Pre- and Early History

WORLD HISTORY PART I: Pre- and Early History


“History must inevitably be a subject for contestation, because it is always to some degree ideological in nature, and because it is so important for understanding, justifying, or changing the present.” William Beinart


Years ago What happened…
5 million The first pre-human mammals, called hominids, emerged from the ape family in central Africa. These Australopithecines (“Southern apes”) walked on two legs and made rudimentary stone tools.
1 million Homo erectus, with a more erect stature and a larger brain size, spread all over Africa and into Europe and Asia, reaching as far afield as Java and northern China, using (though not creating) fire and building shelters.
150,000 Modern humans (homo sapiens) appeared in Africa.
  80,000 Homo sapiens arrived in the Middle East, showing signs of culture and language, and interbreeding to some extent with Neanderthals, a human species descended from Homo erectus.
  60,000 Homo sapiens reached Australia, using boats to cross 40 miles of open sea.
  42,000 Homo sapiens arrived in Europe, displacing the Neanderthals, whose sites date from 300,000 to 30,000 years ago.
  32,000 The Paleolithic age of flaked, chipped stone tools began to give way to the Neolithic (ground, polished stone tools).
  14,000 Middle Eastern peoples were harvesting wild cereals.
  10,000 Barley was being grown at Jericho in the Jordan Valley.
    8,500 Rice was being grown in the Yellow and Yangtze River deltas in southern China and millet along the Yellow River in northern China.
    8,000 Barley, wheat, and lentils were being grown and sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs domesticated throughout the Near East.
    7,000 Development of agriculture in the Indus Valley, (wheat, barley, cattle, sheep, and goats), central Mexico (maize, squash, and beans), Peru and Bolivia (potatoes, quinoa, llamas, and alpacas), and sub-Saharan Africa (sorghum and millet). The plow was being used in Eurasia and North Africa, and some chieftainships had developed, though there were still no social classes or states.
    6,700 Beginnings of agriculture in northern Europe (wheat, cattle, and pigs).
    6,500 Agriculture in the Nile Valley: emmer wheat, barley, flax, sheep, goats, and cattle.
    6,000 Sunflowers, sumpweed, and tepary beans were being grown in southeastern North America (the Mississippian culture); sweet potatoes, tomatoes, avocados, and cotton in Mexico and central America; yams, sorghum, and millet in central sub-Saharan Africa; and rice, bananas, and coconuts in southeast Asia.
    5,500 Uruk, one of the first Sumerian city-states, developed in Mesopotamia. At its height, around 2900 BC, it was the largest city in the world, with 50,000-80,000 residents living in a 3-4 mile square walled area.
    5,000 Bronze and the first alphabets in use. Cities in Mesopotamia and the Nile River Valley, led to the emergence of states, a 2,000-year process of “civilization” at the end of which there were a clear division into social classes, religious hierarchies and temples, and a tendency for women to be seen as inferior.
    4,500 The first pyramids were built in Egypt, and Stonehenge was the preeminent ritual center of southern Britain. The ancient city of Ur was the capital of a Sumerian empire in southern Mesopotamia, and Sargon established the first Middle Eastern empire (the Akkadian) in northern Mesopotamia.
    4,000 City-states in the Indus Valley, the collapse of Akkad, the Egyptian Old Kingdom, Nubian civilization south of Egypt. Agriculture in the eastern woodlands of North America (lamb’s quarter, goosefoot, marsh elder, sunflower, and squash).
    3,800 Rise of the Minoan civilization in Crete and the Mycenean civilization in Greece. The Middle Kingdom revived Egypt, and the Babylonian empire under Hammurabi controlled Mesopotamia. Cities were built in northern China.
    3,500 The Egyptian Middle Kingdom collapsed, and the Bronze Age Shang Empire controlled northern China.
    3,000 Iron began to be used. The Axum civilization developed in Ethiopia, and there were Phoenician city-states around the Mediterranean. The Olmec built cities in Mesoamerica and the Chavin culture flourished in the Andes.
    3,200 Maize was being grown in the southwestern US.
    2,800 New civilizations rose in India, Greece, and Italy.
    2,000 Teotihuacan, in the Valley of Mexico, was the biggest city in the world. Its civilization lasted 400 years, and was followed by the rise of the Mayas in southern Mexico and Guatemala.

For 95% of human life on earth – before the rise of the state and the entrenchment of social inequality – people, all hunter-gatherers, lived in small, kin-based social groups, sharing food, land, and other resources. Conflicts within bands were settled by compromise, mediation, or, if these failed, the departure of one of the parties to the dispute. Anthropologist Richard Lee says that “despite our seeming adaptation to life in hierarchical societies, and despite the dismal track record of human rights in many parts of the world, there are signs that humankind retains a deep-rooted sense of egalitarianism, a deep-rooted commitment to the norm of reciprocity, and a deep-rooted sense of community.” In other words, human nature/culture is malleable, and changes with the nature of production/the means of obtaining a livelihood.

