Key Concept 2.2 The Development of States and Empires

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In the pre-classical age (8000 B.C.E. to 600 B.C.E.) the first states developed in core civilizations. Then, powerful cities imposed their rule on surrounding areas through conquest and the first empires were born. In the classical age (600 B.C.E. to 600 C.E.) empires grew on a massive scale through territorial conquest with large armies. The growing scale of these empires, along with their increased ethnic and cultural diversity, required more sophisticated methods of governance. They served as major hubs of transregional networks of trade, and they diffused culture, religion, technologies and disease. As empires acquired massive wealth, the unequal distribution of this wealth across social classes placed enormous pressure on the political and social order. Eventually, all of the classical civilizations could not deal with the problems created by their own internal or external crises. In most cases, the belief systems spawned in these empires left enduring cultural footprints even as the empires' political structures disintegrated.

I. The number and size of key states and empires grew dramatically by imposing political unity on areas where previously there had been competing states.

You must know the location of all the following key states and empires for this time period.

  • Persian Empire
  • Qin and Han Empire
  • Mauryan and Gupta Empires
  • Mediterranean region (Phoenicia, Greek city-states, Hellenistic and Roman Empires)
  • Mayan civilization
  • Moche

To see these on maps go to Maps of Classical Civilizations.

The division of the Roman Empire after Diocletian
is more complexity in these empires than the above maps show. The Roman Empire, under Diocletian, was divided into several administrative zones, which led to the establishment of a western Latin empire and an eastern Greek portion (see map on the right). The later would continue as the Byzantine Empire for another thousand years after the western side fell in 476 C.E..

The Augustus of Prima Porta, Roman propaganda
Persian Empire is even more complex as it went through several permutations. The first Persian Empire was the Achaemenid Empire (550–330 BCE) which reached its height under Cyrus the Great. At its peak it encompassed present day Iraq and Iran, Syria, Israel, Anatolia, parts of Egypt, the Arabian peninsula, much of Central Asia, and Macedonia to the north of classical Greece. The antagonism between the Persians and Greek civilization would provoke the wrath of Alexander the Great, whose conquest of Persia ended the Achaemenid Empire.

Much smaller than its predecessor was the Parthian Empire (247 BCE–224 CE). The Partians were the arch rivals of the Roman Empire and defeated them in Rome's early attempts at eastward expansion. This conflict evoked the most famous political propaganda in Roman history, the Augustus of Prima Porta (on the left). Brazened on the breastplate of Augustus is the Parthian general returning the battle standards lost to the Romans in earlier defeats, a great diplomatic triumph for Caesar Augustus.

The last of the Persian Empires was the Sassanid Empire, or Neo-Persian Empire (224–651 CE). The collapse of the Sassanid Empire in 651 C.E. was one of the primary factors in the rapid spread of Islam in the next unit of study. One result of these Persian Empires was the diffusion of religious ideas associated with Zoarastrianism.

II. Empires and states developed new techniques of imperial administration based, in part, on the success of earlier political forms.

A. Empires are large and diverse. As they expanded duing the classical age, ruling them became more difficult. Governments had to implement methods to project power over large areas, something that presented a challenge in the age before modern transportation and communication. Drawing from the successes of earlier civilizations, empires in the classical age were able to centralize their power and rule over vast domains.

A centralized government is one in which most decisions for the entire state are made by one executive power. This usually involves one leader, or a small group of individuals, having authority over all regions of a state from a single location, such as a capital city. Although all states are necessarily centralized to some degree, some governments can lean more toward decentralization. A decentralized government allows more control and decision making to be made at the level of local provinces or counties. An illustration would be a school in which the administration allows teachers to create many of the rules and procedures for their own classrooms, as opposed to a more centralized system in which an administrator micro-manages every aspect of the classroom from an administrative office. Examples of centralized states in the classical age are Han China, Mauryan India, and the Byzantine Empire. More decentralized states were Gupta India and the Zhou Dynasty of China.

