This article is an outline history of the world. It covers world history from 3500 BCE to modern times. Currently it needs completing with the addition of two sections, on Pre-Columbian America and the Twentieth Century.
- The Origins of Civilization
- Early Civilizations
- The Iron Age
- Civilizations of the Classical Era
- The Medieval World
- Pre-Columbian America
- The Early Modern World
- The Modern World
- The 20th century
Up until about 10,000 years ago, all people were hunter-gatherers: that is, they lived by hunting wild game, fishing, and gathering fruits and berries. They lived in small bands, following a mobile lifestyle as they followed animal herds and moved to where more plants could be found. They owned only what they could easily carry on their backs, which meant erecting shelters from branches and stones at a new site. In a few favoured places, particularly on sea coasts where large stocks of marine foods were to be had, such as on the coasts of China, larger and more stable communities were able to develop.
From about 8,000 BCE, some groups started growing their own food. This development was almost certainly linked to climate changes after the end of the last Ice Age. It first took place in the Middle East, where a range of edible grasses – wheat, emmer, barley – grow wild. These were the easiest plants to domesticate.
Sometime later, people in the Middle East began to domesticate animals, at first sheep, goats and pigs, and later cattle (dogs had already been domesticated thousands of years before). These provided a range of useful resources: meat, milk, skins and wool. They also provided their dung as fertilizer for the fields. Cattle, especially oxen, were soon used to draw early plows, which made preparing fields quicker, easier and more effective.
Farming and related technologies also emerged separately in the Yangtze Valley in China, sometime between 6000 and 5000 BCE. This was based on rice, which grows wild here. Chickens and water buffalo were also domesticated. In the Yellow River Valley to the north, millet farming developed. Crop cultivation also arose in New Guinea at an early date, but it remained confined to the interior of the island.
The spread of farming
Agriculture was able to support a denser population than hunter-gathering could do, so the farming populations began to expand and spread out across Eurasia. From the Middle East, wheat farming spread west into and across Europe and North Africa, eastward into India, and southward down the Nile Valley. There it met a barrier: where the topical zone starts, temperate crops cannot grow.
Rice, which can grow in the tropics, spread into South East Asia, and later to India; and it also became acclimatised to cooler climates in Korea and Japan. Millet farming seems not to have spread beyond northern China.
Tropical farming in Africa required the domestication of a whole new set of plants, involving different techniques in cultivation. On the savannahs, sorghum and (tropical) millet were grown (probably from the early second millennium BCE), while in the topical rainforest belt straddling central Africa, fruit and root plants such as plantains and yams were cultivated (probably from about the beginning of the first millennium BCE).
Peoples in much of South East Asia did not change over to agriculture until migrants came in from the north, from southern China; some of these same migrants became the ancestors of the Pacific islanders, exploring and settling the Pacific islands, They not only brought with them the first farming, but were in fact the first humans to arrive in those isolated spots.
Agriculture developed entirely independently in the Americas; this, and the development of Pre-Columbian civilization, will be treated in a separate section, below. (Note: not yet completed)
In many areas, especially in the Middle East and the steppes of central Asia, the climate is too dry for anything more than limited farming. Here, people specialized in animal rearing. This pastoralism gave rise to a nomadic way of life, which came more into its own with the domestication of the horse on the central Asian steppes. This occurred in the mid-fourth millennium BCE. It was only much later, about 1000 BCE, that horses large enough for riding on were bred; this gave these peoples more mobility. At about the same time the camel was domesticated, in Arabia. This opened the way for the emergence of Bedouin tribes.
The arid grasslands on which nomadic peoples grazed their flocks and herds supported a much smaller concentration of people than true farming was able to, yet these groups were to play a major part, out of all proportion to their numbers, in shaping world history. Their lifestyle made for a tough, mobile, way of life, an excellent training for formidable warriors. They took to regularly raiding each other and the farming peoples bordering the steppes, and from time to time conquered large territories of much larger settled populations. They also often took to trading, thus fostering links between different farming regions of Eurasia.
In the fourth, third and second millennia BCE, the steppes saw the expansion of a group of peoples who spoke a language ancestral to a large number of modern tongues labelled “Indo-European” (English, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, Russian, Iranian, Hindi and many more). From their original homeland, probably in the modern Ukraine, they moved westward into Europe, probably as a warrior elite; there they would be central to the development of the German, Celtic, Greek and Italian peoples; southward into the Middle East, where they became the ruling class in the Hittite kingdom and many other states; southeastward into the Indian subcontinent, where they became the upper strata in the Aryan society of northern India; and eastwards towards China. Here they would impart their nomadic techniques to unrelated peoples – the Turks and tribes closely related to the Chinese – and these would later oust the Indo-Europeans, first from the eastern steppes and later from the western steppes as well.
Irrigation farming and the origins of civilization
From around 5000 BCE, a new kind of farming developed, based on irrigation. This arose in areas of very dry climate, but with streams and rivers coming down from higher ground and flowing through them. The construction of dykes, damns, water channels, ponds and, in due course, of full-blown canals allowed farmers to settle these river plains.
The rich soil brought down by the rivers and spread over the land in the spring floods, made the land very fertile, and allowed the population to expand far beyond anything seen to this date. Crop yields were abundant enough to allow surpluses over and above the needs of the farmers, so that groups of non-farming specialists were able to develop – full-time rulers and warriors, and professional priests, scribes and craftsmen. It was on these river plains that the earliest urban settlements (that is, towns and cities) arose, and with them large, monumental temples, royal palaces, stout city-walls, and their inhabitants developed a huge range of new skills. Writing, mathematics, astronomy, administration, law-making, engineering, architecture, and refined crafts such as metallurgy and fine textiles appeared. The potter’s wheel was invented about now; the wheel would later be adapted for use with carts, starting the long history of wheeled vehicles (though there real usefulness would have to await the coming of well-made roads).
