Post-classical history

Post-classical history (also called the Post-Antiquity era, Post-Ancient Era, or Pre-Modern Era)[1][2][3] is the period of time that immediately followed ancient history and preceded the modern history.[4] Depending on the continent, the era generally falls between the years 200–600 and 1200–1500. The major classical civilizations the era follows are Han China (ending in 220), the Western Roman Empire (in 476), the Gupta Empire (in the 550s), and the Sasanian Empire (in 651). The post-classical era itself was followed by the early modern era, and forms the middle period in a three-period division of world history: ancient, post-classical, and modern. The era is thought to be characterized by invasions from Central Asia, the development of the great world religions (Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism), and of networks of trade and military contact between civilizations.[5]

The name of this era of history derives from classical antiquity (or the Greco-Roman era) of Europe.[6] In European history, "post-classical" is synonymous with the medieval time or Middle Ages, the period of history from around the 5th century to the 15th century.[7] In Europe, the fall of the Western Roman Empire saw the depopulation, deurbanization, illiteracy and limited learning of the "Dark Ages" (except in Eastern Mediterranean Europe, where the Eastern Roman Empire flourished until 1204), but gradually revived somewhat under the institutions of feudalism and a powerful Catholic Church. Art and architecture were characterized by Christian themes. Several attempts by the Crusades to recapture the Holy Land for Christianity were unsuccessful.

In Asia, the depredations of the Dark Ages were avoided, at least in the west, where the Spread of Islam created a new empire and civilization with trade between the Asian, African, and European continents, and advances in science. East Asia experienced the full establishment of power of Imperial China (after the interregnum chaos of the Six Dynasties), which established several prosperous dynasties influencing Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. Religions such as Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism spread. Gunpowder was originally developed in China during the post-classical era. The invention of gunpowder led to the invention of fireworks, then to its use in warfare. Also, the invention spread around the world. The Mongol Empire greatly affected much of Europe and Asia, the latter of which was conquered in many areas. The Mongols were able to create safe trade and stability between the two regions, but inadvertently encouraged the spread of the Black Plague.

The timelines of the major civilizations of the AmericasMaya (250 to 900), the Aztec (14th to 16th centuries), and the Inca (1438 to 1533) – do not correspond closely to the Classical Age of the Old World.

Outstanding cultural achievement in the post-classical era include books like the Code of Justinian, The Story of the Western Wing, and The Tale of Genji; the mathematics of Fibonacci, Oresme, and Al-Khwārizmī; the philosophy of Avicenna, Thomas Aquinas, Petrarch, Zhu Xi, and Kabir; the painting of Giotto, Behzād, and Dong Yuan; the astronomy of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and Su Song; the poetry of Rumi, Dante, Chaucer, and the Li Bai; the travels of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta; the historiography of Leonardo Bruni and Ibn Khaldun; and the architecture of places like Chartres, the Mezquita, Angkor Wat, and Machu Picchu.

Etymology and periodization

Main article: Universal history

The post-classical era, which corresponded to the Middle Ages in Europe, is one of the three major periods in the most enduring scheme for analyzing history: ancient history, post-classical history, and modern history.[8] In Europe, it is called the "Middle Ages" in the sense of being between the two other periods in time, ancient times and modern times. Humanist historians argued that Renaissance scholarship restored direct links to the classical period, thus bypassing the Medieval period. The term first appears in Latin in 1469 as media tempestas (middle times).[9] In early usage, there were many variants, including medium aevum (Middle Age), first recorded in 1604,[9] and media saecula (Middle Ages), first recorded in 1625.[10] English is the only major Western European language that retains the plural form.[10]

See also: Periodization
Leonardo Bruni was a Renaissance historian who helped develop the concept of the Middle Ages.

Development of concept

Medieval historians did not, of course, think of themselves as being in the middle of history. Instead, they wrote history from a universal and theological perspective. They divided history into periods such as the "Six Ages" or the "Four Empires", with the present period being the last before the end of the world. They considered the Roman period, especially the time of the Apostles, a historical peak, followed by a long slide toward the Apocalypse.[11]

In the 1330s, the humanist and poet Petrarch referred to pre-Christian times as antiqua (ancient) and to the Christian period as nova (new).[11] While retaining the theme of decline from the apogee of ancient Rome, Petrarch's division was not based on theology, but on a perception of cultural and political decline, especially the idea that Medieval Latin was inferior to Classical Latin.[12] From Petrarch's Italian perspective, this new period (which included his own time) was an age of national eclipse.[12]

Leonardo Bruni was the first historian to use tripartite periodization in his History of the Florentine People (1442).[13] Bruni's first two periods were based on those of Petrarch, but he added a third period because he believed that Italy was no longer in a state of decline. Flavio Biondo used a similar framework in Decades of History from the Deterioration of the Roman Empire (1439–1453). Tripartite periodization became standard after the German historian Christoph Cellarius published Universal History Divided into an Ancient, Medieval, and New Period (1683).

Start and end dates

The most commonly given start date for the Middle Ages is 476,[14] a date first given by Bruni.[13] This was when Romulus Augustus, the last Roman emperor in the West, abdicated. The western empire had already lost its military power by this time and Romulus Augustus was only a puppet emperor, so many historians object that this convention ascribes undue significance to an arbitrary year. In contrast, Biondo used the sack of Rome in 410 by the Goths as the beginning of the period.[11] In the history of Scandinavia, the Middle Ages followed prehistory during the 11th century, when the rulers converted to Christianity and substantial written records began to appear. A similar shift from prehistory to the Middle Ages occurred in Estonia and Latvia during the 13th century. Additionally, as the fall of major civilizations is a major point for historians to end a period, the fall of the Han Dynasty of China in 220 as well as the Gupta Empire of India in 550 offer different perspectives.

For Europe as a whole, the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 is commonly used as the end date of the Middle Ages. Depending on the context, other events, such as the invention of the moveable type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg c. 1455, the fall of Muslim Spain or Christopher Columbus's voyage to America (both 1492), can be used. For Italy, 1401, the year the contract was awarded to build the north doors of the Florence Baptistery, is often used. In contrast, English historians often use the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485) to mark the end of the period.[15] For Spain, the death of King Ferdinand II (1516) is used.[16]


Historians in the Romance languages tend to divide the Middle Ages into two parts: an earlier "High" and later "Low" period. English-speaking historians, following their German counterparts, generally subdivide the Middle Ages into three intervals: "Early", "High" and "Late".[8] Belgian historian Henri Pirenne and Dutch historian Johan Huizinga popularized the following subdivisions in the early 20th century: the Early Middle Ages (476–1000), the High Middle Ages (1000–1300), and the Late Middle Ages (1300–1453).


Mesoamerican chronology Mississippian culture Woodland period Joseon Goryeo North South States Period Three Kingdoms of Korea Silla Muromachi period Kenmu restoration Kamakura period Heian period Nara period Asuka period Kofun period Yamato period Ming Dynasty Yuan Dynasty Song Dynasty Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period Tang Dynasty Sui Dynasty Early Imperial China Six Dynasties Golden Horde Chagatai Khanate Mongol Empire Khwārazm-Shāh dynasty Samanids Muslim conquests Hephthalites Scythians Delhi Sultanate Middle kingdoms of India Mamluk Sultanate Ayyubid dynasty Fatimid Caliphate Abbasid Caliphate Muslim conquests Sasanian Empire Ottoman Empire Second Bulgarian Empire Byzantine Empire First Bulgarian Empire Byzantine Empire Roman Empire Reconquista Caliphate of Córdoba Muslim conquests Al-Andalus Visigothic Kingdom Kingdom of England Heptarchy Anglo-Saxon England Sub-Roman Britain Kingdom of Italy (Holy Roman Empire) Carolingian Empire Lombard kingdom Roman Empire Holy Roman Empire East Francia Carolingian Empire Francia Germanic Wars Grand Duchy of Moscow Grand Duchy of Lithuania Sarai (city) Mongol invasion of Rus' Kievan Rus' Rus' Khaganate Migration Period Sarmatians Hunnic Empire Kalmar Union Northern Crusades Christianization of Scandinavia Norsemen Viking Age Germanic Iron Age Crisis of the Late Middle Ages Mongol invasion of Europe Crusades Urbanization Manorialism Feudalism Migration Period Renaissance Late Antiquity Early modern Modern age Ancient history Iron Age Late Middle Ages High Middle Ages Early Middle Ages
Dates are approximate range (based upon influence), consult particular article for details
     Middle Ages Divisions,      Middle Ages Themes      Other

Main trends

The Postclassical Era drastically changed the world from what was the Classical civilizations to the Modern Period, and thus experienced several important developments and trends that directed the world into becoming what it is today.

First, there was the expansion and growth of civilization into new areas across Asia, Africa, Europe, Mesoamerica, and western South America. In Asia, we saw that China continued its historic dynastic cycle and became more complex, improving its bureaucracy. Places like Japan, Vietnam, Korea, and India continued to develop their own societies as well. The creation of the Islamic Empires established a new power in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia. Africa created the Songhai and Mali kingdoms in the West. The fall of Roman civilization not only left a power vacuum for the Mediterranean and Europe, but forced certain areas to build what some historians might call new civilizations entirely.[17] An entirely different political system was applied in Western Europe (i.e. feudalism), as well as a different society (i.e. manorialism), and there was the general loss of many past scientific and technological innovations, one of the most prominent being aqueducts. But the once East Roman Empire, Byzantium, retained many features of old Rome, as well as Greek and Persian similarities. Kiev Rus' and subsequently Russia began development in Eastern Europe as well. In the isolated Americas, Mesoamerica saw the building of the Aztec Empire, while the Andean region of South America saw the establishment of the Inca Empire.