Each of these models of government has its own pattern of strengths and weaknesses. Although decentralized governments put people more in touch with the powers that govern them, they often find it difficult to unite for the common good in times of crises. Centralized states can be efficient, but require some apparatus to project power and hold distance provinces together. They can also can be the target of blame when people become discontented.

Centralized Governments: Case Studies

After the fall of the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC–256 BC) China fell into a period of chaos known as the Period of the Warring States. Although a time of conflict and strife, this period was one of the most fruitful in terms of intellectual output. In the quest to understand how China could have fallen into a period of instability, great thinkers pondered questions such as "What is the best form of governance?" and, related to that question, "What is the nature of man?" The differing answers to these questions formed the basis of Confucianism, Legalism, and Daoism. See more about these Chinese Belief Systems from Key Concept 2.1.

The Period of Warring States ended when the warrior Qin Shi Huang centralized power and destroyed regional opposition. Although it lasted only 14 years, the Qin Dynasty set in place many important aspects of Chinese civilization.

The Qin Dynasty and its administrative regions. Each region was subdivided and placed into the bureaucratic chain that enabled the emperor to have his hand in every area of the empire.
The Qin emperor is best known for his famous tomb discovered in 1974. The amount of man power and resources required to build this tomb display the centralized power of emperor Qin Shi Huang.
One of the most important things the Qin did was create a bureaucracy. Bureaucrats are employees of the state whose position in society, unlike nobles or aristocrats, does not rest on an independent source of wealth. Members of the bureaucracy only had positions and power as granted by the emperor. Generally speaking, the bureaucrat's high status and wealth is based on his obedience to his superior. Land owning aristocrats, on the other hand, have large estates and personal fortunes to fall back on; they have a vested interest in influencing the government in their personal favor. Aristocrats also tend to make decisions based on what is best for their location, thus becoming a decentralizing force. By assigning bureaucrats to regions, the Qin bypassed the powerful aristocracy and governed through those whose position depended on loyal obedience to the state. Additionally, the practice of Legalism reinforced the bonds of obligation between bureaucrat and superior. In this manner, the bureaucracy became a tool of centralization for China and placed the entire empire under the leadership of the Qin emperor.
A bureaucracy is an hierarchical chain of authority that allows a central leader to project power across a large area divided into many administrative regions.

In order to bring unity to China, the Qin also built roads and bridges, constructed defensive walls, standardized units of weight and measurement, created a standard currency, and made one common form of Chinese writing. The harsh Legalism of the Qin allowed it to do much during its short reign of 14 years, but this same strict political philosophy also generated much resentment among the common people. As soon as the emperor died, the people revolted and slaughtered many of the remaining Qin officials.

Unlike previous eras, Chinese civilization did not regress into chaos for long. The Han dynasty came to power and ruled China for about 400 years, roughly 200 B.C.E. to 200 C.E. The ability of the Han to maintain a strong central government over such a vast area was greatly facilitated by the Qin reforms under Legalism.

Under the leadership of emperor Han Wudi, the Han Dynasty is responsible for some very important innovations that would have a lasting effect on China: the official adoption of Confucianism and the rise of the civil service examinations.

The Han adopted Confucianism because it was the most organized educational network from which they could draw people for the bureaucracy. To make certain new recruits were educated well, they began testing them through a rigorous system of civil service examinations; to be in the Han bureaucracy, one had to demonstrate a mastery of Confucian ideas on these tests. One effect of this was that the Han bureaucracy was filled with people profoundly influenced by Confucian thought. They were taught to model good behavior for those under them and to respect and submit to those in authority over them. Thus Confucianism not only became deeply embedded in Chinese culture, it also came to re-enforce the political bureaucracy by advocating obedience and benevolent rule. A synthesis was forged between China's political structure and a belief system.


