What is a Civilization?
Recently, I was talking to a colleague at work and I mentioned that civilizations tend to last only 500 years. I had heard this somewhere but I couldn't remember where. Of course, to even begin this discussion raises the question of what exactly is a civilization?
If you look up the term "civilization" up in Wikipedia, here's what you get:
"A civilization or civilisation is a society or culture group normally defined as a complex society characterized by the practice of agriculture and settlement in cities"
City-dwellers might be the exact meaning but that's not what people usually mean when they ask: how long do civilizations last. We are clearly talking about some trans-city concept and we aren't talking about just any civilization. We usually have a sense of the "significant" civilizations. Of course, I should point out that "significant" is relative the audience. People from Hawaii will view King Kamehameha as one of the "significant" world leaders. People from Kyrgyzstan will consider certain nomadic tribes to be "significant" societies. The key point here is that "civilization" is an ambiguous term that will have different meanings to different audiences.
Now, in my case, I am interested in historically significant civilizations so let me focus on this topic alone. From my view (a Western Civilization perspective), a "significant civilization" is not necessarily an "empire". For example, people freely talk about "Greek Civilization" and yet the Ancient Greeks were really a network of fragmented city-states.
When people ask how long do civilizations last, I think that they are really talking about the idea of a society that dominates its region either through military might, political hold, financial power, or cultural influence. For example, we can speak about Roman Civilization, Egyptian Civilization, Chinese Civilization, Indus Valley Civilization, etc.
So, what is the meaning of a civilization when we ask the question: "how long do civilizations last?"
I would proposed the following criteria for a civilization:
- A civilization is dominant in its region
- A civilization is stable with roughly the same form of ruling power over its lifetime
- A civilization usually has a capital city or center that gets identified with that civilziation
- A civilization is bigger than a single city but it is not necessarily an empire.
- A civilization has a strong historical presence
The purpose of a criteria is to provide grounds for discussion and analysis. So, let me review each point.
A Civilization is dominant in its region
Often, when we talk about ancient history, we focus primarily on the empires. We talk about the Incas, Aztecs, Romans, Ottomans, Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, etc.
I think that when we ask the question about how long civilization lasts, we are necessarily including the great empires but it seems unnecessarily limiting to only talk about conquerors. The Greeks for all their epics and all their histories about Sparta and Athens were not conquerors in the same way as the Persians.
The Renaissance in Europe was a significant moment for Western civilization and yet it is not about war and conquest as much as a break from war and conquest. The rise of nation-states in Europe for example was not so much a time of conquest as a time of unraveling of the empires. The breakup of the Ottoman Empire was another example of the birth of newer states. Influence often comes from conquest but not always.
Still, what is important about the Greeks, the Western European nation-states, and the Arab nations is that they were a very significant influence in their region. Whether wars are fought or not, won or lost is not a measure of civilization. A civilization can endure and persist through war. But when a civilization has lost its "influence," the civilization is said to be in decline.
A civilization is stable with roughly the same form of ruling power over its lifetime
A civilization is not just a political region; it is also a form of government. Historians routinely see Roman Civilization consisting of three phases: the Roman Republic (509 BC - 27 BC), the Roman Empire (27 BC - 476 AD), and Byzantine Empire (395AD - 1204AD). The Ancient Egyptian Civilization is divided into the Old Kingdom (2700 - 2200BC), Middle Kingdom (2040 BC - 1640 BC), and the New Kingdom ( 1550 BC to 1070 BC).
Rome went from Republic to Empire to Christian Empire. In Egypt, the Old Kingdom ended with a political collapse. The United States begins properly after the American Revolution. Even though the American civilization continued to mirror many of the developments in mother England.
Of course, Greece was not very stable and American Civilization experienced periods of significant disruption including the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. The point here is not that life was peaceful but rather that the over all power structures stayed the same.
The important point here is that the "civilization" must have some continuity. When we say that a civilization declines or ends, we are really saying that this stability ends.
A Civilization Usually Has a Capital City or Center
Civilization is about cities but I would argue that the idea of a capital city is more important. Consider some examples.
The capital of the Egyptian Old Kingdom was Memphis. The center of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom was Thebes. The capital of the Byzantine Empire was Constantinople. The capital of Alexander the Great's empire was Alexandria in Egypt and so on.
The capital city is often the symbol of the civilization to the outside world. An empire without a major city or a major center is not a civilization as I am proposing here.
