Classical World Civilizations: An Introduction


The purpose of this book is to examine the emergence of ancient urban civilization on three continents, Africa, Europe, and Asia. Tracing development regionally from prehistoric times through the height of the ancient experience, the book will attempt to identify traits forming the “Classical essence” of each civilization – traits that gave each civilization its individual character and traits that formed the basis and are inherently recognizable in modern cultures that evolved in the same regions. Our treatment extends from prehistoric times until the "end of antiquity,' or by our reckoning from 150,000 before present to the 8-10th centuries AD. Chronologically we organize this material according to three recognized eras of ancient civilization: The Bronze Age 3000-1100 BC, The Classical or Early Iron Age 1000-27 BC, and the Roman Era 27 BC-612 AD. In addition, the book provides a brief introductory chapter on human Prehistory as well as a chapter on the End of Antiquity. It should be apparent that dates for most of the material covered in this book proceed backward, from BC (Before Christ) to AD (Anno Domini) or from BCE (Before Common Era) to CE (Common Era). For dates ranging in remote prehistory (tens of thousands of years ago) the acronym BP (Before Present) is also used.


Our chief premise is that civilizations thriving in distant continents during these eras became increasingly linked by an ancient world system, At the height of the second century AD this interconnection enabled societies such as the Roman Mediterranean, East Africa, various principalities in India, and the Han dynasty in China to attain their greatest levels of urban existence, material prosperity, and cultural achievement prior to modern times. Despite the limitations posed by pre-industrial technologies, by the second century AD large urban societies were thriving across a broad expanse of landmass, sea, and ocean. To a great degree the size of these societies far exceeded those of societies existing in the same regions more than a thousand years later. Given its degree of sophistication and level of advancement attained at this time, the Classical world experience offers useful parallels to a number of issues confronting urban societies today.


The assertions made in the previous paragraph are obviously quite broad and far reaching. In particular, several of the terms employed above warrant working definitions. For example, what precisely defines a civilization, not to mention an ancient world system? Many of the concepts used in this book to describe ancient civilizations arise from the discipline of anthropology, that is, the scientific study of the origin of human kind and the physical, social, and cultural development and behavior of the same. It may be best to begin with these.




First, it is important to recognize that civilizations represent peak moments in the processual development of human culture. Cultures arguably are the building blocks of civilizations. Human cultures arise, expand, merge, and advance to the point where a "critical mass" of civilization takes hold. So what does culture entail? Anthropologists define culture as a uniquely human system of habits and customs acquired by humans through exosomatic processes, carried by their society and used as their primary means of adapting to their environment. Inherent in this definition is the insistence on learned, as opposed to genetic behavior. Birds migrate seasonally as a result of millions of years of genetic hard-wiring; humans harnessed fire through a process of discovery, observation, and learning. In other words, humans in isolated cultural contexts, such as those that existed in prehistory, acquired skills, experience, and knowledge over time regarding ways to adapt to a changing environment. They simultaneously handed these skills down from one generation to the next. Unlike animals, humans learned to fashion tools for specific purposes, to design habitats for various needs, to express themselves through language and art, to articulate a sense of awareness of their place in the universe, to revere deities, and ultimately to formulate appropriate ways to commemorate their dead. Understanding the significance of unique sets of cultural attributes holds the key to explaining past human experience. In brief, culture reflects the single most distinct trait that separates humankind from other forms of life.


Discussion of the material remains of past human cultures leads inevitably to an important sub discipline of anthropology, namely, archaeology. Laypersons tend to associate archaeology with excavation of ancient settlements, large abandoned cities and the like, and fail to realize that excavation is ideally the culmination and last resort of a larger archaeological process of investigation. In general, archaeologists interpret data obtained from remains of past human cultures and civilizations. These can exist as scattered surface remains such as broken pieces of pottery and ruined buildings exposed to view in a rural countryside to severely altered landscapes owing to past practices of land use. Archaeology arguably holds greater significance for the study of prehistoric cultures and civilizations than for those in historical eras, where surviving textual information contributes extensively to our knowledge. The term culture is extremely useful for describing human elements that otherwise left little to no written record of themselves. This statement, however, raises the issue of distinguishing between history from prehistory and the significance of the evidence for each. We will return to these questions in the following chapter.


