A History of Civilizations

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On the one hand, impelled by the respect for facts and details [as opposed to mere speculation] which is a distinctive mark of the modern scientific temper, historians tended more and more to confine themselves to specialized areas of study - a particular short period of time or a particular aspect [cultural, political, intellectual, artistic, economic, etc. Or they might specialize in the study of an event or movement of great significance - say the French or the Russian Revolution, or confine themselves even to only certain aspects of these movements.

The scientific, factual temper of the times forbade the broad vision and sweeping generalization which presumably went with working on larger historical canvasses. On the other hand, since history as a universal theme had entered human consciousness, the study of history as the study of human destiny could not be ignored. And such a study was undertaken by the philosophically minded historians, Marx and Comte in the 19th Century, and Spengler, Mosca and Toynbee in the 20th.

These philosophical historians discern dominant themes or determining factors in history - the economic factor for Marx, the 'ascent' from the mythological-religious to the philosophical to the scientific spirit in human thinking for Comte, the domination of the ruling class for Mosca , and the hold and progress of religious faiths in societies, for Toynbee. For these 'macro historians', these factors provide the explanations for the broad movements and trends in history.

However, the danger in working on such a scale is that while it may illuminate certain aspects of history, it over-explains and hence explains very little of the greater part of it.

A History of Civilizations

And, as in the case of the Marxist explanation, it could turn into a fanatical ideology. And hence the question for the historian is that of having a long range view of the main trends, both material and spiritual, in history, and combining this with a respect for life as it is actually lived by millions of human beings earning their living 'by the sweat of their brow', and being subject to the vicissitudes of famine or disease, war or revolution.

It means paying attention to geography and climate which determine the physical and mental habits of populations, to the state of health of peoples over periods of time, to changing patterns of food habits, of agricultural, trading and industrial patterns which changed at first slowly over long periods of time, and gained an ever increasing momentum in modern times, and to much else besides; at the same time not losing sight of the great movements of the human spirit - science, art, culture and religion.

It means keeping both the details of the foreground and the distant horizon of the background in view. To quote Fernand Braudel on the task of historians, 'This long-term history, history-at-a-distance, blue-water cruising on the high seas of time, rather than prudent coastal navigation never losing sight of the land - this way of proceeding, call it what you will - has both advantages and drawbacks.

Its advantages are that it forces one to think, to explain matters in unaccustomed terms, and to use historical explanation as a key to one's own time. Its drawbacks or dangers are that it can lapse into the facile generalizations of a philosophy of history more imaginary than researched or proved. Any history which is pressed to the point of general theory requires constant returns to practical reality-figures, maps, precise chronology and verification. To keep to the nautical metaphor, he is aware of both the long protracted ground swell of the ocean and of the wave of the moment.

He is a philosophical historian with a feel for detail. Braudel 's 'A History of Civilization' is the product of this talent. In doing this, his attempt is to give the reader a feel of the essential nature of each civilization, both materially as well as intellectually and spiritually. For Braudel , whatever is felt to be real in the lives of people, is real, not to be ignored on theoretical grounds. After giving detailed accounts of the geographical and economic factors in European history, he does not exclude any other relevant - factor on ideological grounds.

Here for instance is what he has to say about contemporary Europe: 'It is disturbing to note that Europe as a cultural ideal and objective is the last item on the current agenda. No one is concerned with a mystique or an ideology; no one pays attention to the misleading calm waters of Revolution or of Socialism, that still run deep, no one seems concerned by the living waters of religious faith. But Europe will not be built unless it draws upon those old forces that fIrst formed it and still move within it: in a word, unless it calls forth the many forms of humanism that it contains.

If history is the story of mankind which is also the story of oneself, then Braudel is a historian who tells this story without leaving out the sub-stories and sub-plots which are contained in it. Capitalist economies began their rise, initially in northern Italian republics such as Genoa. The Early Modern period also saw the rise and dominance of the mercantilist economic theory.