The growth and geographical spread of major world religions also occurred, with Islam being the most successful religion during this time. Christianity continued its spread into Scandinavia, the Baltic area, and the British Isles – ousting the old pagan religions;[18] an attempt was even made to incur upon the Middle East during the Crusades. The split of the Catholic Church in Western Europe and the Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe encouraged religious and cultural diversity in Eurasia as well. Additionally, Buddhism spread from India into China and flourished there briefly before using it as a hub to spread to Japan, Korea, and Vietnam;[19] a similar effect occurred with Confucian revivalism in the later centuries. Once again, however, the most prominent world religion at the time was Islam. Starting in the Arabian Peninsula, it unified the warring Bedouin clans and through conquest, trade, and missionaries, spread to Persia, Indonesia, Central Asia, India, North Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula.

Finally, communication and trade all across Afro-Eurasia increased rapidly. The Silk Road continued to spread cultures and ideas through trade and throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. Trade networks were established between West Europe, Byzantium, early Russia, the Islamic Empires, and the Far Eastern civilizations. The Islamic Empires adopted many Greek, Roman, and Indian advances and spread them through the Islamic sphere of influence, allowing these developments to reach Europe, North and West Africa, and Central Asia. Islamic sea trade helped connect these areas, including those in the Indian Ocean and in the Mediterranean, replacing Byzantium in the latter region. The Christian Crusades into the Middle East (as well as Muslim Spain and Sicily) brought Islamic science, technology, and goods to Western Europe.[18] Western trade into East Asia was pioneered by Marco Polo. Importantly, China began the sinicization (or Chinese influence) of regions like Japan,[19] Korea, and Vietnam through trade and conquest. Finally, the growth of the Mongol Empire in Central Asia established such safe trade as to allow goods, cultures, ideas, and disease spread between Asia, Europe, and Africa.


Main article: Middle Ages

In Europe, a new form of Western civilization was reconstructed after the fall of the Western Roman Empire which plunged it into the Dark Ages; during this time the area was generally controlled by the Catholic Church. The Early Middle Ages saw the continuation of trends set in Late Antiquity: depopulation, deurbanization, and increased barbarian invasion. In Eastern Europe, the Eastern Roman Empire survived as what is now called the Byzantine Empire. Ruled by a religious Christian Orthodox emperor, Byzantium flourished as the leading power and trade center in its region until it was overshadowed by the Islamic Empires. Later in the period, the establishment of the feudal system allowed a return to systemic agriculture. There was sustained urbanization in northern and western Europe. Their later developments were marked by manorialism and feudalism, and evolved into the prosperous High Middle Ages. During the High Middle Ages (c. 1000–1300), Christian-oriented art and architecture flourished and Crusades were mounted to recapture the Holy Land from Muslim control. The influence of the emerging nation-state was tempered by the ideal of an international Christendom. The codes of chivalry and courtly love set rules for proper behavior, while the Scholastic philosophers attempted to reconcile faith and reason. This time would be a major underlying cause for the Renaissance.

The term "Middle Ages" first appears in Latin in the 15th century and reflects the view that this period was a deviation from the path of classical learning, a path supposedly reconnected by Renaissance scholarship.

The later Roman Empire

Map of territorial boundaries c. 450

The Roman empire reached its greatest territorial extent during the 2nd century. The following two centuries witnessed the slow decline of Roman control over its outlying territories. The Emperor Diocletian split the empire into separately administered eastern and western halves in 286. The division between east and west was encouraged by Constantine, who refounded the city of Byzantium as the new capital, Constantinople, in 330.

Military expenses increased steadily during the 4th century, even as Rome's neighbours became restless and increasingly powerful. Tribes who previously had contact with the Romans as trading partners, rivals, or mercenaries had sought entrance to the empire and access to its wealth throughout the 4th century.

Diocletian's reforms had created a strong governmental bureaucracy, reformed taxation, and strengthened the army.[20] These reforms bought the Empire time, but they demanded money. Roman power had been maintained by its well-trained and equipped armies. These armies, however, were a constant drain on the Empire's finances. As warfare became more dependent on heavy cavalry, the infantry-based Roman military started to lose its advantage against its rivals. The defeat in 378 at the Battle of Adrianople, at the hands of mounted Gothic lancers, destroyed much of the Roman army and left the western empire undefended.[20] Without a strong army, the empire was forced to accommodate the large numbers of Germanic tribes who sought refuge within its frontiers.

Known in traditional historiography collectively as the "barbarian invasions", the Migration Period, or the Völkerwanderung ("wandering of the peoples"), this migration was a complicated and gradual process. Some of these "barbarian" tribes rejected the classical culture of Rome, while others admired and aspired to emulate it. In return for land to farm and, in some regions, the right to collect tax revenues for the state, federated tribes provided military support to the empire. Other incursions were small-scale military invasions of tribal groups assembled to gather plunder. The Huns, Bulgars, Avars, and Magyars all raided the Empire's territories and terrorised its inhabitants. Later, Slavic and Germanic peoples would settle the lands previously taken by these tribes. The most famous invasion culminated in the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, the first time in almost 800 years that Rome had fallen to an enemy.

By the end of the 5th century, Roman institutions were crumbling. Some early historians have given this period of societal collapse the epithet of "Dark Ages" because of the contrast to earlier times, (however, the term is avoided by current historians). The last emperor of the west, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by the barbarian king Odoacer in 476.[20] The Eastern Roman Empire (conventionally referred to as the "Byzantine Empire" after the fall of its western counterpart) had little ability to assert control over the lost western territories. Even though Byzantine emperors maintained a claim over the territory, and no "barbarian" king dared to elevate himself to the position of Emperor of the west, Byzantine control of most of the West could not be sustained; the renovatio imperii ("imperial restoration", entailing reconquest of the Italian peninsula and Mediterranean periphery) by Justinian was the sole, and temporary, exception.

As Roman authority disappeared in the west, cities, literacy, trading networks and urban infrastructure declined. Where civic functions and infrastructure were maintained, it was mainly by the Christian Church. Augustine of Hippo is an example of one bishop who became a capable civic administrator.


Breakdown of Roman

The breakdown of Roman society was dramatic. The patchwork of petty rulers was incapable of supporting the depth of civic infrastructure required to maintain libraries, public baths, arenas, and major educational institutions. Any new building was on a far smaller scale than before. The social effects of the fracture of the Roman state were manifold. Cities and merchants lost the economic benefits of safe conditions for trade and manufacture, and intellectual development suffered from the loss of a unified cultural and educational milieu of far-ranging connections.

As it became unsafe to travel or carry goods over any distance, there was a collapse in trade and manufacture for export. The major industries that depended on long-distance trade, such as large-scale pottery manufacture, vanished almost overnight in places like Britain. Whereas sites like Tintagel in Cornwall (the extreme southwest of modern-day England) had managed to obtain supplies of Mediterranean luxury goods well into the 6th century, this connection was now lost.

Between the 5th and 8th centuries, new peoples and powerful individuals filled the political void left by Roman centralized government. Germanic tribes established regional hegemonies within the former boundaries of the Empire, creating divided, decentralized kingdoms like those of the Ostrogoths in Italy, the Suevi in Gallaecia, the Visigoths in Hispania, the Franks and Burgundians in Gaul and western Germany, the Angles and the Saxons in Britain, and the Vandals in North Africa.

Roman landholders beyond the confines of city walls were also vulnerable to extreme changes, and they could not simply pack up their land and move elsewhere. Some were dispossessed and fled to Byzantine regions; others quickly pledged their allegiances to their new rulers. In areas like Spain and Italy, this often meant little more than acknowledging a new overlord, while Roman forms of law and religion could be maintained. In other areas, where there was a greater weight of population movement, it might be necessary to adopt new modes of dress, language, and custom.

The Muslim conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries of the Persian Empire, Roman Syria, Roman Egypt, Roman North Africa, Visigothic Spain, Sicily and southern Italy eroded the area of the Roman Empire and controlled strategic areas of the Mediterranean. By the end of the 8th century, the former Western Roman Empire was decentralized and overwhelmingly rural.

Early Middle Ages

Main article: Early Middle Ages

After the fall of the classical western empires (in this case the Roman Empire), independent civilizations soon arose to fill the power vacuum.[21] This was the beginning of the Early Middle Ages, a dark period lasting from around 400 to 1000 and characterized by its stagnant culture, economy, and science as well as its declining population size. In 413, the Romans had lost control of the Franks, and the latter established Francia (also known as the Frankish Kingdom), a precursor to modern-day France and Germany. In 449, the British Isles were invaded by the Anglo-Saxons,[22] who would fully control the region for the next six hundred years; although this would consist of small and divided kingdoms collectively known as the Heptarchy. Once Clovis I of the Merovingian dynasty was crowned king of Francia in 481, he expanded the kingdom to much of France's current region (although it would quickly split amongst his sons). The Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal) was ruled by the Visigoths during this period, establishing the Visigothic Kingdom. In Italy, the immediate replacement of the Western Roman Empire was a kingdom led by the Germanic soldier Odoacer. This king would soon be killed and replaced by Theodoric the Great in 493, who instead established the Ostrogothic Kingdom. Then, in 553 the Byzantine Empire under Justinian I took back Italy for the "Romans." Finally, the Germanic Kingdom of the Lombards captured most of Italy from the Byzantines in 568.

14th century miniature of serfs harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks.