The first true civilization in the Middle East emerged in Mesopotamia in the mid-fourth millennium BCE. Here, a people called the Sumerians lived in numerous small cities, the centres of the earliest true states.
By the end of the fourth millennium, a second civilization had appeared in the Middle East. This was Ancient Egypt, located along the banks of the River Nile. By the mid-third millennium BCE, the Egyptians were building some of the most iconic structures in world history, the Great Pyramids of Giza.
A third great civilization had appeared, in the Indus Valley of northwest India. Meanwhile, from Mesopotamia and Egypt, trade routes spread urban, literate civilization to neighbouring regions of the Middle East – Asia Minor, Syria, Canaan and southern Iran.
The Bronze Age and the spread of civlization
Sometime between the beginning and middle of the third millennium BCE, metallurgists in one of the Sumerian cities succeeded in alloying copper with tin to make bronze. This was a tougher metal, and it was soon became apparent that it was ideal for making weapons and armour. This set off a demand for tin and copper, which are only found in widely scattered locations. Trade routes from Mesopotamia, and later Egypt, began reaching out to ever more distant places: eastward into Iran and India, and westward towards the islands and coasts of the Mediterranean and on into south-eastern Europe, southwards down the Nile Valley into Nubia.
Sometime around the end of the third millennium BCE much of the seaborne trade of the Mediterranean came under the control of a people known to modern scholars as the Minoans, on the island of Crete. On the strength of this they were able to build a magnificent palace-based civilization. Within a few centuries some small states such as Mycenae, on mainland Greece, had also developed a literate culture.
The use of bronze rippled out across Eurasia, and reached the Yellow River Valley in northern China, at about the same time as writing developed and the first cities were appearing in the region. The first of the long series of Chinese dynasties, the Shang dynasty, emerged into history about 1700 BCE.
Even in regions far from the areas of core river valley civilization, some non-literate and non-urban Bronze Age societies were able to construct imposing monuments. Probably the most famous example of these is Stonehenge, in southern England.
These advances were offset in the early second millennium BCE by the abandonment – for reasons not as yet understood – of the large cities of the Indus Valley.
The end of the Bronze Age
The middle second millennium BCE saw the height of the Bronze Age world: New Kingdom Egypt, the Hittite empire, the kingdoms of Assyria and Babylon, and further afield the Shang kingdom of northern China, were all powerful, well-organized states. They all had armies built around that dashing pieces of military equipment, the chariot, were administered by bureaucracies of scribes and overseers, and carried on sophisticated diplomacy amongst themselves (except China, which was too far away from the other civilizations to have any diplomatic relations with them).
Towards the end of the millennium, disaster struck, at least in the west. A large-scale movement of peoples from Europe into the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East caused civilizations like the Mycenaean and Hittites to collapse, the ancient city-states of Syria and Canaan to vanish, Babylonia to fall into chaos and Assyria and Egypt to draw in on themselves.
During these troubled centuries, however, several advances of great importance to world history occurred. The use of iron began spreading outwards from Asia Minor, and over the first half of the first millennium BCE would reach across Europe to Britain in the west, and across Asia to China in the east. It also spread south into sub-Saharan Africa, where it enabled a small group of Bantu farmers to rapidly expand almost throughout the whole of that region.
The abundance of iron made it a far cheaper material than bronze, and increasingly allowed ordinary farmers to use tough metal tools in cultivating their land. This made farming much more efficient, and laid the foundations for new developments in civilization.
Iron could be used in warfare, making metal armour and weaponry much more widely available.
A third development in these centuries was the spread of alphabetic writing, which made literacy accessible to a wider section of society. This had originated in the Middle East in the late Bronze Age, and was now carried by the Phoenicians to hitherto non-literate peoples in the Mediterranean region – the Greeks, Lydians, and Italian peoples such as the Etruscans.
In the same centuries alphabet writing spread eastwards as well. Under the succession of Middle Eastern empires, the Aramaic alphabet (and language) spread through Mesopotamia, and then to Iran and northern India.
Iron Age Civilizations I
The Middle East recovers
The time of troubles ended about 900 BCE in the Middle East, and the ancient civilizations of the region were soon on the rise again. The following centuries saw the rise of the Assyrian empire. This was followed by the short-lived Babylonian empire (c. 612 to 539 BCE), and then by the Persian empire (539 to 331 BCE).
These empires pioneered imperial techniques which would be followed throughout history: large armies composed of mass formations of infantry and cavalry; provincial administration based on governors appointed from the centre; and an empire-spanning system of roads, along which government couriers could move easily;
It was not the ancient civilizations of the Middle East, however, which felt the greatest impact of the spreading use of iron in farming, industry and war, and of the new alphabetic writing. It was in regions bordering the Middle East which were revolutionized by these new developments: the Mediterranean basin and northern parts of the Indian subcontinent. Previously on the margins of the great Bronze Age world of the Middle East, these now developed brilliant civilizations of their own.
In the Mediterranean, the Greeks developed a vibrant urban culture based on a multitude of tiny city-states. Confined as they were valleys their hunger for land drove many of them to send out colonies all over the Mediterranean and Black Seas. This enabled their merchants and sailors to come to dominate the maritime trade routes of the region.
Internally, these Greek city-states underwent a political revolution, getting rid of their kings and becoming the first republics in world history. Some, most notably Athens, went on to become full-blown democracies.
In the Indian subcontinent, meanwhile, cities reappeared after a thousand years’ absence. These were not now in the Indus Valley, but in the Ganges Plain to the east. This became the new heartland Indian civilization. These cities were the centres of organized states, and were tied together in a growing trade system, this one based on the river transport enabled by the Ganges and its tributaries. Most of these were kingdoms, but there were also states which were not, and modern scholars often refer to them as republics. These latter seem to have been governed by councils of clan chiefs.
Zhou dynasty China
Thousands of miles away in East Asia, the Chinese of the Yellow River valley remained untouched by the revolutions disturbing the west. Iron-using reached the region in about the 9th century BCE. As elsewhere it led to increased productivity and population growth. However, there was not at first the same revolutionary impact. The state remained much the same as before, a monarchy, and the Chinese pictographic script was never replaced by an alphabetical one.
