HIS World Civilization Discussions

Just need completed, Please let me know if you need any of the chapters!

W2 Discussion 1

Your initial post should be roughly 250 words and you should address the specific materials assigned, citing your sources appropriately.


Remember that at the center of our Discussion Board work is the interpretation of primary sources.  Once you have posted your initial post, please respond substantively to at least two other students.  Thereafter your instructor will guide the conversation.


Topic 1: Law Code of Hammurabi

Required Reading:

Kevin Reilly, 
The Human Journey, Chapter 2

Website: Law Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylon – 


Website: Code of Hammurabi: Ancient Babylonian Laws – 


Website: 8 Things You May Not Know about Hammurabi’s Code – 


Primary Source:

Website: Hammurabi, 
The Code of Hammurabi [-2250] (scroll about half way down the page past the transliteration to the English translation) 


Discussion Prompts:

After reading Chapter 2 and the material at the websites, and viewing the videos, please make a 250-word initial post that answers the following discussion prompt about the primary source:

You can see from the web readings and the video that there is disagreement about the purpose, nature, and fairness of Hammurabi’s Code, a primary source created at the time of Hammurabi. There are 282 “laws” in the Code. Scan the whole Code at 
http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/hammurabi-the-code-of-hammurabi and then read 28 “laws” (10%) carefully before answering the discussion prompts: How is the Code organized? Why do you think some laws are first? What do the laws tell you about the nature of early urban life? What seem to be major concerns? Do the laws seem just? Why or why not?

W2 Discussion 2

Kevin Reilly, 
The Human Journey, Chapter 3

Website: British Museum, Athens – 


Website: British Museum, Sparta – 


Primary Sources:

Website: Thucydides (c.460/455-c.399 BCE): Pericles’ Funeral Oration from the 
Peloponnesian War (c. 430 BCE) – 


Website: Xenophon (c.428-c.354 BCE): The Polity of the Spartans, c. 375 BCE – 


Discussion Prompts:

After reading Chapter 3 and the material at the websites, and viewing the video, please make a 250-word initial post that answers the following questions about the primary sources:

Who do you think were the intended audiences of Pericles’ Funeral Oration and Xenophon’s description of the Spartan state? How might their purpose and intended audience affect their tone? Can we take these accounts at face value? Why or why not? What else would you like to know from the author?

W3 Discussion 1

Your initial post should be roughly 250 words and you should address the specific materials assigned, citing your sources appropriately.  Remember that at the center of our Discussion Board work is the interpretation of primary sources.  Once you have posted your initial post, please respond substantively to at least two other students.  Thereafter your instructor will guide the conversation.


Topic 1: Silk Roads

Required Reading:

Kevin Reilly, 
The Human Journey, Chapter 4

Website: Silk Road – 


Website: Silk Road History – 



Primary Sources:

Website: The Journey of Faxian to India (ca. 400 CE) – 


Website: The Travels of Marco Polo (ca. 1300 CE) – read Chapter 1 through Chapter 18) – 



Discussion Prompts:

After reading Chapter 4 and the material at the websites, and viewing the videos, please make a 250-word initial post that answers the following questions about the primary sources:

Faxian and Marco Polo lived 900 years apart, near the beginning and end of the Silk Road. What values do their narratives promote? What similarities and differences do you see in their narratives? How are those similarities and differences related to the kinds of journeys they undertook, the purposes of their journeys, and the times in which they composed their travel narratives?

W3 Discussion 2

Once you have finished all of the required reading, post an answer to the discussion prompts for your chosen Discussion Board topic. Make sure you identify in the subject line which topic you are addressing.

Your initial post should be roughly 250 words and you should address the specific materials assigned, citing your sources appropriately.  Remember that at the center of our Discussion Board work is the interpretation of primary sources.  Once you have posted your initial post, please respond substantively to at least two other students.  Thereafter your instructor will guide the conversation.


Topic 1: The Song Dynasty

Required Reading:

Kevin Reilly, 
The Human Journey, Chapter 5

Website: The Song Dynasty in China – 


 (click on the links in the categories of Economic Revolution, Technology, Cities, Confucianism, and Outside World, at the top of the webpage)

Website: Song Dynasty Art (960-1279), History, Types and Characteristics – 



Discussion Prompts:

After reading Chapter 5 and the material at the websites, and viewing the video, please make a 250-word initial post that answers the following questions:

Considering artistic style and subject matter, what insights do the paintings give you into the concerns, hopes, and preoccupations of Song China during the Northern and Southern dynasties? What do you find most striking about each painting? Why? What might be limits to using art to understand the concerns, hopes, and preoccupations of a society? Analyze one pictorial image from the Northern Song and the Southern Song dynasties below to answer these questions about the primary sources.


Northern Song:

Palace Banquet – 


Summer Mountains – 


The Classic of Filial Piety – 



Southern Song:

Emperor Xuanzong’s Flight to Shu – 


Viewing plum blossoms by moonlight – 


Poet strolling by a marshy bank – 


W4 Discussion 1

Website: The Empires of the Western Sudan – 


 (read The Empires of the Western Sudan page and all the primary essays listed on the right-hand side of the page: 1) The Empires of the Western Sudan: Ghana Empire; 2) The Empires of the Western Sudan: Mali Empire; 3) The Empires of the Western Sudan: Songhai Empire; 4) Trade and the Spread of Islam in Africa; 5) The Trans-Saharan Gold Trade (Seventh–Fourteenth Centuries)


Primary Sources:

Website: Al-Bakri, Roads and Kingdoms (1067 CE) – 


Website: Kingdom of Mail (Al-Umari, ca. 1330 CE) – 


Website: Leo Africanus describes Timbuktu (1652 CE) – 


Website: Proverbs from Ghana – 


Discussion Prompts:

After reading Chapter 6 and the material at the websites, and viewing the videos, please make a 250-word initial post that answers the following questions about the primary sources:

Al-Bakri and Leo Africanus were not native to the areas they discussed. What difference might that make to their view of Ghana and Mali? How might their background have influenced what they saw and described? Did they see everything they described, or were things described to them by others? Did they think the culture that they were writing about was lesser than their own or equal to it? How does Al-Umari’s discussion of Mali differ from Leo’s? What might account for those differences? What do the Ghanaian proverbs add to your understanding of that culture?

The Human Journey

The Human Journey
A Concise Introduction

to World History


Lanham • Boulder • New York • Toronto • Plymouth, UK

Published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
A wholly owned subsidiary of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing
Group, Inc.
4501 Forbes Boulevard, Suite 200, Lanham, Maryland 20706

Estover Road, Plymouth PL6 7PY, United Kingdom

Copyright © 2012 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or
by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and
retrieval systems, without written permission from the publisher, except by
a reviewer who may quote passages in a review.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Information Available Library of
Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Reilly, Kevin

The human journey : a concise introduction to world history / Kevin

p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-4422-1352-4 (cloth : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-1-4422-

1353-1 (pbk. : alk. paper) —
ISBN 978-1-4422-1354-8 (electronic) — ISBN 978-1-4422-1384-5

(cloth v. 1 : alk. paper) —
ISBN 978-1-4422-1385-2 (paper v. 1 : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-1-

4422-1386-9 (electronic v. 1) —


ISBN 978-1-4422-1387-6 (cloth v. 2 : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-1-
4422-1388-3 (paper v. 2 : alk. paper) —

ISBN 978-1-4422-1398-0 (electronic v. 2) 1. World history—
Textbooks. I. Title.

D21.R379 2013


The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of
American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of
Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992.

Printed in the United States of America

For Pearl




Figure 1.1 Time Line of the First 14 Million Years 2
Figure 1.2 Paleolithic Art: Cave Painting 10
Figure 1.3 Paleolithic Art: Female Figurines 11
Figure 1.4 Finding the Grains: Rice 22
Figure 1.5 Catal Huyuk Room 25
Figure 1.6 Catal Huyuk Goddess 26
Figure 1.7 Neolithic Pottery: Banpo 28
Figure 1.8 Banpo Pottery Markings: Almost Writing 28
Figure 1.9 Monte Alban: Zapotec State Stage 33
Figure 2.1 Time Line 38
Figure 2.2 Royal Tomb of Ur 45
Figure 2.3 Hittite Chariot 53
Figure 2.4 Queen Hatshepsut 55
Figure 2.5 Iron Age Assyrian Horse Archer 58
Figure 2.6 Phoenician and Other Alphabets 60
Figure 3.1 Time Line 74
Figure 3.2 Buddhist Stupa at Sanchi 76
Figure 3.3 Statue of Athena in the Parthenon 79
Figure 3.4 Roman Capitol Temple 85
Figure 3.5 Roman Soldiers and Prisoners 89
Figure 3.6 Terracotta Soldiers Protecting Shi Huangdi’s Tomb 96
Figure 3.7 Close-Up of Terracotta Soldiers Showing Individual Detail 97
Figure 4.1 Time Line 106

Figure 4.2 Buddha in Greek Style 112
Figure 4.3 Indian Ocean Ship, Eighth Century 114
Figure 4.4 Underground Ethiopian Coptic Church, Thirteenth Century 124
Figure 4.5 Mosque at Jenne 132
Figure 5.1 Time Line 140
Figure 5.2 Mongols Capturing Baghdad 153
Figure 5.3 Muslim Scholars and Books 156
Figure 5.4 Muslim Map of the World for Europe 159
Figure 5.5 European Heavy Plow, Twelfth Century 165
Figure 5.6 European Windmill 166
Figure 5.7 European Anatomy Lesson 172
Figure 6.1 Time Line 184
Figure 6.2 Benin Bronze King 190
Figure 6.3 Aztec Tribute List 196
Figure 6.4 Aztec Sacrifice 197
Figure 6.5 Mochica Figure 200
Figure 6.6 Quipu Reader and Official 201
Figure 6.7 Downtown Cahokia around 1200 202
Figure 6.8 Austronesian Ship and Mariners 209
Figure 7.1 Time Line of Early Modern Empires 216
Figure 7.2 Janissaries 223
Figure 7.3 Hunting in Siberia 238
Figure 7.4 Machu Picchu 243
Figure 8.1 Smallpox Victims 255
Figure 8.2 Overseer and Slave on a Brazilian Plantation 257
Figure 8.3 European Missionaries in China 268
Figure 8.4 Smoking Tobacco 271
Figure 9.1 Time Line: Europe’s Modern Transformation 276
Figure 9.2 Steam-Powered Hammer 284
Figure 9.3 Revolutionary Parisian Market Women 291
Figure 9.4 Socialist Cartoon 297
Figure 9.5 Women’s Suffrage March 302

Figure 10.1 Time Line 306
Figure 10.2 Suez Canal 311
Figure 10.3 Chinese Opium Smokers 314
Figure 10.4 Battle of Omdurman 317
Figure 10.5 Imperialism Cartoon 331
Figure 10.6 Japanese Parliament 332
Figure 11.1 Twentieth-Century Time Line 342
Figure 11.2 Indians in World War I 345
Figure 11.3 Cold War Conflicts: Vietnam 356
Figure 11.4 Independence Comes to India 360
Figure 11.5 Economic Globalization 369
Figure 12.1 Poster Advertising China’s One-Child Family Rule 380
Figure 12.2 Working on Computers in Nigeria 383
Figure 12.3 The Slums of Rio de Janeiro 386
Figure 12.4 Democracy in South Africa 398
Figure 12.5 The Women’s Movement in France 402



Map 1.1 Human Migrations, 100,000 to 12,000 Years Ago 8
Map 1.2 The Spread of Agriculture, 10,000 to 3,000 Years Ago 21
Map 2.1 Ancient Civilizations 39
Map 2.2 The Chariot Revolution 52
Map 2.3 Persia under Cyrus the Great 64
Map 3.1 Classical India 74
Map 3.2 Classical Greece 78
Map 3.3 Roman Empire 84
Map 3.4 China Han Empire 91
Map 4.1 Trade Routes between Roman and Asian Empires, around 1


Map 4.2 Spread of Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism 117

Map 4.3 Spread of Islam, 634–1250 131
Map 5.1 Spread of Paper from China 143
Map 5.2 Mongol Empire 152
Map 5.3 Europe, 1000–1300 165
Map 5.4 Travels of Ibn Batutta and Marco Polo 179
Map 6.1 Bantu Migrations 188
Map 6.2 Polynesian Migrations 208
Map 7.1 Muslim Empires in the Early Modern Era 222
Map 7.2 Chinese Expansion 229
Map 7.3 Russian Expansion 236
Map 8.1 European Expansion and Global Integration, 1450–1750 250
Map 8.2 Destination of African Slaves 261
Map 9.1 Industrializing Europe 283
Map 9.2 Napoleon’s European Empire 293
Map 10.1 Europe’s World Domination, 1914 309
Map 10.2 Global Migration in the Nineteenth Century 323
Map 11.1 Europe Divided: 1914 344
Map 11.2 World War II 347
Map 11.3 The World of the Cold War 354



Table 8.1 Chronology of the Slave Trade 262
Table 9.1 World Population Changes in the Modern Era 285
Table 12.1 Global Inequality and Global Progress in the 1990s 385
Table 12.2 An Environmental Snapshot of the Twentieth Century 389



VER THE years that I have been teaching world history, I have
frequently been asked, “How are you able to cover everything?”
My answer—after “of course you can’t cover everything”—is that

you have to broaden your focus. Just as a photographer switches to a wide-
angle lens to capture a landscape, we must survey larger patterns of change
to understand the history of the world. This means rethinking what is
important, rather than cutting parts of the old story. When I was a college
student and the course was “Western Civilization,” instructors solved the
problem of coverage, as each passing year made their subject longer and
larger, by calving off much of ancient and recent history. Thus, we began
with the Roman Empire and barely got to World War II. More recently,
those who designed the first Advanced Placement world history course
decided to view everything before the year 1000 as prelude. These are
arbitrary cuts, not solutions to the problem of understanding the human
story. In fact, that problem requires us to dig deeper into the past than we
are used to, so that we can understand the formative stage of human
development. And it also requires that we try to understand the recent past
not only as a chain of important events, but also as the continuation of long-
term processes. Thus, while twelve chapters might seem a spare space to
describe The Human Journey, I have devoted the first chapter to what
historians have often dismissed as “prehistory” and used the last two
chapters to locate the present—on the surface and in depth. Consequently,
the remaining nine chapters—the centerpiece of the story—take on greater
meaning: the rise of states and empires as a consequence of the Agricultural

Revolution, the classical age that shapes even our own, the development
and spread of the universal religions that dominate our world, the stages of
globalization from “southernization” to westernization, and the impact of
industrialization and democratization.

Too many people to name have made this book possible. In addition to
the scholars I have read, only a small fraction of whom are cited here, there
were dozens of others who advised me or reviewed parts of this work, many
anonymously. I am extraordinarily lucky to count many of them as good
friends. It is regrettably impossible to thank the late Jerry Bentley, but Ross
Dunn was also an early supporter. Steve Gosch, Sue Gronewold, Marilyn
Hitchens, David Kalivas, Lauren Ristvet, and George Sussman also read all
or parts of the manuscript. Discussions with David Christian, Marc Gilbert,
Craig Lockard, Heather Streets-Salter, John McNeill, and Adam McKeown
helped me as well. Finally, my good friend Bob Strayer played a far greater
role than he would allow, from first suggesting the project to contributing at
every stage.

At Rowman & Littlefield I am enormously grateful to my editor Susan
McEachern. In addition, I’d like to thank Carrie Broadwell-Tkach, Grace
Baumgartner, and Karie Simpson in Acquisitions and Alden Perkins in

The Long Prologue


Peopling the Planet:
The Earth as a Global Frontier

A Little Big History
First Life on Earth
Three Explosions of Life
Changing Surfaces
Changes in Climate

Human Origins
Natural Selection
Hominids Stand Tall
Hominids to Humans
Culture Trumps Nature

Global Migration
Humans as Travelers

The First Modern Humans
Cave Paintings and Female Figurines
Cultural Adaptation

Human Differences: Race and Culture
Do Numbers Count? Patterns of Population Growth
Most of Human History: Foraging Societies

Lifestyles of Foragers
Sexual Division of Labor
Relative Social Equality
Leisure Time

Merging Old and New
Subduing the Earth: The Consequences of Domestication

The First Breakthrough: Origins of Agricultural/Pastoral Economies
Control over Food Supply
Why Agriculture Developed
Selecting Crops to Grow
Reducing Variety

Globalization and Continental Variety
Geography as Destiny
East–West Transmission Advantages
Agriculture and Language

The Long Agricultural Age: Places and Processes
Catal Huyuk
Ibo Culture
The Taino

Neolithic Continuity and Change
Changes in a Mexican Valley



Peopling the Planet:
The Earth as a Global Frontier

A Little Big History

ORLD HISTORY comes in many different sizes. “Small” is the
story of the past 5,000 years, the period of written records.
“Medium” is human history since the agricultural revolution,

about 10.000 years ago. “Large” is the story of the human species, Homo
sapiens sapiens, going back 150.000 to 200,000 years, sometimes including
our protohuman ancestors over 5 million years ago. “X Large” is the story
of the earth, its changing geology, climate, and life forms, beginning about
5 billion years ago. “XX Large” is the history of the entire universe, a tale
of 14 billion years.

Most of this book is “small” history, the story of humanity’s past 5,000
years. But to put that story in proper perspective, this chapter will begin
with the history of the universe, Earth, and life; then it looks at the long
history of humans as foragers (mainly hunters and gatherers); finally, it
explores the impact of the agricultural revolution beginning about 10.000
years ago. We call it a “little Big History”1 because most of the past 14
billion years will fly by quickly. Fourteen billion years is an almost
incomprehensibly long background to the human story. The astronomer
Carl Sagan expressed this dramatically when he plotted all 14 billion years
on a single calendar year. On such a scale, the first humans would not
appear until December 31 at 10:30 p.m., and all written history—the past
5,000 years—would occur in the 10-second countdown to midnight.

It is difficult to imagine what happened at that first instant 14 billion
years ago. That first millisecond of time was also the first millisecond of all
matter and energy. Everything our world contains came from that explosion
that scientists call the “Big Bang”: not only suns and planets but also space
and time and even light (though not for another half billion years). Today,
that explosion still continues. Astronomers recently trained their telescopes

on the edge of that first light, still rocketing out into space, leaving our
world in its twilight.

First Life on Earth. On the scale of 14 billion years, our Earth is breaking
news. Along with our sun and solar system, it originated about 5 billion
years ago in the debris of some earlier stars. After a cooling process of
about a billion years, the bubbling mixture of chemicals on our Earth did
something we see as miraculous: it created life. Among the necessary
ingredients were a moderate temperature, sunlight, water, and carbon.
Somehow, some of the carbon in water reproduced itself. Scientists describe
the first life as a kind of pond scum that looked like blue-green foam or
algae. By the process of photosynthesis, these cells absorbed sunlight and
released oxygen into the atmosphere. Two billion years later, some single
cells clustered together to form multicellular organisms. The rest of our
story is the tale of life these past billion years.

Three Explosions of Life. We tend to think of most long-term historical
processes as gradual, or following an even pace, and perhaps they are. But
the growth of life was a series of expansions and extinctions—the
multiplication of new life forms followed by five major extinctions and
many smaller ones. In broad terms we can distinguish three major
explosions of life over the last 550 million years. Scientists call these three
stages “Old Life,” or “Paleozoic” (570 million to 250 million years ago);
“Middle Life,” or “Mesozoic” (250 million to 65 million years ago); and
“Recent Life,” or “Cenozoic” (65 million years ago to the present). The first
stage, the Paleozoic, began with a wild explosion of natural forms, possibly
thanks to the oxygen-charged atmosphere. Within 40 million years, nature
shot out almost all possible life forms—the basic structures of everything
that exists today but all under the sea. First came worms and other
invertebrates, then vertebrates, fish, and vascular plants (with roots, stems,
and leaves). Then some dug roots or crawled on to the land. After a brief
rest came the conquest of land: first by plants and then insects, trees, and
amphibians. By about 300 million years ago, the first winged insects and
reptiles appeared.

Then, about 250 million years ago, something like 90 percent of all
species suddenly disappeared. Some scientists believe that a meteor may
have caused the extinctions;2 others point to massive volcanic eruptions in
Siberia and the dark global winter that followed.

The next era of growth, the Mesozoic, beginning just after 250 million
years ago, brought the first dinosaurs and mammals. The first birds
appeared 200 million years ago and the first flowers 150 million years ago.
The Mesozoic profusion of life ended in another mass extinction about 65
million years ago. Sixty percent of all the earth’s species disappeared,
including the dinosaurs. The cause this time may have been a large asteroid,
six miles in diameter, that plowed a huge trench under what is today the
Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.3 The dust and debris from the explosion may
have spread all over the earth, causing months of darkness. If life was not a
one-time invention on planet Earth, it was certainly a vulnerable creation.

After a long darkness and acid rain 65 million years ago, life revived.
North American ferns led the revival of plant life at the beginning of the
Cenozoic era. Eventually, larger plants and trees spread their seeds and took
root. With a new forest canopy came the first primates, squirrel-like
mammals that took to the trees about 60 million years ago, and the first
apes, 57 million years ago. The Cenozoic is sometimes called the “age of
mammals” since so many mammals replaced the dinosaurs as the largest
creatures on the planet, but it could just as well be called the age of flowers
or insects or fish or birds. In fact, we would recognize most of today’s
animals in early Cenozoic fossils. Some would surprise us, like birds that
stood seven feet high and sloths as big as elephants. The Cenozoic is our
own era, even if we might not recognize all of its inhabitants.

Changing Surfaces. Anyone who has looked at the shape of Africa and
South America on a map has seen how the two continents were once joined.
Actually, various landmasses have come together and moved apart
continually over the past half billion years. These landmasses have also
drifted over the surface of the earth in ways that bear no resemblance to
their current configuration.

By the beginning of the Mesozoic era, 250 million years ago, various
landmasses around the globe had come together as a single global
continent, the bulk of which lay in the Southern Hemisphere. Then it began
to split apart. About 200 million years ago, a southern section including
what is today Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand
broke off and drifted toward the South Pole. Then, around 150 million years
ago, the western half split apart and drifted farther west, opening up an area
that became the Atlantic Ocean.

Continental landmasses are not the only loose crusts sliding over the
surface of the earth. Both lands and oceans sit on large plates that slide
around the globe over a more fluid core. These plates sometimes collide,
pushing up great mountain ranges, or slide next to each other, causing
earthquakes. For example, the collision of India with the rest of Asia raised
the Himalayan Mountains. Similarly, the Pacific plate pushed against North
and South America, creating the Andes Mountains in South America and
triggering earthquakes along the coast from Chile to Alaska.

Changes in Climate. Some of these sliding plates also affect climate. In
general, the larger a continent, the colder it gets, especially in the interior.
This is because large continental landmasses block the moderating warm air
and water flows that circulate in the atmosphere and oceans. Near the poles
or at high altitudes, such continents build up snow and permanent ice, or
glaciers. Large glaciers make the atmosphere even drier and cooler since ice
and snow absorb moisture and reflect sunlight away. At the other extreme,
islands and small land areas are warmed by circulating air and currents. The
many small landmasses of the late Mesozoic and early Cenozoic eras kept
global temperatures quite balmy. Fifty million years ago, North Dakota
sweltered under tropical forests.

Global temperatures turned colder about 33 million years ago. For most
of the past 30 million years, icing and warming periods lasted about the
same amount of time. But during the most recent 2.5 million years, ice ages
have lasted longer, and warming periods have been much shorter. In the
past million years, the warm interglacial periods lasted only about 20,000
years each before the ice returned. Since the last ice age ended about 12,000
years ago, we may be near the end of the current interglacial warming. This
time, however, human behavior, especially our burning of fossil fuels—the
swamp grasses and giant trees of the Paleozoic era (350 million years ago)
turned into coal, gas, and oil—may be slowing or even reversing the natural
process. Whether this current “global warming,” the first change caused by
humans, delays the next ice age or makes the world permanently warmer
remains to be seen.

Human Origins

The similarity of humans and monkeys is evident to anyone who visits a
zoo. It is a staple of story and mythology in every society where humans
have come into contact with them. The Indian Ramayana legend tells of the
Princess Sita being carried off by monkeys. The Chinese story Monkey
imagines a simian guide for an early Chinese Buddhist missionary. So
Charles Darwin was hardly the first person to imagine that humans and
monkeys were related.

Natural Selection. Darwin added the idea of descent to the recognition of
similarity. His argument that humans and monkeys shared ancestors was
part of a larger argument that all species changed or evolved. The
importance of change was certainly a dominant idea in Darwin’s England of
the mid-nineteenth century. At the same time that Darwin’s contemporaries
were discovering fossils of extinct species in English stone, English stone
masons were losing work to the new industrial workers. Transplanted
farmers forged giant steel beams to carry coal-belching steam locomotives
across what had only recently been (according to the poet) a “green and
pleasant land.” In a world of wrenching mechanical change, Darwin
thought that he had found the mechanisms for change in nature. He called
them random mutation and natural selection. A species would randomly
produce offspring with slight variations. Some of these variants would
prove more resilient than others, and a rare one would initiate a new
divergence, possibly becoming a new species. In some cases, the old
variants would die off, and the new ones would replace them. Nature is a
harsh and unpredictable task master; more than 99 percent of the species it
produced are now extinct.

In the past 40 years, the new science of molecular biology, the study of
the most basic elements—the DNA—of organisms, has given us the tools to
go far beyond Darwin’s guesswork. Where earlier scientists debated—for
instance, whether humans were more closely related to the African gorilla
or the Asian orangutan, both large apes—molecular biologists have
discovered that we are much closer to chimpanzees, with which we share
98.4 percent of our genetic DNA.

Molecular biology can measure not only nature’s similarities and
differences more precisely but also change over time. The principle is that
differences in DNA develop at a fixed rate over time so that the greater the
differences in DNA between two organisms, the longer the two have grown
apart. This has also deepened our understanding of human origins by

helping us figure out just when our first human ancestors began their own
branch on the family tree of primates. It turns out that a 98.4 percent
similarity means that our human ancestors separated from the ancestors of
chimpanzees 5 million to 6 million years ago.

Hominids Stand Tall. Our human ancestors are called hominids. While
initially not very different from the other tailless chimpanzee-like animals
of the time, they gradually developed the physical features we associate
with modern humans: less hair, habitual erect posture, bipedalism (walking
on two feet), legs longer than arms, flat face, smaller jaw and teeth, larger
brains, and longer period of infant growth after birth, among others. Some
of these changes had profound consequences for hominid development.
Physical changes in the brain, lips, larynx, and tongue enabled the
development of a capacity for speech and language. Walking upright led to
hands that could carry, manipulate, and use tools. With language and tools
came ideas and skills—cultural tricks for survival that meant less
dependence on nature and that enabled each generation to give the next a
leg up.

Hominids to Humans. Combined with DNA analysis, the fossil remains
of the past 6 million years allow us to chart the transition of hominids to
humans with some degree of certainty. Finding the particular hominid
species that led to the first humans—and to nothing else—is more
problematic, however. Scientists believe that this happened 5 million to 8
million years ago. Skeletons of hominids from shortly after this period, like
the early bipedal Ardipithecus, may be our ancestors, but they could also be
examples of a hominid that went extinct. These had the stature and brain
size of modern chimpanzees. They lived in forests in East Africa, where
their hooked big toe allowed them to swing from the trees, crawl on all
fours. and possibly walk upright.4 From a slightly later period, 4 million to
2 million years ago, there are skeletal remains of the hominid
Australopithecus from East Africa and South Africa. They are upright,
apelike, three and a half to five feet tall, with a brain capacity of 400 to 500
cubic centimeters and limbs, skull, jaw, and teeth that combine ape and
human features. They too went extinct.

A third phase of hominid evolution—and a more likely human ancestor
—began with Homo erectus (also from East Africa, about 1.9 million years
ago) with a brain size of 900 to 1,000 cubic centimeters and a height of five
to six feet. Homo erectus appears to be the first hominid to travel outside of

Africa, as fossil remains have been found in Europe, China, and Java.
Homo erectus made stone tools, controlled fire, probably used hides for
clothing, and may have had spoken language. Most scientists believe that
they went extinct without contributing to the genes of modern humans.

Homo sapiens appeared in East Africa between 400,000 and 100,000
years ago, with a modern brain size of 1,400 cubic centimeters. They made
tools of wood and bone as well as stone. The species was called “sapiens”
(wise or thoughtful) because its members probably used language
symbolically and expressed certain religious and aesthetic ideas. There is
evidence, for instance, of burial, body painting, jewelry, carving, and cave

Finally, about 150,000 years ago, humans whose skeletal remains suggest
modern human physical features appeared, with brain capacities of 1,400 to
1,600 cubic centimeters. With more than a touch of bravado, scientists
named this, our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens. (We’re so smart we
have to say it twice.) For much of the past 100,000 years, these Homo
sapiens sapiens were not alone. One of our cousins, called the Neanderthal,
named after the German town where remains were first discovered,
originated about 150,000 years ago and lived in North Africa, Europe, and
Southwest Asia. Despite their bad press, Neanderthals had larger heads and
brains (1,400 to 1,700 cubic centimeters) than we do and very muscular
stout bodies. They buried their dead and survived the cold climate of
northern Europe. Before they became extinct 28,000 years ago, recent DNA
analysis shows that they contributed to our gene pool.5 The existence of
another cousin, called Denisovan, has recently been discovered in Siberia.
A small amount of its DNA can be found in people of New Guinea and the
Pacific. In addition, the remains of possibly another human species, called
Homo florensis, have recently been discovered on the island of Flores in
Indonesia, where these people lived until at least 13,000 years ago, possibly
much later. Their skeletons show a people who measured only about three
feet tall and had heads only a third the size of modern humans. There is no
evidence of their interbreeding with our ancestors.

Culture Trumps Nature. We have noted the increasing brain size in the
history of hominid evolution. Larger brains, supported by thinner frames,
allowed humans to advance more by thinking than by the exertion of brute
force. But within any species, brain sizes were similar. Modern Homo
sapiens sapiens did not differ significantly by hat size. And hat sizes had

nothing to do with inventiveness. In the world of Homo sapiens sapiens,
culture (what we learned) was far more important than nature (our biology)
in determining what we could do. More than any other creatures of the
earth, humans are products of culture; they are also its creators. Rabbits
may breed more quickly, but their lives are very similar, generation after
generation. Through culture, humans have made—and continue to remake
—themselves. And they have been able to do so throughout the world in
every environment.

Global Migration

Humans were not the first of Earth’s creatures to spread throughout the
world and colonize every continent. They are not even the most numerous
of the Earth’s approximately 30 million species. It is even possible that
other global colonizers will outlast humans—cock-roaches, for example.
But if that happens, humans will have only themselves to blame because in
their brief span on the planet, humans have reshaped it to their every need.

Humans as Travelers. So far, we have been imagining a particular branch
of hominids as they became human beings—and then went out to travel the
world. But it might make more sense to see the process of becoming human
as part of the process of walking and traveling. Walking meant upright
posture, seeing where you are going, better vision and planning, and more
things to do with the arms and hands. Traveling meant discovering,
confronting, adapting, and inventing.

Most hominid species (probably all) originated in East Africa, but they
did not stay there. They traveled throughout Africa and to Australia, to
Europe and Asia, and there is evidence that they did this over and over
again, learning new skills and ideas and in the process becoming what we
mean by human.

Homo erectus was probably the first homi-nid to travel beyond Africa. A
representative of the species left teeth in China almost 2 million years ago.6
Erectus may have traveled to Java by water or an ice-age land bridge as
much as 1.8 million years ago. Later generations settled in southern Africa
over a million years ago. About 800,000 years ago, new members of Homo
erectus traveled to Europe, India, and China. Homo sapiens migrated out of
Africa between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, followed by our immediate
ancestor, Homo sapiens sapiens, beginning less than 100,000 years ago.

What knowledge of clothing, sewing, fire, and cooking was prompted by
their movement into the forests of northern Asia and Europe? What social
skills, language, or communication ability answered the need to make camp
in a new area, perhaps colder or wetter, with different animals as potential
prey or predator and unrecognizable mushrooms that might cure or kill?
What new scraper, spear point, or fishhook was invented to kill the
mammoths of the northern Asian grasslands or the seals of the Bering Sea?

We cannot know the specific answers to these questions. We do know
that these travelers became remarkably adept at colonizing and conquering
new lands. We do not know if Homo sapiens sapiens were responsible for
the extinction of other human species, like the Neanderthals or Homo
florensis. Whether or not these or other early humans were annihilated by
Homo sapiens sapiens, many animal species probably were. Humans were
by no means the largest animals, but they used their brains to capture and
kill with abandon. So devastating was the human contact with large
mammals and birds that we can practically chart the migration of Homo

sapiens sapiens by looking for the multiple extinctions of these creatures:
50.000 years ago in Australia and 14,400 years ago in northern Eurasia.

Between 18,000 and 15,000 years ago,7 Homo sapiens sapiens crossed
the Bering Sea land bridge created by low ice-age ocean levels. They may
have followed the path of small groups of earlier humans who settled in the
Western Hemisphere much earlier; there is some evidence of human
settlements in Chile 30.000 years ago and in South Carolina possibly
50,000 years ago. But the settlement at the end of the ice age, between
18,000 and 15,000 years ago, had a far greater ecological impact. They
arrived in a world of huge elephant-like mastodons, woolly mammoths
standing over 10 feet to the shoulder and weighing 13 tons, birds with the
wing span of a small airplane, bears that weighed 1,500 pounds, giant
bison, sloths, horses, camels, and lions. It was a world that makes our own
look “zoologically impoverished,” the great naturalist Alfred Russell
Wallace, Darwin’s collaborator, remarked. At some time before 13,000
years ago, these travelers perfected a stone spear point (called Clovis after
its discovery in Clovis, New Mexico) that gave the new Americans a deadly
advantage over the large mammals.

The resulting impact may have been a “megafaunal overkill,”8 rivaling
the extinction of the dinosaur. Virtually every large animal species on the
continent was hunted to extinction before a second human migration came
by sea about 8,000 years ago.

The First Modern Humans

Homo sapiens sapiens, the colonizers of every continent but Antarctica over
the past 100,000 years, were the first truly modern human beings with
regard to the size of their brains, the height of their foreheads, and their
general appearance. They were the first of our ancestors who, with the right
haircut, diet, and clothes, would fail to surprise us if we saw them on the
street or in the shower.

We used to think that the early ancestors of our species were late
bloomers, that it took more than 100,000 years before these anatomically
moderns became behavioral and thinking moderns. Without much evidence
of Homo sapiens sapiens’ art or invention between the time of their
appearance 100,000 to 200,000 years ago and the dramatic cave paintings

created 30,000 years ago, archaeologists thought that the first half of our
species’ existence was fairly uneventful. But no more.

Recent discoveries in sub-Saharan Africa from almost 100,000 years ago
reveal an early propensity of our species for artistic expression and abstract
thought. We find a wide range of highly specialized tools—scrapers,
fishhooks, awls, and needles—for specific functions, and we find them in
various shapes, sizes, and media—stone, wood, and bone. These people
also carved their tools for aesthetic effect. We also find red ocher pigments
often associated with burial, body decoration, and religion.9 In addition,
recent excavations in South Africa uncovered a set of pierced beadlike
shells that may have been worn as jewelry 75,000 years ago.10

Human clothing may also date from this period. Research on the
“molecular clock” of lice11 indicates that human body lice diverged from
human head lice about 75,000 years ago. Since body lice live in clothing
and most other mammals support only one kind of lice, the reasoning is that
only a widespread human use of clothing would have precipitated such a
successful genetic mutation.

As early as 40,000 years ago, people in modern-day Australia engraved
thousands of circles on a high sandstone monolith and surrounding
boulders. Early human burials date to more than 50,000 years ago; in caves
in the Middle East, there are examples of children buried with deer antlers
or the skull of a wild boar, indicating some religious or totemic
identification of human and animal. All these efforts to beautify, plan, or
give meaning suggest if not the origins of art and religion, then at least the
beginnings of abstract thought and a fairly developed capacity for
expression and communication.

We also see the beginning of cultural differences in this period. Tool kits,
the set of tools a group employs, begin to vary from one area to another.
They vary not only to serve different purposes—fishing or hunting the big
game residing in the forest or grasslands—but also to reflect a local style or
tradition. These cultural differences mean that culture was beginning to
shape human behavior. Nature had moved to the back seat.

Cave Paintings and Female Figurines. The full flowering of this human
creativity can be seen in the cave paintings and female figurines that date
from about 30,000 to 12,000 years ago. These works, discovered in areas of
Europe that have undergone extensive excavation, have led many
archaeologists to speak of a late or “Upper Paleolithic Cultural Revolution”
during this period. Clearly, these Stone Age ancestors had become talented
artists, innovative toolmakers, symbolic thinkers, and reflective human
beings. All this occurred as they became the effective hunters and voracious
meat eaters that swept through the herds of big game that roamed the planet
and as they migrated throughout the glacially cold world at the height of the

last ice age. Their need to adapt to new environments as they moved and
their need to confront conditions of sometimes bitter cold may, in fact, have
been challenges that pushed their cultural development. They invented
techniques like sewing close-fitting fur garments, weaving fibers and firing
pottery, and creating tools like bows and arrows, spear throwers, nets, traps,
and multipurpose flint blades.

The best evidence of this “Upper Paleolithic,” or late Stone Age,
revolution is in the female figurines and animal cave paintings that can be
found from Spain to Mongolia, heralding a mature artistic ability, religious

rituals, long-range cultural contact and trade, and a considerable increase in
population density.

Cultural Adaptation. The changes that occurred to our human ancestors
between 100,000 and 10,000 years ago were not only the most extensive
changes that had ever occurred in such a short time but also changes in the
way in which change occurred. These were not physical changes. The
human brain and facial features that typify Homo sapiens sapiens reached
their current form 100,000 years ago. The changes that occurred after that
were cultural: changes in behavior and thought. And they were so critical
that they altered the way humans were to change forever after. From then
on, cultural changes far outpaced the slow process of physical evolution.

To the extent that the fittest humans survived the past thousands of years,
it was because of culture. Warm clothes, better weapons and tools, social
support, and the ability to communicate—these cultural attributes of
humans provided more leverage in surviving than would any random
mutation in genes or physical condition. Even at the height of the last ice
age, 18,000 to 20,000 years ago, the human ability to control fire, make
warm clothing and housing, and thus stay warm by cultural means far
outweighed any potential physical change. It is difficult to imagine a
physical change that would have been as effective. The development of a
thick coat of furlike hair would have been a successful adaptation to the ice
age but to little else, especially not to the warming that began 12,000 years
ago. A far more effective adaptation was the development of the ability to
make a fur coat that could be worn or taken off. Physical changes are
limiting because they address a single problem. The key adaptation that
humans experienced was the ability to think and express themselves with
complex language; the special function of culture was the ability to solve
new problems as they arose.

Human Differences:
Race and Culture

The overwhelming changes that have occurred to humans over the past few
hundred thousand years occurred to them all. The physical changes were
species wide and very slow; the cultural changes spread rapidly. But there
were some changes, both physical and cultural, that occurred separately or

in varying degrees. Oddly, humans have often been more preoccupied by
these differences. From the vantage point of a Martian, all humans were
changing in the same way, but to human eyes on the ground, it sometimes
looked like people were going their separate ways.

The most obvious physical differences among humans are those that are
popularly lumped under the heading of race. Skin pigmentation is one of
these. Dark pigmentation is obviously an adaptation to bright sun (actually
ultraviolet light) in a tropical climate. However, that does not mean that all
our African ancestors had dark skin. Today’s Africa has an enormous
variety of climates and peoples, and all these have changed over the past
100,000 years. But it is likely that one successful adaptation by humans
who came from Africa to the cloudy skies of northern Europe was a
lightening of skin pigmentation. This is because sunlight supplies necessary
vitamin D, and light skin can compensate for limited sunlight. Fish are also
a good source of vitamin D, so Inuit (Eskimo) adaptation to Arctic winters
over the past 50,000 years has not required white skin. Each natural
adaptation may have a single function, but there are numerous possible
adaptations to any problem. Recent DNA evidence suggests, for instance,
that the light skin of Europeans is a different genetic adaptation than the
light skin of Asians.12

Human body sizes and shapes also varied as adaptations to climate and
environment. In a hot dry climate, like that of North Africa and the Middle
East, a successful adaptation enabling the rapid release of body heat
resulted in a small head, long legs with short torso, and a generally tall
stature (providing a high ratio of skin surface to body mass). Initial human
settlements outside of Africa were limited to the lower, warmer latitudes.
But when humans began to move into northern cold and dry climates, the
opposite adaptation—large heads, short legs, long torso, and short overall
stature—then evolved.

When did these changes occur? Since different species of our human
ancestors have traveled out of Africa on numerous occasions over the
course of the past 2 million years, there is some debate about when and how
modern humans evolved into their current appearances. Some, called “out-
of-Africa” theorists, believe that the latest African emigrants, Homo sapiens
sapiens, who left Africa less than 100,000 years ago, replaced all previous
humans in the world without interbreeding with them. According to this
theory, all physical differences among human beings would therefore have

occurred within the past 100.000 years. Another theory, called “multi-
regional,” associated with Milford Wolpoff,13 argues that Homo sapiens
sapiens likely interbred with the descendants of earlier travelers from
Africa, possibly including the descendants of Homo erectus. According to
this view, modern humans evolved differently in different parts of the world
even though all mixed with the late-arriving Homo sapiens sapiens out of
Africa. If Wolpoff is right, human differences evolved over the millions of
years of human settlement around the globe. The debate continues: a recent
DNA study argues that all modern humans are descended from an Africa
migration 65,000 years ago.14 But another recent study suggests
interbreeding: it reveals that Neanderthal DNA is 99.5 percent similar to the
human genome.15

What about cultural differences? They are more recent than biological
differences. For most of the past 5 million years, cultural changes were
monotonously uniform throughout the world. Wherever humans went, they
took many of the same tools. Homo erectus in East and South Asia used
more bamboo and less stone for projectile points than did the stone
toolmakers of Africa, Europe, and Central Asia. Stone axes that could be
thrown like lethal Frisbees were widely produced west of India, but not, it
used to be thought, in East and South Asia.16 Recently, however,
archaeologists have unearthed similar axes made 800.000 years ago in
South China, suggesting that the technologies of early humans were quite

Certainly in the past 100,000 years, cultural differences in the world have
increased. In this period, the tool kit of central Africa was very different
from that of southern Africa. Two areas of France produced different sets of
tools. The cave paintings of the Mediterranean were vastly different from
those of the Sahara or Australia.

Nevertheless, the emergence of separate cultural zones did not prevent
one culture from influencing another. Especially during the Upper
Paleolithic era (40,000 to 12,000 years ago), as cultural contacts increased,
toolmakers and artists learned to borrow and adapt styles or techniques
from others. Thus, the caves of Chauvet, France, were unique in their
depiction of rhinos, but that was a minor variation in an animal cave art that
spread throughout settled Eurasia. Strikingly similar Venus figurines were
carved from 27,000 to 20,000 years ago in Lespuge, France; Willendorf,
Austria; and Kostenski, Russia. They all emphasize the breasts, belly,

thighs, and vulva of the female figure, suggesting a common religious
attention to fertility. They are also similar in their depiction of woven string
material or textiles, a testament not only to a common style but perhaps also
to the common activity of Paleolithic women. Is the similarity of these
works a result of imitation or common development? We do not know.
Certainly, no one would presume to identify a “French” or “Russian” style
in any of these works. The world of national style was still far in the future.

Did all these Upper Paleolithic peoples speak the same language? We do
not know that either. Some scientists postulate an original language at the
time of leaving Africa, whether by Homo erectus 2 million or Homo
sapiens sapiens 100,000 years ago. But because Africa contains 25 percent
of the world’s languages, it is likely that there were many languages in
Africa before humans left to colonize the world. The current distribution of
the world’s language groups may only be as old as the spread of agriculture
(a theory we examine later). In any case, languages change much faster than
genes. Certainly, the languages we know are very recent, none of them
more than a few thousand years old and most of them only a few hundred
years old in recognizable form. A shaved Shakespeare in jeans would go
unnoticed until he opened his mouth.

Do Numbers Count?
Patterns of Population Growth

If you had been viewing Earth from Mars with a good telescope for the past
100,000 years, you would likely be impressed by how humans took over the
planet. From a population of about 10,000 at the beginning of the last
glacial expansion about 100,000 years ago, humans increased to about 6
million by its end, 10,000 years ago. But you would also be struck by how
humans replaced other animals. With the help of a technique of modern
archaeology, it would be tempting to conclude that humans multiplied by
eating everything in sight. The archaeological technique is the examination
of ancient coprolites or fossilized excrement to determine what was eaten.17

A team of archaeologists studied the coprolites of three long-term human
settlements around the Mediterranean Sea in Italy and Israel. All these
communities consumed shellfish, tortoises, partridges, hares, and rabbits
from almost 200,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago. The archaeologists

discovered that the food remains from the early years of settlement showed
a diet made up almost entirely of the slow-maturing, slow-moving, and
easy-to-catch tortoises and shellfish. By 50,000 years ago, this easy prey
had declined to about three-fourths of local meat intake, and about 20,000
years ago, they fell to less than a quarter. Humans increased their numbers
at the expense of the abundant, easy-to-capture prey, forcing their
descendants to run ever more quickly for the hares and rabbits.

Most of Human History:
Foraging Societies

What were the lives of these first humans like? We call them foragers
because that is how they obtained their food. Before the agricultural
revolution, 10,000 years ago, all humans foraged for their food: gathering
available plants and animals, fishing, and hunting. Some combination of
hunting, fishing, gathering, or foraging for whatever was available in nature
has been the primary means of subsistence for most of humanity for most of
our history: for all primates up to 10,000 years ago and for many since.
Even today, there are isolated pockets of people who engage in little or no
agriculture but live on what nature provides. Agriculture has spread so far
and wide that today’s foragers are relegated to some of the most remote and
uninviting environments in the world. We find the Khoisan in the Kalahari
Desert of southern Africa, the aboriginal inhabitants of Australia in the arid
Outback, the Inuit (Eskimos) in the northern Arctic, the Mbuti Pygmies in
the rain forests of central Africa, and many foragers deep in the Amazon
rain forest.

Lifestyles of Foragers. It is tempting to think that these contemporary
hunters and gatherers live as all our ancestors did before the agricultural
revolution. No doubt there are some ways in which a foraging lifestyle
shapes how people think and behave. But before we try to figure out what
these are, we must issue a couple of warnings. First, we must recognize that
the lives of today’s foragers may be very different from that of their parents,
grandparents, or ancestors. Their society has had its own history; it has not
been static. Today’s hunters and gatherers have not emerged from a pristine
preagricultural world as if from a time machine. This lesson has been
brought home to anthropologists and historians by a series of recent studies

of foragers in the world today, beginning with a study of the Khoisan
people of the Kalahari Desert.18 Since the Khoisan are foragers today, it
was assumed that their lives were continuations of ancient traditions and
that they could consequently be used to speak for all of our past ancestors
before the agricultural revolution. On closer inspection, however, it turned
out that the Khoisan living today were actually descended from a pastoral
people who had known agriculture as well as domesticated animals.
Similarly, a recent study of a foraging people in the interior of Borneo
revealed that their ancestors had been farmers who became gatherers
hundreds of years ago in order to supply forest products to Chinese
traders.19 We can still call these people foragers or hunter-gatherers, but we
cannot use them as stand-ins for the human population before agriculture.

Another warning—and one for which this chapter has already prepared
the ground—is that the lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors also changed,
sometimes radically, in the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and
millions of years before the agricultural revolution. In time and space, the
lives of foragers varied too much for us to ask “what was it like?” Changes
in climate, tool capacity, speech, organizational ability, population density,
geographical position, environment, and knowledge changed our ancestors’
lives radically.

With those reservations in mind, however, we can use examples from
contemporary foragers when they correspond to what we know from
archaeological excavations. We have already alluded to their diet, a matter
of concern to some modern nutritionists who reason that whatever worked
for the first hundreds of thousands of years should be good enough for us
today. Vegetarian nutritionists who hoped to find evidence of a meatless
Paleolithic diet have continually been disappointed by evidence that the
Upper Paleolithic diet always contained meat, but modern critics of animal
fat, milk products, and grains have found support for their contention that
the modern diet is a radical departure from that of our ancient ancestors.
Food remains of ancient hunter-gatherers show a heavy reliance on lean
game animals, fish and crustaceans, nuts, fruits, berries, and leaves. It was a
diet high in protein and low in carbohydrates and fats, especially when
compared to the dietary changes that came about as a result of the
agricultural revolution. It was also a varied diet, consisting of a wider-than-
modern variety of plants and animals, many of which no longer exist.

What of their social life? Like modern foragers, our preagricultural
ancestors probably lived in groups of families or “bands” of a couple dozen
to a couple hundred individuals. Bands were further divided into families
and groups of relatives. Like modern foragers, many were nomadic,
following game seasonally, returning periodically to familiar places, but
building homes from available materials (leaves, grasses, mud, or ice)
quickly for stays of a few nights to a few months. Not all hunters and
gatherers were nomadic, however. Some of our foraging ancestors lived in
almost permanent communities, and some Paleolithic sites were inhabited
continually. Whether nomadic or settled, they carried few possessions with
them, owned little in the way of personal or family property, shared the
bounty of a hunt, and made sure that everyone had an adequate and roughly
equal supply of food.

Sexual Division of Labor. In most cases, men hunted, usually in small
groups, while women gathered plants and small animals with the children,
closer to home. This sexual division of labor is typical of modern foragers,
but few today live in regions of abundance as they once did. Modern
hunters sometimes travel for days, even weeks, at a time, bringing back the
kill for a special feast. The richer natural environment of the Upper
Paleolithic tropical and temperate world might have made meat more
frequent, man’s work easier, the male presence greater, and men’s social
role more prominent. In modern foraging societies, especially those in
which plant life provides the bulk of the food source, the women’s role is
correspondingly important. Nevertheless, the Venus figurines of the Upper
Paleolithic suggest that the woman’s role as provider of life was a matter of
considerable concern, perhaps even veneration. Kathleen Gough, an
anthropologist who studied foragers in India, wrote that women in hunting
societies are “less subordinated in crucial respects” than are women in
almost all other societies. “Especially lacking in hunting societies,” she
writes, “is the kind of male possessiveness and exclusiveness regarding
women that leads to such institutions as savage punishment or death for
female adultery, the jealous guarding of female chastity and virginity, the
denial of divorce to women, or the ban on a woman’s remarriage after her
husband’s death.”20

Whether or not women were worshipped as life givers, fertility
goddesses, or food providers, they played many important roles in
Paleolithic society. Besides bearing children and providing what was likely

the most reliable source of food by gathering, women were also the ones
who cooked the food and distributed it to the family.

Women also probably invented fabric. Paleolithic figurines show that
women have learned to make string by twisting fiber and wear garments
like skirts from dangling string tied to a band. A recently excavated site in
the Czech Republic shows evidence of both weaving and pottery, dating
from 28,000 years ago. Both of these activities were traditionally women’s
work, performed almost exclusively by women in agricultural societies.
That these skills developed long before the agricultural revolution 10,000
years ago may be an indication that some Upper Paleolithic societies were
much more sophisticated than we have thought.

Relative Social Equality. The politics of Paleolithic society probably
reflected its relative social equality. Our popular image of one caveman
lording it over others is far from the reality. In modern hunter-gatherer
bands, decision making is based on consensus. There is often a “headman”
or leader, but his position is usually limited and advisory. For instance, the
headman in a !Kung Khoisan band depicted in the film The Hunters is
chosen because his wife is the daughter of a previous headman and because
he has the confidence of the others in the band. Leadership is neither a full-
time activity nor a job that excuses one from other duties. The only other
specialty is that of a shaman, healer, or religious intermediary. Among
contemporary hunter-gatherers, this individual also emerges through some
combination of birth and evidence of special abilities. Among Arctic
Eskimos, the role of shaman, which requires a high sensitivity to the
spiritual world, typically fell to the individual, male or female, who seemed
least adept at hunting and practical skills.

Leisure Time. How much time and energy went into providing food?
Anthropologists have discovered that most modern foraging bands are able
to provide for their basic needs and still have considerable leisure time. In
fact, it seems that modern foragers spend less time working and more time
at leisure than do people in agricultural or industrial societies. Even in the
Kalahari Desert of southern Africa, a desolate and barren landscape to the
outsider, the !Kung are able to find enough game, plants, roots, insects, and
water to spend most of their time at leisure. Since our Paleolithic ancestors
10,000 to 50,000 years ago were not limited to remote areas or fragile
ecosystems and since their world was far richer in flora and fauna, their
workweek must have been even shorter. Nevertheless, there is no sign in the

archaeological record of individuals of special privilege or distinction.
While there are burial sites from this period, it is not until much later (5,000
to 6,000 years ago) that some graves outrank others.

Interpreters of the lives of our foraging ancestors carry heavy burdens.
There seems to be much at stake, in part because this “first” stage of human
history is seen as the formative beginning and in part because it was such a
long period of human history. Inevitably, the sense that our Paleolithic
ancestors created “the human condition,” shaped “human nature,” that they
are the “original” or the “real” us, demands more of our ancestors than is
possible to accurately determine.

Again, our distinction between biology and culture may be useful.
Biologically, we are still like our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago.
That may be significant in terms of our diet, our need for exercise, and our
vulnerability to the ills of sedentary society. But culturally we are worlds
away from our Paleolithic ancestors, and our ideas, feelings, visions, and
dreams are shaped by our culture, not our biology.

The difference is manifest if we consider a little hypothetical experiment.
Imagine that we were able to exchange two newborn babies: one born
30,000 years ago with one born yesterday. At the age of 20, the child from
the Paleolithic world would be dating, driving, and enjoying college world
history courses like everyone else. The child born to modernity but raised in
Paleolithic culture would be sniffing the air for the spoor of the wild boar,
distinguishing the poisonous mushrooms from the tasty ones, or scanning
the backs of beetles for signs of a cold winter. Both would have adapted to
their worlds as completely and effortlessly as everyone else because
everything they needed—including such physical attributes as muscular
strength or the ability to distinguish smells—was taught by their culture. If,
on the other hand, we were able to take two 50-year-olds, one from each
world, and exchange them, both would be completely lost. Their cultures
would have prepared them for skills that were irrelevant and unnecessary.
And yet, with time, they too could learn.

Merging Old and New. In December 2001, the shamans from a tenth of
Brazil’s 230 indigenous nations met in the Amazon and drew up a
declaration calling on the government to “create punishment mechanisms to
deter the robbery of our biodiversity.”21 Concerned that they were losing
control of their traditional knowledge of Brazilian plants to international
pharmaceutical corporations, they called for a “moratorium on the

commercial exploitation of traditional knowledge of genetic resources.”
Their goal was not to deprive foreign scientists and corporations from
benefiting from their knowledge but to develop a system that would involve
them and pay royalties. “We’re not against science, but we don’t want to be
just suppliers of data,” an organizer of the conference, Marcos Terena of the
Terena tribe, explained. “We want to be part of the whole process from
research to economic results.” The modern descendants of forest foragers
have learned a lot.

Subduing the Earth: The
Consequences of Domestication

The First Breakthrough: Origins of
Agricultural/Pastoral Economies

With her galaxy’s most powerful telescope, an astronomer viewing the
planet Earth over the past million years would have had no reason to
suspect the existence of intelligent life until very recently. Ice covered the
poles, periodically pushing toward the equator and then retreating. The last
expansion, which began 100,000 years ago, reached its maximum extent,
halfway to the equator, about 20,000 years ago. About 10,000 years ago,
our astronomer would have seen something new. That is when she could see
anything at all, because as the ice retreated, it was replaced by mist and
clouds. She would have seen green areas become more uniform in color,
shape, and size. It was the stamp of agriculture. First by planting wild roots
and seeds about 10,000 years ago and finally by plowing and irrigating
fields and hillsides by 5,000 years ago, humans were revealing their
presence on the planet.

The intergalactic astronomer could only imagine the scene at ground
level. In a couple of temperate, well-watered areas of the planet, women
whose mothers had for generations dug the tubers and gathered the grains
were putting some of them back into the ground. They were doing it
systematically: punching holes in the ground with a digging stick and
planting. Soon they were choosing particular plants, putting them in

particular places, making sure there was sufficient sun and water, and
clearing the area to improve the yield.

Control over Food Supply. At the same time that women began to take
control of edible plants, men began to control some of the animals they
were in the habit of hunting. The taming or domestication of wild animals,
although not visible from distant galaxies, had the same effect as the
breeding and growing of favored plants. Men and women were controlling
their food supply: increasing it, stabilizing it, and asserting their dominance
over nature. From then on, as any sensible astronomer could see, a new
planet had produced a species that was about to organize and subdue its
small world.

Why then? The retreat of the ice about 12,000 years ago would be part of
the answer. Warmer temperatures (an average of 4 or 5 degrees Fahrenheit)
and greater rainfall increased the number of plants that could be turned to
human use. Vast fields of wheat and barley sprang up in the Middle East,
providing a regular diet of cereals for an expanding population of people.
The rising levels of rivers and oceans also increased the varieties and
amount of fish available. In China too, rivers and coasts carried more fish
and shellfish, and marshlands multiplied the varieties of wild rice.

But that most recent retreat of ice was not a simple cause of the
agricultural revolution. People may have learned to consume a wider
variety of plants, especially in the Middle East. In northern Syria, there is
early evidence of grinding wild grains and the use of a wide array of stone
implements for harvesting cereals and other wild food. But there was no
agriculture to supplement, much less replace, gathering for another 2,000
years. So agriculture was not just the result of warmer weather.

There is also a problem with the idea that people chose agriculture as an
obvious effort to better their lives. The problem is that no one could have
foreseen that the long-term effects of agriculture would be beneficial. In
fact, the short-term effects were probably not. Archaeologists who have
examined skeleton remains of early farmers of about 10,000 years ago have
found evidence that the first farmers may not have eaten as well as
gatherers had. Their bone fragments show signs that early farmers suffered
from inferior nutrition, shorter stature, and earlier deaths than their foraging
ancestors. A recent discovery of drilled teeth from a Neolithic site in
Pakistan 9.000 years ago might mark our ancestor’s first visit to the dentist
—a practice made increasingly necessary by the abrasive minerals produced

when grain was ground on stone.22 In addition, anthropologists have
concluded that most farmers worked longer hours than hunters and

Why Agriculture Developed. So why did they do it? Why did gatherers
choose the backbreaking work of planting instead of just plucking fruit
from the tree? And why did hunters decide to raise animals instead of just
killing the wild ones? Why did they go through the trouble of taming,
herding, feeding, and breeding them for meals they might not even live to

A clue to the answer may lie in the ice-age confusion. If warmer, wetter
weather 12,000 years ago multiplied vegetation and animals, including
humans, why did they wait another 2.000 years to become farmers? The
agricultural revolution occurred not as the glaciers retreated 12,000 years
ago but in the sudden cold snap that followed. So the question is not only
why agriculture, but why agriculture then? The answer may be because they
had to.

Food production probably replaced hunting and gathering in a two-step
process of experiment followed by necessity. First, 12,000 years ago, as the
ice melted, increased rains and longer summers added abundant new
species of plants and animals. In a world full of choices, gatherers
continued weeding, selecting, and harvesting one species over another. But
there was no need to plant what nature provided free of charge. Similarly,
wild animals could be tamed as a supplement or leisure activity rather than
as a necessity: first the wolf that became the dog, then wild sheep and goats
were easily herded by people and dogs and provided food and clothing on
demand. But in a world full of wild gazelles, shepherding was an
unnecessary activity. Populations grew in the warming years; settlements
increased, and people gorged on a natural harvest that seemed eternal. Then,
in the wake of a dry, cold snap between 11,000 and 10,000 years ago,23 with
more mouths to feed, the party ended. Agriculture and pasture became
necessities. We know, for instance, that horses and wild gazelles, an
important source of meat and protein, were rapidly disappearing from the
Middle East about 10,000 years ago.

Selecting Crops to Grow. The astronomer from another planet would
have needed a telescope with an extremely sensitive color receptor to notice
something else about the spreading green on planet Earth. The shades of
green that she saw beginning 10,000 years ago were both different and less

varied than the earlier ice-age greens. The farmers were changing the
planet’s plants and choosing a few to take the place of the many.

Farmers made different choices than nature. Nature selected plants with
abundant seeds for survival against birds, pests, and chance. Humans chose
to plant fruits, like bananas, with fewer or smaller seeds so that they would
not get caught in their teeth. Nature protected some plants—the ancestors of
almonds, cabbages, and potatoes, for instance—with a sour taste or
poisonous fruit. Humans chose to develop the rare specimen that lacked this
protection. Nature took fewer risks, finding safety in the widest variety of
species. Humans chose the tastiest or hardiest and replaced the others.

Human choices enabled the human population to grow exponentially. A
few choices, like cereal crops bred for maximum number of grains, made
all the difference. The grain/seeds of wild grasses were indigestible for
humans and eaten only by animals 12,000 years ago. Today, grains like
wheat, barley, millet, oats, rice, and corn—processed as cereals, ground as
flour, and turned into noodles, breads, and baked goods—feed the world.
This is a result of the domestication of these grains, the process of enlarging
their size and quantity. The modern ear of corn, for instance, is a product of
thousands of years of domestication. Five thousand years ago, it was a grass
with small grains on the tip. Mexican Indians enlarged it to a thumbnail size
stalk by about 2,000 years ago, and it measured about five inches by the
time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, 500 years ago. Today, the average
ear of corn measures eight or nine inches.

In some cases, humans increased the variety of nature. They took the
humble ancestor of the cabbage, for instance, and produced a wide variety
of descendants. Initially cultivated for the oil of its seeds, some cultivators
chose to develop it for its leaves, producing modern cabbage; others chose
plants with abundant small buds, leading to Brussels sprouts; and still
others cultivated the flower and stems, producing broccoli and cauliflower.

Reducing Variety. But the overwhelming impact of the farmer was to
reduce nature’s riot of species, concentrating on those that humans could
eat, especially those that produced the most per planting. Out of 200,000
species of wild plants, humans ate only a few thousand, and of those they
domesticated only a few hundred. Today, only 12 of those account for 80
percent of the world’s tonnage of crops.24 These are wheat, corn, rice,
barley, sorghum, soybeans, potato, sweet potato, manioc, sugarcane, sugar
beet, and banana.

The selection of crops for planting also reduced the genetic variety within
a species. Ninety percent of all the world’s apples are descended from only
two trees out of the thousands that existed in the forests of Kazakhstan
6,000 years ago.25 The shallow gene pool that results from ages of
interbreeding makes such plants more vulnerable to blights, pests, and
diseases. Apple growers, for instance, are returning to the central Asian
source to breed hardier apples. Unfortunately, many plants that were
discarded have become extinct. Many that have been adapted to human
needs can no longer grow without human intervention. Bananas and
breadfruit, for instance, can no longer be reproduced from their tiny seeds
but require humans to make cuttings from their stalks for reproduction.

In summary, the great revolution of human food production began to
transform the world about 10,000 years ago after the end of the last ice age.
It was a gradual process that began in discovery and experimentation and
culminated in the need of growing populations to confront periodic
shortages of wild foods. The result was not only a dramatic increase in
human population and a change in human lifestyles but also a reshaping of
the natural world.

Globalization and Continental Variety

Food production was the first human step to globalization. First, a planet of
hunters and gatherers started to become a planet of farmers and herders—
almost simultaneously from the standpoint of Big History. Second, these
first farmers and herders in various parts of the world began exchanging
recipes, sharing seeds, and using the same or similar animals for food,
clothing, and transport.

But some people were left out of this new revolution, in some cases for a
long time. Thus, a revolution that eventually created a single world also
created the first “haves” and “have-nots.” In the beginning, many farmers
may not have lived better than foragers. But eventually, farmers formed
larger, more complex societies; took the best land; and forced the remaining
bands of gatherers to the margins: deserts, barren mountains, dense rain
forests, and the Arctic north.

For most of the 10,000 years since the beginning of domestication, the
world has belonged to the farmers. Their descendants produced the first

cities, states, and empires beginning 5,000 years ago. Their urban
revolution of city building, state formation, and the development of
complex, literate societies was in one sense a departure from agricultural
society and in another sense its fulfillment. The great urban empires of
Mesopotamia and Egypt, India, China, and the Americas erected their
monuments by taxing and working untold numbers of peasant farmers.
They invented writing and trained poets and historians to tell their stories as
if it were the history of everyone. The foragers of the Philippines, Australia,
the Amazon, and the African Kalahari and the hunting and fishing peoples
of the American Northwest, the Arctic, and the hills of Southeast Asia were
relegated to the spectator seats while the great kings strutted their stuff on
the world stage.

Nevertheless, not all agricultural societies became urban empires 5,000
years ago, and some of the early empires were not descended from the first
farmers. The winners of history are not always the smartest or most
talented. It took over 1,000 years for agriculture to spread from its first
home in the Middle East to the Mediterranean. Greece and Rome and then
Europe were late borrowers who made good use of the invention. And some
of the important breakthroughs that enabled agricultural societies to become
empires—domesticated horses, wheels, and chariots—first came to light in

central Asia, not in the agricultural societies that turned horse-drawn
chariots into engines of empire.

Geography as Destiny. Why did some agricultural societies prosper far
more than others? Geography partly explains why some agricultural people,
borrowers as well as inventors, turned cultivation into high culture. In
Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond argued provocatively that powerful
city-based empires grew in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Mediterranean,
Europe, India, and China because these agricultural societies were
geographically well placed and close together. They had the good fortune to
be where there were many available plants and animals that could be
domesticated or to live along the same latitudes as the initial fortunate few
who first domesticated them.26

The first farmers, those of the Middle East, were blessed with a wide
variety of plants and animals, many of which could be domesticated. Wheat
and barley were prominent cereal grains of the Fertile Crescent, the area
that stretched along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the foothills of
Turkey and the Mediterranean. The Fertile Crescent also had abundant
pulses (edible seeds, like beans, which are rich in protein), specifically peas
and lentils.

Perhaps the wild gazelles were hunted almost to extinction because they
could not be domesticated. But the people of the Fertile Crescent
domesticated sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle. They brought these animals
under human control not only for food but also for their wool and hides for
clothing and eventually for milk and cheese. They also recognized the
utility of certain plants for their fiber content and planted flax for the fiber
we know as linen.

China, too, had a rich assortment of wild plants and animals that could be
domesticated. The Chinese had access to millet in the northern Yellow
River valley and wild rice in the lakes and marshes of the southerly Yangtze
River. In addition, soybeans provided protein. For meat, the Chinese
domesticated the pig. For fiber, they grew hemp for rope and the silkworm
for silk cloth.

Other areas of independent domestication offered different combinations
of cereals, pulses, animals, and fibers. The African Sahel (the grasslands
just south of the Sahara) had the cereal grains sorghum, millet, and African
rice and such pulses as cowpeas and African peanuts. In addition, guinea
fowls provided meat. Separately, farther south in West Africa, the available
domesticates were African yams, oil palms, watermelon, gourds, and
cotton. Farther east, in Ethiopia, coffee was first domesticated along with
certain local plants.

Native Americans domesticated plants and animals in three areas. The
inhabitants of Central America and Mexico domesticated tomatoes, corn,
beans, squash, and turkeys. South Americans (in the Andes and Amazon)
domesticated potatoes, the grain quinoa, various beans, and the llama,
alpaca, and guinea pig. In addition, the inhabitants of the Eastern
Woodlands (today’s eastern United States) domesticated a number of local
plants that yield starchy or oily seeds, like the sunflower. Independently of
all these areas, the farmers in New Guinea domesticated sugarcane,
bananas, yams, and taro, but they lacked cereals and animals.

Of these nine separate cases of domestication in the world, only a few
produced a wide range of edible plants, a balance of carbohydrates and
proteins, and animals for meat, hides, and transportation. The Middle East
was the richest area, followed by China and South and Central America.
Some areas initiated farming or herding with so few plants and animals that
people continued to forage or hunt for much of their food. Ethiopia, West
Africa, New Guinea, and North America were such areas. In these cases,
domestication was a part-time affair, supplemented by hunting, fishing, and
gathering. In addition, Eurasia enjoyed a far greater variety of animals that
could be domesticated than did Africa and the Americas.

Thus, the agricultural/pastoral revolution began to create a world in
which the accidents of geography enabled some people to benefit from a
varied diet and wide range of animals under human control, while others
did not. Almost all farming societies grew and prospered at the expense of
foragers. But some of the original agricultural societies—again, New
Guinea, the West Africans, and the native North Americans—did not
develop the complex urban and literate cultures that became the next step
for agriculturalists 5,000 years later. The most successful agricultural
societies, in addition to the Middle East and China, were probably Egypt,

India, and the Mediterranean, all of which piggybacked on the original
discoveries in the Middle East or Southwest Asia.

East–West Transmission Advantages. What accounts for this difference in
fortunes? Again, geography may be the answer. In general, plants, animals,
people, and ideas moved more easily along an east–west than a north–south
axis. If other climate factors like rainfall and temperature were similar,
newly domesticated crops could be easily transplanted on the same latitude
because the climate and growing season were similar. The plants and
animals that were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent traveled easily from
the Tigris and Euphrates westward to Egypt, the Mediterranean and Europe,
and eastward to Iran, Afghanistan, and India. In each of those areas, the
new farmers and herders added new crops and tamed new animals—
Egyptian figs and donkeys; Indian cucumbers, cotton, and humped cattle;
and Mediterranean olives and grapes. The result was a remarkably varied
basket of cereals, pulses, fruits, and vegetables and numerous animals for
food, transport, clothing, and pets, most of which could travel back and
forth between Europe and India.

Conversely, plants and animals resisted north–south movement. Horses
would not breed easily close to the equator because the even hours of night
and day hampered ovulation. Mexican corn took 1,000 years to reach what
is today the United States.

Chinese domesticated crops and animals also moved more quickly along
the eastbound paths of the great river valleys: millet along the Yellow River
and rice along the Yangtze. But north–south movement was slow. Northern
domesticated pigs, dogs, and mulberry trees did not transfer easily to the
more tropical zones of southern China. Southern Chinese wet rice and
tropical fruits did not easily move north, but along with pigs and chickens,
they traveled in two directions: south into Southeast Asia and east to the
island of Taiwan about 6,000 years ago. There, the southern Chinese
cultural complex joined the maritime and fishing traditions of the island,
forming a new complex called Austronesian and a culture of maritime
expansion. In the Philippines about 5,000 years ago, this culture added such
tropical products as bananas, taro, sugarcane, and breadfruit to their diet of
rice, chicken, and pigs. Within another 1,000 years, it spread to the coasts of
Southeast Asia and the islands of Indonesia, from which Polynesian
descendants colonized the Pacific Ocean as far east as Easter Island and as

far west as the Indian Ocean and Madagascar, paving the way for the
introduction of the yams, bananas, and other tropical fruits into Africa.

To summarize, the domestication of plants and animals gave certain
peoples, though not always the original inventors, a leg up on the next
global revolution—cities and state societies. The future would belong to
those who, by accident of geography, could borrow, imitate, innovate, and
interact with neighbors in a similar environment—and that often meant

Agriculture and Language. The first farmers may have spread their
languages with their seeds. Whether farmers actually moved and displaced
earlier hunting-gathering populations or passed on their words with their
seeds and techniques, a map of the spread of languages follows the spread
of agriculture. Each of the original nine places of domestication seems to
have passed its language along to those who adopted its foods. Thus, the
Indo-European language family, which extends from Ireland to India,
covers a northern band of the territory that received the crops of the Fertile
Crescent. The Afro-Asiatic family of languages, which includes ancient
Egyptian and Semitic languages like Hebrew and Arabic, extends across a
southern band of shared crops from Egypt or the Fertile Crescent. Chinese
cultivators may have spread three language families: Sino-Tibetan, Tai, and
Austroasiatic. From the latter in Taiwan came the Austronesian language
group, which spread throughout the Pacific. Most of these language groups
spread in an east–west direction. Where such movement was blocked, as in
the Americas, languages and crops moved slower and not as far. In Africa,
the Niger-Congo language family spread from West Africa eastward and
then southward, never fully displacing the earlier click languages of the
preagricultural Khoisan people. In general, forager languages remained
more localized.

Languages and crops could travel with people on the move or be
exchanged in trade with foreigners. In the Americas, corn spread mainly
through trade. Mexican corn moved gradually to the southwestern and
southeastern United States in separate series of trading exchanges. In the
Middle East, early farmers spread their crops and languages by moving to
new areas and cultivating new lands. The process varied in speed and
intensity. Early agriculture spread rapidly. One recent theory argues for a
spur in a possible natural catastrophe: the displacement of early farmers by
the overflow of the Mediterranean onto the shores of the Black Sea about

8,000 years ago.27 Whether the early farmers of the Mediterranean were
refugees from a rapidly flooding homeland or merely the descendants of
earlier Middle Eastern farmers starting new families, the process was swift
across the Mediterranean but very slow into northern Europe.

Agriculture, however, drove one of many waves of language change. In
later centuries, pastoral peoples, most notably Arabs, Turks, and Mongols,
spread their languages over vast areas of Eurasia. In the modern era,
European colonizers substituted their languages for innumerable Native
American, African, and Asian languages, a process that continues today
with the use of English for certain computer and international purposes.

The Long Agricultural Age:
Places and Processes

From our vantage point as members of a city-based civilization, it may
seem as though the domestication of plants and animals was merely a step
on the way to cities, states, governments, complex societies, and often
bronze metallurgy and writing. But agricultural village life, without cities or
states, was the norm for most of humanity for most of the past 10,000 years.
In this section, we survey the scope and length of the agricultural age by
looking at a few specific sites at particular times. In addition to suggesting
the enormous variety of agricultural societies before the formation of cities
and states, these examples suggest how the transition to cities occurred.

Jericho. The remains of one of the earliest agricultural villages in human
history lie beneath the modern town of Jericho in Palestine, on an oasis in
the desert northwest of the Dead Sea. Archaeologists have unearthed signs
of the conversion from gathering to farming dating more than 10,000 years
ago. There are round huts indicating permanent settlement and a large wall
circling the village. There is also evidence of pottery, baked brick, textiles,
grinding stones, and the polished stone blades that became a hallmark of the
Neolithic period, or New Stone Age. More than 2,000 people may have
lived in the village at an early stage. Its permanence for them is attested by
the recent discovery of decorated human skulls with seashells in the eye
sockets, placed in a collective burial.

Catal Huyuk. One of the most intensely excavated sites of the early
agricultural or Neolithic age is Catal Huyuk, in Turkey, dating from 9,000
years ago.28 Spanning 32 acres, at its height it may have numbered 10,000
people. While earlier Jericho consisted of rounded dwellings and only later
switched to rectangular houses, Catal Huyuk was composed from its
beginning of rectangular dwellings, situated side by side and on top of each
other like a layered field of bricks three or four stories high. Without streets
to separate one row of buildings from another, the people of Catal Huyuk
entered their dwellings by ladder from the roof.

Why did farming people deliberately live in such crowded quarters in
what resembles a modern apartment complex? For over 1,000 years (10,500
to 9,000 years ago), the dwellings of people in places like Jericho were
moving farther apart as foragers became fulltime farmers. It seems that the
introduction of agriculture pushed people apart by giving families
independence from each other. But from the beginnings of Catal Huyuk,
about 9,000 years ago, its inhabitants clustered together like bees in a

beehive. James Mellaart, the archaeologist who began excavations of the
site in the 1950s, called it a “Neolithic city.” But later excavations have
revealed none of the elements of city life except for the clustered living.
Archaeologists have found no public spaces, for instance. Even Jericho had
public walls and a tower. Catal Huyuk also shows no sign of a division of
labor, not even the distinction between farmers and other occupations,
which is a basic characteristic of city life. Each family constructed its own
home with a slightly different mix of materials for mud and plaster.
Families also used the nearby deposits of obsidian for blades and mirrors,
which they fashioned in their own homes.

In fact, the inhabitants of Catal Huyuk were not even full-time farmers.
People lived on wild seeds, acorns, pistachio nuts, fruits, and grains as well
as domesticated cereals (wheat and barley), lentils, and peas. Similarly,
while they domesticated sheep, goats, and cattle, they also consumed wild
horses, deer, boar, bears, foxes, wolves, dogs, birds, and fish. Catal Huyuk
had other Neolithic characteristics, however. The people created ceramic
pottery, wove cloth that they wore in addition to skins, and amassed a wide
range of tools, containers (straw baskets as well as pots), weapons (bow and
arrow), and objects for art or ritual.

Archaeologists also found early examples of an art form that is
characteristic of Neolithic societies. There are numerous figurines of
women, many of which show heavy breasts or protruding stomachs that
might suggest pregnancy or fertility. One enthroned woman figurine,
dubbed the “mother goddess” by Mellaart, evokes later myths of goddesses
who suckled animals and of Earth Mothers who gave birth to vegetation
each spring. But there are other images as well. There are sculptured heads
of bulls and animal horns on walls. There are headless figures with arms
and legs splayed outward, possibly giving birth. There are also images of
vultures, apparently pecking at headless bodies.

What does all this mean? Archaeologists are excavating this huge site
with painstaking care, and their work is expected to take another 20 years.
But at this point, they can venture a couple of theories. One is that religion,
whether or not it was related to goddess worship, was a central focus of
daily life in Catal Huyuk. There are no freestanding temples. The sculptured
clay and plaster images have been found in people’s homes, usually in one
room of a three-room house. This separateness within the house, in a place

that was frequently swept clean, suggests a sacred space for each family: a
family religion rather than a larger public worship.

Finally, the excavations reveal considerable attention to death, dying, and
the dead. Like earlier farmers (e.g., Jericho), the people of Catal Huyuk
buried their dead under the floor. Sometimes they decapitated the bodies
and just buried the skulls. The images of vultures pecking at headless
bodies may reveal what happened to the rest of the remains outside. In
Jericho, whole rooms of skulls were found in addition to sculptured or cast
figures of the heads of the deceased. In Catal Huyuk and some nearby sites,
people did something else. At the end of a particular time frame, after a
number of family skulls or bodies had been buried under the house, the
whole house would be filled up and everything covered in dirt, including
the images on the wall, the oven, and the possessions of the last person who
died. Then it appears that the next generation of the same family would
construct its house over the one that had just been buried, beginning the
cycle again. This is why Catal Huyuk appeared to be a Neolithic apartment
complex: people did not live on top of each other; rather, they lived on top
of their ancestors. This may have been a form of ancestor worship or a way
of making sense of the passing of previous generations. The fertility
imagery might have added the important dimension of the future. In any
case, art, religion, and daily life seem to have been closely related in Catal
Huyuk in houses that were also temples to the ancestors.

Banpo. One of the oldest well-excavated Neolithic sites in China is
Banpo, a village near the Yellow River and modern Xian, settled about
6,000 years ago. The inhabitants domesticated millet, pigs, and dogs and
supplemented their diets with numerous fish and fowl. The dwellings at
Banpo resembled Jericho more than Catal Huyuk; many were rounded
dwellings of mud and thatch on a scaffold of wooden poles; they were
scattered rather than clustered together. A trench encircled the village, like
the wall of Jericho. Like Jericho, Banpo had public spaces that may have
been meeting or ritual areas. But adults and children were buried whole,
adults outside the trench, children inside the village and enclosed in pottery
jars with open bottoms. Like both Catal Huyuk and Jericho, Banpo was a
village of equals. There was little, if any, sign of political or religious
leadership: no palaces, temples, or signs of differentiated status. Each house
was the same size, constructed by its occupants.

As at Catal Huyuk, there is some evidence at other early Neolithic sites
that women played an important role. At Banpo, a young female was buried
with more possessions than others. This may be a sign that the society was
matrilineal, that is, that inheritance was figured from mother to daughter.
Matrilineal inheritance was common in Native American Neolithic societies
and among some of the first Neolithic settlers in Europe, the Bandkeramik
people, where female graves are also more ornate than those of males. In
fact, the matri-lineal clan may have been common in early Neolithic
society. Excavations in Thailand at Khok Phanon Di (near modern
Bangkok) have revealed evidence of early rice cultivation about 4,000 years
ago along what was a shellfish-rich mangrove coast. Among many
unexceptional burials, archaeologists have excavated the body of a woman
elaborately clothed in a dress sewn with 120,000 beads whose arms were
covered with decorative shell bracelets. Because she is buried with a

treasure of pottery, archaeologists surmise that this “Princess” of Khok
Phanon Di was an expert potter who may have traded her pottery for shell
ornaments. More generally, the role of women in producing high-quality
pottery at Khok Phanon Di may have raised their status.

If early Neolithic society was frequently matrilineal, it may have been
related to women’s role in the domestication of agriculture. As the gatherers
of an earlier age, women were the first to cultivate plants. One can easily
imagine an early association between women’s capacity to produce life
from their own bodies and their skill or rapport with Mother Earth. The
worship of women’s fertility might have been a key ingredient of Neolithic
religion. Long after Catal Huyuk had been abandoned, farming
communities worshipped goddesses of the earth, harvest, field, or hunt. One
archaeologist, Marija Gimbutas, has reported excavating thousands of
figurines that suggest the continuation of a worship of the mother goddess
in southern Europe until about 4,000 years ago. Many later cultures
captured in written myths and stories what must have been living legend in
the early age of agriculture. The Sumerian goddess Inanna descends to the
underworld, and the crops and animals die; she returns, and all life is
reborn. The Greek goddess of the harvest, Demeter, allows the earth to turn
green during the six months that her daughter Persephone is allowed to visit
from the underworld. Later folk myths continued the identification of
women and the fertility of the earth: women should plant corn because they
know how to produce children, the sterile wife is injurious to a garden, seed
grows best when planted by a pregnant woman, and only bare-breasted
women should harvest the crops.29 Until quite recently, it was common
practice to throw rice at a bride to ensure her fertility.

Ibo Culture. In some places, Neolithic culture ended with the rise of
cities 5,000 years ago. New urban ways replaced the culture of the village.
But in most parts of the world, Neolithic culture continued or changed more
gradually. The modern African novelist Chi-nua Achebe re-creates the
Neolithic culture of his Ibo people in a series of novels set in West Africa at
the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. In
Things Fall Apart, a story of the destruction of traditional Ibo culture by
European missionaries and colonialists, as well as other historical novels,
Achebe recalls a world of family-centered rural Africa in which individual
households are relatively equal and individuals are distinguished by merit
and ability rather than birth. Ibo men compete not for money, which barely

exists, but for titles that recognize their good works or feats of strength.
Some have more yams than others, some are more ambitious than others,
but everyone is taken care of by family, clan, and village. In proverbial Ibo
wisdom, individuals must remember their roots: “However tall a coconut
tree, it originated in the ground.”30 And no one is entirely selfsufficient: “A
bird with a very long beak does not peck out what is on its head.”31

At the beginning of the previous century, Ibo culture was also one in
which both men and women had important sources of power and status.
Both had personal spiritual guides, called chi, which they challenged only at
their peril. There was an earth goddess, Ani, who was the source of fertility,
provider of the harvest, and arbiter of morality. There were other gods and
goddesses, natural and ancestral, mediated through priests and priestesses,
but in an agricultural society, the earth goddess was the most important in
people’s lives. Her power did not necessarily translate into female
domination, however. Ani was interpreted through her priest.

In certain respects, Ibo culture favored men over women. Men but not
women were allowed to have more than one spouse. Men were the heads of
the household. A male-centered culture encouraged men to discipline
women and demeaned weaker males by calling them women.

Was Ibo society more male-centered than early Neolithic societies like
Catal Huyuk? Did inequality increase? How did Neolithic societies change?
In some cases, of course, they became larger. Population pressure could
lead to increased density in a single village like Catal Huyuk. Alternately, a
growing population could send members away to settle new colonies. On a
large scale, this is how Austronesian and Polynesian society colonized the
Pacific. Population size affected government. Small villages often governed
themselves. Typically, a group of elders would decide what was best for the
village. From all indications, Catal Huyuk managed such self-government
by elders despite its size. The slice of Ibo culture that Achebe re-creates in
Things Fall Apart consists of nine villages. In this case, some decisions
were made by the elders of the village and some by the larger clan or tribe
that embraces all nine villages.

Not all societies become larger and larger. Some were able to reach a
balance and remain the same size for generations. But when some Neolithic
societies expanded beyond the size of self-governing villages, they often
developed a more complex system of government. Some anthropologists
call this a transition from a tribal structure to a chiefdom. Such a transition

may have occurred for the first time in the Middle East as early as 7,500
years ago and in the Americas about 3,000 years ago. One example of an
American chiefdom was the Taino people of the Caribbean at the time of
the arrival of Columbus, 500 years ago.

The Taino. The Taino inhabited the Bahamas and the Caribbean, north of
Guadeloupe, in 1492. The island of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican
Republic today) may have had as many as 500,000 inhabitants. Cuba,
Puerto Rico, and Jamaica each had a population of a few hundred thousand.
The Taino lived in villages of 100 to a few thousand in round wood and
thatch dwellings around a plaza. In a slightly larger building on the plaza
lived the cacique, or chief. A group of villages were ruled by a district
chief, one of whom, the regional chief, was in charge of all districts. This
hierarchical organization was reflected even on the small scale of the
village, which distinguished between upper- and lower-class people.

Taino society was also more specialized than Catal Huyuk or later Ibo
society. There were Tainos experienced in such crafts as woodworking,
pottery, cotton weaving, and hammering gold nuggets into jewelry (but not
smelting). There were Tainos who made the hammocks in which most
people slept, the baskets that hung from every wall, the elaborate wooden
stools on which the chief sat, and the individual and grand chiefly canoes
that provided transportation.32 Yet none of these were full-time specialists.

The basic work of Taino society, like less complex Neolithic societies,
was agriculture. And the basic implements of agriculture were still the
digging stick and the hoe. But Taino agriculture was more sophisticated
than that of early Neolithic farmers. Those who lived in lush environments
like the Taino often used a method of clearing land called swidden, or
“slash and burn.” By this method, they cleared land by cutting trees so that
they would die and dry out. Then they burned off the dry biomass for ash
that would provide nutrients for three or four plantings before becoming
exhausted, but at that point they would have to move on to slash and burn
another area of forest. The Taino developed a more sustainable agriculture
with a unique method of irrigating and draining their crops. They
constructed mounds of soil called canuco in which they planted their
mainly root crops—yuca (manioc or cassava) and sweet potatoes. These
mounds were self-irrigating and needed little weeding or care. Yuca and
potatoes added carbohydrates to a rich protein diet that included fish, small
animals, and beans.

Did the complexity of Taino society make it necessary to have a more
hierarchical political structure? Or did the caciques and nobles create a
more complex society for their own benefit? Two aspects of Taino culture
may help answer that question: religion and sports.

Taino religion, like other Neolithic religions, had elements of ancestor
and nature worship. Every individual had a special relationship to an
ancestral deity called a zemi. While each Ibo had one chi, the Taino had
many zemis; the term was applied to objects that contained the spiritual
force of the ancestor as well as the ancestor. These objects—made of wood,
bone, shell, pottery, or cotton cloth—were kept in special places in a Taino
home. In this respect, they may have functioned much like the skulls,
masks, figurines, and sculpture of ancient Catal Huyuk. But unlike Catal
Huyuk and Ibo society, each Taino village also had a chief. And each chief
had zemis in his home or in specially built temples that required the worship
of the entire village. Once a year, the villagers would gather to pay homage
to the chief’s zemi. Women brought cassava bread as a gift. A priest would
make sacrifices, and all would sing the praises of the zemis and feast and
dance. Clearly, the centerpiece of Taino religion was the chief’s zemi. The
sacred ground was the plaza in front of the chief’s house, where all rituals
and festivals were carried out under the watchful eye of the most important

As the religion of the Taino chiefdom was both more centralized and
more widespread than that of less complex societies, so was its leisure. The
bounty of the natural environment, combined with canuco agriculture, gave
the Taino a considerable amount of free time. One activity that filled that
time was a kind of ball game that was played throughout the Americas. The
ancestors of the Taino had brought the rubber ball from the Amazon. On the
Taino court, two sides of about 10 players each tried to keep the ball in the
air without using their hands or feet. Ball courts were located not only in
villages but also at the border between villages. In Puerto Rico, the most
elaborate ball courts have been found on what were the borders between
chiefdoms, suggesting that they may have played a role in diplomacy or the
settlement of disputes. In the Caribbean, the outcome of the ball game was
benign, but in the more complex states of Central America at the same time,
the losers (or sometimes winners) would forfeit their lives. Did shared
competition and shared religious observance bring unity and commonality
to a society spread out over hundreds or thousands of villages? Or did the

controller of the game and the owner of the zemi use sport and religion to
magnify and centralize power?

The changing role of women offers a clue. Tainos worshipped two
supreme deities: a male god of cassava and the sea and his mother, the
goddess of freshwater and human fertility. But in practice, it was the chief
and his zemi who commanded obedience. Theoretically, women could be
chiefs, but few were. Taino society was matrilineal; even the chief inherited
the position through his mother’s line. Nevertheless, at least by the end of
the fifteenth century, male Taino chiefs and nobility seem to have garnered
considerable power and privilege for their sex as well as their class. They
commonly took a number of wives, and when a chief died, one or two of
the wives might be buried with him. That was a hallmark of patriarchy that
was to become more common in post-Neolithic kingdoms and imperial

Neolithic Continuity and Change

In comparison with foraging societies, agricultural societies were larger,
denser, and more complex. Neolithic life was settled life. Dozens of related
families or clans lived in villages, and almost everyone tilled the soil or
cared for animals. Neolithic villagers made and used far more tools,
containers, clothing, and other objects than hunter-gatherers. They invented
not only farming but also pottery, fermenting, and storage. Like their
Paleolithic predecessors, Neolithic farmers were relatively equalitarian: no
individual, group, or sex dominated. Women’s work, although different
from men’s, was invaluable, and their deities were indispensable. Fear of
famine or disaster mitigated greed, arrogance, and self-indulgence. Security
lay in numbers and mutual aid.

