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to: Headline events in Civilization I

What is Civilization I?  

In Brief: Government emerged as a powerful institution during the first epoch of world history when it detached from the temple culture of Egyptian and Mesopotamian city-states and went to war against neighboring states. The history of the first civilization features conflict between agricultural and nomadic peoples and military competition between kingdoms of the settled communities. This period culminated in the formation of large political empires that exercised totalitarian control in society.

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Civilization I is a name given to the type of society which emerged in Egypt and Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium B.C. and in other places at later times. This was the urbanizing society which emerged as humanity outgrew village life and created city-states. Societies undertook communal irrigation projects, engaged in extensive commerce and trade, became socially stratified, utilized written records, buried their government leaders in elaborate tombs, and went to war.

The war-making function stands out in this period of history. During the first historical epoch, small city-states were consolidated in kingdoms, and kingdoms in large political empires. From an embryonic state, government as an institution developed to include the various functions that we see today. To tell the history of this civilization is to see world history as it has traditionally been told - the rise and fall of political dynasties, kingdoms, and empires. War, political intrigues, royal marriages and such things would drive the course of events.

The brief but spectacular career of Alexander the Great would be an important part of this history as would that of Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, Pharaoh Narmer, the Chinese emperor Shih Hwang-ti, and Cyrus II of Persia. So would the barbarian incursions that menaced civilized societies and sometimes toppled their political regimes.

The Pharaonic dynasties of the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and New Kingdom (2700-1090 B.C.) are like a bookend anchoring the earlier part of this epoch. The other bookend, anchoring the latter part, would be the succession of Chinese imperial dynasties which began in 221 B.C. and ended with the fall of the Ch'ing dynasty in 1912 A.D. In between, one finds the Babylonian empire of Hammurabi, the Hittite and Assyrian empires, the Achaemenian Persian empire, the Roman empire, Parthian empire, and many others. The New World empires of the Mayan, Toltec, Aztec, and Inca societies also belong to this civilization.   

An important element in civilization at this stage was ideographic writing. While tribal societies often lack written language, all known civilizations with the possible exception of the Inca had developed this capacity. Ideographic (as opposed to alphabetic) writing uses a unique symbol for each word. This is a craft for professional scribes. It is believed that writing was invented in Sumer (Mesopotamia) in the late 4th century B.C. not long after the first city-states appeared.

The first civilization is characterized by the emergence of large political empires and by primitive forms of writing. Its culmination would be the constellation of four political empires - the Roman, Parthian, Kushan, and Han Chinese empires - which existed at the beginning of the 3rd century, A.D., before the Huns and other nomadic tribes invaded them. Later attempts to reestablish universal states in Europe, such as Charlemagne's, Napoleon's, or Hitler's, have consistently failed. The Chinese, however, succeeded in reestablishing dynastic rule after periodic interludes of barbarian disruption.

For a more complete history of Civilization I, read Five Epochs of Civilization, chapter 4. (Read it here.)


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