation “from village to empire.”The geography and topography of Rome, Italy, and the Mediterranean world as a whole played a key role in the expansion of the empire but also placed challenges in the Romans’ path, challenges which further shaped their history.

7 hills

Map of the Seven Hills of Rome

Author: User “Renata3” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 4.0

Before it became the capital of a major empire, Rome was a village built on seven hills sprawling around the river Tiber. Set sixteen miles inland, the original settlement had distinct strategic advantages: it was immune to attacks from the sea, and the seven hills on which the city was built were easy to fortify. The Tiber, although marshy and prone to flooding, furthermore, provided the ability to trade with the neighboring city-states. By the mid-Republic, requiring access to the sea, the Romans built a harbor at Ostia, which grew to become a full-fledged commercial arm of Rome as a result. Wheeled vehicles were prohibited inside the city of Rome during the day, in order to protect the heavy pedestrian traffic. Thus at night, carts from Ostia poured into Rome, delivering food and other goods for sale from all over Italy.


Map of Italy in 400 BCE

Author: User “Enok”

Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the most surprising aspects of the history of early Rome is that, despite constant threats from its more powerful neighbors, it was never swallowed by them. The Etruscans dominated much of northern Italy down to Rome, while the southern half of Italy was so heavily colonized by the Greeks as to earn the nickname “Magna Graecia,” meaning “Great Greece.” In addition, several smaller tribes hemmed the early Romans, mainly, the Latins, the Aequi, and the Sabines.

The topography of Rome—the advantage of the hills and the river—likely was a boon in the city’s struggles against all of its neighbors. Likewise, the topography of Italy proper, with the Alps and the Appenines providing natural defenses in the north, hampered invasions from the outside. Indeed, the most famous example of an invasion from the north, that of Hannibal during the Second Punic War, is a case in point: he selected that challenging route through the Alps in order to surprise the Romans, and it proved even more destructive for his forces than he had anticipated.

Sources and Problems in Early Roman History

One of the greatest challenges to modern historians of Rome is the Romans’ own seeming lack of interest in writing their own history for their first 600 years. While, according to Roman legend, Rome was founded in 753 BCE, the first Roman history in Latin, Origins, composed by the Republican politician Cato the Elder, was not published until 149 BCE. A few senators had written about Roman history in Greek earlier on, and some aristocrats kept family histories, but Cato’s work was truly the  first Roman history on a large scale, as it narrated events from the foundation of the city to Cato’s own death. Only fragments of Cato’s history survive; they reveal that Cato’s approach to the writing of history was rather unusual. Instead of referring to any individuals throughout Roman history by name, Cato referred to them by title or political position. As a result, his history was truly focused on Rome and aimed to glorify the accomplishments of Rome rather than individual Romans. Thankfully for modern historians, Cato’s experiment of nameless history did not catch on with subsequent Roman historians. Modern historians are able to reconstruct the story of the Romans from a variety of written and archaeological sources, but some of these sources present problems of which the historian must be aware. Similarly to the challenges modern historians face when studying Greek history, historians of Rome must at times engage in educated guessing when attempting to reconstruct a picture of Rome and Romans based on the limited evidence that is available.

Because the genre of historical writing started so late in Rome, few histories survive from the period of the Republic. Of these, the most famous (and the most voluminous) is the work of Livy, who wrote his Ab Urbe Condita (From the Foundation of the City) in the late first century BCE. Livy was very much an “armchair historian,” but he appears to have had access to a number of sources that are now lost, such as family histories from a number of aristocratic families. As the title indicates, Livy began his work with the legends about the founding of Rome. He continued his narrative down to his time, the age of Augustus, and the last known events in his work covered the year 9 BCE. Although Livy’s work consisted of 142 books, only about a quarter survives, including the first ten books, covering the regal period and the early republic and the narrative of the first two Punic Wars.

One example of the random nature of how some sources were able to survive is the ancient site of Pompeii. The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE caused volcanic ash to rain down on the resort Roman town of Pompeii and the nearby town of Herculaneum, effectively burying both towns and preserving them completely for modern archaeologists. The tragedy for the Roman residents of the two towns at the time proved to be a modern archaeologist’s dream.

While, as the above summary shows, abundant sources of different types survive from different periods of Roman history, certain perspectives are diffcult to reconstruct from our sources. For instance, slaves in the Roman world were as archaeologically invisible as in the Greek world. Likewise, very little evidence documents women’s lives before the rise of Christianity, and their voices are largely left out from Roman history. Other than epitaphs on their gravestones, most average Romans, in general, left no record of their lives, so our evidence is dominated by the history of the aristocracy. Still, the careful historian can gain at least some insight into these lesser-documented perspectives by gathering all references to them in sources that survive.

The Early and Middle Republic

Conquest of italy

Map of the Roman Conquest of Italy | Stages of Early Roman Expansion from 500 BCE to 218 BCE.

Author: User “Javierfv1212”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: Public Domain

The period from the founding of Rome to the end of the Punic Wars is less documented than subsequent Roman history. Nevertheless, this period was the formative time during which Rome grew from a village on the Tiber to a pan-Mediterranean empire.

The process was as fascinating to consider for later Romans as for outsiders. The Greek politician-turned-historian Polybius, who spent seventeen years as a hostage in Rome and became quite a fan of the Roman military and political machine, put it simply in the prologue to his Histories, in which he documented the meteoric conquest of the Mediterranean world by the Romans:

For who is so worthless or lazy as not to wish to know by what means and under what system of government the Romans in less than fifty-three years have succeeded in subjugating nearly the entire known world to their rule, an achievement unprecedented in history? (Polybius 1.1.5)

Polybius’ question pointed to the answer that he subsequently proposed: part of the reason for the Romans’ success was their adoption of the Republican government as replacement for their original monarchy. Polybius became increasingly convinced during his stay in Rome that the Romans’ government was superior to all others in the Mediterranean at the time.

From Monarchy to Republic: Some Myths and Legends

“In the beginning, kings held Rome.” Thus the late first-century CE Roman historian Tacitus opened his Annals, a history of the Empire under the rule of the emperors from Tiberius to Nero. Early Roman history is shrouded in myth and legend, but the beliefs of later Romans about their own past are important to consider, as these beliefs, whether truly grounded in reality or not, determined subsequent decisions and actions of the historical Romans later on. This tendency is especially true of the Romans’ myths about the foundation of their city in 753 BCE and the kings who ruled it until the establishment of the Republic in 510 BCE.

According to myth, Rome received its name from its founder Romulus, the son of the war god Mars, and a descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas. By linking themselves to the Trojans, the Romans were able to boast an ancient, reputable lineage, rivaling that of the Greeks, and a prominent place in the Greek heroic epic, Homer’s Iliad. Furthermore, when embarking on a conquest of Greece later on, the Romans could claim to be seeking revenge for their Trojan ancestors’ defeat and destruction by the Greeks during the Trojan War. Several generations removed from their heroic ancestor Aeneas, Romulus and his twin brother Remus were famously abandoned as infants and then nursed by a she-wolf, the sacred animal of their father Mars.


She-Wolf Suckles Romulus and Remus

Author: User “Nyenyec”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: Public Domain

The sweetness of the story ends there, however. While Romulus was building Rome, Remus insulted the new city, and his brother killed him to avenge its honor. Later, after Romulus had completed the building of the new city with his band of soldiers, he realized the lack of women in the city, so Romulus and his supporters raided the neighboring tribe, the Sabines, and kidnapped their women.

It is telling that later Romans believed that their city was founded on fraternal bloodshed, as well as on rape and kidnapping. The stories of Romulus’ accomplishments, while not laudatory, show an important Roman belief: the greatness of Rome sometimes required morally reprehensible actions. In other words, Rome came first, and if the good of the city required the sacrifice of one’s brother, or required force against others, then the gods were still on the side of the Romans and ordained these actions.

Romans believed that, altogether, their city was ruled by seven different kings in succession. After Romulus, king Numa Pompilius regulated Roman religion and created many of the priestly colleges and positions that continued to exist thereafter. The seventh and final king, however, Tarquin the Proud, was known for his and his family’s brutality. The final straw appears of have been the rape of a nobleman’s wife, Lucretia, by the king’s son. An aristocratic revolution ensued, which appears to have been largely bloodless, if Livy’s account is to be trusted. The royal family was expelled from the city, and two consuls were immediately elected to govern the newly formed Republic. Or so, again, Livy tells us, based on Roman legend. The reality is likely to have been more complicated. Assuming there truly were seven kings who ruled the city, and assuming that the last of them was driven out by an aristocratic revolution, it appears that a period of transition ensued, as the Romans experimented with a variety of short-term solutions before arriving at the model of theRepublican government that we know in the historical period. Furthermore, apparently what guided that gradual evolution of the government was the growing dissatisfaction of the plebeians, the lower socio-economic majority of the city, with their exclusion from the political process.

The Conflict of Orders, the Twelve Tables, and Key Legislations in the Early Republic

Roman sources from all periods, beginning already in the early Republic, reveal certain common values that all Romans held dear and considered to be foundational for their state. First, Romans had a strong respect for the past and were averse to change. Indeed, reformers had a difficult time passing their proposals in all periods of Roman history. The term for this reverence for the past, mos maiorum, “custom of ancestors” or “custom of elders,” is telling. While innovation is a revered value in the modern world, Romans believed that innovation amounted to disrespect for their ancestors. Ancestral custom, which had first made Rome great, had to be respected, and successful reformers, such as the emperor Augustus, managed to phrase their reforms as a return to something old, rather than as something new. Three additional values that are key to understanding the Romans are auctoritas, “power” or “authority;” dignitas, roughly meaning “dignity;” and gravitas, “seriousness.” Each citizen in the state had a degree of auctoritas, that intangible quality that made others obey him, but the degree of auctoritas varied, depending on one’s social and political standing. Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, would later describe his

position in the state as having more auctoritas than anyone else. The other two qualities, dignitas and gravitas, were connected and reflected one’s bearing and behavior as a true Roman. Jocularity was not valued, but seriousness reflected a particularly Roman conduct and determination. It is striking that Romans never smiled in portraits. The austere facial expression, instead, conveyed their power and superiority to others, whom they had conquered.

While sharing common values, Romans were also deeply aware of social divisions between themselves. From its earliest time, Roman citizen population was divided into two orders: the patricians, defined as the descendants from the first one hundred senators appointed to the Roman aristocratic Senate by king Romulus, and the plebeians, that is, everyone who was not a patrician. The plebeians had their own political assembly, the Plebeian Council, while all Roman citizens also belonged to the Centuriate Assembly, which was responsible for annual elections for top political offices. The period of the early Republic, following the expulsion of the kings, was a time of conflict for the two orders, as patricians tried to establish a government that reserved all political power to themselves, whereas the plebeians fought for the opportunity to hold political and religious offices. Although they did not wield any political power at first, they discovered in the early fifth century that their most powerful weapon was secession, that is, departure en masse from the city, until the patricians acquiesced to a demand. While much about the Conflict of the Orders—just as anything else about the history of the early Republic—is shrouded in legend, it is possible to track its progress through the evidence of legislations that the Romans passed.


Bust of an austere Roman, possibly Cato the Elder

Author: User “Shakko”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: Public Domain

In 494 BCE, following the first plebeian secession, the Roman Senate allowed the plebeians to elect plebeian tribunes. An office that eventually was reserved for senators, it was originally merely an opportunity for plebeians to elect officers in the Plebeian Council, the assembly of all plebeian citizens, who would advocate for them. Plebeians next appear to have advocated for a public display of the laws, in order to protect the poor during lawsuits. The result was the first Roman legal code, the Twelve Tables, which was inscribed on twelve tables c. 450 BCE and displayed in public. One of the laws included was a ban on intermarriage between plebeians and patricians, showing a clear commitment on the part of the patricians to maintain the separation of the orders. It is important to note, however, that with the gradual decline in the number of patrician families over the course of the Roman Republic, most began to intermarry with prominent plebeian families.

The highest political office in the Republic, that of the consul, continued to be reserved solely for patricians until 367 BCE, when two senators sponsored the Licinian-Sextian law. The law required that one of the two consuls elected each year had to be plebeian. The phrasing of the law was signi cant, as it allowed the possibility that both consuls elected in a particular year could be plebeian, although this event did not happen in reality until 215 BCE. Finally, the legislation that modern historians have considered to have ended the early Republican Conflict of the Orders is the Lex Hortensia of 287 BCE. This law made all legislations passed by the Plebeian Council binding on all Romans, patricians and plebeians alike.

As historians connect the dots in the story of the Conflict of the Orders through these legislations, one trend that emerges is the gradual weakening of the patricians along with the growing influence of the plebeians on Roman government. Indeed, by the third century, a number of plebeian families were as wealthy and successful as patrician families, whereas some old patrician families had fallen on hard times.

Cursus Honorum and Roman Religion

The debate over plebeian access to political offices in general, and to the consulship in particular, resulted in the creation of a rigid cursus honorum, a sequence or ladder of political offices. The ultimate dream of every Roman who entered politics was to become a consul, but the narrowing pyramid that was the cursus honorum stood in his path. All offices were held for the term of one year, and, in order to prevent any one individual from amassing too much power, candidates had to wait ten years between consulships. Finally, each o ce had a minimum age requirement, with a special privilege for patricians to subtract two years from that minimum.

The prerequisite for holding any political office was ten years of military service. Thus, aspiring Roman politicians normally entered the army around eighteen years of age. Following ten years of distinguished service, candidates who were at least thirty years of age were allowed to run for the first office in the cursus: the quaestorship. The number of quaestors each year rose over time to twenty by the late Republic. Each quaestor was assigned to a particular duty for his year in office, varying from supervising the coin mint in Rome to serving as an assistant to a provincial governor or a consul in charge of a war.

While not officially part of the required cursus honorum, most ex-quaestors next ran for the office of the plebeian tribune, if they were plebeian, or an aedile. Ten plebeian tribunes were elected each year and were supposed to advocate for the benefit of the plebeians during Senatorial debates. Aediles—a term derived from the Latin “aedes,” meaning “building” or “temple”—were in charge of public building projects and often also sponsored public entertainment.

The next step in the cursus was the praetorship. Similarly to the quaestors, the number of praetors rose over time, until topping at eight in the late Republic. Praetors could hold imperium, the right to command an army; thus, they often served in military roles or in administrative capacity by governing a province. Finally, one praetor each year, the praetor urbanus, was in charge of administering justice in the city of Rome and keeping track of legal cases and important decisions, which he issued at the end of the year as the Praetor’s Edict.

Upon reaching the age of forty, candidates who had successfully held the praetorship ultimately could run for the consulship. Two consuls were elected annually, and this office was the pinnacle of the Roman political career. Aristocratic families kept for centuries on display in their homes the ancestor masks of members of the family who had been consuls. Since ten years were required to elapse between successive consulships, very few individuals ever held more than one consulship, until several politicians in the late Republic broke the rules altogether. Last but not least, one additional office existed, for which ex-consuls could run: every five years, two censors were elected for a period of eighteen months for the purpose of conducting the census of citizens. While this structure of annually-elected offices was designed to prevent any one individual from usurping all political power in the state, the Senate also realized that, on rare occasions, concentrating all power in one set of hands was needed. Thus the Senate could appoint a dictator for a non-renewable period of six months in times of serious military emergency, such as in case of Cincinnatus.

In 458 BCE, facing a military attack from the two neighboring tribes of the Aequi and the Sabines, the Roman Senate took a drastic measure, reserved for the direst of circumstances: they appointed a dictator, who would single-handedly lead the state in this time of trouble. As the Roman historian Livy tells it, Cincinnatus, the senator who was appointed dictator, received the news while working on his farm. Abandoning the plow, he immediately rushed to join the army, which he then led to a swift and brilliant victory. Then something astonishing happened: Cincinnatus resigned his extraordinary powers and returned to his farm. For the remainder of the Roman Republic, and well into the Imperial Period, Cincinnatus continued to be seen as the quintessential Roman cultural hero and model of virtue: an aristocratic man, a talented soldier, general, and politician who put the interests of Rome  first, above his own. While no other Roman politician displayed Cincinnatus’ degree of self-sacricing humility, the other Roman heroes of the Republic and the Empire were still uniformly male, pre- dominantly aristocratic, and famed for military and political achievements.

The cursus honorum is best visualized as a pyramid with a wide base and narrowing each step on the way up. While twenty men each year were elected to the quaestorship, only a fraction of them could ever achieve the praetorship, and a yet smaller fraction could rise to the consulship. Still, election to the quaestorship secured life-long membership in the Senate, the governing body of roughly 300 politicians—doubled in the first century BCE to 600—who effectively governed Rome under the Republic. The question remains, nevertheless: how did some men achieve political advancement while others never made it past the quaestorship? Part of the key to success, it appears, lay outside of politics proper, belonging instead to the realm of religion.


The Capitoline Triad | Jupiter Optimus Maximus, with Juno and Minerva (known together as the Capitoline Triad). Note Juno’s sacred goose at her foot, and Minerva’s sacred owl next to her.

Author: User “Luiclemens” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Roman religion, similarly to Greek, was traditionally polytheistic, with many myths and gods aligned to the Greek counterparts. Zeus, Greek king of the gods, became Jupiter, and was a patron god of Rome under the title Jupiter Optimus Maximus, or Jupiter the Best and the Greatest.

His consort, Hera, became the Roman goddess Juno and was the patron goddess of marriage. The Greek Athena became Roman Minerva and was the patron divinity of women’s crafts. In addition, both Venus, the goddess of love, and Mars, the god of war, had mythical family connections to Rome’s human founders. Countless other divinities abounded as well; even the Roman sewer system, Cloaca Maxima, had its own patron goddess, Cloacina.

While Romans were expected to worship some of the gods in private, often making vows to them and promising gifts if the gods fulfilled a request, Roman religion also had a significant public component that was reserved for the priestly colleges. Although not limited to politicians, membership in these colleges was at times key for political advancement. One example of this phenomenon in action is the career of Julius Caesar, whose political career took o  after his appointment to the religious office of pontifex maximus, head of Roman religion. Ultimately, both public and private religion aimed at the same goal: keeping the pax deorum, peace with the gods, upon which the success of their state rested, as the Romans believed. Put simply, as long as Romans maintained a respectful peace with their gods, they ensured Rome’s success. Whenever any disasters befell the state, however, Romans typically assumed that pax deorum had been violated in some way. The gods then had to be appeased in order to end the disaster and prevent similar events from occurring in the future.

Roman Expansion to the End of the Punic Wars

While the legends about the kings of Rome suggest that they had significant military responsibilities, it appears that their military actions were largely defensive. Just a decade or so after the expulsion of the kings, shortly after 500 BCE, however, Roman expansion began in earnest. It is important to note here several key features of the early Roman military. First, until the late Republic, Rome did not maintain a standing army. Rather, a new army was raised for each campaign, and campaigns were typically launched in the spring and ended in the fall. The festival of the October Horse, one of the religious festivals the Romans celebrated each year, involved a ritual purification of the cavalry and originally was likely designed as the end point of the campaign season. Also, similarly to the Greek world, the Romans had minimum wealth requirements for military service, since soldiers supplied their own equipment. Finally, one significant trend to note in early Republican military history is the repeated nature of Roman conflicts with the same enemies, such as the three Samnite Wars, the three Punic Wars, and the four Macedonian Wars. This repetition suggests that, for whatever reason, the Romans did not aim to annihilate their opponents, unless absolutely pressed to do so.

It appears that the Roman expansion in the 490s BCE began as a defensive measure. In either 499 BCE or 496 BCE, the expelled seventh king of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, joined forces with the Latin League, a group of about thirty city-states around the area of Rome, and led them to attack the Romans. The result was the Battle of Lake Regillus, a decisive victory for Rome. The Romans signed an uneasy peace treaty with the Latins, but war broke out again in 340 – 338 BCE. The Roman victory this time resulted in the absorption of the Latin city-states into Rome as partial citizens.

The Latins were not the only enemies the nascent Roman Republic had to face. Romans fought and gradually conquered the Etruscan city-states to the north. One especially significant victory was over the powerful Etruscan city of Veii in 396 BCE. A legend preserved by Livy states that Romans were only able to conquer Veii after they performed the ceremony of evocation, “calling out.” Fearing that their siege of Veii was not going well because Juno, the patron goddess of Veii, was not on their side, the Romans called Juno out of Veii; they promised her a nice new temple in Rome if she would switch sides. Shortly thereafter, the city fell to the Romans. When the Roman soldiers were packing up the cult statue of Juno from her temple in Veii for transportation to Rome, a cheeky Roman soldier asked Juno if she wanted to come to Rome. The statue enthusiastically nodded her head. Livy’s history is full of similar tales of divine providence intervening on the side of the Romans. These legends show the Romans’ own belief that throughout the process of expansion, the gods had protected them and guided them to success.

While still fighting the Latins, the Romans embarked upon what turned out to be a series of three wars with their neighbors to the east, the Samnites. Each of these wars, the last of which ended in 290 BCE, resulted in Roman territorial gains; by the end of the Third Samnite War, Rome controlled all of central Italy. It also appears that, at some point during the Samnite Wars, the Romans switched from  ghting in the Greek hoplite phalanx fashion to a system of their own making, the manipular legion. This new system apparently allowed more flexibility in the arrangement of the troops on the battlefield; it also allowed using both heavy and light infantry as needed, instead of keeping them in a static formation for the duration of a battle.

Roman infantry

Two Roman Infantrymen and a Cavalryman, second century BCE

Author: User “ColderEel”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: Public Domain

While not much else is known about the manipular legion, it appears to have been an effective system for the Romans for much of the Republican period.

It is striking to consider that the Romans spent eighty of the hundred years in the third century BCE at war. They did not seem to have had the ambition to conquer the Greek city-states who were their neighbors in southern Italy; in 280 – 275 BCE, Rome nevertheless became embroiled in a war with Pyrrhus, king of Epirus in northernGreece, after providing help to Thurii in its dispute with Tarentum. Tarentum requested Pyrrhus’ help, and he proceeded to invade Italy. The Romans fought three major battles against Pyrrhus, the first two of which he won at great cost to his army. Indeed, the term “Pyrrhic victory” in modern English refers to a victory that is so costly as to be truly a loss. The Romans  nally defeated Pyrrhus at their third battle against him in 275 BCE, showing the superiority of the new Roman manipular legion even against the phalanx of the Macedonians, military descendants of Alexander the Great himself. This victory united most of Italy, except for the very northern portion, under Roman rule.

The war with Pyrrhus was the Romans’ first serious conflict with the Greek world, but it was far from their last. The Romans’ proximity to northern Greece, in particular, ensured an intersection of spheres of interest, thus also providing cause for continued conflict. Between 214 and 148 BCE, Rome fought four separate Macedonian Wars. During roughly the same period, from 264 and 146 BCE, the Romans also fought three Punic Wars against Carthage, originally a Phoenician colony that became a leading maritime power. Culminating with the Roman destruction of both Carthage and Corinth in 146 BCE, the eventual victory of the Romans over both powers allowed the Romans to gain full control over them and their previous land holdings. Their victory effectively put the entire Mediterranean world under Roman rule.

1000px Map of Rome and Carthage at the start of the Second Punic War svg

Map showing Rome and Carthage at the start of the Second Punic War and the theatre of the Punic Wars.

Author: user “Grandiose” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

In 146 BCE, when the Romans found themselves in control of a Mediterranean empire, they appeared to foresee little of the consequences of such a rapid expansion on internal stability in Rome proper. A critical question nevertheless faced them: how would the Republic, whose system of government was designed for a small city-state, adapt to ruling a large empire? The preliminary answer on which the Romans settled was to divide the conquered territories into provinces, to which senatorial governors were assigned for terms that varied from one to five years. The system continued, with minor variations, into the Empire.

The new availability of governor positions, however, only made the political competition in the Republic even sti er than before. Senators competed for the most desirable positions; typically, these were provinces in which military action was on-going—since this provided the potential for winning military glory—or provinces that were wealthy, with the potential opportunity in governing them to acquire wealth.

Political Unification in South Asia

The kingdom of Magadha became the most powerful among the sixteen states that dominated this transitional period, but only over time. At the outset, it was just one of eleven located up and down the Ganges River. The rest were established in the older northwest or central India. In general, larger kingdoms dominated the Ganges basin while smaller clan-based states thrived on the periphery. They all fought with each other over land and resources, making this a time of war and shifting alliances.

The victors were the states that could field the largest armies. To do so, rulers had to mobilize the resources of their realms. The Magadhan kings did this most effectively. Expansion began in 545 BCE under King Bimbisara. His kingdom was small, but its location to the south of the lower reaches of the Ganges River gave it access to fertile plains, iron ore, timber, and elephants. Governing from his inland fortress at Rajagriha, Bimbisara built an administration to extract these resources and used them to form a powerful military. After concluding marriage alliances with states to the north and west, he attacked and defeated the kingdom of Anga to the east. His son Ajatashatru, after killing his father, broke those alliances and waged war on the Kosala Kingdom and the Vrijji Confederacy. Succeeding kings of this and two more Magadhan dynasties continued to conquer neighboring states down to 321 BCE, thus forging an empire. But its reach was largely limited to the middle and lower reaches of the Ganges River.

To the northwest, external powers gained control. As we have seen, the mountain ranges de ning that boundary contain passes permitting the movement of peoples. This made the northwest a crossroads, and, at times, the peoples crossing through were the armies of rulers who sought to control the riches of India. Outside powers located in Afghanistan, Iran, or beyond might extend political control into the subcontinent, making part of it a component in a larger empire.

One example is the Persian Empire (see Chapter Four). During the sixth century, two kings, Cyrus the Great and Darius I, made this empire the largest in its time. From their capitals on the Iranian Plateau, they extended control as far as the Indus River, incorporating parts of northwest India as provinces of the Persian Empire. Another example is Alexander the Great. After defeating the Persian Empire, Alexander took his forces all the way to mountain ranges bordering India. Desiring to find the end of the known world and informed of the riches of India, Alexander took his army through the Khyber Pass and overran a number of small states and cities located in the Punjab. But to Alexander’s dismay, his soldiers refused to go any further, forcing him to turn back. They were exhausted from years of campaigning far from home and discouraged by news of powerful Indian states to the east. One of those was the kingdom of Magadha.

Magadha’s first capital—Rajagriha—is one of many cities and towns with ruins dating back to this transitional period. Urban centers were sparse during the Vedic Age but now blossomed, much like they did during the mature phase of the Harappan Civilization. Similar processes were at work. As more forests were cleared and marshes drained, the agricultural economy of the Ganges basin produced ever more surplus food. Population grew, enabling more people to move into towns and engage in other occupations as craftsmen, artisans, and traders. Kings encouraged this economic growth as its revenue enriched their treasuries. Caravans of ox-drawn carts or boats laden with goods travelling from state to state could expect to encounter the king’s customs o cials and pay tolls. So important were rivers to accessing these trade networks that the Magadhan kings moved their capital to Pataliputra, a port town located on the Ganges Thus, it developed as a hub of both political power and economic exchange. Most towns and cities began as one or the other, or as places of pilgrimage.

The Mauryan Empire (321-184 BCE)

The kingdom of Magadha was the most powerful state in India when the Nanda Dynasty came to power in 364 BCE. Nine Nanda kings made it even greater, by improving methods of tax collection and administration, funding irrigation projects and canal building, and maintaining an impressive army of infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots.

But Nanda aspirations were cut short when they were overthrown by Chandragupta Maurya (r. 321 – 297 BCE), who began a new period in India’s history. He and his son Bindusara (r. 287 – 273 BCE) and grandson Ashoka (r. 268 – 232 BCE) were destined to forge the first large empire in India’s history, one that would inspire the imagination of later empire builders in South Asia. The Mauryan Empire included most of the subcontinent and lasted for 140 years.

Maurya map ashoka

Mauryan Empire during the reign of King Ashoka | Note the location of the capital, Pataliputra.

Author: User “Vastu”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Conflicting accounts make it difficult to say anything de nitive about the first two kings. Chandragupta may have come from a Kshatriya (warrior) clan, or a Vaishya (commoner) clan of peacock-tamers. In his youth, he spent time in the northwest, where he encountered Alexander the Great. With the assistance of Kautilya, a disloyal Brahmin of the Nanda court, Chandragupta formed alliances with Nanda enemies, overthrowing them in 321 BCE. Thereafter, through diplomacy and war, he secured control over central and northern India.

Kautilya, whose advice may have been critical to Chandragupta’s success, is viewed as the author of the Arthashastra, a treatise on statecraft. This handbook for kings covered in detail the arts of governing, diplomacy, and warfare. To help ensure centralization of power in the ruler’s hands, it provided a blueprint of rules and regulations necessary to maintain an e cient bureaucracy, a detailed penal code, and advice on how to deploy spies and informants.

Chandragupta’s campaigns ended when he concluded a treaty with Seleucus Nicator in 301 BCE. After Alexander the Great retreated from India and then died, a struggle for his empire broke out among his generals. Seleucus was one of them. He gained control of the eastern half and sought to reclaim northwest India. But he was confronted by Chandragupta, defeated, and forced to surrender the Indus Basin and much of Afghanistan, giving the Mauryan Empire control over trade routes to West Asia. The treaty, however, established friendly relations between the two rulers, for in exchange for hundreds of elephants, Seleucus gave Chandragupta a daughter

in marriage and dispatched an envoy to his court. The envoy, Megasthenes, wrote a book called the Indicia, which provides detailed observations of life, politics, and customs at the Mauyran court and one of our key sources of information about this era. Hellenistic kings maintained commercial and diplomatic ties with India.

Military expansion continued under Bindusara and Ashoka until all but the tip of the subcontinent came under the empire’s control. With King Ashoka, however, warfare came to an end. We know far more about him because he left behind a fascinating record telling much about his ideas on governing. He had edicts inscribed on rocks throughout the realm and on sandstone pillars erected in the Ganges heartland. He then placed them in populous areas where people usually gathered, so that his o cials could read them to his largely illiterate subjects.

Rock edicts

Location of the rock edicts and pillars of King Ashoka

Author: User “PHGCOM” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

One rock edict speaks to why King Ashoka decided to renounce violence. While waging war against a small state, called Kalinga,  located along the east coast, he was deeply disturbed by the amount of suffering and dislocation the war heaped upon innocent people’s lives. This realization caused him to redouble his faith in the Buddha. Ashoka, it turns out, was a lay follower of Buddhism.

In his edicts, he proclaimed to his subjects that the sound of the drum would be replaced by the sound of the dharma. In ancient India, dharma meant universal law. For the Brahmin priests, for example, dharma meant a society and religious order founded on Vedic principles and the caste system. For Buddhists, dharma consisted of the truths taught by the Buddha. For kings, dharma was enlightened governing and just rule. Thus, Ashoka was proclaiming that he would now rule by virtue, not force.

Ashoka’s kingly dharma was shaped by his personal practice of Buddhism. This dharma consisted of laws of ethical behavior and right conduct fashioned from Indian traditions of kingship and his understanding of Buddhist principles. To gain his subject’s willing obedience, he sought to inspire a sense of gratitude by presenting himself in the role of a father looking out for his children. He told his subjects that he was appointing o cers to tour his realm and attend to the welfare and happiness of all. Justice was to be impartially administered and medical treatment provided for animals and humans. A principle of non-injury to all beings was to be observed. Following this principle meant not only renouncing state violence, but also forbidding slaughtering certain animals for sacrifices or for cooking in the royal kitchen. Ashoka also proclaimed that he would replace his pleasure and hunting tours with dharma tours. During these, he promised to give gifts to Brahmins and the aged and to visit people in the countryside.

In return, Ashoka asked his subjects to observe certain principles. He knew his empire was pluralistic, consisting of many peoples with di erent cultures and beliefs. He believed that if he instilled certain values in these peoples, then his realm might be knit together in peace and harmony. Thus, in addition to non-injury, Ashoka taught forbearance. He exhorted his subjects to respect parents, show courtesy to servants, and, more generally, be liberal, compassionate, and truthful in their treatment of others. These values were also to be embraced by religious communities, since Ashoka did not want people fighting over matters of faith.

The king’s writ shaped the government because kings were the heart of it. They were advised by a council of ministers and served by high o cials who oversaw the major functions of the state. The Mauryans were particularly concerned with e cient revenue collection and uniform administration of justice. To that end, they divided the empire into a hierarchy of provinces and districts and appointed officials to manage matters at each level. But given such an immense empire spread over a geographically and ethnically diverse territory, the level of Mauryan control varied. Historians recognize three broad zones. The first was the metropolitan region—with its capital Pataliputra— located on the Ganges Plain. This heartland was tightly governed. The second zone consisted of conquered regions of strategic and economic importance. These provinces were placed under the control of members of the royal family and senior officials, but state formation was slower. That is, the tentacles of bureaucracy did not reach as deeply into local communities. Lastly, the third zone consisted of hinterlands sparsely populated by tribes of foragers and nomads. Here, state control was minimal, amounting to little more than establishing workable relations with chieftains.

After King Ashoka’s reign, the Mauryan Empire declined. The precise reasons for this decline are unknown. Kings enjoyed only brief reigns during the final fifty years of the empire’s existence, so they may have been weak. Since loyalty to the ruler was one element of the glue that held the centralized bureaucracy together, weak kings may explain why the political leaders of provinces pulled away and the empire fragmented into smaller states. Furthermore, the Mauryan court’s demand for revenue su cient to sustain the government and a large standing army may have contributed to discontent. In 184 BCE, the last king was assassinated by his own Brahmin military commander, and India’s first major imperial power came to an end.

Regional States

After the Mauryan Empire fell, no one major power held control over a substantial part of India and from c. 200 BCE to 300 CE, South Asia  saw a fairly rapid turnover of numerous, competing regional monarchies. Most of these were small, while the larger ones were only loosely integrated. Some developed along the Ganges. Others were of Central Asian origins, the product of invasions from the northwest. Also, for the first time, states formed in southern India. Yet, in spite of the political instability, India was economically dynamic, as trade within and without the subcontinent flourished, and India was increasingly linked to other parts of the world in networks of exchange. And new trends appeared in India’s major religious traditions. A popular, devotional form of worship was added to Buddhism, for example, that facilitated its spread outside of India into central and eastern Asia.

The general who brought the Mauryan Empire to a close by a military coup established the Shunga Dynasty (c. 185 – 73 BCE). Like its predecessor, this kingdom was centered on the middle Ganges, the heartland of India’s history since the late Vedic Age. But unlike it, the Shunga King- dom rapidly dwindled in size.

 Shunga rulers were constantly warring with neighboring kingdoms, and the last fell to an internal coup in 73 CE. Subsequently, during the ensuing half millennium, other regions of India played equally prominent roles.

The northwest remained a source of dynamism, as different peoples living beyond the Hindu Kush invaded India and established one kingdom after another. Most of this movement was caused by instability on the steppe lands of Central Asia, where competing confederations of nomadic pastoralists fought for control over territory.


The Kushan Empire during the reign of King Kanishka

Author: Thomas Lessman

Source: Talessman’s Atlas of World History

License: © Thomas Lessman. Used with permission.

The most powerful among this succession of states was the Kushan Kingdom, whose origins take us far away to the north of China. There, in the second century CE, nomadic groups struggling with scarcity moved west, displacing another group and forcing them into northern Afghanistan. Those peoples are known as the Yuezhi (yew-eh-jer), and they were made up of several tribes. In the first century CE, a warrior chieftain from one Yuezhi tribe, the Kushans, united them, invaded northwest India, and assumed exalted titles befitting a king. His successor, ruling from Afghanistan, gained control over the Punjab and reached into the plains of the upper Ganges River.

The greatest Kushan ruler, King Kanishka, furthered what these first two kings began, forging an empire extending from Central Asia across the mountain ranges of Afghanistan into much of northern India. Ruling the many peoples of such a sprawling territory required more than the periodic plundering campaigns of nomad chieftains. One sculpture of King Kanishka puts these Central Asian roots on display. In it, he is wearing a belted tunic, coat, and felt boots, and carrying a sword and mace. Kushan gold coins, however, cast him and his two predecessors in another light: as universal monarchs. On one side, the crowned kings are displayed along with inscriptions bearing titles used by the most powerful Indian, Persian, Chinese, and Roman emperors of that time. The obverse side contains images of both Indian and foreign deities. The Kushan rulers, it appears, solved the problem of ruling an extensive, culturally diverse realm by patronizing the many different gods beloved by the peoples living within it. Buddhists, for instance, saw King Kanishka as a great Buddhist ruler, much like they did King Ashoka. In fact, Kanishka supported Buddhist scholarship and encouraged missionaries to take this faith from India to Central Asia and China. But his coins also depict Greek, Persian, and Hindu deities, suggesting that he was open-minded, and perhaps strategic, in matters of religion.


Statue of King Kanishka |

Statue of King Kanishka, second century CE. The head is missing.

Author: Biswarup Ganguly

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY 3.0

After Kanishka’s reign, from the mid-second century CE onwards, the empire declined. Like the other, larger Indian states during this time, only a core area was ruled directly by the king’s servants. The other areas were governed indirectly by establishing tributary relations with local rulers. As Kushan power waned, numerous smaller polities emerged, turning northern and central India into a mosaic of states.

Kushan coins

Gold coins dating to the reign of King Kanishka

Each coin contains an image of Kanishka on one side, an image of a deity on the obverse, and inscriptions giving the names of both. Kanishka is depicted wearing a crown, beard, long tunic, trousers, and boots. He is holding a scepter or trident in the left hand and standing over an altar. Inscriptions recognizehim as “King of kings.” Flames arise from his shoulders. On the obverse side, the first coin displays the Buddha raising his right hand, symbolizing reassurance. Other Kushan coins display Greek, Indian, and Iranian deities.

Author: User “World Imaging” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The Indian peninsula—the territory south of the Indo-Gangetic Plain and the Vindhya Mountain Range—also features more prominently after the fall of the Mauryan Empire. In the south, kingdoms emerged for the  rst time. The largest was the Satavahana Kingdom, which included most of the Deccan Plateau and lasted about three centuries. The first rulers were former Mauryan officials who capitalized on its dissolution, established their own state, and expanded to the north.

India map

 India in the second and  rst century CE | This map shows the location of the Shunga (Sunga), Satavahana, and Kushan Empires, demonstrating clearly that India was constituted by several greater and lesser regional powers during these centuries.

Author: User “PHG”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: Public Domain

To establish their legitimacy, Satavahana kings embraced Aryan civilization by allowing Brahmins to perform sacrifices at the court and by upholding the varna social order. They also prospered from a rich agricultural base and trade. However, like so many of the larger states during these centuries, this kingdom was only loosely integrated, consisting of small provinces governed by civil and military officers and allied, subordinate chieftains and kings.

Economic Growth and Flourishing Trade Networks

Gold coins discovered in Kushan territory provide much information about the rulers who issued them. The Satavahanas also minted coins. Additionally, Roman gold coins have been found at over 130 sites in south India. These were issued by Roman emperors at the turn of the Christian era, during the first century CE. These coins serve as a sign of the times. Indian monarchs issued coins because trade was growing and intensifying all around them and they wished to support and profit from it. Expanding the money supply facilitated trade and was one way to achieve that goal. Both Indian kingdoms were also geographically well positioned to take advantage of emerging global trade networks linking the subcontinent to other regions of Afro-Eurasia. This advantage provides one reason why they flourished.

The expansion of trade both within and without India is a major theme of these five centuries. Put simply, South Asia was a crossroads with much to offer. In market towns and cities across the subcontinent, artisans and merchants organized to produce and distribute a wide variety of goods. Guilds were their principal method of organization. A guild was a professional association made up of members with a particular trade. Artisan guilds—such as weavers and goldsmiths—set the prices and ensured the quality of goods. Operating like and sometimes overlapping with castes, guilds also set rules for members and policed their behavior. They acted collectively as proud participants of urban communities, displaying their banners in festive processions and donating money to religious institutions. Merchant guilds then saw to it that their artisan products were transported along routes traversing the subcontinent or leading beyond to foreign lands.

The lands and peoples surrounding India, and the many empires they lived under, are the topic of later chapters, but we can take a snapshot of the scene here.


Trade Routes | Some of the major Indian Ocean and Silk Road trade routes that linked India to the rest of Afro-Eurasia Author: User “Splette”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: Public Domain

In the first century CE, India sat amidst trade networks connecting the Roman Empire, the Parthian Empire (which succeeded the Hellensitic kingdoms in what had been Persia), Chinese Empire, and a host of smaller kingdoms and states in Africa, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. The major trade networks were the Silk Roads and the Indian Ocean maritime trade routes. Thus, for example, Greco-Roman traders plied the waters of the Arabian Sea, bringing ships filled with amphorae and gold coins to ports located along the west coast of India, and returning with spices, textiles, and gems. Indian traders sailed the waters of the Bay of Bengal, bringing cloth  and beads from the Coromandel Coast to Southeast Asia and returning with cinnamon cloves and sandalwood. In the northwest, a similar trade in a variety of goods took place along the Silk Roads. Indian traders, for instance, took advantage of the excellent position of the Kushan Empire to bring silk from Central Asia to the ports of northwest India, from where it could then be sent on to Rome. In sum, this vibrant international trade constituted an early stage of globalization. Combined with regional trade across the subcontinent, India saw an increase in travel in all directions, even as it remained divided among many regional kingdoms.

Changes to Buddhism

Aside from expanding trade, another theme during these centuries of political division is a transformation in Buddhism  that emphasized the importance of devotion and appealed to broader groups of people, helping it become what historians call a “universal” religion; that is to say a religion that is adaptable to people living in places other than where it originated.

Buddhism thrived after the Buddha died in c. 480 BCE, all the more so during this period of regional states and the early centuries of the Common Era. In fact, it would not be exaggeration to say that Buddhism was the dominant public religion. The communities of monks and nuns (sangha) that formed after Buddha’s time lived in monasteries built along trade routes, near towns, or in caves. To build these and survive, the sangha needed much support, which often came in the form of royal patronage. Kings such as Ashoka and Kanishka, for example, offered lavish support for Buddhist institutions. But over time, the contributions of merchants, women, and people from lower varnas became just as important. Unlike Vedic Brahmanism, which privileges the Brahmin varna, Buddhism was more inclusive and less concerned with birth and social class. After all, in theory, anyone could become a Buddha.

Buddhism also emphasized the importance of attaining good karma for better rebirths and a future enlightenment; one didn’t need to be a monk to work at this. Rather, any ordinary layperson, regardless of their religious beliefs, could also take Buddhist vows and practice Buddhist ways. That meant not only leading a moral life but also supporting the sangha. By so doing, the good karma of the monks and nuns would be transferred to the community and oneself. This practice served to not only make the world a better place and to ensure a better future, but also to allow opportunities for publicly displaying one’s piety. That is why kings, rich merchants, and ordinary people donated to the sangha and gave monks food.

With so much support and participation, Buddhism also changed. Every major world religion has different branches. These branches share a common root but diverge in some matters of belief and practice. Buddhism has two major branches: Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism is early Buddhism, the Buddhism of the early sangha, and is based on the earliest records of the Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths. A practitioner of this form of Buddhism sought to end suffering and attain nirvana by engaging the Eight-Fold Path, a program of study, moral conduct, and meditation. Ideally, the practitioner pursued this program as a monk or nun in a monastic setting, and eventually became an “arhat,” that is, a perfected person who is nearly or fully enlightened.

