Introduction: The Approach to Classical World Civilizations


The purpose of this book is to examine the emergence of ancient urban civilizations on three continents, Africa, Europe, and Asia. The author defines these civilizations as ancient world systems that underwent similar patterns of growth and collapse. Tracing development regionally from prehistoric times through the height of the ancient experience, we will identify the Classical traits of each civilization – traits that gave each regional culture its individual character and traits that 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 (BP) to the sixth century AD. Chronologically we organize this material according to three recognized eras of urban civilization: The Bronze Age 3000-1100 BC, The Classical or Early Iron Age 1000-27 BC, and the Roman Era 27 BC-612 AD. 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 increasingly came in contact with one another to form an interconnected or global world system. At the height of the second century AD, interconnectivity 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 expansion, material prosperity, and cultural achievement prior to modern times. Despite the limitations posed by pre-industrial technologies, large urban societies were thriving across a broad expanse of landmass, sea, and ocean at this time. In many regions the size of these societies far exceeded those of societies existing in the same regions more than a thousand years later. Nonetheless, by 600 AD all these societies collapsed. In the case of Rome collapse was dramatic; in India and China, on the other hand, traditional societies recovered within a relatively brief period of time. Although it is harder to document, something very similar appears to have happened at earlier points in the ancient experience, for example, at the end of the Early Bronze Age, 2200-2100 BC, at the end of the Middle Bronze Age, ca. 1550 BC, and most particularly at the end of the Late Bronze Age, 1200 BC. At these moments highly integrated economies and hierarchies in Egypt, the Aegean, Anatolia, Syria-Palestine, and Mesopotamia appear to have experienced simultaneous setbacks such as population decline, loss of advanced skills, and a reversion from urban to rural settlement patterns. The benefits furnished by complex urban societies – literacy, monumental architecture, advanced creature comforts – declined into phases invariably referred to as “Dark Ages.” It would appear as well that parallel setbacks were experienced in cultures existing along the margins of major urban societies, from Denmark to Central Asia, from the Indus to China. Sometimes these setbacks were significant in some regions but passed quietly in others.


Hypothetically, one could argue that the growth of urban populations in antiquity experienced undulating peaks and valleys since the Neolithic Era. It is important to stress the lack of commonality to the patterns of growth and decline. Each era of interconnectivity between civilizations exhibited variable characteristics and was exponentially larger (in size, in expanse, in cultural attributes) than the one that preceded. Yet, each of the four ancient phases of global world-system (Early Bronze Age, Middle Bronze Age, Late Bronze Age, Roman Era) ultimately came unraveled and collapsed. This suggests that there is something implicitly unsustainable about the foundations of complex urban societies, not to mention the demands they impose on their environment and human resources. This pattern furnishes a potential warning to the contemporary pursuit of ever advancing levels of urban growth across the globe. The undulating pattern of development, interdependency, and growth, followed by economic disruptions, political disturbances, and societal collapse appears to furnish an essential rhythm to the history of human experience. The transition from scattered, highly diverse rural populations to more centralized complex urban societies (what archaeologists refer to as the transition from dispersed to nucleated settlements and the reverse) forms a central theme and underlying premise to this text.


The assertions made in the previous paragraph are broad and far reaching, easier to state in general terms than to prove with specifics. In particular, several of the terms used above require working definitions. For example, what precisely defines a civilization, not to mention a world system? To understand how the human experience has undulated between dispersed rural populations and interconnected world systems, we must delve somewhat deeper into some of the basic principles of social theory and come to terms with concepts such as culture, state formation, civilization, world system, and globalism. This will require more detailed discussion below.


Defining Civilization

Civilizations represent periods of heightened engagement in the processual (step by step) development of human culture. Culture represents a crucial building block of civilization. Human cultures evolve, expand, merge, and progress 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 retention of acquired knowledge. 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 improve their well-being and to adapt to a changing environment. They simultaneously handed these skills down from one generation to the next through forms of education. Recursive forms of education (that is, the transfer of knowledge that repeats itself indefinitely) enable human cultures to sustain themselves across distances of space and time. Unlike animals, prehistoric humans learned to fashion tools for specific purposes, to remodel landscapes for various needs, to express themselves through language and art, to formulate hierarchies, to articulate a sense of awareness of their place in the universe, to revere deities, and ultimately to devise appropriate ways to commemorate their dead. Handed down from one generation to the next, these recursive processes have been likened to memory. Societies rely on past and living memory of their acquired attributes to perpetuate their existence. Awareness of the existence of unique sets of cultural attributes holds the key to explaining past human experience. In brief, culture reflects the single most distinctive trait that separates humankind from other natural species.