The classical age of India’s history was comprised of two important dynasties, the Mauryan and the Gupta. The rise of the Mauryan Dynasty was precipitated by the invasion of Alexander of Macedonia in 327 B.C. Although Alexander left no lasting impression on India, he did clear out several small Aryan states and create the power vacuum which allowed Chandragupta Mauryan to establish his namesake dynasty.

Under Mauryan rule much of the Indian subcontinent was united for the first time under one central government. They
One of the many pillars found in India today on which Ashoka's edicts were inscribed.
The Mauryan Empire. The Gupta Empire was smaller and concentrated in the north.
were able to rule such a large area by using a well organized bureaucracy. Chandragupta maintained his bureaucracy with a systematic use of spying, brutality and intimidation. The most important ruler of the Mauryan dynasty was Ashoka. He retained the bureaucracy created by this grandfather Chandragupta, but imposed a system of law across his empire known as the Edicts of Ashoka. These rules brought cohesion and legal consistency across the empire, as the Code of Hammurabi did for the Babylonians. Thus Ashoka relied on both a bureaucracy and a codified legal system to centralize his rule.

Under Ashoka's rule the empire expanded and the bureaucracy became more organized. He created central organizations to ensure that his edicts and policies were carried out across his empire. An important event during Ashoka’s rule was his conversion to Buddhism, a change that moderated the harsh precedents set by his grandfather. Ashoka today is remembered as one of ancient India's most influential and benevolent leaders.

When Ashoka died the Mauryan empire soon crumbled. After a period of disorder and regional kingdoms, the Gupta Dynasty emerged and once again united India under a single government. The Gupta empire never grew to the size of the Mauryan. The organization of their empire was considerably different as well. Ashoka used the bureaucracy to manage most details of the empire. The Gutpas, on the other hand, let most decisions and policy making up to local leaders. They also preferred to negotiate or intermarry with local rulers to keep the peace. Although they ruled over a smaller area than the Mauryans, the Gupta era was the greatest period of political stability in classical India. However, this lack of centralized rule came with an eventual price. The various regions of India had their own distinctions and were never integrated into the whole as they were under Ashoka. In fact, the Gupta empire would break along these regional divisions as the empire was threatened by internal corruption and nomadic invaders. After the fall of the Gupta dynasty, the Indian subcontinent would remain fragmented into regions for over 1500 years. Thus the pattern of rule in classical India alternated between large but decentralized empires and networks of disjointed regional kingdoms.

The diversity of east and south Asian empires did not compare with that of Rome. At its peak, the Roman Empire included areas as diverse as Egypt, Spain, Britain, Palestine, and the Caucasus Mountain region. As its territory expanded it grew from a monarchy, to a Republic, and finally became an Empire. Although its political innovations were impressive, Rome's greatest legacy was its system of law through which they forged a way to incorporate diverse cultures into a single political state without stripping localities of their individual identities.

The first laws implemented in Rome were the Twelve Tables. These laws were produced early in Roman history (449 BCE) in order to relieve tensions between the upper classes (the patricians) and the common classes (the plebeians) of citizens. The plebeians used their position as Rome's labor force as leverage to get the patricians to create these laws. The Twelve Tables, which guaranteed procedural equality and consistency in courts of law, was the first major concession won by the plebeians on their road to political equality and republican government.

The enduring influence of Roman law can be seen in this 1749 work on Natural Law.
laws became more complex as the empire grew. The genius of Rome's response to the increased diversity of an expanding empire was the division of law into two types, jus gentium and jus civile. Jus gentium, or law of all nations, refers to universal principles that are true of all people. These are fundamental to being human and all societies have some version of them. They embody principles such as: harm done to another person without cause is wrong, and false dealing or fraud is wrong. The Romans thought these basic precepts were universal to all people; without them different cultures could not even engage in trade. Because they are universal, a foreigner in Rome could be charged for breaking one of these principles even if that person did not see them written down. Ignorance can never be an excuse for violating jus gentium. By the second century C.E. the jus gentium was called Natural Law.