Successful hunting and gathering require cooperation and egalitarianism. The division of labor between the sexes, men hunting and women gathering, never amounted to male dominance as we know it, especially since the bulk of the food – fruit, vegetables, nuts, and seeds – was obtained by the women. A nomadic lifestyle in pursuit of food also precluded individual accumulation of wealth, unless it was easily portable, like horses or jewelry. Because of the need to carry small children long distances, births were widely spaced by means of sexual abstention, abortion, or infanticide.

The first agriculturalists – horticulturalists, growing grains, beans, and vegetables on a small scale – still hunted and gathered, and still shared the land and had few possessions. Many horticulturalists were semi-nomadic, moving from place to place during the year. As was often the case with hunter-gatherers, individual households were organized into lineages of people sharing the same ancestry. Agriculturalists, on the other hand, who all had to stay in one place, developed formal decision-making mechanisms designed to exercise social control, like councils made up of senior figures in each lineage. Norms of behavior were more rigid, and elaborate religious rituals and myths developed. Possessions in these kinds of societies included pottery and items made from gold and copper.

Cultural historian Morris Berman contrasts the hunter-gatherer worldview with that of agricultural peoples, saying that hunter-gatherers “accept the world as it presents itself,” rather than searching for “meaning” or wanting things to be other than they are, while sedentary agriculturalists, trying to control nature, trust life less. The sacred gradually goes from being immanent – on earth, all around, and an integral part of life – to being separate, transcendent, up in the sky. Felicitas Goodman notes that whereas agriculturalists seek transformation and oneness with the divinity via myth and ritual, hunter-gatherers are interested in “balance,” achieved by means of shamanic or herbal healing.

A third way of life, pastoralism (animal herding), developed in Eurasia, Africa, and the southern Andes of South America. Pastoralists, who sometimes raided, sometimes traded with agricultural people, developed their own characteristic patterns of social life, in some cases, according to Berman, getting back to hunter-gatherer roots and accepting more uncertainty in life. Berman also notes that “nomads carry a difficult and complicated baggage,” sometimes including “vertical [hierarchical] religious belief,” war, and “aggression.” Berman contrasts the “horizontal” religious beliefs of hunter-gatherers with the “vertical” beliefs of agriculturalists. He adds that “egalitarian social structure among nomads is greatly compromised by contact with sedentary society.”

Berman debunks Marija Gimbutas’s theory that peaceful, sedentary, Goddess-worshipping peoples were defeated by sky-god-worshipping, patriarchal, warlike nomads speaking a proto-Indo-European language between 4500 and 2500 BC. “British archaeologist Colin Renfrew has shown that the evidence for this thesis doesn’t hold up. Artifacts purported to show horse riding could have been used on pack animals, and even if horses were ridden, there’s no evidence that they were ridden in armed conflict. The historical record shows that the horse may have been domesticated around 3000 BC in present-day Russia, but the earliest evidence of horses being ridden on the steppes is from the second millennium [1000s] BC. The riding of horse-drawn chariots occurs among Indo-Aryan groups sometime before 2000 BC, and chariot warfare may have been involved in the Indo-European colonization of the Indus valley civilization sometime after that date. The horse-drawn chariot makes its appearance in Mesopotamia around 1800 BC and comes into general use on the Eurasian steppes and in the Near East after 1600 BC. True military mounted nomadism, which dates from 1400 BC on the Chinese frontier, begins to appear in Iran, Mesopotamia, and Syria only toward the end of the second millennium [about 1000] BC. On the southern Russian steppes (present-day Ukraine), Scythians and Sakas gave up steppe farming and began breeding horses, and, along with the Cimmerians, emerged as full-blown military horse-riding cultures during the 9th century BC. The first depiction we have of mounted warriors dates from about 800 BC in Scythian and late Mesopotamian art.”

Berman believes that around 1500 BC, “the sedentary/nomadic tension that had simmered for millennia boiled over into full-blown ideological opposition. At some point in the second millennium, in any case, something systemic occurred, a convergence of changes that led to the formation of the Axial civilizations and their severely dualistic world view [the “Axial Age” is explained below]. Roughly, these changes are: iron replacing bronze, mounted warfare replacing the horse-drawn chariot, and the ‘given’ religion of the Sacred Agricultural Complex] giving way to the ‘revealed’ religion of unitive trance practice. Accessible multiple gods became one transcendent and unattainable deity, a relative acceptance of death gave way to a search for immortality, and an embedded, natural self became harshly alienated and objectified. By the time the Scythian scourge has run its course and Plato is making a pitch for the examined life, we’re living in a very different sort of world.”

German philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term “Axial Age” to describe the period from 800 to 200 BC, during which, he believed, similar revolutionary thinking appeared in China, India, and the West. Jaspers identified a number of key thinkers during this time as having had a profound – and similar – influence on future philosophies and religions, even though there was no (or little) communication between ancient Greece, the Middle East, India, and China. Jaspers argued that during the Axial Age, “the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently in China, India, Persia, Judea, and Greece – the foundations upon which humanity still rests today.”

Jaspers’ axial shifts included the rise of Platonism, which would later become a major influence on the Western world through both Christianity and secular thought. Jainism, which also arose at this time, influenced Indian philosophy by propounding the principles of ahimsa (non-violence), karma, samsara, and asceticism. Buddhism was also founded in India at this time, and Confucianism arose in China. Persian (or Iranian) Zoroastrianism, crucial to the development of monotheism was another axial religion.

