The First Civilizations
Homo sapiens, or human beings, have been around for nearly 300,000 years. For most of that time, however, they had no written history. During this time of “prehistory,” humans spent most of their lives moving from place to place, hunting for food, building crude shelters, and protecting themselves from wild animals.
Around 5000 BCE, things slowly began to change. For the first time, humans started to settle down in one place. They began growing their own food and building permanent homes. The first cities were formed. People began using metals, such as copper and bronze, instead of stones to make tools. Then, around 3000 BCE, they created a system of letters and began to write. This new form of living was called civilization.
The people of early civilizations needed water for drinking and for their crops, so they settled near rivers. One civilization, called Mesopotamia, was established between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now the nation of Iraq. The capital of this civilization was the city of Babylon. To keep peace among people living so closely together, they needed rules. King Hammurabi, who ruled around 2000 BCE, drew up the first recorded set of laws. The Code of Hammurabi, as these laws were called, set down harsh penalties for those who broke the laws—“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” In other words the punishment fit the crime. These early laws provided everyone, regardless of their class or rank, at least some protection from their neighbors.
Another early civilization was founded by the Egyptians in the Nile River valley. The waters of the Nile, the longest river in the world, were essential to the development of ancient Egypt. Every year the river gently flooded the valley, enriching the soil with silt and minerals. This fertile black soil made it possible for the Egyptians to grow a wide variety of foods. Without the Nile River, Egypt would have been nothing more than an empty desert.
If the Nile River made it possible for Egyptian to live well, it also made it possible for the rulers of Egypt to live really well. These rulers built large palaces to show off their wealth. In time the rulers became known as pharaohs. The word pharaoh means “big house.”
It wasn’t enough for a pharaoh to live in a great house; he also had to be buried in one. The pharaohs used slaves to build massive tombs called pyramids.Each new pharaoh wanted a grander tomb than the last pharaoh’s. The pyramids kept getting bigger and bigger. The largest tomb, called the Great Pyramid, was built in 2530 BCE. Its base covered 13 acres.
The Egyptians developed their own system of writing called hieroglyphics. This system was based on a series of pictures showing common objects such as a human eye. Later, a group of people known as the Phoenicians used pictures or symbols to represent sounds. This was the first alphabet.
The pharaohs in ancient Egypt held absolute power. About 500 BCE, the Greeks set up a very different form of government that became known as a democracy. In a democracy the people rule themselves. (Even so, not everyone in Greece was equal since only free men were allowed to vote.) Each Greek city-state was like an independent country because each one had its own government and its own laws.
The Greeks made many major contributions to the development of Western civilization. For example, Greek architecture is still copied today. Modern theater is based on the principles established by the Greeks. They also made key discoveries in mathematics, science, and medicine. Euclid discovered the basic rules of geometry. Archimedes found out how to measure the circumference of a circle as well as the law governing floating objects in water. Hippocrates attacked the use of magic in medicine and wrote a code of ethics for doctors.
But the greatest contribution of all was in the field of philosophy. The word philosophy means “love of wisdom.” The ideas of Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who lived in the city-state of Athens, have shaped and guided the way Westerners have thought through the ages. They asked hard questions about the meaning of life, the true nature of the world, and the proper role of citizens.
The “golden age” of Greek civilization didn’t last forever. One reason was that the Greeks constantly fought each other. Sparta and Athens, for instance, waged war against each other for many years. This Peloponnesian War weakened the city-states and made them vulnerable to invasion. In 338 BCE Philip of Macedonia conquered Greece. His son Alexander the Great went on to conquer most of the lands between Greece in the west, Egypt in the south, and India in the east.
The Roman Empire
The great Roman Empire had a humble beginning. The region around the present-day city of Rome was first settled by farmers in about 750 BCE. These settlers were soon overrun by a northern tribe, the Etruscans. The Etruscans improved the land by draining swamps. They also built excellent roads, established trade, and developed new architectural techniques including the arch.
In 509 BCE the Romans drove the Etruscans and their king out of the city. The Romans did not like a monarchy so they established a new type of government called a republic. In the Roman republic, the voters elected representatives to run the government. These elected officials served in the Roman Senate. But Rome was not a true democracy. Only the most wealthy and powerful citizens were allowed to serve in the Senate.
