Chapter 6 Summary
Between 200 and 600 C.E., the three great classical civilizations of Rome, Han China, and Gupta India collapsed or declined. All three suffered from invasions by nomads who took advantage of internal imperial weaknesses; however, they did not follow the same pattern of decline or achieve the same results. At the same time, new great religions spread. The general collapse formed a significant break in world history. Many components of the classical achievement survived the period of decline, and new forms appeared as civilizations altered to meet changing conditions. The resulting change in civilization boundaries unleashed new forces that affected sub-Saharan Africa, northern Europe, and other parts of Asia. Developments outside the classical orbit had rhythms of their own during the classical period, and they would gain new prominence as the great civilizations faltered.
Beyond the Classical Civilizations. Significant change occurred bearing some relationship to the classical world from outside the three great civilizations, specifically in northeastern Africa, Japan, and northern Europe. Elsewhere, most notably in the Americas, new cultures evolved in an entirely independent way. In all cases, changes during the classical period set the stage for more important links in world history later on.
Developments in Africa’s Kush and its Heritage. By 1000 B.C.E., the kingdom of Kush was flourishing along the upper Nile. It possessed writing, major cities, a divine king, iron working centers, and, briefly, in 750 B.C.E. the Kush even conquered Egypt. During the 3rd century C.E., Axum defeated the Kush, later Axum fell to Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s trade was cut off after Rome’s fall, but not before Jewish merchants had introduced Judaism and Greek merchants introduced Christianity. A small Jewish sect still survives in Ethiopia, as does an independent Christian church. Ethiopia itself grew to be the world’s oldest continuous monarchy until the 20th century. How much influence it had into sub-Saharan Africa is not clear. Knowledge of iron working spread, helping to expand agriculture, but Kushite writing did not, suggesting contact was limited. Toward the end of the classical era, regional kingdoms were forming in western Africa, leading to the first great state in the region: Ghana. Despite dense vegetation and the impact of African diseases on domesticated animals, agriculture spread slowly southward, preparing the way for a wave of African kingdoms, far to the west of the Nile. New crops introduced through trade with southeast Asia about 100 C.E., helped African farmers push into new areas.
Japan and Northern Europe. Japan, by the year 200 C.E., had established extensive agriculture and iron working, and had developed a regional political organization based on tribal chiefs and a tribal god, thought of as an ancestor. By 400 C.E., regional states had emerged and introduced writing from Korea. Japan’s religion, Shintoism provided for the worship of political rulers and the spirits of nature. Japan became increasingly more unified as a culture around 600 C.E., by this time they would enter the orbit of China.
The people inhabiting in what today is Germany, England, Scandinavia, and much of eastern Europe, relied on hunting and primitive agriculture, did not write, and lived in loosely organized regional kingdoms. Religious beliefs featured a host of gods and rituals designed to placate the forces of nature. This would all change under the influence of Christianity. However, these shifts still lay in the future, and even conversions to Christianity did not bring northern and eastern Europe into the orbit of a single civilization. Until about 1000 C.E., northern Europe remained one of the most backward areas in the world.
The Americas. The first American civilization was based on many centuries of advancing agriculture, expanding from the early cultivation of corn. In Central America, an Indian group called the Olmecs developed and spread from about 800 until they disappeared without a trace in 400 B.C.E. Left behind are the artifacts of a complex civilization with strong religious, artistic, and scientific interests. The Olmecs developed monumental pyramids and an accurate calendar. Their successors soon developed a hieroglyphic alphabet and built the first great city, Teotihuacan, a center for trade and worship. The great Maya civilization was built on their foundation around 400 C.E. A similar early civilization arose in the Andes region in present-day Peru that would lead, later, to the civilization of the Inca. It is interesting to note that these civilizations developed independently, without the advantage of technologies such as the wheel or iron working, yet were considerably ahead of Europe during the same period.
Polynesian peoples had reached islands such as Fiji and Samoa by 1000 B.C.E. Further explorations in giant outrigger canoes led to the first settlement of island complexes such as Hawaii by 400 C.E. Agriculture, in sum, expanded into new areas during the classical period; early civilizations, or early contacts, were also forming. These developments were not central to world history during the classical period itself, but they folded into the larger human experience thereafter. The herding peoples of central Asia also contributed to world history, particularly toward the end of the classical period.