Several human elements in prehistory developed cultures that were suited to a particular environment yet would not qualify as Civilization. In this book a civilization is defined as a uniform society that exhibits the following characteristics; for purposes of this course these are the




1. URBAN CENTERS, Cities or large dense settlements

All civilizations arose from cultures that adapted to settled agricultural existence capable of producing food surpluses to sustain large populations. As clusters of small agricultural settlements expanded, urban centers typically emerged.


2. PROFESSIONS or the separation of population into specialized occupational groups

Due to the availability of surplus agricultural resources, all civilizations developed labor elements that specialized in activities other than food production. Craft, artisan, metallurgy, forestry, merchant and other non-agricultural professionals emerged by exchanging the results of their labor (metal wares, pottery, timber, stone) for food produced by farming populations.


3. ELITES or a social hierarchy that was exempt from subsistence labor

All civilizations generated stratified population elements at the top of which stood elites. These usually included some combination of warrior elites, priestly castes, noble aristocracies, and/or royal dynasties. Elite elements dominated lower social elements and drew upon their surpluses to sustain themselves, thus freeing themselves from participation in every day subsistence labor. These elites invariably justified their existence by furnishing military protection, religious direction, political representation, legal authority, and social order to those below.


4. PUBLIC WEALTH or the ability to extract and store surpluses in the form of taxes and tribute.

In addition to rents and dues obtain by elites to sustain themselves, ruling elites also imposed various forms of taxes in the interest of the state. These resources would be used to finance activities to benefit the common good, such as offerings to the gods or the construction of urban defenses. Poll taxes, property taxes, income taxes, import and export duties, and sales taxes were all devised by early civilizations. The human lament of "death and taxes" has been a constant since the beginning of recorded history. Tribute was slightly different in that tribute was a tax imposed on subject states by an overlord state. This indicates the existence of empire, a political formation recorded in Sumeria already by 2700 BC. From the perspective of the dominant empire tribute enabled it to sustain itself and to deploy its forces against outside threats, thus furnishing security to subject states. From the vantage point of the subject states, however, tribute amounted to a form of extortion imposed on already burdened native population, inevitably provoking impoverishment, resentment, and rebellion. This problem will be discussed in greater detail below.


5. PUBLIC ARCHITECTURE or Monumental public buildings.

All civilizations used the advantage of their large populations to engage in the construction of monumental buildings. These might range from something as imposing and as essential as defensive fortifications, such as the massive city walls of Babylon or the Great Wall of China, to something as aesthetically graceful and spiritually uplifting as the Temple of Athena Parthenos in Athens (the Parthenon). Palaces, council houses, baths, aqueducts, theaters, stadia, and long colonnaded, stone paved roadways all required the labor of work crews of size and skill greater than that available to smaller less stratified societies. Monumental public buildings not only furnished security and improved the quality of life for its inhabitants, but the character of the achievement tended to reflect the aspirations of a civilization not to mention its level of cultural development.


6. LITERACY or a System of Writing

All great civilizations developed a system of writing, preserving for us at least some partial record of their experience, their accomplishments and usually some manifestation of an articulated world-view, either philosophical or religious.


7. CREATURE COMFORTS or the construction of permanent habitations.

One of the first challenges of any urban civilization is to furnish safe, secure means of shelter to its inhabitants. Most Civilizations developed primitive systems of urban infrastructure that improved the general quality of life. These might include insulated houses with terracotta roofs to withstand the elements. Houses might contain indoor plumbing, means of heating and cooking, furnishings, bathing, and latrine facilities. Large scale, well organized water systems were essential to direct and to distribute fresh, clean water across urban areas. Sewerage systems were equally necessary to draw away waste materials without provoking outbreaks of contagion or disease. Roads were necessary to bring in agricultural goods from the surrounding hinterland, and massive storage facilities and market places were equally necessary to enable the distribution of surplus commodities throughout the population. One of the more recent ways to assess the achievements of a past civilizations is by calibrating the relative level of creature comforts (quality of life) that it furnished to its residents vertically (i.e., to what extent did comforts extend beyond the social elites to lower elements of society?) as well as horizontally (i.e., spatially, to what degree did similar levels of creature comfort and household technology extend beyond the core urban centers to the periphery?).


