The Human Story – Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire

The Roman Empire was one of the most important and enduring political entities of the ancient world which still greatly influences our world today. So, surely when it collapsed the world irrevocably changed and the impact must have been huge and felt throughout the western world…

Was it though? Did the Roman Empire end with a bang or a whimper?

How and when the Roman Empire fell remains a subject of considerable historical debate. Traditional accounts have the Empire disintegrating in the fifth century. However, there is a strong case to argue that the Empire did not truly fall until one thousand years later in the fifteenth century.

Collapse

Let’s first introduce the traditional view of the Fall of Roman Empire. Quite simply, the city of Rome itself was conquered by barbarians in 476 CE. The final Roman Emperor was named Romulus Augustus and perhaps no one has been named more ironically throughout history. As you will recall the legendary founder of Rome was named Romulus whilst the first emperor was called Augustus. The story of ancient Rome was bookended by men named Romulus, whilst the Empire was flanked by two men named Augustus.

Romulus Augusts ruled the Roman Empire for less than one year before he was deposed and sent into exile by the barbarian Odoacer who founded the Kingdom of Italy as the first King of Italy, initiating a new era over Roman lands. Unfortunately we cannot be more specific than barbarian as history has failed to record which tribe Odoacer belonged to. Visigoth? Ostrogoth? Hun? Vandal? They all looked and behaved the same to the Romans; uncivilised.

Romulus_Augustulus_and_Odoacer

The city had been sacked before Odoacer demanded Romulus Augustus ceded control over the Empire, most notably in 410 CE by Alaric the Visigoth and again in 455 CE by the Vandals (who so thoroughly sacked the great city that even today we still call the perpetrators of mindless acts of criminal damage vandals). These sackings of the once great and glorious centre of the Mediterranean world were both within living memory and undoubtedly played on the young Emperor’s mind when confronted by the soon-to-be King of Italy.

Never again would there be a Roman Emperor in Rome.

The Roman politician and historian Tacitus predicated the fall of the Empire in his book Agricola written in 98 CE which details the life of his father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola, a distinguished Roman general and Governor of Britain. He argued that Rome was doomed to failure once it spread out of the Italian peninsula, because the further the frontier is from the capital the harder it is to govern and thus imperialism itself sowed the seeds of Rome’s destruction. His argument was put forth by the defeated Caledonian chieftain Calgacus:

“They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.”

There are two ways to overcome this problem of governance:

  1. Rule with an Iron Fist – This was not possible, however, as the whole Roman identity was wrapped up in the idea of justice that prohibited indiscriminate violence… seriously!
  2. Assimilate conquered peoples more fully into the Empire – In Rome’s case this meant giving the people Roman citizenship and providing them with the full rights associated with this.

In the early days of the Roman Republic and even the beginning of the Empire this decision to make subjugated peoples fully Roman worked quite well but eventually it led to “Barbarians within the Gates”.

Crisis

The decline of the Roman Legions began long before Rome was sacked by the Visigoths and Vandals. The deterioration of the army began with the tremendously bad decision to begin incorporating Germanic warriors into the Roman Army. The Empire had a long history of absorbing people from its fringes into the polity. Initially as allies and then eventually as fully-fledged citizens with the same rights as those Romans living and working in the city of Rome. Usually these foreign citizens had developed cultural ties with Rome: they learned Latin and bought into the idea of the aristocratic-run Republic.

By the third and fourth centuries CE the Empire had been forced to allow the type of riff-raff and undesirables into the army who did not particularly care much about the idea of Rome. These men were only loyal to their respective commanders and as you will remember from the historical examples of Marius, Caesar and Pompey; this is a recipe for civil unrest and domestic warfare.

Here were the Romans trapped in a series of seemingly unending expensive and bloody wars with the Germanic tribes on the Rhine frontier who were really good at fighting. Someone had a brilliant idea; why not fight with these guys instead of fight against them? Soon after, the army began hiring these men and the Legions were crowded with mercenaries whose loyalties primarily lay with gold and secondly to the commanders who gave them the gold. These mercenaries held no loyalties at all to Rome or what it stood for and was a place that very few of them had ever even seen, let alone set foot in. Why would they care about the health and wellbeing of the Roman Empire?

