Introduction to Early Societies through Classical Civilizations (4000 BC–AD 300)

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Introduction to Early Societies through Classical Civilizations (4000 BC–AD 300)

Roughly ten thousand years ago, after the glaciers of the last Ice Age had receded, humans first learned to sow and raise plants for food. Growing crops and domesticating animals freed early societies from dependence on hunting and gathering for sustenance. While many groups remained nomadic, some began to settle, building permanent dwellings and communities as the agricultural revolution spread around the globe. By the fourth century BC, another breakthrough appeared to help humankind master the complexity of its new forms of social organization—written language.

The earliest recorded civilizations arose in the fertile valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, in the region now known as Iraq. The Greeks called it “Mesopotamia,” or the “land between two rivers.” The Sumerians, Akkadians, and Babylonians established civilizations there, all led by absolute monarchs who claimed a special relationship to the gods. These societies developed impressive systems of government administration, making use of the cuneiform writing system for record keeping and accounting. The Babylonians’ principles of law were engraved in the Code of Hammurabi around 1750 BC.

Early societies featured a close relationship between religion and political authority. Rulers such as the Egyptian pharaohs were thought of as gods. Other kings acted as the embodiment or earthly representatives of the most powerful deities. The Hebrews of Canaan worshiped Yahweh, and the kings of Israel were seen as the anointed deputies of this patron god. In ancient China, divination and other rituals were among the king’s primary duties. When Wu Wang (d. 1115 BC) overthrew the last Shang emperor to establish the Chou Dynasty in the twelfth century BC, he claimed to be acting upon a “mandate from heaven.”

The ancient world witnessed the rise of the first great empires. In the fifth and sixth centuries BC, the Persians (of modern-day Iran) amassed an empire on three continents, stretching from Greek Ionia across Egypt and Mesopotamia into India. The Persians divided this vast territory into provinces governed by officials called satraps, allowing a fair amount of local autonomy and religious freedom. After two centuries, the Persians lost their empire to the Macedonian king Alexander the Great (356–323 BC).

In Mesoamerica, the Mayans developed a network of independent city-states that were economically and politically linked. The small city-states of classical Greece were also self-governing communities, with Sparta and Athens the most prominent among them. Sparta was a warrior society in which all adult males spent their lives in military service. Athens, by contrast, developed a unique form of democratic government, in which all adult male citizens could vote in the Ecclesia (Assembly). Classical Athens was also the center of Greek artistic and intellectual achievement.

Of all the ancient societies, none influenced western civilization more deeply than Rome. In 509 BC the Roman citizenry overthrew their king to establish a republican government led by elected officials. The Romans acquired a mighty empire, efficiently assimilating conquered territories into their administrative system. At home, however, conflicts between the rich and poor brought on a series of devastating civil wars. Eventually the republic collapsed, and in its place grew a centralized state controlled by a single emperor. The Roman Empire expanded until it ringed the Mediterranean Sea. By the end of the third century AD, the empire’s dominance had begun its slow decline.

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Introduction to Early Societies through Classical Civilizations (4000 BC–AD 300)

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Introduction to Early Societies through Classical Civilizations (4000 BC–AD 300)