Recurring Themes in History Across Cultures

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  • 1:06 Rise & Fall of Empires
  • 1:57 Conflict &…
  • 3:12 Norms & Technology
  • 4:27 Gender Roles
  • 5:24 Trade
  • 5:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explore the concept of historic recurrence. In doing so, it will highlight recurring themes in history like the rise and fall of empires, the development of technology, economic trade, military conflict, and gender roles

Historic Recurrence

Unlike many history lessons that give dates and names to remember, today's lesson on historic recurrence will be much more conceptual than factual. For this reason, when we're finished, I'm not hoping you'll have memorized the examples we're going to use. Instead, I'd like us to nail down the idea that history really does seem to repeat itself - that no matter how modernized we think we've become, we are doing many of the same things our ancestors and their ancestors and their ancestors have been doing for a millennia and more.

To explain, the concept of historic recurrence is simply the repetition of similar events in history. Yes, the dates and the names of the players may change, but many would argue the general motifs or patterns remain the same. In other words, there are certain themes that history books seem to include no matter what era or part of the world they are covering. For the remainder of our lesson, we'll discuss some of these themes. As we do this, remember, it is the themes we would like to remember. The events will just serve as examples.

Rise and Fall of Empires

Our first theme is the rise and fall of major empires. Since we don't often use the word empire these days, we can also say the rise and fall of major powers. No matter what word we choose to use, history books are full of this theme. For instance, thousands of years ago the world saw the rise and fall of the mighty Roman Empire, several hundred years ago it saw the dominance and dwindling of the Ottoman Empire, and more recently, it has seen the once mighty British Empire lose many of its former colonies and territories. Making it even a bit more personal, some might argue the United States is also slipping a bit from its place as a dominant world power. In other words, it may be becoming an example of our first theme: the rise and fall of major powers.

Conflict and Independence Movements

Our next theme is military conflict. When speaking of historic recurrence, this one, unfortunately, is pretty much a no-brainer. It was seen in ancient Sumer as the early Babylonians fought to create an empire, and it was seen many years later as Alexander the Great's army trounced almost everyone they took on. It was seen in my grandpa's generation as he fought bravely in World War II, and it is seen in my generation as my cousin presently serves in Afghanistan. Sadly, it would be hard, if not impossible, to find a civilization that has not been touched by conflict and war.

Speaking of military conflict, our next theme falls a bit along the same lines as it is independence movements and political rebellion. In other words, throughout history people have been rising up to throw off oppression. For this one, we can cite the slave rebellions of ancient Rome, the famous plight of William Wallace, made famous by Hollywood's Braveheart, the young Joan of Arc, who led France in war, and our country's forefathers, who fought for American Independence. Taking a page from more modern history, we see it as Irish nationalists, who have sought independence from Great Britain's rule.

Norms and Technology

Moving away from history's propensity toward violence, our next theme is the existence of social traditions and norms. Defining this one a bit more, norms are simply the rules for acceptable behavior within a society.

Yes, depending on where you choose to look on a timeline, norms will definitely vary; however, they will, without a doubt, still exist. For instance, in ancient China it was a social norm to bind the feet of wealthy young women, while in fundamental Islamic cultures it is a social norm for women to be entirely covered in public. In present day U.S., it's a cultural norm to tip your waitress, and in Biblical times it was a norm to greet one another with a kiss. Yes, these norms really don't have much in common, but they are all norms, a historical theme that has existed throughout time.

With this, we move to the theme of development of technology. For our purposes, technology will be defined as accomplishing a task using technical processes, methods, or knowledge. Again, this one is rather obvious as history has seen prehistoric humans make deadly weapons out of stone, and it's seen the ancient Egyptians build the Great Pyramids. It's seen Eli Whitney create the cotton gin, and it's seen modern-day geniuses create phones nearly as thin as crackers.

Gender Roles

Our next theme is that of gender roles. Since a thorough exploration of this one would take more than a college course and, and since it also carries lots of emotion, we'll work to keep this one general and brief. To sum this one up, throughout history there has been an assigning of roles based on gender. For example, women have historically been associated with the care of the home. For example, the Greek goddess Hestia was the goddess of the home, while American TV has been full of women like Mrs. Walton and Mrs. Ingalls.

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