Key Elements of Classical Civilizations: Unraveling Their Significance


Downtown Rome, ancient ruins main

The years between 500 BCE and 500 CE were a time of many advanced civilizations. Greek, Persian, Roman, Indian, and Chinese cultures had golden ages. Each society had cultural differences but also had certain similarities. A classical civilization had a complex governmental structure, was socially stratified, was agriculturally based, had a diverse trade system, and a rich cultural heritage. Their fruits still influence today’s society. 

What Is A Classical Civilization? 

Civilization is the stage of human social and cultural development containing certain aspects considered necessary for an advanced society. 

Civilization includes diverse roles, government, a complex economy, and culture. It also has a dark side: inequality, disease and environmental harm, and military conflicts.  Learn all about civilization in this separate discussion

A classical period of civilization is its golden age. A society has achieved a high degree of organization, control and governs large territories, and has complex cultural systems. 

Several societies had classical civilizations from 500 BCE to 500 CE. These societies were different in many ways. The classical civilizations of Greece, Rome, Persia (Iran), India, and China had a range of governments, religions, and social divisions. 

They also had some overlapping characteristics. We can label this period the “Classical Age.”  

Complex Government 

Classical civilizations needed complex governmental structures to retain control of their empires. Once these governments started to weaken and local areas became more independent, it was likely the beginning of the end. Each government had certain unique aspects.

Greeks had city-states, majestic cities such as Athens controlled the countryside and other colonial possessions. Rome began as a republic and then became an empire. 

India had a complex bureaucracy and divided their empire into smaller governmental units.  China had a strong central government. Chinese emperors ruled with divine sanction.    

Social Structure 

The family is the core social institution in classical civilizations. 

The father led the family (patriarchial). Women had an unequal place in society. Women had domestic roles while not having an equal role in public life. There was some diversity. For instance, women in Sparta could own property. Women also sometimes served religious roles. 

Society was class-based. Classical India was a caste-based society, dividing people into roles set at birth (priests, soldiers, merchants, and peasants). It was the way of the universe

Other classical civilizations did not have as fixed social roles. Nonetheless, they were unequal societies with strict divisions between different classes of people. Slavery was an accepted way of life. Most people were slaves, farmers, or laborers. A small elite had much of the power

Economic Life 

Classical civilizations were advanced agricultural societies. They provided a diverse variety of crops and raised many different types of animals. Surpluses fed cities, large governmental bureaucracies, and the military. A range of trades existed. Urban life flourished. 

The Agricultural Revolution resulted in the first civilizations. The Classical Era was still an agricultural-based society. There was a more organized social and governmental system in place. Things were more large-scale. Nonetheless, it was not yet an industrial age.  

Trade Routes 

Great empires had large amounts of territory and control of important trade routes. The result was a flourishing system of commerce. 

An interconnected web, the beginning of globalization, resulted in the spread of goods and ideas. For example, the Silk Road connected China and Europe. East met West long before Marco Polo went on his travels.

The average person still was likely to stay close to home all their life. Nonetheless, the world started to be a more connected place.  

Art and Culture 

When “classics” or “classical music” are discussed, we usually consider certain books, music, and art of the highest quality. Classical civilizations had the time, resources, and knowledge to have complex cultural lives. They had written languages and religious beliefs.

Each civilization was polytheist, believing in many gods. Religious ceremonies played a significant part in their lives. Religion was a public matter. No separation of church and state existed. 

Greeks and Romans had their many gods. Persians developed Zoroastrianism, which concerned the struggle of good and evil. India practiced Hinduism. The Chinese believed in the Mandate of Heaven, which argued that royal power came from the gods.  

Classical Greece was the high point of art, philosophy, and plays. 

Christianity developed in the golden age of Ancient Rome. Paul’s missionary journeys were made possible by the roads, safe waterways, and urban life that thrived in Roman times. He wrote in Greek. Written language was a fundamental means to develop and spread culture and ideas.  

China invented paper. Sun Tzu, a Chinese military strategist, wrote The Art of War (military tactics). Confucius, a Chinese philosopher, developed a guide for a good life. 

Siddhartha Gautama in India found enlightenment (becoming Buddha), teaching his followers the path to happiness. Greats wrote epic literature such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Classical Cultures Live On 

Classical civilizations died out in a variety of ways. The Romans conquered the Greeks. Central governments in Rome, China, and India became less powerful. Empires broke apart. 

Nonetheless, their legacies have endured. They have influenced how billions of people have led their lives. Greek philosophy inspired modern democracy. People still worship many of the religions from these civilizations. We still enjoy ancient art and culture.
We are a more egalitarian society. Many fewer people believe in many gods. We are an industrial and information society. We read about the classics on computers. So, yes, we changed some.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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