Mahayana Buddhism came later, during the early centuries of the Common Era. Mahayana means “Great Vehicle,” pointing to the fact that this form of Buddhism offers multiple paths to enlightenment for people from all walks of life. This branch has no single founder and consists of a set of ideas elaborated upon in new Buddhist scriptures dating to this time. In one of these new paths, the Buddha becomes a god who can be worshipped, and by anyone. A monk or lay follower is welcome to make an offering before an image of the Buddha placed in a shrine. By so doing, they demonstrate their desire to end su ering and seek salvation through faith in the Buddha.

Furthermore, with the “Great Vehicle,” the universe becomes populated with numerous Buddhas. Practitioners developed the idea that if anyone can become a Buddha over the course of many lifetimes of practice, then other Buddhas must exist. Also, the belief arose that some individuals had tread the path to Buddhahood but chose to forego a  nal enlightenment where they would leave the world behind so that they could, out of great compassion for all su ering people, work for their deliverance. These holy beings are known as Bodhisattvas, that is, enlightened persons who seek nirvana solely out of their desire to benefit all humanity. Buddhists also believed that the universe consisted of multiple worlds with multiple heavenly realms. Some of these Buddhas and Bodhisattvas created their own heavenly realms and, from there, o er grace to those seeking salvation through them. Through veneration and worship, the follower hopes to be reborn in that heavenly realm, where they can then  nish the path to liberation. Seeking to become a Bodhisattva through a path of devotion was one of the new paths outlined by Mahayana scriptures.

Buddhism traveled out of India and had an impact on other parts of the world, making it a major world religion. This expansion resulted from the efforts of Buddhist missionaries and merchants, as well as kings who supported its propagation. Theravada Buddhism was carried to Sri Lanka and parts of Southeast Asia, where it remains a dominant religious tradition. Mahayana Buddhism spread to Central and East Asia, a process that was facilitated by the Silk Road and the support of kings like Kanishka of the Kushan Empire. However, Buddhism eventually declined in India, especially after the first millennium BCE. From that time, Hinduism and Islam increasingly won over the religious imagination of the peoples of India, with royal patronage and lay support following.

Spread of Buddhism

The spread of Buddhism from India to other regions of Asia | Green arrows indicate the pathway for the spread of Theravada Buddhism, from India (including Sri Lanka) to Southeast Asia. The red arrows indicate the routes for the spread of Mahayana Buddhism to East Asia (China, Korea, and Japan).

Author: Gunawan Kartapranata

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Central Asia: Turkic Migrations

Central asia

Map of Central Asia

Author: User “Lyriak” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Unlike many other regions of the world, Central Asia lacks the distinct topo- graphical features necessary to delineate boundaries. There are several broad geographical zones in Central Asia none- theless. Perhaps the most well-known topographic area in Central Asia is the great Eurasian Steppe, a latitudinal belt of grassland that stretches from Eastern Europe through Mongolia. It was there that nomadic horse cultures  ourished. Located to the south of the steppe was the core of Central Asia, an area known as Transoxiana. This is a dry region that lies beyond the Oxus River, known today as the Amu Darya. In Transoxiana trade settlements and irrigated agricul- ture developed along the Amu Darya and Syr Darya watersheds. Finally, located to the far south, lies the mountainous area of Khorasan, the cultural capital of Persia prior to the appearance of the Mongols (see Chapter 10).

Nomadic migration was the first major external in uence that would be integrated into the culture of the region, as steppe peoples imparted a lasting impression to Central Asia. Beginning with the Xiongnu (209 BCE – 93 CE), a long-term exodus of steppe peoples spread out of Mongolia and into Central Asia. For millennia prior to the rise of Genghis Khan (see Chapter 10), the winners of the tribal battles for predominance on the Orkhon Steppe, prime pastureland located in western Mongolia, forced the vanquished o  to the west. These periodic mass departures of Turkic tribes out of the area progressed southwest into Central Asia in a migration conquest, not a trade diaspora, as happened to Africans during the slave trade. These new arrivals forever altered the ethnic makeup of Central Asia. Previously, the region had been predominantly Persian and Indo-European; when the waves of Turkic tribes penetrated into the area, though, they occupied the great steppe and agricultural basin of Central Asia and pushed these Persian groups to the fringes. Over time, they slowly Turkified the area, endowing it with a more nomadic character.


Map of the Xiongnu Empire in 205 BCE

Author: User “Postmann Michael” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

These Turkic tribesmen divided their society into five strata. Members of the royal tribal clan presided over the social order. This dominant group bestowed its name on the tribal confederation, a collection of tribes. Positioned below them were their allies and associated tribes. Next were the common herders who did not participate in struggles for power. Lower still were the artisans, such as blacksmiths and leatherworkers. And finally, we find slaves at the bottom of the hierarchy. They usually acquired their lowly position in society by means of capture in times of war.

These Turkic wanderers belonged to an unstable confederation of clans and tribes roaming the steppe, loosely bound under a khagan, a charismatic monarch who laid claim to some sort of divine providence. Khagan made use of their personal charisma, as well as their political and military smarts, in order to maintain group cohesion and ward o  challenges to their authority. Under strong khagans, tribal confederations were capable of wielding incredible power, but, more often than not, they were notoriously volatile and often imploded upon the death of their leader, collapsing into a brutal struggle for power. The winners in this struggle forced the losers out of the area, and while many went to the north or south, most to the west. Victorious tribes remained in Mongolia on the highly-prized Orkhon Steppe, located near Lake Baikal.

Although the khaganate was a diarchy, or system of dual rule, with the oldest son controlling half of the land, it lacked a clear transition of power, like hereditary succession. Because the khagan theoretically ruled over a series of tribal confederations, any member of the tribal confederation could ascend to the position of monarch by demonstrating their personal charisma and martial skills on the battle eld. This often resulted in a fight to prove oneself that could erupt into broader inter-tribal strife.

Periodic Turkic migrations into Central Asia transformed the sedentary culture of the region. These steppe peoples lived by practicing pastoral nomadism, a way of life centered around herding that most likely predated the Turks but was eventually adopted by them. Their culture was utilitarian in nature and provided all the necessities for life on the great plains of Central Asia, including food, clothing, shelter,

and transportation. In order to maintain their pastures, these horsemen followed a fixed, seasonal pattern of migration because they did not want their flocks to overgraze. During the winter, for instance, they camped in foothills and mountain valleys, where it was warmer at lower altitudes. There they built fixed shelters with one main objective: survival. The oral tradition, which included songs, epic narratives, and parables, flourished during the inhospitable winter months.

In the spring, the nomads made a ten-day trip to the prairieland to graze their herds on fresh grass that just emerged from mountain runoff. There the women and children erected a central camp, usually comprising four yurts, while the men divided the flocks into their specific pastures. They established about ten satellite camps around the central camp, with each herd positioned about ten to twenty miles from the center. This separation of camps minimized the potential threat that their enemies posed to their herds. During the summer, they traveled to mid-mountain fields, where it was cooler and offered access to water. Covering about ten miles per day, it took them approximately fifty days to reach this campground. Finally, in the fall, they returned to the steppe in order to make provisions for the harsh winter. These preparations included drying and preserving their meat, and taking milk from their animals.

Enhanced mobility was the key to the survival of pastoral nomads. They actually spent a good portion of their lives on horseback and were accustomed to moving over long distances, taking all of life’s necessities with them. This allowed them to retreat quickly from rival attacks or areas afflicted by natural disaster. Though their way of life appeared seemingly innocuous, it enhanced the ability of these horsemen to expand rapidly and conquer neighboring groups. It was in this manner that pastoral nomadism accorded its practitioners certain martial advantages. The annual Great Hunt served as a military proving ground that helped them hone their fighting skills. In preparation for

winter, tribes deployed groups of mounted men, who dispersed in different directions, with the intent of driving every animal within a set perimeter inwards to converge at a pre-established central point. With great co- ordination taking place over vast distances, these migrants learned how to coordinate their movements based on a color scheme of arrows and whistling patterns. Their herding tactics easily translated to military tactics and proved devastating in combat.

Nomad society was certainly capable of waging war. Their ability to shoot from horseback provided them with a mobile and lethal means to overcome slower, infantry- based armies. These horsemen carried portable, three-foot-long recurve bows capable of piercing enemy armor from over 450 meters. Metal thumb rings enabled a rapid rate of  re without damaging the archer’s fingers. Raised hunting and herding from horseback, nomads even learned how to sleep in the saddle of the Mongol Horse, their indigenous horse. Though not tall in stature, these sturdy mounts displayed impressive endurance and allowed groups to traverse great distances, often up to 160 kilometers per day. The speed with which they could cover territory on their steeds often confused sedentary forces and multiplied the terror factor. Native to the region, these horses were able to forage for themselves and survive on their own. Nomads did not require supply lines and could, therefore, remain on campaign for an average of three years. The combination of the skills acquired from herding, the double-compound bow, and the Mongol Horse, translated to a formula for political domination of Central Asia, at least until the arrival of Genghis Khan and the Mongols.

Mongol horse

Archers on the Mongol Horse

Author: Sayf al-Vâhidî Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

Turkic domination of the region began on the battle eld, where the strategies of steppe warfare proved devastating to infantry-based armies. The first stage of the nomad battle strategy often commenced with a feigned retreat, in which a group of their cavalry engaged the adversary, retreated, and encouraged their opponents to follow them. This technique lengthened the lines of their challengers, as they pursued the “retreating” Turkic cavalrymen, who were busy shooting backwards from horseback. The next stage of battle involved out flanking the enemy and enveloping them. They then showered their foes with arrows, the objective being to pin the opponent in place. This alone was often enough to break a sedentary power. When fighting against another steppe power, their reserves charged the opponent’s lines so as to break their forces into pieces and finish them off piecemeal. Most importantly, because of their limited numbers, the Turkic horsemen were reluctant to risk fighting an enemy that they did not believe they could defeat, instead, they would poison water wells, scorch the earth, and retreat. The Mongols would later employ similar battle tactics that allowed them to conquer the whole of Central Asia, as we will see in Chapter Ten.

Works Consulted and Further Reading

Alexander and the Hellenistic World

Gruen, Erich. Diaspora: Jews amidst Greeks and Romans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Lane Fox, Robin. Alexander the Great. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Lendon, J. E. Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Lewis, Naphthali. Greeks in Ptolemaic Egypt. Durham: American Society of Papyrologists, 2001.

Long, A. A. Hellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics. Berkeley: University of California Press,


Walbank, F. W. The Hellenistic World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Early Rome and the Republic

Boatwright, Mary, Daniel Gargola, Noel Lenski, and Richard Talbert. The Romans: From Village to Empire: A History of Rome from Earliest Times to the End of the Western Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Coarelli, Filippo. Rome and Environs: An Archaeological Guide. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

Faulkner, Neil. Rome: Empire of the Eagles, 753 BC – AD 476. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Scullard, H. H. From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 133 BC to AD 68. New York: Routledge, 1982.

Southern, Pat. The Roman Army: A Social and Institutional History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

South Asia

Champakalakshmi, R. Trade, Ideology, and Urbanization: South India 300 BC to AD 1300. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Thapar, Romila. Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Central Asia

Adshead, S.A.M., Central Asia in World History. New York: Palgrave, 1993.

Christian, David. Inner Eurasia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.

Findley, Carter Vaughn, The Turks in World History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Links to Primary Sources

Alexander and the Hellenistic World

Archimedes’ Inventions

Justin, on the beginning of the reign of Philip II of Macedon

 Early Rome and the Republic

Appian, Selections from Civil Wars on the Gracchi Etruscans (descriptions from Herodotus and Livy) Livy, The Rape of Lucretia and Roman way of declaring war Polybius, Histories, Book I Polybius, Histories, Book VI Polybius, Comparison of the Roman Maniple with Macedonian Phalanx

South Asia

Ashoka’s Edicts

From Berger, Eugene; Israel, George; Miller, Charlotte; Parkinson, Brian; Reeves, Andrew; and Williams, Nadejda, “World History: Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500″ (2016). History Open Textbooks. Book 2.

World History: Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Chapter Five: The Classical Age


South AsiaEast AsiaThe Greek World

770-256 BCE: Eastern Zhou Dynasty

c. 599-c. 527 BCE: Life of Mahavira

c. 563-480 BCE: Life of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha)

551-479 BCE: Life of Confucius

c. 475-221 BCE: Warring States Period

478 BCE: Founding of the Delian League

c. 470-399 BCE: Life of Socrates

431 BCE: The Delian League becomes the Athenian Empire

431-404 BCE: The Peloponnesian War c.

428-c.347 BCE: Life of Plato

415-413 BCE: The Sicilian Expedition

404-403 BCE: The Tyranny of the Thirty rules Athens

c. 369-c. 286 BCE: Life of Master Zhuang


The political and social events discussed in Chapter 4 would lead to an explosion philosophical development in the Greek world, South Asia, and East Asia. This chapter explores the most significant of these changes, which (in all three of these regions) occurred in the mid-first millennium BCE.

The concentration of innovative philosophical and religious thought that happened in one time period in several different areas has led philosophers and historians to describe this period as an “Axial Age,” a period of time that is a crucial turning point in the history of the peoples of Afro-Eurasia. German philosopher Karl Jaspers was the first to use the term, which he based on the ideas of earlier philosophers.

Thinkers like Plato, Confucius, and the Buddha reshaped the contours of intellectual, political, and spiritual contours of their respective lands. As you read this chapter, pay particular attention to the political and social contexts in which new political, philosophical or religious innovations emerged. What was happing in the Greek world, India, or China that encouraged these new ideas to emerge and take hold?

Questions to Guide Your Reading

  1. What were the stages of the Peloponnesian War? How did the outcome of the war impact Greece in the fourth century?
  2. What were some of the most important contributions of Classical Athens in the areas of art, government and law, philosophy, and literature?
  3. How were Jainism and Buddhism each a response or challange to Brahmanism?
  4. During the Warring States Period, how did the nature of warfare change, and how did the demands of that changing warfare reshape Zhou feudal states?
  5. Explain the major ideas of Confucius.
  6. Explain the major ideas and practices of Daoism.

Key Terms

  • Archidamian War
  • Aristophanes
  • Athenian Empire
  • Confucius
  • Daoism
  • Decelean War
  • Delian League
  • Euripides
  • First Peloponnesian War
  • Four Noble Truths
  • Jainism
  • Mahavira
  • Plato
  • Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha)
  • Socrates
  • Sophocles
  • Theban Hegemony
  • Tyranny of the Thirty

The Classical Period in the Greek World

So far, the story of the Greek world has proceeded from a narrative of the fragmented Greek world in the Dark Ages to the emergence and solidi cation of a Pan-Hellenic identity in the Archaic Period. The story of the Greeks in the Classical Period, by contrast, is best described as the strife for leadership of the Greek world. First, Athens and Sparta spent much of the fifth century BCE battling each other for control of the Greek world. Then, once both were weakened, other states began attempting to  ll the power vacuum. Ultimately, the Classical Period will end with the Greek world under the control of a power that was virtually unknown to the Greeks at the beginning of the fifth century BCE: Macedon.

From the Delian League to the Athenian Empire

In 478 BCE, barely a year after the end of the Greco-Persian Wars, a group of Greek city-states, mainly those located in Ionia and on the island between mainland Greece and Ionia, founded the Delian League, with the aim of continuing to protect the Greeks in Ionia from Persian attacks. Led by Athens, the league first met on the tiny island of Delos. According to Greek mythology, the twin gods Apollo and Artemis were born on Delos. As a result, the island was considered sacred ground and, as such, was a fitting neutral headquarters for the new alliance.

Map of The Athenian Empire in 431 BCE | Author: User “Marsyas” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0 Map of The Athenian Empire in 431 BCE | Author: User “Marsyas” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The league allowed member states the option of either contributing a tax (an option that most members selected) or contributing ships for the league’s navy. The treasury of the league, where the taxes paid by members were deposited, was housed on Delos.

Over the next twenty years, the Delian League gradually transformed from a loose alliance of states led by Athens to a more formal entity. The League’s Athenian leadership, in the meanwhile, grew to be that of an imperial leader. The few members who tried to secede from the League, such as the island of Naxos, quickly learned that doing so was not an option as the revolt was violently subdued. Finally, in 454 BCE, the treasury of the Delian League moved to Athens. That moment marked the transformation of the Delian League into the Athenian Empire.

Since the Athenians publicly inscribed each year the one-sixtieth portion of the tribute that they dedicated to Athena, records survive listing the contributing members for a number of years, thereby allowing historians to see the magnitude of the Athenian operation.

While only the Athenian side of the story survives, it appears that the Athenians’ allies in the Delian League were not happy with the transformation of the alliance into a full- edged Athenian Empire. Non-allies were affected a well. The fifth-century BCE Athenian historian Thucydides dramatizes in his history one particularly harsh treatment of a small island, Melos, which effectively refused to join the Athenian cause. To add insult to injury, once the treasury of the Empire had been moved to Athens, the Athenians had used some funds from it for their own building projects, the most famous of these projects being the Parthenon, the great temple to Athena on the Acropolis.

The bold decision to move the treasury of the Delian League to Athens was the brainchild of the leading Athenian statesman of the  fth century BCE, Pericles. A member of a prominent aristocratic family, Pericles was a predominant politician for forty years, from the early 460s BCE to his death in 429 BCE, and was instrumental in the development of a more popular democracy in Athens. Under his leadership, an especially vibrant feeling of Athenian patriotic pride seems to have developed, and the decision to move the Delian League treasury to Athens fits into this pattern as well. Shortly after moving the treasury to Athens, Pericles sponsored a Citizenship Decree in 451 BCE that restricted Athenian citizenship from thence onwards only to individuals who had two free-born and legitimately-wed Athenian parents, both of whom were also born of Athenian parents. Then c. 449 BCE, Pericles successfully proposed a decree allowing the Athenians to use Delian League funds for Athenian building projects, and, around 447 BCE, he sponsored the Athenian Coinage Decree, a decree that imposed Athenian standards of weights and measures on all states that were members of the Delian League.

Model of the Acropolis, with the Parthenon in the middle | Author: User “Benson Kua” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 2.0 Model of the Acropolis, with the Parthenon in the middle | Author: User “Benson Kua” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 2.0

Later in his life, Pericles famously described Athens as “the school of Hellas;” this description would certainly have fit Athens just as much in the mid-fifth century BCE as, in addition to the flourishing of art and architecture, the city was a center of philosophy and drama.

The growing wealth and power of Athens in the twenty or so years since the Greco-Persian Wars did not escape Sparta and led to increasingly tense relations between the two leading powers in Greece. Sparta had steadily consolidated the Peloponnesian League in this same time-period, but Sparta’s authority over this league was not quite as strict as was the Athenian control over the Delian League. Finally, in the period of 460-445 BCE, the Spartans and the Athenians engaged in a series of battles, to which modern scholars refer as the First Peloponnesian War. In 445 BCE, the two sides swore to a Thirty Years Peace, a treaty that allowed both sides to return to their pre-war holdings, with few exceptions. Still, Spartan unease in this period of Athenian expansion and prosperity, which resulted in the First Peloponnesian War, was merely a sign of much more serious conflict to come. As the Athenian general and historian Thucydides later wrote about the reasons for the Great Peloponnesian War, which erupted in 431 BCE: “But the real cause of the war was one that was formally kept out of sight. The growing power of Athens, and the fear that it inspired in Sparta, made the war inevitable” (Thucydides, I.23).

The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE)

Historians today frown on the use of the term “inevitable” to describe historical events. Still, Thucydides’ point about the inevitability of the Peloponnesian War is perhaps appropriate, as following a conflict that had been bubbling under the surface for fifty years, the war finally broke out over a seemingly minor affair. In 433 BCE, Corcyra, a colony of Corinth that no longer wanted to be under the control of its mother-city, asked Athens for protection against Corinth. The Corinthians claimed that the Athenian support of Corcyra was a violation of the Thirty Years Peace. At a subsequent meeting of the Peloponnesian League in Sparta in 432 BCE, the allies, along with Sparta, voted that the peace had been broken and so declared war against Athens.

At the time of the war’s declaration, no one thought that it would last twenty-seven years and would ultimately embroil the entire Greek-speaking world. Rather, the Spartans expected that they would march with an army to Athens, fight a decisive battle, then return home. The long duration of the war, however, was partly the result of the different strengths of the two leading powers. Athens was a naval empire, with allies scattered all over the Ionian Sea. Sparta, on the other hand, was a land-locked power with supporters chiefly in the Peloponnese and with no navy to speak of at the outset of the war.

The Peloponnesian War brought about significant changes in the government of both Athens and Sparta, so that, by the end of the war, neither power looked as it did at its outset. Athens, in particular, became more democratic because of increased need for manpower to row its fleet. The lowest census bracket, the thetes, whose poverty and inability to buy their own armor had previously excluded them from military service, became by the end of the war a full-fledged part of the Athenian forces and required a correspondingly greater degree of political influence.

Map of the Peloponnesian War Alliances at the Start and Contrasting Strategies, 431 BCE | Author: User “Magnus Manske” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain Map of the Peloponnesian War Alliances at the Start and Contrasting Strategies, 431 BCE | Author: User “Magnus Manske” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain

In the case of Sparta, the war had ended the Spartan policy of relative isolationism from the rest of the affairs of the Greek city-states. The length of the war also brought about significant changes to the nature of Greek warfare. While war was previously largely a seasonal affair, with many conflicts being decided with a single battle, the Peloponnesian War forced the Greek city-states to support standing armies. Finally, while sieges of cities and attacks on civilians were previously frowned upon, they became the norm by the end of the Peloponnesian War. In short, Thucydides’s narrative of the war shows that the war had a detrimental effect on human nature, encouraging a previously unprecedented degree of cruelty on both sides. It is important to note, though, that as brutal as sieges could be during the Peloponnesian War, Greek siege warfare during the fifth century BCE was still quite primitive, as no tools existed for ramming or otherwise damaging the city gates or walls. Furthermore, catapults, so useful for targeting a city from the outside, first came into being in 399 BCE, five years after the war had ended.

Modern historians divide the Peloponnesian War into three distinct stages, based on the tactics used in each: the Archidamian War, the Peace of Nicias, and the Decelean War. The first stage, the Archidamian War (431 – 421 BCE), is named after the Spartan king

Archidamus, who proposed the strategy of annual invasions of Attica at the beginning of the war. Beginning in late spring and early summer of 431 BCE, Archidamus led the Spartan army to invade Attica in order to devastate the agricultural land around the city. The Spartans thereby hoped to provoke the Athenians to a battle. Pericles however, refused to enter into battle against the Spartans, and instead ordered all inhabitants of Attica to retreat within the city. Pericles’ decision was wise, as the Athenians would likely have lost a land battle against the Spartans. His decision, though, had unforeseen repercussions. In 430 BCE, the crowded conditions within Athens resulted in the outbreak of a virulent plague which by some estimates killed as much as twenty- ve percent of the city’s population over the following three years. Among the dead was none other than Pericles himself.

The plague had significant repercussions for Athens during the first phase of the war because of not only the loss of fighting men to disease and the consequent lowered morale in the city, but also the death of Pericles, the moderate leader. The subsequent leaders who emerged, such as Cleon, were known as war-hawks. Meanwhile, the Spartans continued their annual invasions of Attica until 425 BCE, when luck was finally on the Athenians’ side.

In 425 BCE, the Athenian fleet faced a new Spartan fleet in the Battle of Pylos in the Peloponnese. The Athenians won the battle and also managed to trap 420 Spartans on the tiny island of Sphacteria, just off the coast of Pylos. Sending shockwaves through the entire Greek world, the Spartans surrendered. By bringing the hostages to Athens, the Athenians put an end to the annual invasions of Attica. Finally, in 421 BCE, with the death of the most pro-war generals on both sides, the Athenians with their allies signed a peace treaty with Spartans and their allies. Named the “Peace of Nicias” after the Athenian general who brokered this treaty, it was supposed to be a fifty years’ peace; it allowed both sides to return to their pre-war holdings, with a few exceptions. As part of the peace terms, the Spartan hostages from Pylos were finally released.

Despite its ambitious casting as a fifty years’ peace, the Peace of Nicias proved to be a short and uneasy time filled with minor battles and skirmishes. One problem with the treaty was that while Athens and all of its allies signed the peace, several key allies of Sparta, including Corinth and Thebes, refused to do so. Furthermore, Athens made the disastrous decision during this stalemate to launch the Sicilian Expedition, a venture that took much of the Athenian fleet to Sicily in 415 BCE.

Map of the Sicilian Expedition | Author: User “Kenmyer” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC0- No Rights Reserved Map of the Sicilian Expedition | Author: User “Kenmyer” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC0- No Rights Reserved

Syracuse, however, proved to be a difficult target, and the expedition ended in 413 BCE with a complete destruction of the Athenian navy. That same year, the Spartans renewed the fighting, launching the third and final phase of the Peloponnesian War.

In the third stage of the Peloponnesian war, also known as the Decelean War, the Spartans took the war to Attic soil by occupying Decelea, a village in Attica proper, and transforming it into a military fort. This occupation allowed the Spartans to prevent the Athenians from farming their land and cutting off Athens from most supply routes, effectively crippling the Athenian economy for the remainder of the war. Losing the Sicilian Expedition and the challenge of the Decelean War produced a high level of resentment towards the democratic leaders in Athens. Therefore in 411 BCE, an oligarchic coup briefly replaced the democracy with the rule of the Four Hundred. While this oligarchy was quickly overthrown and the democracy restored, this internal instability highlighted the presence of the aristocratic element in the city as well as the dissatisfaction of at least the aristocratic citizens with the long war.

Remarkably, in a testament to the resilience and power of the Athenian state, the Athenians managed to rebuild a navy after the Sicilian Expedition, and even managed to continue to win battles on sea during this final phase of the war. In 405 BCE, however, the Spartan general Lysander defeated Athens in the naval battle of Aegospotami. He proceeded to besiege Athens, and the city finally surrendered in 404 BCE. For the second time in a decade, the Athenian democracy was overthrown, to be replaced this time by the Spartan-sanctioned oligarchy known as the Tyranny of the Thirty. The rule of the Thirty proved to be a much more brutal oligarchy than that of the Four Hundred. A year later, an army formed largely of Athenian democrats in exile marched on the city and overthrew the Thirty. The democracy thus was restored in 403 BCE, and the painful process of recovery from the war and the oligarchic rule could begin.

Athenian Culture during The Peloponnesian War

Because it drained Athens of manpower and financial resources, the Peloponnesian War proved to be an utter practical disaster for Athens. Nevertheless, the war period was also the pinnacle of Athenian culture, most notably its tragedy, comedy, and philosophy. Tragedy and comedy in Athens were very much popular entertainment, intended to appeal to all citizens. Thus issues considered in these plays were often ones of paramount concern for the city at the time when the plays were written. As one character in a comedy bitterly joked in an address to the audience, more Athenians attended tragic and comic performances than came to vote at assembly meetings. Not surprisingly, war was a common topic of discussion in the plays. Furthermore, war was not portrayed positively, as the playwrights repeatedly emphasized the costs of war for both winners and losers.

Sophocles, one of the two most prominent Athenian tragedians during the Peloponnesian War era, had served his city as a general, albeit at an earlier period; thus, he had direct experience with war. Many of his tragedies that were performed during the war dealt with the darker side of  fighting, for both soldiers and generals, and the cities that are affected. By tradition, however, tragedies tackled contemporary issues through integrating them into mythical stories, and the two mythical wars that Sophocles portrayed in his tragedies were the Trojan War, as in Ajax and Philoctetes, and the aftermath of the war of the Seven against Thebes, in which Polynices, the son of Oedipus, led six other heroes to attack Thebes, a city led by his brother Eteocles, as in Oedipus at Colonus. Sophocles’ plays repeatedly showed the emotional and psychological challenges of war for soldiers and civilians alike; they also emphasized the futility of war, as the heroes of his plays, just as in the original myths on which they were based, died tragic, untimely deaths. Sophocles’ younger contemporary, Euripides, had a similar interest in depicting the horrors of war and wrote a number of tragedies on the impact of war on the defeated, such as in Phoenician Women and Hecuba; both of these plays explored the aftermath of the Trojan War from the perspective of the defeated Trojans.

While the tragic playwrights explored the impact of the war on both the fighters and the civilians through narrating mythical events, the comic playwright Aristophanes was far less subtle. The anti-war civilian who saves the day and ends the war was a common hero in the Aristophanic comedies. For instance, in the Acharnians (425 BCE), the main character is a war-weary farmer who, frustrated with the ineffciency of the Athenian leadership in ending the war, brokers his own personal peace with Sparta. Similarly, in Peace (421 BCE), another anti-war farmer fattens up a dung beetle in order to fly to Olympus and beg Zeus to free Peace. Finally, in Lysistrata (411 BCE), the wives of all Greek city-states, missing their husbands who are at war, band together in a plot to end the war by going on a sex-strike until their husbands make peace. By the end of the play, their wish comes true. Undeniably funny, the jokes in these comedies, nevertheless, have a bitter edge, akin to the portrayal of war in the tragedies. The overall impression from the war-era drama is that the playwrights, as well as perhaps the Athenians themselves, spent much of the Peloponnesian War dreaming of peace.

While the playwrights were dreaming of the things of this world–most notably war–their contemporary, Socrates, was dreaming of difficult questions. One of the most prominent philosophers of the ancient world, Socrates has not left any writings of his own, but thoughts attributed to him survive in dialogues penned by his student, the fourth-century philosopher Plato. In Plato’s writings, Socrates comes across as someone who loved difficult questions and who was not above confronting any passers-by with such questions as “What is courage?”; “What is moral?”; “What would the ideal city look like?” Using what became known ever since as the “Socratic method,” Socrates continued to probe further every definition and answer that his conversation partners provided, guiding them to delve deeper in their reflections on the topics at hand than they had before. As a result of his love of such debates, Socrates was seen as connected to the Sophists, philosophical debate teachers, who (as Aristophanes joked) could teach anyone to convince others of anything at all, regardless of reality or truth. But Socrates radically differed from the Sophists by not charging fees for his teaching. Instead, as he himself is purported to have said, he was a pest and troublemaker that kept disturbing Athens from growing too content and encouraged all with whom he spoke to keep thinking and questioning.

The Impact of the Peloponnesian War and its Aftermath

In 399 BCE, a seventy-year old Athenian was put on trial for impiety and for corrupting the youth, convicted, and speedily sentenced to death. The trial is especially shocking, since the man in question was none other than Socrates, the philosopher who had spent his life wandering the streets of Athens engaging in endless dialogues regarding the meaning of life. Why did the Athenians suddenly turn against this public teacher and judge him worthy of execution? The answer, most  likely, is not the openly-stated causes of the trial, but rather the connections that Socrates previously had to oligarchic leaders. In particular, Socrates had taught Critias, who became one of the Thirty in 404 BCE. Fueled by their hatred of all enemies of the democracy and anyone who had associated with the Thirty, the Athenians condemned Socrates to death. This trial shows how deeply the scars went in the collective psyche and how difficult it was for the Athenians to forget the terrible end of the Peloponnesian War. And while, as usual, more information survives about how the Athenians— more than any other polis—dealt with the aftermath of the war, it is clear that for the rest of the Greek world, their life in the fourth century BCE would very much be the result of the Peloponnesian War.

South Asia: Challenges to Brahmanism

During the time of transition in South Asia discussed in Chapter 4, some individuals became dissatisfied with life and chose to leave the everyday world behind. Much like the sages of the Upanishads, these renunciants, as they were known, were people who chose to renounce social life and material things in order that they might gain deeper insight into the meaning of life. Some of them altogether rejected Brahmanism and established their own belief systems.

Mahavira and Jainism

In the mid-sixth, a teacher named Mahavira appeared, teaching that one could free oneself from the endless cycle of reincarnation. This liberation of the essential self (or jiva) was only possible if a person was able to eliminate their karma, the burden of their previous actions. This elimination of karma was attainable only by strictly disciplining one’s thoughts and actions. When a person accomplishes this, through self-denial and an ascetic life, they become a Jina, or “conqueror.’ It is from this word that that name of Mahavira’s teachings, Jainism originates. A Jina is no longer trapped in the reincarnation cycle. The doctrines and teachings of Mahavira and other Jainist teachers placed a strong emphasis on non-violence in all parts of life (verbal, physical, and mental), honesty, and other disciplined actions.

While adherents of Jainism hold that their faith existed before Mahavira arrived on the scene, but his the teachings and the number of followers greatly expanded beginning in the mid-500s BCE, with the region of Kalinga being an important center for Jain belief.


The most renowned example of challenges to the social and spiritual status quo in South Asia, however, came from Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563 – 480 BCE), who is otherwise known as the Buddha.

Buddha means “Enlightened One” or “Awakened One,” implying that the Buddha was at one time spiritually asleep but at some point woke up and attained insight into the truth regarding the human condition. His life story is therefore very important to Buddhists, people who follow the teachings of the Buddha.

Siddhartha was born a prince, son to the chieftain of Shakya, a clan-based state located at the foothills of the Himalaya in northern India. His father wished for him to be a ruler like himself, but Siddhartha went in a di erent direction. At twenty-nine, after marrying and having a son, he left home. Legends attribute this departure to his having encountered an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a wandering renunciant while out on an excursion. Aging, sickness, and death posed the question of su ering for Siddhartha, leading him to pursue spiritual insight. For years, he sought instruction from other wanderers and experimented with their techniques for liberating the self from su ering through meditation and asceticism. But he failed to obtain the answers he sought.

Then, one day, while seated beneath a tree meditating for an extended period of time, a deepening calm descended upon Siddhartha, and he experienced nirvana. He also obtained insight into the reasons for human suffering and what was needful to end it. This insight was at the heart of his teachings for the remaining forty-five years of his life. During that time, he travelled around northern India teaching his dharma—his religious ideas and practices—and gained a following of students.

The principal teaching of the Buddha, presented at his first sermon, is called the Four Noble Truths. The first is the noble truth of suffering. Based on his own experiences, the Buddha concluded that life is characterized by suffering not only in an obvious physical and mental sense, but also because everything that promises pleasure and happiness is ultimately unsatisfactory and impermanent. The second noble truth states that the origin of suffering is an unquenchable thirst. People are always thirsting for something more, making for a life of restlessness with no end in sight. The third noble truth is that there is a cure for this thirst and the suffering it brings: nirvana. Nirvana means “blowing out,” implying extinction of the thirst and the end of suffering. No longer striving to quell the restlessness with temporary enjoyments, people can awaken to “the city of nirvana, the place of highest happiness, peaceful, lovely, without suffering, without fear, without sickness, free from old age and death.” The fourth noble truth is the Eight-Fold Path, a set of practices that leads the individual to this liberating knowledge. The Buddha taught that through a program of study of Buddhist teachings (right understanding, right attitude), moral conduct (right speech, right action, right livelihood), and meditation (right effort, right concentration, right mindfulness), anyone could become a Buddha. Everyone has the potential to awaken, but each must rely on his or her own determination.

After the Buddha died c. 480 BCE, his students established monastic communities known as the Buddhist sangha. Regardless of their varna or caste, both men and women could choose to leave home and enter a monastery as a monk or nun. They would shave their heads, wear ochre-colored robes, and vow to take refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. Doing so meant following the example of the Buddha and his teachings on morality and meditation, as well as living a simple life with like-minded others in pursuit of nirvana and an end to suffering.

East Asia: Philosophy in a Time of Turmoil

China’s three major pre-modern philosophical and religious traditions are Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. The first two had their origins in the later centuries of the Eastern Zhou, while Buddhism only began to arrive from South Asia in the first century C.E. (see Chapters Six and Eight). Confucianism and Daoism were both responses to the crisis presented by the breakdown of the Zhou feudal order and escalating warfare in China.

The Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256 BCE) and the Warring States Period (c. 475-221 BCE

When King Ping was relocated to Luoyang (see Chapter Four), he ruled from a much smaller royal domain surrounded by approximately 150 feudal states and their lords. His and his successors’ power was, however, much reduced. No longer able to impose their will on unruly noble lineages, Zhou kings failed to maintain a semblance of peace and order throughout the realm. Instead, this warrior nobility engaged in an escalating contest for power and prestige. By 475 BCE, in the wake of 540 wars fought over the course of two centuries, only fifteen states remained.

Eastern Zhou States (fifth century, BCE) | Map of the Eastern Zhou states as they looked during the<br /><br /><br />
fifth century BCE. The Zhou kingdom itself had relocated farther east, with its capital at Chengzhou. The map also highlights the state of Qin. This rising power to the west would eventually conquer all of China and establish an empire | Author: User “Yug” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0 Eastern Zhou States (fifth century, BCE) | Map of the Eastern Zhou states as they looked during the fifth century BCE. The Zhou kingdom itself had relocated farther east, with its capital at Chengzhou. The map also highlights the state of Qin. This rising power to the west would eventually conquer all of China and establish an empire | Author: User “Yug” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

But they fought even more fiercely. Over the next 250 years, during what is referred to as the Warring States Period (475 – 221 BCE), these states averaged one major battle per year until, at the very end, only one remained standing. That was the state of Qin [pronounced "cheen"]. The Warring States period ended in 221 BCE when the Qin ruler defeated the remaining states and unified the former Zhou realm. The line of Zhou kings had, however, already been extinguished in 256 BCE, so that date marks the end of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty.

As the frequency and scale of warfare escalated, and states gradually gobbled each other up, the way feudal lords governed their states and conducted military campaigns changed. Prior to the Warring States Period, Zhou kings were still accorded a level of respect, at least as symbols of unity and nominal heads of the Zhou feudal order. At this point, the many lords had no intention of toppling the king; rather, seeing his military weakness, the most powerful ones stepped in to enforce order. The first was Duke Huan of Qi [pronounced "who-an of chee"]. He held this title (“duke”) and fief (Qi) because his distant ancestor had served as a commander under King Wu during the Zhou founding. Now, many generations later, his state was a formidable power on the east coast. In 651 BCE, he convened an interstate meeting with other lords to discuss matters of order and security. Upon being elected as their leader, the Zhou king conferred the title of hegemon. In this capacity, Duke Huan had the authority to resolve disputes between nobles on behalf of the king.

Over the next two centuries, this title changed hands several times, going to the lord of the most powerful state. These hegemons periodically convened interstate meetings to manage such matters as misbehaving states or foreign invasions. Attending lords cemented their agreements by swearing oaths and drinking the blood of sacrificed animals. Yet, although hegemons maintained a semblance of order, warfare remained constant because it was a way of life for the illustrious lineages of the Zhou realm. Noble lords loved to demonstrate their prowess and raise their prestige through success in hunting and battling. A noble looked for a pretext to engage in a vendetta with another lord, at which point a battle was arranged and then carried out according to the protocols of chivalry. After announcing the impending campaign at the ancestral temple, a lord and his kinsmen, accompanied by farmer foot soldiers, would proceed in their chariots to a prearranged location and engage in a skirmish. In victory, a noble redressed matters of honor and brought glory to his ancestors, something symbolized by the mound of dead enemies placed by his ancestral temple.

However, with the onset of the Warring States Period in the  fth century BCE, the level of violence was no longer contained by the hegemon system and codes of chivalry. Both the purpose and conduct of warfare changed. Lords of the seven most powerful states lost respect for the Zhou kings and even assumed the same title, thus claiming the right to unify all of China under their rule. As opposed to serving a lesson to and resolving some dispute with another lord, these self-declared kings waged war to destroy them and take their land.

Hence, battles became increasingly bloody and bitter, and victory went to those kings who could  eld the most effective killing machines. Chariot-riding kinsmen and a few thousand foot soldiers no longer met that requirement. During the Warring States, rulers introduced large armies composed of mass infantry and cavalry. Soldiers were equipped with armor, crossbows, halberds, dagger-axes, and swords manufactured from bronze, iron, leather, and wood in royal workshops located at capital cities (view the image of a Warring States Period soldier at this link). One description of an elite soldier states that he wears heavy armor, shoulders a large crossbow and fifty arrows, straps a halberd to his back, buckles a helmet to his head, and places a sword to his side.) Kings also militarized their kingdoms’ landscapes by building forts at strategically critical passes, walls to mark off boundaries, and watch towers to signal the enemy’s approach. Finally, these rulers no longer relied solely on close kinsmen to wage war alongside them. Rather, they created a class of military commanders and specialists whose promotion was based on their ability to produce victories in the field. It is therefore not surprising that during this time some of China’s greatest military treatises were written, most notably the Art of War by Master Sun [pronounced "sue-in"]. Master Sun was a military commander and strategist who served the lords of the state of Wu just prior to the onset of the Warring States period (c. fifth century BCE). The manual of military strategy and tactics attributed to him stresses the importance of formulating a strategy that insures victory prior to any campaigning. Stratagem is critical. “All warfare is deception,” Master Sun states. “Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

To mobilize large numbers of men for war and supply them with weapons and grain, kings devised ways to make their realms more productive and compliant with their will. Prior to the Warring States Period, it was normal for nobility to hand out land in their states to kinsmen, just as it had been for the king during the Western Zhou. This practice meant that lesser but related aristocratic lineages lived in estates across each noble’s territory, while also serving as ministers at his court. For a king, however, these men might become an obstacle or pose a threat because they held this land hereditarily. Therefore, they devised better ways to control land in their realms. Whenever new territory was added or a noble line was extinguished, kings created counties and appointed magistrates to manage the villages and towns in that area. The magistrate’s job would then be to register the population, maintain law and order, collect tax revenue, and conscript people for labor projects and military campaigns. And rather than give those posts to kinsmen, kings appointed men from the lower ranks of the nobility or commoners based on their loyalty and merit. Stated more simply, Warring States Period rulers created administrative units and a civil service. Their embryonic bureaucracies included such features as a system of official posts, salaries paid in grain and gifts, administrative codes, and methods for measuring a servant’s performance. Thus, by the end of this period, largely owing to the demands of warfare, the Zhou feudal order had been supplanted by a small number of powerful territorial states with centralized monarchies. Among them, the most successful was the state of Qin, which eventually conquered all of China and became an empire, initiating a new period in China’s history, one which we will explore in Chapter Seven.

Confucius and Confucianism

Confucius lived just prior to the Warring States Period (551-479 BCE). What little we know about his life comes primarily from the Analects, a record of conversations Confucius held with his students compiled after he died. In later centuries, in China, Confucius was revered as a sage and teacher, and even today outside of China some people might think of him as a stern pedant, perhaps calling to mind sayings beginning with “The Master said.” However, in the context of his time, Confucius was anything but sti  and rather a dynamic individual who believed he was mandated by Heaven to return the world to a more socially and politically harmonious time. The Analects not only shows a serious and learned man, but also someone capable in archery and horsemanship, who loved music and ritual, and who untiringly travelled the feudal states in the  hopes of serving in a lord’s retinue.

Portrait of Confucius from the Tang Dynasty | Author: User “Louis le Grand” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain Portrait of Confucius from the Tang Dynasty | Author: User “Louis le Grand” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain

According to one passage, a lord once asked one of Confucius’s students about his master, but the student fell silent. Later, Confucius asked him, “Why did you not say: As a man, when agitated in thought he forgets to eat, joyfully forgetting his cares, not realizing that old age is near at hand?”