In these respects, most agricultural societies were similar. But Neolithic
societies also changed over the course of the past 10,000 years. From the
time of ancient Jericho, agricultural societies evolved from family-centered
villages to larger chiefdoms, in the process eroding early traditions of
equality, goddess worship, and matrilineal descent. This process was
gradual in some places, swift in others. Signs of inequality appeared in
ancient Catal Huyuk, yet habits of mutual aid continued down to the
present. But despite their many differences, Neolithic societies shared a lot

of common ground. Unlike later cities and state societies, virtually all
villages managed without money, writing, occupational specialization, or
social classes but relied on a common fund of tradition and experience.

Changes in a Mexican Valley. Archaeologists have recently excavated the
site of one of the earliest state societies in the Americas, the Zapotec state
of Oaxaca in a valley of central Mexico.33 By digging beneath the elaborate
remains of the state society, they have been able to reconstruct some of the
changes that occurred in the Oaxaca valley since about 7000 BCE, when it
was occupied by foragers. At the lowest excavated level, they found a ritual
earthen field surrounded by stones, dating from 6500 BCE. Here they
believe that hunters and gatherers gathered at special times of the year for
initiations and courtship. Like foragers today, they probably joined together
in ritual dances to celebrate these meetings.

Around 1500 BCE, the people of the Oaxaca valley domesticated corn
and began living in permanent settlements. The first villages were probably
communities of equals like the equalitarian bands of hunters and gatherers.
At a slightly later stage, there appeared men’s houses apart from community
field of dance, suggesting the development of a special religious or political
role for leading males.

By 1150 BCE, the Neolithic villages show signs of social inequality and
the emergence of elites who lived in large houses, wore jade, and stretched
the skulls of their children as a mark of their status. The men’s houses were
now large temples, destroyed and rebuilt every 52 years to conform to the
calculations of two calendar systems of 260 and 365 day-years, which came
together every 52 years. A world in which the natural rhythms of gathering
and planting could be marked by the entire community had become a
hierarchical chiefdom with secret knowledge preserved by privileged

Around 500 BCE, the Zapotecs wielded the chiefdoms of the Oaxaca
valley into a military state centered on the crown of Monte Alban. There
they constructed large pyramids around a central ceremonial plaza, where
priests lived apart from the people, administering the rule of a king with
religious rituals sanctioned by celestial calendars and the force of arms.

The history of Oaxaca from foraging to Neolithic villages to chiefdoms
to state summarizes the history of much of the world over the course of the
past 10,000 years. In the following chapters, we survey that pattern, its
varieties, and its exceptions.

The history of 99 percent of the past 14 billion years is hard to summarize.
From the vantage point of seconds before midnight, however, certain
conclusions leap out at us. Two are as obvious as they are contradictory:

humans have taken over the world, and human history is a flash in the pan.
Each of these truths reflects a different time line. From the perspective of
the past 10,000 years, even perhaps the past 100,000 years, the emergence,
expansion, and increase of the human population is staggering. Its capacity
for invention and adaptation marks the human animal as far and away the
most successful of its age. And yet that age is only seconds on the solar
calendar. Further, the fossil remains on which we walk so proudly are
reminders of numerous species that thrived far longer than our brief
100,000 years, only to evaporate in a cosmic accident or fall prey to a new

Are human chances any better than the dinosaurs’? Certainly, our tool kit
is infinitely more subtle and diverse. But the tools that might intercept and
destroy a small to middling meteor or even provide food for a population
under an ashen sky are not unlike the tools used to kill other humans or
those that extract ever-greater leverage from the mantle of nature that gives
us life. The exploitation of nature did not begin with agriculture. In some
ways, farmers were more attentive to nature’s ways and needs than hunters
and gatherers. But more than any other species, humans have sought and
found ways of reaching nature’s limits and surmounting its obstacles. There
is both enormous hope and vulnerability in that achievement.

Suggested Readings
Christian, David. Maps of Time. Berkeley: University of California Press,

2004. A “Big History” by the founder of the movement; full of charts
and insights about the first 14 billion years.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.
New York: Norton, 1997. Award-winning best-seller offers a long-view
answer to the question of why some countries became rich and others

Fagan, Brian. World Prehistory: A Brief Introduction. 8th ed. Englewood
Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2010. A well-written short text by a master of
the subject.

McNeill, J. R., and William H. McNeill. The Human Web: A Bird’s Eye
View of World History. New York: Norton, 2002. All of world history in

brief volume by two masters—the modern dean of the subject and his

Peregrine, Peter N. World Prehistory: Two Million Years of Human Life
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003. Well-written and well-
illustrated college-level text.

Ristvet, Lauren. In the Beginning: World History from Human Evolution to
the First States. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007. The story of this and
the next chapter told engagingly and authoritatively.

1. For a full “Big History,” see David Christian, Maps of Time (Berkeley:

University of California Press, 2004).
2. Kenneth Chang, “Meteor Seen as Causing Extinctions on Earth,” New

York Times, November 21, 2003, A28.
3. On North America here and later in this section, I am indebted to Tim

Flannery’s The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America
and Its Peoples (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001), a fascinating
and highly readable account of North American prehistory. Recently, some
scientists have argued that such collisions may have occurred far more often
than previously thought: possibly every few thousand years rather than
500,000 to a million years. See Sandra Blakeslee, “Ancient Crash, Epic
Wave,” New York Times, November 14, 2006, F1.

4. See Jamie Shreeve, “The Evolutionary Road,” National Geographic,
July 2010, 35–67.

5. Nicholas Wade, “Signs of Neanderthals Mating with Humans,” New
York Times, May 7, 2010, A10.

6. John Noble Wilford, “Bones in China Put New Light on Old Humans,”
New York Times, November 16, 1995, A8.

7. New DNA evidence has established that the crossing could not have
been made more than 18,000 years ago, not, as previously thought, 30,000
years ago. Nicholas Wade and John Noble Wilford, “New World Ancestors
Lose 12,000 Years,” New York Times, July 25, 2003, A19.

8. The thesis of University of Arizona paleontologist Paul S. Martin—
that it was mankind, not a change in climate, that caused the great

extinctions at the end of the Pleistocene—might be modified slightly to
emphasize the role of the post–13,000 BCE wave of “Clovis” or stone
projectile point–wielding humans.

9. See Sally McBrearty and Allison Brooks, Human Evolution,
November 2000. The entire issue of the journal is devoted to their thesis.

10. Hillary Mayell, “Oldest Jewelry? ‘Beads’ Discovered in African
Cave,” National Geographic News, April 15, 2004.

11. Mark Stoneking and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for
Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. See, for instance, John
Travis, “The Naked Truth? Lice Hint at a Recent Origin of Clothing,”
Science News 164, August 23, 2003, 118.

12. Nicholas Wade, “Adventures in Recent Evolution,” New York Times,
July 20, 2010, D1.

13. Milford Wolpoff and Rachel Caspari, Race and Human Evolution
(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997).

14. Nicholas Wade, “DNA Study Yields Clues on First Migration of
Early Humans,” New York Times, May 13, 2005, A8.

15. Nicholas Wade, “New DNA Test Is Yielding Clues to Neanderthals,”
New York Times, November 16, 2006, F1.

16. Called the “Movius line” after the anthropologist Hallam Movius,
who suggested it in 1944.

17. Mary C. Stiner, Natalie D. Munro, Todd A. Surovell, Eitan Tchernov,
and Ofer Bar-Yosef, “Paleolithic Population Growth Pulses Evidenced by
Small Animal Exploitation,” Science, January 8, 1999, 190—94.

18. C. Schrire, ed., Past and Present in Hunter-Gatherer Studies
(London: Academic Press, 1984).

19. Carl L. Hoffman, The Punan: Hunters and Gatherers of Borneo (Ann
Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1986).

20. Kathleen Gough, “The Origin of the Family,” Journal of Marriage
and the Family 33 (November 1971): 760–71. Reprinted in Toward an
Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter (New York: Monthly Review
Press, 1975), 69–70.

21. Larry Rohter, “Brazil Moves to Protect Jungle Plants from Foreign
Biopiracy,” New York Times, December 23, 2001, A4.

22. Kyle Jarrard, “On the Origins of the Dentist (with a Stone-Age
Drill),” New York Times, April 7, 2006, A15.

23. Scientists refer to this period as the Younger Dryas, or Big Freeze,
and date it from 10,800 to 9,500 BCE.

24. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human
Societies (New York: Norton, 1997), 132.

25. Steve LeVine, “The Eden of Apples Is in Kazakhstan: It May Be a
Godsend,” Wall Street Journal, July 3, 2003, 1.

26. Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel.
27. William Ryan and Walter Pittman, Noah’s Flood (New York: Simon

and Schuster, 1999).
28. The excavations at Catal Huyuk can be followed on the website

maintained by the Cambridge University team under the direction of Ian
Hodder. It can be accessed at http://www.catalhoyuk.com.

29. Robert Briffault, The Mothers, abridged by C. R. Taylor (London:
Allen & Unwin, 1927, 1959), 363.

30. Chief Solomon Amadiume, Ilu Ndi Igbo: A Study of Igbo Proverbs,
vol. 1 (Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension Publishing, 1994), 3, #14.

31. Chief Solomon Amadiume, Ilu Ndi Igbo,4, #27.
32. The English words “tobacco,” “hurricane,” “barbecue,” “canoe,” and

“hammock” originate from the Taino words tobaco, huracan, barbacoa,
canoa, and hamac.

33. Nicholas Wade, “7,000 Years of Ritual Is Traced in Mexico,” New
York Times, December 21, 2004, F4.


The Brave New World

of City, State, and Pasture

The Urban Revolution
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The First Cities
Origin of Cities in Plow and Irrigation
The Brave New World: Squares and Crowds
Tall Buildings and Monumental Architecture
Social Classes and Inequality

Officials and Scribes
Slaves and Servants
Farmers and Workers

New Systems of Control
Fathers and Kings
Religion and Queens
Law and the State
Hammurabi’s Code

New Urban Classes in City-States and Territorial States
New Country People

Change and “Civilization”
The Bias of “Civilization”

Control and Change
Pasture and Empire

Nomads Put the Horse before the Cart
New Balance between City and Pasture
Nomads Conquer and Create Empires
States Regain Empires with Chariots

Empires and Collapse
Iron Age Eurasia

Iron versus Bronze
New Forms of Inclusiveness

Iron as Metaphor
The Invention of the Alphabet
“T” Is for Trade
Gods at War
The Rivers of Babylon

Citizenship and Salvation
The Cities of Babylon
The Persian Paradise

Imperial Size and Reach
Ships and Satrapies

The Legacy of Gilgamesh’s Wall
The Promise of Pharaoh’s Dream


The Urban Revolution: Causes and Consequences

The Epic of Gilgamesh
Come then, Enkidu, to ramparted Uruk,
Where fellows are resplendent in holiday clothing,
Where every day is set for celebration,
Where harps and drums are played.
And the harlots too, they are fairest of form,
Rich in beauty, full of delights,
Even the great gods are kept from sleeping at night.1

HE EPIC OF GILGAMESH, the world’s earliest surviving written
epic, tells the story of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, one of the world’s
first cities, built along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers 5,000 years

ago. According to the epic, King Gilgamesh, two-thirds god and one-third
human, built the great ramparted wall of Uruk, enclosing three and a half
square miles of the city and its gardens. But Gilgamesh was an overbearing
and arrogant king, and so the people of Uruk called on the gods to bring
them a strong man who might keep Gilgamesh in check. In answer to their
call, Aruru, the goddess who created the human race, created Enkidu, a wild
man who roamed the pasture like a gazelle. Before Enkidu could tame
Gilgamesh, he himself had to be tamed, a task carried out by Shamhat, the
harlot, who seduced Enkidu and invited him to Uruk with the words quoted

To the modern ear, there is much that is foreign in The Epic of
Gilgamesh: goddesses and sacred harlots, wild men who cavort in the fields
with the gazelles, and kings who are descended from gods. But there is also
much that is familiar—cities, walls, kings, holidays, fine clothing, and
nightlife (in the above passage alone).

The First Cities

The Urban Revolution. We recognize elements of our own world here
because The Epic of Gilgamesh stands at the beginning of a revolution that
has transformed us all. We call that transformation the urban revolution.
Some historians prefer to call it the beginning of complex societies, the
formation of state societies, or the rise of the first civilizations. Whichever
words we use, when we look at the Uruk of King Gilgamesh almost 5,000
years ago, we see the beginning of these developments: cities, states (or
organized territories with governments), and the whole range of activities
and institutions that are summarized as “complex societies” or
“civilizations” because they entered the world together.

Archaeologists of the Middle East first called the age of cities and states
the Bronze Age because people of the region had learned to smelt bronze
(copper and tin), which as weapons and tools replaced those of the stone
age, specifically the polished stone tools of the Neolithic period, or New
Stone Age. The Epic of Gilgamesh mentions the bronze work on Uruk’s
wall. Above all, the Epic speaks to us because it was written and we can

read it. Some historians call the period before cities the preliterate or
prehistoric age since there was no writing and therefore no written history
before the creation of cities 5,000 years ago.

First-City Firsts. The first cities changed the world in countless ways.
The number of firsts is staggering: defensive walls, writing, wheels, and
wars; kings, priests, soldiers, officials, and numerous specialized
occupations, crafts, arts, services, and manufactures; laws, literature,
philosophy, astronomy, calendars, and science; and money, markets,
merchants, metalworking, and monumental architecture. The first cities
were the first places where everyone did not have to find or produce food.
Cities introduced not only the division of labor but also social classes, the
first world of rich and poor, private property, patriarchy, debts, taxes,
treasures, treasuries, treaties, theater, temples, and (thank the city gods)

Origin of Cities in
Plow and Irrigation

How did cities come about? One answer is that agricultural societies were
able to feed larger populations, including increased numbers of people who
could spend their time in ways other than farming or raising animals.
Furthermore, agriculture became more productive as the use of animal-
drawn plows and irrigation took hold.

The first farmers used simple tools like digging sticks and hoes. They
planted seeds or placed roots in the soil in garden plots without turning over
the soil. Some prepared the soil with a technique called swidden, or slash
and burn. They would slash away a band of bark from large trees, thus
killing them; cut down the rest of the underbrush; and then burn it all off,
producing a rich ash that fertilized the soil. Whether or not the soil was
prepared with fire, this garden agriculture, sometimes called horticulture,
required little more than cursory attention, occasional weeding, and some
intensive labor at harvest time. Consequently, plots and populations
remained small. People produced only what they needed, and very few
people worked as nonfarming specialists. Horticulture was normally the
work of women in family units that numbered a few to a few hundred in

villages. While women gardened, men were often involved in the
domestication and care of animals.

Middle East. In the Middle East, or Southwest Asia, the initial urban
revolution was the marriage of village and pasture, the joining of women’s
gardens and men’s animals, the bonding of Enkidu and Gilgamesh.
Certainly, the use of animal-drawn plows to till large fields made
agriculture much more productive. Oxen-drawn plows dug furrows into the
soil for deeper planting over extensive areas for the first time about 5,600
years ago in the Middle East. A thousand years later, European farmers
used oxen and plows to dig into the hard soils of northern Europe. But cities
appeared in the Americas without plow or draft animals and in other parts
of the world, especially in river valleys, where agriculture was intensified as
much by irrigation.

Agriculture did not originate along rivers, but cities did. River agriculture
in the Middle East, Egypt, China, and Southeast Asia was much more
productive than the earlier oasis gardens of places like Jericho or the rain-
watered hillsides and plains of places like Catal Huyuk. The farmers of the
Euphrates could multiply the amount of food produced along the river
banks with irrigation dikes channeling silt and flood waters precisely where
it was needed. In addition, irrigation systems required constant attention,
virtually demanding the concentrated labor, common purpose, and
community decision making that distinguished cities from other farming
communities. Irrigation systems did not just provide the greater numbers for
city life—they were city life. This was especially true of the first cities
along the Euphrates, cities like Ur and Uruk, each a state unto itself with its
own gods, temples, laws, and identity.

East Asia. Great river irrigation systems also nourished the growth of
cities in India, China, and Southeast Asia. The first cities of India grew
from villages on the Indus River that runs through modern Pakistan.
Chinese cities first sprouted along the northern Yellow River, where farmers
grew millet, and later along the Yangtze River, farther south, where farmers
cultivated rice. The earliest cities of Southeast Asia were similarly made
possible by the irrigated rice paddies of the great deltas and marshlands of
the Red River in northern Vietnam, the Mekong River in southern Vietnam
and Cambodia, and the Chao Praya River of Thailand.

Americas. In the Americas, irrigated agriculture supported city
populations on the large central plateau of Mexico, the Mayan areas of

Mexico and Guatemala, on terraced mountainsides in the Andes, and along
rivers on the Peruvian coast. The Mexica, or Aztecs, who settled on an
island in the more-than-mile-high Lake Texcoco of central Mexico created a
highly intensive agriculture by building stationery floating islands of fertile
mud for planting. Modern tourists can still visit a few remaining cultivated
chinampas at Xochimilco near modern Mexico City. Farmers tend their
crops in canoes, paddling by raised strips of corn and other plants that seem
to rise from the lake. In Aztec times, before the Spanish conquest in 1519,
these strips of mud, constantly replenished and fertilized with human waste,
supported four crops a year and a very high population density.

The Mayans, who lived in the tropical rain forests of southern Mexico
and Guatemala, also used chinampas and irrigated fields. Combined with
Taino-like terracing and slash-and-burn farming in forest areas, Mayan
agriculture was as productive as that of the Mexica; each supported more
than double the population density of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

In South America, the development of cities in the Andes relied on both
irrigation and terraces. Irrigation ditches trapped the sparse runoff of
rainwater that cascaded down the desert-dry western cliffs of the Andes to
the Pacific coast. The resulting irrigated coastal farms supplemented the
dense fishing villages spawned by the rich anchovy fisheries of the Pacific
coast south of the equator. In addition to subsistence crops, the irrigated
fields of the lowland towns and cities grew the cotton used to fashion the
fish nets used to catch anchovies.

High in the Andes, farmers built terraces to harvest the numerous
varieties of potatoes that grew in the mountains. The Andes was the one
area in the Americas that had domesticated large animals, but neither the
llama nor the alpaca ever pulled a plow. Instead, Inca men pushed a foot
plow along terraces while, behind them, their wives dropped seeds and
potato cuttings into the ground.

Along the South American rivers that cascaded into the Pacific Ocean,
cities appeared as early as in South Asia—beginning about 3100 BCE,
according to recent excavations.2 Without bronze or even pottery, dozens of
cites of 25 to over 250 acres dotted the Peruvian coast by 2600 BCE.

The Brave New World:
Squares and Crowds

From a telescope on the moon, the effects of plow and irrigation agriculture
would have seemed similar. Since oxen plowed long straight furrows, the
dry and rain-watered agricultural lands would have appeared from a great
distance as an expanding patchwork of rectangular fields, green or brown,
depending on the season. Terraces would also appear as parallel lines
running horizontally up the side of mountains. Irrigated fields, marshes, and
deltas would look very much like plowed fields that were more often blue
than green. The overall impression would be of a world in which square
shapes were increasingly replacing circular ones. This was especially the
case near the expanding red/brown patches that had grown near each
checkerboard of greens and blues. In fact, a very sharp telescope would
have shown that those urban patches were growing very quickly. By 2500
BCE, about 80 percent of the people along the southern Euphrates lived in
cities of at least 100 acres. To take one example, the city of Shuruppak
(modern Fara), which did not exist in 3000 BCE, covered 250 acres by
2500 BCE, and the city wall enclosed 15,000 to 30,000 inhabitants.

The view from inside these new urban checkerboards was uniformly
different from that of earlier villages. Not only had rectangular houses
replaced round ones, but these new boxes, stacked side by side and soon on
top of each other, marked off rectangular neighborhoods and straight streets
instead of open fields and winding lanes.

China during the Shang dynasty (1766-1050 BCE) reflected the new
checkerboard world. Fields were divided into nine squares so that peasants
would receive the proceeds of eight, and the ninth would go to the lord.
Shang city houses were rectangular, laid out on grid plans with palace
grounds in the center. Each of seven palace cities duplicated the layout of
the capital city. The tastes of emperors ran from the uniform large to the
uniform extra large.

The great rivers like the Euphrates and Indus might meander or change
their courses, but the cities that relied on their bounty were constructed
along the straight and narrow. Even the probably more peaceful Indus cities
of Harappa and Mohenjodaro (2500-1500 BCE)3 follow the grid layout of
military camps.

Tall Buildings and
Monumental Architecture

Even more noticeable to a visiting villager was the size and variety of
buildings. Although ordinary workers lived in rows of small buildings that
were no larger or more comfortable than village huts, there were also large
buildings, 4 to 10 times the size of workers’ homes, enclosed in high walls,
barely accessible from the street, but open to large interior courtyards. And,
more striking, there were palaces and temples: monumental buildings that
no village could afford.

How could cities afford palaces, monuments, and large houses for some?
By taxing the villages, the farmers, and the urban poor. Kings like
Gilgamesh, noble friends like Enkidu, and the other “fellows . . .
resplendent in holiday clothing” could afford to have “harps and drums
played, and the harlots too” because of the new intensive agriculture. The
king and the members of other wealthy and powerful families in the city
taxed the farm and pasture a percentage of their produce so that they and
those who supported them could eat without soiling their hands in the dirt.

Social Classes and Inequality

Everywhere cities first sprang up, they grew only a small portion of the
food they consumed and used their power to fleece their country cousins.
The first city societies were class societies, and nowhere were the class
differences greater than inside the city itself. The city pyramid was topped
by kings, often kings like Gilgamesh who claimed some share of divinity.
In Egypt, the pharaohs were literally gods and their pyramids their eternal
resting homes. Just beneath the king were noble families, people related to
the king or members of families who had previously been headed by kings.
The early cities of Peru display similar signs of hierarchy: huge pyramids
and broad ceremonial plazas.

Officials and Scribes. Beneath the rulers was history’s first middle class:
a wide range of officials, priests, administrators, artists, and artisans who
served the king, his court, and the nobility. To be a scribe, a writer, opened
the world of officialdom, a middle-class paradise compared to the prospect
of working with one’s hands. In ancient Egypt more than 4,000 years ago,
students were advised,

Put writing in your heart that you may protect yourself from hard labor of any kind and be a
magistrate of high repute. The scribe is released from manual tasks; it is he who commands . . .

I have seen the metal-worker at his task at the mouth of his furnace, with fingers like a
crocodile’s. He stank worse than fish-spawn. . . . The stonemason finds his work in every kind
of hard stone. When he has finished his labors his arms are worn out, and he sleeps all doubled
up until sunrise. His knees and spine are broken. . . . The barber shaves from morning till
night, he never sits down except to meals. He hurries from house to house looking for
business. He wears out his arms to fill his stomach, like bees eating their own honey. . . . The
farmer wears the same clothes for all times. His voice is as raucous as a crow’s. His fingers are
always busy; his arms are dried up by the wind. He takes his rest—when he gets any—in the
mud. . . .

Apply your heart to learning. In truth there is nothing that can compare with it. If you have
profited by a single day at school it is a gain for eternity.4

Slaves and Servants. At the bottom of the city class system were slaves.
In the beginning, slavery was not as pervasive as it later became, but
slavery existed in virtually all ancient city societies. In Egypt, as in many
other ancient societies, most slaves were war captives who were employed
as domestic servants. Some were owned by wealthy families and others by
the state, such as the women who were loaned to working families at tomb-
building sites, for example, to grind the workmen’s grain into flour.

Slaves were not the only underclass. Slightly above them in the social
hierarchy was a wide range of servants. A pyramid-building site would
require servants who were water carriers, woodcutters, fishermen,
gardeners, and washermen.

Farmers and Workers. Most of the heavy lifting on public projects like
Egyptian pyramids was done not by slaves or servants but by peasant
farmers who owed a certain number of labor days in the off season. But
they were hardly alone. All the classes of Egyptian society were marshaled
to build the great pyramids along the lower Nile by the pharaohs of 4,700 to
4,500 years ago (2700-2500 BCE). Such projects required architects,
scribes, stonemasons, carpenters, sculptors, and artists. Each new royal
tomb involved the construction of an entire city of suppliers, bakers,
physicians, ration providers, guards, and officials just for the period of

New Systems of Control

Why did villagers who lived in general equality accept the inequality of
cities? The loss of equality was probably a gradual process. In the previous
chapter, we noticed how villages turned into tribal societies and then

chiefdoms as they became more complex. City societies were merely the
next step in complexity and concentration of power. City societies created
new institutions that led people to accept inequality as natural.

Fathers and Kings. One of these was an increased emphasis on the
father’s command of the family. Having already seized control of the
agricultural surplus through plow and irrigation agriculture, men
concentrated property in their own hands and sought to pass it on to their
sons. In the cramped quarters of cities, men were eager to ensure that sons
were their own, so they restricted their wives to the interior of the houses or
demanded that they cover themselves outdoors. In the cities of the Middle
East, women wore veils and covered their hair thousands of years before the
Arabs brought Islam in the seventh century CE. Thus, the man’s control of
wife, children, and family modeled the king’s control of city society. The
words for father and king were interchangeable, and both meant power.
Even religion changed to support men’s claim. In the age of cities, sky
fathers and sun gods replaced Earth Mothers and fertility goddesses, even
those who had presided over planting, harvesting, and giving birth. One
Egyptian myth even imagined the god Atum creating the world from his
own body through masturbation.

Religion and Queens. Goddesses did not disappear in the early cities, but
they did become subordinate to gods. Not all women lost power and
influence in patriarchal states. With kings came queens, women whose
privileged lives were another sign of one man’s power. One of the earliest
and most successful archaeological discoveries of ancient Mesopotamia
was Leonard Woolley’s discovery of the royal tombs of Ur in the 1920s. In
one of these tombs, Woolley found the tomb of Queen Puabi (ca. 2600
BCE), buried with a crown of golden leaves, silver bracelets, and hundreds
of strings of precious stone beads—deep blue lapis lazuli from central Asia
and bright red carnelian from western India. In addition, the queen was
buried with golden sculptured gifts for the gods and a harp-sized lyre,
decorated in gold and precious stones.

In death, Queen Puabi exerted wide dominion. To accompany her on her
voyage to the netherworld, Queen Puabi was joined by more than 70 guards
and attendants, including 12 young women dressed like the queen in beaded
cloaks and golden diadems. One can only wonder what these young women
understood about their service to Puabi. Did they realize that they were to
be buried alive with their queen’s corpse? If so, did their feelings about
royal service or religious duty comfort them?

Human sacrifice became a city ruler’s prerogative, not only in
Mesopotamia and Egypt. In China, too, the graves of Shang dynasty
emperors reveal hundreds of attendants sent to accompany the king on his
journey to heaven. In this regard and many others, India stands out as an
exception. Excavations of Harappa, Mohenjodaro, and other cities along the
Indus show no sign of human sacrifice in elite burials.

Law and the State. Neither kings nor queens, neither fathers nor gods,
could ensure inequality without the other major innovations of city society:
the law and the state. Unlike tribal chiefs, the first kings did not justify their

power in arbitrary or personal terms. That is one of the lessons the people of
ancient Mesopotamia read into The Epic of Gilgamesh. The Epic begins
with King Gilgamesh terrorizing the people of Uruk, leaving no son or
daughter safe from his lust. The plea of the nobles asking the goddess Aruru
to counter Gilgamesh symbolized the beginnings of a state—the formation
of a government more permanent and less arbitrary than the whim of a
tribal chieftain. States were administered by officials and ruled by law.

Law promised predictability, a limit to vengeance, and a certain standard
of fairness. But that did not mean village equality. In a class society, the
ministers and scribes of kings wrote laws that protected the wealthy and
powerful while still claiming the loyalty of lower-class commoners.

Hammurabi’s Code. One of the earliest law codes, the Mesopotamian
code of Hammurabi of Babylon, about 1750 BCE, balanced these two goals
adroitly. The class bias of the code is obvious in the law on assault. The
penalty for knocking out an eye of a noble was to have your own eye
knocked out, no matter who you were. This, of course, was the origin of “an
eye for an eye” as a legal principle, but it protected only the eyes of the
upper class. If the eye of a common person was knocked out, the penalty
was a small fine. The same Hammurabi’s code, however, laid claim to
protecting the common people with another set of laws on theft. A noble
person who commits a theft must repay 30 times the cost of the stolen
property; a common thief need pay only 10 times the cost. The principle
here may be that the upper classes had a greater stake in the rule of law and
a greater responsibility to society. But before we make too much of this
charitable finger on the scales of justice, we should add the last part of the
law: “if the thief cannot pay, he shall be put to death.” Clearly, the state
cared for some lower classes more than others.

In general, states achieved legitimacy with only the grudging support of
the class of ordinary farmers by winning the more energetic approval of the
nobility and middle class. The kind of middle class varied, however,
depending on the nature of the state.

New Urban Classes in City-States
and Territorial States

The urban revolution actually created two kinds of states 5,000 years ago,
and in many ways these two varieties have persisted down to the present
day. One type, known as the city-state, consisted of the city, sometimes
suburbs or a subordinate city, and the farm and pasture that were necessary
to support the urban population. Uruk was one of these, as were the other
first cities in the Tigris and Euphrates valley. City-states also sprung up
along the Indus River in India and in Mexico though a bit later. The earliest
city in central Mexico, Monte Alban, originated about 1000 BCE, but by
about 300 BCE it reached the same population, 25,000 people, as Uruk had
about 3000 BCE.

The other type of state, called the territorial state, was much larger in area
and less urban. Cities mattered less, or there were fewer of them. Egypt was
a territorial state. Its spine was the Nile River, dotted with villages and
urban settlements, but it stretched into the desert on either side as far as the
eye could see. The capital city of Egypt was the location of the pharaoh’s
court: Memphis near modern Cairo during the Old Kingdom in the third
millennium BCE and Thebes, upriver near modern Luxor, during the New
Kingdom after 1550 BCE. But the vast remains of the pharaoh Akhenaton’s
city of the middle 1300s BCE on a previously undeveloped location
midway between the two earlier capitals shows how easy it was for a
determined king to pick up everything and move when it suited his purpose.
The Gilgamesh poet’s pride in Uruk would have sounded strange to
Egyptians, who felt no particular pride in any city. What mattered to each
pharaoh was the design and construction of his final resting place, usually
on the west bank, or sunset side, of the Nile. What mattered to the pharaoh’s
court was the location of the pharaoh. And what mattered to the more than
80 percent of Egyptians who were peasant farmers were their meager fields
and ancestral villages.

Merchants. Markets were also more important in city-states than in
territorial states. In large territorial states like Egypt, kings commanded and
taxed all they needed. In the city-states of Mexico, farmers and merchants
brought their products to market.

The Aztec city of the Mexica was a successor to many city-states that
flourished in the valley of Mexico in the centuries before the Spanish
conquest of 1519 CE. One of the Spanish conquistadors, Bernal Diaz, wrote
of its great market:

We were astounded at the great number of people and the quantities of merchandise. . . .
Let us begin with the dealers in gold, silver, precious stones, feathers, cloaks, embroidered

goods, and male and female slaves who were sold there. . . . Next there were those who sold
coarser cloth, and cotton goods, and fabrics made of twisted thread, and there were chocolate
merchants with their chocolate . . .

There were sellers of kidney beans and sage and other vegetables and herbs . . . and in
another place they were selling fowls, birds, turkeys, rabbits, ducks, dogs, and other creatures.
Then there were the fruiterers and the woman who sold cooked food, flour, and honey cake,
and tripe. Then came pottery of all kinds, large and small. . . . Elsewhere they sold timber too,
boards, cradles, beams, blocks, and benches, all in a quarter of its own. But why waste so
many words on the goods in their great market? If I describe everything in detail I shall never
be done. Paper, which in Mexico they call amal, and some reeds that smell of liquid amber,
and are full of tobacco, and yellow ointments, and much cochineal [insects for red dye]. . . . I
am forgetting the sellers of salt and the makers of flint knives . . . and the fisher-woman, and
the men who sell small cakes made from a sort of weed that they get out of the great lake,
which curdles and forms a kind of bread which tastes rather like cheese. They sell axes too,
made of bronze and copper and tin; and gourds; and brightly painted wooden jars.5

Mayan society was also made up of various independent city-states,
linked by markets in which the long-distance trade of obsidian was
particularly important. Nevertheless, the importance of markets in city-
states did not translate into the importance of merchants, who were only one
group among many.

Priests. In the city-states of both Mesopotamia and Middle America,
religious temples presided over central squares, and priests were more
influential than merchants. In both areas, priests administered irrigation and
the rhythms of agriculture. Priests were the interpreters of the calendar, the
celebrants of religious rites. Even kings who claimed divinity relied on their
priests. All Bronze Age states were theocracies: they did not distinguish
between religious and secular matters. Religions were local, and the deities
were very much involved in life within the city walls. Recall Ahruru. Local
deities were able to control larger natural forces: the winds, rain, sky, sun,
and underworld. The Epic of Gilgamesh contains an early version of the
biblical flood story, but the great flood in the epic occurs because the people
are too noisy and the gods cannot sleep.

The well-being of the people, nature, and the gods were intimately bound
together. Kings were descended from the gods or became gods. Gods often
acted like people, displayed human emotions, or had relations with people.
They had to be placated, appeased, or offered sacrifices. At times, the gods
seemed to need the people as much as the people needed the gods. One

ancient Mesopotamian poem has a slave advise his master to “teach the god
to run after you like a dog” by withholding sacrifices.6

Numerous city societies offered human sacrifices to ensure the health and
vitality of the god and natural forces. In Mexico, the Aztecs and the Mayans
offered flesh to the sky and blood to the earth to ensure the continuance of
the rains and fertility. Priests and rulers led their people in rituals of
bloodletting from various parts of their bodies as offerings to the gods. The
Aztec sun god, Huitzilopoctli, required regular human sacrifices just to
ensure that the sun rose each day. Consequently, the Aztecs conquered the
cities of central Mexico, making some of them allies while turning others
into permanent enemies and suppliers of captive soldiers for sacrifice.

The sacrifice of palace attendants in the tombs of kings was a frequent
practice in other city societies, especially territorial states where the power
of the king was more like a god. The tombs of kings in Egypt, Inca Peru,
and China contain such remains. In addition, defeated soldiers were
sacrificed in ritual ceremonies in China and in other states.

Soldiers. After merchants and priests, the most important urban class was
soldiers. Unlike in modern armies, they were normally conscripts rather
than professionals, drawn from the farmers and urban working class and
commanded by members of the nobility. In periods of war or expansion,
however, soldiers were granted special privileges. The Aztec state, for
instance, promoted soldiers to the nobility and gave them land after they
had captured four enemy combatants. And as the ancient states expanded,
they developed professional armies. They also used mercenary armies,
often recruited from pastoral societies on the borders of their expanding

New Country People. What sorts of people inhabited the countryside?
Farmers, of course, but we would be mistaken if we thought of farmers as a
single class, all alike. The class divisions of the city extended to the
countryside. In fact, wealthy farmers often lived in the city, as in the
following Egyptian account attributed to an official who contemplates a
visit to his country estate, where the farming was done for him:

You go down to your ship manned from bow to stern. You reach your beautiful villa, the one
you have built for yourself. Your mouth is full of wine and beer, of bread, meat and cakes.
Oxen are slaughtered and wine is opened, and melodious singing is before you. Your chief
anointer anoints you. Your manager of cultivated lands brings garlands. Your chief fowler

brings ducks, your fisherman brings fish. Your ship has returned from Syria laden with every
manner of good things. Your byre is full of calves, your weavers flourish.7

The countryside was full of people who were not farmers, as the city was
full of people who owned or rented farmland. Nevertheless, the majority of
people in the countryside worked the land. Many were free peasants, but
there was also a vast number of semifree farmers, bound to work the lands
of the state or of religious temples. In Egypt, they were called “royal
workers,” and in Mesopotamia they were officially “bringers of income.” In
Egypt, where the status was hereditary, men worked in the fields, while the
women of the household spun cloth and sewed in special workshops. All
classes of workers, dependent and free, participated in mammoth public
work projects and the building of monuments.

Here is another clue to why social inequality was widely accepted.
Beneath the king or pharaoh, people of all classes worked on public
projects, and they were not generally distinguishable by appearance. Slaves
were foreigners, drawn from conquered armies of various racial or ethnic
backgrounds. In addition, foreign mercenary soldiers mirrored the diversity
of slaves but were free.

Change and “Civilization”

To ask how things change is a difficult but important question for
historians. But to ask if the change was good or bad is a question most
historians would rather avoid. “Good for whom?” they might ask. “We
should be careful not to impose our values on the past.” Yet as citizens, we
make judgments about how the world is changing all the time. In fact, we
would be ill equipped to shape our future without an understanding of how
things were changing and without an ability to evaluate those changes.

The Bias of “Civilization.” No change in human history is more loaded
with value judgments than the development of cities and state societies.
Traditionally, they are called “civilizations,” a word related to “cities,”
“civic,” and “civility,” which implies urban sophistication, high culture, and
great achievement. In addition, “civilized” has long had a special meaning
of emotional control, maturity, and politeness.

The problem with all these associations is that they reflect the viewpoint
of people in city-based societies. It is a self-congratulatory view that
originated in the first cities themselves. The Epic of Gilgamesh presents
such a perspective:

. . . ramparted Uruk,
Where fellows are resplendent in holiday

Where every day is set for celebration.

Moreover, it is the view that the upper class and literate class developed
of itself. The ideas of civilization, progress, and perhaps even change were
urban inventions, created to denigrate the people of farm and pasture as
“uncivilized” or “barbaric.” Thus, to ask if city society was an improvement
is to open a huge can of worms.

Clearly, we are well advised to ask “good for whom?” The Egyptian
official described above lived far better than his chief fowler; he, in turn,
lived far more comfortably than the rowers in the master’s ship. But did the
rise of cities and state societies improve the lives of most people? Did it
raise the level of living for future generations?

There are many reasons to say “no”: increased inequality, suppression of
women, slavery, organized warfare, conscription, heavy taxation, and
forced labor, to name some of the most obvious. A list like this is enough to
make one wonder if anything good came out of the first state societies. But
we do not have to wonder long.

Achievements of Ancient Civilizations. Our museums are full of the art
and artifacts of the ancient civilizations. The monuments of the ancient
world, the pyramids of Egypt and of Mexico, and the ziggurats of
Mesopotamia are among the wonders of the world. Does it matter that the
great pyramids of Egypt were built from the forced labor of thousands to
provide a resting place for a single person (and those who were entombed
alive in order to serve him)? We can view them today as a remarkable
achievement of engineering and organization while still condemning their
manner of execution. We can admire the art in the tombs, thrill to the
revealing detail of ancient Egyptian life, and marvel at the persistence of
vivid colors mixed almost 5,000 years ago and still detest their purpose.

We can do this because these monuments have become something
different for us than what they were for the ancients. They have become

testaments to human achievement, regardless of the cost. These ancient
city-based societies were the first in which humans produced abundant
works of art and architecture that still astound us in their range, scope, and

The significance of the urban revolution is that it produced things that
lasted beyond their utility or meaning—thanks to new techniques in
stonecutting and hauling; baking brick, tile, and glass; and smelting tin,
copper, and bronze—as a legacy for future generations. Even 3,000 years
ago, Egyptian engineers studied the ancient pyramids to understand a very
distant past, 1,500 years before, and to learn, adapt, revive, or revise ancient
techniques. In short, the achievement of the urban revolution is that it made
knowledge cumulative so that each generation could stand on the shoulders
of its predecessors.

Writing. The invention of writing was the single most important step in
the urban revolution. Almost all the ancient city societies created some
form of writing. The techniques and symbols differed widely. The earliest
system in Mesopotamia, called cuneiform, began with wedge markings in
clay, sun-dried or oven-baked to form a permanent record. Egyptians and
Mesoamericans developed hieroglyphic systems of pictures and symbols
painted on a sort of paper that the Egyptians made from papyrus leaves and
the Mexicans made from bark. The Inca of Peru devised one of the most
unusual systems for recording information; they tied knots at particular
intervals on strings of different colors and weaves and hung dozens of these
strings from a horizontal belt called a khipu. The combination of knot
placement and color and weave of string gave an Inca khipu maker 1,500
separate units of information, like digital bits according to a recent study,8 a
number equal to the approximately 1,500 Sumerian cuneiform signs.

Remarkably, writing was invented for different purposes in different
societies, and creating literature was not one of them. The first writing in
Mesopotamia registered economic information about temple workers, such
as work schedules and ration payments. In Egypt, writing designated
kinship relations and property ownership. Mayan writing related the
ancestors and achievements of Mayan kings. The earliest examples of
Chinese writing that we have are the inscriptions written on animal bones
that were used in the Shang dynasty about 4,000 years ago. Priests would
inscribe their questions on the bones and then put them in a fire until they

cracked. The lines of the cracks were interpreted as answers to their

Control and Change. In these and other ancient state societies, writing
was invented as a means of social control and administration by the wealthy
and powerful. In its origins, writing had nothing to do with self-expression
or literature, and it served only the interests of a tiny portion of the
population. But writing was too powerful an invention to be contained
within a narrow class. Despite frequent efforts by priests and scribes to
preserve their monopoly, they could not control the spread or use of reading
and writing. By 1700 BCE, at the latest, the story of Gilgamesh had been
written down, and Egyptian scribes were copying sample letters and
descriptions of society to learn to write.

Writing was one of the most important forces for change in the Bronze
Age. Even if it had been limited to the scribes, it would have inevitably led
to innovation. Writing enabled a range of other crucial breakthroughs.
Calendars were written representations of the changes in evening light
(lunar) and the seasons (solar). At first an aid to determine the time of
planting, especially in Egypt, where the river rose predictably, solar
calendars became complex records of the movement of the stars and in
Mayan society remarkably accurate measures of time. In conjunction with
written observations about the movement of the stars and the natural
rhythms of the earth, the beginnings of astronomy and earth science

There were other important forces of change in state societies. All
technological innovation takes on a certain momentum of its own as
improvements are made and problems lead to new breakthroughs. In
ancient societies, however, such improvements were by no means as rapid
as they have become in modern times. The class divisions of the ancient
world generally divided manual labor and technical knowledge on the one
hand from science and the power to innovate on the other. Markets were a
richer source of change in the Bronze Age, as was the meeting of traders in
market areas, especially in city-states, where markets played a greater role
than they did in territorial states. Before the invention of coinage in the
seventh century BCE in Lydia (modern Turkey), however, the range of
trade and markets was limited.

Not all forces of change in ancient society came from inside the society.
Traders often came from distant lands, for example, and their very presence

would encourage thoughts about different ways of doing things. In addition,
there was a very powerful force of change restlessly looking on from the
frontiers of ancient states. Perhaps the most important of these frontier
societies consisted of the people of the pasture.

Pasture and Empire

The urban revolution began with the transformation of some highly
productive or well-placed agricultural villages into cities 5,000 years ago.
While some prospered as city-states, others turned outward and created
larger territorial states. Warfare punctuated the relations of them all.

Across Eurasia, an additional threat to the stability of city societies came
from the grasslands, where people specialized in animal husbandry and
traveled with their animals from one grazing land to another. In most of
Eurasia, a revolution that began with cities ended with empires that were
made possible by changes outside the city walls in the pasture.

People domesticated animals almost everywhere they domesticated
plants, beginning 10,000 years ago. Early communities like Catal Huyuk
lived on both food sources. Village and later city settlements continued to
keep chickens, goats, sheep, ducks, turkeys, and other domesticates within
the city walls. The rooster’s announcement of sunrise can still be heard in
most cities of the world. But at some point, the raising of animals became a
specialized activity, and the growth of herds required a continual search for
grasslands instead of settlement. This was especially the case over the huge
grasslands that run across Eurasia, from eastern Europe across Turkey,
Russia, Mongolia, and China.

Agriculture and the settled life flourished especially in well-watered
places and times. Pasture expanded across the dry, treeless grasslands of
central Asia—and farther during times of drought. Most of the period
between 3000 and 2200 BCE provided ample moisture to feed the
agricultural settlements of the Middle East. From 2200 to 1900 BCE,
however, low rainfall reduced the number and size of northern
Mesopotamian settlements by about a third, turning many of the farmers
who did not flee to the south into pastoral nomads. Similar conditions may
have aided the spread of pastoral lands elsewhere.

Nomads Put the Horse before the Cart. A catalyst for this change to a
migratory life in the central Asian steppe was the horse. Before the
domestication of the horse about 3500 BCE in southern Russia, people in
the grasslands of Eurasia lived along rivers, where they farmed and raised
sheep, goats, and cattle. Near these settlements, archaeologists have even
found the remains of domesticated pigs, which are never kept by nomads.

After 2000 BCE, horses gave the people of the Eurasian grasslands easy
movement and a much greater range, allowing them to increase vastly the
size of their herds. Evidence of bit marks on horses’ teeth suggests the early
use of bridles and of horseback riding, but it was the invention of spoked
wheels, carts, and chariots (see Map 2.2) that transformed the economy of
the grasslands from mixed farming and grazing to nomadic animal raising.
With horse-drawn carts, people could comfortably take themselves and their
belongings over an almost endless supply of pasture. Sheep and goats
remained the staples of their herds, supplying most of the peoples’ needs for
food, hides, wool, and even dung for fuel, but horses put their previously
settled world in motion. The change was somewhat akin to fishermen who

were used to casting their lines from the shore suddenly getting ships to fish
the open seas.

Everyone took up the new nomadic life, from forest dwellers in Siberia to
settled farmers along the southern border of the grasslands. A world of
different isolated cultures became a single culture of nomadic pastoralism.
The similar transformation of the North American plains when the Spanish
introduced the horse after 1500 shows how rapid such a change could be.
Within a century, widely differing tribal cultures all seized on the advantage
of horseback riding for hunting bison, creating a “Plains Indian” culture that
was entirely new.

New Balance between City and Pasture. The new nomads of Eurasia
brought change to city societies in a number of important ways. Their
mobility brought them physically closer to new cities. They entered a closer

relationship of reciprocal wants and needs. The herdsmen desired the fine
clothes, jewels, and precious products of the cities as well as wheat for
bread. City rulers recognized the value of horses and horse-drawn vehicles.
But the relationship between farm and pasture could verge from fraternal to
fratricidal. Gilgamesh both battles and befriends the wild man En-kidu from
the grasslands, and in the Bible, Cain the farmer slays his brother Abel the

As city societies built walls and trained armies to raid others, the
nomadic peoples forged military formations of their own with horse-drawn
chariots. In clashes with settled societies, charioteers with bows and arrows
enjoyed the advantage of speed and surprise. Their forces transformed the
balance of power from southern Europe to China. The settled communities
closest to the Eurasian grasslands were the first to recognize the value of the
new technology and make it their own.

Nomads Conquer and Create Empires. Tribal leaders and kings of border
states in what is today Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and central Asia were
instrumental in creating the new technology that melded horses and wheels
into a powerful force for change. In some cases, as in India, the new
technology gave an edge to Indo-Aryan-speaking nomadic peoples who
already lived in the subcontinent. In other cases, the combination of horses
and wheels created a devastating war machine of trained archers and chariot
drivers that overcame the cities of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Indo-Aryan nomads probably lived among the Indus cities long before
they were abandoned around 1500 BCE. These people introduced camels
before 1500 BCE, but horses and chariots did not come until later when the
center of urban life had shifted east toward the area of the Ganges River.

Since the writing of Harappa, Mohenjo-daro, and the other Indus cities
has not been translated, we do not know how similar or different their
culture was from the Indo-Aryan Sanskrit culture that emerged after 1500
BCE. Nevertheless, the great Indian epic Mahab-harata tells stories of
battles between archers on chariots. In one famous passage, the god
Krishna, incarnated as a charioteer, explains that members of the military
caste must not shirk their obligation to wage war. Similarly, the oldest
extant Sanskrit document of Hinduism, the Rig Veda, laid out the prayers
and sacrifices of tribes skilled in horsemanship whose leaders were
charioteers. In fact, the spoked wheel of the chariot became an enduring
symbol of India, transformed into a symbol of eternal return in Hindu and

Buddhist imagery and displayed on the modern flag of India after
independence in 1947.

The conquest of Mesopotamia by the charioteers of the Kassite kingdom
of Iran was more of a military affair. While the Kassites were still able to
defeat the cities of the Tigris and Euphrates valley, they could not or chose
not to impose their culture on the more sophisticated one they conquered.
Instead, they learned Akkadian (the educated language of Mesopotamia),
copied the stories of gods like Marduk and heroes like Gilgamesh, and
revived the law codes of Hammurabi. As the Kassites became like
Babylonians, new kingdoms arose to take advantage of the chariot military
technology, like the Hittites and the Assyrians.

The Egyptians were conquered by a chariot-based military kingdom
called the Hyksos, who came from the area of Syria and Palestine. The
Hyksos imposed a regime that was partly foreign and partly respectful of
Egyptian traditions. They moved the capital from Thebes to Avaris and
partnered with the Nubian kingdom of Kush, south of Egypt. In response, a
prince of Thebes led a successful Egyptian rebellion against the Hyksos and
established an Egyptian New Kingdom that reconquered Nubia and used
Nubian gold to pay for the best horses, chariots, and charioteers that money
could buy. Horses do not breed easily close to the equator because their
estrous cycle is triggered by changing hours of sunlight, so the Egyptians
got their horses from the Hittite kingdom in Anatolia (present-day Turkey).
A letter from the period reveals that, for Nubian gold, the Hittites supplied
not only the horses but the equivalent number of chariots as well. It was
today’s equivalent of getting a fleet of jet planes, complete with trained
pilots and spare parts.

States Regain Empires with Chariots. In Egypt and then in Mesopotamia,
native chariot-based states created empires larger than any that had ever
existed before. Earlier ancient Egypt had looked inward, protected by miles
of desert. By contrast, the Egyptian New Kingdom after 1600 BCE created
an empire that extended from Nubia to Syria. Similarly, the Kassites,
Hittites, and Assyrians controlled all of Turkey and the northern Middle
East. Horse-drawn chariots vastly increased the range of military conquest
and administration. It was an international age. Akkadian became the first
transnational language, used in diplomatic correspondence from Egypt to

Chariots gave the Bronze Age states of Eurasia a new lease on life. By
increasing the size of states and turning them into empires, chariots vastly
expanded the number and size of dependent villages, cities, and kingdoms
that the great states could tax and exploit. The Egyptian New Kingdom
(1570-1085 BCE) was marked by some of the greatest cultural
achievements (though the period of the pyramids was long past): Queen
Hatshepsut established trade relations with Punt in East Africa in 1493,
Akhetaton initiated the monotheistic worship of Aten around 1362, and
Ramesis II carried Egyptian armies to their widest boundaries by 1283.

The success of these empires was temporary, however. The imbalances
that characterized Bronze Age states remained. In fact, in some important
ways, they increased. Kings became richer and more remote from their
subjects. Farming communities were exploited more and more. Military
occupations became more brutal and slavery more pervasive. The greatest
of the new empires, the Assyrian, prided itself on the brutality of its armies.
At some point, the farmers and other producing classes of Bronze Age
society were squeezed beyond the point of return. Between 1200 BCE and
1000 BCE, many of these empires declined. By 1000, many in the eastern
Mediterranean were in a state of collapse.

Empires and Collapse

Ruined cities are evocative sights. The barest of them evokes the life of a
distant time far more persuasively than the most thorough Disneyesque re-
creation. But one question they usually leave unanswered is “why?” Why
did they decline? Why were they abandoned? A frequent answer is
“earthquake,” and often the stones of ancient ruins seem to have been
tossed by a careless Earth. But earthquakes were often final indignities that
followed curable catastrophes.

The Bronze Age city of Ugarit, a rich kingdom at the northeastern corner
of the Mediterranean, was destroyed by an earthquake, fire, and tidal wave

around 1300 BCE. The entire port and half the city laid in ruins. But not for
long. With the help of the wealthy merchant families and possibly its Hittite
overlord, Ugarit was rebuilt and prospered anew. But then around 1200
BCE, Ugarit suffered pirate raids, and the declining Hittite Empire was in
no position to help. A poem suggests the mood of the times:

The ephemeral joy of a single beautiful

is followed by the sadness of 36,000

May the divine coffin, my son,
be your desire in affliction!
Such is the lot of humanity.9

Shortly after this was written, another earthquake destroyed Ugarit, and it
was never rebuilt. At about the same time, the once powerful Hittite Empire
also disappeared.

In many cases, earthquakes were the last indignities suffered by the cities
of the Bronze Age. When the earth shook well-placed stones into their final
resting place, most of these cities had long since lost their vitality and their
people. Disease, sometimes plague, had reduced their numbers and their
capacity to endure. Crops had failed and animals died; famine had set up
the weakened survivors for disease. The crisis of late Bronze Age empires
was broad based, especially in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle
East. Like a hot desert wind blown into an expanding balloon, chariots had
stretched the capacity of Bronze Age empires. But the resource base that
was the flesh and blood of these empires was still agricultural, and the
increasing wealth needed to sustain the rulers, aristocracy, army, and
officials was drawn from the same tax base. The result was an eventual
breakdown that was systemic. Farmers left the land they could no longer
afford to work. Cities became overburdened and underfed, and people
abandoned them. Everywhere, people were displaced and on the move. City
and countryside were threatened by pirates, bandits, and what contemporary
Egyptian inscriptions called a horde of looting vandals. Looking back,
slightly less than 3,000 years ago, a later Assyrian king recalled, “I brought
back the exhausted people of Assyria who had abandoned their cities and
houses in the face of want, hunger, and famine, and had gone up to other
lands.”10 One Egyptian illustration of the period shows refugees carrying
their children and belongings on oxen-drawn carts with solid wooden discs

for wheels—a far cry from the wildfire of horses and spoke-wheeled
chariots that once froze hearts in fear.

Of course, not all ancient states collapsed. Bronze Age Shang China was
overrun but without a long crisis. Egypt was conquered, but, like China,
elements of the old culture continued into a new age.

In the Americas, where there was no pastoral challenge or wide use of
metals,11 some ancient state societies collapsed early, most notably the
Mayan and pre-Aztec Mexican. The Inca, by 1500 CE the last of a long
series of state societies in the Andes, was wracked by a civil war that aided
Spanish conquest. The Aztecs were conquered by a much later horse
culture, one that progressed from chariots to iron armored cavalry to
gunpowder. But that is a later story.

More to the point, perhaps, the urban revolution was permanent. Today
on the island where the Aztecs chose to create their city stands the capital
city of modern Mexico. In the central square of Mexico City on the site of
the ancient Aztec pyramid Major Temple stands the Roman Catholic
Cathedral, constructed in part with stones from the Aztec pyramid.

Iron Age Eurasia
Not all cities were permanent, but the urban revolution itself was
permanent. One of the features that gave it permanence was the capacity of
urban institutions to maintain continuity yet change, even when change
involved substantial transformation. One of the more profound
transformations in the second and third millennium of urban societies in
Eurasia was the substitution of iron for bronze as the material for tools and

Iron versus Bronze

Even before there were cities, some people had learned to work soft metals
like gold and copper, but we date the urban revolution, or Bronze Age, with
the use of the harder metal formed by smelting a combination of tin and
copper. Bronze was an expensive alloy, however, since tin and copper were

not widely available in the same areas. Consequently, bronze was accessible
only to a wealthy few.12 It was a fitting adornment for the limited
aristocracy of early civilization. In Shang China, bronze was intentionally
barred from peasants lest they become too powerful.

By 1000 BCE, many ancient civilizations had discovered iron, which was
more abundant in nature, easier to shape, stronger, and less brittle than
bronze. The technique of smelting or heating iron to be shaped and then
hardened originated in the Hittite Empire in what is today northern Turkey
and the Caucasus Mountains between 1900 and 1500 BCE. From there,
ironworking spread throughout Eurasia and North Africa, although there
may have been additional discoveries.13 The technique seems to have been
discovered independently, for example, around the Great Lakes of Central
Africa (modern Rwanda) about 1000 BCE and in the area of Cameroon in
West Africa about 800 BCE.14 From these centers, ironworking spread
throughout sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, the Bantu-speaking people of the
Cameroon region migrated throughout Africa over the past 2,000 years,
spreading their skills, their superior iron tools and weapons, their languages,
and their genes.

Iron tools and weapons were stronger and sharper than bronze. Iron
plows turned over harder soils, enabling farmers to expand their fields and
the size of their harvests. The main advantage of iron, however, was that it
was more widely available in nature and therefore much cheaper than
bronze. It could supply a far greater number of farmers and soldiers,
increasing their yields and giving commoners more leverage in the new
massed infantries that replaced Bronze Age charioteers. If bronze was the
fitting adornment of an aristocratic age, iron was the metal of the common

The Iron Age did not abolish social classes. In fact, as empires grew ever
larger, emperors and ruling classes enriched themselves from a greater
world of plunder and taxation. During the first millennium BCE, the gap
between the very rich and the very poor increased, and slavery became
more pervasive. The long-term impact of iron was as double-edged as its
finest blades. Iron enabled empires to grow by fielding larger armies, but it
also increased the raw power of common people, who had access to iron
weapons and tools.

New Forms of Inclusiveness:
Words and God for All

Iron as Metaphor. During the first millennium BCE, iron became
available to people throughout Eurasia and Africa, but in the area of the
eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, the variety of civilizations and
the degree of interaction among them stimulated a series of innovations that
were far more important than the use of a new metal. Yet if we think of the
Iron Age as a period in which people became both more powerful and also
part of a larger political world, then iron is at least an apt metaphor. It
suggests not only the iron tools of farmers and weapons of soldiers but also
a society in which many people participated in new ways.

The new participatory society took many forms. The development of a
phonetic alphabet in the Middle East made writing and reading easier, but

even those who could not read participated in public religious and cultural
activities to a greater degree than before. The Iron Age was the period in
which the great global religious traditions were born and prospered. These
traditions were based on books: holy books and sacred words, even for
those who could not read them.

The Iron Age cultivated independent populations and institutions to a far
greater extent than Bronze Age societies. Merchants and manufacturers
were more numerous, prosperous, and powerful. While state-supported
priests still played an important role in some societies, so did new groups of
more independent cultural leaders: missionaries, educators, and public
intellectuals. Indeed, the Iron Age societies of the Eurasian crossroads
created the idea and reality of “the public”: public space, the republic, and,
in some societies, civic identity and citizenship. Not incidentally, the first
democracy developed in Iron Age Greece. In addition, not incidentally, it
developed in the Greek Empire, where citizens enjoyed the labor of slaves.

The eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East after 1000 BCE
constituted a patchwork of states of different sizes. The largest power by far
was the Assyrian Empire, which had re-created itself after the upheavals at
the end of the Bronze Age. This New Assyrian Empire (934-610 BCE)
controlled the entire Tigris and Euphrates valley, southeastern Turkey, and
the eastern Mediterranean coast. It was the largest, richest, and most
powerful empire of this pivotal region or any other up to this time. Yet the
powerful Assyrians sometimes allowed a certain degree of independence to
the city-states and kingdoms on the Mediterranean coast. Among these were
the Phoenician cities, most of which paid tribute to Assyria between 877
and 635 BCE, and the Hebrew states of Judah and Israel.

The Invention of the Alphabet. The Phoenicians are remembered for the
Phoenician, or Phonetic alphabet, which is the system of symbols for
sounds that is the basis of our 26 letters. The idea of using symbols for
sounds (which are relatively few) as opposed to symbols for things and
ideas (which are almost infinite) was not unknown before the Phoenicians
invented the alphabet. Egyptologists recently discovered earlier alphabetic
writing in Egypt’s Western Desert dating from about 2000 BCE, but that
system never challenged the established Egyptian hieroglyphs. Still,
Egyptian writing included some symbols for sounds, as did Sumerian and
Akkadian, the languages of ancient Mesopotamia. Nevertheless, a writing
code that used only symbols for sounds was a significant departure. It

meant that anything could be written with about a couple dozen symbols for
sounds, in any language, and with very little training. The Phoenician
alphabet was so useful that it was adopted by people who spoke Aramaic,
the most widely spoken language of the Middle East until the spread of
Arabic in the seventh century AD, and by speakers of Greek, Etruscan, and
Latin, which became the root of many European languages.

“T” Is for Trade. Why would a system of city-states, like Phoenicia,
rather than a great empire, like Assyria, invent a system that made writing
accessible to more people? We have only to ask the question to know the
answer. In great empires, written communication was the secret preserve of
the priests or scribes. An Egyptian priest or a Chinese scholar had to learn
50,000 symbols, knowledge that one did not share lightly. But the cities of
the eastern Mediterranean coast had a different agenda. The Phoenician
agenda was trade, and its trading partners ranged far and wide. The biblical
poet Ezekiel praised the Phoenician city of Tyre for its wide range of
trading partners:

Tarsus was a source of your commerce, from its abundant resources offering silver and iron,
tin and lead as your staple wares. Cities of Turkey offered you slaves and vessels of bronze.
Nomads offered you horses, mares, and mules. The people of the islands, like Rhodes, traded
ivory and ebony [from Africa].

Ezekiel continues with a long list of Tyre’s numerous imports and trading
partners: wine and wool from Edom (modern Jordan); wheat, oil, and
balsam from Israel and Judah; cloth from Damascus; lambs and goats from
Arabia; spices and precious stones from Sheba (Yemen); and “gorgeous
stuffs, violet cloths and brocades from Ashur [Assyria] and Media [Iran].”16

Trade was the lifeblood of Phoenician city states like Tyre. Its trading
operations were organized by merchant companies that were independent of
local rulers, though even the kings of Assyria were sometimes prominent
investors. The need of Assyrian kings for the products and profits of these
city-states also ensured their relative independence. Like modern Hong
Kong for China, Tyre and the other Phoenician cities were valuable to
Assyria even when independent.

Monotheism. Monotheism, the idea of one God, emerged from the same
network of competing states, each committed to its own god but each aware
that its enemies did the same. In that combination of global awareness and
local loyalty, some people came to believe that their own god was the only

Bronze Age states like Uruk and Egypt had many gods. Political loyalty
had little to do with worship. The temples of ancient Mesopotamian cities
were politically and economically important, but only the priests ever
entered them. Egyptian kings had to be obeyed and gods placated but not
because there was an intense bond between god and people.

The Hebrew Bible tells of the development of such a bond between the
people of Israel and their god, Yahweh. He is a jealous god, he tells them,
and abhors their worship of other gods. But in return for their loyalty,
Yahweh battles their enemies. Around 900 BCE, David, the warrior king,
conquered neighboring states with the aid of Yahweh. A typical account of
David’s battles against the Philistines tells how Yahweh not only
encouraged, indeed commanded, the attack but even suggested a winning
battle plan: “Do not go straight up, but circle around behind them and attack
them in front of the balsam trees” (2 Samuel 5:23). The ancient Hebrews
believed that God acted on behalf of his people, but in a monarchy the king
was God’s anointed. When the Bible tells of King David’s Judean war
against the northern kingdom of Israel, his armies massacring the relatives
of his predecessor, King Saul, the moral of the story is that Yahweh serves
his people even when he seems to abandon them. Many of the biblical
books of prophecy take on the explicit task of accounting for the defeat of
the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 721 BCE and of the
southern kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. Nothing, not
even the people’s defeat, happens without the consent of their god. The
prophets find a ready explanation in the failure of Yahweh’s people to live
up to their responsibilities.

Gods at War. Similar ideas developed on the other side of these
battlefields. An Assyrian history tells of an occasion when King
Ashurbanipal chose to attend a festival for the goddess Ishtar in her city
Arbella rather than lead his forces in battle. In Arbella, he learns that the
Elamites have attacked his troops, and he pleads for help from Ishtar. The
goddess appears before him: “her face fire flamed, with raging anger; she
marched forth against Teumman, the king of Elam,”17 telling Ashur-banipal

to remain, drink her beer, and praise her divinity. She will take care of the

Before battles, on both sides, militant kings invoked their gods, prophets
foretold the outcome, and gods saved or abandoned their people. In most
cases, people assumed that their own gods were more effective among their
own people than among others, and wars became a test of whose god was
more powerful. Rarely did people expect conquered foreigners to switch
loyalties to the winning god.

At some point, however, the people of Israel believed that Yahweh was
not only their god but also the only god that people anywhere should
worship. The Hebrew Bible is full of stories of backsliders among Yah-
weh’s people, tempted by Baal, the god of the neighboring Cananites, or the
great goddess Asherah. The transition to monotheism must have been
gradual and long incomplete.

What could have prompted the spread of monotheism—such a departure
from the traditional idea of competing states under competing warlike
gods? Ironically, it was probably not military success since the greatest
military victories were achieved under David and his son Solomon in a
brief 40 years around 900 BCE. After that, Yahweh’s people suffered a
series of reversals, including the split between Judah and Israel, civil war,
and the conquest of Israel by the Assyrians and of Judah by the

The Rivers of Babylon. Strangely, defeat may have been more of a spur to
monotheism than victory. It was common practice in this period for
victorious empires to resettle conquered people, often exchanging
populations to keep them divided. The Assyrians and Babylonians were
masters of this tactic and spread the people of Israel and Judah far and wide.
Yahweh worship, like that of Ishtar and other deities, had been very much
based on location. Solomon built a temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem (albeit
with Phoenician workers and artisans from Tyre) that became the focal
point of the religion. Devastated by exile, the Judeans who were taken
captive to Babylon asked how they could worship away from their temple,
in a strange land:

By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down, yea, we wept,
When we remembered Zion. . . .
How shall we sing the Lord’s song In a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,

Let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee,
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my

mouth; (Psalms 137)

In fact, the experience of exile did much to turn a national religion into a
universal one. Away from Jerusalem, Yahweh’s reach extended far beyond
temple priests and local concerns. A god who was everywhere required
neither image nor temple. Daniel received the Lord’s protection far away in
a lion’s den in Babylon, a city that provided him a global vantage point on
God’s universal plan. In exile, refugees from Jerusalem felt more acutely
the need to keep their traditions alive. As a consequence, much of what
became the Hebrew Bible was remembered and put to writing by and for
generations raised in exile.

When Cyrus, king of Persia, conquered Babylon and restored the Jews to
Jerusalem, it was clear to the prophet Isaiah that the god of Abraham, the
creator of the world, and the god of Cyrus and his vast empire must be all
one and the same:

This is what the LORD says—
your Redeemer, who formed you in
the womb:

I am the LORD,
who has made all things,
who alone stretched out the heavens,
who spread out the earth by myself,
25who foils the signs of false prophets
and makes fools of diviners,
who overthrows the learning of the wise
and turns it into nonsense,
26 who carries out the words of his

and fulfills the predictions of his

who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be

of the towns of Judah, “They shall be

and of their ruins, “I will restore them,”
27 who says to the watery deep, “Be dry,
and I will dry up your streams,”
28 who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd
and will accomplish all that I please;
he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be

and of the temple, “Let its foundations be

laid.” (Isaiah 44)

The belief in a single god of all nations and the use of one alphabet for all
languages were two important ways in which the Iron Age Middle East and
Mediterranean turned local knowledge into universal truths. In both cases,
the creation of universals occurred in the struggle between small
independent city-states and large empires.

The area from the Fertile Crescent to the eastern Mediterranean was
unusual in the abundance of city-states. City-states had been the first
Bronze Age societies on the Tigris and Euphrates, and they sustained
themselves along jagged coastlines of the Mediterranean Sea as merchant
cities and as colonies from North Africa to southern Spain. But the Middle
East was also dominated by increasingly large empires in the early Iron
Age. After the Assyrians came the Babylonians (sixth to fifth centuries
BCE), followed by the Persians (later sixth to fifth centuries BCE) and
Alexander the Great and his successors (fourth to first centuries BCE).
Throughout the first millennium BCE, the conflict between city-states and
large empires contributed to the increasing universalism of people in
Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Iron Age societies.

Iron, alphabets, and monotheism were not the only marks and makers of
a more inclusive society in the first millennium BCE. One might also think
of money or, more precisely, coinage minted in Lydia from the beginning of
the seventh century.18 Lydia was an empire, not a city-state, but situated in
what is today eastern Turkey, it was as mindful of the power of the Assyrian
Empire as were the Phoenicians and Israelites. The creation of coins, worth
their weight in metal but also backed by the king whose face was engraved
on them, was another local invention that quickly won universal
acceptance. Not only did the idea of coinage quickly pass to other states,
but the actual coins circulated throughout the region and beyond.

Citizenship and Salvation:
Leveling in Life and Death

Two other ideas of the Iron Age gave the people of the Middle East and
Mediterranean a sense of equal participation between 600 BCE and 200 CE.

One was the idea of citizenship: the equality of the citizens and their
common stake in their city. The other was the idea of salvation: a kind of
equality beyond life and beyond death. We associate the idea of citizenship
with the cities of ancient Greece, especially Athenian democracy, and the
idea of an afterlife with the rise of Christianity, notably the idea of heaven,
but these two examples were neither the only cases nor the first.

The Cities of Babylon. The cities of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (626-
539 BCE) may have originated the idea of citizenship. The inhabitants of
Babylon and other Babylonian cities claimed special privileges from the
monarch. When Babylonian cities were conquered by foreign kings (the
Assyrians before and the Persians after this period), the conquerors
contacted delegations of urban inhabitants and agreed to respect elements of
city law and tradition. The root of this idea, called “divine protection,” was
probably laid in the Bronze Age cities of the Tigris and Euphrates, where
each local temple was dedicated to a city god, but the concept was
expressed frequently in the Neo-Babylonian period after 600 BCE.

The Persian Paradise. If the idea of citizenship sprang from the local
interests of city-states and independent cities in empires, the idea of
salvation came from the opposite direction—from the large empires that
suppressed local initiative. The largest of these in the ancient world was the
Achaemenid Persian Empire19 (ca. 550-330 BCE), created by Cyrus the
Great (559-530 BCE), who conquered Babylonia in 539 and by the time of
his death had extended Persian power from Asia Minor to India and Egypt
to central Asia. An empire of such global scale, with its variety of peoples
and traditions, sought universal explanations of its power. Like the Hebrew
refugees in Babylon, Persian kings and soldiers needed a deity who was not
limited by geography or language. The Persians called that god Ahura
Mazda. An inscription above the tomb of King Darius (522-486 BCE)
proclaimed, “A great god is Ahura Mazda, who created this earth, who
created yonder sky, who created man, who created happiness for man, who
made Darius King, one king over many, one lord over many.”

The idea of a single god, creator of heaven and earth, creator of mankind
and anointer of kings, does not necessarily imply the idea of life after death,
heaven, or eternal salvation, certainly not on an individual level. The
monotheism of ancient Jews, many of whom were returned to Jerusalem by
Cyrus, was a belief in a creator god who protected his people collectively in
this world. Many Jews do not believe in a life after death. But under the
influence of Persian thought, some Jews began to envision a last judgment
and an individual immortality that inspired the prophet Daniel in the second
century BCE. In fact, the driving force behind the Persian idea of a last
judgment was not monotheism but the idea of two gods—Ahura Mazda and
Angra Mainya, the good, creative god and the evil, destructive deity,
described by the Persian prophet Zoroaster. Zoroastrians believed that there
would be a final conflict between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainya in
which the force of evil would be defeated. In the end of days, there would
be a last judgment, the passage of souls to heaven or hell, a resurrection of
the dead, and paradise on Earth. These ideas filtered into Judaism and
became core beliefs of Christianity.

Imperial Size and Reach

Zoroastrianism spread with the Persian armies across an empire that
extended from Egypt and Greece in the west to the Indus Valley in the east,
an area of 2 million square miles with 10 million people, representing 70
different ethnic groups. The empire was five times larger than the previous
largest, the Assyrian, only 200 years before. Traditionally, the size of
empires depended on the ability of soldiers to get from the center to the
farthest reaches. That, in turn, depended on the speed and carrying capacity
of their transportation technology. The invention of the horse-drawn chariot
around 1700 BCE made possible the late Bronze Age empires of Shang
dynasty China, central Asian migration to India, the Hittite Empire of
Turkey, and the New Egyptian Empire of Egypt and the Levant. The Iron
Age cavalry revolution gave the Assyrians the capacity to cover an area of
375,000 square miles with considerable speed. The Persians also made
good use of cavalry, but the weapon that stretched their reach far beyond the
Assyrians was the warship.

Ships and Satraps. The Persian navy sent galleys from the Persian Gulf
to the Indus, across the Mediterranean, and down the Red Sea. In one sense,
it was not a Persian fleet at all but rather the ships and sailors of countries
and cities that the Persians had conquered or brought into their empire. The
most effective of these were the fleets of the Phoenician cities, including
Tyre, and the Greek cities on the coast of modern Turkey and throughout
the Mediterranean. These fleets included both mercenaries (sailors who
fought for pay) and the sailors of subject cities and states.

Persian ability to rule such a vast empire depended in part on an
innovation in organization carried out by Darius soon after he came to
power in 522 BCE. He divided his empire into districts, called satrapies,
each governed by an appointed governor, or satrap. Depending on size,
wealth, and population, each satrapy was assessed taxes and troops: infantry
soldiers, cavalry and horses, and sailors and ships. Mercenaries and ethnic
Persian forces rounded out the huge Persian force, estimated to number
300,000. “Of all the troops in the Persian army,” the Greek historian
Herodotus wrote, “the native Persians were not only the best but also the
most magnificently equipped.”20 He was referring probably to the elite
palace guard of 1,000, which the Greeks called the Immortals because of
the Persian practice of immediately replacing the fallen to keep the force at
full strength.

That the Persians could govern the largest empire in the world from 522
BCE until 330 BCE testifies to their organizational ingenuity and military
power. That the entire empire could be lost in just under four years—as the
23-year-old Alexander of Macedon forced one satrap after another to
change sides—shows how fragile the system could become.


The Legacy of Gilgamesh’s Wall

What, then, is the legacy of the urban revolution? The great ramparted wall
of Uruk was meant to magnify the power of the king and to keep out his
enemies: to mark the boundaries of the civilized from the barbarian. The
walls inside the city served a similar function within the urban community.
The walls of temple, palace, and fort separated the new divisions of class,
function, power, and wealth. These divisions increased throughout the
course of the urban revolution. As cities grew in size and number, so did the
power of kings and the numbers of soldiers and slaves.

Farmers, herders, and other food producers vastly increased their output
and efficiency with irrigation, terraces, plowing new fields, adding new
crops, and improving yields. The raw measure is the number of people who
could be fed. World population grew slowly from about 6 million at the
beginning of agriculture around 8000 BCE to about 7 million by 4000 BCE.
But from there, it doubled every 1,000 years: 14 million by 3000 BCE, 27
million by 2000 BCE, and 50 million by 1000 BCE. Iron Age food
producers doubled the pace again—to 100 million by 500 BCE.

The growth of cities meant a faster increase in the number of those who
did not have to farm, herd, hunt, or gather. Cities popped up like
mushrooms after a spring rain from 3000 BCE to 2000 BCE. From
populations of a few thousand, they reached about 80,000 in Uruk by 2600
BCE. The Iron Age forged new cities again after 1000 BCE, and the new
imperial capitals attained sizes never seen before: Babylon probably
numbered 200,000 in 612 BCE.

Quantity of life is not the same as quality, and quality went to the few.
The finest arts and treasures of the first civilizations were buried in the

tombs of pharaohs and princesses. The work of the most accomplished
astronomers and mathematicians enabled rulers to predict eclipses, improve
calendars, and increase taxes. The scribes wrote for the eyes of the lords

Cities could not keep up their walls indefinitely, however. Gilgamesh
needed Enkidu. Cities needed pastures: their meat, milk, horses, hides, and
chariots. Iron Age empires needed soldiers, taxpayers, farmers, herders,
artisans, merchants, and specialists. Some cities needed citizens.

Words leapt the walls of sacred precincts. The secret symbols of scribes
and priests, initially used to collect taxes and communicate with the gods,
became more versatile as they became simplified and more accessible.
Epics, stories, and poetry could not be contained like secret formulas.
Written laws could teach one to read. Literature could tempt one to dream.

The Promise of Pharaoh’s Dream

The pharaohs of Old Kingdom Egypt monopolized the resources of their
realm to provide for their own afterlives. Immortality was reserved for
kings, their accommodations prepared by the backbreaking work of
Egyptian peasants, especially in the period of pyramid building between
2700 BCE and 2500 BCE. By 2000 BCE, Egyptian peasants were drawn to
cults of the god Osiris, who himself had been restored to life by his loving
wife Isis after being dismembered by his wicked brother Seth. As the god of
the underworld, Osiris weighed the souls of all deceased Egyptians against
the feather symbol of justice. Immortality was opened to those beyond the
family of the pharaoh, and a person’s worth could no longer be measured
only by wealth and social position. Osiris worship became so common in
the Egyptian New Kingdom that the priests attempted to regain control by
devising fees and duties that would ensure a light heart (or a heavy feather).
Cults of Osiris and Isis spread to the occupiers of Egypt in the Iron Age,
filtering idea of judgment, rebirth, and immortality to Assyrians,
Babylonians, Jews, and Persians. Persian Zoroastrianism recirculated the
promises of Egyptian mysteries throughout South Asia and the
Mediterranean in the fifth and sixth centuries CE.

The urban revolution was too big to remain the preserve of the few. The
city released too many genies that could not be rebottled. They would be

granting wishes for centuries to come.

Suggested Readings
Chadwick, Robert. First Civilizations: Ancient Mesopotamia and Ancient

Egypt. London: Equinox Publishing, 2005. Introductory survey from the
agricultural revolution to the rise of Persia.

Foster, Benjamin R., trans. and ed. The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York:
Norton, 2001. Well worth reading in full; a classic for thousands of

Ristvet, Lauren. In the Beginning: World History from Human Evolution to
the First States. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007. As thoughtful and well
informed here as for the previous chapter.

Scarre, Christopher, and Brian Fagan. Ancient Civilizations. Englewood
Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003. Very good textbook; includes the

Trigger, Bruce G. Early Civilizations: Ancient Egypt in Context. Cairo:
American University of Cairo Press, 1993. Interesting effort by an
anthropologist to compare Egypt with other ancient civilizations,
including African and American.

1. Benjamin R. Foster, trans. and ed., The Epic of Gilgamesh (New York:

Norton, 2001), p. 10, tablet I, 226-32.
2. John Noble Wilford, “Evidence of Ancient Civilization is Found in

Peruvian Countryside,” New York Times, December 28, 2004, F3.
3. Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 42.
4. There are many ancient Egyptian documents like this, copied by

student scribes for writing practice. This selection is adapted from two:
“Teaching of Khety, Son of Duaf,” quoted in Sir Leonard Woolley, The
Beginnings of Civilization, vol. 1, pt. 2, of UNESCO History of Mankind:

Cultural and Scientific Development (New York: Mentor, 1963), 170, and
V. Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself (New York: Mentor, 1951), 149.

5. Adapted from Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain, trans. J. M
Cohen (London: Penguin, 1963), 232-33.

6. James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old
Testament (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1955), 438-40, cited
in William H. McNeill, The Rise of the West (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press), 138, n. 31.

7. P. Anastasi IV, cited in R. A. Caminos, Late-Egyptian Miscellanies
(London, 1954), 137-38. Adapted from Barry J. Kemp, Ancient Egypt
(London: Routledge, 1989), 310.

8. John Noble Wilford, “String and Knot, Theory of Inca Writing,” New
York Times, August 12, 2003, F1.

9. Quoted in Amelie Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East c.3000-330 B.C., vol.
1 (London: Routledge, 1995), 316-17.

10. E. Weidner quoted in Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East c. 3000-330 B.C.,
vol. 2 (London: Routledge, 1995), 396.

11. Bronze was used for tools in Peru in addition to gold and copper. The
Aztecs fashioned objects of gold and silver, but the Mayans lacked an
indigenous metal industry.

12. Again, the Americas are an exception. In Peru, bronze tools were
available widely, but there was no iron anywhere in the Americas. Highland
Mexican societies received bronze from South America, but the lowland
Maya did not.

13. There may have been other, possibly even earlier sites. For the claim
of a separate Indian discovery as early as 1800 BCE, see Tawari Rakesh,
“The Origins of Iron-Working in India: New Evidence from the Central
Ganga Plain and the Eastern Vindhyas Antiquity,” Antiquity 77 (297, 2003):
536-44. For China, see Donald B. Wagner, Iron and Steel in Ancient China
(London: Brill, 1996).

14. A book published by the Iron Roads Project of UNESCO, Les Routes
du Fer en Afrique (Paris: UNESCO, 2000), argues that African iron
production in central Africa may be as much as 5,000 years old and that
there is evidence of iron production in Niger dating to at least 1500 BCE.

15. See William H. McNeill, The Rise of the West (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1963), 117-18.

16. Ezekiel 27:12-25, adapted from New English Bible.

17. Quoted by Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East, vol. 2, 511.
18. Coinage also originated in India and China toward the end of the

seventh century CE.
19. “Achaemenid” refers to the name of the founder of the Persian

dynasty. This was the first great and largest Persian Empire. It was followed
by the other Persian empires after the interruption of Alexander the Great
and his Seleucid successors.

20. Aubrey de Selincourt, trans., Herodotus, Histories 7.83.

Eurasian Classical Cultures and

600 BCE-200 CE

The Great Traditions of the Classical Age
The Classical Age
The Great Divergence

Interpreting Literature
Differences Not Permanent

The Ways of India and Greece

Vedic Civilization
Four Varnas
Karma and Reincarnation
Farmers and Jatis
Cities, States, and Buddhism
Mauryan Dynasty
Buddhism, Politics, and Commerce

The Hellenes
Clans into Citizens
The Polis and Greek Religion
Public Spaces and Public Dramas
Freedom and Law
Law and War between States
Laws of Nature
Athenian Democracy

Athens City Limits
The Worlds of Rome and China

Greco-Roman Society and Hellenism
Republic Not a Democracy
Armies, Lands, and Citizens
Praetors and Publicans
Cicero on Provincial Government
Civil War and Empire
Empire and Law
Administering the Roman Empire
No Bureaucracy
The Pax Romana
The Third Century

Similarities and Differences
Lineages, Cities, and States
Legalism and the Unification of China
Qin Creates China
The Solution of Han
Empire and Dynastic Succession
The Mandate of Heaven
A Government of Experts
Salt and Iron
Palace, Consort Families, and Taxes
Strains of Empire



The Great Traditions
of the Classical Age

The Classical Age

HAT IS a classic? The great American humorist Mark Twain
once quipped that a classic was a book that everyone praised but
no one read. There is much truth in that. Classic books, read or

not, are often praised for what they symbolize as sources of a people’s
culture or civilization. What is interesting is that many of the world’s people
find their classics in the same historical period. That period spans no more
than the few hundred years from about 600 BCE to 200 CE. In that brief
period of 800 years, one could date the great Chinese classics of Confucius
and Lao Tze (Laozi); the sacred books of Indian Hinduism and Buddhism;
the work of the Persians Zoroaster and Mani; the Hebrew Bible and the
Christian New Testament; the classics of Greek philosophy, theater, and
science; and the literature of ancient Rome.

Why do so many of the world’s cultures see their classical ages in the
same period about 2,000 years ago? The Eurasian Iron Age brought far
more people into public participation than had the Bronze Age. Iron, the
widely available metal, gave ordinary farmers and soldiers the tools to
claim a stake in the world. The larger states of the Iron Age, united by fast
cavalries and administered by laws, required masses of people from varying
backgrounds to share some common culture, sufficient at least to accept and
obey. Writing was the glue of the new order.

Scribes and people newly exposed to writing often thought that words
were sacred. They cultivated writing as an act of devotion and cultural
identification. These were book people, or, rather, the writers inscribed the
beliefs and values of the ruling classes—the priests, tribal elders, and chiefs
—and propagated those values by writing. Most people could not read, but
everyone could be read to. In India, the priests could read the holy books
and practice the sacrifices on behalf of the people. In Greece, where public
literacy was greater, even the illiterate could understand the language and

message of the theater. No wonder so many cultures trace their origins back
to the writings of their formative era. But the similarities among these
cultures end there. Their writings are actually quite different, so different in
fact that we can use them to distinguish the styles of some of the great
cultures of the world.

The Great Divergence

It is likely that the world’s people took different paths long before the age of
iron, alphabets, and mass migrations. But without the record of written
works, we cannot know how those paths might have diverged. The writings
of the Bronze Age are generally too limited, beyond Mesopotamia and
Egypt, to show cultural differences. The Bronze Age writings of India have
not even been deciphered. The writings of the classical Iron Age are the
first to allow us to see in some detail how the cultures of India, Greece,
Rome, and China differed. But a couple of provisos are in order.

Interpreting Literature. We have to be very careful in using literary
writings as a tool to understanding a people’s beliefs and behavior. There is
always the question of who a particular author speaks for or represents. By
using works that are considered classics, we at least can assume that the
ideas have some general relevance or resonance. But classics are often such
because they are used by the elite to indoctrinate others, and the illiterate of
a society may not be easily indoctrinated by books. Further, we may not be
aware of the meaning or purpose of a writing that has since become a
classic. Many holy books, for instance, were memorized and recited by rote
so that the words became frozen in time, divorced from the changing world
in which they were spoken.

Differences Not Permanent. Some people find the discovery of cultural
differences distasteful, as if cultural differences implied racial differences or
disparagement. Nothing like that is implied here. In fact, since culture is
entirely learned, cultural differences cannot be biologically based. Nor are
cultural differences permanent. They are changing all the time. The variety
of human cultures is a testament to human variability and possibility: the
opposite of a stereotype. As we try to understand the differences between
Indian, Greek, Roman, and Chinese acculturation more than 2,000 years

ago, we should not assume that these same differences operate today. Some
may; many will not.

The Ways of India and Greece
The classical civilizations of both Iron Age India and Greece supplanted
earlier Bronze Age civilizations that collapsed in the first half of the second
millennium (about 1700 BCE). The earliest Indian and Greek civilizations,
the Harappan on the Indus River (in modern Pakistan) and the Minoan on
the island of Crete in the eastern Mediterranean, evolved in similar ways
after 3000 BCE. Both seem to have lacked city walls, major fortifications,
or evidence of large armies. The remains of the Indus cities even suggest
the absence of kings or imperial palaces—a feature that the excavated
Minoan city of Knossos displays prominently. If both Indus and Minoan
societies enjoyed relative peace, it may be because their prosperity was
based on trade rather than conquest. We are unable as yet to translate the
early writing of either society, but the artistic representations of both (e.g.,
dancing figures) suggest a grace and lightness that we do not find in their

Knossos and much of the Cretan shipping fleet was probably destroyed
by a volcanic eruption around 1628 BCE. Soon afterward, Crete was
conquered by the Mycenaean civilization that had grown up on the Greek
mainland in its shadow. Mycenae was also a port city that prospered
through trade and shipping, but the high fortifications of its cities and the
stories of its epic battles, told later in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, indicate a
more militarized society or less peaceful times.

Historians used to believe that the Indus civilization of India and the
Mycenaean civilization of Greece were suddenly overrun by invaders from
central Asia, usually referred to as Aryans or Indo-Europeans, who were
credited with bringing Iron Age and classical ideas from afar. This theory
has been largely rejected by current historical research in favor of a view
that sees greater continuity between the peoples of the Bronze Age and the
classical age. Nevertheless, there was a significant lapse of time between
the effective collapse of the Bronze Age Indus River cities and the
Mycenaean civilization, all by around 1600 BCE, and the stirrings of Indian

and Greek classical civilization around 700 BCE. This “dark age” was
enough time for the populations to be enhanced by peoples from central
Asia as well.

The new peoples were descended from or influenced by nomadic horse
breeders who originated in the grasslands of central Asia. During the
second millennium (2000-1000 BCE), these Indo European horse people
spread their ways, genes, and language across southern Europe and Asia
with the aid of chariots. We can trace their influence by the way in which
the earliest Indo-European language appeared, displaced earlier languages,
and eventually broke up into separate languages. In northern Syria, we have
a document that tells part of this story. It is a treaty between the Hittites and
the Mittani, dated 1380 BCE, that uses the names of gods that are ancestral
to what they became in Persian and Indian Sanscrit. Another document
from this period shows the same common names of horses, charioteers, and
numbers. Therefore, it is sometime after 1380 that ancestral Persian and
Indian developed into separate Indo-European languages. Greek and
Sanscrit also went their separate ways, but the movement of languages is
not the same as the migration of people. Languages travel in many ways.
Think of the global spread of modern English through the Internet or the
influence of American culture. Similarly, in the ancient world, people who
borrowed plants or inventions would often borrow their names and
sometimes eventually learn a new language. We cannot say that Indians and
Greeks were descended from the same people; we can say only that their
languages descended from a common proto Indo-European. But we might
also wonder what elements of that ancestral culture—with its horses,
chariots, and deities—continued among the speakers of Greek and Sanscrit.

