LOCATIONS: Byzantine Empire, Scandinavia, Russia, Southeast Asia, Korea, Maya, Arabia, Mecca
the classical period
The classical period came at the end of ancient times. Ancient times began with the early river valley civilizations starting about 3500 BC and ended with the fall of classical civilizations around 500 AD. When people in the West speak of the classical period, they usually mean ancient Greece and Rome. But in a larger sense, a classical period is when any civilization undergoes advancement in several fields such as religion, government, or the arts. It a time when a culture develops features that help to define it far into the future.
The three great classical civilizations of India, China, and the Mediterranean created larger empires than had existed before. They all suffered from internal weaknesses before falling to Hun invasions by about 500 AD, marking the end of ancient times. Still, each civilization had its own distinctive character. The Mauryan and Gupta dynasties gave India religious philosophies that focused on union with a universal spiritual force and de-emphasized the concerns of this life. The Qin and Han dynasties left China with a tradition of strong central governments headed by powerful rulers and a Confucian philosophy that promoted order, respect, and learning. Greece and Rome gave Western Civilization a humanistic philosophy concerned with improving life through reason, along with traditions of citizen involvement in government and rule by law.
the middle ages
Historians disagree about the best way to classify eras of history, but many people use the term “middle ages” to identify the period between ancient times and modern times, a thousand years from approximately 500 AD to 1500 AD. Although civilization was in decline at the beginning of this period, a powerful new Islamic civilization was about to arise in the Middle East, and older civilizations would eventually revive.
During the middle ages, international trade would grow, helping to spread civilization and major religions from core civilizations to outlying regions including sub-Saharan Africa, Japan, and Russia.
The first few centuries of the middle ages in Europe are often called the Dark Ages because civilization had collapsed after the Fall of Rome, and Europe was torn by widespread fighting among barbarian tribes.
We shall begin our journey through the middle ages in Europe where civilization had fallen the farthest.
Although the Romans called them barbarians, German-speaking nomads defeated the Romans because the empire had grown weak, and it could no longer defend its vast borders. But the Germanic tribes were illiterate (could not read and write), and warriors were loyal only to their local chiefs, which made the development of nations or empires impossible. This was a time of much warfare between competing tribes and bands; the populations of cities declined as people fled to the countryside to escape the fighting.
The loss of writing, cities, and government organization meant that civilization had largely ended in Western Europe. As time went on, barbarian chiefs would become nobles and kings, and these German- speaking tribes would evolve into the powerful kingdoms that ruled Europe later during the middle ages.
Christianity took hold in the Roman Empire as the empire was falling apart. It is based on the Old Testament of the Bible and the teachings of Jesus, a Jewish holy man born in the Middle East during the reign of Augustus Caesar. Jesus encouraged his followers to be kind to others and to reject violence. Jewish leaders disagreed with some of Jesus’s teachings and had him placed on trial. He was executed by Roman officials. Later, the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion, which spread Christianity over a large area and made Christianity a major world religion. Today it is the world’s largest religion.
The Roman Catholic Church was one institution from Roman times that did not break down. During the Dark Ages, Latin-educated Catholics kept the flame of learning alive in Western Europe. Even the Germanic tribes converted to Christianity by about 600 AD. Over time, the bishop of Rome came to be accepted as the leader of the Catholic Church, the pope. Christianity, like other major religions of the time, came to dominate art, architecture, and thinking in the lands where it was adopted. Christianity was so central to life during the middle ages in Europe that Western Europe was called Christendom.
We begin to see civilization returning to Europe with the reign of Charlemagne, the Christian king of a Germanic people called the Franks. The Franks gave France its name. Charlemagne established a large empire in western and central Europe. After his armies defended the pope, the pope crowned Charlemagne as the new Roman emperor on Christmas day in the year 800. This attempt to revive the western Roman Empire didn’t last long. When Charlemagne died, his empire was divided among his three sons. Two of these kingdoms formed the general outlines of today’s Germany and France.
In addition to his success as a warrior, Charlemagne is remembered for his encouragement of learning: he needed reading and writing to manage a large empire. Charlemagne established schools and surrounded himself with scholars. He encouraged monks in monasteries to copy literature from the ancient Greeks and Romans; without this work, much of what we know about the classical world would have been lost forever.
Monasteries were Catholic religious communities where monks raised their own food, operated schools and libraries, and copied books. Catholic nuns had similar institutions called convents, which were one place in Europe where women could receive an education and live free of male control.
Vikings were fierce warriors, traders and raiders from Scandinavia, present day Norway, Sweden and Denmark. During the 800s and 900s, Vikings terrorized much of coastal Europe and traveled far inland by river to loot, destroy, and slaughter. They fought the Franks among others, and they conquered Normandy (land of the Northmen) in northern France where they settled down and converted to Christianity.
Vikings traveled the stormy North Atlantic in excellent ships that could also navigate shallow rivers.
