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Classical Empires


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 matters:
  • 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 321 AD.

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 upon them.

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 Mediterranean.

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.



Imperial Eras might offer you a useful view of the great states we have been studying. The Chinese Empire, King 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
Lawrence KS