We do know that Greek and Indian societies developed different social
structures and different cultures. Indian society based itself on groupings of
families and occupations that have come to be known as castes. Beginning
in the sixth century BCE, Greece changed from a mainly tribal society to
one organized by territory. From the Indian choice came occupational and
religious institutions, guilds, and monasteries that quickened seemingly
opposite impulses toward economic development and spiritual
transcendence. They prospered without state intervention because Indian
culture shunned politics and provided a sanctioned place for princes and
kings. From the Greek organization by territory came city-states, intense
political participation, civic identity, and ideals of patriotism. The idea that

one was subject to the rule of the law of the land rather than the tribe
encouraged the development of a culture of political debate, intellectual
competition, individual speculation, philosophy, and natural science.


Vedic Civilization. Classical Indian civilization is sometimes called
“Vedic” because of the centrality of the religious writings called vedas.
These were written in Sanscrit and serve as the foundation of Indian
religion. In addition, a Sanscrit epic called the Mahabharata celebrates the
stories and traditions of warring families of horsemen and charioteers,
possibly in reflection of their history in India.

Beyond these books we know very little of the people who composed
them or their lives. We know little of their relationship to the remaining
inhabitants of Harappa, Mohenjo-daro, and the other Indus cities. We do
know, however, that they engaged in frequent cattle raids (probably mostly
among themselves), preyed on settled farmers, took some captives as
slaves, and forced a darker-skinned people, called Dravidians, to move
farther south.

Four Varnas. If like other Indo-Europeans these Vedic Indians initially
thought of themselves as three kinds of people—priests, protectors, and
providers—they added a fourth group to account for the Dravidians or other
local coerced laborers. They theorized this social scheme as the four varnas
(literally, “colors”): Brahmin priests, Rajana (later Kshatriya) warriors,
Vaishya producers, and Sudra dependent laborers. The Brahmin priests,
who lived on offerings from the other groups, enshrined this distinction
with a passage from the earliest of the Vedas. The Rig Veda told of the
primeval sacrifice of the god Purusha, from which all things were created:
the sacred hymns, horses, cattle, as well as human beings. And so that no
one could doubt their place in the world, it declared that the Brahmin came
from the god’s mouth, the Rajana from the arms, the Vaishya from the
thighs, and the Sudra from the feet.

Karma and Reincarnation. The importance of varna was also stressed by
the vedic doctrine of karma, the idea that one gained merit from doing the
duties of one’s station. Combined with the doctrine of reincarnation,
Brahmins could argue that those who fully followed the obligations of their
particular varna would be reborn to a higher state in the next life. Even a
lowly Sudra might, through proper obedience and hard work, become one
of the higher orders but only in the next life and only by accepting one’s
fate in this life. This Brahmin religion came to be known as Hinduism.

A section of the Mahabharata, known as the Bhagavad Gita, tells the
story of the conflict between two great lineages. The leader of one is the
young Kshatriya, Arjuna, who is faced with the predicament of war. He
knows that the enemy forces include many friends, former teachers, and
people he respects. Why should he fight and kill them? he asks himself. His
question is answered by none other than the god Krishna, who has taken the
form of Arjuna’s charioteer. Krishna’s answer is that the dead will be
reincarnated as the living and that, in any case, it is the duty of a Kshatriya
to wage war:

Death is certain for anyone born
and birth is certain for the dead;
since the cycle is inevitable,
you have no cause to grieve. . . .
Look to your own duty;
do not tremble before it;
nothing is better for a warrior
than a battle of sacred duty1

Farmers and Jatis. By the middle of the first millennium BCE, the
descendants of these pastoralists had settled in the upper Ganges plain,
cleared forests, and become farmers, planting wheat and barley and,
increasingly, rice. Their pastoral traditions never disappeared. Horses and
cows remained especially valuable to them: 100 horses figured as the worth
of a man’s life.

Society was becoming more complex and in one way simpler than a
world of four varnas. The complexity came from the appearance of new
groups: products of mixed marriages, strangers, and assimilated people. The
members of these new groups, called jatis because they did not fit in to one
of the varnas, were expected to keep to themselves when sharing food or
arranging marriages. Eventually, every occupation or group of relatives who
shared food and intermarried constituted a new jati. Today in India, there
are thousands of jatis, subgroups of varnas and what are also called (after
the Portuguese word) castes.

The way in which the new agricultural world was becoming simpler was
that it was becoming a peasant society; the four varnas mattered less as
some Vaishyas became wealthy, bought land, and hired others, regardless of
varna, to work the land. Increasingly after 500 BCE, the India of the
Ganges plain became like other agricultural societies where the private
ownership of land created a world of two classes.

Cities, States, and Buddhism. After 500 BCE, some agricultural
settlements became important trading cities, and different lineages merged
into states, with particularly powerful lineage chiefs as kings. Sometimes,
the new kings were Vaishyas or even Sudras.

The commercialization of Indian cities and the rise of cities and states
owed much to the rise of Buddhism. The Buddha (ca. 563-483 BCE) was
born a prince, the son of a Kshatriya. But, according to legend, the young
Gautama Siddhartha’s temperament was more philosophical than political.

It was said that he was consumed at an early age by the problem of
suffering and increasingly drawn to a life of meditation and withdrawal.

The Buddha’s preaching was radically equalitarian since the
enlightenment he prized was unrestricted by birth or status. The early
Buddhists felt Brahmin Hinduism to be rigidly hierarchical. In addition to
the ranking of varna and jati, Brahmins taught a religion in which any
action was governed by rules of purity and pollution, and the greatest
pollution was spread by a class of people lower than Sudras, who were
called “untouchables.” An early Buddhist work complained that an upper-
caste woman washes her eyes on seeing an untouchable, and “a brahman is
worried that a breeze that blows past [the untouchable] will blow on him as
well.”2 To underscore the Buddhist distaste for such prejudice, the Buddhist
author suggests that the untouchable in the story might be the Buddha
himself in a previous incarnation.

In cities, wealth mattered more than birth, a fact that bothered Brahmins
but appealed to Buddhists. The Vedas disparaged mercantile activity and
forbade usury, while Buddhism favored commerce and investment. The
Buddha advised his followers to avoid expenditures on ritual (Brahminical
expenses) and devote only a quarter of their income to daily expenses.
Another quarter was to be saved and the remaining half invested.3

Mauryan Dynasty. Buddhism both reflected and encouraged the new
urban state society of the Mauryan dynasty (321-184 BCE). Trade and
artisan guilds (shreni) administered their members and gathered
considerable resources to their workshops despite their varna status as
Sudras. A Greek ambassador to Mauryan India in 302 BCE, Megasthenes,
said that Pataliputra, the capital city, was governed by a committee of 30.
Its six subcommittees were involved with economic matters: industry, trade,
manufactures, taxes, the welfare of foreigners, and recording births and

Ashoka. In fact, Mauryan cities were governed by the kings of the
dynasty: first the founder, Chandragupta Maurya (321-297 BCE), and then
his descendants. Perhaps the most famous of these was the king Ashoka
(268-232 BCE), who united all of northern India (including modern

Afghanistan and Pakistan) into a single empire. But Ashoka’s fame does not
rest on the fact that he ruled more of the subcontinent than anyone before
modern times. Nor does it stem from his brutal defeat of the Kalingas, the
last unconquered people north of central India. Rather, the memory of
Ashoka is honored for what he did after the victory over the Kalingas.
Remorseful of the human cost of his victory, Ashoka converted to
Buddhism and renounced warfare. Instead of soldiers, he sent out ministers
of dharma (goodness) to administer the kingdom.

Buddhism, Politics, and Commerce. Ashoka’s benevolence may not have
been as effective as his grandfather Chandragupta’s reliance on almost a
million soldiers, thousands of spies, and the advice of his aide, Kautilya, on
the uses of deceit and treachery. The empire fell apart after Ashoka’s death,
and Hinduism replaced Buddhism in India. Hindu ideas of divinely
endowed kingship were more useful to kings and Kshatriyas throughout
South Asia. Buddhists preferred the quiet and direct dharma of monasteries
to the messiness of politics. But Buddhists gave ascent to Hindu rulers in
return for a free hand in their religious endeavors. It was a good
compromise. Hinduism was a tolerant system that took no interest in
people’s beliefs as long as rulers were obeyed and priests were
compensated. Buddhist monasteries, hospitals, and schools were jewels of
the kingdom that performed needed services. The Buddhist embrace of
poverty was oddly a route to general prosperity. Monks and scholars
worked hard for little return, investing their energies in the needs of the
community, even encouraging production and trade. It was a recipe for
economic growth and indifference to politics.

Neither Hindus nor Buddhists sought political identities. People
identified themselves by lineage, varna, jati, or religious community but not
city, state, or territory. Religious communities could function isolated in the
forest or in a monastery within the city, but these were separate
communities. Buddhist holy sites attracted pilgrims or worshippers but
rarely settlers, and they did not become reasons for building a city. Indian
cities lacked public squares and neighborhood meeting places. In these
respects, Indian culture was different from that of Greek culture, with its
public market (or agora), acropolis with religious temples, and public
theaters, walks, and monuments.


The Hellenes. Whether the Bronze Age Mycenean palaces were overrun
by starving peasants, northern invaders, or the Sea People who destroyed
Ugarit around 1200 BCE, there followed a century of cooler temperatures
and a longer period of population decline sometimes called “the dark ages.”
From 1100 BCE to about 700 BCE, even writing may have been lost. The
tribes that revived or reinvigorated writing in the seventh century did so
with the aid of a borrowed alphabet and in one of the earliest examples of
their new self-identity called themselves “Hellenes.”

The settlement of Iron Age Greece was probably much like that of India.
People settled into villages; towns became cities. But in Greece, lineage
identities did not hold as strongly as they did in India. The impact of
strangers and foreigners took a greater toll. Eventually, territorial
sovereignty, the authority of the state, or the law of the land replaced the
authority of the tribe or lineage group.

Clans into Citizens. In some sense, all of world history may be
summarized as the process of turning clans into citizens, families into
friends, and relatives into residents. And urbanization—the need to share an
environment with strangers—is a long-term cause of that transformation.
But it did not happen everywhere or at the same pace; indeed, it has still not
happened fully even today. India today is a territorial state in which
everyone must obey the laws of the land. But in India throughout the
classical age, territorial sovereignty was constrained. The growth of cities
weakened lineage attachments, but because people also thought of
themselves in terms of varna, jati, guild, and religious affiliation, Indian
cities did not create new identities as anonymous subjects, neighbors, or
public-spirited citizens.

Greek cities created citizens. Sumerian cities had begun the process but
were then conquered by Akkadian and Babylonian empires. Later
Babylonians under Assyrian rule developed a particular civic identity in the
seventh century. But for the first time, at least since the Sumerians, an entire
nation of people—the speakers of Greek—developed a system in which
civic identity was the core identity. In The Constitution of Athens, Aristotle
tells us how the Athenians accomplished this about 500 BCE. He tells us
that the tribal leader Cleisthenes ended a system of alternating rule by the
heads of the leading tribes by creating artificial tribes that were groups of
neighbors rather than relatives and by making these artificial tribes the basic
political units of Athens. Further, each of the 10 new tribes was composed
of city, country, and coastal people so that each tribe would have an identity
not only with its particular neighborhood but also with the larger Athenian

city-state. Finally, all were to take on these new affiliations as their new
names, to be passed on to their children and descendants. Aristotle’s
description was probably more ideal than reality, but it underscores how
complete the transition from kinship to citizenship was to become.

The Polis and Greek Religion. The Greek system of territorial
sovereignty was based on the polis, which we translate as “city-state.” But
the polis was much more than a city surrounded by enough farm and
pasture to constitute a self-governing state. The polis meant raising politics
above all else: not above the people but above the tribes, above kings, and
even above the gods.

The Greeks were not irreligious. They worshipped the gods. But Greek
cities paid homage to their particular patron deities, whose statue was
placed high above the city on the hill of the Acropolis and adorned on
special feast days for all to see. The temple of Aphrodite looked over
Corinth, Zeus and Athena over Argos, and Athena over Athens. Many cities
also had sanctuaries to the nurturing of Demeter or sanatoriums to the
healing of Asclepius, and Greeks from all cities came together to listen to
the Oracle at Delphi, honor Apollo at Delos, or pay homage to Zeus at

Public Spaces and Public Dramas. Each city crowded around a large
public meeting place, the agora, part market, part public square, and part
promenade, where one came as much for gossip and amusement as for
buying and selling. Around the agora were temples, covered markets, a
gymnasium, shrines, public buildings, and perhaps a law court or theater.
Every city of any size had a theater, a large concave, rock-inlaid tier of seats
carved out of a hillside, facing a stage. There they saw the great dramas of
Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles and the comedies of Aristophanes.
There they recalled the patriotism of their fathers in the war with Persia in
480 BCE as depicted in Aeschylus’s The Persians:

Come, O ye sons of Greeks,
Make free your country; make your

children free,
Your wives, and fanes of your ancestral

And your sires’ tombs! For all we now


On other occasions, they gathered in these or similar assemblies to discuss
the business of their polis or debate matters as weighty as war.

Freedom and Law. Freedom for these Greeks meant self-government and
the rule of law, not individual liberty. The historian Herodotus imagined a
dialogue between the Spartan Demaratus and Xerxes, the king of Persia, on
the eve of the battle memorialized by Aeschylus above. The circumstances
were extraordinary. Demaratus, a former king of the Spartans spurned by
his people, had gone over to the Persian enemy, becoming a trusted
confidant of Xerxes. When the Persian king asked if the Greeks,
outnumbered a thousand to one, would surrender, Demaratus said they
would fight until the last man because “they will not under any
circumstances accept terms from you that will mean slavery for Greece; . . .
They are free—yes—but not entirely free; for they have a master, and that
master is Law, which they fear much more than your subjects fear you.”5

Greeks defined themselves as free men under the rule of law. Their self-
government, they believed, separated themselves from all the empires
around them. Herodotus also tells us that one of Xerxes’ most trusted and
fearless allies, Artemisia, advised the Persian king that all his vast armies
from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria, and the Mediterranean were inferior to
the Greeks because the Greeks were their own masters. “Good masters have

poor servants,”6 Artemisia told Xerxes. And since Xerxes was “the best
master in the world,” he had a “miserable lot” of allies.

Greek success against the Persians, the largest empire in the world at the
end of the sixth century BCE, lay with the organization of the polis and the
citizen militias that trained continually and enlisted every citizen in time of
war. The classical Greek military formation, the phalanx, in which each
soldier moved in unison, protected each neighbor with a large shield, and
taught discipline, coordination, and mutual responsibility. Citizens who
could not afford the expense of arms for the phalanx learned to fight in
unison as rowers on the naval battering rams called triremes, where 170
oars touched the sea simultaneously to the beat of a shrill pipe.

Law and War between States. In the decades after the Greek defeat of the
Persians in 480 BCE, the Athenians created a navy of hundreds of such
ships that they allied with the smaller navies of other Greek city-states in
the Delian League. At first, each city-state had a vote in the league council
that met in neutral territory at the temple of Apollo on the island of Delos.
After the Persian threat seemed to wane, some Athenian allies sought to
withdraw from the league. But the alliance was too important to Athens as
the dominant power. Gradually, Athens turned the league into an instrument
of the Athenian Empire, building the membership to more than 100 while
preventing withdrawals, moving the treasury and council to Athens, and
directing the league into the coming struggle with Sparta and its allies in the
Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE).

Sparta was a very different city-state from Athens. While Athens was a
commercial and maritime democracy, Sparta was a land-based, aristocratic,
militarized city-state. The Spartan ruling class consisted of full-time
soldiers, enlisted until the age of 60, living a hard, physical “Spartan” life
made affordable by a class of conquered “helots” who grew their daily
bread. When the Spartan Demaratus told the Persian Xerxes that Greeks
would die for freedom and the law, he did not mean personal freedom but
the freedom of the Greek state, and he did not mean the rights of citizens
but the rule of law. In that regard, the Spartans were not that different from
most Athenians.

The Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta was provoked by
Sparta, but the longer-term cause, according to Thucydides, the Athenian
participant and historian, was “the power of Athens” and the fear that such
power engendered among the Spartans. The long war raged not only in the

Peloponnese Peninsula, the home of Sparta, and throughout the rest of
Greece but also in the waters of the Mediterranean and the Bosporus and in
the cities of Sicily, North Africa, and what is today eastern Turkey. Both
Athenians and Spartans had numerous opportunities to accept a peace, but
the democratic forces of Athens and the proud ruling fathers of Sparta
would have none of it. Finally, the end came for Athens in 404 BCE, when
its navy was annihilated by Persian ships sailing for Sparta.

Laws of Nature. The idea of the rule of law may have guided the
development of Greek science as much as politics. Greek philosophers
looked for laws of nature that regulated the natural world in the same way
that human laws regulated the social world. This idea of nature as a separate
realm that could be understood by human reason was probably new in
history. Earlier civilizations had solved particular scientific problems. The
Mesopotamians recorded enough information about the positions of the sun,
moon, and stars that they were able to predict new moons and possibly
eclipses. The Egyptians recorded the daily movements of the star Sirius,
which seemed to predict the rise of the Nile River. But this was pattern
recognition from endless lists, a systematic activity undertaken by priests or
scribes on behalf of the king.

The Greeks were the first to pose and attempt to answer questions about
nature and the universe. Without regard to a particular problem and without
the prodding of political authority, individuals like Thales as early as the
sixth century tried to answer such questions as the basic ingredients of all
matter. Some, like Thales, thought that it was water; others believed that
everything was made of tiny particles, which they called atoms. The earliest
such thinkers were Ionian Greeks. In the sixth century, Ionians had long
lived on the Asian mainland in what is today eastern Turkey but was then
part of the Persian Empire, and some had already migrated to Athens. As
the richest city-state in the fifth century, Athens drew the best minds of the
Mediterranean, but Athens did not always provide the best environment for
speculative thought.

In some respects, the Persians were more supportive of free inquiry. The
Persian Empire may have been the first in world history to accept the
different religions and cultures of its many subject peoples. Consequently,
the empire did not repress the speculative thought of Thales and the Ionian
natural philosophers. By contrast, when Anaxagoras, an Ionian
mathematician and astronomer, brought Ionian scientific ideas to Athens

about 480 BCE, he was imprisoned for declaring that the sun and moon
were not gods but only rocks like the earth. Even the great Athenian
philosophers, Socrates and Plato, preferred to think of the basic ingredient
of things in ethical rather than material terms. Eventually, however, the
work of the Ionians prevailed in Athens. They developed logical formulas,
laws of geometry, trigonometry, and higher mathematics. Astronomers
understood that the earth and moon revolved around the sun, computed
accurate sizes and distances for these bodies, and not only predicted
eclipses but also understood why they occurred.7 Hippocrates, the founder
of modern medicine, speculated about arteries and veins, practiced
dissections, diagnosed illnesses, and bequeathed the “Hippocratic oath” of
physicians to do no harm. A modern historian of science suggests that the
Greek struggle to discover truths of nature was a by-product of the intense
debates in the law courts and assembly. In the competitive give-and-take of
Greek public life, “it was dissatisfaction with merely persuasive arguments
used there that led some philosophers and mathematicians to develop their
alternative, to capture the high ground,” with incontrovertible truths “that
would silence the opposition once and for all.”8

Athenian Democracy. Most of the Greek city-states were self-governing
territorial states ruled by law, though some were ruled by kings, aristocrats,
or even tyrants periodically. Few, however, were democracies, and Athens
was the most democratic of all: in some ways more democratic than modern
democracies. Some Greeks feared that democracy might lead to mob rule.
Socrates and his student Plato, whose dialogues are our only written record
of the thoughts of Socrates, believed that only philosophers should rule. In a
famous passage in Plato’s Republic, the Philosopher suggests that most
people are like denizens in a cave who take the reflected light on the wall
for the only reality. Most Athenians, however, prided themselves on their

The level of participation of citizens in government decision making was
far higher than it is today. Citizens participated in a number of ways. First
they came together in the Assembly to discuss public issues, debate
proposals, and pass laws. The Assembly was therefore the equivalent of our
Congress, and all citizens were legislators. Second, as members of one of
the 10 tribes, citizens were chosen by lot to serve on the Athenian Council
of 500, 50 members of which were again chosen by lot each month to
administer the departments of government. From those 50, one citizen was

chosen by lot each day to be Athenian president and chair of the Assembly.
The turnover—and the resulting level of participation—was staggering by
modern standards. One wonders how they got anything done and where
they found so many able people. Since they accomplished a great deal and
kept a relatively constant course, the answer must be that citizenship was a
constant preparation. The prospect of being suddenly selected by lot to lead
the country ensured their readiness, and the knowledge that they would be
“president” for only a day ensured their commitment to the continuing
interests of the larger community.

In addition to choosing their governors by lot, the Athenians also had
elective offices. As the statesman Pericles put it,

It is true that we are called a democracy, because the administration is in the hands of the
many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private
disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way
distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the
reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever
the obscurity of his condition.

We might find it strange, however, that one of the most prestigious
offices that Athenians chose to elect was that of general. Each tribe elected
a general each year, and the group formed a College of Generals who were
responsible for military strategy in time of war. Perhaps in a world of
citizen soldiers, military leadership was considered a widely available civic
talent rather than a specialized skill. Pericles, the most famous statesman of
Athens in the mid-fifth century, was able to exert enormous influence by
virtue of his election as general 15 years in a row, including the early years
of the Peloponnesian War with Sparta.

Athens City Limits. Citizenship in the ancient world was severely limited
by modern standards. Even in Athens, women, foreigners, slaves, and
former slaves were excluded from citizenship. Although estimates vary,
slavery may have been pervasive, especially within the city. Many poorer
Athenians were also sent to the numerous city-state colonies that Athenians
settled throughout the Mediterranean. The resulting Athenian Empire put
Athenians on an almost constant war footing. In a famous funeral oration
marking the death of Athenian young men early in the Peloponnesian War,
Pericles urged his listeners to be proud of their sacrifice:

I would have you day by day fix your eyes upon the greatness of Athens, until you become
filled with the love of her; and when you are impressed by the spectacle of her glory, reflect

that this empire has been acquired by men who knew their duty and had the courage to do it,
who in the hour of conflict had the fear of dishonor always present to them, and who, if ever
they failed in an enterprise, would not allow their virtues to be lost to their country, but freely
gave their lives to her as the fairest offering which they could present at her feast.

The rhetoric of patriotic sacrifice, familiar to the modern ear if generally
limited to wartime and Memorial Day, was first voiced in classical Greece.
One of its roots was, oddly, democracy—at least a democracy that required
slaves and colonies. But another root may have been the city-state itself: so
numerous in the ancient Mediterranean that they were bound to rub up
against each other, even if there were no Persian Empire to settle disputes.
And on a deeper level, patriotic sacrifice may have been the logical
conclusion of territorial sovereignty. What greater power could the state
command over the tribal patriarch or the mother of a family than the power
to take away their sons forever? What greater defeat over the lineage
system than to not only gain the acceptance of the grieving parents but also
win their pride?

No society has existed very long without a means for turning some
people into soldiers. The Persian Empire raised armies from the provincial
governors, satraps, who received crown lands in return for troops. Classical
India designated a hereditary population for military service and
governance. The classical Hinduism of the Bhagavad Gita justified the
sacrifice and killing by those whose varna was fighting. All ancient (and
modern) societies purchased allies and used mercenaries. But the territorial
state, especially as epitomized by fifth-century Athens, made the citizen
army a source of new life as well as a new source of death.

The Worlds of Rome and China
The differences between classical Rome and China were far greater than the
differences between India and Greece. China was much older, having
created a Bronze Age culture at least 1,000 years before the legendary
foundation of Rome, with little or no contact with the Bronze Age societies
of the Middle East, Africa, and India. Chinese language families were
different from the Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic. Chinese written
characters, which signified words, were not primarily phonetic or sound

based, and Chinese foods, housing, and religion developed independently of
the other great civilizations.

There were similarities between these great empires, however. Both were
large territorial states in which a central government controlled numerous
subject peoples. The unification of China and the expansion of Rome
occurred simultaneously during the classical Iron Age, between 200 BCE
and 200 CE. Each empire ruled at least 50 million people in an area of over
12 million square miles. The Chinese Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE)
probably supported a larger population, partly because Chinese agriculture
was more intensive than Roman. Both regimes managed to fund and field
enormous armies, tax and control competitors for power in their own
aristocracies, and convert millions to their cultural ideas. After the second
century CE, however, both became increasingly vulnerable to the nomadic
people of the steppe whom both called “barbarians.”


Greco-Roman Society and Hellenism. In its early centuries, from the
fourth to the first century BCE, Roman society followed many of the ways
of Greece. Romans imbibed Greek culture, imitated its literature and art,
and prided themselves on their institutions of self-government. Citizenship
was even more widespread in Rome during the Roman republic (fourth to
first century BCE) than it had been in Greece.

Greece, in turn, had both defeated itself and converted its neighbors. The
Peloponnesian War, in which Sparta defeated Athens, exhausted the Greek
city-states and made them easy prey to the armies of Philip of Macedon and
his son, Alexander the Great. Alexander, trained by Aristotle, brought
Greek culture as far as India before he died in Babylon in 323 BCE. The
huge empire of Greek learning that Alexander forged and left to his
generals after his death has been called Hellenistic to describe the
continuing importance of Greek political and cultural models.

Rome expanded in the third and second centuries BCE in the shadow of
that Hellenistic world. Initially a city-state, Rome annexed other city-states

in Italy, many former Greek colonies, so that it controlled the whole Italian
peninsula by 235 BCE, thus confronting Carthage in Sicily, North Africa,
and Spain. In three wars (264-146 BCE) Rome defeated Carthage, securing
important silver mines in Spain and a western Mediterranean empire. The
conquest of the Hellenistic kingdoms of Greece and Asia followed. But
with the conquest of Macedonia in 196 BCE, the Roman Senate presented
Roman troops as liberators, bringing the “freedom of the Greeks” against
Asian kings and tyrants, a propaganda move that reflected Roman
identification with Greek ideas of freedom, constitutionalism, and the rule
of law.

Republic Not a Democracy. The Roman republic (which lasted until 27
BCE) was not a democracy, however. Although citizenship was widespread
since all citizens bore arms, political power was shared by a class of
selfselected nobility who governed as senators. The senatorial class was an
exclusive club of men from large landowning families who devoted their
time to public affairs and were not involved in business. The Romans
prided themselves on their constitution, an unwritten tradition of
governmental institutions and procedures.

Armies, Lands, and Citizens. Like Greece, the strength of Roman society
was in its citizen army of independent landowners. In 391 BCE, when
Rome was not much more than the city, an army of aristocrats was defeated
by a force of nomadic Gauls who proceeded to burn down the city. When
the Gauls left, ruling patricians called for vast constitutional changes in
Rome. They extended citizenship and accompanying military service to
small landowners (plebeians), distributed land to landless farmers
(proletarians) so that they too could become citizen-soldiers, and granted
the plebian assembly the power to pass laws. Plebeians could become
consuls, the “presidents” and future senators of the republic, and plebian
leaders, called tribunes, were granted extraordinary veto powers. The new
constitution gave an extensive Roman citizenry a sense of common purpose
and a common dedication to defend the state with their lives.

In time, patrician commitment to commonality waned as memories of the
crisis dimmed. And as Roman armies spent more planting seasons
conquering Italy and invading Carthage (in the First Punic War, 264-241
BCE), many Romans were forced to choose between farming and fighting.
But even in the Second Punic War against Carthage (218-202 BCE) the
threat of Hannibal’s armies approaching Rome was enough to revive the old

sense of common responsibility. In arguing the need of patrician women to
give up some of their luxuries for the war effort, the historian Livy tells us
that many of the men had already done so.

Praetors and Publicans. Romans applied their republican traditions of
self-government to others as well as themselves. Greeks, as well as some
conservative Romans, were shocked to hear the announcement at the
Isthmian Games in 168 BCE, after the quick Roman defeat of Macedon,
that Romans had come not to conquer but to liberate Greek cities. “Freedom
for the Greeks” echoed Greco-Roman values. The conquered kingdoms of
Greece and Asia (Turkey, Egypt, and Syria) were incorporated as Roman
provinces and largely left to their own traditions although administered by
Roman magistrates drawn from the city government of Rome.

Roman administration would have struck even a twenty-first-century
American as highly privatized. All public economic functions, including tax
collecting, were subcontracted by the Roman Senate to private
entrepreneurs called publicani. These businessmen (later companies)
bought the right to collect taxes in conquered provinces. To the modern eye,
even in a society that has privatized some prisons, schools, postal services,
and military functions, the possibilities of corruption in private tax
collecting (in addition to all of these) would seem enormous. But the
Romans at the top, the senatorial class, thought of themselves (almost like
Indian Brahmins) as a class apart from the world of business. Publicani
were excluded from political office and professed no interest in politics.
Senators did not socialize with publicani. When the Senate sent out a
provincial governor or praetor, he was expected to ensure that business was
carried out honestly and without favoritism.

Cicero on Provincial Government. In 60 BCE, the great Roman orator
and statesman Cicero wrote a letter to his brother Quintus, governor of
Asia, that conveys both the noble ideal and the array of temptations
awaiting a provincial governor:

It is a splendid thing to have been three years in supreme power in Asia without allowing
statue, picture, [silver] plate, na-pery, slave, anyone’s good looks, or any offer of money—all
of which are plentiful in your province—to cause you to swerve from the most absolute
honesty and purity of life.9

The job of a governor, Cicero reminded his brother, might routinely
involve suppressing “some fraudulent banker or some rather over-

extortionate tax-collector.” These tax collectors were the publicans. You
could not do without them, but you had to watch them like a hawk.

Civil War and Empire. Cicero’s era was disappearing as he wrote. A
series of civil wars in the second and first centuries BCE had already
undermined the independence of the Roman citizen-soldier. By Cicero’s
time, standing armies of camp followers and paid professionals followed
the ambitions of their generals. Most could no longer afford family farms
and seasons of peace. Full-time soldiers needed full-time wars. A new breed
of generals built careers on imperial campaigns. Rich men purchased
armies: no one was truly wealthy unless he could afford to pay for a legion,
the truly wealthy Marcus Crassus advised. After a victory in Asia or Gaul, a
victorious general could make any claim, holding his loyal troops as
collateral. Pompey returned victorious from his Asian campaign as the
richest and most powerful person in Rome. His arrangements with Asian
kings and Roman friends in senatorial and business classes made him for all
practical purposes the “owner” of the Roman provinces in Asia. The verdict
of a modern historian reads, “No administration in history has ever devoted
itself so whole-heartedly to fleecing its subjects for the private benefit of
the ruling class as Rome of the last ages of the Republic.”10

By the 50s and 40s BCE, it had become possible for a particularly
ambitious Roman aristocrat, like Julius Caesar, to initiate a foreign and a
civil war for his own glory and profit. In his triumphal celebration of 46
BCE, after conquering Gaul, defeating the Roman armies of his rival
Pompey, and capturing Egypt, Caesar distributed a huge bonus to his
soldiers, paraded captured treasures and 10 tons of gold crowns in a victory
procession, and put on the largest gladiatorial games anyone had ever seen.

Caesar’s death in 44 BCE plunged Rome into a civil war between his
adopted son and great nephew, Octavian, and Mark Anthony, respectively.
It completely erased any boundaries between private interest and res
publica. One case in point: in 36 BCE, Mark Anthony gave Cleopatra, his
lover and ally as queen of Egypt, the island of Cyprus, the Cilician coast (of
Turkey), Phoenicia, Western Syria, Judea, and Arabia. Whole countries
were no longer provinces of the Roman people; they were the personal
possessions of those who ruled.

Empire and Law. Octavian defeated Mark Anthony in 31 BCE and
became the most powerful Roman ever. Then, in 27 BCE, as “Augustus,”
he presented the new political order as a restoration of the republic. He later

wrote, “I was in absolute control of everything, I transferred the res publica
from my own charge to the Senate and the Roman people. For this I was
given the title Augustus by the decree of the Senate.”11 He styled himself
Princeps, merely first man, of the Roman state. There would be nothing like
the title of permanent dictator that Julius Caesar had secured just before his

All the powers of Augustus were sanctioned by law. He simply put
together more titles and offices than had any single individual before the
decades of civil war. From the Senate and people, he received military
command (imperium) over certain recently conquered provinces (Gaul,
Spain, Syria, and Egypt) that contained the bulk of the Roman armies. In
addition, he had himself repeatedly elected consul or tribune of the people,
offices traditionally limited to a year but also frequently extended in the age
of Pompey and Caesar.

Certainly, Augustus did not intend to restore the republic, and in that he
probably had the support of most Romans, whose principal desire was
peace and order after years of anarchy. Yet Augustus, like many Romans,
was schooled in a 500-year tradition of rule by law stemming from the city-
states of Greece. Therefore, if new powers were necessary, they had to be
tailored to tradition and legal precedent. Augustus attempted, without
success, to reduce the size of the Senate in order to make it a more effective
body. He refused titles of divinity and “master” of the Senate and people.
Nevertheless, he eventually accepted lifetime offices, superior powers and
the building of temples to the “divine Augustus” in Roman provinces like
Egypt, where divine rulers were traditional.

Romans did not lose the idea of the rule of law. Whether it was a guide or
an unattainable ideal, it was always part of Roman expectations, even when
least realized. Later emperors looked back to the principate of Augustus as
their model. In 54 CE, the young emperor Nero declared his desire to return
to Augustan principals: “Nothing in his household would be bought by
money or open to intrigue; his private self and public self would be kept
quite separate from each other. The Senate would keep its traditional
prerogatives.”12 Such ideals were often far from the realities of rule, not
least in the case of Nero, but even among the most autocratic of emperors,
the rule of law reared its head. When, for instance, the emperor Claudius
wanted to marry his niece despite the fact that it was specifically prohibited

by law, he did not assume that he was above the law; rather, he went to the
trouble of having the law changed.

Administering the Roman Empire. Augustus reformed the administration
of the empire, making the provinces more uniform and government
supervision more regular, but Roman rule remained indirect, decentralized,
and entrepreneurial for another 200 years. In Italy and Greece, the empire
was a federation of city-states, each of which enjoyed considerable local
autonomy except in foreign policy. In Asia, the empire consisted of cities
and kingdoms, most of which were ruled by local royalty and nobility with
minimum Roman oversight. The brunt of imperial power—the Roman
legions—was felt in recently conquered areas and on the borders where
Roman power was still challenged. In the middle of the second century, 10
of 28 Roman legions were stationed in England and northern Europe,
controlling recently subjected tribes, as well as those across the border.
Another 10 legions controlled the new imperial provinces of Egypt and

Augustus also reformed the military system in a way that lasted until the
third century. In addition to the regular army of citizen soldiers commanded
by senatorial officers, he created an auxiliary army of foreigners who
received Roman citizenship when discharged. They were commanded by
middle-class Romans who were eager to climb the Roman social and
political ladder. In this way, the Romans retained the model of citizen-
soldiers and spread their culture and values to new citizens, but the military
had become a full-time job. No longer could a farmer like the legendary
Cincinnatus leave his field for emergency public service. The new legions
were settled in distant areas of the empire where they were conscripted for
numerous peacetime chores as well as soldiering. They spent their military
years in forts, camps, and border towns where their presence was often
harshly felt by civilians. “Don’t bother to call the authorities if a soldier
beats you up,”13 Juvenal advised. Soldiers were subject only to military
courts, which, according to the poet, always took their side.

No Bureaucracy. For all this, the Roman Empire was remarkably
unbureaucratic. Compared to modern political administrations or, as we
shall see, the Chinese Empire of the same period, Roman administration
seemed spontaneous, haphazard, and arbitrary. In part, the reason was the
tradition of local urban autonomy. Each city in the empire, like a miniature
Roman republic, was ruled by the leading local noble families. Whether or
not they held an office, these families tripped over each other to build
public monuments, baths, arenas, theaters, and temples to honor their
ancestors and their city. The cities of the Roman Empire devoted abundant
space to public life as a result. City fathers competed for the acclaim of the
lower classes with gifts of gladiatorial games, festivals, zoos, and even free
bath oil. In return, the city would celebrate the generosity of the donor with

a title that the “patron of the city” or “glorious benefactor” could take to his

The empire was run for profit, although the publicans of the republic
were no longer a separate class under the empire. Nobles, consuls, senators,
and even emperors bought shares in the new corporate contractors who
collected taxes, built aqueducts and roads, and administered whole
countries. Bribes, kick-backs, and payoffs greased the machinery of empire
without a Ciceronian raised eyebrow.

Laws still mattered to the Romans, but the growing body of Roman law
regulated property and civil disputes, which were largely private matters.
Matters of administration were mainly local, and they varied from one
jurisdiction to another. Roman law was more judge made than legislative
since magistrates were the leading officials of most cities. For imperial
administration, the Romans preferred roads to laws, publicani to praetors,
and business to bureaucracy.

Army, local notables, and corporate publicani created an ad hoc empire,
making it up as they went along. As a result, emperors often found
themselves involved in the minute detail of administration. In a series of
letters between Pliny, governor of Bithnia in modern Turkey, and the
emperor Trajan, Pliny asks the emperor about such minor matters of
administration as how to treat accused Christians and whether he could
form a firefighting brigade in the town of Nicomedia. There was evidently
no official policy, department of state, or administrative handbook—at least
none that worked as well as a letter to the emperor. Nor does policy emerge
from individual cases. One suspects that the next governor concerned about
Christians or the need for a fire brigade would also have to write to the

The Pax Romana. The emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 CE) streamlined Roman
administration and created a new “Augustan Age” of peace and cultural
flowering in the second century. Edward Gibbon, the great eighteenth-
century historian of Rome, wrote that if one were to pick the most happy
and prosperous time in the history of the world, it would clearly be the
period from 96 to 180 CE. The second-century emperors rebuilt the city of
Rome in a new cosmopolitan splendor, and many provincial notables
followed suit. The boundaries of the empire reached their furthest limits
under Trajan and his successor, Hadrian (117-138 CE).

The Pax Romana that began with Augustus continued, despite
interruptions, through the age of the “Good Emperors” until the reign of
Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180 CE), the “philosopher-emperor” whose
philosophical Stoicism expressed both the vulnerabilities and the
detachment of the new age. After a series of wars in Europe and Asia and a
virulent plague spread by his returning legions, Marcus Aurelius wrote in
his notebook The Meditations,

He who fears death either fears the loss of sensation or a different kind of sensation. But if you
lose sensation, you feel no pain; and if you feel a different sensation, at least you are alive.

The Third Century. The end of the Roman peace and the increased
incidence of war in the third century led to the militarization of Roman
society. Describing the third century, a modern historian writes, “There
came a time when scribes were soldiers, bishops were soldiers, local
governors were soldiers, the Emperor was a soldier. At that point the end of
the ancient world was in sight.”14


Similarities and Differences. At first glance, classical China was very
much like classical Rome: same time period, roughly the same size and
population, and both based on agriculture and run by large noble families
and a monarch. Both used large armies of horsemen and commoners to
create empires over subject populations. Both developed Iron Age book-
based cultures that shaped common identity and provided a sense of cultural
superiority over nomadic “barbarians.”

China had certain natural advantages. The light soil called loess15 that
clung to the hillsides of the Yellow River valley was unusually rich in
nutrients. Chinese farmers could grow millet, an ideal cereal grain for dry
climates, without fertilizers (normally animal manure in India, Greece, and
Rome), and they could plant continually without having to leave the land
fallow half the time. In addition, compared to wheat, the chief Roman grain,
millet, yielded twice as many grains at each planting. Consequently,
Chinese millet agriculture on loess soil was four times as productive as
Roman wheat. The state of Qin (pronounced “chin”), which conquered
other states and gave its name and direction to the first unified China, was

raised on loess-grown millet. As China expanded south of the Yangtze
River, it added rice-producing areas that vastly increased agricultural
productivity. In addition, the Chinese state grew expert at various forms of
water management, introducing irrigation in the north and “wet rice” paddy
agriculture in the south. Both of these multiplied yields.

The Chinese Empire encompassed more desert and low-rainfall areas
than the Roman Empire. However, the productivity of Chinese agriculture
compensated for this with a vastly greater population density in prime
growing areas. One consequence was that Chinese agriculture precluded
mixed farming and herding. While China had all the animals that Romans
raised—and any Chinese farm of substance found room for pigs and ducks
—the Chinese devoted much less land than Rome to raising animals,
especially cattle. Animal manure was not necessary for raising crops, and
cattle were expensive since they consumed 90 percent of the grain that
would otherwise be available to humans. One consequence was that the
Chinese diet, compared to the Roman diet, was lower in meat, especially

beef, and virtually devoid of milk and cheese. The high-vegetarian, low
animal-fat diet still distinguishes Chinese from most European cuisines

China had one considerable physical disadvantage compared to Rome: it
was much more of a continental empire. This had enormous implications
for transportation and communications within the Chinese Empire. One
historian evokes the Roman fixation on gladiatorial games to suggest that
the entire Roman Empire took the shape of an amphitheater bank of seats
around the Mediterranean Sea. He adds,

Like the [Persian] Achaemenid Empire, Han China was a road state on a plateau, and this in
itself ensured inferiority in spatial integration to a Mediterranean empire, since in pre-modern
conditions land transport was twenty to forty times more expensive than water transport.16

Of course, China had rivers, running mainly west to east, and eventually
the Grand Canal to connect them, but compared to an empire surrounding a
sea, the point still stands. Rome also developed the advantage of road
networks to move troops and transport goods. Rome had 27 miles of road
per 1,000 square miles, almost double China’s 14. On the other side of the
ledger, paved roads were necessary only for wheeled transport since paving
kept roads from turning into ruts in rain. Horses and camels were far
cheaper and more efficient than wheeled carts. On balance, however, the
physical integration of the Chinese Empire was not as great as that of the
Roman Empire.

Lineages, Cities, and States. The creation of the Chinese state—by
unifying various warring states and kingdoms into a single China—was the
work of the Qin which, like Rome, gave its name to the new empire it
governed. Unlike Rome, however, Qin was not the name of a city but the
name of a lineage or family. This is an important difference between the
Roman and Chinese paths to state formation and empire. All states, traced
back far enough, descend from tribal chiefdoms or societies made up of
extended families called lineages. In the section on Greece, we followed
Aristotle’s description of the reforms of Cleisthenes around 500 BCE, and
we suggested that this might stand as a model for the general transformation
from family-based societies to public soci-eties—cities and states. The
difference between Greece and China, however, is that the Greeks created
city-based states, city-states, before larger states or empires, and the
Chinese created a state directly, without the intermediate step of cities or

city-states. Greek and Roman state formation was in the tradition of the
Middle East and Mediterranean, where cities were important power centers
since the urban revolution. Chinese state building was more like that of
ancient Egypt, where cities mattered less than royal dynastic families. We
might consider the Indian route a third variant. There, lineages remained
important as cities were created, but cities did not create states. Indian cities
housed many independent cells but were themselves governed, often
loosely, by monarchs. A city-state is a much easier thing to create than a
lineage state. The smaller scale of a city ensures some degree of familiarity
and participation by the residents. Even an empire builder of a territory that
includes many city-states can take advantage, as the Romans did, of their
existing institutions. By contrast, the creation of a state over other lineages
and vast territories requires the pacification or replacement of other lineage
heads and often involves the deployment of large (and expensive)
occupation armies. On the other hand, once firmly established, a lineage
state might have fewer pockets of political or cultural resistance to a
uniform, centralized administration. Concentrated power at the top might
endure longer, and if the reins fall out of the hands of one, they might easily
be picked up by another.

The earliest Chinese state, the Xia (22001800 BCE), centered on the
lower Yellow River, may have established a signature Chinese political
system in which a centralized benevolent kingship ruled the state through
law and harsh punishment, but most local decisions were made by clans and
families. Such a system was evident in the Shang dynasty state (1766-1122
BCE), which circled the territory of the Xia, doubling its size and extending
to the coast across the northern Chinese Yellow River but not as far as the
Yangtze River in the south. The Zhou (pronounced “joe”) dynasty (1045-
256 BCE) circled the Shang, doubling the size again. In later centuries of
the Zhou dynasty, called the Warring States period (403-221 BCE), the state
was vastly reduced and seriously challenged. Across China, powerful
lineages and warrior armies replaced organized state structures. Feudal
lords, lineage powers, personal relationships, and family ties were the only
political reality. In this period, many Chinese thinkers looked back to the
early Zhou centuries as a golden age of political stability and sought lessons
for the re-creation of a Chinese state. Out of many competing schools of
thought, two became particularly influential in this period, one associated
with Confucius and the other with a group of thinkers called “legalists.”

Confucius. Kong Fuzi (551-479 BCE), “Master Kong” to his followers
and “Confucius” in the Latinized version, was a teacher and philosopher
who sought employment as a public official. Like his Greek
contemporaries, Socrates and Plato, Confucius was too independent a
thinker (though he insisted he was not), maybe even a bit too cantankerous,
to gain the approval of those in power. In any case, he did not rise beyond
the level of a minor official in his native state of Lu in northern China. In
search of a ruler who would give him broader authority, he roamed the
feudal states of northern China but without success. Eventually, he returned
home and devoted his life to teaching others.

Like many founders of classical traditions—Socrates, the Buddha, Jesus,
and Muhammad—Confucius was a talker rather than a writer and left no
writings in his own hand. According to tradition, he did gather classical
Zhou texts that he used in his teaching, but the closest thing we have to his
own words are the “sayings” known as the Lun Yu, or Analects, which were
collected by generations of students. If these sayings are more reliable than
most modern classroom notes, they show a moral philosophers interested in
proper behavior and good government. In this respect, he is more like the
Greeks than religious leaders. In fact, Confucius professed little interest in
spiritual matters. When asked how to serve ghosts and spirits, he is reported
to have replied that it was difficult enough to understand the living. But
where the Greeks sought abstract truths like “the meaning of justice,” the
Analects taught practical lessons, such as the proper observance of tradition.

Learning, decorum, and propriety were the conservative values of
Confucius. He favored those who showed respect for tradition, ritual, and
order. He believed that people were basically good but that humanity
consisted of natural inferiors and superiors and that society functioned best
when people accepted their place. In these respects, Confucius would have
received nodding agreement from Socrates and Plato. Confucius, however,
would not have agreed with the Greek and Roman idea of politics as a
separate realm of activity or thought. For Confucius, the model for a
successful state was the family. A good ruler is like a good father. He sets
an example that his dependents will seek to emulate. “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.”

The wind does not trample the grass, however. The most important
possession of a good ruler is the trust of the people, more important than

arms, even more important than food. The ruler should be a gentleman; his
guiding principles should be benevolence and humanity. In return, the
people will be like good children. The linchpin of the Chinese state was
filial piety—the respect, even devotion, that a son owes his father. Filial
piety was a prototype for all proper relationships: wife to husband, sister to
brother, younger to older, servant to master, and commoner to king.

The idea that the state was only a larger family was an idea that made
sense to many in the late Zhou period. That analogy and the belief that
moral example could bind a society like honey might explain some of
Confucius’s following. But there were other voices in the age of the
Warring States, some of which argued the exact opposite: that to be
successful, the state had to eradicate the influence of lineage and family, not
celebrate it.

Legalism and the Unification of China. Confucianism eventually became
a guiding orthodoxy in China, but it was, ironically, an anti-Confucian
philosophy that established the single Chinese state. That philosophy was
called “legalism.” As the name implies, the legalists called for the rule of
law, but they meant something very different from their contemporary
Greeks and Romans. Legalist philosophers like Shang Yang (who became a
powerful minister of the state of Qin in 359 BCE) and Han Fei (280-233
BCE) believed that people were not good enough to be swayed by moral
example or controlled by rituals. Rather, human nature was such that only
laws would keep people in line. Legalism in China was a strategy for
organizing society, not a philosophy of human equality. Legalists believed
that the laws should be applied equally to all subjects, but no one imagined
that the king would be bound by human law.

More important, laws would undercut the authority of lineage chiefs and
family elders, making it possible for the king to rule people directly. In its
attempt to reorganize society in new units, legalist state creation was similar
to that of ancient Athens around 500 BCE. Just as Cleisthenese created 10
artificial “tribes” out of four old clan networks, Shang Yang “commanded
that the people be divided into tens and fives,” the historian Sima Qian
wrote. These new units of society, 5 to 10 households each, were smaller
than the powerful extended families or lineages. When a family had two
adult sons, it was to break apart into separate households. Each member of
the new group was responsible for the actions of the others. In this way,
neither clan leaders nor fathers stood between the state and its subjects.

Shang Yang used the new organization to increase the size and
effectiveness of the Qin army in its conflict with the other “warring states.”
The state kept lists of each of the groups and tied farming to military
service. All men were expected to serve in the army once they were 16 or
17 and reached the height of five feet. On completion of military service,
they were assured farms and were expected to pay taxes. To further
minimize lineage ties, all of Qin society was organized into 20 ranks based
on their productivity, military effectiveness, or general utility to the state.
All hereditary titles were replaced by these ranks, which also determined
the amount of land and housing available as well as the clothing one could

Like the contemporary Greek state of Sparta, the Qin state was organized
as a fighting machine. After 316 BCE, it began to conquer the other states,
some of which were attempting similar reforms a little too slowly and too
late. In 237 BCE, the 22-year-old King Zheng (259-210 BCE) initiated a
series of wars that lasted 15 years but ended in 221 BCE with the
unification of China and his assumption of a new title, Shi Huangdi (“First
August Emperor”).

Qin Creates China. Shi Huangdi immediately set about creating a China
on the model of the Qin state. First, he required all the kings and nobility of
the defeated states (some 120,000 people) to take up residence under his
watchful eye at the Qin capital, Xianyang. Then he reorganized all of China
into 36 “commanderies” and appointed three commanders of each to direct
military, tax-collecting, and administrative duties. Each commandery was
divided into counties where the three functions were duplicated on a local
level. In keeping with legalist thought, the new emperor attempted to
choose political officials by merit and ensure their compliance with the law.
Candidates were tested in examinations, and attempts were made to avoid
conflicts of interest, such as having a senior official govern in his own

In creating a uniform empire, the emperor also sought to eliminate
regional variations. He standardized weights and measures and introduced a
system of coinage—strings of copper coins with square holes—that lasted
until modern times. He also required that all parts of the empire use the
same writing system—newly unified to make communication easier. In
addition, Shi Huangdi is credited with massive public works projects,
including the construction of 4,000 miles of roads, numerous irrigation

canals, and the beginnings of a system of imperial defensive walls that
came to be known, after 1.000 years of further building, as the Great Wall
of China.

Like an Egyptian pharaoh, Shi Huangdi made his own tomb one of his
crowning achievements. The historian Sima Qian wrote that 700.000 people
were employed in the construction of the tomb, deep below sealed-off
rivers. If the historian exaggerated, the recent discovery of the tomb
overpowered archaeologists—not by the bronze arrows triggered to kill
intruders but by its sheer scale and the image of the thousands of lifelike
clay soldiers guarding the still enclosed vault that contained the emperor’s
last remains.

Such massive mobilization of human labor must have taken its toll. Sima
Qian said that all who worked on the tomb were buried alive in order to
conceal its location—a story we hear often of history’s megalomaniacs.
Opposition fed on itself. In 213 BCE, a group of scholars were assembled to
offer advice to the emperor. One scholar called for a return to feudalism and
Confucian values. Enraged, the emperor ordered the burning of all feudal
books (which were written on silk and bamboo since paper had not yet been
invented). A few years later, he had hundreds of scholars executed or
exiled. For whatever reasons, the Qin emperor proved better at constructing
lasting tombs than creating a lasting dynasty. Within three years of the first
emperor’s death, a series of revolts brought to power a commoner whose
success on an exam had given him a minor office but whose speeches
against Qin practices had gained a wide following.

The Solution of Han. The common birth of Liu Bang (r. 206-195 BCE)
might make him seem an unlikely founder of a dynasty, especially one as
storied as the Han (although, in fact, the great Ming dynasty was founded
by a poor and even lower commoner). Maybe it was his face. One of the
stories told by Sima Qian, the grand historian of the Han and earlier
dynasties, is that when Liu Bang met his future wife, the future empress Lu,
he was so poor that he could not hope to persuade her father to let them
marry. Lu’s fortunefather, however, was a fortune-teller who read faces, and
Liu Bang’s face was so unusual that Lu’s father immediately consented to
accept the young man as his son-in-law. A voice and a mind no doubt
helped too. Liu Bang won followers by his vigorous denunciations of Qin
brutality. As his forces took the Qin capital, Liu Bang promised three
things: murderers would be executed, thieves would be punished, and all
other Qin laws would be abolished.

In victory Liu Bang faced many of the same problems as had Shi
Huangdi. The kings and nobles who had been uprooted by the Qin looked
to regain their old estates, privileges, and powers. Liu Bang did not bother
to install his feudal opponents in his new capital at Chang’an. (His armies
had burned down the old Qin capital.) Instead, he created his own regional
rulers and noble families from his own family and supporters. Nine brothers
and sons became kings, 150 important followers received the titles and
lands of nobility, and Liu Bang kept only the western third of the empire,
centered at his capital. But the emperor wanted to retain the centralized
administration of the Qin. He continued the Qin administrative structure
with its commanderies (now numbering 100) and counties (numbering
1,500) and its threefold division of military, taxing, and administrative
departments. While some of these positions were given to former Qin
families who supported him, Liu Bang also looked for sons of new families
and newly schooled advisers. His relationship with scholars was
ambiguous, at one time urinating in a scholar’s hat to show his disdain and
later in life seeking to recruit them.

The Han Empire was considerably larger than its predecessor. Yet in the
northwest, Liu Bang had to accept a stalemate with the Xion-gnu nomads of
the grasslands. Like the Roman standoff with the tribes of its north, the Han
Empire had to continually negotiate its relationship with the peoples of the
steppe, sometimes supplying them with wives and tribute and sometimes
gaining horses, captives, new technologies, and foreign ideas.

Empire and Dynastic Succession. Like the firing of a diviner’s tortoise
shell, the death of Liu Bang revealed the cracks in an emperor’s best-laid
plans. How to institute a system of succession over an empire? Once the
Romans abandoned the system of election and senatorial selection, they
also had to find a way of ensuring continuity. Succession in Rome
sometimes depended on adopted heirs, and some dynasties died out for
want of an heir. Chinese emperors, who kept concubines and allowed
multiple marriages, had the opposite problem: too many potential heirs. Liu
Bang designated a son by his wife Lu as his successor, assuming that she
would protect the youth until he reached maturity. But such a plan worked
only as long as the designated son lived, the mother-protector desired no
power for herself or others, and there were no other ambitious sons or
mothers who could make a claim to the crown. Rarely did all these ducks
line up in a row. In the case of Liu Bang, his chosen successor died early.
The empress Lu continued to govern as guardian of another son, an infant,
and then another. Before she herself died in 180 BCE, however, she had
appointed many of her own family members to important positions and, it is
said, assassinated four of Liu Bang’s sons who had stronger claims to the
throne but were children of other mothers. When the empress Lu died,
imperial officials removed her family members from office and raised one
of Liu Bang’s sons of a courtesan as the next Han emperor.

The continuation of the Han dynasty in some form for 400 years must be
considered quite an accomplishment given the push and pull of innumerable
wives, courtesans, their families, old landed nobles, court officials, and
military leaders. By comparison, the first 200 years of the Roman Empire
saw five dynasties, and the last 200 years saw many more. What made the
Chinese Empire more stable than the Roman? Indeed, what made it possible
for the Chinese Empire to continue into the twentieth century, almost 2,000
years after the Western Roman Empire had disappeared?

The Mandate of Heaven. One reason Chinese dynasties enjoyed such
longevity was the acceptance of the idea that the emperor, his family, and

his entire administration served with the “mandate” or approval of heaven.
According to this idea, which originated in the efforts of the early unifiers
of the Zhou dynasty (1100-256 BCE) to establish their legitimacy and was
enshrined in Confucian philosophy, everything in the world was part of the
moral and physical order ordained by heaven. This conviction, less
demanding than a belief in a providential God, offered more direction than
a Roman belief in quarreling deities. In one sense, the idea was a version of
the traditional conservative: “what is, ought to be.” In practice, however, it
provided a framework for counseling obedience in good times and change
in times of crisis. That is because the indicator of heaven’s mandate was the
general peace and security of the realm. Times of military defeat, natural
crisis, or bad government signaled that the mandate had been lifted and
would be conferred on another family.

A Government of Experts. Another reason for the staying power of the
Chinese state was the creation of a permanent government—the court
officials who helped an emperor govern and remained to ensure his
succession and a bureaucracy that implemented the law and the wishes of
the emperor from the palace grounds to the smallest county seat or

The Chinese invention of the world’s first civil service system more than
2,000 years ago—and about 2,000 years before it was borrowed by
European and North American state builders—can be viewed in different
ways. Western eyes glaze over at the idea of bureaucracy. Eyebrows arch at
the mention of a permanent government. But the idea of “a government of
experts” throws a rosier light. Nevertheless, expertise took on a very
different meaning for the Han Chinese than the word evokes today. In
modern technological society, expertise is technical and practical. That view
was not unknown in Han China; in fact, we have noticed the practical bent
of Han legalists. But under the stewardship of the Han emperor Wu (r. 140-
87 BCE), the legalists were routed, and Confucian learning became the
source of learning for civil service and state administration.

The Confucian idea of expertise was closer to that of Plato—and to that
of the nineteenth-century Western leaders trained in the Greek and Latin
classics—than to today’s idea of technical training. In a word, the
Confucian idea of expertise was gentlemanly behavior: humanity,
righteousness, benevolence, and morality. If these were not qualities likely
to create a state from feuding families, they were qualities that might ensure

honest and fair governance once the forces of disintegration had been
overcome. A modern technocrat (or Qin legalist) might be excused for
thinking that gentlemanly behavior could not be taught. The emperor Wu
understood, as did Confucius himself, that humanity and fair-mindedness
were habits of mind nurtured by the study of the past and the canon of
classical literature. He also, no doubt, recognized that any classical tradition
would ground his government with a set of shared principles and a common

In 136 BCE, shortly after he came to power at the age of 15, Emperor Wu
reserved all academic appointments for specialists in the five great Zhou era
books thought to be edited by Confucius. These books—The Book of
Changes, The Book of Documents, The Book of Songs, The Book of Rites,
and The Spring and Autumn Annals—became the basis of a Confucian
education and the core reading list of the developing civil service exams
that came into widespread use in later centuries. In 124 BCE, the emperor
appointed students to study with Confucian scholars and established an
imperial academy to train future government officials. Then he established
similar schools at the county and local levels to staff the lower levels of
government workers.

The academy and examination system produced a more practical and
professional class of officials. Before the classic texts were emphasized by
Emperor Wu, Confucian officials behaved more like priests than scholars.
In 208 BCE, a group of Confucian scholars who traveled to seek work in
the camp of a Qin rebel dressed in their long robes and carried the ritual
vessels of the Confucian family for their job interviews. Some two centuries
later, an observer remarked about a similar group of Confucian job seekers
that “there were none who did not carry in their arms or on their backs
stacks of texts, when they gathered like clouds in the capital.”17

Many trainees were still accepted on the recommendation of patrons
from important families (and took the exam only to determine their
placement), but the impact of the civil service system was to deprive the
great families of much of their influence. Emperor Wu undermined the role
of the large families in other ways as well. In 127 BCE, he ended the
practice of elder sons inheriting entire estates, forcing them to be broken
down and inherited equally. Like his predecessors, he also required the
leaders of some families to live near the capital and required the members
of some families to move apart from each other. He also broke with the

practice of appointing the heads of noble families as important officials,
choosing instead to make his own appointments.

Salt and Iron. The debate between Confu-cians and legalists did not end
with a Con-fucian victory under Emperor Wu. Rather, it simmered beneath
the surface throughout the Han dynasty, rising to the surface most famously
in the “Salt and Iron Debates” of 81 BCE. Salt and iron were government
monopolies under the Han. The mining and production of salt and iron,
especially salt, provided the government with a considerable income to
supplement variable tax returns, which had declined from one-fifteenth to
one-thirtieth of agricultural produce.

Confucians generally opposed state monopolies, while legalists
supported them. Despite the role the Confucian bureaucracy played in
strengthening the state, Confucian scholars remained suspicious of
economic activity, whether private or government sponsored, and they were
particularly critical of strong governments. Ultimately, the faith of
Confucians in moral example and gentlemanly behavior made them more
sympathetic to the interests of feudalism than of centralized government.

Both sides in the debate posed as the defender of the poor against the
large landowners. The government minister argued the legalist view that
government regulations protected the less powerful:

When the magistrates set up standard weights and measures, the people obtain what they
desire. Even a lad only five feet tall may be sent to the market and no one could cheat him. If
now the monopolies be removed, then aggressive persons would control the use and engross
the profits. . . . This would serve to nourish the powerful and depress the weak, and the
nation’s wealth would be hoarded by thieves.

The Confucian scholars argued that monopolies destroyed the well-being of
the average farmer:

Life and death for the farmers lie in their implements of iron. . . . But when the magistrates
establish monopolies and standardize, then iron implements lose their availability, . . . the
farmer is exhausted in the fields, and grass and weeds are not kept down. . . . As I see it, a
single magistrate damages a thousand hamlets.18

In the end, the Han dynasty kept the salt and iron monopolies and passed
them on to later dynasties as part of a tradition in China of strong,
centralized government directed by an autocratic emperor and administered
by a trained civil service. Confucianism became a ruling orthodoxy, its
classics cribbed for exams and mined for political solutions, but its ideas

often were ignored by those whose main goal was to strengthen the state. In
this respect, the fate of Confucianism was not unlike that of Christianity and
Buddhism in later states: its principles were ignored, while it was enshrined
as the official religion.

Did China benefit from state monopolies in salt and iron? Government
sponsorship of mining supported an advanced technology of drilling and
iron smelting. Han dynasty ironworkers learned to smelt iron at such high
temperatures that they could remove almost all the carbon, in effect creating
steel, a breakthrough not reached in Europe until the eighteenth century.
Whether private initiative (the Roman model) or government sponsorship
(as in China) supported greater innovation or increased revenues is still
debated today. Government direction had the disadvantage of sometimes
stifling new approaches but the advantage of state financing and
institutional memory. Government ownership provided more income than
taxation of private companies—as long as the government companies were
run efficiently and honestly. In general, thanks to Confucian training,
Chinese standards of government administration were almost Ciceronian.

Palace, Consort Families, and Taxes. The underlying weakness of the
Chinese Empire—like the Roman—was the independent wealth and power
of noble families and the growth of the large estates. Both empires faced a
continuing struggle to assert central authority over potential opponents.
Chinese emperors, we have seen, relied on periodic reshuffling of the
nobility, a civil service system, and government monopolies. The central
government, even an emperor, could not function without taxes, and as
noble families flexed their muscles, they found ways of avoiding taxes. The
upkeep of the imperial court, the expense of the army, and keeping the
peace with the Xiongnu in the north all put a constant drain on the state

The institution of the emperor was stronger, his rule more absolute, in
China than in Rome. As a consequence, it was sometimes possible for the
emperor to readjust the balance between large landowners and the poor. In 7
BCE, the emperor proposed to limit all large estates to 500 acres and 200
slaves. The effort did not succeed, however. Instead, the noble families
were able to depose the emperor, but a revolt in 9 CE brought the popular
leader Wang Mang to establish, briefly it turned out, a new dynasty on
behalf of the poor. Wang Mang divided the large estates, distributed land to
the poor, and ended slavery. It was the sort of radical redistribution that

populist leaders in Rome had attempted without success. In Rome, the
principate of Augustus and the subsequent empire were established to
ensure the continued dominance of the senatorial nobility. In China, there
were times when a powerful emperor could shake up the nobility, but the
era of Wang Mang was short lived. The aggrieved families regrouped,
killed Wang Mang in 23 CE, and placed an heir of Han on the throne two
years later. For the next 200 years, a renewed Han dynasty, called now the
“Eastern Han” because it moved its capital east from Chang’an to Luoyang,
ruled under the watchful eye of the great families.

While the institution of the emperor remained strong in China, individual
emperors were not. The palace was manipulated by the in-laws of the
harem, the great families who competed to place their daughters as consorts
of the emperor so that they could become mothers of future emperors. Like
the empress Lu, these dowager empresses could supervise the reigns of
their minor children, appointing family members to lucrative positions
throughout the realm. The families were able to undercut the civil service
examination system, which did not revive until another strong dynasty came
along 500 years later. But another force manipulated the throne, often
pulling in the opposite direction from the great consort families. These were
the castrated captives made palace officials, protectors of the harem, and
loyal advisers to the emperor. In Luoyang, there were probably 10,000
harem women and eunuchs at the palace out of a city population
approaching half a million.

Rome, by contrast, numbered about a million in the city, but the palace—
like the bureaucracy—was a much smaller affair. The two competing forces
of Chinese administration—palace eunuchs versus the civil service—were
virtually absent in Rome. Some Roman emperors bought eunuchs for their
personal company, and at least one contemporary observer charged that
these companions ran the empire, but the Romans never castrated young
men for political service. Both harems and eunuchs were viewed by the
Romans as examples of Persian or Oriental decadence. Instead, the Roman
Empire relied to an unusual degree on slaves and soldiers. Slavery was
much more pervasive in Rome than it was in China. By some estimates,
slaves constituted only 1 percent of the population of Luoyang but 40
percent of the population of Rome. Both empires relied on soldiers, of
course, but the military played a far greater political role in Rome than it
did in China. Romans traditions of citizen-soldiers continued long beyond

the actual practice in the prestige of soldiering, an occupation later despised
in China. From the end of the Roman republic, the military was the training
ground for citizenship, politics, and imperial rule—the equivalent almost of
the Chinese civil service.

Strains of Empire. From the third century BCE to the third century CE,
the Roman and Chinese empires faced the same external and internal
strains. Externally, there were the nomadic pastoral peoples that each
“civilization” termed “barbarians.” In general, the Chinese were more
successful at turning the threat of the Xiongnu into a trading relationship,
allowing them to deploy troops elsewhere. By contrast, the Romans became
increasingly anchored on military posts and garrison cities along its borders.

The internal strain between the emperor and wealthy noble families was
also similar in both Rome and China. In both empires, the rich got richer
and paid less in taxes. Roman agriculture became a world of huge estates
worked by armies of slaves. Chinese estates became counties of dependent

In both Rome and China, these problems were linked by the need of the
agriculturalists to supply soldiers. In Rome, the solution was to extend
citizenship since it traditionally required military service. In China, soldiers
were conscripted from independent cultivators. Thus, periodically Roman
emperors extended citizenship, and Chinese emperors redistributed land.
But few emperors were strong enough to make such changes conclusive and
permanent. In the end, both empires lost out to the families and the

The breakdown of state control was far more thorough and long lasting in
the Western Roman Empire than it was in China. The period of disunity
lasted about 350 years in China until 589 CE, when a general for the
northern Zhou reconquered the south. In western Europe, efforts at
reestablishing the Roman Empire by the Catholic Church or by kings like
Charlemagne in 800 CE proved short lived. Indeed, despite the best efforts
of European kings, a single European or Mediterranean empire was never
revived. The Chinese Empire, however, was restored by Sui Wendi (r. 581-
604 CE), and the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire was reorganized by
Justinian (r. 527-565 CE).

Such is the power of a classical culture. A Chinese tradition of government
bureaucracy, centralized administration, and a highly trained and tested civil
service, enabling a new leader to pick up the baton, continues today. Rituals
of ancestor worship, respect for the family, filial piety, and Confucian
principles of morality, passed on from generations of parents to children,
inform Chinese film and television in the twenty-first century.

The European and Western inheritance of Greece and Rome continues as
well. The autonomy of cities, the rule of law, the citizen-soldier, patriotism,
the primacy of the individual and the state over the family and tribe, faith in
reason and science over ritual and superstition, and the conviction that
people are equal and life should be fair despite all evidence to the contrary
—these are the legacies of a Greco-Roman classical age. So perhaps are
military heroes, generals as presidents, private entrepreneurialism as a
religion, limited governments, and universal ambitions.

Hindu spiritualism, transcendent yet anchored in communities defined by
birth, affinity, occupation, and association, still pervades modern India. The
law of the land has long superseded the dharma of caste, but Indians still
define themselves by subcaste and religious community. India is a
whirlwind of separate and independent cells of activity, an explosion of
differences. No Indian government has the power to unite the people more
than a weekly television production of the Mahabharata or Ramayana,
which can empty the streets faster than a monsoon downpour.

The classical texts still shape our lives. In fact, the classical cultures we
have surveyed actually influence a larger portion of the world’s population
—and far more people—than they did 2,000 years ago. Since the end of the
classical age, Chinese culture spread to Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and
communities throughout the world. Indian Hinduism spread across
Southeast Asia; Buddhism converted millions throughout Asia. In the past
500 years, Europeans spread their culture and peoples across the Western
Hemisphere and to the four corners of the planet.

Still, nothing remains the same. As the great classical traditions traveled,
they took on local dress and dialects. The story of the past 2,000 years is not
only the story of three or four classical traditions. It is also the story of
borrowing, adapting, and blending: the story of the earth becoming one. We
turn next to that chapter in our history.

Suggested Readings
Adshead, S. A. M. China in World History. New York: St. Martin’s Press,

2000. Sophisticated comparisons, especially of Rome and China.
Difficult but very rewarding.

Basham, A. L. The Wonder That Was India. 3rd. ed. London: South Asia
Books, 2000. Rich interpretive survey of Indian culture. Joy to read.

Bhagavad Gita. Translated by Barbara Stoler Miller. New York: Bantam
Books, 1986. An excellent translation of the classic.

Lloyd, G. E. R. The Ambitions of Curiosity: Understanding the World in
Ancient Greece and China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2002. Challenging comparison of philosophical assumptions of Chinese
and Greco-Roman cultural traditions.

1. Bhagavad Gita, trans. Barbara Stoler Miller (New York: Bantam

Books, 1986), 33-34.
2. Setaketu Jataka, no. 377, cited in Romila Thapar, From Lineage to

State (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990), 108.
3. Setaketu Jataka, no. 377, 109.
4. The Persians. This English translation, by William Cranston Lawton,

of “The Battle of Sa-lamis,” is reprinted from William Hyde Appleton, ed.,
Greek Poets in English Verse (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1893). Fanes are
ancestral protective spirits or their temples.

5. Herodotus, The Histories, trans. Aubrey de Selincourt (Baltimore:
Penguin, 1954), 448-49.

6. Herodotus, The Histories, 521.
7. “Computing” may not be an exaggeration. On a second-century BCE

Greek primitive computer to predict planetary motions and phases of the
moon, see John Noble Wilford, “Early Astronomical ‘Computer’ Found to
Be Technically Complex,” New York Times, November 30, 2006, A7.

8. G. E. R. Lloyd, The Ambitions of Curiosity: Understanding the World
in Ancient Greece and China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2002), 65-66.

9. Cic.Q.fr.1.1.2. All of Cicero’s letters are available online at
http://www.perseus.tufts.edu. The December 60 BCE letter to Quintus in
Asia on provincial government runs from 1.1.1-1.1.16.

10. E. Badian, Roman Imperialism in the Late Republic (Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press, 1968), 87.

11. Res Gestae 34.
12. Tacitus, Annals 13.4.
13. Juvenal, Satires 16:10.
14. Nicholas Purcell, “The Arts of Government,” in The Roman World,

ed. John Boardman, Jasper Griffin, and Oswyn Murray (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1988), 180-81.

15. German for “loose,” pronounced “luss” (rhymes with “bus”).
16. S. A. M. Adshead, China in World History (New York: St. Martin’s

Press, 2000), 16.
17. Michael Nylan, The Five “Confucian” Classics (New Haven, CT:

Yale University Press, 2001), 32.
18. Esson M. Gale, trans., Discourses on salt and iron: A debate on state

control of commerce and industry in ancient China. Taipei: Ch’engwen,


The Spread of New Ways in

200 CE-1000 CE

Cultural Encounters and Integration
The Silk Road
The Spread of Salvation Religions
Classical Collapse and Hard Times

Population Decline
Weather or Not?

Southern Sanctuaries

Himalayas and Horses
Iran: Between Two Worlds

Iranian Society
Iranian Religions

India and Southeast Asia
The Kushan Prelude
Monsoon Winds
Malay Sails
Tropical Crops
Wet Rice
Gupta India
Hinduism in Southeast Asia

Buddhism beyond India
Mahayana Buddhism

Buddhism in Central Asia and China
The Way of the Way
The Uses of Magic
Monks, Missionaries, and Monarchs
Pilgrims and Writings
Temple and State

Christianity beyond Palestine

Paul versus Peter
Healing and Miracles
Jews and Christians

Conversion of the Roman Empire
The Eastern Roman Empire and Beyond
Soldiers and Emperors
The Tribes of Europe
Orthodoxy, Heresy, and Assimilation
Christianity in Europe and China

The Rise of Islam: The Making of a World Civilization
Salvation: Endings and Beginnings
The Prophet: Trade and Religion
Islam beyond Arabia

Islamic Expansion to 750
Islamic Expansion after 750

The First World Civilization
Abbasid Baghdad
A Cultural Empire


Cultural Encounters

and Integration
HANG QIAN (pronounced “jang chee-an”) must have known it
was a mission impossible. Han Emperor Wu in 139 BCE needed
someone to find the nomadic Yuezhi (“you-way-juh”) and try to

negotiate an alliance between them and the Chinese Han dynasty. The
emperor needed an ally against an even more troublesome nomadic people,
the Xiongnu (“shee-ong-new”) also called Huns, a traditional enemy. It was
the old Chinese policy of pitting “barbarians against barbarians.” Everyone
at the Chinese court knew it would be an extremely dangerous journey
since virtually nothing was known of the lands west of the Great Wall.
Consequently, none of the high-ranking officials came forward. Zhang Qian
was only a low-level official, but he volunteered, and so he was chosen.

Almost as soon as he left the protection of Chinese territory, he was
captured by the Xiongnu. Unaware of his assignment but treating him like a
captive, the Xiongnu forced Zhang Qian to join their campaigns against the
Yuezhi. Zhang remained in Xiongnu custody for 10 years, eventually taking
a Xiongnu wife and raising a family. He never lost sight of his mission,
however. In 129 BCE, he escaped a Xiongnu camp and found his way to the
Yuezhi court in Fergana (in modern-day Uzbekistan). During the 10 years
of fighting, the Yuezhi had been dispersed, their chief lay dead, and the
survivors had migrated west to Bactria (near modern Afghanistan), where
Zhang finally found them and the chief’s son. Zhang spent the next year
trying to convince the new Yuezhi chief to join China in an alliance against
the Xiongnu, but he did not succeed and began his return trip empty
handed. On the way home, he was again captured by the Xiongnu and held
as prisoner for another year. Finally, when the Xiongnu chief died, a civil
war broke out, and Zhang Qian was able to escape with his wife and family.
He returned to China 13 years after he left to a warm reception by the

The Silk Road

When Zhang Qian finally made his way back to China in 126 BCE, he had
a lot of stories to tell. Emperor Wu was particularly interested in Zhang’s
tales of “blood-sweating horses.” For almost 1,000 years, Chinese
prosperity depended on their ability to learn from and protect themselves
from sudden storms of nomadic horseback-riding archers who could blight
the countryside faster than a cloud of locusts. The earliest Chinese states
protected themselves with high stone walls that horses could not jump, but
an effective defense required the creation of Chinese horsemen to counter
the nomads, an innovation begun by the king Wuling (325–299 BCE) of the
early state of Zhou, who, in the process, revolutionized Chinese fashion by
having his horsemen wear nomad’s trousers instead of Chinese robes. But
when Zhang Qian told Emperor Wu of the large horses of Fergana, Chinese
and nomad cavalries were pretty evenly matched on what we might today
call ponies. The horses of Fergana were larger than those of the sparse
central Asian grasslands, which shriveled on winter pasture, because
Fergana horses were raised on alfalfa that was harvested for hay in the
winter. Whether or not they actually sweated blood1 to do it, Fergana horses
ate year-round. Emperor Wu wanted to know how he could get his hands on
such animals.

Zhang Qian had another story that suggested an answer. When he
followed the Yuezhi westward from Fergana to Bactria, he met many
merchants who had traveled to India and the Mediterranean. One of their
most prized commodities was a silk that Bactrian merchants thought to be
Indian but Zhang recognized as Chinese.2 Zhang realized that Chinese silks
doubled their value in India and then doubled it again when they reached
Bactria. On hearing Zhang’s account, Emperor Wu resolved to take control
of the silk trade and exchange silk for horses. He sent another envoy to the
Yuezhi chief, who rebuffed the offer, then sent an army that was repelled
and retreated. But Wu gave orders barring his defeated army from
reentering China, forcing them to fight another day. This time they defeated
the Yuezhi and brought back the first 3,000 of many Fergana horses.

The Silk Road may have begun as a trade of silk for horses, as this old
story suggests; but it soon included many other commodities. In addition to
silk, Chinese lacquerware, bronzes, and ceramics traveled west. In addition
to horses, central Asian jade, the deep blue stone lapis lazuli from
Afghanistan, and Mediterranean wools and glassware traveled to China.
The northerly route from China to the Mediterranean ran north of the
Himalayas and south of the deserts of Mongolia. Near Bactria, a southerly
route crossed the Himalayas into India, introducing scented woods, spices,
and tropical products. At every stop, traders added local products like the
rock crystal and peaches of Samarkand, the date palms and tapestries of
Persia, and the almonds and slaves of Mongolia. Yet the importance of silk
cannot be overestimated. The luster and smoothness of silk clothing was an
indulgence of the rich, sometimes forbidden to others. Rolls of silk were an
economic measure of value, equal to so many slaves, paid as ransom or
stipulated in treaties. Silk had been prized by women in ancient Egypt as

early as 1000 BCE. A thousand years later, silk gowns were favored by
Cleopatra. A Roman emperor was said to wear nothing but silk clothing.
Roman senators complained that their wives’ preference for silk was
bankrupting both personal fortunes and the public treasury.

The heyday of the ancient Silk Road lasted as long as China was able to
maintain a monopoly on silk production and keep the secret of how the
cocoons of silkworms, fed on mulberry leaves, could be fashioned into
precious threads. In 550 BCE, two Nestorian Christian monks traveling
from China to Byzantium smuggled the eggs of silkworms in bamboo shafts
and the Byzantine government began to make its own silk, as did the
Persians. The northern Silk Road lost its monopoly. Water “silk roads” in
the southern oceans proved cheaper and safer as new generations of
nomadic peoples moved across the northern steppe.

The Spread of Salvation Religions

The routes that carried precious commodities from one side of Eurasia to
the other, by land and sea, also carried new ideas. At the end of the classical
age (around 200 CE), religions swept over the walls that had separated the
great classical civilizations. It was as if suddenly religion replaced older
systems of identity and meaning. People who had been Greeks or Indians or
Romans or Chinese became Christians and Buddhists. It was not as if
religion itself was entirely new. All the classical civilizations had priests,
temples, and religious festivals. All worshiped the appropriate deities, paid
tribute to the gods, and celebrated their feast days. Chinese sons worshipped
at the altars of their fathers, Indian Brahmins supervised age-old rites, and
Greek and Roman priests made offerings and interpreted oracles. But
during the classical age—in fact, during most of the previous thousands of
years of urban civilization—religion was a matter for the specialists, and
the role of the common person was limited. Further, most people rarely took
their religions beyond their own clan or town.

The new religions leapt old boundaries and entered people’s hearts. And
it was not just the hearts of officials and priests that turned toward the new
gods but the hearts of people who had previously given little thought to
such matters—poor people, lower castes, women, and merchants. The
appeal of these new religions was so powerful that the followers established

new networks. Monasteries sprouted over vast areas, connecting pilgrimage
routes to holy sites but paying little regard to the boundaries of territorial

Governments ignored these new forces at their peril. Only those that
seized the initiative and supported the new religions survived. Even then,
their people often thought of themselves as Christians or Buddhists rather
than Romans, Greeks, Indians, or Chinese. We call these new religions
“universal” and “salvation” religions. Christianity and Buddhism offered
salvation to anyone who chose to participate, regardless of caste, class,
birth, or background. The ministers and monastics of these new religions
counseled the sick, poor, and dispossessed. They nursed the suffering, gave
alms to the needy, and offered an alternative to the world of sin and illusion.
The Christian heaven and the Buddhist nirvana promised a more satisfying
future than an ailing world could deliver.

Classical Collapse and Hard Times

Signs of an ailing world were abundant in the centuries after 200 CE.
Nomadic tribes from the grasslands of central Asia toppled both the
Chinese and Western Roman empires between 200 and 500 CE. Depleted
cities were looted and left for dead. Epidemic diseases took their toll on the

Population Decline. World population had grown at a healthy pace
during the classical era. A world of about 50 million people in 1000 BCE
doubled to 100 million by 500 BCE and then at least doubled again to 200
million or more by the year 1 CE. But by 200 CE, global population
numbered only about 250 million. After the collapse of the Han dynasty in
220, Chinese population declined precipitously. By 500, when the Western
Roman Empire had also been overrun by nomadic tribes, world population
had fallen back to fewer than 200 million. Despite the recovery of China
after 600 and the continuation of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire
at Constantinople, world population recovered very slowly. Not until the
900 or perhaps even 1000 did world population surpass the level of 200.
This 700- to 800-year period was the longest era of population stagnation
since before the urban revolution. Nothing like it has happened since.3

Weather or Not? Was the decline of 200–900 part of a global
environmental change or merely the impact of the nomads of central Asia?
We do not know. Global temperatures seem to have cooled during this
period after warming during the classical age, but the data are not complete
enough for a conclusion. It is interesting that some areas of the Americas
experienced prosperity in this period. In fact, the centuries between 200 and
800 were the golden age of the Maya in Mexico and Guatemala, decline
setting in after 800. In addition, in Mexico during this period, the Toltec city
of Teotihuacan prospered, becoming one of the largest cities in the world
before its collapse in 750. Even in Eurasia, some civilizations prospered
during these centuries. The Eurasian population gainers between 200 and
800, in addition to northerly Korea and Japan, were mainly in the south.
Iran, India, South Asia, and Southeast Asia grew in size and prosperity,
leading one historian to label the period as one of “Southernization.”4

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have sometimes been described as
an age of “westernization.” The term refers to the impact of the many
peoples, ideas, and institutions that were exported from western Europe to
the rest of the world in this recent “age of Western expansion.” By analogy,
we might define the period between 200 and 800 as an age of
“southernization” since so many new ways of doing things spread from
South Asia northward to the rest of Eurasia.

Southern Sanctuaries

Why did India, South Asia, and Southeast Asia grow and prosper between
200 and 800 while northern Europe and Asia were overrun by nomadic
armies of Goths and Huns? One answer may be the relatively warmer
weather of South Asia, but better answers would be “the Himalayas” and
“large horses.”

Himalayas and Horses. The Himalayan Mountains shielded India and
Southeast Asia from the nomadic “barbarians” who traveled east and west

across the grasslands. Waves of nomadic archers swept through settled
cities on the swift small horses that thrived in the grasslands. Just south of
the central grasslands, in Iran, marauding tribes preyed on farmers and city
dwellers until these settled people learned to raise larger horses on the
richer diet of the grasses and grains of the agricultural belt. These horses
were descended from the large animals that had been discovered by Zhang
Qian in Fergana.

Iran: Between Two Worlds

Iran was the successor of classical Persia. The change in name signifies a
shift in power from the classical empire centered on the city of Fars (or
Pers) in the southwest near the Persian Gulf to the postclassical empire
centered on the great Iranian plateau in the northeast that stretched to
Fergana and Afghanistan. This northern empire combined characteristics of
the grasslands that stretched in every direction but south and the older
Persian empire that faced south toward the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean
Sea, and the Indian Ocean. Iran was a land in between.

Iranian Society. In Iran, the kings of the Parthian Empire (247 BCE–224
CE) gave large tracts of land to nobles who raised large horses for armed
cavalries. They planted alfalfa, which added nutrients to the soil and
provided enough hay to feed the large horses in the winter. With the use of
underground irrigation tunnels called qanats, these nobles could raise
thirsty alfalfa on relatively dry land. The large horses of Iran were able to
support heavy suits of armor that protected Iranian horsemen from the
arrows of the nomadic cavalry.

Large horses and armored knights were to become the medieval missile
shield against the periodic invasions of nomadic horsemen. Thanks to the
use of stirrups, probably invented by northern Chinese nomads about the
fourth century, armored horsemen could also go on the offensive, wielding
battering rams or lances that might otherwise throw them off their mounts.

The Iranian deterrent to nomadic invasions came at a cost. Since Iranian
nobles raised their own horses and equipped their own armies, they, rather
than the king, held the reins of power. The Parthian Empire and the
succeeding Sassanid Empire (247–642) were almost feudal societies where
power was ultimately local and tribal, the king a subordinate to his nobles.

The same drawbacks later hindered western Europe when it adopted the
Iranian system of feudal armies of armed knights.

Iranian Religions. Iranian religions were the first to spread across the
large region of Southwest Asia. In the classical age of Achaemenid Persia,
that religion was Zoroastrianism. The religion of Zoroaster was an
important step toward universal religion. Zoroastrians were not strictly
monotheistic since they believed in both Ahura Mazda, the god of light, and
Angra Mainyu, the god of darkness. But key Zoroastrian ideas of a final
conflict (between light and dark), the end of the world, the last judgment,
the resurrection of the dead, personal salvation, and eternal life gained a
wide following among non-Zoroastrians of Southwest Asia, including Jews
and Christians. The spread of religious ideas from Persia can be seen in the
names of the Parsees of India and the Pharisees of ancient Israel.

In Parthian and Sassanid times, however, Zoroastrianism answered
Persian and Iranian national interests. While many of its ideas circulated
widely, the teachings of Zoroaster and his priests remained Iranian. This
was not the case with the reformulated version of Zoroastrian dualism
presented by a later Persian, the prophet Mani (216–272), who actively
sought converts of all nations. Believing his Manichaeism was a synthesis
of the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha, Mani created a universal salvation
religion that, during his lifetime, was more successful than the Buddhism
and Christianity from which it sprung. Combining the roles of both Jesus
and Paul in his own person, Mani traveled from his native Babylon
throughout the Sassanid Empire to establish cells of followers from India to
North Africa. St. Augustine (354–430) was a Manichaean before he
converted to Christianity, as were many others in the Roman Empire in the
fourth century. Manichaeism, like the Zoroastrianism from which it derived,
provided consolation in a dangerous world by explaining the power of evil.
Especially to young searching minds, like Augustine’s in his student days at
Carthage, the idea of life as constant struggle between the forces of
goodness and evil supplied a drama that matched the rhythms of youth as
well as the threats of a hostile world. Manichaeism was to later spread to
central Asia and China, and philosophies that paid tribute to darkness were
never entirely extirpated by the monotheistic and universal salvation
religions—Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism—that swept Eurasia in the
following centuries.

Thus, Iran, with its empires of large horses, served as a protective buffer
between the grasslands of invaders and the Indian subcontinent. As a
middle ground between the pastoral grasslands of nomad confederacies and
the lands that pointed to tropical seas, Iran also prepared the way for
universal faiths and new ways of life that were carried, sometimes with
monsoon force, by winds from the south.

India and Southeast Asia

The Himalayan Mountains, the highest in the world, also protected India
and Southeast Asia from the sort of massive nomadic invasions that
undermined classical China and the Western Roman Empire. South Asia did
not escape incursions completely, but, in general, the more threatening
peoples, like the Xiongnu (Huns), pushed the more settled ones, like the
Yuezhi, before them. The Yuezhi, already settled in the area of Bactria by
the time of Zhang Qian’s visit, adopted elements of Greek and Indian
culture in forming the Kushan state, which protected India from the Huns.

The Kushan Prelude. If the winds of hemispheric integration blew from
the south, perhaps the first gusts came from the Kushan state. During the
most intensive period of nomadic pressure from the Eurasian grasslands
(200–400), the Kushan kingdom was one of the most sophisticated states in
the entire world. Under Kanishka, who ruled around 100, the Kushans
governed what is today Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northern India.5 The
combination of Indian and Greek traditions, the legacy of Alexander the
Great, was a heady brew in Kushan culture. The Kushans evolved
Ayurvedic medicine from Indian Vedic knowledge of botany and Greek
science. Similarly, the collision of the two languages–Greek and Sanskrit—
led Kushan thinkers to the first analysis of grammar and language structure
in any language. And the different artistic traditions of Greece and India
inspired Kushan artists to devise the first images of the Buddha and
Boddhisatvas (Buddhist saints) as well as images of halos that were adopted
by early Christians. In the end, the Kushanas gave India not only a respite
from northern nomads but also a leg up when Indian political revival came
after 320. And even before a new dynasty of Indian kings reunified the
territories of the Mauryans, Indian merchant guilds and families were
creating one of the most vibrant economies of their age. In sum, the forces
of southernization between 200 and 1000 came from India even more than
Iran, and they were as material as they were spiritual.

Monsoon Winds. One engine of Indian expansion was the seasonally
variable winds. The principle is simple: oceans moderate air temperatures,
cooling in the summer and warming in the winter. That is why the
temperature of coastal areas is always more moderate than inland areas.
Lands that are far from oceans become especially cold in winter and
unbearably hot in summer. The area on the planet farthest from oceans is
central Asia. Cold air is heavy and dense, warm air light and porous, so, as
warm light air rises, cooler air pushes its way in and under. As the land area
of central Asia cools in the winter, its dense air expands, displacing the
warmer air over the southern oceans. This process is reversed in the
summer when the hot air of central Asia rises and creates a vacuum that
pulls in the cooler ocean air from the south. Consequently, from December
to March, the prevailing winds blow south from cold central Asia across
India and Southeast Asia to the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Thailand, and the
South China Sea. From May to August, the cooler winds flow north from
the southern oceans toward the hot interior.