The Vikings brought the adventurous spirit of ocean exploration to Europe. A Viking named Leif Erickson
was probably the first European explorer to discover North America, but little resulted from his visit.
Farming villages in Europe needed defense against waves of nasty invaders like the Vikings. The solution was mounted warriors called knights who could respond quickly to an attack. The invention of the stirrup gave knights a steady platform from which to fight while wearing heavy metal armor and using heavy weapons. Local lords (the nobility) hired knights to protect villagers because the villagers’ farms provided the lord’s income. The farmers, called serfs, were not slaves but were poor and had few rights.
The lord, in turn, owed military service to the king who gave the lord his land. In this way, the king ruled through local lords who controlled smaller territories within the kingdom. This kind of military and social system is called feudalism. Under feudalism, people owed loyalty and service to those above, while those above owed protection to those below. Feudalism was a middle stage in the development of govern- ment between rule by tribes and rule by large nations with centralized governments that would come later.
Conditions in Western Europe had gradually improved since the Dark Ages. The feudal system offered people some protection, and the church provided cultural unity and the hope of a better life in heaven. But Christendom was divided among many competing kingdoms, and commercial activity was weak. In the early middle ages, Europe was still a backward society compared to the great civilizations of Eurasia.
One of the world’s great civilizations was next door to Europe in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, the part that did not fall to barbarians. The eastern Roman Empire survived for another thousand years under a new name, the Byzantine Empire with its capital at Constantinople. The size of the empire fluctuated over the centuries, but it generally included Greece and Asia Minor. Byzantine culture extended into Russia.
Byzantine emperors served as head of both the Christian church and the state. Greek replaced Latin as the official language. Eventually the Christian church split into eastern and western branches, with Latin- speaking Roman Catholics in Western Europe and Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians in the East.
Byzantine emperors promoted a style of art that featured beautiful mosaics. The best-known example of Byzantine architecture is the church of Saint Sophia constructed by emperor Justinian in Constantinople. Built as the largest Christian church in the world, it became the model for later Eastern Orthodox churches.
Justinian also brought together all of the laws of the Roman Empire into a single legal code that became the basis for modern legal systems in Europe. Rules and customs in the Byzantine court became so complex that the term “byzantine” is now used to indicate any set of complicated laws or procedures.
Viking traders moved into western Russia and developed river trade routes that reached south to Constantinople. Furs from Scandinavia were traded for luxury products from the Byzantine Empire. Many Russians visited Constantinople, and missionaries traveled to Russia spreading the Eastern Orthodox religion. One of Russia’s early rulers, a Viking descendent named Vladimir I, married the sister of a Byzantine emperor, and he accepted Orthodox Christianity for his people. His choice of Christianity might have been influenced by Islam’s ban on alcohol. He reportedly said, “Drinking is the joy of the Russes.”
Russia’s culture, including its art and architecture, began to resemble Byzantine culture. The Russian alphabet is derived from the Greek alphabet, and Orthodox Christianity is the main religion in Russia today.
Tang Dynasty (TONG)
In China, nearly four centuries of disorder followed the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 AD. During this long period of unrest, Buddhism gained strength in China. China finally became united again under a new emperor in the early middle ages, and shortly thereafter the Tang Dynasty took control of China and returned China to greatness. Under the Tang, the ideals of Confucius were revived; art and music flourished, and gunpowder and printing were invented. The Chinese first printed by carving words and pictures into blocks of wood, which were pressed against paper. Later the Chinese invented movable type with each character made from a single piece of hardened clay.
Tang emperors tried to improve agriculture by reducing large estates held by aristocrats and giving land to the peasants (poor and uneducated farmers). During the Tang period, China’s economy was enriched by the new Grand Canal dug between the Yellow and the Yangtze Rivers. Canal boats now linked the political center of north China with the prosperous rice-producing Yangtze River basin in the south. Safe and inexpensive canal transportation brought more rice, precious goods, and taxes to northern China. The Tang dynasty lasted for three hundred years, from 618 - 907 AD. It weakened and was replaced by the Song dynasty that continued China’s economic and cultural development for another three hundred years.
One of the most important events of the middle ages was the spread of rice farming in Asia. After a new and more productive variety of rice became available, large tracts of swampland and forest were converted to rice paddies. In China, population doubled between the 700s and 1100s. This new type of rice originated in Southeast Asia and reached China and India over ocean trade routes. These same routes brought manufactured goods such as scissors and cooking pots to Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asia is a region comprised of two parts: the southeast corner of the Asian mainland and a large archipelago (chain of islands) between the Asian mainland and Australia. It includes the modern mainland countries of Vietnam and Thailand, and the island nations of Indonesia and the Philippines.
Sailors of Southeast Asia were among the world’s most daring. During ancient times, they discovered how to ride the monsoons, seasonal winds that blow toward the continent of Asia during the warm months and away from the mainland during the cold months. These sailors opened the southern ocean trade routes that connected the Indian trading network with the China trade network. By the early middle ages, they were sailing two-thirds of the way around the earth from Africa to islands in the South Pacific.