After recognizing the general principles (jus gentium) that make society possible, the Romans realized that these general principles do not look the same within different societies; specific cultural norms and practices vary widely across civilizations. Thus the Romans came up with the idea of jus civile, or civil law. This codified system of law is what the jus gentium looks like inside a specific culture. They differ from place to place, but always manifest the general principles common to all people. For example, in all cultures it is wrong to cheat in trade. But in one civilization it may be more disruptive to cheat someone from one's own clan or tribe, so the punishment would be more severe in that case. In another civilization it might be worse to cheat someone from an higher social class than someone from one's own class. In both cultures cheating is wrong, but the written law concerning this principle looks different in both places. In short, general principles of right and wrong (jus gentium) are customized to fit the specific circumstances of local conditions; at the local level they become civil law (jus civile).

This system of law had coherence because it was based on principles thought to be universal to all men, and it had flexibility in that it allowed for local variances. Thus rendered, this system of law allowed Rome to administrate its massive empire with all its diverse cultures and local customs.

After the Visgoths laid waste to Rome in 410 C.E., a Roman poet mourned his city with the following words:

You made of foreign realms one fatherland,
the lawless found their gain beneath your sway;
sharing your laws with them you have subdued,
you have made a city of the once wide world.[1]

Roman law turned the diversity of the empire into a single civilization, making a "city of the world."

B. The extension of empire across large areas was dependent upon a government's ability to marshal and project military power. This took place through a variety of techniques:

  • Diplomacy
    The Han acquired allies through diplomacy in order to defeat the Xiongu confederation.
    The Gupta Empire and the region of its tributary states.
    There is more to winning a battle than military strategy and advanced weapons. Diplomacy, or the negotiation with allies and foes, was crucial for imperial conquest. For example, when the Han Dynasty pushed westward they came into conflict with the powerful confederation of nomadic tribes called the Xiongnu. In the ensuing war, the Han Emperor Wu sought alliances with small countries on his western border, offering a Han princess in marriage to the king of Wusun to secure him as an ally. Thus obtained, these allies helped the Chinese defeat the Xiongnu. Such matrimonial alliances were common with the empires of the classical ages. Another form of diplomacy is the creation of tributary states. Emporer Samudragupta of the Gupta Dynasty used this method on several occasions to bring stability to his empire. After defeating rival kingdoms he would allow a defeated king to retain his rule providing he paid the Gupta a determined price, called a tribute. This was often a more practical alternative than trying to rule remote kingdoms directly. In a tributary system, defeated kings basically purchase the right to rule from the victors, making them indirect subjects of the conquering power.

  • Supply Lines The armies of ancient empires required complex logistical operations, especially when they were on the move. The minimum daily rations for a soldier was 3 pounds of grain and 2 quarts of water. Thus an army of 65,000 men required at least 195,000 lbs of grain and 325,000 lbs of water each day.[2] It seems almost miraculous that ancient armies were able to provide for themselves without modern vehicles and paved roads. Armies of the classical age created supply trains of animals and wheeled carts. This increased the provisions that could be carried but also introduced new impediments: the average pack animal required 10 lbs of grain per day thereby increasing the necessary provisions, and carts pulled by some animals slowed the movement of an army to a crawl (most terrain was rough and had no roads). For this reason, Alexander the Great limited pack animals to horses and camels and eliminated carts completely from his supply line.[3] Travelling with his army was a significant number of non-combatants whose job it was to manage the movement of supplies across the ranks of soldiers. All of this required tedious centralized planning. And given the fact that the average army could only carry enough supplies to last them for 10 days, sustaining supply lines was very important for armies. These lifelines were also vulnerable to enemy attacks that could bring devastation by cutting an army from its provisions.