Jaspers sees the authors of the Upanishads, Lao Tzu, Homer, Socrates, Archimedes, and several of the Old Testament prophets as axial figures. He held Socrates, Confucius and Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) in especially high regard, describing each of them as an exemplary human being and paradigmatic personality. Following Jaspers, the philosopher Eric Voegelin referred to this age as The Great Leap of Being, constituting a new spiritual awakening and a shift of perception from societal to individual values.

Arguing that the Axial Age gave birth to philosophy as a discipline, Jaspers described it as “an interregnum between two ages of great empire, a pause for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness.” Jaspers was particularly interested in the similarities in circumstance and thought of the Age’s figures. These similarities included the quest for human meaning and the rise of a new elite class of religious leaders and thinkers. China, India, and the West all gave birth to, then institutionalized, a tradition of traveling scholars, roaming from city to city to exchange ideas. These scholars were Confucianist and Taoist in China; Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains in India; Zoroastrians in Persia; Jews in Canaan; and philosophers in Greece.

Berman explains further that “the Sacred Agricultural Complex sees the cosmos as a field of combat, but problems and struggles just go on; there’s no apocalypse or watershed at which time God will triumph and all will be resolved.” He contrasts this with “the moral dualism of Zoroastrianism,” which he sees as the “universalization of a concrete political and social situation – that of peaceful, settled pastoralists, farming and using cattle for plowing, constantly threatened by fierce nomadic tribes, enemies of order, creators of chaos, who must be defeated for the Good to prevail. The new religion emphasized good and evil, purity, and a push for transcendence. Evil now includes anger, sloth, sickness, old age, and death, all of which must be overcome or transformed. In the final consummation, all will be made wonderful, and history will be replaced by eternity. The grand eschatology (study of the final events of history or “end times”) of the Axial Age includes the Messiah, the Second Coming, and the world of Absolute Truth and Righteousness vs. Evil.

Zoroastrianism, which became the official religion of the Persian Empire, influenced Jews when they came under Persian rule, the Hellenistic mystery cults, and, eventually, Islam. Its general worldview was that of a supreme creator God, an oppositional evil power, and the belief that the world in its present state would eventually come to an end, ushering in the perpetual kingdom of God. By 500 BC, these ideas had been adopted by several Jewish sects superseding a tradition similar to the religion of the Canaanites, which imagined a divinely appointed world order that would never change. Despite the central importance of Yahweh, the Israelites also worshipped Ba’al and Asherah. With the emergence of the prophetic tradition and ‘revealed’ knowledge, Yahweh became the one true god, and a radically different future was envisioned, in which all things would be made right. The authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the early Christians emerge as apocalyptic groups along these lines between 200 BC and 100 AD.”

Berman concludes by saying that he believes that “hunter-gatherer life was more congruent with our inherent humanness – somatically, sexually, spiritually, politically, environmentally, and perhaps even intellectually – than the supposedly civilized form of life that followed it. Vertical power politics and the belief in God or some Gnostic transpersonal reality are ultimately palliatives, addressing the pain of the human condition while keeping us trapped in it. If you live in the world of the Sacred Agricultural Complex or Axial civilization, lurching from one ism to the next seems normal, when it’s really a kind of pathology. The solution, if it exists, lies in the ability to live in paradox, without any utopian expectations.

As Hannah Arendt once commented, the presupposition of any great, hidden purpose in history that is ineluctably working itself out and that must inevitably lead to some specified outcome (good or bad) ‘is one of the most virulent and dangerous diseases of the modern age.’ I’m reminded of a speech I heard more than 30 years ago, by the radical activist Saul Alinsky, in which he said, ‘To me the man who stands up and says he has the truth wears the mask of the Inquisition.’ There may be some good ideas floating around today, but we can only know this through empirical testing, experiential reality. Individually and culturally, we must experience life as it actually is, as it presents itself, working on the intelligent repair of present problems, without hype or bombast, and letting the future take care of itself. There may be progress, but history doesn’t consist of progress.” Similarly, spiritually, there’s “no formula;” it’s “a different process for each person. Paradox must be embodied/lived, rather than converted into a position or philosophy.”

Under agriculture – growing food on a larger scale, with less hunting and gathering, and living a primarily sedentary existence – the human population quadrupled over two millennia, going from perhaps 10 million around 9500 BC to 200 million at the beginning of the 15th century AD.

Sometimes the spread of crop raising and herding led to the rise of chieftains or “big men,” a phenomenon that could lead to the establishment of hereditary chiefs and chiefly lineages. But egalitarianism and sharing still remained widespread. Much of the tribute received by chiefs was redistributed among the people, and chiefly power was checked.

The elite, literate class supervising the storage of agricultural surplus in the first cities administered their now somewhat hierarchical society economically and spiritually. In other words, the storehouses became the first temples and their calendar-using superintendents the first priests in the Near East, Egypt, and Mesoamerica. Divine kingship was the next step in the development of the state, with armies and secret police to enforce minority rule and massive monuments to symbolize kingly power. Slavery as a consequence of debt or conquest was another new development. Finally, the prioritization of men’s over women’s labor led to the gradual development of patriarchy and the oppression of women. This probably began to happen around 6000 BC, when an upsurge of population caused a shift to more intensive agriculture, which saw nature as having to be tamed. The military, staffed by men, was also being used more to guard agricultural surpluses. Goddess worship began to decline – in most mythologies we see a Great Mother creator whose son or lover gains more and more power, till eventually he rules alone.

