Saturday, March 18, 2006

From Civilization to Empire, China India and Persia / Mesopotamia

In the fictional Star Wars universe, a large group of democratically elected representatives from countless worlds across the galaxy governed a single republic. Each senator represented a civilization with a unique language, culture, and history. It was only after a carefully constructed coup d’etat that this collection of worlds formed the “Galactic Empire” (More commonly referred to as “The Empire”). The key difference between empire and civilization is aggression. A civilization will defend itself, conduct war, and run various forms of government from republics to oligarchies. An Empire will seek to dominate and control the affairs of another civilization.The first cities in Mesopotamia were built by the Sumerians around 4000 B.C.E. Growing Sumerian populations stimulated the development of governmental authority figures to establish and maintain civil order. After they had organized city states, the text says they “ventured beyond the boundaries of their own societies.” These journeys to other city states led of conflicts of revenge, plunder, and power grabbing. Though the text states Mesopotamia was brought under the control of regional empires, Mesopotamia was merely one civilization whose factions competed for local dominance, rather than an actual empire. The Babylonians did come close to establishing itself as an empire, but the first true example came with the rise of the Persian empires whose borders extended from as far as Central Asia to Egypt. As leader of the Achaemenid Empire, Darius presided over the first government that had the monumental task of ruling more than one civilization as it swallowed up territory across the Mediterranean and Southwest Asia.A civilization is a group of people who share a common identity. Civilizations often share a language or similar dialect, history, culture, and traditions. Though they may be separated by borders or political strife, a group of people can still be considered a civilization as a whole. The Warring States Period in China is a good example of a civilization that was politically fractured, but on the whole, still maintained a sense of common identity. It wasn’t until the short lived Qin dynasty that China was finally politically united under a single central government, an achievement that took nearly 2000 years.Mesopotamia is often referred to as the “Cradle of Civilization” because that’s where the first complex societies emerged. The development of agriculture led to the formation of agricultural towns and villages which led to the first civilization. As humans became adept at harvesting food, populations grew and cities were formed. Cities encouraged the development of specialized labor, which allowed high quality goods to be produced, fostering trade among neighbors and other cities. These were also the first cities that developed “governmental machinery” which established social order. The formation of militaries went hand in hand with established governments and by about 2800 B.C.E. the first wars of conquest were being waged among Mesopotamians. In 2370 B.C.E. a warrior named Sargon built a powerful regime that dominated Mesopotamia. He conquered the city states in the region and set the stage for the Persian empires which grew out of Mesopotamia.A Babylonian ruler named Hammurabi set up a code of laws by which to govern his empire. These laws served as the basis for proper conduct among members of different classes and defined gender roles in Mesopotamian society.Early Chinese civilization is marked by civil strife. Over a period of approximately 1900 years the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties were unable to establish a China united under one government. Ultimately they gave way to a period of political instability known as “The Warring States”. The social order consisted of royal and noble families, commoners and slaves under a patriarchal system in which the family unit was very important. China’s quest for political stability gave rise to three schools of political thought: Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism.Confucius never attained the high and prestigious position he chased after, and wrote Analects, a work that strongly influenced the Chinese political landscape. As an educator, he stressed the importance of social order to his students, reasoning that effective government would naturally arise from rulers setting a good example for the ruled. He was quoted in the Analects as saying “The relation between superiors and inferiors is like that between the wind and the grass. The grass must bend when the wind blows across it…” He also discouraged laws because they would encourage people to avoid punishment rather than seek to do what is socially acceptable. Spiritual ideas and concepts were also avoided because Confucius maintained that they were beyond human comprehension.Daoism took a drastically different approach. It identifies “striving” as the principal reason societal problems. It discouraged the development of complex governmental organization and encouraged introspection and living in harmony with nature. Ideally, people would live in small, independent villages with little or no interaction between other communities. The concept of “Wuwei” called for “disengagement from the competitive exertions and active involvement in affairs of the world.”Legalism focused on a large and all powerful central government that would dominate political affairs. Where Confucianism and Daoism failed, legalism succeeded. The Qin dynasty was the first to unite China under a single government and adopted legalist methods of ruling which included strictly enforced laws with severe punishments. They believed that harsh sentences for petty crimes would prevent people from engaging in higher crimes. The dynasties that followed also adopted Legalist approaches to administration.The early Harrapan civilization of India developed a well defined caste system consisting of four main groups known as varnas: brahmins, kshatriyas, vaishyas, and shudras. These were divided into subcastes known as jati which formed were the basic social unit of Harappan society. The caste system was the chief method for maintaining social and political order, and was strengthened with the development of a patriarchal society. As with Mesopotamian and Chinese civilizations, Men came to dominate political affairs, however, women had great authority within the family.For most of it’s’ history India was ruled by several regional kingdoms which relied on the caste system to provide social order. A well defined place in society provided by the caste system left little room for political instability and disorder. Under the leadership of the Mauryan Empire, India was temporarily unified but quickly fell apart due to financial hardship after powerful Emperor Ashoka’s death in 232. B.C.E.The rise of empires in Persia, China, and India are all characterized by governments incapable of administrating large territories. This lead to a quest for stability. The Mesopotamians, who gave rise to the Persian Empires, were the first to grapple with issues of authority, developing the first governmental institutions to maintain basic law and order among neighbors and villages. As populations grew in these three civilizations, better administrative and communicative skills were required to maintain control over large populations and territories which often splintered until these skills were acquired. The Persians pioneered these techniques and built the first true empire. National order was also supported by social and family order, each placed men as the principal authority, however, they differed with the amount of authority given to women. India delegated more authority to women than did China and Persia, though men still did dominate political affairs. After order was effectively established as a hole, these civilizations then had a chance to expand their rule and influence into neighboring nations and civilizations. The Persian Empires took control of a vast amount of the Mediterranean and Western Asia, under the Han Dynasty China conquered territories all around it, including parts of modern day Russia and Korea. The Mauryan Empire of India under Emperor Ashoka conquered neighboring Kalinga, and the later Kushan Empire seized Bactria.

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