  • Forts, Walls and Roads Effective
    A portion of the remains of the wall bult by Roman Emperor Hadrian.
    Time and weather have taken their toll on the earthen wall built by the Qin.
    armies also need engineers. To ease the role of defense, armies were aided by defensive walls. The famous Great Wall of China was first constructed by the Qin Dynasty to protect them from nomadic tribes on their northwestern frontier. The Qin constructed miles of walls and connected preexisting walls. It's noteworthy that the purpose of a wall was not to establish a permanent defensive boundary for the empire. They were made to secure conquered areas with an eye to expansion. "Build and move on was the principle of the wall, not setting up a fixed border for all time. [4] These earthen walls were later fortified with stone by the Ming Dynasty, and this is the wall most familiar with tourists today. The Romans likewise constructed Hadrian's Wall to divide their territory of Britain from the Scottish Pics whose raids became problematic for them. In any case, walls were not effective without being manned by soldiers; both the Chinese and the Romans built fortifications and garrisons at points along their walls. As empires expanded beyond their resources, the thinning of armies on the boundaries of an empire allowed defensive walls to be easily breached.

Defensive walls were not the only places where empires built fortifications. A fortress made a powerful territorial claim for the empire who built it, and anyone challenging the territory on which the fortress was built had to take the fortress first. The city of Rome built fortifications on the seven hills surrounding the city. When the Mauryans took the province of Kalinga they built a fortification there to secure it as a possession. [5] Most classical civilizations built fortresses to shore up their most vulnerable areas; only the Gupta did not do this,[6] perhaps because as a decentralized state it was less able to garner resources for the collective good.

Due to the size of their imperial reach, empires built roads as well. These facilitated travel and trade but often the construction of roads was motivated by need to move armies across the empire. The Romans excelled in roads, which they called Viae. Viae militares, or military roads, served to move troops easily to defend or expand the empire. Indeed, for the Romans, the construction of roads was primarily motivated by military needs.[7]

  • Raising armies All the classical empires needed methods to raise large armies. The Han army was primarily made up of soldiers conscripted from the civilian population into military service.[8] Typically, each group of 5 households was required to send 5 troops to military service. Unlike the troops, whose service was temporary, officers in the Han army were career professionals who advanced through the ranks by demonstrating knowledge of classic texts on military theory, such as Sun Tzu’s Art of War. (This was not unlike Chinese politicians who gained entrance to the bureaucracy by demonstrating knowledge of the Confucian classics.) Chinese officers communicated troop movements in battle by sounding gongs, bells, drums and signaling with flags.

    The Dagger Axe was the preferred weapon of the Han infantry. It was used to chop, decapitate, and pull cavalry men from their horses.

The Roman army was probably the most effective killing machine of the ancient world. After the Punic Wars, the infantry was comprised of professional soldiers, not farmers called up for temporary service. They expanded their war machine by "organizing the communities that they conquered in Italy into a system that generated huge reservoirs of manpower for their army . . . Their main demand of all defeated enemies was they provide men for the Roman army every year. "[9] But even in the face of superior numbers and technology, the organization and flexibility of the
The Roman gladius was a short double-edged thrusting sword used to inflict a fatal wound in as short a time as possible. It was characteristically pragmatic.
Roman army was remarkable. The basic unit was 8 men, and 10 of these groups combined to form a century. Six centuries made a cohort and 10 cohorts was a legion. Soldiers drilled to fight at each of these levels. Consequently, a legion could fight as a whole unit or be divided and maneuvered according to the needs of battle into fighting groups ranging from 8 to 480 men. The ability of the Roman army to divide and adapt itself to battlefield developments was demonstrated at the Battle of Pydna, where the Romans decisively defeated the Macedonian forces.