This was a formula for civil war and that is exactly what happened again and again. This all unfolded during a time of compounding emergencies which resulted in the “Crisis of the Third Century”. This was a period of severe instability in which the Roman Empire nearly collapsed under the combined pressures of barbarian invasions and migrations into Roman territory; civil wars and peasant rebellions; plagues; the debasement of the currency and economic depression.

The barbarian mercenaries and their commanders nominally worked for Rome but were becoming increasingly independent with general after general declaring himself as the Emperor of Rome. The crisis began with the assassination of Emperor Severus Alexander by his own troops in 235 CE and continued until 284 CE. During this time no fewer than 40 different people were either Emperor or claimed to be the Emperor. After the year 200 CE, many generals who were powerful enough to proclaim themselves as Emperor were not even Roman. In fact, some of them scarcely spoke Latin and one of them, Maximinus Thrax, never even set foot in the city. (Although, to be fair to Maximinus Thrax, he was assassinated in 238 CE whilst on his way to the city after declaring war on the Senate… this was just the beginning of the crisis!).

Oddly enough, one of the best symbols of this new stage of the Roman Empire was rather sardonic and finely represents its changing face. Instead of the traditional tunic and toga associated with the glory days of the Senate, most of these new general-emperors preferred to wear those most practical and barbaric of garments: trousers. Perhaps nothing symbolises the Empire’s fall from grace more effectively than the Emperor wearing uncivilised clothing.

Rome in the East

So, did the Roman Empire truly fall in 476 CE? Yes and no. The Western Roman Empire collapsed into oblivion that year, heralding the Early Medieval Period, more colloquially known as the Dark Ages, but it was not the end of the story in the eastern portion of the Empire.

The crisis ended in 284 CE, providing relief to the fragmented territory, when Diocletian, a forceful general, seized power and declared himself as the new emperor. One of his earliest acts was to split the Empire in two and keep the eastern half for himself and named his trusted friend, Maximian, as a junior emperor and presented him with the western half of the Empire. Diocletian figured that the Roman Empire had simply grown too big over the years to be effectively governed by a single person.

Roman_Empire_460_AD

While the Western Roman Empire limped on for a while before descending into further chaos which eventually saw its collapse in 476 CE, the Eastern Roman Empire established its capital in Byzantium, an ancient Greek city located on the Bosporus Straight. The Eastern Roman Empire is more commonly known as the Byzantine Empire although the people that lived there identified themselves as Roman. The Byzantine Empire was, to all intents and purposes, a continuation of the Roman Empire in its eastern provinces.

573px-Emperor_Constantine_(12762470035)

The Emperor Constantine unified the two Empires in 324 CE and built a new imperial residence at Byzantium and renamed the city Constantinople after himself. Constantine had lots of reasons to shift his capital east. For one thing, he was born in modern day Serbia and probably spoke better Greek than Latin. Perhaps most importantly though the eastern provinces were much richer than their western counterparts and from a looting perspective you just want to be closer to where the good warring is. The Persian Sasanian Empire in the east presented a rich and powerful enemy as opposed to the bands of penniless warriors to be found in the west by this point.

As the political centre of the Empire moved east Constantine also tried to re-orientate his new religion, Christianity (which he had converted to) to the east too. He held the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE in modern Turkey. The purpose of this ecumenical council was the first effort to attain consensus in the Church through an assembly representing all of Christendom. The main accomplishments of the Council of Nicaea was to finalise the issue of the divine nature of God the Son and God the Father, and set an annual observance date for Easter.

The council also marked the beginning of the emperor having greater control over the church, a development that would later lead to tensions between the church centred in Constantinople and the one based in Rome.