The first development of medieval Western Europe was the establishment of a new society to replace the Roman one. A lack of trade and therefore nearly nonexistent market economy caused this new "civilization" to be land-based, meaning wealth was determined by how much land one owned. This facilitated the use of the manorial system, something developed in the late Roman Empire. Manorialism utilized workers called serfs who would be bound to the land they farmed and have to pay tribute to aristocratic lords who owned the large regions these serfs inhabited. Serfs were different from slaves in that they couldn't be bought and sold and they had inheritance rights to their houses and lands. The serfs could continue farming their lord's land and receive protection as long as they gave a portion of their goods to their lord.

Another major institution was the Catholic Church, a driving force in West European politics and the only immediate organization left after the fall of the Romans. A hierarchy was utilized that put the Pope at the head, followed by bishops, and then priests. The Church spread Christianity northward, converting pagans in Germany and Scandinavia.[23] By 597, missionaries arrived in England.[24] Conversion was just as often a political choice as a spiritual one: Clovis I's conversion in 496 gave him greater respect than pagan chieftains, helping him assert power over the Franks. The eventual ubiquity of Christianity in Europe helped unify Europeans slightly. Another important institution of the Church were monasteries. Saint Benedict's book of precepts for monks, written in the early 6th century, was fundamental in establishing West European monasticism. The widespread nature of monasteries improved education, cultivation, and spirituality amongst the peasantry and elite. Nevertheless, very little new education or culture developed in the earlier centuries, with science and literature confined to Catholic monks who simply copied older manuscripts.[23] The power of the Church would become even more official in the formation of the Papal States in 754, which allowed the Pope direct rule over much of central Italy. This came to be through cooperation between Charlemagne of Francia and the Pope, the former of which had conquered northern Italy from the Lombards and thus had the power to affect who would rule in other parts of Italy.

French painting by Charles de Steuben of Charles Martel in the Battle of Tours.

Power struggles began to shift in the 8th century. Francia grew in power during the early 8th century, caused partly by the new family in charge, the Carolingian dynasty; their rule covered France, the Low Countries, and western Germany. In 711, the Umayyad Empire of the Middle East invaded Iberia from Maghreb and conquered the Visigothic kingdom, establishing the Moorish territory of Al-Andalus. The remaining Visigoths formed the Kingdom of Asturias in the northwest. Expansion into Europe was halted by Carolingian Charles Martel during the Battle of Tours in 732, a victory at least partly due to the Arabs' overextension. The fall of the Umayyad Caliphate in the Middle East saw most of the Umayyad family killed. Only one leader was left, Abd al-Rahman I, who fled to Al-Andalus and created the independent Emirate of Córdoba in 755.[25] Rahman claimed himself emir, a Muslim monarch equivalent to a prince in that an emirate was equivalent to a principality. Since the first Umayyad conquest, the jizya was used – a tax for all non-Muslims. This was continued with the Umayyad Emirate. A tolerance for Christians and Jews also existed that occasionally extended to intermarriage.[25]

The division of the Carolingian Empire after the Treaty of Verdun in 843.

By the late 8th century Viking expansion appeared. The migrations of Scandinavian merchants and pirates both prospered in and ravaged several parts of Europe in a period known as the Viking Age. While the raids of these so-called "barbarians" may have had destructive short-term effects, Vikings established ports and villages that would grow into towns and cities, catalyzing medieval urban life. In 768, Charlemagne of the Carolingians was crowned king of the Franks. An extremely adept ruler, he gained large amounts of territory in Germany and northern Italy (pushing out the Lombards), unifying much of Western Europe under the Carolingian Empire.[26] Charlemagne also helped spread the use of Carolingian minuscule, the basis for writing today, which introduced such recognizable features as separating individual words and capitalizing beginnings of sentences. It was allegedly perfected in 780 and extremely efficient for copying manuscripts, helping spread information to a certain degree.[27] In 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor (a precursor for Holy Roman Emperor), and his empire nearly revived a Roman equivalent.

However, Charlemagne's death would divide the empire under his sons according to the Treaty of Verdun in 843.[26] This established West Francia, which would quickly grow into the Kingdom of France; East Francia, which would become the Kingdom of Germany; and Middle Francia, which would divide into smaller kingdoms covering the Low Countries, Switzerland, and other disputed areas between Germany and France. Northern Italy and the Papal States would become satellite states to the Kingdom of Germany, and the remainder of Italy would divide among various principalities and Byzantine holdings. Nevertheless, Charlemagne helped found feudalism in Western Europe. The feudal system made it so that a single king could claim authority over multiple lords, forming a unified kingdom, so long as those lords stayed loyal to him. This would allow smaller kingdoms to develop after the fall of the Carolingian Empire.

As the 10th century came around, Europe began to flourish again. Technological advancements came about such as crop rotation, which developed from a two-field system to a three-field system. This meant that instead of leaving half of their fields alone to regain nutrients over the year, serf farmers left a third. Additionally, the application of the moldboard plow in the 9th century helped cultivation. With Vikings beginning to settle down (a prime example can be seen in the Duchy of Normandy), their long-term effects began to be felt. Additionally, trade began start again, the population grew, and urban as well as agricultural expansion occurred. Merchants and craftsmen reappeared, and cathedral-based schools began to spread.[28] In England, the gradual unification of the small Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into the Kingdom of England was completed in 927 by King Æthelstan. King Otto I of Germany was crowned as the first legitimate Holy Roman Emperor in 962 by the Pope, this time establishing the Holy Roman Empire. This basically comprised the same state as the Kingdom of Germany, only with some extra holdings such as northern Italy.

Despite the gradual unification seen in England, France, and Germany, there was still significant decentralization. This was due in part to feudalism which, while considering the king liege, still required that his authority come from the aristocracy or subordinate princes. In England and France, there was a constant battle between the king and the nobility to gain more power than the other. In Germany, the situation was even less controllable: the German king or Holy Roman Emperor generally had little control over the tremendous number of duchies and principalities in the German region. Usually he could only demand something of these states if he had the army to back it up. These kinds of conflicts can be seen for centuries after the Middle Ages.

High Middle Ages

Main article: High Middle Ages
The Great helm of Hans Rieter from 1350, displayed in the Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg.

The war-like nature and bloodline of the Vikings would also create great warriors of Europe. This would kick off the glorious High Middle Ages, a period of medieval prosperity from about 1000 to 1300. One of the most famous examples of these warriors was William the Conqueror of Normandy. William would go on to conquer England in 1066 and help establish a feudal kingdom there.[21] With expansionist impulses running high, the Holy Roman Empire assimilated certain regions into its territory, expanding from the Kingdom of Germany to the Kingdom of Poland, the Duchy of Bohemia, the Kingdom of the Lombards (Italy), and the Second Kingdom of Burgundy by 1050. The sudden revival of Muslim invasions by the Seljuq Turks in Anatolia (now Turkey), caused Pope Urban II to launch the first of the Crusades in 1096. The Christian Reconquista of Iberia from the Muslim state Al-Andalus intensifies and the second and third crusades occur with failure and relative success, respectively. One major break in this line of monarchic successes, however, is the uprising of English barons against King John of England's fiscal policies and treatment of the nobility after an unsuccessful war against Normandy, resulting in the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, limiting the King's power and setting a precedent for years to come. Six more crusades would bring Muslim treasures, scientific advances, and other influences until the Ninth Crusade and the fall of Acre in 1272.

Late Middle Ages

Main article: Late Middle Ages

Then with arrival of year 1300, prosperity suddenly slowed. The Late Middle Ages began, marked by several hardships and tragedies from 1300 to 1500. The Western Schism of the Catholic church occurred around this time, caused by two men both claiming the title of pope in 1378. Although it was resolved in 1417, the scandal damaged the reputation of the papacy. The Hundred Years' War between England and France over territorial disputes in 1337, also started in this period and brought to fame Joan of Arc. The war would add to the many famines already occurring due to overpopulation.[29] Epidemics also began to spread, including the infamous Black Death, which began to spread throughout Europe in 1347, as a direct result of increased trade between Europe and Asia due to the Mongol Empire's secured travel and their catapulting of infected corpses into besieged cities. Ships coming from the Crimea put into port at Messina, Sicily in early October 1347, bringing with them rats in their cargo.[30] These rodents carried fleas infected with the bacillus Yersinia pestis in the form of the bubonic plague. The disease cut the European population by 30 to 60 percent – killing between 75 and 200 million people.[31]

However, the aftermath of these issues would lead to a cultural and scientific revival, the Renaissance. The significantly decreased population from the black plague allowed for a greater relative supply of food for the people and higher wages for farmers, ending manorialism and popularizing the use of tenant farmers.[29] Additionally, the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450 revolutionized communication. The Hundred Years' War ended in 1453 – its effects would lead to the War of the Roses in England. Maritime explorers like Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus would receive funding from Henry the Navigator and the newfound Spanish Empire respectively.


The Byzantine Empire at the height of its power in the 6th century. The areas in purple were conquered by Justinian I but were later lost to Western Europe and the Islamic Empires, as were the southeastern territories.

While the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century, the Eastern Roman Empire retained a stable government and was considered the only actual continuation of the original Roman Empire. The Byzantine Empire was the most powerful state in eastern Europe during the Postclassical age, dominating the Balkans. Its capital, Constantinople, was built on the old grounds of the ancient Greek city Byzantium, lending to the term Byzantine.[32] The Byzantine Empire would last for over a thousand years, and remain the dominant force in Eastern Europe for most of that time. In contrast, the northern territories were occupied by the Slavs, who had formed small kingdoms and principalities even before the fall of the Romans.

Mosaic of Empress Zoe and Emperor Constantine IX standing beside Christ and adorned with halos.