This rhythm has a profound impact on South Asian growing patterns.
The summer winds from the oceans are laden with moisture, which they
dump on land as far as the Himalayas (also creating the deserts on the
northern “rain shadow” side of the mountains). In India and mainland
Southeast Asia, this “monsoon season” is one of frequent and heavy rains.
The winter winds are cool and dry as they cross the Himalayas and India,
but over the oceans they pick up moisture to bring another monsoon season
to coastal Southeast Asia and the islands. The heavy rain provides lush
vegetation and allows a rice-based agriculture that can support a dense
population. The predictability of the monsoons punctuates the growing
seasons (since planting must be accomplished before or after the rains) and
allows two or even three crops a year in some areas. But in the rare years
when the rains fail, drought and famine are particularly disastrous.

Another consequence of the monsoons was that once sailors had
mastered the winds, they were able to take advantage of an enormous
natural energy source for travel and trade. These were the winds of

Malay Sails. The sailors of the Malay Peninsula learned to navigate the
monsoon winds sometime in the first millennium BCE. Malay and Malay-
Polynesian peoples were the first in the world to navigate the open seas, and
they did so long before the invention of the compass. They were able to sail
the vast Pacific by careful observation of the stars, ocean waves and swells,
cloud patterns, bird movements, and the fish and plant life in the water.
Able to sense islands 30 miles away, they settled the islands of the Pacific
from the coasts of Southeast Asia to Easter Island. Others charted the Indian
Ocean to the coast of East Africa.

The earliest sailing ships were fairly simple. Egyptian sailors on the Nile
needed only to raise a square sail to catch the north winds to travel south
against the current; to return, they needed only to lower the sail and follow
the current north to the Mediterranean. Mesopotamian sailors clung close to
the riverbanks of the Tigris and Euphrates and the ports of the Arabian Sea.
Malay sailors were the first to sail the open seas. In their epic voyages
across the Pacific, they invented double-hulled outrigger canoes (the
ancestor of the modern catamaran) for stability in ocean swells. To tack or
zigzag against the wind, they invented the balanced lug sail, a sail that
looked like a blunted arrow pointed forward, the mast near the point, with
the bulk of the sail rigged to a boom that could be swung out over the water

so the wind could push the craft sideways. Malay sails may have inspired
the Arab sailors who developed similar triangular lateen sails.

Malay sailors also pioneered the earliest water routes between India and
China. Even in the classical age of the land Silk Road, Malay sailors had
discovered how to ride the monsoon winds from southern India to China by
way of the Strait of Malacca. From India or Sri Lanka, they would take the
winter winds south through the Strait of Malacca, where they would wait
for the summer winds to take them north to China, reversing the process on
the return. Malay sailors also connected the products of East Africa and the
Indonesian Spice Islands to the trade of the Indian Ocean, and they

introduced the spices of the Molucca Islands east of Java to an international
market. There—and nowhere else—grew mace, cloves, and nutmeg.

Tropical Crops. Imagine a world without oranges, lemons, limes,
grapefruits, mangos, melons, and the dozens of other fruits that originated
in India and Southeast Asia. Imagine no sugar to sweeten your tea; imagine
no tea. Imagine no cotton, no pepper, no cinnamon, or no spices. That was
the world of northern Eurasia before these tropical crops came from South
Asia. Most of them were brought by Malay, Indian, and Iranian and other
South Asian traders in the first thousand years CE.

Malay and Indian sailors brought the tropical plants of Indonesia—
bananas, coconuts, taro, and yams—to the island of Madagascar, from
where they entered East Africa and became staples of the African diet. Not
only did these new crops fuel a population rise in Africa, but the timing
coincided with and aided the great migration of Bantu speakers from their
origins in western Africa throughout the continent.

Wet Rice. South Asian populations also grew thanks to the new crops.
The most important agricultural innovation was the expansion of wet rice
cultivation: transplanting young rice shoots to paddies filled with water.
Wet rice yields were double those of dry rice. Planters cut down the trees of
wet tropical forest areas and built dikes, canals, and paddies. Wet rice
supported huge peasant societies and required their labor. As a result, wet
rice spread throughout Southeast Asia as planters in areas like Thailand and
Cambodia realized the potential return. Huge tax-paying peasant societies
supported the ambitions of kings and priests in Cambodia, Java, Sumatra, as
well as India. A kind of wet rice also spread to southern China, enabling a
large increase in population growth.

Gupta India. The vibrant economy of the age of the Gupta dynasty (320–
535) supported a political and cultural renaissance in India. The Gupta
kings consolidated their rule of northern India and kept the nomads at bay
for almost 300 years. While the Gupta kingdom was not quite as large as
the earlier Mauryan dynasty, it was more prosperous and sophisticated. The
court of one of the greatest of the Gupta rulers, Chadragupta II (375–414;
also known as Vikramaditya), can serve as an example. It patronized the
greatest of Indian poets and playwrights, Kalidasa, as well as astronomers
and mathematicians who were the first to show the advantages of using a
zero and a 10-digit decimal system. (We call our number system “Arabic,”
but the Arabs called it “Hindi” since they got it from India.) The Chinese

visitor Faxian wrote of the great palaces and charity hospitals of
Chandragupta’s city of Nalanda. More recent visitors still admire a remnant
pillar from Chandragupta’s palace made of such a high grade of iron that it
shows no rust after 1,600 years.

Hinduism in Southeast Asia. During the Gupta period, Indian culture
spread throughout Southeast Asia. Indian customs traveled the trade routes
of the Indian Ocean, following the shifting winds of the monsoons. Gupta
culture was Hindu and tolerant. Merchants transplanted their caste values as
they settled in tiny trading communities throughout South Asia. In general,
they kept to themselves and did not try to convert non-Indians. But
expansive, seemingly successful cultures always attract converts, and
Indian Hindu culture was no exception. Those who traded with the Indian
merchants adopted Indian culture with its innovations in mathematics,
accounting, and trading practices. At the same time, the traditional rulers of
Southeast Asia were attracted to Indian ideas that kingship was the divinely
instituted prerogative of Brahmins. New dynasties in Sumatra, Java, and
Cambodia based themselves on these Hindu traditions of divine kingship
and separate merchant communities.

The founding story of the rice-rich kingdom of Funan (ca. 100–613) on
the border of modern Cambodia and Vietnam expressed a common
Southeast Asian theme. According to the tale, the first king of Funan was
the child of an Indian Brahmin priest who sailed east and the beautiful
woman who paddled out to meet him. She turned out to be Queen Willow
Leaf, the daughter of the Cambodian serpent god. Funan peaked under King
Jayavarman I (478–518), after which it was challenged by kingdoms
centered on the islands of Sumatra and Java. In 802, a Cambodian prince
raised at the Javanese court declared an independent Cambodia. He was
crowned as Jayavarman II Devaraja (god king) by a Brahmin priest. The
remains of the temple complex of the kingdom can still be seen at Angkor
Wat. Dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, devotees also worshipped Shiva.
Indian Brahmin priests were invited to the royal courts to serve as advisers.
In addition to teaching Brahmin religion, they taught the engineering skills
used to create the irrigation system and the art of stone carving in the Indian
architectural style. Hinduism spread as far east as the island of Bali, where
it is still practiced today, and as far west as the east coast of Africa, where
the descendants of Indian merchant families still live and work. But

Hinduism was not the only Indian religion to integrate large areas of the
world in the first millennium.

Buddhism beyond India
Buddhist monks sailed the same winds as Brahmin priests. Some of the
rulers of Hindu states in Southeast Asia converted to the worship of the
Buddha, in some cases, like Java, only temporarily and in some cases more
permanently. In Khymer Cambodia, Jayavarman VII (r. 1181–1219)
changed Angkor from a Hindu to a Buddhist state, vastly expanding its
territory. In addition, he created Angkor Thom and other new temple
complexes and built more than 100 hospitals and another 100 guesthouses
for missionaries and travelers, a common Buddhist undertaking.

Buddhist monks founded one of the first Buddhist states on the island of
Sri Lanka (Ceylon), just south of India. From there they traveled to
Thailand (Siam) and Burma, where they established Buddhist societies that
reflected their orthodox beliefs, principally a strict adherence to the ascetic
life for all devotees. Even today in such orthodox, or “Theravada,”
countries, every young man is expected to don the saffron robes of the
monk, carry the begging bowl for his daily rice, and live with other monks
in a monastery or similar institution for at least the two or three years of
early adulthood. Some men (and even some women) continue to live the
monastic life into old age, and in Burma and Thailand one sees many men
of varying ages in bright saffron. In a modern city like Bangkok,
monasteries are dwarfed by high-rises, and monks’ robes are drowned in a
sea of business suits, but the remains of a traditional Buddhist capital can
still evoke a world in which spiritual matters were preeminent. Twelfth-
century Pagan, on a bend of the Irrawaddy River in northern Burma, still
shelters hundreds of white stone pagodas and little else. In its prime almost
1,000 years ago, one would have been overcome by the lines of men in
deep orange, the sounds of their chanting, the heady smell of incense, and—
the only sound one still hears today after the oxcarts have returned the
tourists for the night—the music of temple bells tinkling in the wind.

Mahayana Buddhism

Most of the monks who brought Buddhism to Southeast Asia called
themselves orthodox, or Theravada, Buddhists, and most Southeast Asian
societies followed the orthodox path pioneered in Sri Lanka. It was an
austere and demanding tradition in which a period of monastic life was
expected and each monk or nun relived the original quest of the Buddha. By
contrast, a different kind of Buddhism traveled north to central Asia and
later to Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan. Called by its followers
“Mahayana,” or “the greater vehicle,” it taught of a Buddha as savior for
all. Its universalism may have been shaped by contact with Zoroastrian,
Greek, and possibly even Christian ideas encountered in northern India and
Kushana. For Mahayana Buddhists, the Buddha offered more than a model
path to enlightenment. They believed that the Buddha and numerous
Buddhist saints, called Bodhisattvas, postponed their own entrances into

nirvana in order to help others achieve it. Thus, anyone could achieve
salvation by appealing to one of the Bodhisattvas. There is help in
achieving enlightenment. One need not do it alone.

The idea of salvation was not entirely new to Mahayana Buddhism. After
all, the core message of the Buddha had been the need to escape the veil of
illusions that ensnared one in the world. That the root of suffering was
desire, that one overcame suffering by relinquishing the world, went
without saying. But Theravada Buddhists, in all likelihood Gautama
Siddhartha, who became “the Buddha,” and many Hindu holy men before
and since sought peace in meditation, ascetic practices, and renunciation,
not in the worship of a god or goddess. It was the Mahayana followers who
turned the guru into the god and then prayed to him—and his Bodhisattvas
—for salvation.

Buddhism in Central Asia and China. The Buddhist conversion of China
is an unlikely story. “It is difficult to understand,” a modern historian
writes, “why Chinese would find any attraction in an alien faith that
espoused strange ideas in an unfamiliar language.”6 The family and the
state were the central institutions of Chinese society and Confucian belief.
The Buddha abandoned his family, and his followers practiced celibacy in
monastic communities independent of family or state. Buddhist
missionaries were mendicant monks, while Chinese culture valued
productive farmers. Buddhists taught that life was suffering; the Chinese
taught that life was to be enjoyed.

We can almost hear this debate in the instructions of The Disposition of
Error (450–589), a manual for Buddhist missionaries in China that
resembles a modern “frequently asked questions” format:

The Chinese questioner will ask: Of those who live in the world, there is none who does not
like wealth and position and hate poverty and baseness, none who does not enjoy pleasure and
idleness and shrink from labor and fatigue. . . . But now the [Buddhist] monks wear red cloth,
they eat one meal a day, they bottle up the six emotions, and thus they live out their lives.
What value is there in such an existence?7

The Buddhist manual’s answer to this question is equally revealing:
people desire rank and wealth most of all, but if they cannot obtain them in
a moral way, they should not enjoy them at all. People hate poverty and
meanness, but if they can avoid them only by departing from the Way, they
should not avoid them at all. Lao Tzu (Laotzi) has said that “the five colors

make men’s eyes blind, the five sounds make men’s ears deaf, the five
flavors dull the palate.”

The Way of the Way. Buddhist missionaries drew on a non-Confucian
tradition of Chinese thought: the teachings of Lao Tzu about “the Way,” the
natural path, or Dao. Lao Tzu was a Chinese contemporary of the Buddha
who also disparaged worldly struggle and counseled a passive acceptance
of nature’s “way.” Like Buddhism, Daoism reversed the ethics of active
engagement with the world. “The way is like an empty vessel that yet may
be drawn from, without ever having to be refilled,” Lao Tze wrote in the
Dao De Ching.8

Buddhism was most successful at winning Chinese converts in the
centuries of instability that followed the fall of the Han dynasty. At the
beginning of the Six Dynasties Period of Division (220–589), Buddhism
was limited to communities of foreign merchants and monasteries mainly
along long-distance trade routes. In the second century, all the monks in the
monastery at the capital city of Luoyang were foreigners from India, central
Asia, and Parthian Persia. But by 600, China was a Buddhist country with
thousands of monasteries. Luoyang alone constructed 1,000 new
monasteries within 40 years of its rebuilding in 494. What accounted for
such a change? Certainly the salvation message of Buddhism fell on more
willing ears in this period of political instability, population decline, and
social disorder. Temple and cave inscriptions from the period decry lost
families, suggesting the breakdown of the Confucian faith. Monasteries that
in times of prosperity had linked chains of merchants became, in times of
need, lifelines of support for the surrounding population, providing food
and consolation. Mahayana Buddhism offered a hope of salvation from the
trying world of suffering between the third and seventh centuries, between
the collapse of the Han around 220 and the rise of the Sui (589–618) and
Tang (618–907) dynasties.

The Uses of Magic. In addition to translating a foreign creed into Chinese
characters by way of Daoism, Buddhist monks practiced an age-old
technique for winning converts: magic. The very influential Buddhist monk
from central Asia, Fotudeng, recognized the difficulty of conveying foreign
philosophical ideas to his Chinese audience, and so, it is said, he took a
monk’s begging bowl full of water, burned incense over it, and chanted a
few words, and suddenly there appeared a water lily in blinding blue and

The traditional story of the victory of Buddhism in Japan is a similar
testament to the power of association with the supernatural. Accordingly, in
the early sixth century, a Korean king sent a present of a Buddhist image to
the emperor of Japan. The emperor decided to set up an experiment in
which he gave the image of the Buddha to a willing clan chief to see what
happened. The clan chief set the image in a temple and worshipped it.
Shortly afterward, however, a pestilence broke out in the land, and many
people died. Deducing that the native Shinto deities were offended, the
emperor took the image, threw it into the river, and burned down the
temple. The Buddhist experiment had failed. In 584, however, another
Korean image of the Buddha arrived in Japan. This time a monk tried to
break the statue with an iron sledgehammer but broke the sledgehammer
instead. Then he threw the stone in water, but it floated. In response, the
monk built another temple, and Buddhism grew in Japan.

Monks, Missionaries, and Monarchs. These stories follow the route of
Buddhist expansion from central Asia to China, Korea, and then Japan.
Buddhism always entered a kingdom as a foreign religion, but it always
entered from nearby. Consequently, Buddhism often first attracted those
who were drawn to foreign ideas. Before Buddhism swept through China, it
won over some of the nomadic peoples in central Asia and the kings and
religious leaders of the northern kingdoms who were only marginally part
of Chinese culture. The rulers of the Northern Wei dynasties (386–354)
declared each new dynasty to be an incarnation of the Buddha. Within
China, Buddhism first attracted foreign merchants, immigrant communities,
and people out of power.

Buddhism brought different things to different people. The early
monasteries in Silk Road oasis towns brought agricultural produce, trade
goods, and urban culture to nomadic peoples. For rulers of nomadic
dynasties, such as the Toda, Buddhism offered a common ground with their
Chinese subjects. To the tribal leaders and minor monarchs of northern
China, Buddhism conferred spiritual legitimacy and provided literate
advisers and luxury markets. For illiterate Confucian Chinese peasants,
Buddhist festivals, like the popular Feast of All Souls, included ancestor
cults. Chinese Daoists added the Buddha to their pantheon of protectors. In
times of political instability or famine, all benefited from the refuge and
reserves of the monasteries.

Pilgrims and Writings. While most Buddhists, like most people in any
premodern religion, were illiterate, the spread of Buddhism owed much to
the travels of literate missionaries and pilgrims. Stories about the Buddha,
reported sermons and sayings of the Buddha, and stories and theological
texts written by the Buddha’s followers all played an important role in the
development of Buddhism. Buddhism became increasingly bookish in
China, the land that invented paper in the first century and printing in the
eighth to ninth centuries. In fact, the spread of Buddhism to Korea may
have generated the world’s first example of printing as early as the ninth
century. Earlier Theravada Buddhists in Southeast Asia spread their stories
in stone monuments at places like Borobudur on the island of Java and
Angkor in the Khmer kingdom of Cambodia. By contrast, the Mahayana
monks in China built less graphic if often larger Buddhas,9 and they more
often studied manuscripts for literary meanings. This may reflect different
levels of literacy or differences in classical Indian and Chinese culture—the
Indian more tactile and plastic, the Chinese more visual and literate. It is
interesting, in any case, that of the thousands of Buddhist missionaries and
pilgrims who traveled between India and China, the only extant written
accounts come to us from the Chinese pilgrims to India.

Indian missionaries first went to central Asia and China to bring the word
orally, to establish communities, and to trade. Later, Chinese pilgrims
traveled to India to read and copy the sacred texts and visit the sacred sites
where the Buddha lived and his early followers built monasteries, schools,
and hospitals. The first Chinese pilgrim whose story we have was Faxian
(334–420), who traveled to India in 399 and returned 15 years later with
copies of numerous texts that he translated from Sanskrit to Chinese. In
645, the Chinese Buddhist Xuanzang (596–664) returned from India after
nineteen years with 22 horses loaded down with texts, relics, and statues.
The monk Yijing (635–713), after almost 25 years in India and Southeast
Asia, translated 230 volumes of texts and wrote biographical sketches of 56
other Chinese pilgrims in India. In addition to the scriptures, the Chinese
monks also brought back stories of Buddhist communities from northern
India to Java. This Chinese attention to the sacred writings kept Chinese
Buddhism close to the original Sanskrit meanings. Indian Buddhism was
translated into Chinese through the language of Daoism, but it remained
distinct from Daoism.

Temple and State. The ideal philosophy for ensuring the legitimacy of
and popular support for the emperor was certainly Confucianism. It
celebrated hierarchy, monarchy, patriarchy, rituals, and the status quo.
According to Confucian doctrine, the emperor ruled with the Mandate of
Heaven. Especially in times of prosperity or stability, that mandate was
unquestionable. Nevertheless, Chinese Buddhists were well placed, when
politics became more stabilized, to serve the interests of monarchs and
dynastic officials as well as merchants, intellectuals, and the poor. The
emperor Wu (502–549) of the Liang dynasty took the unusual step of
ransoming himself to a Buddhist monastery, much to the chagrin of the
Confucians, but in return the monks treated the emperor as a being to be
obeyed and venerated. The founder of the Sui dynasty, Sui Wendi, was a
Buddhist, even though the official ideology of the government was

Under the more stable conditions of the Tang dynasty (618–907),
Buddhism received waves of imperial support. The empress Wu Zetian
(625–705), who seized power for herself late in life after the death of her
son, endowed numerous Buddhist temples and cave statues in addition to
practicing Daoist rituals.

Just as Buddhism had succeeded in India as an economic power that
eschewed politics, so in China Buddhist monasteries became depositories of
wealth that transcended political alliances. The landholdings of Buddhism
constituted about a third of Chinese farmland. Buddhist wealth was created
not only through the trading networks and pawn shops at monasteries but
also through the donation of gold and treasures that were converted to
statues of the Buddha and richly appointed temples. One Chinese critic of
Buddhism estimated that Buddhists controlled seven-eighths of the wealth
of the empire, even though the number of followers was low.

In 845, Chinese protests against “foreign religions” led to the expulsion
of all imported faiths. Even Buddhism came under attack. The emperor
Wuzong of Tang declared,

We have heard that the Buddha was never spoken of before the Han dynasty; from then on the
religion of idols gradually came to prominence. So in this later age Buddhism has transmitted
its strange ways and has spread like a luxuriant vine until it has poisoned the customs of our
nation, Buddhism has spread to all the nine provinces of China; each day finds its monks and
followers growing more numerous and its temples loftier. Buddhism wears out the people’s
strength, pilfers their wealth, causes people to abandon their lords and parents for company of

teachers, and severs man and wife with its monastic decrees. In destroying law and injuring
mankind indeed nothing surpasses this doctrine.

Now if even one man fails to work the fields, someone must go hungry; if one woman does
not tend her silkworms, someone will go cold. At present there are an inestimable number of
monks and nuns in the empire, all of them waiting for the farmers to feed them and the
silkworms to clothe them while the Buddhist public temples and private chapels have reached
boundless numbers, sufficient to outshine the imperial palace itself.

Having thoroughly examined all earlier reports and consulted public opinion on all sides,
there no longer remains the slightest doubt in our mind that this evil should be eradicated.

But Buddhism was not eradicated. Rather, its political power was
crushed. Buddhism was the only “foreign” religion not to be expelled from
China. Under the Song dynasty (960–1279), Buddhism contributed to the
trappings of the emperor’s authority, turning some emperors into venerated
Bodhisattvas. In addition, the neo-Confucianism of Zhu Xi (1130–1200)
and others integrated Buddhist ideas into the Confucian tradition.

More than Hinduism, perhaps even more than Indian textiles, tropical
fruits, and wet rice, Indian Buddhism—in two varieties—conquered the
world of South and East Asia in the centuries between 200 and 1000. For
the first time, people from the islands of Ceylon and Java shared a common
faith with desert nomads in central Asia and the princes and peasants of
China, Japan, and Korea. For the first time in world history, entire societies
directed their affairs according to sacred books. And though their
interpretations might differ, they were united in the conviction that these
writings could save them from the travails of a shifting world.

Christianity beyond Palestine
Christianity, the other great salvation religion of the age of instability,
spread across the Mediterranean, Europe, and the Middle East, while
Buddhism spread through central, eastern, and southeastern Asia. Some
early Christians traveled to India and China and established small Christian
communities in East Asia, but Christianity did not take hold in China until
after a second wave of missionaries arrived 1,000 years later.


Hellenization is a shorthand for the spread of the Greek language and Greek
mythology and philosophy, especially science, reason, cosmopolitanism,
and universal values. If the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia was
prepared by the monsoon winds and merchant sailors of the Indian Ocean,
the spread of Christianity was prepared by Hellenization.

In fact, one might argue that Hellenization was the source of universalism
in both Europe and Asia 2,000 years ago. Neither Hinduism nor Judaism
was a universal religion: neither claimed allegiance beyond the tribe or
tradition, neither attracted or encouraged converts, and neither offered
salvation beyond this world. It was not Theravada Buddhism that offered
the world salvation but the Mahayana Buddhism that developed north of
India in the Hellenized Kushan area. Similarly, it was not the apostles of
Jesus in Jerusalem who called Jesus the savior of mankind but the
Hellenized Jew, Paul of Tarsus (in modern Turkey). Hellenism was a
universal outlook before Buddhism and Christianity.

Paul versus Peter. The letters of Paul in the New Testament detail the
conflict among the early followers of Jesus. Peter and the Jews of Jerusalem
expected only observant Jews to join their community. Paul, an outsider,
was conscious of preaching a different faith: to Jews and Gentiles, open to
all regardless of their ancestry. His faith in Jesus as the Christ, his belief
that Jesus died for the sins of mankind, and his conviction that anyone
could be saved by believing in Jesus—these ideas were all more Greek than
Jewish, and they mobilized Gentile communities as well as synagogues
from Syria to Rome. History is full of “ifs,” but one of the biggest is this: if
Paul had not universalized the importance of Jesus, would there have been
Christianity? There would have been a group of Jewish followers, many of
whom perished by the time of the Roman conquest and destruction of the
Jerusalem temple in 70 CE. But Paul’s insistence that Jesus was more than a
Jewish rabbi, that one did not have to be Jewish to accept Jesus, and that
faith in Jesus offered salvation to all humanity was a prerequisite to success
beyond the Jewish community. In addition, Paul traveled the Mediterranean
visiting Gentile groups as well as synagogues to create the religious
communities that became the first Christians. From his first Christian
church in Antioch, Syria, he planted churches in Cyprus, Greece, and
throughout what is today Turkey.

Healing and Miracles. Like Buddhist monks, Christians provided healing
in this world as well as salvation beyond. The Gospels told of Jesus healing

the sick and reviving the dead. Similarly, early Christians were often called
to heal the afflicted.

Most Greeks and Romans did not belabor distinctions between mere
healing and working miracles. Gods and their representatives were expected
to show their power by various demonstrations of medicine, magic, or
miracles. A typical account of this mix was given by the apostle John. At
Ephesus, John converted unbelievers by healing the sick. He then claimed
that he entered the temple of Artemis, where he called on God to cast out
the Greek god. Immediately, the altar of Artemis split into pieces, and half
the temple fell down, killing the priest. In response, the assembled
Ephesians declared, “There is only one God: the God of John. We are

Jews and Christians. Jews had a complicated relationship with their
Roman occupiers. In Judea, Jews were largely left to their own devices, a
policy that Romans practiced with most of their colonies. Jews outside
Judea posed more difficult problems. Like Christians, they did not worship
Roman gods, but because Romans recognized that Jews had their own
religion, Jewish separateness was generally accepted. At times, Jews were
admired; at times, they were banned from living in certain areas, like the
city of Rome. From the Roman perspective, the Christians were much more
problematic because they did not seem to accept Jewish or Roman religion,
they worshipped a convicted Jewish troublemaker from a minor Roman
province, they refused to participate in Roman civic functions, and they
constantly tried to convert others to their subversive beliefs. This made
them politically dangerous in Roman eyes.

As a consequence, Christians often found themselves on the wrong side
of Roman law and tradition. Sometimes Roman governors were as confused
as Christians about what their proper relationship should be. Pliny, governor
of the Roman province of Bithynia, wrote to the emperor Trajan (98–117)
to ask if it was proper to seek out Christians for persecution or respond only
when they were brought to trial. Trajan urged restraint, but other emperors
did not. Nero (54–68) stocked the gladiatorial slaughters with willing
martyrs. “Sometimes they were killed with the axe,” the Christian historian
Eusebius wrote. “Sometimes they were hung up by the feet over a slow
fire.”11 The story of young Perpetua of Carthage may not have been
uncommon. Having survived the attack of a wild animal and the unsteady
sword of the executioner, she grabbed the blade herself and directed it to

her throat.12 The example of Christian martyrs would be a memory with
which others might build the faith, and their blood would fortify the soil in
which the Christian community would be raised.

Conversion of the Roman Empire

It would be interesting to know if Christianity spread rapidly under the
relatively tolerant policies of Trajan and his successors from 90 to 160. Or
did Christianity thrive more in the harsh years that began with Marcus
Aurelius in 161, when the “barbarian” attacks and war with the Parthian
Empire brought an end to the century of peace? The years of war, economic
crisis, and plague could have increased the following for all religious cults,
including Christianity, but their prominence likely increased the popular
reaction against them. These were years in which Marcus Aurelius sought
refuge in his Meditations in Stoicism (a philosophy not unlike Christianity
in that it counseled acceptance, even surrender to adversity). But the years
after the plague of 165 also witnessed an increase in Christian persecutions,
even demonstrations where mobs chanted, “Christians to the lions,” a
scapegoating that might also indicate a greater prominence for the new

The fact is that we know little about how quickly Christianity grew. The
historian Gibbon estimated that about 5 percent of the Roman population
was Christian in 250; modern historians think the percentage was much
less. Constantine’s biographer, the historian Eusibius, saw three surges in
Christian conversions: the early period of Paul and the apostles, the era of
the great theologians in the 180s, and the period just before Constantine’s
conversion in 312. But like us, he had no records or statistics and may have

been more impressed by the proliferation of theological works in these

The Eastern Roman Empire and Beyond. Christians were more numerous
in the Eastern Roman Empire. This might be surprising because Americans
and western Europeans usually envision a map of Christianity centered on
Rome. But such a map would include only Roman or Latin Christianity.
Before the rise of Islam, there were numerous Christian traditions. Greek,
Syrian (Nestorian), and Armenian Christian churches prospered throughout
eastern Europe and Asia. Egyptian (Coptic) and Ethiopian Christianity
spread in Africa before Europe. A map of early Christianity might best be
centered in Syria, where it began, and from where adherents established
churches in Mesopotamia, Persia, central Asia, India, and even China, as
well as the Mediterranean, North Africa, and Europe.

East of Rome, even east of Athens, lay all the Hellenistic cities with their
ancient Jewish communities as well as legions of soldiers. From Syria to
Persia, great cities attracted peoples from Rome to India. Christianity
thrived in this land of cities; Christians used the word pagans, for “country
people”—to designate non-Christians. The cities of the Middle East were
cauldrons of changing faiths and newly forged sects. A modern historian
describes one group of ancient Christians near modern Basra, Iraq, that
demonstrates their variety:

During the second and third centuries, groups of Baptists [Christians] could be found in the
district between the mouth of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, where they lived under the
nominal control of the Parthians. They acknowledged Christian teachings among severe
beliefs which had the stamp of Jewish influence. Here, they had presumably begun as a
splinter group from Jewish settlers and we have come to know only recently how they
combined a respect for Jesus with a strong stamp of Jewish practice and an honour for their
original leader, the prophet Elchesai, who had taught in Mesopotamia c. 100–110 A.D.13

From a community like this came the prophet Mani, whose Manichaeism
combined elements of Christianity and Persian Zoroastrianism. From here,
missionaries sailed out the Persian Gulf to India, where Christian
communities traced their origins back to a first- or early second-century
apostle called Judas Thomas. In the middle of the second century,
Christians in India wrote to Syria asking for a bishop since their previous
one had died. The early Christian world was one of great diversity.

Soldiers and Emperors. Like Buddhism, Christianity was ultimately
successful thanks to the support of important political leaders: kings and

emperors. Even before the Roman emperor Constantine supported
Christianity in 312, kings in Syria had converted, contributing legitimacy
and numerous followers.

We do not know precisely why Constantine supported Christianity after
312. Probably no more than 10 percent of the empire’s inhabitants were
Christians when Constantine embraced the faith. Many were no doubt
women, his mother among them. But soldiers also converted to Christianity,
especially in the eastern and African provinces. The story is told of
Constantine’s predecessor, the emperor Maximian, relying on a legion from
Upper Egypt to conquer the tribes of the Alps. To celebrate their success,
Maximian asked them to execute some Christian captives. But all the 6,600
men of the Theban legion were also Christians. Under their leader Maurice,
they refused and offered their own necks to Roman swords. To
commemorate the sacrifice of this Egyptian legion, the town of Aquanum
(in modern Switzerland) changed its name to St. Maurice, or St. Moritz. For
Maximian’s successor, the loyalty of Roman troops would have been a
matter of great importance.

In 312, the historian Eusibius tells us, on the night before Constantine
was forced to do battle with Maximian’s son to secure the crown,
Constantine saw a flaming cross in the sky inscribed with the words, “In
this sign thou shalt conquer.” Subsequently, he embraced Christianity and
won the battle. The following year (313), Constantine issued an edict
making Christianity an officially tolerated religion throughout the Roman
Empire. Less than a century later, Christianity was proclaimed the official
religion of the Roman Empire.

The Tribes of Europe. An emperor may be wise to take the religion of his
soldiers, and anyone who seeks the favor of the emperor would be wise to
share his religion, but what of the common people of the empire? The
various tribes of Europe—the Helvitii in the Alps and the Germans, Gauls,
Celts, and Saxons—had their own tribal gods, festivals, and celebrations.
What did they need of the emperor’s religion, especially after the empire
had vanished? How did the tribes of Europe become Christian? Some, no
doubt, were persuaded by the idea of a single god; some embraced the
Christian promise of life after death. But the language of the Christian
scriptures was as Greek to the tribes of Europe as Indian Buddhism was
Sanskrit to the Chinese. To make the message intelligible, Christian
missionaries molded it to European tribal traditions. They adopted pagan

feast days, setting, for instance, the birthday of Jesus at the time of the
winter solstice and northern fire festivals that marked the returning sun.
They set a place for tribal deities at the table of Christ as saints and angels,
integrating their stories, attributes, and holidays. Pope Gregory the Great
instructed Augustine, his missionary to England, not to destroy the pagan
temples. “Only remove their idols. Then sprinkle them with holy water and
build altars. Pagans will be more willing to worship the true God in familiar

Sometimes, however, tribal deities had to be confronted rather than
accommodated. After converting to Christianity, the Hessians of Germany
reverted to their pagan ways. Around 719, the pope sent Boniface to bring
the Hessians back to the true faith. According to the saint’s disciple and
biographer, Boniface gathered the people around a large oak tree, known
from antiquity as the Oak of Jupiter. He then raised an ax and brought it
down into the tree, slicing into the bark. Just as he did so, a great wind blew
from the heavens, knocking the tree down, cutting it into four equal pieces.
“At the sight of this extraordinary spectacle, the heathens who had been
cursing ceased to revile and began, on the contrary, to believe and bless the
Lord.”15 In gratitude, they split the logs into lumber and built a church to
St. Peter, we are told. Like Buddhism, Christianity spread amid tales of

Orthodoxy, Heresy, and Assimilation. In order to be successful, a new
religion must choose its fights carefully. Missionaries must know where to
bend and where to resist. Churches must distinguish what is important from
what is inconsequential. For Christians, pagan feast days, holy sites, and
physical buildings were secondary. The word of God was important: the
holy writ, ideas, theology, and beliefs. We have seen that Buddhists also
worked to keep their sacred writings. But for Buddhists, the sacred writings
constituted more of an archive than commandments. They provided
continuity of tradition, not the demands of God. Chinese Buddhists
continued to honor their parents and ancestors and even visit Confucian and
Daoist shrines and temples.

Because Christians believed that they possessed the word of God, correct
ideas were crucial. The right doctrine was everything. Especially since
Christians after Paul believed that faith or belief was sufficient for
salvation, what one believed was a matter of eternal life or death.

But there were many different Christian beliefs during the first Christian
centuries. A basic matter like the nature of Christ was hotly debated. Some
said that Jesus was a human prophet, much like John the Baptist. Others
said that Christ had two natures: human and divine. Some believed that
Christ was all divine. Still others said that Christ was part of a trinity that
included God the Father and the Holy Ghost. In general, particular
interpretations tended to hold sway in particular sees or bishops’ cities.
Antioch, for instance, was a hotbed for believers in a human Christ. The
bishops of the great cosmopolitan cities of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch,
and Constantinople generally heard wider-ranging debates than did the
bishops of Rome, but all sought to achieve some uniformity of belief.

The bishops called councils of church leaders together to determine
which beliefs were proper and which were not. A series of these councils,
many of their locations testifying to the importance of Eastern cities (Nicea,
Constantinople, and Chalcedon), finally led to the designation of certain
beliefs as orthodox and others as heresies.

Orthodoxy defined and fought heresy, but it also prevented assimilation.
The problem is that by underlining the differences between proper and
improper ideas, orthodoxy also created heresies. Some heresies had staying
power, but most eventually died out, their adherents eventually assimilating
or waiting for the next orthodoxy.

Christianity in Europe and China. We often think of Christianity as a
European religion despite its obvious Middle Eastern origins. But in the
early centuries, before the rise of Islam, Christianity also spread widely in
Egypt and North Africa. The Egyptian and Syrian churches sent
missionaries to Ethiopia, Yemen, India, and central Asia. Ethiopia to this
day hosts a large Christian population. In central Asia and China, Christians
congregated in oasis towns and market cities. But Christianity, unlike
Buddhism, failed to put down deep roots in China.

One historian, Jerry H. Bentley, argues that the failure of Nestorian
Christianity to win China was due to the tendency of its missionaries to
assimilate too thoroughly. They not only translated Christianity through
Daoism but also eventually became Daoists. Bentley points to an early
eighth-century document attributed to a Persian missionary who was head
of the Nestorian Christian church in the Chinese capital of Chang’an:

The treatise portrays Jesus teaching Simon Peter and other disciples, but the doctrines
advanced there are specifically and almost exclusively Daoist. To attain rest and joy, according

to the Jesus of this sutra, an individual must avoid striving and desire but cultivate the virtues
of nonassertion and non-action. These qualities allow an individual to become pure and serene,
a condition that leads to illumination and understanding. Much of the treatise explains four
chief ethical values: non-desire, or the elimination of personal ambition; non-action, the
refusal to strive for wealth and worldly success; non-virtue, the avoidance of self-promotion;
and non-demonstration, the shunning of an artificial in favor of a natural observance of these
virtues. The treatise in fact does not offer a single recognizably Christian doctrine but offers
instead moral and ethical guidance of the sort that Daoist sages had taught for a millennium.16

Were all Nestorians as indifferent to orthodoxy or as willing to
assimilate? Probably not. Earlier Nestorians taught monotheism—God as
creator of all things, Jesus Christ as savior—and related many of the stories
of the life of Jesus presented in the New Testament. Nestorian Christians in
India maintained Christian beliefs and practices as they lived as a separate
community although treated by Hindus as a separate caste. Nestorian
missionaries along the Silk Road won converts among the Turkic-speaking
tribes of the great grasslands. Many Mongols married into Nestorian
families in fact. Only among the Mongols were Nestorian traders able to
gain preferential treatment, and that provoked a Muslim reaction.17

Elsewhere, the Nestorians lacked the close bond of merchants and political
leaders that benefited the spread of Buddhism and Islam. Nowhere east of
Syria did Nestorians win the exclusive political backing of a monarch or
major tribal chieftain.

The Nestorian church was cut off from its political foundations in
Antioch by charges of heresy and the imposition of Roman and Byzantine
orthodoxy. Nestorian monasteries in central Asia and China floated in alien
seas with neither local moorings nor distant, safe harbors. They breathed an
atmosphere of acceptance of (or indifference to) new religious ideas.
Orthodoxy seemed far away.

Christianity in Europe enjoyed the backing of the state in both Rome and
Constantinople. With one exception, the emperors after Constantine were
Christian. By the end of the fourth century, Christianity was the religion of
the empire, east and west. Orthodoxy was enforced by the Roman emperor
in the fourth century as well as by the Roman pope. After the breakdown of
imperial authority in the west, the Roman pope alone held the reins of
orthodoxy over the tribes of western Europe. While the Roman pope had a
say with the patriarchs of other sees in doctrinal disputes east of Italy, the
Roman church had a free hand in the west. Thus, even after there was no

longer an emperor in Rome, the doctrines of the Roman church were taught
from Ireland to Italy.

Increasingly after the eighth century, however, the patriarchs of
Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch declined to take
direction from Rome. A final break came between Rome and
Constantinople in 1054, but by then centuries of separate language (Latin
vs. Greek), culture, and development had created a schism that has lasted to
the present day. Eastern orthodox churches tended to be more tied to
national governments. The first officially Christian nation was declared by
King Tira-dates of Armenia in 301, 12 years before Constantine’s
conversion. In the Byzantine Empire, centered in Constantinople after the
sixth century, the emperor often played a forceful role in the church (a
political dominance that came to be known as Caesaro-Papism). But the
missionaries from Constantinople brought the same doctrine to Russia that
they brought to Bulgaria. Despite national differences, Orthodox churches
tended to bring a similar kind of piety throughout the newly Christianized
domains of the later medieval period. In piety, liturgy, and beliefs, these
churches were not very different from those that spread from Rome.18

In summary, Christianity spread a common culture from Ireland to
central Asia. Despite differences in dogma or institutional loyalties, a
common identity as Christians was strong enough to encourage
pilgrimages, missionaries, and (after 1095) crusades on behalf of the shared
faith. In Jerusalem, Egypt, or central Asia, Christians met not only fellow
Christians but also representatives of the other increasingly global cultures
—the missionaries of southernization, of Buddhism, and, beginning in the
seventh century, the bearers of a new universal faith called Islam.

The Rise of Islam: The Making
of a Modern World Civilization

The Islamic world was the third universal cultural system to spread across
Eurasia in the first millennium CE. In many ways, it was the successor of
the universal religious systems that preceded it. Islam, the religion of
Muslims, was (and is) a continuation of the monotheistic salvation religion
that sprang from the scriptures of Jews and Christians. For Muslims,

Muhammad was the last of a line of prophets that included Abraham,
Moses, and Jesus. But for Muslims, the most recent of God’s revelations
was received by the last and greatest of the prophets, Muhammad. The
Quran (or Koran), Muslims believe, was dictated to Muhammad by the
archangel Gabriel in the early seventh century CE. Muhammad recited the
words, which were later compiled into the present book.

Salvation, Endings, and Beginnings

The Quran continued to stress many of the themes of Zoroastrianism,
Judaism, and Christianity. Prominent among these were the ideas of a
cosmic struggle, a last judgment, and the prospect of heaven for the
righteous. But the Islamic idea of salvation was much more optimistic than
the Christian. Christian salvation (like Buddhist) held out a balm for a
suffering world. Christians and Buddhists appealed generally to the less
prosperous classes of the Roman and Chinese empires, and they entered the
mainstream during the empires’ decline after the second century CE.

Christianity offered salvation from a world that seemed to be ending;
Islamic salvation seemed to beckon to a world just beginning. Islam sprang
from a world on the move, the southern part of Eurasia that was untouched
by the widespread population dislocations of the Eurasian grasslands.
Between 200 and 700, a period of global population decline, the population
of the Arabian Peninsula actually doubled.19 This vitality was probably a
reflection of a rising economy, resulting in part from the redirection of trade
along the “water silk road” of the Indian Ocean. Arab trade prospered from
new technologies of transportation by water and land. Arab traders used
Malay triangular sails to navigate the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean.
The Chinese compass allowed them to sail the open seas. Camels, the ships
of the desert, had been domesticated for more than 1,000 years, but they too
became more useful with the invention of a camel saddle that held a
considerable array of baggage or riders with swords.

The Prophet: Trade and Religion

Muhammad (570–632) was born into a merchant family. Orphaned at an
early age, he learned the trade of a camel driver and merchant under the
tutelage of a wealthy widow whom he later married. On caravan trips across
Arabia, he came into contact with Jews and Christians and was drawn to the
simplicity of their faith in a single God of both local and global
significance. The God of Abraham was the deity of ancient nomadic
pastoralists who brought their herds and people along the same routes that
connected Mesopotamia and Egypt. He was also the creator of the world
and of all mankind. Some Arabs recognized this and professed adherence to
the faith of Moses or Jesus, but most Arabs worshipped other tribal fathers,
forces of nature, and spirits called jinns (or genies). Muhammad was
appalled by such local tribal religions and the continuous wars they

The revelation of the Quran transformed tribal conflict into a powerful
force for Arab unity and expansion. Muhammad himself galvanized many
of the Arabs of his native Mecca into an army of God opposed to idol
worship, social inequality, political injustice, and corruption. His success
threatened the ruling elite of Mecca, particularly the powerful leaders of the
Quraish tribe who benefited from the many religious shrines of the city.

In 622, Muhammad and his followers escaped assassination by fleeing
north to the city that became Medina. The flight, hijra, and the creation of
the first Muslim community, umma, marked 622 as the first year of the
Muslim calendar. In Medina, Islam evolved as a distinct religion, separate
from Judaism and Christianity: a more robust monotheism than Christianity
but attuned to Arab traditions. The “five pillars” of Islam that developed in
Medina—profession of faith, prayer, fasting, charity, and pilgrimage—were
unique to Islam only in the form they took. The profession of faith was not
only “there is no god but God” but also “and Muhammad is his Messenger.”
Prayer was performed five times a day—initially facing Jerusalem but, as
Muhammad in Medina separated Islam from Judaism, toward Mecca.
Fasting (during the month of Ramadan) and pilgrimage (to Mecca) also
gave these practices an Arab stamp. By centering Islam (literally
“submission” to God) at Mecca, Muhammad also built on traditional Arab
pilgrimages to the black stone called the Kaba and took advantage of the
useful influence of the Quraish tribe, which controlled the holy site and the

Islam beyond Arabia

Islamic Expansion to 750. Religious fervor fired the initial campaigns
that brought Islam to all of the Arabs of Arabia. But what happened next
had as much to do with Arab armies as with religious belief. There are few
historical parallels for such rapid expansion. Perhaps only the Macedonian
armies of Alexander the Great (and later the Mongols) carried out a similar
range of conquests in such a short period of time. Between the time of the
death of Muhammad in 632 and 750, a period of little more than 100 years,
the Arab armies conquered most of the territory of two of the world’s great
empires—the east Roman Byzantine Empire and the Persian Empire—and
the peoples from Morocco and Spain in the west to the margins of India and
China in the east.

It would be a mistake, however, to see the rapid expansion of Islam
beyond Arabia as a religious jihad or crusade. This is because the conquest
of Byzantine and Persian empires had more to do with luck and military
success than the preaching of a new religion. Further, Muslims saw little
need and had little reason to convert non-Arabs. They viewed Islam as Arab
monotheism, akin to the monotheism of Christians and Jews. The Greek
Christians of the Byzantine Empire, even the Zoroastrians of the Persian
Empire, were to the Muslims fellow monotheists and “people of the Book.”
Like other ancient empires, Muslims also determined a system of taxation
for subject peoples—at a slightly higher level for non-Muslims than
Muslims. Like taxation, the enslavement of conquered peoples was also a
common option of ancient empires. Muslims, however, thought it
inappropriate to enslave fellow Muslims, and that too provided a reason to
conquer and administer rather than convert.

Arab armies dealt a significant defeat to the Byzantine Empire in 636. In
637, the Persian Sassanian Empire capitulated to Arab forces. Byzantine
and Persian armies had been weakened by continual conflicts between
themselves, and they faced in the Arab armies a potent and determined
adversary. The fall of old empires did not have to mean a radical change in
the daily lives of ordinary people, however. In Syria, Palestine, and Persia,
Arab governors often used the same administrators and tax collectors who
had served the Byzantine and Persian empires. Most people lived their lives
as they had before. The conquering Arabs were, compared to Alexander’s
Macedonians, particularly insular. Arab armies stationed themselves in forts
separated from the cities they had conquered. Initially, they mixed very
little with the local population, using each fort as a stepping-stone to further
expansion. As late as 750, only 10 percent of the non-Arab population of
the Dar al-Islam (House of Islam) was Muslim, a level that testifies to the
lack of religious coercion by the Arab conquerors or the disinterest of the
new subjects in what they may have perceived as Arab religion.

Gradually, however, the conquered learned to appreciate the ways of the
new conquerors and accept the legitimacy of the government of the
caliphate. Muslims became more interested in converting their subjects to
Islam, and non-Muslims found advantage in doing so. To make a contract
with the new governor, perhaps to supply the troops or collect taxes, a
Muslim name would be a definite advantage. Conversions began slowly but
quickened in pace. The choice of a Muslim name was a clear indicator of
conversion to the new faith. The historian Richard Bulliet gathered the data
of name changes in Persia and discovered that Muslims grew from 10
percent to 90 percent of the Persian population between 750 and 900.20

Bulliet points out that this conversion rate followed a typical “S,” or bell,
curve where something rises slowly, gathers momentum, surges, peaks, and
levels off. He remarks that the same curve would chart the popularity of a
new technological innovation, such as high-definition television today. But
not every innovation or new idea succeeds, and few sweep away all
predecessors so stunningly. So we need to ask “why?”—or, more modestly,

Islamic Expansion after 750. The spread of Islam from 10 percent to 90
percent of the Persian population between 750 and 900 owed much to the
power and prestige of the Abbasid caliphate that replaced the Um-mayad
after 750. With the Abbasids, Islam shifted its geographic center only
slightly farther east, from Damascus to Baghdad. But the builders of the
new city on the Tigris brought in tribes from the Iranian plateau and central
Asian nomads to join with Arabs in the new faith. Under the Abbasid
caliphate, Islam realized a universalism that was only potential in Arab
monotheism. In opposition to the Arab favoritism of the Ummayad
caliphate, the Abbasid caliphate encouraged a larger range of ethnic groups

and tribes to become Muslims. In their new capital at Baghdad, the
Abbasids created a cosmopolitan government and culture.

Like the other monotheistic religions, Islam included everyone from
theocrats, who believed the government should institute God’s will, to those
who believed that spiritual matters were none of the government’s business.
Because of the example of Muhammad’s government in Medina, perhaps
more Muslims than Christians were theocrats, but Islam was a less
hierarchical religion than Christianity became. In Islam, there was no
equivalent of the pope or College of Cardinals. Nor were there bishops or
church councils to determine orthodoxy or impose discipline. There were
ulama (learned scholars) and judges, and well-respected religious leaders
could issue pronouncements that their followers found binding. But a fatwa,
or religious edict, rarely had the force of political law. Politically, Islam was
a decentralized religion. While some of the early Abbasid caliphs thought
of themselves as religious leaders, Islam spread more widely, paradoxically,
under those caliphs who were more political than religious.

Ultimately, Islam’s appeal was more political and cultural. It was the
sophisticated urban civilization of Islam that attracted cultural converts: to
the Arabic language, schools of filosophia, high moral standards, and the
rich culture of Islam.

The First World Civilization

Islam created the first civilization to encompass multiple states,
governments, and peoples. By 750, the religion of Islam, the Quran, and the
Arabic language shaped the beliefs and behavior of Berbers in North Africa
and the descendants of Egyptians, Syrians, Mesopotamians, Persians,
central Asians, and Indians. In the next 750 years, Islam spread to the
Turks, Africans, and East Asians. A single culture united peoples across
Eurasia from Spain to Indonesia. Even Jews, Christians, Hindus, and
Buddhists who lived in the Dar al-Islam benefited from learning the
language of the new global culture.

Abbasid Baghdad. The Abbasid caliphates of Harun al-Rashid (786–809)
and of his son al-Mamun (813–833) were the first world cosmopolitan age.
A world civilization may have been implicit in the message of Islam, but as
long as that message was identified with a single ethnic group, the Arabs,

its universality was muted. Al-Rashid and al-Mamun changed the balance
of Islam so that it was no longer an Arab religion ruled by sons of Arabia.
Al-Rashid brought ministers (viziers) and advisers to Baghdad from
throughout central Asia. The first and best known of these, from the Persian
Barmakid family, were descended from Buddhist priests who converted to

The Persians and other non-Arabs of the Abbasid court turned an Arab
empire into a Muslim one. Ironically, the new synthesis of Arab and Persian
culture also brought the traditional trappings of Persian hierarchy and royal
pomp to the palace. Some Abbasid caliphs were like divine kings. Al-
Rashid turned Baghdad into a world of opulence and dramatic indulgence:
extravagant gifts one moment, a brutal punishment the next. He was the
prototype for the later Thousand and One Nights, the tale of Queen
Scheherazade’s nightly storytelling to curtail her evil husband’s plan to
execute her.

Al-Mamun, who had to defeat his brother in a civil war for the caliphate,
brought a cultural renaissance to Baghdad. He created a complex called the
“House of Wisdom,” which included an enormous library, one of the oldest
and largest universities of the world, and a center for translations from
Greek, Latin, and other non-Arab and non-Persian literature. Al-Mamun’s
efforts saved many classical Greek works, including those of Plato and
Aristotle, from oblivion.

Abbasid Baghdad also became a center of scientific and mathematical
research. Arabs adopted Indian numerical notation and the Indian zero-
based decimal system, which were far more flexible than Roman numerals
or older Mesopotamian 12- and 60-based systems. The House of Wisdom
contained an astronomical observatory, introduced the compass from China,
and developed the astrolabe or sextant. Astronomers calculated the length
of the solar year, the distance around the earth, and the rhythm of lunar
tides. The translation center preserved the science of Greece: the
astronomical writings of Ptolemy, Euclid’s Geometry, the early medical
works of Hippocrates, and the medical texts of Galen, including the first
study of asthma. Scholars wrote medical encyclopedias and volumes on
diseases like smallpox and measles, practiced dissection, and wrote on the
optics of the eye. Indian, Persian, and Greek pharmacological knowledge
led to the creation of the world’s first pharmacies. Baghdad had 800
registered pharmacists. The great mathematician al-Khwarizmi introduced

the study of algebra. The three Banu Musa brothers built on Greek
geometry and mathematics. Geographers compiled an encyclopedia of
places visited by Islamic merchants from East Africa to the Spice Islands of

A Cultural Empire. Islam was the first global civilization not because of
its political empire. The Abbasid caliphate at Baghdad lasted beyond the
ninth century in name only. Its top-heavy, Persian imperial court ill fitted
early Muslim ideas of the equality of believers. Alternate “caliphs”
challenged the authority of the Abbasids, including members of the
Umayyad family who established their capital at Cordoba. Other dynasties
were created by Muslims of various ethnic backgrounds and religious
beliefs from Fez in Morocco to Delhi in India. The early vision of a single
Muslim caliphate ceased to exist in fact. But its failure enabled the success
of a cultural empire—a single civilization that embraced many people and
many governments.

The cultural empire was based on a shared language and a single book.
The Quran was the one authority that all Muslims shared. But the
importance of the book created a culture of literacy and libraries. In
addition to the Quran, Muslims gathered the hadiths, the sayings of the
Prophet reported by those who knew him. They wrote volumes on each
chapter of the Quran, interpretations, analyses, and explanations. But they
also continued to translate, transcribe, and build on the works of the Greeks,
Byzantines, Persians, and Indians. Like the Chinese, Muslims turned
calligraphy and bookmaking into art forms. By the ninth century, they had
borrowed Chinese papermaking techniques, substituting linen (for mulberry
bark) to make a longer-lasting cloth paper.

Writing had always been the glue that bound civilizations. Libraries not
only created literate elites and cultures but also shared memories and
uniform speech. Before the existence of paper, libraries the size of
Baghdad’s under al-Mamun were rare if they existed at all. The greatest
library of the classical world was the library of Alexandria, which had
probably contained between 40,000 and 70,000 scrolls (where each scroll
contains a few chapters).21 A large library in Ephesus that was burned by
the Goths in 262 contained 12,000 scrolls. The library of Charlemagne, who
also led a cultural renaissance in the early ninth century, numbered 256
volumes.22 It is said that the library in Cordoba under the caliph Al-Hakem
II (971–976) contained 400,000 volumes. Such numbers are hard to verify,

but it is certain that the Muslim world retained and built on the literary and
scientific heritage of the classical world. It is also certain that such a literary
empire united Muslims and their non-Muslim residents across the largest
span of land and seas and the largest number of peoples in the history of the
world until that time. In the centuries that followed 1000, that Dar al-Islam
expanded even farther into Africa and Southeast Asia and in the centuries
after 1500 into a new world as well.

The period from 200 to 1000 used to be called the Dark Ages. From the
perspective of European history, especially western European history, this
made a certain degree of sense. We have noted the disruptions of nomadic
tribes in both western Europe and China from 200 to 600 and the
accompanying population declines and loss of cities and traditional
cultures. But from the perspective of southern Eurasia, this period was one
of growth and expansion, both material and cultural.

The first 1,000 years of the Common Era was also a millennium of
mixing. New religious and commercial relationships stretched across the
borders of identity that had been forged in the previous age of classical
civilizations. In many ways, the first millennium was the first global age,
the first age of globalization, the first age when people became more alike
rather than more different.

We have concentrated our attention on Eurasia, where these
developments were most marked. Not until after 1500 did the entire world
begin to become one. It remains for us to see how other parts of the world
moved closer together in these and later years. Nevertheless, this world
where everything is more than 1,000 years old might strike us as very

Suggested Readings

Bentley, Jerry H. Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and
Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times. New York: Oxford University Press,
1993. A leading world historian surveys Eurasian cultural interactions,
especially religious conversions.

Foltz, Richard C. Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural
Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century. New York: St.
Martin’s Press, 2000. A brief overview of Silk Road religions and their
relationship to trade and diplomacy.

Fox, Robin Lane. Pagans and Christians. New York: Harper, 1988. Rich
study of pagan religions and the spread of Christianity in the second and
third centuries.

Johnson, Donald, and Jean Elliot Johnson. Universal Religions in World
History: The Spread of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam to 1500. New
York: McGraw-Hill, 2007. Broad survey of these religions.

Macmullen, Ramsay. Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth
Centuries. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997. This is one of
a number of studies of the subject by the leading scholar in the field.

Shaffer, Lynda. “Southernization.” Journal of World History 5 (Spring
1994): 1-21. Available also in Kevin Reilly, Worlds of History, vol. 1
(Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2013).

Xinru, Liu, and Lynda Shaffer. Connections across Eurasia:
Transportation, Communication, and Cultural Exchange along the Silk
Roads. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007. A leading scholar of Chinese
and Indian trade and the author of the “Southernization” essay in the
previous entry discuss the cultures of the Silk Roads.

1. Historians do not know why they were called “blood sweating,” but

Liu Xinru and Lynda Shaffer suggest that it may be a result of sweat
oxidizing (turning orange or red) on snow. See Liu Xinru and Lynda
Shaffer, Connections across Eurasia: Transportation, Communication, and
Cultural Exchange along the Silk Roads (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007).
Other historians have speculated that a parasite may have caused lesions
that bled.

2. Despite recent evidence of silk production in Harappan India before
1500 BCE, there is no evidence that it might have continued after the end of
the Indus civilization about that time.

3. World population stagnated again at about 400 million between 1200
and 1300 as a result of the Mongol invasions and again at a slightly higher
level from 1350 to 1450 as a result of the Black Death.

4. Lynda Shaffer, “Southernization,” Journal of World History 5 (Spring
1994): 1–21.

5. For a map, see

6. Jerry H. Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and
Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press,
1993), 76. Bentley actually offers a number of reasons for the spread of
Buddhism in China in this useful introduction to the subject.

7. William Theodore de Bary, ed., The Buddhist Tradition in India,
China, and Japan (New York: Random House, 1969), 132–37.

8. Laotzi or Lao Tzu (“Old Master”) is the traditionally designated author
of the Tao Te Ching or Daodejing, variously translated as The Book of
Changes and The Way and Integrity Classic, which was written by many
authors in the third century BCE.

9. The carvings of Borobudur in Java tell the story of the Buddha in
hundreds of relief images. Chinese sculptors also created the fat-belly
Buddhas that expressed Chinese attitudes toward food and enjoyment.
Indian and Southeast Asian Buddhas were thinner and more somber.

10. The Acts of John, adapted from M. R. James, trans., The Apocryphal
New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), 42.

11. Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans. G. A. Williamson
(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), 341.

12. See Joyce E. Salisbury, Perpetua’s Passion: The Death and Memory
of a Young Roman Woman (New York: Routledge, 1997), esp. 144–47.

13. Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (New York: Harper, 1988),

14. Adapted from Bede, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English
People, ed. B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1969), 106–9.

15. Willibald, Life of Boniface: The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in
Germany, trans. C. H. Talbot (London: Sheed and Ward, 1954), 45.


Willibald was a student of Boniface’s.
16. Jerry H. Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts

and Exchanges in Premodern Times (New York: Oxford University Press,
1993), 109. The document is called the “Sutra on Mysterious Rest and Joy.”
Bentley also notes that the Nestorian translations left something to be
desired; for example, “Jesus” in Chinese became “Yishu,” which could
mean “a rat on the move.”

17. Richard C. Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road (New York: St. Martin’s
Press, 2000), 138.

18. Essentially, the Orthodox Church refused to recognize Roman
superiority and disagreed about minor matters of doctrine like the
Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary and Purgatory (both of which
had become canonical in the West in the Middle Ages).

19. From about 2.7 million to 5.4 million, according to Colin McEvedy
and Richard Jones, Atlas of World Population History (Harmond-sworth:
Penguin, 1978), 145. According to the same source, the high of 700 was not
reached again until the nineteenth century.

20. Richard W. Bulliet, Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979). See “Religious
Conversion and the Spread of Innovation,” the author’s excerpt from the
above, at “Fathom: The Source for Online Learning,”

21. See http://www.bede.org.uk/Library2.htm# Royal. Estimates vary
widely. Seneca estimated 40,000 (or 400,000 if a zero was missed by the
medieval copyist).

22. See http://www.acadia.org/competition-
98/sites/integrus.com/html/library/time.html. As late as 1290, the Sorbonne
library in Paris had only 1,017 volumes, and in 1475, the Vatican library
contained 2,527 volumes; no European library contained more than 400,000
volumes until 1819.




The Making of an

Afro-Eurasian Network
1000 CE-1450 CE

China in the Making of an Afro-Eurasian Network
Industry and Invention

Textiles and Pottery
Paper and Printing
Compass and Ships
Guns and Gunpowder
Iron and Coal
Industrial Revolution?

Commerce and Capitalism
Money and Markets
Public versus Private Enterprise

State and Bureaucracy
The Modern State
A Bureaucracy of Experts

Mongols in the Making of an Afro-Eurasian Network
The Mongols

Death and Destruction
Trade and Tolerance
Political Divisions and Economic Unity
World History for a Global Age
Ecological Unity: A Dark Victory

Islam in the Making of an Afro-Eurasian Network
New Muslims from the Steppe

Slaves, Soldiers, and Sons
In Place of Government

Muslims, Merchants, and Market
A Merchant’s Religion

Islam in Africa
Islam in West Africa
Swahili Culture
A Single Ecozone

Islam in India and Indonesia
Europe in the Making of an Afro-Eurasian Network

Revival and Expansion
Good Weather and Good Luck
Two Europes, Four Economies

Cities and States
Urban Renewal
City-States and Citizenship

Law and Science
Natural Law and Natural Reason
Twelfth-Century Renaissance
Popular Science
The Formation of the Modern Network

Death and Rebirth
The Renaissance

The Classical and the Novel
Japan and Korea
Imitators and Innovators

Conclusion: The Virtues of Variety

I N 1325, Ibn Battuta, a young Muslim from Morocco, left for a
pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. From there, he traveled through
Syria, Iraq, Persia, and finally to India, where he was appointed as a

judge because, although he did not speak any Indian languages, he spoke
Arabic and was a jurist of the Quran. From 1333 to 1345, in his thirties and
forties, he traveled extensively throughout India on official missions and to
satisfy his curiosity. In 1345, Ibn Battuta sailed from India to China. At
almost every port in China, he met someone he knew—the man who had
first offered him money to set him up in Delhi and a Chinese envoy who
had previously accompanied him on a trip from Delhi to Calicut—and on
an invitation to meet the emperor, he stopped at the port of Fuzhou, where
he ran into a fellow Moroccan who had lived 40 miles from his home in
Morocco, a man he had recently seen in India. For Ibn Battuta, the earth
was a very small world.1

In the age of Ibn Battuta, global travel became predictable and almost
common. There were established agents, carriers, tickets, regular stops,
accommodations for the traveler, places of worship for the foreign
community, contacts, letters of introduction, and even souvenirs. That a
Muslim who lived near the Atlantic coast could travel to the Pacific coast of
China without passport or hindrance was a sign of how integrated the world
had become.

Not everywhere but in numerous places—especially across Eurasia—
people encountered the ways of foreigners. And in many cases, the ways of
the foreigner became their own. Foreign religions, customs, clothes, crops,
crafts, ideas, and even spouses won over or converted individuals, families,
and communities that had for generations prided themselves on the
antiquity of their ways. Change was not always voluntary or swift, and
many people dug in their heels instead of opening their arms, but, ironically,
as the variety of human experience became more visible for all to see, more
people found common interests and identities over vastly larger regions of
the planet.

This chapter is the story of how the integration of Asia, Africa, and
Europe increased between 1000 and 1450. It is also the story of how that
integration changed localities, states, and regions, making them both less
different, one from the other, and also each more internally varied as their
inhabitants increased their contacts with foreign ways and changed their

own. Thus, the story of hemispheric integration is also the story of the
origins of the modern world.

The previous chapters show how our world has been shaped by processes
that began a long time ago. The agricultural revolution changed the way we
eat and work, how many of us there are, and the lives we lead. The urban
revolution multiplied our numbers and vastly increased the complexity of
life. The Iron Age extended that life down the social scale and over the
horizon. Our classical cultures still inform and shape us through our
languages, values, and ideas. When those classical cultures were absorbed
and eclipsed by a new set of ideas, techniques, and religions (the impact of
southernization and universal religions), new communities emerged that
were frequently both larger and more cosmopolitan than their predecessors.

In the past 1,000 years, the world has become far more integrated still.
While we think of globalization as a very recent development, its roots
actually go back to the first half of the previous millennium. Between
roughly 1000 and 1450, the Chinese, Mongols, Muslims, Africans, and
Europeans created and participated in a single network of trade, travel, and
interchange. In the previous chapter, we saw the development of the early
stages of this network among the Muslims and Chinese. In this chapter, we
see how Africa and eventually Europe became active partners in an even
more global network.

The story begins with China because it stood like a colossus over Eurasia
from 1000 to 1450. Chinese technologies, manufactures, economic
innovations, and organizing ideas formed the principal fuel of global

China in the Making of an
Afro-Eurasian Network

We have seen in the previous chapter how the Chinese effort to exchange
silk for horses created the Silk Road, the first important link between Asia
and Europe. When the Huns and other nomadic peoples of north-central
Asia interrupted the flow of goods along the Silk Road between the third
and sixth centuries, the trade moved south. Malays, Indians, and Arabs
pioneered a route that brought southern spices as well as silks and tropical

products across the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. China was
reduced to a number of smaller feuding kingdoms, not unlike the period
before its unification 500 years earlier.

By the sixth century, however, the northern steppe stabilized as the
nomads learned to extract payment from the caravans for protection and
provisions and China reunited its empire. Under three successive dynasties,
Sui (580-618), Tang (618-907), and Song (960-1279), China achieved a
level of technological innovation that the world had never seen.
Consequently, as trade between China and the West developed again along
the northern Silk Road, China was undergoing a profound technological
transformation. The new contacts between China and the West were then
interrupted temporarily by the Mongol conquests, but relations resumed
under the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). Mongol rule was devastating,
though in some areas—mainly maritime and military—the technology and
economy of China continued to grow. The return of native Chinese rule
with the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) revitalized Chinese expansion,
especially during the first half of the fifteenth century.

In three key areas that have shaped the modern world—the technology of
the industrial revolution, the market economy, and the modern bureaucratic
state—China was centuries ahead of the rest of the world.

Industry and Invention

So profound and pervasive was Chinese industrial growth from 1000 to
1450 that historians have compared it to the later industrial revolution.
While historians still date the beginnings of the industrial revolution in late
eighteenth-century Britain, many of the roots of that revolution lay in the
industrial products and techniques of China.

Textiles and Pottery. Chinese silk and porcelain were the gold standards
for textiles and pottery when Britain launched an industrial revolution in the
late eighteenth century by producing factory-made cottons and ceramic
dishes called “China.” By the Song dynasty, Chinese porcelains were
collected throughout the world as works of art. In the fifteenth century, East
African merchants displayed Chinese blue and white dishes on the walls of
their houses as a sign of prosperity. True Chinese porcelain could not be
duplicated elsewhere. The luminous pottery was made from Chinese clay

and feldspar, a Chinese stone. The imperial potteries established after 1000
employed over a million people by 1712, when French Jesuits smuggled the
secrets to Europeans.

The secrets of silk production—feeding silkworms on the leaves of
mulberry trees, then unraveling the strands of their cocoons into a fine
thread—had been protected by threat of death until the sixth century. In
552, however, the secret (along with the worms and leaves) was smuggled
in bamboo from China to the court of the Byzantine emperor Justinian.
Constantinople established a rival silk industry that later spread throughout
the Muslim world as well.

Chinese silk and porcelain attracted such a huge continental demand that
these industries stimulated the development of power machinery and mass
production, very much the way British industry did hundreds of years later.
Already mechanized by the Song dynasty, Chinese textile producers used
water-powered mills and spinning wheels by the eleventh century.

Paper and Printing. We have already pointed to early Chinese
papermaking—from mulberry bark and bamboo fiber around 100 BCE
(about 1,000 years before the Muslim world and 1,500 years before
Europe). Printing with carved wood blocks may have originated in Buddhist
monasteries as part of their effort to reproduce scriptures from India. The
earliest of these may have been produced by Buddhist monks in Korea, but
the first print shops were probably those in Chinese monasteries around 700
to 750. A million copies of the first Japanese scroll book were printed
between 764 and 770, but not one was meant to be read. Rather, each was to
be a miniature Buddha reciting prayers.2 The earliest Chinese printed book
to be read dates from 868. Block printing (carving a complete page at once)
was particularly appropriate for Chinese with its tens of thousands of
characters, and blocks could be engraved with pictures as well as words.

The use of individual pieces of movable type for printing developed later.
Chinese printers experimented with wooden, ceramic, and metal type
(which was probably first developed by skilled Korean metalworkers). In
general, however, Chinese printers continued to use block printing.
Movable type worked best where a few symbols were used frequently. Not
only did the Chinese have the problem of innumerable characters, but
Chinese culture also prized calligraphy, having turned the written script into
an art form—one entirely lost by machinelike interchangeable typefaces.
For Europeans, who had used phonetic alphabets for centuries, movable-

type printing was a much greater advantage. Nevertheless, both printing and
movable type came to Europe sometime after 1250, probably through Italy,
possibly in the skills of slaves from Tibet or western China who were
brought from the Black Sea markets to many Italian cities. The creation of a
movable-type printing press by Gutenberg around 1450 combined the
advantages of a mechanical press with movable type and a phonetic
language that would eventually produce mass-market books and periodicals
for a reading public in the millions and even billions.

Compass and Ships. The Chinese discovered the magnetic properties of
magnetite and created magnets and compasses as early as the third century.
By the eleventh century, the floating compass needle was used in Chinese
ships. During the Tang dynasty, the Chinese colonized areas in the south,
and by the Song dynasty, a majority of the Chinese population lived south
of the Yangtze. Increasingly, relations with the peoples of the southern
oceans became a matter of imperial policy. By the end of the Song dynasty,
Chinese ships were sailing regularly into the Indian Ocean. Chinese vessels
also sailed to the Spice Islands of modern Indonesia for the same spices that
would attract Columbus 500 years later. During the period of the Mongol
Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), the Mongols sent Chinese ships to invade Java
and Japan. The Japanese invasion of 1281 failed, according to Japanese

tradition, because of a “divine wind” (kamikaze) that sunk the Chinese
ships, but recent excavations suggest that the ships, though huge by
European standards, may have been poorly constructed.

When the native Chinese Ming dynasty (1368-1644) gained control of
China, shipbuilding became a major priority. Huge dry docks were
constructed, new shipbuilding technologies perfected, and thousands of
sailors trained. Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming emperor dispatched
hundreds of “treasure ships,” huge vessels, any one of which could have
tucked Columbus’s entire fleet of three ships into its hold. Under the
command of Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim from Yunnan in southwestern
China, these ships brought tens of thousands of Chinese sailors, diplomats,
naturalists, artists, mapmakers, and tribute collectors on visits to foreign
ports as far away as East Africa. The continual threat of invasion from
northern and central Asia probably brought the ocean voyages to an abrupt

Guns and Gunpowder. In 644, an Indian monk in China showed that
certain soils (containing saltpeter), if ignited, would produce a purple flame.
By the eighth century, Chinese alchemists were making gunpowder. In the
tenth century, soldiers packed gunpowder into bamboo tubes to launch
rockets against enemy troops and fortifications. The first known cannon
date from 1127. Probably the first population to share this Chinese
technology was the nomadic confederacies of the steppe. Although their
main weapons were crossbows fired from fast-moving horses, the Mongols
also used gunpowder and Chinese catapults effectively, especially in the
siege of cities. Weapons developed in warfare rarely remain secrets very
long, particularly since it was common practice for each side to turn border
populations and defeated troops into their own armies. Nevertheless,
gunpowder did not reach European or Middle Eastern armament makers for
more than 400 years. It may have come to Italy, along with printing, in the
minds and skills of slaves purchased in Black Sea ports.

Iron and Coal. The Chinese use of iron dates from the beginning of the
Iron Age in Asia, but production was relatively low before the Tang
dynasty. By 1078 (toward the end of the Northern Song dynasty), China
produced more iron than any country in the world before the industrial
revolution. In fact, the entire iron production of western Europe did not
surpass Chinese production until 1700.3

By the eleventh century, Chinese iron was also pure enough to be
considered steel. The first ironworkers hammered soft iron into tools. Later,
iron was extracted from rock and fired with wood or charcoal to remove
impurities and strengthen it. But iron made this way still contained a high
measure of carbon. Steel not only was much stronger but also did not rust.
The making of steel, however, required much higher temperatures (about
1,600 degrees Fahrenheit). Those temperatures could be achieved only with
coke, which was a concentrated block of coal (like charcoal was to wood),
an intensified energy source.

The Chinese use of coal and coke for fuel may have been fortuitous.
Northern China was not heavily forested, and much of the forest that did
exist was cut to make charcoal during the early Song dynasty. Chinese iron
production was concentrated near the northern capital of Kaifeng near
abundant sources of coal. The market of metropolitan Kaifeng, a city of a
million people, drove iron and steel production in the eleventh century. Iron
and steel built a vibrant regional economy. The value of Kaifeng trade at the
end of the eleventh century has been estimated at about 12.4 million British
pounds; by comparison, the imports and exports of London in 1711 were
worth no more than 8.4 million pounds.4

Industrial Revolution? Figures like these have led some modern
historians to ask why China did not undergo an industrial revolution as
Britain did 700 years later. If we restrict our inquiry to Kaifeng, the answer
is fairly straightforward. Unfortunately for the people of Kaifeng, they
entered a period after 1100 of a series of catastrophes that made iron
production the least of their worries. In 1126, Kaifeng was conquered by the
Jurchen people from the northern grasslands. In 1176 and again in 1194, the
Yellow River changed its course, causing severe flooding and isolating
Kaifeng from its traditional supply and trade routes. In 1233, Kaifeng fell to
the Mongols after a brutal and punishing siege accompanied by plague and
famine. A report of the time claimed that 900,000 coffins were carried out
of the gates of the city over a five-day period. This may not be an
exaggeration since the population of Kaifeng in 1330 had been reduced to
only about 90,000—less than a tenth of its eleventh-century size.5

After the Mongol period, the Chinese economy revived, but the
population shifted to the area south of the Yangtze River. While iron was no
longer produced in the Kaifeng mines, it was produced in southern and
central China. One problem, however, was that China’s coal fields were

mainly in the north. The nine provinces of the south contain only 1.8
percent of China’s coal reserves.6 Consequently, most of the iron that was
produced when China revived in the fifteenth century was probably fueled
with wood or charcoal. Chinese metallurgists may have even lost the craft
of making coke from coal, as this was normally passed on orally from
master to apprentice. As a result, Chinese iron in the Ming and Manchu
dynasties (1368-1911) was inferior to that of the eleventh-century steel.

A modern historian points to a further irony.7 The industrial revolution
that transformed Britain and the world in the nineteenth century was driven
by the symbiosis of heavy industries in iron, coal, and steam. Iron became
steel in blast furnaces stoked by coke. Steam engines were developed to
remove water from the coal mines, then they powered the removal of the
coal in wagons run on iron rails, and finally steam engines were refined to
drive steel railroad cars along the iron rails laid throughout the world. The
irony is that Chinese coal mines did not flood but were kept dry, so they did
not have to develop steam engines. Dry mines were more dangerous and
difficult to mine because the dry air full of coal dust was highly
combustible. Consequently, even if China had an abundance of coal easily
at hand and even if the Chinese continued to produce coke and steel, the
synergy of iron, coal, and steam that jump-started the industrial revolution
in Britain would have been less likely to occur in China.

Could China have begun an industrial revolution hundreds of years
before it occurred in Europe? Perhaps, if there had been no Jurchen and
Mongol invasions. Perhaps, if China had the global market for textiles and
iron that Britain enjoyed thanks to its colonies in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries. It is important to realize that no one foresaw the
industrial revolution; no one could have planned it. Such things are much
easier to copy than create. China has been industrializing quite successfully
in recent decades along models borrowed from nineteenth-century Europe
and late twentieth-century Asia.

But what was the relationship between medieval Chinese technological
inventiveness and the industrial revolution that eventually created the
modern world? If the Mongol invasion ended Chinese steel production and
dramatically curtailed Chinese iron production, there was no continuity
between Chinese metallurgy and the growth of the British and European
iron industry. In fact, between 1500 and 1700, Chinese, Muslim, and
European iron industries were relatively equal. Therefore, the precocious

inventiveness of the Chinese iron and steel industry during the Song
dynasty had limited global consequences.

Other Chinese inventions did begin a global history, however. While
Chinese iron production was not copied by Muslims or Europeans, Chinese
ceramics and silk were. Chinese ships were not copied, but the compass
was. In these and many other technologies, China participated in a shared
universe of technological invention and development. In an age with porous
borders but no patent offices, it would be a fool’s errand to trace the history
of most inventions. Many transfers are as hidden from the historian as they
were hidden from authorities at the time. Often technologies were stolen or
captured in war. When Muslim armies defeated Chinese troops in 751,
among the Chinese prisoners brought to Samarkand were Chinese
papermakers. Paper appeared in Baghdad by the early ninth century and in
the rest of the Muslim world by 1000. Later, paper filtered into Europe
through Spain and Italy. The compass also sailed on Muslim ships before
European ones, but some Chinese inventions jumped straight to Europe.
Gunpowder, cannon, and block printing went directly from China to Italy in
the fourteenth century, possibly brought by Mongolian or Tibetan slaves
purchased by Italian merchants on the Black Sea.8 Thus, in China, we see
many roots of modern technology. And while some of these turned out to be
only temporarily productive, others turned into permanent routes to the
modern world.

Commerce and Capitalism

Increasing trade is a long-term trend in world history. However, since rulers
and religious institutions managed much of the trade in the ancient world,
private, capitalist, market-driven trade has had a shorter history. China
clearly played an important role in advancing private markets. Markets,
merchants, private investors, and manufacturers were more important in
Song dynasty China than ever before. But if capitalism means a society in
which commercial decisions trump most others, China was not capitalist.
The government directed much of the economy, and merchants were neither
independent actors nor members of a self-conscious class. Rather, they
operated in great family, clan, and lineage organizations that mediated
individual action and restricted the role of the market.

Money and Markets. Song dynasty China created many of the elements
of modern commercial society that we take for granted. Paper money is
perhaps the most notable. Marco Polo was astounded to see paper money in
China when he visited in the thirteenth century, but since appearing in 1024,
paper money had already been in use for hundreds of years. Between 1265
and 1279, the government backed its paper notes with gold and silver. The
Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) made paper money legal tender, the
only money that one could legally use. Foreign visitors like Marco Polo and
Ibn Battuta wrote of having to surrender their foreign money on arrival and
convert whatever they wanted to spend into Chinese paper.

During the period of the Song dynasty, government returns from
commercial activity surpassed those of agriculture.9 This income included
both taxes from private commerce and the revenues derived from
government owned industries.

Public versus Private Enterprise. How much of this commercial activity
was private, and how much government owned? Salt production was a
government monopoly, as was tea, alcohol, and incense. The huge Chinese
military (about a million strong) played an important role in directing the
economy. In Hangzhou, the army owned 13 large and six small stores that
sold alcoholic beverages. From these, it also ran taverns with state

A class of private merchants and producers grew with the expanding
Chinese economy during the Song dynasty, but it is likely that the state
increased rather than decreased its control of the economy over time. There
were a large number of private iron producers in Kaifeng during the
eleventh century, for example. But by the thirteenth century, independent
entrepreneurs had been replaced by government contractors. Then, during
the reign of Kublai Khan (1260-1290) and the Mongol Yuan dynasty, these
contractors were replaced by government-salaried officials. Increasingly,
free laborers were replaced by slave and dependent workers.11 Salt mines
near Hangzhou employed hundreds of thousands of semislave workers at
starvation wages. Those who were not homeless were kept in substandard
public housing, six to eight in a room.

Markets also became less free during the Mongol Yuan dynasty.
Merchants complained that government manufactures undersold private
producers and that government purchasers paid less than full value. The
government was a major buyer of armaments, clothing, and military

equipment, some of which was made by government factories and some

Hangzhou. Great cities crystallize the values of the civilization from
which they spring. Hangzhou was one of the greatest. Marco Polo, who
visited the former capital of the Southern Song dynasty shortly after the
Mongol conquest in 1275, thought it was “the greatest city which may be
found in the world, where so many pleasures may be found that one fancies
himself to be in Paradise.” Hangzhou offered lowly officials, foreign
merchants, and native working people a variety of recreational facilities and
amusements. There were many specialized restaurants: some served
everything ice cold, including fish and soups; some specialized in silkworm
or shrimp pies and plum wine; and even teahouses offered sumptuous
decor, dancing girls, and musical lessons of all kinds. On the lake, there
were hundreds of boats, many of which could be rented, according to
Marco Polo, “for parties of pleasure”:

Anyone who desires to go a-pleasuring with the women or with a party of his own sex hires
one of these barges, which are always to be found completely furnished with tables and chairs
and all other apparatus for a feast. . . . And truly a trip on this Lake is a much more charming
recreation than can be enjoyed on land. For on the one side lies the city in its entire length, so
that the spectators in the barges, from the distance at which they stand, take in the whole
prospect in its full beauty and grandeur, with its numberless palaces, temples, monasteries, and
gardens, full of lofty trees, sloping to the shore.

While anything could be purchased in Hangzhou, many things were free.
Workers, soldiers, and the poor frequented almost two dozen “pleasure
grounds.” Each was a large fairground with markets, plays, musical groups,
instrumental and dance lessons, ballet performances, jugglers, acrobats,
storytellers, performing fish, archery displays and lessons, snake charmers,
boxing matches, conjurers, chess players, magicians, imitators of street
cries, imitators of village talk, and specialists in painting chrysanthemums,
telling obscene stories, posing riddles, and flying kites. Gambling, drinking,
and prostitution were also part of the scene here as elsewhere in the city.

Market areas were equally a source of entertainment and business. Marco
Polo saw so much fish in a single market that he could not imagine it would
ever be eaten, but all of it was sold in a couple of hours. There were
markets devoted to specialized goods and crafts that could hardly be found
in the rest of China. One “guidebook” gave directions for the best
rhinoceros skins, ivory combs, turbans, wicker cages, painted fans,

philosophy books, and lotus-pink rice. In addition, the resident of Hangzhou
could find books (hand or mechanically printed) on a fantastic variety of
subjects: curious rocks, jades, coins, bamboo, plum trees, special aspects of
printing and painting, foreign lands, poetry, philosophy, Confucius,
mushrooms, and encyclopedias on everything.

Marco Polo’s description of Hangzhou reveals a metropolis of unbridled
commerce, but in praise of its architecture, Marco Polo added a note that
shows the enormous power the emperor exerted over individuals, families,
and private owners of property:

And again this king did another thing; that when he rides by any road in the city . . . and it
happened that he found two beautiful great houses and between them might be a small one . . .
then the king asks why that house is so small. . . . And one told him that that small house
belongs to a poor man who has not the power to make it larger like the others. Then the king
commands that the little house may be made as beautiful and as high as were those two others
which were beside it, and he paid the cost. And if it happened that the little house belonged to
a rich man, then he commanded him immediately to cause it to be taken away. And by his
command there was not in his capital in the realms of Hangzhou any house which was not
both beautiful and great, besides the great palaces and the great mansions of which there were
great plenty about the city.

Hangzhou was still the emperor’s city, and China was the emperor’s
country. The emperor could encourage trade, support private businesses,
and reward economic development, but the emperor could never be a
businessperson. He could never think or behave like a capitalist. Rather, he
was like a father to all the people of the Celestial Kingdom, rich and poor,
powerful and weak.

Technologically, administratively, and economically, China cleared routes
to modern society that others followed only recently. But China was not a
modern society. Nor was China alone, large as it was, pervasive enough to
change the world. The world we know evolved from the spread of these
Chinese innovations and the contributions of other societies in a vast global
network of trade, migration, and influences that many contemporary
scholars call a “world system.”

State and Bureaucracy

The modern state was also a Chinese invention. The Chinese state is, in
fact, the longest-continuing state in world history, whether we date its

origins back to the Bronze Age or the formation of the Qin (Ch’in) dynasty
in the second century BCE. But by the modern state, we mean something a
bit different.

The Modern State. Our world consists almost entirely of nation-states
(and the international organizations that represent these states). We take
them for granted because there are no parts of the world that do not belong
to a particular state. No island is too small or too far away to avoid the
jurisdiction of a state. Even ships on the ocean fly the flag of a particular
nation-state (though often one chosen for tax or legal purposes). But this
was not always the case. A thousand years ago, there was no “France” or
“Egypt” or “India.” There were empires and caliphates, “no-man’s-lands,”
stateless peoples, and frontiers beyond the control of governments. Many
parts of the world were run by religious organizations, local lords, tribal
leaders, or marauding armies rather than territorial sovereigns. The
transformation of a stateless or tribal society into a territorial state involved
a number of important steps. We have discussed some of these in our study
of the ancient and classical world. Tribal, clan, or family organization and
identity had to be subordinated to state or national organization and identity,
and there had to be an authority (a sovereign) able to administer the
territory in some more regular and stable form than periodic plunder.

One reason why the Chinese state proved so long lasting was its
development of state bureaucracy. As early as the Han dynasty, but
especially during the Tang and Song dynasties, China developed a system
of state administration second to none. One of the distinctive features of this
centralized state administration was the Chinese civil service and
examination system. We referred in a previous chapter to the origins of this
system in the Han dynasty. It became especially important in the Tang and
Song dynasties and had much to do with the revival of the Chinese Empire
after the sixth century.

In the beginning, the old aristocracy rejected a system based on exams
rather than birth, but eventually they too recognized that the system had
changed. As early as the seventh century, one Tang emperor was said to
remark, on seeing young aristocrats line up for the exams, “The heroes of
the empire are all in my pocket.” In fact, the battle between the palace and
the old families continued throughout the Tang dynasty, and it was not until
the Song dynasty that the old aristocracy was replaced by a new elite class
of graduates of the highest state exams. Eventually, the sons of the old

families were replaced by new names. The exam lists of 1148 and 1256
(which are unusually complete) show that less than half of the winning
doctoral candidates had fathers, paternal grandfathers, or paternal great-
grandfathers in the bureaucracy.

A Bureaucracy of Experts. The Chinese civil service exams were part of a
larger process of change in Chinese society. To prepare candidates from all
social classes for the exams, the northern Song emperor Shenzong (1068-
1086) and his chief minister Wang An-Shih created a national university,
perhaps the first in the world (although it was displaced by exam preparers
in the succeeding Southern Song period [1127-1279]).

Exams may not strike modern college students as a major step forward in
world history. In fact, modern society may expect exams to do too much.
But in a world in which family and class stamped one for life, a test of
ability or intelligence was a creative innovation. Rulers could be assured of
experts, the ruled could expect fairness, and the talented could hope for

Mongols in the Making of
an Afro-Eurasian Network

A network is a regional system in which the various parts (countries,
nations, and peoples) not only connect but also interact with each other in a
way that makes the whole more than the sum of its parts. Today, we live in
a world network that embraces virtually every square foot of the planet.
There are still places where one can be alone, even hide, but virtually no
one on the planet anymore is unaffected by what others do and have done.

History over the very long term is a story of larger and larger spheres of
interaction. The classical empires were larger than the ancient empires. The
network that connected the worlds of China, the Mongols, and Muslims in
the thirteenth century was larger still. This thirteenth-century network12 was
a root of the modern world network that has embraced both Eastern and
Western hemispheres since 1492. Some historians call that modern network
the “capitalist world system”; others might call it the beginning of

The Mongols

The Mongols of the thirteenth century were very different from Song
dynasty China. While the Mongols may have participated in the
development of some Chinese technologies like gunpowder, they were in no
sense industrial, bureaucratic, or capitalist. Theirs was a nomadic pastoral
society: tribes of herders who periodically organized themselves to exploit
“a new type of herd—human.”13 The rise of the Mongols under Temujin,
who became Great Khan (Genghis Khan) in 1206, was the culmination of a
series of changes that had occurred in the grasslands of Eurasia since the
period of mass migrations and upheaval that had brought an end to the Han
dynasty and the Western Roman Empire. Increasingly, the peoples of the
steppe—Turkmen, Tatars, Uighurs, and Mongols—chose to charge
transport duties and extract “protection” instead of raiding settled societies.
But sometimes this more peaceful arrangement would break down. In
addition, after 1000, when the tribes of the steppe broke the new balance
with the settled peoples, the impact was often more lasting. This happened
in the eleventh century, when the Seljuk Turks conquered most of what is
today called Turkey (after them) as well as parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria,
Lebanon, and Palestine. The Mongol expansion of the thirteenth century
marked a similar break with the peaceful system of get and take.

The Mongols helped make the Afro-Eurasian network in two important
ways: one positive and one negative.

Death and Destruction. The negative side of Mongol expansion was the
enormous human cost and its economic consequences. When Genghis Khan
died in 1227, his body was carried back across the vast empire he had
created to be buried near the Mongol homeland. So that no one would
reveal the burial place, however, every person along the way who aided or
witnessed the procession was killed.