Early civilizations often experienced crises because of the ever-greater expenditure of resources by the ruling class on itself and its monuments. Eventually, because of over-exploitation, the means of livelihood could become insufficient to provide for the mass of the population. For these reasons the cities of Crete and Mycenae, Mohenjo-daro, Teotihuacan, and the Mayas were abandoned, the people returning to the simpler agricultural life of their ancestors half a millennium or more earlier.

Mohenjo-daro, built around 2600 BC in what is now Sindh, Pakistan, was one of the largest settlements of the ancient Indus Valley civilization, and one of the world’s earliest major urban settlements, existing at the same time as the civilizations of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Crete. The elite of Harappa, another Indus city, used a pictographic form of writing on stone.

Sumer in southern Mesopotamia, the site of the first year-round, settled agriculture, was divided by the late 3000s BC into a dozen independent city-states, each centered on a temple dedicated to its patron god or goddess and ruled over by a priest/king.

Mesopotamian conquerors emerged from existing cities or from peripheral pastoralists, establishing the great centralized empires of Sumer (3000-2000 BC), Babylon(1800-1600 BC), and Assyria(1600-1500 BC). Babylon, to the south, and Assyria, to the north, emerged after the collapse of the Akkadian empire, founded by Sargon of Akkad in the 2300s BC.

Hammurabi, the most famous Babylonian ruler (died 1750 BC), established the first known code of law, before which men and women were equal, women being able to divorce men on grounds of cruelty and receive child support. The Babylonian empire dissolved after Hammurabi’s death, and Babylon spent long periods under Assyrian, Kassite, and Elamite domination. It became the seat of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (612 to 539 BC), founded by the Chaldeans, a southern Mesopotamian people. After the fall of this empire, Babylon came under the rule of the Assyrian, Achaemenid, Seleucid, Parthian, Roman, and Sassanid empires, finally being dissolved as a province after the Arab Islamic conquest of the 7th century AD. All that remains of the ancient city of Babylon today is a mound of broken mud-brick buildings and debris on either side of the Euphrates River south of present-day Baghdad.

The other area of agricultural civilization in the ancient Near East was Egypt, on the Nile River. The first Egyptians (3000-1000 BC) were descendants of Africans from the middle of the Sahara whose fertile land began to dry up around 4000 BC. During the 2600s BC, they built the first pyramids as tombs for their pharaohs, the rulers of the Old Kingdom. From 1650 to 1550 BC, Egypt was taken over by a Semitic people, the Hyksos. They were driven out by an Upper Egyptian force led by Ahmose I, who founded the 18th dynasty and relocated the capital from Memphis to Thebes. The New Kingdom (1550–1070 BC) marked the rise of Egypt as an international power, which expanded into Nubia to the south and parts of the Levant to the east. This is the period of Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh; Thutmose III; Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti; Tutankhamun; and Rameses II. Akhenaten, who died in 1336 BC, introduced the first historically attested expression of monotheism, the worship of the sun god Aten (formerly Ra).

Many histories barely acknowledge that in 800 BC Egypt at its peak was conquered by the African kingdom of Kush, located in what is now Sudan. The Kushites ruled as pharaohs for over a hundred years before retreating within their own borders and thriving till 300 AD. Primarily stock breeders and cultivators, they had an impressive Egyptian-style capital at Meroe, traded across the Red Sea, and developed an alphabetic script. Their most notable export was trained war elephants, such as those used by Hannibal in his crossing of the Alps to fight the Romans in 218 BC.

The spread of iron-making across Asia, Europe, and west and central Africa from 1000 to 500 BC revolutionized farming and warfare. The iron axe enabled cultivators to clear thick woodlands, and the iron-tipped plow broke up heavy soil. By the 600s BC, new civilizations based on iron technology were on the rise: the Assyrian Empire, Indo-European Aryans in northern India, the northern Chinese kingdoms, and free city-states around the Mediterranean – in Palestine, Lebanon, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, and north Africa.

Indo-European invaders

Many of the great civilizations – the Greeks, the Persians, the Romans, and the Vedic Hindus – were founded by Indo-European (Aryan) nomads from Europe, who conquered settled peoples in their respective areas, then adopted city life. These nomads cultivated wheat, but moved on with their ox-drawn carts after every harvest. As their population grew, it had to expand, necessitating conquest. In this way, the Gaelic Celts streamed into Britain and Ireland, using bronze weapons to subjugate the original inhabitants. They were later pushed into Ireland and Scotland by the iron-armed Brythonic Celts, who in turn were driven into Wales and Cornwall by later invaders. (Welsh, Cornish, and Breton are in the Brythonic language family).