To give an idea of how dramatic this eastward shift in politics and religion was by the fourth century, Constantinople’s population soared whilst Rome’s plummeted from approximately 1,000,000 inhabitants to a mere 50,000. Although the Byzantines spoke Greek and not Latin they still considered themselves as Roman which means that we probably should too.

There was lots of continuity between the old Western Roman Empire and the new Eastern Roman Empire. Politically, each was ruled by a single man, sometimes two, who wielded absolute military power. War was pretty much constant as the Byzantines fought the Persian Sasanian Empire and then a succession of various Islamic Empires. Trade and valuable agricultural land that yielded high taxes meant that the Byzantine Empire was, like the Western Roman Empire, exceptionally rich and yet slightly more compact as a territory than its predecessor had been and much more urbanised, as it contained all of those, once, independent Greek city-states which made for far easier administration.

Justinian and Theodora

Like its western counterpart the Byzantine Empire enjoyed spectacle and sport; the chariot races within the city of Constantinople were massive with thousands turning out to the hippodrome to cheer on their favourite sportspeople. There was a huge rivalry within the city and not just about sports but also political affiliations between the “Greens” and the “Blues” (seriously). These clashes between blue and green sporting political ideologies could become so heated that rioting sometimes broke out and on one such occasion in 532 CE, the Nika Riots, nearly half of the city was destroyed and an estimated 30,000 people were killed.

Perhaps the most consistently Roman aspect of Byzantine society was that they followed Roman law. The Romans had always prided themselves on being ruled by laws and not by men and even though that was not the case after the second century BCE, there is no question that the Eastern Roman Empire’s codification of Roman laws was one of its greatest achievements. Much of the credit for that goes to one of the most famous Byzantine emperors, Justinian. In 533 CE, Justinian published the Digest, a monumentally massive 800,000 word compendium of Latin law books.

So, just who was this Justinian guy?

Justinian was born to a peasant family in the province of Dardania (modern Macedonia) around 482 CE who rose through the ranks of society to be elevated to Emperor in 527 CE. During his almost thirty year rule, and in addition to codifying Roman law, he did a lot to restore the former glory of the Roman Empire. He reconquered much of the territory lost by the Western Roman Empire, including Carthage, southern Spain and the entire Italian peninsula. Perhaps the most Roman aspect of his reign was the clothing; trousers were out and a version of the tunic was back in fashion!

Justinian also ordered the construction of one of the all-time great churches (although it is now a museum), the Hagia Sophia, which he built after riots destroyed the previous church. The Romans, in general, are famed for their remarkable engineering and construction projects and the Hagia Sophia is no exception; a dome its equal would not be built for another 500 years, and yet you would never mistake it for a Roman temple: the Hagia Sophia does not have the austerity or the obvious emphasis of engineering that you see on, for example, the Coliseum. This magnificent building functions in many ways as a symbol of the ways in which the Byzantine Empire was both Roman and not Roman at the same time.

1024px-Hagia_Sofia,_Istanbul

Perhaps the most intriguing thing that Justinian ever did was to marry his controversial wife, Theodora. She began her career as an actress, dancer and prostitute before becoming Empress and she may very well have saved her husband’s rule by convincing him not to flee the city during the Nika Riots declaring, “Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss. Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as empress.” Theodora also supposedly mentored a eunuch who went on to become a hugely important and successful general, Narses, in the service of Justinian during the Roman reconquest. She was more than just an asset to Justinian and his military officers, however, and wielded great individual power in her own right. She fought to expand the rights of women throughout the Empire in cases of divorce and property ownership and even went as far as to have a law passed taking the radical stance that adulterous women should not be executed.

The Great Schism of 1054

So, in short the Byzantines continued much of the Roman legacy of empire, war and law for nearly one thousand years after Romulus Augustus was driven from the city of Rome. Byzantines may not have spoken Latin and few of the emperors came from Rome but in the most important ways, they were Roman. There was, however, one major exception going forward from the eleventh century and that was religion.

