What Is a Civilization?
The word civilization describes an advanced stage in human society that includes shared institutions such as government, religion, and education. It is also associated with a complex culture that might include literature, professional art, architecture, and organized religion. Some scholars argue that any community with a large population and a high level of cultural and technological development is civilized, even though most of the world’s cultures have not been brought up to this standard. Other historians, however, are cautious in applying this term and recognize that a particular kind of community must have certain characteristics for it to be considered a civilization.
Most early civilizations grew from hunter-gatherers who settled into permanent, semipermanent communities and learned how to produce enough food for everyone to live on. This allowed for division of labor, where people specialized in different jobs that provided income and food, such as farming or making pottery. These new agrarian societies soon developed the ability to trade with other groups of people and, as a result, long-distance trading networks grew up.
Eventually, these growing, trading societies began to establish centers where people from all over the region gathered to work, live, and socialize. These communities became cities.
These early urban communities also created the necessary institutions for civilization to thrive. This included a rudimentary form of government that recognized a leadership role and a priesthood to deal with the gods. These structures gave rise to religions that could be taught and followed, and they helped make possible the large-scale production of luxuries such as artifacts and fine foods.
Another key feature of these cities was the creation of a writing system. These systems, which were initially used for administrative purposes, later enabled scribes to record and transmit information more easily than previously, thus opening up more opportunities for a wide range of literary endeavors. These writers produced great works such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Book of the Dead.
One of the most intriguing aspects of these early civilizations was that they developed a very complex social structure, with clear distinctions in status between various people. These differences were partly a consequence of the division of labor, with political and religious leaders gaining a high degree of status in their societies. The kings of Mesopotamia and Egypt, for instance, were powerful, able to negotiate important deals with other countries, and they were viewed as god-like figures.
Nevertheless, these early urban centers were not a true type of state, in the sense that they did not exert consistent control over large areas on a day-to-day basis. The villagers’ communal loyalties lay with their own village, and they did not view inhabitants of other villages as being friends or enemies. This lack of a consistent authority meant that conflicts between villages were often fierce and frequent.
It was at this point that states covering comparatively larger territories first emerged. Historian Peter Heather argues that Rome’s downfall, in addition to the moral and economic causes commonly cited, was due to centuries of conflict with barbarians from across its frontiers.