The Aryan invaders who destroyed the Indus civilization starting around 1500 BC were nomadic herders led by warrior chieftains who practiced a Vedic religion, characterized by animal sacrifice and oral myths about the exploits of warrior gods. Iron technology gave these people a large agricultural surplus, leading to the development of a caste system in which conquered peoples were the lowest group and ordinary Aryan cultivators the next lowest, with warriors and priests on top. Cities rose up, along with traders, until by the 500s BC sixteen major states dominated northern India, one of which, Magadha, swallowed up the others by 321 BC to form the Maurya Empire, a key link in the emerging world trade system. The Mauryan state controlled agriculture, industry, and trade, and monopolized the mining, salt, and liquor trades. Its taxes financed a huge standing army and a vast bureaucracy. The empire fell apart after emperor Ashoka’s death in 227 BC, but agriculture and trade continued to expand, forming the base for the Gupta Empire 500 years later. Advances were made in mathematics that later became part of Arab learning. Eventually, what had been a region of rapid change and intellectual ferment for close to a thousand years became characterized by inward-looking villages, religious superstition, and fragmented, warring, parasitic kingdoms.

The Indo-European Hittites, who called themselves the Hatti, established a kingdom centered at Hattusha in north-central Anatolia in the 1700s BC. Their empire, which reached its height in the 1300s BC, encompassed a large part of Anatolia, northwestern Syria, and upper Mesopotamia. The Hittite military made successful use of chariots. After 1180 BC, the empire disintegrated into several independent “Neo-Hittite” city-states, some surviving until the 700s BC.

The Hebrews

The Hebrews were Semitic nomads who invaded Palestine from the east around 1500 BC, securing no more than a foothold against its inhabitants, some of whom were also Semites. The Indo-European Philistines or “Sea People,” related to Mycenae, who had repeatedly attacked Egypt, were also resettled in the southern coastal cities of Palestine by Rameses III in the 1100s BC.

The Hebrews had been ruled by priestly judges chosen by tribal elders, but around 1000 BC they chose a king, Saul, to lead them into battle against the Philistines. Saul’s successor, David, brought about the only prosperous period in Hebrew history, largely due to the patronage of a more powerful Semitic ruler, King Hiram of the great Phoenician city of Tyre, who wanted a trade route through Hebrew country to the Red Sea. Trade expanded and the city of Jerusalem and its temple were built. After the death of David’s son Solomon, Hebrew territory split into Israel in the north and Judea, based on Jerusalem, in the south.

In 722 BC Israel was conquered by Assyria, and its people killed or taken captive. Judea suffered the same fate in 587 BC at the hands of Babylon. In Babylon, the people of Judea, whom we can begin to call Jews, learned how to read and write and transcribed their oral history in what would become the Jewish Torah (the first books of the Christian Bible). When Babylon fell to the Persians in 538 BC, the Jews, allowed to return to Jerusalem, were imbued with a new sense of themselves as a nation, ruled by an all-powerful male god.


Assyria, a Semitic kingdom, first emerged on the upper Tigris River in northern Mesopotamia in the 2000s BC. It was named for its original capital, the ancient city of Assur, named after its chief male god. The early Assyrian kings were subject to Sargon of Akkad, who united all the Akkadian-speaking peoples of Mesopotamia in 2334 BC. After its fall in around 2154 BC, as mentioned above, the Akkadian empire split into two separate nations: Assyria in the north and Babylonia in the south. In 911 BC, Assyria became the world’s first large empire, conquering Egypt, Babylonia, Elam, Urartu/Armenia, Media, Persia, Phoenicia/Canaan, Aramea (Syria), Arabia, Israel, Judah, Moab, Cyprus, Chaldea, Nabatea, Dilmun, the Cimmerians, and the Scythians, and exacting tribute from Phrygia, Punt, and others.

The Assyrians ruled their empire with ruthless efficiency, using cavalry and iron weapons and armor. Assyrian kings used the proceeds of their conquests to build huge temples and palaces at Nimrud and Nineveh, cities on the Tigris. At its height, Nineveh, whose patroness was the goddess Ishtar, was the largest city of its time, with a population of 120,000. All free male citizens of Assyria were obliged to serve in the army for a time, and the social position of Assyrian women was lower than that of neighboring societies. Assyria also had much harsher laws than its neighbors, with frequent executions, whippings, and forced labor. A creditor could force debtors to work for him, but not sell them.

Weakened by barbarian attacks, Assyria crumbled in 605 BC when faced with an alliance of Semitic Chaldeans from the south and Aryan Persians from the northeast. Two great empires resulted from the division of the spoils: the new Chaldean empire of Babylonia that would reach its height of wealth and power under Nebuchadnezzar the Great and the Persian empire that swallowed it in 538 BC. The Persian Empire of Darius I, the greatest the world had yet seen, stretched from Egypt to India, and from Arabia to the Caspian Sea. The Persians built the first actual roads for the horses and chariots they used to administer their holdings.


A civilization emerged in northern China that survived in one form or another for over 2,000 years, and was responsible for some of humanity’s most important technical advances. The Ch’in Empire, founded in 221 BC, ruled over more people and built more roads than the Romans, and also built the first Great Wall, an imperial tomb with an army of life-sized terracotta soldiers, and a river-and-canal waterway system without parallel in the world. The earlier Shang Dynasty, founded in 1500 BC on the Yellow River, was dominated by an aristocracy that combined military, priestly, and administrative roles and sacrificed servants at funerals. Feudalism and incessant warfare between rival lords prevailed under the Chou Dynasty (1000 BC).