In the Mayan army social elites served as officers and soldiers were conscripted from the local populations. Mesoamerican armies were typically smaller than those in Eurasia, consisting at the most of several thousand soldiers, instead of tens of thousands like the Romans and Han. Mayan weapons did not utilize metals. They were often wooden clubs, some of which they would embed with razor sharp chips of obsidian. These were ideal for maiming enemies by blows to the legs or arms. The non-lethal nature of such wounds allowed them to take live prisoners, many of which were needed for ritualistic sacrifices. Some scholars believe warfare was common among the Mayan, and there is evidence that
A Gupta coin depicting Emperor Samudragupta.
low-intensity fighting occurred even between Mayan cities. However, the overall scale of warfare was significantly less among the Mayan than it was for Han China and the Roman empire. [10]

C. It was in the best interest of classical governments to make trade more accessible. Higher profits brought in more tax revenue to the government. Although Roman roads were built at first to move armies, they greatly facilitated trade across the empire. When the Qin emperor centralized China after the Period of Warring States, he constructed an infrastructure of roads and bridges to increase trade and gather taxes from formerly isolated areas. As Silk Road and Indian Ocean trade brought wealth to Gupta India, emperors commissioned the production of coins to ease transactions and make it easier to compare the value of goods. All classical governments enacted policies to facilitate commercial activities.

III. Unique social and economic dimensions developed in imperial societies in Afro-Eurasia and the Americas.

A. Cities were extremely important to the economic, political, and cultural life of empires. Administrative centers, or what we would call capital cities, were sometimes themselves monuments to the power of the state. The monumental buildings of Persepolis and Rome, for example, conveyed the power and awe of the Persian and Roman Empires, respectively. Cites were also important centers for trade. Chang'an, the imperial capital of China (remained Xi'an during the Ming Dynasty) was an important trade center, situated as it was on the eastern end of the Silk Roads.

B. Social hierarchies and stratification that formed in foundational civilizations became more complex in large empires. In classical India, the caste system evolved in order to accommodate the growing complexity of Gupta society. Castes divided into subcastes, or jati, which soon became the backbone of Indian society. Jati formed their own courts through which Indian society was regulated in the absence of a strong central government. Thus Indian families tended to associate closely with other families involved in the same occupations as themselves. Although there was some variation, most classical societies could be represented in the following way:


A notable exception would be Han society with its scholar-bureaucrats at the top, peasants, laborers and artisans next, and artists and unskilled workers at the bottom.[11]

C. Because the production of large surpluses of agriculture was necessary for the specialization of labor and large armies, empires developed methods to extract maximum productivity from land. Some slavery was practiced in all classical civilizations, but the Mediterranean world clearly exceeded Asia in the development of this institution. Slaves may have comprised as much as one third of the Roman Empire.[12] Another common form of labor sponsored by empires was the Corvée System. In this system, governments required subjects, usually peasants, to provide labor as a payment of tax. A specified number of labor days had to be offered to the state as an obligatory taxation. Many large imperial projects were completed using the corvée system. The Qin built their defensive wall using it; in 130 B.C.E. the Han built a canal to better move grain to the capital city using corvée labor.[13] Under Jeraboam, the Hebrew kingdom of Israel used the corvée system first with conquered Cananites, then on their own population.[14]

D. Despite changes that occurred in class, caste and labor during the classical age, all empires continued to practice patriarchy. In some societies it was very harsh; in other societies women could advance and engage in business. Indeed, belief systems certainly gave shape to how it was practiced in day to day life in every society. But without exception, political, social and economic life in imperial civilizations remained dominated by males throughout this period.

IV. The Roman, Han, Persian, Mauryan and Gupta empires created political, cultural, and administrative difficulties that they could not manage, which eventually led to their decline, collapse, and transformation into successor empires or states.

