Themes in ap world History

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9. Classical Civilizations

Classical civilizations are defined as those that had a large, enduring influence over a large number of people. Thus, classical civilizations are important topics in AP World History due to the impact of these civilizations. Classical civilizations include the Zhou, Qin, and Han dynasties of China, the Mauryan and Gupta dynasties of India, the Persian Empire, the Greek city-states, Alexander the Great’s Empire, and the Roman Empire.

Classical Chinese Dynasty

Specific Characteristics



- 1029 – 258 BCE

- used mandate of heaven to claim authority

- worked to centralize the government

- expanded territory to the south (Yangtze River Valley

- rulers (emperors) referred to themselves as Sons of Heaven

- standardized spoken language

    • increasingly centralized government with growing bureaucracy

    • expanding influence to include most of east and southeast Asia

    • increase in production of luxury goods, such as silk

    • increase in trade along Silk Roads

    • most advanced classical civilization, especially in terms of technology

    • basis of tradition established: patriarchy and government rule based on Confucian values


    • 221 – 202 BCE

    • dynasty name gave name to country

    • expanded territory to the south (northern Vietnam)

    • construction of the Great Wall

    • standardized: weights, measures, money, written language

    • silk production encouraged and increased

    • construction of new roads


    • 200 BCE – 220 CE

    • bureaucracy strengthened

    • expanded territory south and west (central Asia, Korea, Indochina)

    • civil service exams based on Confucian values

    • trade increased (Silk Roads)

    • relative time of peace

    • patriarchy strengthened

    • technology: iron production, canals, irrigation systems, ox-drawn plows, collar for beasts of burden, paper manufacture, water-power mills

    • social structure: elites, peasants, artisans, unskilled laborers

Classical India

Specific characteristics


Aryan India

    • ~1500 BCE, Aryans invade

    • Vedas: oral stories brought by Aryans, later written in Sanskrit

    • Vedic Age: early classical India (1500-1000 BCE)

    • Epic Age: period when great epics, such as the Ramayana, were created (1000-600 BCE)

    • Upanishads: basis for Hindu religion, collection of religious poems based on the Vedas

    • patriarchy

    • social structure: distinctive/defined class system with Aryans on top, Dravidians (native Indians) below; largely based on ethnicity and complexion of skin (lighter-skinned Aryans vs. darker-skinned Dravidians); during Epic Age, Priests (Brahmins) became more important than the warrior/ruler class; untouchables = those outside of the social class system who performed “undesirable” jobs; gradually became a very rigid caste system

    • Religion: Aryans imposed their polytheistic beliefs which gradually blended with indigenous beliefs to form Hinduism

    • Aryans had huge influence over region, and their traditions and customs continue to influence India today

    • Development of Hinduism and Buddhism

    • Pattern: Periods of flourishing, united civilization followed by disintegration of the kingdom and fall to outside invaders

    • Caste system: increasingly rigid and defined throughout the classical time period

    • increase in trade, especially along Silk Roads

    • Pattern: dramatic increases in technological and scientific discoveries, which had enormous impact as these ideas spread to the West

Mauryan Dynasty

    • 322 BCE – 230 BCE

    • After Epic Age, India divided into 16 states, with Magadha the strongest

    • Chandragupta founds Mauryan dynasty

    • large army, united almost all of Indian subcontinent

    • large bureaucracy established

    • Ashoka (grandson of Chandragupta) known for ruthless conquering of India, later converted to Buddhism and helped spread Buddhism along the roads of India

    • construction of roads that connected to China’s Silk Roads

    • After Ashoka’s death, kingdom divided again and invaders from the North ruled India until the Gupta’s rose to power

Gupta Dynasty

    • 320 CE – 550 CE

    • Hindu rulers, reinforcement of Hindu values, but Buddhism was tolerated

    • local rulers retained control over local territories, provided they complied with Gupta law

    • Religion: solidification of Hindu values and traditions, construction of Hindu temples; Buddhism spread through urban monasteries

    • Patriarchy: women gradually lost status and privileges, married at younger age, sati (widow suicide by burning)

    • Sanskrit becomes language of educated

    • Technology/discoveries: zero as placeholder, Arabic numerals, decimal system, knowledge of astronomy, knowledge of surgical procedures and the prevention of illnesses

    • Trade: increase in volume of trade, especially with the East

Classical Middle East

Specific Characteristics



    • 550 BCE

    • Cyrus the Great, first conqueror, expanded territory to include most of Southwest Asia

