A Brief History
On August 13, 1521, Cuauhtémoc, ruler of the Aztecs, was captured while fleeing Tenochtitlán by crossing Lake Texcoco in disguise with his wife, family and friends. He and the surviving pipiltin (nobles) surrendered to Hernán Cortés and, according to Spanish sources, he offered Cortés his knife and asked to be killed. His death was a critical moment in the decline and fall of the Aztec Civilization!
History is told from the perspective of the winners. One can assume that many great civilizations have been lost to history. What does it mean to be a great civilization? The examples that come to mind often include large territories and populations. When one thinks about ancient civilizations one might picture a powerful military with strong leaders. While these aspects are important, there are many others that must be considered. Strength can sometimes be measured by peace and cohesion, or by culture and scholarship. It is good to note the largest and most popular empires, but in our modern age where history is being recorded from new perspectives, it is increasingly important to remember the great civilizations that slipped through the cracks.
1. The Olmec Civilization
The Olmec Civilization is most commonly associated with the giant stone heads (4 to 11 feet in size) they left behind that now dot the Mexican landscape. The ancient civilization reigned from 1,500 B.C. to 400 B.C. and was a forerunner of more modern civilizations. The Olmecs were advanced for their time in areas such as: architecture; agriculture; writing; the creation of a calendar; having the number zero; bloodletting, human sacrifice; and as some speculate, the compass. They were a great civilization because of their innovation and for being the first large culture in Mesoamerica. Their mysterious disappearance paved the way for other large empires to form over their ruins.
2. The Aztec Empire
The Aztec Empire was introduced to the European world when Hernán Cortés was permitted to enter Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztecs. Mexico City is now located at this spot. The Aztecs flourished from 1428 to 1521 and had a vast empire with an estimated 200,000 inhabitants living in Tenochtitlan and another 5 million spread throughout their territories. Many remnants of the Olmec culture survived with the Aztecs, such as: bloodletting; human sacrifice; their gods; games; their language; and the calendar. The most notable accomplishments of the Aztec Empire were their wealth, the aqueducts they built and the floating gardens they designed. This civilization shocked the Conquistadors who initially had thought they would be encountering savages. Ultimately, disease and the superior weaponry of the Spaniards led to the complete takeover and genocide of the Aztec people.
3. The Inca Empire
The Inca Empire, located in present-day Peru, was a vast empire in the Andes Mountains of South America. This empire only lasted from the early 13th century to 1572 A.D. The Inca were first encountered by Europeans when Francisco Pizarro led a group of Spaniards into the mountains. The Inca capital was located in what is now Cuzco. The Inca were capable of transforming mountaintops into terraces for agriculture and they had a massive stone road system, while their great architectural skill can still be seen in ruins at Machu Picchu and others places. The Inca not only built terraces, they also had the technology to bring water to them. According to Victor Von Hagen, INCAS., Vol. 12, Colliers Encyclopedia CD-ROM, (02-28-1996), “Water had to be brought to arable lands by canals, many of which showed superb engineering techniques.” It is still unclear today how an ancient people without modern tools were able to shave mountaintops. The Inca excelled in the arts and early technologies as well. They developed mathematics, calendars based on astronomy, medicine and written communication. They met a similar fate as the Aztec Empire and succumbed to disease and superior weaponry. The size of the Inca Empire was comparable to Eurasian empires. It spanned present-day Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador but stayed primarily in the Andes.
4. The Achaemenid Persian Empire
Across the sea from the above-mentioned Mesoamerican civilizations there was a mighty empire in Eurasia. In terms of size, the Achaemenid Persian Empire has been rivaled by few other empires. It lasted from c. 550 B.C. to 330 B.C. This massive empire was connected by a road system, the first of its kind. The Ancient Persians empire grew because they practiced something now known as assimilation conquering. They accepted other religions and were progressive for their time. Not only did they have an impressive road network, the Persians were also advanced in many areas such as: sewer systems; the numeric system; the alphabet; mathematics; and chemistry. The Persian military was only contested by the Greeks who eventually conquered them to form one of the largest empires of all time.
5. The Macedonian Empire
The Macedonian Empire famed for its most heroic leader, Alexander the Great, was one of the largest empires in history. It extended from Greece to Egypt, through the Old Persian Empire and into the Indus valley. The Macedonian achievements were primarily in regards to military conquest, although the Macedonians also spread Greek culture in those conquered lands as well as assimilating the finer parts of the conquered cultures. They built their empire through the use of heavy cavalry and siege tactics as well as through assimilation and marriage. The empire lasted from 336 B.C. to 31 B.C. and ended with the beginning of the Roman Empire. The death of Alexander in 323 B.C. did not end the Macedonian Empire, but it certainly was a debilitating factor in the eventual decline of the civilization.
