Overview of Ancient Civilizations

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

The ancient world was full of complex civilizations, each of which was distinct in its own ways. In this lesson, we'll briefly explore several ancient civilizations, while considering their histories and innovations.

Ancient Civilizations of Mesopotamia

Let's start at the very beginning. Up until about 10,000 years ago, nearly all humans lived in roving bands of hunter-gatherers. Then, warmer climates helped promote the domestication of plants and a change to non-mobile, settled societies. This switch is referred to as the Neolithic Revolution. These small societies grew in size and complexity, and in the 4th millennium BCE some turned into the world's first complex urban civilizations. In Mesopotamia, a region now mostly in Iraq, these early civilizations developed complex systems of political and economic power, invented things like writing, and organized themselves into social classes. Their innovations made them powerful, and through trade, military conquest, and cultural exchange, Western Asia was filled with emerging cities.

The first major cities were founded in Mesopotamia

Ancient Civilizations in Africa

One of the first places to where society spread was in Africa. Like the people of Mesopotamia, those of Egypt found fertile lands along a major river that allowed them to grow enough food to support a growing population. By 2500 BCE the Egyptians had organized themselves into a complex kingdom, capable of organizing the labor needed to create monuments like the famous pyramid complex at Giza.

In some cases, ideas about civilization spread through military conquest, but more often they spread through trade. As ancient cities grew, they developed international networks of trade that connected people around the world. We often forget how important international trade was to ancient people, but many cities relied on it. The East African kingdom of Axum, which arose in the 3rd century CE, was one of the most powerful cities in the world at the time. It's wealth was entirely based in managing trade routes between the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean.

Ancient Civilizations in Europe

The same changing ideas that impacted Africa moved along the Mediterranean coast into Europe. By roughly 2000 BCE, these ideas were taking hold in what's now Greece. Ancient Greek cities were formed around kingly power and military states, but by roughly 500 BCE a cultural devotion to philosophy and the arts introduced new ideas about democracy and the rights of all people within a civilization.

Just west of Greece, civilizations were brewing in the Italian Peninsula. The Etruscans developed their own cities around 800 BCE, and were later replaced by their former vassals, the Romans. The Romans refined the Greek ideas about democracy, and later developed a massive empire filled with impressive architectural achievements. One of their major contributions to the ideas of civilization was the road. Yes, roads didn't really exist until the Romans built them across the empire, allowing not only troops but merchants, inventors, products, ideas, and people to move about more easily than ever before.

Ancient Civilizations in Asia

Everything happening around Europe and Africa didn't go unnoticed in Asia. While the roots of civilization had been growing in China since at least 2075 BCE, the first full kingdom that we know about appeared around 1675 BCE. Chinese civilization was also dedicated to architecture, philosophy, and military strength, and like other early civilizations first appeared along fertile river valleys. By 130 BCE, the ancient Chinese had opened their own full-time trade routes extending nearly into Europe, but which also connected to other routes extending to the Atlantic Ocean.

The ancient Chinese had their own ideas about civilization

Chinese concepts of civilization were shared and expanded upon by ancient peoples of Japan and Korea, as well as others. East Asia was its own center of growth, dedicated to ideas of social harmony and strict social organization, where emperors reigned supreme. These kingdoms also developed their own forms of writing, silk production, architecture, agriculture, and art.

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