Ancient Civilizations - Characteristics

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Civilization is a complex way of life that came about as people began to develop urban settlements. The earliest civilizations developed after 3000 BCE, when the rise of agriculture allowed people to have surplus food and economic stability. Agricultural populations advanced beyond village life, and many people no longer had to practice farming at all.

Civilizations first appeared in Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq, then in Egypt. Civilizations thrived in the Indus Valley by 2500 BCE, in China by 1500 BCE and in Central America, what is now Mexico, by 1200 BCE. Civilizations developed on every continent except Antarctica.

Characteristics of Civilization

All civilizations have certain characteristics. These include: (1) large population centers; (2) monumental architecture and unique art styles; (3) written language; (4) systems for administering territories; (5) a complex division of labor; and (6) the division of people into social classes.

Large population centers, or urban areas (1), allow civilizations to develop. People, like farmers, who live outside urban centers but sell their goods and services there, are still part of that region’s civilization. As the land was cultivated, fewer farmers could supply more food, such as corn and beans, to more people.

All civilizations work to preserve their legacy by building large monuments and structures (2). This is as true today as it was thousands of years ago. Western civilization has monuments like Mount Rushmore, in the U.S. state of South Dakota, or the Eiffel Tower, in Paris, France. These monuments represent the civilization that made them.

Similarly, pyramids and other monumental structures have represented Egypt for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptian civilization is also represented by a distinct art style. Characteristics of this art style include hieroglyphics and stiff human figures. Written communication (3) is another element that all civilizations share. Writing allows systems for trade, government, and thought to develop. Written language also allows civilizations to record their own history. The world's oldest known written language is Sumerian, which developed in Mesopotamia. Sumerian civilization began keeping records about 3100 BCE. Sumerian writing was called cuneiform, meaning it was made up of different collections of wedge (triangle) shapes. Just like written records of modern civilizations, Sumerian cuneiform kept track of taxes, grocery bills, and laws for things like stealing.

Civilization comes from the Latin word "civis," meaning "citizen." Latin was the language of ancient Roman civilization, which stretched from the land surrounding the Mediterranean Sea all the way to Scotland in the north and the Black Sea to the east. To rule an area that large, the Romans, based in what is now central Italy, needed an effective system for administering territories (4).

Romans used a variety of methods in this system. They built a network of roads so communication between far-away territories was quick and easy. Roads also made travel by the Roman military much easier. Romans built structures of their civilization everywhere they went: aqueducts to supply fresh water to towns and baths for improved hygiene, for example.

Romans used local leaders, as well as Romans, to administer the law in their territories. Residents were more familiar with their own leaders, and more likely to follow their instructions. The emperor Constantine, for instance, was born in what is now Serbia. This interaction reduced conflict between Rome and its territories.

It didn’t reduce all conflict, of course. People who live in territories or colonies are rarely happy with the administration, or leadership, of a foreign civilization. Ancient Rome endured many revolts, from North Africa to Great Britain. Civilizations are also marked by complex divisions of labor (5). This means that different people perform specialized tasks. In a purely agricultural...
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