6. The Roman Empire
The Roman Empire began as a city-state in Rome, Italy and grew into one of the largest and most powerful empires in history. Roman culture was greatly influenced by Greek culture. The Roman Empire began first as a Republic that reflected some of the values of Greek democracy. At its height, the Roman Empire encompassed: Italy; Spain; Greece; Northern Africa; Egypt; parts of Eurasia; France; and parts of Germany and Britain. The western half of its empire lasted from 27 B.C. until 476 A.D.; the eastern half from 330 A.D. until 1453 A.D. The real reason why the empire came to an end is still ambiguous; the collapse began when Germanic tribes began to fight back and invade Roman territories. Evidence of the architectural marvels created by the Romans, such as their aqueducts and the Colosseum, are still evident today.
7. The Mongolian Empire
The Mongolian Empire was the largest contiguous empire of all time. It was formed by Genghis Kahn, one of the greatest military minds in history. This empire lasted from 1206 A.D. to 1368 A.D. and spanned almost all of China, India, Russia and the Eastern European countries. The Mongols could have expanded their empire even further but stopped their conquest and went home to crown a new king! Their heavy use of cavalry was the primary reason for their military superiority. The Mongolian Empire did not consist of mindless barbarians. They created strict laws that were fair to common men and followed by them. Persecution for religious beliefs was strictly forbidden. As great as it was, it was most likely its size that brought about the fall of the Mongolian Empire, and internal power struggles led to it being divided into four parts: the Golden Horde in Russia; the Ilkhanate in Persia; the Yuan Dynasty in China; and the Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia.
8. The Egyptian Civilization
The Egyptian Civilization is one of the oldest-known civilizations. Located along the Nile River in Africa, this civilization lasted in various forms and dynasties for nearly 3,000 years. The ancient Egyptians are most known for their pyramids and other gigantic architectural structures. The most notable accomplishments of the Egyptians were in areas such as: art; religion; architecture; advanced irrigation; agriculture; the use of an alphabet; the invention of papyrus; the use of boats; medicine; and mathematics. At the death of Cleopatra, Egypt was incorporated into another great civilization, the Roman Empire. The most notable period of Egyptian culture was known as The New Kingdom, or Egyptian Empire, which lasted from the 16th to the 11th Century B.C. The larger Egyptian dynastic period lasted from about 3150 B.C. until the Macedonian conquest around 332 B.C.
9. The Harappa Civilization
The Harappa Civilization is less well known than the Egyptian Civilization, though the two emerged around the same time. This civilization lasted from 3,000 B.C. to 1,500 B.C. and was located in the Indus Valley in what is present-day Pakistan. The most notable and greatest aspect of Harappa life was the absence of violence. According to ushistory.org, “Early Civilization in the Indus Valley,” http://www.ushistory.org/civ/8a.asp, (2014), “While others civilizations were devoting huge amounts of time and resources to the rich, the supernatural, and the dead, Indus Valley inhabitants were taking a practical approach to supporting the common, secular, living people”. Few weapons have ever been excavated, and no human remains found show any evidence of violence. Not only were the Harappa people peaceful, but they were also clean. They lived in well-structured adobe-like buildings on well -paved streets that received water from local wells. They also had a drainage system. Each of their houses had individual baths, even those on the outskirts of the cities. Ancient forms of writing have also been found at the archaeological sites. Little is still known about these ancient people, but their peaceful, clean lifestyle and early advancements made them a great civilization.
10. The Arawak People
The Arawak People were first encountered by Columbus on one of his journeys to the New World. The Arawaks were seafaring people and traders who lived throughout the Caribbean Islands; the largest island they inhabited being Hispaniola. At Columbus’ arrival, there were an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 Arawak people. Some sources give estimates of between 3,000,000 and 4,000,000, but many scholars question these numbers. Their culture “…was characterized by happiness, friendliness and a highly organized hierarchical, paternal society, and a lack of guile.” The Arawak People were advanced in agriculture and grew tobacco. Women were allowed to choose whether they wanted to marry or not. The only enemies of the Arawaks were the Cannibal Caribs from what is now present-day Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, the arrival of Columbus led to the demise of this amazingly peaceful civilization; their numbers dwindled down to 500.
Power, size and longevity may be among the most valued aspects of a great civilization but they are typically the ones that eventually end. Many of the above-mentioned civilizations achieved great technological, artistic, social and governmental feats that have advanced humankind as a whole. The word “civilization” is derived from the root word “civil,” which has two meanings; the first is pertaining to secular or common people; the second is courteous and polite. Therefore, to be a truly great civilization, it is necessary for one’s citizens to be able to co-exist in a manner that is peaceful, fair and polite. The greatest civilizations on this list are the ones that accomplished this goal. Interestingly, some of the more ancient and least-advanced cultures were the most civilized. Of course there are many more great civilizations, but not all can be mentioned in this article. Some may be lost to history, or perhaps remnants of new great civilizations will be unearthed one day.
Question for students (and subscribers): Who do you consider to be a great civilization? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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Charles River Editors. The World’s Greatest Civilizations: The History and Culture of the Olmec. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.
Charles River Editors and M. Clement Hall. The World’s Greatest Civilizations: The History and Culture of Ancient Egypt. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.
The featured image in this article, a painting at the capture of the Mexican Emperor Cuauhtémoc, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.