Genghis Khan died as he had lived. He created something very close to
the world empire he envisioned when he declared himself Khan of Khans
and “ruler of all who dwell in felt tents” at a Mongol meeting of the tribes
in 1206. He conquered the great cities along the Asian Silk Road (Beijing,
Samarkand, and Bukhara), slaughtering perhaps a million people in the
process. His rules of engagement were simple. Those who surrendered
immediately became slaves; those who resisted were killed. Great

civilizations were lost with their cities: the Muslim Kwarezmian civilization
in Samarkand and Bukhara and the Chinese-Jurchen civilization at Beijing.

After his death, his successors continued his global conquests in Russia,
eastern Europe, and the Muslim heartland. In 1237, Mongol cavalries under
his nephew Batu Khan swept westward to Russia, defeated the forces of
Alexander Nevsky, and destroyed Russia’s two largest cities, Kiev and
Novgorod, in 1240. In 1241, Batu’s armies conquered a combined Polish
and German army and threatened western Europe. In front of the gates of
Vienna, he suddenly turned back to attend the funeral of his uncle Ogedai
and the selection of a new Khan in Mongolia. Europe was not threatened
again, but the Muslim world was the next to feel the fury of the Mongols. In
1258, the great city of Baghdad, already living on memories, fell to the
Mongols, finally bringing an end to the Abbasid caliphate. In 1279, Kublai
Khan conquered China, ending the Southern Song dynasty at Hangzhou. In
less than 50 years, the Mongols had conquered the known world of Eurasia.

Trade and Tolerance. The positive contribution of the Mongols was to
bring all of Eurasia—from eastern Europe to the China Sea—under a single
regime of trade and administration. The Mongols united all of Eurasia north
of the Islamic lands. They permitted the free exchange of goods along the
northern Silk Road, vastly reducing the costs of duties, robbery, and other
risks in international trade. The northern arc of the Silk Road also
completed a great Eurasian circle of trade that sped goods and ideas from
China to Europe to Africa to the Indian Ocean.

The trade routes of this “Pax Mongolica” were not accidental
consequences of Mongol conquests. Rather, the Mongols actively sought to
increase trade and the well-being of traders. The Mongol cultural attitude
toward merchants was much more positive than the Chinese Confucian
attitude. Mongols benefited from the flow of goods along the Silk Road,
enjoyed luxury items like silks and porcelains, profited as other central
Asians had from the sale of horses and sheep, and prospered more from
modest taxes than occasional plunder. In central Asia and in their conquered
realms, the Mongols also aided the growth of financial instruments that
have since become common. We have mentioned paper money, which the
Mongol Yuan dynasty made legal tender in China. The Mongols also
attempted to introduce paper money into Persia, though there they were less
successful. In addition, the Mongols created a financial institution called the
ortogh, which had elements of modern ideas of the corporation and

insurance. The ortogh was an instrument of common ownership of a
caravan; like a modern corporation, it divided costs and risks among a
number of merchants or investors, allowing them to share the profits. The
Mongols also encouraged the building of caravan stops and ensured that
merchants would have access to food and financial needs. And for the
Mongols, the lending of money for interest was not prohibited or restricted
as it was in Christian and Muslim cultures.

In religion, Mongols were not monotheists; they practiced traditional
rites of shamanism, ancestor worship, and respect for natural forces.
Mongols were open to other religions. Many Mongols married wives from
tribes that were Nestorian Christian. But they neither expected other
peoples to follow Mongol religion nor disparaged foreigners who followed
different traditions. Consequently, Mongols respected and eagerly learned
from foreigners. Without a written language, they borrowed the script of the

neighboring Uighur people and developed a written body of literature from
the thirteenth century on.

Mongol hospitality to travelers was well known. The Mongol capital at
Karakorum held many foreign residents, including some Christians who
lived under Mongol rule because they found Mongol religious tolerance
greater than in their Christian country.

Political Divisions and Economic Unity. By the end of the thirteenth
century, almost all of Asia was ruled by a single extended family. You
might think that the existence of Mongol Khans governing all the major
civilizations from Baghdad to Hangzhou would have created a unified
Mongol Empire. In fact, the Mongol Khanates of Persia, called the
Illkanate, and China, called the Yuan dynasty, adopted many of the traits of
their respective Persian and Chinese subjects. The rulers of the Illkanate
eventually became Muslims. Kublai Khan did not become either Confucian
or Chinese, but he and his administrators adopted many aspects of Chinese

Economically, the Mongol world from 1250 to 1330 was one. Goods
traveled easily across the great continent again. Chinese styles of art and
architecture filtered across Eurasia and fused with traditional central Asian
and Persian styles (though, interestingly, fewer Persian motifs were adopted
by Chinese artists). Precious objects were made by a new class of
international artists in a developing international style. One fitting symbol
of the new global age was the invention of world history.

World History for a Global Age. Rashid al-Din (1247-1318) lived at the
apex of Mongol global unity. His own life brought together the
crosscurrents of global interaction. He was born into a Jewish family in
Persia. His grandfather had been an adviser to Hulegu Khan, the conqueror
of Baghdad and founder of the Illkanid dynasty. At the age of 30, Rashid al-

Din converted to Islam. Soon after, he began a career in his grandfather’s
footsteps, serving three Khans successively as court physician, steward, and
vizier (chief adviser). The first two Khans were, like Hulegu, sympathetic
to the Buddhists, but they also held debates among representatives of
different faiths and awarded prizes to the most convincing. In 1295, the new
Khan, Ghazan, chose Islam as the official faith, but in order to ensure that
Mongol traditions were not lost, he commissioned Rashid al-Din to write a
history of the Mongol conquests. The project grew into a multivolume
encyclopedic history of all the people the Mongols encountered. Ghazan
threw open the Mongol and family archives, instructed all to cooperate with
the historian, brought in a Chinese historian to help with Chinese history,
and instructed his emissaries to Europe and India to provide information.

The enormous compendium, the Jami al-Tawarikh, written in Persian and
Arabic and beautifully illustrated in numerous manuscript editions, may be
called the first world history book. From 1307 until his death, Rashid al-Din
supervised the writing and illustrating of numerous manuscripts of his
history and other works. For his efforts, he was generously rewarded by his
mentor, the Khan. A later historian who knew him said that Rashid was the
highest-paid civil servant in history. He was granted an entire suburb of the
city of Tabriz and employed many of its residents in producing his
manuscripts, he worked on the various estates that he had been given in the
Caucasus and Asia Minor, he revived the efficient Mongol postal system,
and he coordinated activities with his sons, eight of whom governed major
provinces of the Illkanate. At the age of 70, however, Rashid al-Din ran
afoul of the jealous courtiers of a new Khan. Accused of poisoning his
predecessor, he was summarily executed.

Ecological Unity: A Dark Victory. Ecologically, the Mongol conquest left
a dark legacy. The Mongol victory had incorporated all of Eurasia into a
single environment. With few exceptions (Rashid al-Din noted in his
history that there were no snakes in Ireland, and so it remained), the
previously local animals, plants, and pests became Eurasian, at home far
from their roots. Fleas could travel across a continent by horseback; rats
could live long enough in the hold of a ship to wipe out an entire crew.
Within a few years of the death of Rashid al-Din, that fact was to have dire

The bubonic plague, called the Black Death because of the darkened
blood-stained corpses, probably originated in China in the 1320s and spread

to western Asia and Europe by 1347. Plague is an endemic disease among
certain burrowing rodents like rats. When these rodent populations are
disturbed by contact with humans, fleas can transfer the disease to humans
or their animals. This is what happened in the wake of Mongol migrations
and conquests. Plague had spread before, most notably in the sixth and
seventh centuries, and it would strike again and again, but the fourteenth-
century contagion had catastrophic consequences. The population of China
declined from about 125 million to 90 million in the fourteenth century,
partly as a result of disease. Between 1345 and 1347, the plague traveled
west along the caravan routes through Russia to the Black Sea and
Constantinople. From the Black Sea, it traveled by ship to Alexandria,
Cairo, and Italy. Between 1348 and 1350, the plague claimed the lives of a
third to a half of the population of the Mediterranean and northern Europe.
Since the plague was easily spread by contact, cities lost a higher proportion
of their inhabitants. Half to three-quarters of the population of Florence
died the first year. The poet Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) recalled in
The Decameron “that a dead man was then of no more account than a dead
goat would be to-day.”14

After 1350, the disease had taken its toll. Those who survived had earned
their immunities to future outbreaks that occurred with somewhat less
virulence through the seventeenth century. But the population was slow to
rise. Cities bounced back most quickly but only because the countryside
emptied out. In Europe, population did not return to pre-1350 levels until
1500 or 1600.

Europe was lucky. Having escaped the Mongols, Europeans suffered only
from the Black Death. The Chinese population peaked at 115 million
around 1200, before the Mongols, a level it did not reach again until about
1550. Parts of Asia escaped both the Mongols and the plague. The Japanese
population grew steadily throughout, tripling between 1000 and 1500. The
population of the Indian subcontinent grew steadily but more gradually.

The area that suffered the most severe population losses was the Muslim
heartland. The case of Iraq is most striking. Its population peaked at about
2.5 million around 800, declined to 1 million by 1300, and remained at that
level until around 1850. Since that decline began before the Mongols and
was not a result of the plague, it is part of a larger story.

Islam in the Making of
an Afro-Eurasian Network

The story of the Muslim world between 1000 and 1450 is one of
simultaneous expansion and decline. At the core of the Dar al-Islam, the
great Abbasid caliphate faded away, steppe nomads looted cities,
populations stagnated, and warfare became endemic. During the same
period, however, the Islamic religion spread to India, the islands of
Indonesia, central Asia, the Balkans, and sub-Saharan Africa. In territory
and population, the Dar al-Islam probably doubled. Further, as Islam
spread, its followers created cultural and economic ties that made Islam a
medieval stateless web. In place of an Arab faith and a centralized
government, the Dar al-Islam became a continental civilization.

New Muslims from the Steppe

We have seen how the history of Eurasia has been frequently shaped by the
interaction of the steppe grasslands where nomadic pastoralists tended their
flocks and the agriculture-based cities of China, South Asia, and Europe.
Major migrations from the grasslands—in 1700 BCE, 1200 BCE, 200 CE,
and, now again, 1000 CE—initiated new eras of history. In this context, the
Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century were part of a larger steppe
migration that began with the Seljuk Turks in the eleventh century. The
Turkic-speaking pastoralists lived farther west than the Mongols and closer
to the cities of the Abbasid caliphate. Consequently, they became Muslims
before they displaced the armies and administration of the caliphate. In fact,
many Turks had already been brought into the Abbasid army. Without much
difficulty in the eleventh century, the Seljuk Turks conquered Iran, Iraq,
Syria, and Anatolia (modern Turkey), leaving the Abbasid caliphate to
govern in name only. Baghdad was left as a shell. Seljuk tribal leaders
governed entire countries with their tribal armies.

The government of the Turks was very different from that of a
bureaucratic state like the Abbasid caliphate. But it set a pattern that would
be duplicated from Egypt to India. “Thus arose,” Marshall Hodgson, a
leading historian of Islam, has written, “what was to be typical of much of

Islamadom for several centuries, a fluid set of purely military governments
most of them founded chiefly on the personal prestige of the emir or his
father.”15 The centralized state was replaced by garrisoned troops. Emirs
governed by whim and wile, their display of force the final authority. But
unlike the centralized state, which presumed an evenness of command, the
effective authority of the emir extended only as far as his eye could see.
Beyond the view of his fort lay large areas of anarchy.16

Slaves, Soldiers, and Sons. As the Abbasid state atrophied, sultans and
emirs lacked a bureaucratic system to raise taxes and soldiers. Since they
were themselves tribal leaders, they could draw on a large following of
retainers and troops, but they were always wary of other leaders, in their

own and other tribes or clans, who were prepared to challenge their
authority. This was especially problematic since, under the rules of the
steppe, it was customary for brother to challenge brother in a system of
election by contest that was intended to ensure that the strongest would
always lead.

Who could a ruler trust? Without an institution of state loyalty, Muslim
rulers developed an ingenious—but to modern sensibilities unusual—
solution. It was common practice in ancient and medieval warfare for
victors in battle to take the defeated as slaves. In fact, this was one of the
main sources of slaves. Slavery was not necessarily permanent or
inheritable, and there was a Muslim rule against enslaving fellow Muslims.
Therefore, since at least Abbasid times, Muslim armies would capture non-
Muslims and make them slave soldiers. Initially, Turks, Mongols, and other
steppe peoples were thought prime candidates for slave soldiers. Later,
captives were taken from the Christian Balkans, the “slavic” areas of
eastern Europe, the Caucasus Mountains, and sub-Saharan Africa.

Now the idea of a slave soldier might seem a contradiction in terms. It
would hardly seem prudent to give a slave a weapon or send him away to
do battle. But the system of slave soldiers worked because the captives were
enslaved rather than killed and then converted to Islam—qualifying their
slave status somewhat, although they were still slaves to God and to the
sultan; in addition, they were well trained and well cared for. In fact, slaves
became officers and generals, even emirs and sultans. Since the government
was military, slaves were trained for the most important positions in the
administration of many Muslim governments.

The advantage of a class of slave soldiers and officials to the ruler was
that such “foreigners” were not beholden to any clan or tribal leaders; their
only loyalty was to the sultan or emir who “owned” them. Further, as
slaves, they were generally prevented from having families of their own and
adding to the number of competing clans. In fact, on a few occasions,
former slaves revolted and created dynasties of their own. One of these was
the Mamluk (literally “slave”) dynasty of Egypt (1250-1517), in which
Turkic and Circassian17 slaves came to power though more through palace
revolt than inheritance.

In Place of Government. Ironically, the medieval Muslim tradition of
government as mainly a military matter created a civilization that unleashed
numerous creative energies and granted Muslims a wide range of freedoms.

Slave dynasties and military governments left a good bit of daily life
unattended. Without a centralized bureaucracy, many matters normally
regulated by government were left to other agencies.

Matters of family life were regulated by religious law and authority. In
lieu of legislative bodies, Muslims followed the shari’a, the body of law
that emerged from the Muslim community since the time of Muhammad’s
governance of Medina. Muslim scholars interpreted these traditions or
made pronouncements based on them. Muslim courts administered and
enforced the law, relying on families and clans when necessary.

Islam was a decentralized religion. There were no popes, cardinals,
bishops, and church councils as there were in Christianity. The Muslim
community needed little supervision because it had God’s law in the Quran.
Every Muslim thereby had access to the most important elements of his or
her religion. The centrality of the Quran meant a high level of literacy
among Muslims, at least in Arabic. Schooling in Quranic literacy was
private and pervasive. Individual scholars and masters of Islam formed
schools and took students. Universities, like Cairo’s Al Azhar, the world’s
oldest (founded in 970), subsidized students from all over the Muslim world
with the aid of donations.

Charity was an intrinsic part of Islam. Giving to the poor was one of the
five central “pillars” of the faith. This zakat was collected from all Muslims
and directed to the needs of the poor, infirm, and recently converted.
Various private charities, called waqf, provided for hospitals, education,
housing, welfare, burials, and other needs, public and private.

Non-Muslims were relieved of the zakat but instead paid a defense tax
called the jizya, which Muslims were not required to pay. In general, non-
Muslims, like Jews and Christians, were governed by their own laws,
courts, and authorities.

It is important to recognize that no medieval society treated people as
individuals. For instance, Jews in Muslim and European societies were
treated as a corporate group. They generally lived in separate areas, pursued
separate occupations, and sometimes were expected to wear clothing that
established their separate identities. Freedom from arbitrary persecution
was purchased with the jizya, but Jews and Christians in Muslim society
were no more equal to Muslims than Jews and Muslims were equal to
Christians in medieval Europe. Limited or military government opened

more opportunities for Muslims than others, but Jews and Christians were
rarely persecuted.

Muslims, Merchants, and Markets

A Merchant’s Religion. Like modern America, the medieval Muslim
world used markets to carry out many activities normally assumed by
governments. More than any of the great religions, Islam sanctioned trade
and the work of merchants. The Quran may be the only one of the world’s
holy books that deals explicitly with matters of trade, and the merchant was
a cultural model. Not only had the Prophet of Islam been a merchant, but
merchants were particularly well placed to follow the demands of the faith.
They could afford to give generously to the poor, they could make the
pilgrimage to Mecca as part of their business travel, and they could make
the necessary arrangements to pray five times a day and fast during the
month of Ramadan.

Islam not only began as a merchant’s religion but also facilitated the
needs of merchants as it developed and expanded. Muslims shared a
common set of values across what would later be many national boundaries.
A comparison with Europe is enlightening. Christianity was also a universal
religion, asserting common brotherhood and shared values, but Christians
identified themselves as much with their particular nation, city, and church
(e.g., Roman, Greek, and Nestorian) as they did with fellow Christians.
Muslims had a wide-ranging network of good faith to support longdistance
trade and exchange.

Certain ideas and institutions that were essential to the development of
capitalist society were created or refined in this context. Banks, checks,
insurance, third-party payments, accounting and bookkeeping procedures,
shares of ownership, leasing contracts, the partnership, and the corporation
were all refined in the Islamic world. Some of these had pre-Islamic roots
but became more sophisticated under the Dar al-Islam. Virtually all of them
pre-dated European ideas and instruments by a couple of centuries. Many
entered Europe through Italian traders, especially from Venice and Genoa,
in Cairo and Constantinople, and some, like tarifah (tariff) and sakk
(check), with echoes of their Arabic names intact.

The one exception underscores the flexibility of the Islamic financial
system. While Christians were forbidden to charge usurious or excessive
interest, the Quran specifically forbid Muslims from charging any interest at
all. Consequently, Muslims were nonstarters in the development of interest-
bearing loans and the computation of variable time-sensitive interest rates.
Nevertheless, with the precision of a modern American mortgage banker
who charges a borrower “points” to get a loan, Muslim bankers figured in
processing costs and fines for late payment (as Islamic banks still do today).

Cairo. The heart of the Muslim market economy in the centuries after
1000 was Cairo. Located close to the remains of ancient Egyptian Memphis
and Giza, Cairo was actually a new city in the Muslim period—or, rather, a
series of new cities along the Nile (separate then but today all a part of huge
metropolitan Cairo).

Cairo’s golden age (1294-1340) had military roots. Within a brief time,
the new Turkic Mamluk slave dynasty of Egypt defeated the Mongols
(1263) and reoccupied Syria and Palestine, including the Crusader states
(1291). After military consolidation, the Mamluks encouraged the
expansion of trade across North Africa and the Muslim heartland but
especially along the southern maritime route to India, the Spice Islands, and

Much of our information about the merchants and advanced market
economy of Cairo comes from a most unusual and fortunate source. At the
end of the nineteenth century, scholars of medieval Judaism discovered a
treasure trove of documents, letters, sacred and formal writings, and
everyday jottings that detailed life in medieval Cairo for centuries. Because
in Jewish tradition it was considered irreligious to destroy anything with the
name of God written on it—and virtually any piece of writing might refer to
God—a Jewish synagogue in Fustat (old Cairo) collected all discarded
paper and other materials with any writing on them. The synagogue
deposited every piece of writing in a storage room called a geniza. This pile
of writings had reached the top of the attic hundreds of years before it was
rediscovered in 1896. The geniza yielded books and sacred writings
previously unknown, intricately detailed accounts of Jewish life in medieval
Cairo and a dense array of materials for reconstructing the entire
kaleidoscope of Cairene life for 1,000 years, especially during the period
between the ninth and thirteenth centuries.18

S. D. Goitein, who devoted a long life of scholarship to the Cairo geniza
documents, concluded that they revealed a world that, especially in the
eleventh and twelfth centuries, combined “free enterprise, a monetary
economy, and fluid forms of cooperation” in a “comparatively salutary”
society.19 Indeed, the many records of correspondence and travel in the
Cairo geniza show that not only Cairo but also much of the Islamic world,
from Morocco and Spain to Iraq and Iran, was not unlike a modern free
trade zone where one could travel without a passport, buy a home or secure

employment in a foreign country, and make a contract with or send money
to a stranger 1,000 miles away by means of a piece of paper. Goitein wrote,

To sum up: during the High Middle Ages men, goods, money and books used to travel far and
almost without restrictions throughout the Mediterranean area. In many respects the area
represented a free trade community. The treatment of foreigners, as a rule, was remarkably
liberal. . . . How is all this to be explained? To a certain extent by the fact that the machinery
of the state was relatively loose in those days. . . . At the root of all this was the concept that
law was personal and not territorial.20

The golden age of Cairo lasted until about 1340. In the 1320s, Ibn Battuta
described it as the “Mother of Cities”: “Mistress of broad provinces and
fruitful lands, boundless in multitudes of buildings, peerless in beauty and
splendor.”21 And, of course, he had been almost everywhere.

In 1347 (as Ibn Battuta was returning from China), an Egyptian ship
sailed from the Black Sea bringing slaves and grain to Alexandria and
Cairo. In the grain, it also carried at least one rat and fleas infected with the
plague that had already swept across central Asia. The ship left with 332 on
board. It arrived in Egypt with 45, all of whom died before they could leave
the port.22 The death toll was 1,000 people per day in Cairo in 1348.
Normally crowded streets were empty except for funeral processions. But
the difference that began to emerge between cities like Cairo and the cities
of Europe was that in Cairo the plague kept returning. Between 1347 and
1513, the plague struck Cairo 50 times—once every three years on average.

The great world historian Ibn Khaldun, who lost both his parents to the
plague in Tunisia, came to Cairo to understand and to help others make
sense of the great catastrophe. He offered his conclusions in the last volume
of his multivolume world history.

Civilization in both the East and the West was visited by a destructive plague which devastated
nations and caused populations to vanish. It swallowed up many of the good things of
civilization and wiped them out. It overtook the dynasties at the time of their senility, when
they had reached the limit of their duration. It lessened their power and curtailed their
influence. It weakened their authority. Their situation approached the point of annihilation and
dissolution. Civilization decreased with the decrease of mankind. Cities and buildings were
laid waste, roads and way signs were obliterated, settlements and mansions became empty,
dynasties and tribes grew weak. The entire inhabited world changed.23

Islam in Africa

The Black Death did not bring an end to civilization, not even to Muslim
civilization. The very size of the Dar Al-Islam by 1350 made it able to resist
even pandemics.

Islam in West Africa. In its golden years, Cairo had many visitors besides
Ibn Battuta. There were years when the Mamluk sultan held welcoming
parades for what seemed a new visiting dignitary each day. But for years
afterward, Cairenes remembered the spectacular entrance in 1324 of Mansa
Musa from the West African kingdom of Mali. The Muslim king of Mali
was on a pilgrimage to Mecca. He arrived in Cairo with a retinue estimated
at over 60,000 with 80 camels carrying two tons of gold. People said that he
gave away so much gold as gifts that the price of the precious metal did not
recover for years afterward. This would not be surprising since Mali in the
fourteenth century produced about two-thirds of the world’s gold exports.
By 1324, Islam had not only spread to sub-Saharan Africa but also won
many followers. Ibn Battuta visited Mali 30 years later and remarked, “On
Fridays, if a man does not go early to the mosque, he cannot find a corner to
pray in, on account of the crowds.”24

Camel caravans had crossed the western Sahara for 1,000 years before
1324, as long as the camel had been domesticated in the Sahara. Christian
North Africans and then Arabs and Berbers crossed the wide expanse of
desert by camel train for gold, slaves, and ivory. In return, the northerners
provided horses and precious salt, which they (or, more often, their slaves)
dug from the desert salt mines in the northern Sahara, an area that had been
under water during the Pleistocene epoch 10,000 to a million and a half
years ago. At first, the northerners raided and traded with black Africans,
coming into increasing contact in the market cities along the Niger River
like Timbuktu. With the influence of Muslim merchants and scholars in the
towns and the local initiative of ambitious tribal leaders, Islam spread from
the towns to the courts of kings. Mansa Musa was one of many.

Increasingly between 1000 and 1450, sub-Saharan Africa became fully
integrated into the Muslim trade network. Just as trade began while black
Africans were still pagan, it continued after their conversions. Raids
continued especially after 1000, when Berber tribes became more numerous
in the Sahara, raising and breeding camels and competing for scarce
resources. But even as clashes became more frequent, the forestlands south
of the Sahara became a permanent part of the Dar al-Islam.

Some elements of Islam took root in West Africa better than others. The
allowance of monarchial polygamy in African society corresponded with
Arab traditions, though the Muslim practice was restricted by the example
of the Prophet’s limit of four wives. On the other hand, Middle Eastern
traditions of veiling women played poorly in African societies that prized
fertility above modesty in dress. Ibn Battuta was scandalized on his visit to
Mali by the sight of naked women in public.

Swahili Culture. In fact, the people of West Africa were relatively
latecomers to the Dar al-Islam. The people of East Africa were involved
from the beginning. East Africa is only about 100 miles across the Red Sea
from Mecca. Long before Muhammad, Arab ships sailed back and forth
between Arabia and Africa. In the ninth and tenth centuries, African
villages on the offshore islands and east coast of Africa grew wealthy by
trading with Arab Muslims. Initially, they traded African tortoiseshell,
rhinoceros horn, and ivory elephant tusks, which were highly valued in Asia
for jewelry and medicinal purposes. By the tenth century, gold mined in
southeastern Africa became a profitable addition. Villagers whose
livelihood had been based on fishing and farming became city merchants,
steeped in Arab market culture and Islam. Their language and culture
blended Arabic with their ancestral Bantu, forming something called
Swahili (after the Arabic for “coastal”), and this new hybrid language
became the common tongue of the East African coastlands.

In East Africa, as in Spain, the Balkans, and the Holy Land, Islam
encountered Christian peoples, kings, and clerics. In Ethiopia, the Christian
church was older than any in Europe, with ties through the Coptic church of
Egypt dating back to the first century of Christianity. In conflict and
peaceful exchange, the Afro-Eurasian network stretched down both the
eastern coast and the western interior of Africa, integrating African peoples,
products, and cultures with their own.

A Single Ecozone. The linking of sub-Saharan Africa to the Eurasian
zone was also ecological. Crops and animals were exchanged with salt and
gold, and eventually so were wives, and genes, and germs. Historians are
not sure to what degree this had occurred by 1350. Ibn Battuta makes no
mention of the plague while traveling in Mali in 1352, leading most
historians to conclude that the disease did not cross the expanse of the
Sahara Desert. Recent research, however, points to population decline in
this period, a possible outcome of new diseases.25

Certainly by 1500, the people of western Africa had become part of the
same biological regime as Europeans. After the European attempt to
enslave American Indians failed largely because the American Indians had
no immunity to European smallpox, Europeans used West African slaves
almost exclusively. Clearly, West Africans had been part of the same world
of microbes and diseases long enough to have developed immunities to
smallpox. But the Bantu-speaking Africans of the western sub-Saharan
grasslands had little contact with the Khoi Khoi San-speaking people of
southern Africa, many of whom were annihilated by European diseases
when Europeans settled the southern tip of Africa in the seventeenth
century. The descendants of those same Europeans, however, had no
immunity advantage over the Bantu-speaking Zulu and Xhosa people,
whose ancestors had come down from West Africa with Afro-Eurasian
microbes. As a consequence, while European settlers in the Americas
largely annihilated American Indians, the Europeans who settled in South
Africa faced Bantu peoples with immunities similar to their own.

Islam in India and Indonesia

While Islam began as an Arab religion, the conversion of Persians,
Europeans, Africans, central Asians, and Turks changed the ethnic balance
of the faithful by 1000. During the next 500 years, Islam spread throughout
South and Southeast Asia as well. As a consequence, today Muslim Arabs
constitute only about 20 percent of the world’s Muslims (about 10 percent
of Arabs are not Muslims). The majority of Muslims today live in the
Indian subcontinent and Indonesia. Those countries that today have the
largest Muslim populations are Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India.

Muslim expansion in India and Indonesia occurred in each of the three
stages we have chronicled for other areas of the world. First, Arab armies
brought Islam as far as the Indus River by 750. Then, around 1000, Turkic
and other central Asian tribal armies brought Islam to what is today
Pakistan and northern India. And finally, from the seventh century on,
especially after 1000, Muslim merchants brought Islam to southern India
and Indonesia. Each of these made different demands. The early Arab
armies sought to govern rather than convert. The Turks wanted both control
and converts. The merchant communities sought neither, but their religious

piety and economic power made them a force to be followed. In addition,
Muslim merchants were often accompanied by devotees of Sufism, a form
of Islam that stressed rigorous spiritual exercises while teaching love of
God and respect for other faiths. The great Sufi poet Rumi (1207-1273)

The sufi opens his hands to the universe and gives away each instant, free.26

As often happens in the winning of hearts and minds, the least
demanding were the most persuasive.

Geographically, the realms of steppe-nomad Islam and maritime-
merchant Islam were also quite different. The northern Muslim states were
more accomplished in military might than mercantile prowess. Descended
from pastoral nomads, their skills and interests led more to military
maneuvers, and their economic techniques tended more to extraction than
production. The armies of the northern land empires were huge, and the
military officers, tribal or slave, dominated nobility, clergy, landowners, and
merchants (usually in that order). In the south, especially along the sea
routes, Muslim merchants played a leading role in the governance of
smaller maritime states. Some of the most notable—Malacca, Hormuz, and
Aden—were not much larger than the port city itself. From an economic
standpoint, however, these smaller city-states turned out to hold more of the
future than the vast continental empires.

Yet from a military and political perspective, the large Turkic land
empires dominated the century between 1350 and 1450. Timur the Lame
(1336-1405) revived Mongol ambitions of global conquest in a period of
feuding khanates at the end of the fourteenth century, briefly conquering
central Asia from Delhi to Greek Smyrna in the eastern Mediterranean.
When European ships sailed to relieve Smyrna, Timur warned them away
by filling the harbor with floating plates carrying the severed heads of the
garrison defenders lit from inside the skulls by burning candles. Typical of
many tribal conquests, Timur’s empire did not last beyond his death. Much
longer lasting, however, was the empire of the Ottoman Turks, who
conquered not only Turkey but extended their control in the fifteenth
century to eastern Europe and the Balkans, including Greece. Having
surrounded the city of Constantinople for generations, the Ottomans finally
captured the city in 1453, putting an end to the Byzantine Empire. From

there, the Ottomans created a sophisticated military state and went on to
threaten Europe as far west as Vienna until 1683. Seven hundred years of
conflict between Christianity and the Muslims remained as unresolved as it
was at the beginning of the First Crusade in 1095.

Europe in the Making of
an Afro-Eurasian Network

Revival and Expansion

The European economy began to revive from the debacle of Roman
decline, nomadic incursions, and urban depopulation by the end of the
eighth century. The ascendancy of Charlemagne in 800 was a sign and
agent of that revival. Charlemagne brought to his court scholars from as far
afield as England and Italy and was visited by representatives of the
patriarch at Constantinople and Slavic and Muslim lands. Recent historians
have discovered evidence of hundreds of travelers between Europe and the
Byzantine and Muslim worlds in the ninth century as well as hordes of Arab
and Byzantine coins that indicate a level of trade that grew from 780 to
900.27 With little to export for such “real money” and Arab spices and
pharmaceuticals, European merchants supplied their one surplus product:
other Europeans, whom they sold as slaves for the bustling slave markets of
Africa and the caliphate.28

European population and agricultural land expanded simultaneously.
Between 800 and 1200, Europeans brought new lands under cultivation by
reclaiming marshes, clearing forests, and colonizing new areas. The
expansion of agriculture was aided by a range of new technologies. After
800, northern Europeans began using a heavy plow that could turn over the
heavy soils of northern fields. A new horse collar permitted the harnessing
of horses in a way that did not choke them, and teams of horses could be
harnessed to the heavy plow.

An Irish legend tells of a king in the third century who supposedly
brought the first water mill builder from “beyond the sea” to give a rest to
the slave girl who was bearing his child.29 Whether the legend is true or

apocryphal (and the date is probably too early), it calls attention to the
correlation between labor and technology. Societies that were too poor to
keep slaves might be quicker to substitute machines. The use of water mills,
which had been used in classical times in Rome and China, increased
dramatically in Europe after the ninth century. Windmills are more recent,
dating from about 700 in the Middle East. They were used first in the dry
plains of Iran and Afghanistan, where they served the same purposes as
water mills—mainly pumping water and grinding grain. Persian windmills
were introduced into Europe through Muslim Spain, but by 1185,
Europeans had invented a different kind of windmill. The Persian windmill
was a fixed conical structure with open doors that drew the prevailing
winds inside to turn the central pillar and its grinding stone. European
windmills employed large exterior sails that swiveled on a horizontal axis to
catch the changing direction of the wind. By the sixteenth century, the new
windmill had sprung up everywhere in Europe—even in Spain, where Don
Quixote imagined that the windmill sails were the threatening arms of
invading giants.

Good Weather and Good Luck. European growth also came during a time
of good weather. Between 700 and 1200, the climate of northern Europe
warmed considerably. The combination of warming and abundant rainfall
aided the expansion of farming into new regions, especially in the north.
The Vikings settled in Greenland and Iceland. In the early 1200s, the east
coast of Greenland permitted agricultural cultivation, grapes were grown
and wine was produced in southern England and northern Germany, and
farmers grew crops at high altitudes in Norway and Switzerland. Medieval
warming was not limited to Europe, but there it coincided with a period of
agricultural expansion in the northern marshes and forests. European
growth slowed a bit during a colder period from the later 1200s to 1450,30

when Viking settlement in Greenland ended and wine production and
farming in high latitudes and mountain sides of Europe was curtailed.31

Europe also had good luck in escaping the more serious nomadic
invasions of the period between 1000 and 1250. Viking attacks and Magyar

(Hungarian) migrations caused serious disruption in parts of Europe in the
ninth century, but after 1000, Europeans escaped the equivalent of the
Jurchen, who destroyed Beijing; the Seljuk Turks, who overran much of the
Byzantine Empire; and the Mongols, who overwhelmed the cities of China,
central Asia, Russia, most of the Muslim heartland, and eastern Europe.

Two Europes, Four Economies. The expansion of settlement and farming
in the north created a second Europe that had barely existed in classical
times. The Greeks and Romans had colonized the Mediterranean. While
Roman legions fought as far north as England and maintained a line of
village forts across France and Germany, the forests of northern Europe
were sparsely settled. Medieval settlement changed that balance. Around
700, the population of northwestern Europe overtook that of Mediterranean
Europe for the first time, an advantage the north retained until about 1900.

The fledgling economy of Charlemagne’s Franco-German Empire did not
thrive much beyond his grandchildren, but in the tenth and eleventh
centuries a new economy developed in France that attracted merchants,
bankers, and traders from wealthy Venice. International merchants came to
trade at the seasonal fairs in Champagne in central France. One of the more
desired items was the cloth from Flanders (modern Belgium), which was
made from the best English wool.

The economies of Venice, Champagne, and Flanders were very different.
Venice was an international banking and trading center with interests in
Constantinople and the Muslim world. Venetian bankers provided much of
the capital and financial know-how for the merchants at the Champagne
fairs. Flanders and Champagne were local economies attached to
international markets. Together, they added a European loop to the great
Mongol-Muslim circle of trade.

A fourth European economy developed farther north along the Baltic Sea
and the coast of northern Germany. These cities constituted themselves as
the Hanseatic League and traded codfish, salt, lumber, and furs. After 1200,
some of the Hanseatic port cities, like Hamburg and Lubeck, and the
Belgian city of Bruges began to challenge the dominance of the European
Mediterranean cities like Venice and Genoa, although Venice remained the
dominant European sea power before 1450.

Cities and States

The nomadic incursions of the fourth century destroyed not only the
Western Roman Empire but also its many cities. The area of that empire
became a deurbanized patchwork of agricultural estates run by local
notables and worked by dependent laborers. Between the fall of Rome
around 400 and the coronation of Charlemagne in 800, there was no states
and few cities. Except for southern Italy, there were few cities of any size in
Europe in 1000. Northern Europe was particularly rural. London and Paris
were “small muddy towns” of a few thousand inhabitants in 1000, while
Cordoba in Islamic Spain contained 260,000 houses, 80,000 shops, and
4,000 markets.32

Urban Renewal. Europe produced an unusual number of cities after
1000. The Hanseatic League alone included more than 60 cities at its height
in the fourteenth century. The growth of cities after 1000 was due in part to
the increased productivity of European agriculture and the expansion of the

New cities were also a product of changes in European politics and
society. Feudal society allowed little freedom or social mobility. Knights,
vassals, serfs, and even lords were bound by contracts, some made
generations earlier. New cities grew up on the coasts and boundaries of the
great agricultural estates, kingdoms, and principalities. The residents of the
cities provided arts, crafts, precious goods, advice, and financial support
useful to the neighboring lords and kings. In return, local rulers often gave
cities control over their own affairs. City finances, courts, taxes, tariffs, and
even laws were turned over to the people of the city. Kings and city leaders
drew up contracts that spelled out the freedoms of the city. A common
saying of the time declared that freedom was in the city air; indeed, in some
cases, a serf was legally free after living in the city a stipulated amount of
time. In addition to cities that negotiated their independence, there were
cities that fought for it. Between 1080 and 1132, the cities of northern and
central Italy, which had been ruled by German emperors since 962, declared
their independence, each setting up a municipal government that they called
the “commune.”

City-States and Citizenship. Many of these late medieval cities became
city-states. In northern and central Italy, the newly independent cities
proceeded to control surrounding territory and create city-states that
included farmland as well as urban areas. Relations between city-states
were not always peaceful. Pisa and Genoa fought frequently over their

mutual designs on neighboring Sardinia, to give just one example. Yet
because they were independent states, they had to find a way to conduct
their affairs. Often there was a leading family or group of families,
sometimes even an individual, who seized control. An elite group of
families governed Venice for centuries; a single family, the Medici, did the
same for Florence. For a brief period in Florence, the monk Savonarola
ruled—before the townspeople turned on him and burned him at the stake
in the public square. Even in abeyance, the rule of the new city-states
required the participation of all who lived within the walls. By contract or
custom, these city-states became the first self-governing states since those
of ancient Greece. These autonomous zones required a high degree of
public participation. A budget for the city of Siena in 1257, which had an
adult male population of about 5,000, included 860 holders of public office,
including police (but not military, which would have potentially included
all). City-states created the first legislative bodies since the classical era,
and these too demanded a high degree of public participation. In Italy, city
councils normally had a Great Council of 400 or more and an Inner Council
of about 40.

Urban residents, at least men with property, were citizens, not subjects, of
their city-state. They voted on issues ranging from the choice of an architect
for the cathedral to matters of war and peace. They served in the city
councils, staffed government offices, and fought when they called on
themselves to do so. This experience—by no means universal—shaped a
different idea of politics, government, and the role of the individual than
commonly existed in other societies.

A Muslim like Ibn Battuta could live and work in Delhi, India, or Fez,
Morocco, but he was a citizen of neither. He could even govern as a judge
in India, but he played no role in making the law and served only at the
pleasure of the sultan. Marco Polo was a proud citizen of Venice. Thanks to
Muslim universalism and hospitality, he could travel freely anywhere in the
Dar al-Islam, but he had to be much more careful in Italy; when he
returned, the great Venetian was captured by rival Genoese and had to
dictate his “million tales” from a “foreign” jail.

Law and Science

Ibn Battuta did not make the law in India; in truth, no one did. In Islamic
societies, there was no need for human law because there was God’s law—
the sunna, or summation, of the Quran and the hadiths (witness reports).
Judges like Ibn Battuta might enforce or interpret the law, and they might
issue a fatwa or judgment based on the law, but there was no need for
humans to add to the laws, rules, and advice that God provided.

Natural Law and Natural Reason. When Christianity became the official
religion of the Roman Empire, it adopted Roman law. Long after the empire
had breathed its last, the church continued to use Latin and Roman law to
run its affairs and shepherd its flock. In the early Middle Ages (400-800),
Europeans followed the particular customs, rules, and laws of their clans. In
addition, they were subject to the laws of the land, ruler, or government, if
there was one. But when it came to religion, they talked of following the
“Roman law” of the church.

Roman law, like Greek law, was a universal code based on territorial
sovereignty that applied to everyone equally. Roman law was legislated, but
it purported to be fair and just because it was based on principles of “natural
law” accessible to “natural reason.” We have already traced this idea of a
correspondence between human law and natural law back to the ancient
Greeks. We have noticed the fit between the idea of an ordered universe and
a society ruled by law. Greeks and Romans believed that people had a
capacity to understand the laws of nature through their own powers of
reason. Thus, the public sphere could be effectively managed by citizens.
Some of these ideas continued to operate in the Eastern Roman Empire at
Constantinople. Many Roman laws were enshrined in the code of the
Byzantine emperor Justinian in the seventh century. Nevertheless, most
people of medieval western Europe knew as much Roman law as most
Christians today know Latin.

Along with the loss of Roman law, medieval Europeans lost much of
Greek science, which also derived from the idea that laws of nature could
be discovered by human reason. Early medieval Christianity was sometimes
indistinguishable from the mystery religions and pagan folk customs that
bubbled up in the post-Roman world. The term “dark ages” would be an
appropriate characterization of the enormous loss of classical texts,
knowledge, and universal law and science.

Twelfth-Century Renaissance. Western Europeans began to retrieve the
classical texts and revive legal-scientific ways of thinking in the late

eleventh and twelfth centuries. Two events in the late eleventh century
revitalized awareness of natural law. One was the discovery of the
Byzantine emperor Justinian’s law code, showing what a vast,
sophisticated, coherent, and equitable system Roman law had been. The
other was a conflict between the emerging kingdom in Germany and the
papacy that brought to a head the budding conflict between state and church
authority. The conflict established the principle of a separation of church
and state—two powers, two jurisdictions—that became an essential element
of western European thought. By the beginning of the twelfth century, the
Roman papacy had declared itself free of secular control, including the
appointment of its clergy, which had previously been chosen by local
government officials. As a result, from that time on, every western
European Christian faced two governments with overlapping jurisdictions
—religious and secular. Further, at least one of those governments, the
church, claimed universal validity, representing God’s law and natural law.
Some historians have suggested that, ironically, this competition led to the
beginning of the modern Western state.33 In opposition to the claims of
secular rulers who ruled because they could, the church declared itself a
sovereign body, an independent public authority, with the right to make
laws according to accepted principles and to administer those laws with its
own hierarchy over a defined territory. The key is that it did not deny the
right of other bodies like secular governments to do the same (as a Muslim
caliphate or Chinese emperor would have). It therefore encouraged the
development of overlapping but separate authorities, many of which could
claim universal or natural validity within their own jurisdictions. The result
was a world of multiple sovereignties: cities (as we have seen), states, and
the church but also guilds, parishes, and corporations. Europeans grew
accustomed to participating in different governing institutions in different
ways. Some, like guilds and cities, were relatively democratic; others, like
monasteries, were egalitarian but not democratic; and others still were
neither democratic nor egalitarian, but even they had to defend their
jurisdiction in terms of certain principles that would be generally

Between 1200 and 1350, Europeans created dozens of universities that
were similarly independent with separate jurisdictions and hierarchies.
Committees of faculty (or students in student-run Bologna) set standards,
awarded degrees, and administered these institutions as corporate bodies—

ministates on the model of the larger ones. The first European universities
copied the earlier Muslim models, but the Muslim universities were not
independent entities with faculties and degrees, and they were always
administered by religious authorities.

The key ingredient of the European twelfth-century Renaissance was the
retrieval of many of the works of Aristotle and some of the Greek scientists.
All these had been available in the original Greek or in Arabic translations
but were unknown to Europeans before the twelfth century. Aristotle gave
Europe a complete set of natural laws, internally consistent, logical, and
sweeping in coverage but fundamentally at odds with much of church
teaching. Aristotle’s principles of natural law held, for instance, that the
universe had no cause since something could not be created from nothing
and that the laws of nature were uniform and consistent, seemingly ruling
out God and miracles in two easy assumptions.

The idea of a world of nature knowable to human reason was insidious in
its simplicity and persuasiveness. Muslim and Christian clerics challenged
Aristotle. Islam became increasingly critical of secular philosophy after
1000. Science was called “foreign,” making it an easier target for religious
surveillance. Universities, madrassas, and mosque schools all emphasized
Quranic education anyway; the only institution that taught Aristotle, Al-
Azhar University in Cairo, eliminated it.

Christian Europe was more divided. When reading Aristotle was banned
at the University of Paris, the other universities continued to teach his
works. The faculty of the University of Toulouse advertised its teaching of
Aristotle in order to steal Parisian students away. Eventually, Paris relented.
In Europe, universities, cities, and states could act independently, even
competitively. There was no emperor or caliph to impose a uniform
curriculum or command. Christian Europe opened its doors enough to invite
the Greek guest in because Europe had become accustomed to separate

It would be a mistake to suggest that Aristotle or natural science
monopolized the European mind in the twelfth century or even the fifteenth.
Many of the greatest thinkers of the period sought to integrate reason and
faith, science and theology, and the heritage of Athens and Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, a significant part of European intellectual life was thereafter
devoted to an idea of truth that required no prior commitment but could
develop in a neutral space and lead where it would. “Truth in search of

itself has no enemies,” the philosopher Peter Abelard (1079-1142) declared,
convinced that God-given human reason could lead nowhere else. To be a
“friend of truth” became a frequent call among European philosophers and
theologians in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.34

By the mid-thirteenth century, the works of Aristotle formed the core of
the curriculum in most of the dozens of European universities. A master of
arts degree at Paris or Oxford was heavily weighted with courses in logic,
physics, astronomy, and mathematics. A modern historian writes,

Since virtually all students in arts studied a common curriculum, it became clear that higher
education in the Middle Ages was essentially a program in logic and science. Never before,
and not since, have logic and science formed the basis of higher education for all arts

Popular Science. From the thirteenth century, students and professors at
the universities studied and practiced science, but many of their less
privileged neighbors became increasingly science minded. Monotheistic
religion had long established the belief in absolute truth. Christianity had
nurtured faith in human reason—in part, perhaps, to require responsibility
in a world that the church did not fully control. This had the effect of
emphasizing the power of the individual to understand. The Judeo-Christian
idea that nature was God’s creation and that mankind was in charge of
nature also contributed to a sense of scientific objectivity. In Christian
cultures, humans were observers of nature rather than participants (as a
Hindu, Buddhist, or Daoist might be). For late medieval European
Christians, the world was a stage; for their ancestors and many pagans and
polytheists, the world was more like a garment that one wore or the air that
one breathed. Muslims, of course, shared the biblical belief in God’s
creation, but they also had the Quran. Their religion called on specific
pieces of scientific knowledge. They studied astronomy for such purposes
as marking the beginning and end of the month of Ramadan with precision.
They studied geometry and geography to align the prayer mats and mosques
with Mecca. But they did not need science to understand the truths
contained in the Quran. For Christians, lacking “The Book,” God’s Truth
was contained in His creation. Nature was His book. Even the Bible was
only a partial guide to a greater and continuing revelation. Consequently,
Christian culture became more science minded than other cultures.

Europeans probably integrated science and technology more than other
cultures as well. The historian Alfred Crosby suggests that “the West had a
greater proportion of individuals who understood wheels, levers, and gears
than any other region on earth.”36 The Christian intellectual class valued
manual labor more than the masters of Confucianism. “To work is to pray”
was the motto of the Benedictine monastic order.

By the fourteenth century, European society was full of machines. The
most important for the development of science-mindedness was not the
latest windmill or water mill but rather the mechanical clock. We do not
think of the clock as a machine because it seems to do no more than tell

time. But the clock is an elaborate mechanism of moving wheels, balances,
and springs, and it does something that no other machine can do: it abstracts
time. With the mechanical clock, time was abstracted from nature. Time
was no longer slower in summer, lighter or darker, or cloudy or bright; it
was a series of equal moments—abstract, interchangeable, neutral, and
merely mathematical. Instead of the time the creek thaws or the mare foals,
people began to tell time by numbers. Days were divided into hours, not
prayer times or eating times, and those times came at different hours and
minutes each day. Once the clocks were installed in the town square and in
the church steeple, the bells would chime the hour, and the prayers and
meals would follow the chimes. In the fourteenth century, European towns
installed public clocks like there was no to-morrow—at least none to be
wasted. The philosopher Nicola Oresme (ca. 1323-1382) coined a metaphor
that would stand for the modern universe: he wrote that the “heavenly
machine” was a kind of “clockwork.”37

Beginning in the fourteenth century, Europeans abstracted space as well.
After a copy of Ptolemy’s Geographia arrived in Florence from
Constantinople around 1400, Europeans imitated the ancient use of grid
maps of neutral space and applied them to lands and oceans still unknown.
They drew directional “plumb lines” for navigation charts and invented
three-dimensional perspective in painting. They created lenses, spectacles,
and, after 1600, telescopes. To think of things abstractly may be an element
of scientific thinking that, once developed in one area, can be easily applied
elsewhere: measurement, mathematics, alphabetization, and the notation of
musical notes on gridlike staffs. All these scientific ways of thinking spread
with great alacrity in Europe after 1400.

The Formation of
the Modern Network

By almost any measure, western Europe in 1000 had been a backwater. We
have noted signs of growth and significant changes, but no one in 1000
would have imagined that in a mere 500 years, the small cities and states of
western Europe not only would have joined the world system as an equal
partner but also would have begun to seize control of it. We have probed the

precocious rise of western Europe. We should keep in mind that most of the
changes we have noted—the rise of cities, citizenship, modern states, the
rule of law, and scientific laws and ideas—would have been unremarkable
to most medieval observers. The Chinese or Muslim visitor to the West in
the fourteenth century would have felt more pity than envy. We have
already mentioned some of the raw comparisons: cities, libraries, and
ironworks a fraction the size of those of China and the Islamic world and
Europeans struggling without some of the basic conveniences of the then
modern world, such as paper, printing, the classic literature of the Greeks,
and ancient science and its Arabic improvements. As late as the thirteenth
century, Arab astronomers were invited by the Chinese to Peking to run the
Chinese observatory. As late as the fifteenth century, Chinese ships were the
vessels of choice for the discriminating world traveler. As late as the
sixteenth century, Europeans were still using Arab medical texts. So it
would seem that the rise of western Europe was still remote.

Death and Rebirth

We have already indicated how the late medieval period was slashed by
the Black Death of 1348-1350. Europe suffered as much as China and the
Muslim world. A third to a half of the population died. But we have also
remarked that the people of Cairo suffered another 50 plagues in the next
century and a half and that Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, and much of the
Muslim heartland was already in population and agricultural decline long
before 1300. European agriculture and population may have peaked around
1280, but most parts of western Europe gradually recovered after 1350.
Later plagues were far less frequent and less severe; they returned every 10
or 15 years, not every three. Temperatures cooled, farm yields shrank, and
famine dogged those on the margins. To make matters worse, the ruling
dynasties in England and France fought the Hundred Years’ War, which did
not end until 1453.

Nevertheless, European society revived after the plague. Survivors found
their labor in great demand. Dependent laborers gained leverage in
negotiating with their “betters.” Despite the more challenging climate
conditions, the average European lived better in 1450 than in 1300.

The Renaissance. Europe also experienced a cultural renaissance in the
200 years after the plague. Even before the plague, Italian painters like
Cimabue (d. 1302) and Giotto (d. 1337) filled churches and canvases with
strikingly unmedieval three-dimensional figures. They and their successors
before 1450 still chose religious subjects for their art, their paintings and
sculptures gracing altars, sacristies, and church doors. But they placed their
patrons, their townsmen, and even themselves around the manger of the
Christ child or looking up at Jesus on the cross.

While the Italian artists filled their religious paintings with Greek gods in
contemporary Renaissance clothing and crafted meticulous spaces with
scientific accuracy, artists in Flanders put a mirror to their world and each
other. Dutch masters showed an Adam and Eve who in their nakedness
resembled local peasants rather than Greek gods, and in the background
they meticulously layered details of everyday life on a landscape so realistic
that you could find your way without a map.

At the same time, the poets Dante (d. 1321), Petrarch (d. 1374), and
Boccaccio (d. 1375) began the creation of a national Italian language and
literature. Petrarch, who along with Boccaccio survived the plague, has
been called the father of the Italian Renaissance. Refreshed by the
discovery of Latin authors like Cicero, he expressed a classical faith in
human capacity and civic virtue in a new vernacular language that he “got
together [with] my lime and stones and wood.”38 The younger Boccaccio
crafted a Florentine Italian language as modern as yesterday into what may
have been Europe’s first piece of literature as entertainment, the
Decameron, 100 tales of love and deception told by ladies and gentlemen
waiting out the Black Death. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) did
much the same for a Middle English language that would be less
recognizable today.39 These Renaissance classics shock us with their
modern secular tone, sexual themes, and entertaining narratives.

The Classical and the Novel

The Decameron and the Canterbury Tales were actually modeled on a
literary form that may have originated in India and became known to
Europeans in the form of A Thousand and One Nights, or The Arabian
Nights, which, we have already noted, was compiled in Baghdad in the

tenth century, probably from older Persian stories. The Arabic work,
however, was always more popular in the West than in the Muslim world,
where it was disparaged as inelegant, especially in its mix of classical and
vernacular languages. Classical Arabic, the language of the Quran, enjoyed
a status among Muslim clerics and intellectuals that was far beyond Latin in
the West. The development of a vernacular or modern Arabic was not a
project that anyone encouraged. Popular vernacular expressions were to be
corrected rather than imitated.

We called the Decameron the first piece of modern European literature.
Considerably older and as modern is the Japanese Tale of Genji, which was
written by Lady Murasaki around 1000. It is sometimes called “the world’s
first novel.” Why should Japan rather than China invent the novel? And
why should it be written by a woman? In China, learning the characters and
the classics defined the educated gentleman. The Chinese Empire and
bureaucracy resisted local variations more than the plague. Classical
Chinese authorized cultural expression throughout East Asia. The
development of national identities was a gradual process of separation from
China. In 1000, the Japanese popular vernacular was just in the process of
distinguishing itself from classical Chinese. Chinese was the language of
officials in Japan; it was considered inelegant for gentlemen to use the
emerging vernacular. But that is why Lady Murasaki could use the popular
speech and, like Boccaccio and Chaucer, invent her language as well as its
literature. As a lady in waiting in the Japanese court, Murasaki was free of
the pretensions of male officialdom. She and Sei Shonogon, another
courtesan, were not embarrassed to write in Japanese, and they had much to
say. As cultural outsiders, women could be more inventive.

Japan and Korea

Japan was to China as Europe was to Rome, Byzantium, and the Dar al-
Islam: an underdeveloped outlier where a sense of cultural inferiority
encouraged eager imitation of the dominant culture but also provided the
space for experimentation and innovation. Both areas, on opposite ends of
Eurasia, escaped the Mongols. Both grew rapidly between 1000 and 1300
(Japan continuing apace until 1700). Japan’s political geography was also
similar to that of Europe in some ways: both created maritime cities rather

than large land empires, and Japanese cities resembled European city-states
even in their relative autonomy. The city-states and small maritime states
were the innovators of Europe as they were of the Muslim world. If East
Asia had nurtured other Japans, their competition and interchange might
have forced innovation more quickly.

One other potential Japan was Korea. In fact, because Korea was
adjacent to China, it was more dominated by the classical Chinese language
and culture than was Japan. As the Korean language diverged from
Chinese, the scholars and administrators of the Korean court (which
recruited officials with its own Confucian examination system) struggled
using Chinese characters to write Korean.

During the first half of the fifteenth century, under the guidance of King
Sejong, Korea experienced a cultural revival that bore similarities to the
Italian Renaissance. The king gathered many scholars to his court, some
merely to follow their stars, others to help with some of the king’s pet
projects in language, printing, music, and science. The common theme of
the king’s projects was the realization of certain principles that he believed
to be in keeping with the neo-Confucian movement sweeping China. In
China, neo-Confucianism meant Confucianism tempered by Buddhist
meditation. To King Sejong, neo-Confucianism meant more Confucian
emphasis on public welfare (and less Buddhist introspection). All his
reforms, the king declared, were intended to educate and uplift the people.
In two critical areas, these reforms bear a striking resemblance to a
combination that was soon to transform Europe. King Sejong chose to
greatly increase the use of printing with movable type, and he chose to
create a Korean alphabet. He accomplished both. In the preface to his New
Korean Phonetic script, the king wrote, “Because our language differs from
the Chinese language, my poor people cannot express their thoughts in
Chinese writing. In my pity for them I create 28 letters, which all can easily
learn and use in their daily lives.”40 In addition, he dedicated his rule to the
spread of knowledge through printing by metal movable type:

To govern it is necessary to spread knowledge of the laws and the books so as to satisfy reason
and reform men’s evil nature; in this way peace and order may be maintained. Our country is
in the East beyond the sea and books from China are scarce. Wood-blocks wear out easily and
besides it is difficult to engrave all the books in the world. I want letters to be made from
copper to be used for printing so that more books will be available. This would produce
benefits too extensive to measure.41

In Europe, the combination of a phonetic script and a printing press based
on movable type caused a revolution in popular literacy and linguistic
invention. In Korea, it had no such effect. In fact, the two reforms were
rarely combined. Despite the advantage of setting a phonetic system with
movable type, most Korean books continued to be block printed, and few
works were written in the new script. The book that introduced the alphabet
in 1446, The Correct Sounds for the Instruction of the People, was block
printed. During King Sejong’s reign, 194 books were printed in woodblock
and 114 in metal print; 70 of the latter were on the subjects of Chinese
history, Chinese characters, Chinese classics and literature, and Chinese
law.42 As in Japan, the educated elite preferred the use of classical Chinese
characters, while Korean women used the new Han’gul alphabet in writing

King Sejong’s alphabet for writing Korean sounds was uniquely
innovative. The letters not only stood for particular vowels, consonants, or
syllables but also were shaped to suggest the position of mouth, teeth, and
tongue in pronouncing the sounds. In addition, the letters were divided into
Yin and Yang types and made to represent the five elements: air, earth, fire,
water, and metal. The richness of the invention, however, made other things
more difficult. The Han’gul script carried layers of meaning that hindered
its use as a tool for abstraction in the way the European alphabets could be
used to alphabetize. Very much like the original idea of the length of a
king’s “foot,” until measurements could be completely divorced from their
natural associations, scientific abstraction was encumbered.

Imitators and Innovators

We think of imitators as the opposite of innovators, but they are not. Those
who see no reason to imitate have no reason to change. Large landed
empires like China and the Muslim states of central Asia were guided by
people who had a greater stake in preservation. Innovation in China often
came inadvertently or in response to a particular crisis. Confucianism
encouraged good works, social improvements, and good government, and
the Chinese state and bureaucracy could put enormous resources behind a
policy or project. The private sector in China was huge because China was
huge, but the government was the force behind the building of canals and

cities and the adoption of new military and industrial technologies. If the
social conscience of Confucianism was an advantage, the elitism of the
scholar administrators was not. Mind work and manual labor marked two
different worlds in China as they had in most societies, and the workers and
thinkers had no place or inclination to talk to each other. New tools and new
ideas rarely struck a chord much less a chorus.

In the Dar al-Islam, innovation was more a product of private initiative,
mercantile trade, and individual leadership. Despite their prestige, however,
the Muslim merchant class was as subject to higher authority as the
Chinese. Only the authority was different: clerical and military rather than
political and bureaucratic. In fact, in neither China nor the Islamic world
was there an independent class of merchants. In both societies, business
combinations were made up of families and relations whose loyalties lay
with the lineage or clan.

Religious conservatism increasingly undermined innovation in the
Islamic world after 1000. Chinese block printing was widely condemned by
Muslim clerics who believed that books should be produced by hand, the
way the Quran had been copied for centuries. The technical advantage that
block printing had in duplicating images made it even more suspicious from
the standpoint of those who believed that the Quran forbade visual

European Christians had no such religious obstacles to printing, but they
were slow to see its benefits. In fact, they were slow to recognize its
existence. Block-printed seals on messages from the Ilkanid rulers of Iran to
the kings of England and France seem to have gone unnoticed by their
European recipients; although Marco Polo was struck by the paper money
of China, he seems to have failed to notice the significance of its printing.
Imitation is not automatic. One’s culture prepares one to see and

And cultures change. Muslim science was studied in Europe until the
sixteenth century, but once Europeans translated the Greek and Arabic texts,
the balance shifted decisively. By the sixteenth century, European artists
were drawing precise diagrams of human anatomy taken from dissected
cadavers. Islam forbade dissections of human cadavers or pigs. Islamic
medical students studied vague and inaccurate depictions of the human
body, while students at Bologna were cutting them open.

In Europe sometime after 1200, innovation became systematized. A
range of institutions paved the way. Europeans learned to work together in
civic and other nonfamilial groups. Investment corporations, merchant
companies, and banks often started as family ventures, as they were
commonly elsewhere, but the experience of participation in other corporate
groups—civic, guild, university, and church—spilled over into business,
increasing their scale and flexibility.

In Europe, merchants and bankers could not be controlled or fleeced as
easily as they could by an emperor or sultan. In autonomous cities, they
became a self-governing class, used to operating independently and
communally to secure their fortunes and opportunities. They loaned money
to princes and kings and supplied their armies with armaments and
uniforms. They were indispensable. Some large merchant banks, such as the
Medici in Florence and the Fuggers in Germany, were more powerful than
princes, who were a dime a dozen in the patchwork quilt of competing
European states. In Europe, a class of capitalists created society in their
own image. A recent world history puts it well:

Since moneyed men were continually on the lookout for anything that might turn a profit, a
self-sustaining process of economic, social, and technological change gathered headway
wherever political conditions allowed it the freedom to operate. Time and again, local interests
and old fashioned ways of doing things were displaced by politically protected economic
innovators, who saw a chance at monetary profit by introducing something new. This situation
still persists today, having transformed European society, and then infected the whole wide
world, thus marking modern times off from earlier, more stable forms of society.43

But we have seen that merchants were not the only innovators in Europe.
Poets, painters, composers, scientists, and mechanics were cultural
innovators as much as preservers. The city was as much the crucible of the
new order as was the market. And the yeast of change was not only greed
and private profit. It was also a product of universalism and civic identity,
individuality and community, and reason and faith.

Finally, as we have seen over and over again, to invent something is not
to own it. Often the borrowers are able to do more with an invention than its
creators. While the seedlings of the modern age dug their roots in different
soils and climes, their fruits are as transferable as the apples of Kazakhstan
or the peaches of Samarkand.

The Virtues of Variety

“Social and political institutions of Europe,” the historian Arnold Pacey
says in a particularly felicitous phrase, “favored ‘the multiplication of
points of creativity’ in the many small states in which the continent was
divided.”44 We might generalize further and argue that cities had always
favored “the multiplication of points of creativity,” that the intensity of city
life led to more frequent interchange, imitation, and innovation than was
possible on pasture or farm. This explains the enormous inventiveness of
the first cities, especially the city-states of the ancient world.

Not only did the political geography of European rivers and mountains
lead to numerous small states, able to compete with each other for the most
talented or ambitious, but many of those states were city-states. They were
states led from the city, not the county seats of aristocratic families or
ancient lineages. Their leaders were people who prized innovation, who
believed that advantage was everything, and who recognized that personal,
social, and civic advantage came from doing something new and different
and better.

Cities activated the inventions of Chinese, Islamic, and even Mongol
civilizations as well. The cities of China and the Islamic world played a
major role in shaping Chinese and Islamic civilizations. Together as links of
a network, these civilizations became something much more. Each new
addition to the network not only added a different way of thinking or doing
but also changed the ways of all. The belated addition of European cities to
the network of China, the Mongols, and Islam multiplied already numerous
points of creativity.

Ibn Battuta never got to Christian Europe.45 He wrote and retired in the
great city of Fez in what is today Morocco. But he began his travels with
the most important pilgrimage a Muslim could make: the hajj to the holy
city of Mecca. For the rest of his life, he traveled from one city to another.
The full title of his account, called the Rihla, was A Gift to the Observers
concerning the Curiosities of the Cities and the Marvels Encountered in
Travels. Like a modern American who goes not to Europe but to London,
Paris, Rome, and Venice, Ibn Battuta traveled to the great cities of his
world: to Mecca, Medina, Cairo, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Damascus,

Baghdad, Basra, Isfahan, Kabul, Samarkand, Bukhara, Constantinople,
Kilwa, Mogadishu, Aden, Cambay, Calicut, Delhi, Chittagong, Canton,
Quanzhou (Zaiton), Timbuktu, and many more. The Afro-Eurasian network
was in fact a brilliant chain of cities, each a point of creativity that, like a
string of lights on a tree, turned into something more magical and

Suggested Readings
Abu-Lughod Janet L. Before European Hegemony: The World System 1250-

1350. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Challenging but
important and influential.

Dunn, Ross E. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the
Fourteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. A
fine history of the great traveler’s experiences. Quite accessible.

Elvin, Mark. The Pattern of the Chinese Past. Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press, 1973. Accessible entry to an important debate.

Gernet, Jacques. Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion
1250-1276. Translated by H. M. Wright. Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press, 1962. Very readable and evocative study of China in
the period of Marco Polo and the Mongols.

Lopez, Robert S. The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 960-
1350. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976. Slightly dated
standard introduction to an important topic.

McClellan, James E., III and Harold Dorn, Science and Technology in
World History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
Thoughtful introduction to the subject.

Miyazaki, Ichisada. China’s Examination Hell: The Civil Service
Examinations of Imperial China. Translated by Conrad Schirokauer.
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981. Fascinating readable
study by a leading scholar of China.

1. See Ross E. Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler

of the Fourteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).
2. Roger S. Keyes, Ehon: The Artist and the Book in Japan (Seattle:

University of Washington Press and the New York Public Library, 2006).
3. Robert Hartwell, “Markets, Technology and the Structure of Enterprise

in the Development of the Eleventh-Century Chinese Iron and Steel
Industry,” Journal of Economic History 26 (1966): 34.

4. Robert Hartwell, “A Cycle of Economic Change in Imperial China:
Coal and Iron in Northeast China, 750-1350,” Journal of the Economic and
Social History of the Orient 10, no. 1 (1967): 144.

5. Hartwell, “A Cycle of Economic Change in Imperial China,” 153.
Hartwell adds that the population of Kaifeng was no more than 100,000 as
late as 1933. The estimate as of 2011 was almost 5 million.

6. Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the
Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 2000), 64.

7. See Pomeranz, The Great Divergence, 65-67.

8. Lynn White Jr., “Tibet, India, and Malaya as Sources of Western
Medieval Technology,” American Historical Review 65 (1960): 515-26. See
also his Medieval Technology and Social Change (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1966), 85-116.

9. James E. McClellan III and Harold Dorn, Science and Technology in
World History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 123.

10. Jacques Gernet, Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol
Invasion 1250-1276, trans. H. M. Wright (Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press, 1962), 81.

11. Hartwell, “A Cycle of Economic Change in Imperial China,” 150-51.
12. The idea of a thirteenth-century world system is now generally

accepted by world historians. The idea was first developed, however, by
Janet L. Abu-Lughod in Before European Hegemony: The World System
1250-1350 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

13. This apt phrase is that of Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European
Hegemony, 155.

14. “First Day” [041]. See

15. Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, vol. 2 (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1974), 53.

16. On this combination of military despotism and anarchy (as on so
many other topics) see Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, 131-32.

17. People from the Caucasus Mountains, between the Black Sea and the
Caspian Sea in modern southwestern Russia.

18. See especially S. A. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish
Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo
Geniza, 6 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).

19. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, vol. 1, Economic Foundations,

20. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, vol. 1, Economic Foundations, 66.
21. Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354, trans. and ed. H.

A. R. Gibb (London: Broadway House, 1929), 50.
22. Michael Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East (Princeton, NJ:

Princeton University Press, 1977), 69.
23. Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East, 67.


24. Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354. See

25. Roderick McIntosh, The Peoples of the Middle Niger (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1998), chap. 10.

26. Furuzanfar #630, in A. J. Arberry, ed., Persian Poems (New York:
Everyman’s Library, 1972).

27. See Michael McCormick, Origins of the European Economy:
Communications and Commerce A.D. 300-900 (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2001).

28. McCormick, Origins of the European Economy, 237.
29. Robert S. Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages,

960-1350 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 43.
30. Warming returned from about 1450 to 1550, followed by a dramatic

“little ice age” from 1560 to 1890. Since then, global warming has returned
with the addition of human causes.

31. Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones, Atlas of World Population
History (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), 28.

32. David Levine, At the Dawn of Modernity: Biology, Culture, and
Material Life in Europe after the Year 1000 (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 2001), 132. Estimates on Paris and London vary between
3,000 and 25,000. At the usual ratio of four inhabitants to a house, the
population of Cordoba would have been over a million.

33. Toby E. Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and
the West, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 124.
Huff cites other presentations of this idea, but this chapter follows Huff’s
linking of law and science.

34. Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science, 186-87.
35. Edward Grant, Physical Science in the Middle Ages (Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1977), 21.
36. Alfred W. Crosby, The Measure of Reality (Cambridge University

Press, 1997), 53.
37. Crosby, The Measure of Reality, 84.
38. Francesco Petrarch, Seniles V-III, “On the Latin Language and

Literature” and “To Boccaccio,” in The First Modern Scholar and Man of
Letters, trans. James Harvey Robinson (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1898).
Available at http://petrarch.petersadlon.com/read_letters.html?s=pet07.html.



39. Compare, for instance, the opening lines in the original “Middle
English” with modern English: “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote.
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote” and “When in April the
sweet showers fall That pierce March’s drought to the root.” See

40. See http://www.mmtaylor.net/Literacy_Book/DOCS/pt2.html.
41. Kim Won-Young, Early Moveable Type in Korea (Seoul: National

Museum of Korea, 1954), quoted in Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin,
The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, 1450-1800 (London:
Verso, 1984), 76.

42. Pokee Sohn, “King Sejong’s Innovations in Printing,” in King Sejong
the Great: The Light of 15th Century Korea, ed. Young-Key Kim-Renaud
(Washington, DC: International Circle of Korean Linguistics, George
Washington University, 1992), 55.

43. J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill, The Human Web: A Bird’s-
Eye View of World History (New York: Norton, 2003), 14.

44. Arnold Pacey, Technology in World Civilization (Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press, 1990), 44-45.

45. He did travel to the Muslim cities of Malaga and Granada in Spain
and Cagliari in Sardinia.



Parallel Worlds of Inner Africa,

the Americas, and Oceania

The World of Inner Africa
Geography, Race, and Language
The World’s Three Transformations in Africa

Humans, Farmers, and States
The Nile Connection
The Saharan Separation

The Bantu Migrations
Words, Seeds, and Iron
A Common Culture?

Empires, States, and Stateless Societies
Politics, Population, and Climate
Lots of Land

West Africa
Stateless Societies
Kingdoms for Horses

East and South Africa
Cattle and Colonization
Great Zimbabwe

Inner Africa and the World
The World of the Americas

States and Empires of Middle America
Before the Aztecs
Classical Mayan
A Theoretical Interlude: Priests and Soldiers

Toltecs and Aztecs
States and Empires of South America

Before the Incas
Classical Chavin
Moche Warrior Priests and Divine Emperors
Incas and Their Ancestors

States and Peoples of North America
Peoples and Places
Rich Pacific Fisheries
Pueblos of the Southwest
Eastern Woodland Farmers

Americas and the World
The World of the Pacific

Islands and Settlers
First Wave

Austronesian and Polynesian Migrations
Austronesian Migrations
Polynesian Migrations

Language and Culture
Ecology and Colonization

The Advantages of Parallel Worlds
The Lessons of Parallel Worlds

Lessons of Similarities
Similarities or Connections
Lessons of Differences

The Strength of Parallel Worlds

W HILE THE Afro-Eurasian world came together as a single
system between the classical age 2,000 years ago and the rise of
the West 500 years ago, other parts of the world carried out their

own traditions, established their own networks of interaction, and
experienced their own arcs of change. We turn in this chapter to these
“parallel worlds” in inner Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific Ocean
because their stories are as compelling as they are separate. Indeed, their
very separateness gives us a greatly expanded field of evidence and
example to help us understand the human condition and historical change.
To focus only on the dominant trend is very much like telling only the
history of the victors. In either case, we end with a lesser sense of who we
are and an even lesser sense of who we could be.

The World of Inner Africa
“Outer” Africa—the Nile, the Red Sea and Indian Ocean ports, North
Africa along the Mediterranean, and the kingdoms of West Africa—was an
intrinsic part of the Afro-Eurasian world of the first millennium CE. The
Nile valley was a creator of that world. The Red Sea and Mediterranean
were early participants. By 1000 CE, a single zone of communication
extended across the western Sahara as well, to the border of tropical rain
forests just north of the equator.

Inner Africa was the interior African world that was not swept up into the
Afro-Eurasian network before 1450. It constituted a large part of the
African continent below the Sahara Desert. It includes all of Africa south of
the equator, all of the equatorial rain forests, and the dry lands and savanna
that pushed into the Sahara in central Africa.

Geography, Race, and Language

Inner Africa had not been integrated into the Afro-Eurasian network
because it was remote from the rest of Eurasia. In addition to the almost
1,000-mile width of the Sahara Desert, the rivers of Africa made contact

difficult. The rivers of West Africa like the Niger and Congo flowed from
uplands across cataracts and waterfalls to the Atlantic Ocean, making it
difficult for outsiders to enter. In addition, the maritime path from the
northern Atlantic was blocked by prevailing currents that inhibited easy
access. From Asia, East Africa was easier to reach across the Red Sea and
Indian Ocean. Contacts between the Arab world and the Swahili cities of
the East African coast were extensive as far south as modern Mozambique.

Inner Africa was the larger part of a huge continent. The perpendicular
grid of popular Mercator world maps, which magnify polar areas and
reduce areas near the equator, makes it look as if Africa is about the size of
Greenland. In fact, Africa is 15 times larger: 12 million square miles,
compared to Greenland’s total area of 840,000 square miles. By
comparison, all of Eurasia amounts to 21 million square miles. Africa is
larger than China, India, the continental United States, and the entire
continent of Australia combined.

Africa is also far more diverse than most people imagine.
Geographically, Africa contains some of the wettest and driest places on
earth, snowcapped mountains, dense rain forests, and open fields as well as
deserts. Biologically, Africans are more diverse than the people of any other
continent. This physical diversity (measured by DNA) stems from the long
period of human development in Africa before mankind populated the rest
of the planet. When Europeans began classifying humans into “races,” they
failed to recognize this diversity. In the interest of seeing the African as
dark skinned or black, they failed to recognize that they were creating a
particular stereotype—based mainly on people who came from West Africa.
Consequently, they missed the differences in appearance of not only the
Berbers and Arabs of North Africa but also the taller people of the Nile
valley, the shorter people of the Congo rain forest, and the lighter-
complexioned people of the southern African desert. Europeans also failed
to recognize the social and cultural diversity of Africans. They failed to
recognize that even inner Africa contained empires, various kinds of states,
village-based societies (without states), cities, and pastoral and agricultural
societies as well as hunter-gatherers.

Today, biologists and anthropologists are not inclined to use the word
race in classifying peoples, in part because of the tortured history of the
term but also because of its lack of precision in a world shaped more by
culture than biology and by intermixing more than isolation. Rather, we

might see the mixtures of African peoples coming from regions of relative
separation, speaking different languages, and practicing different cultures.
By that measure, we might distinguish five major groups of African
language and culture systems. These would be the Afro-Asian peoples of
the north (including ancient Egyptians, Berbers, and, more recently, Arabs),
the Nilotic-Sudanic peoples (mainly herders, often tall and thin in stature)
from the Nile valley, the Niger-Congo peoples of West Africa (including
speakers of the Bantu languages), the Pygmy peoples of Central Africa, and
the Khoisan people in the Kalahari Desert.

The World’s Three
Transformations in Africa

Humans, Farmers, and States. In the beginning, of course, we were all
Africans. The first transformation began when some of our ancestors started
moving out of Africa about a million years ago. The next transformation
occurred with the development of agriculture, but since Africans were
among the first to plant and domesticate crops, the only divergence between
Africa and the rest of Afro-Eurasia was in the particular crops that were
domesticated. The third global transformation centered on the revolution in
social organization that led to cities and states. The North African Egyptian
state was one of the leaders in that revolution. Here, too, African Egyptians
developed their own civilization, one that they shared with neighbors to the

The Nile Connection. During the Egyptian period, contact between
northern and central Africa continued as state societies were created up the
Nile in Kush, Meroe, and Nubia (in what is today Sudan). About 750 BCE,
a Kushite king conquered Egypt and established a dynasty that ruled the
two kingdoms for 100 years. From about 590 BCE to 350 CE, the successor
state of Meroe remained independent of Egypt and its various occupiers
(Persian, Greek, and Roman), and cultivated a way of life that included a
centralized state, pyramids, irrigation, hieroglyphic writing, and iron
smelting. They were finally conquered not by the Romans but by the
Christian Axumite kingdom of Ethiopia. After Meroe, Nubian kings ruled
the upper Nile. They converted to the Coptic Christianity of Egypt,
reestablishing close contact with Egypt between 350 and 700 CE. The

patriarch in Alexandria appointed bishops and trained clergy, and Nubians
studied the Coptic rite, developed an alphabetical script based on Coptic
Greek and old Meroitic, and traveled back and forth frequently. Nubian
inscriptions indicate knowledge of Greek as late as the twelfth century.

The flow between northern and central Africa that had continued for
millennia was interrupted by two factors, one ephemeral and the other
climatic. The ephemeral interruption was the Arab conquest of Egypt
around 700. Sudan broke into the Arabic and Muslim north and a largely
Christian south. But the Nile remained the main link between northern and
central Africa because a more fundamental barrier had arisen between the
Mediterranean and central Africa since the time of the first pharaohs: the
Sahara Desert.

The Saharan Separation. The Sahara Desert is a formidable barrier today.
A modern jet takes several hours to fly the more than 1,000 miles from
north to south, and all you can see is sand. On the ground, the shifting hills
of sand and rock outcroppings are both more treacherous and more
interesting. Nothing, however, is more striking to the modern archaeologist
than the appearance, hundreds of miles from the nearest water hole, of vivid
and colorful rock paintings of flowers, birds, herds of antelope, cattle
grazing, and humans farming and hunting. These paintings are evidence
that the Sahara was at one time a garden of life, a lush environment
crowded with animals and people. On the ground, geologists can see
evidence that almost 10,000 years ago Lake Chad, on the southwestern
border of the Sahara, was 25 times its current size.

We now realize that the Sahara has gone through alternating wet and dry
stages over hundreds of thousands of years. The most recent wet period was
at the end of the last glacial period and lasted from about 11,000 years ago
until 5,000 years ago. The current desert dates from about 3000 BCE, the
beginning of the Egyptian Old Kingdom. Egyptian culture may be
descended from these Neolithic rock painters of the Sahara in some ways:
there is evidence, for instance, of mummification and cattle burial in the
Sahara. But the larger point about the history of Africa is that a huge barrier
appeared between the Mediterranean and the rest of Africa, just at the
moment that the world was embarking on the great Bronze Age
transformation. Thus, while only Africans participated in the first
transformation into humans and many Africans, north and south,
participated in the second transformation into plant and animal

domestication, an enormous barrier separated the participants in the third
transformation from the rest of Africa.

The history of Sudan shows that the separation was by no means
complete. But the Nile River was the only route that ran from the north to
the African interior. When the Arabs conquered Egypt, that connection was
interrupted. Initially, the Arabs directed their attention and trade north to
Syria and Iraq rather than west across the Red Sea, but eventually Arab,
Indian, and even Chinese ships added the Swahili ports of East Africa to
their itineraries. Still, these contacts were limited to the coast. Africans
controlled the internal trade. Similarly, in West Africa, trans-Saharan trade
routes integrated the cities of the Kingdom of Mali into the Dar al-Islam,
but much of the hugeness of Africa was invisible to the travelers, sheiks,
and salt sellers, exhausted after weeks on a camel in driving sand, having
finally reached their destination near the Niger at Jenne or Timbuktu.

The Bantu Migrations

There is a simple principle for figuring where something came from. The
original site of something always has the greatest variety. Thus, Africa has
the greatest variety of humans; Morocco has a greater variety of Arabs than
Jenne or Timbuktu. In the same way, Niger-Congo languages and
specifically the subgroup of Bantu languages are spoken over much of
Africa, but they are densely concentrated in the high grasslands of
Cameroon. You can travel today in Cameroon a few miles from one village
to the next and hear people speaking a different Bantu language. There are,
in fact, more than 200 languages spoken in the Cameroon grasslands, an
area smaller than the state of New Jersey. This fact shows us that the Bantu
languages spoken throughout Africa south of the Sahara originated there.

Words, Seeds, and Iron. About 3,000 years ago, Bantu-speaking people
from this area began a series of migrations that spread their descendants
into East Africa and south through much of the rest of the continent by
about 1000 CE. With their language, they brought their culture and tools.
They brought agriculture—their knack for raising yams and palm oil trees,

guinea hens, and goats. From people in central Africa, they picked up the
ability to smelt iron in a furnace with bellows. From the Nilotic-Sudanic
people, they borrowed the ability to raise sheep, pigs, and cattle that had
been bred to survive the tsetse fly of the tropics. Their diet also expanded as
they picked up the cultivation of African grains like millet and sorghum. On
the east coast of Africa, they added bananas and chickens brought from
Indonesia. Some of their descendants became the Swahili merchants of East
African cities. Others moved into the rain forests and grasslands of southern
Africa. In the mountains and tropical rain forests of central Africa, they met
the Batwa (or Twa) people (sometimes called pygmies because of their
small stature), who were hunter-gatherers. They exchanged their
agricultural products and tools (first polished stone and then iron) for the
forest products of the Batwa, especially honey, ivory, and wild animal skins.
Farther south, in what is today the Kalahari Desert, they encountered the
Khoisan people, who were herders and hunter-gatherers; these lighter-
complexioned people spoke a “click language,” so called because of its use
of different dental sounds.

As Bantu speakers encountered hunting-gathering peoples in places like
the Congo rain forest and the Kalahari, different things happened. In some
cases, the agricultural Bantu took over the best lands, pushing the hunting-
gathering people into more remote areas. The original crops of the
grasslands did not grow in the rain forest, but bananas turned out to be
extravagantly successful in the rain forest (as was the brewing of banana
beer). In some cases, the two groups mixed together, although usually at the
cost of the traditions and culture of the hunter-gatherers, who ultimately
adopted the Bantu language and culture. Still, in some cases, the forest
dwellers were able to use their commercial importance to achieve a certain
degree of leverage in trading with the Bantu while keeping to their
traditional ways.

A Common Culture? The spread of Bantu peoples provided a broadly
common cultural background for much of inner Africa. In addition to the
Bantu language family, this common culture included a set of domesticated
crops and animals, iron metallurgy, and a tendency to figure inheritance
from the mother but give maternally connected men important roles in
councils of elders and kingship. Bantu religious beliefs generally accepted a
supreme being, but most religious practices were devoted to ancestors and

nature spirits. Masks were used in religious rituals, and drumming and
dance were central in festive and solemn rituals.

It would be a mistake, however, to see Bantu culture as changeless. As
new generations and branches of Bantu-speaking peoples migrated east and
south, they adopted and added new cultural characteristics, such as a variety
of round conical and rectangular housing, descent through the male as well
as the female line, and a wide range of political and social institutions.

Empires, States, and Stateless Societies

Inner Africa contained states as well as village or lineage-based societies,
but clearly states were larger and more pronounced in the areas of outer
Africa that were part of the Afro-Eurasian network. Why, then, were cities,
states, and empires concentrated in some areas, like the Nile, and not in
others areas, like central and southern Africa?

Politics, Population, and Climate. The long-term drying of the climate
may contain part of the answer. Recent studies of ice cores from the top of
Africa’s largest mountain, Kilimanjaro, confirm that the cycle of drying that
began about 5,300 years ago and created the Sahara extended throughout
the continent (and probably into the Middle East and western Asia).1

Reductions in rainfall may have had opposite effects in northern and
central Africa, increasing population centers in the north and reducing
density in the south. In the north, the drying of the Sahara pushed
agriculturalists and herders into the Nile valley (as well as north and south),
forcing more people to contend with scarce resources. Population
concentration likely resulted in state formation. Those who already enjoyed
status increased their dominance in chiefdoms, kingdoms, and state
societies. Kings and leading social classes formed states and systems of law
to ensure their political dominance and economic expropriation.

Lots of Land. The impact of climatic drying in central tropical Africa was
to reduce the rain forests and increase the grasslands. This was the
background of the expansion of Bantu agriculturalists. Climate desiccation
opened sparsely populated forests areas into new arable grasslands,
attracting just the sorts of people who were looking to expand their
agricultural way of life. Bantu farmers and herders “had so much more

country into which they could expand,” the historian Christopher Ehret
points out. As West African peoples spread out

across the immense reaches of East and southeast Africa, their settlement densities would have
been very low indeed, much lower than in the western Great Lakes region from which their
expansions stemmed. . . . Not until later centuries, by which time their population densities
would have considerably increased, did larger chiefdoms and eventually, [after 1000]
kingdoms evolve in such places.2

West Africa

Virtually every political structure that emerged in inner Africa could be
found in the areas of West Africa that grew in the wake of the great drying
up of the Sahara after 3000 BCE. From about 300 CE to 1000 CE, West
Africa enjoyed substantial rainfall, and the population grew considerably.
The densest area was probably the high grasslands of Cameroon, which
provided an especially healthy climate since it was above the altitude at
which mosquitoes carrying malaria could flourish.

Stateless Societies. Nevertheless, even in these highly populated areas,
West Africans (Bantu speakers and others) favored small communities
without states or hierarchies. Typically, a group of 5 to 15 villages formed a
kafu, a sort of confederation with a big man or chief. This preference for
autonomy and the great availability of unoccupied lands contributed to
make the Bantu and other West Africans such great migrants and colonists.
A tradition whereby the eldest son inherited the family land also
encouraged other sons to clear their own land from the nearby woodlands or
forest. In addition, the West African custom of polygyny created families in
which the men with the most land had the most wives and the most sons, all
of whom had to fend for themselves.

Sometimes, a particularly ambitious chief would combine a cluster of
kafus and create a state, declaring himself king. The great West African
state of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, Mali, was founded this way,
according to the great epic of Sundiata Keita. “From being village chiefs,
the Keitas have become tribal chiefs and then kings,” the poet of Sundiata
recalled.3 The epic also underlines the link between agricultural
colonization and kingship: “Cut the trees, turn the forests into fields, for
then only will you become a true king.”

Kingdoms for Horses. We have noticed in previous chapters the close
connection between state formation and horses. What role did horses play
in West African state formation? We know through Saharan paintings that
small horses were in North Africa before the camel was domesticated about
the fourth century CE. They likely came south as well as north before the
first millennium. The Epic of Sundiata tells us that Sundiata forged a
kingdom in the 1230s with an army of free archers and cavalry forces. But
the cavalries of the thirteenth century rode ponies without saddles or
stirrups. By the 1330s, the time of Mansa Musa, Mali employed the heavy
cavalry of Mamluk Egypt and the Islamic world. Horses were difficult to
breed near the equator, and their life expectancies were shortened by
tropical diseases, but these new large imported horses changed the balance
between stateless peoples and states.

Equipped with saddles and stirrups, they were a formative force against
standing bowmen. Introduced by the Muslim kingdom of Kanem about
1250, the combination of large horses and Islam created one kingdom after
another in sub-Saharan West Africa. But the large horses had to be
imported. An armed heavy cavalry was expensive, requiring heavy
expropriation of settled farming populations. Since farmers could easily
migrate to new lands, cavalries turned to raiding and capturing them,
making them slaves and forcing them to farm for the king or his cavalry

The kingdoms of West Africa between 1250 and 1450 (Kanem, Bornu,
Mali, and Songhai) were based on the simultaneous growth of cavalry and
slaves. Slaves paid for horses, and cavalries could capture the slaves. By
1450, a large warhorse cost between 9 and 14 slaves. It is estimated that
4,000 to 7,000 slaves per year were taken up the trans-Sahara routes
(including that from Darfur in East Africa) to be exchanged for horses.
Even if many died during the crossing, the value of each survivor increased
five to eight times from below the Sahara to the Mediterranean coast.4

Stateless communities still thrived where horses could not go: in the
tropical rain forests and beyond—along the coasts of West Africa. Lineage
societies functioned with the aid of various strategies to maintain their
autonomy: clan loyalties, councils of elders, initiation “secret societies,”
“age sets” of male contemporaries, systems of mediation by outsiders,
ritualized war games to resolve conflicts, and communal “palaver”
discussions to mediate internal disputes. Cities and ministates added more

complex social institutions in places like Benin. Some were commercial
centers, others the center of rituals or artistic expression. The city of Ife, on
the forest border, produced glass beads, terracotta, and brass statues. Similar
brass sculptures were later produced by court metalworkers in the kingdom
of Benin.

East and South Africa

Most political institutions in West Africa could also be found in East and
South Africa. There were empires, kingdoms, city-states, and stateless
societies. But geography and the timing of major population movements
like the Bantu migration accounted for certain differences.

Cattle and Colonization. Perhaps the most important difference was the
greater role of herders in East Africa. Bantu agriculturalists added animals
to their mixed economy in central and East Africa. Cattle were introduced
into East Africa by the more indigenous Nilotic-Sudanic speakers. Cattle
herders like the Fulani people were common in West Africa too, but they
generally remained north of the more tropical areas of agriculturalists. By
contrast, the land of East Africa is slashed by dramatic north-south rifts of
mountains and deep valleys, enabling herders to introduce cattle much
farther south on high plains overlooking the valleys of agriculturalists.