Confucius was born to a family of minor nobility and modest means in the feudal state of Lu. His father died about the time Confucius was born, and he was raised by his mother, who also passed away when Confucius was young. Like other young men of similar background, he had access to an education and could aspire to serve in some capacity in a feudal state, perhaps at the lord’s court, or as an official or soldier. Confucius chose to become learned and seek office. To his mind, he was living at a time when civilization was collapsing and society was decaying. He believed that, during the early Zhou, the nobility was honorable, observed moral codes, and upheld social standards. He believed that a golden age existed in the past and wished to transmit the ethical values of that time. However, in the course of doing so, he reinterpreted the past and imbued the virtues he stressed with rich, new meanings. Here are a few of the important statements Confucius made, and what they meant:

  1. “The noble person is concerned with rightness, the small person is concerned with profit.” (4.16) Confucius redefined the meaning of nobility. For him, nobility was de ned not by birth but rather by character and conduct. A truly noble person is one who puts what is right before personal gain and the desire for wealth and fame.
  2. “Young men should be filial at home and respectful to their elders when away from home.” (1.6) Filial piety (respect and reverence toward one’s parents and elders) is central to Confucius’s thought. He taught how a person becomes moral because a good society only develops when composed of and led by virtuous people. He saw the practice of morality in the family as the root. Should a young man learn to be respectful and reverent towards parents and elders, he will become a humane person, and humane people are far more likely to contribute in a positive way to society.
  3. “The noble man does not abandon humaneness for so much as the space of a meal.” (4.5) For Confucius, the highest virtue is humanity, and many of his conversations center upon defining what it is that makes a person humane. A person of humanity is, for instance, one who is capable of empathy and unselfish concern for the welfare of others. They know the golden rule: “what you would not want for yourself,” he taught, “do not do to others.” (15.23) Confucius emphasized that a society cannot function if people are incapable of taking other’s perspectives and doing their best for them. In addition, he insisted that such virtues as humanity are most fully demonstrated when individuals observe good etiquette. Decorum was important to Confucius.
  4. “Heaven has given birth to the virtue that is in me.” (7.22) Interpreters of Confucius have rightly noted that he is quite silent about the supernatural and what happens after death, rather emphasizing the life we have and serving others. Yet, it would be wrong to conclude that he wasn’t religious in any sense, because he frequently spoke of Heaven. He believed that Heaven ordains a certain course of life for each individual, including becoming a moral person. This Heaven, however, is less a deity than a higher moral order, a kind of beneficent presence.
  5. “To govern is to rectify. If you lead the people by being rectified yourself, who will dare not be rectified?” (12.17) Confucius believed that good governing flows from good men. The first qualification for a ruler or one who serves is moral rectitude. If those who lead do so by virtue and conduct themselves according to rules of propriety, people will learn from them and develop a sense of honor and shame. Consequently, society will become more orderly.

The noble person, filial piety, humaneness, etiquette, Heaven, and government by men of virtue are just some of the ideas Confucius discussed as he traveled the feudal states seeking to advise their lords. However, he only managed to hold some minor offices in Lu and generally failed in his political aspirations. Instead, he gained an avid following of 70 students, whom he accepted regardless of their social status. After he died, they passed on his teachings, and a school of thought emerged from his teachings known as Confucianism. Those who belonged to it are Confucians–individuals distinguished by their commitment to the ideas articulated by Confucius, classical learning, and the value they place on character and conduct as the key to a good society and political order.

Philosophical and Institutional Daoism

During the turmoil of the Warring States period, however, other individuals developed a philosophy very different from Confucianism called Daoism. These Daoists largely rejected Confucian ideas about human moral development and social order as artificial constructs. Rather, they pointed to a natural condition that both individuals and society can recover, one that existed before desires trapped people in a world of strife. Their central concept is the Dao (“Way”). The Dao is mysterious: it is beyond sense perception and yet the source of life and the universe, the ultimate truth transcending the polarities that make up life and yet pervades them, empty and yet the mother of all things.

An image representing basic elements of Daoist cosmology | According to that cosmology, the yin and yang (at center, black and white) arise from one underlying primordial reality, and then differentiate<br /><br /><br />
into powers represented by eight trigrams (whose names are indicated in Chinese on the periphery)<br /><br /><br />
Author: User “Pakua_with_name”<br /><br /><br />
Source: Wikimedia Co An image representing basic elements of Daoist cosmology | According to that cosmology, the yin and yang (at center, black and white) arise from one underlying primordial reality, and then differentiate into powers represented by eight trigrams (whose names are indicated in Chinese on the periphery) | Author: User “Pakua_with_name” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 2.5

Paradoxically, although the Dao is indescribable and can’t be seen or heard, the goal of the Daoist is to accord with and follow it. But this goal won’t be accomplished through more seeking and more knowledge. Rather, the mind must be emptied out, calmed, and purified, until desires are absent and a primordial, natural condition is restored. At that point, when the individual is in accord with the ineffable Way, life becomes spontaneous, natural, and effortless.

The two most important early books belonging to this tradition are named after their putative authors: the Laozi (“Old Master”) and Zhuangzi (“Master Zhuang”)Historians believe the “Old Master” was a  ctional sage invented by Warring States Period philosophers who compiled the book attributed to him. Master Zhuang, however, lived during the fourth century BCE.

In later centuries, the Daoism of these early philosophers was taken in new directions. The definition of the Way was broadened to include the idea that individuals have a spiritual essence in need of harmonizing and liberation. By so doing, it was believed, one’s health would be preserved and life prolonged. Daoists even entertained the idea that one could become immortal. To achieve these goals, techniques were developed, including special dietary regimens, yoga, Chinese boxing, meditation, and alchemy.

Over the course of the first millennium CE, Daoism also became a popular and institutionalized religion. Daoist masters, claiming divine inspiration, composed esoteric texts for their followers. These texts explained how the natural world originated from a primordial ether (qi) and its division into two polar forces: the yin and yang. They presented a universe with multiple heavenly and hellish realms populated with divinities and demons. The principal purpose of these Daoists was to attend to a person’s physical and psychological well-being. That involved not only teaching individual techniques for preserving the life spirit, but also the use of exorcism and faith healing to remove malevolent influences. Daoists also developed communal prayers and rituals that could cure illness, free souls from hell, win blessings from heaven, and eliminate sins from the community. Eventually, a Daoist church developed, with its own ordained priesthood, temples, and monasteries.

Works Consulted and Further Reading

The Greek World

Hanson, Victor Davis. A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006.

Kagan, Donald. The Archidamian War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.

———. The Fall of the Athenian Empire. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

———. The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989.

———. The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Meiggs, Russell. The Athenian Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

East Asia

Robinet, Isabelle. Taoism: Growth of a Religion. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Links to Primary Sources

The Greek World

Aristophanes, excerpt from Clouds, making fun of Socrates Aristophanes, Lysistrata Aristotle on Spartan Women Sophocles, Antigone Thucydides, Pericles’ “Funeral Oration” Thucydides, “Melian Dialogue” from the History of the Peloponnesian War South Asia Jain Doctrinces and Practices of Nonviolence: The Example of Mahavira The Four Noble Truths East Asia Selections from the Analects Selections from the Laozi Selections from Sunzi’s Art of War

From Berger, Eugene; Israel, George; Miller, Charlotte; Parkinson, Brian; Reeves, Andrew; and Williams, Nadejda, “World History: Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500″ (2016). History Open Textbooks. Book 2.

World History: Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Jain Doctrines and Practices of Nonviolence: The Example of Mahavira

Vardhamarma Mahavira (‘The Great Hero’) was a contemporary of the Buddha. He is said to have left his home at the age of thirty and wandered for twelve years in search of salvation. At the age of forty two he obtained enlightenment and became a ‘conqueror’ (jina, term from which the Jain took their name). Mahavira founded an order of naked monks and taught his doctrine of salvation for some thirty years. He died in 468 B.C., at the age of seventy-two, in a village near Patna.

1. 3. For a year and a month he did not leave off his robe. Since that time the Venerable One, giving up his robe, was a naked, world relinquishing, houseless (sage).

4. Then he meditated (walking) with his eye fixed on a square space before him of the length of a man. Many people assembled, shocked at the sight; they struck him and cried.

5. Knowing (and renouncing) the female sex in mixed gathering places, he meditated, finding his way himself: I do not lead a worldly life.

6. Giving up the company of all householders whomsoever, he meditated. Asked, he gave no answer; he went and did not transgress the right path.

7. For some it is not easy (to do what he did), not to answer those who salute; he was beaten with sticks, and struck by sinful people. . . .

11. Thoroughly knowing the earth-bodies and water-bodies and fire-bodies and wind-bodies, the lichens, seeds, and sprouts,

12. He comprehended that they are, if narrowly inspected, imbued with life, and avoided to injure them; he, the Great Hero.

13. The immovable (beings) are changed to movable ones, and the movable beings to immovable ones; beings which are born in all states become individually sinners by their actions.

14. The Venerable One understands thus: he who is under the conditions (of existence), that fool suffers pain. Thoroughly knowing (karma), the Venerable One avoids sin.

15. The sage, perceiving the double (karma), proclaims the incomparable activity, he, knowing one; knowing the current of worldliness, the current of sinfulness, and the impulse.

16. Practicing the sinless abstinence from killing, be did no acts, neither himself nor with the assistance of others; be to whom women were known as the causes of all sinful acts, he saw (the true sate of the world). . . .

III. 7. Ceasing to use the stick (i.e. cruelty) against living beings, abandoning the care of the body, the houseless (Mahavira), the Venerable One, endures the thorns of the villages (i.e. the abusive language of the peasants), (being) perfectly enlightened.

9. When he who is free from desires approached the village, the inhabitants met him on the outside, and attacked him, saying, ‘Get away from here.’

10. He was struck with a stick, the fist, a lance, hit with a fruit, a clod, a potsherd. Beating him again and again, many cried.

11. When he once (sat) without moving his body, they cut his flesh, tore his hair under pains, or covered him with dust.

12. Throwing him up, they let him fall, or disturbed him in his religious postures; abandoning the care of his body, the Venerable One humbled himself and bore pain, free from desire.

13. As a hero at the head of the battle is surrounded on all sides, so was there Mahavira. Bearing all hardships, the Venerable One, undisturbed, proceeded (on the road to Nirvana). . . .

VI 1. The Venerable One was able to abstain from indulgence of the flesh, though never attacked by diseases. Whether wounded or not wounded, he desired not medical treatment.

2. Purgatives and emetics, anointing of the body and bathing, shampooing and cleaning of the teeth do not behoove him, after he learned (that the body is something unclean).

3. Being averse from the impressions of the senses, the Brahmana wandered about, speaking but little. Sometimes in the cold season the Venerable One was meditating in the shade.

4. In summer he exposes himself to the heat, he sits squatting in the sun; he lives on rough (food); rice, pounded jujube, and beans.

5. Using these three, the Venerable One sustained himself eight months. Sometimes the Venerable One did not drink for half a month or even for a month.

6. Or he did not drink for more than two months, or even six months, day and night, without desire (for drink). Sometimes he ate stale food.

7. Sometimes he ate only the sixth meal, or the eighth, the tenth, the twelfth; without desires, persevering in meditation.

8. Having wisdom, Mahavira committed no sin himself, nor did he induce other to do so, nor did he consent to the sins of others.

(‘Akaranga-sutra, I, 8, 1-3-IV-8)

Translation from Prakrit by Herman Jacobi, Jaina Sutra, part 1, in Sacred Books of the East, (Oxford, 1884), PP. 85-7

Chapter Four: Growing Empires and States in Afro-Eurasia


The Middle East and North AfricaSouth AsiaEast AsiaThe Greek World c. 1300-1200 BCE: Israelites leave Egypt (following Moses) c. 1050-1010 BCE: Israelites establish a kingdom 1045-256 BCE: Western Zhou Dynasty 1040-332 BCE: Egyptian Late Period c. 1000-970 BCE: Reign of King David 1000-600 BCE: Later Vedic Period c. 979-930 BCE: Reign of King Solomon 931 BCE: Israel divides into two kingdoms 900-612 BCE: Assyrian Empire 750-656 BCE: The Kingdom of Kush ruled Egypt, creating the “Ethiopian Dynasty” 750-593 BCE: Kingdom of Kush (with capital at Napata) c. 700-480 BCE: Greek Archaic Period 656-639 BCE: Assyrians occupied Egypt 626-539 BCE: New Babylonian Empire 605-562 BCE: Reign of Nebuchadnezzar 593 BCE: Egyptian army sacked Napata, the capital of Kush 593 BCE: The Kingdom of Kerma moved its capital to Meroe 586-539 BCE: Babylonian captivity of Israelites 550-330 BCE: Achaemenid Empire of Persia 539 BCE: Cyrus the Great of Persia conquers the New Babylonian Empire 525 BCE: Persian conquest of Egypt

499-449 BCE: Greco-Persian Wars


The early states discussed in Chapter Three would, during the first millennium BCE be supplanted by Empires that expanded beyond their native regions. In the Middle East and North Africa, the Assyrian, New Babylonian, and Persian Empires would vary in their methods of expansion and control but would share the characteristic of integrating people of diverse cultures and languages under one state. In East Asia, the Zhou dynasty brought more territory under its control than the earlier Shang state had as well as establishing social, economic, and political systems that would become hallmarks of the region for centuries to come.

Large, imperial states were not the only significant polities that emerged during these years. The Kingdom of Kush in Africa adapted some Egyptian cultural motifs. The Kingdom of Israel and the Jewish people would have historical and cultural impact out of proportion to its small size. The city-states of the Greek world and Phoenicia established trade routes and colonies throughout the Mediterranean.

The Greek world also illustrates the power and significance of common culture to unite people. Similarly, in South Asia, the development of complex social structures as well as religious and philosophical world views would precede large organized polities and persist through the rise and fall of many

Questions to Guide Your Reading

  1. Compare and contrast the ways in which rulers of ancient Mesopotamian empires attempt to bring together and control the people within their realms.
  2. Describe the legacies of the civilization in ancient Mesopotamia.
  3. Explain the central beliefs of Judaism that are evident in the early written tradition
  4. How did the United Kingdom of Israel develop and who were its key leaders?
  5. Describe how the Israelites and their traditions have been influential.
  6. How did kingdoms form during the Vedic Age?
  7. Describe the varna and caste systems.
  8. During the Western Zhou Dynasty, how did Zhou kings justify overthrowing the Shang Dynasty, and how did they govern newly-conquered lands?
  9. What were the most important developments in the Greek world in the Archaic Period?
  10. What was the significance of the Greco-Persian Wars for the subsequent history of the Greek World?

Key Terms

  • Persian/Achaemenid Empire and Dynasty
  • Assyrian Empire
  • Athenian democracy
  • Atman
  • Battle of Marathon
  • Battle of Thermopylae
  • Brahman
  • Brahmanism
  • Caste and Varna
  • Cyrus the Great
  • Darius
  • Diaspora
  • Greco-Persian Wars
  • Helots
  • Herodotus
  • Hoplite Phalanx
  • King Wu
  • Kush
  • Levant
  • Magadha
  • Mandate of Heaven
  • Monotheism
  • Meroe
  • Nebuchadnezzar II
  • Oligarchy
  • Phoenicians
  • Polis/poleis
  • Prophets
  • Sparta
  • Upanishads
  • Xerxes
  • Zhou Dynasty and Western Zhou Dynasty

The Assyrian Empire (c. 900-612 BCE)

The Assyrian Empire, which saw its height of power at the end of the first millennium to the seventh century BCE, was larger than any empire that preceded it.

Dominating the region, its well-equipped soldiers used their stronger iron weapons to extend the empire’s control through Mesopotamia, Syria, parts of Anatolia, Palestine, and up the Nile into Egypt. They used siege warfare, along with battering rams, tunnels, and moveable towers, to get past the defenses of cities. The Assyrians had a large army (with perhaps as many as 150, 000 soldiers) that utilized a core of infantry, a cavalry, as well as chariots. As part of their military strategy, the Assyrians purposefully tried to inspire fear in their enemies; they decapitated conquered kings, burnt cities to the ground, destroyed crops, and dismembered defeated enemy soldiers. One Assyrian soldier claimed:

In strife and conflict I besieged [and] conquered the city. I felled 3,000 of their fighting men with the sword…I captured many troops alive: I cut off of some of their arms [and] hands; I cut off of others their noses, ears, [and] extremities. I gouged out the eyes of many troops. I made one pile of the living [and] one of heads. I hung their heads on trees around the city.

The Assyrians expected these methods to deter potential rebellions and used their spoils of war, like precious metals and livestock, to finance further military campaigns. After conquering an area, they conscripted men into their army, and employed resettlement and deportation as techniques to get laborers where they wanted them and deal with communities who opposed their regime. They also collected annual tributes that were apparently high enough to, at least occasionally, spur rebellions despite the Assyrians’ reputation for violent retribution.

The Assyrian Empire at its height. | Author: User “Ningyou” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain The Assyrian Empire at its height. | Author: User “Ningyou” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domaindownload image

In addition to its military strength, the Assyrian empire also stands out for the size of its cities and its administrative developments. The empire’s biggest cities, such as Nineveh and Assur, each had several million people living within them. Administratively, kings ruled Assyria, appointing governors to oversee provinces and delegates to keep tabs on the leaders of allied states. There were between 100 and 150 governors, delegates, and top officials entrusted by the king with ruling in his place and helping him maintain the empire. In the later centuries of the Assyrian Empire, kings chose these officials on the basis of merit and loyalty. Kings met with large groups of officials for rituals, festivals, and military campaigns. Evidence of such meetings has led some scholars to propose the possibility that the king and his officials might have worked together in something resembling a parliamentary system, though there is no scholarly consensus on the point. Ultimately, the Assyrian Empire became too large to control; rebellions occurred with more frequency and were difficult for its overextended military to quell. The empire fell after the conquest of Nineveh in 612 BCE.

The New Babylonian Empire (c. 626-539 BCE)

With the weakening of the Assyrian Empire, the New Babylonian Empire began to dominate Mesopotamia. Lasting for less than 100 years, the New Babylonian Empire is best known for its ruler, Nebuchadnezzar II, and its great architectural projects. As described in the Hebrew Scriptures (also known as the Old Testament), Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled from 605– 562 BCE, was a ruthless leader. He gained notoriety for destroying the city of Jerusalem and deporting many of the city’s Jews to Babylon. The captive Jews suffered in exile, as they were not allowed to return to their homeland. Nebuchadnezzar II also rebuilt Babylon with fortresses, temples, and enormous palaces. He associated the New Babylonian Empire with the glory of ancient Babylonia by reviving elements of Sumerian and Akkadian culture. For example, he had artists restore ancient artwork and celebrated the kings of old, like Hammurabi. Nebuchadnezzar is often also credited with rebuilding the city’s ziggurat, Etemanaki, or the “Temple of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth.” When completed, the ziggurat rose several stories above the city and seemed to reach to the heavens. Some scholars claim that the Babylonian ziggurat was the famous Tower of Babel described in the Old Testament. Another one of Nebuchadnezzar’s purported projects, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, was considered by the later Greek historian Herodotus to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World. According to legend, Nebuchadnezzar had the hanging gardens built for his wife. He made the desert bloom to remind her of her distant homeland; the elaborate gardens planted on rooftops and terraces were designed so that the plants’ leaves would spill down high walls. Since definitive archaeological evidence of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon has not been found, scholars continue to debate its most likely location and even its very existence. After the death of Nebuchadnezzar II, outside military pressures as well as internal con ict weakened the empire until the much larger Persian Empire conquered the New Babylonian Empire in 539 BCE.

Nubia: The Kingdom of Kush

As Egypt entered its Third Intermediate Period, Nubians gradually established their independence, eventually creating a new state, the Kingdom of Kush in the eighth century BCE. The initial capital of the Kingdom of Kush was Napata (c. 750 BCE to 593 BCE). From Napata, the Nubians took control of Upper Egypt, establishing the “Ethiopian Dynasty,” which ruled for 60 years from Thebes. Assyrian invasions destabilized the Nubian rulers in Thebes, causing the last pharaoh of the Ethiopian Dynasty to flee to Napata. Then, once strengthened, the Egyptians pushed back. The Egyptian army sacked Napata in 593 BCE and, in response, the Nubian rulers moved their capital farther south to Meroe. At this southern location, they further developed their civilization, which lasted until the fourth century CE.

A map of ancient Nubia | Author: Mark Dingemanse and Corey Parson | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY 2.5 A map of ancient Nubia | Author: Mark Dingemanse and Corey Parson | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY 2.5download image


With the new capital at Meroe, a location with well-watered farmland and some distance between it and Egypt, the Kingdom of Kush flourished. Meroe got more rainfall than Napata and was not as dependent on the Nile floods. Nubians were able to extend the areas under cultivation and grow a wider variety of crops, like cotton, sorghum, and millet. They were also able to easily graze their livestock and, as a result, during this period cattle became even more important as a symbol of their culture and wealth.

After moving the capital to Meroe, the culture of Kush showed more independence from Egypt as well. Particularly as Egypt’s power declined, the people of Kush put more emphasis on their own deities and pushed Egyptian gods to the background. For example, temples devoted to a Nubian war god, Apedamak, “the Lion of the South,” received more support and even used live lions for rituals. Gold had long been mined in the region and remained important while the people of Kush continued to develop additional industries. The area was rich in iron ore and the hardwoods used to make charcoal, which encouraged the growth of a booming iron industry. They made iron weapons and tools that they used for defense and to increase their crop yields. They were able to trade their agricultural surpluses, iron, cattle, and exotic things like elephants from sub-Saharan Africa, with Egypt, Greece, Rome, and India, bringing great wealth and prestige to Meroe. Also, the rulers of Meroe commissioned pyramids but had them built in a local style. As evident in the picture below, their pyramids were smaller and had a unique shape.

Pyramids at Meroe | Author: B. N. Chagny | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 1.0 Pyramids at Meroe | Author: B. N. Chagny | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 1.0

Kush burial practices were different than those used in dynastic Egypt, as corpses were not always mummifed and were buried in the fetal position. Finally, a new locally-created written script, Meroitic, replaced the use of Egyptian Hieroglyphics by 300 BCE. Modern scholars have not yet translated Meroitic, and students of their culture will surely learn even more about the Kingdom of Kush once scholars have done so. As for now, we know that very productive agriculture, local rituals and burial practices, the growth of industries, social stratification facilitated by Meroe’s wealth and extensive trade networks, and the written script Meroitic, were some of the distinctive elements of the civilization at Kush.

While the Greeks and Romans occasionally sent raiding parties into Nubia, for a while, Meroe’s southern location helped isolate it from conquest. Legends also emphasize the strength of Meroe’s army and the physical prowess of its soldiers. Environmental changes, internal rivalries, and the rise of Axum (a new state to the East) likely all contributed to the fairly abrupt collapse of Meroe in the fourth century CE.

Egyptian sources were generally very derogatory in their portrayal of Nubians and even a few early twentieth century archaeologists carelessly (and incorrectly) identified these Nubian kingdoms as slave colonies of the Egyptians. However, the kingdoms of Kerma and Kush were known in the ancient world for their wealth and industries. The wealth garnered through productive agriculture and trade supported a ruling class, great artists, and monumental architecture. Egyptian culture was influential, but Nubians adapted Egyptian practices to meet their own needs and sensibilities. Often entangled with Egypt and sometimes defending themselves from other invaders as well, these two kingdoms persisted for hundreds of years, creating an independent civilization along the southern stretches of the Nile River.

The Israelites and Ancient Israel

The Israelites, “or children of Israel,” were Semetic-speakers who lived in Canaan and traced their descent back to Abraham through his grandson Israel. Hebrew tradition begins their history with Abraham’s departure from Ur in southern Mesopotamia. Therefore, Abraham is important in Jewish tradition, as he has been recognized as the first Jew, the patriarch from whom all Jews trace their descent, and a role model. As described in the Hebrew Scriptures, known to Christians as the Old Testament, Abraham also made a covenant with God, which blessed his descendants. Jews, Christians, and Muslims of today all recognize Abraham as a significant figure, though these major monotheistic religions view him a little diferently. Respect for Abraham by believers in all three of these religions is just one indication that the world’s three major monotheistic religions are connected. Examining these connections reveals the extraordinary contributions that the Israelites made to World History. The Israelites were highly influential in developing the idea of monotheism, or belief in one god. Furthermore, they recorded their history orally at first, until their tradition was written down in the Hebrew Scriptures (alternatively referred to as the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament of the Christian Bible). The Hebrew Scriptures has been one of the most important texts ever written.

Eventually, by the end of the second millennium BCE (likely between 1200 and 1000 BCE), the Israelites established small kingdoms in the Levant. The Levant refers to areas adjacent to the eastern Mediterranean; in the ancient world, it comprised roughly the area from southern Anatolia through coastal areas of the eastern Mediterranean south and westward to the Egyptian delta. The Israelite kingdoms were concentrated along the Mediterranean coast in what are today Israel and the contested territory of the West Bank/Palestine.

Much debate exists amongst scholars about the sources used to reconstruct the history of the Israelites with much of the debate revolving around the use and interpretation of religious texts, particularly the Hebrew Scriptures. Right now, scholars rely fairly heavily on the Hebrew Scriptures to discuss periods before about 1200 BCE because other sources just do not exist. Some main points of contention have centered on dates, the purpose of religious texts, the reality that the Hebrew Scriptures were written centuries after the events they described, and the relationship between the scriptures and historical fact. Additionally, there has been back and forth discussion about whether archaeological finds confirm or disprove the narrative in the religious texts. These heated debates have led some scholars to question whether it is even possible to write a history of the ancient Israelites. For our purposes, this section will give an overview of Hebrew tradition and, using archaeological and collaborating evidence when possible, describe the development of the Israelite civilization.

Early Israelites

By leading people out of Ur, his homeland in Southern Mesopotamia, to eventually settle in Canaan, later called Palestine, Abraham began the traditional history of the Israelites. According to Hebrew tradition, even before leaving Ur, Abraham taught his followers about the existence of a single, creator god and rejected the idol-worship and sin of Ur. The narrative continues to explain how when Abraham agreed to God’s directive to leave his homeland, God blessed him and all of his descendants. God entered into a covenant with Abraham, saying, “…And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great…and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” Jews recognize this covenant as indicating their special relationship with God, and it remains one of the most important aspects of the Jewish faith.

Tradition recounts how several generations later Abraham’s grandson, Israel (also called Jacob), had twelve sons, who became the ancestors of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. One of these twelve sons, Joseph, led followers from Canaan during a famine to settle in Egypt. As the biblical text describes, the Israelites were prosperous at first and were becoming powerful, leading the Egyptian pharaoh to fear their influence. To try to stem the Israelite influence, the pharaoh put restrictions on births and forced them into slave labor. Then, Moses, whose mother had secreted him away in a waterproof basket on the Nile River, played an important role in delivering his people from subjugation. According to Hebrew tradition, God tasked Moses with leading his people out of Egypt, a  flight to freedom called Exodus. Moses led “the children of Israel” into Sinai, where they entered into the Sinai Covenant. This covenant bound all Israelites into a pact with God. Israelites agreed to worship God alone and obey his law, while God confirmed the place of the Israelites as his “Chosen People,” whom he would protect. As part of the covenant, Israelites agreed to follow the Ten Commandments. According to Hebrew tradition, God gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, instructing the Israelites to worship only him, keep the Sabbath, and honor their parents. The Ten Commandments also prohibit idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery, theft, dishonesty, and coveting.

These written traditions established important elements of the Jewish faith. For example, the Hebrew Scriptures trace Jewish descent from the Hebrew patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Israel (alternatively known as Jacob), and the twelve sons of Israel. They also describe the transition to monotheism and the covenant relationship between God and “the children of Israel.” Israelites believed in one god, Yahweh, who created and ruled over everything in the universe, and overall, they perceived Yahweh as being just and merciful. The ideas that there is a single, universal god and that his laws apply to everyone have been defining tenets of other monotheistic religions. Subsequent written and oral traditions, like the Talmud, reflect further development of Jewish beliefs, ethics, laws, and practice.

The United Kingdom of Israel

After Exodus, the Israelites resettled in Canaan and in time began to unify. They formed kingdoms in the Levant just prior to 1000 BCE. King Saul (c. 1030 – 1009 BCE), a member of one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, established the first Israelite monarchy, but ruled over a fairly limited territory and died in battle with the Philistines. He was crowned king and began the process of unification, but did not completely defeat his enemies and  finish unification before he died. His successor, King David, (d. 969 BCE), is often portrayed as Israel’s greatest ruler or a model king. He established the United Kingdom of Israel, with its capital at Jerusalem. King David’s successor, his son Solomon, further shaped the kingdom.

In popular memory, King David is probably most remembered for defeating Goliath. Historical traditions also celebrate him for expanding the borders of a newly unified Israel, contributing to the Book of Psalms, and, in Christian tradition, for being a forbear of Jesus. David was a “warrior king,” who defeated both internal and external enemies to unite Israel. He maintained a large standing army that helped extend his in uence and create neighboring tributary states. With control of trade routes and tribute coming in from neighboring territories, Israel became a wealthy state under David. With this wealth, David began to build Jerusalem into the capital city of the Israelites, with further plans to build a temple to house the Ark of the Covenant (which according to Hebrew tradition held the Ten Commandments). David died before building this temple, but tradition credits him with other achievements, including composing many of the hymns and prayers in the Book of Psalms. Like Abraham, David is considered an important  figure by Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

King Solomon, David’s son, ruled a mostly peaceful realm. He accomplished his father’s goal of building the first Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The temple exemplified monumental architecture and became a focal point for the Jews of Jerusalem. Its ruins, known as the Western Wall or the Wailing Wall, are still a site of Jewish prayer and pilgrimage. Solomon also directed the building of a royal palace, a defensive wall around the city of Jerusalem, and fortresses along the kingdom’s frontier. Administratively, Solomon set up twelve districts, overseen by purveyors, who collected tribute in kind (usually as crops or foodstuffs). Each of the twelve districts was charged with supplying the king and the court for one month a year. Finally, Solomon used treaties and reciprocal trade agreements to maintain relatively peaceful relationships with Israel’s neighbors.

The United Kingdom of Israel | The map shows the unified state in blue, as well as the surrounding territories that paid tribute to the United Kingdom of Israel. | Author: Regno di Davide | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0 The United Kingdom of Israel | The map shows the unified state in blue, as well as the surrounding territories that paid tribute to the United Kingdom of Israel. | Author: Regno di Davide | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

He also forged diplomatic relations through marriage; according to scripture, he had 700 wives! After Solomon’s death, what had been the United Kingdom of Israel split into two pieces: Israel and Judah. Over the long term, some of Solomon’s policies, including forced labor and tributary payments, likely contributed to the divide.

After the decline of the United Kingdom of Israel, Hebrew tradition describes the significance of great prophets or teachers, who spoke on behalf of god and set moral and ethical standards for the whole community. Yahweh sent these prophets to warn the Israelites that they were not abiding by their covenant. The prophets during this later period, especially Jeremiah and Second Isaiah, cultivated a new conceptualization of the covenant, which was much more personal as it was a relationship between Yahweh and each individual.

The Assyrians, the Persians, and later the Greeks (see Chapter 6) and then the Romans (see Chapter 7) brought parts of the former United Kingdom of Israel under their rule. These conquests and persecution forced members of the Jewish population into exile. This conceptualization of being members of a diaspora, that is, a scattered people who desire to return to their homeland, has played an important part in the formation of a Jewish identity. Also, in part, due to this history, preservation of cultural and religious heritage has become an enduring objective of Jews.

The Importance of Ancient Israel

The Israelites left an extraordinary religious and ethical legacy. They were some of the first monotheists, worshipping a single god, whom they referred to as Yahweh. Their religious texts from the ancient world, including the Hebrew Scriptures, served as the foundational texts of Judaism. The Hebrew Scriptures were also the basis of the Christian Old Testament, and Islam (see Chapter 9) recognizes parts of the scriptures as divine revelations. There were other, widespread religious influences as well. For example, Christians and Muslims (see chapters 7 and 8) and Muslims consider many of the figures, including Abraham, Moses, and David, and teachings, like the Ten Commandments, from the Hebrew Scriptures to be very important. Furthermore, the Hebrew Scriptures contained the idea that everyone, regardless of status, was bound to obey the law.

The United Kingdom of Israel was a “golden age,” associated with the creation of a unified, wealthy state with its new capital in Jerusalem. This civilization had well-developed religious traditions, political power vested in a king, monumental architecture, and administrative innovations. It also maintained a strong military, multiple tributary states, long-distance trade networks, and well-established diplomatic relationships with foreign states.

The Ancient Middle East and North Africa: A Summary

Between about 4000 and 3000 BCE, civilizations emerged in the fertile river valleys of Mesopotamia and Northeast Africa. These civilizations had common elements, including ood surpluses, higher population densities, social stratification, systems of taxation, labor specialization, regular trade, and written scripts.

In areas adjacent to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Mesopotamians built city-states by 3500 BCE. While Sumerian traditions influenced developments throughout the region, other cities emerged and re ned their own institutions and beliefs. Archaeological finds and records in the cuneiform script show the significance of the temple complex and religious leaders throughout Mesopotamia. Kingship, with hereditary rulers who claimed control over multiple city-states and special relationships with the gods, was just one significant political innovation in the region. History credits Sargon of Akkad with founding the first empire in Mesopotamia. Thereafter, a succession of empires rose and fell, demonstrating the dynamic nature of Mesopotamian societies.

According to Hebrew Tradition, Abraham led his followers from the city of Ur in Mesopotamia and they eventually settled in the Levant. Several generations later, according to Hebrew Tradition, the Israelites went to Egypt where they suffered persecution and enslavement, until Moses liberated them. Upon their return to Canaan, the Israelites built kingdoms just prior to 1000 BCE. Their kingdoms formed complex administrations and were uni ed by powerful kings, such as the well- known King Solomon. Historians also recognize countless other contributions made by the Israelites, especially as regards monotheistic religious traditions and western understandings of justice.

The unification of Egypt in approximately 3100 BCE evidenced the emergence of one civilization in Northeast Africa. In Nubia to the south of Egypt, Africans built another civilization with the kingdoms of Kerma and Kush. The people in each of these civilizations made good use of the agriculturally productive floodplains of the Nile River. Egypt and the kingdoms in Nubia influenced one another; they traded and intermittently claimed control over each other’s territory. While we may be more familiar with the pharaohs, pyramids, and religious beliefs of ancient Egypt, Nubians made their own contributions, like the Merotic script and unique architectural styles, to World History.

While the empire of the Assyrians and the New Babylonian Empire would unified more of the land under the control of one state than any previous power, to the east lay the Persians. The Persians, under the Achaemenid Dynasty, would begin the long process of tying together the worlds of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean. At the same time, the Greek world was continuing to develop. These two civilizations would soon be on a collision course.

The Greek World:  The Archaic Period and the Persian Wars

The story of the Greek world in the Dark Ages (see Chapter 3) could mostly be described as a story of fragmentation. With a few exceptions, individual sites had limited contact with each other. The Archaic period, however, appears to have been a time of growing contacts and connections between di erent parts of mainland Greece. Furthermore, it was a time of expansion, as the establishment of overseas colonies and cities brought the Greeks to Italy and Sicily in the West, and Asia Minor and the Black Sea littoral in the East. Furthermore, while Greeks in the Archaic period saw themselves as citizens of individual city-states, this period also witnessed the rise of a Pan-Hellenic identity, as all Greeks saw themselves connected by virtue of their common language, religion, and Homeric values. This Pan-Hellenic identity was ultimately cemented during the Greco-Persian Wars: two invasions of Greece by the Persian Empire at the end of the Archaic period.

Rise of the Hoplite Phalanx and the Polis

A Corinthian vase, known today as the Chigi Vase, made in the mid-seventh century BCE, presents a tantalizing glimpse of the changing times from the Dark Ages to the Archaic Period. Taking up much of the decorated space on the vase is a battle scene. Two armies of warriors with round shields, helmets, and spears are facing each other and appear to be marching in formation towards each other in preparation for attack.

“Unrolled” reconstructed image from the Chigi Vase | Author: User “Phokion” | Source: Wikimedia | Commons License: CC BY-SA 4.0 “Unrolled” reconstructed image from the Chigi Vase | Author: User “Phokion” | Source: Wikimedia | Commons License: CC BY-SA 4.0

Modern scholars largely consider the vase to be the earliest artistic portrayal of the hoplite phalanx, a new way of fighting that spread around the Greek world in the early Archaic Age and that coincided with the rise of another key institution for subsequent Greek history: the polis, or city-state. From the early Archaic period to the conquest of the Greek world by Philip and Alexander in the late fourth century BCE (see Chapter 6), the polis was the central unit of organization in the Greek world.

While warfare in the Iliad consisted largely of duels between individual heroes, the hoplite phalanx was a new mode of fighting that did not rely on the skill of individuals. Rather, it required all soldiers in the line to work together as a whole. Armed in the same way – with a helmet, spear, and the round shield, the hoplon, which gave the hoplites their name – the soldiers were arranged in rows, possibly as much as seven deep. Each soldier carried his shield on his left arm, protecting the left side of his own body and the right side of his comrade to the left. Working together as one, then, the phalanx would execute the othismos (a mass shove) during battle, with the goal of shoving the enemy phalanx off the battlefield.

Historians do not know which came into existence first, the phalanx or the polis, but the two clearly reflect a similar ideology. In fact, the phalanx could be seen as a microcosm of the polis, exemplifying the chief values of the polis on a small scale. Each polis was a fully self-sufficient unit of organization, with its own laws, definition of citizenship, government, army, economy, and local cults. Regardless of the differences between the many poleis (the plural of “polis”) in matters of citizenship, government, and law, one key similarity is clear: the survival of the polis depended on the dedication of all its citizens to the collective well-being of the city-state. This dedication included service in the phalanx. As a result, citizenship in most Greek city-states was closely connected to military service, and women were excluded from citizenship. Furthermore, since hoplites had to provide their own armor, these citizen-militias effectively consisted of landowners. This is not to say, though, that the poorer citizens were entirely excluded from serving their city. One example of a way in which they may have participated even in the phalanx appears on the Chigi Vase. Marching between two lines of warriors is an unarmed man, playing a double-reed flute (seen on the right end of the top band in the above image). Since the success of the phalanx depended on marching together in step, the flute-player’s music would have been essential to ensure that everyone kept the same tempo during the march.

Greek Religion

One theory modern scholars have proposed for the rise of the polis connects the locations of the city-states to known cult-sites. The theory argues that the Greeks of the Archaic period built city-states around these precincts of various gods in order to live closer to them and protect them. While impossible to know for sure if this theory or any other regarding the rise of the polis is true, the building of temples in cities during the Archaic period shows the increasing emphasis that the poleis were placing on religion.

It is important to note that Greek religion seems to have been, at least to some extent, an element of continuity from the Bronze Age to the Archaic period and beyond. The important role that the gods play in the Homeric epics attests to their prominence in the oral tradition, going back to the Dark Ages. Furthermore, names of the following major gods worshipped in the Archaic period and beyond were found on the deciphered Linear B tablets: Zeus, king of the gods and god of weather, associated with the thunderbolt; Hera, Zeus’ wife and patroness of childbirth; Poseidon, god of the sea; Hermes, messenger god and patron of thieves and merchants; Athena, goddess of war and wisdom and patroness of women’s crafts; Ares, god of war; Dionysus, god of wine; and the twins Apollo, god of the sun and both god of the plague and a healer, and Artemis, goddess of the hunt and the moon. All of these gods continued to be the major divinities in Greek religion for its duration, and many of them were worshipped as patron gods of individual cities, such as Artemis at Sparta, and Athena at Athens.

While many local cults of even major gods were truly local in appeal, a few local cults achieved truly Pan-Hellenic appeal.

Themis and Aegeus | The Pythia seated on the tripod and holding a laurel branch– symbols of Apollo, who was the source of her prophecies. This is the only surviving image of the Pythia from ancient Greece | Author: User “Bibi Saint-Poi” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain Themis and Aegeus | The Pythia seated on the tripod and holding a laurel branch– symbols of Apollo, who was the source of her prophecies. This is the only surviving image of the Pythia from ancient Greece | Author: User “Bibi Saint-Poi” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain

Drawing visitors from all over the Greek world, these Pan-Hellenic cults were seen as belonging equally to all the Greeks. One of the most famous examples is the cult of Asclepius at Epidaurus. Asclepius, son of Apollo, was a healer god, and his shrine at Epidaurus attracted the pilgrims from all over the Greek world. Visitors suffering from illness practiced incubation, that is, spending the night in the temple, in the hopes of receiving a vision in their dreams suggesting a cure. In gratitude for the god’s healing, some pilgrims dedicated casts of their healed body parts. Archaeological  ndings include a plentitude of ears, noses, arms, and feet.

Starting out as local cults, several religious festivals that included athletic competitions as part of the celebration also achieved Pan-Hellenic prominence during the Archaic period. The most in uential of these were the Olympic Games. Beginning in 776 BCE, the Olympic Games were held in Olympia every four years in honor of Zeus; they drew competitors from all over the Greek world, and even Persia. The Pan-Hellenic appeal of the Olympics is signified by the impact that these games had on Greek politics: for instance, a truce was in effect throughout the Greek world for the duration of each Olympics. In addition, the Olympics provided a Pan-Hellenic system of dating events by Olympiads or four-year cycles.

Finally, perhaps the most politically influential of the Pan-Hellenic cults was the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, established sometime in the eighth century BCE. Available for consultation only nine days a year, the oracle spoke responses to the questions asked by inquirers through a priestess, named the Pythia. The Pythia’s responses came in the form of poetry and were notoriously difficult to interpret. Nevertheless, city-states and major rulers throughout the Greek world considered it essential to consult the oracle before embarking on any major endeavor, such as war or founding a colony.

Maritime Trade and Colonization

The historian Herodotus records that sometime c. 630 BCE, the king of the small island of Thera traveled to Delphi to offer a sacrifice and consult the oracle on a few minor points. To his surprise, the oracle’s response had nothing to do with his queries. Instead, the Pythia directed him to found a colony in Libya, in North Africa. Having never heard of Libya, the king ignored the advice. A seven-year drought ensued, and the Therans felt compelled to consult the oracle again. Receiving the same response as before, they finally sent out a group of colonists who eventually founded the city of Cyrene.

Archaic kouros (youth) statue, c. 530 BC | Note the Egyptian hairstyle and body pose. | Author: User “Mountain” |  Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain Archaic kouros (youth) statue, c. 530 BC | Note the Egyptian hairstyle and body pose. | Author: User “Mountain” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain

While this story may sound absurd, it is similar to other foundation stories of Greek colonies and emphasizes the importance of the Delphic oracle. At the same time, though, this story still leaves open the question of motive: why did so many Greek city-states of the Archaic period send out colonies to other parts of the Greek world? Archaeology and foundation legends, such as those recorded by Herodotus, suggest two chief reasons: population pressures along with shortage of productive farmland in the cities on mainland Greece, and increased ease of trade that colonies abroad facilitated. In addition to resolving these two problems, however, the colonies also had the unforeseen impact of increasing interactions of the Greeks with the larger Mediterranean world and the ancient Near East. These interactions are visible, for instance, in the so-called Orientalizing style of art in the Archaic period, a style the Greeks borrowed from the Middle East and Egypt.

