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About the Ancient Civilizations of the World

Civilizations can be understood as the set of knowledge, expertise and customs that are common to a group of human beings during a period of time. If we add the word “ancient” to this definition, these characteristics are transferred to a moment in history. Throughout history, countless of ancient civilizations have been created, each one providing its own knowledge and customs, in order to create a civilization or society of great importance. In this article we will explore how the first civilizations were formed, which were the most important, what they contributed to society, and more. It is time to learn more about ancient civilizations.

Ancient Civilizations World
Ancient Civilizations of the World

The Ancient Civilizations – Introduction

When we talk about a “civilization” we are referring to a society that has reached a high level of development in its economy, as well as its political, cultural, and religious organization. A civilization is the highest level of development that a society can achieve.

Ancient civilizations arose thousands of years ago but have been the fundamental base for the social progress that we see today, in which the technological age particularly stands out. In any case it is thanks to these first civilizations, with their inventions, writing and trade, as well as their political structures that we have the level of evolution that we take for granted in today´s social structure.

It can be said that the development of all these civilizations coincides with some things that have had to advance in order to adapt and, most importantly of all, survive.

All civilizations arise around a focal point: great rivers. Rivers were a source of water, essential for the development of agriculture. They were also a very important means for transporting goods. Rivers ensured that there would always be food, offering an abundance of fish, which was an essential food source for the first civilizations, as well as preserving the group´s health, offering the ideal means for cleanliness and personal hygiene.

A civilization can be defined as a social group that is capable of using and working with metals for both daily use and defense, with a semi-professional state or political organization, which is able to divide workload, even creating specializations within each job, a society able to produce enough to be self-sufficient, with a characteristic artistic style, which even holds common beliefs.

The Ancient Civilizations: Adaptation to the Environment

Adaptation of ancient civilizations
Adaptation of ancient civilizations

The mere existence of a civilization implies that there has been a successful adaptation to the environment, as it must feed an enormous population. This adaptation can be achieved through slash-and-burn agriculture (like the Mayans) or intensive farming (Egypt, Incas, Aztecs, etc.). According to the different characteristics of the environment in which each civilization has developed, different techniques are used to encourage the production of crops and overcome the natural obstacles that each region provides.

  • In Egypt and Mesopotamia canals and irrigation systems were developed;
  • The Aztecs built floating farms of fertile land called Chinampas in order to take advantage of the size of lake Texcoco;
  • The Incas made “cultivation terraces” in the mountain range of the Andes to acquire flat lands for farming.

The Ancient Civilizations: Society

Given that farming is their main economic activity, the large majority of the population would do agricultural tasks. But as these societies started growing in size, their requirements also began to grow. Thus the first groups with specializations in different skills began to appear; passing down generations, creating groups of managers, soldiers, priests, stonemasons, artisans, clerks, architects, etc.

There is a clear divide between the city or ceremonial center (urban) and the countryside (rural). The most important buildings were those used by the government, institutions, palaces, temples, assembly points, etc., which made up the ceremonial center or city and was home to artisans, soldiers, and more; essentially all those who directly depended upon the city. The farmers were relegated, however, to living in rural areas, in the countryside.

In Ancient History we find that civilizations clearly show social stratification. Social stratification means that the dominant group in society (the nobility), through control by the State, forces the rest of the population to pay tribute taxes. Tributes are taxes that the residents pay to the State, in products, labor or money.

The Ancient Civilizations: State Organization

Ancient Society Organization
Ancient Society Organization

Civilizations are governed politically under the guardianship of the State. The term State can be understood as a centralized power, with a permanent army, organization and control of its territory. Thanks to this centralization of power, the State has the ability to govern a population by imposing the payment of tributes and obliging people to carry out certain jobs in the name of society (army, public works, farming State lands, etc.)

At the head of the State we find a dominant group who controls the resources that are given as tributes and redistributes them according to peoples´ necessities (for example, to reward notable soldiers and officials, or to help people that have lost their harvests).

The Ancient Civilizations: East

The first organized groups that we can call civilizations developed in the East, where their influence over other cultures, perhaps more incipient, undoubtedly contributed to what we now call Western Culture.

Civilizations such as the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Phoenician and Hebrew inhabited the most secluded corners of the East, developing activities such as trading, where the Phoenicians particularly stood out, whilst on a spiritual level the Hebrews provided the basis of the majority of future religions.

3000 years ago the East was already inhabited and even organized; different cultures and groups od people lived in this region, where life mainly revolved around agricultural activities.

The Ancient Civilizations: East – The Sumerians

The Sumerians are the most ancient civilization known to man, and were established in Mesopotamia. The origin of this civilization is unknown, but it is known that they existed around 5500 years ago. Much is known about this civilization thanks to artistic representations that have been discovered.

The Sumerians were mainly farmers and ranchers and they had basic knowledge of engineering as they were able to build canals and roads, they sailed, fashioned fabrics with wool and were able to make tools, as they knew how to handle metals.

Contributions

One of the contributions that the Sumerians made for humanity was the invention of writing, which was in cuneiform style, which is highly relevant because it allows us to learn about them and for them to broadcast events and thoughts that have survived until today.

The Ancient Civilizations: East – The Akkadians

The Sumerians and the Akkadians came to live as neighbors, as the Akkadians were from the North of Mesopotamia and the Sumerians were from the South. The Akkadians invaded the Sumerians, thus unifying Mesopotamia.

The Akkadians forced the conquered Sumerians to learn their language, which meant that their own practically disappeared, known only by the priests, who could only carry out their liturgy in the Sumer language.

Contributions

Cities such as Babylon showed the splendor of an advanced and organized civilization, which saw highly advanced contributions from art, architecture, hydraulics, medicine, and legislation, able to organize almost invincible armies. The appearance of the Hammurabi code allowed us to unveil their political and social organization, the laws that their society lived by and the penalties for breaking them. They would make mathematical calculations that were advanced enough to build large infrastructures.