Change, however, did come. The unity of the Chinese state was shattered in the early 8th century, and it fragmented into a number of smaller states. These soon engaged in a fierce struggle for dominance, and to survive they had to field large armies and, to support these, strong centralized bureaucracies.
In the mid-first millennium BCE, all the major civilzations of Eurasia moved into a “Classical” phase, characterized by revolutions in intellectual and religious thought. The flourishing of Greek speculation; the rise of monotheism in the Middle East, of which Judaism would be the most influential; the emergence of new world religious movements in India, most notably Buddhism; and the period of “100 Schools” in China which produced above all the hugely influential Confucian philosophy: all these left a mark which has helped shaped human history up to the present day.
The rise of empires
Apart from in the Middle East, the first half of the first millennium BCE saw the rise of numerous states, constantly at war amongst themselves: indeed, this fierce competition amongst them almost certainly contributed to the dramatic developments in thought noted above. These struggles ultimately led to the rise of “universal empires” which covered the whole of their respective culture areas.
Alexander the Great
In the Mediterranean, the constant fighting between the tiny Greek city-states of Greece opened the way for the rise of the northern kingdom of Macedon, which came to the dominate them. Then, the brilliant Macedonian king, Alexander the Great, led a Greek-Macedonian army in the conquest of the vast Persian empire.
This episode is notable as being one of the few cases in world history where forces from one culture area (in this instance, the Mediterranean) succeeded in annexing almost the whole territory of another culture area (the Middle East); and indeed Alexander went on to conquer large parts of a third (the Indian subcontinent).
Alexander’s empire only lasted a few short years before his early death, and then fragmented into several kingdoms. His “universal empire” thus proved abortive. Nevertheless, his conquests had a huge impact. The successor kingdoms retained a Greek-speaking ruling class, and Greek culture mingled with native Middle Eastern elements to produce a rich hybrid civilization which modern scholars label “Hellenistic”.
The Mauryan empire
By the fifth century BCE, northern India was covered by a network of states, and out of their struggles arose the Mauryan empire. At its height, this was ruled by one of the most attractive rulers in world history, Asoka. He renounced warfare and instead devoted himself to the welfare of his subjects.
Unfortunately, the Mauryan empire soon fragmented into different states, until at length a new imperial power, the Gupta empire, emerged to rule northern India. This presided over a “Golden Age” of Indian civilization.
Empire in China
In China, a “universal empire” was achieved when a winner emerged from the struggles between the states. This was the state of Qin; but its empire, like Alexander’s, did not outlast its first emperor. However, after a few years of chaos, a new dynasty emerged, the Han, which ruled a united China for 400 years.
The Roman empire
We noted above that Alexander the Great’s conquests did not result in a long-lasting empire. A much more durable “universal empire” was achieved with the rise of Rome. Over the course of several centuries the Romans grew their power from that of a single city-state to an empire covering the entire Mediterranean basis plus western and parts of central Europe.
Starting out as a republic, like most other city-states of the region, this form of government soon proved inadequate to the challenge of holding together a huge empire, and so the Romans adopted a monarchical power structure under the rule of emperors. Under them, the Roman empire endured for more than 400 years.
The Sasanian empire
In the Middle East, where “universal empires” had preceded those in other regions by many centuries, was left divided between two imperial powers. In the west, the Roman empire took control of Asia minor, Syria, Judaea and Egypt, while in the east, Iranian powers (first the Parthians, then the Sasanians) ruled Mesopotamia and Iran.
The Sasanian empire outlasted all the other empires of Classical Antiquity. It was conquered by Muslim armies in the 7th century CE and incorporated into the new Islamic Caliphate.
The impact of empires
All these great empires developed the same kind of imperial techniques first seen in the Assyrian empire: huge, well-organized armies, provincial administration answering to the centre, roads criss-crossing their huge territories, public postal systems manned by a system of couriers, and so on.
They all had a huge impact, not only within their own cultural sphere, but well beyond. In all cases, they greatly expanded the reach of their respective culture areas. The Roman empire spread Mediterranean civilization far into Europe; the Mauryan empire carried Aryan culture deep down towards south India and initiated strong links with Sri Lanka, and probably with South East Asia as well; the Qin and Han empires absorbed southern China in Chinese civilization, and the East Asian countries of Korea, Japan and Vietnam began to be drawn into China’s cultural orbit; in the Middle East, the huge territory of Iran was absorbed into Mesopotamian civilization.
The existence of these powerful states and the peace and prosperity which they brought their inhabitants acted as a powerful boost to the trading links between them. The “Silk Road”, that great trade route across Asia linking China in the east and the Mediterranean in the west developed in these centuries, in response to the demand for goods by Han China on the one hand and first the Hellenistic kingdoms, and then the Parthian, Sasanian and Roman empires, on the other. Later, a second, even more influential route opened up across the Indian Ocean.
These routes strengthened cultural interactions between regions. Buddhism spread from India to China, and both Hindu and Buddhist traders carried their faiths (and the cultural package that went with them) to the lands of South East Asia. Judaism and its offshoot, Christianity, spread around the Roman empire, and also around the Parthian empire, largely as a result of the existence of scattered trading communities. Eventually, Christianity, in what seems against all the odds, became the dominant religion within the Roman empire.
Greek culture was brought to northern India where it mingled with indigenous influences to produce the Gandhara culture, whose influences can be seen in later Indian, Chinese and Persian civilization.
Fall of empires
All the imperial regimes felt a responsibility to put a defence cordon round their territories to defend their subjects from the turbulent “barbarians” beyond their frontiers. And not without reason: with the exception of the Mauryan empire, these external invaders played a major part on their downfall. But internal weaknesses may have been more important, at least in some cases: above all, internal rebellion undermined their strength to resist invasion.