These are the basic components that will be applied to civilizations in this book. Of course, to define a particular human culture as a civilization presupposes a number of assumptions that could be interpreted as bias. Some civilizations produced most but not all of the essential criteria. Drawing the line on these points risks undercutting the significance of several important world cultures in the Americas, Thailand, Japan, and elsewhere. While recognizing these shortcomings the authors use these criteria nonetheless to focus on those civilizations that left the greatest possible impact on the development of a Classical World System. Due to their superior labor power, surplus resources, stratified societies, military resources, and accessibility within the constraints of ancient technologies, certain civilizations were able to impose their authority on neighboring regions, tapping into new and different resource further abroad, while retaining the neighboring people in subordinate positions. Control of peoples and resources on the periphery led to contact with civilizations still further away. This extension of communications further and further abroad formed the basis of an emerging world system.


These are the basic components that will be applied to civilizations in this book. Of course, to define a particular human culture as a civilization presupposes a number of assumptions that could be interpreted as bias. Some civilizations produced most but not all of the essential criteria. Drawing the line on these points risks undercutting the significance of several important world cultures in the Americas, Thailand, Japan, and elsewhere. While recognizing these shortcomings the author uses these criteria nonetheless to focus on those civilizations that left the greatest possible impact on the development of a Classical World System. Due to their superior labor power, surplus resources, stratified societies, military resources, and accessibility within the constraints of ancient technologies, certain civilizations were able to impose their authority on neighboring regions, tapping into new and different resource further abroad, while retaining the neighboring people in subordinate positions. Control of peoples and resources on the periphery led to contact with civilizations still further away. This extension of communications further and further abroad forms the basis of an emerging world system.


Another potential bias arises from the implicit assumption that urban civilizations are somehow more advanced, and therefore furnish more legitimate or viable ways of life than rural or particularly pastoral societies.  To be certain, positives and negatives exist in any way of life, making it wiser to refer to these as alternative if not competing strategies for survival.


Agricultural societies, for example, utilized the 'carrying capacity' of a given environment to sustain the largest possible human population in a sedentary manner by generating stored food surpluses. Abundant food supplies not only enabled agricultural communities to generate larger population and greater stability, but they started the process of specialization by enabling at least some small portion of the population to focus on other needs. For an agricultural society to flourish farmers by necessity alter the natural state of a landscape by clearing terrain, by refashioning it artificially, and by maintaining it in this transformed state. The ability to generate and store surplus food offered cultures greater stability and even raised the possibility of exchanges with neighboring as well as distant cultures. However the investment of time and energy in settled agricultural existence, with its requirements of permanent installations for food production and storage, rendered agricultural societies vulnerable to raiding and plundering during periods of instability. During antiquity at any rate settled agricultural societies bore the brunt of destruction provoked by warfare and/or migration. Agricultural societies also tended to become rigidly hierarchical, with a tendency to lock property less elements into permanent states of underclass existence. What ancient farmers gained in stability' in other words, they possibly lost in terms of individual freedom and social mobility.


To be sure, urban societies offered superior advantages with respect to cultural amenities, material comfort, and intellectual expression. Their large populations also enabled them to build defenses furnishing greater means of security. Their military power enabled them to dominate neighboring regions and thus to exploit a wider array of resources than typically available to rural subsistence communities. Drawbacks to urban societies included their tendency to overburden the traditional family structure and its support systems, the inevitable dislocations that arose between rich and poor, and the presence of under classes, crime, civil unrest and social dissension. In addition, since urban societies consumed vastly more food resources than they produced, they remained dependent for their survival on a constant flow of commodities from without. If and when food supplies were interrupted (during military sieges, for example) the safety of the population was imperiled notwithstanding the security furnished by monumental ramparts.