As a consequence, East African economies were more frequently pastoral
and mixed and rarely (as was the case in West Africa) purely agricultural. In
tropical regions of East Africa, the mix of herding and farming peoples in
lands formerly occupied by hunter-gatherers created sharply different, often
antagonistic economies side by side. Sometimes this castelike separation
had dramatic consequences, as in Rwanda and Burundi, where Tutsi
herders, Hutu agriculturalists, and Twa hunter-gatherers were incorporated
into single states.

In southern Africa, cattle raising took precedence over farming. Herders
can form states, but their need for extensive pastureland generally means
lower population densities and fewer villages or cities. In southern Africa,
cattle raising tended to form chiefdoms rather than states or stateless
societies. The household was the principal unit. Households gathered their
round dwellings around an enclosed central cattle pen, a design less likely
to lead to towns and cities than the West African shape of rectangular

houses on grids of streets. These chiefdoms did sometimes coalesce into
states, however, often with central cities studded with royal palaces.

Great Zimbabwe. The largest of these states in southern Africa between
1000 and 1450 was Great Zimbabwe, which transformed itself from a local
chiefdom in the twelfth century to the leading power of southern Africa in
the fourteenth. Even today, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe are impressive.
The city dominates various levels of pasture from a high plateau. Building
materials were stone blocks tightly placed together without mortar. The city,
which contains the large royal palace, is surrounded by a huge wall that had
an iron gate. In its heyday, the city probably numbered 15,000 to 18,000
people, many living inside the high walls:

It was a city closely integrated with its surrounding countryside. Narrow pathways, dusty in
the dry season and muddy in the wet, would have led in intricate ways among the crowded
houses. Wandering dogs nobody much cared for, chickens scavenging in the walkways
between the houses, and goats tethered at doorways would have been among the sights and
background noisemakers of city life. In the later afternoon, hundreds of cooking fires would
have added to the mélange of strong smells that filled the air and, if the air was still, would
have created something much like smog.5

The fortunes of Great Zimbabwe were built on more than cattle raising
and agriculture. Its chiefs learned to control and tax trade just as they had
traditionally demanded cattle. First ivory and beads but eventually gold
from farther up the Limpopo River valley made Great Zimbabwe the largest
city of southern Africa and an empire of the Shona people. Zimbabwe
traded the gold farther north, ultimately to the city of Kilwa and the Swahili
cities on the coast of the Indian Ocean, where inner Africa connected to the
Afro-Eurasian network.

Inner Africa and the World

During the first millions of years of our species, inner Africa was the world.
Only in the past few thousand years did inner Africa take an independent
but parallel path, and in the past few hundred years our paths have merged
again. Yet, even as inner Africa followed a course separate from that of
Afro-Eurasia, its fortunes were connected to developments in the larger
world. The Bantu migration began in an area of West Africa that had grown
steeply after the desiccation of the Sahara. West Africans later connected

with the people north of the Sahara who introduced domesticated camels
and horses and brought salt and Mediterranean products across the desert.
Later still, West Africa met bearers of the Islamic faith and founded states
and empires rich in horses and gold. But by then, Bantuspeaking peoples
had colonized much of the rest of Africa, bringing their crops and iron east
and south. In the process, they encountered and incorporated other peoples:
cattle herders of the central sub-Saharan region, farmers of Malayan and
Indonesian crops like bananas and yams in East Africa, and city peoples
along the East African coast who traded in the Arabian Sea and Indian

Still, the Bantu travelers, the hunter-gatherers of tropical rain forests, and
the cattle herders of South Africa created their own networks, some
independent and others attached to those of the larger world. They created
their own systems of social and political organization, all without writing6

and most without the apparatus of state administration and control. The
village-based societies, hunter-gatherers, and pastoral peoples of inner
Africa invented a range of voluntary, lineage- and family-based, age- and
gender-related institutions that offered an alternative model to the state-
based societies that were increasingly shaping the world—even in outer

The World of the Americas
The variety of the Americas before 1450 was almost as great as the variety
of Africa. As in Africa, there were hunter-gatherers, part-time and full-time
agriculturalists, villages, cities, states, and empires. The great empires are
best known; we have already discussed some of them in the chapter on city
and state formation.

States and Empires of Middle America

The great empires of the early 1400s were the Aztec Empire of central
Mexico and the Inca Empire of Peru. But these were relatively recent

arrivals at locations in which previous states and empires had ruled for

Before the Aztecs. The Aztecs came down from northern Mexico only
about a century earlier to the large lake on the high central Mexican plateau.
Viewed as crude newcomers, they established themselves as successors to
the Toltecs, who, in turn, claimed descent from the classical rulers of nearby
Teotihua-can. From 400 to 600, Teotihuacan had dominated central Mexico
politically and culturally. Its city by the same name was not only the largest
in the Americas but also one of the largest cities in the world at the time,
numbering possibly 200,000 inhabitants. The Teotihuaca-nos passed on a
tradition of pyramid building that stretched back to the first Mexican states,
the Zapotecs and the Olmecs.

At the time of Teotihuacan, the Mayan culture encompassed a huge area
that stretched from the northern Yucatan Peninsula of eastern Mexico deep
into Central America. The Mayans had no single city approaching the
population of Teotihuacan, but they had many cities, some with as many as
tens of thousands of inhabitants. The remains of Mayan cities like Tikal,
Uxmal, Palenque, and Chichen Itza suggest a layout like the cities of central
Mexico. They have central open spaces flanked by pyramids and other
public buildings. But the Mayan cities do not seem to extend beyond such
ceremonial centers. Most Mayan cities were carved out of dense jungle,
which has since returned to strangle the ruins, so it is difficult, without
further archaeological work, to determine what may lie under the
surrounding jungle. Central Mexican cities like Teo-tihuacan and the
Zapotec’s Monte Alban, by contrast, lie in open areas, and the excavated
central plazas and pyramids are surrounded by mounds that are beginning to
reveal the many homes of city inhabitants. The absence of extensive
residential areas around Mayan cities leads to the conclusion that they were,
at least in their early stages, purely ceremonial: places for rulers and priests,
an idea that also fits what we know about Mayan culture.

Classical Mayan. Mayan writing was a colorful combination of pictures
and syllable symbols that has only recently been deciphered. It reveals a
culture in which priests played a major role in ensuring the proper balance
of natural forces. Mayan cities contain astronomical observatories in which
priests learned to predict solar and lunar eclipses and mark the changing
seasons and the times for planting, burning, and harvesting. The Mayans
used a 365-day calendar and figured the length of the year to within 17

seconds of modern calculations. They invented the concept of zero
independently of the classical mathematicians of India, and they used a 20-
base computation system (like our 10-base system). They built high step
pyramids in stone, decorated with vivid sculptures of gods, jaguars, and
serpents, and they painted on bark and stone walls in dazzling color. All this
they accomplished with stone tools before metals came to Middle America
around 900.

Recently, another side to Mayan life has come to light. Mayan rulers and
priests practiced a ritualistic bloodletting in the belief that it would ensure
the necessary rain for the crops. When, for instance, King Pacal died in 683,
his son and successor, Chan Bahlum, presided at funeral services by cutting
three slits into his penis with a sharp obsidian knife and inserting bark paper
into the wounds so that the blood would flow copiously. His younger
brother and other family members followed suit.

Mayan culture was otherwise not very different from that of others in
Mexico. They shared many of the same gods; Tlaloc, the rain god, and
Quetzacoatl, the feathered serpent, were particularly important. In addition
to pyramid temples, all of them had ball courts where they played a ball
game similar to that played by the Taino and ancestral to modern soccer.
Competing teams could hit the small ball made of local rubber with
anything but their hands. The game must have served some kind of dispute
resolution function because the losers sometimes were executed, their heads
displayed on spikes near the court. The idea that humans had to shed blood
or give their lives to appease the gods was common in Mexican societies,
though the Aztecs raised it to a new level.

A Theoretical Interlude: Priests and Soldiers. A modern world historian
has an interesting theory that might help explain the bloodletting and human
sacrifice that we frequently find in ancient civilizations. Johan Goudsblom7

notes that many ancient agricultural civilizations give enormous power over
life and death to priests. In earliest Mesopotamian urban society, for
instance, priests supervised the planting and distribution of food as part of
the feeding of the gods. Agriculture-based cities were highly vulnerable
creations, Goudsblom argues: first vulnerable to the forces of nature and
then, if successful, vulnerable to other peoples. Therefore, it should not
surprise us to find cases in which priests are given inordinate powers to
ensure the land is properly prepared for planting and that all the necessary
rituals of farming are carried out to the letter. This would be especially

important where nature was unpredictable, like the floods of the Euphrates.
The people of Middle America faced the unpredictability of the rains. Rains
that came too early or too late or that were too light or too heavy could
disastrously limit the crops.

As city societies became larger, their dependence on reliable agriculture
became greater. Priests who bled themselves and urged others to do the
same might have been responding to what they perceived to be a very
delicate balance between the efforts of humans and nature. In fact, the
decline of Mayan society after 900 might be an indicator of how vulnerable
it was. From around 800 to 1000, a number of American societies suffered
from the lack of rainfall and collapsed. Mayan society was, in fact, able to
reorganize along the northern Yucatan after the collapse of cities in the
south, but it was never as extensive as in the earlier classical era. Similarly,
Teotihuacan collapsed around 800, as did Monte Alban (and, we shall see,
one of the great South American states).

Goudsblom points out that agriculture-based urban civilizations also rely
heavily on soldiers but that the role of soldiers often eclipses that of priests
at a later stage in their history. He suggests that this occurred after the
society had some success in overcoming the threats of nature, achieved a
certain level of abundance in crops and populations, and therefore
confronted another level of vulnerability—the threat of outside forces, such
as brigands, popular uprisings, or other societies. This would account for
the rise of military regimes after priestly states in the ancient Near East. It
might also explain the rise of soldiers over priests in the Toltec and Aztec
states after the decline of Mayan society and Teotihuacan.

Toltecs and Aztecs. When the Aztecs modeled themselves on the Toltecs,
they chose a military rather than a cultural power. The Toltec city Tula
displayed symbols of a conquest state: friezes of soldiers, skulls on a rack,
roaming jaguars, and eagles eating hearts. These symbols were replicated in
Chichen Itza after the Toltec conquest of that Mayan city and in the Aztec
capital. Toltec Tula created a large empire based on trade as well as
conquest. It was the Toltec who introduced metals and metalworking to
Mexico (in copper, silver, and gold), probably from their expeditions into
Central America (where metals probably arrived from Peru). Although
these were not durable metals, capable of being molded into tools or
weapons, they encouraged trade and the making of fine art and jewelry.
Toltec state traders also founded settlements as far north as modern

Arizona, bringing the Me-soamerican ball game to Phoenix (where a 900-
year-old rubber ball was recently discovered) though evidently without the
element of human sacrifice.

The Toltec told a story of their origins in Tula that later became an
important part of Aztec lore. They told of a cultural hero or king called
Topilzin Quetzalcoatl, who was a peacemaker forced out of the country
(promising to return) by another powerful person, Tezcatli-poca, who
became a sort of god of war and sacrifice. This conflict between
Quetzalcoatl’s peaceful, nurturing force and that of the god of war,
conquest, bloodletting, and human sacrifice surfaced in Aztec society and
was resolved in favor of the Aztec version of the god of war,

The followers of Huitzilopochtli believed that their god of war was also
responsible for bringing the sun up every morning. To accomplish this
monumental task, the god required regular sacrifices of human blood. This
doctrine fueled a centuries-long Aztec expansion throughout central
Mexico. The Aztec state of the fifteenth century was first and foremost
dependent on the regular collection of prisoners at the ceremonial pyramids,
most notably the Major Temple in Tenochtitlan (modern Mexico City),
where their hearts were cut out and offered to Huitzilopochtli.

It was one of the great coincidences of history that, when the Spanish
arrived in Mexico in 1519 at the end of a long religious crusade, they met
an American empire driven by its own ideas of sacred warfare. The quick
Spanish conquest of Mexico owed much to European “guns, germs, and
steel,”8 but the Aztecs also had many enemies in Mexico who joined the
conquistadores in their march on Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs ran an empire

structured in ways that made rebellion by Mexican peoples almost
inevitable. It was an empire of military conquest that attempted little by
way of cultural or bureaucratic integration (in contrast to the Inca, as we
will see). The tentacles that stretched from Tenochtitlan to the other cities of
Mexico were mainly military. It was an empire on the cheap, run as was its
capital by a military aristocracy that left much of the economy to markets
and merchants. Longdistance merchants (pocheteca) were the only other
important social class at home. They also created the only alternate arteries
throughout the empire along which they traded and spied for the military

The conquered peoples of Mexico and parts of what is today Central
America were treated as military dependencies each required by treaty to
supply stipulated amounts of raw and finished products as well as young
men to be sacrificed. Without any stake in or affiliation with an Aztec
society that literally bled them dry, many threw in their lot with foreign
invaders who ended up taking over everything.

States and Empires of South America

The South American Inca Empire that fell to the Spanish conquistador
Pizarro in 1534 was very much like the Aztec in its origins. Like the
Aztecs, the Incas were recent conquerors of other kingdoms. Like the
Aztecs, they had come from obscurity in the early 1400s to rule a vast area
—the four parts of the world, they called it, and it extended from Ecuador
to Bolivia and from the Andes to the Pacific coast of South America. Like
the Aztecs, the Inca invented ancestry from a previous power to suggest
their importance. They came, they said, from Tiwanaku, the state that ruled
the highlands of the Andes from around 400 to 1000. In fact, they borrowed
ideas and institutions from a number of earlier states of the Andes highlands
and the Pacific coast.

Before the Incas. Glancing at a map, it might seem strange that all the
cities and states of South America before 1500 developed in the same
section of the continent—along the Pacific coast and in the Andes
mountains. Today, for instance, the largest cities are along the Atlantic
coast, and the largest modern states, Brazil and Argentina, were not even
part of these pre-1500 states. It might seem even stranger from ground

level. The Pacific coast has some of the driest, most desolate deserts on the
planet, and the city sites in the Andes Mountains are in such high and
forbidding places that entire cities are still being discovered in dense jungle
at very high altitudes.

The earliest dense settlements in South America were along the Pacific
coast in what is today northern Peru. There coastal areas were dry (though
not as dry as southern Peru and northern Chile), but rivers cascading down
from the high Andes provided abundant water for irrigated farming.
Nevertheless, farming may have encouraged dense human settlement only
after the teeming coastal fisheries had begun the process. The waters off the
coast of northern Peru offered the most abundant harvests of small fish, like
anchovies, and the larger fish and birds that fed on them found anywhere in
the world. This was a result of the cold waters of the Humboldt Current
flowing north from Antarctica along the Pacific coast, where they met the
warm equatorial waters. This area may have been one of the few in the
world where fisheries were abundant enough to allow dense and permanent
human settlement before agriculture.9 (The Pacific Northwest was another,
as we shall see.)

If early settlements could be formed by groups of villagers who lived by
fishing, hunting, and gathering, the first states and kingdoms depended on
agriculture and often grazing animals as well. Even more than the pastoral
societies of East Africa, the early states and kingdoms of South America
were multilevel societies that took advantage of the different resources of
widely varying altitudes. Cotton and corn (after it arrived from Middle
America) could be grown at low altitudes. The numerous tubers that were
domesticated into potatoes and yams grew more easily at higher altitudes in
the Andes. Even higher on plateaus of short grasses, llamas and alpacas
were raised and grazed. In this way, compact Andean states grew vertically
over desert, grasslands, lush valleys, and rugged mountains in irrigated
layers of settlement.

Andean civilization seemed to climb up from the shores of the Pacific to
the mountain ridges 20,000 feet above sea level. If so, it was not a straight
climb, and it was not only onward and upward. First, there are two or more
Andean ridges stretching north and south with large tropical rain forests in
between. Second, the culture of Andean civilization shows the unmistakable
stamp of peoples of eastern tropical rain forests. Places like the Amazon
jungle may not have produced highly concentrated settlements, but some of

their habitations may have been among the oldest on the continent, and their
descendants must have helped shape Andean civilization.

Classical Chavin. The classical, some would even say “mother,” culture
of Andean civilization was centered at Chavin de Huantar (around 800-200
BCE). Some of the cultural elements of later Andean life developed earlier,
but at Chavin they came together in a formative mix. The site, halfway
between sea and mountaintops, at the 10,000-foot-level crossroads of
ancient trade routes, was considered especially sacred. The main temple, a
U shape of raised platforms with the opening facing east, uphill, and toward
the mountain waters, became a model for Andean temples. At Chavin de
Huantar, the temple contained secret chambers, tunnels, and a central niche
with a totemlike stone pillar that contained the face of the god and imagery
connected sea and mountains and earth and sky. The role of forest peoples
could be seen in the sacred depiction of jaguars, caiman crocodiles, and
snakes, images replicated on stone and pottery for the following millennia
that seemed to suggest that the fears and fascinations of the jungle were
those of the desert and mountains as well. From the desert came a
hallucinatory cactus that, according to friezes on the temple wall, would put
the shaman into a sacred trance. Underneath the lower-level garden in the
center of the U, one heard the rushing roar of water, the sound of the god’s
energy and a reminder of the miracle of irrigation that connected wet and
dry and high and low.

Moche Warrior Priests and Divine Emperors. Beginning around 200
BCE, the Andes witnessed a series of ever-larger empires that combined the
culture and religious ideas of Chavin with the techniques of military
expansion and political domination. The first of these empires, the Moche
(200-700), united not only upper and lower realms of the mountains but
also entire valleys between mountain ridges. If Chavin was run by priests,
the Moche Empire was run by warrior priests and a king who styled himself
as a god, demanded human sacrifices, and commanded the work of all and
the lives of some to magnify his realm and accompany him after death.
Here we also see the first cases of burial distinctions in Andean society.
Mummified Moche aristocrats, like the Lords of Sipan, wrapped in clothing
that took another’s lifetime to produce and crowned with gold-plated
crescent moons, also demanded llamas, wives, and helpers in their tombs.
The Moche may have initiated the mit’a system of forced labor for state
building projects, especially the pyramid-like tombs of the rulers. They also

developed metallurgy in the Americas; they did not smelt ores, but they
hammered and soldered gold, silver, and copper into jewelry and ritual
objects that would be imitated for millennia afterward.

The end of the Moche came with a series of what we have since
recognized as El Niños—sudden warming of the nearby ocean water that
drastically reduced the harvests of anchovies and caused extreme conditions
of drought (not incidentally causing a series of climatic changes around the
world). In addition, the Andes were struck by a major earthquake sometime
between 650 and 700. The Moche was not the only civilization destroyed
by the desiccation and dust. The Nazca people on the coastal plains of
southern Peru, known for their miles-long sand images of hummingbirds,
monkeys, whales, and spiders, also disappeared.

Incas and Their Ancestors. When the Incas traced their ancestry back to
Tiwanaku, they identified themselves with a state that had dominated the
highlands of southern Peru and Bolivia from Lake Titicaca (in modern
Bolivia) from around 400 to 1000. This association also meant a declaration

of loyalty to Viracocha, the creator god, and to an extensive empire based
on further irrigation, widespread mit’a service, U-shaped steppe temples
that demonstrated the control of water, human sacrifice, and the imagery of
jaguar and evil. In other words, Tiwanaku continued many of the elements
of Andean culture from the time of the Moche and even the Chavin.

Yet each new kingdom controlled a larger area than its predecessor. One
of the techniques that made this possible was an institution anthropologists
call “split inheritance,” which operated like a 100 percent inheritance tax
each time a king died. As developed by the Chimu state (1100-1400), the
immediate predecessor of the Inca, split inheritance was a system by which
all mit’a, taxes, and tribute paid to a particular king, was channeled to his
estate and the upkeep of his temple after his death. This meant that
whatever son became his successor had to find entirely new sources of
revenue. In other words, he had to conquer his own kingdom, adding it to
his father’s and those of his predecessors, thus creating his own empire. The
capital of the Chimu state, Chan Chan, had 9 or 10 separate enclosed
districts, each containing the temple grounds and resources of a departed
king. And with each new conquest came new subsidiary cities, provincial
capitals with their own local subordinates, and new aristocrats. It was an
extremely effective system of imperial expansion as long as there were new
lands to conquer.

The Incas used the tool of split inheritance to create an empire more than
double the size of the Chimu. It encompassed all the coast and the uplands
from southern Ecuador to northern Chile and Bolivia. The Inca proved
particularly adept at administering such a vast empire on a shoestring.
Messengers ran from one station to another throughout the empire, carrying
their messages on khipus of knotted string and sometimes (according to an
older custom) engraved on lima beans.

If their technology was lean, the Inca compensated with a passion for
organization. They created a system in which state sovereignty overrode
kinship by dividing the empire into quarters, halves, and provinces. Then
they created groups of 10,000, 5,000, 1,000, 500, and 100 taxpayers.
Foremen were put in charge of groups of 50 and 10 taxpayers. An annual
census ensured proper records for taxation and military service.10 Without
wheeled vehicles, writing, or iron metallurgy, the Inca governed an empire
that—because of its slopes, terraces, mountains, and valleys—covered far
greater distances than the condor flies. It is estimated that the Inca built
about 25,000 miles of roads.

Inca taste for organization and centralization contrasts with the loosely
organized conquest states of Middle America. The Mayan civilization

actually comprised a number of relatively independent cities or city-states
separated by jungle and distance. The Aztec state was intentionally not
integrated since Aztec sacrificial rites required a continual source of
captives from nearby enemies.

States and Peoples of North America

There were no large Native American empires in the area of what is today
the United States and Canada—no large bureaucracies or militaristic
imperial states on the scale of the Aztec or Inca. There were states,
however, and chiefdoms, and there were abundant forms of political and
social organization, including stateless societies and alliances of
independent states.

The smaller size of North American political units was due in part to a
lower population density. Population figures for the Americas before 1500
are largely guesswork, but estimates for North America vary from 2 million
to 18 million. The entire Western Hemisphere (North, Middle, and South
America) contained 40 million to 100 million people. The lower population
density in North America corresponded to the widespread use of slash-and-
burn agriculture, especially in the vast woodlands east of the Mississippi
and to the limits of the dry and desert lands of the west. Nevertheless, there
were areas where hunter-gatherers created large, settled tribal communities
of significant sophistication (most notably along the rich fisheries of the
Pacific coast) as well as agricultural areas where people created cities
without irrigation or plows and draught animals.

Peoples and Places. One of the reasons why it is difficult to know the
size of the precontact American populations is that many Native Americans
were wiped out by European diseases after 1492. North American estimates
pose an additional problem. English colonists in North America created a
mythology that they had come to an empty or “virgin land,” largely because
they wanted to settle their families permanently in the “new world.”
Spaniards in Middle and South America were generally more interested in
converting souls and exploiting labor. North American settlers had a greater
interest in removing the Indian population—physically and mentally—
making later accountings more difficult.

Compared to Middle and South America, North America, at least east of
the Mississippi, is a land where the original people are neither seen nor
heard. In Mexico, Central America, and most of South America, Indian
peoples are everywhere. In much of the United States, outside of Indian

reservations, most Indian faces are those of Mexican or Central and South
American immigrants. But the signs of a previous habitation line every
street and highway as if they were still the Indian trails they frequently
trace. The names of 23 states, four Great Lakes, and thousands of rivers,
lakes, mountains, and cities in the United States and thousands more in
Canada (named after kanata, an Iroquoian word for “settlement”) are Indian
words. Dozens of the hundreds of Indian languages once spoken are still in
use. Among those that are extinct, many of their words are still used
without any idea of their origins. In much of North America, we build our
lives in a haunted landscape.

Rich Pacific Fisheries. The first Americans probably settled along the
Pacific coast of what is today Canada and the United States after crossing
the frozen Bering Strait from Asia. There they encountered the same sort of
ideal conditions that others were soon to find farther south along the Pacific
coast of Peru. Ocean currents ensured moderate temperatures and abundant
fish and wildlife. Salmon (rather than anchovies), seals, and whales
provided an almost unlimited source of protein, and (unlike Peru) the banks
of the Pacific were rich in animals and plants. Women harvested pine nuts
and acorns and ground them into meal. Men harvested abundant forests to
build wooden houses and canoes. These peoples enjoyed a comfortable
material life, with specialists and chiefs and even slaves who were captured
from foreign tribes and used for household duties. Although they grew no
crops (except for tobacco), the hunter-gatherers of the Pacific coast reached
population sizes and densities that were normally possible only with
agriculture. Before 1500, the population of the California coast alone was
about 300,000. In Santa Barbara, Chu-mash villages numbered more than

Farther north on the Pacific coast, the Chinook, Kwakiutl, Nootka, and
other Wakashan speakers enjoyed such affluence that they gave it away in a
festival called the potlatch. To mark important events, like the erection of a
totem pole or the death of an important elder, the host built a special house
for the event. He designed his guest list with special care not to embarrass
or slight. Guests of highest rank might be given slaves or large copper
shields (each worth five slaves). Those of less rank might receive carved
boxes, utensils, tools, or the valuable blankets made of mountain goat hair
acquired in trade from the Athabaskan Indians of the northern interior.
Hundreds of clan members would enjoy the feast: salmon, haddock, and

shellfish, all dipped in the everpresent smelt sauce, and numerous varieties
of berries. Following the meal, they would share tobacco, sing songs,
dance, and receive the gifts. Sometimes the host ceremonially destroyed
some of his wealth as a sign of his generosity (and power). Many guests
stayed overnight before returning home in their canoes, which the host had
loaded with more food for the journey.11

Pueblos of the Southwest. Nature was not as kind to the dry lands of what
became the southwestern United States. Nevertheless, the Indians of New
Mexico, Arizona, and southern Colorado developed agriculture about 3,000
years ago as the northern area of a zone of farmers that stretched deep into
Mexico. They channeled light rain and generous rivers into irrigation canals
where they grew beans, squash, and corn. During the relatively well
watered period between 500 and 1200, the ancestors of today’s Navaho, the
Anasazi, created dense, well-protected pueblo settlements on highlands like
Mesa Verde (Colorado) and veritable “apartment houses” for cliff dwellers
at places like Chaco Canyon (New Mexico). From there, they traded with
the Great Plains Indians, who hunted bison (without horses), and with
Indian miners of turquoise. Sometime after 1200, however, these pueblos
were abandoned. There may have been conflict with new migrants from the
north (where the Ana-sazi had themselves originated), but the causes
probably had more to do with the return of dry climate conditions. As
pueblos were abandoned, the descendants of the Anasazi moved, many to
the Rio Grande valley, where they became part of new communities like the
Hopi. A Spanish expedition to a Hopi town in 1582 found that the Indians
of the Southwest had reclaimed a satisfying standard of living:

A thousand Indians greeted us with fine earthen jars full of water, and with rabbits, venison,
tortillas, beans, cooked calabashes, corn and pine nuts, so that heaps of food were left over.12

Eastern Woodland Farmers. From the eastern edge of the Great Plains to
the Allegheny Mountains, vast watered woodlands with numerous rivers
and streams created a riot of plant and animal life. Much of this area from
the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico drained into the Mississippi River,
bringing melted mountain snows and light loam silt soil to the fertile
American Bottom of the Mississippi valley. The Mississippi drainage,
including its tributaries like the Ohio and Missouri, covered almost a
million and a quarter square miles (about the size of India).13 The

Mississippi alone extended almost 4,000 miles, about the length of the
Amazon and the Nile, but since it ran almost entirely through a temperate
climate zone and woodlands (instead of tropical forest or desert), the entire
drainage could support a large population. The numbers elude us, but
certainly the majority of Indians north of the Rio Grande lived in this area.
Spaniards who accompanied Hernando De Soto’s expedition from Florida
to Tennessee to Arkansas and Texas in the 1540s described thousands of
towns and villages.

The “Great River,” as the Indian name accurately labeled it, provided for
permanent human settlements, fishing, hunting, and gathering as early as
4,500 years ago, not too long after permanent settlements were established
in the other great river valley civilizations on the Euphrates, Nile, Indus,
and Yellow rivers. The Mississippian culture that developed in North
America was, in fact, the only river valley civilization in the Americas.
Whereas the other great river valleys of the world grew by domesticating
plants and animals, the Americans of the Mississippi woodlands (like their
settled cousins on the Pacific coast) were settled hunter-gatherers. They
domesticated local grasses and gourds (mainly for the containers) and
sometime after 400 began to plant Mexican corn, but not until after around
900 did corn and beans become a staple in their diet and the yeast for their
population growth.

We might even speak of an urban revolution as early as 4,500 years ago,
although some historians are hesitant to use the term without evidence of
bronze or written languages. The earliest Indian settlement, dating from
about 2500 BCE, already contained the distinctive feature of Mississippian
settlements for the next 4,000 years: earthen mounds built as platforms for
elite residences, temples, ceremonies, or animal-shaped mounds that
communicated some sort of collective identity to strangers or the gods. At
least 10,000 of these mounds could be found in the Ohio River drainage
from the classical age of 500 BCE to 400 CE. All these communities
displayed the elements of advanced chiefdoms. There were significant class
differences between elites and commoners and a number of artisans and
specialists who made pottery, hammered copper sheets, sewed clothing and
wove baskets

The greatest distribution of mound-building settlements was created
between 700 and 1200. The most important of these, Cahokia, near modern
St. Louis, had many of the characteristics of cities despite the absence of

writing or bronze. Cahokia contained 10,000 to 30,000 people and was
larger than medieval London, the equivalent of Toltec Tula in Mexico. It
was the largest city north of the Rio Grande before the eighteenth century.
Cahokia had almost a continental trading reach, bringing it shells from
Florida, copper from the Great Lakes, metals from the Appalachian and
Rockies, ocean fish from the Gulf of Mexico, and bison from the Great
Plains. In addition to corn and various kinds of beans from Mexico,
Cahokia adopted Mexican ball games and astronomical interests. A ring of
poles organized to chart the position of the sun, chart the seasons, and
predict eclipses occupied a sacred site near the most important mounds and
central plaza of Cahokia: “the American Woodhenge,” archaeologists call
it, because of its similarity to the ancient “Stonehenge” monolith of Britain.

Americas and the World

The history of the Americas offers a pristine parallel to the history of the
Afro-Eurasian world. The peopling of the Americas was a much longer
process than the repeopling of inner Africa, which occurred only in the past
2,000 years. By 2,000 years ago, some American civilizations were already
able to point to distant ancestors, but none of those had experienced contact
with the Old World in thousands of years.

In the Americas, the agricultural and the urban revolutions occurred
independently of the Eastern Hemisphere. They produced different crops,
raised fewer animals, and were limited by less adaptable technologies of
writing, metalworking, and transportation. Yet the people of the Americas
repeated some of the same processes that the peoples of Afro-Eurasia

Americans also developed their own networks of interaction. The use of
bows and arrows came from the north to Middle America, where the Aztecs
rejected them since they needed to take live captives for sacrificial rites.
Middle American corn spread south and north. South American copper,
silver, and gold traveled up the Pacific coast to Central America, where it
was adopted by the Toltec and later Middle American states. People from
the Amazon sailed into the open sea and colonized the islands of the
Caribbean. The great number of American languages underscores the
diversity of peoples, the remoteness of some settlements, and the huge size

of the Western Hemisphere. Nevertheless, crops, cultures, deities, social
systems, and ball games spread far from home.

The World of the Pacific
The Pacific Ocean covers a third of the world. For most of history, its
10,000 islands were unoccupied, but human settlement of Australia and
New Guinea began soon after humans began to migrate out of Africa. Most
of the further islands were colonized in a final wave of human settlement
that began about 3,500 years ago.

Islands and Settlers

Recently, a team of anthropologists on the Indonesian island of Flores
startled the world with the discovery of the skeletons of what appears to be
an entirely different human species, which they are calling Homo florensis.
At this writing, scientists disagree as to whether these three-foot-tall people,
who lived on Flores as recently as 13,000 years ago, are descendants of
Homo erectus who traveled from Africa to Asia over a million years ago,
arriving on Flores about 840,000 years ago, or the descendants of later
Homo sapiens. In either case, however, all the adult skeletons of H.
florensis are much smaller than their African ancestors.

Islands. Scientists explain this apparent shrinking of H. florensis—at the
same time they were getting smarter, learning to make stone tools—as a
process of evolution that sometimes takes place on islands. Given a limited
environment, as the human population on the isolated island grew to the
carrying capacity of the island, nature selected downsizing as a coping
mechanism. The same thing happened to the large elephants that swam to
the island: their descendants reduced to the size of cows.

Islands do not always induce shrinking, however. Sometimes an enclosed
environment that offers abundant food and no natural predators can induce
a species to become giants. This explains how the carnivorous lizards that
came on natural rafts to the neighboring island of Komodo attained the size
to be known as the Komodo dragons.

Islands are natural laboratories that stretch the boundaries of more
interactive worlds. As such, they can sometimes tell us more than vast
continents about what nature and humans can do.

First Wave. If H. erectus ventured into the Pacific or Flores a million
years ago, we have no other evidence. The first wave of H. sapiens did not
arrive before the last 100,000 to 50,000 years. This was the period of the
last ice-age glaciation when the thickening ice reduced ocean levels as
much as 100 yards below today’s. As a result, Southeast Asia was
connected to most of Indonesia; Australia, which was not too far away, was
connected to New Guinea and Tasmania. The settlement of this island
continent would have required migration by sea from the Afro-Eurasian
landmass (or Indonesian islands). In fact, there is some evidence on islands
off the coast of India that Africans used rafts or boats even before getting to
Southeast Asia and Australia.

After the glaciers melted and the oceans rose, these first modern human
settlers became three different peoples on New Guinea, Australia, and
Tasmania. The people of Australia and Tasmania remained hunter-
gatherers. The Tasmanians seem to have lost the ability to make rafts or
canoes with their Stone Age tools. New Guinea also lacked animals that
could be domesticated for food, but the people of the world’s second-largest
island, alone of the three first-wave settlers, became farmers. Their most
important crop turned out to be domesticated sugar, which is today the
world’s largest crop by tonnage (more than the next two—wheat and corn—
combined). The people of New Guinea also raised banana and coconut trees
and two root crops: yams and taro. We do not know if these staples of the
Pacific were first domesticated in New Guinea or in Southeast Asia. In any
case, this New Guinean cultural complex, along with the domesticated
chicken, pig, and dog that Austronesian travelers brought from Southeast
Asia, nurtured a large and dense population in New Guinea, especially in
highland areas where seafood was less available.

Australia. Australia was a less suitable candidate for domestication,
especially after the first settlers killed off the large birds and mammals
(including the many marsupials or pouched mammals related to the
kangaroo). No native plants or animals were domesticated by the
Australians (although sometime after 1500 BCE they adopted the
Austronesian dog, or “dingo”). Australian soils were not very fertile, and
much of the continent was dry desert. Australian aborigines hunted and

gathered because few native plants were edible or easy to domesticate.
Even today, modern scientific methods have led to the domestication of
only one native plant—the macadamia nut. Nevertheless, Australian hunter-
gatherers developed certain sophisticated ways of increasing the yield of
their environment. Periodically, they would burn off thickets and
underbrush, stampeding available animals to be captured but also, after the
burn-off, reviving grasses that would attract future prey. In addition,
Australians were one of the hunting-gathering people in the world to make
use of water irrigation in ways that increased the food supply but did not
yield to agriculture or settled villages. In this case, they channeled water to
raise and capture eels. Still, they never developed agriculture despite the
fact that they traded with the agriculturalists of New Guinea and the
agriculturalists of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi (Celebes), some of
whom even had iron after 600 CE.

Austronesian and Polynesian Migrations

Austronesian Migrations. Long after the first settlers arrived 30,000 to
50,000 years ago, their descendants were joined by a much later second
wave of agriculturalists. Around 4,000 years ago, these people came from
China to Taiwan and the Philippines and then to Southeast Asia, where they
cultivated coconut and banana trees, yams, and taro root and domesticated
chickens, pigs, and dogs. After 1600 BCE, these Austronesian peoples
brought their tropical plants, domesticated animals, sailing skills, and
pottery to Indonesia, New Guinea, and the nearby islands of the Pacific.
Over the next 2,000 years, their descendants, whom we call the
Polynesians, ventured out to colonize the unoccupied islands of the deep
Pacific: the island groups of Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, then north to the Hawaiian
Islands, southwest to New Zealand (and later Madagascar), and as far east
as Easter Island. This was one of the epic migrations of world history. Once
they were east of the islands near New Guinea, they traveled in open waters
to unknown islands where, presumably, no humans had been before.

Polynesian Migrations. Like the Bantu, the Polynesians used a system of
primogeniture, by which only first sons inherited land and authority and
encouraged younger sons to strike out on their own in search of new land to
grow crops and raise their families. Traditions of seafaring, honed by

generations of short voyages, enabled them to break out into the open
ocean. From their Austronesian ancestors, they had learned to attach two or
three canoes to a single platform, making it less likely to be capsized by
heavy winds or waves. They learned how to sail against the prevailing
easterly winds of the southern side of the equator by waiting for the
occasional gust from the west. They read the dazzling nighttime sky like a
road map. They learned to spot land birds far from shore and interpret
clouds, debris, and the color of the water to find islands too distant to be

Centuries later, a European sailor marveled at their ability to sail the open
ocean without compass or charts:

He sees whether he has the wind aft, or on one or other beam, or on the quarter, or is close-
hauled: he knows, further, whether there is a following sea, a head sea, a beam sea, or if it is
on the bow or the quarter. . . . Should the night be cloudy as well, they regulate their course by
the same signs; and, since the wind is apt to vary in direction more than the swell does, they
have their pennants, made of feathers and palmetto bark, to watch its changes and trim sail. . . .
What impressed me most in two Polynesians whom I carried from Tahiti to Raiatea was that
every evening or night, they predicted the weather we should experience on the following day,
as to wind, calms, rainfall, sunshine, sea, and other points, about which they never turned out

to be wrong: a foreknowledge worthy to be envied, for, in spite of all that our navigators and
cosmographers have observed and written about the subject, they have not mastered this

The Polynesians had been farmers before they were sailors, so they
loaded their boats with the seeds they would need in their new homes—
breadfruit, coconut palms, taro, yam, and banana—and their domesticated
animals—chickens, pigs, and dogs. As each generation sailed farther, they
adapted to new environments and domesticated new foods. In New
Zealand, only the northern tip had a tropical climate similar to that of
equatorial islands. They were able to move south to cooler areas when they
learned to plant the South American sweet potato, which had crossed the
Pacific either on natural rafts or on Polynesian ships.15

Language and Culture

Austronesian-Polynesian colonization represented the greatest expansion of
a people, culture, and language family until the expansion of the Europeans
that began 500 years ago. The Polynesian stage of this migration into the far
Pacific (unlike the later Europeans or the Polynesians’ Bantu
contemporaries in Africa) was to unoccupied lands. Consequently, they
could transplant their culture intact. They confronted no alternatives and did

not have to meld, compromise, or adapt their own ways with those of
others. One result is the striking similarities of Polynesian language and
material culture across the vast Pacific, from Tonga to Tahiti and New
Zealand to Hawaii. Some of their words and customs—like tattoo and taboo
—have since entered the common culture of humanity. Their common
culture was a testament to the swiftness of their colonization of truly virgin

The first inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere also colonized an
unoccupied land,16 but the land itself was enormous, the tools of these
ancient hunters were less sophisticated, and the process of settlement took
much longer. Consequently, the Americas were more culturally diverse;
there were far more languages, especially in mountain areas like western
Mexico and remote areas like the southern tip of South America.

The degree to which the Polynesians created a single cultural sphere can
be seen by comparing their achievement in the Pacific with their own roots.
There had been many different cultures and languages in the Austro-nesian
homelands—Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaya, and Indonesia. Indeed, the
areas that Polynesians did not settle remained highly diverse. New Guinea
alone had 700 languages, a significant portion of the world’s total.

Expansions like the Bantu and Austrone-sian created common cultures
very much the way the expansion of Indo-Europeans and Eurasian steppe
nomads had. Austronesian peoples shared a common table of foods, similar
double-hulled canoes, a pantheon of gods, rituals of harvest, sailing,
sacrifice, tattooing, and an architectural style of stilt houses and outdoor
platform altars. But Austronesians lacked horses (or other draft or
transportation animals), and they lacked writing. Their Polynesian
descendants lacked iron as well. The daring catamarans of the Pacific
carried a limited range of plants and animals to islands already limited to
the flotsam seedlings of Asia. Unlike the other great migrations of the
world, the Polynesian adventurers sailed to a world of diminished variety.
They found islands of paradise, but as history was increasingly shaped by
interaction, they sailed away from the main event. They conquered the
world’s greatest sea but with a ticket stamped “One Way: Pacific Only.”

Ecology and Colonization

The colonization of new ecological environments created special
challenges. The ocean did not contain an inexhaustible number of
uninhabited islands. The limits of settlement were reached in Hawaii in the
north, Easter Island in the east, New Zealand in the south, and Madagascar
in the west. To travel farther meant open ocean or settled continents. How
did the colonizers adapt to limits? Inevitably, populations increased,
especially on the outer islands of Polynesian seafaring. Lean boat crews of
discoverers matured into complex, stratified societies of settlers. On the
Hawaiian Islands, the descendants of the first settlers created complicated
hierarchies of commoners, nobles, and royals. Complex chiefdoms,
imperial ambitions, and religious rites created levels of interisland contact
and organization that ran counter to the initial impulse of sailing off to the
sunrise for new beginnings.

Hawaii, Tahiti, and Tonga were probably the most stratified complex
chiefdoms, especially after the thirteenth century. Typically in Hawaii,
chiefs claimed descent from one of the “first-boat” founding settlers,
exercised both political and religious authority, and enjoyed privileges that
were “taboo” for lesser nobility or commoners. Lesser-stratified societies,
like that of the Maori of New Zealand (Aoteoroa), were governed by the
leaders of subtribes who also traced their ancestry to first-boat arrivals but
did not always combine political and religious authority and made decisions
in consultation with the rest of the subtribe assembled in the sacred square,
the marae.

With the growth of populations and more complex societies, the balance
between people and nature tipped precariously. In the Maori colony that
became New Zealand, species of flightless birds were hunted to extinction
by people (and stowaway rats) who found them easy prey. Some societies
achieved a better balance. The settlers of two of the Cook Islands, Manihiki
and Rakahanga, lived together on one of the islands while they let the other
remain fallow in order to replenish vegetation and fisheries. Then, after a
certain number of years, they moved together to the other island and
reversed the process.17

The story of Easter Island bodes less well.18 Rapa Nui (Easter Island was
the name given by the Europeans to mark the day of their discovery) lies
2,300 miles off the coast of South America. It is 1,500 miles from the
nearest Polynesian island. It was the end of the great migration across the
Pacific. An island full of palm trees waved to the first Polynesians 1,500

years ago. Rapa Nui offered the colonists a feast of nature—abundant
vegetation and wildlife and a rich soil for Polynesian crops. The population
grew to about 10,000, but as islanders cut down trees for farming and
housing, the rootless soil washed into the sea, and eventually farming was
limited to the areas where a few remaining trees broke the wind. Settlers cut
trees for rollers so that they could move the huge sculptured heads that
served as sentinels from quarry to cliff. The heads can still be seen peering
out into the sea, but the people of Rapa Nui sculpted themselves into a
corner from which they could not escape. Fifteen hundred miles from
anywhere, in one of the most isolated parts of the planet, they managed to
destroy the last tree and, with it, their food and even the material to build a
raft to leave. The population crashed in famine and war. Today, the last
sculptured heads still lie near the quarry, ancient stone glyphs and a system
of writing that developed at the time of first European contact cry out for
interpretation, and the last inhabitants survive on food and tourists flown in
fresh daily.

The Advantages of Parallel Worlds
The tragedy of Rapa Nui was that the last Polynesians inhabited but one
world. At the easternmost tip of the Pacific triangle of settlement, there
seemed to be no place else to go. Of course, we all inhabit only one world,
and (at least given foreseeable technology) there is nowhere else for us to
go (in any significant numbers).

The Lessons of Parallel Worlds

Even when we cannot go elsewhere, we can still learn from others who
have. The Polynesians who settled closest to their Asian origins had far
more opportunity to learn from others than did the people of Rapa Nui. A
richly studied Polynesian people on one of the Solomon Islands, which was
populated mainly by other descendants of their mutual Austronesian
ancestors, proudly proclaimed “we the Tiko-pia”19 do things this way at

every opportunity, but only when they became aware that other people did
things differently.

The opportunity to learn that there are other worlds where people do
things differently is one of the great advantages of studying history. What
the Tikopia could do face-to-face we can do from a distance.

What are the lessons we can draw from the three worlds that ran
independent of but parallel to the world of Afro-Eurasia in the thousands of
years before the world became one?

Lessons of Similarities. That there were parallel worlds at all is a lesson
in how humans share the same variety of possibilities and move along
similar paths. The parallel worlds of inner Africa, the Americas, and the
Pacific display the same range of activities, institutions, and ideas that we
found in Afro-Eurasia during the same period. The processes of change
were also similar. In all “four worlds,” hunter-gatherers increasingly
became farmers and farmers learned to be more productive, usually
choosing to live in more complex and densely populated societies.
Everyone did not develop cities, writing, and bronze or iron metallurgy, but
generally when people became aware of these developments, they sought
them out and adopted them for themselves.

We have reflected on the similarities in the growth of social classes,
elites, chiefdoms, monarchies, and empires. Kings became more powerful
as their realms expanded. They took more wives, humiliated more subjects,
demanded more grave mates, and rationalized more sacrificial offerings to
more demanding gods (often themselves). Whether or not soldiers replaced
priests as the dominant class entrusted with preserving the material
advantage of the privileged, both classes prospered in complex societies. So
did fathers. City-and state-based societies tended to be more patriarchal
than agricultural societies. West African and American agriculturalists were
often matrilineal. In the process of the Bantu expansion, inner African
societies become more patrilineal. Native American city societies were
more patrilineal. In the Pacific, the early inhabitants of Southeast Asia,
including Malaya, and the Austronesian ancestors of the Polynesians tended
to be matrilineal. Polynesian society was patrilineal.

Similarities or Connections. Travelers and amateur archaeologists have
frequently speculated on the similarity of Egyptian and Mayan pyramids, a
resemblance that has led some to imagine ancient travels across the Atlantic
or Pacific. But similarity does not mean connection. We know that Egyptian

and Mesopotamian societies were closely linked, but the Mesopotamian
step pyramid, or ziggurat, was different from the Egyptian pyramid, and it
performed a different function: temple rather than tomb. Mayan pyramids
were also temples, as were those of the Aztecs and Incas. Ancient peoples
built templelike structures for other purposes as well. Nor were they limited
to city societies. North American farmers from the Mississippi to Georgia
built pyramidshaped earthen mounds, although most built rounded mounds.
Polynesians built pyramid structures, although most built simple platform
altars. Rather than assume connections where no evidence of contacts
exists, we might see the building of temples, tombs, mounds, platforms, and
pyramids as efforts to communicate with sky gods, exalt certain elites, or
reflect the power, shape, or ideals of the builders and benefactors of urban
and complex societies.

Lessons of Differences. The differences that occurred within these broad
similarities can tell us even more. The fishing villages of the Pacific coast
show that even hunter-gatherers can establish settled sophisticated societies.
The people of the American Southwest and Mississippi show the upper
limits of social organization possible without writing and metals. The
Pacific Islanders show how much can be done with only a few seeds and a
shipload of grit.

The forceful role that pastoralists played in Eurasia is echoed by the
Nilotic peoples of Africa but absent from the Americas and Polynesia. The
almost complete absence of animals for transportation in the Americas and
Polynesia prevented the dynamic synthesis we see from the clash of the two
lifestyles elsewhere. But it does not seem to have prevented the
development of patriarchy or military powers in the Americas or Pacific

If one conclusion seems inescapable, it is that these parallel worlds were
not ignited by clashes with others—pastoralists or settled people—the way
the people of central Eurasia were. The fact that they went their own way,
colonizing empty or underpopulated lands, allowed them to develop the
unique propensities of their own cultures but kept them away from center
stage. But there is a profound irony here. The separate development that
was their historical weakness when Eurasia came calling is also what makes
them so valuable to the rest of the world today. Just as plants that exist
nowhere else can provide the world with a cure to a global scourge, the
variety of human cultures testify to the breadth of our possibilities.

Recently, for instance, linguistic scholars recognized that, probably
uniquely in the world, the Aymara speakers of the Andes think of the past
as in front of them and the future (since it is unknown) as behind them.20

Thus, a presumed human universal can be put to rest because a parallel
world is around to tell us it need not be so. Who knows what possibilities
such new ideas could help us back into?

The Strength of Parallel Worlds

We have seen how the story of human history might be summarized as
100,000 years of global dispersal followed by 1,000 or 2,000 years of
reconnection. That reconnection and even reintegration has been especially
profound in the past few hundred years, increasing in intensity even in
recent decades. The benefits in communication, coordination, and
innovation are enormous. But one result is increasing sameness. Like the
early agriculturalists who chose a few wild plants from hundreds of
thousands of candidates in the wild, we throw off old cultures, languages,
ancient beliefs, and customs like old clothes. And once they are discarded,
they cannot be retrieved. We lose the capacity to try on alternatives. Parallel
worlds provide alternatives at virtually every step. The irony, of course, is
that their value is in their accessibility, and that is also the cause of their

Suggested Readings
Adams, Richard, E. W. Ancient Civilizations of the New World. Boulder,

CO: Westview Press, 1997. A good introduction to the Americas.
Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New

York: Viking, 2005. Good popular discussion of the environmental
theme, including an Easter Island case study.

Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800.
Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002. Good introduction to
history of inner Africa.

Finney, Ben R. Voyage of Rediscovery: A Cultural Odyssey through
Polynesia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Great read
that shows how Polynesians sailed from Hawaii to New Zealand—by
doing it.

Niane, D. T. Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali. Translated by G. D. Pickett.
London: Longman, 1965. The great West African classic.

Shaffer, Lynda Norene. Native Americans before 1492: The Moundbuilding
Centers of the Eastern Woodlands. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1992.
Excellent introduction to Native Americans of the eastern United States
before Columbus.

1. Lonnie G. Thompson et al., “Kilimanjaro Ice Core Records: Evidence

of Holocene Climate Change in Tropical Africa,” Science 298 (October 18,
2002): 591, http://www-bprc.mps.ohio-state.edu/Icecore/589 .

2. Christopher Ehret, An African Classical Age: Eastern and Southern
Africa in World History 1000 B.C to A.D. 400 (Charlottesville: University
Press of Virginia, 1998), 296-97.

3. D. T. Niane, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, trans. G. D. Pickett
(London: Longman, 1965), 62.

4. John Iliffe, Africans: The History of a Continent (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1995), 75.

5. Christopher Ehret, The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800
(Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002), 255.

6. Swahili was a written language using an Arabic orthography with the
earliest extant writings dating to the eighteenth century.

7. Johan Goudsblom, Eric Jones, and Stephen Mennell, The Course of
Human History: Economic Growth, Social Process, and Civilization
(Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe), 1996, esp. 31-62.

8. The phrase is the title of Jared Diamond’s popular work about Western
dominance generally. See Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose
to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005). Of course Spanish iron was
not steel.


9. This “maritime foundations” hypothesis was presented in Michael
Mosely, The Maritime Foundations of Andean Civilization (Menlo Park,
CA: Cummings, 1975). See also the author’s The Incas and Their Ancestors
(New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000).

10. The system is described in Richard E. W. Adams, Ancient
Civilizations of the New World (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997), 120.

11. Mary Giraudo Beck, Potlatch: Native Ceremony and Myth on the
Northwest Coast (Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Books, 1993).

12. Adapted from Stephen Plog, Ancient Peoples of the American
Southwest (London: Thames and Hudson, 1997), 170-71.

13. Lynda Norene Shaffer, Native Americans before 1492: The
Moundbuilding Centers of the Eastern Woodlands (Armonk, NY: M. E.
Sharpe, 1992).

14. B. G. Corney, ed., The Quest and Occupation of Tahiti by Emissaries
of Spain during the Years 1772-6, 3 vols. (London: Hakluyt Society, 1913-
1919), 2:284-87. The account is from the journal of Andia Y. Varela, who
visited in Tahiti in 1774, and is slightly modernized.

15. D. E. Yen, in The Sweet Potato and Oceania, Bernice P. Bishop
Museum Bulletin, 236 (Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1974), argues that
Polynesians sailed to South America about 1000 CE and brought the sweet
potato back.

16. Silvia Gonzalez, a Mexican anthropologist at John Moores University
in Liverpool, England, most recently argued that early Australians sailed
across the Pacific and were the first settlers in the Americas, citing stories
of a “long-faced” people on the Pacific coast of Mexico who were wiped
out by the Spanish conquest (Reuters, September 6, 2004).

17. Ben Finney, “The Other One-Third of the Globe,” Journal of World
History 5, no. 2 (1994): 284.

18. See Diamond, Collapse, 79-119.
19. “We the Tikopia” is the title of Raymond Firth’s classic study of this

people. Published in 1936, it was one of nine books he wrote on the

20. James Gorman, “Does This Mean People Turned Off, Tuned Out and
Dropped In?,” New York Times, June 27, 2006, F3, commenting on Rafael
E. Nunez and Eve Sweetser, “With the Future behind Them: Convergent
Evidence from Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic

Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time,” Cognitive Science 30 (2006):

Empires and Encounters
in the Early Modern Era


Common Patterns across the World
Patterns of Expansion

Premodern Connections
Early Modern Empires
Gunpowder Revolution

Patterns of Internal Change
Population Growth
Market-Based Economies
Religious and Intellectual Ferment

Islamic Expansion: Second Wave
The Ottoman Empire

Ottomans and the Arabs
Ottomans and the Persians
Ottomans and the West

The Mughal Empire
Muslims and Hindus
An Expanding Economy

The Songhay Empire
Religious Vitality and Political Decline

An Islamic World
Decline of Islamic Empires

China Outward Bound
China and the World

The Tribute System
New Forms of Chinese Expansion

A Maritime Empire Refused: The Ming Dynasty Voyages
A Road Not Taken

Comparing Chinese and European Voyages
Power and Religion
Differing Motives
Differing Legacies

China’s Inner Asian Empire
Manchus Move West
Empires of Many Nations
Consequences of Empire

China and Taiwan
The Making of a Russian Empire

Mother Russia
“Soft Gold”: An Empire of Furs

Siberia and Beyond
The Impact of Empire

Russia and Europe
Looking Westward
Peter the Great
The Cost of Reform

Russia and the World
Parallel Worlds

The World of Inner Africa
The Amerindian World
The World of Oceania

Conclusion: Durability of Empire

T HE SINGLE most important historical fact memorized by
generations of students not too long ago was “in fourteen hundred
ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Today, the name

“Columbus” may not ring as loudly as it did then. We have learned to
substitute words like “encounter” for “discovery,” and no one imagines
anymore that American Indians were lost (or that they came from India).
But 1492 is still the date to remember—or 1500 or thereabouts: because it
was in the wake of Columbus and other European voyagers to the Western
Hemisphere that the world became one. In bridging the ocean barriers that
had long separated large segments of humankind, Europe’s “discoveries”
had profound consequences for world history. Some were bleak: the
decimation of American Indians and the enslavement of millions of
Africans in the Western Hemisphere. And some neutral or positive: the
construction of whole new societies in the Americas, the modern growth in
world population, and, indirectly, the industrial revolution. European
oceanic voyages marked the initiation of a genuinely global network of
communication and exchange and the beginning of the densely connected
world that we commonly define as “modern.” Thus, historians often refer to
the early centuries of this era, roughly from 1450 to 1750, as the “early
modern” period of world history.

We will pick up the European part of the story in the next chapter, but
first we must set it in a larger context. To put it simply, that context is that
the fragmented world of the Middle Ages was rapidly becoming unified in
other regions around 1500, before and after Columbus and other Europeans
set sail across the Atlantic and the Pacific and joined the two together. Even
before the European maritime voyages began, Chinese ships had sailed as
far as Africa, and large land empires were established across much of Asia
and sub-Saharan Africa. In short, the modern world began before—and
outside of—Europe.

Common Patterns
across the World

Europe expanded after 1500 into a world that was already coming together
into a few large empires. Without them European expansion would have
been meaningless; in fact, it probably would not have happened.

Patterns of Expansion

Premodern Connections. Nor were European countries the first
expansive societies. Polynesians had been sailing and settling the wide
Pacific for at least 1,000 years. The huge Roman, Arab, and Mongol
empires had earlier brought together very diverse populations. Merchants
and monks had traded across the Eurasian “silk roads,” the Sahara Desert,
and the Indian Ocean since the time of the Romans. Buddhism, Christianity,
and Islam had spread far beyond their places of origin. Islam in particular
gave rise to a world civilization that joined parts of Asia, Africa, and
Europe in a single zone of communication and exchange. Technologies
such as papermaking, gunpowder, and the compass; foods such as
processed sugar, bananas, and citrus fruits; and diseases such as the plague,
or Black Death—all these had diffused widely, generally moving from the
eastern end of the Eurasian network to the west. So Europeans did not begin
the process of joining the world’s separate peoples and civilizations. Their
maritime voyages and empires marked another stage in a long history of
cross-cultural encounter and deepening interactions of a shrinking world.

Early Modern Empires. Furthermore, at the same time that Europeans
ventured overseas, other empires were also taking shape. During much of
the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example, while Europeans were
taking the initiative in the Atlantic, they were very much on the defensive to
the east, where the powerful Ottoman Empire was vigorously expanding its
territory and spreading Islam. At the same time, yet another Muslim power,
the Mughal Empire, was bringing most of India under Islamic rule, while
the Songay Empire briefly unified a large part of West Africa in a state
dominated by Muslim elites. Farther east, in the fifteenth century, the
Chinese sent into the Indian Ocean fleets of treasure ships that dwarfed the
slightly later European caravels. By the eighteenth century, China was
constructing a huge inner Asian empire, doubling its territory in the process,
and had extensively settled the neighboring island of Taiwan. Russians,

beginning around 1550, were building the world’s largest empire across
Siberia to the Pacific.

For native peoples and cultures, these empires were like bulldozers. Few
had the weapons or disease immunities to resist. Native Americans were not
the only people to be decimated by European diseases and conquest. The
native peoples of Siberia suffered something similar at the hands of
invading Russians, while native Taiwanese were numerically, culturally,
and economically overwhelmed by massive Chinese settlement on their
island. And the Japanese state was expanding into the northern island of
Hokkaido, incorporating the native Ainu people. In the process, the Ainu,
according to a modern historian, “degenerated from a relatively
autonomous people . . . to a miserably dependent people plagued by
dislocation and epidemic disease.”1

Gunpowder Revolution. The creation of these larger states and empires
owed something to the spread of gunpowder technology, which allowed
those who controlled it to batter down previously impregnable fortifications
and to dominate peoples without gunpowder weapons. Originating in
China, this technology was incorporated in the arsenals of China, Japan,
India, the Ottoman Empire, and various European states by the sixteenth
century. But this military revolution played out differently in various parts
of the world. In Japan, for example, gunpowder weapons played an
important role in unifying the country by around 1600 after centuries of
civil war. But then the new rulers of the country, known as the Tokugawa
shogunate, deliberately turned away from the new technology, banning
handguns. Internal peace and external isolation for two centuries made the
gunpowder weapons seem unnecessary and even dangerous. It was within
European states, with their intensely competitive relationships with one
another, where this military revolution developed most fully. Shipboard
cannon gave European fleets a decisive edge over other navies, and the
practice of close-order drill—enabling large numbers of soldiers to move as
a single unit—gave their armies a growing advantages on land. Here was
the beginning of a European military superiority that became increasingly
pronounced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.2

Patterns of Internal Change

Population Growth. The great agrarian civilizations of the early modern
era were growing internally as well as expanding into empires. Population
doubled from roughly 450 million in 1500 to 900 million by 1800. But it
was a highly uneven process. The populations of Europe, India, Japan, and
China grew substantially. China in particular quadrupled its numbers
between 1400 and 1800, from 75 million to around 320 million people, then
about one-third of the world’s population. One cause of this population
growth was due to the European Atlantic empire: the spread of American
crops such as corn and potatoes greatly increased the world’s food supply.
On the other hand, indigenous populations in the Americas dropped
catastrophically in the wake of European conquest and disease, while those
of Africa grew very little as the slave trade drained millions from the

Empires and growing populations also meant vast environmental change
as forests, wetlands, and grasslands gave way to cultivated fields. In several
places, such as Japan and the British Isles, shortages of firewood and its
rising price represented a kind of energy crisis by the eighteenth century.
Japan responded to these pressures by sharply limiting its population
growth during the eighteenth century, by propagating an ideology of
restrained consumption, and by a remarkable program of forest
conservation and the replanting of trees. The British response to a similar
set of environmental pressures was quite different. Far from seeking to limit
growth, the British increasingly shifted from scarce wood to plentiful coal
as a source of energy and aggressively sought new resources in its
worldwide trading connections and colonial empire.3

Market-Based Economies. Another widespread pattern in many parts of
the early modern world lay in a substantial increase in trade, production for
the market, and wage labor, a process known generally as
commercialization. China, India, Japan, and Europe all experienced this
kind of economic change. When China in the 1570s imposed taxes payable
in silver, millions of Chinese were required to sell either their products or
their labor to get the silver necessary for paying taxes. This spurt of
commercialization stimulated international trade throughout East and
Southeast Asia. In India, high-quality cotton textiles, produced in rural
villages, found markets all across the Eastern Hemisphere. At the other end
of Eurasia, a more well known process of commercialization took shape in
the Atlantic Basin and in western European societies as transatlantic

commerce boomed in the wake of European “discoveries” in the Americas.
Europeans in North America and Russians in Siberia stripped the forests of
fur-bearing animals in a voracious search for pelts that brought a good price
on world markets. Although Europeans were becoming more prominent in
global commerce, the center of gravity for the world economy remained
generally in Asia and especially in China throughout the early modern era.
Eighteenth-century China achieved the remarkable feat of adding some 200
million people to its society while raising its standards of living to levels
“almost unmatched elsewhere in the world.”4

European merchants and bankers hitched a ride on this Eurasian trade
network, eventually gaining greater power in European societies than did
their trading partners in Asia. As a consequence, European states, though
smaller than those of Asia, became more commercialized, their
governments more dependent on the class of money people, and their lives
more determined by markets. Some historians have labeled these changes,
especially as they developed in the city-states of Italy and in Dutch Flanders
in the fifteenth century, as the beginning of market-based or capitalist

Cities. Urbanization also accompanied the growth of populations,
economies, and commerce. Cities, of course, have been central to all
agrarian civilizations since ancient times. But the burgeoning of
international commerce in the early modern era stimulated the growth of the
port cities of East and Southeast Asia as well as in western Europe during
the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. India, now unified under the Mughal
Empire, generated at least three cities with populations of half a million
people and a substantial percentage of its total population in urban areas.
Japan was probably the most urbanized region of the early modern world
with the city of Edo (modern Tokyo) boasting more than a million residents
in 1720, probably the largest city in the world and double the size of Paris at
the time.

Religious and Intellectual Ferment. These social and economic changes
provoked some thinkers all across Eurasia to question the received wisdom
of their cultural traditions.5 Perhaps the most far reaching of these
challenges to the old order occurred in Europe. There, Renaissance artists
and writers broke with long-established conventions inherited from the
Middle Ages, the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation challenged both
the authority and the teachings of the Catholic Church, and the scientific

revolution of the seventeenth century projected a whole new approach to
knowledge based on human rationality rather than religious revelation and
painted a very different picture of the cosmos. We turn to these
developments in the next chapter.

But new thinking was not confined to Europe. The Chinese philosopher
Wang Yang-ming (1472–1529) won numerous Confucians to a more
meditative or Buddhist “neo-Confucianism” that was similar to Martin
Luther’s challenge to the Catholic Church. Early modern India also
witnessed serious challenges to established religions. A traditionally
educated northern Indian named Nanak (1469–1504) established a new
faith known as Sikhism that combined elements of Hinduism and Islam and
rejected the religious authority of the Brahmin caste. Declaring that there is
“no Hindu, no Muslim, only God,” Sikhism grew rapidly in northern India
with a special appeal in urban areas and to women. In the late sixteenth
century, the Muslim emperor of Mughal India, Akbar, actively encouraged
religious toleration and sought to develop a new and more inclusive
tradition that he labeled the “divine faith,” drawing on the truths of India’s
many religions.

Continuities. Thus, we can find early signs across much of Eurasia of a
transformation that later generations called “modernity”—deepening
connections among human societies, more powerful states, economic
growth, rising populations, more market exchange, substantial urban
development, and challenges to established cultural traditions. But nowhere
was there a breakthrough to that most distinctive feature of modern life—
industrialization. Most people continued to work in agricultural settings, to
live in male-dominated rural communities, to produce most of the
necessities of life for themselves, and to think about the big questions of life
in religious terms. The primary sources of energy remained human, animal,
wind, and water power, and technological change continued to be slow and
limited. Traditional elites—royal families, landowning aristocracies,
political officials, military men, and tribal chiefs—dominated the world’s
major societies. Not until the nineteenth century did the industrial
revolution, quite unexpectedly, give birth to more fully modern societies
with rapid and sustained economic growth based on continuing
technological innovation, first in Great Britain and then in western Europe,
eastern North America, Japan, and Russia.

These shared processes all across Eurasia remind us that the European
stamp on modernity was hardly apparent when Columbus set sail in 1492.
Nor was it obvious in 1750, when China was still the world’s largest
economy, Japan the most urbanized society, Russia the largest empire, and
Islam the most widespread religion. This chapter, then, highlights the
varying historical trajectories of early modern societies in three major
regions of the Afro-Eurasian world—the Islamic world, China, and Russia
—as the many peoples of the world came into increasing contact with one
another. The next chapter focuses the historical spotlight on the eruption of
western Europeans onto the world stage and the beginning of genuine
“globalization.” How might we compare Islamic, Chinese, Russian, and
western European patterns of expansion? How and why did the relationship
among them change over time? How did European expansion achieve a
global reach while the others remained regional in scope?

Islamic Expansion: Second Wave
For almost 1,000 years before Europeans ventured far into the Atlantic, the
Islamic Middle East was the main crossroads linking African, European,
and Asian societies. For several centuries (roughly 650–950 CE), a Muslim
empire stretched from Spain in the west to the borders of India and China in
the east. Even after this empire fragmented into separate political units, the
religion of Islam and the Arabic language provided some coherence for an
enormous and diverse civilization. The language and culture of the Arabian
Peninsula became dominant in much of North Africa and the Middle East.
And Islam took root well beyond the boundaries of Arab culture,
penetrating the West African interior, the East African coast, and parts of
Central and Southeast Asia, China, and India. Within this vast region, a
distinctly Islamic civilization emerged that drew on, exchanged, and
blended the products, practices, and cultures of Europe, Africa, the Middle
East, and Asia. Pilgrims, scholars, officials, traders, and holy men from
throughout the region traveled the length and breadth of this “abode of
Islam.” Thus, the religion of Islam, wrote a leading historian, “came closer
than any had ever come to uniting all mankind under its ideals.”6

Islamic expansion persisted into the early modern centuries. What
changed around 1500 was the creation of several large and powerful
empires that brought a measure of political unity and stability to an Islamic
world that had been sharply fragmented for at least 500 years: the Ottoman
Empire in the Middle East, the Safavid Empire in Persia (present-day Iran),
and the Mughal Empire in India. All of them were created by Turkish-
speaking invaders from central Asia, all made use of new gunpowder
weapons and built huge armies, and all boasted rich and culturally
sophisticated court life, flourishing economies, and impressive
bureaucracies. Together they brought about a “second flowering” of Islamic
power and culture, comparable only to the early centuries of Islamic

The Ottoman Empire

Chief among these expanding states was the Ottoman Empire. From the
fourteenth through the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Turks advanced from
their base in Anatolia, or Asia Minor, to incorporate much of southeastern
Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Lasting into the early twentieth
century, the Ottoman Empire began as a regime of conquest that sometimes
took the form of frontier raids and skirmishes by military bands called
ghazis, inspired by the warrior culture of central Asian nomads. Later,
formal imperial campaigns mobilized huge armies whose disciplined elite
military units, the janissaries, actively adopted the new technology of
gunpowder into their arsenals and were probably unmatched as a fighting
force at the time. Both forms of Ottoman expansion were justified in terms
of spreading Islam, and together they produced an empire almost
continually at war between the mid-fifteenth and the early seventeenth

Ottomans and the Arabs. In the process of these enormous conquests, the
Ottoman Turks, relative newcomers to Islam, came to occupy a leading
position within the vast community of Muslim societies. Their victories
against Christian powers and especially the taking of Constantinople in
1453 gave them a growing prestige in the Islamic world that eased the
expansion of the empire. Most notably, the Ottoman Empire incorporated
much of the Arab world, where the faith had originated, including the
Islamic holy places of Mecca and Medina. In an age when religious identity
was more important than ethnicity, the Ottoman Empire was widely viewed
as the protector of Muslims—the strong sword of Islam—rather than as
Turks who conquered Arabs. Muslims in Spain, Egypt, central Asia, and
elsewhere appealed to the Ottoman state for support—both military and
political—in their various struggles against infidels and one another.

Ottomans and the Persians. But in one part of the Islamic world, the
Ottoman Empire came into prolonged conflict with fellow Muslims, for to
its eastern border lay the rising Safavid Empire, governing the ancient lands
of Persia. With traditions of imperial rule going back 2,000 years, Persia
was in many ways the cultural center of the Islamic world. Its language,

poetry, architecture, and painting had spread widely within the lands of
Islam. Beginning in 1500, the Safavid dynasty, Turkish in origin, now ruled
this ancient land. Its most famous leader, Shah Abbas I (1587–1629) turned
the country into another prosperous and confident center of Islamic power.
A new capital of Isfahan became a metropolis of 500,000 people with
elaborate gardens and homes for the wealthy, public charities for the poor,
dozens of mosques, religious colleges, public baths, and hundreds of inns
for traveling merchants.

The Ottoman–Safavid rivalry was largely a struggle for influence and
territorial control over the lands that lay between them (modern Iraq), but it

also reflected sharp religious differences. The Ottoman Empire adhered to
the Sunni version of Islam, practiced by most Muslims, but the Safavid
Empire had embraced the Shi’ite variant of the faith. This division in the
Islamic world originated in early disputes over the rightful succession to
Muhammad and came to include disagreements about doctrine, ritual, and
law. Periodic military conflicts erupted for over a century (1534–1639) and
led to violent purges of suspected religious dissidents in both empires.
These religious conflicts within the Islamic world paralleled similar
struggles within Christian Europe as Catholic and Protestant rulers battled
one another over issues of theology and territory in the Thirty Years’ War

Ottomans and the West. In conquering much of the Arab world and in
extended military confrontation with the Safavid Empire, the Ottoman
Empire encountered other Muslim societies. But its expansion into
southeastern Europe represented a cultural encounter of a different kind—
the continuation of a long rivalry between the world of Islam and Christian
European civilization. In 1453, the Ottomans seized Constantinople, the
ancient capital of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire, and by 1529
their armies had advanced to the gates of Vienna in the heart of central
Europe, led by Suleiman (r. 1520–1566), the most famous of all Ottoman
rulers. All southeastern Europe now lay under Muslim control, including
Greece, the heartland of classical Western culture. Furthermore, the
Ottoman Empire controlled the North African coast and battled Europeans
to a naval stalemate in the Mediterranean Sea. Here was an external military
and cultural threat to Christian Europe that resembled the much later threat
of communism in the twentieth century. In both cases, an alien ideology
backed by a powerful state generated great anxiety in the West. One
European ambassador to the Ottoman court in the mid-sixteenth century
summed up the situation in fearful terms:

It makes me shudder to think of what the result of a struggle between such different systems
must be; one of us must prevail and the other be destroyed. . . . On their side is the vast wealth
of their empire, unimpaired resources, experience and practice in arms, a veteran soldiery, an
uninterrupted series of victories, readiness to endure hardships, union, order, discipline, thrift
and watchfulness. On ours are found an empty exchequer, luxurious habits, exhausted
resources, broken spirits, a raw and insubordinate soldiery, and greedy quarrels; . . . and worst
of all, the enemy are accustomed to victory, we to defeat.8

Even in distant England, the writer Richard Knolles in 1603 referred to
“the glorious empire of the Turks, the present terror of the world.” The
Islamic threat in the east was one of the factors that impelled Europeans
westward into the Atlantic in their continuing search for the riches of Asia.

But not all was conflict across the cultural divide of Christendom and the
Islamic world. Within the Ottoman Empire, Christians and other religious
minorities were largely left to govern themselves, and little attempt was
made to force Islam on them. Balkan peasants commonly observed that
Turkish rule was less oppressive than that of their earlier Christian masters.
Furthermore, politics and greed sometimes overcame religious antagonism.
Christian France frequently allied with the Ottoman Empire against their
common enemy, the Austrian Habsburg Empire, and not a few Christian
merchants sold weapons to the Turks, knowing full well that these would be
used against fellow Christians.

The Mughal Empire

If the Ottoman Empire brought a part of Christian Europe under Muslim
control, the Mughal Empire incorporated most of India’s ancient and
complex Hindu civilization within the Islamic world. Established in 1526
by yet another central Asian Turkish group, the Mughal Empire continued a
500-year-old Muslim presence on the South Asian peninsula; created a
prosperous, powerful, and sophisticated state; and deepened the long
encounter between Islamic and Hindu civilizations. For 150 years (1550–
1700), successive Mughal emperors repeatedly went to war until they had
conquered all but the southern tip of a normally fragmented subcontinent,
ruling some 100 million people. In doing so, they laid the foundations for a
united India that was later taken over by the British and after 1947 by the
independent states of India and Pakistan.

Muslims and Hindus. The Mughal Empire represented a remarkable
experiment in multicultural state building. Even more than their Ottoman
counterpart, the Mughal Empire governed a primarily non-Muslim
population and went to considerable lengths to accommodate its Hindu
subjects. Its most famous emperor, Akbar (1556–1605), encouraged
intermarriage between the Mughal aristocracy and leading Hindu families,
ended discriminatory taxes on non-Muslims, patronized Hindu temples and

festivals, and promoted Hindus into prominent government positions. He
sought to solidify the empire by creating a cosmopolitan Indian Islamic
culture that would transcend the many sectarian conflicts of Indian society
rather than promoting an exclusively Muslim identity. As a part of this
effort, Akbar invited leading intellectuals from many traditions to court for
serious philosophical discussions that he introduced with this speech:

I perceive that there are varying customs and beliefs of varying religious paths. . . . But the
followers of each religion regard . . . their own religion as better than those of any other. Not
only so, but they strive to convert the rest to their own way of belief. If these refuse to be
converted, they not only despise them, but also regard them as . . . enemies. And this caused
me to feel many serious doubts and scruples. Wherefore I desire that on appointed days the
books of all the religious laws be brought forward, and the doctors meet and hold discussions,
so that I may hear them, and that each one may determine which is the truest and mightiest

Thus, Mughal India witnessed no single or officially prescribed Muslim
culture such as existed in the Safavid Empire. Rather, a wide variety of
Islamic practices competed with each other, and many of them received
support from the state. Furthermore, elements of Islamic and
Hindu/Buddhist culture blended in distinctly Indian patterns—in
architecture, painting, poetry, and literature. Such blending was apparent in
popular culture as well. Adherents of the Hindu devotional tradition known
as bhakti and Islamic mystics known as sufis practiced similar forms of
worship and blurred the otherwise sharp distinction between Islam and
Hinduism. Hindus and Muslims sometimes venerated the same saints and
shrines. Some Muslims even found a place in a Hindu-based caste system.

But this policy of accommodation and cultural blending incurred the
opposition of some Muslim leaders who felt that Akbar and his immediate
successors had betrayed the duties of a Muslim ruler and compromised the
unique revelation granted to Muhammad. That opposition found expression
during the reign of Aurangzeb (1658—1707), who reversed the conciliation
of Hindus and sought to govern in a more distinctly Islamic fashion. Hindu
officials were dismissed, some Hindu temples destroyed, and discriminatory
taxes reimposed on non-Muslims. These actions weakened the tradition of
religious toleration that had earlier balanced the multiple communities of
the empire. Internal rebellion flared, pitting “Hindu” against Muslim, and
regional power centers became more prominent as the central state lost
power. Thus, the Mughal Empire, like the Ottoman, featured a significant

cultural encounter with reverberations that have lasted into the twenty-first

An Expanding Economy. Mughal India’s experiment in multicultural state
building was underwritten by impressive economic expansion. Its
participation in the world of Islam fostered trade, and Indian merchants,
perhaps 35,000 of them, conducted business in the major cities and some of
the rural areas of Iran, Afghanistan, central Asia, and Russia.10 It was a
commercial network fully as sophisticated as and much more extensive than
those that Europeans created in Asia. At home, the Mughal Empire became
a highly commercialized society, for its demand that peasants pay their land
taxes in imperial coin rather than in produce required them to sell
agricultural products on the market and to buy salt, iron, and other
commodities. As late as 1750, India accounted for 25 percent of world
manufacturing output, and its high-quality cotton textile industry dominated
the markets of the world.

The Songay Empire

Yet a further center of Islamic political power lay in West Africa, where the
Songay Empire took shape in the late 1400s around the bend of the Niger
River and extended deep into the Sahara Desert. It was the latest and the
largest of a series of West African empires based on trade in gold and salt
across the desert. Like the Mughals in India, the Songay people were a
minority ethnic group that ruled over a vast and diverse domain. The rulers
and merchant elites in the cities—especially Timbuktu—were Muslim, but
Islam had penetrated very little into the rural hinterlands. Therefore, Songay
rulers, like the Mughals, had to constantly balance their allegiance to Islam
with duties to traditional religious rituals and deities. Unlike the Mughal
and Ottoman empires, Songay had not yet incorporated gunpowder
weapons into its arsenals but relied on cavalry forces bearing swords and
bows and arrows in which both horses and riders were protected with a
thick armor of quilted cloth.

The Songay Empire was short lived, collapsing in 1591 when it was
confronted with an invasion from Morocco, and dissolved into a series of
smaller states. But the disappearance of large-scale political structures did
little to disrupt the long-established relationships that bound sub-Saharan

Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea to the larger world of
Eurasia. Continuing trans-Saharan trade links and the slow growth of Islam
tied this part of Africa solidly into the web of Eurasian interactions. A
Moroccan traveler, Leo Africanus, wrote about the Songay city of Timbuktu
in 1526:

The shops of the artisans, the merchants, and especially weavers of cotton cloth are very
numerous. Fabrics are also imported from Europe to Timbuktu, borne by Berber merchants. . .
. The inhabitants are very rich, especially the strangers who have settled in the country. . . .
There are in Timbuktu numerous judges, teachers and priests, all properly appointed by the
king. He greatly honors learning. Many handwritten books imported from Barbary are also
sold. There is more profit made from this commerce than from all other merchandise.11

Religious Vitality
and Political Decline

An Islamic World. Despite its division into various and sometimes hostile
states and empires, the Islamic world remained also one world, united by
the bonds of faith, by common scriptures, by historical memories, by the
ties of commerce, by pilgrimage to Mecca, and by the travels of learned and
holy men. Scholars and scribes, prayer mats and precious books, and
officials and jurists made the journey between the heartland of Islam in the
Middle East and its outlying peripheries in India, Southeast Asia, southern
Europe, and West Africa.

Conversion. It was certainly not a static world. Together, the Ottoman,
Safavid, Mughal, and Songay empires demonstrate the political vitality and
expansiveness of the Islamic world even as Europe expanded into the
Atlantic and beyond. The religious vitality of Islam was apparent in the
continued spread of the faith both within and beyond the major Muslim
empires. The Ottomans brought Islam to Anatolia (modern Turkey), and a
modest number of European Christians in the empire converted as well. So
did perhaps 20 percent or so of India’s population. More widespread
Islamization took place in Southeast Asia, especially what is now
Indonesia, and in the African savanna lands south of the Sahara. These
conversions were encouraged by expanding networks of Muslim traders
who carried the faith with them. Islamic mystics or holy men, known as
sufis, often gained reputations for kindness, divination, protective charms,

and healing and in so doing facilitated conversion. The support of Muslim
governments; the material advantages of a Muslim identity, including
exemption from taxes on nonbelievers; and the general prestige of the
Islamic world also attracted many into the “abode of Islam.” But conversion
did not always mean a complete change of religious allegiance; rather, it
often involved the assimilation of bits and pieces of Islamic belief and
practice into existing religious frameworks.

The incompleteness of the conversion process and the blending of Islam
with other religious practices created tensions in many societies. In the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these tensions gave rise to movements
all across the Islamic world seeking to purify the practice of the faith and to
return to the original Islam of Muhammad. One of the most prominent was
associated with a young Muslim theologian, Abd al-Wahhab, in mid-
eighteenth-century Arabia. He called for a strict adherence to the shari’a, or
the Islamic law code, and denounced the widespread veneration of sufis and
of Muhammad’s tomb, both of which he viewed as potentially leading to
idolatry and thus as threats to the absolute monotheism of authentic Islam.
Although militarily crushed by Egyptian forces loyal to the Ottoman
Empire, the revivalist impulse persisted and surfaced repeatedly throughout
the Islamic world during the nineteenth century, from Africa to Indonesia,
sometimes directed against local deviations from prescribed Islamic
practice and at other times against growing European intrusion.

Decline of Islamic Empires. The case for religious reform was
strengthened by the internal decline of the great Muslim empires during the
eighteenth century. During that century, the Ottoman Empire substantially
weakened and lost territory in wars with the Austrian and Russian empires,
the Safavid Empire collapsed altogether, and the Mughal Empire
fragmented and was increasingly taken over by the British. Muslims who
understood history as the triumphal march of Allah’s faithful were
dismayed by these setbacks, and some blamed them on a gradual process of
decay and departure from the pure faith that had crept in as Islam adapted to
various Asian and African cultures.

Modern historians offer other explanations. Some emphasize the
declining quality of imperial leadership and internal conflicts that became
more acute as opportunities for further expansion diminished. Muslim
empires were also weakened by the growth of European oceanic trade
routes that increasingly bypassed older land-based routes through the

Middle East and deprived Islamic states of much-needed revenue. Others
stress the cultural conservatism of Islamic societies. Accustomed to a near
millennium of success and prominence in the Afro-Eurasian world, many
elite Muslims remained uninterested in scientific and technological
developments then taking place in an infidel Europe. In 1580, for example,
conservative Muslims forced the Ottoman sultan to dismantle an
astronomical observatory that was as sophisticated as any in Europe at the
time. In 1742, they protested a recently established printing press as
impious and successfully demanded its closure. An Ottoman official, Kateb
Chelebi, responded with a warning against blind ignorance:

For the man who is in charge of affairs of state, the science of geography is one of the matters
of which knowledge is necessary. If he is not familiar with what the entire earth’s sphere is
like, he should at least know the map of the Ottoman domains and that of the states adjoining
it, so that when there is a campaign and military forces have to be sent, he can proceed on the
basis of knowledge. . . . Sufficient and compelling proof of the necessity for [learning] this
science is the fact that the unbelievers [Christian Europeans], by their application to and their
esteem for those branches of learning, have discovered the New World and have overrun the
ports of India and the East Indies.12

For much of the early modern era, however, the Islamic world was a
dynamic place with powerful and expanding empires bringing large areas of
Christian, Hindu, and African civilizations under Islamic control. These
empires prospered with their merchants active participants in world trade.
Sophisticated cultures produced such magnificent works as the Taj Mahal in
India and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. And the religion of Islam continued
to grow throughout the Afro-Eurasian world. Clearly, Europeans had no
monopoly on political or cultural expansion in the early modern world.

China Outward Bound
While expanding Muslim empires dominated the Middle East and South
Asia in the early modern world, China was the engine of expansion in East
Asia. Early modern China was heir to a long and distinctive civilization, a
sophisticated elite culture informed by the writings of Confucius, an
ethnically homogeneous population compared to India and Europe, and
long periods of political unity under a succession of powerful dynasties.

Headed by an autocratic emperor, these dynasties governed through a
prestigious bureaucracy recruited from a landowning elite by competitive
written examinations.

Early modern China, governed by the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing
(1644–1912) dynasties, was an impressive place. Its state, according to one
recent historian, was “arguably the strongest, most centralized, most stable
of the early modern empires.”13 It presided over an economy that was able
to support a fourfold increase in its population from 75 million in 1400 to
320 million in 1800 while generating standards of living, life expectancies,
and nutritional levels that were among the highest in the world at the time.
Achieving this remarkable record involved tripling the area of land under
cultivation, developing more productive techniques of farming, and
assimilating American crops, such as corn and the sweet potato. The
growing population also pushed forward the long-term process of internal
colonization in which Chinese settlers occupied sparsely populated and
often hilly lands south of the Yangtze River. This in turn provoked frequent
hostility from non-Chinese groups in the south, such as the Miao, Yao, and
Yi peoples, who were increasingly assimilated into Chinese culture.

China and the World

While often depicted as a separate and even isolated civilization, China had
long interacted with a wider world. During its early Han dynasty (202
BCE–220 CE), China was the eastern terminus of the trans-Eurasian Silk
Road trading network. Buddhism initially penetrated China during these
centuries and became a major cultural force in the country. Furthermore, the
enormous presence and attractiveness of Chinese culture ensured that
elements of that civilization—Confucianism, Buddhism, artistic and
architectural styles, administrative systems, and elite culture—spread to
adjacent regions such as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Chinese armies

invaded Korea and Vietnam and fought repeatedly with the nomadic
peoples to the north and west who had long represented the chief threat to
China’s security. The Mongols under Genghis Khan were the most
successful of these northwestern nomads, conquering Peiking (Beijing) in
1215. Mongols ruled all of China for almost a century (1279–1368).
Chinese merchants established themselves in many of the ports of East and
Southeast Asia. Chinese influence (and sometimes political control)
penetrated westward into central Asia and north of the Great Wall into the
lands of various nomadic peoples. And Chinese products, such as silk and
ceramics, and technologies, such as papermaking, printing, and gunpowder,
spread widely beyond China itself.

The Tribute System. Thus, an interacting world in eastern Asia, centered
on China, paralleled an interacting Islamic world centered on the Middle
East. What normally held it together, however, was not a common religious
tradition but the so-called tribute system, in which the non-Chinese
participants ritually acknowledged the superiority of China and their own
dependent status by sending tribute to the emperor and “kowtowing” before
him. In return, they received lavish gifts and much-desired trading
opportunities within China. It was clear to everyone that this was no equal

New Forms of Chinese Expansion. Much of this persisted into the early
modern era, but Chinese patterns of expansion also took new shape in three
new ways. First, in the early fifteenth century, China undertook a series of
massive though short-lived maritime voyages into the South China Sea and
the Indian Ocean. Second, in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,
China vastly extended its territorial reach to the north and west, bringing a
variety of peoples under Chinese colonial rule and roughly doubling the
size of the Chinese state in the process. Finally, China incorporated the
large offshore island of Taiwan, settling it with many thousands of Chinese
immigrants. All this marks China as a major center of expansion in the
early modern era and invites comparisons with similar processes in the
Islamic and European worlds.

A Maritime Empire Refused:
The Ming Dynasty Voyages

In the fall of 1405, a fleet of some 317 vessels departed Nanjing, then the
capital of Ming dynasty China, bound for Calicut on the west coast of India.
The largest, called “treasure ships,” measured some 400 feet in length and
160 feet wide and carried 24 cannon and a variety of gunpowder weapons.
The crew of this enormous fleet numbered over 27,000, about half of them
seamen and soldiers but including also military commanders, ambassadors
and administrators of various ranks, medical officers and pharmacologists,
translators, astrologers, ritual experts, and skilled workmen. This was the
first of seven such expeditions between 1405 and 1433 that visited major
ports in Southeast Asia, southern India, the Arabian Peninsula, and the East
African coast, projecting Chinese power and influence throughout the South
China Sea and the Indian Ocean basin. And then, quite abruptly, the
voyages stopped. The building of large ships ended, and the Chinese fleet
declined sharply. In 1525, an imperial edict ordered the destruction of all
oceangoing ships. Even the official records of the earlier maritime voyages
disappeared. “In less than a hundred years,” wrote a recent historian of
these voyages, “the greatest navy the world had ever known had ordered
itself into extinction.”14

A Road Not Taken. The Ming dynasty voyages pose one of the most
intriguing “what-if” questions of modern world history. Clearly, fifteenth-
century China had the capacity to create an enormous maritime empire in
the Indian Ocean and beyond and to dominate its rich commercial potential.
What would have happened if this formidable Chinese navy had
encountered the far smaller Portuguese expeditions that entered the Indian
Ocean in the early sixteenth century? Had the Chinese rounded the southern
tip of Africa, entered the Atlantic Ocean, and made contact with the
Americas, a China-centered economy or empire of global dimensions was
surely possible, and an entirely different direction to modern world history
would have been likely. This kind of speculation invites a comparison
between Chinese maritime expansion and the early phases of European,
mostly Portuguese and Spanish, oceanic “discoveries.” These European
voyagers had crept down the West African coast in the fifteenth century,
traversed the Atlantic with Columbus in 1492, entered the Indian Ocean
with Vasco da Gama in 1497, and penetrated the Pacific with Magellan in
1520. How did these voyages differ from the Chinese maritime

Comparing Chinese
and European Voyages

The most obvious differences were of size and scale. Columbus’s first
transatlantic voyage contained but three ships, each no more than 100 feet
in length, less than a quarter the size of Chinese treasure ships, and a total
crew of 90 men. The largest fleet which the Portuguese ever assembled in
Asia contained just 43 ships. Clearly, the Chinese possessed a degree of
wealth, manpower, and material resources that far surpassed that of the
Europeans.15 But the Chinese were entering known and charted waters in
which long-distance commercial shipping had been long practiced, while
the Europeans, particularly in the Atlantic basin, had little idea where they
were going and no predecessors to guide them.