Byzantine Society and Culture

Since its beginnings, Constantinople and the Byzantines were ruled by a simultaneously political and religious emperor.[33] The emperor was surrounded by extravagant ceremonies and considered to have had divine kingship. The government used a bureaucracy that was occupied by both scholars and aristocrats, similar to China at the time. Additionally, intrigue and violent rival factions were present in politics, the latter of which often used corrupt methods such as spies to tip power in their favor.[34][33] Women held a somewhat higher role in the Byzantine Empire, as evidenced by the rules of Empress Theodora, or Empress Zoe. Byzantine culture was defined by its Greek influences, stemming simply from the Empire's nearby geographical location; this was despite the fact that the Byzantines thought themselves Roman, a view shared by foreign states at the time as well.[32] Mosaics were a significant style of Byzantine art.

At the height of its power, in 555, the Eastern Roman Empire held power over Italy, Greece, Turkey, southern Spain, and the northern coast of Africa. Byzantium also dominated the Mediterranean islands, as well as their trade in the earlier centuries.[33] This was primarily due to the military campaigns set by Emperor Justinian I.

Mosaic of Justinian I from before 547.

East–West Schism and the Spread of Religion

It is important to note that by the beginning of the postclassical period, Christianity had become the official religion in Roman territories. However, since the 4th century, many differences in culture, language, politics, and theology greatly contrasted the Christian clergy in Western Europe and Eastern Europe.[35] The innate Greek culture of the Byzantines played a part in this difference: for example, Latin was considered barbaric among the Byzantines and they instead spoke Greek.[33] Theological disputes also arose, such as what type of bread should be used in the Eucharist, whether priests ought to be celibate, and the source of the Holy Spirit, filioque. Rivalry between the Western Pope and the Eastern Patriarchs also contributed to the estrangement, as well as Byzantine loyalty to the Ecumenical Patriarch rather than the Pope, rejecting Papal supremacy.[36] This eventually culminated in the East-West Schism which officially began in 1054 with the excommunication of Patriarch Michael Cerularius by Cardinal Humbert, when the Cerularius refused to submit to Rome. Cardinal Humbert was subsequently excommunicated by Michael Cerularius. The dispute would intensify until the formation of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, and many attempts to reunify the churches would fail.

Nevertheless, the Byzantines spread their distinct religion and culture northward as West Europeans did, building many Christian churches and converting the Balkans peoples and the Slavs. Missionaries like Saints Cyril and Methodius, who were sent to the Czech and Slovak regions in 864, worked to assimilate the West Slavs. The two brothers created the Glagolitic alphabet based on Greek characters in order to help assimilate the foreign peoples. However, rival Catholic missionaries managed to convert the Czech and Slovak regions in opposition to the Orthodox missionaries;[33] the people in the Polish region and the Hungarian region also adopted Catholicism as their primary religion. Additionally, Jewish immigrants began to move into Eastern Europe in order to escape discrimination in the Middle East and Western Europe, adding to the religious diversity as well as local commerce, education, and literature.

Early Russia

With the influx of Varangians in the East Slavic region and the state-building of the local Slavs, the state of Kievan Rus' was eventually formed in the late 9th century. This was catalyzed by the rule of prince Rurik, who established the Rurik dynasty. The monarchy became a federation of multiple East Slavic tribes and came to cover much of what is now Ukraine and European Russia. The Rus held trade with the Byzantine Empire,[37] the former gaining certain characteristics of the latter. Byzantine influence intensified from 867 through 1056 during the Macedonian dynasty of Byzantium.[32] In 988, Vladimir the Great of Kiev adopted Orthodox Christianity, and began to start mass conversions that developed into the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Middle East

The Arabian peninsula and the surrounding Near East regions saw dramatic change during the Postclassical Era caused primarily by the spread of Islam and the establishment of the Arabian Empires.


In the 5th century, the Middle East was separated into small, weak states; the two most prominent were the Sasanian Empire of the Persians in what is now Iran and Iraq, and the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). The Byzantines and Sasanians fought with each other constantly during this time. This fighting was a reflection of the rivalry between the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire seen for five hundred years already. The Byzantine-Sasanian rivalry was also seen through their respective cultures and religions. The Byzantines considered themselves champions of Hellenism and Christianity. Meanwhile, the Sasanians thought themselves heroes of ancient Iranian and Semitic traditions and of the traditional Persian religion, Zoroastrianism.[38]

Late 12th century plaque of Byzantine Emperor Heraclius submitting the Sasanian King Khosrau II.

The Arabian peninsula already played a role in the power struggles of the Byzantines and Sasanians at this time. While Byzantium allied itself with the Kingdom of Aksum in the horn of Africa, the Sasanian Empire assisted the Himyarite Kingdom in what is now Yemen (southwest Arabia). Thus the clash between the kingdoms of Aksum and Himyar in 525 displayed a higher power struggle between Byzantium and Persia for control of the Red Sea trade.Territorial wars soon became common, with the Byzantines and Sasanians fighting over upper Mesopotamia and Armenia and key cities that facilitated trade from Arabia, India, and China.[39] Byzantium, as the continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire, continued control of the latter's territories in the Middle East. Since 527, this included Anatolia, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt. But in 603 the Sasanians invaded, conquering Damascus and Egypt. It was Emperor Heraclius who was able to repel these invasions, and in 628 he replaced the Sasanian Great King with a more docile one. But the fighting weakened both states, leaving the stage open to a new power.[40][41]

The nomadic Bedouin tribes dominated the Arabian desert, where they worshipped idols and remained in small clans tied together by kinship. Urbanization and agriculture was very limited in Arabia, save for a few regions near the coast. Mecca and Medina (then called Yathrib) were two such cities that were important hubs for trade between Africa and Eurasia. This commerce was central to city-life, where most inhabitants were merchants.[42] Nevertheless, some Arabs saw it fit to migrate to the northern regions of the Fertile Crescent, a Persian region so named for its place between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that offered it fertile land. This included entire tribal chiefdoms such as the Lakhmids in a less controlled area of the Sasanian Empire, and the Ghassanids in a similar area inside of Byzantine territory; these political units of Arab origin offered a surprising stability that was rare in the region and offered Arabia further connections to the outside world. The Lakhmid capital, Hira was a center for Christianity and Jewish craftsmen, merchants, and farmers were common in western Arabia as were Christian monks in central Arabia. Thus pre-Islamic Arabia was no stranger to Abrahamic religions or monotheism, for that matter.[43]

Islamic Empires

Muhammad and the Rashidun Caliphate

The Prophet Muhammad in a Mosque. The artist attempted to depict Muhammad without showing any of his flesh.

Around 610, an Arabian caravan merchant from Mecca named Muhammad of the Hashemite clan (within the larger Quraysh tribe) had a religious experience in which he received revelations from the Abrahamic God. Although these terrified him first, he slowly accepted them and began to act as messenger of these revelations which would become the holy scriptures of the Quran.[44] From 613 to 630, Muhammad spread this faith (which came to be known as Islam) in the Arabian desert, starting slowly with this family and close friends and gaining many of his early converts from Christians, Jews, and other monotheists. Yet Muhammad's tribe, the Quraysh, were offended by his claim that idol-worship and paganism were sins. Because of this, the Quraysh constantly antagonized the Muslim group.

In 622, Muhammad and his followers decided to migrate to Yathrib, a town where he'd already won support; this journey came to be known as the hijra and as a result, Yathrib would be renamed Medina. Muhammad spent several years in Medina unifying its feuding tribes and he eventually became its political and religious authority; the Prophet continued to fight with the Quraysh and their allies until a truce was formed in 628. The truce allowed for Muhammad to eliminate one of the Quraysh's allies, in this case the Jews; after this was done the Prophet and his followers attacked and seized Mecca in 630. They smashed the idols of the black Kaaba stone and reconciled with Quraysh.[45] By Muhammad's death in 632, he had unified the tribes into an empire that controlled all of the Arabian Peninsula.[44] This empire was ruled by a religious and political leader called the caliph (sometimes Khalifa), similar to an emperor; thus the caliph's empire would be referred to as the caliphate. The first caliph to succeed Muhammad was Abu Bakr, one of the Prophet's first companions. After Abu Bakr became caliph, many tribes in the Arabian peninsula – who had previously sworn allegiance to Muhammad – openly rejected the new government, attempting to free themselves; many of these tribes were accused of apostasy for rejecting the zakat tax (one of the Five Pillars of Islam). In addition, various groups claimed that Muhammad's son-in-law Ali was his true successor. This initiated the Ridda Wars, during which the caliph dispatched his armies and defeated the revolting tribes one by one. Eventually Abu Bakr gained control and began the Rashidun Caliphate, although Ali's supporters remained dissatisfied.

The Rashidun, or "Rightly Guided" caliphs, continued expansion of the Islamic empire. Abu Bakr's brief reign would begin the invasions of the Sasanians and the Byzantines in the surrounding territories.[46] While the Byzantines would long outlast the caliphates, over the rule of the Rashidun caliphs the Sasanians were completely conquered, giving the empire control over the entirety of what is now Iraq and Iran.[44] By the 640s, the succeeding caliphs would conquer modern-day Syria, Israel, Egypt, and Libya. The reign of the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, would see the establishment of the Arabic navy by the then governor of Syria, Muawiyah I. The Arab navy soon dominated the Mediterranean, crippled the Byzantine Empire, and put it under siege for centuries to come.[47] Uthman was often accused of favoritism towards his family the Umayyad, particularly by Ali-supportive groups, and was eventually killed. He would be succeeded by Ali, who would be the fourth and final caliph of the Rashidun. Although this vindicated Ali's original supporters, the selection also sparked dissent among the Umayyad clan.[46] The controversy over Uthman's death and general anger over Ali's assumption of the throne quickly led to the First Fitna, the first major civil war in the Islamic caliphates. This culminated with the Battle of Siffin in 657, a catalyst for what would eventually become the Shia–Sunni split – a gradual rift between two groups of Muslims that remains important to this day.[48] The Sunni believe (among other distinguising things) that Abu Bakr, Muhammad's father-in-law, was the rightful successor to Muhammad. The Shia believe it was Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law. Ali's quick decline in popularity lead to his murder in 661. Although his son Hasan was eventually selected caliph by the Shia, the Sunni had already recognized Muawiyah as caliph a year prior.[46] Thus ended the Rashidun Caliphate, permanently placing the Shia in the minority and terminating the First Fitna.

