HIST 2311 Lecture 2: The Classical Period 500 B.C. to 500 A.D. - The First Age of Empires - Summary
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1. When referring to “classical” societies, the authors are referring to societies
which have evolved to even greater heights than the complex societies that preceded them.
These patriarchal societies flourished in agriculture, and they generally expanded their
territorial influence through colonization. Trade expanded, and their cultural, religious, and
philosophical traditions became even more defined and rooted in the social identity. Some
examples of these societies include Persia, Greece, India, China, and Rome.
Colonization and territorial expansion were key factors in the success of the
classical societies, and this required a serious military advantage. In ancient Persia, after
Cyrus successfully united the the Persian clans in 558 B.C.E, he wasted no time in taking
control of all of Iran in only ten years. From there he went on to build an empire stretching
“from India to the borders of Egypt” before his death.
The various poleis that developed in
Greece also “extended their authority over surrounding regions.”
Under Philip the
Macedonians were able to take control of all of Greece after twelve years of conquest, and his
son Alexander expanded his empire beyond Persia all the way to India, where he was unable
to conquer only because his soldiers refused to go any farther from their homes.
The continuing productivity of agriculture created a specialized workforce,
and this combined with the territorial influence of these societies led to an increase in trade
and economic prosperity. In Han China, for example, the specialized labor allowed the
Chinese to develop sericulture to an unparalleled level, and silk was therefore a treasured
commodity in India, Persia, Mesopotamia, and even in Rome.
In classical India, expertise in
monsoon patterns allowed maritime trade to prosper, and as such they were able to exchange
goods such as “pearl, cotton, and black pepper” with societies of Indonesia and southeast
Religious and philosophical traditions formed a great part of the cultural
identity of the classical societies. In India, the intense spirituality of Jainism, Buddhism, and
Hinduism diverged from the “mechanical rituals of the Brahmins.”
Janists believed that all
bodies in the universe, animate or otherwise, possessed a soul and suffered from physical and
psychological pain so long as they were trapped in the body. Their means of purification of
this suffering was to do no harm to other souls, which required them to consume a strict
vegetarian diet, among other activities.
After meditating under a tree for forty-nine days,
Siddhartha Guatama identified the cause of suffering, and Buddhism would go on to preach
the Four Noble Truths, which among other things states that desire is the cause
of suffering, and the Noble Eightfold Path, which would eliminate desire from those who
With the spread of the poetic work, the “Bhagavad Gita,” Hinduism began to
take root in Indian culture as well. Hindu ethics encouraged its practitioners to engage with
the world and fulfill the duties required of them by their respective castes in order to reach
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While Jainism did not reach the level of popularity attained by Hinduism and
Buddhism, these three religions had a profound effect on the thinking and cultural identity of
The other classical societies of the period were not without their own
philosophical and religious developments. In China, the Confucian values of benevolence,
propriety and piety were considered very important, but they were also general enough that
later thinkers like Mencius and Xunzi were able to adapt their own thought in Confucian
In classical Greece, Socrates and his successor, Plato, dedicated themselves to
truth by means of rational argument. Plato developed a Theory of Forms, in which he
explains that the world we know is merely a shadow of the true reality where beauty, virtue,
knowledge, etc, exist wholly. Plato’s successor, Aristotle, developed a body of work that
rivaled the magnitude of that of his teacher. However, Aristotle contended that contrary to the
belief of Plato, the senses could be used to gain real knowledge of the world around us.
2. The rise of empires during this period was stimulated by a few factors
including growth of military power, commercial development, and administrative abilities.
That is, without a strong military capable of defeating its foes, a city-state would no doubt be
unable to defend itself, let alone expand its territory to create an empire. Furthermore, in
order to fund a strong military, the city-state would need a strong economy from which it
could take taxes. And lastly, an empire could only sustain itself by governing effectively over
its large territory, and to do so it would need the administrative infrastructure to respond to
such a monumental task.
One of the most durable classical empires was Persia, which over four
dynasties lasted from 558 B.C.E. to 651 C.E.\Cyrus the Achaemenid unified and became king
of the Persian clans and with his military brilliance he went on to expand Persian territory
from India to the Egyptian borders.
Later his younger successor, Darius, would go on to
expand the empire even further, but it was not just his military prowess that allowed the
empire to continue, rather it was his ability to manage such a large territory composed of
different ethnicities, languages, and cultural traditions. To administer effectively, Darius
“established lines of communication with all parts” of his empire, and created various
administrative institutions to operate effectively.
China established a long lasting empire as well, beginning when the Qin
dynasty emerged dominant from the Warring States period in 221 B.C.E. The Qin rulers
increased agriculture by granting land to peasants in underpopulated areas, drastically
increasing agricultural production and therefore wealth. With this wealth, they were able
organize a powerful army with state of the art equipment, and with it they conquered one
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