Between 200 and 600 C.E. all of the classical civilizations had fallen (the Han around 220, Western Rome in 476, and the Gupta in 550). There are several elements in common to the fall of these civilizations:
  • Political corruption and deterioration - The politics of all classical ages became corrupt and given over to factions and divisions. Bribery and favoritism were rife. Provinces came under the control of local leaders and empires decentralized.
  • The migration of the Huns - Droughts in central Asia forced a nomadic group called the Huns to migrate south and west during this time period. This brought them in contact with the settled classical civilizations. They placed pressure on the Han and Gupta, attacking their frontiers and raiding their lands. As they pushed westward, they forced Germanic peoples to put pressure on the Roman Empire.
  • Over-extension of borders - All empires found that their borders had grown so large that their military had trouble guarding them. Their imperial ambition out-stripped their resources. The Chinese could not effectively man the Great Wall with soldiers to keep out the Huns. Rome grew so large they could not raise the armies to protect its frontiers.
  • The spread of epidemics and disease - The trade routes that connected civilizations and allowed them to prosper also spread diseases. Han China and Rome lost thousands to disease, thus depleting their tax base just as they needed fund to protect their borders.

The Fall of Classical Civilizations: Case Studies

About 100 A.D. the Han started to decline.
The local warlords, whose internal fighting would end the Han Dynasty. Image attribution:wiki commons
Bureaucrats became corrupt and bribery was wide spread. As the supervision of the central government began to decline, local landlords stepped up to take more control of their provinces. Political decentralization occurred. The local aristocrats added their own taxes on to the already high tax burden of the empire. Crushing tax debts forced many peasant farmers to sell their land to local aristocrats; some peasants sold their children into slavery to alleviate debt. This created a situation common to most all failing states: the distribution of wealth across society became disproportionately imbalanced, as more of the wealth fell into the hands of fewer people. Peasants hated the merciless forces that seemed beyond their control, and their sense of helplessness led them to revolt. A revolutionary movement emerged called the Yellow Turbans. Led by Daoists, the Yellow Turbans attracted farmers, scholars, and even disillusioned government employees. They attacked wealthy corrupt bureaucrats and directed their rage at the emperor himself. Hundreds of thousands strong, they believed they would usher in a "new historical era of Great Peace as the Phase of the earth (color yellow) gained ascendancy."[15] Although the Yellow Turbans failed, the feelings of despair that drove them did not. The Han never recovered fully from this rebellion.

Compounding this political weakness and peasant unrest was the effect of several devastating epidemics that wiped out nearly half the population. The death of so many peasants diminished grain production and reduced the tax base for the government, just as the government needed resources to deal with the invading Huns. With all this internal turmoil, the weakened Han dynasty could not fend off the advance of the Hun invaders who easily crossed the abandoned Great Wall. The Han fell in 220 C.E. and China temporarily fell into a period of disunity.

Even though the Han fell and initiated a period of chaos, there was not a permanent disruption of Chinese civilization. Briefly, the Sui dynasty ruled. Then in 618 the Tang dynasty emerged as one of the most glorious in Chinese history. They reinstated Confucian thought and revived and improved upon the Han style of bureaucracy. After the Hun invasions and the fall of the Han dynasty, the Chinese never had to reinvent their civilization.

The fall of the Roman Empire was very complex and is still debated among historians today. But things that are agreed upon are the following. As the Roman Empire grew, it required more soldiers to patrol its borders and frontiers. This brought a high tax burden on a population that was decreasing because of plague and poverty. Likewise, Rome Emperors and the upper classes adopted increasingly luxurious and extravagant lifestyles at the expense of the tax paying citizens. This cause not only great resentment among the lower classes, but the upper classes became more self-centered and less concerned about social and political responsibilities. New artistic and cultural styles were not being created. People came to view life as futile and meaningless. Weakened politically, economically, culturally, and psychologically, the Roman Empire no longer had the strength or the desire to fend off the Germanic invaders.

As the empire started to weaken, farmers and laborers clustered around powerful regional landowners to whom they surrendered full allegiance in return for military protection. Thus people looked to their local landlords rather than to the Empire for protection and stability. As this decentralization took place, the vast Mediterranean trade routes fell out of Roman hands.