Map of the Greek (blue areas) and Phoenician city-states and colonies (red areas) c. 550 BCE. | Author: User “Javierfv1212” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: User “Javierfv1212” Map of the Greek (blue areas) and Phoenician city-states and colonies (red areas) c. 550 BCE. | Author: User “Javierfv1212” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: User “Javierfv1212”

The Archaic Greeks were not the only people establishing colonies in the Mediterranean during this period. The Phoenicians, who originally hailed from Phoenicia on the eastern Mediterranean coast, had been active in manufacturing purple dyed cloth (the name “Phoenicia,” in fact, originates from the Greek for “Purple Land”) and trade through out the ancient middle east throughout the Bronze Age. The Phoenicians established trading outposts across northern Africa and southern Europe, as shown on the map above. The colonial outposts and trading routes of the Greeks and Phoenicians helped establish a vibrant commercial network across the Mediterranean. As we will see later, however, the presence of Greek colonies in Asia Minor also played a major role in bringing about the Greco-Persian Wars. The Phoenicians also contributed to the development of the Greek world through the spread of their written alphabet, which served as source for the Greek letters that emerged during this time.

Comparative chart of writing systems in the Ancient Mediterranean | As this chart shows, in addition to the influence of the Phoenician alphabet on the Greek, there were close connections between the Phoenician, Egyptian, and Hebrew writing systems as well. | Author: Samuel Prideaux Tregelles | Source: Google Books | License: Public Domain Comparative chart of writing systems in the Ancient Mediterranean | As this chart shows, in addition to the influence of the Phoenician alphabet on the Greek, there were close connections between the Phoenician, Egyptian, and Hebrew writing systems as well. | Author: Samuel Prideaux Tregelles | Source: Google Books | License: Public Domain

Aristocracy, Democracy, and Tyranny in Archaic Greece

Later Greek historians, including Herodotus and Thucydides, noted a certain trend in the trajectory of the history of most Greek poleis: most city-states started out with a monarchical or quasi-monarchical government. Over time the people gained greater representation, and an assembly of all citizens had at least some degree of political power—although some degree of strife typically materialized between the aristocrats and the poorer elements. Taking advantage of such civic conflicts, tyrants came to power in most city-states for a brief period before the people banded together and drove them out, thenceforth replacing them with a more popular form of government.

Many modern historians are skeptical about some of the stories that the Greek historians tell about origins of some poleis; for instance, it is questionable whether the earliest Thebans truly were born from dragon teeth. Similarly, the stories about some of the Archaic tyrants seem to belong more to the realm of legend than history. Nevertheless, the preservation of stories about tyrants in early oral tradition suggests that city-states likely went through periods of turmoil and change in their form of government before developing a more stable constitution. Furthermore, this line of development accurately describes the early history of Athens, the best-documented polis.

In the early Archaic period, Athens largely had an aristocratic constitution. Widespread debt-slavery, however, caused significant civic strife in the city and led to the appointment of Solon as lawgiver for the year 594/3 BCE, specifically for the purpose of reforming the laws. Solon created a more democratic constitution and also left poetry documenting justifications for his reforms—and different citizens’ reactions to them. Most controversial of all, Solon instituted a one-time debt-forgiveness, seisachtheia, which literally means “shaking off .” He proceeded to divide all citizens into five classes based on income, assigning a level of political participation and responsibility commensurate with each class. Shortly after Solon’s reforms, a tyrant, Peisistratus, illegally seized control of Athens and remained in power off and on from 561 to 527 BCE. Peisistratus seems to have been a reasonably popular ruler who had the support of a significant portion of the Athenian population. His two sons, Hippias and Hipparchus, however, appear to have been less well-liked. Two men, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, assassinated Hipparchus in 514 BCE; then in 508 BCE, the Athenians, with the help of a Spartan army, permanently drove out Hippias. In subsequent Athenian history, Harmodius and Aristogeiton were considered heroes of the democracy and celebrated as tyrannicides (a term for someone who kills a tyrant).

The structure of the Classical Athenian democracy, fourth century BCE | Author: User “Mathieugp” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0 The structure of the Classical Athenian democracy, fourth century BCE | Author: User “Mathieugp” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Immediately following the expulsion of Hippias, Athens underwent a second round of democratic reforms, led by Cleisthenes. The Cleisthenic constitution remained in effect, with few changes, until the Macedonian conquest of Athens in the fourth century BCE and is considered to be the Classical Athenian democracy (illustrated in the chart above). Central to the democracy was the participation of all citizens in two types of institutions: the ekklesia, an assembly of all citizens, which functioned as the chief deliberative body of the city; and the law-courts, to which citizens were assigned by lot as jurors. Two chief offices, the generals and the archos, ruled over the city and were appointed for one-year terms. Ten generals were elected annually by the ekklesia for the purpose of leading the Athenian military forces. Finally, the leading political offce each year, the nine archons, were appointed by lot from all eligible citizens. While this notion of appointing the top political leaders by lot may seem surprising, it exemplifies the Athenians’ pride in their democracy and their desire to believe that, in theory at least, all Athenian citizens were equally valuable and capable of leading their city-state.

Map of Sparta and the Environs | Author: User “Marsyas” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0 Map of Sparta and the Environs | Author: User “Marsyas” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Developing in a very different manner from Athens, Sparta was seen by other Greek poleis as a very distinct sort of city from the rest. Ruled from an early period by two kings – one from each of the two royal houses that ruled jointly – Sparta was a true oligarchy, in which the power rested in its gerousia, a council of thirty elders, whose number included the two kings. While an assembly of all citizens existed as well, its powers were much more limited than were those of the Athenian assembly. Yet because of much more restrictive citizenship rules, Spartan assembly of citizens would have felt as a more selective body, as the chart below illustrates.

Structure of the Spartan Constitution | Author: User “Putinovac” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY 3.0 Structure of the Spartan Constitution | Author: User “Putinovac” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY 3.0

A crucial moment in Spartan history was the city’s conquest of the nearby region of Messenia in the eighth century BCE. The Spartans annexed the Messenian territory to their own and made the Messenians helots. While the helots could not be bought or sold, they were permanently tied to the land in a status akin to medieval European serfs. The availability of helot labor allowed the Spartans from that point on to focus their attention on military training. This focus transformed Sparta into the ultimate military state in the Greek world, widely respected by the other Greek poleis for its military prowess. Other Greeks were fascinated by such Spartan practices as the communal bringing up of all children apart from their parents and the requirement that all Spartan girls and women, as well as boys and men, maintain a strict regimen of exercise and training.

But while Athens and Sparta sound like each other’s diametrical opposites, the practices of both poleis ultimately derived from the same belief that all city-states held: that, in order to ensure their city’s survival, the citizens must place their city-state’s interests above their own. A democracy simply approached this goal with a di erent view of the quali cations of its citizens than did an oligarchy.

A final note on gender is necessary, in connection with Greek city-states’ definitions of citizenship. Only children of legally married and freeborn citizen parents could be citizens in most city-states. Women had an ambiguous status in the Greek poleis. While not full-fledged citizens themselves, they produced citizens. This view of the primary importance of wives in the city as the mothers of citizens resulted in diametrically opposite laws in Athens and Sparta, showing the different values that the respective cities emphasized. In Athens, if a husband caught his wife with an adulterer in his home, the law allowed the husband to kill said adulterer on the spot. The adultery law was so harsh precisely because adultery put into question the citizenship status of potential children, thereby depriving the city of future citizens. By contrast, Spartan law allowed an unmarried man who wanted offspring to sleep with the wife of another man, with the latter’s consent, specifically for the purpose of producing children. This law refects the importance that Sparta placed on producing strong future soldiers as well as the communal attitude of the city towards family and citizenship.

The Greco-Persian Wars


The Achaemenid Empire of the Persians at its greatest extent | Author: user "Fabienkhan" | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC- BY SA 2.5 The Achaemenid Empire of the Persians at its greatest extent | Author: user “Fabienkhan” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC- BY SA 2.5

Despite casting their net far and wide in founding colonies, the Greeks seem to have remained in a state of relatively peaceful coexistence with the rest of their Mediterranean neighbors until the sixth century BCE.

In the mid-sixth century BCE, Cyrus, an ambitious king of Persia, embarked on a swift program of expansion, ultimately consolidating under his rule the largest empire of the ancient world and earning for himself the title “Cyrus the Great.”

Cyrus (c. 600 to 530 BCE)  began the process of expanding his Persian state around 550 BCE, rebelling against the Medes and beginning a series of conquests of Middle Eastern kingdoms, culminating with his defeat of the New Babylonian Empire in 539 BCE. Cyrus and his successors not only conquered vast amounts of territory, but administered it in ways that differed from the earlier empires in the region. For example, to build support for his regime, Cyrus presented himself as a liberator to peoples such as the Israelites who had been taken from their homeland by the Babylonians. He allowed the Israelites (like other peoples) to return to their homeland and practice their customs as long as they remained loyal to Achaemenid political rule.

The Empire was organized into geographical divisions called “satrapies,” with a governor (or Satrap) administering each one. Each satrapy had subordinate officials who dealt with law and order, record keeping, tax collection, and other details of government. The Persian government placed a great deal of emphasis on infrastructure and well-built and maintained roads (such as the Royal Road shown on the map above) ensured relatively rapid transport and communication.

Achaemenid Empire under different kings | Author: Ali Zifan | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 4.0 Achaemenid Empire under different kings | Author: Ali Zifan | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 4.0

The Achaemenid Empire bordered the area of Asia Minor that had been previously colonized by the Greeks. This expansion of the Persian Empire brought the Persians into direct conflict with the Greeks and became the origin of the Greco-Persian Wars, the greatest military conflict the Greek world had known up until that point.

Over the second half of the sixth century, the Persians had taken over the region of Asia Minor, also known as Ionia, installing as rulers of these Greek city-states tyrants loyal to Persia. In 499 BCE, however, the Greek city-states in Asia Minor joined forces to rebel against the Persian rule. Athens and Eretria sent military support for this Ionian Revolt, and the rebelling forces marched on the Persian capital of Sardis and burned it in 498 BCE, before the revolt was finally subdued by the Persians in 493 BCE.

Map of the Greek World during the Greco-Persian Wars (500-479 BCE) | Author: User “Bibib Saint-poi” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0 Map of the Greek World during the Greco-Persian Wars (500-479 BCE) | Author: User “Bibib Saint-poi” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Seeking revenge on Athens and Eretria, the Persian king Darius launched an expedition in 490 BCE.

Darius’ forces captured Eretria in mid-summer, destroyed the city, and enslaved its inhabitants. Sailing a short distance across the bay, the Persian army then landed at Marathon. The worried Athenians sent a plea for help to Sparta. The Spartans, in the middle of a religious festival, refused to help. So, on September 12, 490 BCE, the Athenians, with only a small force of Plataeans helping, faced the much larger Persian army in the Battle of Marathon. The decisive Athenian victory showed the superiority of the Greek hoplite phalanx and marked the end of the first Persian invasion of Greece. Furthermore, the victory at Marathon, which remained a point of pride for the Athenians for centuries after, demonstrated to the rest of the Greeks that Sparta was not the only great military power in Greece.

Darius died in 486 BCE, having never realized his dream of revenge against the Greeks. His son, Xerxes, however, continued his father’s plans and launched in 480 BCE a second invasion of Greece, with an army so large that, as the historian Herodotus claims, it drank entire rivers dry on its march. The Greek world reacted in a much more organized fashion to this second invasion than it did to the first. Led by Athens and Sparta, some seventy Greek poleis formed a sworn alliance to fight together against the Persians. This alliance, the first of its kind, proved to be the key to defeating the Persians as it allowed the allies to split forces strategically in order to guard against Persian attack by both land and sea. The few Greek city-states who declared loyalty to the Persian Empire instead–most notably, Thebes–were seen as traitors for centuries to come by the rest of the Greeks.

Marching through mainland Greece from the north, the Persians first confronted the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae, a narrow mountain pass that stood in the way of the Persians’ accessing any point south. In this now-legendary battle, 300 Spartans, led by their king Leonidas, successfully defended the pass for two days before being betrayed by a local who showed a roundabout route to the Persians. The Persians then were able to outflank the Spartans and kill them to the last man. This battle, although a loss for the Greeks, bought crucial time for the rest of the Greek forces in preparing to face the Persians. It is also important to note that although the Spartans were considered even in the ancient world to be the heroes of Thermopylae, they were also accompanied by small contingents from several other Greek city-states in this endeavor.

The victory at Thermopylae fulfilled the old dream of Darius, as it allowed access to Athens for the Persians. The Athenian statesman Themistocles, however, had ordered a full evacuation of the city in advance of the Persian attack through an unusual interpretation of a Delphic oracle stating that wooden walls will save Athens. Taking the oracle to mean that the wooden walls in question were ships, Themistocles built a massive fleet which he used to send all of the city’s inhabitants to safety. His gamble proved to be successful, and the Persians captured and burned a mostly empty city.

The Athenians proceeded to defeat the Persian fleet at the Battle of Salamis, off the coast of Athens, thus shortly before winter turning the tide of the war in favor of the Greeks. Finally, in June of 479 BCE, the Greek forces were able to strike the two final blows, defeating the Persian land and sea forces on the same day in the Battle of Plataea on land and the Battle of Mycale on sea. The victory at Mycale also resulted in a second Ionian revolt, which this time ended in a victory for the Greek city-states in Asia Minor. Xerxes was left to sail home to his diminished empire.

It is difficult to overestimate the impact of the Greco-Persian Wars on subsequent Greek history. Seen by historians as the end-point of the Archaic Period, the Greco-Persian Wars cemented Pan-Hellenic identity, as they saw cooperation on an unprecedented scale among the Greek city-states. In addition, the Greco-Persian Wars showed the Greek military superiority over the Persians on both land and sea. Finally, the wars showed Athens in a new light to the rest of the Greeks. As the winners of Marathon in the first invasion and the leaders of the navy during the second invasion, the Athenians emerged from the wars as the rivals of Sparta for military prestige among the Greeks. This last point, in particular, proved to be the most influential for Greek history in the subsequent period.

The Later Vedic Age (1000-600 BCE)

During the early centuries of the Vedic Age (see Chapter 3), the world of the Aryan tribes was the rural setting of the Punjab. Some settlers, however, migrated east to the upper reaches of the Ganges River, setting the stage for the next period in India’s history, the later Vedic Age. The later Vedic Age differs from the early Vedic Age in that during these centuries lands along the Ganges River were colonized by the Aryans and their political, economic, social, and religious life became more complex.

Over the course of these four centuries, Aryan tribes, with horses harnessed to chariots and wagons drawn by oxen, drove their herds east, migrating along and colonizing the plains surrounding the Ganges. Historians debate whether this happened through conquest and warfare or intermittent migration led by traders and people seeking land and opportunity. Regardless, by 600 BCE the Aryans had reached the lower reaches of the Ganges and as far south as the Vindhya Range and the Deccan Plateau. Most of northern India would therefore be shaped by the Aryan way of life. But in addition, as they moved into these areas, the Aryans encountered indigenous peoples and interacted with them, eventually imposing their way of life on them but also adopting many elements of their languages and customs.

During this time, agriculture became more important and occupations more diverse. As the lands were cleared, village communities formed. Two new resources made farming more productive: iron tools and rice. Implements such as iron axes and ploughs made clearing wilderness and sowing  elds easier, and rice paddy agriculture produced more calories per unit of land. Consequently, population began to grow and people could more easily engage in other occupations. By the end of this period, the earliest towns had started to form.

Political changes accompanied economic developments. Looking ahead at sixth-century northern India, the landscape was dominated by kingdoms and oligarchies. That raises the question of the origins of these two different kinds of states, where di erent types of central authority formally governed a defined territory. Clearly, these states began to emerge during the later Vedic Age, especially after the eighth century.

Prior to this state formation, chiefs (rajas) and their assemblies, with the assistance of priests, saw to the well-being of their clans. This clan-based method of governing persisted and evolved into oligarchies. As the Aryans colonized new territory, clans or confederacies of clan would claim it as their possession, and name it after the ruling family. The heads of clan families or chiefs of each clan in a confederacy then jointly governed the territory by convening periodically in assembly halls. A smaller group of leaders managed the deliberations and voting, and carried out the tasks of day-to-day governing. These kinds of states have been called oligarchies because the heads of the most powerful families governed. They have also been called republics because these elites governed by assembly.

But in other territories clan chiefs became kings. These kings elevated themselves over kinsmen and the assemblies and served as the pivot of an embryonic administrative system. Their chief priests conducted grand rituals that demonstrated the king’s special relation with the gods, putting the people in awe of him and giving them the sense that they would be protected. Treasurers managed the obligatory gifts kings expected in return. Most importantly, kingship became hereditary, and dynasties started to rule.

The Late Vedic Age (1000-600 BCE) |  Author: User “Avantiputra7” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0 The Late Vedic Age (1000-600 BCE) | Author: User “Avantiputra7” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Society changed too. In earlier times, Aryan society was organized as a fluid three-class social structure consisting of priests, warriors, and commoners. But during the later Vedic Age, this social structure became more hierarchical and rigid. A system for classifying people based on broad occupational categories was developed by the religious and political leaders in society. These categories are known as varnas, and there were four of them: Brahmins, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra. The Brahmins were the priests, whose duty was to memorize and orally transmit the Vedas and perform sacrifices so as to maintain good relations with the gods. The Kshatriya were the chiefs and warriors, whose duty was to govern well and fight. The Vaishya were commoners who traded and farmed. They were responsible for society’s material prosperity. The Shudras were servants who labored for others, usually as artisans or by performing menial tasks.

Varnas became hereditary social classes. That means a person was born into one of these and usually remained there for life, pursuing an occupation included in and marrying someone belonging to that varna. Varna has also been translated as ritual status. Your varna determined how pure or polluted you were, and thus what level of participation in rituals you would be allowed and also who you could associate with. Varna thus de ned a social hierarchy. The Brahmins were the purest and most honored. Warriors were respected for their leadership and supported the Brahmins, who a rmed their authority by carrying out royal ceremonies. Together, they dominated society. The Shudras (servants) were the most polluted and could not participate in any sacrifice or speak freely to members of other varnas. Over time, this way of organizing society came to be viewed as normal and natural.

During the later Vedic Age, the religion of the Aryans also developed in new directions. As one of the world’s major religious traditions, Hinduism is multi-faceted and contains many layers of historical development. The earliest layer is called Brahmanism. Brahmanism begins with the Rig Veda, which presents a universe controlled by a host of divinities. During the early Vedic Age, the Aryans explained the world through myths about these higher powers, and their priests sought to in uence them through sacrificial ceremonies. These priests become the Brahmin varna.

This early layer persisted and became even more elaborate. Three new Vedas were added to the Rig Veda, as well as two sets of texts called Brahmanas and Upanishads. Combined, this literature, which was composed in Sanskrit, constituted the full Vedic corpus, and became the preserve of the Brahmins.

The Brahmins weren’t content with the 1028 hymns of the Rig Veda. Later Vedas set the hymns to music, added prose formulas that were to be uttered in the course of sacri cing to the divinities, and o ered spells and incantations for achieving such goals as warding o  disease and winning a battle. The Brahmanas were primarily handbooks of ritual for the Brahmins. They explained the meaning of the sacrifices and how to carry them out. Clearly, the Brahmins were becoming ever more conscious of their role in keeping the universe in good working order by pleasing and assisting the gods and consecrating kings. Their sacrificial observances became all the more elaborate, and an essential component of good kingship.

The Upanishads, however, added an entirely new set of ideas. The title means “sitting near” and points to a setting where sages conveyed spiritual insights to students through dialogue, stories, and analogies. The Upanishads are records of what was taught and discussed, the earliest dating to the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. These sages were likely hermits and wanderers who felt spiritually dissatisfied with the mythological and ritualistic approach of Brahmanism. Rather, they sought deeper insight into the nature of reality, the origins of the universe, and the human condition. The concepts that appear throughout these records of the outcome of their search are brahman (not to be confused with Brahmins), atman, transmigration, and karma.

According to these sages, human beings face a predicament. The universe they live in is created and destroyed repeatedly over the course of immense cycles of time, and humans wander through it in an endless succession of deaths and rebirths. This wandering is known as transmigration, a process that isn’t random, but rather determined by the law of karma. According to this law, good acts bring a better rebirth, and bad acts a worse one. It may not happen in this lifetime, but one day virtue will be rewarded and evil punished.

Ultimately, however, the goal is to be liberated from the cycle of death and rebirth. According to Hindu traditions, the Upanishads reflect spiritual knowledge that was revealed to sages who undertook an inward journey through withdrawal from the world and meditation. What they discovered is that one divine reality underlies the universe. They called this ultimate reality brahman. They also discovered that deep within the heart of each person lies the eternal soul. They called this soul atman. Through quieting the mind and inquiry, the individual can discover atman and its identity with brahman: the soul is the divine reality. That is how a person is liberated from the illusion of endless wandering.

In conclusion, by the end of the Vedic Age, northern India had undergone immense changes. An Aryan civilization emerged and spread across the Indo-Gangetic Plains. This civilization was characterized by the Brahmin’s religion (Brahmanism), the use of Sanskrit, and the varna social system. The simpler rural life of the clans of earlier times was giving way to the formation of states, and new religious ideas were being added to the evolving tradition known today as Hinduism.

States and Cities in South Asia

The sixth century begins a transitional period in India’s history marked by important developments. Some of these bring to fruition processes that gained momentum during the late Vedic Age. Out of the hazy formative stage of state development, sixteen powerful kingdoms and oligarchies emerged. By the end of this period, one will dominate. Accompanying their emergence, India entered a second stage of urbanization, as towns and cities become a prominent feature of northern India. Other developments were newer. The caste system took shape as an institution, giving Indian society one of its most distinctive traits. Later, new religious ideas were put forward that challenged the dominance of Brahmanism (see Chapter Five).

The kingdom of Magadha became the most powerful among the sixteen states that dominated this transitional period, but only over time. At the outset, it was just one of eleven located up and down the Ganges River. The rest were established in the older northwest or central India. In general, larger kingdoms dominated the Ganges basin while smaller clan-based states thrived on the periphery. They all fought with each other over land and resources, making this a time of war and shifting alliances.

The most powerful states of the sixth century BCE | Mahajanapadas refers to the great kingdoms and oligarchies stretching along the Indo-Gangetic plains. The two capitals of Magadha–Rajagriha and Pataliputra–are also indicated. | Author: User “Kmusser” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY 2.5 The most powerful states of the sixth century BCE | Mahajanapadas refers to the great kingdoms and oligarchies stretching along the Indo-Gangetic plains. The two capitals of Magadha–Rajagriha and Pataliputra–are also indicated. | Author: User “Kmusser” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY 2.5

The victors were the states that could field the largest armies. To do so, rulers had to mobilize the resources of their realms. The Magadhan kings did this most effectively. Expansion began in 545 BCE under King Bimbisara. His kingdom was small, but its location to the south of the lower reaches of the Ganges River gave it access to fertile plains, iron ore, timber, and elephants. Governing from his inland fortress at Rajagriha, Bimbisara built an administration to extract these resources and used them to form a powerful military. After concluding marriage alliances with states to the north and west, he attacked and defeated the kingdom of Anga to the east. His son Ajatashatru, after killing his father, broke those alliances and waged war on the Kosala Kingdom and the Vrijji Confederacy. Succeeding kings of this and two more Magadhan dynasties continued to conquer neighboring states down to 321 BCE, thus forging an empire. But its reach was largely limited to the middle and lower reaches of the Ganges River.

To the northwest, external powers gained control. As we have seen, the mountain ranges defining that boundary contain passes permitting the movement of peoples. This made the northwest a crossroads, and, at times, the peoples crossing through were the armies of rulers who sought to control the riches of India. Outside powers located in Afghanistan, Iran, or beyond might extend political control into the subcontinent, making part of it a component in a larger empire. One example is the Persian Empire, which extended as far east as the Indus River, incorporating parts of northwest India as satrapies.

As the population of northern India rose and the landscape was dotted with more villages, towns, and cities, society became more complex. The social life of a Brahmin priest who served the king differed from that of a blacksmith who belonged to a town guild, a rich businessman residing in style in a city, a wealthy property owner, or a poor agricultural laborer living in a village. Thus, the social identity of each member of society differed.

In ancient India, one measure of identity and the way people imagined their social life and how they fit together with others was the varna system of four social classes. Another was caste. Like the varnas, castes were hereditary social classifications; unlike them, they were far more distinct social groups. The four-fold varna system was more theoretical and important for establishing clearly who the powerful spiritual and political elites in society were: the Brahmins and Kshatriya. But others were more conscious of their caste. There were thousands of these castes, known in South Asia as Jati, and each was defined by occupation, residence, marriage, customs, and language. In other words, because “I” was born into such-and-such a caste, my role in society is to perform this kind of work. “I” will be largely con ned to interacting with and marrying members of this same group. Our caste members reside in this area, speak this language, hold these beliefs, and are governed by this assembly of elders. “I” will also be well aware of who belongs to other castes, and whether or not “I” am of a higher or lower status in relation to them, or more or less pure. On that basis, “I” may or may not be able, for instance, to dine with them. That is how caste, or Jati defined an individual’s life.

The lowest castes were the untouchables. These were peoples who engaged in occupations considered highly impure, usually because they were associated with taking life; such occupations include corpse removers, cremators, and sweepers. So those who practiced such occupations were despised and pushed to the margins of society. Because members of higher castes believed touching or seeing them was polluting, untouchables were forced to live outside villages and towns, in separate settlements.

The Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BCE)

After the Xia and Shang, the next major dynasty in Chinese history is the Zhou Dynasty (1045 – 256 BCE). In 1046 BCE, a Zhou king overthrew the last Shang ruler and established control over much of north China. In the early centuries of Zhou rule, during the Western Zhou (1046 – 771 BCE), Zhou kings dispatched kinsmen to territories he granted to them. These nobles were allowed to rule their own lands hereditarily, so long as they observed certain obligations to their king.

The Western Zhou Dynasty | The capital was located along the Wei River valley, at Haojing. The names of states granted by early Zhou kings to kinsmen and allies, along with their capitals, are indicated. | Author: User “Philg88” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0 The Western Zhou Dynasty | The capital was located along the Wei River valley, at Haojing. The names of states granted by early Zhou kings to kinsmen and allies, along with their capitals, are indicated. | Author: User “Philg88” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

In the eleventh century BCE, the Zhou state was a minor power on the western periphery of the Shang realm, located along the Wei [way] River. In 1059, upon witnessing five planets align, the Zhou ruler declared himself king and proceeded to engage in military conquests that made his kingdom a regional power to be reckoned with. This was King Wen (“Cultured King”), a ruler revered as the founder of the Zhou dynasty. But it was his son King Wu (“Martial King”) who brought down the Shang Dynasty. He assumed the throne upon his father’s death and, in 1046, led three-hundred chariots and 45,000 foot soldiers equipped with bronze armor and pole-mounted dagger-axes to a location just outside the Shang capital, where he met with and decisively defeated the last Shang king and his army.

King Wu then returned to his capital in the Wei River Valley, where he passed away in 1043 BCE. His young son took the throne, but was placed under the regency of Wu’s capable brother, the Duke of Zhou. Now, the Zhou royal court was faced with the task of governing newly conquered territory, including the former lands of the Shang Dynasty. The king and his regent did so by implementing three policies. First, they established a secondary capital farther east at Luoyang [pronounced low-yawng], closer to the North China Plain. Second, they issued proclamations explaining to conquered peoples why they should accept Zhou rule. According to the Duke of Zhou, Heaven had decreed that Shang kings must fall and Zhou rulers should replace them. The Shang dynasty had begun with wise and benevolent rulers, but later kings were cruel and incompetent, and failed to see to the well-being of their subjects. Thus, a dynasty once sanctioned by Heaven had lost this sanction; now, Heaven had called upon Zhou rulers to overthrow the Shang dynasty and initiate a new era of just rule. This political theory, which is known as the Mandate of Heaven, would also be used by founders of later dynasties to justify their actions, as well as by theorists to explain the rise and fall of dynasties.

The third policy the Zhou court adopted was to dispatch royal kinsmen to strategically critical locations for the purpose of establishing colonies. At their royal palaces, Zhou kings conducted ceremonies of investiture during which they sacri ced to Heaven and the spirits of deceased ancestors, held banquets, and then bestowed noble titles and grants of land upon members of the royal family and relatives by marriage. Large bronzes were cast to commemorate these occasions.

Western Zhou Bronze Ritual Vessel |<br /><br /><br /><br />
A Western Zhou bronze ritual vessel with an inscription commemorating events at the court of King Wu. The king had ordered the Duke of Zhou’s son to assume new roles at the Zhou royal court, and the bronze was cast to celebrate his appointments | Author: User “Daderot” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC0 1.0 Western Zhou Bronze Ritual Vessel | A Western Zhou bronze ritual vessel with an inscription commemorating events at the court of King Wu. The king had ordered the Duke of Zhou’s son to assume new roles at the Zhou royal court, and the bronze was cast to celebrate his appointments | Author: User “Daderot” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC0 1.0

These lords– dukes, marquis, earls, and barons–then took their families, contingents of soldiers, and emblems of nobility to the granted territory and set up palaces and ancestral temples in walled towns. From there, these illustrious lineages governed a predominantly rural population of farmers living in villages where life was not easy. Living in hovels and with little opportunity to leave their lord’s manors, these farmers were required to work his lands and also to submit a portion of the harvest from their own small farms.

Historians call this method of governing Zhou kinship feudalism. Feudalism generally describes a political and economic system characterized by fragmented authority, a set of obligations (usually of a military nature) between lords and vassals, and grants of land (“fiefs”) by rulers in exchange for some type of service. Indeed, Zhou kings granted land and noble titles to kinsmen in exchange for obedience, periodic visits to the king’s palace, tribute, and military support. However, aside from the presence of royal overseers, a hereditary lord enjoyed relative sovereignty in his own domain. The glue that held the Zhou feudal order together was deference to the king and his Mandate and reverence for their shared history–including, most importantly, the deceased spirits of their related ancestors.

Over time, however, Zhou kinship feudalism failed to function as intended by the founding rulers. In brief, Zhou kings’ ability to control the noble lords diminished over time, and their prestige suffered accordingly. There were two principal reasons for this. First, ties of kinship so crucial to the founding of Zhou lost their meaning over time. In later generations, lords simply became more interested in and identified with their own territories, and they had little sense of solidarity with what were at best distant cousins ruling neighboring feudal states. Hence, it is hardly surprising that histories inform us that the many lords ceased to pay visits to the king’s court. Second, Zhou kings were unable to impose their will on feuding feudal lords and were even defeated by them in several military campaigns. In 771 BCE, for instance, King You [yo] was attacked by the allied forces of the lord of Shen and tribal peoples residing out west. The capital was sacked, and he was killed. Other states came to the rescue, relocating the king’s son, Prince Ping, to the eastern capital at Luoyang. Zhou kings would remain there for the next five hundred years, during the period called the Eastern Zhou.

Works Consulted and Further Reading

Ancient Israel

Baden, Joel. The Historical Hero: the Real Life of an Invented Hero. New York: Harper One, 2014.

Dever, William. The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: Where Archaeology and the Bible Intersect. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2012.

Guisepi, Robert (ed). “Civilization of the Hebrews: Along the Banks of the Rivers.” World History International.

Hawkins, Ralph. How Israel Became a People. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2013.

Milstein, Mati. “King Solomon’s Wall Found – Proof a Bible Tale?” National Geographic (Feb. 2010):

Ancient Nubia

Afolayan, Funso. “Civilizations of the Upper Nile and North Africa.” In Africa, Volume 1: African History Before 1885. Toyin Falola (ed.) (73-108) Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 2000.

British Museum. “The Wealth of Africa: The Kingdom of Kush.” Student Worksheets.

Louis, Chaix; Dubosson, Jerome; and Matthieu Honegger. “Bucrania from the Eastern Cemetery at Kerma (Sudan) and the Practice of Cattle Horn Deformation.” Studies in African Archaeology, 11. Poznan Archeological Museum, 2012.

Collins, Robert and James Burns. A History of Sub-Saharan Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2002.

Garlake, Peter. Early Art and Architecture of Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

The Greek World

Bury, J. B. and Russell Meiggs. A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Cartledge, Paul. Sparta and Laconia: A Regional History 1300 – 362 BC. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Morkot, Robert. The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Greece. London: Penguin Books, 1997.

Murray, Oswyn. Early Greece. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Ober, Josiah. Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

de Polignac, François. Cults, Territory, and the Origins of the Greek City-State. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Pomeroy, Sarah, Stanley Burstein, Walter Donlan, Jennifer Tolbert Roberts, and David Tandy. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

South Asia

Basham, A.L. The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism. Edited and Completed by Kenneth G. Zysk. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Knott, Kim. Hinduism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

East Asia

Peers, C.J. Soldiers of the Dragon: Chinese Armies 1500 BC – AD 1850. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2006.

Links to Primary Sources

The Persian Empire

Two accounts of Cyrus freeing the Jews The Greek World Archaeological findings from Athens Sources on the Founding of the Greek colony of Cyrene Fragments from the political poetry of Solon Herodotus and Plutarch write about the Tyrants South Asia The Upanishads East Asia The Classic of Odes: King Wen The Mandate of Heaven

From Berger, Eugene; Israel, George; Miller, Charlotte; Parkinson, Brian; Reeves, Andrew; and Williams, Nadejda, “World History: Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500″ (2016). History Open Textbooks. Book 2.

World History: Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Chapter Three: The Earliest Empires and Territorial States (2400-1000 BCE)

The Middle East and North AfricaSouth AsiaEast AsiaThe Greek WorldThe Americas

c. 3300-1150 BCE: Greek Bronze Age

2400-1450 BCE: The Kingdom of Kerma

2040-1640 BCE: Egyptian Middle Kingdom

2000 BCE-250 CE: Preclassic or Formative period in Mesoamerica

c. 1900: Mesoamericans begin to make pottery

1800-800 BCE: Late Initial Period in Peru

1792-1595 BCE: Babylonian Empire

1700-1000 BCE: Early Vedic Age

1792-1750 BCE: Reign of Hammurabi

1640-1570 BCE: Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period (Egypt under Hyksos Rule)

c. 1600-1046 BCE: Shang Dynasty

1530-1070 BCE: Egyptian New Kingdom

1500-400 BCE: Middle Formative Period in Mesoamerica. Peak of Olmec statue carving

1350-1325 BCE: Amarna Period (under Pharaoh Akhenaten)

c. 1100 BCE: Greek Dark Ages begin

c. 1000 BCE: Maize becomes widespread in North America


The second millennium BCE (2000 BCE-1000 BCE) saw the emergence of a number of polities (political entitites, such as city-states, territorial states, or empires) that demonstrated a higher level of political sophistication than in earlier ones. East Asia’s Shang Dynasty, the Middle and New Kingdoms in Egypt and the Babylonian Kingdom in Mesopotamia epitomized this.

At the same time, non-state developments elsewhere laid the groundwork for the future. The arrival of the Indo-European “Aryans” in South Asia would lead to the establishment of the Vedic culture that would serve as the social and religious foundations of the region. Small societies in the Aegean, such as the Minoans on Crete and Mycenaeans on the Greek mainland would influence the Greek culture we will see in Chapters 4 and 5. In the Americas, cultures like the Olmec and Chavín illustrate that complex societies were not confined to Afro-Eurasia.

Questions to Guide Your Reading

  1. How did the rulers of ancient Mesopotamian empires attempt to bring together and control the people within their realms?
  2. Describe the legacies of the civilization in ancient Mesopotamia.
  3. Describe Egypt’s intermediate periods.
  4. Explain the significance of pyramids.
  5. Describe the major innovations of the New Kingdom.
  6. What are the legacies of Ancient Egypt?
  7. Compare the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt.
  8. In what ways did Greek geography and topography impact the history of the ancient Greek world?
  9. What primary sources are available for the study of Greek history, and what are the limitations of these sources?
  10. What kinds of evidence do we have to reconstruct the first dynasties in Chinese history–the Xia and Shang Dynasties? What can we learn from this evidence?
  11. What crops were first domesticated in the Americas and where?
  12. What did we learn from the Olmec about the transition from chiefdoms to states?

Key Terms

  • Anyang
  • Archaeological evidence
  • Aten
  • Bronze Age
  • Chavín de Huantar
  • Crete
  • Great Bison Belt
  • Greek Dark Ages
  • Hammurabi’s Code
  • Homer
  • Homer’s Iliad
  • Hopewell
  • Hinduism
  • Indo-Aryans
  • Indo-European Language Family
  • Indra
  • Linear A
  • Linear B
  • “Mask of Agamemnon”
  • Mesoamerica
  • Middle Kingdom
  • Minoans
  • Mycenaeans
  • New Kingdom
  • Norte Chico
  • Olmec
  • Oracle Bones
  • Peloponnese
  • Rig Veda
  • Sanskrit
  • Shang Dynasty
  • Trojan War
  • Valley of Kings
  • Varna social system
  • Vedic Age

The Babylonian Empire (1792-1595 BCE)


The Stele of Hammurabi | Author: User “Mbzt” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY 3.0

The Stele of Hammurabi | Author: User “Mbzt” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY 3.0

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Hammurabi, who aspired to follow Sargon’s example, created the next empire in the region, the Babylonian Empire. With well-disciplined foot soldiers armed with copper and bronze weapons, he conquered Mesopotamian city-states, including Akkad and Sumer, to create an empire with its capital at Babylon. Although he had other achievements, Hammurabi is most famous for the law code etched into a stele that bears his name, the Stele of Hammurabi.

The Stele of Hammurabi records a comprehensive set of laws. Codes of law existed prior to Hammurabi’s famous stele, but Hammurabi’s Code gets a lot of attention because it is still intact and has proven very in uential. As seen in above, the upper part of the stele depicts Hammurabi standing in front of the Babylonian god of justice, from whom Hammurabi derives his power and legitimacy. The lower portion of the stele contains the collection of 282 laws. One particularly influential principle in the code is the law of retaliation, which demands “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The code listed offenses and their punishments, which often varied by social class. While symbolizing the power of the King Hammurabi and associating him with justice, the code of law also attempted to unify people within the empire and establish common standards for acceptable behavior. An excerpt of Hammurabi’s Code appears below:

6. If anyone steal the property of a temple or of the court, he shall be put to death, and also the one who receives the stolen thing from him shall be put to death.

8. If any one steal cattle or sheep, or an ass, or a pig or a goat, if it belong to a god or to the court, the thief shall pay thirtyfold therefore; if they belonged to a freed man of the king he shall pay tenfold; if the thief has nothing with which to pay he shall be put to death.

15. If any one receive into his house a runaway male or female slave of the court, or of a freedman, and does not bring it out at the public proclamation of the major domus, the master of the house shall be put to death.

53. If any one be too lazy to keep his dam in proper condition, and does not so keep it; if then the dam break and all the  elds be  ooded, then shall he in whose dam the break occurred be sold for money, and the money shall replace the corn which he has caused to be ruined.

108. If a tavern-keeper (feminine) does not accept corn according to gross weight in payment of drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the corn, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water.

110. If a “sister of god” open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death.

127. If any one “point the  nger” (slander) at a sister of a god or the wife of any one, and can not prove it, this man shall be taken before the judges and his brow shall be marked. (by cutting the skin or perhaps hair)

129. If a man’s wife be surprised (in  agrante delicto) with another man, both shall be tied and thrown into the water, but the husband may pardon his wife and the king his slaves.

137. If a man wish to separate from a woman who has borne him children, or from his wife who has borne him children: then he shall give that wife her dowry, and a part of the usufruct of  eld, garden, and property, so that she can rear her children. When she has brought up her children, a portion of all that is given to the children, equal as that of one son, shall be given to her. She may then marry the man of her heart.

195. If a son strike his father, his hands shall be hewn o .

196. If a man put out the eye of another man his eye shall be put out. (An eye for an eye)

197. If he break another man’s bone, his bone shall be broken.

198. If he put out the eye of a freed man, or break the bone of a freed man, he shall pay one gold mina.

199. If he put out the eye of a man’s slave, or break the bone of a man’s slave, he shall pay one-half of its value.

202. If any one strike the body of a man higher in rank than he, he shall receive sixty blows with an ox-whip in public.

203. If a free-born man strike the body of another free-born man or equal rank, he shall pay one gold mina.

205. If the slave of a freed man strike the body of a freed man, his ear shall be cut off.[27]

Hammurabi also improved infrastructure, promoted trade, employed effective administrative practices, and supported productive agriculture. For example, he sponsored the building of roads and the creation of a postal service. He also maintained irrigation canals and facilitated trade all along the Persian Gulf. After Hammurabi’s death, his successors lost territory. The empire declined, shrinking in size. The Hittites, from Anatolia, eventually sacked the city of Babylon in 1595 BCE, bringing about the official end of the Babylonian Empire.

The Significance of Mesopotamia for World History

Mesopotamia saw the emergence of some of the first cities and the world’s first empires. The city-states of the region flourished from about 3000 to 2300 BCE. Then, Sargon of Akkad and subsequent rulers built empires, expanding their control and influence over even larger territories.

There were cultural links and commonalities found in the Sumerian city-states of the third millennium BCE. With agricultural production dependent on access to water, cities initially grew in Southern Mesopotamia near rivers, namely the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and their tributaries. Sumerians tried to control their environment using irrigation, drainage ditches, water reserves, and other methods. With unpredictable floods and other environmental challenges, the Sumerians viewed nature as hostile and their expectations of the afterlife tended to be pessimistic. Their understanding of nature as unpredictable also spurred engineering innovations as Sumerians prepared for floods, water shortages, and other natural events. While farming was the mainstay of their economies, city-states were also involved in robust long-distance trade networks, which allowed them to garner the many resources not available in their region. These city-states alternately allied with, competed against, and waged war on one another, with kingship emerging as rulers dominated multiple city- states. As evidenced by the centrality of temples and the belief that kingship came from heaven, religion was of fundamental importance to these societies. Archaeologists have also uncovered ample evidence of social stratification and labor specialization in these ancient city-states. Archeologists have been able to recognize Sumerian developments, in part, because the Sumerians left behind a wealth of information documented in cuneiform, one of the world’s first written scripts. Scholars have begun to describe life in ancient Sumerian societies and appreciate the many Sumerian achievements, like those in math, where they introduced a computation system based on 60 (which we still use to divide time and in geometry as a circle has 360°). Overall, Sumerians were innovators, with some of the first cities, one of the first systems of writing, notable achievements in engineering and architecture, the creation of larger political entities, and more.

Starting with the Akkadian Empire, four empires controlled vast territories in Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent. Over a period of almost 1800 years, these empires brought together diverse communities, often by military conquest and force. The empires facilitated trade, and spread ideas and culture. Their rulers developed administrative, military, and other techniques to try to ensure compliance and recognition of their authority. As intended, the rulers and the cities they built live on in legends, even though their empires eventually withered and fell.