Another essential component to urban civilization is something commonly referred to as the process of state formation, or the identification of definable stages in human social organization. Since all ancient civilizations underwent some process of state formation, the mechanisms by which this occurred in each instance become important bell weathers to their development. Social theorists have traditionally argued that the process of state formation entailed an evolutionary progression from minimal forms of social organization such as hunting bands, tribes, and chiefdoms to more advanced forms such as states, civilizations, and world systems. Hunting bands and Tribes, for example, were loosely organized formations based on lineage or kinship ties, or the perception of the group as an extended family or clan. A Chiefdom is defined as an autonomous political unit comprising a number of such entities under the permanent control of a paramount chief. A State, on the other hand, is organized according to permanent institutions that existed and perpetuated themselves independent of lineage connections. A state typically displays a centralized government that maintains a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a specified territory. Social structure within a state tended to be highly stratified.


For the purposes of this book we define a Civilization as a social organization that transcended states both in terms of the breadth of its territorial extent and its population base. A civilization typically incorporated numerous states within its reach. As such it might be referred to as an extra-territorial state or an empire. For purposes of this book we define a civilization as a uniform society that exhibits the following characteristics.




1. URBAN CENTERS, Cities or large dense settlements

All civilizations arose from settled agricultural communities. These communities produced food surpluses to sustain growing populations. As clusters of small agricultural settlements expanded within the limits of a given ecological niche, 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, mercantile, finance, and other non-agricultural professions 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 “inferior” social orders and drew upon their surpluses to sustain themselves, thus freeing themselves from participation in every day subsistence labor. These elites invariably justified their elevated status by furnishing military protection, religious direction, political representation, legal authority, infrastructure, and civic 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 obtained by elites to sustain themselves, ruling hierarchies 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, manumission 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 dominant state. This indicates the existence of an empire or extraterritorial state, a political formation recorded in Sumer already by 2700 BC.  From the perspective of a dominant imperial hierarchy, tribute enabled it to sustain itself, to obtain prestige goods from distant populations,  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 an already overburdened native population. Tribute payments inevitably provoked impoverishment, resentment, and rebellion. This problem will be discussed in greater detail below.


5. CANONICAL EXPRESSIONS OF AESTHETIC ACHIEVEMENT (fine arts and monumental architecture)

Civilizations encouraged the development of formal schools of art and design. These enabled the inhabitants to generate more finely articulated expressions of aesthetic achievement than those possible in less complex societies. In architectural development, sometimes the sheer size and scale of monuments surpassed anything that could have been produced by a smaller population. But there is more – training, skill, and the application of sophisticated methods of science (mathematics, geometry, etc.), technique, and design enable architects to construct structures that are straighter, more angular, or rounder than anything that exists in nature. Artists reproduced the human form in ways that were precise yet emotive. The visual effect of these perfect forms (encompassing aspects of symmetry, and congruence of lines) have been shown to stimulate the human mind in significant ways, triggering cognitive responses -- a sense of awe, inspiration, emotion, and well being. Well-designed emblems of aesthetic achievement have the capacity to express the significance of human existence unattainable otherwise, to represent it symbolically, and to instill in the viewer a belief that life has meaning. Not by coincidence most high art during antiquity was rooted in religion. While the fine arts of any civilization inevitably emerge from more primitive forms of artistic expression, recursive institutions were essential to the development and sustainability of high art. The transition from round huts in Prepottery Neolithic A (9500-8500 BC) to rectangular houses with drafted corners arrayed on a grid in Prepottery Neolithic B (8700 - 6000 BC) is generally  recognized as a significant cultural achievement and demonstrates the importance of learning. To make straight walls and angled corners required enhanced knowledge of and training in techniques of survey, mathematics, geometry, and drafting. These were precisely the kinds of skills that could disappear when recursive institutions ceased to exist. As schools emerged, their graduates designed canonical forms of aesthetic expression that became recognized and reproduced as the emblems of their society’s collective cultural memory. As high art and architecture these expressions were transmitted spatially and temporally. The vestiges of these expressions in monumental architecture, sculpture, and the arts tend to distinguish the cultural attributes of one civilization from another and are very much a part of their historical record.


6. CREATURE COMFORTS or the development of permanent forms of domestic shelter

One of the principal requirements of any urban civilization is to generate habitats, or safe, secure means of shelter to its inhabitants. Most civilizations developed primitive systems of urban infrastructure to improve 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 such as tables, chairs and beds, and bathing and toilet facilities. Large scale, well organized water systems were essential to direct and to distribute fresh, clean water across urban landscapes. Sewerage systems were equally necessary to draw away waste materials and to diminish the risk of contagion or disease. Streets and roads were necessary to import bulk quantities of agricultural goods from surrounding hinterlands, just as massive storage facilities and market places were essential for the distribution of surplus commodities throughout the population. All of these result in artificial landscapes or built environments constructed through human labor. One of the more recent ways to assess the achievements of past civilizations is to calibrate the quality of creature comforts (quality of life or well being) that it furnished to its residents. Such comforts need to be evaluated vertically as well as horizontally. To what extent did creature comforts extend beyond the social elites to lower elements of society? To what degree did similar levels of creature comfort and household technology extend beyond the core urban centers to the periphery?


