The Postclassical Period

Changes and continuities from the classical to the post-classical cover a wide range of political, cultural, religious and economic shifts as populations grew and societies became more complex. The classical empires of Rome, Han China, Gupta India and Archaemenid Persia fell due to external and internal forces and were replaced by the larger empires of the post classical Byzantine; Tsui, Tang and Song in China and the Caliphates in Persia. Only India did not return to an over reaching centralized empire. During the post-classical Dar el-Islam united much of Eurasia with a single religious adherence to Islam. Also, the largest empire the world was ever to see, the Mongols, rose during the post classical period. These large, complex empires altered governments and economies, more by scale than bringing about any revolutionary changes. Culturally people became more urban and with that urbanization the trends toward the loss of freedom for women and the gulf between rich and poor continued to widen.

Religions that started in the Axis Age, the period of turmoil during the collapse of empires, such as Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism, found new adherents as their followers traveled the increasingly global land and maritime trade networks. Islam arose at the beginning of the post-classical period and in a short 200 hundred years enveloped all of southern Eurasia and north and east coastal Africa. From the classical to the post classical new larger empires arose. In China the new post-classical empires of the Tsui, Tang and Song looked to their past classical empire, the Han, in which to recast themselves. China returned to the political and cultural practices abandoned during the Warring States Period. In China we see continuities in political, cultural, and religious practices. Imperial structure is restored and the examination process for hiring bureaucrats is expanded to include any male who can pass the local, district and imperial exams. This merit system based on education in the “classics” created an intellectually homogeneous society. It also created bureaucrats who were well educated and loyal to the government that had educated them and provided them with prestigious employment.

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Culturally and philosophically the examination process tied people together in knowledge of their literary and philosophical heritage. A thorough and in-depth knowledge of Confucianism was of course the heart of that knowledge, as were the lists of classics, authors and poets that men of knowledge should all know. Changes and continuities in political institutions from the classical to the post-classical arise from larger empires and the diverse populations found within new boundaries. The Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates ruled over a population of Persians who resented the Caliphates’ preference for appointing Muslim Arabs over Persians, whether Muslim or not. The Arab Muslim Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates borrowed from the classical Archaemenid and later Sassanid political institutions. Under the Archaemenid money came to the imperial court through a system of satrapies. Satraps (governors) paid a set tribute to the imperial center in exchange for the security of a massive army to protect them. Satraps were appointed by the king and answered to him directly. Satraps had no military duties and could not have an army. The aristocracy was kept in check through a cult of personality which made the emperor the center of all things, grantor of all rights and all titles. Continuities in political institutions were also seen in the Byzantine Empire, which continued from the classical period under the Roman emperor Constantine through the post classical period, ending only in the fifteenth century when it was defeated by the Ottoman Turks. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire the Byzantine Empire continued for another thousand years.

The Byzantine Empire used Roman law, which it codified and renamed the Justinian Code. Forms of government also continued with the emperor as the head of government and the Church, similar to the cult of Caesar during the Roman Empire, which saw the imperial ruler as the object of an imperial state religion. Changes in political institutions from the classical to the post classical were most dramatic in Europe and India, both of which fragmented into many small kingdoms because of external forces. In Europe Germanic tribes and the Huns fragment Europe after the Roman Empire becomes too weak to protect their previously conquered European territories. By the early fourth century Europe is made up of three kingdoms; Frankish, Ostrogoths and Visigoths. The Avars, a nomadic group of unknown ethnicity come out of the steppes much as the Huns had a century earlier and drive the Slavs into Western Europe, further destabilizing it. By the eighth century the Vikings had arrived and for two hundred years plunder coastal Western Europe. Thus we have almost five hundred years of migrations into Europe that keep any empire from forming. The exception is the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne, but that is only a two generation experiment.

In India we have a similar fate to Europe with the external forces destroying the classical Gupta Empire, in this case the White Huns who were an unrelated Hunnic group from Central Asia. After the fall of the Gupta Empire, India’s religious ideology separated into a Muslim North and Hindu South. In Northern India the Turks brought Islam and established the territories of Mahmud of Ghazni and the Sultanate of Delhi. In the south the Hindu Kingdoms of Chola and Vijayanagar prospered. Unlike Europe the Indian Kingdoms prospered tremendously from being the trade hub for the region. In fact the sole purpose of these kingdoms was trade and they were little interested in administering their kingdoms for any other purpose. Conquest as a source of revenue was not needed as they could bring in wealth through trade relations. One of the greatest changes in the post classical period was the rise of Islam that spread across Eurasia and Africa. Even after the Islamic Empire, Dar al-Islam, had begun to lose power by 850 Islam continued to spread, unifying diverse societies and ethnicities through the commonality of culture and religion. Changes in political and cultural traditions during the post-classical period occurred in Africa because of intensive Islamic contact. When Arab conquerors introduced the Islamic faith into northern Africa, they expanded the region of commerce. Muslim merchants established trading centers for copper, iron, salts, and cotton textiles. The newly established trade affected traditional social and religious beliefs. After 1000 C.E., the kin-based social structure experienced difficult challenges.