As such, the Early Modern period represents the decline and eventual disappearance, in much of the European sphere, of feudalism , serfdom, and the power of the Catholic Church. The period includes the Protestant Reformation , the disastrous Thirty Years' War , the Age of Discovery , European colonial expansion , the peak of European witch-hunting , the Scientific revolution , and the Age of Enlightenment.

Europe 's Renaissance , meaning "rebirth," referring to the rebirth of classical culture, beginning in the 14th century and extending into the 16th, consisted of the rediscovery of the classical world's scientific contributions, and of the economic and social rise of Europe. The Renaissance also engendered a culture of inquisitiveness which ultimately led to Humanism [] and the Scientific Revolution. During this period, European powers came to dominate most of the world.

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Although the most developed regions of European classical civilization were more urbanized than any other region of the world, European civilization had undergone a lengthy period of gradual decline and collapse. During the Early Modern Period, Europe was able to regain its dominance; historians still debate the causes.

Europe's success in this period stands in contrast to other regions. For example, one of the most advanced civilizations of the Middle Ages was China. It had developed an advanced monetary economy by CE. China had a free peasantry who were no longer subsistence farmers, and could sell their produce and actively participate in the market.

According to Adam Smith , writing in the 18th century, China had long been one of the richest, most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, most urbanized, and most prosperous countries in the world. It enjoyed a technological advantage and had a monopoly in cast iron production, piston bellows, suspension bridge construction, printing , and the compass.

However, it seemed to have long since stopped progressing. Marco Polo , who visited China in the 13th century, describes its cultivation, industry, and populousness almost in the same terms as travelers would in the 18th century. One theory of Europe's rise holds that Europe's geography played an important role in its success. The Middle East, India and China are all ringed by mountains and oceans but, once past these outer barriers, are nearly flat.


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By contrast, the Pyrenees , Alps , Apennines , Carpathians and other mountain ranges run through Europe, and the continent is also divided by several seas. This gave Europe some degree of protection from the peril of Central Asian invaders. Before the era of firearms, these nomads were militarily superior to the agricultural states on the periphery of the Eurasian continent and, as they broke out into the plains of northern India or the valleys of China, were all but unstoppable.

These invasions were often devastating. India and China were subject to periodic invasions , and Russia spent a couple of centuries under the Mongol-Tatar yoke. Central and western Europe, logistically more distant from the Central Asian heartland, proved less vulnerable to these threats. Geography contributed to important geopolitical differences. For most of their histories, China, India, and the Middle East were each unified under a single dominant power that expanded until it reached the surrounding mountains and deserts.

Climate change helped destroy these four ancient civilisations

By contrast, Europe was almost always divided into a number of warring states. Pan-European empires, with the notable exception of the Roman Empire , tended to collapse soon after they arose. Another doubtless important geographic factor in the rise of Europe was the Mediterranean Sea, which, for millennia, had functioned as a maritime superhighway fostering the exchange of goods, people, ideas and inventions.

Nearly all the agricultural civilizations have been heavily constrained by their environments. Productivity remained low, and climatic changes easily instigated boom-and-bust cycles that brought about civilizations' rise and fall. By about , however, there was a qualitative change in world history.

The First Cities in History - Ancient History Documentary

Technological advance and the wealth generated by trade gradually brought about a widening of possibilities. Many have also argued that Europe's institutions allowed it to expand, that property rights and free-market economics were stronger than elsewhere due to an ideal of freedom peculiar to Europe. In recent years, however, scholars such as Kenneth Pomeranz have challenged this view.

Europe's maritime expansion unsurprisingly—given the continent's geography—was largely the work of its Atlantic states: Portugal, Spain, England, France, and the Netherlands.