What happened after the fall of these empires was different in each case. The Sasanian empire, as we have noted, simply became a constituent part of the Islamic caliphate, passing its institutions and culture on almost intact. The Mauryan empire passed its institutions and culture on to its successor kingdoms, without any significant modification. The same thing occurred with the later Gupta empire.
There was also near-complete continuity between the Han empire and its successor states. However, a century or so later, barbarian invaders set up kingdoms in the north, and these did bring about some major modifications; however, the central features of Chinese civilization survived and were passed on, with some changes, to future eras.
There was no such continuity in the west. The fall of the western Roman empire to barbarian invaders led to a dramatic decline of classical Mediterranean civilization here, and the eastern Roman empire, which survived this catastrophe, soon faced other serious threats. As a result it underwent fundamental transformations to reemerge as a very different entity, known to modern scholars as the Byzantine empire.
The word “medieval” means “middle”, or “in-between”; and it is tempting to see the centuries between 500 CE and 1450 CE as an “in-between” time when the glories of classical civilization lay behind and the achievements of the modern world lay ahead. The more recent term “post-classical” is even more dismissive, suggesting that the histories of these centuries as a mere after-word on the truly significant times that came before.
This period was truly transformative, however. It saw linkages strengthen between the different big regions of the world and key technologies spread around the world. At the same time it saw the great culture traditions consolidate their hold on their regions, sharpening the differences between the civilizations. In all these ways, the Medieval centuries built on and modified the achievements of the Classical world, and in so doing paved the way for the rise of the modern world.
Different regions of Medieval Eurasia
The world of Islam
One of the defining episodes in the early medieval era was the rise of the Muslim caliphate in the 7th century, and its spread over the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, parts of central Asia and into the Indian subcontinent. This was the achievement of Arab tribes, who were fighting in the name of their new religion, Islam.
This vast state fragmented into numerous successor states from the 9th century onwards, but the Islamic faith continued to strengthen its hold on the peoples of the region, and spread out to new areas of Eurasia.
Western Europe in the early middle ages
The successor states to the Roman empire in western Europe were ruled by German tribes who presided over a sharp decline in the urban, literate civilization which the Romans had introduced. Before the region could recover, new invasions from the north (the Vikings) and east (the Magyars) de-stabilized western European in the 8th and 9th centuries, and it was not until the 10th century that sustained recovery began to set in.
This recovery is linked to the emergence of “feudal” Europe, which saw a society ruled by weak kings, strong barons, a powerful Church presided over the pope in Rome, and small towns. The landscape reflected this society in strong stone castles, soaring cathedrals, townscapes dominated by numerous spires, and villages, each with its small church and stout manor house, of rustic cottages.
From the 11th century order gradually returned to western Europe. Populations began to recover; trade expanded, and towns reemerged.
Byzantium and eastern Europe
The eastern half of the Roman empire, meanwhile, endured throughout the medieval centuries, ruled from its capital, Constantinople. In the early middle ages its state, society and culture was radically modified, so that modern scholars do not refer to it as the Roman empire but give it the label “Byzantine empire”.
As in the west, Byzantine society was also devoutly Christian, but they owed their spiritual obedience to the patriarch of Constantinople rather than the pope in Rome. A rift gradually developed between the two branches of Christianity.
The Byzantine (or Orthodox) church experienced dramatic expansion with the conversion of the Balkan populations, and later of the Russians. The Byzantine empire itself, however, experienced a long term shrinkage of its territory, so that by the mid-5th century, apart from its capital, Constantinople, it covered only a small part of Greece.
The Indian subcontinent in the early middle ages
India remained covered in numerous kingdoms. From the 8th century onwards Muslim forces began to make their presence felt, and from the 11th century they began their conquest of almost the whole of the subcontinent. In the 13th and 14th centuries the Delhi Sultanate came to rule almost the whole of the region.
During this period, Buddhism finally ceased to have a widespread following in the region of its birth. It became confined to the island of Sri Lanka in the south and to some Himalayan kingdoms (notably Nepal) in the north. Hinduism became the near-universal religion of the mass of the people.
China and East Asia in the early middle ages
Northern China, like western Europe, experienced barbarian invasion after the fall of the Han empire. However, as things settled down, the ordered, bureaucratic style of government characteristic of the Han dynasty returned to this area (it had never left southern China).
In the religious sphere, Buddhism came in from India, and became a powerful force in the country.
China was reunified under the Sui dynasty, in 589, and the glorious period of the Tang dynasty, from 618 CE, saw China reach one of its highest points, both in terms of political power and of culture. At this time, the neighbouring countries of Korea and Japan were drawn more closely into China’s “sphere of influence”. They acknowledged the political superiority of the Tang empire, sending regular tribute missions to its capital, Chang’an; and they imported wholesale elements of Chinese civilization – bureaucratic government, Confucianism, Buddhism, styles of art and architecture and so on – into their own societies.
Under the following dynasty, the Song, Confucianism was reformed and reinvigorated, so that modern scholars refer to it as Neo-Confucianism. This was accompanied by the eclipse of Buddhism, at least amongst the educated elite. The Song also saw dramatic economic growth, leading to the rise of numerous large cities: under them, Chinese society became much more urban and more commercially orientated. It was during the Song period that several important technological advances were made in China, including the compass, printing and gunpowder.
South East Asia
In this region, centuries of links with the Indian world to the west saw large, well-organised kingdoms emerge. Little is known about the Srivijaya empire in detail, but it seems to have been a trading power, dominating the newly-flourishing trade routes between India and China. It flourished from the 8th to the 11th centuries, and its influence stretched far and wide across the region.
The next state to dominate the region was the Khmer empire, in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Khmer civilization was based in present-day Cambodia, and is remarkable for the series of massive “temple-mountains” it built, especially at Angkor Was, the capital.
By the end of the medieval centuries, the Majapahit empire, based on the island of Java, covered much of insular South East Asia.
