Civilization is a complex way of life that came about as people began to develop urban settlements. The earliest civilizations developed after 3000 BCE, when the rise of agriculture allowed people to have surplus food and economic stability. Agricultural populations advanced beyond village life, and many people no longer had to practice farming at all.
Civilizations first appeared in Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq, then in Egypt. Civilizations thrived in the Indus Valley by 2500 BCE, in China by 1500 BCE and in Central America, what is now Mexico, by 1200 BCE. Civilizations developed on every continent except Antarctica.
Characteristics of Civilization
All civilizations have certain characteristics. These include: (1) large population centers; (2) monumental architecture and unique art styles; (3) written language; (4) systems for administering territories; (5) a complex division of labor; and (6) the division of people into social classes.
Large population centers, or urban areas (1), allow civilizations to develop. People, like farmers, who live outside urban centers but sell their goods and services there, are still part of that region’s civilization. As the land was cultivated, fewer farmers could supply more food, such as corn and beans, to more people.
All civilizations work to preserve their legacy by building large monuments and structures (2). This is as true today as it was thousands of years ago. Western civilization has monuments like Mount Rushmore, in the U.S. state of South Dakota, or the Eiffel Tower, in Paris, France. These monuments represent the civilization that made them.
Similarly, pyramids and other monumental structures have represented Egypt for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptian civilization is also represented by a distinct art style. Characteristics of this art style include hieroglyphics and stiff human figures. Written communication (3) is another element that all civilizations share. Writing allows systems for trade, government, and thought to develop. Written language also allows civilizations to record their own history. The world’s oldest known written language is Sumerian, which developed in Mesopotamia. Sumerian civilization began keeping records about 3100 BCE. Sumerian writing was called cuneiform, meaning it was made up of different collections of wedge (triangle) shapes. Just like written records of modern civilizations, Sumerian cuneiform kept track of taxes, grocery bills, and laws for things like stealing.
Civilization comes from the Latin word “civis,” meaning “citizen.” Latin was the language of ancient Roman civilization, which stretched from the land surrounding the Mediterranean Sea all the way to Scotland in the north and the Black Sea to the east. To rule an area that large, the Romans, based in what is now central Italy, needed an effective system for administering territories (4).
Romans used a variety of methods in this system. They built a network of roads so communication between far-away territories was quick and easy. Roads also made travel by the Roman military much easier. Romans built structures of their civilization everywhere they went: aqueducts to supply fresh water to towns and baths for improved hygiene, for example.
Romans used local leaders, as well as Romans, to administer the law in their territories. Residents were more familiar with their own leaders, and more likely to follow their instructions. The emperor Constantine, for instance, was born in what is now Serbia. This interaction reduced conflict between Rome and its territories.
It didn’t reduce all conflict, of course. People who live in territories or colonies are rarely happy with the administration, or leadership, of a foreign civilization. Ancient Rome endured many revolts, from North Africa to Great Britain. Civilizations are also marked by complex divisions of labor (5). This means that different people perform specialized tasks. In a purely agricultural civilization, most members of the community know how to farm, cook, and hunt. In complex civilizations, farmers may cultivate one type of crop and depend on other people for clothing, shelter, and information.
The last element that is key to the development of civilizations is the division of people into social classes (6). This is a complex idea that can be broken down into two parts: income and type of work performed. Changing classes has traditionally been difficult and happens over generations.
Social classes can mean groups of people divided by their income. Western civilization usually divides economic class into wealthy, middle-class, and poor. Social class can also refer to the type of work people perform. In the ancient civilization of China, there were four classic types of social classes. Scholars and political leaders (known as shi) were the most powerful social class. Farmers and agricultural workers (known as nong) were the next most-powerful group. Artists (known as gong), who made everything from horseshoes to silk robes, were the next order of social class. At the bottom of the social classes were the merchants and traders, who bought and sold goods and services. Known as shang, these merchants often had more money than the other classes but had a lower social status. Development of Civilization
Civilizations expand through trade, war, and exploration. Usually, all three elements must be present for a civilization to grow and remain for a long period of time. Ancient Rome is a good example.
The ancient Romans traded goods, services, and ideas with the lands they had contact with. They traded in silver from the island of Great Britain, spices such as cloves from partners in what is now India, and exotic animals such as giraffes from civilizations in Africa. They also traded ideas with civilizations such as Greece, where Romans were exposed to the ideas of democracy and citizenship. Roman civilization also developed a powerful military. One of Rome’s most important political figures was actually a general: Julius Caesar. Exploration was the foundation of Roman civilization. Early Romans explored the land around the Mediterranean, seeing what areas were good for agriculture and what areas had large trading centers These early explorations allowed Rome to grow from a kingdom in what is today central Italy to a republic expanding across the Mediterranean region to an empire that spread across three continents—Europe, Africa, and Asia. Highlighting Top Ancient Civilizations
Ancient Egypt For almost 30 centuries—from its unification around 3100 B.C. to its conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.—ancient Egypt was the preeminent civilization in the Mediterranean world. From the great pyramids of the Old Kingdom through the military conquests of the New Kingdom, Egypt’s majesty has long entranced archaeologists and historians and created a vibrant field of study all its own: Egyptology. The main sources of information about ancient Egypt are the many monuments, objects and artifacts that have been recovered from archaeological sites, covered with hieroglyphs that have only recently been deciphered. The picture that emerges is of a culture with few equals in the beauty of its art, the accomplishment of its architecture or the richness of its religious traditions. Ancient Rome Beginning in the eighth century B.C., Ancient Rome grew from a small town on central Italy’s Tiber River into an empire that at its peak encompassed most of continental Europe, Britain, much of western Asia, northern Africa and the Mediterranean islands.
Among the many legacies of Roman dominance are the widespread use of the Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian) derived from Latin, the modern Western alphabet and calendar and the emergence of Christianity as a major world religion. After 450 years as a republic, Rome became an empire in the wake of Julius Caesar’s rise and fall in the first century B.C. The long and triumphant reign of its first emperor, Augustus, began a golden age of peace and prosperity; by contrast, the empire’s decline and fall by the fifth century A.D. was one of the most dramatic implosions in the history of human civilization.
Ancient Greece The term “classical Greece” refers to the period between the Persian Wars at the beginning of the fifth century B.C. and the rise of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. The classical period was an era of war and conflict—first between the Greeks and the Persians, then between the Athenians and the Spartans—but it was also an era of unprecedented political and cultural achievement. Besides the Parthenon and Greek tragedy, classical Greece brought us the historian Herodotus, the physician Hippokrates and the philosopher Socrates. It also brought us the political reforms that are ancient Greece’s most enduring contribution to the modern world: the system known as demokratia, or “rule by the people.” Fall of Civilizations
Many civilizations have flourished and then failed or fallen apart. There are many reasons for this. The reasons can be internal, such as conflict within the civilization. It can also be external, such as a natural disaster. Some anthropologists, people who study cultures and civilizations, believe that misuse of the environment may have helped cause the collapse of some civilizations. Many of today’s anthropologists believe that modern societies’ use of natural resources will affect future civilizations. Oil, coal, and natural gas are natural resources that, may be used more quickly than they can be replenished.