Why Did Civilizations Expand? | Big History Project

Why Did Civilizations Expand? | Big History Project


NARRATOR: Humans civilizations
have been wonderfully diverse with an amazing variety
of unique customs, religious practices, social
structures and technologies. These differences
are fascinating, but Big History teaches us to
look at the past differently, to seek out commonalities
and identify patterns that unite seemingly
unrelated phenomena. Often this produces insights
that are even more interesting. One of the most
important patterns we see among agricultural civilizations
is the need to expand. Many agrarian civilizations
grew to control a lot of territory. The Roman Empire
at its peak controlled around 2.5 million
square miles, the Persians more than
three million square miles and the Mongols a whopping
10 million square miles with an empire
stretching across Asia. Though these empires existed
in different places and at different times,
they shared a strong drive to expand geographically. And when they could
no longer grow, their territory shrank
and eventually their civilizations collapsed. So why was geographic expansion
so essential to their survival? Maintaining a state
was expensive. Increasing the large populations
required more infrastructure, more resources as well as bigger
governments and militaries. Ambitious monumental
architecture like the Pyramids added even more expense
because land productivity had its limits and
leaders could face rebellion if they try to squeeze
subjects too much with heavy taxation. There were limits to
how much states could grow using internal resources. Thus growth necessitated
taking what others had produced rather than trying to increase
productivity within the state. During the era of
agrarian civilizations this type of military
expansion was common. We see it in civilizations
around the world with the Persians, the Romans,
the Chinese dynasties and with the Aztec and Inca
empires in the Americas. Large professional armies
required food, weapons and complex infrastructures
like roads, forts and defensive walls. All of these came
at great expense, which itself increased the need
for expansion. Some military innovations
lead to inventions that would advance
entire civilizations. Iron is a good example. The hard metal was initially
used for weapons but once iron plows appeared, crop yields increased,
and so did populations. Roads, initially
designed to move armies, became important trade routes
and building techniques were refined after the
construction of so many walls, forts and watch towers. Throughout this era, borders
were constantly contested but there was another side to the interactions
that took place. Outposts and border regions
often became centers for commercial and
technological innovation. This was because
different cultural groups connected and many
non-military exchanges occurred, intensifying
collective learning. We see this accelerated change
very clearly in Europe when the Roman Empire
splintered into a series of small competitive states. This increase in commerce
and the exchange of ideas drove a transition of power from large agrarian
civilizations to these smaller
commercial states. The pace of collective learning
further intensified. Traditional agrarian
civilizations in other parts of the world lost power and
in many cases were colonized by the same European states
with dramatic implications for today’s world. Empires were shaped less
by physical borders and more by spheres
of commercial influence. The modern world had begun
to take shape.

23 thoughts on “Why Did Civilizations Expand? | Big History Project

  1. As usual, complete denial and ignorance about monetary systems and how they affect the end of civilizations. Right now the US and Europe are being destroyed by an unsustainable debt-based monetary system, Thanks for contributing to continued massive ignorance of the population on how money is created in different systems.

  2. He posted on Aug 16. By Aug 19, it's over 3,600 views. Bill Gates sent me. Judging by comments, numerous visitors could say the same thing.

  3. Yea but he has 12,477,057 followers on Twitter. That's not even one in 3,000 clicking the link. I still don't get it.

  4. This was great, I always wondered how a Global Progressive, New World Order proponent looked at history and our world. If they can get all people to "see" their point of view, the new world order will enslave us all.

  5. Were language barriers and difficulty in trade contributing factors to civilizations favoring war over commerce for resources?

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