The Emperor Diocletian tried to stop this political disintegration. He divided the empire into several administrative zones and persecuted Christians whose allegiance to their God he blamed for the weakening of Roman civil life. Then the emperor Constantine, who converted the Christianity, used his religion to try to unify the Empire spiritually. He created a new capital, Constantinople. However, neither of these Emperors could save the crumbling Empire.

The last
Invasions of the Roman Empire 1.png
Roman Empire in the west was displaced by Germanic armies in 476. Mediterranean culture, which had been put together by the Hellenism of Alexander and the Roman Empire itself, was fragmented. Unlike the classical civilizations of India and China, this Mediterranean classical civilization suffered a complete death. “For Greece and Rome had not put together the shared political culture and bureaucratic traditions of China that could allow revival after a period of chaos. Nor had Mediterranean civilization . . . generated a common religion that appealed deeply enough, or satisfied enough needs, to maintain unity amid political fragmentation, as in India.”[16]
One unique thing about the fall of Rome, however, was that the eastern portion, called the Byzantine Empire, did not really fall. But this Empire did not gain the entire inheritance of Mediterranean classical civilization. It more accurately mirrored the political system of late imperial Rome. Thus the fall of the Empire was more devastating in the west, while in the east a unique culture—not completely of Mediterranean origin—thrived.

A. The mobilization of resources required by classical empires had vast environmental consequences. The materials required by settled people and the need for surpluses of agriculture led to the deforestation of enormous tracks of land. In the Mediterranean civilizations, entire forests were cut down to provide building timbers, burning fuel, and to extend farming areas. Plato described in his book Critias the deforestation of Attica (Greece): where there was once "an abundance of wood in the mountains," he could now only see "the mere skeleton of the land."[17]

The internal problems of empires described above hampered their ability to deal with external problems on their frontiers. All classical civilizations had to deal with migrations and invasions of nomadic people. The Qin and Han dynasties struggled against the Xiongnu Confederacy, and we have seen above that the invasion of the Huns was a factor in the collapse of the Han Dynasty. The white Huns invaded the Gupta and exposed the inability of its decentralized system to coordinate a unified defense. As the Huns migrated westward they pressed Germanic tribes of central and eastern Europe against the frontiers of the Roman Empire. When resources were too scarce to sustain their defenses, the Romans found these "barbarians" at the gates of their capital city.


  1. A Voyage Home to Gaul, Rutilius Namatianus (*.html)
  3. Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army, (1976) Donald W. Engels, Chapter 1.
  4. Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference, (2010) Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, p.45.
  5. The Archaeology of Early Historic South Asia: The Emergence of Cities and States (1995) F. R. Allchin, George Erdosy, p. 306.
  6. History of Ancient India: Earliest Times to 1000 A. D. (2002) Radhey Shyam Chaurasia, p. 177.
  7. Traffic and Congestion in the Roman Empire (2007) Cornelis Van Tilburg, p. 33.
  9. Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: The History of the World (3rd ed, 2011), Tignor et al., p. 262/
  10. The Ancient World at War, (2008), De Souza, ed.; War and society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds: Asia, the Mediterranean, Europe, and Mesoamerica, (2001), Kurt A. Raaflaub, Nathan Stewart Rosenstein. /
  11. World Civilizations, (4th ed., 2005), Peter Stearns et al., pp. 44,46.
  12. Traditions and Encounters, (3rd ed., 2006), Jerry Bentley et al., p. 275.
  13. Encyclopedia of Ancient Asian Civilizations (2009), Charles Higham, p. 61.
  14. Life in the Ancient Near East, 3100-332 B.C.E. (1998), Daniel C. Snell, p. 90.
  15. China: A History (2009), Harold Miles Tanner, p. 123.
  16. World Civilizations (4th ed., 2005), Peter Stearns, et al., p. 102.
  17. Cited in The Environment in World History," (2010), Stephen Mosley, p. 35.