    • noted for tolerance of minorities

    • Religion: Zoroastianism, emphasized rewards in the afterlife for living a good life, or punishment for leading a bad life

    • Technology: ironworking which spread throughout the empire

    • Public works: extensive road system (The Persian Royal Road) to link all parts of the empire

    • Trade: with West (Phoenicians, Greeks) and East (India, China, Southeast Asia)

    • Large empire “at the center of the world”

    • coming together of many cultures

    • roads facilitated trade and communication between east and west

    • rivalries between Persians and Greeks led to wars

Classical Mediterranean

Specific Characteristics



    • 1700 BCE, Greek migrations into the peninsula

    • 800 BCE, Greeks adopt alphabet from Phoenician traders

    • Geography: mountains and islands prevent to complete unification of Greek peoples under one ruler (instead Greece was a collection of loosely allied city-states); coastline allowed for easy access to the sea for trade and food

    • City-states: polis in Greek, Athens and Sparta were two of the largest and were also rivals

    • Sparta: aristocratic government; focus on strong military; slave labor; emphasis on agriculture

    • Athens: development of democracy (Pericles); many achievements in math, science, the arts, and philosophy; emphasis on trade; slave labor

    • Persian Wars: alliance of Athens and Sparta to defeat invading Persians

    • After Greek victory, Athens dominates Greek city-states

    • distrust for Athenian rule led to Peloponnesian Wars in which the city-states of Greece allied with either Athens or Sparta; Spartan victory coupled with widespread plague led to a deterioration of the power of Greek city-states

    • Culture: Greek theatre (tragedy and comedy); Olympic games; polytheistic religion with gods and goddesses vying for power and displaying human characteristics; Aristotle and the foundation of Greek philosophy

    • Expansion: Greek settlements/colonies throughout the Mediterranean (Italy, Eastern Mediterranean, Black Sea)

    • Political patterns established during the classical time continue to have an influence on the modern world

    • Cultural traditions and customs shaped the arts for centuries

    • development of major world religion: Christianity

    • extensive trade brought new ideas and products to the region

    • use of slave labor ultimately led to decline in economic expansion

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great

    • 336 - 323 BCE

    • Conquered Greece, Persia, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, parts of India

    • Hellenistic culture: blending of Greek, Phoenician, Persian, Egyptian, and Indian cultures; later adopted by Romans

    • Trade: Alexander’s empire solidified trade contacts between Asia and the Mediterranean world


        • Political patterns established

      during the classical time

      continue to have an influence

      on the modern world

        • Cultural traditions and

      customs shaped the arts for


        • development of major world

      religion: Christianity

      ideas and products to the


        • use of slave labor ultimately

      led to decline in economic


    • Stoicism: use powers of reason to lead virtuous lives and assist others; popular philosophy during Hellenistic Age

    • Achievements: Euclidean geometry, Pythagorean Theorem, knowledge of anatomy, circumference of the world; geocentric theory (Ptolemy)


    • 800 BCE: Kingdom of Rome

    • 509 BCE: king overthrown by aristocracy, beginning of Roman Republic ruled by the Senate (aristocrats)

    • Expansion: Punic Wars bring defeat of Carthaginians (prime rivals) and domination of the Mediterranean; continued expansion in North Africa, Western Europe, and the Eastern Mediterranean coastal lands

    • 45 BCE: advent of Julius Caesar, beginning of transition from Republic to Empire

    • 27 BCE: Augustus Octavian Caesar becomes Emperor, beginning of Pax Romana

    • Technology: large public works, such as aqueducts, roads, bridges; architecture such as the coliseum, roman arches (adopted from Greek architecture)

    • Achievements: common coinage, common language (Latin), continuation of Greek/Hellenistic traditions and beliefs (alphabet, philosophy)

    • Trade: extensive trade in Mediterranean and with the East along the Silk Roads in the Middle East

    • Religion: Roman polytheistic religion based on Greek gods and goddesses; development of Christianity after birth and life of Jesus Christ in Judea

    • Social structure: patriarchal; use of slave labor

    • Government: during Republic, codification of Roman laws called the Twelve Tables (innocent until proven guilty; defendants may confront accusers in court; judges can nullify unjust laws); during Republic, legislative Senate with executive Consuls (two) and power to elect dictator in times of trouble; during Empire, rule of Emperor with Senate as advisors

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