Middle Kingdom Egypt (2040-1640 BCE)

Following the decentralized First Intermediate Period of roughly 150 years, Pharaoh Mentohotep II reunited Egypt to found the Middle Kingdom. The Middle Kingdom saw the reorganization of the state’s bureaucratic apparatus to control the nomes. To further strengthen their authority, the pharaohs also moved their capital from the Old Kingdom capital of Thebes south to Lisht, halfway between Upper and Lower Egypt. With military expeditions, they extended the boundaries of the state north to Lebanon and south to the second cataract of the Nile into a region known as Nubia. With this extension of territory, Egypt had access to more trade goods, and the organization of trade shifted so that professional merchants took a leading role in developing new trade routes. These professional merchants paid taxes to the state, supporting further consolidation of power by the pharaohs and also infrastructural improvements like irrigation. During the Middle Kingdom, the pharaohs focused less on the building of massive pyramids and more on administrative reorganization, military expeditions, and the state’s infrastructural repair.

Disputes over succession and ineffectual rulers led into the Second Intermediate Period. Most notably, Egypt was invaded from both the north and the south during this period. The Hyksos invaded from the north in 1670 BCE. They brought bronze and horse-drawn chariots, which allowed them to conquer parts of Lower Egypt and establish their own kingdom, one lasting about 100 years in the Nile Delta region. From the south, the Kingdom of Kush, based in Nubia, invaded and temporarily established control over Upper Egypt to Aswan. Thus, foreign rulers dominated much of Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period.

New Kingdom Egypt (1530-1070 BCE)

The New Kingdom of reunited Egypt that began in 1530 BCE saw an era of Egyptian imperialism, changes in the burial practices of pharaohs, and the emergence of a brief period of state-sponsored monotheism under the Pharaoh Akhenaten. In 1530 BCE, the pharaoh who became known as Ahmose the Liberator (Ahmose I) defeated the Hyksos and continued sweeping up along the Eastern Mediterranean. By 1500 BCE, the Egyptian army had also pushed into Nubia, taking Kush southward to the fourth cataract of the Nile River.

Egypt during its Imperialistic New Kingdom, c. 1400 BCE | Author: Jeff Dahl | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Egypt during its Imperialistic New Kingdom, c. 1400 BCE | Author: Jeff Dahl | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

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As pharaohs following Ahmose I continued Egypt’s expansion, the Imperial Egyptian army ran successful campaigns in Palestine and Syria, along the Eastern Mediterranean. Furthermore, by expanding into Kush, Egypt controlled trade routes into Sub-Saharan Africa. Adopting the Hyksos’ chariot military and metal technologies contributed to the Egyptian ability to strengthen its military. Egypt maintained a large standing army and built an expansive empire during the New Kingdom.

Egypt saw many other developments during the New Kingdom, especially when it came to burial practices and religion. During the New Kingdom, pharaohs and Egyptian elites used the Valley of Kings, located across the Nile River from Thebes, as their preferred burial site. They desired tombs that were hidden away and safe from tomb robbers. Therefore, instead of pyramids, they favored huge stone tombs built into the mountains of the Valley of the Kings. Nearly all of the tombs in the Valley of Kings were raided, so the fears of the pharaohs were well founded. Tomb raiding was even common during dynastic Egypt. King Tutankhamen’s tomb has become one familiar exception. His tomb fared unusually well over the millennia, and King Tutankhamen’s image is well known to us because his tomb was found mostly intact in 1922.

Tombs at the Valley of the Kings | Author: User “Hajor” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Tombs at the Valley of the Kings | Author: User “Hajor” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

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Throughout dynastic Egypt, much continuity existed in religious beliefs, causing scholars to characterize Egyptian society as conservative, meaning that Egyptians shied away from change. In general, Egyptian religious beliefs emphasized unity and harmony. Throughout the dynastic period, Egyptians thought that the soul contained distinct parts. They believed that one part, the ka, was a person’s lifeforce and that it separated from the body after death. The Egyptians carried out their elaborate preservation of mummies and made small tomb statues to house their ka after death. The ba, another part of the soul, was the unique character of the individual, which could move between the worlds of the living and the dead. They believed that after death, if rituals were carried out correctly, their ka and ba would reunite to reanimate their akh, or spirit. If they observed the proper rituals and successfully passed through Final Judgment (where they recited the 42 “Negative Confessions” and the god Osiris weighed their hearts against a feather), Egyptians believed that their resurrected spirit, their akh, would enter the afterlife.

Golden Mask of Tutankhamun | Because his tomb was found mostly intact in 1922, King Tutankhamen (or King Tut) has become one of our most familiar images from dynastic Egypt. | Author: Carsten Frenzl | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY 2.0

Golden Mask of Tutankhamun | Because his tomb was found mostly intact in 1922, King Tutankhamen (or King Tut) has become one of our most familiar images from dynastic Egypt. | Author: Carsten Frenzl | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY 2.0

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In contrast to Mesopotamian society, Egyptians conceptualized the afterlife as pleasant. In the afterlife, they expected to  nd a place with blue skies, agreeable weather, and familiar objects and people. They also expected to complete many of the everyday tasks, such as farming, and enjoy many of the same recognizable pastimes. Throughout the centuries, the Egyptians conceptualized the afterlife as a comfortable mirror image of life.

One change that occurred over time was the “democratization of the afterlife.” As time progressed through the Middle Kingdom and into the New Kingdom, more and more people aspired to an afterlife. No longer was an afterlife seen as possible for only the pharaoh and the elite of society. Instead, just about all sectors of society expected access, as evident in the increased use of funeral texts, like the Book of the Dead. People of varying means would slip papyrus with spells or prayers from the Book of the Dead (or a similar text) into co ns and burial chambers. They intended these spells to help their deceased loved ones make it safely through the underworld into the pleasant afterlife. Conceptualizations of the afterlife consistently emphasized its familiarity and beauty, while more people looked forward to this continued existence after their earthly deaths.

As they developed religious doctrine and came into contact with new deities, Egyptians integrated new gods and goddesses into their religious beliefs. Like ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians were polytheistic. Some of the roles and back-stories of the deities did change over time; nevertheless, over the millennia they remained quite consistent. For example, Re, Osiris, Horus, and Isis, just to name a few deities in the Egyptian pantheon, stayed signi cant throughout dynastic Egypt. Re was the sun god, Osiris was the god of the afterworld, who also controlled nature’s cycles (like the all important  ooding of the Nile), Horus became a god of war and protection, and Isis was a goddess associated with healing and motherhood. During the Middle Kingdom, Amun, initially a patron saint of the city of Thebes and later recognized as the father of the pharaoh, was combined with Re, the sun god, to become Amun-Re the supreme god of the Egyptian pantheon. Amun-Re retained this place at the top of the Egyptian pantheon through most of the New Kingdom. One major exception occurred during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten.

Pharaoh Akhenaten started what is known as the Amarna Period. The Amarna Period, which lasted from approximately 1350 to 1325 BCE, stands out for its state-sponsored monotheism. Akhenaten introduced radical changes to Egyptian society, moving the capital to Tell el Amarna, a new settlement in the middle of the desert that was devoted to the worship of Aten and the recognition of the pharaoh’s superiority over everyone else. Aten, who had been one of many deities worshipped during the Middle Kingdom, was elevated to the creator god associated with sunlight, the foundation of all life. The “Great Hymn to Aten” explains the god Aten’s association with the sun as, like the sun, his “rays embraced the lands” of Egypt.8 Akhenaten had the Great Temple of Aten built in the middle of the new capital, and, unlike previous temples, this one had no roof and was open to sunlight. Akhenaten further modi ed Egyptian religious doctrine to identify himself as the son of Aten. According to the new religious ideology, Akhenaten alone was able to ensure access to the afterlife and communicate with Aten, the sole god. To reinforce Aten’s singularity, Akhenaten withdrew  nancial support from temples dedicated to other deities and defaced the temples dedicated to Amun, who had previously been the most dominant Egyptian deity. The prominence of Aten and Akhenaten’s exclusive access to him de ne the Amarna Period.

Why did Akhenaten introduce these radical changes? At least in part, Akhenaten wanted to break with the priests in Thebes who controlled the temples dedicated to Amun because he believed that these priests had become too powerful. Additionally, by taking on the role of the son of Aten and regulating entry into the afterlife, Akhenaten certainly attempted to reformulate beliefs to emphasize his own importance.

Akhenaten’s radical changes were likely troubling for most of the Egyptian population. They had previously found comfort in their access to deities and their regular religious rituals. The worship of Aten as the only Egyptian god did not last more than a couple of decades,  oundering after the death of Akhenaten. Pharaohs who ruled from 1323 BCE onward tried not only to erase the religious legacies of the Amarna Period, but also to destroy the capital at Tell el Amarna and remove Akhenaten from the historical record. Archaeologists have not found Akhenaten’s tomb or burial place. Scholars continue a long-standing debate about how this brief period of Egyptian monotheism relates (if at all) to the monotheism of the Israelites. Despite such uncertainties, study of the Amarna period does indicate that Egyptians in the fourteenth century BCE saw the  eeting appearance of religious ideology that identi ed Aten as the singular god.

Some of the strongest rulers of the New Kingdom, including Ramses I and Ramses II, came to power after the Amarna Period. These pharaohs expanded Egypt’s centralized administration and its control over foreign territories. However, by the twelfth century BCE, weaker rulers, foreign invasions, and the loss of territory in Nubia and Palestine indicated the imminent collapse of the New Kingdom. In the Late Period that followed (c. 1040 to 332 BCE), the Kingdom of Kush, based in Nubia, invaded and briefly ruled Egypt until the Assyrians conquered Thebes, establishing their own rule over Lower Egypt. Egyptian internal revolts and the conquest by Nubia and the Assyrian Empire left Egypt susceptible to invasion by the Persians and then eventually the 332 BCE invasion of Alexander the Great.

The ancient Egyptians made numerous contributions to World History. We remember them for mummification, their pharaohs, and the pyramids. Certainly, in this era, Egypt stands out for its ability to produce agricultural surpluses that supported the elites, priests, and skilled craftspeople. While we tend to focus on the bureaucratic, religious, and artistic contributions of these classes, all Egyptians played crucial roles in creating and maintaining this sophisticated civilization. Additionally, the innovations of Egyptians, such as their stone-carving techniques, hieroglyphics, the use of papyrus, their knowledge of the length of a solar year, and their construction methods, influenced the ancient world and still inspire awe. Overall, the ancient Egyptians created a vibrant civilization, while they also found comfort in the familiar and traditional.

The Kingdom of Kerma (c. 2400 BCE to c. 1500 BCE)

The region south of Aswan, at the first cataract of the Nile River, is commonly called Nubia. Nubia is notable for its long-term, dynamic relationship with ancient Egypt. Just as importantly, Nubia was also the site of an early civilization. The kingdoms of Kerma (c. 2400 BCE to 1500 BCE) and Kush (c. 1000 BCE to 300 CE, see Chapter Four) emerged along the Nile River. These kingdoms prospered especially due to their productive agriculture and the region’s copious natural resources. At certain points, both Kerma and Kush were strong enough to successfully invade Egypt.

A map of ancient Nubia | Author: Mark Dingemanse and Corey Parson | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY 2.5

A map of ancient Nubia | Author: Mark Dingemanse and Corey Parson | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY 2.5

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These kingdoms in Nubia also developed their own religious and cultural traditions, including a written script, Meroitic. While the people of this region, known collectively as Nubians, borrowed heavily from the Egyptians, Nubians also had distinctive practices that set their civilization apart from that of their northern neighbors.

Scholars generally link the origins of ancient Kerma (in present-day Sudan) back to the desiccation of the Sahara Desert and the rise of dynastic Egypt. Similarly to ancient Egypt, the drying out of the region encouraged people to move closer to the Nile River in the years between 5,000 and 4,000 BCE. Rock paintings, showing cattle in areas that have been desert for thousands of years, attest to the environmental changes in Nubia and also the development of a cattle culture that dates back to at least the fourth millennium BCE. Just as in Egypt, the desiccation of the Sahara desert drew together people from all directions. As people settled closer to the Nile River in Nubia, they brought their cattle, their agricultural traditions, and their languages, building settlements with higher
population densities.

Additionally, Egyptian elites desired ivory, animal skins, incense, and other luxury goods prompting trade between Nubia and Egypt that pre-dated the uni cation of Egypt. With increased demand for luxury goods as social strati cation grew, the Egyptians even ran military forays into Nubia. After uni cation, the Egyptians continued to invade Nubia to trade and raid for slaves and cattle. Likely, Nubian desires to control trade and protect themselves from Egyptian raids further compelled state formation in Nubia. Without Nubian records from the third millennium BCE, it is di cult to identify additional reasons why the state arose. However, archeological evidence does clearly indicate that by about 2400 BCE, Nubians had formed the Kingdom of Kerma between the third and fourth cataracts of the Nile River.

Kerma endured in Upper Nubia for almost a thousand years. The kingdom is named after its capital city at Kerma at the third cataract, but excavations at other sites (where similar pottery styles and burial sites have been found) suggest that at its height Kerma’s reach may have extended more than 200 miles southward past the fifth cataract of the Nile River. So far, archaeological evidence indicates that, with the exception of the capital and perhaps one or two other cities, most of the people in Kerma lived in smaller villages. They grew crops like barley, and kept goats, sheep, and cattle, sending tribute to their capital. The people of Kerma also developed industries, especially in mining, metalworking, and pottery. Kerma was linked inter-regionally through trade to its tributary villages, to dynastic Egypt, and to sub-Saharan Africa. Egyptian pharaohs and elites wanted the gold, copper, slaves, ivory, exotic animals, and more that they obtained from Kerma.

The people of Kerma also made use of their location on the Nile and proximity to Egypt as they imported textiles, jewelry, and other manufactured goods. Presumably, one reason that Nubian leaders built their ancient capital at Kerma was to oversee river trade. At the impassable cataract, boat owners unloaded their cargo and took it overland past the shallows and rocks before again proceeding on the water. This location at the cataract gave the leaders at Kerma the chance to tax, divert, and register goods being transported between Kerma and Egypt.

Agricultural surpluses and other tributary payments supported the rulers and elites of the capital. Archaeologists have shown that the capital had defenses, including ditches, ramparts, and massive walls with towers. There were also palaces within the city and on its outskirts. However, the most famous structure is the Western Deffufa made of mud-bricks, which likely served as a temple.

The Western Deffufa at Kerma | Author: Walter Callens | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY 2.0

The Western Deffufa at Kerma | Author: Walter Callens | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY 2.0

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Two other deffufa, large mud-brick structures with spaces for rituals on top, have been at least partially excavated within the vicinity of Kerma. Another notable archaeological  nd is the Eastern Cemetery, which lies a couple of miles to the east of the city. It served as the burial site for Kerma’s rulers for almost a thousand years and contains over 30,000 tombs. Some of the tombs were covered with
large mounds. Demonstrating the cattle culture of the region, dozens of cattle skulls encircle a number of the tombs. Tombs also contain the remains of human sacri ces and other symbols of wealth and status, like jewelry made of gold and silver. The largest tomb found to date is 300 feet in diameter and covered with black granite, white quartz pebbles, and a marble top. Its interior burial suite contains semi-precious stones, bronze weapons, and lavish furniture. In the corridor leading into the underground burial site, archaeologists unearthed the remains of horses, dogs, and about 400 human sacrificial victims. The cattle skulls, mounds, and the remains of human sacrifices have led scholars to suggest that the Kerma elite had their own styles for monumental structures like the Western Deffufa and their tombs, even though they sometimes employed Egyptian artisans to complete the construction of these grand projects.

It appears that Kerma was strongest when neighboring Egypt was weak. As a case in point, during Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period, Kerma, at the height of its power, successfully invaded parts of Upper Egypt and established diplomatic relations with the occupying Hyksos. Once reunified during the New Kingdom, Egypt retaliated by conquering Kerma to the fourth cataract. Then, Egypt occupied Kerma for the next 500 years. During the Egyptian occupation, the elite classes of Kerma adopted many elements of Egyptian culture, including Egyptian gods, styles of dress, Hieroglyphics, and the Egyptian language. However, scholars believe that the Nubian masses retained their own distinctive identity with their local language and customs.

The Greek World: From the Bronze Age to the Archaic Period

Geography and Topography

While Greece is a unified country today, the territory of the present-day country was not unified under one rule until the rise of the Macedonians in the fourth century BCE (see Chapter 6). The geography and topography of the Greek mainland and the Mediterranean region surrounding it in uenced the history of the Greek people in a number of crucial ways. First, the mountainous nature of mainland Greece, especially in the north, allowed di erent regions to remain somewhat isolated. The most isolated of all, Thessaly and Macedon, were viewed as uncivilized barbarians by the rest of the Greeks in the Archaic and Classical periods (one oft-mentioned example of their “barbarism” in Greek literature is that they drank their wine undiluted!)and largely kept to themselves until their rise to military prominence in the mid-fourth century BCE.

The mountains throughout the northern portion of mainland Greece, in addition to isolating regions from each other and promoting regional culture, also provided tactical defenses in the face of external attacks. Most famously, the Persians learned the hard way about the challenges of navigating the Greek landscape during the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BCE. Indeed, the story of the 300 Spartans who fought to the death at the Battle of Thermopylae addresses the challenge of the Persian army trying to cross the mountains to the north of Attica in order to invade Athens by land (see Chapter 5).

No less in influential for the history of the Greek city-states than the topographical features were the resources that the land in different regions provided for agriculture and manufacturing. Mainland Greece was notoriously unsuitable for agriculture. Growing the grain staples wheat and barley in the rocky and clay-filled soil of Athens was especially diffcult, while the mountainous regions across the entire mainland were optimal for herding, rather than agriculture. One notable exception, however, were olive trees, which grew abundantly. Olive oil, as a result, was ubiquitously used for eating, bathing, and lamps, and even as currency or prize for victors in athletic games. In addition, early on in their history, the inhabitants of Attica and Corinth found a way to profit from the clay in their soil by developing advanced ceramic pot-making and decorating techniques. Remains of Athenian and Corinthian wares have been found at archaeological sites all over the Mediterranean, attesting to their popularity abroad. Precious metals were in short supply in the mainland, but the few that were available had an impact on the history of their regions.

But the topography and geography of mainland Greece and the Peloponnese only tells us a part of the story. The Aegean is filled with islands. Crete, for example, became home to the Minoan civilization.

Periods of Greek History

Historians today separate Greek history into particular periods, which shared specific features throughout the Greek world. In this chapter, we will examine:

The Bronze Age (c. 3,300 – 1,150 BCE) – a period characterized by the use of bronze tools and weapons. In addition, two particular periods during the Bronze Age are crucial in the development of early Greece: the Minoan Age on the island of Crete (c. 2,000 – 1,450 BCE) and the Mycenean period on mainland Greece (c. 1,600 – 1,100 BCE), both of them characterized by massive palaces, remnants of which still proudly stand today. The Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations had writing (dubbed Linear A and Linear B, respectively), which they used for keeping lists and palace inventories.

The Greek Dark Ages (c. 1,100 – 700 BCE) – a period that is “dark” from the archaeological perspective, which means that the monumental palaces of the Mycenean period disappear, and the archaeological record reveals a general poverty and loss of culture throughout the Greek world. For instance, the Linear A and Linear B writing systems disappear. The Greeks do not rediscover writing until the invention of the Greek alphabet at the end of the Dark Ages or the early Archaic Period.

Methodology: Sources and Problem

Before launching into the story of the early Greek world, it is important to consider the methodology that Greek historians utilize. In other words, how do we know what we know about the Greek world? Modern scholars of ancient history are notoriously obsessed with evaluating their primary sources critically, and with good reason. Studying Greek history, especially in its earliest periods, is like putting together a puzzle, most of whose pieces are missing, and some pieces from another puzzle have also been added in for good measure. Greek history requires careful consideration of a wide range of sources, which fall into two broad categories: literary sources (including both  ction and non- ction), and material culture. The job of the historian, then, is to reconstruct the story of the Greek people using these very different sources.

While historians of the modern world rely on such archival sources as newspapers, magazines, and personal diaries and correspondence of individuals and groups, historians of the ancient world must use every available source to reconstruct the world in which their subject dwelled. Literary sources, such as epics, lyric poetry, and drama, may seem strange for historians to use, as they do not necessarily describe specifc historical events. Yet, as in the case of other early civilizations, such sources are a crucial window into the culture and values of the people who produced them. For instance, the Epic of Gilgamesh, discussed in Chapter 2, is a key text for the study of early Mesopotamia.

The earliest literary sources for Greek history are the Homeric epics, Iliad and Odyssey. They are, however, one of the most challenging sources to interpret, with one modern historian dubbing them a “historian’s headache.”[28]Composed orally before the existence of the Greek alphabet, the epics were not written down until sometime in the sixth century BCE. The epics most likely do not reflect the society of any particular Greek city-state in any one period, but rather consist of an amalgam of features from the Bronze Age to the early Archaic Period. Their value for historians, as a result, rests more on their impact on subsequent Greek culture, rather than on their providing information about Bronze Age Greeks. More than any other literary source, the Homeric Epics influenced the mentality of the Greeks in thinking about war and what it means to be a hero.

Archaeological evidence thankfully allows historians to fill some of the gaps in the literary evidence, but also comes with problems of its own. One joke that refers to the optimism of archaeologists reflects some of these problems of interpretation: whenever an archaeologist finds three stones that are together, he labels the find as a Minoan palace. Whenever he finds two stones that are together, he thinks he has found a city wall. Whenever he finds one building stone, he thinks he has found a house.

Still, archaeological sources provide us with key information about different aspects of everyday life in different times and places in the Greek World, from the Bronze and Dark Ages discussed in this chapter to later periods discussed in Chapters 4, 5, and 6.

From Mythology to History

The terms “mythology” and “history” may seem, by modern definitions, to be antithetical. After all, mythology refers to stories that are clearly false, of long-forgotten gods and heroes and their miraculous feats. History, on the other hand, refers to actual events that involved real people. And yet, the idea that the two are opposites would have seemed baffling to a typical resident of the ancient Mediterranean world. Rather, gods and myths were part of the everyday life, and historical events could become subsumed by myths just as easily as myths could become a part of history. For instance, Gilgamesh, the hero of the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, was a real king of Uruk, yet he also became the hero of the epic. Each Greek city-state, in particular, had a foundation myth describing its origins as well as its own patron gods and goddesses. Etiological myths, furthermore, served to explain why certain institutions or practices existed; for instance, the tragic trilogy Oresteia of the Athenian poet Aeschylus tells the etiological myth for the establishment of the Athenian murder courts in the Classical period.

Yet, while the Greeks saw mythology and history as related concepts and sometimes as two sides of the same coin, one speci c mythical event marked, in the eyes of the earliest known Greek historians, the beginning of the story of Greek-speaking peoples. That event was the Trojan War.

Homer and the Trojan War

It is telling that the two earliest Greek historians, Herodotus, writing in the mid-fifth century BCE, and Thucydides, writing in the last third of the fifth century BCE, began their respective histories with the Trojan War, each treating it as a historical event. The Homeric epics Iliad and Odyssey portray the war as an organized attack of a uni ed Greek army against Troy, a city in Asia Minor. The instigating offense? The Trojan prince Paris kidnapped Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, from her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta. This offense, interpreted as a slight to Menelaus’ honor, prompted Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and Menelaus’ brother, to raise an army from the entire Greek world and sail to Troy. The mythical tradition had it that after a brutal ten-year siege, the Greeks resorted to a trick: they presented the Trojans with a hollow wooden horse, filled with armed soldiers. The Trojans tragically accepted the gift, ostensibly intended as a dedication to the goddess Athena. That same night, the armed contingent emerged from the horse, and the city finally fell to the Greeks. Picking up the story ten years after the end of the Trojan War, the Odyssey then told the story of Odysseus’s struggles to return home after the war and the changes that reverberated throughout the Greek world after the fall of Troy.

The Homeric epics were the foundation of Greek education in the Archaic and Classical periods and, as such, are a historian’s best source of pan-Hellenic values. A major theme throughout both epics is personal honor, which Homeric heroes value more than the collective cause. For example, when Agamemnon slights Achilles’ honor in the beginning of the Iliad, Achilles, the best hero of the Greeks, withdraws from battle for much of the epic, even though his action causes the Greeks to start losing battles until he rejoins the  ght. A related theme is competitive excellence, with kleos (eternal glory) as its goal: all Greek heroes want to be the best; thus, even while  ghting in the same army, they see each other as competition. Ultimately, Achilles has to make a choice: he can live a long life and die unknown, or he can die in battle young and have everlasting glory. Achilles’ selection of the second option made him the inspiration for such historical Greek warriors and generals as Alexander the Great, who brought his scroll copy of the Iliad with him on all campaigns. Finally, the presence of the gods in the background of the Trojan War shows the Greeks’ belief that the gods were everywhere, and acted in the lives of mortals. These gods could be powerful benefactors and patrons of individuals who respected them and sought their favor, or vicious enemies, bent on destruction. Indeed, early in the Iliad, the god Apollo sends a plague on the Greek army at Troy, as punishment for disrespecting his priest.

It is important to note that while the Homeric epics in uenced Greek values from the Archaic period on, they do not re ect the reality of the Greek world in any one period. Furthermore, they were not composed by a single poet, Homer; indeed, it is possible that Homer never existed. Because the epics were composed orally by multiple bards over the period of several hundred years, they combine details about technological and other aspects of the Bronze Age with those of the Dark Ages and even the early Archaic Age. For instance, the heroes use bronze weapons side-by-side with iron. Archaeological evidence, however, allows historians to reconstruct to some extent a picture of the Greek world in the Bronze Age and the Dark Ages.

Greece in the Bronze Age, and the Dark Ages

While there were people living in mainland Greece already in the Neolithic Period, historians typically begin the study of the Greeks as a unique civilization in the Bronze Age, with the Minoans. The first literate civilization in Europe, the Minoans were a palace civilization that flourished on the island of Crete c. 2000 – 1450 BCE.

Map of Minoan Crete | Author: User “Bibi Saint-Poi” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Map of Minoan Crete | Author: User “Bibi Saint-Poi” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

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As befits island-dwellers, they were traders and seafarers; indeed, the Greek historian Thucydides credits them with being the first Greeks to sail on ships. Sir Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who first excavated Crete in the early 1900s, dubbed them Minoans, after the mythical Cretan king Minos who was best known for building a labyrinth to house the Minotaur, a monster that was half-man, half-bull. Bulls appear everywhere in surviving Minoan art, suggesting that they indeed held a prominent place in Minoan mythology and religion.

Four major palace sites survive on Crete. The most significant of them, Knossos, has been restored and reconstructed for the benefit of modern tourists. Historians hypothesize that the palaces were the homes of local rulers, who ruled and protected the surrounding farmland. The palaces seem to have kept records in two di erent writing systems, the earliest known in Europe: the Cretan hieroglyphic and Linear A scripts. Unfortunately, neither of these systems has been deciphered, but it is likely that these were palace inventories and records pertaining to trade. The palaces had no surrounding walls, suggesting that the Cretans maintained peace with each other and felt safe from outside attacks, since they lived on an island.

Reconstructed North Portico at Knossos | Author: User “Bernard Gagnon” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Reconstructed North Portico at Knossos | Author: User “Bernard Gagnon” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

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This sense of security proved to be a mistake as, around 1450 BCE, the palaces were violently destroyed by invaders, possibly the Mycenaeans who arrived from mainland Greece.

Mycenaean Palace States | Author: user "Alexikoua" | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 4.0

Mycenaean Palace States | Author: user “Alexikoua” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 4.0

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Recent discoveries also suggest that at least some of the destruction may have been the result of tsunamis which accompanied the Santorini/ Thera volcanic eruption in the 1600s BCE. The Mycenaeans, similarly to the Minoans, were a palace civilization. Flourishing on mainland Greece c. 1,600 – 1,100 BCE, they received their name from Mycenae, the most elaborate surviving palace and the mythical home of Agamemnon, the commander-in-chief of the Greek army in the Trojan War. The archaeological excavations of graves in Mycenae reveal a prosperous civilization that produced elaborate pottery, bronze weapons and tools, and extravagant jewelry and other objects made of precious metals and gems. One of the most famous finds is the so-called “Mask of Agamemnon,” a burial mask with which one aristocrat was buried, made of hammered gold.

Mask of Agamemnon, Mycenae |  Author: User “Xuan Che” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY 2.0

Mask of Agamemnon, Mycenae | Author: User “Xuan Che” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY 2.0

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The Mycenaeans also kept palace records in a syllabic script, known as Linear B. Related to the Cretan Linear A script, Linear B, however, has been deciphered, and identified as Greek.

Archaeological evidence also shows that sometime in the 1200s BCE, the Mycenaean palaces suffered a series of attacks and were gradually abandoned over the next century. The period that begins around 1,000 BCE is known as the “Dark Ages” because of the notable decline, in contrast with the preceding period. The Mycenaean Linear B script disappears, and archaeological evidence shows a poorer Greece with a decline in material wealth and life expectancy. Some contact, however, must have remained with the rest of the Mediterranean, as shown by the emergence of the Greek alphabet, adapted from the Phoenician writing system towards the end of the Dark Ages or early in the Archaic Period.

The Early Aryan Settlement of Northern India (1700-1000 BCE)

By 1700 BCE, Harappan Civilization had collapsed. In northwest India, scattered village communities engaging in agriculture and pastoralism replaced the dense and more highly populated network of cities, towns, and villages of the third millennium. The rest of northern India too (including the Ganges River), as well as the entire subcontinent, were similarly dotted with Neolithic communities of farmers and herders. That is what the archaeological record demonstrates.

The next stage in India’s history is the Vedic Age (1700 – 600 BCE). This period is named after a set of religious texts composed during these centuries called the Vedas. The people who composed them are known as the Vedic peoples and Indo-Aryans. They were not originally from India, and rather came as migrants travelling to the subcontinent via mountain passes located in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Aryans  rst settled in the Punjab, but then they pushed east along the Ganges, eventually impressing their way of life, language, and religious beliefs upon much of northern India. The course of India’s history was completely changed during this period. By the end of the Vedic Age, numerous states had emerged and Hinduism and the varna social system were beginning to take shape.

The early history of the Vedic Age o ers the historian little primary source material. For example, for the  rst half of the Vedic Age (1700 – 1000 BCE), we are largely limited to archaeological sites and one major text called the Rig Veda. This is the  rst of four Vedas. It consists of 1028 hymns addressed to the Vedic peoples’ pantheon of gods. But it wasn’t actually written down until after 500 BCE. Rather, from as early as the beginning of the second millennium BCE, these hymns were orally composed and transmitted by Aryan poet-seers, eventually becoming the preserve of a few priestly clans who utilized them for the speci c religious function of pleasing higher powers. Thus, these hymns only o er certain kinds of information. Yet, despite these limits, historians have been able to sketch out the Aryan’s way of life in these early centuries, as well as to make solid arguments about how they came to India.

The Indo-Aryans were pastoralists who migrated to India in waves beginning c. 1700 BCE (see Map 3.4). They referred to themselves as Aryans, a term meaning “noble” or “respectable.” They spoke Sanskrit, and used it to transmit their sacred hymns. At  rst, in search of land, they settled along the hills and plains of the upper reaches of the Indus River and its tributaries, bringing with them their pastoral and farming way of life. In their hymns, the Aryans beseech the gods to bless them with cattle, bounteous harvests, rain, friends, wealth, fame, and sons. From these, it is clear that herding was the principal occupation and cows were especially prized. But the Aryans also farmed, as apparent in hymns that speak of plough teams and the cutting and threshing of grain.

Early Vedic Culture (1700-1000 BCE) | The early Vedic Age, showing the Aryan’s migration routes and the areas where they first resided in the Punjab. | Author: User “Avantiputra7” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Early Vedic Culture (1700-1000 BCE) | The early Vedic Age, showing the Aryan’s migration routes and the areas where they first resided in the Punjab. | Author: User “Avantiputra7” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

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During these early centuries, led by their pastoral chiefs, some Aryans retained a semi- nomadic way of life, living in temporary dwellings and then moving about with their herds or migrating further. Others settled down in villages. In both cases, kinship was especially valued. At the simplest level, society consisted of extended families of three generations. Fathers were expected to lead the family as patriarchal heads, while sons were expected to care for the herds, bring honor through success in battle, and sacrifice for the well-being of their fathers’ souls after death. They also inherited the property and family name. This suggests that, as is so often the case for ancient societies, men were dominant and women were subordinate. Yet, women’s roles weren’t as rigidly defined as they would be in later times, and they had some choice in marriage and could remarry.

Several extended families, in turn, made up clans, and the members of a clan shared land and herds. Groups of larger clans also constituted tribes. The Vedas speak of rajas who, at this point, are best understood as clan or tribal chieftains. These men protected their people and led in times of battle, for the clans and tribes fought with each other and with the indigenous villagers living in the northwest prior to the Aryan migrations. In times of war, these chiefs would rely on priests who ensured the support of the gods by reciting hymns and sacrificing to them. At assemblies of kinsmen and other wealthy and worthy men from the clan, the rajas distributed war booty. Sudas, for example, was the chief of the Bharata clan. After settling in the Punjab, the Bharatas were attacked by neighboring clan confederacies, but drawing on his skills in chariot warfare and the support of priests, Sudas successfully fought them off.

More than anything else, the Rig Veda reveals the Aryan’s religious ideas. For them, the universe was composed of the sky, earth, and netherworld. These realms were populated by a host of divinities and demons responsible for the good and evil and order and disorder blessing and a icting the human world. Although one Vedic hymn gives a total of thirty-three gods, many more are mentioned. That means early Vedic religion was polytheistic. These human-like powers lying behind all those natural phenomena so close to a people living out on the plains were associated with the forces of light, good, and order. By chanting hymns to them and sacrificing in the correct way, the Aryan priests might secure blessings for the people or prevent the demons and spirits on earth from causing sickness and death. They might also ensure that the souls of the dead would successfully reach the netherworld, where the spirits of righteous Fathers feasted with King Yama, the first man to die.

Approaching the gods required neither temples nor images. Rather, a fire was lit in a specially prepared sacrificial altar. This might take place in a home when the family patriarch was hoping for a son or on an open plot of land when the clan chieftain wished to secure the welfare of his people. Priests were called in to perform the ceremony. They would imbibe a hallucinogenic beverage squeezed from a plant of uncertain identity and chant hymns while oblations of butter, fruit, and meat were placed in the  re. The gods, it was believed, would descend onto grass strewn about for them and could partake of the offerings once they were transmuted by the fire.

Indra was among the most beloved of the Vedic gods. As a god of war and the storm, and as king of the gods, Indra exemplified traits men sought to embody in their lives. He is a great warrior who smites demons and enemies but who also provides generously for the weak. Agni, another favorite, was god of fire and the household hearth. Agni summons the gods to the sacrifice and, as intermediary between gods and humans, brings the sacrificial offering to them.

The Origins of the Aryan People and the Indo-European Hypothesis

Because the Aryans came to India as migrating pastoralists from mountainous regions to the northwest of the Indian subcontinent, historians have sought to understand their origins. Sanskrit has provided important clues because it contains features similar to languages spoken at some point in Europe, Iran, and Central Asia. For example, although they are vastly di erent languages, Latin, Persian, and Sanskrit share similar sounds, vocabulary, and grammar.

On the basis of these shared traits, linguists have constructed a kind of family tree that shows the historical relationship between these languages.

Proto-Indo-European Family | Chart showing the relationship between some languages in the Indo-European Family. Note the location of Sanskrit. | Author: Jack Lynch | Source: Rutgers | License: © Jack Lynch. Used with permission.

Proto-Indo-European Family | Chart showing the relationship between some languages in the Indo-European Family. Note the location of Sanskrit. | Author: Jack Lynch | Source: Rutgers | License: © Jack Lynch. Used with permission.

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Sanskrit belongs to a group of languages used in northern India called Indo-Aryan. These languages are closely related to languages used throughout history in neighboring Iran. Together, all of these are called the Indo-Iranian language group. This language group is in turn one of nine branches of related language groups comprising the Indo-European language family.

Linguists assume these distantly-related languages share a common ancestor. They label that ancestral language proto-Indo-European and the people who spoke it Indo-Europeans. They posit a scenario whereby, in stages and over time, groups of these peoples migrated from their homeland to neighboring areas and settled down. Since this process happened over the course of many centuries and involved much interaction with other peoples along the way, the ancestral language evolved into many di erent ones while retaining some of the original features.

One question, then, is the location of this homeland and the history of the peoples who spoke these languages as they changed. Many places have been proposed, but at present the most widely accepted scenario puts this homeland in the steppe lands of southern Russia, just to the north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.

Indo-European Migrations | The area highlighted in pink, lying between the Black and Caspian Seas, is the suggested homeland for Indo-Europeans in the third millennium BCE. Arrows show the movement of speakers of Indo-European languages in the second millennium. The arrow showing movement to the southeast into India designates the Indo-Aryans, who began entering the Indo- Gangetic Plains from c. 1700 BCE. | Author: Larry Israel | Source: Original Work | License: CC BY-SA 4.0

Indo-European Migrations | The area highlighted in pink, lying between the Black and Caspian Seas, is the suggested homeland for Indo-Europeans in the third millennium BCE. Arrows show the movement of speakers of Indo-European languages in the second millennium. The arrow showing movement to the southeast into India designates the Indo-Aryans, who began entering the Indo- Gangetic Plains from c. 1700 BCE. | Author: Larry Israel | Source: Original Work | License: CC BY-SA 4.0

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Evidence from archaeological sites suggests that during the third millennium an Indo-European people lived in this region as semi-nomadic pastoralists. They were likely the  rst to domesticate the horse and also improved the chariot by adding lighter, spoked wheels. They lived in tribes made up of extended families and worshipped numerous sky gods by offering sacrifices in fire altars.

At some point during this millennium and over the course of several centuries, groups of these peoples left their homeland and migrated south to the Iranian Plateau. By 2000 BCE, Indo-Iranian speaking pastoralists were living on the Iranian Plateau and in Afghanistan. Some among these evolved into the Indo-Aryan speakers living to the northwest of the Indus. It is these peoples that began to arrive in the Punjab from c. 1700 BCE, with their Vedic religion, kinship-based social order, and pastoral and farming way of life.

East Asia: The Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE)

With the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE), we formally step into China’s historical period. In 1899, in an apothecary, a Chinese scholar came across mysterious bones that were being ground up for use as medicine. He immediately recognized that the Chinese characters inscribed on them were very ancient. Subsequently, the origin of these bones was traced to  elds in Anyang [anne- yawng], China where, beginning in 1928, excavations were carried out.

Bronze ritual vessel for heating and drinking wine found at Erlitou | Author: User “Editor at Large” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 2.5

Bronze ritual vessel for heating and drinking wine found at Erlitou | Author: User “Editor at Large” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 2.5

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Similar to the discovery of the Indus Valley Civilization, a lost civilization was revealed on the North China Plain, the one di erence being that traditional histories of a later time had documented this one.

The findings were substantial. A diverse array of settlements with a royal capital at the center covered nearly thirty square kilometers.

Shang Dynasty | This map of the Shang Dynasty shows its capital (Anyang) and boundaries. The Shang centered in the North China Plain, along the lower reaches of the Yellow River. The other labels indicate names given by the Shang rulers to tribal peoples surrounding the kingdom. |  Author: Corey Parson | Source: Original Work | License: CC BY-SA 4.0

Shang Dynasty | This map of the Shang Dynasty shows its capital (Anyang) and boundaries. The Shang centered in the North China Plain, along the lower reaches of the Yellow River. The other labels indicate names given by the Shang rulers to tribal peoples surrounding the kingdom. | Author: Corey Parson | Source: Original Work | License: CC BY-SA 4.0

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Archaeologists have identified 53 pounded earth foundations as the floors of royal palace-temples and the ruins in their vicinity as residential areas for elites and commoners; sacrificial pits; and workshops for the production of bronze, pottery, and stone. Also, a royal cemetery with eight large tombs and dozens of smaller ones lies to the northwest. The larger graves were roughly half the size of a football field, each accessible through four ramps whose orientation to the cardinal directions gives them the appearance of crosses. Deep down at the bottom of each tomb’s central shaft, wooden chambers were built to house the dead bodies of Shang kings. Shockingly to us, dozens of human skeletons were placed above and below these, presumably as servants to accompany rulers in the afterlife.

Anyang, we now know, served as the last capital of the Shang Dynasty, from 1200 to 1046 BCE. It was at the center of a loosely governed territorial state located on the North China Plain.

Shang Dynasty Site at Anyang | This map shows features of the Shang Dynasty site at Anyang, including the location of the palaces and temples of the last nine Shang kings. Yinxu is a Chinese term for Shang ruins. | Author: Zhichum Jing, Ph.D. | Source: Original Work | License: © Anyang Work Station of the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Used with permission.

Shang Dynasty Site at Anyang | This map shows features of the Shang Dynasty site at Anyang, including the location of the palaces and temples of the last nine Shang kings. Yinxu is a Chinese term for Shang ruins. | Author: Zhichum Jing, Ph.D. | Source: Original Work | License: © Anyang Work Station of the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Used with permission.

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Shang kings directly governed the capital and its vicinity, but likely controlled areas farther out by building confederations with locally powerful lineage chieftains, and regularly hunting, warring, and carrying out rituals with them. Some of those leaders were directly related to the Shang kings, and some were allies by marriage.

The bones are the most important source for understanding this kingdom. Most of the two hundred thousand fragments found so far are either turtle plastrons or scapula from cows. Interestingly, these were used for divination, which is why they are called oracle bones.

Cache of oracle bones found at Anyang, China | Author: Xuan Che | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Cache of oracle bones found at Anyang, China | Author: Xuan Che | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

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When Shang kings or his diviners sought to know the future, they would proceed to a temple erected in honor of a Shang deity or the spirits of deceased ancestors in the royal line. Before a stone tablet, they would make a statement about what might happen (for example, “It will rain,” or “If we attack the Mafang [high god], Di will confer assistance on us”), and then apply heat to a hole bored into a bone until it cracked. The crack was viewed as the response from the god or spirit. The king would then determine whether or not it was auspicious, and a record would be inscribed on the bone, sometimes including the actual outcome.

An individual scapula showing the cracks made and Chinese characters inscribed during the divination process. |  Author: Herr Klugbeisser | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

An individual scapula showing the cracks made and Chinese characters inscribed during the divination process. | Author: Herr Klugbeisser | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

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 From these, we know that Shang elites believed that a high god Di, nature gods, and the spirits of deceased kings controlled the future. That is why Shang kings had massive bronzes cast and carried out sacrifices for them. The bronzes were filled with food and placed at the temples, literally to feed the spirits. Likewise, the sacrificial pits show that a substantial shedding of blood for these higher powers was a regular occurrence. Shang elites worshipped their ancestors and frequently divined to determine their will.

