Meaning, Characteristics, Artistic Achievements.

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The Parthenon. Acropolis, Athens.
Built 442-427 BCE. Designed by
Ictinus & Callicrates, under Phidias.
The iconic symbol of Greek art from
the era of Classical Antiquity.
But Ancient Greece was a slave
owning society. In Sparta, for
example, there were 7 slaves for
each Greek citizen.



Meaning and Characteristics of Civilization
Social Planning and Organization
Laws and By-Laws
Trade Routes
Artistic Achievements of Early Civilizations


• For dates and important cultural inventions, see: History of Art Timeline.

• For the chronology of cultures in Asia, see: Chinese Art Timeline.

The Great Pyramid of Giza.
Built around 2565 BCE.
The definitive example of Egyptian
civilization. But Egypt too was
a slave owning culture. Moreover,
the pyramids contain the bodies of
hundreds of loyal retainers who
were entombed upon the death of
their king. For instance, some 580
servants were buried alive in the
tomb of Egyptian King Djer,
around 3,000 BCE. For more, see:
Egyptian Pyramid Architecture
(c.2650-1800 BCE).

Meaning and Characteristics of Civilization

Human beings first appeared around 2.3 million BCE. But according to historians the first civilizations only occurred about 5,000 BCE. So what is the meaning of the word "civilization"? What are the characteristics of a civilized culture?

Well to begin with, it has nothing to do with art. Stone Age man produced a huge amount of cave painting and prehistoric sculpture without being in the least bit "civilized". Although early civilizations are noted for their ancient art - mostly ancient pottery, plus a certain amount of sculpture and other forms of decorative art - artistic achievement is merely one possible bi-product.

Nor does civilization involve morality. The Greeks may have invented democracy, but they also practiced slavery. Athens had as many as 80,000 slaves - on average 3-4 slaves per household. Most were employed in the silver mines or in agriculture on landed estates. Roman civilization was even more immoral - there were 2-3 million slaves in Italy at the end of the 1st century BCE, roughly 35-40 percent of Italy's population - but the Romans built things, and a well-built bridge or cathedral is always a very powerful advertisement for a civilization. Hence the enduring legacy of Roman art and Roman architecture (c.100 BCE - 400 CE).

Returning to: What is the meaning of the word "civilization"? Here is one possible answer. Civilization begins when a community as a whole starts to behave in a planned and thoughtful manner - when its members prepare for the future, instead of living primarily on a day-to-day basis; when they begin to organize themselves and the resources they possess.

Social Planning and Organization

For instance, they begin to sow crops and till the land. In other words, they work today in order to be able to have food in the future. Primitive man, rather like a wild animal, looks for food because he is hungry, whereas "civilized man" sows seeds in the spring in order to have enough to eat in the winter, when food is scarce. Primitive man kills animals for food and other benefits, whereas civilized man saves a certain number of animals for breeding and slaughtering when winter makes hunting too difficult.

Civilised man also begins to organise himself and his life. He develops a system of writing; he designs better and more effective tools; he tames animals and puts them to work; he builds carts to help him transport things he cannot carry; he develops methods for storing and preserving food. After a while certain men begin to specialise in certain types of work. While some men hunt, others plant crops; while others build houses and make tools. Small communities are needed for this, with basic rules to ensure that such tasks are properly organised. In this way the interests of the individual are subordinated to the interests of the community in return for an improved standard of life. Thus the community grows. Schools and medical services spring up, and of course the community's collective brainpower and labour can be properly organised to accomplish jobs far beyond the capabilities of an individual and his family. Thus quarries and mines are opened, proper houses, roads, bridges, irrigation projects, food storage facilities and even sewage and hot water systems are designed and built. And gradually we see the beginnings of a more thoughtful and properly organised way of life - the beginnings in other words of a civilization.

Things don't stop there. The community continues to expand, absorbing more land and more people. Its principal town or city will grow bigger, and other towns will also spring up. In time, depending on the character of its inhabitants and its overall strength and security, the now enlarged community may decide to spend more resources on education and training. Workshops are set up for the teaching and production of pottery, weaving and textiles, objects made of precious metals and so on. Other workshops will involve themselves in the production of larger items, such as carts, wheels, roofs, boats, ships and so on. Still other workshops will be established to make better tools so that all the things we've mentioned can be made faster and more easily.

Note: typically, the most common types of art created during Antiquity included ceramic art, palace and funerary architecture, and stone sculpture (reliefs and statuettes).

Laws and By-Laws

As the community expands, and as the number of its activities grows, disputes are bound to arise. The community may need money to obtain weapons, build a town hall, or repair a road - but who should pay? Too many carts may be using a particular thoroughfare, blocking it completely at various times. A sewage pope may burst, destroying crops or polluting someone's house. A wealthy man may die prompting widespread argument over who is to inherit his property and assets. Another row may erupt over who is entitled to draw water from a particular well. And if the community needs to raise an army, who should be conscripted? All these are crude but typical examples of problems which occur in early societies. Usually, the only way to sort out these problems is to develop a set of rules. Such rules - the forerunners of our present laws and by-laws - are imposed for the good of the community and are designed to regulate people's behaviour while they live together.

Thus even early civilizations were forced to develop a system of Law and Order, under which certain leaders or groups were given the power to make, enforce and adjudicate laws. It may have been a King or a religious leader, or a group of chieftains or even an official appointed by some sort of civic body, or some other system. The most important laws concerned the raising of taxes, the regulation of land and buildings, religious matters, and crime.