The Byzantines followed a different variant of Christianity we now call Eastern (or sometimes Greek) Orthodox whilst the Church in Rome followed Roman Catholic teachings. How there came to be a split, or schism, between the Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches in 1054 is rather complicated but what matters here is the differences between the two. Spiritually and theologically, far more unites the Western and Eastern Churches than divides them but the main partition runs down political lines, over who rules whom.

Great_Schism_with_former_borders_(1054)

In the west there was a Pope, whilst in the east there was a Patriarch. The pope is the head of the Roman Catholic Church and serves as God’s regent on earth and he does not answer to any secular ruler and ever since the Fall of Rome there has been a lot of tension in Western Europe between popes and kings about who should have the real power. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity there is no such issue as the patriarch was always appointed by the emperor so there was no ambiguity over who controlled whom. The Church even had a word for this emperor-patriarch relationship: Caesaropapism (Caesar over Pope). But the fact remained that since 476 CE there was no emperor in Rome which meant there was no power to legitimately challenge the authority of the pope. This lack of papal accountability to an imperial throne would profoundly shape European and, by extension, later world history.

So, Did it End With a Bang or a Whimper?

The Western Roman Empire fell into a series of Frankish and Gothic kingdoms and Italy was ruled by a non-Roman for the first time in 700 years.

Some will argue, and with good and very valid points, that the fall of the Western Roman Empire did not change all that much and was, in fact, the opening act of a vibrant (and often turbulent) medieval world. As we have seen there is certainly an argument to be made there but the point in fact is that the entity that was the Roman Empire collapsed like the Republic before it and it is impossible to say that a millennium-spanning state based in the city of Rome simply continued elsewhere.

We have, at least, a few when and whys the Fall of Rome occurred but another argument to be made is that it is really a testament to the strength and flexibility of Rome that it survived as long as it did. Hannibal should have conquered it during the Punic Wars in the third century BCE; it should have fractured in the first century BCE with the carousel of military dictatorships; and it should have buckled under the pressures of the Crisis in the third century CE.

Diocletian seemed to understand it best when he realised that the massive Mediterranean empire was too cumbersome and no longer fit for purpose. So Rome did what it always did best and adapted. The city was gone, and the Empire crumbled, but the Roman civilisation continued in Byzantium.

So the argument can be made that in some of the more important ways, the Roman Empire did survive for nearly one thousand years after it left Rome. Even today, we still hear echoes of the civilisation which began in the eighth century BCE, for example the Justinian Law Code continues to be the basis for much of civil law in modern Europe and the countries across the world that have been influenced by Europeans culture.

Rome neither ended with a bang, nor a whimper. The core of what made a Roman Roman, the rule of law and justice, continues with us today and I’d say that is a damn fine legacy.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah

The Human Story – The Covenant & The Messiah

Let’s talk about Jesus.

Jesus of Nazareth was born in the Roman Empire around 2,000 years ago, during the reign of the first emperor, Augustus Caesar. At the time Augustus was being stylised, amongst other things, as “the Son of God” and it is important to note that at the time being thought of as the son of god, or at least the son of a god was not an unusual thing. It is, however, one thing to believe that the most powerful man in the world is the son of god; it is quite another thing altogether for a poor Jew living on the periphery of the Empire to be thought of as “the Son of God”.

Jesus was one of many teachers spreading his ideas throughout the Roman Province of Judea (others included the likes of John the Baptist and Gamaliel) and was part of a messianic tradition that helps us to understand why he is thought of not only as a teacher but as something much more – he was, to his followers, their saviour sent from God.

Before we go any further with Christ, his teachings or the religion that stemmed from them, Christianity, we must first go back and explore another religion: Judaism. Any understanding of Christianity must start with Judaism as Jesus was born a Jew and grew up living under the Jewish tradition.

The Chosen People

The people that would become the Jews were one of many tribal groups that were scratching out an existence in the not very fertile crescent world of ancient Mesopotamia after the agricultural revolution. Initially the Hebrews worshipped many gods and made animal sacrifices in order to bring good weather and fortune. However, this group eventually began to form another type of religion altogether, one centred around a concept that would become the key idea behind all of the great western religions: monotheism; the idea that there is only one true god. These people also developed the second theory that would become crucial to their religion: the idea of covenant; a deal with god.