Power and Religion. A further difference lay in the conduct of the
expeditions. The Portuguese in the Indian Ocean frequently resorted to
violence, attempted to monopolize trade, and established armed
fortifications where they could, and the Spanish in the New World soon
turned to outright conquest, carving out a huge empire in the Caribbean,
Mexico, and the Andean highlands. Inspired by the spirit of the crusades,
Europeans sought to implant their own religion wherever possible. The
Chinese, by contrast, seldom used force; they did not construct forts,
conquer territory, or establish colonies. Perhaps their huge numbers,
obvious military potential, and enormous wealth provided an incentive for
cooperation that the weaker and poorer Europeans lacked. The Chinese
sought rather to incorporate maritime Asia and Africa within the tribute
system, and this required an acknowledgment of Chinese authority and
superiority in return for commercial access to China. The fourth voyage, for
example, brought back the envoys of 30 separate states or cities to pay
homage to the Chinese emperor. Nor did the Chinese voyages have a
religious mission. The admiral of these voyages, Zheng He, was a Muslim,
and on one of his visits to Ceylon, he erected a tablet honoring alike the
Buddha, a Hindu deity, and Allah. It would be difficult to imagine a Spanish
or Portuguese monarch of the same era entrusting his ships to a Muslim sea
captain or any European ruler practicing such religious toleration.

Differing Motives. The impulse behind these voyages differed as well. In
Europe, a highly competitive state system sustained exploration and oceanic
voyaging over several centuries, and various groups had an interest in

overseas expansion. Revenue-hungry monarchs anxious to best their rivals,
competing merchants desperate to find a direct route to Asian riches, rival
religious orders eager to convert the “heathen” and confront Islamic power,
and impoverished nobles seeking a quick route to status and position—all
of these contributed to the outward impulse of a European civilization
vaguely aware of its own marginality in the world. In China, by contrast,
the Ming dynasty voyages were the project of a single unusually visionary
emperor, eager to cement his legitimacy and China’s international prestige
after a bitter civil war. His primary supporters were a small cadre of
eunuchs, such as Zheng He, with official positions at the court. Most
Chinese merchants already had access to whatever foreign goods they
needed through long-established ties to Southeast Asia and from foreign
traders more than willing to come to China. And the powerful scholar-
gentry class, which staffed the official bureaucracy, generally opposed the
voyages, believing them a wasteful and unnecessary diversion of resources
from more pressing tasks. In their view, China was the Middle Kingdom,
the self-sufficient center of the world with little need for foreign curiosities.
After the death of the emperor Yongle, who had initiated these voyages,
these more traditional voices prevailed. A single centralized authority made
it possible to order an end to official maritime voyaging, while in the West
the endless rivalries of competing states drove European expansion to the
ends of the earth. Thus, the Chinese state turned its back to the sea, focusing
on the more customary threat of nomadic incursions north of the Great

Differing Legacies. Despite their unprecedented size and power, Chinese
voyages made little lasting impression on the societies they visited. And
back at home, the memory of his achievements was deliberately suppressed,
and even the records of his journeys were destroyed. This was very
different from Europe’s celebration of men like Columbus and Magellan,
who achieved the status of folk heroes. But the cessation of Zheng He’s
voyages did not mean the end of a Chinese commercial presence in
Southeast Asia, for private Chinese traders and craftsmen in the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries, especially from the southern province of Fujian,
often settled in East and Southeast Asia. Sizable Chinese communities
emerged in Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand,
the Malay Peninsula, and throughout the Indonesian archipelago, where
they proved useful to local authorities and to intruding Europeans in

brokering commerce with China. While Europeans were developing a huge
maritime market in the Atlantic basin, the Chinese had created one in East
and Southeast Asia.

But China’s maritime world altogether lacked the protection and support
of the Chinese state. When the Spanish in the Philippines massacred some
20,000 Chinese in 1603, the Chinese government did nothing to assist or
avenge them. Thus, Chinese official maritime voyages, private settlement
abroad, and an impressive entrepreneurial presence throughout Southeast
Asia did not lead to an expanding Chinese empire. In this respect, China
differed sharply from European governments, which licensed and supported
their overseas merchants and settlers as a foundation for a growing imperial
presence in the Americas and in Asia.

China’s Inner Asian Empire

Manchus Move West. If China declined to create a maritime empire in
Southeast Asia and beyond, it actively pursued a land-based empire in inner
Asia, to the north and west of heartland China—from where the Mongols
had come to conquer in the thirteenth century. During the late seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries, China’s Manchu or Qing dynasty rulers brought
Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet under direct Chinese control. These were
huge dry areas, sparsely populated by largely nomadic peoples practicing
Islam, Buddhism, or ancient animistic religions. While they had long
interacted with China through commerce, warfare, and tribute missions,
they had normally remained outside formal control of the Chinese state. But
the new Qing dynasty (1644–1911), itself of non-Chinese origins from the
northeast in Manchuria, felt threatened by a potential alliance of Mongol
tribes and Tibet and by growing Russian encroachment along the Amur
River valley. This sense of threat motivated a prolonged series of military
and diplomatic efforts, lasting well over a century, that brought these areas
under sustained and direct Chinese rule for the first time. In the process,
China became more than ever an empire, ruling over a variety of non-
Chinese people.

Empires of Many Nations. This new Chinese Empire broadly resembled
the European empires under construction in the Americas and elsewhere at
roughly the same time. Like their European counterparts, the Qing dynasty

took advantage of divisions among subject peoples, allying with some of
them and governing indirectly through a variety of native elites, local
nobilities, and religious leaders. Furthermore, the central Chinese
government administered these new territories separately from the rest of
the country through a new bureaucratic office called the Lifan Yuan, similar
to the Colonial Office, which later ran the British Empire. Chinese
authorities also limited immigration into these areas. Such efforts to keep
the new territories separate from China proper contrast with policies toward
non-Chinese peoples to the south, where the climate and geography made a
Chinese style of agriculture possible. There, assimilation was the goal with
Chinese officials operating through the normal provincial administration,
establishing schools to promote Chinese culture, forbidding men to wear
traditional clothing, and encouraging both immigration and intermarriage.16

But the early modern Chinese Empire also differed from its European
counterparts in important ways. Most obviously, it was a land-based empire,
like the Ottoman Empire, governing adjacent territories rather than those
separated by vast oceans. This gave the Chinese central state somewhat
greater control over its newly subjected regions than Europeans who often
had to wait months or years to communicate with the colonies, at least
before the advent of the steamship and telegraph. Furthermore, the Qing
dynasty governed areas with which China had some cultural similarities and
historical relationships, whereas the Europeans felt little in common with
their American, African, or Asian possessions and had almost no prior
direct contact with them. This may have contributed something to the
sharper sense of difference between colonizers and the colonized that
characterized European relationships with subject peoples. Qing rulers,
unlike Europeans in America, generally tolerated local cultures, trusting
that the evident superiority of Chinese civilization would win the allegiance
of local people. One emperor, Qianlong, even took a Xinjiang Muslim
woman as a concubine, permitted her to maintain strict religious and dietary
practices, and inscribed her tomb with passages from the Quran in Arabic.
No European ruler would have practiced such toleration.

Consequences of Empire. Qing dynasty empire building had lasting
consequences. Together with Russian imperial expansion across Siberia, it
finally put an end to the independent power of central Asian nomadic
peoples who had for 2,000 years both connected and threatened the agrarian
civilizations of outer Eurasia. Without easy access to gunpowder weapons,

these peoples were incorporated within one or another of the great early
modern empires. An ancient way of life was passing into history.
Furthermore, the simultaneous growth of the Chinese and Russian empires
meant the division of central Asia between them and the beginning of a
long and often contentious relationship that even the common experience of
twentiethcentury communism did not overcome. And by transforming
China into a multinational empire, although one with an overwhelmingly
Chinese population, the Qing dynasty set in motion tensions that would
plague China in the twentieth century and beyond. As the potent force of
modern nationalism penetrated China in the late nineteenth century, it
undermined the legitimacy of the non-Chinese Qing dynasty itself and set
the stage for the Chinese revolution of 1911, which both overthrew that
dynasty and ended China’s dynastic history altogether. But it also worked
on the consciousness of those non-Chinese peoples newly incorporated into
the Chinese Empire. It is surely no accident that efforts to achieve
autonomy or independence from China in the early twenty-first century
derive from those areas incorporated into the empire during Qing times—
Tibet and Xinjiang in particular.

China and Taiwan

A third focus of Chinese expansion in early modern times took shape on the
island of Taiwan, about 100 miles off the coast of southern China.17 The
native peoples of Taiwan, ethnically and linguistically quite distinct from
those of China, had long lived independently in agricultural villages while
exporting deerskins to their giant neighbor and providing occasional refuge
for Chinese and Japanese pirates. In the early seventeenth century, the
island came briefly under Dutch control as Europeans sought offshore bases
from which to take part in lucrative Asian trade. In order to make the island
self-sufficient in rice, Dutch authorities invited Chinese immigrants to settle
there, a process that only intensified after China expelled the Dutch in 1661
and took control of the island. During the eighteenth century, Chinese
migration to Taiwan boomed, particularly from the densely populated
regions of coastal South China, and the native Taiwanese soon found
themselves greatly outnumbered by the recent immigrants.

Unlike native peoples in Siberia or the Americas, indigenous Taiwanese
did not suffer from imported diseases; their earlier connections with the
mainland provided them with immunities to standard Chinese maladies.
And the Chinese state generally required their settlers to respect the land
rights of the native peoples. But the overwhelming numbers of Chinese
settlers gradually undermined the economic basis of Taiwanese life. The
trade in deerskins on which many had depended largely collapsed by the
mid-eighteenth century as overhunting and the loss of habitat to agriculture
greatly reduced the deer herds. By the early nineteenth century, many
Taiwanese were well on their way to becoming Chinese as they took on the
Chinese language, names, modes of dress, medicine, and religious practice.
It was a process more similar to China’s internal colonization than to the
creation of its inner Asian empire or its short-lived maritime expeditions in
the Indian Ocean.

Collectively, these three forms of Chinese expansion, together with its
highly productive economy, powerful state, growing population, and
sophisticated culture, remind us that early modern China was a dynamic
and expanding society. It was very much in motion on its own trajectory
when it encountered an outward-bound Europe in the sixteenth century and

The Making of a Russian Empire
Paralleling both Islamic and Chinese expansion in the early modern era and
intersecting with them was a rapidly growing Russian Empire. It was an
unlikely story. In the midfifteenth century, a small, quarrelsome Russian
state, centered on the city of Moscow and embracing the Eastern Orthodox
variant of Christianity, had emerged on the remote, cold, and heavily
forested eastern periphery of Europe after 200 years of Mongol domination
and exploitation. That state and the society it embraced evolved in quite
distinctive ways during the early modern centuries.

Mother Russia

In western Europe, rulers generally respected the property rights of their
subjects while negotiating with them over political power. But Russian
tsars, following the Mongol model, claimed total authority over both the
territory and the people of their country. While these claims were never
fully realized, the Russian state came to exercise greater authority over
individuals and society than was the case in western Europe. A long and
bloody struggle removed the nobility as an obstacle to royal authority and
required them to render service to the tsar in return for their estates and the
right to exploit their peasants. Urban merchants, few in number and far
removed from the main routes of international commerce, had learned that
“the path to wealth lay not in fighting the authorities but in collaborating
with them.”18 And while the Catholic Church in western Europe resisted
state authority, Russia’s Orthodox Church was closely identified with and
controlled by the government.

As the nobility, the bourgeoisie, and the Orthodox Church came under
the control of an increasingly powerful state, so too were the ancient
privileges of the peasantry undermined. From early times, Russian peasants
had been tenants, free to move from one landlord to another. But when, in
the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries large numbers of them took
advantage of this right to move into the recently conquered and fertile
“black soil” region south of Moscow, the state acted to enserf them and to
forbid their leaving the estates of their landlords. There serfs had a measure
of autonomy over their own internal affairs but were subject to harsh and
frequent discipline by their owners, usually severe floggings with a birch
rod. Serfdom was created in Russia just as it was declining in western

But the most striking feature of early modern Russia was its relentless
expansion. Despite its unpromising location on the interior margins of
major European and Asian societies, Russia became the world’s largest
territorial empire, stretching from Poland to the Pacific and from the Arctic
Ocean to the northern borders of the Ottoman and Chinese empires to
encompass roughly one-sixth of the world’s land area. Russian empire
building paralleled the overseas expansion of Portugal, Spain, and England
on Europe’s western periphery but proved more enduring than any of them.

“Soft Gold”: An Empire of Furs

The greatest part of Russia’s emerging empire lay to the east of the Ural
Mountains in that vast territory of frozen swampland, endless forests, and
spacious grasslands known as Siberia. Sparsely inhabited by various
hunting, fishing, and pastoral peoples, most of them without state structures
or gunpowder weapons, Siberia hosted societies organized in kinship
groups or clans, frequently on the move and worshipping a pantheon of
nature gods. The way to Siberia opened up only after Moscow brought
other Russian principalities under its control and especially after defeating
the Muslim state of Kazan, a fragment of the earlier Mongol Empire. Then,
in the 1580s, Siberia stretched before them some 3,000 miles, largely
unknown, populated by only about 200,000 people, and possessed, many
believed, of great wealth. In less than a century, Russians penetrated to the
Pacific Ocean across some of the world’s most difficult terrain; subdued
dozens of Siberian peoples; erected a line of fortifications, trading posts,
and towns; and claimed all of northern Asia for their tsar. In its continental
dimensions, Russian expansion resembled that of the United States as it
moved westward toward the Pacific, though it occurred much more rapidly.
The early nineteenth-century French writer Alexis de Tocqueville noticed
the similarity when he observed that these two countries seemed “marked
out by the will of heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.”19

Siberia and Beyond. The Russian Empire was a military and bureaucratic
project of the Russian state, but it was undertaken by a variety of private
interests. A wealthy merchant family, the Stroganovs, led the way into
Kazan and Siberia. Their shock troops were hired Cossacks made up of
former peasants, criminals, and vagabonds who had escaped the bonds of
serfdom. They were fiercely independent, egalitarian, and ready to turn
bandit or sell their formidable military skills to the highest bidder. Like the
small groups of conquistadores who pioneered Spanish conquests in the
Americas, Cossack troops with firearms overwhelmed, often brutally, the
far more numerous Siberians armed only with bows and arrows. Trappers
and hunters followed in the wake of conquest, as did a growing number of
Russian peasants who could escape the bonds of serfdom by migrating to

Siberia. Priests and missionaries of the Russian Orthodox Church likewise
accompanied the advance of empire. Siberia became as well a place to
dump Russia’s undesirables—convicted criminals, political prisoners, and
religious dissidents. Thus, the Russian population of Siberia grew rapidly
over the centuries: in 1700, they numbered about 300,000; by 1800,
900,000; and by 1900, more than 5 million. In 1911, the indigenous people
of Siberia, overwhelmed by the newcomers, represented little more than 10
percent of its total population.20

Nor was Siberia the end of Russian ambitions to the east. Tsar Peter I
(known to history as Peter the Great) set in motion plans for extending
Russian power and colonization to another continent across the Bering Sea
to the northwestern corner of the Americas. Beginning in the mid-
eighteenth century, Russian explorers and merchants established a Russian
presence in Alaska, pushed down the west coast of Canada to northern
California, and penetrated the Pacific Ocean as far as Hawaii, where they
briefly established a fort and dreamed of a Russian West Indies. But a
permanent Russian presence in the New World proved untenable, the victim
of enormously long supply lines, American and British opposition, and
more attractive opportunities in China and central Asia. The end of the
American venture came in 1867 when Russia finally sold Alaska to the
United States.

The Impact of Empire. Siberia, however, remained a permanent and fully
integrated part of Russia and exercised a profound impact on the emerging
Russian state. It was a source of great wealth, initially in the form of animal
furs—sables, black foxes, sea otters, and others. Europe’s growing wealth
in early modern times, derived in part from the profits of its own empires,
created a huge market for these furs and rendered them extremely valuable.
China too became a market for Russian furs. The quest for furs—often
called “soft gold”—pulled the Russians across Siberia and onto the North
American continent in a fashion similar to the French fur-trading empire in
Canada. Russian hunters and trappers rapaciously reaped this natural
harvest to the point of exhaustion and then moved on to fresh territory. The
native peoples of Siberia suffered tremendously from this Russian “fur
fever” as they were forced to hand over large quantities of pelts as tribute
and had to endure bitter punishment if they failed to do so. Russians also
brought new diseases that substantially reduced their numbers, new goods
that rendered them dependent on Russians, and alcohol and tobacco, to

which many became addicted. As in the Americas, the cost of incorporation
into the network of agrarian empires was high indeed.

What was a grievous loss to native Siberians was a great gain for the
Russian state, which by 1700 acquired about 10 percent of its revenue from
taxes on the fur trade. In addition to fur, western Siberia provided high-
quality iron ore for its industries and armies and turned Russia by the mid-
eighteenth century into a major exporter of that metal. Siberian copper,
gold, and silver likewise enriched the empire. In short, the resources of
Siberia played a major role in transforming Russia into one of the great
powers of Europe during the eighteenth century. Its oil, gas, timber, and
mineral resources did the same for the Soviet Union in the twentieth.

Siberia also turned Russia into an Asian power as it came to dominate the
northern region of that continent. Its subsequent expansion into central Asia
during the nineteenth century only enhanced its Asian presence. In the
process, Russia came into contact—both military and commercial—with
China, with ancient Muslim societies of central Asia, and with the Ottoman
Empire. As it incorporated large numbers of Muslims, Buddhists, and other
non-Christian people into its empire, Russia also developed something of an

identity problem, felt most acutely by its intellectuals in the nineteenth
century and after. With an empire that stretched from Poland to the Pacific,
was Russia really a European society shaped by its Christian heritage and
developing along western lines, or was it an Asian power shaped by its
Siberian empire and its Mongol heritage with a different, distinctly Russian
pattern of development? The famous Russian writer Dostoyevsky had one
answer to the question: “In Europe,” he wrote, “we were hangers-on and
slaves, whereas in Asia we shall go as masters.”21

Russia and Europe

Dostoyevsky’s statement highlights the difference between Russian empire
building in Asia and its less extensive but equally important expansion to
the west in Europe. Russians generally approached Asia with a sense of
superiority and confidence, believing that they were bringing Christianity to
the heathen, agriculture to backward peoples, and European culture to
barbarians. But in relationship to Europe, Russian elites were aware of their
marginal status and often felt insecure and inferior. Far removed from major
trade routes and only recently emerged from two centuries of Mongol
domination, early modern Russia was weaker than many European states
and clearly less developed both economically and politically. That
weakness had been demonstrated on the field of battle with Russian defeats
at the hands of both Poland and Sweden, then major regional powers. Thus,
unlike its expansion in Siberia, where Russia faced no major competitors,
its movement to the west occurred in the context of great power rivalries
and military threat.

Looking Westward. Between the seventeenth and early nineteenth
centuries, Russia absorbed Ukraine, much of Poland, the Baltic coast, and
Finland. It also pushed southward into the Caucasus to offer protection to
the Christian societies of Georgia and Armenia, then under Muslim control.
Some of these regions, such as Ukraine, were extensively integrated into the
Russian Empire both administratively and culturally, while others, such as
Poland with its large Jewish community and Finland, retained more of their
separate identities.

Russia’s engagement with the West also stimulated a major effort to
overcome its weakness by imitating certain aspects of European life. Thus,

Russia was among the first of the world’s major societies to perceive itself
as backward in comparison to the West. How to catch up with Europe,
enhance Russian power, and yet protect the position of its ruling elite—
these issues posed the central dilemma of modern Russian history. How
much of Western culture should be absorbed, and what aspects of Russian
culture should be discarded? In the nineteenth century and later, similar
questions assumed great prominence in the affairs of China, the Ottoman
Empire, Japan, and many other societies on the receiving end of European

Peter the Great. The first major effort to cope with the dilemma is
associated with Tsar Peter the Great, who reigned from 1689 to 1725. An
extended trip to western Europe early in his reign convinced Peter of the
backwardness and barbarity of almost everything Russian and of its need
for European institutions, experts, and practices. A huge energetic man,
Peter determined to haul Russia into the modern world by creating a state
based on the European model, one that could mobilize the country’s
energies and resources.

Even a short list of Peter’s reforms conveys something of their enormous
scope. Much of this effort was aimed at increasing Russia’s military
strength. He created a huge professional standing army for the first time,
complete with uniforms, modern muskets and artillery, and imported
European officers. A new and more efficient administrative system, based
on written documents, required more serious educational preparation. Thus,
Peter established a variety of new, largely technical schools and tried to
require at least five years of education for the sons of nobles. A decree of
1714 forbade noblemen to marry until they could demonstrate competence
in arithmetic and geometry. To staff the new bureaucracy and the army,
Peter bound every nobleman to life service to the state and actively
recruited commoners as well. State power and compulsion were also
applied to the economy. Aware of the backwardness of Russia’s merchants
and entrepreneurs, Peter established 200 or more manufacturing enterprises,
particularly in metallurgy, mining, and textiles, with the government
providing overall direction, some of the capital, and serf labor.

In cultural matters, Peter and his successors, especially Catherine the
Great (r. 1762–1796), tried vigorously to foster Western manners, dress, and
social customs. A decree of 1701 required upper-class men to wear French
or Saxon clothing on the top and German clothing below the waist. Women

were to wear Western dresses and underwear. Finally, he built a wholly new
capital, St. Petersburg, in the far north of the country on the Gulf of Finland.
European in its architecture, the city was to serve as Peter’s “window on the
West,” the place where Europe’s culture would penetrate the darkness of
Russian backwardness.

The Cost of Reform. During Peter’s reign, Russia became one of the
major military powers of Europe, though it remained economically and
socially far behind Western Europe. But the price of this transformation was
high. Growing government revenues placed an enormous burden on an
already impoverished peasantry. Later tsars required the landlords to collect
the taxes, thus increasing their control over the serfs, who were little more
than slaves. By promoting Western education and culture so vigorously,
Peter fostered an elite class largely cut off from its own people. The
educated nobility spoke French, were familiar with European literature and
philosophy, and often held Russian culture in contempt. Under the influence
of Western liberal ideas, some of this group came also to oppose the regime
itself, giving rise to a revolutionary movement that ultimately brought the
tsarist system to an end.

Others opposed Peter’s reforms from a conservative point of view. One
critic, an eighteenth-century aristocrat Mikhail Shcherbatov, pointed to
what he saw as the many negative outcomes of Peter’s policies:

We have hastened to corrupt our morals. . . . [F]aith and God’s laws have been extinguished
from our hearts. . . . Children have no respect for parents and are not ashamed to flout their
will openly. . . . There is no genuine love between husbands and wives, who are often coolly
indifferent to each other’s adulteries. . . . [E]ach lives for himself. . . . [W]omen, previously
unaware of their own beauty, began to realize its power; they began to try to enhance it with
suitable clothes, and used far more luxury in their adornments than their ancestors.22

Despite the sometimes violent opposition, Peter imposed his reforms
ruthlessly. Forcing members of the nobility to shave their beards became a
hated symbol of this effort at westernization. Punishments for resistance to
Peter’s regime included dismemberment, beheading, mutilation, flogging,
banishment, and hard labor. Whereas Europe’s economic development was
largely a matter of private initiative percolating up from below, in Russia
only the state had the capacity and the motivation to undertake the
apparently necessary but painful work of social and economic
transformation. This pattern of state-directed modernization continued
under later tsars and under communist officials in the twentieth century.

But Peter’s efforts at “westernization” were highly selective. He had little
interest in promoting free or wage labor on a large scale, preferring to
tighten the obligations of serfs to their masters. A harsh Russian serfdom in
fact lasted until 1861. Representative government also held little appeal for
tsars committed to autocracy. And there was little effort to encourage a
large private merchant class or to foster westernization beyond a small elite.

Russia and the World

The Russian Empire encountered many of the other centers of early modern
expansion. It sparred repeatedly with the Ottoman Empire over territorial
claims in the Balkans and the Caucasus and incorporated many Muslims
within the Russian domain. It ran up against Chinese expansion in the Amur
River valley and retreated in the face of Chinese power while trading its
furs and skins for Chinese cotton cloth, silk, tea, and rhubarb root during
the eighteenth century. It was deflected from a New World presence by
European and American power and was stimulated to great internal change
by the threat of that growing power.

While Russia’s empire shared much with these other imperial societies, it
was also distinctive. Unlike European empires in which the mother country
and colonies were quite separate, in Russia that distinction hardly existed as
newly conquered areas generally became integrated politically and, at least
for the elites, culturally as well into the larger Russian state. Nonetheless,
by the end of the nineteenth century, relentless Russian expansion had made
Russians a minority in their own empire. That empire also had a distinct
psychology. The enormous scope of the empire testified to its aggressive
features, and its subject peoples, such as native Siberians, had painful
evidence of Russian brutality. Yet many Russians perceived themselves as
victims of other peoples’ aggression, remembering the devastating Mongol
invasion, the threat of nomadic raids from the steppe, and the growing
danger from powerful European countries. Russians were warriors, but they
often felt like victims. Finally, Russia’s empire had a unique duration.
While Europe’s American empires dissolved in the late eighteenth and early
nineteenth centuries and its subsequent Afro-Asian empires collapsed after
World War II, the Russian Empire, under Soviet communist auspices since

the revolution of 1917, continued intact until 1991, and the greater part of it
(namely, Siberia) remains still under Russian control.

Parallel Worlds
By the beginning of the early modern era, around 1450, four quite separate
“worlds,” or big interacting regions, had taken shape on the planet. By far,
the largest was the world of Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa. With perhaps
75 to 80 percent of the earth’s population, various Afro-Eurasian societies
had long interacted with one another and in doing so had generated the
largest and most expansive civilizations, the most productive agricultures,
the most highly developed technologies, and all the world’s literary
traditions. Islamic, Chinese, and Russian expansion in the early modern era
took place within this Afro-Eurasian world and continued its long-
established connections while deepening the web of relationships that
bound its peoples together. But beyond this vast region lay three other
smaller “worlds” that had developed independently before their brutal
incorporation into the “one world” born of Europe’s global expansion.

The World of Inner Africa

Much of the northern third of the African continent participated in the
religious and commercial networks of Afro-Eurasia. So too did much of
eastern Africa, home to the ancient Christian kingdom of Ethiopia and,
farther south, to the Islamic Swahili civilization along the coast of East
Africa, where dozens of commercially oriented city-states had for centuries
shared actively in the world of Indian Ocean trade. However, the rest of the
continent—inner Africa—was only marginally connected to this larger

By 1450, most of inner Africa was organized in small-scale, iron-using
agricultural or pastoral societies. In many places, these societies had
evolved into states or kingdoms. One cluster of complex states had emerged
in the area surrounding Lake Victoria by the sixteenth century. The largest
of them was Bunyoro, the king of which controlled large herds of cattle that

he redistributed to his followers. In the grasslands south of the Congo River
basin, a series of loosely connected states emerged about the same time and
created a zone of interaction from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean
across southern Africa. In southeastern Africa, the kingdom of Zimbabwe
generated a substantial urban center of 15,000 to 18,000 people at its height
in the fourteenth century, erected intricate huge stone enclosures, and
channeled its ivory and gold to Swahili traders on the coast. Here the world
of inner Africa and the larger world of Indian Ocean commerce had a
modest meeting. Yet another cluster of states, towns, and cities emerged in
what is now Nigeria, including the kingdoms of Igala, Nupe, and Benin and
the city-states of the Yoruba people. Trade in kola nuts, food products,
horses, copper, and manufactured goods linked these areas to one another
and to the larger savanna kingdoms farther north.

Elsewhere, African peoples structured their societies on the basis of
kinship or lineage principles without state organizations. These societies too
had long absorbed people, borrowed ideas and techniques, shared artistic
styles, and exchanged goods with neighboring peoples. When the pastoral
Masaai came into contact with the agricultural Kikuyu in the highlands of
central Kenya around 1750, they engaged in frequent military conflict that
the Masaai most often won. As a result, the Kikuyu adopted from the
Masaai age-based military regiments and related customs, such as the use of
ostrich-feather headdresses for warriors and the drinking of cow’s milk
before battle.

Some institutions or practices spread quite widely. Bananas, first
domesticated in Southeast Asia, found their way to Africa, where they
spread widely in the eastern region of the continent. The position of a
medicine man specializing in war magic was found in the northern savanna,
the forest areas of equatorial Africa, and also in the southern savanna
among peoples who are otherwise culturally very different. “They all
apparently wanted more effective war magic,” writes historian Jan Vansina,
“and so borrowed their neighbors’ way of getting it.”23 Inner Africa, an
interacting world of its own before 1450, would soon be rudely integrated
into the larger world system via the Atlantic slave trade, a subject explored
in greater detail in the next chapter.

The Amerindian World

Yet another self-contained “world” was that of the Americas, or the Western
Hemisphere, home to perhaps 40 to 100 million people. Here two major
centers of dense population, sophisticated cultural and artistic traditions,
and urban-based civilizations had emerged over the centuries. The Aztec
Empire, founded in the mid 1300s by the Mexica people, drew on long-
established civilizations in Mesoamerica. Its capital city of Tenochtitlan
with a population of perhaps 250,000 awed the Spanish invaders with its
elaborate markets, its high-quality crafts, its sophisticated agriculture, and
its specialized group of long-distance traders called pochteca. One
European observer wrote, “Some of our soldiers who had been in many
parts of the world, in Constantinople, in Rome, and all over Italy, said that
they had never seen a market so well laid out, so large, so orderly, and so
full of people.”24 But Mexica society also appalled them with its pervasive
human sacrifices, drawn largely from the ranks of conquered peoples. This
sharp division between the dominant Mexica and their many subject and
tribute-paying peoples was among the factors that facilitated Spanish
conquest in the early sixteenth century.

The Inca Empire, established only in 1440, covered a far larger territory
than its Aztec counterpart. With an impressive network of roads, amazing
cities high in the mountains, and a state-controlled economy, the Inca
Empire stretched some 2,500 miles along the western coast of South
America, incorporating dozens of conquered peoples and creating a huge
zone of interaction and cultural blening. The latest in a long series of
Andean civilizations, the Inca state, while no less a product of conquest
than the Aztec Empire, attempted actively to integrate its enormous realm.
Unlike the Aztec Empire, the Inca authorities encouraged the spread of their
Quechua language; a remarkable communication system, using a series of
knotted strings called quipus, enabled the central government to keep track
of the population and of the tribute and labor owed by subject peoples;
Quechua speakers were settled in various parts of the empire; and a system
of runners and way stations made possible rapid communication throughout
the realm.

But these two centers of urban-based civilization were probably unaware
of one another and had no direct contacts. Writing, developed earlier among
the Maya of Mesoamerica, never spread to the Andes, and the
domestication of the llama, guinea pig, and potato in the Andean highlands
did not penetrate farther north. Mexican maize, or corn, did spread slowly
through much of North America, and there is evidence for considerable
trade among the various peoples of the Mississippi valley and the eastern
woodlands in what is now the United States. The arrival of Mexican corn
apparently stimulated the development of small cities centered on huge
pyramid-like earthen mounds, similar to those of Mesoamerica. The largest
of these cities, Cahokia near presentday St. Louis, probably had a
population of 20,000 to 25,000 people at its height in the twelfth century,
roughly similar to that of London at the time.

Nonetheless, the network of relationships among the various societies of
the Americas was much more limited than among those in the Afro-
Eurasian world. This in turn limited the agricultural, technological, and
political development in the Americas in comparison with the more
frequent and stimulating encounters of Afro-Eurasian societies. Thus, many
peoples of the Americas practiced a relatively simple form of agriculture,
hunting-gathering styles of life also persisted in places such as California,
Afro-Eurasian forms of metallurgy were unknown, and the absence of pack
animals (apart from the llama in the Andes) put the burden of trade on

human shoulders. Despite evidence suggesting sporadic contacts across the
Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, no sustained interaction beyond the hemisphere
broke the isolation of the Americas until the fateful arrival of Columbus in

The World of Oceania

Finally, the “world” of Oceania, including Australia and the islands of the
central and western Pacific, represented another major region that had few
sustained connections to either the American or the Afro-Eurasian world.
But within Oceania, the many separate hunting-gathering societies of the
huge Australian landmass encountered one another and exchanged foods,
oyster shell jewelry, tools, skins, and furs. And the island peoples of
Polynesia, who had earlier navigated the vast Pacific to populate these
lands, developed sophisticated agricultural societies and highly stratified
states and chiefdoms. In some places, such as Tonga, Fiji, and Samoa,
people on nearby islands kept in regular touch with one another through
trade and intermarriage. The history of Oceanic peoples also took a sharp
turn when Europeans intruded violently into their domain in the eighteenth

Conclusion: Durability of Empire
Empires dominated the early modern world, as they did much of the ancient
world. Their strengths are obvious: large, well-organized military forces;
transportation and communication networks that reinforced unity and
control; and some degree of cultural conformity. Variations abounded. We
have noticed that some allowed a greater diversity of religion, some were
more mercantile, and others were more military. But they all proved adept
at controlling large populations over long periods of time. Why, then, have
they all disappeared? Did empires suffer from a particular fault that made
them ultimately untenable?

Two weaknesses are easy to diagnose. One is the problem of legitimacy,
and the other is succession or transition. They are related, of course. An

empire’s legitimacy was based on its exercise of unchallenged power. That
concentration of power in the hands of a single ruler was not easily
transferable on the emperor’s death. Mongol and Turkic rulers had a
tradition of allowing claimants to fight each other for rule, thus ensuring
that the strongest would govern and that possible challengers would be
neutralized. But this system resulted in heavy militarization and in a civil
war with each passing ruler. In the Mughal Empire, it became almost
common for a son to challenge his brother or father for succession.

The modern world has replaced empires with nation-states. The ideology
of nationalism provides a firmer legitimacy than the exercise of brute force,
especially when joined to a representative or democratic political process.
The roots of the modern national and democratic revolutions grew in
different terrain than that of the great empires. Nationalism and
representative democracy took root in small states and city-states on the
border of great empires. Such states were often controlled by merchants
rather than landed aristocracies or military leaders. Scattered along oceans
and seas, they breathed salt rather than dust. The maritime trading centers
of Italy and the North Atlantic were particularly important in this process. It
was not the great Habsburg Empire, which combined Spain and Germany,
but the tiny cities of the Netherlands, England, and Italy—more prosperous
than powerful—that were to nurture the successful politics of the modern

Suggested Readings
Bushkovitch, Paul. Peter the Great. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield,

2001. An up-to-date and readable biography of Russia’s modernizing

Goffman, Daniel. The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe. New
York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. An account of the Ottoman
Empire that attacks Western perceptions of it as exotic and wholly

Levathes, Louise. When China Ruled the Seas. New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1994. A fascinating and detailed account of China’s maritime
voyages during the Ming dynasty.

Richards, John F. The Mughal Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1993. A brief account of the rise and decline of the Mughal
Empire with a vivid account of Akbar’s reign.

———. The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early
Modern World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Examines on a global basis how expanding societies affected the

Tracy, James D., ed. The Rise of Merchant Empires: Long-Distance Trade
in the Early Modern World, 1350—1750. New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1990. An examination of global commerce stressing
the equivalence of Western and Asian contributions.

Wills, John E., Jr. 1688: A Global History. New York: Norton, 2001. A
fascinating tour of the world in 1688 with a focus on ordinary life.

1. Brett L. Walker, The Conquest of Ainu Lands: Ecology and Culture in

Japanese Expansion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 11.
2. William H. McNeill, “The Age of Gunpowder Empires,” in Islamic

and European Expansion, ed. Michael Adas (Philadelphia: Temple
University Press, 1993), 103—40.

3. John Richards, The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of
the Early Modern World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

4. Jack A. Goldstone, “Efflorescences and Economic Growth in World
History,” Journal of World History 13, no. 2 (Fall 2002): 351.

5. For this idea, see J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill, The Human
Web (New York: Norton, 2003), 181–84.

6. Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, vol. 1 (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1974), 71.

7. Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, vol. 3 (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1974).

8. Quoted in C. T. Forster and F. H. B. Daniell, eds., The Life and Letters
of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, vol. 1 (London: Kegan Paul, 1881).

9. Athar Abbas Rizvi, Religious and Intellectual History of the Muslims
in Akbars Reign (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1975),

10. Scott Levi, The Indian Diaspora in Central Asia and Its Trade, 1500–

1900 (Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2002).
11. Leo Africanus, History and Description of Africa, trans. John Pory

(London: Hakluyt Society, 1896). Originally published in 1600. Available
online at http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/nchist-colonial/1982.

12. Quoted in Norman Iztkowitz, Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition
(New York: Knopf, 1972), 106.

13. Richards, The Unending Frontier, p. 118.
14. Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas (New York: Simon and

Schuster, 1994), 175.
15. Robert Finlay, “The Treasure Ships of Zheng He: Chinese Maritime

Imperialism in the Age of Discovery,” in The Global Opportunity, ed.
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1995), 96.

16. Nicola Di Cosmo, “Qing Colonial Administration in Inner Asia,”
International History Review 20, no. 2 (June 1998): 287–309.

17. This section is based on Richards, The Unending Frontiers, chap. 3.
18. Richard Pipes, Russia under the Old Regime (New York: Scribners,

1974), 220.
19. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 1 (1835; reprint,

New York: Vintage Books, 1945), 452.
20. James Forsyth, A History of the Peoples of Siberia (Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1992), 115.
21. Quoted in Dominic Lieven, Empire: The Russian Empire and Its

Rivals (London: John Murray, 2000), 220.
22. M. M. Shcherbatov, On the Corruption of Morals in Russia

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969).
23. Philip Curtin et al., African History (Boston: Little, Brown, 1978),

24. Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain, trans. J. M. Cohen

(London: Penguin, 1963).


The Roots of Globalization


The European Explosion
Europe Outward Bound


A Changing Europe
The European Renaissance
The Reformation
The Scientific Revolution

The Making of an Atlantic World
American Differences

Disease and Disaster
Plants and Animals

Colonial Societies in the Americas
Settler Colonies
“Mixed-Race Colonies”
Plantation Colonies
North American Differences

The Impact of Empire
Africa and the Atlantic World

Origins of the Atlantic Slave Trade


African Slavery

The Slave Trade in Operation
Counting the Cost

Lost People
Political Variations
Economic Impact
The African Diaspora
The Slave Trade and Racism

Europe and Asia
Commerce and Coercion

Portuguese in the Indian Ocean
Limitations of Empire
The Economic Impact
The Silver Trade
American Crops in Asia

Missionaries in East Asia
Jesuits in China
Japan and European Missionaries

Europeans in Oceania
The Fruits of Empire

A World Economy
Eastern Europe in the World Economy
Spain and Portugal in the World Economy
Northwestern Europe in the World Economy
Changing Diets
Population Growth
Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate

New Knowledge
The First World Wars

Conclusion: Empire and Globalization

LOBALIZATION” SEEMS so twenty-first century. But that
process of building a dense web of relationships across the
boundaries of oceans, nations, regions, and civilizations

actually had its roots in the early modern era of world history. We have seen

how the empires of Eurasia stretched the web of contacts and trade between
1500 and 1800. What Europeans did in this period was to integrate the
previously unknown Western Hemisphere into that emerging global

This network was new in at least four major ways. First, it was genuinely
global, encompassing all the inhabited areas of the world, while earlier
networks had been limited to particular regions. Second, this new global
network came to have a single dominating center—western Europe. This
was quite different from the earlier Afro-Eurasian web in which various
peoples and societies participated on a more equal basis. Third, this new
global system worked far more profound changes on many of its
participants than had earlier transregional encounters. The twin tragedies of
the early modern world—the decimation of Native America peoples and the
Atlantic slave trade—vividly illustrate this unprecedented impact.

Finally, globalization was driven by the relentless expansionism and
quest for profits associated with modern capitalism. Earlier patterns of
expansion had been motivated by population pressures, dynastic and
military rivalries, religious conversion, and the search for exotic or high-
prestige goods—gold, silk, pottery, and ostrich feathers—that conveyed
status. Much of this continued after 1500, but at the heart of modern
globalization lay the endless acquisitiveness of corporate capitalism. The
European empires of the early modern era were increasing driven by the
quest for profits. Religion played a role in the early stages of the Spanish
conquest of the Americas and the colonial conflicts of the Protestant
Reformation. But from Columbus’s efforts to raise money for his voyages
to the granting of corporate charters to entities like the Massachusetts Bay
Company, the European settlement of the Americas was an endeavor of
capitalists as well as kings. The hallmarks of European expansion were the
great commercial trading companies such as the British East Indies
Company, the plantation economies of the New World, and the slave, silver,
and spice trades. By the nineteenth century, industrial capitalism, with its
voracious need for materials and markets, supplied the central driving force
of globalization. And in the twentieth century, especially its second half,
giant transnational corporations—like Boeing, Exxon, Mitsubishi, and
Microsoft—became primary players in the drama of globalization.

At the starting line of this new globalizing process were the peoples of
western Europe—the Portuguese, Spanish, English, French, and Dutch.

Through exploration, commerce, conquest, and settlement, they set in
motion a vast process of change that embraced most of the world.

In initiating this enormous process, Europeans bore the advantages
common to many Afro-Eurasian societies. Their food production capacity,
based on a variety of protein-rich grains, was far greater than that of the
Americas, which had a much more limited range of food crops. Afro-
Eurasians enjoyed a virtual monopoly on large domesticated animals
providing protein, power, and manure. They were also relatively more
immune to a wider range of diseases and possessed more sophisticated
technologies, including metallurgy, gunpowder, and means of harnessing
wind and water power. Many of these advantages derived from their larger
and more intensely interacting populations which could learn from one
another. Finally, Eurasians had more powerful states with literate elites able
to mobilize their societies’ resources on a large scale.1 On the basis of these
advantages, Europeans colonized the Americas, extracted millions of slaves
from Africa and, somewhat later, penetrated Oceania as well.

They also created new layers of linkages—both commercial and cultural
—among the already interacting societies of Afro-Eurasia. Here, however,
they confronted peoples that enjoyed many of the same advantages that
gave Europeans such an edge in their encounter with Native Americans.
Thus, throughout the early modern era, they were generally unable to
exercise in Asia and Africa the kind of political, military, and economic
domination that came with such relative ease in the Americas and Oceania.
Not until the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century dramatically
altered the balance of power within Afro-Eurasia did this situation change.

The European Explosion
No Martian would have predicted Europe’s explosion onto the global stage
after 1500. Since the end of the Roman Empire around 500 CE, the
European world had lost much of its claim to “civilization” as city life,
literacy, longdistance trade, and land under cultivation all declined sharply
along with any semblance of centralized political authority or stability. For
many centuries, Europe was a backwater in world affairs. Even when
Europeans began to rebuild the institutions of civilized life after 1000 CE,

they long remained on the periphery of Afro-Eurasian interaction, clearly
less developed, less unified, and less influential than the older centers of
civilization in China, India, or the Islamic world. Why, then, should western
Europe, rather than some other part of Afro-Eurasia, have led the way to the
“one world” of modern times?

Europe Outward Bound

Momentum. One answer is momentum. European societies, like those of
the Islamic world and China, had a long tradition of expansion. Memories
of the great Roman Empire lingered despite its collapse many centuries
earlier. And various European peoples had long been expanding internally,
creating larger states, growing populations, and wealthier societies since
around 1000 CE. Scandinavian Vikings had sailed the North Atlantic and
established briefly a colony in Newfoundland. Military conquest and
missionary activity brought Slavic peoples in the Baltic region into
Christian European civilization, and Catholic missionaries had reached both
India and China. European Christian Crusaders of the eleventh to thirteenth
centuries launched massive expeditions to reclaim the Holy Lands for
Christendom. The Spanish adventure into the Atlantic followed on the heels
of the Spanish Christian conquest of the Iberian Peninsula and the expulsion
of Muslims and Jews—not incidentally in 1492.

Opportunity. Another factor was opportunity, both geographical and
technological. Europe was simply closer to the Americas than any other
center of maritime voyaging, and its primary potential competitor, China,
had voluntarily withdrawn from oceangoing ventures in the fifteenth
century. West African societies, equally close to the Americas, had long
oriented their commerce northward across the Sahara toward the Islamic
world rather than seaward. Technologically, Europeans could draw on a
long tradition of Mediterranean and North Atlantic voyaging and on their
ability to borrow various navigational and shipbuilding techniques from
China and the Islamic world. By the fifteenth century, these pieces had
come together in a particular technology, the caravel—an efficient, full-
rigged, oceangoing sailing ship, outfitted with naval guns and a compass to
calculate its location with reasonable accuracy. It was of little use against
major land-based empires, like those of the Turks, Chinese, or Russians, but

it was fast and maneuverable on the open sea and able to carry heavy

Motivation. Once naval technology made it possible, many European
groups and individuals found overseas expansion an attractive proposition.
European society was in fact distinguished by a widespread support for
overseas expansion in contrast to the very limited enthusiasm for it in
China. For some, it was the militant crusading tradition with its fierce
antagonism toward Islam that motivated expansion. One goal of the
Portuguese voyages around Africa was to join forces with a legendary
Christian kingdom of “Prester John,” located vaguely somewhere in Africa
or central Asia, and to fight Muslims together. Religious hostility to Islam
was only compounded by the frustrating need to rely on Muslim
intermediaries for access to Asian spices and luxury goods, such as nutmeg,
ginger, pepper, and cloves, which wealthy Europeans so highly prized.

A further source of support for overseas expansion came from a growing
merchant class, benefiting from western Europe’s increasingly active
commercial life. They easily imagined vast profits if direct access to these
treasures could be achieved, and Italian merchants in particular generously
funded Portuguese overseas expeditions. In some parts of western Europe,
such as England and the Netherlands, such men of commerce and business
acquired a social prestige and political influence unknown in most other
societies, which were socially dominated by landowning aristocracies.
Furthermore, European mon-archs, perpetually short of revenue to run their

kingdoms and fight their wars, saw a taxable overseas trade very much in
their interests. Their endless competition with one another, so different from
the single centralized empire of China, also provided a motor for
continuous expansion once the process got under way. And impoverished
members of the landowning nobility needed new sources of wealth, for
declining income from feudal payments was eroding their economic base.
This was particularly true in a small country such as Portugal with little
room for internal expansion.

Beyond these particular sources of support for overseas expansion,
Europe’s economy as a whole was running short of gold needed to finance
its growing internal trade and to pay for spices, jewels, and other Asian
luxuries for its wealthy elite. The initial motive for the Portuguese voyages
was to gain direct access not to Asian spices but to West African gold
fields, long monopolized by North African Muslim middlemen. And
Europe’s agriculture, based on wheat and livestock, could expand only by
adding territory, whereas the more intensive rice agriculture of Asia could
grow by the application of more labor. Thus, the increasing desire in Europe
for wheat, sugar, meat, and fish meant that Europeans needed new lands to
support the growth of their economies.2

Behind all these motives lay the perception of many Europeans that the
“East” held the promise of great wealth. It was an acknowledgment that
theirs was a relatively “underdeveloped” society. Europeans, after all, were
seeking routes to Asia; few Asians were looking for ways to get to Europe.

A Changing Europe

Europe’s overseas expansion drew strength and energy from an unusually
wide range of internal changes. It was the youngest of the world’s major
civilizations, having taken shape only after 1000 CE, and it proved willing
to borrow from the more established civilizations of Asia and the Islamic
world. It was recovering from the disruption of the Black Death of the
fourteenth century, which had reduced its population by perhaps one-third.
As population grew again, new and stronger states, such as England,
France, and Spain, were gaining a greater capacity to mobilize the resources
of their societies. A growing economy was developing the institutions of an

early capitalism, such as banks, insurance companies, stock exchanges,
joint stock companies, and a wealthy merchant class.

The European Renaissance. At the same time, Europeans began to think
in less religious and more secular terms about their place in the world. The
Renaissance, a flowering of urban culture between the fourteenth and
sixteenth centuries, reflected this new consciousness. Artists and writers
sought inspiration in the non-Christian literature of classical Greece and
Rome. Princes patronized artists, such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci,
and Raphael, whose paintings and sculptures were far more naturalistic,
especially in portraying the human body, than their medieval counterparts.
Europeans read humanistic scholars who argued that Christians could
legitimately involve themselves in the real world of marriage, business, and
politics rather than withdrawing into the secluded life of monasteries.

The Reformation. The Protestant Reformation likewise challenged older
patterns of thought. It began in 1517 when the German monk Martin Luther
raised a public protest against the abuses of the Catholic Church (such as
selling indulgences said to remove the penalties for sin) and against some of
its doctrines as well. To Luther, the source of religious belief was no longer
the pope or the Church hierarchy but the Bible alone, interpreted by the
individual’s conscience. These protests shattered the unity of the Catholic
Church, which had for the previous 1,000 years provided the cultural and
organizational foundation of Western civilization. Now a proliferation of
“protestant” churches, all rejecting the authority of the pope, called into
question the answers to life’s big questions that the Catholic Church had
long provided and encouraged a skeptical attitude toward authority and

The Scientific Revolution. Europe’s overseas expansion also coincided
with its scientific revolution. From the time of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-
1543) to that of Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the view of the universe held by
educated Europeans fundamentally changed. Instead of an earth centered
under a canopy of heavenly orbs, propelled by angels and spirits, scientists
began to see their planet as one of many in an infinite space. Yet the sun and
innumerable stars seemed to be governed by the same principles as life on
the earth, and these principles were discoverable by systematic observation,
measurement, and theorizing. Highly polished Dutch lenses were turned on
distant stars and previously invisible life on Earth to reveal regularities of
motion, mass, and matter. The gravity that held us to our planet was the

same as the force that kept the planets on their paths and prevented the
objects of the earth from flying apart.

Certainly, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the scientific revolution
did not cause Europe’s overseas thrust, but in their challenge to
conventional thinking and in their emphasis on the power of individuals,
these movements created a cultural environment that supported those who
ventured abroad and contributed to Europe’s vigorous response to these
new opportunities.

The Making of an Atlantic World
The most significant outcome of Europe’s early modern expansion was the
creation of an Atlantic world—a network of communication and exchange
involving Europe, Africa, and North and South America. Germs, plants,
animals, people, cultures, ideas, products, and money—all this circulated
across the Atlantic world, linking forever four continents. While Islamic,
Chinese, and Russian expansion continued older patterns of world history,
Europe’s Atlantic imperialism gave rise to something wholly new and with
genuinely global reverberations.

When the Spanish monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand sent the Genoese
Christopher Columbus west to find the East, both they and he anticipated
the development of trading connections with the richer civilizations of Asia.
From their perspective, the discovery of America was an “immense
disappointment, a heart-breaking obstacle on the hoped for route to the
East.”3 The technologically simple societies inhabiting the Caribbean and
the eastern coast of the Americas provided few trading opportunities. But it
soon became apparent that other possibilities were at hand—vast expanses
of fertile land, a potential native labor force, and heartening rumors of
abundant gold and silver. From these possibilities, the Spanish and
Portuguese—and later the British and French—fashioned empires in the
Americas quite different from Islamic, Chinese, or Russian empires.

American Differences

Conquest. The rapid pace of conquest was the first important difference.
Attracted by the promise of precious metals, the Spanish led the way,
transferring to the Americas many of the patterns of conquest, conversion,
and colonization that they had pioneered during centuries of struggle
against the Muslim rulers of Spain itself. The speed and sweep of Spanish
conquest in the Americas resembled only the previous conquests of early
Islam. Within 50 years, most of what was to be known as the Americas had
been claimed for the Spanish crown. These conquests included the
sophisticated empires of the Aztecs and the Incas as well as the Indians of
North America and the much of the Caribbean.

While they encountered stiff resistance in many places, the Spanish—and
later the other imperial powers—were able in the long run to dominate
native peoples who proved fatally vulnerable to European weapons,
European diseases, and their own internal divisions.

The collapse of the Aztec Empire provides a telling example. In just two
years (15191521), this expanding and prosperous state was suddenly and
devastatingly overwhelmed. A small Spanish force, led by Hernando Cortes
and joined by thousands of hostile subjects of the Aztec Empire, decisively
defeated the Aztec defenders. The capital city of Tenochtit-lan was left in
ruins. The last Aztec emperor, Cuahtemoc, surrendered and, in a face-to-
face meeting with Cortes, placed his hand on the Spaniard’s dagger and
begged to be killed, “for you have already destroyed my city and killed my
people.”4 While the former subjects of the Aztec Empire, from whom
captives had long been seized for human sacrifice, may have rejoiced at
their liberation, for the dominant Mexica people all was lamentation, as
reflected in this poem composed shortly after conquest:

Broken spears lie in the roads;
we have torn our hair in our grief.
The houses are roofless now, and their

are red with blood.
Worms are swarming in the streets and

and the walls are splattered with gore.
The water has turned red, as if it were

and when we drink it,
it has the taste of brine.
We have pounded our hands in despair
against the adobe walls,

for our inheritance, our city, is lost and

The shields of our warriors were its

but they could not save it.
We have chewed dry twigs and salt

we have filled our mouths with dust and

bits of adobe;
we have eaten lizards, rats, and worms.5

Disease and Disaster. Isolated for thousands of years from the world of
Afro-Eurasia, the inhabitants of the Americas lacked immunity to common
diseases on the other side of the Atlantic. Smallpox, measles, yellow fever,
and malaria swept into oblivion both millions of individuals and many
entire peoples in the Americas. The native population of the Caribbean,
estimated at several million in 1492, numbered only several thousand by the
1540s. A densely populated Mexico with perhaps 14 million people
declined by 90 percent or more within a century of Cortes’s arrival in 1519.
Far more than Spanish conquistadores or missionaries, the germs of Europe
and Africa shaped the transatlantic encounter.

The deadly impact of disease was only exacerbated by the brutality of
European rule. A young sixteenth-century priest, Bartolome de Las Casas,

wrote an eyewitness account of Spanish behavior on the Caribbean island of

Into this land of meek outcasts there came some Spaniards who immediately behaved like
ravening wild beasts . . . that had been starved for many days. And the Spaniards behaved in
no other way during the past 40 years . . . , for they are still . . . killing, terrorizing, torturing,
and destroying the native peoples, doing all this with the strangest and most varied new
methods of cruelty, never seen or heard of before. . . . After the wars and killings had ended . .
. , the survivors were distributed among the Christians to be slaves . . . to send the men to the
mines to dig for gold, which is intolerable labor, and to send the women into the fields of the
big ranches to hoe and till the land. . . . And the men died in the mines and the women died on
the ranches from the same causes, exhaustion and hunger. And thus was depopulated that
island which had been densely populated.6

From this combination of disease and brutality emerged a demographic
catastrophe of genocidal proportions, albeit largely unintentional. Nothing
of this magnitude accompanied Chinese or Islamic expansion that operated
within a common disease environment; it was a distinctive and horrifying
feature in the making of the Atlantic world and one that was replicated in
parts of Oceania in the nineteenth century. It was, however, similar to the
fate of many other isolated peoples in earlier times when they were
incorporated into urban-based civilizations bearing new and deadly

Plants and Animals. Accompanying Europeans in their conquest of the
Americas were not only their pathogens but also their plants and animals,
which likewise contributed enormously to transforming the Western
Hemisphere and its peoples. The introduction of sugarcane gave rise to
plantation economies and the massive use of African slaves, thus shaping
the entire social structure of the Americas. The importation of cows and
horses produced ranching economies and cowboy culture in both North and
South America and transformed the societies of numerous Native American
peoples. The Pawnee of the North American Great Plains, for example, had
lived as settled farmers in sedentary villages, hunting bison only on a
seasonal basis. But with the adoption of the horse, hunting bison became a
year-round occupation, temporary tepees replaced permanent houses, and
the economic role of women diminished as a male-dominated hunting and
warrior culture emerged. European imports like sheep, cattle, goats, and
especially pigs, together with grapes, wheat, and various European
vegetables, also flourished in the Americas and made possible the
reproduction of major elements of European ways of life in a new setting.

After all, the first conquistadores wondered, how was it possible to live in a
country without bread and wine?

Migrations. The demographic disaster that accompanied European
conquest of the Americas created not only human suffering on an epic scale
but also an enormous labor shortage that opened the way to massive
European and African migration in the four centuries following the arrival
of Columbus. It was the largest and most rapid population transfer in world
history. The infusion of these new populations gave European empires in
the Americas their most distinctive quality. Until the nineteenth century,
African slaves were far more numerous than European immigrants, with
more than 6 million arriving in the eighteenth century alone. After that, the
slave trade gradually diminished, and the flood tide of European migration
took over with some 55 million people leaving Europe between 1820 and
1930, the vast majority of them headed for the Americas.7

Colonial Societies in the Americas

Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans mixed and mingled in various
ways, depending on the extent of the demographic disaster, on the policies
of various colonial powers, and on the economies that the newcomers
erected. Out of this vast process of cultural transplantation and blending
emerged several distinct kinds of colonial societies in the Americas. What
they had in common was their novelty. While the Ottoman, Mughal, and
Chinese empires largely incorporated existing societies and changed them
only modestly, the European empires in the Americas gave rise to wholly
new societies.

Settler Colonies. In the northern colonies of Britain and France, such as
those in New England and Quebec, settlement colonies developed, largely
without slaves, in which Europeans constituted the great majority of the
population. By the late eighteenth century, people of European descent
comprised about 80 percent of the population of British North America, far
higher than in any of the Latin American colonies, where Europeans were
generally a distinct minority. In this respect, North America resembled
Siberia, where Russians and Russian culture likewise overwhelmed the
indigenous people. British settlers sought both to escape the religious,
political, and social restrictions of England and to transplant many elements

of European culture in what was to them a New World. Authorities in
Virginia wanted to limit horse racing to “men of the better sort,” while laws
in Massachusetts forbade ordinary people from wearing fine clothes that
implied a higher social status. But the vastness of the territory and the easy
availability of land gradually eroded sharp class distinctions and created a
more flexible and fluid society with more individualism and opportunity for
social mobility than had existed in the “mother country.”

“Mixed-Race Colonies.” A second kind of colonial society developed in
the highland areas of Mexico and Peru, home to the Aztec and Inca
empires. In these areas of great wealth and more concentrated population,
Spanish colonizers merely replaced the existing hierarchy with their own
authoritarian rulers, who made use of various forms of forced labor in
extracting mineral wealth, in agricultural production, and in workshops.
These native laborers, often grossly abused and exploited, made possible
the great highland estates, some producing for export, others providing
cattle and grain to sustain the cities and mining areas. Other Indian laborers
toiled to premature death in grueling mines, such as those at Guanajuato in
north-central Mexico and Potosi in present-day Bolivia, where the
enormous output of silver fueled much of the emerging world economy.
Such miners were sometimes kept underground from Monday to Saturday
evening, with their wives bringing them food. When wage labor began to
replace forced labor in the seventeenth century, perpetual indebtedness and
high taxes kept native workers in low-paying jobs, often living little better
than slaves. In these regions, a substantial minority of white settlers,
primarily male, ruled a large Native American population and intermarried
with them to produce a mixed-race group known as mestizos.

Plantation Colonies. Perhaps the most novel of all colonial societies
grew up around the plantation economies in the tropical lowlands of the
Americas. This kind of agricultural production, organized in large-scale
units and worked by slaves, had been pioneered in the Mediterranean as
Europeans learned about sugarcane from Arabs during the Crusades and
created plantations to produce this very laborintensive product. As they
moved out into the Atlantic in the fifteenth century, they established sugar
producing plantations on offshore islands such as Madeira, the Canaries,
and Sao Tome and from there transferred them to the Americas, especially
the Caribbean, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Guatemala and in the
southern colonies of British North America. Producing sugar initially and
then coffee, tobacco, indigo, rice, and cotton, the plantations themselves
operated largely with African slave labor supervised by a relatively small
group of white owners and managers. Thus, a wholly immigrant society
emerged in which Africans vastly outnumbered Europeans, while Native
Americans in these areas had largely died out or been pushed out. The

extremely harsh conditions under which the slaves worked made it difficult
to form stable families or even to survive very long. Brazilian slave owners
coldly calculated a slave’s life expectancy at only seven years. This meant
that slave populations, except in North America, rarely became self-
reproducing, requiring plantation owners to buy new slaves on a regular
basis. And unlike the original sugar plantations in the Mediterranean, where
slaves came from many places, including Muslim North Africa and
Slavicspeaking regions around the Black Sea, in the Americas slavery took
on its unique exclusive association with Africa.

American plantation societies were novel as well in their highly
internationalized system of production. Europeans from Spain, Portugal,
England, France, and the Netherlands supplied the capital and managerial
expertise, exercised complete political control, and reaped the profits of the
system. Africa supplied the workers in return for European manufactured
goods. The plantations themselves were specialized units that operated in an
almost industrial pattern of highly disciplined work; they produced, for the
first time in world history, for a mass market in Europe; they imported
much of their food and supplies; and they relied heavily on the use of credit
to keep this vast network of international transactions going. In these ways,
the plantation system pioneered major elements of a modern globalized
economy, even while maintaining the ancient pattern of slavery as the basis
for the entire enterprise.

North American Differences. Within the world of Atlantic plantations,
those in the southern colonies of British North America were unique in
several ways. First, a far smaller number of slaves were imported into North
American colonies, about 6 percent of the total compared to 40 percent to
the Caribbean, 37 percent to Brazil, and 15 percent to mainland Spanish
America. Thus, unlike many Latin American territories, people of African
descent remained a minority in most North American plantation societies.
But slaves there became self-reproducing as they did not in most of Latin
America, thus requiring the importation of fewer new slaves. Some
historians have suggested that this may have diluted the African cultural
heritage of slave communities in North America and rendered them less
likely to rebel or run away compared to their Latin American counterparts.
Finally, North American plantation societies, despite considerable racial
mixing, never developed the various “mixed-race” categories and
distinctions that were widely recognized elsewhere in the Americas. The

children of Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved mistress Sally Hemmings
were regarded as black rather than mestizo. The racial divide was sharper in
North America, and the white antipathy toward Africans as black people,
not just as slaves, was more pronounced.

The colonies that became the United States evolved differently than those
of Spanish America. They were founded a century later and in a region that
lacked the dense native populations, great empires, large cities, and
precious metals that seemed to give the Spanish colonies such initial
advantages. Indeed, when the British constructed their first buildings in
Jamestown in 1607, the Spanish had already established nearly a dozen
major cities, two great viceroyalties in Mexico and Peru, many universities,
hundreds of churches and missions, and a sophisticated network of
regulated commerce. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,
the North American colonies by contrast were widely regarded as
something of a backwater in terms of population, commercial potential, and
their role in the world economy. Yet precisely these “backward” colonies
became the wealthy, politically stable, global superpower of the twentieth
century, while the former Spanish and Portuguese colonies long remained
divided, impoverished, and politically volatile.

The Impact of Empire

Whatever their particular features, all of these American empires had a far
more profound impact on indigenous societies than did the Ottoman,
Mughal, Chinese, or West African empires. Part of this difference is
reflected in the brutal facts of rapid conquest and in catastrophic population
declines. Furthermore, the export economies of the Americas, producing
precious metals and agricultural goods for a European market, led to
extensive demands for land and labor that dispossessed millions and
thoroughly disrupted traditional societies. This disruption contributed much
to the wide acceptance of Christianity, which was force-fed to the dispirited
Native American populations, especially in Spanish America. Many no
doubt felt that their own gods had deserted them as did the Mexica poet
who asked plaintively after the Spanish conquest, “Have you grown weary
of your servants? Are you angry with your servants, O Giver of Life?”8

Neither the Ottomans in Europe nor the Mughals in India nor the Chinese in

inner Asia made such a concerted effort to bring a new religion to their
subject peoples. But as Christianity was adopted, it was also modified as
native peoples interpreted it through the lens of their own beliefs. The cross,
for example, was similar to the Mayan tree of life and to the prayer sticks of
the Pueblo, and while Christian churches were built on the remains of
destroyed temples, American Indians assimilated Christian saints and feast
days into their traditional gods and celebrations.

The environmental impact of European intrusion into the Americas was
likewise remarkable. Fur trappers in North America largely eliminated
beavers and drastically thinned the herds of deer. The walrus and the
bowhead whale largely vanished from the North Atlantic in the wake of
European fishing, while still-abundant codfish diminished in size. Settlers
and plantation owners began the deforestation of the Western Hemisphere
and plowed its prairies for the first time. In the absence of natural predators,
the animals of Europe—sheep, goats, cattle, horses, and pigs—reproduced
spectacularly both in domesticated settings and in the wild. Their arrival
and the dramatic increase in their numbers, coinciding with the sharp
decline in the native human population, marked a dramatic change in the
ecology of the Americas. European plant life—both crops and weeds—
colo-nized the Americas along with their human carriers. When Charles
Darwin visited Argentina and Chile in the 1830s, he was amazed at the
spread of the wild artichoke. “I doubt,” he wrote, “whether any case is on
record of an invasion on so grand a scale of one plant over the aborigines.”9

Africa and the Atlantic World
The making of an Atlantic world occasioned two of the great tragedies of
modern world history—the destruction of Native American populations and
the Atlantic slave trade. The second of these processes deeply engaged
African societies, particularly along the western coast of the continent
during the four centuries between roughly 1450 and 1850. African
individuals were the chief victims of this horrendous traffic, some 11
million of whom were shipped to the Americas and uncounted millions
more who died in the process of capture and during the horrors of the
Middle Passage.10 But African societies, unlike those in the Americas, were

not subject to European conquest or colonial rule in early modern times.
They retained their political independence, and their political and economic
elites were active participants in the slave trade. This tragedy unfolded quite
differently from that which befell Native Americans.

Origins of the Atlantic Slave Trade

Demand. As a relationship of commerce rather than conquest, the slave
trade had its origins in a unique combination of demand and supply. The
demand, of course, came from the European plantation economies in the
Americas desperately in search of workers and seeking to imitate the slave
labor solution pioneered on earlier plantations in the Mediterranean and
Atlantic islands. Native Americans died in appalling numbers, creating the
labor shortage, while Europeans, initially employed as indentured servants,
could increasingly claim that being “white” or Christian should exempt
them from forced labor. Africans were attractive candidates to fill the void
because they were skilled farmers, herders, and miners and because they
possessed substantial immunity to both European and tropical diseases.
They were also, relatively speaking, close to the Americas, and European
seafaring technology made their transportation across the Atlantic

Supply. They were also available. This question of supply is perhaps
more difficult to understand than that of demand. Why would African
societies willingly sell their own people to strangers? One answer is that,
for the most part, they did not perceive the question in this way. In the early
modern era, no common identity as Africans existed on the continent. The
West and central African region targeted by the slave trade was divided
among several larger kingdoms, such as Benin and the Kongo; many
“microstates” or chief-doms; and a large number of lineage-based societies
without any state structure at all. Dozens—even hundreds—of languages
were spoken, though trade, migration, intermarriage, and warfare had
created substantial connections among these diverse peoples. Those
individuals funneled into the slave trade were in general outsiders or
marginal to their societies—prisoners of war, criminals, impoverished folks
“pawned” by their families in times of debt, or desperate people fleeing

famine or oppression. These were people without the protection of a lineage
or kinship group, which formed the basis of most African societies.

African Slavery. Furthermore, slavery was a long-established institution
in most African societies, just as it had been in many other agricultural
civilizations in the Mediterranean, the Islamic world, Russia, China, and
elsewhere. For centuries, a small number of slaves had been sent across the
Sahara to North Africa and across the Indian Ocean to various Middle
Eastern and South Asian destinations. Most African slaves, however,
remained in Africa. They worked the estates of kings and other wealthy
people. Most were treated as members of their master’s family or lineage.
As such, they or their descendants might become people of influence as
court officials, soldiers, or traders. Their lives were very different from
what was to become the fate of slaves in the Americas. They did not work
on plantations or mines; they had protected places in a society that they
knew and understood.

At first, Europeans bought Africans who were already slaves. But as the
European demand for slave labor in the Americas increased, fewer were
available for purchase. As the price of slaves increased fivefold between

1680 and 1840, African slave traders hunted farther inland and militarized
coastal states mounted expeditions for the express purpose of capturing
slaves for sale to America. Long accustomed to market transactions
involving products and people, African elites—both official and private—
proved willing and able to supply the external demand for slaves on the
basis of their own economic and political interests.

The Slave Trade in Operation

The actual operation of the slave trade was broadly similar to that of the
spice trade in Asia. European merchants established competing trading
posts along the West African coast, from Senegal in the north to Angola in
the south. Some of these trading posts were fortified, others were merely a
few buildings to store goods and to keep slaves waiting for transshipment,
and elsewhere still, Europeans simply traded from their ships anchored

Europeans exercised even less political control in Africa than they did in
Asia. There was little existing oceanic trade to capture and control, as they
tried to do in the Indian Ocean. Fortifications along the West African coast
provided protection from European rivals rather than from African
adversaries. Where Europeans established permanent trading stations or
“factories,” it was with the permission of local African rulers and usually
involved the payment of rent, tariffs, and fees of various kinds.

An assault of an African by a European could be treated harshly. In one
such case in the 1680s, a British agent tried to defend such an assault. He
went to explain what happened to the king of Niumi, who was sitting under
a tree surrounded by his slave bodyguards. Evidently, the king wanted an
apology, not a debate:

One of the grandees [slave-bodyguards of the king], by name Sambalama, taught him better
manners by reaching him a box on the ears, which beat off his hat, and a few thumps on the
back, and seizing him, disarmed him together with the rest of his attendance . . . and several
others, who together with the agent were taken and put into the kings pound and stayed there
three or four days till their ransom was brought, value five hundred bars.11

The inland trade, involving the capture, provisioning, and transporting of
slaves to the coast, was almost entirely in the hands of African political and
social elites, who were often in bitter competition with one another for the
trade goods—textiles, metalware, firearms, decorative items, alcohol, and
tobacco—that Europeans offered in exchange for human merchandise. With
the exception of a vague Portuguese control over Angola, nowhere in
Africa did the trade in slaves lead to the kind of territorial empires common
in the Americas. And with the exception of a small Dutch outpost in South
Africa, nowhere in Africa did Europeans settle in large numbers as they did
in the Western Hemisphere.

Counting the Cost

Lost People. The impact of the Atlantic slave trade in Africa was both
profound and uneven. Demographically, it removed millions of people,
mostly men in their prime working years, and severely retarded the normal
growth of African populations at a time when European and Asian
populations were beginning their modern growth spurt. And it introduced a
number of new diseases, though without the catastrophic impact
experienced in the more isolated Americas. On the other hand, new
American crops, especially maize and cassava, probably increased the food
supply and partially offset the population losses from disease and export.12

Political Variations. The participation of African societies in the slave
trade and its impact on them varied greatly depending on their social and
economic organization, proximity to inland trade routes, the local political
condition, population density, and other factors. Some small societies,
targeted for extensive slave raiding, were virtually destroyed. Large
kingdoms, such as the Kongo, were torn apart as outlying provinces and
ambitious individuals established their own trading connections with
European merchants. In 1526, the king of the Kongo, Nzinga Mbemba,

wrote a pleading letter to the king of Portugal, describing the damage which
the slave trade was inflicting on his kingdom:

Many of our people, keenly desirous as they are of the wares and things of your Kingdom,
which are brought here by your people, and in order to satisfy their voracious appetite, seize
many of our people, freed and exempt men, and very often it happens that they kidnap even
noblemen and the sons of noblemen, and our relatives, and take them to be sold to the white
men who are in our Kingdom. . . . And as soon as they are taken by the white men they are
immediately ironed and branded with fire. . . . To avoid such a great error and inconvenience .
. . we beg of you to be agreeable and kind enough to send us two physicians and two
apothecaries and one surgeon, so that they may come with their drugstores and all the
necessary things to stay in our kingdoms.13

Other states, such as Asante and Dahomey, arose in reaction to the slave
trade and tried to take advantage of its economic possibilities while
protecting their own people from its ravages. The Kingdom of Benin was
unique in its relatively successful efforts to avoid a deep involvement in the
slave trade and to diversify the exports with which it purchased European
firearms and other goods.

In some cases, participation was brief. Along the coast of Sierra Leone,
for example, a series of wars in the mid-sixteenth century produced a large
number of slaves for sale, but when political stability returned, trade
focused much more heavily on local products such as beeswax, camwood,
ivory, and gold. Elsewhere, extensive and prolonged involvement produced
major social changes. Along the delta of the Niger River, societies of
fishing villages organized on lineage principles were transformed into small
monarchies in which extended family groups assimilated large numbers of
slaves and became powerful “houses” with extensive commercial networks.
Drawing on sources of slaves among the Igbo in the immediate interior,
these transformed societies of the Niger River delta became the largest
slave exporters in eighteenth-century West Africa.

Economic Impact. From an economic viewpoint, the slave trade
increasingly oriented West Africa commerce toward the Atlantic and
growing integration within the emerging European-centered world economy
and away from its earlier focus northward across the Sahara. Except on the
coast, this new trade had little impact on African domestic industries as
local textile and iron producers found continued demand for their products.
But neither did it stimulate any real economic development. “The total
impact of the trade,” a leading historian of the slave trade wrote, “has to be

measured not by what actually happened but against the might-have-been if
Africa’s creative energy had been turned instead to some other end than that
of building a commercial system capable of capturing and exporting some
eighty thousand people a year.”14

The African Diaspora. In a global perspective, the major outcome of the
slave trade lay in a vast spread of African peoples across the Atlantic world,
a process commonly known as the African diaspora. Africans by the
millions were deposited in the Americas, where they functioned both as
laborers and as bearers of culture. As fieldworkers, domestic servants, or
skilled artisans, slaves constituted a coerced and cheap labor force whose
ruthless exploitation contributed greatly to the wealth of the American
colonies and their European homelands. And despite the horrors of the
Middle Passage across the Atlantic, Africans brought their cultures with
them. Their languages, religious ideas, foods, music, social patterns, and
aesthetic standards all contributed to the making of African American
cultures, which in turn influenced Euro-American cultures as well. Foods
such as corn mush, gumbo, fritters, cooked greens, and batter-fried chicken
all had African origins. Syncretic or blended religions, such as Vodou in
Haiti, Santeria in Cuba, and Can-domble in Brazil, mixed Christian beliefs
and practices such as church attendance, the search for salvation, and the
use of candles and statues with African elements including drumming,
dancing, animal sacrifice, and spirit possession.

Slaves also played a political role in colonial America, especially when
their actions threatened the social order. By 1650, hundreds of runaway
slave communities had been established throughout the Americas. They
ranged from small villages of 50 to 200 people to more centralized states
with many thousands of inhabitants, such as Palmares in Brazil. Such
communities interacted with Native American societies who often sheltered
them and had to contend with European settlers who sought to destroy
them. Even more threatening to Europeans were slave rebellions. The
largest and most successful of these occurred in the French colony of Saint-
Dominique (modern Haiti) in the 1790s. It was stimulated by the liberating
ideas of the French Revolution, and it gave rise to the second independent
state in the Americas and the first to be ruled by people of African descent.
Its violent attacks on white planters contributed much to the conservatism
of later Latin American independence movements whose elite leaders

feared triggering further revolutionary upheavals and challenges to white

The Slave Trade and Racism. A further legacy of the slave trade was
racism. Europeans were better able to tolerate their brutal exploitation of
Africans by imagining that these Africans were an inferior race or, better
still, not even human. Lasting far longer than the slave trade itself, a racism
that denigrated people of African descent served to justify the later colonial
takeover of Africa and structured social life in African colonies. It found its
fullest expression in the apartheid system of South Africa, which attempted
to separate blacks and whites in every conceivable way while exploiting
black labor in the economy. In the Americas, the abolition of slavery in the
1800s, far from ending racism, probably made it worse, for now the former
slaves could exercise, at least potentially, a certain amount of economic and
political influence. In the United States, the outcome was a racially inspired
segregation, pervasive discrimination, and publicly sanctioned outbursts of
violence against African Americans, poisoning the social life of the country
into the twenty-first century.

Europe and Asia
European expansion in early modern times was unique in its genuinely
global scope, encompassing in various ways the Americas, Africa, and
Asia. But while Europeans dominated the Atlantic, conquering and ruling
the Americas and extracting millions of slaves from Africa, their entry into
Asian waters was quite different and produced a generally far more modest
impact on Asian societies.

Commerce and Coercion

Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese were the first. Once
Vasco da Gama showed the way around Africa to India in 1498, the
Portuguese, with their efficient sailing ships and powerful onboard cannon,
smashed into an ancient and complex maritime trading system that included
Arab, Indian, Malay, and Chinese merchants and extended from East Africa

to East Asia. Had they wanted only to trade, the Portuguese could have
competed freely in this open commercial network. But far from home and
with limited resources, fired by a militant Christianity, and schooled in the
ruthless rivalries of European warfare, the Portuguese sought to control by
force of arms the enormously valuable trade in spices, which had drawn
them to the East. The total absence of armed ships in the Indian Ocean
following the Chinese withdrawal and the relative lack of interest of the
major land powers meant that the Portuguese were able to seize and fortify
major transfer points for the Indian Ocean trade—Kilwa and Mombasa on
the East African coast, Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, Goa in
western India, Malacca on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, and
Ternate in the Spice Islands of Indonesia. In East Asia, where the
Portuguese encountered the powerful Chinese and Japanese states, they
established trade relations and small settlements only with the permission of
local authorities.

Competitors. Here was a “trading-post empire,” designed to control
commerce rather than large populations or land areas. It was similar to the
kind of control Europeans sought to exercise along the West African coast
during the slave trade rather than the territorial and settlement empires they
constructed in the Americas. By the seventeenth century, this Portuguese
trading-post empire, overextended in Asia and without a strong base in
Europe, confronted vigorous competition from the Dutch and English.
Operating through private commercial East India companies rather than
direct state control, these rising northern European merchants established
their own parallel and competing trading-post empires, with the Dutch
focusing on what is now Indonesia and the British on India.

Limitations of Empire. The impact of these European intrusions on Asian
societies was important but modest. Political control was generally confined
to small and divided coastal societies where European military resources,
often numbering only a dozen or so ships and several hundred men, could
be effective. Beyond their coastal trading posts, Europeans established real
control only in parts of the Philippines and Indonesia, island chains where
the Spanish and Dutch, respectively, faced politically fragmented peoples
who were unprotected by their larger neighbors on the mainland of Asia.
These larger Asian powers—the Ottoman Empire, Safavid Persia, Mughal
India, China, and Japan—were little threatened by the modest military
forces of seagoing Europeans, far from their bases of supply. Europeans

could be useful to these societies in various ways, but throughout the early
modern era, the great Asian powers generally established the rules of the
game. As late as 1795 the Chinese emperor Ch’ien Lung decisively rejected
a British request for additional trading privileges in a famous letter to King
George III that reflected China’s view of the world:

Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its
own borders. There was therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in
exchange for our own produce. But as the silk, tea, and porcelain which the Celestial Empire
produces are absolute necessities to European nations and to yourselves, we permitted as a
signal mark of favor, that foreign hongs [companies] should be established at Canton, so that
your wants may be supplied and your country thus participate in our beneficence. But your
ambassador has now put forward new requests. . . . I do not forget the lonely remoteness of
your island, cut off from the world by intervening wastes of sea, nor do I overlook your
excusable ignorance of the usages of Our Celestial Empire. I have consequently commanded
my Ministers to enlighten your ambassador on the subject, and have ordered the departure of
the mission.15

The Economic Impact. The European trad-ing-post empires shaped Asian
economies in more extensive though still circumscribed ways. During the
sixteenth century, the Portuguese managed to partially block the traditional
Red Sea route by which spices had made their way to Europe and to carry
about half of the spice trade to the West around the Cape of Good Hope,
making handsome profits in the process. They also developed something of
a “protection racket” by which they sold passes and charged duties to all
kinds of Asian merchants, permitting them to trade in the Indian Ocean and
enforcing the system with Portuguese warships. The Dutch in Indonesia
succeeded in controlling not just the shipping but also the production of
nutmeg and cloves by seizing several of the Spice Islands in Indonesia and
using force to prevent the growing of these spices elsewhere. An enforced
monoculture thus made these islands wholly dependent on the import of
food and clothing. A twentieth-century Dutch historian described the
results: “the economic system of the Moluccas [Spice Islands] was ruined
and the population reduced to poverty.”16 The British exercised such a
tremendous demand for popular Indian textiles that hundreds of villages
came to specialize in export production and became dependent on it.
Europeans also became heavily involved in shipping Asian goods to Asian
ports, using the profits from this “carrying trade” to buy spices and other
Asian products.

The Silver Trade. Among the most important goods carried on European
ships was silver, which was in great demand in Asia. This was fortunate for
westerners, who had little else to exchange for the Asian spices, silks,
porcelain, and other products that they so ardently desired. China in
particular became an enormous market for silver as this gigantic and
flourishing economy, supporting 20 to 25 percent of the world’s population,
was transforming its currency and taxation system to a silver base and
drove the price of this precious metal to double its world price in the early
seventeenth century. Thus silver flowed into China in enormous quantities,
much of it from rich Spanish American mines in Mexico and Peru. From
Acapulco on Mexico’s west coast, annual Spanish fleets carried tons of the
precious metal to Manila in the Spanish Philippines, where it was
exchanged for Chinese-manufactured goods. Still more tons flowed
eastward through Europe to China and other Asian destinations. European
ships also carried Japanese silver to China. The immense profits from the
silver trade considerably financed Spain’s American empire and its many
European wars, indirectly underwrote the slave trade, and enriched Europe
generally. But these profits occurred as Europeans participated in a vast and
sophisticated Asian commercial network, suggesting that “the economic
impact of China on the West was far greater than any European influence
on Asia in the early modern period.”17

American Crops in Asia. The silver trade and the slave trade marked the
beginning of a genuinely global economy involving the Americas, Europe,
Africa, and Asia in a single integrated network of economic transactions.
Another sign of this global network lay in the impact of American food
crops introduced by Europeans into Africa and Asia as well as into Europe
itself. In China, for example, as rice cultivation reached its limit, New
World dryland food crops, such as peanuts, corn, sweet potatoes, and white
potatoes, contributed greatly to the growth of Chinese food production.
They sustained China’s huge and rapidly growing population in recent
centuries. In the mid-1990s, some 37 percent of the food consumed in
China originated in the Americas, and that country had become the world’s
largest producer of sweet potatoes and its second-largest producer of corn.

Europeans exploited products, routes, and techniques that had been
pioneered by Asian traders, but they were not able to eliminate them. The
Portuguese failed to monopolize the spice trade as they had hoped. Chinese,
Indian, and Arab shipping continued to ply Asian waters as they had for

centuries. Despite growing Dutch control of Indonesia, Chinese merchants
handled most of the spice trade to China. Europeans entered long-
established Asian trade routes as shippers, carrying goods between Japan
and China, for example, but they neither created nor destroyed these routes.
Large-scale trade within the Ottoman Empire, India, and China and the
land-based trade among them remained wholly in Asian hands.

Missionaries in East Asia

Jesuits in China. The cultural impact of the European intruders in Asia
was likewise modest. Unlike the Americas, where elements of Christian
belief and practice were widely accepted, the considerable missionary effort
in Asia won far fewer converts. Jesuit missionaries in China, armed with
the latest in European scientific and technological developments, initially
won considerable respect among the learned elite, particularly as the Jesuits
had mastered the Chinese language and Confucian culture. They proved
useful to the Chinese court in constructing calendars, clocks, and canon.
But when the papacy and rival missionary orders became critical of Chinese
culture, forbidding Chinese Christians to venerate their ancestors, the court
lost interest, and the Jesuits’ plan to convert China from the top down
proved a failure.

Japan and European Missionaries. Japan’s encounter with Christianity
was even more dramatic. A politically fragmented Japan, chronically
engaged in civil war in the sixteenth century, welcomed Western traders and
missionaries, as various parties in these conflicts found the firearms and
trade goods that the Europeans brought with them useful. A sizable
Christian community, numbering perhaps 300,000 by the early 1600s,
emerged from the missionaries’ efforts. But by that time, Japan had
overcome its earlier conflicts and unified under the Tokugawa shogunate.
These new rulers of a more unified Japan, viewing Christians as potential
dissidents and a threat to Japan’s largely Buddhist culture, brutally
suppressed the embryonic Christian movement and executed large numbers
of its followers. They drove the missionaries out and restricted contact with
Europeans to a small island near Nagasaki, where only Dutch traders were
permitted to operate. In all of Asia, Christianity developed deep roots only
in the Spanish Philippines, which remained under direct European control.

Europeans in Oceania

A final indication of the limited European role in early modern Asia
involves its penetration of Oceania, the large and small islands of the
Pacific basin. European exploration of the vast Pacific Ocean began with
Magellan’s famous circumnavigation of the world between 1519 and 1522
and continued with Dutch explorer Abel Tasman’s mapping of parts of
Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Tonga in the seventeenth century. But not
until the voyages of the English captain James Cook (1768-1780) did
Europeans begin to affect the previously isolated world of Oceania. During
most of the three centuries of the early modern era, it remained a separate
world. But once European merchants, missionaries, settlers, and colonial

officials descended on these societies, beginning in the late eighteenth
century, the impact was devastating, resembling the demographic disasters
in the Americas. A Hawaiian population of perhaps 500,000 in 1778, when
Captain Cook happened on the islands, was reduced to less than 60,000 a
century later.

The Fruits of Empire
Europe itself was transformed by its empire. Neither Ottoman, Chinese, or
Russian expansion so fundamentally changed their own core societies. In
large part, this is because Europe became the hub of a wholly new network
of global communication and exchange that brought together a variety of
already established regional networks into a single worldwide system. As
Europe moved rapidly from a marginal position in Afro-Eurasia to a central
position in this new world system, it accumulated unprecedented power,
wealth, and information, greatly transforming European society.

A World Economy

Above all, Western expansion created a global economic network centered
on Europe. The Dutch of the seventeenth century provide a telling example:

Everything was grist for the Dutch mill. Who could fail to be surprised that wheat grown . . .
in South Africa was shipped to Amsterdam? Or that Amsterdam became a market for cowrie
shells brought back from Ceylon and Bengal, which found enthusiastic customers, including
the English, who used them for trade with black Africa or for the purchase of slaves destined
for America? Or that sugar from China, Bengal, sometimes Siam . . . was alternately in
demand or out of it in Amsterdam, depending on whether the price could compete in Europe
with sugar from Brazil or the West Indies?18

Eastern Europe in the World Economy. But not all parts of Europe were
affected in the same way or to the same extent by this new world economy.
Eastern Europe, especially Poland, was one of the first areas to be
connected to the new global commercial system, largely through the export
of rye and wheat to western Europe in exchange for herring, salt, silk,
wines, and other manufactured goods. The strong demand for grain in

western Europe encouraged a powerful landlord class in eastern Europe to
produce for this market. In doing so, these landlords found it profitable to
reduce their relatively free peasantry to serf laborers. The absence of both
strong monarchs and an independent merchant class gave the landlords the
political clout necessary to accomplish this “second serfdom.” Thus, the
new world economy pushed eastern Europe into a subordinate and
dependent position and gave rise to a quite different kind of society from
that of a dynamic and modernizing western Europe.

Spain and Portugal in the World Economy. Even in western Europe,
there were differences. The early leaders of Europe’s outward thrust—the
Iberian powers Spain and Portugal—were not as substantially transformed
as the Dutch, British, and French who followed a century later. Aztec and
Inca treasure and vast quantities of silver and gold from the forced labor of
Indians in American mines floated Spanish and Portuguese prosperity
throughout the sixteenth century. But landed aristocrats (hidalgos),
conquistadores, and priests ran Iberian society. The precious metals of the
Americas paid for foreign luxuries, conquests, and conversions, not
investment in domestic industry. Spanish gold found its way to the new
money class on the borders of Iberia in Amsterdam and northern Europe.
While the hidalgo class voiced contempt for enterprise, the new middle
class of lenders, merchants, and producers flexed its muscles. It was not
Portugal or Spain that was to direct the seventeenth century but the
mercantile countries of northern Europe, beginning with the 17 lowland
provinces of the Spanish Empire that were to fashion themselves the Dutch
Republic, or the Netherlands.