Umayyad Caliphate

Main article: Umayyad Caliphate

The Umayyad family shared an ancestor with Muhammad, yet once were his enemies as well as a former clan of idol-worshippers. Muawiyah I, a member of the family, claimed the new caliphate in 661. The Umayyad were centered at their capital, Damascus, in what's now Syria. With the Umayyad came more conquest, giving them rule over central Asia and most of northern Africa. From there, North Africans (i.e. moors) under command of the Umayyads conquered the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal); this Muslim territory was known as Al-Andalus. Little conversion occurred at this time due to the disrespect non-Arab Muslims, or mawali, received from the Umayyad. Christians and Jews were treated with more respect as dhimmi, specifically the 'Ahl al-Kitāb or "people of the book," referring to the Bible which they all shared. However, as all non-Muslims, they were charged the jizya, a heavy tax for this purpose. During the Umayyad age, women's position also improved from that of pre-Islamic Arabia; Muhammad's teachings banned adultery, encouraged marriage and kindness to wives and daughters, and proclaimed equality of women and men "in the eyes of God."[49]

The Umayyad Empire began to decline in the early 8th century when its leaders became more and more detached from their people. Decadence was extremely common in the Umayyad court, with leaders neglecting their duties and overspending government funds on personal luxuries. This contrasted Muhammad and the earlier caliphs' simple, economical lifestyle. The frontier warriors who had fought for Umayyad conquest were particularly upset at the government. These soldiers had been promised treasures and a life of luxury but were neglected and the loot from their campaigns were relegated to the government.[49] The Umayyad mistreatment of the mawali and Shia added to the number upset people in the empire. A new political group, the Abbasid clan, came on to the scene and allied themselves with these aforementioned upset groups; they started a movement to overthrow the Umayyad, which resulted in a revolution in 747. The Abbasids gained control of Persia by 749 and in the next year the Umayyad were defeated during the Battle of the Zab.[44] The remaining Umayyad nobles fled to Iberia (Spain and Portugal), and established the independent, Umayyad Emirate of Córdoba in Al-Andalus.

Abbasid Caliphate

Main article: Abbasid Caliphate
The Abbasid Empire at its greatest extent

Once the Abbasids were established as rulers they severed their ties with the Shia and the Sunni government was continued. The mawali received their due course, however, and conversions to Islam boomed in this time.[50]

The Abbasids moved their capital to Baghdad in Iraq in 762 to better centralize their empire. With this came the application of certain Persian influences. This included the creation of an absolute monarchy, which ruled without question. An improved bureaucracy also formed, led by the wazir who took most of the political and administrative responsibilities the caliph previously had.[51] Increasing adoption of Persian traditions also started a decline in the position of women. Soon the harem and veil were introduced, forcing many Middle Eastern women to become more secluded. The effects were especially felt in upper-classes, with some independence left in the peasantry. Wealthy women would become completely domestic, often forced to remain in a harem for most of the day, while peasant women would still have certain occupations, such as selling wares, farming, or weaving. Additionally, concubines were often better educated and more skillful than the actual wives of royalty. Many were highly valued for their beauty and intelligence, were respected, and didn't wear veils. Many concubines were even treated better and more socialized with than the wives.[50]

The Abbasid also experienced a boom in trade, specifically that at sea. The introduction of the dhow ship continued expansion, first by sending merchants and missionaries to India and Southeast Asia. Eventually conflict would arise due to a piracy issue in India, and the Abbasid would begin to conquer the western area of India which they traded with. The first expedition was led by Turkish general Qutb-ud-din Aybak and established the Mamluk Sultanate of India in 1206, ruled by the sultan. Aybak was a mamluk, an aristocratic slave-soldier, thus giving the name "Mamluk" Sultanate.

The Abbasid Caliphate during the rule of Harun al-Rashid (786–809).

However, the Abbasid government soon fell to the same vices as the Umayyad; decadence became common in court again. Different factions in the royal court would fight for power, especially various groups of Persians and Turkic peoples. Such a cycle of rise and decline was noted by Ibn Khaldun in the Muqaddimah as beginning with the conquests and prosperity of warrior-leaders reminiscent of the old Bedouin tribes, and ending with the later generations who had forgotten their old rough traditions and had become self-indulgent. The caliph began to rely on advisors from wealthy families, which would sometimes render him a mere puppet.[52] Harun al-Rashid, while not to this extent, relied heavily on Persian advisors. By his rule, territories were lost in western North Africa and thoughts of independence boiled amongst its remnants. Al-Rashid resorted to allowing the governor Ibrahim I ibn al-Aghlab be recognized as emir of Ifriqiya (the region roughly consisting of Tunisia), giving him nigh-independence in exchange for an annual tribute to the Abbasids in order gain some revenue; this instated the dynasty of Ifriqiya known as the Aghlabids.[53] Upon al-Rashid's death in 809, his sons began to fight for his succession, resulting in the civil war known as the Fourth Fitna. The princes began building enslaved mercenary armies and soon lost control over these mercenaries, resulting in war and chaos. Although the mercenary slave-armies were subdued within a century, internal issues continued to arise. Taxes skyrocketed as caliphs continually moved or built entirely new capitals for their personal safety. With government spending focused on projects such as these, public infrastructure like irrigation were neglected and began to fall apart. Villages with little military protection would be plundered, resulting in dissent amongst the peasantry and uprisings often led by Shi'ites.[50]

Busy with these internal issues, the Abbasid caliphs could only focus their policies inwards. They were soon unable to get subjugated chieftains to pay taxes to the caliph, which only worsened the state of the Abbasid government and its military. Regional and ethnic differences only compounded the problem. Soon the outer regions of the empires began to fragment and become essentially independent states, leaving the Abbasid caliph to truly rule only locally and as an unimportant figurehead in most of the empire.[44] A prime example of the erratic losses during this time is the repeated loss of the Egyptian province to military governors. First the Tulunids took control from 868 to 905. By 935, a new group called the Ikhshidids commanded Egypt.[53] Additionally, the territory of Armenia was neglected by both the Abbasids and Byzantines to the point where it was able to form an independent state, the Kingdom of Armenia. The biggest blow to the Abbasids, however, occurred in the early 10th century. A group of Shia based in Tunisia formed the Fatimid Caliphate. They were led by Abdullah al-Mahdi Billah, often known as Ubayd Allah, who claimed himself rightful successor to Ali and established himself caliph. The Fatimids soon took most of North Africa (including Egypt) and parts of Syria as well as western Arabia (including the all-important Mecca), conquering the Aghlabids and Ikhshidids.[44]

Christian Crusaders before Saladin in Jerusalem

Meanwhile, in the Abbasid center, the Persian Buyid dynasty was established in 934. The Shia government lasted only a little over a century. The Buyids were soon replaced when the growing Seljuq dynasty of the Kazakh Steppe in Central Asia migrated into Persia and converted to Islam in 985. These "Seljuq turks" would gain control over the Abbasid caliph by seizing Baghdad and create the Great Seljuq Empire. The Seljuq warriors would revive military expansion amongst the Abbasids, moving into Central Asia, Anatolia, and Jerusalem. The threat they posed to the Byzantine Empire forced it to request help from Western Europeans causing Pope Urban II to launch the First Crusade in 1095.[44] Nevertheless, succession issues and the squabbling factions would continue, and the more powerful Muslim princes largely ignored the first crusade, offering limited resistance. The next eight Crusades would see a more determined response and succeed to varying degrees; the Seljuqs would leave Baghdad, centering themselves in Anatolia as the Sultanate of Rum. The Christians would lose considerable ground when the Muslims were united under Saladin in the late 12th century. By 1291, after the final crusade and the fall of Acre, the Christians had lost all of the territory they originally gained.[54]

The increasingly divided regions of the Abbasid caliphate would face new challenges in the 1220s, during the invasion of the Mongol Empire. The Mongols were a central Asian nomadic people and raided much of the remaining empire.[55] The campaign in the Middle East was led by Hulegu Khan.[56] The Seljuq Sultanate of Rum resisted Mongol invasions until their defeat at the Battle of Köse Dağ; from then on, the Seljuqs were vassals to the Mongols.[57] Meanwhile, Hulegu would complete the conquest of the Abbasids with the sacking of Baghdad and the murder of the final caliph, Al-Musta'sim, in 1258.[55]

Mongol rule

Main article: Ilkhanate

The conquest of Baghdad and the death of the caliph in 1258 officiated the end of the Abbasid Caliphate and annexed its territories to the Mongol Empire, excluding Mamluk Egypt and the majority of Arabia.[56] When the Khagan (or Great Khan) of the Mongol Empire, Möngke Khan, died in 1259, any further expansion by Hulegu was halted, as he had to return to the Mongol capital Karakorum for the election of a new khagan. His absence resulted in the first defeat of the Mongols (by the Mamluk Egyptians) during the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260.[58] Issues began to arise when the Mongols grew increasingly unable to reach a consensus as to who to elect khagan. Additionally, societal clashing occurred between traditionalists who wished to retain their nomadic culture and Mongols moving towards sedentary agriculture. All of this led to the fragmentation of the empire in 1260.[59] Hulegu carved out his Middle Eastern territory into the independent Ilkhanate, which included most of Armenia, Anatolia, Azerbaijan, Mesopotamia, and Iran.