The main man of this new Hebraic religion was Abraham and he is regarded as the common patriarch of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). It is hard to understand the Jewish religion without first understanding Abraham. When he was the ripe old age of ninety-nine the Lord God appeared to him and said:

“I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” Genesis 17:1-2

The covenant entered into by Abraham and God stated that Abraham would have many descendants and that they would forever hold the land of Canaan. There was, however, a catch…

“This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised.” Genesis 17:10-12

These were the terms of the deal and in exchange God had chosen Abraham and his descendants to be part of a great nation. It is from this interaction and covenant between God and the chosen Abraham that we get the expression the “Chosen People” to refer to the Jews.

There are several important things to know about the Jewish God:

  1. He does not like it when any other god is put before him – He must be supreme.
  2. He has always existed and can be deeply personal – He holds conversations with prophets.
  3. He gets involved in history – He destroys cities, determines the outcome of wars and brings floods to the disobedient people of earth.
  4. He demands moral righteousness and social justice – this was the characteristic of God that was most important to Jesus.

So this is the God of the Hebrews and despite numerous ups and downs they have stuck with Him for, according to the Hebrew calendar, 5,700 years and He has stuck with them too despite them occasionally being a disappointment to Him (e.g. the Golden Calf episode). This has led to various miseries and tragedies throughout their history and a tradition of prophets speaking to God and warning the people to get back onto the correct path lest they experience further misery.

1024px-Adoration_of_the_Golden_Calf_by_Andrea_di_Lione

The Son of God

By the time that Jesus was born, the land of the Israelites, Judea, had been absorbed into the Roman Empire and was under the control of King Herod the Great who is best known for constructing the Second Temple of Jerusalem (which the Romans later destroyed) and the clifftop fortress of Masada (which the Romans later destroyed).

By the time of Jesus’ death, Judea was under the control of Herod Antipater. Both Herods took their orders from the Romans and both appear on lists of oppressive rulers of the Jews, partly because they suppressed religious freedoms and partly because both men sought to force Greek tradition, architecture and philosophy into the region. In response to these Hellenistic influences lots of preachers were attempting to get the Jews to return to the traditions and godly ways of the past: Sadducees; Pharisees; Essenes; and Zealots all taught their congregations the old ways of Jewish tradition.

1024px-Pammakaristos_Church_-_main_dome_of_parekklesion_-_Jesus_Christ_-_P1030432

One of these preachers who did not fit squarely into any of these groups was Jesus of Nazareth: a preacher who spread his message of peace, love and justice across Judea. He proved to be remarkably charismatic and attracted small but incredibly loyal groups of followers and it is said that the man could perform miracles (although it is worth noting that the ability to perform miracles was not that uncommon at the time). Jesus’ message was particularly resonant with the poor and downtrodden with its very anti-authoritarian flavour. He said that it was easier for a “camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven”; “the meek were blessed”; and “the last would be first, and the first would be last”. This is obviously pretty good stuff to hear if you happen to be poor, whilst simultaneously very threatening to the powers that be.

The powerful elites who felt threatened by Jesus’ messages and teachings had him arrested, tried and executed in the normal manner of killing rebels at the time: crucifixion. The Romans killed Jesus because he was a threat to their power and authority in the region but later accounts tell us that it was the Jews who had Jesus killed but this is both an unfortunate and untrue rewriting of history.