The medieval period saw the rise and fall of a succession of kingdoms in West Africa. The heartlands of the earlier kingdoms were in the western savannah, where first Ghana, then Mali, then Songhai rose to prominence. Further to the east, in the Lake Chad region, was the kingdom of Kanem-Bornu. Between the western and eastern states, a central bloc of territory saw the rise of the trading city-states of the Hausa people.
These kingdoms owed their power to their control of the trans-Saharan trade routes, and during these centuries merchants from North Africa brought their faith, Islam, with them and converted members of the elite. The general population on the whole remained loyal to paganism, and this set up a religious-political tension in these kingdoms which could be destabilising at times.
South of the Savannah, the medieval centuries began to see the rise of states in the forest regions. Amongst the earliest were the kingdom of Benin and the Yoruba city-states of present-day south-western Nigeria.
In East Africa, other states emerged at this time. Along the East African coast Muslim traders were instrumental in establishing a string of trading city-states, which soon developed their own distinctive Swahili language and culture. Inland from these, in southern-eastern Africa, their grew kingdoms in the gold-bearing area of present-day Zimbabwe; the most famous of these was centred on the large settlement of the Great Zimbabwe.
In north-east Africa, the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia stood out from amongst its neighbours by adhering to a Christian culture, deriving ultimately from contacts with the eastern Mediterranean of the Byzantine world.
In the contrasting histories of the different regions, some common trends can be discerned.
The most obvious is population growth. This was a Eurasian-wide development and all the culture areas, with the exception perhaps of the Middle East, experienced it.
The process led to hitherto marginal areas of culture zones becoming more important. In China, population more than doubled between 500 CE and 1450 CE, and southern China overtook the north (the ancient heartland of Chinese civilization) in terms of population and economic importance.
The Indian subcontinent saw the full integration of south India into the Aryan (and by now fully Hindu) civilization of the north.
Western civilization, which in classical times had been predominantly a Mediterranean affair, shifted its centre of gravity to western and northern Europe. Its demographic expansion began in the 10th century, after a long period of population (plus economic and cultural) decline in the wake of the fall of the western Roman empire. An important factor was the development of the large horse-drawn plough, which was able to turn the heavy clay soils of northern European areas and bring them under much more effective cultivation.
Growth was not limited to the areas of classical civilization: South East Asia saw the rise of powerful states and striking civilizations – most notably, in medieval times, the Khmer empire. In sub-Saharan Africa, kingdoms began sprouting up in different parts, most famously in West Africa as a result of the camel-powered trans-Saharan trade.
Linked to this demographic and economic growth, the medieval period saw the development of greater inter-regional contacts, of a military, economic and cultural nature.
The “clash of cultures” of the 11th to 13th centuries known as the Crusades, between Christendom (Europe) and the Islamic world, involved all three elements. Despite the intermittent hostilities, they actually increased trade and cultural transmissions between the two worlds, to the great benefit of Europe in particular.
From the 8th and 12th centuries, the Islamic caliphate fostered a rich fusion cultural elements from ancient Greece, Rome, Byzantium, Persia and India. To these were added major original contributions from Arabic scholars.
The resulting mélange was then disseminated to Europe, bringing, amongst other things, Arabic numerals, the decimal system and a large chunk of Greek philosophy (lost in the West). These all helped to lay key foundations for later Western advances.
From the 8th century, economic growth in China turned that country into a powerful magnate for international trade. The Silk Road across central Asia flourished in medieval times, as did the maritime trade routes of the Indian Ocean.
Muslim traders became active in pioneering and expanding trade routes. They soon dominated the trans-Saharan routes between North and West Africa, which led to the conversion of many West African kings to the faith. They were also major participants in both the Indian Ocean trade and the Silk Road. They established a string of trading city-states along the coast of East Africa and Muslim sultanates began to spread through South East Asia towards the end of medieval period.
The Impact of the People of the Steppes
Another factor in the strengthening of links between regions was the activities of the nomadic peoples of central Asia. Turkish nomadic tribes, having converted to Islam, came to rule most of the states of the Middle East; and it was Turkish warrior leaders who created the Delhi sultanate and conquered most of the Indian subcontinent in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Meanwhile, nomads of the eastern steppes came to rule northern China. The rise of the steppe peoples culminated in the Mongol conquests of the 13th century under Genghis Khan and his successors. These embraced a large part of Eurasia, including the whole of centra Asia, China and Russia, and much of the Middle East. They thus created the largest contiguous empire the world had seen to that date.
Although the Mongol conquests were entirely military affairs, they greatly boosted existing commercial and cultural exchanges between regions. The Silk Road entered a golden age, and the Indian Ocean routes also flourished as never before. It was a period symbolised by the journeys of two famous travellers, Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta.
Ideas and technologies travelled along these medieval trade routes. In religion, Islam was carried far and wide by its traders, as we have seen. In technology, innovations such as paper and gunpowder, certainly, and possibly printing and the compass as well, rippled out around Eurasia from China.
Sadly, pathogens also spread along the trade routes. The most deadly pandemic in world history, the Black Death, occurred during these centuries. It swept through much of Eurasia, killing between a third and half of the population in the effected areas.
Unsurprisingly, the Mongol empire broke apart along these regional divisions, with different Mongol dynasties ruling in Russia (the Golden Horde), the Middle East (the Il-Khans), and East Asia (the Yuan, founded by Kublai Khan). In the last two instances, the Mongol rulers adopted the religion and culture of their subjects.
After the Mongols
In the 14th and 15th centuries, all the Mongol dynasties, except in central Asia, were ousted by native rebellions; Eurasian politics reverted once again into its constituent culture-areas. The Ming dynasty took control of China; various Turkish groups contested for dominance in the Middle East; – one of these, the Ottomans, succeeded in gaining control of Asia Minor and then invading the Balkan lands of southeast Europe – where they captured the great Christian city of Constantinople and thus put an end to the Byzantine empire; and the Golden Horde were ousted from their control of the Russian principalities by the Grand Prince of Muscovy.