The Mongols eventually retreated in 1335, but the chaos that ensued throughout the empire deposed the Seljuq Turks. In 1401, the region was further plagued by the Turko-Mongol, Timur, and his ferocious raids. By then, another group of Turks had arisen as well, the Ottomans. Based in Anatolia, by 1566 they would conquer the Iraq-Iran region, the Balkans, Greece, Byzantium, most of Egypt, most of north Africa, and parts of Arabia, unifying them under the Ottoman Empire. The rule of the Ottoman sultans marked the end of the Postclassical Era in the Middle East.

Islamic culture and science

The interior of the former mosque of Córdoba, showing its distinctive arches.

Religion always played a prevalent role in Middle Eastern culture, affecting learning, architecture, and the ebb and flow of cultures. When Muhammad introduced Islam, it jump-started Middle Eastern culture, inspiring achievements in architecture, the revival of old advances in science and technology, and the formation of a distinct way of life. Islam primarily consisted of the five pillars of belief, including confession of faith, the five prayers a day, to fast during the holy month of Ramadan, to pay the tax for charity (the zakāt), and the hajj, or the pilgrimage that a Muslim needed to take at least once in their lifetime, according to the five (or six) pillars of Islam. Islam also created the need for spectacularly built mosques which created a distinct form of architecture. Some of the more magnificent mosques include the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the former Mosque of Cordoba. Islam unified the Middle East and helped the empires there to remain stable. Missionaries and warriors spread the religion from Arabia to North and Sudanic Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and the Mesopotamia area. This created a mix of cultures, especially in Africa, and the mawali demographic. Although the mawali would experience discrimination from the Umayyad, they would gain widespread acceptance from the Abbasids and it was because of this that allowed for mass conversions in foreign areas. "People of the book" or dhimmi were always treated well; these people included Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Zoroastrians. However, the crusades started a new thinking in the Islamic empires, that non-Islamic ideas were immoral or inferior; this was primarily perpetrated by the ulama (علماء) scholars.[60]

Arabian culture took off during the early Abbasid age, despite the prevalent political issues. Muslims saved and spread Greek advances in medicine, algebra, geometry, astronomy, anatomy, and ethics that would have been lost to the Dark Ages of Europe. The works of Aristotle, Galen, Hippocrates, Ptolemy, and Euclid were saved and distributed throughout the empire (and eventually into Europe) in this manner. Muslim scholars also discovered the Indian numerical system in their conquests of south Asia. The use of this system in Muslim trade and political institutions allowed for the eventual popularization of it around the world; this number system would be critical to the Scientific revolution in Europe. Muslim intellectuals would become experts in chemistry, optics, and mapmaking during the Abbasid Caliphate. In the arts, Abbasid architecture expanded upon Umayyad architecture, with larger and more extravagant mosques. Persian literature grew based on ethical values. Astronomy was stressed in art. Much of this learning would find its way to the West. This was especially true during the crusades, as warriors would bring back Muslim treasures, weapons, and medicinal methods.[61]


Main article: Postclassical Africa

During the Postclassical Era, Africa was both culturally and politically affected by the introduction of Islam and the Arabic empires.[62] This was especially true in the north, the Sudan region, and the east coast. However, this conversion was not complete nor uniform among different areas, and the low-level classes hardly changed their beliefs at all.[63] Prior to the migration and conquest of Muslims into Africa, much of the continent was dominated by diverse societies of varying sizes and complexities. These were ruled by kings or councils of elders who would control their constituents in a variety of ways. Most of these peoples practiced spiritual, animistic religions. Africa was culturally separated between Saharan Africa (which consisted of North Africa and the Sahara Desert) and Sub-Saharan Africa (everything south of the Sahara). Sub-Saharan Africa was further divided into the Sudan, which covered everything north of Central Africa, including West Africa. The area south of the Sudan was primarily occupied by the Bantu peoples who spoke the Bantu language.

North Africa

St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Abbassiyah, Cairo

North Africa is the combined region of Maghreb and Egypt, containing the entirety of the Saharan desert. North Africa's indigenous people consisted of the Berbers, an ethnic group once commonly referred to as Moors. Christian missionaries arrived in Egypt around the 1st or 2nd century,[64] converting much of the population and creating the Copts. Christian texts attribute Mark the Evangelist as the pioneer of Christianity in Egypt and Africa as a whole.

After Muhammad's success in Arabia, his followers began to spread the Islamic faith across the neighboring regions, whether by missionaries or by conquest. Egypt, for one, was successfully invaded by the Rashidun Caliphate. Amr ibn al-As commanded the invasion force and Egypt was secured by 654. From there, Rashidun forces invaded Tripoli and eventually defeated all of North Africa. North Africa was not annexed but rather was a vassal state, and it was made a part of the Islamic world as well as a useful area for trading in the Mediterranean Sea. The North African territory would soon split off under control of Amr, during the First Fitna, as Caliph Ali fought Muawiyah I for control of the empire.

Muawiyah's eventual success in establishing the Umayyad Empire reclaimed North Africa. Expansion was continued into Maghreb. The Kingdom of Fez and the city of Sijilmasa remained as Berber outposts resisting Arab occupation.[65] The Umayyad soon faced rebellions from the Shia and the Abbasid family, who claimed descent from Muhammad's uncle, Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib. When the Umayyad lost power, the newfound Abbasid Empire quickly began to fragment and various leaders claimed different territories. The Abbasids severed relations with the Shia, provoking the latter into creating their own caliphate, the Fatimid Caliphate, formed in North Africa in 909, and in sixty years they gained control of Sicily, Syria, and western Arabia.

Eventually, the Fatimids themselves split into the Almoravid dynasty in Maghreb and the Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt and western Arabia. The Almoravids are well known for their reform movements that took the form of jihads in 1070. These invasions moved south, attacking the sudanic Ghana Empire, and north, conquering Muslim Spain's taifa kingdoms by 1086.[66] The Almoravids were soon replaced by the Berber-Muslim caliphate of the Almohads in 1121. Although they held control of Al-Andalus, they suffered heavy losses in 1212 to the Christian kingdoms of the Reconquista, leaving only the Emirate of Granada. The Almohads faced rebellions by Zanata Berbers and by 1269, all of Almohad territory was lost to the Zanata Marinid dynasty. Additionally, the Ayyubids in Egypt were eventually defeated by aristocratic slave-soldiers (or mamluks) of foreign descent. They formed the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt in 1250.

West Africa

1375 depiction of Mansa Musa I of the Mali Empire holding a gold nugget.

The region of Sub-Saharan Africa known as West Africa covers the savanna of Africa, a geographical area of grasslands and is occupied by a variety of ethnic peoples. Some of the prior societies in this area include the village of Tichit, which featured Mande chiefdoms by 1250 BCE. As early as 300 CE, cities with mudbrick architecture, city walls, and markets such as Djenné-Djenno had developed along the Niger River,[67] a major source of prosperity. By the late 5th century, the Soninke Empire dominated this area, making it a hub for trade in salt and gold; it is this trade that allowed for gradually more complex societies to develop, although they remained small and isolated.[68]

The Soninke would be replaced by the Ghana Empire in the 8th century. Although much mystery surrounds Ghana – especially over its origins – it is thought to have had a developed tax system and government, expansive armies, and a useful control on gold mines that gave it a monopoly for trade.[69] One of the earlier records of Ghana include that of the Arabian geographer Ya'qubi in 872, which described Ghana as having a powerful emperor-like king who dominated many subordinate kings and mined for gold. It also attested that Ghana had begun trade with Berbers and Arabs alike as early as the 9th century.[67] By the 11th century, significant conversions to Islam began.[63] This began with Arab travelers forming trading ties to Africans for the latter's plentiful resources. In order to better interact with the foreigners, African merchants converted to Islam. This was soon followed by high-ranking officials such as kings, for greater diplomacy; despite all of this, very little of the lower class peasantry changed their everyday traditions and scarcely converted at all.[65][63] Ghana would decline in the 12th century over its struggle with the Almoravid dynasty to the north. Ghana would also lose significant territory to the Sosso Empire.

The extent of the Mali Empire in West Africa.

The Mali Empire rose to replace Ghana in the early 13th century, starting out as merely a subordinate state to Ghana,[70] and populated by the Mandinka people. The leadership of Sundiata Keita, or the "Lion King," founded this empire and brought prosperity by introducing certain reforms. Sundiata unified the feudal Mandinka and is credited for organizing them into specialized jobs. He also is supposed to have had created the basic laws and political layout in the Mali Empire that cracked down on crime and stationed garrisons to maintain security as well as loyalty. Loyalty was also improved through institutions that allowed for greater ethnic diversity,[65] thus allowing for a larger empire.

The Sankore Madrasah, one of three mosques that make up the University of Timbuktu.

