's Ancient Civilizations of the World/What Is Civilization?

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What is Civilization?[edit | edit source]

The first few units of this course are concerned with the emergence of human civilization. When we talk of “civilization,” sometimes the exact meaning of the word can be ambiguous. Thus, it is worth exploring what exactly we mean by civilization. Civilization is easier to describe than it is to define. Scholars have often described civilization as a set of attributes certain societies have: agriculture, sailing, metalworking, mathematics, monumental construction, writing, cities, government, currency, taxation, and complex religion have all been cited by scholars attempting to define what signifies civilization. For the most part, “civilization” is used to describe societies that are urbanized and hierarchical. The word civilization comes from the Latin word civilis, meaning “citizen,” and implies membership in a state with a government or some other sort of ruling authority. In the next few units, when we discuss civilization, we will be discussing settled human societies based on agriculture with some degree of urbanization and hierarchy, and a number of the other attributes listed above.

A Neoclassical painting entitled "The Triumph of Civilization". The essence of Neoclassicism was a late 18th century revival of interest in Western, Graeco-Roman civilization. For Europeans in the Neoclassical era, the heritage of the West was synonymous with 'civilization'. Since that time the definition has expanded to include non-western civilizations

Civilization is a useful historical concept, but we must be cognizant that is has often been used to exclude people. Urbanized people have tended to see those living outside of cities as barbarians. Although the word barbarian originated in Greek to refer to non-Greek speakers (and was originally used to refer mostly to the Persians, who for a long time were arguably more advanced than the Greeks), over time it came to mean anyone who was deemed less civilized. By the nineteenth century, Europeans began to classify civilization according to race. They believed that white Europeans were inherently more civilized than other races, and that other races needed to be taught how to become civilized. With all this in mind, we must deal with the concept of civilization carefully in order to avoid falling into the intellectual mistakes of the past.

In the following units, then, we will define civilization as “settled, hierarchical urban life supported by agriculture," that contains a complex religious system, social stratification based on wealth and occupation, knowledge of writing and presence of the arts, and centralized political and military power. Societies that exhibit our definition of civilization were not possible before the domestication of plants and animals in the Neolithic Period. At the same time, it is important to note that not all societies became sedentary and agriculture-based after the domestication of plants and animals. Some remained hunter-gatherers, but many others adopted pastoralism, perhaps the most tenacious competitor to sedentary-agriculture society. Pastoralism involves a nomadic lifestyle, supported by large herds of animals. A pastoral community moves with its herds in search of pasture and water, and derives its food, clothing, and other necessities from those herds. This way of life proves particularly successful in marginal, semiarid lands that do not easily support agriculture, like savannahs and wide grasslands, places such as the vast Eurasian steppes that extend from the Danube in Europe all the way to Siberia.

Pastoralists have often been called “barbarians” or “uncivilized” by sedentary peoples. However, while pastoralists tend to have less use for certain key features of “civilization,” such as writing and complex government, they have never been strangers to the production of material goods, art, and technology. Proof of this is that sedentary societies have long found it useful to trade with pastoral peoples. In addition, throughout history, the nomadic, herding lifestyle of pastoralists made them fiercely independent, and they were always on the cutting edge of technological developments for horses and other herd animals. This put pastoralists in the perfect position to become mounted warriors, and many pastoralist peoples have brought low sedentary kingdoms and empires. The people known as the Huns terrorized “civilized” people from China to Rome, while the Mongols wiped out whole civilizations and built the largest contiguous empire in human history. Only recently, with more advanced agricultural techniques that have brought farming to the steppe lands, along with the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, has the “march of civilization” overtaken most pastoralist societies.

We must also remember that although civilization is often defined by urbanized society and forms of knowledge such as writing, mathematics, and astronomy, for most of history most people in “civilized societies” were excluded from all these things. Civilization is marked by social stratification and hierarchy, and throughout history, especially in pre-modern times, most of the population have been uneducated farmers whose agricultural labor fed the tiny portion of the population that produced the art, writing, science, and governments of those civilizations.

