11 FEBRUARY 1998
In this assignment, you should become familiar with the following terms:
Ch'in dynasty, Great Wall of China, Han dynasty; Mauryan dynasty, Krishna,
Rama, Mahabhrata, Ramayana, New Persian Empire, magi, Zend
Avesta, koine, Hellenistic, Islam, Rome, Graeco-Roman, Rome,
Carthage. In addition, you should have been considering the following
- What was the challenge facing the rulers of the early Classical empires
and what steps did they take to meet this challenge?
- What were the accomplishments of the disunited Hellenistic states?
- What were the basic and enduring features of the Classical Empires?
- Why should culture, religion, and tradition prove so much more permanent
that material culture and political power?
The Iron-Age Empires proved to be relatively durable, as such things go.
Their control of arable lands, well-developed agricultural systems, and
manufacturing capacities all made it possible for them to maintain a large
population that could support great armies in the field for long periods of
time. They also had the surplus labor to build roads, dig canals, and improve
other waterways that gave them the ability to move troops quickly to any part of
the realm. In the frontier regions, they were able to construct fortresses,
wall, ditches, and other great defense projects -- and to man them with
permanent garrisons -- that discouraged raids by the nomads of the North. These
states had more than enough power to ward off immediate threats, and they
expanded more or less steadily. Sometimes they expanded to take over nearby
small powers that they though might become threats in the future, and sometimes
they expanded simple to acquire new lands for their increasing population to
settle. Between about 200 B.C. and 100 B.C., four great imperial powers had
emerged on the Eurasian continent, each of which had managed to unite two
disparate geographic regions under a single rule.
The Ch'in dynasty (221-207 BC) was a short-lived but important period
in which a tyrannical emperor (Shi Huang Ti) instituted great reforms.
The entire realm was reorganized, and a single law code, currency, and system of
weights and measures imposed over all its various regions. The emperor even
ordered the length of the axles of all carts and wagons to be identical, so that
a standard road system could be built that would accommodate all vehicles. The
people were disarmed simply by confiscated all weapons, melting them down, and
making it illegal to possess such things. He then moved entire villages to
settle lands along the frontiers to defend them, and had the settlers to build
what we know as The Great Wall of China. He also used forced labor to dig
a great canal southward from the Yellow River Valley to the valley of the
Yang-tze River, and sent his army down the canal to conquer this southern
region. He ordered all books other than those in government hands to be
destroyed, while, at the same time, promoting the development of a new and
simpler form of ideographic writing that he made the standard for his realms
Such rapid changes and tyrannical rule could not last, and civil war broke
out between the emperor and one of his generals. By 202 BC, the struggle was
over and the first emperor of the Han dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD)
was in power. China kept expanding under the Han emperors, but their major
concern was always to unify the various lands that they had brought under their
control. Much was done toward this end in the way of laws, roads and canals,
uniform administration, and the like, but the most significant effort was the
creation of a uniform and government-sponsored culture.
The philosopher Confucius (K'ung Ch'iu 551-479?) had recognized
certain writings dating from the Chou dynasty (roughly 800-500 BC) as
pre-eminent classics, and the Han administration made these the basis of all
higher education. By 124 BC, a system had been established in which all people
hoping to obtained government posts took an examination (held simultaneously at
hundreds of examination centers throughout China) in which they wrote
commentaries or critical essays on these classics. Those receiving the highest
scores in this literary competition were appointed to high administrative posts.
China's rulers continued to be chosen in this fashion until 1911.
The Han empire decayed politically and began to disintegrate in about 200 AD,
but the basic cultural pattern of the Han -- in literature, painting, sculpture,
architecture, drama, and almost everything else -- continued to develop. By this
time, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and Manchuria had established their own cultures,
but all were based upon the Chinese model, and these peoples looked to the Han
empire as their model.
From about 500 to 321 BC, western India was dominated by first the Persians,
then by Alexander the Great, and then by his successors. In 321, however, king
Chandragupta(ca 321 - ca 297 BC) established the Mauryan
dynasty (ca 321 - ca 200 BC) and united both the Indus River Valley and
the valley of the Ganges River under his control, ruling about two-thirds of the
sub-continent. During this period, Buddhism -- which had spread widely as an
evangelical system of belief -- was slowly replaced by a revived and reformed
Hindu faith. Although founded on the Sanskrit classics, this reformed
Hinduism absorbed local religions to produce a strong popular element. The old
Aryan god, Vishnu, was portrayed as coming to Earth periodically in the
form of Krishna, the embodiment of Spring, and Rama,
the embodiment of family and conjugal love. The immense epic poems, the
Mahabharata (in which Krishna plays an important role) and the
Ramayana (the story of Rama's rescue of his wife from an inhuman
fiend) have become universally known and loved among the Indian people. At the
same time, Hindu artists absorbed classical Greek techniques into their native
traditions to form a distinctive and enduring style.
Beginning in the first century BC, the Mauryan empire disintegrated, and
northern India fell under the control of a series of Afghan rulers.
Mauryan/Hindu culture remained alive and dynamic, however, for the next five
hundred years, and provided the basis for the golden age of the Guptan
dynasty that finally brought northern India back under native rule in
IRAN The foundation of the center of Persian
culture was laid quite early, with the rise of King Cyrus the Great and
the establishment of the Persian empire (550-330 BC), which
managed to unite Iran, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Asia Minor, at least for a while.