7. LITERACY or a System of Writing

All great civilizations developed a system of writing, preserving for us at least some partial record of their historical experience. Writing enabled them to record their accomplishments and cultural achievements, and usually some manifestation of an articulated world-view, whether philosophical or religious. Even when restricted to a limited elite, literacy helped to sustain the recursive process of stored cultural memory. It not only enabled societies to hand down knowledge from one generation to the next, but it also facilitated the assimilation of that knowledge by newly arrived outsiders, or the exportation of the same to neighboring societies (something referred to as cultural diffusion), thus enabling outsiders to adapt to their new situation and gradually to merge with the native population.


To define a particular human culture as a civilization presupposes a number of assumptions that might be interpreted as bias. While recognizing these shortcomings, the author uses these criteria to focus on those civilizations that seem to have exerted the greatest possible impact on the development of ancient world systems. Due to their superior labor power, surplus resources, stratified societies, military capacity, accessible technologies, and in many instances the advantageous environments in which they settled (something referred to as geographical determinism), certain civilizations managed to exert authority over less developed populations and natural resources within their horizons. These states successfully tapped into new and different resources further abroad, while retaining neighboring peoples in subordinate positions. Asymmetrical relationships, in which more advanced civilizations, or core polities, dominated the activities of subordinate or periphery polities form the basis of social constructs known as world systems. Simply put, 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. 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, works of art, wine, and olive oil) to peripheral states in exchange for abundant, unfinished natural resources such as timber, stone, metals, human prisoners, and raw 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.


One scenario posits that the wider the range of a civilization’s trading capacity the larger its capacity for growth. This is where globalism enters the picture. Implied in each of these assumptions is the tendency for urban societies to expand and grow to some undeterminable size. Typically, a society will expand to the limits of the carrying capacity of its immediate ecological niche. The question at that point becomes one of sustainability. Control of peoples and resources on the periphery typically enabled localized economies to continue to expand; they could also lead to contact with civilizations further removed. The extension of communications further and further abroad formed the basis of an emerging macroregional or global world system. This is what appears to have occurred during the Early and Late Bronze Ages and again during the Roman Era. It needs to be emphasized, however, that no past civilization was monolithic in character; each civilization consisted of a patchwork of neighboring cultural entities that tended more often than not to preserve their own separate identities while assimilating some veneer of the mainstream culture espoused by the hierarchy. In each instance, however, cultural attributes of the dominant society tended to remodel those of neighboring peoples. This propelled them through space and time along common cultural trajectories.


Theories for World Systems Collapse

For complicated reasons ancient urban societies failed to sustain their trajectories of growth. At certain pivotal moments, at the end of the Early Bronze Age, the Middle Bronze Age, the Late Bronze Age, and the Roman Era, geographically distant civilizations appear to have experienced synchronous patterns of political, social, and economic collapse. The historical record suggests, in fact, that the human experience has undergone an undulating pattern of rise and fall. In the final chapter of this book we will discuss various arguments to explain the phenomenon of societal collapse. For now it suffices to recognize that recurring patterns of societal rise and fall form an unmistakable template to the course of human history. It is precisely at the juncture between societal growth and collapse that arguments derived from resilience theory become pivotal. Given the fundamental importance of this theory to the construct of this book, we must impose on the reader’s patience slightly further to explain its purpose.


According to resilience theory, the natural world exists generally in a dynamic state of change, invariably cycling through four recognizable phases: rapid growth, conservation, release, and reorganization. Those who adhere to the argument of ecological economics recognize this process of rise and fall, or growth and collapse, as inevitable phases of systems dynamics. When applied to human activity, in other words, resilience theory posits that human social-ecological systems cycle through the same four recognizable phases (rapid growth, conservation, release, and reorganization) as other natural systems. In the human historical experience the fore loop of rapid growth and conservation may be identified with eras of large urban civilizations; the back loop of release and reorganization with societal collapse and a reversion back to subsistence forms of production. If dynamic change is the one constant variable in nature, then the tendency of human societies to sustain themselves, or even to attempt to sustain themselves, at peak levels of urban complexity becomes counterintuitive. Inevitably significant changes will occur. Despite a number of issues that remain unanswered, it is important to recognize for now that the undulating pattern of rise and fall visible in the history of human experience appears to resemble the recurring fore loops and back loops of the wider ecosystem.


In this chapter we have progressed through an array of definitions that underpin the assumptions in this textbook. We have explored notions of culture, state, and civilization, the formation of world systems, and global interconnectivity. We have posited the theory that patterns of societal rise and fall in human history closely resemble those that exist in nature. These concepts furnish an essential toolkit to be employed in the pages that follow.