What Is an Example of Civilization?
What is a Civilization?
Recently, I was talking to a colleague at work and I mentioned that civilizations tend to last only 500 years. I had heard this somewhere but I couldn't remember where. Of course, to even begin this discussion raises the question of what exactly is a civilization?
If you look up the term "civilization" up in Wikipedia, here's what you get:
"A civilization or civilisation is a society or culture group normally defined as a complex society characterized by the practice of agriculture and settlement in cities"
City-dwellers might be the exact meaning but that's not what people usually mean when they ask: how long do civilizations last. We are clearly talking about some trans-city concept and we aren't talking about just any civilization. We usually have a sense of the "significant" civilizations. Of course, I should point out that "significant" is relative the audience. People from Hawaii will view King Kamehameha as one of the "significant" world leaders. People from Kyrgyzstan will consider certain nomadic tribes to be "significant" societies. The key point here is that "civilization" is an ambiguous term that will have different meanings to different audiences.
Now, in my case, I am interested in historically significant civilizations so let me focus on this topic alone. From my view (a Western Civilization perspective), a "significant civilization" is not necessarily an "empire". For example, people freely talk about "Greek Civilization" and yet the Ancient Greeks were really a network of fragmented city-states.
When people ask how long do civilizations last, I think that they are really talking about the idea of a society that dominates its region either through military might, political hold, financial power, or cultural influence. For example, we can speak about Roman Civilization, Egyptian Civilization, Chinese Civilization, Indus Valley Civilization, etc.
So, what is the meaning of a civilization when we ask the question: "how long do civilizations last?"
I would proposed the following criteria for a civilization:
- A civilization is dominant in its region
- A civilization is stable with roughly the same form of ruling power over its lifetime
- A civilization usually has a capital city or center that gets identified with that civilziation
- A civilization is bigger than a single city but it is not necessarily an empire.
- A civilization has a strong historical presence
The purpose of a criteria is to provide grounds for discussion and analysis. So, let me review each point.
A Civilization is dominant in its region
Often, when we talk about ancient history, we focus primarily on the empires. We talk about the Incas, Aztecs, Romans, Ottomans, Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, etc.
I think that when we ask the question about how long civilization lasts, we are necessarily including the great empires but it seems unnecessarily limiting to only talk about conquerors. The Greeks for all their epics and all their histories about Sparta and Athens were not conquerors in the same way as the Persians.
The Renaissance in Europe was a significant moment for Western civilization and yet it is not about war and conquest as much as a break from war and conquest. The rise of nation-states in Europe for example was not so much a time of conquest as a time of unraveling of the empires. The breakup of the Ottoman Empire was another example of the birth of newer states. Influence often comes from conquest but not always.
Still, what is important about the Greeks, the Western European nation-states, and the Arab nations is that they were a very significant influence in their region. Whether wars are fought or not, won or lost is not a measure of civilization. A civilization can endure and persist through war. But when a civilization has lost its "influence," the civilization is said to be in decline.
A civilization is stable with roughly the same form of ruling power over its lifetime
A civilization is not just a political region; it is also a form of government. Historians routinely see Roman Civilization consisting of three phases: the Roman Republic (509 BC - 27 BC), the Roman Empire (27 BC - 476 AD), and Byzantine Empire (395AD - 1204AD). The Ancient Egyptian Civilization is divided into the Old Kingdom (2700 - 2200BC), Middle Kingdom (2040 BC - 1640 BC), and the New Kingdom ( 1550 BC to 1070 BC).
Rome went from Republic to Empire to Christian Empire. In Egypt, the Old Kingdom ended with a political collapse. The United States begins properly after the American Revolution. Even though the American civilization continued to mirror many of the developments in mother England.
Of course, Greece was not very stable and American Civilization experienced periods of significant disruption including the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. The point here is not that life was peaceful but rather that the over all power structures stayed the same.
The important point here is that the "civilization" must have some continuity. When we say that a civilization declines or ends, we are really saying that this stability ends.
A Civilization Usually Has a Capital City or Center
Civilization is about cities but I would argue that the idea of a capital city is more important. Consider some examples.
The capital of the Egyptian Old Kingdom was Memphis. The center of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom was Thebes. The capital of the Byzantine Empire was Constantinople. The capital of Alexander the Great's empire was Alexandria in Egypt and so on.
The capital city is often the symbol of the civilization to the outside world. An empire without a major city or a major center is not a civilization as I am proposing here.
A civilization is bigger than a single city
Even as a civilization has a center a capital city, it is bigger than this city. A city-state is not a civilization although most civilizations began as a single city-state. Sumer began at Eridu but over time, it expanded to include Kish, Ur, and many others. A civilization stretches across its center to its minor regions. The important idea here is that it is not an isolated city, a trade route, or a pilgrimmage site. A civilization can include all these parts but it is bigger than this. It is a unifying force that defines a society.
A Civilization has strong historical presence
Indeed, I would put forward that the concept of "civilization" is a device for interpreting history. From this perspective, the civilizations are the major organizing points for understanding the major cultural influences of major societies.
Since it is a concept of history, it follows that the exact delineation of "civilizations" will change over time. It will change with trends and it will change as we learn more about our past. As a general rule, historical research tends to favor the background of its authors. Additionally, biases affect interpretations of history. For example, do nomadic tribes constitute a civilization? If we use the idea of a city, then the answer is no. If use the idea of a center, then the answer may be yes. Since civilizations are primarily artifacts of history, I consider stable people who lived in a general region over time to be civilizations. For example, I consider Native American tribes to be examples of civilizations. For me, this comes down to the idea of a domain culture over a region and the idea of a center.
Still, this criteria means that the idea of civilization is very open. Did the Germanic tribes consitute a civilization? Did the Vikings constitute a civilization. I would say yes to both. In my view, the question is really were the Vikings and Germanic tribes historically significant.
More by this Author
When does human history begin? If we seek help from anthropology, then we find that the first animals of the homininans appeared in Africa around 6 million years ago and the first Homo sapiens appeared 600,000 to...
According to Wikipedia, H.G. Wells wrote: "In the history of the world there have been thousands of kings and emperors who call themselves "their highnesses," "their majesties", and "their...
Recently, I was talking with a colleague at work and I mentioned that civilizations usually only last 500 years. The only problem was that I couldn't remember where I had heard that. In fact, I wasn't all that sure that...