All these concerns aside, when we explore the birth of civilization, in general we explore the emergence of human society from the small nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic Period (Old Stone Age) to the advanced cultures that soon spread across the globe. And perhaps most importantly in a course on history, by studying the emergence of civilization we study the phase when humans began to write down memories of the past and observations of the present, preserving for us a record of human existence, marking the beginning of the historical era. In many ways the study of history is the study of civilization, and thus this course will chart the rise and fall of the great civilizations of the ancient world.

The Invention and Diffusion of Civilization[edit | edit source]

After thousands of years living as nomadic hunters and gatherers, around 10,000 BCE human beings began to settle down into sedentary communities. They domesticated plants and animals and found new ways of feeding themselves. Within 3,000 or so years (a relatively short period of time considering the countless millennia humans spent as hunter-gatherers), human populations exploded, complex societies formed, and civilization was born. Cities formed, and these grew into kingdoms, which in turn became empires. From Mesopotamia came the empires of Sumeria, Babylon, and Assyria. From the fertile flood plains of the Nile emerged the Egyptians, with their great monuments and sophisticated society. From the Iranian Plateau came the Medes and then the Persians, who nearly succeeded in uniting the entire civilized world under one empire. In the East, civilization emerged in the Indus River valley, and from the Yellow River came the beginnings of Chinese civilization. And a bit later than these others, the Greeks—whose ideas still live on in the present, and who shaped Western civilization for all time—emerged in southern Europe.

The reasons for the rapid changes in human lifestyle from hunting and gathering to settled life are complex and not fully understood. Nonetheless, in this unit we will examine some possible explanations of how and why this happened, chart the course of the rise of human civilization, and study some of the greatest and most important civilizations of this ancient period.

A Note on Dates[edit | edit source]

Among ancient historians there remains considerable debate over the use of the terms BC and AD (Before Christ and Anno Domini, Latin for "In the year of our Lord"). Naturally, both of these dating systems make reference to the figure of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Since modern historical chronology is based on the Christian Gregorian calender, the phrases stuck for years. In recent years, however, many historians have become concerned with the system of dating for showing a bias towards Western, Christian civilization, much in the same way the words Christian and Civilization were thought of as being synonymous to Europeans. Such Eurocentrism seems anachronistic in the context of studying ancient civilizations around the world that had no conception of Christianity. A new system was devised to create a more universalist, pluralist means of dating chronology without implying faith in the tenets of Christianity (after all, A.D. does not stand for "after death" as is a common misconception. "In the year of the Lord" implies that through the resurrection, Christ lives and will return one day). In this course, dates will be given with the BCE/CE system (Before Common Era/Common Era). The different abbreviation change nothing about the chronology, thus 65 BC=65 BCE.

It is common in historical writing to only indicate CE if it is necessary to do so to avoid confusion. Generally, the earlier in the CE chronology, the more necessary it is to indicate it. Thus in this book , you will likely notice that at about 1000 CE, it is simply referred to as 1000. It is important to keep this in mind when looking at civilizations that span both "epochs". Perhaps the trickiest in this sense is the Roman Civilization as the most important transitions from Republic to Empire occur within the two centuries from 100 BCE to 100 CE.

While the idea of "civilizational zones" is highly subjective, this map shows a rough breakdown of these different zones. In this book, you will gain a better understanding of how these zones emerged through common religious, cultural or political tradition. Red: Western/Catholic/Protestant Civilization, Dark Green: Latin American Civilization, a blend of Western and Indigenous traditions, Brown: Eastern Orthodox Civilization, Gold: Islamic Civilization, Light Blue: African Civilization, Light Green: Hindu Civilization, Dark Blue: Buddhist Civilization, Pink: Chinese Civilization, Tan: Japanese Civilization, Gray: Other including Ethiopia and Israel