Early Civilizations in the Americas

In Chapter One we talked about discrepancies regarding the date at which Homo sapiens arrived in the Americas. While there is evidence supporting an overland migration from Beringia, and geographically speaking the Beringia migration is the most logical explanation, some scholars argue that this approach has become “dogma” and even “ideology,” leaving no room for evidence that may challenge this explanation. While we cannot argue that we are close to abandoning the Beringian migration as the most likely theory, there is mounting evidence that suggests a seaborne migration from Asia or even a “Solutrean” migration from Europe ten thousand years before an ice-free corridor opened up in North America.[29] Considering new theories may help us explain how the Americas came to be populated and how civilizations developed so quickly here.

North America

While most evidence points to human migration through North America to South America, the hallmarks of civilization would arrive later in what are now the United States and Canada. Many of us refer to the areas connected by Panama simply as “The Americas,” but the Panamanian land bridge first linked the two continents only two million years ago. This was prior to human arrival in the Americas, but this separate development meant that North and South American  ora and fauna experienced millions of years of separate development and evolution. This distinct development would influence the pace and patterns of human settlement in the Americas a great deal.

The West

The arrival of maize, beans, and squash from northern Mexico helped mark the transition to sedentary culture in the Southwest of what is now the United States. There is some evidence of primitive maize dating back to the middle of the second millennium BCE, but it would not become widespread until about 1000 BCE. A newer, drastically different maize, “Maiz de Ocho,” is believed to have been the key to the flourishing of sedentary villages across the Southwest and to the eventual appearance of large pithouse villages around 500 BCE. Maiz de Ocho is better suited to arid conditions and yields larger kernels which are more easily milled. Pithouses, dwellings whose name indicates that its walls were in fact the sides of an excavated pit, became widespread across the Southwest because they were “thermally efficient.” They lost less heat than aboveground structures in winter and, as they were built into the ground, were cooler in the summer. Pithouses remained in wide use in the area until about 700 CE, when more complex exchange networks and social organization led to more diverse settlement patterns.

The Pacific Coast

Further west, cultures along North America’s Pacific coast were also sedentary, but did not derive their existence from farming. Instead, multiple Pacific coast cultures took advantage of abundant ocean resources, such as various fish species, sea mammals, timber, shell sh, waterfowl, game, and wild plants. The abundance of these resources often suggests that coastal cultures were less complex than their contemporaries in the interior, but the ravages of climate required tremendous adaptation over time. During the Late Holocene period alone, from 2000 BCE to the present, periodic colder episodes may have led to consequences as disparate as lakeside  flooding, lowering of tree lines, drought, and a reduction of available marsh areas. Northwestern Coastal peoples, for example, addressed this volatility by never putting their eggs in one basket. While they may have primarily eaten acorns or salmon, they made sure to always maintain a secondary food source. Further south, the Chumash, a people inhabiting the central and southern California coast, developed ceremonial centers, provinces incorporating several villages, sophisticated “watercraft,” and vibrant trade with the interior. In fact, this trade helped the Chumash avoid scarcities as well.

The Plains

The Great Plains represented perhaps the largest area of pre-Columbian North America, but it is also one of the least understood. The Wild West shows of the nineteenth century produced the lasting yet erroneous impression that the Plains Indian culture remained unchanged for centuries. Big game hunters in the Clovis Culture first inhabited the area as early as 13,000 years ago. As big game became extinct around 9000 BCE, Paleo-Indian groups on the plains turned to foraging and fishing in river valleys and to hunting of primarily bison as well as deer and fowl. By 9000 BCE, the Ice Age had left behind a vast expanse of “arid grassland” from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico, an expanse known as the “Great Bison Belt.”

Approximate extent of the Great Plains and its "Bison Belt | Author: user "TheDarthEgg" | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain

Approximate extent of the Great Plains and its “Bison Belt | Author: user “TheDarthEgg” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain

Long before European explorers introduced horses, people on the Great Plains had developed sophisticated processes of hunting bison on foot that involved some hunters disguised as bison, others orchestrating movements among hunting groups, and others shouting to drive the bison toward pre-selected “traps” or “jumps.” Dozens of bison would fall over a precipice to their deaths. By 6000 BCE, plains hunters had more sophisticated projectiles that could penetrate the skin of a surrounded animal or one that had become stuck in mud or sand. Findings at the Olsen-Chubbock site in Colorado indicate that by 6500 BCE, Paleo-Indians had also begun to butcher seventy-five percent of the animals they killed, which could sustain a group of 100 people for more than a month.

Early Plains Archaic (5600 – 3000 BCE) activity, while still largely dependent on bison, shows some increasing reliance on  sh, fowl, and berries, possibly indicating warmer and drier conditions that “diminished grass cover throughout the Central Plains.” Middle Plains Archaic peoples (2900 BCE to 1000 BCE) adapted their bison hunting to allow for a more sedentary existence, returning to the same hunting ground year after year, and making much of the bison meat into pemmican (a brick of pounded flesh and fat), that could be stored for seasons when bison were less plentiful. By 550 CE, the Late Plains Archaic people had fully incorporated the bow and arrow into their hunts, which tended to be less frequent but more productive, often incorporating “mass kill sites” that were used for hundreds of years in some cases.

The Eastern Woodlands

The term ‘Middle Woodland’ is occasionally used to refer the period between 200 BCE and CE 400; this coincided with the in uence of the Hopewell culture over much of eastern North America. Previous to the Hopewell ascendance, the Adena people built hundreds of burial mounds in and around central Ohio (2300 – 2100 BCE). Accompanying the burials were dozens of types of “grave goods” including spear points, stone pipes, and sculptures of animals and human hands. Hopewell mound building (1000 – 200 BCE) and culture as a whole certainly had antecedents in the Adena and early Woodland cultures as a whole, but the Hopewell tradition stands out in its grandiosity. With their center in the Ohio Valley, the Hopewell created hundreds of hectares of earthworks with regionally specific styles of craftsmanship. Copper, shells, obsidian, and shark and alligator teeth were all used to create personal adornments, containers, pipes, and figurines. Much of this artifact diversity can be attributed to the size and vitality of the Hopewell exchange zone which extended across much of eastern North America from Florida to the Great Lakes. While there is evidence that areas as far away as North Dakota participated in this exchange network, the so-called “core areas” were in the Mississippi, Illinois, Scioto, and Miami river valleys in Illinois and Ohio. As trade picked up, so did the ceremonial and political significance of the artifacts received by local leaders and ultimately included in burial mounds. Some artifacts were buried with their owners at death as symbols of their power in life. The expansion of ceremony through these objects also meant that many of the Hopewellian centers shared physical characteristics such as both platform and conical mounds, structures for cremation, and burial vaults. The local populations who participated in these ceremonies seem to have lived near, but not in, the ceremonial centers themselves in single or multiple family households. Although close to other residents, Hopewell communities were scattered across the area, subsisting through a mix of foraging and horticulture.


Mesoamerica was the first section of the Americas where scholars have found evidence of large settlements, agriculture, and unique cultural traditions, so we will begin there. The Mesoamerican culture area is found in what are now the modern countries of Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, and eastern Honduras. The region’s frequent volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and hurricanes gave it quite a staggering amount of ecological diversity including mountains, coastal plains, and a peninsular limestone platform (the Yucatán). The region’s climatic diversity is attributable to the fact that it sits in both tropical and subtropical latitudes.

Less is known about migration to Mesoamerica than for North and South America during the Paleoindian period, but many scholars put people in the region by 15,000 BCE. These early residents hunted large and small game alike and consumed a wide range of plant resources. The Archaic period in Mesoamerica stretched from 8000 to 2000 BCE, during which scores of cultures adapted to the region’s ecological diversity by domesticating wild food sources like “beans, squash, amaranth, peppers, and wild Maize (teosinte).”[30] The maize of large kernels of today took thousands of years of domestication for Mesoamericans to produce, but by the formative period it was a staple crop supporting tens of thousands. Groups living closer to the coast could also take advantage of wetland crops, such as manioc.

Early Farming in Mesoamerica

Just as early farmers in Southwest Asia turned wild plants into domestic crops, so too did their contemporaries in Mesoamerica with maize, squash, and tubers. Foragers in the southern Mexican highlands lived on a diverse diet of plants and animals, including cactus fruit, corn, squash, beans,  sh, deer, and rabbits. Their contemporaries in the tropical lowlands further south consumed tubers like manioc, sweet potato, arrowroot as well as fruits like avocadoes. While Mesoamericans did domesticate most of these crops, they did so before becoming sedentary, a fact revealing the existence of regional variations in the path to agriculture. Around 10,000 years ago, Mesoamericans began to cultivate squash, both as a food source and as storage containers. Rather than staying near their cultivated land, however, early planters formed mobile “agricul- tural bands” that still hunted and would return to harvest mature squash or chilies. Over time, these bands planted more and hunted less until eventually they formed sedentary agricultural villages. But that process took at least 2000 years. In fact, it may have been in the much denser tropics in and around Panama where residents first left foraging behind for agriculture. Around 10,000 BCE, after the extinction of megafauna, these tropical peoples begun to cultivate their forest environment. Tropical cultivation tended to be cramped, but tropical residents did manage to domesticate the tubers like manioc, sweet potato and arrowroot that we mentioned above.[31]

Over the next several centuries, village dwellings themselves revealed a growing emphasis on permanence and increasing sophistication. Brick walls and plaster floors began to replace hides and sticks. Unlike round huts, new rectangular houses allowed for expansion by extending walls and adding a perpendicular end wall. Expanding permanent dwellings allowed villages to grow through natural population increase. Permanent dwellings also helped establish distinctions between public and private space and public and private activities, effecting communal and private property. Not only did villages have to decide where and how to build, they also had to organize around when to plant, where to settle, when to harvest, and where to store the food. The invention of pottery during this period served storage needs tremendously. Tasks in construction, gathering, defense, and food production became more specialized and supervised, leading to the beginnings of class. The elite developed, a strata usually comprising warriors, priests, and administrators.

The Formative Period

By the beginning of the Formative Period around 2000 BCE, most residents of Mesoamerica were sedentary, many living in small bands that moved only seasonally.[32] However, by 300 CE many of these small bands had been replaced by quite common large urban centers. This was a rapid transition, to say the least. This rapidity was possible because of greater use of domesticated crops and storage and improved technology, like pottery vessels. Pottery appeared between 1900 BCE and 1750 BCE on the Pacific coast of Chiapas in highland valleys and on the Gulf coast. After about 1400 BCE, scholars start to see widespread sharing of obsidian, shell, jade, and iron artifacts, a sharing which denotes significant interaction by this point. A social hierarchy also began to develop in Chiapas, where there was a two-tiered settlement hierarchy of small centers and villages. In other words, the elite had bigger houses. Over time and in more areas, plastered floors and dirt floors appeared in different dwellings and altars in others. Burials too indicated social differentiation.

The Olmec were the earliest civilization in Mesoamerica and, therefore, drove much of this rapid development. The Olmec developed along the Gulf of Mexico and  flourished during the Early Formative and Middle Formative (1500 – 400 BCE), while the Late Formative (400 BCE – 100 CE) saw their evolution and transformation. Scholars use this timeline with the caveat that Mesoamerica houses a number of unique cultural traditions, and there are variations within this timeline in terms of when they developed urbanization, states, agriculture, and certain technologies.

Map of the Formative Era Sites, c. 600 BCE | Author: User “Madman2001” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Map of the Formative Era Sites, c. 600 BCE | Author: User “Madman2001” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

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The Olmecs’ most notable accomplishment was their monumental stone sculpture. Other Mesoamerican cultures had stone monuments, but the Olmec versions were unique in their sophistication, size, and number. A common theme occurs during the coherent tradition spanning 1400 BCE to 400 BCE. Statues were carved out of thrones or in low relief on stelae. The largest of them weighed over forty tons. Stones had been transported as much as ninety km from their sources. The labor required to do this demonstrates the power of these rulers. Aside from statue carving, Olmec elites also commissioned carved columns, drains, and embellishments in large houses. An inordinate amount of iron trade also occurred, and objects like polished iron mirrors were found in the tombs of high-ranking individuals. The import of jade sculptures was perhaps even more prominent with thousands of tons of “serpentine blocks” buried in massive offerings at the Olmec center of La Venta in southern Mexico.[33]

Many of these monuments were commissioned by or for elite members of an increasingly sophisticated socio-economic hierarchy first seen in the Early Formative Olmec of San Lorenzo. San Lorenzo itself stood at the apex of a three- or four-tiered settlement hierarchy which included subordinate centers, villages, and special purpose sites. This increasing sophistication became so- lidi ed through Olmec politics as well. Early in the Formative Period most groups were organized in tribes, but the Olmec soon began to form a set of chiefdoms that allowed for organized leader- ship across generations, albeit through kinship ties. The Olmec also became the first civilization in the region to develop a state, where the same hierarchy became more stratified and institutions became more specialized.

Some scholars even call the Olmec an “empire,” but most say it falls short for a few important reasons. First, the Olmec never had a large enough population at their disposal to form a con- quering army. Second, while there existed a number of signi cant urban Olmec sites, such as La Venta and San Lorenzo, none of them has been identified as an Olmec capital. Finally, the art and archeological records of surrounding societies don’t indicate an Olmec domination but rather the existence of something of a theocratic state, as elites seemed to have both political and religious authority and a considerable amount of in uence.

Final questions related to our understanding of the region are: Why did the Olmec evolve at all, and why did they evolve when they did? One theory involves the ecological relationship to Mesoamerica’s lowland environment. Another holds that increasing productivity led to high popu- lation growth, which caused a pressure to organize politically. Control of these resources as well as the limited use of warfare accounted largely for the authority of individual chieftains. Other scholars have added to this observation, pointing out that the abundance but lack of diversity of Olmec area agriculture forced them to develop a competitive advantage vis-à-vis societies that lived closer to obsidian, salt, and stone deposits. (The Olmec would need to trade for these resources that were central for hunting and food production). A more sophisticated society would have that advantage.

Once the Olmec did manage to organize as states, they began to plan for their permanence. From the above-mentioned stone deposits, the Olmec produced their cultural hallmark: monumental stone sculpture. Around 1650 BCE, the Olmec began to produce stone effigy bowls, but these are much smaller than the monumental sculptures that followed. Over 200 known monumental stone sculptures remain; one-third are from San Lorenzo and the surrounding area. The colossal heads are the largest; some stand up to three and a half meters tall. Each head is unique, containing its own ear ornaments, headdress, speci c facial features, and expressions. Most scholars think they are portraits. Table top altars have been found in a range of sizes across Olmec sites. Most now believe they served as thrones but others believe they served as altars as well. They often show humans emerging from a niche in front of the monument. The Olmec also crafted smaller sculptures in the round. These sculptures incorporated human and supernatural themes or humans in ritual or symbolic postures. A fourth sculptural style, one that corresponds to later periods, was stelae. These stelae often depicted supernatural beings and elaborately dressed individuals engaged in specifications. These stone sculptures would be impressive for modern humans to achieve but are made more impressive considering the fact that the Olmec possessed no metal tools with which to cut them.

Olmec Colossal Head, La Venta, Mexico | Author: User “Hajor” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Olmec Colossal Head, La Venta, Mexico | Author: User “Hajor” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

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The purpose behind these sculptures, outside of their artistic value, seems to have involved monumentality. Stone as a whole gave a sense of order, stability, and equilibrium. The harmonic proportions in the works enhanced those ideas. The sculptures also contained a good enough mix of naturalism and abstraction to give a nod to the spiritual world as well. For the Olmec as shamanists, a direct connection existed between order on earth and order in the spiritual world. Olmec shamans, through ritual and through the assistance of their nagual (also referred to as nagualo) or “animal spirit companions,” could travel to the supernatural world or guard against spirits who desired them harm.[34] Therefore, a number of altars and smaller sculptures show human-jaguar or human-dragon anthropomorphs, particularly those that reflect the existence of a gateway or portal between worlds. La Venta Altar 4, for example, had an earthly purpose as a throne and a symbolic one as a cosmological model. When the Olmec ruler sat on the throne he could be present in both the natural and supernatural realms. This journey between worlds was aided by the intercession of the ruler’s animal spirit companion (in this case a jaguar).[35]

The Olmec undoubtedly left a lasting legacy on the Caribbean coast of Mesoamerica, but the legacy can be difficult to trace, as much of it has been subsumed into a debate about its being a “mother” culture for the Aztec and Maya. (Recent scholarship has given less credence to the Olmec as a “mother culture” and argues that it developed independently of Maya and Valley of Mexico cultures). Hopefully as scholars and students examine the Olmec as an independent cultural entity, its legacy will continue to become clearer.

Norte Chico

Humans arrived in South America after migrating through North and Mesoamerica; they began to craft small campsites and fishing villages along the Pacific coast. Around 3,000 BCE, the small campsites villages were replaced by residential and ceremonial centers. This transition was made possible through a new focus on irrigation and communal agriculture. These Pacific coast and Andean cultures left an incredible amount of material culture (much of it well-preserved because of the dry climate) for archeologists to analyze. Their work shows that parts of the Classical Andes—modern Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Colombia—possessed the same level of cultural complexity as did China, Persia, and India during the same period. Through this material culture, the Classical peoples begin to separate themselves from their ancient and often less complex ancestors. This section begins with the end of the archaic period and the rise of a group of civilizations referred to as the Norte Chico.

The Pacific coast developed large ceremonial and residential centers, which were organized around distinct status and rank among citizens. This area resembles other “crucible” areas like the Deh Luran Plain of Iraq, the Nile in Egypt, and the Olmec heartland. While similarities with the aforementioned early civilizations exist, the Norte Chico stands out for three reasons. First, it was politically “pristine.” Scholars and no evidence that any outside polity influenced its development. Second, it endured for more than 1300 years. This longevity gave the Norte Chico great influence in what would ultimately become a distinct Andean civilization. For example, large platform mounds of Norte Chico would also appear later in the highland center of Chavín de Huantar. The final reason Norte Chico stands out from other early civilizations is its development happened very quickly. By 2800 BCE, there were a number of similar large sites all with residential complexes, plazas, and platform mounds.[36]

The Aspero site is the archetype of these large sites. It covers fifteen hectares and contains six platform mounds. While there are a number of large sites like Aspero, there doesn’t seem to have been a central Norte Chico chiefdom or state. There was no Norte Chico capital and no real evidence of conflict or warfare. This absence of conflict may be connected with the fact that scholars and no indication of differentially-distributed sumptuary goods, such as jewelry, clothing, and exotic trade materials, in Norte Chico. Even shell beads and stone are extremely rare to find in these sites so near to the Pacific.

Usually a cultural area requires some centralization and large scale agriculture before scholars refer to it as a civilization. The Norte Chico earns that distinction, however, because the level of cultural complexity indicates that they at least tried to centralize. Complexity is tricky. In the Norte

Chavín de Huantar


Map of Chavin Culture Extent | Author: User “Roarjo” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain

Map of Chavin Culture Extent | Author: User “Roarjo” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain

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While the Norte Chico is the oldest identifiable civilization along the Pacific Coast, Chavín de Huantar has also captured much attention as a crucible site for Andean culture. Chavín de Huantar is the iconic representation of The Late Initial Period (1800 – 800 BCE), where Peru saw the beginnings of a mix of Andean, coastal, and Amazon cultures. Chavín is located at an altitude of more than 3,000 meters in the Callejon de Conchucos, the easternmost basin between the Cordilleras Negra and Blanca in the Peruvian Andes. It is also midway between the coast and jungle, giving it access to the culture and resources of the greater Andean region. This access made it a pilgrimage center, an importer of luxury goods, and a disseminator first unifying Andean style.[37] Chavín’s “Old Temple” is 330 feet across the back and more than fifty feet high at its highest. The emple is U-shaped with a sunken court in the middle, and harpy eagle, jaguar, and parading shamans surround it. The temple is also built around the lanzón (great lance) which was a kind of supernatural conduit. The lanzón is similar in style to the Tello Obelisk which was found in a corner of the Old Temple courtyard. The obelisk contains carvings on all of its sides, carvings which primarily represent tropical and mythical origins or “gifts of the cayman.”[38] Many dualities appear on the obelisk: male-female, plant type, ecological zone, sky-water, life-death, etc. These dualities and their meaning were reinforced by the pilgrimages made to Chavín and the ceremonies contained within them. It seems that Chavín architects used all of the symbolic value of the site available to them. The mixed human-animal features of the sculptures, the ingestion of hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus (also represented in sculpture), and even including acoustic symbolism were all important parts of the pilgrimages. Archaeologists have found marine shell trumpets in the tunnel complex under the city and have attempted to replicate how sound would contribute to the mind-altering rituals undertaken at the complex.

The images and rituals at this site help establish what scholars refer to as the “Chavín cult.”[39] The Chavín cult presents a universalist message based on the combined elements of coast and highlands that helped bring people to sites like this for ceremony and construction. In other words, these ideas helped move the Andes into the state phase. At Chavín, it also seems that there was a leader/priest, like in Egypt. It was, therefore, through spiritual power that the state congealed and grew, as well.[40]

Works Consulted and Further Reading

The Greek World

Dickinson, Oliver. The Aegean Bronze Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Morkot, Robert. The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Greece. London: Penguin Books, 1997.

Murray, Oswyn. Early Greece. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.


East Asia

Peers, C.J. Soldiers of the Dragon: Chinese Armies 1500 BC – AD 1850. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2006.

The Americas

Adams, Richard E.W. Ancient Civilizations of the New World. Boulder: Westview Press, 1997.

Bradley, Bruce and Dennis Stanford. “The North Atlantic Ice-Edge Corridor: A Possible Palaeolithic Route to the New World.” World Archaeology 36:4 (December 2004) 459-478.

Haas, Jonathan and Winifred Creamer. “Crucible of Andean Civilization: The Peruvian Coast from 3000 to 1800 BC.” Current Anthropology 47:5 (October 2006).

Mithen, Steven. After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000 – 5000 BC. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003.

Pool, Christopher. OlmeArchaeology and Early Mesoamerica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Reilly III, F. Kent. “Art, Ritual and Rulership in the Olmec World.” In Smith and Masson, eds.

Stone, Rebecca R. Art of the Andes: From Chavin to Inca3rd ed. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2012.

Links to Primary Sources


The Code of Hammurabi

Ancient Egypt

The Egyptian Negative Confession

Great Hymn to Aten

The Greek World

Linear B Writing

South Asia



East Asia

Oracle Bones of the Shang Dynasty

From Berger, Eugene; Israel, George; Miller, Charlotte; Parkinson, Brian; Reeves, Andrew; and Williams, Nadejda, “World History: Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500″ (2016). History Open Textbooks. Book 2.

World History: Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Chapter Two: River Valleys, Cities, and First States


The Middle East and North AfricaSouth AsiaEast Asia c. 10,000 BCE: Beginnings of the Agricultural Revolution 8000-2000 BCE: Neolithic Cultures in China c. 7000 BCE: Beginnings of Agricultural Revolution in Northeast Africa c. 6000-3500 BCE: Desiccation of the Sahara Desert pushed people toward Nile River Valley 5000-3000 BCE: Yangshao Culture c. 4000 BCE: Towns and Villages grew along the Nile River c. 3500 BCE: Appearance of Sumerian city-states in lower Mesopotamia c. 3200 BCE: Early use of cuneiform c. 3100 BCE: Unification of Egypt 3100-2600 BCE: Egyptian Archaic Period 3000-1900 BCE: Longshan Culture c. 1900-1600 BCE: Xia Dynasty c. 2900 BCE: Production of Bronze 2660-2160 BCE: Egyptian Old Kingdom 2600-1700 BCE: Harappan/Indus Valley Civilization 2334-2100 BCE: Akkadian Empire 

c. 2000 BCE: Gilgamesh first recorded in cuneiform

Defining “Civilization”

The term civilization often elicits mostly idealized images of ancient empires, monumental architecture, and the luxurious lives of ruling classes. Civilization, however, is a tricky term. In the United States, students of history studied Western Civilization, almost exclusively, through the 1950s. In their studies, civilizations were advanced societies with urban centers, rooted in European or Middle Eastern culture. America’s origins in these western civilizations was used to explain our own high level of development. However, more recent scholars have definitely broadened the geographical focus by recognizing that worldwide from 3500 to 1000 BCE at least seven independent civilizations emerged in different regions. These recent scholars also continue to debate the definition of civilization, and the current compromise amongst World Historians is to recognize characteristics that civilizations tended to share. Common characteristics of civilizations included food surpluses, higher population densities, social stratification, systems of taxation, labor specialization, regular trade, and accumulated learning (or knowledge passed down from generation to generation). The list here is not all-inclusive by any means, but it indicates the complexity of the societies that scholars have labeled civilizations.

In addition to heated debates about its exact definition, civilization is a loaded term, meaning that it can contain a value judgment. If we use the term carelessly, it seems to indicate that some societies are deemed civilized and worthy of inclusion, while others are uncivilized and thus not worth our study. In part, our sensitivity to this issue is a response to the tendency of past historians, including many of those working in Europe in the 1800s, to assume that there was a natural progression from an uncivilized state to civilization. These historians viewed people who had values, ways of living, and religious beliefs di erent than theirs as uncivilized. They further believed that these allegedly uncivilized peoples were behind or needed to catch up with those who were civilized. Today, World Historians try to appreciate the great diversity of human experiences and consciously remove these sorts of value judgments. World Historians avoid assumptions that some societies in the past were better or further along than others. Therefore, many World Historians remain wary of the uncritical use of the term civilization.

For our purposes, let us leave aside any value judgments. Societies labeled as civilizations were not inherently better than any others. In fact, as we will see, civilizations demonstrated various vulnerabilities. Considering things like war, slavery, and the spread of diseases, there were sometimes advantages to living outside the nexus of civilizations. For example, in comparing societies, scholars have found that in many instances people residing in decentralized states were healthier and lived longer than did their counterparts in early civilizations. However, people living in societies with social stratification, labor specialization, and trade usually left more written records and archeological evidence, which historians can analyze to narrate our past. The available resources mean that civilizations tend to be better represented in the written historical records. As you read about past civilizations, keep in mind that historians are currently enhancing our understanding of societies that perhaps remained mobile, rejected hierarchies, or preserved their histories orally. These societies were also part of our shared past, even if they are harder to study or have received less scholarly attention.

This chapter focuses on early civilizations throughout Afro-Eurasia. Civilizations in the Fertile Crescent and Northeast Africa left written records. They also all initially had economies based on farming and developed alongside rivers. Their locations alongside rivers allowed populations in the Fertile Crescent and Northeast Africa to grow the surplus food that they used to support urbanization, social stratification, labor specialization, and trade. The Harappan civilization of the Indus River Valley in South Asia left artifacts in a language we have not yet deciphered, but also left behind impressive and fairly well-preserved archaeological ruins. In East Asia, archaeologists have studied artifacts such as pottery to determine the location and development of societies.

Questions to Guide Your Reading

  1. Explain why the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers were significant for ancient Mesopotamians.
  2. Describe the characteristics of civilizations that were found in ancient Mesopotamia.
  3. How did the Nile River and the region’s climate and geography in uence the development of Egyptian civilization?
  4. Which characteristics of civilizations were seen in Ancient Egypt?
  5. How did the Geography of South Asia (India) impact its history?
  6. What are the limits of our knowledge of Harappan Civilization?
  7. During China’s Neolithic Age, how did Longshan culture differ from Yangshao culture?

Key Terms

  • Anyang
  • Bay of Bengal
  • Cataract
  • China proper
  • City-states
  • Civilization
  • Coromandel Coast
  • Cuneiform
  • Deccan Plateau
  • Desiccation
  • East Asia
  • Ganges River
  • Harappan/Indus Valley Civilization
  • Hieroglyphics
  • Hindu Kush
  • India
  • Indo-European
  • Indus River
  • Indo-Gangetic Plain
  • Korean Peninsula
  • Longshan Culture
  • Malabar Coast
  • Mesopotamia
  • Mohenjo-Daro
  • Nile River
  • North China Plain
  • Old Kingdom
  • Ostraca
  • Palette of Narmer
  • Polytheistic
  • Punjab
  • Pyramids
  • Sargon of Akkad
  • Seals (Harappan/Indus Valley Civilization)
  • Sindh
  • South Asia
  • Sri Lanka
  • Sumerian King List
  • Yangshao Culture
  • Yangzi River
  • Yellow River
  • Xia Dynasty
  • Ziggurat

Ancient Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia is located in an area known as the Fertile Crescent. Archeologists have found some of the earliest known sites of agricultural production in the Fertile Crescent. Although much of this region received little or irregular rainfall, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers provided large amounts of freshwater, facilitating agricultural production and the development of early civilizations. The Greeks later recognized the significance of the river systems to these ancient societies and referred to the region as “the Land between the Rivers” or Mesopotamia.

Author: user "Ras67" | Source: Wikimedia Commons | Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0 The Fertile Crescent | Author: user “Ras67″ | Source: Wikimedia Commons | Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0download image

The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers both originate in the Taurus Mountains of eastern Anatolia and flow southward to empty into the Persian Gulf. The rivers carry and deposit silt downstream, enriching the soil. In general, the richer soils and availability of water in areas that in the north otherwise had little rain, or else towards the south had concentrated months of rainfall followed by long, dry spells, encouraged settlement near the rivers. The areas closer to the Persian Gulf, known as Lower Mesopotamia, in particular, were attractive to early settlers because they had extremely fertile soils. People built some of the earliest cities, including Uruk, Eridu, and Ur, in Lower Mesopotamia.

While the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers did provide water to the region, their floods were unpredictable and could even be catastrophic when they washed away entire settlements. In response, the region’s residents created irrigation canals and drainage ditches to control the flow of water. They also stored water in reservoirs to use during the dry months of the year. Additionally, in parts of Lower Mesopotamia, the courses of the rivers and their tributaries changed frequently, so people either had to move to follow the water’s new path or divert a river to continue supplying water for their settlement. As regular access to water supported agricultural surpluses and population growth, people tended to fare better against the unpredictability of the floods, seasonal changes, and the rivers’ changing courses when they lived in settlements capable of maintaining irrigation canals, drainage ditches, and water reservoirs.

In the third millennium BCE, people in Lower Mesopotamia used river routes to trade northward. They also used sea routes through the Persian Gulf, and they connected with traders to the east by crossing the Iranian Plateau. | Author: Corey Parson | Source: Original Work | License: CC BY-SA 4.0 In the third millennium BCE, people in Lower Mesopotamia used river routes to trade northward. They also used sea routes through the Persian Gulf, and they connected with traders to the east by crossing the Iranian Plateau. | Author: Corey Parson | Source: Original Work | License: CC BY-SA 4.0download image

The rivers offered another benefit to ancient Mesopotamians. Just as the rivers were definitely important to meet people’s everyday needs for water and for agricultural production, so they also facilitated trade. While people made use of local resources, like mud to build their homes, in general, Lower Mesopotamia lacked other desired resources, including wood, stone, and precious metals. Traders were able to use the rivers to bring in these resources from Assyria, Anatolia, the Levant, and areas adjacent to the Persian Gulf. Early Mesopotamians also obtained goods from as far away as what today are northern Pakistan and India. Merchants used overland routes that crossed the Iranian Plateau and sea routes, exchanging Mesopotamian products like grains and textiles for luxury goods from the east. Royal cemeteries show that by 2500 BCE Mesopotamian elites were buried with a variety of imports, including beads brought from the Indus River Valley. The rivers and the overland trade routes also facilitated communication and, with it, the sharing of ideas and technologies.

Sumerian City-States

Lower Mesopotamia, or the southern areas of Mesopotamia towards the Persian Gulf, drew settlers, who moved to take advantage of rich soils and the availability of water in the area commonly known as Sumer. The people who lived in Sumer are generally referred to as Sumerians. Prior to 3000 BCE, Sumerians, whose origins remain a subject of debate, founded a number of independent cities in Lower Mesopotamia. In these cities, Sumerians had organized religions, centralized governments, social hierarchies, and access to trade networks. As these cities expanded, their leaders claimed control over adjacent territories, forming at least a dozen city-states, which became the basic organizational structure of Sumerian civilization in the third millennium BCE. By incorporating the surrounding territories into city-states, urban centers were able to draw on more resources.

Sumerian cities had certain characteristics in common. First, a temple complex or a ziggurat was usually the visual focus of the urban landscape. Sumerians believed that their entire city belonged to its main deity, and built a massive temple, the most important building in the city, to be the dwelling place of their city’s main god or goddess. A complex that comfortably housed many of the priests and priestesses who served the city’s deity surrounded each temple. In addition to attending to the religious needs of the community, temples complexes also owned land, managed industries, were involved in trade, and acted as banks. Their wide-ranging roles meant that temples often had additional outbuildings, like granaries and storage sheds, in the surrounding countryside. Sumerians were polytheistic, meaning they worshipped multiple gods and goddesses. Because Sumerians believed each god had a family, they also built smaller shrines and temples dedicated to these divine family members. Therefore, each city would have a number of temples while many Sumerian homes had small altars dedicated to other gods. Sometimes, urban temples or ritual spaces were built atop a ziggurat, a solid rectangular tower made of sun-dried mud bricks.

The Great Ziggurat of Ur | Located in what is today the Dhi Qar Province of Iraq, Sumerians originally built the ziggurat in the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2100 BCE). It has been restored several times since, including fairly recently in the 1980s. | Author: User "Tla2006" | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain The Great Ziggurat of Ur | Located in what is today the Dhi Qar Province of Iraq, Sumerians originally built the ziggurat in the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2100 BCE). It has been restored several times since, including fairly recently in the 1980s. | Author: User “Tla2006″ | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domaindownload image

Archaeological evidence shows that temple complexes were expanded and rebuilt over time and, by the late third millennium BCE, temples in many of the Sumerian city-states were raised on platforms or else situated on a ziggurat. The towering architecture of the ziggurat stressed the significance of the temple to the surrounding community. The best- preserved ziggurat, the Great Ziggurat of Ur, was constructed with an estimated 720,000 baked bricks and rose to a height of about 100 feet. The people of Ur constructed this ziggurat for their patron deity, the moon goddess Nanna. They likely brought regular offerings to Nanna and also received food rations from the Great Ziggurat of Ur.

Viewing nature as unpredictable, people brought offerings to their city’s temple complexes or ziggurat, hoping to please the gods who controlled the natural forces of their world. Priests and priestesses collected and redistributed the offerings, demonstrating the vital roles they played in Sumerian society. The relatively privileged position of priests and priestesses at the temple complex also shows Sumerian social stratification (the development of a hierarchy) and how agricultural surpluses supported the specialization of labor. Some of the early leaders of Sumerian cities may have been “priest-kings,” who attained elevated positions through their association with the temples. The later rulers of city-states definitely supported the temples, claiming to be acting on behalf of the gods who brought divine favor to their followers.

Sumerian city-states had local rulers, who lived in large palaces, but most of these local rulers were not considered kings. So far, archeologists have dated the earliest known royal palaces to c. 2600 BCE and conclude that Sumerian city-states had centralized governments with secular rulers by at least that timeframe. While there does seem to have been a sense of inhabiting a shared space in Southern Mesopotamia, referred to as “the Land” in written records, city-states had distinctive identities. In part, their distinctive identities revolved around their main deity. The rulers of city-states alternately supported, competed with, and fought against one another. The Sumerian King List, a manuscript that listed early kings and described their reigns (with some presumably fictive and exaggerated elements), provides evidence of these alliances, competition, and war. For example, it describes En-mebarages as the second to last king of the 1st Dynasty of Kish, “…who carried away as spoil the weapons of the land of Elam, became king, and reigned 900 years…”[23] Local rulers often came to power after proving themselves militarily.

The Sumerian King List | Author: Taiwania Justo | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain The Sumerian King List | Author: Taiwania Justo | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domaindownload image

Furthermore, the Sumerian King List recognized only rulers who had established control over multiple city-states as kings (with the title of lugal in the Sumerian languagebelonging to distinct dynasties. While it lasted, a dynasty generally passed down the kingship through the male line. According to the Sumerian King List, the seat of power, held by hereditary kings, shifted from city-state to city-state with the rise and fall of dynasties through the third millennium BCE. Significantly, the Sumerian King List began its recorded history “when kingship came down from heaven,” legitimizing secular kings through their association with gods.[24] Sumerian kings, often along with more local rulers, led armies, collected taxes, organized labor for state projects, and meted out justice. At the top of the hierarchy and with control over multiple city-states, kings expected obedience from local rulers and their subjects, and support from the priests and priestesses of the temples.

Kings, local rulers, priests, and priestesses held in uential positions in Sumerian societies. However, farmers, taken as a whole, made up an estimated 90% of the population. Other skilled people included animal-breeders, merchants, craftspeople, fishermen, doctors, soldiers, architects, and scribes. Surplus agricultural production collected as tribute as well as wealth generated by trade supported such labor specialization. One important outcome of labor specialization was innovation in metalworking. In approximately 2900 BCE, metalworkers began producing bronze, which was stronger than copper. Stronger weapons and farming tools gave Sumerians advantages when it came to combat and agricultural production.

Social stratification is further evident as some Sumerians and even institutions, including temples, owned slaves. Slaves performed a variety of tasks like construction, weaving, agricultural and domestic labor, tending animals, and even administrative work as scribes. Some slaves were chattel slaves, meaning that society treated them as property with no rights. Usually, chattel slaves were prisoners of war or slaves bought from outside communities. They were branded by barbers or tattoo artists and forced to work at the will of their masters. If they tried to run away, the law required slaves to be returned. The more widespread type of servitude in most Sumerians societies was likely debt slavery, which was generally temporary until a debtor paid off a loan and its interest. Over the past century or so, archaeologists have added a great deal to our understanding of Sumerian social distinctions through their work at numerous excavation sites, but many gaps in our knowledge still exist. The archaeological discovery of cuneiform tablets at these excavation sites has aided efforts to learn about this civilization. Sumerians developed cuneiform, a written script of wedge shaped marks, around 3200 BCE. Cuneiform was one of the earliest, if not the very first, written script in the world. The Sumerian King List, discussed above, was recorded in cuneiform. Merchants, scribes, administrators, priests, and others kept written records describing financial transactions, court proceedings, administrative decisions, and architectural plans. They also wrote legends, epic poems, chants, and prayers. Most people were not literate, so scribes—who had been specially trained in scribal schools—generated many of the records. While in school, in addition to copying written passages, scribes learned arithmetic. The Sumerians’ system of arithmetic was based on the number 60, which we still use to divide time into hours, minutes, and seconds. Scribes used styluses made of reed to write on clay tablets that were dried and could be stored. The discovery of cuneiform tablets has greatly aided archaeologists, but only a small percentage of the tablets found to date have been translated.

Cuneiform script on a clay tablet currently housed at the National Archaeological Museum in Tehran. | Author: A. Davey | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY 2.0 Cuneiform script on a clay tablet currently housed at the National Archaeological Museum in Tehran. | Author: A. Davey | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY 2.0download image

Using archaeological and written evidence, scholars have pieced together what they can about everyday life for Sumerians, though some questions remain. For instance, it has been a challenge to determine the layout of urban spaces beyond the prominence of the temples and the relative grandeur of palaces. From archaeological finds, scholars suspect that Sumerian cities were divided into neighborhoods by occupation and according to kinship groups, but uncertainties about specifics linger. Legal documents and tax records show that people owned property in both the cities and the countryside. Also, evidence suggests social stratification, as some Sumerians owned fairly large chunks of land, while others had much smaller plots or presumably no land at all. Wills, court proceedings, and temple documents show that land and temple offces were usually bought or else acquired through military or other service to the state. A man inherited land, property, offces, and their attendant obligations to the state (like reoccurring military service) from his father. The eldest son seems to have frequently inherited a larger share than younger brothers and have been given control over the family home. He was tasked with performing regular rituals to honor dead ancestors, who were usually buried underneath the home. From the written documents, we also get glimpses into other aspects of Sumerian life, like marriage and divorce.

Sumerians viewed marriage as a contract between two families and, as a result, the male heads of the two families arranged a couple’s marriage. Documents show that both families contributed resources to seal the union or complete the marriage contract. The man’s family gave gifts or money and hosted a feast, while the woman’s family amassed a dowry. Although a woman did not automatically receive an inheritance upon the death of her father, she could expect (and use the court system to make sure she got) to receive a dowry, even if it came from her father’s estate after his death. Divorce was possible but sometimes led to social ostracism or even punishment if there were accusations of misconduct, such consequences being especially the case for the woman. Records indicate that polygamy was not common, but wealthier men did keep slave-girls as concubines. Overall, Sumerians considered marriage an essential institution in that it brought families together and ensured the continuation of the family lineage.

Legends, myths, poems, and literary texts tell us about Sumerians, too. For example, we can explore their values and views of the afterlife through reading the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Epic of Gilgamesh relates the adventures of Gilgamesh, a legendary king, who may have lived around 2700 BCE. The epic has multiple versions and was told orally before it was first written down in cuneiform in about 2000 BCE. The epic follows the heroic exploits of Gilgamesh and his companion, Enkidu, to emphasize the importance of values such as loyalty and humility. In one section, the epic describes a very gloomy afterlife where “people see no light, they sit in darkness,”[25] reflecting Mesopotamian beliefs that the afterlife was miserable for all, even those who had lived virtuously. Additionally, it portrays the environment as potentially violent and hostile as in its flood story, which in some ways resembles the account of Noah and the flood found in Genesis. Ultimately, Gilgamesh fails at his quest to find eternal life but learns to work for the glory of the gods and for worthwhile human achievements.

Other archaeological finds and the written documents also give some hint of the wider popular culture and artistic conventions in ancient Mesopotamia. For example, cuneiform tablets with pictures of dancers and singers, as well as instruments found in graves, suggest that Sumerians placed importance on music, using it for entertainment and ritual purposes. Trying to learn more about Sumerian music, scholars and other enthusiasts have replicated these instruments and presented their best estimation of Sumerian scales and tuning. The documentary evidence suggests that hymns from the ancient Sumerian city-states were shared with later Mesopotamian empires and even spread into the Mediterranean world.

The Queen’s Lyre is a reconstructed musical instrument modeled after a lyre found by archaeologist Leonard Wooley in one of the graves at the Royal Cemetery of Ur. The original instrument has been dated to c. 2500 BCE. The reconstructed instrument is held at the British Museum in London. | Author: User “Fae” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain The Queen’s Lyre is a reconstructed musical instrument modeled after a lyre found by archaeologist Leonard Wooley in one of the graves at the Royal Cemetery of Ur. The original instrument has been dated to c. 2500 BCE. The reconstructed instrument is held at the British Museum in London. | Author: User “Fae” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domaindownload image


The Akkadian Empire

In the second half of the third millennium BCE, Sumerian city-states fought each other, and dynasties rose and fell. Kings consolidated power over multiple city-states in the region. Then, King Sargon of Akkad enlarged the scale by conquering the Sumerian city-states and parts of Syria, Anatolia, and Elam. In doing so, he created one of the world’s  rst empires in approximately 2334 BCE. For generations, Mesopotamian literature celebrated the Akkadian Empire (c. 2334 – 2100 BCE) that King Sargon founded. Like the Akkadian Empire, three subsequent empires, the Babylonian Empire (c. 1792 – 1595 BCE, see Chapter 3), the Assyrian Empire (c. 900 – 612 BCE, see Chapter 4) and the Neo-Babylonian Empire (c. 605 – 539 BCE, see Chapter 4), also ruled large parts of Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent.