By the end of the medieval period, the populations of Eurasia were recovering strongly from the effects of the Black Death and subsequent outbreaks of the plague. Renewed population growth stimulated economic activity, and trade links between them were becoming stronger, especially in the Indian Ocean. Cities were expanding, and the way was being paved for the revolutionary transformations which would characterize the modern world.
Europe in particular was experiencing change. The Black Death had changed the economic balance within Europe by creating a shortage of the peasant labour, on which the landowning aristocracy depended. This led to rising wages, increased their purchasing power, and created a rising demand for goods. These trends stimulated trade, craft industries and urban growth.
The early modern world was characterised by several key developments, all of which had their origins in the Medieval world but now began to come into their own.
The first of these was the emergence of a bundle of technologies which gave Eurasian societies additional power. Gunpowder warfare, both on land and sea, was one of these. Printing was another. Advances in navigation and shipbuilding were also crucial.
All these affected that region of Eurasia which had, during the Medieval period, appeared to lag behind the rest. This was Europe, and the second characteristic of the early modern age was the rise – in military power, territorial reach, commercial success and technological advance – of European civilization to a position of leadership in the world.
Closely associated with this process was a third characteristic: the contact between the “Old World” of Europe, Asia and Africa and the “New World” of North and South America. The “Columbian” exchanges which followed had a truly transformative impact on both hemispheres.
The Rise of Europe
These developments paved the way for a major transition in Europe. The first manifestation of this was the flowering of the Italian Renaissance (15th and 16th centuries). This saw itself as a rebirth of Greek and Roman learning; in fact it was nothing less than a revolution in European thinking. It made scholars take responsibility for their own search for truth, rather than relying on the authority of preceding generations.
In doing so, it gave birth to two further movements, the Scientific Revolution, and the Reformation. Both these occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Reformation split the Christian church into two camps, Catholic and Protestant, and set European nations against each other.
Out of these struggles emerged the nation-states of Europe, in which centralized royal power rather than localized baronial power formed the driving force. This change was made possible by the advent of the cannon, which shifted military advantage decisively away from nobles and towards monarchs; but the ideological identities created by the wars of religion gave these new centralized states a much larger measure of support from the broad population.
One of the political upheavals of the Reformation period was the struggle between king and parliament in 17th century England, These culminated in the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9. This resulted in the triumph of parliament, and to the establishment of a “constitutional monarchy”. One element of this political settlement was the guaranteeing of the rights of individual citizens in law. During the 18th and 19th centuries, on the foundations laid here would evolve the first parliamentary democracy in the world.
The Scientific Revolution and Reformation gave birth to the Enlightenment, of the late 17th and 18th centuries. Its development was boosted by the democratic (for the time) political settlement in England. Enlightenment thinkers called for rational solutions to issues of all kinds, whether scientific, political or social.
These political, cultural and religious developments between them transformed the mindset of educated Europeans. The new ideas were propagated by the development of the printing press, which created an unstoppable momentum for change.
Exploration, discovery and expansion
Concurrently with these developments within Europe were the voyages of discovery which European explorers were making.
Interestingly, the Ming dynasty of China had already organized similar expeditions in the early 15th century, taking Chinese ships as far as Africa. These voyages were soon abandoned, however. The mid-15th century European voyages, on the other hand, were just the start. The profits that these voyages were soon yielding, and the rivalry between Europe’s nation-states, ensured that overseas exploration received sustained support from their royal courts.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, European ships visited all the oceans of the world, except perhaps the Antarctic. They discovered that India, South East Asia and China were reachable from Europe by sea. Most dramatically, they stumbled across a massive landmasses of North and South America and transformed the trajectory of world history by linking the Eastern and Western Hemispheres together.
On the back of these discoveries, maritime trade networks were set up, spanning the oceans of the world and reaching out along the coasts of Eurasia – in Africa, India and South East Asia, and even (as tiny toe-holds) in China and Japan. The produce of far flung lands was soon flowing back to Europe in European ships.
In the Americas something different and even more dramatic occurred. The first European expedition there, led by Christopher Columbus, was followed by many other voyages which mapped the coasts of the newly-discovered continents. This initial period of discovery was followed by one of conquest. The early- to mid-16th centuries saw the Inca and Aztec civilizations of these regions, heirs to millennia of cultural development, wiped out and in their place huge empires ruled from Spain and Portugal established.
In the 17th century, northern Europeans, primarily English and French, colonized the east coast of North America.
The Americas effectively became vast new extensions of European civilization. This process was tragically aided by the spread of European diseases amongst the native populations of the Americas, which, helped by European brutality, led to a drastic drop in numbers.
The Columbian Exchange
For the denuding of the Americas of their native inhabitants led to the rise of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Millions of Africans, captured in their homeland, were forcibly shipped to the Americas and put to work as slaves on sugar plantations, in silver mines, and wherever else forced labour was needed. In due course, people of African descent came to form a major component of the new population mix in the Americas.
The rise of African-American slavery was just one element in a wider process which modern scholars call the “Columbian Exchange”. From Europe came settlers, together with their crops and domestic animals, their ways of life, their technologies, their deadly germs, and of course their African slaves. From America to Europe came crops such as maize, potatoes and squashes; and an abundance of natural resources such as furs, timbers and precious metals.
The American crops formed a valuable supplement to European ones and acted as a major boost to population growth throughout the whole of Eurasia. Meanwhile precious metals from America boosted commerce, both between regions and within them. The economies of Europe, India and China all benefitted from the stimulus that silver from America provided.
Nevertheless, the profits from the new trans-global trade disproportionately profited Europeans, as it was they who ultimately controlled it and therefore set the terms by which it was conducted. They also evolved the tools for further expansion at this time, such as ever-more refined sailing ships and weaponry, joint-stock companies, stick exchanges, more sophisticated insurance, and new kinds of investment banking.
