The Classical Period in World
History
Periodization: Classical
• The classical period runs from about 1000 or 800
BCE to 500 or 600 CE.
• Some of the key formative elements of major
civilization-what historians call the great
traditions-were forged in the classical period and
would be ingredients in world history from this
point onward.
• The classical civilizations were situated in areas
where river valley civilizations had flourished
earlier, although they usually relocated
somewhat and always expanded.
The Classical Age
• Areas:
China expanded from the north to the southern
portion of the Yellow River, forming the Middle
Kingdom.
Indian civilization spread through the whole
subcontinent, with its focus now in the Ganges
River basin rather than the northwest.
Classical Mediterranean civilization was located in
Greece and along the shoreline of the eastern
Mediterranean and ultimately spread westward,
both in North Africa and southern Europe.
The Classical Age
The classical civilization that stayed closest to
it river valley roots was Persia, which had its
center in the Tigris-Euphrates valley but also
spread more widely in the Middle East.
So the core areas of China, India, Persia and the
Mediterranean are the centers of the Classical
Age.
The Classical Age
• The period saw great activity and many changes.
These major civilizations included major
population centers.
• At its height, China included 54 million people;
Rome had 52 million.
• It must be noted that the features that came
from the classical civilizations did not define the
whole world—key parts of northern Europe,
many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, places in Asia
(such as Japan) and the Americas are left out.
(We will examine the Americas a bit, despite this)
The Classical Age
• Also of note: The Classical societies did build on the
river valley kingdom’s achievements, but classical
civilization differed in many ways:
– Classical civilizations are much larger.
– All of these civilizations had iron technologies. Iron had
been introduced around 1500 BCE. (Thus the Assyrian
Empire was one of the first to use Iron and building an
Empire in the Middle East.) **Metallurgy
– Leaders saw advantages in terms of population expansion
for economic and military reasons.
• Classical civilizations did have numerous contacts.
*Trade-the Phoenicians
General Comparisons: Overview
• China: From the fairly
decentralized, often
landlord-dominated
Zhou dynasty, China
made a move to
centralization under the
Qin dynasty and even
more centralized
political and ideological
operation under the
Han dynasty at the end
of the period.
General Comparisons: Overview
• Mediterranean: This area
emphasized the Greek tradition
until the 4th century. This was
followed by the period of
Alexander the Great’s conquests
and the Hellenistic period, in
which Greek cultural and political
influences interacted with the
traditions of Egypt and the
Middle East. In its final phase, the
civilization’s emphasis shifted to
Rome, the republican period and
expression of the classical
Mediterranean.
General Comparisons: Overview
• Persia: In the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, Persia
was more important than Greece and had
established a strong, effective government.
The Persian tradition would be partially
overshadowed, however, first by the
conquests of Alexander, then by the conquests
of Arab Islam.
General Comparisons: Overview
• India: Classical India involves the story of the
in-migration of Aryan or Indo-European
peoples, whose culture was gradually codified
into major works of literature and religious
philosophy. Indian, in this second civilization
period, settled down into more recognizably
coherent development, with a major empire
in the 4th century BCE-the Mauryan Empireand, at the end of the classical period, another
major imperial statement-the Gupta Empire.
Cultural comparisons (differences)
Belief systems:
• China: Confucianism and Daoism; on the whole China
was mostly secular
• India: the most spiritual generating Hinduism and
Buddhism.
Science:
• China: Emphasized empirical science because of its
utility to society and the economy.
• The Greco-Roman tradition was more theoretical.
• India had a strong tradition emphasizing mathematics.
Cultural Comparisons (differences)
Political:
• China: Created a strong central government and a large
bureaucracy. Emphasis on key political concepts that
supported the central government, specific training
systems and even exams for government officials.
• India: Stresses a smaller, decentralized states and
placed less emphasis on political ideology.
• Mediterranean: A strong political emphasis, although
its overall political tradition was more decentralized
than China. The Roman state was more interested in
the development of a legal system as a unifier, than
massive bureaucracies.
Cultural Comparisons
(differences)
Social:
• India: The Caste System
• Med: Strong reliance on slavery; slavery did
exist in India and China
• China: Under Confucianism, developed a
social hierarchy based on the notion of rule by
wise people of an upper class, with the lower
classes offering deference in return.
Cultural Comparisons (differences)
Economics
• China: Depended on trade, but Confucianism
prompted a cultural bias against merchants, who
were viewed with suspicion because of their
devotion to moneymaking and the possibility that
they would pull away from the central political
and social values of Chinese society.
• India: Merchants were encouraged to use the
Indian Ocean as an artery for foreign trade.
Cultural Comparisons (differences)
Technologies
• China: Would be the most important source of
technological innovation in the world. Most
technologies would go westward.
• India: Also success in stressing invention—
especially steelmaking.
• Med: Probably the least developed emphasis on
technology, possibly because it tended to expand
the slave system rather than increase production
through tech development.
Why the differences?
• China may have focused on political order
because of its geography. The possibility of
invasion from Central Asia may have
encouraged an emphasis on order to ward off
disruption, but the threat was not so great
that establishing political order became
impossible.
Why the differences?
• India was also affected by invasions and
influences from the outside world that came
through the passes that lead through the
Himalayas and northwestern India. Indian’s
emphasis on artistic sensuality and religious
fervor could have stemmed from its climate.
How did these empires maintain?
• Economic integration: e.g. China created
canals to connect locations; Med leaders
connected with grain growing regions of
Africa.
• Culture integration: In the 6th and 5th centuries
BCE all of these groups introduced belief
systems. E.g. China and Confucianism and
Daoism; Hinduism and Buddhism in India;
Zoroastrianism in Persia, philosophy and art in
the Greco-Roman world.
How did these empires maintain?
• Political integration: The
building of imperial
structures that would
foster and reinforce
economic and cultural
coherence.
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The Classical Period in AP World History