Pastoral cultures obtained security through mobility, that is, their ability to relocate to safer, remote areas when confronted by danger. Contrary to popular notions pastoral societies enjoyed significant wealth in the form of sizable herds of sheep, goats, or cattle. The byproducts of these resources, combined with a hearty lifestyle, furnished a healthier diet when compared with those available to under class elements in ancient cities. The social ordering furnished by tightly knit pastoral units - family, warrior band, extended clan, and tribe - was invariably more egalitarian than those of urban societies, albeit more patriarchal. Drawbacks to pastoral existence arose from the inability of mobile populations to accumulate the wide variety of creature comforts available in settled societies, in essence, condemning their populations to lives of hardship and austerity. Nomad austerity becomes a byword for this way of life. Another drawback was the need for territory, as in undeveloped, untilled hills and plains for grazing. Pastoral populations by necessity remained small because the demand for grazing land and lack of permanent settlement limited their capacity for population growth. Arising from tightly knit clans kept apart from urban populations, the limited gene pools available to pastoral communities may have further inhibited population rise. From the perspective of human population size, accordingly, pastoral existence represented the least efficient means of utilizing the carrying capacity of a given landscape. While uncontrolled grazing has the ability to cause severe ecological damage, particularly in highland regions with fragile forest ecosystems, it poses fewer environmental complications than agricultural land clearing and maintenance. In general, smaller pastoral populations were able to coexist with settled agricultural and urban populations, filling a niche by inhabiting 'wasteland' on the margins of settled agricultural societies. Under optimum conditions the three population elements - pastoral, agricultural, and urban - were able to coexist in relative states of tolerance and interdependency. However, the pastoral populations need for open uninhabited terrain kept them inevitably at odds with the expanding populations of agricultural societies, and their highly autonomous lifestyles and unwillingness to submit to rents and taxation imposed by social hierarchies inevitably led to tension. As noted anthropologist Graham Clark commented, much of the conflict of the prehistoric era appears to have emerged from competition for land use between mobile pastoralists and sedentary agriculturalists. As we shall see, this dynamic appears to have played some  determining role in the rise and fall of urban civilizations, and thus the historical evolution of ancient world systems. We must now turn to a definition of this last term.




The theory of world systems was introduced by Immanuel Wallerstein to describe the interrelationships of technologically advanced populations and less advanced neighboring peoples participating in emerging Early Modern market economies. The utility of this model for understanding the interrelationships of pre modern interregional economic systems remains significant, though much debated. Simply put (and at the risk of expropriating technical vocabulary for the purpose of this book) a world system emerged when a more advanced civilization assumed control over the economic activities of less advanced neighboring populations, particularly by exploiting the neighboring peoples' available natural resources. Asymmetrical relationships emerged in which more advanced civilizations, or "core polities' dominated the activities of subordinate or 'periphery' polities. Invariably, the relationship emerged as one in which the core polity exported costly, technologically more advanced finished goods (such as metal wares, ceramic fine wares, household furnishings, textiles, wine and olive oil) to peripheral states in exchange for abundant, unfinished natural resources such as timber, stone, metals, slaves, and foodstuffs. The more advanced core polity used its wealth and power to manipulate flows of material, energy, and people at a macroregional (“world-system”) scale through the establishment of ties of super ordinance and dependency.


This model for emerging capitalist market economies holds potentially useful application for a number of historical developments in the Classical world. At the same time it is important to recognize that the entire question of the existence, let alone the character of market economies during ancient times, and therefore the viability of this model to Classical world phenomena, remains a heated subject of debate.


Classical Mediterranean scholars insist, for example, that most economic activity during the Roman era operated at subsistence or at best at redistributive levels of economic integration and that it was devoid of market mechanisms resembling those of modern times. The view presented here is that ancient civilizations invariably transited through more primitive forms of economic behavior to achieve some level of market ordered economy as they flourished. To thrive as civilizations, and more importantly to obtain sufficient supplies of food stuffs and natural resources, ancient urban societies had to rely extensively on core-peripheral relationships with neighboring, less developed cultures, in essence forming the core polities of primitive world systems. For purposes of this book, therefore, ancient urban civilizations and core polities will be regarded as synonymous.


