Episode 22: Chaos and Consolidation
The Big History of Civilizations (2016)
Dr Craig G Benjamin
In this fascinating lecture, Benjamin traces the reconfiguration of Eurasia following the collapse of the Rome and the Han empire in China. The period 400 – 1000 AD is commonly referred to as the Dark Ages, owing to the break-up of Western Europe into smaller kingdoms and city-states. This seems to be based on the traditional view that large totalitarian empires run by ruthless dictators are preferable to smaller city-states, largely because the latter are at greater risk of being overthrown by the peasant farmers who generate state wealth.
- China – Between the 3rd and 7th century AD (following the collapse of the Han Dynasty in 200 AD), 37 separate dynasties attempted to rule different areas of China. During the 6th century AD, the Sui dynasty unified northern and southern China via construction of the Grand Canal linking the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. This paved the way for the Tang dynasty. The the wealthiest, most powerful and most urbanized* empire to that point in history, it would conquer Vietnam and much of Tibet and Central Asia.
- Japan – adopted Buddhism and Chinese administrative systems in the 3rd Century BC, but independent regions controlled by powerful Samurai would not be unified under a single emperor until 1000 AD.
- India – the Kushan empire controlling Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and northern India collapsed in the 3rd century AD to be replaced by the Gupta network of regional rulers. During this period, Aryabhata (476-550) discovered the rotation of the Earth and first calculated the length of the solar year, and Varahamira invented the concept of zero.
- Iran – the Parthian and Kushan empire was replaced by the Sassanian empire (251-651 AD), which promoted a resurgence of Zororastrianism and traded with the Byzantine Empire and the Chinese.
- Western Europe – (following the collapse of Rome) broke up into six independent kingdoms governed by the Franks and Burgundians (in northern France), the Alemanni (in Germany), the Ostrogoths (in the Balkans) and the Odoaccerdom (Italy) and Visigoth kingdoms (Spain and southwest France). Many former Roman cities were taken over by peasant farmers and converted to pasture and market gardens.** There was a brief effort to unify Western Europe (as the Holy Roman consecrated by the Pope) effort under Charlemagne in 800 AD, but following Charlemagne’s death, reverted to warring kingdoms governed by local kings.
- Western Asia – the eastern Roman empire (consisting of modern day Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Macedonia) continued under centralized Byzantine rule from Constantinople.
The political dynamics of this era were complicated by a number of significant invasions:
- Muslim: the rise of Islam in the 6th century AD, leading to the Muslim conquest of much of central Asia, North Africa and the Iberian peninsula.
- Barbarians: the invasion of formerly Roman Britain by Picts, Scots and Anglo-Saxons.
- Vikings: the invasion of Britain, northern Europe***and Russia**** by Vikings.
*By the 10th century AD, 2 million people lived in Chang’an and 1 million in Hangzhou.
**In the 7th century AD Rome had a population of 25,000, down from a population of one million in 150 AD.
***Normandy in France was settled by Vikings.
****Vikings controlled most of Ukraine and Russia via the trading networks they established. Kievan Russ, the first Russian state, was created by Viking elites who controlled these networks.
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