This larger empire covered three gold fields in West Africa – as opposed to only one field during the Ghana – that increased commercial prosperity even more.[71] Such trade was focused in the flourishing city of Timbuktu; its unique position that combined camel routes and the Niger River allowed for trade from Africans and Arabs alike and from as far as the Mediterranean.[72]

In the early 14th century, the emperor Musa I became famous for being a devout Muslim and was bestowed the title Mansa, which roughly translates to "King of Kings" (i.e. emperor). Following Muslim practice, Mansa Musa embarked on the hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca in 1324. On his pilgrimage, Musa brought with him magnificent riches, over 500 slaves, and over 60,000 followers;[71] it is also said that he gave away much of his gold, particularly in Cairo. Mansa Musa's pilgrimage brought to light West Africa's gold and encouraged trade with the Merinids in Maghreb (particularly Tripoli) and the Mamluks in Egypt. When Musa returned, he brought with him the Egyptian architect, Abu Es Haq es Saheli who was paid in gold to work on the city of Timbuktu and who built the famous Djinguereber Mosque. Arab scholars began to arrive as well, further enriching Timbuktu which already had scholars of exceptional learning.[72] The center for this learning was the University of Timbuktu. Heavily featured in Malian intellectualism were the tradition of the griots – historians who passed down their knowledge orally.

The Mali Empire began to decline after the rule of Musa. His sons were unable to control the increasingly large empire and its many peoples.[70] One such people were the Songhai. They gradually gained control of the Mali territories and by the end of the 14th century, they had assumed dominant power over West Africa, ending the Mali rule and instating the Songhai Empire.[71]

Swahili East coast

In the east coast of Africa, spans from the Red Sea bordering what is now Somalia to as far down as the Republic of Mozambique. In medieval times, Arabic ports were established where gold, spices, and other commodities were traded. This allowed Africa to join the Southeast Asia trading system bringing it contact with Asia; this, along with Muslim culture, resulted in the Swahili culture.

Little is known of the African east coast prior to the Swahili cultures. Around the end of the 1st century CE, the Kingdom of Aksum is founded in what is now Ethiopia. The travel to the Aksumite kingdom by the bishop Frumentius is credited for bringing Christianity to Aksum. The king Ezana of Axum embraced Christianity in 333, establishing it as the official religion.[64]

Bantu societies

Smaller societies in Central Africa and Southern Africa also developed at this time. These are primarily made up of the Bantu peoples and include the Kingdom of Kongo, Kingdom of Zimbabwe, and the Kingdom of Mutapa.

South and Southeast Asia

Vietnam was also conquered by China, although they often resisted and would occasionally regain their independence. Nonetheless, a sort of begrudging sinicization occurred. By the end of the Postclassical Era, Vietnam would be in control of its own Nguyen Dynasty.

East Asia

During this period, the Eastern world empires continued to expand through trade, migration and conquests of neighboring areas. Japan and Korea went under the process of sinicization, or the impression of Chinese cultural and political ideas. This was partly due to conquest, specifically in Korea; Japan sinicized mostly because the emperor and other leaders at the time were largely impressed by China's bureaucracy. The major influences China had on these countries were the spread of Confucianism, the spread of Buddhism, and the establishment of a bureaucracy (although it was vulnerable to favoritism towards the wealthy).


Postclassical China saw the rise and fall of the Tang and Song dynasties and therefore improvements in its bureaucracy, the spread of Buddhism, and the advent of Neo-Confucianism.

Sui Dynasty

Main article: Sui Dynasty

A new powerful dynasty began to rise in the 580s, amidst the divided Six Dynasties period. This was started when an aristocrat named Yang Jian married his daughter into the Northern Zhou Dynasty. He proclaimed himself Emperor Wen and appeased the nomadic military by increasing aristocratic power. Emperor Wen soon led the conquest of the southern Chen Dynasty[73] and united China once more under the Sui Dynasty. The emperor lowered taxes and constructed granaries that he used to prevent famine and control the market. The Sui Dynasty laid down the foundation for long-lasting political reform and additionally finalized the construction of the Grand Canal systems.[73] Later, Wen's son would speed his father's death for the throne and declare himself Emperor Yang. Emperor Yang revived the Confucian scholars and the bureaucracy, much to anger of the aristocrats and nomadic military leaders. Yang became an excessive leader who overused China's resources for personal luxury and perpetuated exhaustive attempts to reconquer Korea. His military failures and neglect of the empire forced his own ministers to assassinate him in 618,[73] ending the brief Sui Dynasty.

Tang Dynasty

Main article: Tang Dynasty
Tang Dynasty c. 700
Miniature statue of Buddha from the Tang Dynasty

Fortunately, one of Yang's most respectable advisors, Li Yuan, was able to claim the throne quickly, preventing a chaotic collapse. He proclaimed himself Emperor Gaozu, and established the Tang Dynasty in 623. The Tang saw expansion of China through conquest of Tibet in the west, Vietnam in the south, and Manchuria in the north. In addition to extending the bureaucracy itself and its powers, Tang emperors also improved the education of its scholars. The Ministry of Rites was established and the examination system was improved to better qualify scholars for their jobs.[74] Aristocrats continued to hold some power, however.

In addition, Buddhism became popular in China with two different strains between the peasantry and the elite, the Pure Land and Zen strains, respectively.[75] Empress Wu was a great advocate for Buddhism, supporting Buddhist monasteries, great stone or cast-iron statues, and the like. Empress Wu also claimed an unofficial "Zhou Dynasty" (this would revert to the Tang after her rule) and displayed China's tolerance of a woman ruler. However, Buddhism would also experience some backlash, especially from Confucianists and Taoists. This would usually involve criticism about how it was costing the state money, since the government was unable to tax Buddhist monasteries, and additionally sent many grants and gifts to them.[76] This culminated with Emperor Wuzong's policies forcing Buddhists to convert to Confucianism or Taoism.

The Tang dynasty began to decline under the rule of Emperor Xuanzong, who began to neglect the economy and military and caused unrest amongst the court officials due to the excessive influence of his concubine, Yang Guifei, and her family. This eventually sparked a revolt in 755.[77] Although the revolt failed, subduing it required involvement with the unruly nomadic tribes outside of China and distributing more power to local leaders – leaving the government and economy in a degraded state. The Tang dynasty officially ended in 907 and various factions led by the aforementioned nomadic kingdoms and regional leaders would fight for control of China in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period.

It was during the 9th century when Chinese alchemists attempted to produce a medicine of eternal life by mixing sulfur, potassium nitrate (saltpeter), and charcoal together, which resulted in an explosive black powder.[78][79]

Song Dynasties

Main article: Song Dynasty
The Neo-Confucian scholar and philosopher, Zhu Xi.

In 960, the dominant general Zhao Kuangyin declared himself Emperor Taizu, reuniting most of China under the Song Dynasty. The Song, however, lost territories in the north and could not defeat one of the nomadic tribes there – the Liao Dynasty ruled by the highly sinicized Khitan people. From 1004 on, the Song would have to pay tribute to avoid invasion and thus set the precedent for other nomadic kingdoms to oppress them.[80] The embarrassing tribute of the Song damaged their economy. Thus, chief minister Wang Anshi attempted economic reform in the 1070s through irrigation projects, raised taxes, and a greater army. Much of this improvement was reversed when his patron emperor was succeeded in 1080 by an emperor who rejected Wang's policies.[80] Instead, this emperor would start the revival of Confucianism in the form of Neo-Confucianism. This had the effect of putting the Confucian scholars at a higher status than aristocrats or Buddhists; another major result was the decline in women's position, with neo-Confucian values emphasizing men's superiority and encouraging foot-binding. One of Neo-Confucianism's most prominent philosophers was Zhu Xi. The Song would also see improvements in agriculture, technology, and commerce (especially with the introduction of paper money), as well as scholarly and artistic refinement.[81]

Eventually the Liao Dynasty in the north was overthrown by the Jin dynasty ruled by the Jurchen people. The new Jin kingdom invaded northern China, leaving the Song to flee farther south and creating the Southern Song Dynasty in 1126. There, cultural life flourished[81] until the conquest of China under the Mongols, completed in 1279, which established the foreign-ruled Yuan Dynasty.


Asuka period

Sculpture of Prince Shōtoku

Japan's medieval history began with the Asuka period, from around 600 to 710. The time was characterized by the Taika Reform and imperial centralization, both of which were a direct result of growing Chinese contact and influences. In 603, Prince Shōtoku of the Yamato dynasty began significant political and cultural changes. He issued the Seventeen-article constitution in 604, centralizing power towards the emperor (under the title tenno, or heavenly sovereign) and removing the power to levy taxes from provincial lords. Shōtoku was also a patron of Buddhism and he encouraged building temples competitively.[82]

Nara period

Shōtoku's reforms transitioned Japan to the Nara period (c. 710 to c. 794), with the moving of the Japanese capital to Nara in Honshu. This period saw the culmination of Chinese-style writing, etiquette, and architecture in Japan along with Confucian ideals[83] to supplement the already present Buddhism. Peasants revered both Confucian scholars and Buddhist monks. However, Buddhism gained the status of state religion, and the government ordered the construction of Buddhist temples, monasteries, and statues.[82] The lavish spending combined with the fact that many aristocrats did not pay taxes, put a heavy burden on peasantry that caused poverty and famine.[82] Eventually the Buddhist position got out of control, threatening to seize imperial power and causing Emperor Kammu to move the capital to Heian-kyō to avoid a Buddhist takeover.[83] This marked the beginning of the Heian period and the end of Taika reform.

Heian period

With the Heian period (from 794 to 1185) came a decline of imperial power. Chinese influence also declined, as a result of its correlation with imperial centralization and the heavenly mandate, which came to be regarded as ineffective. By 838, the Japanese court discontinued its embassies in China; only traders and Buddhist monks continued to travel to China. Buddhism itself came to be considered more Japanese than Chinese, and persisted to be popular in Japan. Buddhists monks and monasteries continued their attempts to gather personal power in courts, along with aristocrats. One particular noble family that dominated influence in the imperial bureaucracy was the Fujiwara clan. During this time cultural life in the imperial court flourished. There was a focus on beauty and social interaction and writing and literature was considered refined. Noblewomen were cultured the same as noblemen, dabbling in creative works and politics. A prime example of both Japanese literature and women's role in high-class culture at this time was The Tale of Genji, written by the lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu. Popularization of wooden palaces and shōji sliding doors amongst the nobility also occurred.