Zoroastrianism was refined and made the official state religion, a regular
system of local administration was established, road and canals were built, an
official system of messengers was established, and many Indian inventions and
ideas (such as positional arithmetic and the use of the zero) were taken into
what became a rather advanced early form of science. The Persian empire was
seized by the Macedonian king, Alexander the Great but, with his
death, it was divided up among his generals. Although Greek influences were
introduced throughout the old lands of the Persian empire, they seemed to have
little permanent effect except in the area of the arts. The basic point,
however, is that the Greeks were not able to maintain the unity that the Persian
rulers had attempted to create in their lands. One of the reasons for this seems
to have been that the culture created by the Persians was too deeply rooted, at
least in Mesopotamia and Iran, for it to be absorbed into Greek culture
In 226 AD, Ardashir, a petty king in Iran, declared his independence
and began consolidating the other vassal kingdoms of the area under his
control. He revived Zoroastrianism and its priesthood, the magi.
The text of the Zoroastrian sacred book, the Zend Avesta, was
written, providing a new and more solid basis for the state religion for the
New Persian Empire (226-651 AD). The Persians were almost
constantly engaged in attempting to maintain their possession of Mesopotamia and
to defend their northern frontier against peoples from inner Asia. Nevertheless,
their literature and art flourished, and their science and mathematics reached
outstanding heights. After a fierce struggle and decisive defeat with the Romans
to the West (627-634), the New Persian Empire was exhausted and fell easily to
the forces of Islam (642 AD). Within a short time, however, the
relatively uncultured Islamic Arabs had adopted much of Persian culture, and
Iran became the cultural center of much of the Islamic world.
The culture and learning of the eastern Mediterranean continued to develop
even after the break-up of the Old Persian Empire in 323 BC. The Greeks were now
in contact with Persian and Indian culture and learning, and, indirectly, with
China. Their merchants explored the Caspian Sea and the rivers of Russia, the
shores of the Indian Ocean, and may even have circumnavigated the
continent of Africa. Moreover, the Greek rulers of Egypt established the great
Library and Museum of Alexandria and supported the scholars whom they attracted
to work and study there. Literary theory, science and mathematics were developed
greatly in Alexandria, while Athens became a "university town" to which people
went to be educated in the traditional bases of Greek culture. Commerce
flourished, and a form of the Greek language called koine became
the common tongue of the peoples of the region. All of this formed an
"international" culture that is called Hellenistic. But a common
culture did not bring peace and cooperation. Instead, the various sections of
the Hellenistic world were often at war with each other, and often had
difficulty putting down revolts and preventing the secession of their own
frontier districts. It was only a matter of time before some foreign power would
enter the picture, defeat the Hellenistic states one by one, and impose unity
That foreign power was Rome. Beginning as a small city-state founded,
traditionally, in about 750 BC, Rome had expanded steadily until it controlled
the entire Italian peninsula by 265 BC. This brought it into conflict with
Carthage, a Phoenician colony and a great commercial and naval
power that had dominated the western Mediterranean. In a series of bitter wars,
the Romans finally defeated the Carthaginians and were masters of the western
Mediterranean (202 BC). In the course of their wars, however, they had developed
a great military machine and so were easily drawn into intervening in
Hellenistic affairs. Over a period of time, the Romans established their control
over the Hellenistic states until, by about 30 BC, they ruled the entire
So the great Roman Empire was composed of two very different regions -- the
western and eastern basins of the Mediterranean Sea. Like the other classical
empires, the Romans sought to unify these disparate regions with a
well-developed system of roads, bridges, and canals; a state religion of emperor
worship; the official language of Latin; a uniform system of law, weights and
measures, currency, local administration and the like; centralization of power
and the establishment of a professional civil service; and many other policies.
Most important, however, the Romans adopted and adapted Hellenistic culture and
spread it as the model and ideal throughout their empire. This Graeco-
Roman tradition was the foundation of the Roman Empire, and it endured
long after the Empire itself had fallen
There were other centers of cultural traditions, of course; we have ignored
Africa and the Americas for the time being. Han China, Mauryan India, the Old
Persian Empire, and the Roman Empire each struggled to establish institutions
that would unify the disparate regions and peoples of which they were composed.
Each succeeded in establishing traditions that influenced the peoples about them
and became enduring models for their successors. Europeans, and the western
tradition generally, look to the Roman Empire as a standard of excellence.
might offer you a useful view of the great states we have been studying. The Chinese
Ashoka: His Edicts and His Times,The Persia Home Page, and Rome, taken together,
provide a good survey of the Classical Civilizations of the Ancient World.
If you can make the time, you should not miss viewing The Silk Road, a study
of the great trans-Eurasian trade route that kept the civilizations of the Old
World in contact. The
Enduring Image and Kings, Courtiers and
Craftsmen are sites devoted to the arts and history of India, while clicking
on the famous Museum and Library of
Hellenistic Alexandria will take you to a very fine presentation.
This text was produced by Lynn H. Nelson, Department of
History, University of Kansas.
9 February 1998