A civilization is bigger than a single city
Even as a civilization has a center a capital city, it is bigger than this city. A city-state is not a civilization although most civilizations began as a single city-state. Sumer began at Eridu but over time, it expanded to include Kish, Ur, and many others. A civilization stretches across its center to its minor regions. The important idea here is that it is not an isolated city, a trade route, or a pilgrimmage site. A civilization can include all these parts but it is bigger than this. It is a unifying force that defines a society.
A Civilization has strong historical presence
Indeed, I would put forward that the concept of "civilization" is a device for interpreting history. From this perspective, the civilizations are the major organizing points for understanding the major cultural influences of major societies.
Since it is a concept of history, it follows that the exact delineation of "civilizations" will change over time. It will change with trends and it will change as we learn more about our past. As a general rule, historical research tends to favor the background of its authors. Additionally, biases affect interpretations of history. For example, do nomadic tribes constitute a civilization? If we use the idea of a city, then the answer is no. If use the idea of a center, then the answer may be yes. Since civilizations are primarily artifacts of history, I consider stable people who lived in a general region over time to be civilizations. For example, I consider Native American tribes to be examples of civilizations. For me, this comes down to the idea of a domain culture over a region and the idea of a center.
Still, this criteria means that the idea of civilization is very open. Did the Germanic tribes consitute a civilization? Did the Vikings constitute a civilization. I would say yes to both. In my view, the question is really were the Vikings and Germanic tribes historically significant.
Dan on March 05, 2020:
Where are the examples.
pa on October 27, 2019:
I need more specifics civilizations
Abdullah boru on July 30, 2019:
i need sourcesof o early civilisation and their characteristics
macgregor state high school on May 28, 2018:
that's not helps in my essay
macgregor school on May 28, 2018:
good answer and good grammar
maty on March 03, 2018:
this is not helping me with my essay on modern civilization
dezz on October 23, 2017:
hi I think this article/blog would be useful howsoever I was hoping it would have a list of civilizations
maybe you could add these in so I can recomed this page to friends and family who are looking for this kind of thing for a school project like I am
Sania on October 04, 2015:
Hi, I really, really like this article. It helped me understand very clearly what a civilization was. I think you did a great job with this article.
christina on August 18, 2015:
I need to know examples of civilizations
nicole ann a constantino on August 26, 2014:
I need more examples of early civilizations...
jelyn on June 12, 2014:
i need more examples of this civilization
Hambali O.E on March 12, 2012:
Can you please tell me the effects of war on human civilization?
Rod Martin Jr from Cebu, Philippines on December 27, 2010:
A lovely analysis. Very well thought out.
And it seems possible that a relatively unknown and disrespected civilization may have planted the seeds which allowed our own cradles of civilization to blossom as early as they did. I'm talking about the mythical Atlantis. If it was a real place, then the refugees of Atlantis may have given primitive man the cultural and mental impetus to "imagine" new possibilities. After all, if your ancestors have been there, then creating it anew is not such a big barrier. Compare "sound barrier," and "four-minute-mile barrier."
If Atlantis existed, its historical presence may only be felt in the myths and legends which preceded civlizations' cradles. And we have proof of Atlantis, albeit indirect -- evidence of an Atlantis-like event right when Plato said the fabled island disappeared in the sea.
It is interesting to note that, if some day we find direct proof of Atlantis, we will have extended the "history" of humanity by more than double. The "Dark Age" which separates the beginning of our history from the end of theirs is greater in duration than our entire history. A humbling thought, that.
And that may be perhaps why the "A" word receives such ridicule from traditional quarters. As best-selling author, James Gleick, pointed out, anything which causes us to reorganize our view of the world tends to provoke hostility. The arrogance behind that hostility is the antithesis of humility.
jayjay40 from Bristol England on March 27, 2010:
A very interesting read. Have you heard about the therory that the influences of civillisation travels westward around the world. They say if start at China, you then go west to Greece then Rome then Britain then the USA,that this tracts the major cultural influences and civillisations.I just wondered what your views are. Thanks for sharing.
larryfreeman (author) from Fremont, CA on January 27, 2010:
I have examples in this article:
Boo25 on January 26, 2010:
Hey, i need examples of civilisation for my homework. please give me some thanks.
larryfreeman (author) from Fremont, CA on April 01, 2009:
Thanks for your comment. In the future, I'll try to write on the Kushan Empire.
Hazara on April 01, 2009:
Since no one commented, i thought i should comment. By the way, it would be great if you know something about civilization during Kushan Empire. A major city would be Bamyan.