Loss of imperial power also led to the rise of provincial warrior elites. Small lords began to function independently. They administered laws, supervised public works projects, and collected revenue for themselves instead of the imperial court. Regional lords also began to build their own armies. These warriors were loyal only their local lords and not the emperor, although the imperial government increasingly called them in to protect the capital. The regional warrior class developed into the samurai, which created its own culture: including specialized weapons such as the katana and a form of chivalry, bushido. The imperial government's loss of control in the second half of the Heian period allowed banditry to grow, requiring both feudal lords and Buddhist monasteries to procure warriors for protection. As imperial control over Japan declined, feudal lords also became more independent and seceded from the empire. These feudal states squandered the peasants living in them, reducing the farmers to an almost serfdom status. Peasants were also rigidly restricted from rising to the samurai class, being physically set off by dress and weapon restrictions. As a result of their oppression, many peasants turned to Buddhism as a hope for reward in the afterlife for upright behavior.[84]

With the increase of feudalism, families in the imperial court began to depend on alliances with regional lords. The Fujiwara clan declined from power, replaced by a rivalry between the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan. This rivalry grew into the Genpei War in the early 1180s. This war saw the use of both samurai and peasant soldiers. For the samurai, battle was ritual and they often easily cut down the poorly trained peasantry. The Minamoto clan proved successful due to their rural alliances. Once the Taira was destroyed, the Minamoto established a military government called the shogunate (or bakufu), centered in Kamakura.

Kamakura period

The end of the Genpei War and the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate marked the end of the Heian period and the beginning of the Kamakura period in 1185, solidifying feudal Japan.


Korea was fought between the three local kingdoms: Silla, Baekje, and Goguryeo. This continued until the Silla allied with Tang China to conquer all of Korea. Attempts at sinicization occurred.


The Silk Road

Main article: Silk Road
Main routes of the Silk Road

The Silk Road was a Eurasian trade route that played a large role in global communication and interaction. It stimulated cultural exchange; encouraged the learning of new languages; resulted in the trade of many goods, such as silk, gold, and spices; and also spread religion and disease.[85] It is even claimed by some historians – such as Andre Gunder Frank, William Hardy McNeill, Jerry H. Bentley, and Marshall Hodgson – that the Afro-Eurasian world was loosely united culturally, and that the Silk Road was fundamental to this unity.[85] This major trade route began with the Han Dynasty of China, connecting it to the Roman Empire and any regions in between or nearby. At this time, Central Asia exported horses, wool, and jade into China for the latter's silk; the Romans would trade for the Chinese commodity as well, offering wine in return.[86] The Silk Road would often decline and rise again in trade from the Iron Age to the Postclassical Era. Following one such decline, it was reopened in Central Asia by General Ban Chao during the 1st century.[87]

The Silk Road was also a major factor in spreading religion across Afro-Eurasia. Muslim teachings from Arabia and Persia reached East Asia. Buddhism spread from India, to China, to Central Asia. One significant development in the spread of Buddhism was the carving of the Gandhara School in the cities of Taxila and the Peshwar, allegedly in the mid 1st century.[87]

The Silk Road flourished in the 13th century during the reign of the Mongol Empire, which through conquest had brought stability in Central Asia comparable to the Pax Romana. It was claimed by a Muslim historian that Central Asia, "enjoyed such a peace that a man might have journeyed from the land of sunrise to the land of sunset with a golden platter upon his head without suffering the least violence from anyone."[88] As such, trade and communication between Europe, East Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East required little effort. Handicraft production, art, and scholarship prospered, and wealthy merchants enjoyed cosmopolitan cities.[88]

Finally, the Silk Road trade played a role in spreading the infamous Black Death. Originating in China, the bubonic plague was spread by Mongol warriors catapulting diseased corpses into enemy towns in the Crimea. The disease, spread by rats, was carried by merchant ships sailing across the Mediterranean that brought the plague back to Sicily, causing an epidemic in 1347.[30] Nevertheless, after the 15th century, the Silk Road disappeared from regular use. This was primarily a result from the growing sea travel pioneered by Europeans, which allowed the trade of goods by sailing around the southern tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean.

Mongol Empire

Main article: Mongol Empire
Expansion of the Mongol Empire 1206–1294

The Mongol Empire which existed during the 13th and 14th centuries, was the largest continuous land empire in history.[89] Originating in the steppes of Central Asia, the Mongol Empire eventually stretched from Central Europe to the Sea of Japan, extending northwards into Siberia, eastwards and southwards into the Indian subcontinent, Indochina, and the Iranian plateau, and westwards as far as the Levant and Arabia.

The Mongol Empire emerged from the unification of nomadic tribes in the Mongolia homeland under the leadership of Genghis Khan, who was proclaimed ruler of all Mongols in 1206. The empire grew rapidly under his rule and then under his descendants, who sent invasions in every direction.[90][91][92][93][94][95] The vast transcontinental empire connected the east with the west with an enforced Pax Mongolica allowing trade, technologies, commodities, and ideologies to be disseminated and exchanged across Eurasia.[96][97]

The empire began to split due to wars over succession, as the grandchildren of Genghis Khan disputed whether the royal line should follow from his son and initial heir Ögedei, or one of his other sons such as Tolui, Chagatai, or Jochi. After Möngke Khan died, rival kurultai councils simultaneously elected different successors, the brothers Ariq Böke and Kublai Khan, who then not only fought each other in the Toluid Civil War, but also dealt with challenges from descendants of other sons of Genghis.[98] Kublai successfully took power, but civil war ensued as Kublai sought unsuccessfully to regain control of the Chagatayid and Ögedeid families.

The Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260 marked the high-water point of the Mongol conquests and was the first time a Mongol advance had ever been beaten back in direct combat on the battlefield. Though the Mongols launched many more invasions into the Levant, briefly occupying it and raiding as far as Gaza after a decisive victory at the Battle of Wadi al-Khazandar in 1299, they withdrew due to various geopolitical factors.

By the time of Kublai's death in 1294, the Mongol Empire had fractured into four separate khanates or empires, each pursuing its own separate interests and objectives: the Golden Horde khanate in the northwest; the Chagatai Khanate in the west; the Ilkhanate in the southwest; and the Yuan dynasty based in modern-day Beijing.[99] In 1304, the three western khanates briefly accepted the nominal suzerainty of the Yuan dynasty,[100][101] but it was later overthrown by the Han Chinese Ming dynasty in 1368. The Genghisid rulers returned to Mongolia homeland and continued rule the Northern Yuan dynasty.

The Americas

Main article: Pre-Columbian era

The Postclassical Era of the Americas can be considered set at a different time span from that of Afro-Eurasia. As the developments of Mesoamerican and Andean civilization differ greatly from that of the Old World, as well as the speed at which it developed, the Postclassical Era in the traditional sense does not take place until near the end of the Medieval Age in Afro-Eurasia. As such, for the purposes of this article, the Classic stage of the Americas will be discussed here, which takes place from about 400 to 1400. For the technical Postclassical stage in American development, see Post-Classic stage.


The Classic Period of Mesoamerican civilization begins with the decline and fall of the Toltec civilization. The resulting anarchy in the modern-day Mexico region consisted of various tribes and factions fighting for power. At the time, a small band of violent, religious radicals called the Aztecs began minor raids throughout the area. Eventually they began to claim connections with the Toltec civilization, and insisted they were the rightful successors. They began to grow in numbers and conquer large areas of land. Fundamental to their conquest, was the use of political terror in the sense that the Aztec leaders and priests would command the human sacrifice of their subjugated people as means of humility and coercion. Most of the Mesoamerican region would eventually fall under the Aztec Empire. The Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, was founded 1325 on a small island in Lake Texcoco. This was in accordance with a legend stating wherever an eagle was seen devouring a snake on a cactus, a great city must be built. Its religion was based on several gods some of which would affect nature, and some of which required sacrifice. According to Aztec religion, the gods supported the universe, and human blood supported the gods; if there was not a steady flow of sacrifice, the universe would die. Aztec developments expanded cultivation, applying the use of chinampas, irrigation, and terrace agriculture; important crops included maize, sweet potatoes, and avocados. Aztecs spoke the Nahuatl language.

Andean region

In the Andean region of South America, another civilization began to rise as well, the Inca Empire. Led by their, sun-god king, Sapa Inca, they slowly conquered what is now Peru, and built their society there. Although the Incas spoke the Quechua languages, they did not have any writing system but relied on a series of knotted strings to communicate messages. Incas have also been known to have used abacuses to calculate mathematics. The Inca Empire is known for some of its magnificent structures, such as Machu Picchu in the Cusco region.

North America

Although no distinct political states developed in northern North America, many hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies thrived in the diverse region. Native American tribes varied greatly in characteristics, but most lacked developed technology and lived a simple life of sustenance.

End of Period

As the Postclassical era draws to a close in the 15th century, many of the empires established throughout the period begin to decline and fall.

The Byzantine Empire would soon be overshadowed in the Mediterranean by the Islamic Empires. Additionally, they would suffer losses from Western Europe, losing territory in Italy. The Byzantines would face repeated attacks from the Islamic Empires and Catholic powers during the Fourth Crusade, until the loss of their capital to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

See also


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Works Cited

External links

Preceded by
Ancient history
History by period
5th Century – 15th Century
Succeeded by
Early modern period
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