Sargon of Akkad founded the first empire in Mesopotamia. Legends about Sargon of Akkad stress that he rose from obscurity to become a famous, powerful king. While the legends all tend to describe him as coming from humble origins and rising to the top using his own wits, there are many variations. One much later Babylonian tablet, from the seventh century BCE, describes his background as descendent of a high priestess and an anonymous father. His mother hid her pregnancy and the birth of Sargon, secreting him away in a wicker basket on a river, where he was rescued and then raised by Aqqi, a water-drawer. This version of the legend links Sargon with a more elite family through his birth-mother, a high priestess, but also shows how he had to advance himself up to king after being adopted by the rather more humble figure of a water-drawer.

The Akkadian Empire, c. 2300 BCE | Author: User “Nareklm” | Source: Wikipedia | License: CC BY-SA 3.0 The Akkadian Empire, c. 2300 BCE | Author: User “Nareklm” | Source: Wikipedia | License: CC BY-SA 3.0download image


From his allegedly humble origins, Sargon of Akkad conquered Sumerian city-states one by one, creating an empire, or a large territory, encompassing numerous states, ruled by a single authority. It’s quite possible that Sargon of Akkad’s predecessor, who claimed to rule over the large region stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf, began the process of building the empire, but Sargon is remembered for accomplishing the task. One of the reasons we attribute the empire to him is his use of public monuments. He had statues, stellae (tall, upright pillars), and other monuments built throughout his realm to celebrate his military victories and to build a sense of unity within his empire. Archaeologists have not found the empire’s capital city, Akkad. However, from the available information, archaeologists have estimated its location, placing it to the north of the early Mesopotamian city-states, including Ur and Sumer. It is clear that Sargon of Akkad turned the empire’s capital at Akkad into one of the wealthiest and most powerful cities in the world. According to documentary sources, the city’s splendor stood as another symbol of Sargon’s greatness. The city grew into a cosmopolitan center especially because of its role in trade. Akkadian rulers seized and taxed trade goods, with trade routes extending as far as India. Sargon ruled the empire for over  fty years. His sons, grandson, and great grandson attempted to hold the empire together. After about 200 years, attacks from neighboring peoples caused the empire to fall. After the fall of the Akkadian Empire, Hammurabi founded the next empire in the region in 1792 BCE.

Ancient Egypt

In our study of World History, ancient Egypt serves as an excellent example of a complex society with cross-cultural connections, adaption to and control over changing environments, and sophisticated political and religious developments. All of these themes are evident in an examination of the origins of Egypt. Egyptian leaders uni ed Upper and Lower Egypt around 3100 BCE, creating a powerful ancient state. Developments in the millennia preceding uni cation, including the sharing of innovations and responses to environmental change, set the stage for the emergence of the Egyptian civilization.

Cross-cultural connections introduced the people of Northeast Africa to domesticated wheat and barley, two of the crops that they grew and whose surpluses supported the process of social differentiation and eventually the pharaonic, elite, and skilled classes of ancient Egypt. People in Northeast Africa had likely been gathering wild barley since before 10000 BCE. However, sharing in the knowledge spreading from the Fertile Crescent around 7000 BCE, they began cultivating wheat and barley and also keeping domesticated animals, including sheep and goats. At that time, agricultural production and herding were possible in areas that are today part of the Sahara Desert. The period was much wetter than now. People in the region settled into small communities, and archaeological evidence of hearths, grinding stones, and storage silos show the growth of settlements in areas that today are not well watered enough for agricultural production. The presence of crocodile bones, along with similar pottery styles, also suggest a history of contact between communities emerging along the Nile River and these settlements farther west. However, environmental change was leading to the desiccation or drying out of areas not adjacent to the Nile River, and by about 5,000 BCE, it was no longer possible to farm much beyond the floodplain of the Nile River. Many people adapted by moving towards the Nile River, and the Nile River became increasingly important to Egypt’s populations.

The Nile River flows south to north, fed by two main river systems: the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The White Nile  ows steadily throughout the year and has its origins in the Great Lakes Region of East Africa. The Blue Nile originates in the Ethiopian highlands, and brings floodwaters up past the first cataract in the summers. (The first cataract lies roughly at Aswan) Cataracts are generally considered impassable by boat due to their shallows, rocks, and rapids. Comparatively, the flood plain of the Nile River is narrow, leading, especially with the desiccation of the surrounding areas, to high population densities close to the river. The winds also blow north to south, in the opposite direction of the river flow, thus facilitating trade and contact between Upper Egypt (to the south) and Lower Egypt (to the north). Upper and Lower Egypt lie north of the first cataract, usually allowing river traffic to proceed uninterrupted throughout the territory. Egyptian views of the Nile generally recognized the river’s centrality to life as demonstrated in the “Hymn to the Nile,” dated to approximately 2100 BCE. The praise-filled ode to the Nile River begins, “Hail to thee, O Nile! Who manifests thyself over this land, and comes to give life to Egypt.”[26] The course of the Nile River definitely impacted settlement patterns, while the river also allowed for trade and the development of larger agricultural communities.

The Path of the Nile | The White Nile originates near Lake Victoria, in the Great Lakes region of East Africa. The Blue Nile flows from the Ethiopian Highlands. Both rivers merge at Khartoum, in present day Sudan, and  ow northward to empty into the Mediterranean Sea. | Author: User “Hel-hama” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0 The Path of the Nile | The White Nile originates near Lake Victoria, in the Great Lakes region of East Africa. The Blue Nile flows from the Ethiopian Highlands. Both rivers merge at Khartoum, in present day Sudan, and ow northward to empty into the Mediterranean Sea. | Author: User “Hel-hama” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0download image


At the tail end of that era of desiccation, from about 3600 to 3300 BCE, complex societies formed in areas adjacent to the Nile River. These communities exerted increased in uence over their environments, exhibited social differentiation, and showed evidence of labor specialization. For example, people in the settlements of Naganda and Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt cleared trees and built dykes, canals, and early irrigation systems. By about 3500 BCE, they used these methods to quadruple the amount of cleared, arable land and could support population densities of up to one thousand people per square mile. Just as one example, recent archaeological  nds at Hierakonpolis also show evidence of both social di erential and specialization with separate burials for the settlement’s elite, the oldest known painted tomb, and the remnants of a large-scale brewery, capable of producing up to 300 gallons of beer a day. It is believed that early leaders in Naganda, Hierakonpolis, and similar communities cemented their roles by claiming control over the environment as rainmakers or commanders of the  oods. Over time, some of these leaders created divine kingships, asserting their right to even more power and access to resources, power that they legitimized by claiming special relationships with, or even descent from, gods. Once Egypt was unified, pharaohs ruled as divine kings, as the personification of the gods. They promised order in the universe. When things went well, the pharaohs were credited with agricultural productivity and the success of the state. There was no separation between religion and the state in ancient Egypt.

The Palette of Narmer, which is used to date the unification of Egypt, shows signs that King Narmer legitimized his rule, in part, by claiming a special relationship with the gods. King Narmer, who is referred to in some text as Menes, is commonly recognized as the first uni er of Upper (to the south) and Lower (to the north) Egypt in approximately 3100 BCE. Unification brought together Egypt from the first cataract at Aswan to the Nile Delta. The Palette of Narmer, which was found in Hierakonpolis, shows King Narmer’s conquest of both regions. The right side in Figure 2.6 shows him slaying an enemy of Upper Egypt. The largest figure, Narmer is wearing the crown of Upper Egypt and beheading a rival king, while standing atop conquered enemies. The left side also shows him as a conqueror, wearing the crown of Lower Egypt and directing  ag bearers to mark his victory. Religious imagery appears in the inclusion of the goddess Hathor at the top of the palette as well as the falcon, a reference to Horus, the patron god of Hierakonpolis, who later in dynastic Egypt became the god of sun and kingship.

Both Sides of the Palette of Narmer | Author: User “Jean88” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC0 1.0 Both Sides of the Palette of Narmer | Author: User “Jean88” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC0 1.0download image


Close- up of the left side of the Palette of Narmer. Note the larger figure of King Narmer, with celebratory flag bearers preceding him. | Author: User “NebMaatRa” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0 Close- up of the left side of the Palette of Narmer. Note the larger figure of King Narmer, with celebratory flag bearers preceding him. | Author: User “NebMaatRa” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0download image


Both sides of the Palette of Narmer also have some of the earliest known hieroglyphs. Hieroglyphics emerged as written text, combining pictograms (a pictorial symbol for a word or phrase) and phonograms (a symbol representing a sound), during the period of uni cation. Tax assessment and collection likely necessitated the initial development of Hieroglyphics. Ancient Egyptians eventually used three different scripts: Hieroglyphic, Hieratic, and Demotic. Hieroglyphics remained the script of choice for ritual texts. Students of Egyptian history are most familiar with hieroglyphics as they were usually what artists used to record the history of Egypt’s elite. For example, skilled artisans used hieroglyphs to chronicle glorified accounts of their patrons’ lives on the sides of their tombs. The Egyptians developed Hieratic and Demotic, the two other scripts, slightly later and used them for administrative, commercial, and many other purposes. The Egyptian administration tended to use ink and papyrus to maintain its official records. On the other hand, literate people used ostraca, pieces of broken pottery and chips of limestone, for less formal notes and communications. Over the past decades, archaeologists have uncovered a treasure trove of ostraca that start to tell us about the lives of the literate elite and skilled craftsmen. Just like Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt had one of the oldest written scripts found anywhere in the world.

In addition to one of the earliest writing systems and Egyptian paper (papyrus), archaeologists have credited ancient Egyptians with a number of other innovations. For construction purposes, ancient Egyptians invented the ramp and lever. They also developed a 12-month calendar with 365 days, glassmaking skills, arithmetic (including one of the earliest decimal systems) and geometry, and medical procedures to heal broken bones and relieve fevers. Finally, Egyptians used stone-carving techniques and other crafting skills and tools that were shared throughout the Mediterranean.

Dynastic Egypt

Scholars break the 1500 years following uni cation, a time known as dynastic Egypt, into three main periods: the Old Kingdom (c. 2660–2160 BCE), the Middle Kingdom (c. 2040 – 1640 BCE), and the New Kingdom (c. 1530–1070 BCE). There is some disagreement about the exact dates of the periods, but, in general, these spans denote more centralized control over a uni ed Egypt. During dynastic Egypt, pharaohs ruled a united Upper and Lower Egypt. In between these periods of centralized control were intermediate periods, during which the Egyptian pharaohs had less authority. The intermediate periods were characterized by political upheaval and military violence, the latter often at least partially resulting from foreign invasions.

Striking continuities existed in Egypt throughout the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom. Egypt had stable population numbers, consistent social stratification, pharaohs—who exercised significant power—and a unifying religious ideology, which linked the pharaohs to the gods. As Egypt transitioned from the period of uni cation under King Narmer to the Old Kingdom, the pharaohs and the elite became increasingly wealthy and powerful. They further developed earlier systems of tax collection, expanded the religious doctrine, and built a huge state bureaucracy.

Social distinctions and hierarchies remained fairly consistent through all of dynastic Egypt. Most people were rural peasant farmers. They lived in small mud huts just above the  ood plain and turned over surplus agricultural produce to the state as taxes. When they weren’t farming, they were expected to perform rotating service for the state, by, for example, working on a pharaoh’s tomb, reinforcing dykes, and helping in the construction of temples. The labor of the majority of the population supported the more elite and skilled classes, from the pharaoh down through the governing bureaucrats, priests, nobles, soldiers, and skilled craftspeople, especially those who worked on pyramids and tombs. (Visit the following link for a diagram of the Egyptian social hierarchy).

Upper and Lower Egypt | Note the narrowness of the floodplain, marked in green. The narrow  floodplain, usually not more than 15 miles wide and often considerably less, encouraged high population densities close to the Nile River. | Author: Jeff Dahl | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 4.0 Upper and Lower Egypt | Note the narrowness of the floodplain, marked in green. The narrow floodplain, usually not more than 15 miles wide and often considerably less, encouraged high population densities close to the Nile River. | Author: Jeff Dahl | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 4.0download image

Another continuity in dynastic Egypt was the relative equality of women to men. At least compared to women in other ancient societies, women in ancient Egypt had considerable legal rights and freedoms. Men and women did generally have different roles; Egyptian society charged men with providing for the family and women with managing the home and children. Society’s ascribed gender roles meant that women were usually de ned primarily by their husbands and children, while men were de ned by their occupations. This difference could leave women more economically vulnerable than men. For example, in the village of craftspeople who worked on the pharaoh’s tomb at Deir el Medina, houses were allocated to the men who were actively employed. This system of assigning housing meant that women whose husbands had died would be kicked out of their homes as replacement workers were brought in. Despite some vulnerability, Egyptian law was pretty equal between the sexes when it came to many other issues. Egyptian women could own property, and tax records show that they did. Egyptian women could also take cases to court, enter into legally binding agreements, and serve actively as priestesses. There were also female pharaohs, most famously Hatshepsut who ruled for twenty years in the fifteenth century BCE. One last, perhaps surprising, legal entitlement of ancient Egyptian women was their right to one-third of the property that a couple accumulated over the course of their marriage. Married women had some financial independence, which gave them options to dispose of their own property or divorce. Therefore, while women did face constraints in terms of their expected roles and had their status tied to the men in their families, they nevertheless enjoyed economic freedoms and legal rights not commonly seen in the ancient world.

Female figurines from ancient Egypt | These  figurines show some of the everyday tasks carried out by women. They made bread, brewed beer, and prepared for family meals. | Author: Andreas Praefcke | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain Female figurines from ancient Egypt | These figurines show some of the everyday tasks carried out by women. They made bread, brewed beer, and prepared for family meals. | Author: Andreas Praefcke | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domaindownload image


While scholars working over the past several decades have used artwork, archeology, and the surviving legal documents to draw conclusions about women’s roles in ancient Egypt, there is much ongoing debate about the prevalence of slavery within this society. Part of the disagreement stems from how various scholars define slavery. There is also great uncertainty about the number of slaves within the Egyptian population. The emerging consensus suggests that Egyptians increasingly used slaves from the Middle Kingdom onward. The majority of the slaves in these later dynasties were either prisoners of war or slaves brought from Asia. Slaves performed many tasks. For example, they labored in agricultural fields, served in the army, worked in construction, helped their merchant owners in shops, and were domestic servants for the Egyptian elite. Slaves were branded and, if possible, would be captured and returned to their masters if they tried to escape. Some masters undoubtedly abused their slaves, though the image of thousands of slaves sacrificed to be buried with pharaohs incorrectly depicts dynastic Egypt. Manumission (freeing a slave) was seemingly not very common, but if they were freed, former slaves were not stigmatized; instead, they were considered part of the general free population. These new scholarly conclusions about the relatively small numbers of slaves in Egypt, especially during the Old Kingdom, have impacted our understanding of how pyramids, tombs, and temples were constructed during dynastic Egypt.

The Old Kingdom saw pharaohs harness their influence to build pyramids to emphasize their relationship to the divine and facilitate their ascent to the gods after their earthly deaths. Pyramids, with their distinctive shape, which you can see below, contained tombs for the pharaohs and their wives. They were marvels of engineering, built on a massive scale to honor the pharaohs and usher them into the afterlife. Pharaohs were mummified to preserve their bodies and were buried with everything considered necessary for the afterlife, including furniture, jewelry, makeup, pottery, food, wine, clothing, and sometimes even pets. The most recognizable pyramids from the Old Kingdom are the three pyramids at the Giza complex, which were built for a father (Egyptian pharaoh Khufu), and his son and grandson, who all ruled during the fourth dynasty.

The Great Pyramid of Giza, built for Pharaoh Khufu, is the largest of the three pyramids. Still largely intact today, it was the largest building in the world until the twentieth century. Over 500 feet high, it covered an area of 200 square yards, and was built with over 600 tons of limestone. Recent studies on the construction of the pyramids have put much more emphasis on the roles of skilled craftsmen—who might work at multiple pyramid sites over the course of their lifetimes—and rotating groups of unskilled workers than on slaves. These studies suggest that skilled craftsmen and local labor forces of Egyptians were the primary builders of the pyramids, including the Great Pyramid of Giza. The Great Pyramid of Giza took an estimated 20 years to construct and employed skilled stonemasons, architects, artists, and craftsmen, in addition to the thousands of unskilled laborers who did the heavy moving and lifting. The construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza was an enormous, expensive feat. The pyramid stands as testimony to the increased social differentiation, the great power and wealth of the Egyptian pharaohs, and the significance of beliefs in the afterlife during the Old Kingdom.

The Great Pyramid at Giza |Author: User “Jeancaffou” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0 The Great Pyramid at Giza |Author: User “Jeancaffou” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0download image

In addition to the construction of pyramids, the Old Kingdom saw increased trade and remained a relatively peaceful period. The pharaoh’s government controlled trade, with Egypt exporting grain and gold (the latter from Nubia to the south) and importing timber, spices, ivory, and other luxury goods. During the Old Kingdom, Egypt did not have a standing army and faced few foreign military threats. Lasting almost 400 years, the Old Kingdom saw the extension of the pharaoh’s power, especially through the government’s ability to harness labor and control trade.

However, the power of the pharaohs began to wane in the fifth dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Continuing environmental change that led to droughts and famine, coupled with the huge expense of building pyramids likely impoverished pharaohs in the last centuries of the Old Kingdom. Additionally, the governors known as nomes, who administered Egypt’s 42 provinces from the fifth dynasty onward, became more independent and took over functions that had been overseen by the state. As an added blow, the pharaohs lost control of trade. While dynastic leaders still referred to themselves as pharaohs, they lacked central authority over a unified Egypt by 2180 BCE.

Ancient India: A Political Overview

Our knowledge of the ancient world has been radically altered by impressive archaeological discoveries over the last two centuries. Prior to the twentieth century, for instance, historians believed that India’s history began in the second millennium BCE, when a people known as Indo-Aryans migrated into the Indian subcontinent and created a new civilization. Yet, even during the nineteenth century British explorers and officials were curious about brick mounds dotting the landscape of northwest India, where Pakistan is today. A large one was located in a village named Harappa. A British army engineer, Sir Alexander Cunningham, sensed its importance because he also found other artifacts among the bricks, such as a seal with an inscription. He was, therefore, quite dismayed that railway contractors were pilfering these bricks for ballast. When he became the director of Great Britain’s Archaeological Survey in 1872, he ordered protection for these ruins. But the excavation of Harappa did not begin until 1920, and neither the Archaeological Survey nor Indian archaeologists understood their significance until this time. Harappa, it turned out, was an ancient city dating back to the third millennium BCE, and only one part of a much larger civilization sprawling over northwest India. With the discovery of this lost civilization, the timeline for India’s history was pushed back over one thousand years.

Archaeological Site for Harappa | Excavation of this ancient city began in 1920. | Author: Hassan Nasir | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0 Archaeological Site for Harappa | Excavation of this ancient city began in 1920. | Author: Hassan Nasir | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0download image

The Indus Valley civilization (2600 – 1700 BCE) now stands at the beginning of India’s long history. Much like the states of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, the foundations for that history were established by Paleo- lithic foragers who migrated to and populated the region, and then Neolithic agriculturalists who settled into villages. During the third millennium BCE, building on these foundations, urban centers emerged along the Indus River, along with other elements that contribute to making a civilization.

What is India? The Geography of South Asia

India’s dynamic history, then, alternated between periods when the subcontinent was partially uni ed by empires and periods when it was composed of a shifting mosaic of regional states. This history was also impacted by influxes of migrants and invaders. In thinking about the reasons for these patterns, historians highlight the size of India and its diverse geography and peoples.

It is important to remember that “India” can mean different things. Today, India usually designates the nation-state of India. But modern India only formed in 1947 and includes much less territory than India did in ancient times. As a term, India was first invented by the ancient Greeks to refer to the Indus River and the lands and people beyond it. When used in this sense, India also includes today’s nation of Pakistan. In fact, for the purpose of studying earlier history, India can be thought of as the territory that includes at least seven countries today: India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. This territory is also referred to as South Asia or the Indian subcontinent.

South Asia | Author: Larry Israel | Source: Original Work | License: CC BY-SA 4.0 South Asia | Author: Larry Israel | Source: Original Work | License: CC BY-SA 4.0download image

The Indian subcontinent is where Indian civilization took shape. But that civilization was not created by one people, race, or ethnic group, and it doesn’t make sense to see India’s history as the history of one Indian people. Rather, the history of this region was shaped by a multitude of ethnic groups who spoke many different languages and lived and moved about on a diverse terrain suited to many different kinds of livelihood.

Large natural boundaries de ne the subcontinent. Mountain ranges ring the north, and bodies of water surround the rest. To the east lies the Bay of Bengal, to the south the Indian Ocean, and to the west the Arabian Sea. The largest mountain range is the Himalaya, which de nes India’s northern and northeastern boundary. A subrange of the Himalaya—the Hindu Kush— sits at its western end, while a ridge running from north to south defines the eastern end, dividing India from China and mainland Southeast Asia. To the northwest, the Suleiman Range and Kirthar Range complete what might seem like impassable barriers. Yet, these ranges are punctuated by a few narrow passes that connect India to Central Asia and West Asia.

To the south of the mountain ranges lie the Indo-Gangetic Plain and the two great rivers of northern India that comprise it: the Indus River and the Ganges River. These rivers originate in the Himalaya and are regularly fed by snow melt and monsoon rains. The Indus River, which is located in the northwest and drains into the Arabian Sea, can be divided into an upper and lower region. The region comprising the upper Indus and its many tributary rivers is called the Punjab, while the region surrounding the lower Indus is referred to as the Sindh. The Ganges River begins in the western Himalaya and flows southeast across northern India before draining into the Bay of Bengal. Because they could support large populations, the plains surrounding these river systems served as the heartland for India’s first major states and empires.

Peninsular India is also an important part of the story because over time great regional kingdoms will also emerge in the south. The peninsula is divided from northern India by the Vindhya Mountains, to the south of which lies the Deccan Plateau. This arid plateau is bordered by two coastal ranges— the Western Ghats and Eastern Ghats, beyond which are narrow coastal plains, the Malabar Coast and the Coromandel Coast. This nearly 4600 miles of coastline is important to India’s history because it linked fishing and trading communities to the Indian Ocean and, therefore, the rest of Afro-Eurasia. Sri Lanka is an island located about thirty kilometers southeast of the southernmost tip of India, and also served as an important conduit for trade and cultural contacts beyond India

India’s First Major Civilization: The Indus Valley Civilization (2600 BCE-1700 BCE)

A century of archaeological work in India that began in 1920 not only revealed a lost civilization but also a massive one, surpassing in size other major early riverine civilizations of Afro-Eurasia, such as ancient Egypt and the Mesopotamian states. In an area spanning roughly a half million square miles, archaeologists have excavated thousands of settlements. These can be envisioned in a hierarchy based on size and sophistication. The top consists of five major cities of roughly 250 acres each. One of those is Harappa, and because it was excavated first the entire civilization was named Harappan Civilization. The bottom of the hierarchy consists of fifteen thousand smaller agricultural and craft villages of about 2.5 acres each, while between the top and bottom lie two tiers with several dozen towns ranging in size from 15 to 150 acres.

Indus Valley (Harappan) Civilization | Map of important Indus Valley (Harappan) Civilization cities and towns during its most developed period. | Author: User “Avantiputra7” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0 Indus Valley (Harappan) Civilization | Map of important Indus Valley (Harappan) Civilization cities and towns during its most developed period. | Author: User “Avantiputra7” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0download image

Because the majority of these settlements were situated near the Indus River in the northwestern region of the subcontinent, this civilization is also called the Indus Valley Civilization.

As with ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, archaeologists have been able to sketch out how this civilization evolved out of the simpler agricultural villages of the Neolithic period. On the subcontinent, farming and the domestication of animals began c. 7000 BCE, about two thousand years after they did in the Fertile Crescent. To the west of the Indus River, along the foothills of Baluchistan, the remains of numerous small villages have been found that date back to this time. One of these is Mehrgarh. Here, villagers lived in simple mud-brick structures, grew barley and wheat, and raised cattle, sheep, and goats.

Over the course of the next three thousand years, similar Neolithic communities sprang up not only in northwest India but also in many other locations on the subcontinent.

Archaeological sites dating to northwest India’s Neolithic period and the Indus Valley Civilization | Agricultural village societies first emerged to the west of the Indus and then spread to the Indus River and its many tributaries, as well as the Ghaggar-Hakra River (running parallel to and east of the Indus), which has since dried up. These provided the foundation for the emergence of towns and cities. | Author: User “Avantiputra7” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0 Archaeological sites dating to northwest India’s Neolithic period and the Indus Valley Civilization | Agricultural village societies first emerged to the west of the Indus and then spread to the Indus River and its many tributaries, as well as the Ghaggar-Hakra River (running parallel to and east of the Indus), which has since dried up. These provided the foundation for the emergence of towns and cities. | Author: User “Avantiputra7” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0download image

But it was to the west of the Indus River and then throughout neighboring fertile plains and valleys of the Punjab and Sindh that we see the transition to a more complex, urban-based civilization. Excavations throughout this region show a pattern of development whereby settlements start looking more like towns than villages: ground plans become larger, include the foundations of houses and streets, and are conveniently located by the most fertile land or places for trade. Similar artifacts spread over larger areas show that the local communities building these towns were becoming linked together in trade networks. Archaeologists date this transitional period when India was on the verge of its first civilization from 5000 to 2600 BCE. The mature phase, with its full-blown cities, begins from 2600 BCE, roughly four centuries after the Sumerian city-states blossomed and Egypt was unified under one kingdom.

The ruins of Mohenjo-Daro and other Indus cities dating to this mature phase suggest a vibrant society thriving in competently planned and managed urban areas. Some of the principal purposes of these urban settlements included coordinating the distribution of local surplus resources, obtaining desired goods from more distant places, and turning raw materials into commodities for trade. Mohenjo-Daro, for instance, was located along the lower reaches of the Indus. That meant it was conveniently built amidst an abundance of resources: fertile flood plains for agriculture, pasture for grazing domesticated animals, and waters for fishing and fowling. The city itself consisted of several mounds—elevated areas upon which structures and roads were built. A larger mound served as a core, fortified area where public functions likely took place. It contained a wall and large buildings, including what archaeologists call a Great Bath and Great Hall. Other mounds were the location of the residential and commercial sectors of the city. Major avenues laid out on a grid created city blocks. Within a block, multistory dwellings opening up to interior courtyards were constructed out of mudbricks or bricks baked in kilns.

Great Bath at Mohenjo-Daro | View of the Great Bath at Mohenjo-Daro, an Indus Valley city located along the lower reaches of the Indus River. This section was part of the largest mound at the site. The higher structure in the rear is a Buddhist stupa dating to a later period in India’s history. | Author: Saqib Qayyum | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0 Great Bath at Mohenjo-Daro | View of the Great Bath at Mohenjo-Daro, an Indus Valley city located along the lower reaches of the Indus River. This section was part of the largest mound at the site. The higher structure in the rear is a Buddhist stupa dating to a later period in India’s history. | Author: Saqib Qayyum | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0download image

Particular attention was paid to public sanitation. Residences not only had private wells and baths, but also toilets drained by earthenware pipes that ushered the sewage into covered drains located under the streets.

Artifacts tell of city life. Farmers and pastoralists brought their grain and stock to the city for trade or to place it in warehouses managed by the authorities. Laborers dug the wells and collected trash from rectangular bins sitting beneath rubbish chutes. Craftsmen worked copper and tin into bronze tools,  red ceramics, and manufactured jewelry and beads out of gold, copper, semi-precious stones, and ivory. Merchants traveling near and far carried raw materials and finished goods by bullock carts or boats to the dozens of towns and cities throughout the region.

Some goods also went to foreign lands. Harappan cities located along the coast of the Arabian Sea engaged in coastal shipping that brought goods as far as the Persian Gulf and the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. In Mesopotamian city-states, Harappan seals and beads have been found, and Mesopotamian sources speak of a certain place called “Meluhha,” a land with ivory, gold, and lapis lazuli. That was the Indus Valley Civilization. Cities like Mohenjo-Daro were linked in networks of exchange extending in every direction.

But unlike ancient Egypt and Sumer, this civilization has not yet provided sources we can read, and this poses major problems of interpretation. True, over four thousand inscribed objects with at least four hundred different signs recurring in various frequencies have been found on clay, copper tablets, and small, square seals excavated primarily at the major cities. But the heroic efforts of philologists to decipher  the language have failed to yield results. Thus, some historians call this civilization proto-historic, distinguishing it from both prehistoric cultures that have no writing and historic ones with written sources that we can read.

Seals from Indus Valley cities | These were made from  red steatite and used to imprint the identity of owners on goods. | Author: User “MrABlair23” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain Seals from Indus Valley cities | These were made from red steatite and used to imprint the identity of owners on goods. | Author: User “MrABlair23” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domaindownload image

This proto-historical state of the evidence leaves many questions concerning Harappan people’s political organization and beliefs unanswered. On the one hand, much uniformity in the archaeological record across the region suggests coordination in planning—cities and towns were similarly designed,  red bricks had the same dimensions, and weights were standardized. On the other hand, the ruins lack structures that can be clearly identified as palaces, temples, or large tombs. In other words, there is little evidence for either a central political authority ruling over an empire or for independent city-states. One intriguing artifact found in Mohenjo-Daro is a small sculpture of a bearded man made of soapstone. The dignified appearance suggests he may have been a priest or king, or even both. Perhaps he and other priests purified themselves in the Great Bath for ritual purposes. Yet, this is purely speculation, as the sculpture is unique. He may also have been a powerful landowner or wealthy merchant who met with others of a similar status in assemblies convened in the Great Hall of the citadel. Perhaps local assemblies of just such elites governed each city.

Indus Priest/King Statue | 17.5 cm tall sculpture found at Mohenjo-Daro. The dignified appearance and headband and cloak of this man suggest that he was an important political or religious leader in the city. | Author: Mamoon Mengal | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 1.0 Indus Priest/King Statue | 17.5 cm tall sculpture found at Mohenjo-Daro. The dignified appearance and headband and cloak of this man suggest that he was an important political or religious leader in the city. | Author: Mamoon Mengal | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 1.0download image

Religious beliefs are also difficult to determine. Again, some of the principal evidence consists of small artifacts such as figurines and the square seals. The seals were carved out of a soft stone called steatite and then  red so they would harden. They contain images of animals and humans, typically with writing above. Mostly, they were used to imprint the identity of a merchant or authorities on goods. However, some of the images may have had religious significance. For example, hundreds of “unicorn seals” display images of a mythical animal that resembles a species of cattle. These cattle are usually placed over an object variously interpreted as a trough or altar. Perhaps these were symbols of deities or animals used for sacrificial rituals. Equally as interesting are the numerous female clay figurines. These may have been used for fertility rituals or to pay homage to a goddess.

Unicorn Seal | Mold from a “unicorn seal” from Mohenjo-Daro depicting a mythical animal standing over an altar or trough, with writing above. | Author: User “Ismoon” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC0 1.0 Unicorn Seal | Mold from a “unicorn seal” from Mohenjo-Daro depicting a mythical animal standing over an altar or trough, with writing above. | Author: User “Ismoon” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC0 1.0download image


Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-daro | Author: Joe Ravi | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0 Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-daro | Author: Joe Ravi | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0download image

The decline of Harappan civilization set in from 1900 BCE and was complete two hundred years later. Stated simply, the towns and cities and their lively trade networks faded away, and the region reverted to rural conditions. Likely causes include geologic, climatic, and environmental factors. Movement by tectonic plates may have led to earthquakes, flooding, and shifts in the course of the Indus. Less rainfall and deforestation may have degraded the environment’s suitability for farming. All of these factors would have impacted the food supply. Consequently, urban areas and the civilization they supported were slowly starved out of existence.

The Geography of East Asia

China’s early historical development long predated Japan’s and Korea’s, which is why a chapter on East Asian history logically begins in the second millennium BCE with China’s  rst dynasty. However, today’s nation of China is much larger than China was in ancient times. In earlier times, the bulk of the Chinese population lived in China proper, by which we mean the historical heartland of ancient China.

East Asia | Author: Larry Israel | Source: Original Work | License: CC BY-SA 4.0 East Asia | Author: Larry Israel | Source: Original Work | License: CC BY-SA 4.0download image


To the east, China proper is bounded by the Yellow Sea,  East China Sea, and South China Sea. To the south, it is bordered by the mountainous jungles of Southeast Asia. To the west and north, China is rimmed by a transitional frontier zone where land suited to agriculture gives way to mountains and plateau or vast expanses of steppe grasslands and desert. At times, the dynasties of China became actively involved in all of these neighboring areas, incorporating them directly into their expanding empires or indirectly as subordinate, tribute-paying states. Those areas include parts of the Korean Peninsula, Northeast China, Mongolia, Central Asia, and Vietnam.

Within China proper, two rivers were particularly important to the formation of agricultural communities that served as the building blocks of Chinese civilization. Those were the Yellow River and Yangzi River. The Yellow River meanders through the northern half of China, where a cool, dry climate is well-suited to wheat and millet farming. Beginning far to the west, this river meanders over dusty plateau, becomes muddied with silt, and then deposits this sediment along its middle and lower reaches. The plains surrounding these reaches are collectively referred to as the North China Plain. Historically, this was the heartland of Chinese civilization. However, the Yangzi River was just as important. Located in south China where the weather is relatively warmer and wetter, its long basin provided fertile soil for rice-paddy agriculture. Over time, the early dynasties expanded into and included the settled agricultural communities in this region.

Japan is an island country consisting of four main islands and many smaller ones located o  the Paci c coast of the Asian continent. At 400,000 square kilometers, Japan is slightly smaller than California, although the terrain is more rugged. Because Japan is covered by mountains and traversed by numerous rivers, only  fteen percent of the land is suited to agriculture. Much of that was concentrated in two plains–the Kinai Plain and Kanto Plain–making them particularly important to Japan’s early history. Japan is also located along the Pacific Ring of Fire, where tectonic plates composing the earth’s crust frequently move and collide. That is why earthquakes and volcanic activity have been a constant threat to populations living on these islands.

The Korean Peninsula is the location of North and South Korea today. Prior to the twentieth century, however, it saw a long succession of Korean kingdoms. Extending roughly 1100 kilometers southward from the Asian landmass, the peninsula is bounded by seas to the east, west, and south, and de ned by the Yalu River to the north. Beyond that lies Northeast China which was only periodically included in the territory of Chinese empires. Consequently, because the peninsula lies between China to the north and west and Japan to the east, Korean dynasties have been deeply impacted by these states’ histories and cultures. Like Japan, Korea is also mountainous, although coastal areas and plains located to the west and south were well-suited to agriculture.

The countries of East Asia share in the region’s temperate climate and summer monsoon season. During the summer months, warm and moist air originating from the Pacific flows from southeast to northwest, while during the winter months cold and dry air originating from Central Asia moves in the opposite direction. Thus, those areas of East Asia located further to the east and south are generally warmer and wetter, and for longer periods of time. That made them well-suited to rice-paddy agriculture, and rice consequently became the primary cereal crop in southern China, the Korean peninsula, and the islands of Japan. While growing rice is labor intensive, this grain also offers high yields per unit of land, so it has supported population growth in these countries and, therefore, the formation of vibrant civilizations.

China from Neolithic Village Settlements to the Shang Kingdom


Neolithic cultures in China c. 4000 BCE | Note the location of Yangshao culture along the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River, where nearly a thousand settlements have been identified by archaeologists. | Author: Lamassu Design | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0 Neolithic cultures in China c. 4000 BCE | Note the location of Yangshao culture along the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River, where nearly a thousand settlements have been identified by archaeologists. | Author: Lamassu Design | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0download image

Earlier sections of this chapter covered the development of the first major civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India. In each case, rivers were particularly important to that process because they offered a stable supply of water for agriculture. Similarly, in China, the first major states emerged along China’s second longest river–the Yellow River. These states are the Xia [shee-ah] Dynasty (c. 1900 – 1600 BCE), Shang [shawng] Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE, See Chapter 3), and Zhou [joe] Dynasty (1045 – 256 BCE, see Chapter 4). Each of these kingdoms was ruled by a line of hereditary monarchs hailing from one lineage, which is why they are also referred to as dynasties.

Because written sources don’t become available until the Shang Dynasty, historians have relied heavily on the archaeological record to reconstruct the process by which these states arose. Looking back at the end of the Paleolithic era (c. 10000 BCE), East Asia was sparsely populated by bands of foragers living in temporary settlements. During the eighth millennium BCE, in China, some of these hunter-gatherers turned to domesticated cereals for a stable food supply and settled into villages so they could cultivate them. Thus, the Neolithic Age (8000 – 2000 BCE) commenced.

Over the course of those six millennia leading up to the Xia Dynasty, Neolithic communities became more diverse and complex. For instance, for the period 5000 – 3000 BCE, archaeologists have identi ed at least eight major regional Neolithic cultures located along rivers and coasts. They did so by examining pottery styles and village settlement patterns. One example is Yangshao culture, which was concentrated along the middle reaches of the Yellow River. Over one thousand sites left behind by millet-farming village communities have been discovered. Jiangzhai (c. 4000 BCE), for instance, was a moated village settlement that occupied roughly thirteen acres. It was composed of related lineages and tribal in organization.

During the third millennium BCE, Yangshao culture was gradually supplanted by Longshan culture (c. 3000 – 1900 BCE), which emerged further to the east, along the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River. In 1928, when archaeologists excavated a site near the town after which Longshan was named, they found evidence for a culture that had laid the foundations for the kingdoms that emerged in the second millennium BCE, including the ruins of numerous walled towns with cemeteries outside. Their rammed-earth walls protected urban areas with public buildings, roads, and drainage systems. The cemetery’s arrangement suggests that people living in the towns were buried alongside clan members, but also that some members were wealthier and more powerful: while most graves had nothing but a skeleton, others contained numerous artifacts, such as pottery and jade.

Location of Yangshao culture (5000-3000 BCE) and Longshan culture (3000-1900 BCE) | Note that they overlapped, but also that Longshan culture came later and eventually supplanted Yangshao culture. | Author: Lamassu Design | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0 Location of Yangshao culture (5000-3000 BCE) and Longshan culture (3000-1900 BCE) | Note that they overlapped, but also that Longshan culture came later and eventually supplanted Yangshao culture. | Author: Lamassu Design | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0download image


Based on this evidence, archaeologists have concluded that, during the third millennium BCE, population grew and some of it shifted from villages to walled towns. These walled towns developed into political and economic centers exercising control over and serving as protection for surrounding communities. Individuals with more elaborate graves were likely political and religious leaders, and served as chieftains. Hence, numerous competing chiefdoms emerged, providing the foundation for more powerful kingdoms to follow.

Ancient Chinese histories identify the first major kingdom as the Xia Dynasty (c. 1900 – 1600 BCE). However, these were written many centuries after the kingdom about which they speak and, lacking written evidence from the dynasty itself, specialists have been unable to definitively establish its location. Nevertheless, most agree that the Xia capital was located along the Yellow River at Erlitou [are-lee-toe]. At its peak of activity from 1900 – 1600 BCE, this town looks like something more complex than a chiefdom. Erlitou included a central, walled palace complex, workshops for the production of bronze and pottery, and elite burials containing bronze weapons and jade, suggesting a socially stratified, Bronze Age civilization and kingdom. That is why many historians identify it as the capital of Xia Dynasty.

Works Consulted and Further Reading


Bellows, Sierra. “The Trouble with Civilization,” UVA Magazine (Fall 2010)

Brown, Cynthia Stokes. “What is a Civilization, Anyway?” World History Connected (October 2009)


International World History Project. “The Akkadians.”

Khan Academy. “Ziggurat of Ur.”

Kilmer, Anne. “The Musical Instruments from Ur and Ancient Mesopotamian Music.” Expedition. The Penn Museum. 40, 2 (1998): 12-18.

Kramer, Samuel. The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1963.

Leick, Gwendolyn. Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City. London: Penguin Books, 2004.

Mitchell, William. “The Hydraulic Hypothesis: A Reappraisal.” Current Anthropology. Vol. 15. No. 5. (Dec. 1973): 532-534.

Postgate, J.N. Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. London: Routledge, 1994.

Spar, Ira. “Gilgamesh.” In Heinbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. (April 2009).

University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. “Iraq’s Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur’s Royal Cemetery.”

Ancient Egypt

Australian Museum. “The Underworld and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt.” (Australian Museum, 2015).

David, Rosalie. The Pyramid Builders of Ancient Egypt: A Modern Investigation of Pharaoh’s Workforce. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Dollinger, Andre. “Slavery in Ancient Egypt.” (February 2011).

Hierakonoplis Expedition, Hierakpopolis-online.

Johnson, Janet. “Women’s Legal Rights in Ancient Egypt.” Fathom Archive, Digital Collections. University of Chicago Library: 2002.

McDowell, A.G. Village Life in Ancient Egypt: Laundry Lists and Love Songs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Pinch, Geraldine. Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Shaw, Ian. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Shillington, Kevin. History of Africa. 2nd ed. Oxford: Macmillan Education, 2005.

Smith, Jeffrey. “The Narmer Palette,” Yale 2013 PIER Summer Institutes.

Teeter, Emily. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Tyldesley, Joyce. Daughters of Isis:Women in Ancient Egypt. New York: Penguin History, 1995.

South Asia

Avari, Burjor. India, The Ancient Past: A History of the Indian Sub-Continent from c. 7000 BC to AD 1200. Routledge: New York and Oxon, 2007.

Keay, John. India: A History. New York: Grove Press, 2000.

Khan, Omar. “,” accessed October 15, 2014.

Singh, Upinder. A History of Ancient and Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. Pearson Education, 2008.

Thapar, Romila. Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Trautmann, Thomas R. India: Brief History of a Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

East Asia

Ebrey, Patricia, James B. Palais, and Anne Walthall. East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company 2006.

Li Feng. Early China: A Social and Cultural History. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Temple, Robert. The Genius of China: 3,000 years of Science, Discovery and Invention. Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2007.

Links to Primary Sources


“The Sumerian King List.”

aThe Epic of Gilgamesh. Nancy Sandars (trans.). New York: Penguin Books, 1960.

“The Flood.” Excerpted from S. Dalley. Myths from Mesopotamia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

“Hymn to the Nile, c. 2100 BCE.”Ancient History Sourcebook. Fordham University.

South Asia

Harappan Civilization Seals and other Artifacts

From Berger, Eugene; Israel, George; Miller, Charlotte; Parkinson, Brian; Reeves, Andrew; and Williams, Nadejda, “World History: Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500″ (2016). History Open Textbooks. Book 2.