Spread the Word

We are not going to discuss the divinity of Jesus here but what matters is that some people of the time believed Jesus to be the Messiah, the “Son of God”, who would once again return someday to redeem the world. This leads to two questions about Christianity:

  1. Why did this small group of people believe this?
  2. Why and how did that obscure belief become so widespread?

So, just why would people believe Jesus to be the Messiah? Firstly, the Jews had a long tradition of believing their saviour would come to them during a time of trouble. The people of Judea living under King Herod and the yoke of the Romans definitely viewed their time as one of trouble. Many of the historical prophecies pointed towards someone whose life looked a lot like that of Jesus of Nazareth’s. For example the book of Isiah describes how the saviour will be a person who is both misunderstood and mistreated:

“He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.” Isiah 53:3

Other prophecies, such as Daniel 7:14 explained that a new everlasting kingdom would appear when the Messiah came and this had to sound good to people who had had their autonomy taken away and assimilated into this sprawling multi-ethnic empire.

It was only natural that some religious Jews saw Jesus as the one foretold in their religious scriptures and came to believe that during his lifetime, or shortly thereafter, that he was the Messiah. Most probably thought that the new everlasting kingdom was right around the corner (this would explain why no one actually bothered to write about Jesus’ life for several decades, by which point it would be clear that they may have to wait a little longer for this new everlasting kingdom).

It is worth noting, at this point, that the idea of Messiah was not unique to the Jews and that the Roman poet Virgil wrote of a boy who:

“shall free the earth from never-ceasing fear. He shall receive the lives of gods and see heroes with gods commingling, and himself be seen of them, and with his father’s worth reign o’er a world at peace.”

Does Virgil’s description sound familiar?

Virgil was actually writing about the Roman Emperor Augustus, not Jesus Christ. There are some similarities between the two “saviours” though: both were known as the Son of God; both were reputed to be the Saviour of the World. However, one ruled the largest empire in the western world whilst the other believed that same empire and the world needed to be dramatically changed.

That brings us to our second question about early Christianity: why did the wealthy Son of God become far less historically influential than the son of the carpenter. There are several possible reasons why this happened.

Firstly, the Romans continued to make things worse for the Jewish population living in Judea. The situation became so untenable for the Jews that they revolted between 66 and 73 CE. This uprising did not go well for the Jews and resulted in the Jewish expulsion from Judea, known as the Jewish Diaspora. With no major temple and no geographical unity, the Jewish people had to solidify what it truly meant to be Jewish and what the basic beliefs of their religion were. This forced the followers of Jesus to make a decision: either continue to be Jews, following the stricter laws set forth by their local Rabbis or to become something else entirely. The decision to open this new religion to gentiles (non-Jewish people) is the primary reason why Christianity could become a world religion rather than a sect of Judaism.

The second historical reason that Christianity exploded in popularity was that Saul of Tarsus received a vision whilst on the road to Damascus. Saul changed his name to Paul and began corresponding with Jesus’ followers throughout the Mediterranean world. Paul ardently declared that the followers of Christ did not need to have been Jews or circumcised. This opened the flood-gates to anyone wishing to convert to the new religion. One thing that must be noted about Paul is that he was a Roman citizen who could freely travel throughout the Roman Empire, allowing him to make the case for Christ to lots of people and facilitated the geographic spread of Christianity.

Spread_christianity_between_300_and_600

Finally, Christianity was born and flourished in an empire which possessed a common language, Latin, that allowed for its spread. Crucially, this empire was in decline. Even as early as the first century CE the Roman Empire was on the way down. For the average person (and even some of the elites) things were not as good as they had once been and Roman religion offered no promise of an awesome afterlife; all it offered was a pantheon of squabbling, petulant gods. You really cannot blame the early Christians for nailing their colours to the Christian mast when you consider what the alternative was.

Even though the early Christians were persecuted by the Roman state and sometimes fed to the lions, the religion continued to grow slowly. In fact the persecution of Christians almost certainly made Christianity even stronger. That whole martyr thing at the core of the religion helped the cause. Think of it from the perspective of a devoted Christian: “If Jesus died for our sins, we need to hold fast in our belief in him, despite how badly we are being persecuted. He suffered through it, and so can we.”

As the decline of the empire continued Emperor Constantine legalised the practice of the religion, before eventually converting himself in 312 CE. Rome may not have been what it used to be but everyone still wanted to be just like the emperor. Christianity, as a religion, had really taken off.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?