Increased conflict between peoples led to the creation of military forces for both offensive and defensive use. This led to the formation of chiefdoms exhibiting more formal structures of governing such as in the kingdoms of Kongo, Ghana, and Mali. Because most traders were Muslim, many African societies converted to Islam to improve their relations with the merchants. African kingdoms also gained recognition and support from powerful Muslim states. By the tenth century, Ghana had converted to Islam. In the early fourteenth century the Mali king, Mansa Musa, observed the Islamic tradition of making the pilgrimage to Mecca from 1324 to 1325. He gave out so much gold that it depressed the economy of Egypt, which did not recover for 20 years. A big difference from the classical to the post-classical period was the growth in human populations.

Not only were empires geographically larger, there were more people in them. Bagdad, one of the key Islamic cities, reached one million by 900 C.E. In comparison, fthe city of Rome during the classical period only had a population of four hundred and fifty thousand. Larger more urban populations attracted merchants who brought new innovations in mapping, navigation, and ship building. Innovations came pouring out of Song China; paper making, paper money, letters of credit, clocks, gunpowder. Along with innovations travelling greater distances and in greater volume for a greater numberof people new foods traveled, like fast growing rice and citrus fruit, which further fueled population growth. Trade and religion traveled together to an unprecedented degree during the post classical period. Islam had a profound impact on trade and commerce. The strength of Dar al-Islam, and the later Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates, was that Muslims could trade with other Muslims no matter what their ethnicity or language. Islam viewed merchants as natural missionaries. The elevated position of merchants was to eventually be emulated by Confucian Chinese and Christian European societies, which had previously placed merchants at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Trade networks in the post classical period were different from the classical period by their extent, not their location. The Silk roads expanded from eastern China to Southeast Asia, South Asia and to the Byzantine Empire. The Indian Ocean Basin became the maritime hub that connected Silk Roads to trade in the Mediterranean Sea and to East Africa. Along these almost global networks traveled merchants and missionaries, bringing with them innovations and new religious ideas. Just as trade networks in the post classical period were different in their extent but not location, classical period religions such as Christianity and Buddhism traveled further and found new converts in new lands.

Islam was the only new religion that arose in the post classical period. Nestorian Christianity, developed in the 3rd century, taught that Jesus Christ had one human nature, and not a dual divine and human nature. Branded as heretics by the early Church in Constantinople they fled to the rival Sassanid Empire. From Persia they sent out merchants along the Silk Road and won many converts in Central Asia. Nestorian Christianity was to disappear in China by the 14th century. Buddhist missionaries traveled even further. From its home in India Buddhism was to travel to Central and East Asia, Japan and to Southeast Asia, where it is the predominant faith today. Buddhism and Islam also changed China through the development of Neo-Confucianism, a less restrictive form of Confucianism. An alternative, Daoism, a Buddhist-influenced philosophy, impacted Chinese society. Islam in China elevated the merchant class from the lowest social class under Confucianism to an honorable profession, which was to have economic repercussions as trade opportunities opened up for native Chinese. These trade networks are a hallmark of the post-classical period and differentiate it from the classical period. These ever expanding trade networks created the wealth that fueled the new empires and brought opportunities and wealth to urban areas that created cities of over a million people. Toward the end of the post-classical period the world was to change yet again as the Mongols created the largest empire the world has ever seen. The Mongols by conquering Eurasia forced those outside the area to develop strong centralized governments, like Japan. The Mongols in Russia, the Golden Horde, forced for the first time a sense of Russian identity and provided something to unite against. The Il-Khan in Persia was to govern using lessons learned from the Abbasids they had conquered.

The Mongol Yuan Dynasty in China was a period of infrastructure projects and expanded boundaries and trade. During Mongol rule trade had never been better as Mongols brought the wealth of the world back to their imperial seats. The Silk Roads were so safe that Europeans like the Polos were able to travel from Europe to China. Plundering nomads disrupting settled societies is a continuity between the classical and post-classical period. Huns, Vikings and Mongols had an enormous impact on settled societies. In the classical period nomadic incursions destroyed many of the great classical empires. In the post-classical the very trade networks that enabled expanded trade also carried nomads over greater distances. But nomadic incursions helped unify the post-classical world in two ways. First, conquered peoples found themselves united in yet larger empires with highly centralized governments and incredibly efficient government revenue agents. Secondly, it compelled regions of those not conquered to form centralized governments that were organized to ward off attacks. Continuity between the classical and post-classical period associated with the expanded trade network are plagues. Plagues had been part of classical settled life. During the classical period the Roman world was weakened by plague in the fourth century. But like all other differences between the classical and post classical it is the scale and extent that are different. When the Bubonic Plague left China and traveled the Silk Roads to Europe it had greater ramifications than did earlier plagues. Large urban area also exacerbated the death toll of the plague. In Europe alone as much as fifty percent of the population died within the first two years. The plague’s high mortality rate in Europe ended feudalism.

The Europe that emerged from the plague years was a collection of strong centralized states. The other region to recover quickly from the Bubonic Plague was China. Both Europe and China were to be major players in the Early Modern Period. Changes from the classical to the post classical period are represented by an increase in the complexity of societies due to dramatically expanded trade networks, urbanization and population growth. Expanded trade networks quickly carried innovations from one cultural area to another, improving them each time. Islam was the new religion of the post-classical period and had an enormous impact on the known world. The greatest differences from classical to post-classical are seen in Europe and India. Continuities from the classical to the post-classical period are represented by the larger empires that arose from earlier ones and the spread of classical religions like Christianity and Buddhism. The greatest continuities seen from the classical to the post-classical are seen in China and Persia.

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