Decline in China and India. Between 200 and 600 C.E., all three classical civilizations collapsed entirely or in part. Internal political weaknesses and the incursions of nomadic invasions contributed to their demise.
Decline and Fall in Han China. The Han dynasty appeared to recover vitality during the 1st century C.E., but poor rulers and popular unrest fueled by landlord exploitation culminated in revolution. Daoist leaders, the Yellow Turbans, in 184 C.E. began an unstable period ending with the fall of the Han in 220. Nomadic invaders added to the disorder. For a time, Buddhism threatened cultural unity. No stable dynasty emerged for 350 years. Political revival occurred at the end of the 6th century when the Sui dynasty reunited China. The Tang dynasty succeeded the Sui in 618. During these troubled years, old values survived and China retained greater homogeneity than other civilizations. Many of the nomadic invaders, seeing that they had nothing better to offer by way of government or culture, simply tried to assimilate the Chinese traditions. China thus had to recover from a serious setback, but did not have to reinvent its civilization.
The End of the Guptas: Decline in India. Gupta India was one of the most stable and peaceful world regions. Fifth-century Hun invasions reduced the decentralized empire’s cohesion. By 500, they controlled northwestern India. Gupta rule collapsed mid-century. India divided into regional
dynasties ruled by princes called Rajput. Buddhism steadily declined before Hinduism. Worship of the mother goddess Devi spread widely. The caste system strengthened, assimilating invaders, and extending to southern India. The economy flourished, with new trade links opening to southern India and southeast Asia. An important threat to Indian cultural continuity came from the 7th-century expansion of Islam, as Muslim invaders entered northwest India and won converts. Hindu leaders responded to the Muslim threat by increasing the emotional appeal of Hinduism and popularizing it through the Hindi vernacular. By the 8th century, Arab traders gained control of Indian Ocean commerce. The glory days of the Guptas were long past, however, India remained prosperous, and classical traditions survived, particularly in Hinduism and the caste system.
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Wide-Ranging Signs of Decline. The decline of the Roman Empire was already evident by 180 C.E. Emperors had begun to behave arbitrarily, army recruiting became difficult, and the economy, population, and tax revenues were in precipitous decline.
Causes of Roman Decline. The Roman Empire, for many reasons, was in decline from the late 2nd century C.E. A shrinking population hindered army recruiting. Disputes concerning the role of the emperor and succession were complicated by recurrent intervention of the army in political life. Tax revenues shrank. Recurring plagues further decimated the population and disrupted economic life. Germanic soldiers were increasingly recruited to defend frontiers. In the midst of these problems, Rome’s upper classes turned from political service to pleasure-seeking lives. Cultural activity, except for works by Christian writers, decayed. Rome’s fall, in other words, can be blamed on large, impersonal forces that would have been hard for any society to control, or a moral and political decay that reflected growing corruption among society’s leaders. Probably elements of both were involved.
The Process of Roman Decline. As central authority declined, farmers seeking protection clustered around large landlords. The political decentralization was most pronounced in the western empire. Political power passed to landlords and the economy contracted. Tax revenues fell, trade declined, and cities shrank in size. Some emperors tried to restore central authority. Diocletian (284–305) improved administration and tax collecting, and increased controls on the economy. Constantine (312–337) established a second capital at Constantinople and accepted Christianity. The measures did not restore vitality to the empire as a whole. The eastern half flourished, but the western did not. Attempts to regulate the economy curbed initiative and lowered production. Many overburdened peasants welcomed the changes brought by the Germanic invasions of the 5th century. The last western Roman emperor was removed in 476. The end of the Roman Empire was more serious than was the case in China and India. Unlike China, Greece and Rome had not produced shared political culture and bureaucratic traditions that could allow revival. Nor had Mediterranean civilization generated a common religion that appealed deeply enough to maintain unity amid political fragmentation, as in India.
Attila the Hun. In Europe, the most famous invader was Attila the Hun, who lived from 406 to 453. Attila organized a loose kingdom that ran from Germany to China. Attila invaded what is now France in 451. Attila highlighted and contributed to Rome’s collapse.