The Ch’in Empire was based on iron: swords and crossbows for conscripted peasant soldiers and intensive farming. Rich merchants combined commerce with big industrial enterprises (iron mills and foundries, in particular), employed increasing numbers of workmen and commercial agents, and controlled fleets of riverboats and carts. These men contributed to the enrichment of the state as commercial and manufacturing centers became capitals of kingdoms. The object of the wars of the 200s BC was often the conquest of these big commercial centers. The Ch’in state prevailed by relying on a new administrative class of warriors and officials that crushed the old aristocracy. They gave the key role in cultivation to the individual peasant family, allowing it to own land, pay taxes, and contribute labor to the state rather than to the local lord. Thousands of the old aristocratic families were deported.

The China of this time could have been transformed by the merchant bourgeoisie into a society based on production by wage laborers for the market; instead, it was dominated by a bureaucratic state that channeled the surplus away from the merchants. Under the next dynasty, the Han (206 BC to 220 AD), merchants were forbidden to wear silk, ride in carriages, or serve in the government, and the state took control of two key industries: salt and iron. Higher taxes were also levied on trading profits than on agriculture, and merchants’ properties could be forcibly seized by the state.

Rival philosophical and religious schools emerged as different social groups tried to come to terms with these changes. K’ung Fu-tzu (known in the West as Confucius), born in the 500s BC, advocated respect for tradition and self-control. His societal rules, more a deeply conservative philosophy than a religion, became the foundation of the imperial hierarchy for the next 2,000 years. Southern China preferred the thinking of Lao-tzu, whose advice was more mystical and elusive. Taoism urged the individual to withdraw from the human world and align with natural principles, and egalitarian Taoist sects emerged on a regular basis, expressing the bitterness of the heavily taxed poor.

There were also frequent peasant rebellions, one of which precipitated the collapse of the Ch’in Dynasty – the emperor was assassinated, and one of the rebel leaders seized the throne in the name of the Han. The new empire was scarcely different from the old – peasants, dependent on state administrators for irrigation, flood control, the provision of iron tools, and access to goods they couldn’t grow themselves couldn’t conceive of a new way of life, and merchants were unwilling to break away from the other privileged classes to lead them. After the fall of the Han, rival kingdoms proliferated and technological advances were halted.

Civilizations of the Americas

The first great Mexican civilization, the Olmec, emerged in the coastal lowlands southwest of Yucatán in about 1200 BC, founding ceremonial centers and establishing trade networks in obsidian, jade, and basalt. To the northeast, the peoples of the Adena culture, based along the Ohio River from 1000 to 300 BC, constructed burial chambers beneath earthen mounds. The Chavin flourished in present-day Peru between 900 and 200 BC, establishing a religious cult and trading pottery, shell and wooden articles, and painted textiles.

Teotihuacan, a city 30 miles northeast of present-day Mexico City, is thought to have been established around 100 BC, continued to be built until about 250 AD, and may have lasted until 650 AD. At its zenith, 1-500 AD, it was the largest city in the Americas, and, with more than 200,000 inhabitants, one of the largest cities of the world.

Teotihuacan may or may not have been the center of a state empire, but its influence throughout Mesoamerica – on the Mayans, Aztecs, and others – is well documented. The city was named by the Nahuatl-speaking Aztec centuries after its fall. The name means “birthplace of the gods,” reflecting Nahua creation myths said to have occurred there. Nahuatl scholar Thelma D. Sullivan interprets the name as “place of those who have the road of the gods.”

The architecture of Teotihuacan was influenced by the Olmec, the “mother civilization” of Mesoamerica, and at its peak in 450 AD the city’s cultural influence extended through much of the Mesoamerican region. It was a center of industry, home to many potters, jewelers and craftsmen, and known for producing a great number of obsidian artifacts. The creation of perhaps tens of thousands of murals, whose artistry has been compared with that of the painters of Renaissance Florence, reached its height between 450 and 650 AD.

The religion of Teotihuacan was similar to that of other Mesoamerican cultures. Many of the same gods were worshiped, including the Feathered Serpent (the Aztecs’ Quetzalcoatl) and the Rain God (the Aztecs’ Tlaloc.) Teotihuacanos practiced human and animal sacrifice. Scholars believe human sacrifices were offered as part of a dedication when buildings were expanded or constructed. The victims were probably enemy warriors captured in battle.

The city’s broad central avenue, called “Avenue of the Dead,” is flanked by impressive ceremonial architecture, including the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon. The Aztecs believed the many smaller platforms along the Avenue of the Dead were tombs, but scholars have established that they were ceremonial platforms topped with temples. Further down the Avenue of the Dead is the area known as the Citadel, containing the ruined Temple of the Feathered Serpent. This area was a large plaza surrounded by temples that formed the religious and political center of the city. This great enclosed compound, capable of holding 100,000 people and featuring is the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, which was designed to overwhelm visitors.