Limits to European Power in the Early Modern Age
Apart from in the Americas, the 15th to 18th centuries saw European expansion limited to coastal areas, and to maritime trade. In much of Eurasia, some of the most powerful empires in world history held sway and barely noticed these off-shore developments.
The 16th century Middle East was contested between the Ottoman empire of Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt, and the Safavid empire of Persia and Iraq. India was under the expanding rule of the Mughal empire, which by the late 17th century covered almost the whole of the subcontinent. In East Asia, the rule of the Ming dynasty in China was replaced in the mid-17th century by the Manchus, a non-Chinese group from central Asia who established the Qing dynasty. This was one of the greatest dynasties in all China’s long history, and expanded China’s borders so that it became the largest empire of the 18th century world, at least in terms of population.
Even in Africa and South East Asia, where there were no huge empires, Europeans were confined to coasts and islands, as they could not establish their power much beyond the range of the ships’ guns. Also, tropical diseases were particularly dangerous to Europeans, and this acted as a serious disincentive to travelling inland, whether for trade or conquest.
The limitations to European power noted above were swept away by the coming of the industrial revolution in Europe and its offshoots, and all that flowed from that.
An age of revolution
Ironically, these very principles which Britain pioneered in the late 17th century led to a rebellion against her rule by her American colonies in the late 18th century. Out of this would come the United States of America.
The Constitution of the United States owed much to British political practices, but it also embodied the rational principles of the European Enlightenment. An even more open avowal of these principles was a driving force behind the outbreak of the French Revolution, in 1789.
This led to a generation of warfare within Europe, prolonged by the limitless ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte, the leader of the French after 1799.
Napoleon was eventually defeated in 1815, but the political ideals of the French Revolution – above all democracy and national self-determination – could not be put back in a box. Despite a period in which the “old guard” tried to turn the clock back, revolutionary uprisings continued to trouble Europe, gradually growing in strength as the 19th century drew on. And not only in Europe: the Revolutionary momentum swept through South and Central America, as Wars of Independence drove the Spanish and Portuguese from their empires there and created a dozen or more independent new countries.
Growing pains in North America
The dominant motif in North American in the late-18th century and through much of the 19th century was the westward movement of people of European descent across the continent – a process that pushed the frontiers of the nations of the United States and Canada (which remained under British oversight) to the Pacific Ocean.
As the USA expanded, tensions grew between its northern states, whose inhabitants on the whole disapproved of slavery, and the southern ones, which shared an economy which depended upon slavery. These tensions led to the US Civil War (1861-5), which was won by the North, thanks mainly to their larger population and economic base.
The USA renewed its economic expansion after the war, and during the later 19th century became the wealthiest nation in the world.
Other European offshoots around the world
The late 18th century and early 19th century saw Europe put out other offshoots around the world. In Australia, several British colonies grew up from tiny beginnings after 1788, finally merging in 1900. New Zealand was settled less systematically and only became a formal British colony in 1840. Both Australia and New Zealand developed to become dynamic Western-style nations.
The Cape of South Africa had been the site of a small Dutch farming colony since the late 17th century, which had been annexed by the British in the early 19th century. Many of the descendants of the original farmers had then migrated into the interior (the “Great Trek”) and established independent republics there.
That other European offshoot, Latin America, had a more complex history. The wars of liberation left in place a hugely unequal society, which made for political instability and economic failure. Some of the countries experienced commodity booms, which brought great wealth to a tiny minority; but this wealth was not ploughed back to diversify their economies and, as surely as day follows night, boom turned to bust.
By the early 19th century, therefore, offshoots of European civilization were established in North and South America, Australia and New Zealand, and in South Africa. Apart from these places, the European presence was limited to trading bases on the coasts or island in or near Eurasia and Africa.
British seapower and the British Empire
The major exception in this situation was in South Asia. Here, the decline of the Mughal empire in the early 18th century had opened up opportunities for European expansion, and the British had emerged the winners from the resulting rivalries. As a consequence, in the late 18th century and early 19th century they had come to dominant the Indian subcontinent.
The British owed their success in India and elsewhere to their seapower. A series of wars between European powers in the 18th and early 19th centuries had left Britain’s navy in undisputed mastery of the seas. This underpinned the growing reach of the British Empire, which during the 19th century became the largest empire the world had ever seen.
Nevertheless, the British navy was used to keep the seas open to the trade of all nations – which by this time meant Western nations. No non-Western people seeking to resist western commercial power could shut it out for long: all countries with coasts were open to invasion, wherever and whenever Britain or her allies chose to strike.
In fact, though, one of the British navy’s main preoccupations in the first half of the 19th century was to stamp out the slave trade, by which captive Africans were shipped from their homelands to the Middle east, on the one hand, and the Americas, on the other.
The Opium Wars
The British navy was not used solely for such benign ends. In China, western merchants had become increasingly frustrated with their inability to persuade the Chinese authorities to open up their huge country to foreign trade; and many of them had taken to smuggling opium into China in order to pay for the goods – porcelain, silks and above all, tea – which fetched such a high price back home.
This naturally increased tensions between the westerners on the one hand, especially the British, and the Chinese, on the other. The Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60) were the result. These both ended in defeat for China. They were followed by China’s interior being forcibly opened up to Western trade and Western missionaries.
The industrial revolution
The Opium Wars had shown the superiority of Western forces over those of non-Western nations,. The gap between them would only get wider as the 19th century drew on. This was because Europe was being transformed by another kind of revolution: the Industrial Revolution.
This had started in Britain in the late 18th century, and spread to Europe after the end of the long Napoleonic wars. It brought social and economic upheaval, out of which began to emerge a completely new kind of society, in which more and more people left farms and countryside to work in factories and towns.
The mid-19th century saw railway networks spread out across the region, along with the dramatic expansion of towns and the appearance of new social groups – an industrial working class and a managerial and professional middle class.
