What Is an Example of Civilization?

The pyramids of Egypt: A symbol of civilization
The pyramids of Egypt: A symbol of civilization
Terrakotta Army of Ancient China
Terrakotta Army of Ancient China

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.

Acropolis in Athens
Acropolis in Athens
St. Peter's Basilica designed by Michelangelo
St. Peter's Basilica designed by Michelangelo
Dubai night skyline, United Arab Emirates
Dubai night skyline, United Arab Emirates

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 bust of Julius Caesar: the first Roman Emperor
A bust of Julius Caesar: the first Roman Emperor
Mentuhoptep II, founder of the Middle Kingdom
Mentuhoptep II, founder of the Middle Kingdom

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.

Sophia Cathedral built by Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century
Sophia Cathedral built by Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century
Alexandria, as imagined by Wolfgang Sauber
Alexandria, as imagined by Wolfgang Sauber

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.

Anasazi Adobe Housing in Mesa Verde, Colorado
Anasazi Adobe Housing in Mesa Verde, Colorado

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.

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Comments 12 comments

Hazara 7 years ago

Since no one commented, i thought i should comment. By the way, it would be great if you know something about civilization during Kushan Empire. A major city would be Bamyan.


larryfreeman profile image

larryfreeman 7 years ago from Fremont, CA Author

Hi Hazara,

Thanks for your comment. In the future, I'll try to write on the Kushan Empire.

Cheers,

-Larry


Boo25 6 years ago

Hey, i need examples of civilisation for my homework. please give me some thanks.


larryfreeman profile image

larryfreeman 6 years ago from Fremont, CA Author


jayjay40 profile image

jayjay40 6 years ago from Bristol England

A very interesting read. Have you heard about the therory that the influences of civillisation travels westward around the world. They say if start at China, you then go west to Greece then Rome then Britain then the USA,that this tracts the major cultural influences and civillisations.I just wondered what your views are. Thanks for sharing.


lone77star profile image

lone77star 5 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

A lovely analysis. Very well thought out.

And it seems possible that a relatively unknown and disrespected civilization may have planted the seeds which allowed our own cradles of civilization to blossom as early as they did. I'm talking about the mythical Atlantis. If it was a real place, then the refugees of Atlantis may have given primitive man the cultural and mental impetus to "imagine" new possibilities. After all, if your ancestors have been there, then creating it anew is not such a big barrier. Compare "sound barrier," and "four-minute-mile barrier."

If Atlantis existed, its historical presence may only be felt in the myths and legends which preceded civlizations' cradles. And we have proof of Atlantis, albeit indirect -- evidence of an Atlantis-like event right when Plato said the fabled island disappeared in the sea.

It is interesting to note that, if some day we find direct proof of Atlantis, we will have extended the "history" of humanity by more than double. The "Dark Age" which separates the beginning of our history from the end of theirs is greater in duration than our entire history. A humbling thought, that.

And that may be perhaps why the "A" word receives such ridicule from traditional quarters. As best-selling author, James Gleick, pointed out, anything which causes us to reorganize our view of the world tends to provoke hostility. The arrogance behind that hostility is the antithesis of humility.


Hambali O.E 4 years ago

Can you please tell me the effects of war on human civilization?


jelyn 2 years ago

i need more examples of this civilization


nicole ann a constantino 2 years ago

I need more examples of early civilizations...


p m 19 months ago

*

how r u


christina 15 months ago

I need to know examples of civilizations


Sania 14 months ago

Hi, I really, really like this article. It helped me understand very clearly what a civilization was. I think you did a great job with this article.

Sania

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