The Human Story – The Indus Valley Civilisation

Today we are going to take a close look at civilisation and a closer look at the oldest civilisation of them all, the Indus Valley Civilisation.

A civilisation is any complex society characterized by urban development, social hierarchy which is controlled by a social elite, symbolic systems of communication such as writing and a supposed separation from and command over the natural environment. You will recall from the last instalment of the Human Story series that the proto-cities of Jericho in the Levant and Jiahu in the far east had some of these characteristics but failed in possessing all of them: hence why they are not considered civilisations. Another way to look at the prerequisites for the status of civilisation is whether a society possess at least four of the following:

• Surplus of food
• Specialisation of labour
• Social stratification and centralised government
• Shared values (e.g. religion)
• Writing

Born of Water

IVC Map

The Indus Valley Civilisation, sometimes known as the Harappan, named after the first site of their discovery (Harappa), was a Bronze Age civilisation that lived and thrived in the flood plains of the north western regions of South Asia in what is modern north east Afghanistan, Pakistan and north west India. Along with Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia (both of which we will cover soon) the Indus Valley Civilisation was one of the three early cradles of human civilisation and the most widespread of the three.

This was just about the best place in the world to set up an ancient civilisation. The rivers reliably flooded twice every year and provided the most calories available per acre of land of almost anywhere on the planet. The slow southward migration of the monsoons across Asia initially allowed the Indus Valley villages to develop by taming the floods of the Indus and its tributaries. This flood supported style of farming led to large agricultural surpluses which, in turn, accommodated the development and growth of cities. It is likely that the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation did not develop irrigation technology as they did not need to, instead, relying mainly on seasonal monsoons leading to floods. This is what made the ancient Indus Valley region such a desirable piece of agricultural real estate: nutrient rich silt deposits were naturally spread across the flat, well-watered floodplains. Ironically, this reliance upon the monsoon and lack of irrigational knowledge may have led to the eventual downfall of the Harappan civilisation when the climate changed drastically, but we will come to that soon.

An Egalitarian Architectural Wonder

Everything that we know of the Indus Valley Civilisation has been discovered through archaeology. This culture did have a symbolic written system, however, no one, yet, has been able to decipher it and the secrets of the Harappan civilisation continue to remain a mystery. Want to make a name for yourself amongst the archaeo-linguistic scene? See if you can decipher the writing below:

IVC Language

What archaeologists and researchers have been able to uncover though is absolutely astonishing. The Indus Valley Civilisation created incredible cities, Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa being the two most well-known. As of 2018, archaeologists have discovered over 1,000 sites and settlements belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation. It is estimated that Mohenjo-daro alone could have been the home to 50,000 residents.

These sites indicate that the Indus Valley Civilisation knew about advanced urban planning. The cities were laid out in dense multi-storeyed homes using standardised bricks stretching along perpendicular streets, rather than the usual erection of buildings in a hodge podge fashion found throughout history the world over. This level of urban planning would have required some form of city civic planning. Perhaps even more incredible than the standardised layout of the cities was the orientation of the layout. The larger cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation were designed in such a way as to catch the wind and create a natural form of air-conditioning! It amazes me to think of the forward planning and ingenuity that must have gone into these cities at such an early stage of their development.

The advanced architecture of this civilisation is shown in the impressive dockyards, warehouses, granaries and protective walls. The massive walls of the Indus Valley Civilisation were most likely used to protect the people from floods and may also have dissuaded military conflict.

There is one huge cultural architectural anomaly of the Harappan that sets them in stark contrast to their Egyptian and Mesopotamian contemporaries. There is a serious lack of monumental structures to be found in the Indus Valley. There is no conclusive evidence of temples or palaces which suggests that there was possibly not even kings or priests and amazingly there is a lack of evidence for armies too.