Korea and Japan
As rice cultivation spread from the central civilizations of Asia, new societies began to develop in outlying regions. Rice growing became important in Korea about 100 AD, and rice took hold in Japan over a century later. Other imports from China and India soon followed. Buddhist monks brought reading, writing, and their religion first to Korea and then to Japan. Both countries adopted Chinese architectural styles.
Rulers in Korea and Japan tried to organize central governments based on the Chinese model.
Korea, a peninsula attached to the Chinese mainland, was strongly influenced by China. Japan, an archipelago separated from China by 500 miles of ocean, was somewhat less affected by Chinese culture. Both societies managed to retain distinct cultures by blending Chinese influences with their own traditions.
As was generally true in civilized societies during the middle ages, women in Japan had fewer rights than men. Nonetheless, upper class women studied art and music, and they learned how to read and write. Japanese women produced some of finest literature of the age including The Tale of Genji about life in the royal court. The Tale of Genji is believed to be the first novel written in any language.
Humans came late to the Western Hemisphere, and civilization started later here too. Native Americans were isolated from advancements in Eurasia, so they had to invent agriculture and civilization on their own. Agriculture appeared in Mexico and South America about 5,000 years after it began in the Middle East. The first civilization of the Americas was probably the Olmec culture of southern Mexico (1200 BC to 400 BC). The Olmecs raised corn, beans, and squash and are known for their sculptures of giant stone heads.
The Maya civilization arose centuries later just east of Olmec lands. Maya city-states flourished between 300 and 900 AD in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico and northern Central America. The Maya improved on the achievements of the Olmecs to create the most advanced native civilization of the Americas. They used hieroglyphics to write on stone and in books made of bark paper. They had a zero-based numbering system before the Europeans did. They created fine arts, a calendar of 365-1/4 days, and impressive pyramid-shaped temples in large cities. The Maya also practiced human sacrifice and apparently played a ball game that ended with the deaths of the losers. Perhaps the Maya were too successful; it appears they overpopulated their land depleting it of natural resources, which contributed to their decline.
One of the biggest historical events of the middle ages came out of the harsh deserts of the Arabian peninsula: the birth of Muhammad and his religion of Islam. Arabia was a land of camel caravans, a few trading cities, and fierce desert nomads called Bedouins. Bedouin tribes worshiped local gods and fought one another. Muhammad was born in the city of Mecca where he became a successful caravan trader and merchant. From his travels, Muhammad learned of Judaism and Christianity, religions with only one God.
Although Muhammad was prosperous and respected, he wanted more than a life devoted to material wealth. He was troubled by inequality between rich merchants and poor nomads. Muhammad would often go off by himself to think and meditate. One day he saw a vision of the angel Gabriel who told him to “recite” messages from God. Muhammad began to teach these messages, and eventually they were written in a holy book called the Quran. Muhammad’s teachings led to conflicts with the rulers of Mecca who threatened his life. In 622 AD, he fled to the nearby town of Medina where his religious teachings and wise advice gained him many followers. Muhammad also proved to be an effective military leader when his followers battled forces from Mecca. In 630 AD, Muhammad with thousands of followers returned to Mecca in victory. Muhammad died just two years later, but he is revered as the chief prophet or messenger of Islam.
Worshipers of Islam are called Muslims, their houses of worship are mosques, and their God is Allah. Today Islam is the world’s second largest religion. Most Muslims live in a geographic band that stretches from Morocco in west Africa to the islands of Southeast Asia. Muslims believe Allah is the same God worshiped by Jews and Christians; Muhammad said Islam is a refinement of these two earlier religions.
Muslims do not have priests; they have a direct relationship with God. Muslims are required to help the poor and sick and are expected to be kind and generous to those of lower rank. Muslims face Mecca five times a day to pray, and they are encouraged to go on a pilgrimage (religious journey) to Mecca.
Muhammad taught that all men and women are equal before God; women in early Muslim societies had more rights than women in many other cultures of the time. Muslim scholars developed the Shari’a (Shuh- REE-uh), a legal and moral code based on Islamic teachings that applied to government, business, and personal dealings. Under Shari’a law, there was no separation between religion and government.
Islam gave Arabia’s Bedouin tribes one God to worship, and it promoted equality among believers. The tribes experienced a unity they had never known before. Rather than fighting each other, they went on a spree of foreign conquest aided by fast Arabian horses and camels well suited to desert warfare. These were wars of territorial conquest, not holy wars; Arabs did not attempt to spread Islam to lands they conquered.
Arabs subdued Persia to their east, parts of the Byzantine Empire to the north, and Egypt to the west. Then they took a breather to quarrel over who was the rightful heir to Muhammad. After splitting into two sects, the Sunni and Shi’a, the Arabs resumed their conquests in northern India, North Africa, and Spain. But, when they tried to expand farther into Christian Europe, they were stopped by the Franks in the west and by the Byzantine Empire in the east. In just a hundred years, Arabs created the largest empire since Rome.