Linked these developments came further political change, as many parts of western and central Europe. The rise of an educated and ambitious middle class led to the decline of the influence of the old feudal order, as represented by monarchs and aristocracies. Democratic institutions such as assemblies elected by popular voting became much more influential in many countries. Nationalism also gained ground, leading to the appearance of two major new European states, Germany and Italy.
The industrial revolution spreads around the world
The Industrial Revolution spread to North America at about the same as it swept through Europe, and later spread to Australia and New Zealand, and even South America. Indeed, it is possible to discern a new, global, industrial civilization emerging from the mid-19th century onwards, consisting of Europe and its offshoots around the world. We can label this civilization “the West”. Such was its power that, from this time, no region on Earth could escape its impact, and the histories of all the nations of the world would now be drawn into a single overarching pattern of events.
Within Western societies, relentless industrial advance was ceaseless. New inventions – the car, telephone, aeroplane – continued to change the lives of Westerners, and industrial technological breakthroughs such as the development of artificial fertilizers and refrigerated cargo ships transformed economies around the world. The advent of steamships made long-distance transport quicker, more reliable and less expensive.
Global trade continued to expand. The opening of the Suez Canal (1869) and the Panama Canal (1914) further strengthened international commerce. The latter in particular was symbolic of the USA‘s economic rise. The later 19th century saw a surge of economic growth, and the USA became the wealthiest nation on Earth. In Europe, Germany also rose to be a leading industrial power, drawing ahead of Britain by 1900.
Western military power
Being the first to experience the transformations which industrialization brought, the Western nations found themselves with a huge (though, as it would eventually turn out, temporary) military advantage over all other societies on the planet. They naturally set about exploiting this to full effect by applying modern technologies to warfare. At sea, steam-powered iron-built warships armed with huge guns, and on land, troops equipped with rapid-fire machine-guns, gave Western navies and armies overwhelming military superiority.
Almost no non-Western societies had any effective answers to this entirely new kind of challenge. The economic and military effectiveness of the Ottoman empire had by now fallen well behind those of the leading European nations. Its European provinces fell prey to the ambitions of Austria and Russia, while the Middle East came under increasing British and French influence.
British control of India expanded throughout the 19th century. A brief but violent uprising against British power in 1857-8 was (as violently) crushed, and the British continued to push out their frontiers east into Burma and northwest towards central Asia.
South East Asia ended the 19th century almost completely divided between the Dutch, British and French; only Thailand remained nominally independent.
China, Japan and Korea
The impact of Western nations on East Asia varied from country to country.
In China, the Great Taiping Rebellion (1850-65) was much more catastrophic than the Opium Wars had been. The causes of this terrible episode were rooted in Chinese conditions, but it was at least partly inspired by Western ideas. Before the rebellion could be crushed it had cost as many as 40 million lives, making it the second deadliest conflict in the history of the world.
In the decades that followed, some limited attempts at modernization were attempted, but this was compromised by the sheer scale of the task, lack of consistent direction from the government and growing hatred of the West within Chinese society.
Korea managed to keep Westerners largely at arms length. Japan, however, was forced to end its isolation and open its economy to Western influences in the wake of American military expeditions in 1852-4. After a period of confusion, Japan began a program of modernization.
In doing so successfully it became the one outstanding example of a non-Western society meeting the challenge of the West head on – and in the process effectively becoming a Western nation. This has allowed it, first to defeat China, and then, startlingly, Russia, one of the leading powers of Europe. It then went on to annex Korea.
Japan’s defeat of China further undermined the prestige of the Qing dynasty, and helped end the long succession of imperial dynasties in China. In 1912, China became a republic.
The Scramble for Africa
In Africa, the middle decades of the 19th century saw the Atlantic slave trade at last go into steep decline. This, however, was the signal for Europeans to step up their interest in the interior of continent, which up to that point had been a mystery to them. Various expeditions explored the region, sending back reports of bountiful natural resources and populations ripe for “civilizing”.
Towards the end of the century, European nations, especially Britain and France, began to move out of their coastal enclaves and annex huge territories. They were joined by other nations, Germany, Belgium and Italy. In what must be the most audacious land-grab in history, Western nations divided almost the entire continent between them in an episode labelled the “Scramble for Africa”. The only country to escape coming under European domination was Ethiopia – though this did not do it much good: the isolated country remained as backward and poverty stricken as before.
At the same period, the Pacific islands also fell under Western control. One archipelago is Hawaii, which comes under the United States. The end of the 19th century marked the short period when the USA became an imperial power, taking control of the Philippines, Cuba and other places in the Caribbean.
A global economy
The “take-over” of the world by Western powers – whether by outright conquests or the imposition of “spheres of influence” – was followed by economic exploitation. Railways started appearing in lands far and wide. The oceans were linked by an ever-intensifying network of sea routes, all converging on Western ports and capitals. Western (above all British and American) finance reached into all corners.
A global economy had arrived, with the commodities of the planet being shipped to Western nations to be consumed or turned into manufactured goods. Many of these were then shipped back out to worldwide markets. The world’s commerce was dominated by Western finance, with the bulk of the profits flowing back to Europe and America.
It was not only goods and money that moved around the planet. So too did people, on an unprecedented scale. Indian labourers were sent to South and East Africa, South East Asia, the Pacific Islands and the Caribbean; Chinese migrants fled the poverty and chaos in their own country to South East Asia, Lebanese appeared in West Africa, Chinese and Japanese labourers travelled to North and South America, and Europeans settled in very land but especially to North and South America, South Africa, East Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Back in Europe, however, trouble was brewing. The international political situation was being destabilized by two factors. One was the “Eastern Question”, in which the weakness of the Ottoman empire was exciting the ambition of the European powers. The second was the rise of Germany as the most powerful nation in the region.
In a mounting frenzy of greed and fear, European nations sought alliances and counter-alliances with each other. Eventually two clear camps emerged – Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy on one side, Britain, France and Russia on the other. It would not take much of a spark to set these nations against each other. In 1914 that spark came.
To be completed: the 20th century