The largest building discovered at Mohenjo-Daro is not a temple, nor was it a palace. It is a giant public bath known as the Great Bath and it is the earliest known water tank of the ancient world. No one knows for sure what the Great Bath was used for, but scholars generally agree that it was most likely the centre piece in religious functions where water was used to purify and renew the well being of the bathers. Perhaps it was some sort of large baptismal pool. Later Indian culture placed huge emphasis on ritual purity which is the basis of the caste system still in use today. I don’t think that it is a massive leap of faith to assume that this may have its origins in the Mohenjo-Daro Great Bath rituals…. although it probably does not.

Great Bath

Most city dwellers appear to have been traders or artisans living with others pursuing the same occupation in well defined neighbourhoods. Although some houses were larger than others, Indus Valley Civilisation cities are noteworthy for their apparent egalitarianism. It appears that almost every home had access to water and drainage facilities, including flushing toilets which were connected to a sophisticated sewage system that carried waste away from the cities using big sewer ditches that ran under the main streets. (The sewerage and drainage systems that developed in this region was far more advanced than any found in urban cities in the contemporary Middle-East and even more efficient than those found in many parts of modern Pakistan and India.) This gives the impression of a society with a relatively low wealth concentration, though there are clear signs of social levelling seen in personal possessions and decorations. Perhaps the wealthy of the Harappan were content to keep it to themselves and not flaunt it in the faces of the less well off.

Peaceful Traders

There is substantial evidence to suggest that the Harrapan traded far and wide. Archaeologists have discovered materials from distant regions used in the Indus Valley for constructing seals, beads and other objects. Soapstone seals with images of animals, people (perhaps deities), and other types of inscriptions (including writing that has yet to be deciphered). Some of these seals were used to stamp clay onto trade goods as identification markers and have been found as far afield as Mesopotamia in the Middle East. Bronze and the materials used for making bronze have been discovered in the Indus Valley region. So, what I hear you ask? Well, neither bronze, nor the materials used to manufacture it are native to the Indus Valley region, so they must have been traded for.

Cotton.jpg

What exactly did the Indus Valley Civilisation have to trade? Their main export was cotton cloth. The farmers of the Indus Valley were the first people to spin and weave cotton. In 1929 archaeologists recovered fragments of cotton textiles at the Harappan city of Mohenjo-Daro, dating to between 3250 and 2750 BCE. The Indus cotton industry was well developed and some of the methods used in cotton spinning and fabrication continued to be used until the industrialisation of India in the early nineteenth century. That’s over 5,000 years!! Well, I guess if it’s not broken then don’t try to fix it.

Toys IVC.jpg

The Indus Valley Civilisation, aside from being incredible city developers and cotton merchants, were an unbelievably peaceful society. Over 1,000 sites have been uncovered but very little evidence of warfare or even weaponry have been found. Archaeologists have discovered more children’s toys than swords or spears in the Indus Valley region. I think that there is a lesson for the whole world here.

What Happened?

Around 1900 BCE the Indus Valley Civilisation began to decline until it eventually faded into historical obscurity 200 years later. So, what happened to these peaceful people? Several theories have been put forward to explain the disappearance of the ancient Indus Valley people. The first is that they were conquered. It is possible that the Harappan were overrun by people invading east from the Caucasus and they had little weapons with which to fight back. The second theory is that an earthquake changed the course of the rivers so much that many of the tributaries dried up. Without the adequate water supply for irrigation the cities could not sustain themselves, so the people simply left. The third (and most probable) explanation is another type of environmental disaster: aridification. It is quite possible that aridification of the region in the third millennium BCE may have been the initial spur for urbanisation. However, this drying of the region never ceased and eventually reduced the water supply enough to cause the civilisation’s demise and forced the population to migrate further eastward in search of water supplies.

Whatever caused the eventual decline of the Indus Valley Civilisation, it is one of history’s great tragedies that such a peaceful, innovative, egalitarian and prosperous people succumbed at such an early stage of the human story.

The Rest is History

Next time we will be travelling west to the ancient lands of Mesopotamia where we will learn of the epic struggle between urban life and wild life. See you then.

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement