Characteristics of Civilizations

POLITICAL Complex Government, Writing, Laws, and Military

 1. COMPLEX GOVERNMENT: Life in ancient civilizations was very different than hunter-gatherer experiences. Surplus food from agriculture created a need to store, protect, and distribute food. For river-valley civilizations (Tigris-Euphrates, Nile, Indus, & Yellow River), flood waters also posed a problem. Dams, dikes, and irrigation projects had to be organized on a massive scale in order to control annual floods. In addition, with surplus food, new systems and measures had to be created in order to manage commerce and limit conflict. In order to solve these problems, ancient civilizations created governments. Governments established, enforced, and evaluated laws and policies of the society. In addition, governments set up departments or bureaucracies to accomplish the goals of government. For example, there were departments that recorded the laws of society, collected taxes and grain, or managed the construction of public works projects (road, buildings, irrigation etc.).


2. WRITING: Important to government management was a system of writing. Writing was used to communicate laws and orders, manage business and trade, and pass down cultural practices and ideas to future generations. At first writing was pictographic, which means whole pictures represented a noun or verb. As time passed, writing became alphabetic, a system in which symbols represented sounds of words. Typically, communications were written on clay tablets, but ancient civilizations like the Egyptians also used papyrus paper.


3. LAWS: The government created laws in order to protect people’s rights and wealth as well as establish rules of social & moral conduct. In general, there are three kinds of law: political (relationship of citizen to government), economic (accumulation, preservation, use, and distribution of wealth), and cultural (social values important to society and values of “right” and wrong”, morality). Laws were not always fair in ancient times. Often different social classes were given different rights and punishments; in most cases upper classes such as noble families or religious figures benefited from the rule of law. On the other hand, ancient laws created a common set of laws that limited conflict and promoted economic prosperity.


4. MILITARY: The government also managed the military. With surplus food and a need to find resources, governments funded and trained a military to protect and secure resources. The military was organized by rank, often the leaders were high ranking citizens like nobility or government officials, and the common soldiers were recruited from the peasant and slave class. In some cases, early civilizations created a permanent, paid army that would go on military campaigns during the summer and build public works projects during the winter.


ECONOMICS Cities as Social Centers, Specialization of Labor, and Advanced Technology

5. CITIES: Cities formed to accommodate large scale government and trade. At the center of the civilization, political leaders would meet in the city to establish, enforce, and evaluate civic laws and policy. The city also acted as the center of trade. Farmers and merchants exchanged products, and consumers would come to the market to buy special items like tools or decorative items (jewelry, art, writing etc.).


6. SPECIALIZED JOBS: Ancient civilizations also developed an economy with specialized jobs. With more food and time to spend on other activities than farming, permanent jobs developed that focused on specific trades. One important trade group was the artisan class. These laborers were skilled craftspeople who worked with metal to make tools, bricklayers who built walls and homes, and cloth workers who built textiles.


7. ADVANCED TECHNOLOGY: Technological advancement was a key feature of civilization. Artisans and inventors perfected old technologies and created news ways to live more prosperously. For example, metal workers learned how to melt and mold different metals to make copper weapons, then bronze weapons, and later iron weapons. As the weapons grew stronger and lasted longer, people worked more efficiently.


CULTURAL Leisure, Social Classes, Complex Religion, Art & Architecture, and Sense of Time


8. LEISURE: People living in ancient civilizations devoted more time to cultural activities. With a steady source of food, people spent more time enjoying life. They danced, sang, wrote literature, hunted, and part took in many other forms of fun because they were not overwhelmed by hunger. 


9. DIFFERENT SOCIAL CLASSES: Specialization of labor also led to the creation of different social classes. Religious figures like priests and government officials typically were at the top of the social order. Next came a small class of merchants and military officers, followed by the artisan class. At the lowest level were peasants. In many civilizations, slaves were at the bottom of the social order. Slaves were obtained from the spoils of war, slave markets, by their family members to pay off family debts, or from criminal punishment.


10. COMPLEX RELIGION: As early civilization centered on the earth for survival, many civilization worshiped gods connected to land, water, and sky.  Unlike popular religions today (Islam & Christianity), ancient peoples were polytheistic, they worshiped many gods. For example, ancient Egyptians worshiped Osiris the river and afterlife god, Amon-re the sun god, and Isis the fertility god.


11. ART & ARCHITECTURE: In order to increase their favor with the gods, ancient peoples erected temples and monuments for worship. In many civilizations, vast amounts of wealth were invested into religious monuments like Ziggurats in Mesopotamia or the Pyramids in Egypt. Monuments were also created to display the wealth and power of rulers. For example, since pyramids took a very long time to build (decades), pharaohs would immediately begin the construction of pyramids in order to show off their accomplishments before they died. Other buildings with more practical purposes were built as well. Governments invested in irrigation projects, roads, and public buildings to improve life in the city.


12. SENSE OF TIME: Lastly, agriculture life demanded that people understand flood cycles, day and night hours, and seasons. This demand for a sense of time led to the creation of special trades like mathematicians and astronomers.