World system theorists struggle with an array of other issues. For example, the most persuasive proponents of the argument for the existence of an ancient world system situate the location of its core polity in the Ancient Near (Middle) East, where the earliest civilizations- Sumeria, Akkadia, Babylonia, Assyria - emerged. [Not surprisingly these proponents tend to specialize in Ancient Near Eastern studies.]  These investigators by and large view the Middle East as the permanent core of world system development. Civilization began here, never "collapsed", and continues to emanate from this region. We will return to this question when we consider the implications of the Classical World System in a later chapter. Others examining conditions during the Hellenistic era (323-27 BC), if not earlier, argue that polities in Mesopotamia had declined to peripheral status by this time if not earlier. As early as the late Bronze Age (1450 BC), in fact, Mediterranean civilizations such as New Kingdom Egypt and the Hittite empire of Anatolia arguably assumed dominant roles as competing core polities. By the 6th century BC the urban populations of Mesopotamia submitted to the rule of Persian authorities from the Iranian plateau. The Persian Empire dominated regional populations from the Aegean Sea to the Indus River for three centuries. During the Classical era, the Athenian Empire of the fifth century BC imposed its authority throughout the eastern Mediterranean sea lanes, extracting "tribute" from polities as distant as the northern Black Sea coast, Cyprus, Phoenicia, Egypt, and Sicily. Athens would appear, thus, to have qualified as a core polity at this time. During the Roman era (27 BC-336 AD) few would deny that Rome and its Italian confederacy emerged as the core polity of the entire Mediterranean world. Its military forces invaded Mesopotamia repeatedly and arguably dominated the region for several centuries. Attempting to rationalize these developments within the construct of an ancient world system, some theorists argue that the location of core polities could shift over time depending on demographic changes as well as those in the availability of natural resources.


The authors prefer to leave these questions suspended for the time being in order to focus on broader issues of interaction between highly distant civilizations. Regardless of the relative locations of ancient core polities, for our purposes an equally important question remains whether or not civilizations or world systems separated by seemingly insurmountable barriers of distance, topography, and limited technology, could engage in relationships definable as a "macroregional" world system. This is the chief matter which this book intends to explore. By focusing on this topic we will present the emergence of Classical World Civilizations as a somewhat linear progression leading to an era of significant material interaction and cultural transfers between distant civilizations by the second century AD. Assuming that ancient Eurasian and African core polities were in economic and cultural contact with one another, one could argue that various empires organized the resource-productive capacity of their respective civilizations to engage one another economically and prospered from that engagement. While the scale and the significance of this interaction remains open to discussion, preliminarily one can posit that the existence of macroregional interaction enabled each respective civilization to flourish in a manner otherwise unattainable in isolation. In other words, the existence of macroregional contact between ancient regional civilizations helped to forge a Classical World System on a nearly global scale.




To verify conclusions about the existence of a Classical World System, we must first survey phases of development in regional urban civilizations in chronological context. Since accurate dating is essential, we need to devote some discussion to the methodological bases of dating procedures themselves. Beyond this we will apply the six criteria listed above to each emerging civilization with attention devoted not only to the manner in which a given civilization conformed to these requirements but also to the manner in which it attained prosperity, population, political organization, and a uniquely articulated world view. In addition, the book focuses heavily on ancient social and cultural development and relies heavily on evidence of ancient material culture to reconstruct some sense of the quality of life for past civilizations. In this respect one could argue that the work is highly 'structural' in its thinking. At the same time the book relies on literary texts to assess the belief systems and cultural aspirations of Classical civilizations. In this respect the book presents a cultural perspective of the ancient experience. In essence, greater emphasis is placed on the life experiences of everyday peoples as collectives than on the historical narratives of ancient kings and emperors. This perspective enables us to distinguish cultural history from narrative history. For a handful of truly significant figures whose careers marked important transitions in world affairs and/or watersheds in human intellectual development some attention must be given to them as individuals. These figures include individuals such as Hammurabi, Siddartha, Confucius, Qin Shuangdi, Pericles, Socrates, Alexander the Great, Ashoka, Julius Caesar, Augustus, Jesus, Constantine, and Mohammed. In other respects the focus of this book remains devoted to the reconstruction of the cultural life of everyday people in the Classical world.