The Ancient Civilizations: East – Mesopotamia

Ancient mesopotamia
Ancient mesopotamia location

An example of how important rivers were in ancient civilizations can be found in Mesopotamia, whose name means “between rivers”. It was a culture situated between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, two of the most important rivers of the Near East, which also provided all of the necessary nutrients in order to obtain a successful and highly important agricultural production.

Throughout its existence, Mesopotamia suffered from invasions by other cultures who longed to steal the riches of their land. There were so many battles and invasions that the development of this civilization was interrupted, which gave way to other groups which also settled in these territories, such as the Sumerians, the Babylonians and the Syrians.

The Mesopotamian civilization was composed of different political organizations, such as the famous empires of Sumer, Akkad and Assyria, amongst others, but the different territories that it constituted of shared some common beliefs and customs.

The Mesopotamian civilization survived until the 1st Century BC, when its territory was conquered in the year 539 BC by the Achaemenid Empire, and then again in 332 BC by Alejando Magno. It is thought that writing was invented in Mesopotamia around the year 3100 BC, thus opening the metaphorical doors to this historical period.

It was also precisely in Mesopotamia where the first big libraries were created and where what are considered to be the first books known to man appeared. Some of these are still conserved to this day, such as the famous Poem of Gilgamesh, which tells the story of a King in search of immortality, and where some of the first descriptions of the Great Flood can be found.

Furthermore, Mesopotamian civilization also experienced a major breakthrough in the field of mathematics, introducing a numerical system of sexagesimal base. The database was particularly useful when it comes to measuring time, as it is based on the segmentation of one hour in cycles of 60 minutes, the division of the days in periods of 24 hours and also the calculation of the 360º of the circle.

Closely linked with mathematics and religion was their development of the art of astronomy. Mesopotamian astronomers, especially those related to the Babylonian Empire, accurately calculated eclipses and solstices and were the first to divide the year into twelve months, splitting it into two seasons, Summer and Winter.

Ancient babylonians
Ancient Babylonians

Finally, they made extremely important advances in the technological and archaeological fields, which are still used today. The techniques that they used in agriculture, gardening and the creation of beautiful gardens were especially relevant.

They invented advanced irrigation methods; how to control the flow of water that came from the two rivers that gave it its name, water accumulation and working with metals such as iron, bronze and copper.

Their impressive palaces were decorated using advanced techniques such as glazed brick, and created enormous monumental structures such as the magnificent gates of Ishtar which are preserved in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin or the immense Ziggurats which, thousands of years after being built, can still be seen in different parts of the current ear East.

The Ancient Civilizations: East – Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt is one of history’s most fascinating civilizations, because of everything that is already known about them and also all the things that are overlooked. This civilization emerged around 5000 years ago, when the towns and settlements that stood on the banks of the Nile began to gather and form part of a “whole”.

Many things from ancient Egypt are still around today, such as the pyramids where they buried their Pharaohs, or their hieroglyphs, their curious way of writing. We also know that they cultivated the wetlands at the banks of the Nile, which had reservoirs to extract stones and metals, and that they were great traders.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Egyptians, apart from having a mythology full of Gods, legends and tales of the afterlife, is the proficiency they seemed to have at mathematics. Some of the discoveries that have been made regarding their command of numbers and arithmetic are astonishing.
The end of the Ancient Egyptian civilization is marked by the invasion of the Roman Empire, around the 4th century BC which means that the glory of their reign lasted for around 2500 years.

The Ancient Civilizations: The Mediterranean and Europe

In Europe, the most important civilizations also emerged close to rivers or seas; the influence of the trading routes of the East meant that the evolution of the ancient civilizations in the West developed at almost the same rate as the evolution of ancient civilizations in the East.

The Ancient Civilizations: The Mediterranean and Europe – Ancient Greece

The period of splendor of Ancient Greece lasted around a millennium, since leaving the Dark Ages in the year 1200 BC until the Greeks were conquered, unsurprisingly, by the Roman Empire, in the 2nd Century BC.

In Ancient Greek civilization,major developments were made in various fields such as philosophy, mathematics, logic, astronomy, and so on. In addition, they developed a political system called democracy. In Ancient Greece the population lived in Polis, which were something like today’s independent cities.

Despite belonging to the same empire, each section of Ancient Greece had its own Government. For example, in Athens democracy prevailed and most of the population learned arts or crafts. Meanwhile, Sparta was governed by Kings and their inhabitants were trained to become soldiers.

The Ancient Civilizations: The Mediterranean and Europe – The Roman Empire

The Roman Empire was one of the most extensive empires that has existed on the face of the Earth. Its influence has been felt throughout centuries of history and many countries still have ample evidence in the form of monuments and buildings which date back to that period.

Ancient Rome Etruscans
Ancient Rome – Etruscans

Unlike the Greeks, who stood out on an intellectual and theorical level, the Roman Empire stood out for more practical reasons (one can see that their Gods and beliefs were copied from the Greeks; they simply changed the names). One of their biggest contributions were their major engineering works: roads, bridges, aqueducts, baths and many more.

The Roman Empire was also the birthplace of Christianity and of civil law. Their leading figure was the Emperor, who possessed an almost omnipotent power. The Emperor’s position was a life-long one, which is why plots and treasons to remove them of their position were very frequent.

The public shows that their high nobles enjoyed were notorious, such as gladiator fights or chariot races. Rome had a destructive military power, but also a great instability which was only stopped for 40 years with the so-called Pax Roma.

The end of the Roman Empire arrived in the 5th century, when the Heruli deposed the last of the Emperors, Romulus Augustus.