Greece (500-350 BC)

The Greeks were an Aryan group who destroyed the original Aegean civilizations such as Troy and Crete, eventually establishing separate city-states such as Athens, Sparta, and Corinth, using knowledge of iron working and new agricultural methods. A shortage of arable land encouraged Greeks to take to the sea and colonize fertile coastal areas on Aegean and Ionian islands, around the Black Sea and Asia Minor, in southern Italy and Sicily, and along the coasts of Spain and southern France. The Greek city-states fought each other, but were bound together by trade and culture. The Iliad and the Odyssey, for example – epic versions of early Greek history – were written down in the 600s BC after the Greeks learned writing from the Phoenicians.

The Greeks found that their meager agricultural surplus could be significantly increased by the use of slave labor – war captives, who were also put to work in mines and workshops. Slavery was an ancient phenomenon, but previous slaves had provided personal services to rulers and wealthy families, while agriculture and crafts were left to free or semi-free citizens. Now, in Greece – and soon on a much greater scale in Rome – slavery became a major source of the surplus that allowed culture to flourish. Classic Greek writers and philosophers saw the ownership of slaves as essential to the civilized life.

Sparta, the only major Greek city-state that relied on the exploitation of a serf-like peasantry, was centered on a relatively fertile inland area. Here, a ruling class that took no part in agriculture or artisan labor, but boasted of its austere way of life, lived off the tribute of helot cultivators. Helots, conquered people or the descendants of conquered people, could also be personal servants or artisans. Having paid their tribute, helots could sometimes afford to save enough money to buy their freedom. On the other hand, the Spartans, being in the minority, feared helot revolts and regularly killed adult male helots deemed likely to rebel.

Eventually, rich Greek landowners and traders overthrew traditional kings and established oligarchic republics ruled by the wealthy. Small landowners were taxed to pay for state expenditures – for instance, on the navy – that brought them no advantages. As time went on, ambitious upper-class men exploited lower-class bitterness to become ‘tyrants.’ In the early 500s BC in Athens, both oligarchy and tyranny were replaced by democracy (rule of the people), though slaves, women, and resident non-citizens were unrepresented. Leadership usually lay in the hands of the wealthy landowners, often referred to as ‘demagogues,’ who advanced their political positions by taking up some of the demands of the masses. Debt-slavery was banned in 594 BC, law-making power was vested in an assembly open to all citizens, and judges and lower officials were chosen by lot.

The key military unit fighting for the polis (city-state) was the hoplite (from hoplon, “heavy shield”) section of the infantry, which included only those citizens – richer peasants – who could afford armor and weapons.

Greek Time Line (all dates are BC)

438 Completion of the Parthenon, honoring the goddess Athena
480-406 Euripides questioned the gods and described human character in plays like Medea, The Trojan Women, and The Bacchae.
431-404 The Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta reshaped the ancient Greek world. Athens, the strongest city-state in Greece, was reduced to a state of near-complete subjection and Sparta became the leading power. Poverty became widespread in the Peloponnese (southern Greece), and Athens never regained its pre-war prosperity. After the war, civil war was common, and war was transformed from a limited and formalized form of conflict, into an all-out struggle between city-states, complete with atrocities on a large scale. The Peloponnesian War ended the 5th century BC golden age of Greece.
359-336 Philip II became king of Macedon and gained control of Greece, using the phalanx infantry corps armed with long spears. He was assassinated by a former friend.
336-323 Reign of Philip’s son, Alexander the Great. Tutored by Aristotle, by the time he was 30, Alexander had created one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from the Ionian Sea to the Himalayas. Alexander’s legacy includes the cultural diffusion his conquests engendered. He founded some twenty cities that bore his name, most notably Alexandria in northern Egypt (331 BC) whose library preserved the literary works of classical Greece. Alexander’s settlement of Greek colonists and the resulting spread of Greek culture in the east resulted in a new Hellenistic civilization, aspects of which were still evident in the traditions of the Byzantine Empire in the mid-15th century AD. After Alexander died of a fever in Babylon, three of his generals divided the conquered lands, one of them, Ptolemy, setting up his own dynasty of pharaohs in Egypt.

Roman Time Line (dates are BC unless otherwise indicated)

Late 500s A prosperous town with houses of wood and brick, monumental temples, and a well-engineered sewage system, Rome was under the domination of the Etruscan state to the north. (The Etruscans were a literate people whose non-Indo-European language may have originated north of the Black Sea).