Results of the Fall of Rome. Rome’s collapse ended Mediterranean unity. Three zones emerged, each later producing distinct civilizations. The northeastern part of the empire continued as the vibrant, artistically creative, and commercially active Byzantine Empire, which incorporated Hellenistic and Roman patterns. A second zone, in north Africa and along the Mediterranean’s
southeastern shores, suffered serious disruption. Temporary regional kingdoms emerged. Although Christianity spread, it fractured into different sects. In the third zone, modern Europe, the level of civilization declined: cities were decimated, trade almost disappeared. Regional Germanic kingdoms appeared. The only vital force was Christianity, but it was not able to sustain civilization. In the mire of Rome’s collapse, this part of the world forgot for several centuries what it had previously known.
The Development and Spread of World Religions. As with the period of chaos in China, Rome’s decline encouraged vital new religious influences, in this case to societies around the Mediterranean. Christianity moved westward from its original center in the Middle East, just as in Asia Buddhism was spreading east from India. Although initially less significant than Buddhism in terms of numbers of converts, Christianity ultimately became one of the two largest world faiths. It played a direct role in forming the postclassical civilizations of eastern and western Europe.
The newly expanding religions (including Islam soon afterward) all emphasized intense devotion
and piety, stressing the importance of spiritual concerns beyond the daily cares of life. All three offered
the hope of a better existence after this life ended, and all responded to new political instability and to the growing poverty of many people in various parts of the classical world. Finally, all promoted active missionary efforts, seeking to spread their ideas of religious truth across cultural and political boundaries.
Christianity and Buddhism Compared. Christianity moved westward, from its original center in the Middle East, as Buddhism was spreading east from India; eventually, Christianity became one of the two largest faiths worldwide. Despite important similarities to Buddhism in its emphasis on salvation and the guidance of saints, Christianity differed in crucial ways. Christianity, the heir to the legacy of Mediterranean religions and Roman traditions, emphasized church organization, gave more value to missionary activity, and claimed possession of exclusive truth.
Early Christianity. Christianity began as a Jewish reform movement, only gradually turning to missionary activity. The Christians believed that there was a single God who loved humanity, that virtuous life should be devoted to his worship, that all people were spiritually equal, and that Christ’s sacrifice permitted attainment of an afterlife. The message, its travels facilitated by Roman unity, satisfied unfilled spiritual needs present in the deteriorating empire. Under Paul of Tarsus, Christianity became a separate religion open to all, and paralleling the provincial government of the empire, was more formally organized. Finally, Christian doctrine became increasingly organized, as the writings of several disciples and others were collected into what became known as the New Testament of the Christian Bible.
Christianity Gains Ground. During the first three centuries after Christ, Christianity gained ground. Despite government persecution, by the 4th century, Christianity had won over about 10 percent of the Roman Empire’s population. Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it an accepted faith. Rulers intervened in church affairs, particularly in the eastern empire where government remained strong. In the disorganized West, bishops created a centralized church organization under the authority of the pope—the bishop of Rome— that endured when the western empire collapsed. Doctrinal controversies abounded, though both East and West established certain shared beliefs against several heresies such as the Trinity. Augustine made major contributions in formulating a theology that incorporated elements of classical philosophy. As a syncretic religion, local polytheistic beliefs were incorporated into Christian practice. Mystics flourished, particularly in the Middle East. In the west, this tendency was disciplined by the institution of monasticism. Benedict created the Benedictine Rule for monks in 6th century Italy. Christianity continued to appeal to all classes, especially to the poor and women. It promoted a new culture differing from that of the classical world in its beliefs in spiritual equality
and otherworldly emphasis. The state was accepted, but made second to religion, where the brotherhood of all Christians prevailed. Classical values endured, including philosophical themes, architectural styles, and the Latin language in the West and Greek in the East. Monastic libraries preserved classical literature. When the Roman Empire fell, Christian history was still in its infancy. The Western church would soon spread its missionary zeal to northern Europe, and the Eastern church would reach into the Slavic lands of the Balkans and Russia. Christianity truly had become a world religion: a faith of unusual durability and drawing power, one whose complexity wins the devotion of many different kinds of people.
The New Religious Map. The centuries after Christianity’s rise, the spread of Buddhism, and the inception of Islam would see the conversion of most of the civilized world to one or another of the great faiths. This produced a religious map that, in Europe and Asia and even parts of Africa, would not alter greatly until our own time.
In the Wake of Decline and Fall. By 600 C.E., the major civilizations had altered in permanent ways. China maintained political cohesion; along with India, it preserved much cultural cohesion. In contrast, the Roman Empire disintegrated, and successor civilizations did not restore geographical unity or a unified classical culture.