Northwestern Europe in the World Economy. In Britain, France, and the
Netherlands, the profits and products of empire worked their most
transforming effects. Merchants, enriched by the profits of empire, gained a
social and political prominence unknown elsewhere. They developed new
mechanisms for accumulating capital, notably joint stock companies such
as the British and Dutch East India Companies, which did so much to
energize European commerce in Asia by allowing individual investors to
pool their funds for a common purpose. Market relationships based on
supply and demand became more deeply entrenched throughout society. In
short, more thoroughly capitalist societies were emerging in this part of
Europe. And in the late eighteenth century, the most dynamic, innovative,
and globally expansive of these societies, Great Britain, gave rise to the

industrial revolution, which initiated an unprecedented and revolutionary
transformation of human society. “The wealth of the New World was not
the only cause of the Industrial Revolution,” wrote historian Alfred Crosby,
“but it is difficult to see how it could have happened when and as rapidly as
it did without stimulus from the Americas.”19

Changing Diets. The European empire also transformed the way that
Europeans—and eventually the rest of the world—ate. The long-established
European diet, based on wheat, barley, oats, and rye, was vastly enriched by
the addition of numerous American foods: corn (maize), white and sweet
potatoes, tomatoes, lima beans, peanuts, manioc, squashes, pumpkins,
avocado, pineapple, chili peppers, and more. Corn and potatoes especially
furnished more calories per acre, grew more rapidly, and could be stored
more easily than traditional grains. By the eighteenth century, their use had
spread widely in Europe, particularly as a food for the poor. So dependent
had Irish peasants become on the potato that when the crop failed because
of disease in 1845, about 1 million people died, and hundreds of thousands
fled to the New World from which the potato had originated. Cod, found in
great abundance in North Atlantic fishing grounds, provided inexpensive

Population Growth. These foods played a major role in sustaining
Europe’s rapidly growing population, which rose from 105 million in 1605
to 390 million by 1900. They had a similar impact in much of Asia,
especially China, and in general provided an important part of the
nutritional foundation for the world’s modern population explosion. These
productive and inexpensive foods also contributed much to the diets of
poorly paid factory workers as Europe’s industrial revolution got under way
in the nineteenth century. One prominent historian has suggested, with only
a little exaggeration, that the potato made the industrial revolution

Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate. Plants from abroad provided not only
nutrition but also stimulation. Europeans found chocolate in Mexico, tea in
China, coffee and sugar in the Arab world, opium in India, and tobacco in
the Americas. All of them became increasingly popular in the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries and were produced for a mass market in various
colonial settings, usually with slave labor. Tea was an exception, as China
largely monopolized its production until the nineteenth century. Beginning
often as luxuries for the rich, these drug foods became part of middle-class

culture and then, as their prices dropped, became available to the poor as

These addictive foods became a profitable staple of the emerging world
economy, widely used all across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia by
1800. They made millions for European merchants and their governments
while causing misery for those who produced them. New forms and places
of leisure emerged for their enjoyment, such as opium parlors in China and
coffeehouses in Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Coffeehouses became
popular and sometimes politically subversive meeting places, but they
illustrated the more densely connected world that was being born. “The
coffeehouse was the world economy in miniature . . . joining coffee from

Java, Yemen, or the Americas, tea from China, sugar and rum from Africa’s
Atlantic islands or the Caribbean, and tobacco from North America or

New Knowledge

The global network was a conduit not only for foods, drugs, products, labor,
and capital but also for information, and most of this too wound up in
Europe. In the 1570s, the Italian mathematician and physician Girolamo
Cardano wrote about how extraordinary it was to be born in a century “in
which the whole world became known; whereas the ancients were familiar
with but a little more than a third of it.” He worried, however, that this
would mean that “certainties would be exchanged for uncertainties.”22

The sheer immensity of the new information and the speed with which it
was acquired was staggering. Entire new continents; vast oceans; wholly
unknown plants, animals, and geographical features; peoples of the most
varying descriptions; magnificent cities; unusual sexual practices; and
religions that were neither Muslim nor Jewish and certainly not Christian—
knowledge of all this and much more came flooding into Europe in the
several centuries following the earliest Iberian voyages, provoking much
debate and controversy. Movable-type printing and the growth of a
publishing industry made this new knowledge much cheaper and more
widely accessible than the older system of hand-copied manuscripts.
European intellectuals tried to organize this torrent of data by drawing new
maps; by classifying the new plants, animals, and cultures that came to their
attention; and by inventing whole new fields, such as botany, zoology, and

This accumulation of unsettling new knowledge surely contributed to
Europe’s seventeenth-century scientific revolution, which transformed so
dramatically the view of the world held by educated Europeans. Clearly,
many factors played a role in this complex intellectual change—the
inadequacies of older models of the universe; new data from careful
observation of the heavens; the secularism of the European Renaissance;
the stimulus of Islamic learning; the growth of independent universities
teaching astronomy, mathematics, and physics; and the printing press,
which allowed easy dissemination of new ideas. But it is arguable that new

knowledge born of European expansion produced “uncertainties,” as
Cardano had predicted; undermined long-held views of the world; and thus
opened the way to a novel scientific understanding of the universe and
human life.

The First World Wars

Europe’s overseas expansion was a highly competitive process that
reflected the long rivalry of Europe’s various “great powers.” Global empire
and global commerce projected these rivalries abroad and led to a series of
conflicts that might be considered the earliest global wars. Spain and
Portugal, the first European states to venture abroad, managed to avoid
outright conflict by negotiating a treaty dividing the newly discovered
world between them in 1494. But no such division was possible once other
European powers joined the fray. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,
the English, French, and Dutch vigorously contested Spain’s imperial
monopoly in the Americas and Portugal’s trading-post empire in the Indian
Ocean. The pirates, merchants, and navies of these newcomers to empire
challenged the Iberians all across the colonial world. In the late sixteenth
century, the English sent more than 70 expeditions to attack Spanish
outposts in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, while the Dutch forces ousted
Portuguese merchants from much of Southeast Asia.

As Spanish and Portuguese power declined, the British and French took
their place. In the mid-eighteenth century, their rivalry led to the Seven
Years’ War (1756-1763). Often referred to as “the great war for empire,”
this global conflict was fought in Europe, North America, the Caribbean,
and India. British victories paved the way for a largely English North
America, for British colonial rule in India, and for British domination of the
seas and of global commerce for the next 150 years. Warfare on a global
scale did not begin in the twentieth century.

Empire and Globalization

The early modern era in world history can be viewed in two different ways.
On the one hand, it was an age of empires—Ottoman, Mughal, Songay,
Chinese, Russian, and western European. In particular, it witnessed the
eruption of the previously marginal western Europeans onto the world
stage. Europeans created imperial systems that bore both similarities to
other empires—conquest, divide-and-rule tactics, and a sense of superiority
—and strikingly new features, including new colonial societies, massive use
of slave labor, and catastrophic death rates among Native Americans and

Alternatively, we might view the early modern era as a vast and quite
rapid extension of human connections. With western Europeans as its
primary agents, this early globalization involved destruction and creation
and victims and beneficiaries. Native Americans who died in the millions,
Africans unwillingly transported to Caribbean or Brazilian plantations,
Indian weavers now producing for European markets, Chinese who paid
their taxes in silver and ate sweet potatoes, Japanese who briefly
experimented with Christianity, and Europeans who found new homes
across the Atlantic—all these and many more experienced the consequences
of incorporation into a new “worldwide web.”23 The making of this web
contained both remarkable achievements and tragedies of immense

The Europeans who initiated the process were likewise transformed by it.
The great changes of modern European history—popula-tion growth, the
scientific revolution, capitalism, and industrialization—coincided with
Europe’s emergence at the hub of a new network of global exchange and
communication. While Europe was certainly not the only center of
expansion and innovation in the early modern world, it was the only one
whose expansion catalyzed changes of this magnitude. This “modern
transformation,” together with the subsequent deepening and extension of
the European-centered global network, combined to produce a new and
even more revolutionary phase of world history in the nineteenth century.

Suggested Reading

Benjamin, Thomas, Timothy Hall, and David Rutherford. The Atlantic
World in the Age of Empire. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. A set of
readings from major historians on the making of an Atlantic world.

Crosby, Alfred W. Germs, Seeds, and Animals. Ar-monk, NY: M. E.
Sharpe, 1994). A collection of writings on the Columbian exchange by
its most well-known historian.

Gunn, Geoffrey. First Globalization: The Eurasian Exchange, 1500-1800.
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003. Focuses on the cultural
rather than economic exchange between Europe and Asia in the early
modern era.

Parry, J. H. The Establishment of European Hegemony: 1415-1715. New
York: Harper and Row, 1961. An older and classic account of the roots
of European expansion.

Ringrose, David. Expansion and Global Interaction, 1200-1700. New York:
Longman, 2001. Places European expansion in the context of other
expanding societies.

Schlesinger, Roger. In the Wake of Columbus. Wheeling, IL: Harlan
Davidson, 1996. Explores the impact of the Americas on Europe in the
centuries after Columbus.

Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World,
1400-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. A well-
regarded study that views Africans as participants in as well as victims
of the Atlantic slave trade.

Waley-Cohen, Joanna. The Sextants of Beijing. New York: Norton, 2000.
Explores China’s relationships with the wider world, including the
West. Chapter 2 is a fascinating case study of the encounter between
Jesuit missionaries and Chinese society.

1. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (London: Vintage Books,

2. This paragraph is based on Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World

System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World

Economy in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Academic Press, 1974),
chap. 1. The quote is from p. 51.

3. D. K. Fieldhouse, The Colonial Empires from the Eighteenth Century
(New York: Dell, 1966), 6.

4. Miguel Leon-Portilla, The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the
Conquest of Mexico (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 123.

5. Leon-Portilla, The Broken Spears, 137-38.
6. Bartolome de Las Casas, The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief

Account, trans. Herma Briffault (New York: Seabury Press, 1974), 38-52.
7. Alfred W. Crosby, Germs, Seeds, and Animals (Armonk, NY: M. E.

Sharpe, 1994), 88-93.
8. Leon-Portilla, The Broken Spears, 149.
9. Quoted in Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism (Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1986), 160. See also John Richards, The
Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

10. For a recent summary of the debate over the numbers involved in the
slave trade, see David Eltis and David Richardson, “The ‘Numbers Game’
and Routes to Slavery,” Slavery and Abolition 18 (1997): 1-10.

11. Quoted in Donald R. Wright, The World and a Very Small Place in
Africa (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2010), 95.

12. John Iliffe, Africans: The History of a Continent (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1995), 137-39.

13. Quoted in Basil Davidson, The African Past (Boston: Little, Brown,

14. Philip Curtin et al., African History (Boston: Little, Brown, 1978),

15. Henry Farnsworth MacNair, Modern Chinese History: Selected
Readings (Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1923), 2-9.

16. Bernard H. M. Vlekke, Nusantara: A History of the East India
Archipelago (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1943), 139.

17. Dennis O. Flynn and Arturo Giraldez, “Born with a ‘Silver Spoon’:
The Origin of World Trade in 1571,” Journal of World History 6, no. 2 (Fall
1995): 217.

18. Fernand Braudel, The Perspective of the World, (New York: Harper
and Row, 1984), 220.

19. Alfred W. Crosby, “The Columbian Voyages, the Columbian
Exchange, and Their Historians,” in Islamic and European Expansion, ed.
Michael Adas (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), 154.

20. Crosby, Germs, Seeds, and Animals, 148-63.
21. Kenneth Pomeranz and Steven Topic, The World That Trade Created

(Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1999), 79.
22. Quoted in Crosby, “The Columbian Voyages, the Columbian

Exchange, and Their Historians,” 151-52.
23. J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill, The Human Web (New York:

Norton, 2003).

Breaking Out and the
First Modern Societies


Why Europe? A Historian’s’ Debate
Was Europe Unique?

A Favorable Environment?
The Advantage of Backwardness?
The Absence of Unity?
Science and Engineering?
Society and Religion?

Critics of Eurocentrism
“Surprising Similarities”
Competition from Afar
“The Decline of the East”

The Advantages of Empire
Gold and Silver
Markets and Profits
An Industrial Model

The Industrial Revolution
Toward Economic Modernity

Machines and Factories
New Wealth
Death Rates and Birthrates
Humanity and Nature

Class and Industrial Society
Aristocrats and Peasants
“Only a Weaver”
“Middling Classes”
Working Classes

Women, Factories, and the Home
New Views of the “Home”

Politics and War
The Political Revolution

Kings and Commoners
Making New Societies

The “Enlightenment”
Who Benefited?

The Revolution beyond America and France
Slave Rebellion and Independence Movements
Challenging Old Oppressions

Variations on a Theme
The British and French Paths
The German Path
The Path of the United States
The Russian Path

New Identities, New Conflicts

Utopian Socialism
Socialist Parties

Nationalism as a Modern Idea
The Origins of Nationalism
Creating Nations
The Power of the National Idea

Roots of Feminism
Feminist Beginnings
The Achievements of Feminism

Conclusion: Modernity as Revolution

W ORLD HISTORY seldom turns sharp corners, especially in as
little as a century or two. But in 150 years, roughly between
1750 and 1900, two distinct and related processes marked a

decisive turn in human affairs. One was the breakthrough to distinctly
“modern” societies, a process that occurred first in western Europe and
derived from the English industrial revolution and from the political
revolution that swept England, France, and North America. These
upheavals unfolded in the second half of the eighteenth century, and their
example and influence echoed in varying degrees elsewhere in Europe and
the Americas, Russia, Japan, and other parts of the world in the nineteenth
century and after. This modern transformation gave rise to enormous
changes in virtually every aspect of life, raising some individuals, groups,
and nations to dizzying heights of power and wealth while casting others, at
least temporarily, into new forms of poverty and dependence. Virtually no
one and nothing remained unchanged.

Nor did its influence stop at the borders of those countries that
experienced it most fully, for this breakthrough to modernity clearly made
possible the second major process—the unprecedented global extension of
European and North American political, economic, and cultural power over
the rest of the planet. The peoples of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and
elsewhere now found themselves threatened by Europe’s unsurpassed
military might, increasingly drawn into economic networks centered in
Europe, confronted by ideas (both secular and religious) that derived from
Europe, and incorporated against their will into European colonial empires.
Never before had one region of the world exercised such extensive power
and influence.

In exploring the making of the first modern societies, the spotlight of
world history focuses temporarily on the western tip of the Eurasian
landmass, where that transformation was first experienced. Western Europe
became for a time the global center of technological, economic, and cultural
innovation much as other regions had played that role in earlier periods.
Mesopotamia and Egypt had long ago pioneered advanced agriculture and
urban civilization (around 3000-3500 BCE). The ancient Greeks developed
ways of thinking and political organization that had a profound influence in
the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions (500 BCE-200 CE). India
had generated Buddhism, advanced mathematics, and numerous agricultural

innovations, all of which spread widely in the first millennium CE. The
Arab people gave rise to a new religion (Islam) and to an expanding and
enormously creative civilization (600-1600 CE). China was clearly the
global leader in technological innovation between 1000 and 1500 CE and
exercised a profound influence throughout the Eurasian world.1 All these
“flowerings” produced ripples of influence and circles of interaction far
beyond their points of origin. So too did the modern transformation of
western European societies. Theirs was a unique but not an unprecedented

Why Europe?
A Historian’s Debate

At the heart of the breakthrough to modernity was the industrial revolution.
But why should western Europe in general and Great Britain in particular
have been at the center of this enormous disturbance in human affairs? Few
people living in 1700 or 1750 would have predicted that the endlessly
quarrelsome societies of western Europe would soon lead the world to a
wholly new kind of economy and to a greatly altered balance of global
power. But in the nineteenth century, Europeans did precisely that. In doing
so, they have presented historians, especially world historians, with one of
their most sharply debated questions: how to explain this European
breakthrough to an industrial society and the global power that followed
from it. Why Europe?

Was Europe Unique?

One kind of answer lies in some unique quality—or combination of
qualities—lying deep in Europe’s history, society, culture, or environment
that gave it a decisive advantage over all other regions and led inexorably
toward the industrial revolution. For well over a century, scholars have
argued about what, precisely, it might be.

A Favorable Environment? For some, the environment provided an
important clue to European economic success: winters cold enough to kill

infectious microorganisms that so infested Asian and African populations
but warm enough to sustain a productive agriculture, plentiful and regular
rainfall rather than the seasonal downpours of India and Africa, more
limited exposure to natural disasters (volcanoes, earthquakes, cyclones,
floods, and droughts) that afflicted less favored areas—and coal. A rich
supply of that critical fuel, so important as a source of energy as firewood
became more scarce and expensive, was located close to major centers of
economic activity in Great Britain and certainly facilitated the first
industrial revolution, whereas in China coal fields lie deep in the interior,
far removed from population concentrations and urban centers near the

The Advantage of Backwardness? Other candidates for the source of the
“European miracle” abound. The relative “newness” of Europe’s
civilization, emerging only after 1000 CE, may help explain European
willingness to borrow from others—scientific treatises from the Arabs,
mathematical concepts from India, the compass, gunpowder, and printing
from China—while Chinese and Islamic societies, long accustomed to
success and prominence in their regions, felt that they had little to learn
from outsiders. It is what some historians have called the “advantages of

The Absence of Unity? The political character of European civilization—
a system of separate and competing states rather than a unified empire such
as China or the Ottoman Empire—may likewise have stimulated innovation
and served as “an insurance against . . . stagnation.”2 And within these
newly emerging states, urban merchants had perhaps greater freedom and
security of property than their counterparts in the stronger and more solidly
established states of Asia and the Middle East. Frequent conflict between
the Catholic pope and various European monarchs and the further divide
between Protestants and Catholics only added to the pluralism of European
society. Thus, Europe’s “failure” to achieve consensus and uniformity in
both religious and political life arguably heightened its dynamism and set it
on the path to the industrial revolution.

Science and Engineering? Yet another possible internal source of
Europe’s uniqueness lay in its scientific revolution and a culture of
inventiveness. As early as the thirteenth century, mechanical clocks were
becoming widespread in Europe.3 And in England, during the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries, scientific thinking took a distinctive form with an

emphasis on precise measurements, mechanical devices, and commercial
applications. The “engineering culture” that emerged among English
artisans, craftsmen, and entrepreneurs helps explain the invention of the
steam engine, which was so important in increasing the supply of useful
energy for productive purposes.4 While much of early science was largely
theoretical with few direct applications, by the later nineteenth century,
science and technology became intimately related and have remained so
ever since.

Society and Religion? Other scholars have discerned European
advantages in certain social patterns. A tradition of late marriages and a
celibate clergy arguably restrained European population growth. With fewer
people to provide for, slightly higher per capita incomes followed. In India,
by contrast, nearly universal teenage marriages may have held back the
accumulation of wealth. European willingness to allow women to work
outside the home may have permitted their employment in early textile
factories, while Chinese refusal to do so perhaps inhibited their adoption of
the factory system. And some have suggested that Christianity, with its
sense of linear time and its command to “subdue the earth,” may have
encouraged an aggressive and manipulative attitude toward nature and thus
fostered technological development.

All these ideas point to internal features of European society that
contributed to a longterm economic advantage. They suggest that Europe’s
economic lead over the rest of the world started well before the industrial
revolution of the eighteenth century. Technological innovations, including
the water windmill, eyeglasses, mechanical clocks, and movable-type
printing; the growth of markets in land, labor, and goods; the development
of capitalist institutions, such as banks offering credit and partnerships for
mobilizing capital; and overall per capita wealth—in all these ways, some
scholars argue, a late-developing European civilization had caught up to
and gradually surpassed the older civilizations of Asia and the Middle East.
These eastern regions, in this view, suffered from the arrogance of long
success, which made them unwilling to learn from the upstart Europeans
and from powerful states that squelched the private entrepreneurial
activities of their people. Thus, the industrial revolution both grew out of
and continued a long-term pattern of European advantage and advance.

Critics of Eurocentrism

“Surprising Similarities.” But critics have challenged this point of view
and made a serious accusation.5 It reflects, they say, a Eurocentric
understanding of the past. They argue that such an account of the origins of
the industrial revolution vastly exaggerates European uniqueness. They
view western Europe before 1750 or so as one of a number of advanced
agricultural societies including China, India, Japan, and the Islamic Middle
East. All of them enjoyed relatively free markets, growing economies,
wealthy merchant communities with money to invest, widespread and
highly skilled handicraft industries, and a substantial amount of agricultural
production for the market. Economic similarities across Eurasia in the
eighteenth century included life expectancies, nutritional levels, wages, and
overall living standards, which were generally comparable for the
wealthiest core regions of China, Japan, India, and western Europe. Of
course, each of these regions was unique with its particular mix of
economic advantages and drawbacks, but none of them had a decisive lead,
and none were poised for a major economic breakthrough.

Furthermore, features of European life, once regarded as uniquely
favorable for economic growth, turn out to have counterparts in other
regions. While Europeans, for example, limited their fertility through late
marriages, Chinese families did so by delaying pregnancy and spacing
births more widely within marriage. The growth of rural handicraft
manufacturing in Europe, sometimes regarded as a precursor to
industrialization, had distinct parallels in China, India, and Japan. As late as
1750, India and China alone accounted for more than 57 percent of world
manufacturing output, while Europe and North America represented about
27 percent.6 Yet this “protoindustrialization,” common across much of
Eurasia, was followed by an urban industrial revolution only in Europe.

And while European merchants are frequently regarded as uniquely
active and independent of their state authorities, many West Africans,
Arabs, Armenians, Indians, and South Chinese also operated as private
merchants, often far from home. “The typical Asian port,” wrote one
historian, “housed Gu-jeratis, Fujianese, Persians, Armenians, Jews and
Arabs just as European trading centers housed separate groups of Genoese,
Florentine, Dutch, English, and Hanseatic merchants.”7

Finally, China, Japan, and western Europe all experienced quite rapid
rates of population growth after 1500 that put growing pressure on
resources available from the land. Deforestation, erosion, and soil depletion
were early signs of what some historians have seen as an approaching
ecological crisis, limiting the possibilities of further economic growth. All
this suggests that Europe’s divergence from the main patterns of Eurasian
development was late, dating from 1750 or after, and not the consequence
of some centuries old and deeply rooted advantage which Europe alone

Competition from Afar But if exceptional internal features of European
historical development do not fully explain the industrial revolution, what
does? For some historians, the answer lies in placing industrialization in a
broader global context, highlighting the ways in which Europe benefited
from a variety of international linkages. One such linkage lies in the
example of and competition from foreign manufacturing. For centuries,
India had dominated world cotton textile production. The fine quality and
bright colors of Indian cotton textiles and the example of dyeing techniques
from the Ottoman Empire stimulated among British textile manufacturers a
search for machinery and processes that would enable them to match these
Eastern products.8 The British government assisted the process in the late
eighteenth century by levying substantial tariffs on Indian textiles, making
them more expensive in the British market. Likewise in the iron industry,
inexpensive imports from Sweden and Russia stimulated British
technological innovation.

“The Decline of the East.” Another connection involves what some
historians have referred to as the “decline of the East” as major Asian and
Middle Eastern societies experienced political or economic setbacks that
unexpectedly opened the way for the backward but energetic societies of
western Europe to achieve a greater prominence. Examples of this “decline”
include the withdrawal of Chinese maritime forces from the Indian Ocean
after 1435; the weakening or collapse of the Ottoman, Mughal, and Safavid
empires in the eighteenth century; a growing ecological and economic crisis
in early nineteenth-century China; and perhaps a certain conservative
turning inward on the part of Islamic and Chinese intellectuals. The
“decline of the East,” in this view, made way for the “rise of the West.”9

The Advantages of Empire

But by far the most significant international linkage was that of the
American empires that Europeans carved out after 1492. Here lies one of
the most sensitive moral as well as intellectual issues involving the origins
of Europe’s industrial revolution. Was Europe’s economic progress
purchased at the direct expense of exploited peoples in Africa and the
Americas? Did the resources gained from empire provide a crucial boost to
Europe’s industrial development?

Not all empires are alike. The Chinese, Ottoman, and Russian empires,
for example, did not generate the kind of economic windfall that Europeans
gained from their American colonies. In at least four ways, Europe’s New
World empires may have contributed to its industrial takeoff.

Gold and Silver. The first was plunder. The enormous treasures of gold
and especially silver looted from Aztecs and Incas or mined with forced
labor and smaller amounts seized in India finally gave Europeans
something that Asians, particularly the Chinese, really wanted. It enabled
backward Europeans to buy their way into lucrative Asian markets and
stimulate their own economies in the process.

Markets and Profits. But colonies were markets as well, as both settlers
and slaves became favored customers for Europe’s manufacturing
industries. England’s colonial trade, for example, exploded in the eighteenth
century as exports to North America and the West Indies doubled between
1750 and 1790 and those to India more than tripled. This growing demand
from the colonies certainly stimulated England’s capitalist economy and its
emerging mechanized textile industry in particular. And the profits from the
colonial trade in both products and slaves contributed to the pool of capital
from which British and continental industrialists drew as they invested in
new machines and factories.

Resources. Europe’s American empires also provided real resources: cod,
timber, grain, sugar, and rice—some of it produced by slave labor from
Africa. Especially important for an industrializing England was a ready
supply of cotton. Here, some have argued, was Europe’s decisive
difference. The resources of the New World enabled Europe alone to solve
the problem, common across Eurasia, of a growing population and limited
land on which to produce necessary goods. “An unparalleled share of the
earth’s biological resources was acquired for this one culture,” writes

historian E. L. Jones, “on a scale that was unprecedented and is

An Industrial Model. Finally, the plantation system that was at the core of
European expansion in the Americas may have modeled and pioneered
patterns of economic activity that became central to industrial production.
Sugar plantations, for example, involved large capital investment and a
highly disciplined and regimented workforce aimed at the mass production
of an increasingly inexpensive commodity for a mass market. Exposure to
these new patterns of production and marketing arguably assisted European
businessmen in developing an industrial factory-based system that operated
on similar principles.

So the argument about the “why Europe?” question shapes up as a debate
between those who emphasize Europe’s internal uniqueness and those who
stress distinctive international circumstances, especially the bounty of
empire. But the two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Even if Europe
gained much of value from its overseas empire, some countries were able to
make use of these resources more effectively than others. If the wealth of
empire was decisive for an industrial takeoff, why were Spain and Portugal,
the first beneficiaries of that bounty, among the most backward and least
industrialized of European countries even into the twentieth century? And
why were some parts of the world able to follow the early example of
British industrialization quite rapidly (France, Germany, the United States,
and Japan), while others lagged far behind. Perhaps the serfdom of eastern
Europe, the Confucian culture and powerful state of China, the military
despotism of the Ottoman Empire, or the frequent political upheavals of
Latin America inhibited their industrialization. Did these internal features
of other regions hold back their modern development? The debate

The Industrial Revolution
While the origins of Europe’s industrial revolution remain controversial, its
significance is hardly in doubt. Its place in world history can be compared
only with the agricultural revolution around 10,000 BCE. Like that earlier
transformation, the industrial revolution was rooted in a series of

technological breakthroughs that gave humankind a new degree of control
over nature, created vast new wealth, transformed the daily economic
activities of most people, and opened up unimagined possibilities for social
and cultural life. But while the agricultural revolution occurred separately in
a number of places over thousands of years, its industrial counterpart had a
single point of origin—late eighteenth-century England—and spread from
there to the far corners of the earth too quickly to allow for independent
invention elsewhere. And whereas agriculture has become an almost
universal and apparently permanent feature of human life, industrialization
is very much an unfinished process with many parts of the world still
struggling to acquire the technology, wealth, and power that it promises.
Since industrialization has been under way for little more than two
centuries, it remains an open question as to whether it represents a viable
long-term future for the planet. Is it possible to imagine that people 500
years from now might view the industrial revolution as a temporary and
unsustainable burst of human creativity that petered out after several
centuries? Or will the entire planet resemble the currently most urbanized
and industrialized societies?

Toward Economic Modernity

Machines and Factories. At its heart, the industrial revolution was a
matter of technology. Machines now did what only men, women, and
animals had done before. During the eighteenth century, innovations in the
British cotton textile industry led the way, speeding up the weaving and
spinning processes. But the real breakthrough was the steam engine, which
provided for the first time a huge, reliable, and inanimate source of power
that could replace human and animal muscles by converting heat into useful
work. That power could drive textile machinery, pump water out of mines,
and propel locomotives and ships. Later in the nineteenth century,
electricity and internal combustion motors provided new power sources,
while petroleum joined coal as a fuel. Industrialization began in the textile
industry, but it soon spread to other fields: ironworking, railroads, and
steamships by the 1840s; electrical and chemical industries a few decades
later; and cars, refrigerators, radios, airplanes, and electronic products as the
twentieth century accelerated the cumulative process of technological

development. And beyond technology, industrialization involved dramatic
changes in the organization of work, symbolized by the modern factory
with its large-scale facilities, its minute division of labor in the assembly
line, its dependence on wage-earning workers, and its centralized and
highly disciplined management. The peasant farm or the artisan’s workshop
must have seemed worlds away.

New Wealth. The changes induced by the industrial revolution were
neither immediate nor uniform, but over the course of a century or more,
not so long in terms of world history, they fundamentally transformed the
conditions of life in those societies most directly affected. The most obvious
change, perhaps, lay in sustained economic growth, a continuous increase in
the amount of goods that it was now possible to produce. It took traditional
hand spinners in India 50,000 hours to produce 100 pounds of cotton yarn;
steam-driven machinery in England in 1825 could produce the same
amount in 135 hours.11 Iron production in Britain jumped from 68,000 tons

per year in 1788 to some 4 million tons in 1860, an almost 60-fold increase.
So enormously productive were industrial economies that visionary
thinkers, such as Karl Marx, could begin to imagine the end of poverty as a
necessary condition of human society. Living standards did begin to rise,
albeit unequally, and by the mid-twentieth century, many quite ordinary
people in industrialized societies lived materially more abundant lives—and
longer lives—than anyone could have imagined two centuries earlier.

Urbanization. The location of these manufacturing processes likewise
changed. No longer scattered in numerous farmsteads or in artisans’
workshops, industrial production became concentrated in urban centers that
pulled millions of people into city life. In 1800, about 20 percent of
Britain’s population lived in sizable urban communities of 10,000 people or
more; in 1900, 75 percent did. Here was the beginning of a continuing trend
toward city living that by the end of the twentieth century brought fully half
the world’s population into urban centers. In its impersonal social
relationships, its blending of different peoples, and its cultural creativity,
urban life has given a distinctive flavor to modern societies.

Capitalism. The industrial revolution also extended the principle of the
market—buying and selling based on supply and demand—to far more
people and to a far greater range of goods. New urban residents had to
depend on the market to provide their daily needs (food, clothing, and
furniture), whereas their rural ancestors had been much more self-sufficient.
Wealthy entrepreneurs wielded much of the capital that financed industrial
production. As working for money wages became widespread for the first
time, most people were selling their own labor on the market as well. As
market relations penetrated European society more deeply, the hold of
tradition, family, rulers, and the church on economic life diminished, and
the values of the market—risk taking and innovation, individualism and
competition, accumulation of material goods, and an acute awareness of
clock time—became ever more prominent. Almost all agricultural societies

had elements of the market, but Europe’s industrial revolution gave rise to
the world’s most thoroughly commercialized societies, in which virtually
everything was for sale—raw materials, finished products, land, money, and
human labor. And increasingly, those who dominated the market were not
individuals pursuing their own interests but large and wealthy corporations.
The shorthand term for this kind of society has become “capitalism.”

Death Rates and Birthrates. The revolutionary impact of industrialization
also contributed much to that distinctive process of modern world history—
the enormous and unprecedented growth of world population. That growth
had begun well before the industrial revolution, fueled by global climate
changes and the improved diet resulting from the proliferation of New
World food crops. But industrial and scientific techniques applied to
agriculture, accompanied by improvements in public health and sanitation,
sustained and enhanced that population explosion by sharply lowering death
rates. That potent combination pushed Europe’s population from about 150
million in 1750 to almost 400 million by 1900, while Europe’s colonies or
former colonies provided opportunities for another 50 million Europeans to
emigrate to the Americas, Australia, South Africa, and elsewhere. In that

century and a half, people of European origin increased from about 20
percent of the world’s total population to almost 30 percent.12 But
industrialization also acted, a bit later, to help stabilize the population of the
more economically advanced countries, though at substantially higher
levels, by encouraging lower birthrates. In urban industrial settings,
children represented prolonged burdens on the family economy rather than
productive members of it as they had been in more rural agricultural
societies. As this logic took hold, parents acted to limit family size, making
use of more readily available means of contraception.

Humanity and Nature. Growing populations in conjunction with
industrial technology placed new pressures on the natural environment far
beyond those associated with hunting-gathering or agricultural/pastoral
societies. Those pressures became global in their implications and widely
recognized by the general public only in the second half of the twentieth
century, but they were apparent in more localized forms in the nineteenth.
The massive extraction of nonrenewable raw materials to feed and to fuel
industrial machinery—coal, iron ore, petroleum, and much more—altered
the landscape in many places. Sewers and industrial waste emptied into
rivers, turning them into poisonous cesspools. In 1858, the Thames River
running through London smelled so bad that the British House of Commons
had to suspend its session.13 And smoke from coal-fired industries and
domestic use polluted the air in urban areas and sharply increased the
incidence of respiratory illness.

Against these conditions, a number of individuals and small groups
raised their voices. Romantic poets such as William Blake and William
Wordsworth inveighed against the “dark satanic mills” of industrial
England and nostalgically urged a return to the “green and pleasant land” of
an earlier time. A few scientists promoted the scientific management of
natural resources (forests in particular), while others, such as the American
John Muir, pushed for the preservation of wilderness areas in national
parks.14 Although governments tried sporadically to address the problems,
no widespread environmental movement surfaced until later in the twentieth
century. Well into that century, many people in a heavily polluted Pittsburgh
regarded industrial smoke as useful in fighting germs and a sign of

Thus, the industrial revolution began to alter the relationship of
humankind to the earth itself. Since the beginning of time, people had been

vulnerable to the vagaries of nature—floods, drought, and storms—even as
they transformed nature through farming, hunting, fires, and more. Now the
balance started to change, and the earth and its many living inhabitants
seemed increasingly at risk from the works of industrial humanity. It was a
startling reversal of an ancient pattern.

Class and Industrial Society

Aristocrats and Peasants. Within western Europe’s industrializing
societies, old social groups declined and new ones arose, creating a wholly
novel and distinctively modern class structure. Landowning nobles, proud
bearers of Europe’s ancient aristocratic traditions, lost many of their legal
privileges, much of their economic power, and some of their social prestige.
As the economic basis of society shifted to urban industrial property, the
landed wealth of the nobility counted for less, and their disdain for
commerce inhibited their adjustment to a capitalist society, increasingly
dominated by the “new money” of commercial and industrial elites.
Likewise, the peasantry, long representing the vast majority in all
agricultural societies, now shrank as a proportion of the population as
millions were pulled into industrial cities or pushed into emigration abroad.
Those who remained on the land were increasingly oriented to producing
for the market rather than for their own subsistence.

“Only a Weaver.” Furthermore, many of Europe’s artisans, who had for
centuries produced their societies’ manufactured goods by handicraft
methods, found themselves displaced by industrial machinery. In 1820,
Britain still had some 240,000 hand-loom weavers; by 1856, more than 90
percent of them were gone.15 A nineteenth-century song lamented the fate
of unemployed English weavers:16

Who is that man coming up the street,
With a weary manner and shuffling feet;
With a face that tells of care and grief
And in hope that seems to have lost

For wickedness past he now atones,
He’s only a weaver that no one owns . . .
Political economy now must sway
And say when a man shall work or play.
If he’s wanted his wages may be high,

If he isn’t, why, then, he may starve
and die.

Other craftsmen less affected by machine competition, such as butchers,
masons, and carpenters, flourished in the growing cities of industrial

“Middling Classes.” The chief beneficiaries of Europe’s industrial
revolution were its growing and diverse “middle classes.” Earlier,
merchants, lawyers, and doctors, sometimes referred to as the
“bourgeoisie,” represented a small urban middle class occupying a social
niche between the aristocratic landlords above them and artisans and
peasants below them on the social scale. Industrialization greatly enlarged
this class. But no single middle class emerged. At the top, wealthy
industrialists and bankers might match the affluence of aristocratic
magnates. Rather less exalted were small-business owners and professionals
such as engineers, architects, pharmacists, and secondary school and
university teachers along with older medical and legal professionals. By the
end of the nineteenth century, the most advanced industrial societies had
generated a whole army of clerks, salespeople, office workers, and small
shopkeepers, eager to claim middle-class status and distinguish themselves
from the factory workers below them.

Working Classes. These urban factory workers, dubbed the “proletariat”
by Karl Marx, represented the other major new social group to emerge from
the industrialization process, growing rapidly to about 30 to 40 percent of
the population in the most highly industrialized countries. Unlike the
artisans, who had their own tools and skilled traditions, the new working
class in factories, docks, and mines entered the labor market with few skills
and no tools of their own. There, they worked long hours at a pace dictated
by the machines they served and subject to the instabilities of an industrial
capitalist society.

The factory experience of a 19-year-old woman, recorded by an English
reformer in the 1840s, illustrates the conditions in which early industrial
workers had to labor:

The clock strikes half past five; the engine starts, and her day’s work commences. At half past
seven, and in some factories at eight, the engine slacks its pace (seldom stopping) for a short
time, till the hands have cleaned the machinery, and swallowed a little food. It then goes on
again, and continues full speed till twelve o’clock, when it stops for dinner. Previously to her
leaving the factory, and in her dinner hour, she has her machines to clean. The distance of the

factory is about five minutes’ walk from her home. I noticed every day that she came in at
half-past twelve or within a minute or two. The first thing she did, was to wash herself, then
get her dinner (which she was seldom able to eat), and pack up her drinking for the afternoon.
This done it was time to be on her way to work again, where she remains, without one
minute’s relaxation, till seven o’clock; she then comes home and throws herself into a chair
exhausted. This is repeated six days in the week (save that on Saturdays she may get back a
little earlier, say, an hour or two), can there be any wondering at their preferring to lie in bed
till dinner-time, instead of going to church on the seventh?17

These conditions generated protests, expressed in strikes, trade unions,
and the socialist movement, and gave rise to one of the major new conflicts
of industrial societies.

Women, Factories, and the Home

New Views of the “Home.” If industrialization transformed class
structures, it also fundamentally altered family life and the roles of men,
women, and children within it. In earlier agricultural societies, women
combined productive labor on the farm or in the shop with their domestic
and child-rearing duties because the family was the primary economic unit,
and the home and the workplace were usually the same place. As
industrialization moved the work site to factories and offices away from the
home, that easy blending of women’s productive and reproductive roles
became more difficult. Middle-class women in particular largely withdrew
from wage-earning labor. A new “ideology of domesticity” defined them as
wives and mothers and charged them with making the home a “haven in a
heartless world” of competitive industrial capitalism. Keeping women at
home became a trademark of middle-class life that distinguished it from
that of working-class families, fewer of whom could afford to do so. Thus,
many working-class women joined the labor force as textile factory
workers, as miners, and most often as domestic servants in middle-class
households. But the new notion of women as homemakers and men as
breadwinners penetrated the working class as well, and families in which
married women worked outside the home were widely seen as failures. This
novel division of labor between men and women proved to be a temporary
adaptation to industrial life, as widening employment opportunities and the
feminist movement brought many women of all classes back into the labor
force in the twentieth century.

Children. More enduring perhaps were the changes in the lives of
children. Early in the industrial era, many young children worked in the
new factories and mines, an extension of long patterns of children
contributing to the family economy. But this soon gave way to a concept of
childhood defined in terms of school as compulsory education became
common throughout nineteenth-century Europe. By the end of the century,
a whole new stage of childhood had been invented—adolescence. The
teenage years had never before been defined as a unique stage of life, but as
growing educational demands, required by an increasingly complex
economy, kept young people out of the workforce for many years, that
period of life acquired a distinct identity, especially in middle-class
families, as a troublesome and traumatic passage from childhood to

Politics and War

European political life also changed as a consequence of industrialization.
Governments found themselves increasingly drawn into the economic life
of their countries as they developed policies to enhance economic growth,
to organize a growing educational system, to regulate industrial working
conditions, and to moderate the disruptive social consequences of
industrialization. Industrial development also played a growing role in the
endlessly competitive relations of European states, especially as its military
implications became apparent. By the end of the nineteenth century, a naval
arms race between Germany and Great Britain fueled the instability of
European international relations and helped to pave the way for World War
I in 1914. That conflict disclosed the immense new destructiveness of
industrialized warfare as barbed wire, machine guns, poison gas, tanks, and
submarines took their place in the arsenals of the Great Powers and
traumatized an entire generation as 10 million people perished in a few
years. Further “progress” in the application of industrial and scientific
techniques to military affairs in the twentieth century reached the point at
which a global war with nuclear weapons raised the possibility of
extinguishing human life—and perhaps all life—on the planet.

The Political Revolution
Accompanying Europe’s industrialization was yet another revolutionary
process, centered in the political arena and unfolding all around the Atlantic
basin between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Central to this
upheaval was the French Revolution of 1789, but it was preceded by the
English Civil War and the American Revolution of 1776 and followed by a
massive uprising of slaves in Haiti in the 1790s and by Latin America
struggles for independence in the early nineteenth century. Together, these
revolutions gave the Western world of the nineteenth century a distinctive
character and created societies unique in world history.

Kings and Commoners

At the core of the political revolution that swept Western societies in the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the replacement of monarchies by
representative governments. In some cases, the monarch was removed and
killed, as in the English Civil War of the 1640s and the French Revolution.
In other cases, as in the establishment of the United States and most new
Latin American republics, monarchy was denounced and ignored. But even
when kings returned to more limited or “constitutional monarchies”—in
England in 1689, in France briefly from 1814 to 1848, and in Brazil after
1822—the building of representative government continued.

The principles of this political revolution were enshrined in the
declarations and political philosophies of the period. Initially calling for the
“rights of subjects” and the need of monarchs to “consult” with parliament,
as in the English Bill of Rights (1689), they broadened to protect “the rights
of man and the citizen” in the French Declaration (1789) and to ensure the
sovereignty of the people. All citizens were to be subject to the rule of law.
Government and laws were to be created by representative assemblies of
the people. The French Declaration and the U.S. Bill of Rights called for
freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and freedom from arbitrary
arrest. In practice, representative government meant political parties,
elections, rules of procedure, and methods for determining the public,
national, or majority will.

This political revolution was largely the act of the new middle class of
merchants, producers, bankers, and capitalists with their wide range of
supporters and allies—lawyers, doctors, writers, accountants, political
leaders, and officials. The French called them the “bourgeoisie” and the
German’s “burgers” because they lived in the “burgs,” the cities, both large
and small. They were the urban money people—a “middle class” between
the old landed aristocracy and the small rural peasants and farmers. In
opposition to kings, aristocrats, and sometimes clergy, they claimed to
represent all the people. But until the nineteenth century, they meant all the
freeborn men with property. To secure life, liberty, happiness, and property,
they pledged their lives and sacred honor but also their fortunes.

Revolutions are inherently destabilizing affairs. When one class of people
demands power from another, the struggle can unleash the aspirations of
those beneath both of them. In the English Civil War of the 1640s, the
parliamentary party’s demands of the king led to a civil war that not only
resulted in the execution of King Charles I but also engaged landless
laborers, calling themselves Levelers and Diggers, who were not satisfied
by the replacement of the old rural propertied class by a new urban
propertied class. The political revolution of emerging capitalist society
created not only the political conditions for a successful industrial
revolution but the aspirations of a more socialist or communal world as

The American Revolution was also about property and principles.
Opposition to the crown, while not universal, was as old as the colonies
themselves. Some early settlers even returned to England to fight in the
Civil War of the 1640s. But the more prosperous colonists of the eighteenth
century were aggrieved by a British crown that seemed to them increasingly
remote and unnecessary. The immediate cause was new taxation, made
necessary, in British eyes, by the growing expenses of war and empire but
bitterly resented in the North American colonies. The result was
independence for the new United States of America, the first in a series of
anticolonial struggles that would continue well into the twentieth century.
Accompanying its independence was a selfconscious effort to create a “new
order for the ages” based on a republican constitution and at least partially
democratic principles.

The French Revolution of 1789, on the other hand, began as an internal
affair, taking aim at a domestic monarchy and the ruling class of aristocrats

who supported it. The French government was bankrupt, partly because of
its support of the American Revolution and its many European wars. The
French king, Louis XVI, and his queen, Marie Antoinette, were
increasingly unpopular, and their court was widely viewed as basking in
luxury and debauchery while ordinary people suffered terribly from various
taxes, feudal payments, and a series of poor harvests, leaving many in
hunger. Members of the emerging bourgeoisie resented the remaining
privileges of the aristocracy, while many leading intellectuals had already
lost confidence in the old regime. And the American example of republican
revolution was contagious. In these volatile circumstances, the calling into
session of an ancient assembly, the Estates General, for the purpose of
raising taxes, served to trigger revolution.

In its most radical actions, that revolution executed the king and queen,
abolished the ancient privileges of the nobility and the Catholic clergy,
confiscated much of the Church’s land, and unleashed a reign of terror
against suspected enemies of the revolution, sending about 40,000 of them
to the guillotine. In efforts to create a new society based on “liberty,
equality, and fraternity,” French revolutionaries such as Robespierre tried to
replace Christianity with a secular “cult of reason” and, seeking to break
decisively with the past, even promoted a new calendar for a new age. It
was a far more revolutionary process than the Americans had undertaken.

The radical phase of the French Revolution came amidst a European
wide war that required the revolutionary government to draft the first
modern citizen army and establish the first modern procedures to confiscate
and distribute food to the urban poor. Known as sans-culottes (those who
wore long trousers rather than the knee-length breeches of the upper
classes), they pushed the revolution into an increasingly radical and
egalitarian direction and celebrated their differences from the dominant
nobility and the propertied middle class. A pamphlet written in 1794
conveys something of their sense of themselves and of the class conflict
that marked the French Revolution:

A Sans-Culotte18 is a man who goes everywhere on his own two feet, who has none of the
millions you’re all after, no mansions, no lackeys to wait on him, and who lives quite simply
with his wife and children, if he has any, on the fourth or fifth floor.19 He is useful, because he
knows how to plow a field, handle a forge, a saw, or a file, how to cover a roof or how to make
shoes and to shed his blood to the last drop to save the Republic. And since he is a working
man, you will never find him in the Cafe de Chartres where they plot and gamble. . . . In the
evening he is at his Section, not powdered and perfumed and all dolled up to catch the eyes of
the citoyennes in the galleries, but to support sound resolutions with all his power and to
pulverize the vile factions [of anti-revolutionaries]. For the rest, the Sans-Culotte always keeps
his sword with a sharp edge, to clip the ears of the malevolent. Sometimes he carries his pike
and at the first roll of the drums, off he goes to the Vendee,20 to the Army of the Alps, or the
Army of the North.21

Making New Societies

The “Enlightenment.” Revolutionaries in both North America and France
shared a novel idea derived from eighteenth-century European thinkers—
that it was both possible and desirable for people to reconstruct their
societies in a deliberate and self-conscious way. Such ideas grew out of an
intellectual movement known as the “Enlightenment,” in which scientific

thinking spread to broader circles of the population and was applied to
human affairs as well as nature. The Scottish professor Adam Smith, for
example, found natural laws that explained the operation of the economy
and argued that allowing them to operate freely would produce a good and
prosperous society. Others addressed problems of politics and government.
While they came to various conclusions, all believed that human reason,
applied to human society, would generate unending progress. “The day will
come,” wrote the French thinker Condorcet, “when the sun will shine only
on free men, born knowing no other master but their reason; where tyrants
and their slaves, priests and their ignorant hypocritical writings will exist
only in the history books and theatres. . . . [T]he perfectibility of humanity
is indefinite.”22

Such criticism of European intolerance, superstition, and oppression flew
in the face of conventional thinking in almost all of the world’s large-scale
agrarian civilizations. Human societies, it was widely held, were
hierarchical, consisting of distinct, fixed, and unequal groups in which
individuals would live and die. These societies and the kings or emperors
who ruled them were ordained by God, an idea expressed in Europe as the
“divine right of kings.” Against this conception of society, American and
especially French revolutionaries hurled their ideas of freedom from
traditional beliefs and practices, the equality of all persons, and popular
sovereignty, which meant that the right to rule derived from the consent of
the people. The violent upheavals of the French Revolution were eventually
tamed by military dictator Napoleon Bonaparte in the early nineteenth
century, but his military campaigns and conquests throughout Europe
spread the ideas of the revolution far beyond France. Those ideas came to
define distinctively “Western” political and social values, often labeled

Liberalism. Rooted in the ideas of the Enlightenment, the core value of
liberalism was the individual, and it sought to further individual liberation
in every domain of life. Politically, liberals opposed arbitrary royal
authority and the domination of society by privileged aristocracies.
Intellectually, they sought liberation from ancient superstitions and
religions, believing that human rationality was sufficient to understand the
physical world and guide public affairs. Economically, liberals sought an
end to restrictions on private property, believing that the public good would
be best served by individuals pursuing their own economic interests. In the

late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, these indeed were
revolutionary ideas.

Who Benefited? Initially, these ideas and the legacy of the American and
French revolutions benefited primarily white men of the professional and
business classes, which capitalism and industrialization were
simultaneously strengthening. In that sense, the political revolutions helped
to create societies in which industrial capitalism could flourish. The
beheading of the French king Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette,
put more than a little dent in the divine right of kings, while the end of
feudalism with its legal privileges for the aristocracy opened the way for
wealthier and more prominent members of the rising middle classes to share
in political power and to acquire a greater measure of social prestige.

The expansion of the franchise or voting rights to men of property—and
briefly during the French Revolution to all men—began a long process of
political democratization but did not include women (except in a few
places, like New Jersey during the American Revolution), people of color,
or colonial subjects until the twentieth century. The idea of “careers open to
talent” established the principle of merit rather than birth as the basis for
social mobility, though those with education and property could more easily
demonstrate their merit than those without. And the abolition of artisan
guilds and internal trade barriers, together with development of commercial
law and uniform weights and measures, facilitated the growth of industrial
capitalism by allowing both workers and goods to move freely. More
generally, the idea that human societies could be reshaped by human hands
was an attractive and useful notion in a world where capitalism and
industrialization were eroding the old system and creating the need for
some new principles on which social order might be based.

The Revolution beyond
America and France

Slave Rebellion and Independence Movements. In fairly short order,
others found the ideas of the French and American revolutions useful in
their own struggles as “liberalism” came to have a global impact. Slaves on
the French island colony of Haiti in the Caribbean invoked the idea of
human equality in a successful revolt in the 1790s. Unlike the revolt of the
North American colonies, it was both a struggle for political independence
from colonial rule and a violent social upheaval, shattering the illusion that
slaves were a content and docile labor force and striking fear into slave
owners throughout the Americas. Latin American revolutionaries in the
early nineteenth century likewise found inspiration in the American and
French experience as they pursued independence from Spain and Portugal.
And Napoleon’s occupation of those two countries during the wars that
followed the French Revolution provided the occasion for launching
independence struggles. But the violence of the French Revolution and the
bloody slave uprising in Haiti made the elite leaders of these revolts very
reluctant to encourage the participation of the masses and unwilling to
extend the benefits of independence to them. Their societies were little

altered when independence was achieved, though the ideas of liberalism
echoed frequently in the politics of independent Latin American states in
the nineteenth century.

Challenging Old Oppressions. Aristocratic army officers in Russia, also
influenced by the French example, attempted unsuccessfully to install a
constitutional monarchy in 1825, thus challenging Europe’s most autocratic
state. “The Russian people is not the property of any one person or family.
On the contrary, the government belongs to the people,” declared one of
their leading figures.23 In places as far apart as Brazil, Japan, the Malay
states, India, and the Ottoman Empire, nineteenth-century reformers who
challenged old hierarchies of power and privilege found inspiration and
support in the ideas of European liberalism. So too did reformers in Europe
and the United States. Abolitionists seeking the end of slavery, democrats
demanding an extension of the franchise, and women hoping to escape their
age-old subordination to men were all acting on the basis of new ideas of
freedom and equality. These ideas were revolutionary because they
suggested that ancient inequalities and oppressions were neither natural nor
inevitable; radical change was both possible and desirable.

Variations on a Theme

The British and French Paths. The industrial and French revolutions
worked themselves out in different ways in different countries. England, of
course, was the first center of industrial development, and those who
followed sought to imitate the British example, borrowing or stealing its
technology. Britain gradually extended democratic rights to ever-larger
groups of men (but not to women) and after the Civil War did not
experience the periodic violent upheavals that rocked France for almost a
century after the revolution of 1789. Partly because of these political and
social upheavals, French industrialization took place more slowly and
gradually than in Britain. The absence of large coal fields also slowed
industrial growth in France, as did the continued existence of small-scale
peasant agriculture and relatively slow population growth.

The German Path. German industrialization, which took off after 1850,
was far more rapid than the French, and it focused from the beginning on
heavy industry—metals, chemicals, and electricity—rather than textiles,

which had earlier led the way to industrialization in England. Germans
organized their industries in very large companies or cartels rather than the
smaller family-owned firms more common in England and France. By the
end of the nineteenth century, Germany had taken the lead in the newer
high-technology fields of chemicals and electricity. But this rapid economic
progress took place in a society and a state that retained many of its earlier
features—authoritarian government, militarism, and the continued
prominence of aristocratic landlords. The democratic outcomes of the
French Revolution had less impact in Germany than in France or Britain.
Thus, Germany had fewer political outlets for the social strains of

The Path of the United States. Like Germany, the United States
industrialized rapidly in the second half of the nineteenth century and
moved quickly toward large-scale business organizations. More so than
elsewhere, these companies came to separate management from ownership,
and without the pressure of family interests, managers were more free to
innovate both production and marketing. A little later, Americans pioneered
techniques of assembly-line mass production using interchangeable parts.
They also applied industrial technology to agriculture more extensively than
European countries and became a major exporter of agricultural goods.
Furthermore, the United States depended quite heavily on Europe for
capital investment. Because of its earlier involvement in the slave trade and
massive immigration in the nineteenth century, the American labor force
was far more diverse, racially and ethnically, than those of Europe. The
divisions of race and ethnicity, in addition to the open frontier to the West,
meant that workers’ protests took a different form than in Europe. Socialist
parties with their emphasis on class solidarity grew strong in Europe but
found it far more difficult to take root in the United States. American labor
protest was no less militant than in Europe, but it was less socialist.

The Russian Path. Russian industrialization was both later and less far
reaching than in the rest of Europe. It got under way seriously in the 1880s
and was concentrated in large industrial complexes in several major cities,
such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. In the absence of a vigorous capitalist
class, the state took the initiative with railroads and heavy industry leading
the way. More than anywhere else, Russian industrialization took place in
an otherwise backward country. Russian serfs won their freedom only in
1861, and the country remained overwhelming rural well into the twentieth

century. The democratic ideas of the French Revolution had little impact in
Russia, where the tsar retained absolute authority even after he reluctantly
allowed a representative assembly to be elected in 1905. The strains of
industrial development in an autocratic state exploded in revolution during
World War I, leading to the world’s first communist state. That state, the
Soviet Union, then undertook a massive program of industrialization in the
1930s, but it completely rejected the capitalist framework within which all
other processes of industrialization had developed.

New Identities, New Conflicts
Together, the industrial and political revolutions produced in the West were
strikingly different from any in world history. They were enormously more
productive and more commercialized. They engaged far more ordinary
people in public life than in any of the older agrarian empires. Their
military capacity surpassed anything known before. Social values
highlighting competition among individuals as the route to a good society
reversed traditional moralities that had emphasized community and
cooperation. Finally, the worldview of the dominant elites was increasingly
secular, seeking to explain the world in scientific rather than religious
terms. In particular, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution challenged long-
held notions about humankind as a distinct creation of God, while Sigmund
Freud suggested that human beings were motivated largely by irrational
drives, both sexual and aggressive.

Nowhere has the combined impact of the political and industrial
revolutions been more apparent than in the growth of three movements—
socialism, nationalism, and fem-inism—that appeared in nineteenth-century
Europe and were appropriated in much of the rest of the world in the


Utopian Socialism. Socialism was a protest against the inequality of
capitalist society. It had roots in biblical ideas of a peaceful future when

“the lion would lie down with the lamb,” in peasant yearnings for their own
land, and in protests against the division of common grazing land into
private property. Such early ideas and movements were later seen as
nostalgic and naive. In one, Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), the author
imagined an ideal island in the Atlantic where a highly educated society had
no private property, held everything in common, and needed neither money
nor gold. In the English Civil War of the 1640s, poor peasants and
revolutionaries called Lev-elers and Diggers briefly claimed the estates of
lords for their own cultivation. During the French Revolution, in the 1790s,
a firebrand named Gracchus Babeuf created a revolutionary group called
“The Conspiracy of the Equals.” During the first half of the nineteenth
century, such ideas spread throughout Europe and North America. Some
created utopian communities on the principle of “from each according to his
abilities, to each according to his needs” or based on the idea that work
should be an expression of personal passion rather than obligation to an
employer. Some of these utopian colonies lasted into the twentieth century,
especially in the rural United States.

Marxism. It was Karl Marx (1818-1883) who labeled these early efforts
“utopian” in the sense of “unrealistic.” For Marx, the utopian socialists
were naive to imagine that they would change society by creating
alternative models in the wilderness. They failed to understand that the
capitalist class had created a new society, infinitely more productive than
rural agricultural society but full of contradictions: between private gain
and social wellbeing, its power to transform the world for the better, and its
narrow selfishness. The goal of “scientific socialism,” Marx believed, was
to understand this process of historical change in order to exploit the
contradictions of the capitalist system—to harness its enormous
productivity to serve the common good.

Here was an economic system that could produce enough for everyone
through the marvels of industrial technology but was absurdly unable to
provide to its workers the fruits of their own labor. No wonder capitalism
would be swept away in revolutionary upheaval featuring the urban
industrial proletariat. Then its vast productive potential would be placed in
service to the whole of society in a rationally planned, democratic, and
egalitarian community. In such a socialist commonwealth, degrading
poverty, conflicting classes, contending nations, and human alienation
generally would be but fading memories. From the ashes of capitalism,

Marx wrote, there will emerge a socialist society in which “the free
development of each [person] is the condition for the free development of

Socialist Parties. In answer to the question of how this new world would
come into being, the followers of Marx, not to mention other socialists, had
diverse responses. Some believed that the downtrodden working classes
would spontaneously rise up in a popular revolution. In 1848, the
Communist Manifesto, by Marx and Friedrich Engels, fed such
revolutionary energy with its call to struggle: “The Communists disdain to
conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be
attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let
the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have

nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” But the middle-
class revolution of 1848 did not turn into the working-class revolution that
they urged. In Germany, where Marx and Engels were most hopeful, even
the middle-class aspirations were brutally repressed. The first revolutionary
socialist society was created by the people of Paris in 1871 after France was
defeated by the new German Empire. They declared Paris to be an
independent commune, governed by the workers and citizens. It lasted only
a couple of months.

Nevertheless, by the time of Marx’s death in 1883, there were socialist
political parties throughout Europe. They agitated for the rights of workers,
to vote, to organize in unions, and to gain political power. Socialist parties
splintered and proliferated. Some remained revolutionary, in tune with the
“Internationale,” the anthem of the newly global movement:

Arise you prisoners of starvation,
Arise you wretched of the earth;
For justice thunders condemnation,
A better world’s in birth.
No more tradition’s chains shall bind us,
Arise, you slaves, no more in thrall,
The earth shall rise on new foundations,
We have been naught, we shall be all.

Western capitalists and governments countered the appeal of socialism in
a number of ways. Capitalist governments recognized the need to integrate
the worker classes into the political society. They initiated mass education
and encouraged national rather than class identity. In Germany,
conservative governments lured away workers with an alternative state
socialism of health, old-age, and unemployment insurance, creating the
basis of what was to become the welfare state. By 1900, most socialist
parties had dropped revolutionary ideology and adopted electoral politics.
In France, a socialist party joined a conservative government. Accustomed
to political power, the new socialists taught reform rather than violent
struggle and evolutionary change rather than revolution. In the same period,
Western corporations were able to raise the living standards of their
domestic workers as they increased their exploitation of peoples in Latin
America, Asia, and Africa. Western governments compensated for the
depressed domestic markets of the late nineteenth century with a wave of

“new imperialism” aimed at gaining cheaper raw materials and more global
markets for European and North American corporations.


Western socialist movements were also undermined by the cultivation of
appeals to the nation. The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 marked
a capitulation by workers to this new identity. Some socialist leaders called
on the workers to refuse participation in a conflict where they would be
expected to kill fellow workers from other countries. But national loyalties
proved stronger than class solidarity as European workers rallied to their
respective flags and enthusiastically set out to slaughter fellow brothers of
the Communist International rather than rising up against their capitalist
overlords. Where had this compelling sense of national identity come from?

Nationalism as a Modern Idea. The national idea—that the world is
divided into separate peoples each with its own distinct culture and
deserving political independence—is sometimes regarded as a natural and
ancient organization of human society. In fact, however, nationalism is a
distinctly modern phenomenon, dating back little more than two centuries
in most places, and largely a European innovation. Before that most people
regarded themselves as members of small local communities such as clans,
villages, or towns. Where they were bound to larger structures, it was as
religious believers, such as Christians or Muslims, or as subjects, not
citizens, of dynastic states or empires, such as those that governed the
Russian, Chinese, or Ottoman empires.

The Origins of Nationalism. The emergence of what we now recognize as
national identity occurred as Europe’s modern transformation eroded older
identities and loyalties. Science and rationalism weakened traditional
religious loyalties. The emergence of separate states (Spain, Prussia,
England, and France) undermined dynastic imperial systems in which a
sacred monarch ruled over a variety of culturally different peoples. The
printing press standardized differing dialects and created a national
language. By means of public education and popular media, print spelled
out a national identity for a literate public.

Capitalism, industrialization, migration, and urbanization uprooted
millions from long-established traditions and so created a need for new

forms of community. The French Revolution and its democratic legacy
encouraged many people to feel that they had a right to participate in
political life, for they were now citizens and no longer subjects. And leaders
of that revolution called on these citizens to defend the French nation and
its revolutionary achievements against attacks from conservative forces in
the rest of Europe.

Creating Nations. This was the brew from which nationalism emerged,
first of all in France and England, where the modern transformation was
most highly developed. In these countries, vernacular languages largely
coincided with political boundaries, making the transition to a national
consciousness easier. The political and economic success of these western
European nations—especially through the conquests of Napoleon—soon
gave the ideas of nationalism and the nation-state a great appeal in central
and eastern Europe, where dynastic empires still held sway. There, during
the nineteenth century, a distinctly national consciousness dawned for
peoples who, unlike the French and the English, had no states of their own.
Urban intellectuals—linguists, historians, writers, and students of folklore
—took the lead in creating German, Italian, Hungarian, Czech, Bulgarian,
Greek, Ukrainian, and many other nationalisms. Drawing on local folk
cultures and selected aspects of their historical experience, these
intellectuals shaped a conception of the nation that appealed to a widening
circle of people. This process did not so much reawaken ancient national
feelings; rather, it “invented” or “constructed” new political loyalties—the
“imagined communities” of the modern era.25

The Power of the National Idea. It soon proved to be a compelling
identity. In Germany and Italy, scattered members of these “national
communities” were gathered into new unified states, a process largely
completed by the early 1870s. Governments increasingly based their
authority on a claim to represent the “nation” rather than on divine right.
They actively encouraged national loyalties in their schools, public rituals,
newspapers, and military forces. Newly conscious “nations,” such as
Czechs and Hungarians, sought greater political independence from the
ramshackle Austrian Empire; Greeks and Serbs revolted against Turkish
rule in the Ottoman Empire; and Poles and Ukrainians grew increasingly
conscious of their subordination within the Russian Empire. As European
imperialism intruded on Asia and Africa, stirrings of nationalism emerged
in late nineteenth-century Egypt, India, China, and Vietnam. In the

twentieth century, nationalism was thoroughly “internationalized” as it
exploded across the globe, bursting apart any number of empires (Ottoman,
British, French, Portuguese, and Soviet), triggering two world wars and the
Holocaust, and serving to justify many regional conflicts and civil wars.
New national identities may initially have been “imaginary,” but modern
political and economic changes forged them into powerful and competitive
communities. Those national identities became a central element in the
making of the modern world, a source of solidarity and immense sacrifice
as well as a stimulus to bitter conflict.


Although much smaller in size and impact than nationalism and socialism,
the emergence of a feminist movement in nineteenth-century Europe and
America represented something even more novel and unprecedented.
Conflict between classes and countries was, after all, nothing new in world
history. But the patriarchal double standard that allowed men to rule women
had existed at least as long and had rarely been challenged. Now in the most
advanced industrial societies of the West, such a challenge took shape and
became a mass movement by the beginning of the twentieth century. How
had it happened?

Roots of Feminism. Many elements of Europe’s modern transformation
paved the way for a feminist movement. Enlightenment thinkers challenged
many of the received traditions of European society, including that of
women’s intrinsic inferiority. The French and American revolutions raised
the question of whether women were to be included in pronouncements of

The growth of an industrial society with a much larger middle class,
together with growing educational opportunities for girls, created a
substantial group of educated women with the leisure to read, write,
correspond with one another, and, eventually, organize. Both the slow
progress of democracy and the challenge of socialism expressed ideas of
equality with implications for women.

Feminist Beginnings. By the 1830s, small groups of educated middle-
class women in Great Britain, France, Germany, and the United States,
numbering in the hundreds or thousands, had come to a feminist awareness

that completely rejected female subordination and inequality. “I came to the
consciousness and to the knowledge that the position of women was
absurd,” wrote one German American feminist, “so I soon began to do as
much as I could, in words and print, for the . . . betterment of women.”26

Many of them had prior experience in other reform movements, such as
socialism, abolitionism, and religious freedom, and they took courage from
a wave of short-lived revolutionary upheavals that broke out all over
Europe in 1848.

These women established feminist newspapers and journals, founded
schools and colleges, held numerous meetings and conventions of like-
minded colleagues, and kept in touch with one another across national
boundaries as they created the first international women’s movement in
world history. In the process, they questioned age-old traditions: some
women wore pants, others declined to take their husband’s name, and still
others challenged patriarchal religious beliefs and practices. Women
contested dominant male attitudes concerning sex, prostitution, rape, and
divorce. They organized to gain equal employment opportunities,
education, and political rights for women.

The American feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton made the case in an
eloquent address to a committee of the U.S. Congress in 1892:

The strongest reason why we ask for woman a voice in the government under which she lives;
in the religion she is asked to believe; equality in social life, where she is the chief factor; a
place in the trades and professions, where she may earn her bread, is because of her birthright
to selfsovereignty; because, as an individual, she must rely on herself. No matter how much
women prefer to lean, to be protected and supported, nor how much men desire to have them
do so, they must make the voyage of life alone, and for safety in an emergency they must
know something of the laws of navigation. To guide our own craft, we must be captain, pilot,
engineer; with chart and compass to stand at the wheel; to match the wind and waves and
know when to take in the sail, and to read the signs in the firmament over all. It matters not
whether the solitary voyager is man or woman.

Nature having endowed them equally, leaves them to their own skill and judgment in the
hour of danger, and, if not equal to the occasion, alike they perish.27

The Achievements of Feminism. The European feminist movement was
temporarily silenced in the repression that followed the revolutionary
upheavals in 1848. But it reemerged several decades later with a primary
focus on the issue of suffrage and with a growing constituency. Now many
ordinary middle-class housewives and working-class mothers joined their
better-educated sisters in the movement. By the outbreak of World War I in

1914, French feminist groups counted some 100,000 adherents, while the
National American Women’s Suffrage Association claimed 2 million
members. Although most of these organizations pursued peaceful tactics of
persuasion and protest, the British Women’s Social and Political Union was
deliberately more aggressive, engaging in civil disobedience and occasional
acts of terrorism. One suffragette threw herself in front of the king’s horse
during a race in Britain in 1900 and died from her injuries. The violent
hostility that such actions aroused revealed the depth of “sexual warfare,”
which an overt feminism provoked. In the most highly industrialized
countries of the West, the women’s movement had become a mass

Greater access to university education, legal reforms giving women
control over their property, and some liberalization of divorce laws owed
much to the growing feminist movement, though widespread voting rights
for women in national elections were not achieved until after World War I.
Perhaps the most significant achievement of the movement, however, was
to force the “woman question” onto the public agenda in the West far more
extensively than it had ever been before. Novelists and dramatists
challenged the institution of marriage. Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House
(1879) riveted and sharply divided European audiences when the character
of Nora abruptly left a confining marriage and her children to “find herself”
in the larger world. An increasingly frank and public discussion of
sexuality, including homosexuality and birth control, took place in literary,
medical, political, and journalistic circles. Socialists debated whether a
separate focus on women’s issues might distract from the class solidarity
that Marxism proclaimed. Feminists themselves argued about the basis for
women’s rights. Did they arise from an emphasis on women as individuals
with rights equal to those of men? Or was it rather women’s unique role as
mothers and their relationship to family life that provided the strongest case
for reform?

Backlash. All of this, not surprisingly, provoked opposition. Some
academic and medical experts proclaimed that women had smaller brains
and that undue study would cause serious reproductive damage. Others
defined feminists as selfish, pursuing their own interests at the expense of
the family or even the nation. Public officials in France and elsewhere
inveighed against feminism in general and birth control in particular on the
grounds that it would depopulate the nation. Some saw suffragists, like
Jews and socialists, as “a foreign body in our national life.” Women who
worked outside the home were said to neglect their children and to overtax
their reproductive capacities. Never before in any society had such a
passionate and public debate about the position of women erupted. It was a
novel feature of Europe’s modern transformation.

Modernity as Revolution

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, modern life had become so
familiar to people in the West that its unprecedented and revolutionary
qualities were easily overlooked. Historical study reminds us how new, how
radical, and how relatively recent these transformations have been.

Like all great movements of historical change, the industrial and political
revolutions both shattered old ways of life and gave rise to new ones.
Technological change unleashed vast new productive forces. Aristocrats
lost out to industrialists, who were themselves challenged by workers and
socialists. Artisans and peasants declined in numbers as factory workers,
salespeople, and typists took their place. Kings whose authority had long
rested on “divine right” now had to accommodate elected assemblies based
on notions of popular sovereignty and democracy. Children went to school
rather than to work, and middle-class women increasingly stayed at home
while their husbands went off to the factory or office. Class and especially
national loyalties increasingly replaced those of local communities.
Individualistic and secular values challenged traditional commitments to
family, village, or religion. Military forces achieved immeasurably greater
power. Never before in human history had so much changed so quickly.

These transformations certainly brought new freedoms and greater
prosperity to many people as living standards slowly rose, education grew,
and democratic practice was established. But they did not generate a lasting
stability in European societies. Conflicts of class, nation, and gender
continued to unsettle European life, and during the first half of the twentieth
century, the “proud tower” of European modernity virtually collapsed in
war, depression, and genocide. Furthermore, the modern transformation of
European society inspired and enabled a new wave of European expansion
that encompassed almost the entire planet and brought lasting changes to
the rest of the world as well.

Suggested Readings

Anderson, Bonnie S. Joyous Greetings: The First International Women’s
Movement, 1830-1860. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. A
history of the beginnings of organized feminism in the West.

Eley, Geoff, and Ronald Grigor Suny. Becoming National: A Reader. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1996. A collection of readings about the
history of nationalism around the world.

Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Revolution, 1749-1848. New York: Vintage
Books, 1996. A Marxist account of the French and industrial
revolutions by a well-known and highly respected scholar.

Landes, David. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. New York: Norton,
1998. A controversial but very readable book that seeks to explain why
Europe grew wealthy while other areas of the world did not. Often
criticized for being Eurocentric.

Marks, Robert. The Origins of the Modern World. Boston: Rowman &
Littlefield, 2003. A short account of the beginnings of modernity that
draws on much recent scholarship and places Europe in a global

Palmer, R. R. The Age of Democratic Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1970. A classic account of the French Revolution that
places it in a broader Atlantic context.

Stearns, Peter. The Industrial Revolution in World History. Boulder, CO:
Westview Press, 1998. A global history of industrialization from its
eighteenth-century origins through the end of the twentieth century.

Tilly, Louise, and Joan Scott. Women, Work, and Family. London:
Routledge, 1987. Explores the changing roles of working-class women
in France and England as they participated in the industrial revolution.

1. William H. McNeill, “The Rise of the West after Twenty-Five Years,”

Journal of World History 1, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 7.
2. E. L. Jones, The European Miracle (Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, 1981), 119.
3. David Landes, “Clocks: Revolution in Time,” History Today, January

1984, 19-26.

4. Jack A. Goldstone, “Efflorescence and Economic Growth in World
History,” Journal of World History 13, no. 2 (Fall 2002): 323-89.

5. Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: Europe, China, and the
Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 2000).

6. Colin Simmons, “Deindustrialization, Industrialization, and the Indian
Economy, 18501947,” Modern Asian Studies 19, no. 3 (1985): 600.

7. Kenneth Pomeranz and Steven Topik, The World That Trade Created
(Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1999), 7.

8. Arnold Pacey, Technology in World Civilization (Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press, 1990), 117-20.

9. Janet Lippman Abu-Lughod, “The World System in the Thirteenth
Century,” in Islamic and European Expansion, ed. Michael Adas
(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), 85-97.

10. Jones, The European Miracle, 82
11. Howard Spodek, The World’s History, vol. 2 (Upper Saddle River,

NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001), 519.
12. R. R. Palmer et al., A History of the Modern World (New York:

McGraw-Hill, 2002), 556.
13. Clive Pointing, A Green History of the World (New York: St. Martin’s

Press, 1991), 355
14. Ramachandra Guha, Environmentalism: A Global History (New

York: Longman, 2000), chaps. 1-4.
15. Spodek, The World’s History, 531.
16. Roy Palmer ed., Poverty Knock (New York: Cambridge University

Press, 1974), 24.
17. William Dodd, The Factory System Illustrated (London: John

Murray, 1842), 108-10.
18. A class of workers and artisans defined by their clothes—long pants

(literally without culottes, or breeches, which were worn by the upper

19. French apartment buildings reflected French social structure. The
wealthy lived in grand apartments on the first floor, while the lower classes
had to climb the stairs to the upper floors.

20. Western France where the proroyalist antirevolutionary movement
was strong.

21. Quoted in Mortimer Chambers et al., The Western Experience
(Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003), 730.

22. Marquis de Condorcet, Sketch of the Progress of the Human Mind.
Translated from Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, marquis de Con-
dorcet, Esquisse dun tableau historique desprogrès de lesprit humain
(Paris: Librairie philosophique J. Vrin, 1970), p. 198.

23. Quoted in C. A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World (Oxford:
Blackwell, 2004), 295.

24. Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: Signet
Classics, Penguin Group, 1998), 46.

25. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the
Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).

26. Bonnie S. Anderson, Joyous Greetings: The First International
Women’s Movement, 18301860 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000),
14. This paragraph is drawn from Anderson’s book.

27. Votes for Women: Selections from the National American Woman
Suffrage Association Collection, 1848-1921. Washington, DC: Library of
Congress, American Memory: Historical Collections for the National
Digital Library, December 3, 2001,


The Great Disturbance

by Global Empires

Imperialism of the Industrial Age
Imperial Motives
The Tools of Empire

Confronting Imperialism

Mughul Decline
British Takeover

China and the West
Opium for Tea
The Opium Wars
The Taiping Rebellion

The Ottoman Empire

Patterns of Change in the nineteenth Century
From the Slave Trade to Colonial Rule
Resistance and Cooperation

Russian and American Expansion
Australia and New Zealand

Global Imperial Economies
A Second Wave of Globalization
A Divided World
India and Imperial Globalization

Famine and Free Markets
The Economics of Empire

Africa and Imperial Globalization
Forced Labor
Cash Crops
The Loss of Land
Mining and Migration

Global Migration
Global Imperial Society and Culture

Population Patterns
Slavery and Race

An End to Slavery
The Growth of “Scientific Racism”
Race and Colonial Life
Western Educated Elites

New Identities
Colonized Women

European Reforms
Coping with Colonial Economies
Education and Opportunity

Missionaries and Conversion
Changing Defensively

Trying to Catch Up
Ottoman Modernization
Comparing China and Japan

Chinese Self-Strengthening
Japan’s “Revolution from Above”

Perspectives on the Nineteenth Century
Progress or Exploitation?

Celebrating Western Achievement
Alternative European Voices
Critics from the Colonies

Actors and Re-actors
Change and Persistence

Religious Revival and Consolidation
Powers and Privileges

Conclusion: Toward the Twentieth Century

T HE INDUSTRIAL revolution not only transformed the face of
Europe, where it originated, but also set in motion dramatic
changes—a great disturbance—through-out the entire world. While

the world’s various peoples outside the West retained their many differences
after 1750, increasingly they had one thing in common—the need to
confront the aggressive intrusion of Europeans into their affairs. Europeans
of all kinds—soldiers and settlers, missionaries and explorers, businessmen
and investors, and colonial administrators and technical specialists—now
descended on Asian-Pacific and African societies. Most dramatic perhaps
was Western military power, which brought many societies under European
political control for the first time, some in formal colonies and others in
semi-independent countries heavily influenced by their foreign intruders.
With even longer-lasting consequences, European economic penetration
confronted Afro-Asian peoples as Western industrializing societies sought
raw materials for their factories, markets for their products, and investment
opportunities for their profits. Afro-Asian societies also encountered and
adapted some of the revolutionary ideas and techniques generated in
Europe’s modern transformation, such as socialism, nationalism, railroads,
mechanized mining operations, and factory production. They were also
exposed to the older features of European civilization, such as Christianity
and European languages and literatures. These encounters generated new
identities—racial, class, gender, ethnic, national, and religious—in Asian
and African societies and provoked many of the world’s peoples into
transforming their own societies.

The dilemma that confronted many of the world’s peoples is illustrated
by the reaction of a well-educated Egyptian Muslim named Abd al-Rahman
al-Jabarti as he witnessed Napoleon’s conquest of his country in 1798. On
the one hand, al-Jabarti was much impressed with French science and
technology and was forced to the disturbing conclusion that a culture he
regarded as inferior had superseded the technological and intellectual
achievements of his own:

The French installed . . . a large library with several librarians who looked after the books and
brought them to the readers who needed them. . . . If a Moslem wished to come in to visit the
place he was not in the least prevented from doing so. . . . The French especially enjoyed it
when the Moslem visitor appeared to be interested in the sciences. They welcomed him
immediately and showed him all sorts of printed books with maps representing various parts

of the world and pictures of animals and plants. . . . One was positively astounded at the sight
of all these beautiful things.

. . . [T]hey [the French] were great scholars and loved the sciences, especially mathematics
and philology. They applied themselves day and night to learning the Arabic language and
conversation. . .

An astronomer and his students had very precise astronomical instruments. One saw among
them instruments constructed in absolutely remarkable ways and which were obviously very
expensive. . . . They also had telescopes which contracted and closed themselves in little
boxes. They helped to observe the stars and determine their distances, volumes, conjunctions,
and oppositions. They also had all sorts of time devices, including very valuable clocks which
indicated the second very precisely, and many other instruments. . .

We also saw a machine in which a glass went around which gave off sparks and crackled
whenever a foreign object was brought near it. . .

We had other experiences even more extraordinary then the first ones, and untutored
intellects like ours could not conceive how they happened or give any explanations for them.1

But al-Jabarti reacted in a quite different fashion to another “face” of the
West encountered during 1798—the arrival of the French occupying army
in Egypt:

The French entered the city [Cairo] like a torrent rushing through the alleys and streets without
anything to stop them, like demons of the Devil’s army. They destroyed any barricades they
encountered. . . . And the French trod in the Mosque of al-Azhar with their shoes, carrying
swords and rifles. . . . They plundered whatever they found in the mosque. . . . They treated the
books and Quranic volumes as trash. . . . Furthermore, they soiled the mosque, blowing their
spit in it, pissing and defecating in it. They guzzled wine and smashed bottles in the central

How to resist aggression, to accommodate superior power, and to
appropriate what was useful from the invaders—here was the dilemma
faced by growing numbers of people and societies as a changing balance of
global power allowed Europeans, for a brief time, to dominate virtually the
entire earth.

Imperialism of the
Industrial Age

The most visible though not the most lasting expression of Europe’s global
reach after 1750 lay in the wars of conquest by which Europeans extended
their military and political power throughout the world. This process

continued patterns of European imperialism that began in the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries, but this new phase of Western expansion differed in
many ways from the earlier one. Now the primary focus lay in African,
Middle Eastern, Asian, and Pacific societies rather than the Americas. And
the cast of European players changed as well. The Spanish and Portuguese,
so prominent in the early conquest of the New World, had only a marginal
role in this new era of empire building. The British and French were the
most significant European imperialists, while Germany, Italy, Belgium, the
Netherlands, Russia, and the United States entered the fray on a more
modest scale. Late in the nineteenth century, Japan joined the imperialist
club as its only non-Western member and began to carve out an empire in
East Asia.

Imperial Motives

Most of these countries had begun to industrialize, and that process shaped
their imperial expansion even as it changed so much else as well. European
motives now included the desire to export their surplus industrial
production, to find more profitable investments for their capital, and to
secure raw materials needed for their factories. Some Europeans,
particularly the wealthy, were aware of the social importance of foreign
outlets for their goods and profits. Without them, many feared, prices would
fall, unemployment increase, and socialism become more popular. “If you
wish to avoid a civil war,” wrote Cecil Rhodes, among the most ardent
advocates of the British Empire, “then you must become an imperialist.”3

Older impulses toward imperialism growing out of European rivalries
continued and even intensified in the late nineteenth century, as competing
nationalisms now fueled Western expansion in Africa and Asia. Religion,
however, declined among statesmen and diplomats as a motive for empire,
though it remained strong among missionary societies and their supporters
at home.

Underlying all this was a growing sense among Europeans that they were
a superior form of humanity, as evidenced by their amazing technological
progress. For some, this meant that “lesser breeds” or ‘backward peoples”
were destined to be displaced or destroyed by superior races and that the
war, bloodshed, and brutality associated with imperialism were the
“natural” and even “progressive” mechanism by which the “survival of the
fittest” unfolded. For others, this “social Darwinism,” a harsh understanding
of imperialism, was tempered with a genuine though condescending sense
of responsibility to the “weaker races” that Europe was fated to dominate.
Empire and trade, they felt, should bring the blessings of Western
civilization to those less fortunate: Christianity, freedom, and material
improvement. Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem of 1899 gave this
“paternalistic idealism” its classic expression:

Take up the White Man’s Burden
Send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild

Your new caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.4

The Tools of Empire5

The industrial era provided new means as well as new motives for
European expansion. Steam-driven ships facilitated the penetration of the
Asian and African interiors along their river systems, and the discovery of
quinine to prevent malaria reduced the risk of an extended stay in the
tropics from quasi suicidal to merely dangerous. Breech-loading rifles,
which became available about 1850 and machine guns a few decades later,
provided the overwhelming firepower that decided many a colonial conflict.
A much-quoted rhyme expressed the essential facts of the situation:

Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim gun [machine gun], and they

have not.

Finally, the enhanced administrative capacities of an industrializing
Europe as well as remarkable improvements in the technology of
transportation and communication—larger and more efficient ships, the
Suez and Panama canals, underwater telegraph cables, and the railroad—
linked Europe and its new dependencies more tightly than ever before. All
this—both motives and means—propelled Europeans’ inland intrusion into
Asian and African societies after 1750, following more than two centuries
of being limited largely to fortified trading centers along the coasts.

Confronting Imperialism
The global encounter of European imperialism and various Afro-Asian
peoples took shape in quite different ways. Much depended on the historical
circumstances of particular cultures or civilizations as well as on the
intentions of various groups of European intruders. It was clearly a two-way
process although a highly unequal one in terms of power.

Some people and some groups in every society found advantage in the
European presence and were inclined to cooperate, at least for a time.
Rulers, caught in complex internal rivalries and external threats, might very
well view the Europeans as useful allies. In Southeast Asia, for example, a
number of highland minority groups, long oppressed by the dominant
lowland Vietnamese, viewed the French invaders as liberators and assisted
in their takeover of Vietnam. And once colonial rule was established, many
traditional elite groups and other aspiring individuals eagerly served the
new order as princes, chiefs, administrative officials, clerks, soldiers, and
translators. Without them, colonial rule would have been impossible.

On the other hand, resistance was widespread, as witnessed by the
endless and bloody wars of conquest that Europeans were required to fight
in order to establish their control. Here is just one very small example
drawn from the British conquest of Kenya in East Africa in the early
twentieth century. It comes from the diary of a British soldier in 1902:

I have performed a most unpleasant duty today. I made a night march to the village at the edge
of the forest where the white settler had been so brutally murdered the day before yesterday.
Though the war drums were sounding throughout the night, we reached the village without
incident and surrounded it. . . . I gave orders that every living thing except children should be
killed without mercy. I hated the work and was anxious to get through with it. So soon as we
could see to shoot we closed in. Several of the men tried to break out but were immediately
shot. I then assaulted the place before any defense could be prepared. Every soul was either
shot or bayoneted, and I am happy to say that there were no children in the village. They,
together with the younger women, had already been removed by the villagers to the forest. We
burned all the huts and razed the banana plantations to the ground.6

Even after initial resistance had been crushed, hundreds of rebellions
threatened the “colonial peace.” And soon nationalist movements, led by
Western-educated elites, took shape and eventually brought the age of
global empire to an end in the second half of the twentieth century.

But the various peoples of Asia and Africa confronted quite different
patterns of European intrusion, and their responses to it varied widely as


Mughal Decline. India was among the first to experience this new thrust
of European imperial expansion. European traders, first the Portuguese and
later the British and French, had been active along the coast of India for
several centuries, but their trading companies had long operated under the
control and with the permission of the powerful Mughal Empire. But in the

eighteenth century, that empire began to disintegrate as the more
aggressively Muslim emperor Aurangzeb (1658—1707) upset the delicate
balance between the empire’s Muslim rulers and its mostly Hindu subjects.
As the central authority of the Mughal Empire weakened, regional rulers
became more prominent, as did urban merchants and moneylenders. Many
such people found an advantage in some connection with the French or
British trading companies. European military technology and techniques for
training troops were useful to aspiring regional authorities enmeshed in
local rivalries. Some wealthy Indian traders and bankers, resenting the
demands of Mughal authorities, helped finance the military forces of the
British East India Company. Substantial numbers of Indian men joined
European led armies, attracted by the security and opportunities for
enrichment that they offered.

British Takeover. Without the authority of the Mughal Empire to provide
law and order, the British East India Company, together with its French
rival, found it useful and profitable to train and arm some of these Indian
states and to involve themselves ever more deeply in the complex political
affairs of India. Over the course of more than half a century after 1750, the
British Company bested its French rivals, allied with some Indian rulers,
opposed others, and found itself by the mid-nineteenth century ruling the
Indian subcontinent. Although it involved the frequent use of British-led
military forces, the British acquisition of India was not, precisely, a
“conquest” of one state by another, and it occurred with the assistance of
many Indian allies. Lest this seem unpatriotic, we need to remember that
little sense of “India” as a nation had yet emerged. Local loyalties to caste,
village, or region were far more important, and relationships with rulers at
an all-India level fluctuated frequently on the basis of changing interests.

One witty observer quipped that Britain had acquired its Indian colony
“in a fit of absence of mind.” Certainly, the British government had no
declared policy of conquering India, but it generally acquiesced to the
actions of East India Company officials “on the spot” who often acted quite
deliberately (and without consulting authorities in London) in carving out
new territories to govern. Thus, the British takeover of India was carried out
by a private commercial company, though the British government assumed
official control of the country in 1858. The resources that made this
remarkable acquisition possible did not initially involve industrial
technology or superior firepower, for much of this process occurred before

the industrial revolution kicked in. Rather, it was a matter of organizational
technology in the form of disciplined military training and highly
regimented tactics.

A broadly similar transition from a limited European commercial
presence to outright political control also occurred in Indonesia as the
Dutch East India Company took over that heavily populated archipelago. In
both cases, the outcome was unexpected and was driven as much by events
in Asia as by the intentions of European governments or commercial firms.

Rebellion. India was also the site of one of the largest rebellions in the
colonial world. Known as the Indian, or Sepoy, Rebellion of 1857-1858, it
began as a cultural clash in the military when Indian troops, known as
sepoys, refused to use cartridges greased in animal fat. Hindus feared that
the fat came from sacred cows, while Muslims feared it came from filthy
and offensive pigs. The revolt attracted a variety of groups with grievances
against the new British rulers: exploited peasants, landlords deprived of
their estates, princes displaced by British rule, and religious leaders
threatened by missionary activity. Nevertheless, divisions among the rebels
and British military superiority crushed the revolt amid horrendous
violence. In one display of extravagant revenge, British soldiers chained
“disloyal” sepoys to the mouths of cannon and blew them apart.

Yet even failed rebels could become martyrs in later struggles for
independence. One of these was the young Rani of Jhansi, a fierce fighting
widow of an Indian raja who had been deprived by the British of her
inheritance. The Rani led her own army of women as well as male troops
against the British in 1858. Despite her death in the battle at the age of 23,
her memory was honored in stories, films, monuments, and the naming of a
women’s regiment in the anti-British Indian National Army during World
War II.


China and the West. China’s confrontation with Western imperialism
bore both similarities and differences to that of India. Like the Mughal
Empire, China had controlled and contained European activity for some 300
years. Chinese authorities had admitted European missionaries to the court
when they appeared respectful and useful and sharply restricted or

prevented their activity when they became offensive. Western traders, like
other “barbarians” seeking access to China’s riches, were subject to strict
monitoring and after 1759 were limited to trading in a single Chinese city,
Guangzhou (Canton), and were compelled to conduct business only with
authorized Chinese merchants. But by the early nineteenth century, the
balance of power had begun to shift. China’s Qing dynasty (16441911)