Soon Rome grew more powerful and began conquering its neighbors. The Greeks in southern Italy fell first, and then the Romans defeated Hannibal and the Carthaginians from northern Africa. The Romans added additional provinces in France (called Gaul), Britain, and the Middle East. The genius of the Romans was their ability to govern their far-flung republic well. They did this through a unified set of laws, a skilled civil service, and a well-disciplined army. The Romans also built roads that connected Rome to every other part of the republic. The peace they established throughout their vast territory lasted many years and was called the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace.
All was not so peaceful back in Rome, however. Powerful army generals could control elections. One such leader was Julius Caesar, who defeated his rivals and made himself the sole ruler of Rome. On March 15 (the Ides of March) in 44 BCE, a group of rivals assassinated Caesar. This led to a long line of emperors. The old republic was dead.
Early Asian Civilizations
Two of the world’s great early civilizations arose in Asia. One developed in India more than 4,000 years ago in the valley of the Indus River. (The Indus River today flows through the nation of Pakistan.) Like the early settlers in Mesopotamia and Egypt, the people of the Indus River valley enjoyed an ever-improving standard of living. For example, they learned to use bronze and copper to make weapons as well as cooking utensils. The major city of Mohenjo-Daro had streets paved with bricks and lined with shops.
Little is known about what happened to these people. What is known is that around 1500 BCE another group of people called Aryans invaded the region from the north. The Aryans recorded their history and beliefs in four sacred books called the Vedas. These texts became the foundation for Hinduism, their religion. Over time, the Aryans divided all people into different classes based on birth. Under this caste system the priests, or Brahmans, ranked the highest and the “untouchables” ranked the lowest.
India was also the birthplace of Buddhism. In 563 BCE a prince named Siddharta Gautama was born in northern India. As a young man he wandered among the cities of India trying to figure out why people suffered so much. He came to believe that human pain was based on too much human greed and selfishness. Siddharta’s followers called him the Buddha, or the Enlightened One.
The other great early Asian civilization developed in about 1500 BCE along the banks of the Hwang Ho River in northern China. As in other early civilizations, power shifted from one group to another. Whichever Chinese group was in power at the time was said to be a dynasty. Each dynasty ruled until overthrown by another group, which in turn would set up its own dynasty. China also developed its own religion based on the ethical teachings of Confucius, who was born in about 551 BCE.
The Chinese constantly worried about invasions by what they called “barbarians” from the interior of Asia. So in the third century BCE, they built the Great Wall of China to protect themselves. The Great Wall stretched some 1,500 miles across the north of China and remains the only human-made object on Earth that can be seen from space.
However, the Great Wall did not stop invasion by the barbarians. A group called the Mongols united under Genghis Khan. Khan and his successors spread Mongol rule over most of Asia. Not known for their cultural or scientific contributions, this nomadic people made a series of military conquests that were thorough and marked by brutality and destruction. Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson, established the Yuan dynasty in China in 1260. This dynasty lasted until 1368 when the Mongols were overthrown and a new dynasty—the Mings—was established.
The Byzantine Empire
The Roman Empire, which at one time included about 100 million people, lasted for 500 years. The emperors during this long period ranged from good and just, such as Augustus, to evil and corrupt, such as Nero. Despite the ups and downs of the leadership at the top, the Roman Empire remained remarkably stable. This was due in large part to competent government officials at all levels. A strong economy and robust trade also helped. But over time, the immense cost of maintaining such a vast empire became too much even for Rome to handle. Barbarians from Germany began mounting attacks against the weakened Roman Empire. Finally, in 476 CE, after a long and steady decline, Rome fell.
Christianity developed during the time of the Roman Empire. Jesus, a Jew, lived about 2,000 years ago in the region called Palestine, which was then under Roman control. Jesus preached against violence and hatred and in favor of brotherhood and love. After his death in 33 CE, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Earlier, in 330 CE, the emperor Constantine, sensing trouble ahead, moved his capital east to the city of Byzantine in what is now Turkey. The city was rebuilt and renamed Constantinople. While the western half of the Roman Empire collapsed, the eastern half did not. In fact, the Byzantine Empire thrived in many ways. Emperor Justinian codified the old Roman law into a clearer and more systematic form. The Byzantine Empire also excelled in architecture and art. The church of Hagia Sophia, built in the shape of a Greek cross, was a masterpiece of engineering and design. Byzantine artists made mosaics—the composition of colorful bits of glass and stone into lovely patterns. They also created icons, beautiful religious images used to decorate churches.