509 The Romans threw out the Etruscans, established a republic, and embarked on a long process of military expansion, spearheaded by infantry conscripted from the independent landed peasantry.
200s Rome dominated Italy.
264-241 Rome defeated Carthage in the First Punic War. Carthage, which developed from a Phoenician colony in the 1000s BC on the site of modern Tunis, was forced to cede Sicily, then Sardinia and Corsica.
218-202 Rome defeated Carthage in the Second Punic War, reducing Carthage to north Africa. The city of Carthage was razed by the Romans in 150 BC.
148 Greece was added to Roman territory.
  71 Spartacus’s slave revolt was defeated by 61 legions, with 6,000 slaves crucified.
100-44 Julius Caesar campaigned successfully in Spain, was made co-consul (ruler) with Crassus and Pompey, and defeated Vercingetorix, who had united Gaul. In 49, Caesar crossed the Rubicon River in northern Italy to defeat Pompey. He then went to Egypt, where he had a son, Caesarion, with Cleopatra. Shortly after being made dictator for life in 44 BC, Caesar was assassinated.
40 BC-14 AD Octavian, Caesar’s heir, defeated co-consul Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the naval battle of Actium in 36 BC. He was made supreme military commander by the Senate under the name Octavian Augustus in 28 BC. In 11 AD Emperor Augustus adopted his stepson Tiberius as his heir. At his death in 14 AD, Augustus was declared divine by the Senate. (Dates after this are AD.)
100 Greatest extent of the empire under Trajan.
284-305 Diocletian, who saw the empire as too large to be governable, split it in half, creating two equal emperors with the title of Augustus to rule the Western and Eastern Roman Empire. In 293, authority was further divided, as each Augustus took a junior Emperor called a Caesar to provide a line of succession. During this time, the capital of the Western empire moved from Rome to Ravenna, on the northeast coast of Italy.
313 The empire was reunited by Constantine, ruling from Greek-speaking Constantinople.
410 The Visigoths of Spain sacked Rome.
476 The last western emperor was killed.
527-565 The emperor Justinian codified Roman law and reformed the (now Byzantine) civil service.
1054 The Greek Orthodox Church split from the Roman Catholic Church.
1453 The Ottoman Turks took Constantinople.

The constitution of the early Roman Republic gave a monopoly of power to a hereditary elite of ‘patrician’ families. The Senate, the consuls chosen each year to implement policy, the judges, the quaestor administrators, and the praetors responsible for law and order were all patricians. There was an assembly, which had the nominal right to elect magistrates and decide on questions of war and peace, but 98 of its 193 votes went to the highest class, and the ‘plebeians’ (small peasants) had no say if their superiors were in agreement. Property-less Romans, known as the proletarii, had only one vote.

The leading families used their political control to increase their landholdings at the expense of the peasantry. As commanders of the armed forces, they also took the lion’s share of conquered lands. The plebeians used sit-down strikes, refusing to serve in the army, to obtain their own elected representatives, the tribunes, to protect them from the magistrates. A last great struggle in 287 BC, a result of debts afflicting half the population, ended the formal powers of the patricians and opened up all offices to plebeians. A new nobility arose to which only a few plebeians were admitted, that became as dominant as the patricians had been. With the political aspirations of the rich plebeians satisfied, it was harder for the poor to find champions. Some of the poorer peasants were settled in newly conquered lands, but competition for land at home raised prices and led to more indebted peasants being dispossessed. Long spells of conscription in the legions also prevented increasing numbers of peasants from cultivating their land to pay rents and taxes. As more and more captives were enslaved in imperial wars, those who lost their land found it difficult to get work. By the 1st century BC, there were two million slaves (some of them poor Roman children, abandoned by parents who couldn’t feed them), compared to a free population of 3.25 million.

Tiberius Gracchus, who won a tribuneship in 133 BC, was an aristocrat worried by the increased poverty of the mass of peasants and its effect on the army. His program, which involved distributing large areas of public land farmed by rich landowners to the poor, was passed by the republic’s assembly, but a body of senators clubbed him to death and had his followers executed. Ten years later, Tiberius’s brother Gaius was elected tribune and dominated Roman politics for three years. He was murdered by Cretan mercenaries paid by the Senate, and 3,000 of his supporters executed.

The poor of Rome lived in tenements 60 to 70 feet high, squeezed together in a density seven or eight times that of a modern Western city, their homes in constant danger of collapsing or catching fire, with no water or access to the sewers. They began to back politicians or ambitious generals who promised them subsidized corn. This was the background against which Julius Caesar marched his army into Italy and took power in 49 BC.

The slave revolt led by Spartacus began in 73 BC with the escape of 74 gladiators, joined by 70,000 slaves, who beat off successive Roman armies and marched from one end of Italy to the other. At one point they threatened Rome and defeated an army led by the consuls. Instead of trying to take the city, Spartacus marched to the southernmost point of Italy in the hope of crossing to Sicily. His forces were betrayed by pirates who’d promised them boats, then penned in by a Roman army. Spartacus was killed, though his body was never found, and 6,000 of his followers were crucified. 100,000 slaves died in the crushing of the revolt.

Dependent on generals and their armies to keep the poor in their place, the Senate came to be controlled by them, and civil wars over social questions were replaced by civil wars between generals – Marius and Cinna against Sulla; Pompey against Julius Caesar; after Caesar’s death, Brutus and Cassius against Mark Antony and Octavian; and, finally, Octavian against Mark Antony. Eventually, the rich – old and new alike – felt that allowing Octavian (now called Augustus) to establish a de facto monarchy was the only way to re-establish political stability. Augustus offered security to the rich while posing as a friend to Rome’s urban poor by providing them with cheap or free corn, paid for from a small fraction of the vast tribute flowing in from the conquered lands.

As the empire declined, its integrated slave-based economy gave way, at least in the west, to a new economy of localized rural units based on serfdom. Slave labor was used until around 1000 on some of the larger landholdings, but it no longer provided the basis for sustaining a civilization or an empire.


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