World History: Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Chapter One: Prehistory


8-6 million years ago: Bi-pedal hominids in Africa

2.6 million years ago: Homo habilis begin to use tools

43,000 BCE: Homo sapiens expand out of Africa

50,000-10,000 BCE: Homo sapiens complete their migration to all continents

22,000-14,000 BCE: Last Glacial Maximum

c. 9,000 BCE: Younger Dryas event

c. 9,000 BCE: Jericho reaches its height

c. 7,000 BCE: Çatalhüyük reaches several thousand inhabitants

2,000 BCE: Paleo-Eskimos appear in the Arctic

2,000 BCE Humans begin to make pottery


In 1952, at the age of 77 and suffering with an abdominal hernia long overdue for surgery, Sellards returned to Vero to collect charcoal or bone suitable for the newly invented technique of radiocarbon dating. … His longtime field assistant Glen Evans accompanied him, having left Texas with careful instructions from Sellards’s physician about what to do if the hernia suddenly bulged. It did, and Sellards collapsed unconscious at the excavation. … But the moment Sellards regained consciousness he insisted on continuing to excavate.[1]

The above case of Florida State Geologist Elias Sellards demonstrates that the study of “human antiquity” or man’s earliest origins is one surrounded by passion, controversy, and a deep well of curiosity. Our curiosity about our earliest origins has not only given birth to  ctional characters like Indiana Jones and Captain Kirk, but also is largely responsible for the growth of archaeology in the early twentieth century. Western scholars and explorers were not content with simply reaching remote places; they were curious about their earliest human inhabitants. While the motives of early excavators may have been quite simple (Well-known paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey got his start collecting stones as a child), archaeologists and paleoanthropologists eventually created an entirely new  eld of historical investigation: prehistory. Multiple pioneers have hacked through underbrush or spent months excavating Paleolithic sites. Not until recently, however, have scientific advances, local knowledge, and anthropological theory merged with the curiosity of western explorers to craft a more accurate version of human origins and evolution.

Written texts are the primary sources most historians are trained to work with and are those they are most comfortable using. However, if we are to understand humanity’s origins, we have to recognize that written language is a relatively recent invention (around 5,000 years old); therefore, much of what we know about human beginnings must be borrowed from the findings of colleagues in other disciplines like geology, botany, and archaeology. In all of the regions mentioned below, archaeologists have excavated and analyzed physical evidence relating to our pre-historic ancestors. Up until recent times, though, it was difficult to understand migration patterns and chronology without a method to determine the age of anything from a human skull to a cutting tool. Archaeologists in the 1930s and 40s used imprecise terms like “stone bowl cultures,” a nomenclature that referred more to the details of the articles unearthed than their historical context.[2] This began to change with the advent of radiocarbon dating or C14 dating in the 1940s. Through this method, we were able to place thousands of organic archaeological materials in their proper historical context even without textual evidence. For artifacts over 40,000 years old, the amount of radioactive carbon we can recover doesn’t permit accurate measurement. However, we do have a number of techniques to trace human origins even further back, including aerial photography, side-scanning radar, and potassium-argon dating. All these techniques get around the lack of radioactive carbon in that they don’t date the organic material, but instead the terrain in which they were found, allowing us to trace human origins back millions of years to the beginnings of bipedalism.

The goal of this chapter, though, is not to trace human evolution from its beginnings, but to set the scene for the beginnings of civilization. In this chapter we will explore why hominids moved, how they survived, and how they came to develop agriculture. We also hope to lay out why humans in far flung parts of the world responded similarly to changing conditions around them and hence developed civilizations at roughly the same time.

This chapter begins at the origins of bipedalism some eight million years ago and brings us up to eight thousand years ago with the the Neolithic Era or “new stone age.” Bipedal hominids would develop during the Pliocene era and our closest ancestors during the more recent Pleistocene. Finally, modern Homo sapiens would appear during the Holocene. During the Holocene humans would perfect tool usage during the Paleolithic Era, and would usher in agriculture during the Neolithic. Our chapter ends as humans prepare to enter the Bronze and Iron Ages.

Questions to Guide your Reading

  1. What were some factors that led to hominid bipedalism?
  2. How did climate affect hominid development?
  3. How and why did Homo sapiens expand out of Africa?
  4. How and when did Homo sapiens populate the Americas?
  5. What was a hunter-gatherer existence like?
  6. Why did Homo sapiens start to prefer agriculture?
  7. How did agriculture start to change human relationships?

Key Terms

  • Abu Hureya
  • Beringia
  • Çatalhüyük
  • Dolni Vetoniçe
  • Holocene
  • Homo erectus
  • Homo habilis
  • Homo sapiens
  • Ice Age
  • Jericho
  • Natufians
  • Neanderthals
  • Neolithic
  • Oldowan Industry
  • Paleolithic
  • Pleistocene

Human Beginnings in Africa

The fossil record in Africa clearly establishes that a human lineage diverged there from African apes sometime between eight to six million years ago. Beginning as far back as eight million years ago, various species of hominids (the ancestors of modern humans or Homo sapiens) began to walk upright. This bipedalism would allow these hominids to use their hands to develop, craft, and use tools. Bipedalism would also eventually contribute to a move out of forests into the savanna and turn hominids into big game hunters and gatherers. Paleoanthropologists once theorized that hominids became bipedal to adapt to life in the grasslands. However, the fact that fossils of bipedal hominids were found alongside fossil remains of wood, seeds, and other forest dwellers has cast some doubt on that theory. In fact, bipedal hominids may have lived in the forest for some time. While some bipedal hominids may have stayed in the forest, climate changes did drive others to move into new areas within Africa and beyond it.

Climate, Hominin in Evolution, and Migrations


Early Hominid Fossil Sites<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
Author: Corey Parson<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
Source: Original Work<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
License: CC-BY-SA 4.0 Early Hominid Fossil Sites |Author: Corey Parson |  Source: Original Work |  License: CC-BY-SA 4.0  download image

As far as thirty million years ago hominids were reacting to changes in their environment. (“Hominids” refers to all Great Apes including humans and their ancestors. “Hominins” is often used when speaking more specifically about modern humans and their more recently extinct ancestors. We will use “hominids” here because it covers all of the groups we will reference including modern humans). The earth cooled, producing more fragmented environments. As already mentioned, some hominids may have stayed in the trees, but those that left the forest began to thrive in grasslands. These savannas and prairies expanded during the Miocene, the geologic era lasting from 24 – 2 million years ago. This grassland expansion prompted baboons and hominids to move out of the forest. During the Pliocene epoch (5 – 1.6 million years ago), another series of environmental changes made these grasslands even more prevalent, leading to a transformation that geologists call the “turnover-pulse hypothesis.” Animals with adaptations such as angled knee joints and arched feet survived on the grasslands, while those with longer arms or curved  fingers who were better suited to the woodlands did not. For hominids, this favorable grassland environment meant the “development of several closely related species. Large-toothed hominids known as robust australopithecines appeared in Southern and Eastern Africa.”[3] Towards the end of the Pliocene, around 2.4 million years ago, the first members of our genus—homo (Homo habilis)—appeared, the first hominid to make stone tools.

The Pleistocene epoch (1.6 million – 10,000 years ago) saw at least twenty-five periods of glaciation and warming. Glaciation resulted from dips in global temperature which had two major effects on hominid development. First, with sea levels dropping due to glaciation, hominids migrated to Australia and the Americas for the first time. Second, while many migrated out of colder climates, those that remained developed physical adaptations. Homo neanderthalensis (Neaderthals), a hominid that disappeared 28,000 years ago, became stockier and more powerful to deal with the difficulties of this icy climate.

While not as dramatic as previous developments, the current Holocene period has seen its share of signi cant climatic events. The Younger Dryas event (c. 12,000 BCE) was a drop in global temperatures accompanied by a corresponding change in vegetation distribution. Reduced rainfall from 2200 – 1900 BCE made conditions very difficult for civilizations in the Eastern Mediterranean. Finally, the Medieval Warm Period represents “one of the most recent periods of climate change.”[4]

Like neanderthalensis, Homo sapiensHomo erectusHomo habilis, and other hominids all reacted to changing climate conditions. Homo erectus and Homo habilis migrated, hunted, and used fire, while neanderthalensis had some use of language and tools and buried their dead. For millions of years, in fact, hominids had been using slivers of volcanic stone and cutters probably to hack through animal skin. The cutters were often found close together, suggesting that early hominids even had a division of labor between hunters who would have to pursue their prey and butchers who could wait nearby at the butchering site. There is even evidence of task division by gender among neanderthalensis. Multiple sites in Europe show different patterns of wear on male and female teeth, indicating a gendered task division in tasks where teeth were used to hold, break, or strip objects.[5]

However, by 25,000 years ago all other hominins were extinct; only Homo sapiens sapiens, our species, survived. Paleoanthropologists attribute this survival to larger brains, durability, and ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions. Based on migration patterns and archaeological evidence, Homo sapiens sapiens appear to have been the only hominids to build seaworthy boats, create art, have organized religion, and live in any climate.[6]

Homo sapiens Migration

While Homo sapiens were decidedly more advanced than other hominids, when they first moved out of Africa some 45,000 years ago, they were only equipped with stone tools for hunting and cutting. Despite those initial limitations, 30,000 years later Homo sapiens would inhabit almost every environment on earth and had a presence in every continent except Antarctica. Homo sapiens in fact moved further and faster than all other hominids. While it is hard to attribute a single factor to all Homo sapiens migration, we do see that multiple human societies required migration to arrive at a more sophisticated level of development. Homo sapien migration accelerated close to 40,000 years ago, where humans reached continental Eurasia.

Modern humans (50,000 – 10,000 years ago) completed the migration to all the continents except Antartica, moving first into Australia, Eastern Siberia, the Pacific margins, Japan, and the Americas. Then from 10,000 years ago to 1,500 CE, humans arrived in the Arctic, the Indian Ocean, the deep Pacific, and tropical rain forests. Migration occurred in a “staccato” pattern with “easiest” areas colonized quickly, while more “difficult” areas remained uninhabited for thousands of years. A region’s “easiness” is calculated from estimates about available plant and animal biomass and net productivity—that is, how quickly it returns—in each habitat. For example, tropical savannas and grasslands of East Africa were colonized first as the biomass there sustained the first bipedal hominids.

Hominids first left “sub-Saharan Africa … through the northern savannahs, up the Nile corridor or across the straits of Bab el Mandeb to the Arabian Peninsula.”[7] Evidence exists of Homo erectus in Morocco, Chad, and Algeria, and it appears that they eventually left Africa via the Arabian Peninsula. After leaving Africa about 1.5 million years ago, choppers, handaxes, and spheroids found at sites like Ubeidiya in Israel put Homo erectus in the Levant. Some scholars argue for the existence of a second migration out of Africa and into the Jordan Valley 500 to 600 thousand years ago.


Some evidence suggests the presence of Homo ergaster and Homo erectus as having occurred in Java over a million years ago. Chinese Homo erectus fossils date between 800,000 to 400,000 years ago. Homo sapiens began to leave Africa around 40,000 years ago, and hunter gatherers appeared in China by the end of the last Ice Age (36,000 to 16,000 BCE) as continental ice in central Asia began to melt.


Animal bones and pebble tools place hominids near Rome just before the beginning of the Middle Pleistocene (730,000 years ago). This seems to be the first hominid incursion into Europe. Hominid remains in Spain suggest colonization in Iberia up to two million years ago, but there are not nearly enough remains (no more than twenty inhabitants in any given site) to provide any certainty in terms of which hominids they correspond to or when they lived there. Either way, colonization of Europe can be considered “late.” This tardiness may have been related to a lack of animal food sources. Not until around 500,000 years ago did “new species of deer, bovid, rhino, and horse appear”[8] in Europe. Around the same time, the cheetah, saber-tooth tiger, and dirk-tooth cat declined in the region, making more carcasses from the aforementioned species available to hominid foragers.

Australia, Papua New Guinea, Sahul

Evidence of tools from 30,000 years ago exists in Australia, and from even longer in New Guinea. The lack of “a dry land crossing to Sahul” (the land mass that once connected New Guinea and Australia) meant that an ocean journey of somewhere between sixty-five and 100 kilometers was required from mainland Asia. This made Australians and New Guineans the first sea-going colonizers. Once in Sahul, how humans populated Australia is still the subject of some debate between those who support the “coastal hugger” theory and those who support the idea of population by “overlanders.” The more diffcult of the two means of populating Australia is overland, as it is more arid than the coasts, and the evidence for tools overland is not as advanced as that for the coast.

Peopling the New World

North and South America were the last continents to be settled by humans. Most scholars think that the Americas were populated from Beringia over land. Around 12,000 years ago, mammoth hunting became more common and supported larger populations on both the Asian and American sides of Beringia, a landmass (now divided by the Bering Strait) which at that time connected North America and Asia. On the Asian side, outlines of houses with stone-lined hearths have been found, remnants indicating permanent settlement that didn’t necessarily have colonization as an end goal. But colonize they did, one group pushing southward between 10,000 and 3,000 years ago and establishing settlements that would become the origins of modern Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and Inuit populations. Another group migrated southeastward through Alaska, their descendants making it as far as Chile and Argentina.

While we know about when American colonization began, the pace and means of colonization are still debated. Complicating the discussion of timing is the fact that the Late Wisconsin Ice sheet blocked the overland route from about 30,000 years ago, when two sheets merged, up until about 12,000 years ago, when they opened after a thaw. At this point in time, only a handful of sites support possible pre-10,000 BCE occupation: Monte Verde in Chile, Meadowcraft near Pittsburgh, and Page-Ladson in Florida. As recently as 2015, excavations at Monte Verde and Chinchihuapi have strengthened the “possibility of an earlier human presence on the continent” to as far back as 17,000 BCE. This date has continued to move back in time as archeologists consider evidence of more mobile humans who did not leave large artifact clusters because of their ephemeral nature, but nonetheless may have been present before more sedentary groups.

For now, however, the clearest evidence for when the Americas were widely populated comes through the Clovis point, a specific arrowhead shape that was unique in its ubiquity and sophistication. The Clovis point was also found in mammoths that had grown extinct by 10, 500 years ago, this discovery meaning that humans were common in North America by then. From Beringia, humans moved at a rate of roughly 10 miles a year until they reached Tierra del Fuego and fully populated the Americas (with the exception of some tropical areas mentioned above).[9]

The Arctic

The first Paleo-Eskimo populations appeared around 4,000 years ago after arriving from Eastern Siberia, populations that were left behind by the American colonists already mentioned. The Arctic climate is harsh, to say the least, and these populations needed sophisticated weapons and tools to be able to survive it, which explains their late arrival.

The Arctic colonists expanded rapidly across Alaska, through Canada, and into Greenland, assisted by their arctic “small tool kits” that included the important toggle headed harpoons to kill walrus and seal.

Polynesian Migration | Author: David Eccles | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC-BY 3.0 Polynesian Migration | Author: David Eccles | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC-BY 3.0download image

  Polynesian origins

The origins of Polynesian humans are still very much in doubt. Groups of Polynesian mariners had existed 50,000 years ago, but they were not colonizers. In fact, many scholars argue that eventual colonization actually began as exploration. Around 2,500 years ago, we see more permanent settlements in Fiji, Tonga, and other areas of the “remote” Pacific, as remnants of pottery have been found there. Based on linguistic and technological similarities among Polynesian cultures, some scholars argue that Fiji, Somoa, and Tonga were a crucible of sorts where Polynesians were “made” from groups from throughout Asia. Once these cultural groups had a certain identity, they began to colonize Easter Island, Hawaii, and New Zealand about and beyond 1,000 CE. We can’t use land migration patterns to understand oversea migration. The Pacific was somewhat of a highway, where currents and winds were well-known and frequently used by mariners. Migrating humans were much more likely to wander aimlessly on land than they were to let currents take them to unknown parts of the ocean. Pacific mariners tacked to use the winds in their favor and, despite population pressures, Pacific mariners were too adept at seafaring to suggest a simple casting out of people into the Pacific in hopes of  finding something. Once Pacific colonization did commence, settlers were very deliberate about it, taking with them families, and plants, and animals. It seems that they had every intention of recreating “home.” In sum, the exploration was neither extremely heroic nor extremely risky but instead was calculated and not left to chance.


Chapter Two explores the importance of farming to the creation and expansion of early civilizations. However, farming was only invented 13,000 years ago, meaning that for most of human history, our food has come through foraging. Early hominids like australopithecines, Homo habilis, and Homo erectus ate mostly plant food. Homo sapiens became more sophisticated foragers as they began to fish with hooks and, more recently, nets, and as they used stone grinding tools to produce flour.

As food gathering techniques evolved for these Paleolithic foragers, so did their behavior as organized groups. Modern humans became mobile to prevent resource depletion; they controlled population through dispersion or infanticide, and they began to “live and work cooperatively.” Modern foragers also began to divide tasks and share food with others, a feature that distin- guishes them from other animals like chimpanzees that live in communities but feed individually.

Sharing food is, of course, much easier to do when there is a surplus, and, with increasing tool use, Paleolithic humans became even more adept at foraging, leading to the higher likelihood of food surpluses.

Tool use not only helped humans live cooperatively, but it also may have helped hominids develop abstract thought—evidence of tool use may give us a clue as to when this development began. We know that other animals use tools, but even as long as 2.6 million years ago, we see evidence of the creative thinking required to make more e ective toolsHomo habilis in fact takes its name (“handy man”) from the fact that they were the  rst known hominid tool-makers. Soon after individual tools appeared, the Oldowan Industry became the first widely used toolset, “consisting of  flaked and smashed quartz riverside pebbles made into poorly formed choppers and sharp stone flakes, [and] lasted for 1 million years with little change [from 2.6 to 1.5 million years ago].”[10] The Oldowan were followed about 1.5 million years ago by hand axes that remained unchanged for more than a million years. Many scholars argue that these smaller-brained hominids like Homo habilis, homo ergaster, and Australopithecus were both unable and unwilling to innovate much beyond their simple but e ective tools, especially considering how harsh their environment could become. Fire was another important tool, first used by Homo erectus about 1.6 million years ago. Fire would become important to migrants to colder climes in Europe and Asia and to foragers who could now eat foods that were poisonous if ingested raw. Homo erectus also cooked foods they had previously eaten raw, thereby expanding their lifespan by eliminating toxins found in raw meats.

Homo sapiens would add more meat to their diet when advances in tool-making led to an increase in big game hunting during the late Pleistocene. For example, excavations near Dolni Vetoniçe in the Czech Republic have helped reveal a society that “used mammoth remains not only for meat, but for fuel, construction, jewelry, and portable art.” The inhabitants of Dolni Vetoniçe also made thousands of ceramic  gurines, bird bone  utes, and ivory carvings of human heads. The cave paintings of Lascaux also re ect this increased skill as hunters and painters both. The colors and types of paint they used were vibrant and durable, and the scenes they depicted demonstrated their use of diverse hunting techniques. There we see depictions of humans hunting not only deer, but also woolly rhinoceros and mammoths.

Also at Lascaux, we see evidence that hunter-gatherers had both religious beliefs and gender speci c tasks, re ecting a sophistication that we usually only attribute to sedentary humans. The fact the humans and animals were depicted together so often at Lascaux may be evidence of a belief that man descended from these animals. Or perhaps the bison, rhinoceri, and birds were painted on the walls to produce “hunting magic” designed to make expeditions more successful. Finally, it was mostly men depicted in these higher-risk hunting activities, suggesting that women were the artists, participated less in the hunt, or both.

Closer to the Neolithic era, societies began to experience a growing role for women reflected through their representation in “Venus” statuettes. As we get closer to the Neolithic era, we see the relative role of women increasing; their place in ritual increases, their stature increases, their economic importance increases, and their childbearing uniqueness becomes more greatly emphasized. Increased sophistication was not limited to big game hunters, however. Campsites, rock art, and burial sites near Lake Mungo in Australia reveal how these early humans used pottery for cooking and had a diverse diet of birds, fish, and shellfish, a diet that seems to have kept them well-nourished.[11] Australia was a society of hunter-gatherers until European colonization. Mobility was essential, with the continent’s lack of widespread rainfall and rich soil. As a result, aboriginal Australians needed an extensive knowledge of their terrain and where to move when. Tasmanians would ambush wallabies at their seasonal grazing territory, while aborigines in the central deserts had to know when water holes would go dry. We also learn from the remains of Australian aborigines that foragers could be quite complex if they continued to hunt and gather for thousands of years. Aborigines painted, developed advanced weapons like the boomerang, warred against one another, developed creation myths, passed down oral histories, and played musical instruments.

Author: User "Peter80" | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA Author: User “Peter80″ | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SAdownload image


Agriculture and the “Neolithic Revolution”

Historian Lauren Ristvet defines agriculture as the “‘domestication’ of plants… causing it to change genetically from its wild ancestor in ways [that make] it more useful to human consumers.”[12] She and hundreds of other scholars from Hobbes to Marx have pointed to the Neolithic Revolution, that is, the move from a hunter-gatherer world to an agricultural one, as the root of what we today refer to as civilization. Without agriculture we don’t have empires, written language, factories, universities, or railroads. Despite its importance, much remains unclear about why and where agriculture began. Instead, scholars hold a handful of well-regarded theories about the roots (pun intended) of agriculture.

Most scholars agree that the Ice Age played a fundamental role in the rise of agriculture, in the sense that it was impossible during the much colder and often tundra-covered period of the Pleistocene, but inevitable during the Holocene thawing. Only 4,000 years before the origins of agriculture, the planting of anything would have been an exercise in futility. During the Last Glacial Maximum (24,000 – 16,000 years ago), average temperatures dropped “by as much as 57 ̊ F near the great ice sheets…”[13] This glaciation meant not only that today’s fertile farmlands of Spain or the North American Great Plains were increasingly covered in ice, but also that other areas around the world could not depend on constant temperatures or rainfall from year to year. Pleistocene foragers had to be flexible. The warming trend of the Holocene, by contrast, resulted in consistent rainfall amounts and more predictable temperatures. The warming also altered the habitats of the megafauna that humans hunted, alterations that in some cases contributed to their extinction. Therefore, as animal populations declined, humans were further encouraged to plant and cultivate seeds in newly-thawed soil.

When we start to examine other factors that allowed humans to transition to agriculture, we find that the climate factor looms even larger. For example, agriculture was usually accompanied by sedentarism, but we see communal living and permanent settlements among multiple groups of hunter-gatherers. Homo sapiens had also begun to domesticate animals and plants alike during the Pleistocene. Humans were already being buried alongside dogs as early as 14,000 years ago.[14] As we’ll see below, gatherers were developing an increasing taste for grains long before they would abandon a foraging lifestyle. Essentially, humans were ready for agriculture when climate permitted it.

We discuss elsewhere the timing of agriculture’s appearance in all of the continents, but generally speaking by about 8,000 years ago, farmers in West Asia were growing rye, barley, and wheat. In northern China, millet was common 8,500 years ago. In the Americas, the domestication of maize began around 8,000 years ago in Mesoamerica, while at about the same time, Andean residents began cultivating potatoes. Once all of these areas realized agriculture’s potential as a permanent food source, they began to adapt their societies to increase their crop consistency and crop yields. We’ll discuss how agriculture affected societal development below.

First farmers of West Asia [or the Fertile Crescent]


Author: User "Crates" | Source: Wikimedia Commons | Licence: CC BY 3.0 Author: User “Crates” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | Licence: CC BY 3.0download image

In later chapters we will discuss Mesopotamia, the area between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers that agriculture would make the “cradle of civilization.” However, the incubator of Mesopotamian and Fertile Crescent agriculture and cultural patterns dated back to the foragers of the nearby Eastern Mediterranean, thousands of years before. The rye, barley, and wheat in West Asia were first harvested by late Pleistocene foragers called the Kebarans who ground wild wheat and barley into a porridge.[15] Kebarans consumed the porridge as part of their broad spectrum diet that also included land mammals, birds, and fish. Advancing into the Holocene we see the “Natufan Adaptation,” where residents of this same area began to see the benefits of sedentary living in a precursor to the advent of agriculture. The Natufans consumed the same rye, barley, and wheat that their Kebaran predecessors had, but because their teeth were well-worn it appears they ate relatively more of it. Having a constant source of these grains enabled their eschewing long hunting or gathering sojourns; instead, the Natufans drew more of their meat from in and around Lake Huleh in modern Israel. Near Lake Huleh was Ain Mallaha, one of the earliest examples of year-round human settlement and an important precursor to sedentary agriculture.

Another permanent settlement in Southwest Asia seems to have been more directly responsible for the decision to actually domesticate grain, rather than simply cultivate wild varieties. Abu Hureya in Syria was deeply affected by the Younger Dryas event of 11,000 years ago, an event which caused many of their wild food staples to disappear. Rather than migrating out of the area, the Abu Hureyrans cultivated rye. Soon afterward, other sites in the Levant began to see the planting of barley, while wheat was cultivated in both the Levant and Anatolia.[16]

First Permanent Settlements in West Asia [or the Fertile Crescent]


Seals from Indus Valley cities | These were made from red steatite and used to imprint the identity of owners on goods. | Author: User “MrABlair23” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain Seals from Indus Valley cities | These were made from red steatite and used to imprint the identity of owners on goods. | Author: User “MrABlair23” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domaindownload image


Author: User "Interiot" | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain Author: User “Interiot” | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domaindownload image

The transition from foraging, to collecting to cultivating took place over several centuries, but these gradual changes did serve to mark a very distinct era of permanent settlement during the Neolithic Period. Increased rainfall around 9600 BCE meant that the Jordan River would swell yearly, in the process depositing layers of fertile soil along its banks. This fertile soil allowed locals to rely on agriculture for survival. Soon after they founded Jericho just north of the Dead Sea: “perhaps the very first time in human history that a completely viable population was living in the same place at the same time.”[17] By Jericho’s height, around 9000 BCE, the settlements population reached the hundreds. This increase cannot be considered an urban boom of course, and the transition away from foraging occurred gradually. For example, excavations from this area have unearthed no separation of tasks or dwellings by gender or skill. However, by the end of Jericho’s development, maintaining large populations in one place would prove to produce other extensive adjustments.[18]

Jericho’s residents did distinguish themselves from their hunter-gatherer predecessors, however, through their relatively extensive construction projects. They used mud bricks to build a wall that encircled the settlement probably for flood control, a tower, and separate buildings for grain storage.

The former foragers now living at Jericho could rely on fish or other aquatic creatures for meat as they experimented with permanent settlement, but those foragers living further away from large bodies of water would need another source of meat. This need increasingly was met by animal domestication. Domestication would prove to be a slow process, as humans learned the hard way that zebras bite, impalas are claustrophobic, and bighorn sheep do not obey orders. In other words, some animals cannot be domesticated, but this is information only under- stood through trial and error. By about 7,500 BCE, however, humans in the Taurus and Zagros mountains employed selective breeding to eventually domesticate mountain sheep and goats. The temperament and size of pigs and cows delayed their domestication until the 6,000s BCE, but this process proved equally, if not more important, than that of sheep and goats.

As agriculture and animal domestication progressed, settlements around the Mediterranean became larger and more sophisticated. By 7,000 BCE on the Anatolian plateau, Çatalhüyük reached several thousands of inhabitants. The residents at Çatalhüyük buried their dead, con- structed uniform adjacent houses with elaborate designs painted on their interior walls, and had multiple workshops where (among other activities) they wove baskets, and made obsidian mirrors as well as daggers with “carved bone handles.”[19] Catalhüyük denizens wove wool into cloth; developed a varied diet of peas, nuts, vegetable oil, apples, honey, and the usual grains; and improved weapons technology with sharper arrows added to their use of daggers and lances. These gains may seem modest by our standards, but the legacy of communal living and, ultimately, political centralization that they introduced was extraordinary.

Author: Omar Hoftun | Source: Wikimedia Commons | Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0 Author: Omar Hoftun | Source: Wikimedia Commons | Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0download image

Jericho and Çatalhüyük were surely some of the most notable early settlements, but they were not alone. The appearance of these two settlements was accompanied by the increasing presence of village life across the world. Most early agricultural villages in Southwest Asia and around the world were very similar in appearance; they had around twenty residents and were organized around grain cultivation and storage. Small huts were organized in a “loose circle,” and grain silos were placed between each hut. Labor was a communal activity, and village members all spent time hoeing the fields or hunting. The most valuable asset to a community was the grain itself, but neither it nor the land where it grew it belonged to one individual.

This model existed for hundreds and even thousands of years in some areas, until the villages stopped hunting and domesticated animals. For many scholars, the abandonment of hunting represents the “real” Neolithic Revolution. As communities completely abandoned hunting and gathering, they dedicated more energy to warfare, religion, and construction; in consequence, dwellings and settlements grew, along with a concomitant focus on tool and weapon making.[20]

Leaving a Paleolithic Culture Behind

While the Neolithic Era is described in greater detail elsewhere, it is important to understand Paleolithic and Neolithic differences in order to convey a sense of just how revolutionary the shift to agriculture was for humanity. For example, agriculture contributed to (along with religion and trade) the development of class. Before agriculture, hunter-gatherers divided tasks like seed gathering, grinding, or toolmaking. However, without large scale building projects like aqueducts or canals required for agriculture, hierarchies were much less pronounced. The intensification of agriculture during the Neolithic required irrigation, plowing, and terracing, all of which were labor intensive. The amount of labor required could not be met through simple task division; someone had to be in charge. This meant the establishment of ruling elites, a societal grouping that had not existed during the Paleolithic.

While violence certainly existed during the Paleolithic period, organized warfare was an invention of the Neolithic. Agriculture meant larger populations and settlements that were more tightly packed and closer to one another. These closer quarters created new social and economic pressures that could produce organized violence. Agricultural intensification produced stores of food and valuables that could be seized by neighbors. During the 9,000s BCE, settlements like Jericho began to build defensive walls, while skeletons unearthed in the area reveal wounds from new types of projectiles (like the Khiam Point) developed during the era.[21]

Family life also changed significantly during the Neolithic. Sedentary communities invested more time and resources into the construction of permanent homes housing nuclear families. People spent less time with the community as a whole and within homes it became easier to accumulate wealth and keep secrets. The shift in gender roles after agriculture seems to be even more pronounced, as the role of women became more important as humans moved out of the Paleolithic and into the Neolithic era. During the Paleolithic Era, and until recently in fact, a child would be breastfed until he or she was three or four years old, a necessity preventing mothers from joining long-distance hunting expeditions without their toddlers. However, a breastfeeding woman could complete tasks that “don’t requirerapt concentration, are relatively dull and repetitive; they are easily interrupted, don’t place the child in danger, and don’t require the participant to stray far from home.”[22] Spinning, weaving, and sewing were some of these tasks. Also, the essential tasks of preparing food and clothing could be accomplished with a nursing toddler nearby. These tasks that may be consigned as “women’s work” today are among the most important tasks (and very time consuming ones before the industrial revolution) that a human could perform. In fact, they were so time consuming that women would spend most of their day on them, often being assisted by men.

Over time, Paleolithic women gathered new species of berries as well as bird eggs, and learned which mushrooms were nontoxic. Women also were the principal gatherers of mosses for sleeping mats and other plants for shelter. When men returned with a kill, the women then began an involved process of dressing and butchering it. Sinews from animals and fibers from plants became rope to tie or fasten the hides as well as baskets. Women thus were essential to any kind of productivity or progress associated with hunting. Women used sinews and fibers to create netting for transport and for hunting and fishing. In hunting societies with elements of horticulture, women were responsible for, and could provide, such food as legumes, eggs, and grains. Food gathering and weaving, especially in the dry Mediterranean, was an outdoor and community activity that also served as a preschool and apprentice system for children. So women were also community educators.

Neolithic Women

While Paleolithic women certainly had important responsibilities, the added tasks of herding and animal domestication expanded their roles tremendously in the Neolithic era. Neolithic survival required not only effective food storage, but also increased production. Children on a farm can be more helpful and put in less danger than those on a hunt. Neolithic women increasingly bore more children, either because of increased food production or to help augment it. This increase in child bearing may also have o set an increase in mortality due, for example, to disease. Because dangers from disease grew in new villages due to the ease with which deadly diseases spread in close quarters, and nearby domesticated animals whose diseases spread from animal to humans, more children would be necessary to replace those who had succumbed to illness.

While Neolithic women carried an increased child-bearing responsibility, their other responsibilities did not necessarily wane. Though women may not have  red pottery when it began to appear some 6,000 years ago, they appeared on it in decorative symbols of female fertility. Around 4,000 BCE, gendered tasks shifted again with the domestication of draft animals. Food production once again became men’s domain, as herding was incompatible with childrearing. Later, in Neolithic herding societies, women were often responsible for the actual domestication of feral babies, nursing them and raising them. Men would shear sheep, help weave, market the textiles, and cultivate the food that was prepared in the home.

We should say that this was not the case with all agricultural societies, as many horticulturalists who were able to cultivate crops closer to home were able to remain matrilineal. For example, we have the case of Minoan women on the Mediterranean island of Crete that we discuss in more detail in Chapter 3. On Crete’s hilly terrain, women were able to cultivate terraced horticulture and keep herds of sheep and goats nearby. Therefore, as women lost power and influence elsewhere due to more intensive agriculture, Minoan women actually expanded their control over Crete’s economic and cultural life and would help give rise to Classical Greece.

Toward First Civilizations

We will discuss the Bronze Age in the third and fourth chapters, but we should mention here that new pursuits like mining added to the domestic burden on women. The advent of the Bronze Age led to far-spread searching and mining for copper and other metals like arsenic or tin to harden it and create the bronze alloy. Mining consequently become a male pursuit. Between 9,000 and 4,000 BCE, as metal become a source for wealth and subsistence, men’s roles shifted from being secondary to being both the food collectors and the economic backbone of individual families and societies.

These Neolithic developments in sedentary agriculture and village life would be the foundation for an explosion of cultural development three thousand years later in Egypt and Mesopotamia (addressed later in this text). By the Age of Exploration in the 1500s CE, most of the world had adopted agriculture as a primary means of subsistence, and the foundation of great civilizations.


The story of world civilizations really begins six to eight million years ago when ancestors of modern humans began to walk upright. Millions of years of evolutionary response to changing climates and environment led to the existence of our species, Homo sapiens. While other hominids migrated out of Africa, had language, and made  re and tools, it was Homo sapiens who were able to navigate open oceans and eventually populate the entire planet. Over the last 50,000 years or so, Homo sapiens became modern humans by improving their hunting, their building techniques, their community living, and their food gathering and storage. About 10,000 years ago, the Neolithic Era began. Humans began to live in larger, permanent settlements where a permanent food source needed to be nearby. These were the beginnings of agriculture. This “agricultural revolution” deeply affected gender relationships, class distinctions, and economic priorities as most humans left their foraging days behind them, the importance of which will be discussed in later chapters.


  1. David J. Meltzer, The Great Paleolithic War: How Science Forged an Understanding of America’s Ice Age Past (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 1.
  2. J.E.G Sutton, “Archeology and Reconstructing History in the Kenya Highlands: The Intellectual Legacies of G.W.B. Huntingford and Louis S.B. Leakey,” History in Africa 34, (2007): 313.
  3. Lauren Ristvet, In the Beginning: World History from Human Evolution to the First States (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2007), 4.
  4. Ibid., 3-5.
  5. Almudena Estalrrich and Antonio Rosas, “Division of Labor by Sex and Age in Neandertals: An Approach Through the Study of Activity-Related Dental Wear,” Journal of Human Evolution 80, (March 2015): 51-63.
  6. Ristvet., 24-26.
  7. Clive Gamble, Timewalkers: Prehistory of Global Colonization (Bath, Avon: The Bath Press, 1993), 125-128.
  8. Ibid., 135.
  9. Dillehay TD, Ocampo C, Saavedra J, Sawakuchi AO, Vega RM, Pino M, et al. (2015) “New Archaeological Evidence for an Early Human Presence at Monte Verde, Chile,” PLoS ONE 10(11): e0141923. doi: .0141923:208.
  10. Ristvet, 17-22.
  11. Ibid., 27-30.
  12. Ibid., 36.
  13. Ibid., 36-37.
  14. 14 Chris Scarre, ed. The Human Past: World Prehistory and the Development of Human Societies. 2nd ed. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2009), 183-84.
  15. Ristvet, 41.
  16. Ristvet, 41-42.
  17. Steven Mithen, After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000 – 5,000 BC. (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003), 59.
  18. Robert Strayer, Ways of the World: A Brief Global History with Sources, 2nd ed (New York, Bedford St. Martins, 2013), 40.
  19. Mithen, 94.
  20. Ristvet, 66.
  21. Scarre, 192, 215.
  22. Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years – Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times, (New York: Norton, 1995), 30.

Works Consulted and Further Reading

Bradley, Bruce and Dennis Stanford. “A Possible Paleolithic Route to the New World.” World Archaelolgy 36 no. 4 (Dec., 2004): 459-478.

Dillehay TD, Ocampo C, Saavedra J, Sawakuchi AO, Vega RM, Pino M, et al. (2015)“New Archaeological Evidence for an Early Human Presence at Monte Verde, Chile.” PLoS ONE 10(11): e0141923. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0141923

Estalarrich, Almudena and Antinio Rosas. “Division of Labor by Sex and Age in Neandertals: An Approach Through the Study of Activity-Related Dental Wear.” Journal of Human Evolution 80 (March 2015): 51-63.

Fawcett, Percy. Exploration Fawcett: Journey to the Lost City of Z. New York: The Overlook Press, 2010.

Gamble, Clive. Timewalkers: Prehistory of Global Colonization. Bath, Avon: The Bath Press, 1993.

Grann, David. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. New York: Vintage Books, 2010.

Mithen, Steven. After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000-5,000 BC. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003.

Ristvet, Lauren. In the Beginning: World History from Human Evolution to the First States. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2007.

Scarre, Chris, ed. The Human Past: World Prehistory and the Development of Human Societies. 2nd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2009.

Smithsonian Institution, Human Origins Initiative. species/homo-habilis

Sutton, J.E.G. “Archeology and Reconstructing History in the Kenya Highlands: The Intellectual Legacies of G.W.B. Huntingford and Louis S.B. Leakey.” History in Africa 34 (2007), pp. 297-320.

Strayer, Robert. Ways of the World: A Brief Global History with Sources, 2nd. Ed. New York, Bedford St. Martins, 2013.

Wayland Barber, Elizabeth. Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years – Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times. New York: Norton, 1995.

Links to Primary Sources

Bering Land Bridge National Preserve

Oldowan & Acheulean Stone Tools Dolni Vetoniçe Natufian site of Eyan/Ain Mallaha Çatalhüyük

From Berger, Eugene; Israel, George; Miller, Charlotte; Parkinson, Brian; Reeves, Andrew; and Williams, Nadejda, “World History: Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500″ (2016). History Open Textbooks. Book 2.

\World History: Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. CC BY-SA

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Platform of the National-Socialist German Workers’ Party

The Program of the German Workers’ Party is a program for our time.

The leadership rejects the establishment of new aims after those set out in the Program have been achieved, for the sole purpose of making it possible for the Party to continue to exist as the result of the artificially stimulated dissatisfaction of the masses.

1. We demand the uniting of all Germans within one Greater Germany, on the basis of the right to self-determination of nations.

2. We demand equal rights for the German people (Volk) with respect to other nations, and the annulment of the peace treaty of Versailles and St. Germain.

3. We demand land and soil (Colonies) to feed our People and settle our excess population.

4. Only Nationals (Volksgenossen) can be Citizens of the State. Only persons of German blood can be Nationals, regardless of religious affiliation. No Jew can therefore be a German National.

5. Any person who is not a Citizen will be able to live in Germany only as a guest and must be subject to legislation for Aliens.

6. Only a Citizen is entitled to decide the leadership and laws of the State. We therefore demand that only Citizens may hold public office, regardless of whether it is a national, state or local office.

We oppose the corrupting parliamentary custom of making party considerations, and not character and ability, the criterion for appointments to official positions.

7. We demand that the State make it its duty to provide opportunities of employment first of all for its own Citizens. If it is not possible to maintain the entire population of the State, then foreign nationals (non-Citizens) are to be expelled from the Reich.

8. Any further immigration of non-Germans is to be prevented. We demand that all non-Germans who entered Germany after August 2, 1914, be forced to leave the Reich without delay.

9. All German Citizens must have equal rights and duties.

10. It must be the first duty of every Citizen to carry out intellectual or physical work. Individual activity must not be harmful to the public interest and must be pursued within the framework of the community and for the general good.

We therefore demand:

11. The abolition of all income obtained without labor or effort.

Breaking the Servitude of Interest.

12. In view of the tremendous sacrifices in property and blood demanded of the nation by every war, personal gain from the war must be termed a crime against the nation. We therefore demand the total confiscation of all war profits.

13. We demand the nationalization of all enterprises (already) converted into corporations (trusts).

14. We demand profit-sharing in large enterprises.

15. We demand the large-scale development of old-age pension schemes.

16. We demand the creation and maintenance of a sound middle class; the immediate communalization of the large department stores, which are to be leased at low rates to small tradesmen. We demand the most careful consideration for the owners of small businesses in orders placed by national, state, or community authorities.

17. We demand land reform in accordance with our national needs and a law for expropriation without compensation of land for public purposes. Abolition of ground rent and prevention of all speculation in land.

18. We demand ruthless battle against those who harm the common good by their activities. Persons committing base crimes against the People, usurers, profiteers, etc., are to be punished by death without regard to religion or race.

19. We demand the replacement of Roman Law, which serves a materialistic World Order, by German Law.

20. In order to make higher education – and thereby entry into leading positions – available to every able and industrious German, the State must provide a thorough restructuring of our entire public educational system. The courses of study at all educational institutions are to be adjusted to meet the requirements of practical life. Understanding of the concept of the State must be achieved through the schools (teaching of civics) at the earliest age at which it can be grasped. We demand the education at the public expense of specially gifted children of poor parents, without regard to the latters’ position or occupation.

21. The State must raise the level of national health by means of mother-and-child care, the banning of juvenile labor, achievements of physical fitness through legislation for compulsory gymnastics and sports, and maximum support for all organizations providing physical training for young people.

22. We demand the abolition of hireling troops and the creation of a national army.

23. We demand laws to fight against deliberate political lies and their dissemination by the press. In order to make it possible to create a German press, we demand:

a) all editors and editorial employees of newspapers appearing in the German language must be German by race;

b) non-German newspapers require express permission from the State for their publication. They may not be printed in the German language;

c) any financial participation in a German newspaper or influence on such a paper is to be forbidden by law to non-Germans and the penalty for any breach of this law will be the closing of the newspaper in question, as well as the immediate expulsion from the Reich of the non-Germans involved.

Newspapers which violate the public interest are to be banned. We demand laws against trends in art and literature which have a destructive effect on our national life, and the suppression of performances that offend against the above requirements.

24. We demand freedom for all religious denominations, provided that they do not endanger the existence of the State or offend the concepts of decency and morality of the Germanic race.

The Party as such stands for positive Christianity, without associating itself with any particular denomination. It fights against the Jewish-materialistic spirit within and around us, and is convinced that a permanent revival of our nation can be achieved only from within, on the basis of: Public Interest before Private Interest.

25. To carry out all the above we demand: the creation of a strong central authority in the Reich. Unquestioned authority by the political central Parliament over the entire Reich and over its organizations in general. The establishment of trade and professional organizations to enforce the Reich basic laws in the individual states.

The Party leadership promises to take an uncompromising stand, at the cost of their own lives if need be, on the enforcement of the above points.

Munich, Germany

February 24, 1920.