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Golden Ages in History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The concept of a golden age is very important to how we understand history. But what defines a golden age? In this lesson, we'll examine the concept and examples of golden ages around the world, and see how they shape our understanding of the past.

Golden Ages

Times were simpler once. Neighbors baked each other pies, people had actual conversations, and many spent their time innovating and discovering. Sound like a fantasy? It probably is. In all of human history, there has never been a time when everything was perfect. That hasn't stopped us, however, from believing that it was.

An era of relative peace, prosperity, and cultural production which will define an entire society is often called a golden age. It's a nice idea, but where does this come from? According to Greek mythology, before the rise of true human societies (with the Bronze Age, etc.), all people lived in the Golden Age where there was no war, a constant abundance of food for which nobody had to work, and complete happiness.

So, the Golden Age in Greek mythology was just that … a myth. We still talk about historical golden ages, eras of prosperity in a society's history; while these periods did actually exist, we need to remember that everything wasn't perfect. The understanding of them as golden ages is a part of our modern cultures, as we try to understand what people of the past mean to us today.

European Golden Ages

Let's start with Europe. I'm going to warn you that this is far from a comprehensive list. Every nation of Europe has its own golden age that is seen as a fundamental moment in the founding of that society. But, here are a few big ones. We'll start with Classical Athens. In roughly the 5th century BCE, the Greek city of Athens rose to political, military, economic, and cultural dominance.

Under this society, the Athenians developed democracy, philosophy, and mathematics, as well as the most advanced architecture and sculpture in the world. Was everything perfect? No- they were constantly at war, practiced slavery, and were highly segregated by gender. But they set foundations of European cultural values that persist to this day.

Athenian art set foundations for all of Europe
Greek statue

Jumping forward quite a bit, we see Golden Ages in the Roman Republic, the Byzantine Empire, and even medieval England before arriving at the Italian Renaissance of the 15th century. Money from international trade led to a massive swell in philosophy, education, and above all, the arts. This is the time period of Michelangelo, Donatello, Da Vinci, and Raphael (the painters, not the turtles). Again, Italian society was plagued by war, and occasionally the actual plague, but we remember this as a Golden Age of art, philosophy, and values that would reshape the European world.

Asian Golden Ages

Jumping across the supercontinent and into Asia, we get an entirely new set of golden ages. One of China's first golden ages came with the rise of the true imperial system that would define China for millennia. During the Han Dynasty, from the 3rd century BCE to 3rd century CE, the doctrine of Confucianism was adopted as a national philosophy, and when the borders of China expanded. Thanks to China's long imperial history, they've had several golden ages, but the Han was one of the greatest.

A golden statue from the Golden Age of the Han Dynasty
Chinese sculpture

Just as Europe had late-period golden ages as well, so did Asia. One of Japan's most remembered Golden Ages was the Edo period, lasting from the 17th to 19th centuries. Under the Edo, Japanese society thrived, developing art forms like Kabuki theater and woodblock printing while under the relative political stability of the Tokugawa warlords. This is also the height of the Samurai in Japanese history.

Golden Ages in the Americas

Okay, so how about the Americas? Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Americas had their own histories, traditions, and eras that redefined them. In Mesoamerica, or Central America, the 1st century CE was a Golden Age for the Maya in Yucatán, and the various proto-Aztec cultures of the Valley of Mexico. Advanced architecture, philosophy, astronomy, and other foundations of Maya and Aztec societies emerged in this era of relative stability. The Incas of Peru also had their own golden ages of math, engineering, and culture.

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