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Initially the Portuguese and Spanish Empires were the predominant conquerors and sources of influence, and their union resulted in the Iberian Union , the first global empire on which the " sun never set ". Soon the more northern English, French and Dutch began to dominate the Atlantic. In a series of wars fought in the 17th and 18th centuries, culminating with the Napoleonic Wars , Britain emerged as the new world power. Persia came under the rule of the Safavid Empire in , succeeded by the Afsharid Empire in , the Zand Empire in , and the Qajar Empire in Areas to the north and east in Central Asia were held by Uzbeks and Pashtuns.

In Africa , this period saw a decline in many civilizations and an advancement in others. In west Africa, the Songhai Empire fell to the Moroccans in when they invaded with guns. Ethiopia suffered from the invasion from neighbouring Muslim Adal Sultanate , and in entered the Zemene Mesafint Age of Princes during which the Emperor became a figurehead and the country was ruled by warlords, though the royal line later would recover under Emperor Tewodros II.

The Ajuran Sultanate , in the Horn of Africa , began to decline in the 17th century, succeeded by the Geledi Sultanate. Other civilizations in Africa advanced during this period. The Oyo Empire experienced its golden age, as did the Kingdom of Benin. The Ashanti Empire rose to power in what is modern day Ghana in The Kingdom of Kongo also thrived during this period. European exploration of Africa reached its zenith at this time. In China , the Ming gave way in to the Qing , the last Chinese imperial dynasty, which would rule until Japan experienced its Azuchi—Momoyama period — , followed by the Edo period — The Korean Joseon dynasty — ruled throughout this period, successfully repelling 16th- and 17th-century invasions from Japan and China.

Japan and China were significantly affected during this period by expanded maritime trade with Europe, particularly the Portuguese in Japan. During the Edo period, Japan would pursue isolationist policies, to eliminate foreign influences. On the Indian subcontinent , the Delhi Sultanate and the Deccan sultanates would give way, beginning in the 16th century, to the Mughal Empire. Against the Muslim Mughal Empire, the Hindu Maratha Empire was founded on the west coast in , gradually gaining territory—a majority of present-day India—from the Mughals over several decades, particularly in the Mughal—Maratha Wars — The Portuguese held this important trading territory and the valuable associated navigational strait until overthrown by the Dutch in The Johor Sultanate , centred on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, became the dominant trading power in the region.

Into the 19th century, European expansion would affect the whole of Southeast Asia, with the British in Myanmar and Malaysia and the French in Indochina. Only Thailand would successfully resist colonization. The Pacific islands of Oceania would also be affected by European contact, starting with the circumnavigational voyage of Ferdinand Magellan , who landed on the Marianas and other islands in Also notable were the voyages —44 of Abel Tasman to present-day Australia , New Zealand and nearby islands, and the voyages — of Captain James Cook , who made the first recorded European contact with Hawaii.

Britain would found its first colony on Australia in In the Americas , the western European powers vigorously colonized the newly discovered continents, largely displacing the indigenous populations , and destroying the advanced civilizations of the Aztecs and the Incas. Spain, Portugal, Britain, and France all made extensive territorial claims, and undertook large-scale settlement, including the importation of large numbers of African slaves. Portugal claimed Brazil. Britain colonized the east coast of North America, and France colonized the central region of North America.

Russia made incursions onto the northwest coast of North America, with a first colony in present-day Alaska in , and the outpost of Fort Ross in present-day California in Thirteen of the British colonies declared independence as the United States of America in , ratified by the Treaty of Paris in , ending the American Revolutionary War. In Russia , Ivan the Terrible was crowned in as the first Tsar of Russia, and by annexing the Turkic khanates in the east, transformed Russia into a regional power.

The countries of western Europe, while expanding prodigiously through technological advancement and colonial conquest, competed with each other economically and militarily in a state of almost constant war. Often the wars had a religious dimension , either Catholic versus Protestant, or primarily in eastern Europe Christian versus Muslim.

Napoleon came to power in France in , an event foreshadowing the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. The Scientific Revolution changed humanity's understanding of the world and led to the Industrial Revolution , a major transformation of the world's economies.