The Decline and fall of classical civilizations
The classical civilizations of Rome,
China (Han) and India
(Gupta) all fell to Hun invaders, but only after they had begun to fall apart
About 100 A.D. the Han started to decline. The bureaucracy became corrupt and the power
of the central government weakened.
Local landlords became more powerful as government control and
supervision declined. They increased the
tax burden on the peasants and took many of their farms. As peasant unrest grew, a revolutionary
movement emerged called the Yellow Turban.
The Yellow Turbans were Daoists; their
attempts at revolution failed.
Compounding this political weakness and peasant unrest was
the effect of several devastating epidemics that wiped out nearly half the
population. With all this internal
turmoil, the weakened Han dynasty could not fend off the advance of the Hun
Even though the Han fell and initiated a period of chaos,
there was not a permanent disruption of Chinese civilization. Briefly, the Sui
dynasty ruled. Then in 618 the Tang
dynasty emerged as one of the most glorious in Chinese history. They reinstated Confucian thought and revived
and improved upon the Han style of bureaucracy.
After the Hun invasions and the fall of the Han dynasty, the Chinese
never had to reinvent their civilization.
After the death of Ashoka, the Mauryan dynasty became financially weak and could not hold
together the empire. They were finished
off by an invasion by Bactria,
the Greek speaking empire formed in the wake of Alexander the Great’s invasion. Even
though the northwest part of India
became unstable, a new regional family rose to unite most of the subcontinent
into another empire. This family was the
Gutpas and formed the second half of India’s
The Gupta Empire was not as centralized as the Mauryans under Ashoka. They remained divided into regions where
local politicians made most of the laws and decisions. When the Huns attacked, the empire easily
fell apart along the fault lines of the local regions.
Interestingly, after the fall of the Gutpas
the invading Huns simply integrated into the warrior caste of Hinduism and
ruled the regions locally. With the
social structure of India
intact, much of its culture survived.
The ruling warriors, however, had no use for the peaceful and
contemplative religion of Buddhism, and its influence declined during this time
as a result. Hinduism gained ground that
it had lost under Ashoka. After the Guptas,
Indian trade and prosperity hardly missed a beat until Muslim traders gained
control of the Indian Ocean. However, Indian classical culture was
preserved through Hinduism and the caste system.
remained divided into separate regions for a very long time. The next major threat, however, would come
from Islam. Indeed, the next time India
would be united again it would be in the 16th century under the
Islamic Mughal dynasty.
The fall of the Roman Empire was very
complex and is still debated among historians today. But things that are agreed upon are the
following. As the Roman
Empire grew, it required more soldiers to patrol its borders and
frontiers. This brought a high tax
burden on a population that was decreasing because of plague and poverty. Likewise, Rome Emperors and the upper classes
adopted increasingly luxurious and extravagant lifestyles at the expense of the
tax paying citizens. This cause not only
great resentment among the lower classes, but the upper classes became more
self-centered and less concerned about social and political
responsibilities. New artistic and
cultural styles were not being created.
People came to view life as futile and meaningless. Weakened politically, economically,
culturally, and psychologically, the Roman Empire no
longer had the strength or the desire to fend off the Germanic invaders.
As the empire started to weaken, farmers and laborers
clustered around powerful regional landowners to whom they surrendered full
allegiance in return for military protection.
Thus people looked to their local landlords rather than to the Empire
for protection and stability. As this
decentralization took place, the vast Mediterranean trade routes fell out of
The Emperor Diocletian tried to
stop this decentralization. He reformed
the system of administration and persecuted Christians whose allegiance to God
he blamed for the weakening of Roman civil life. Then the emperor Constantine, who converted
the Christianity, used his religion to try to unify the Empire spiritually. He created a new capital, Constantinople. However, neither of these Emperors could save
the crumbling Empire.
The last Roman Empire in the west was
displaced by Germanic armies in 476.
Mediterranean culture, which had been put together by the Hellenism of
Alexander and the Roman Empire itself, was
fragmented. Unlike the classical
civilizations of India
this Mediterranean classical civilization suffered a complete death. “For Greece and Rome had not put together the shared political culture and
bureaucratic traditions of China that could allow revival after a period of chaos. Nor had Mediterranean civilization . . .
generated a common religion that appealed deeply enough, or satisfied enough
needs, to maintain unity admid political fragmentation,
as in India.”
One unique thing about the fall of Rome,
however, was that the eastern portion, called the Byzantine Empire,
did not really fall. But this Empire did
not gain the entire inheritance of Mediterranean classical civilization. It
more accurately mirrored the political system of late imperial Rome. Thus the fall of the Empire was more
devastating in the west, while in the east a unique culture—not completely of