The Muslim World
The Middle East was the birthplace of two of the great world religions, Judaism and Christianity. It was also the birthplace of a third great world religion: Islam. The founder of Islam was Mohammad, who was born about 570 CE on the Arabian Peninsula in the city of Mecca. One day around 610 CE, Mohammad was praying in a cave when he had a vision. An angel appeared and spoke to Mohammad. The angel told him that there was just one God and that his name was Allah. Subsequently, Mohammad received many more messages and recorded them in a book called the Koran.
Not everyone accepted Mohammad as Allah’s great prophet, and fighting broke out between his supporters and his opponents. In 622 CE, Mohammad and a few followers fled Mecca for the city of Medina. Within 10 years, however, Mohammad’s forces had captured just about all of the Arabian Peninsula. Mohammad established peace and outlined a set of duties for his followers. One duty was to pray five times a day while facing in the direction of the holy city of Mecca. Another duty was to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during a person’s life.
Islam soon spread far beyond the Arabian Peninsula. By around 750 CE, Muslims, as the followers of Islam were called, had converted others throughout the Middle East, across northern Africa, as far east as the Indus River Valley and as far north as Spain and eastern Turkey.
The five main religions in the world today—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism—can all trace their origins back to the earliest civilizations. Although there are many variations of these religions, they constitute the largest percentage of world’s religions.
Judaism, unlike other religions during the time of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, taught that there was one God, rather than many different gods. It is a monotheistic religion. Judaism was practiced by groups of people who lived in the land of Israel. Followers of Judaism accept the Torah as the most sacred writing. Today approximately 1% of the world’s population follows the teachings of Judaism.
Christianity is based on the belief that Jesus Christ was the Messiah, or son of God. It is commonly believed that Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism. After Christ’s birth in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, Christian beliefs and ideas were spread by a small group of disciples. As Rome was the center of western civilization at the time, it eventually became the center of the Church. The leader of this church was given the title of pope. Through regional leaders, known as bishops, Christianity was expanded throughout Europe and eventually the rest of the world. Followers of Christianity accept the Bible as the most sacred writing. Today 33% of the world’s population follows the teachings of Christianity.
Islam is the religion founded by the prophet Mohammed in 612 CE and is based on the teachings of Allah. Muslims submit to Allah through the five basic “pillars”: acceptance of no god but God; the five daily ritual prayers; the giving of alms; Sawm, the dawn-to-sunset fast during the month of Ramadan; and hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Followers of Islam accept the Koran as the most sacred writing. Today Islam accounts for approximately 20% of the world’s population.
Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest surviving religions. It is unique because there is no founder. Instead, it developed over several thousand years. It is based on the belief that all people are born into a particular caste, or class, and must do what is expected within that caste. India has the largest Hindu population in the world today. Followers of Hinduism accept the Veda as the most sacred writing. Today 13% of the world’s population follows the Hindu religion.
Buddhism began during the sixth century BCE in India. The basic teachings of Buddhism include the “four noble truths”: existence is suffering; suffering has a cause; there is a cessation of suffering that is called nirvana; and there is an eight-fold path to the end of suffering (right views, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration). Buddhism teaches that one’s soul will attain Nirvana, a divine state free of earthly ills, through self-denial and correct living. Today 6% of the world’s population follows the teachings of Buddha.
- Ancient Empires Info Sheet: http://blogs.birmingham.k12.mi.us/mrsfazzolaragilmore/files/2014/05/KIDS-DISCOVER-Ancient-Empires-Packet-1t4lh8r.pdf
- Interactive Maps: https://www.eduplace.com/kids/socsci/ca/books/bkf3/imaps/
- Individual Empire Info Sheets: http://www.worksheetlibrary.com/subjects/socialstudies/civilizations/