Naturally, the quality of these laws and the way the community was ruled or governed is another way of judging the degree of civilization attained by a particular people. After all, when people and their behaviour towards each other are properly regulated, life is that much smoother and more efficient. Thoroughfares don't get blocked, sewage pipes get mended and people use the law to solve problems rather than their swords or their fists.


At this point we should mention a phenomenon which has always played a part in human life, from the earliest recorded civilizations right up to and including the present day. That phenomenon is Religion.

Even since the earliest days of human evolution mankind has sought answers to such questions as — How did life begin? Who created the sun? the moon? What happens to us when we die? Why is our community suffering from the plague? Why did our harvest fail? Why won't it rain? Early civilizations did not have the benefit of modern scientific knowledge, so they used religion and a wide variety of Gods to provide the answers. Gods were often given human form and acted as characters in complicated stories which grew up in an attempt to explain Life and Death, and also the hundreds of other natural mysteries such as thunder, drought, famine, disease and so on. One thing was clear. The Gods were behind everything, and they needed to be kept happy if people wanted to live safe and secure.

As a result, each civilization built numerous temples and made innumerable sacrifices, to ensure that their particular Gods were kept happy.

Later civilizations and advanced cultures continued to rely upon architecture to express their religious values. See, for example the 11th century Kandariya Mahadeva Hindu Temple (1017-29) erected by the Chandela Rajputs in Madhya Pradesh, India; and the 12th century Angkor Wat Khmer Temple (1115-45) in Cambodia.

On a more practical level, Gods were often prayed to and worshipped in order to obtain success in battle and leaders and Kings of early civilizations enhanced their own authority by claiming ancestry from the Gods. In any event, religion played a vital part in early civilizations and people were convinced that their destiny lay fairly and squarely in the lap of the Gods.

Note also the power of religious art in promoting particular cultures and ideologies. Please see also: Chinese Buddhist Sculpture.


Civilization can be encouraged or inhibited by the presence or absence of natural resources. A good climate, for instance, will assist agriculture, as well a reliable water source - such as the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia, the Egyptian Nile, the European Danube, and so on. The availability of minerals can lead to great benefits. Copper and iron ore will assist in the manufacture of tools and weapons, stone will assist building works and timber will assist ship-building.

But the greatest natural resource of the time - possession of which in large quantities could have a dramatic effect on a community's security and strength - was manpower, or more correctly, slave-power. By enslaving the inhabitants of other lands, a community could vastly increase its labour force and greatly enchance its own quality of life. More manpower meant more quarries and mines could be opened. More stone, more iron, more gold and silver could be extracted, enabling more buildings, bigger dams, better tools to be built and constructed. The gold and silver would pay for more ships and bigger armies to capture more slaves and so the process continued.

Trade Routes

For a civilization to prosper it needs to trade materials which it lacks, for those which it has in abundance. This need for trade can only be fully satisfied if it has access to the sea, or a navigable river, over which it can transport goods. Thus civilizations that grew up around the Mediterranean, for instance, tended to thrive because of their easy access to maritime trade routes. Conversely, civilizations that are landlocked or cut off from the outside by mountains and deserts need to be far more self sufficient or else they become extinct. History is full of examples of civilizations who possessed fabulous gold mines, and huge amounts of precious metals - enough to be able to buy everything they needed - but who were too cut off to trade with other nations, or because they lacked the ships and the men to defend themselves against invaders. In short, if a civilization is unable to trade, then without an abundance of natural resources, and enough people to exploit them, then sooner or later, another civilization is going to pay them a call and cart them off into slavery.

Artistic Achievements of Early Civilizations

For details about the arts and crafts of early cultures, please see the following articles. For a guide to early chronology, see Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).

Chinese Pottery (18,000 BCE - 1911 CE)
Development of porcelain, celadon, stoneware.

Japanese Art (14,500 BCE - 1900 CE)
Guide to the arts & crafts of Japan.

Jomon Pottery (c.14500-1000 BCE)
Ancient Japanese ceramic culture.

Amur River Basin Pottery (from 14,300 BCE)
Ceramics from the Russian Far East culture.

Gobekli Tepe (c.9,500 BCE)
Mesolithic archeological site of the first Anatolian civilization.

Greek Pottery (7,000 BCE onwards)
Geometric style, Oriental, Black-Figure, Red-Figure.

Sumerian Art (c.4500-2270 BCE)
The first civilization of Mesopotamia.

Mesopotamian Art (c.4500-539 BCE)
History of ancient Iraqi Architecture, sculpture, metalwork.

Ancient Persian Art (3,500-330 BCE)
Famous for its monumental sculpture, goldsmithery, illuminations, calligraphy.

Egyptian Art (3100 BCE - 395 CE)
Architecture, painting and artistic conventions.

Mesopotamian Sculpture (c.3000-500 BCE)
History and characteristics of plastic art from Sumer, Babylon and Assyria.

Sculpture of Ancient Egypt
Reliefs, statues, statuettes and goldsmithing.

Ancient Egyptian Architecture (3100 BCE - 200 CE)
Guide to building designs in Upper and Lower Egypt.

Early Egyptian Architecture (3100-2181 BCE)
Pyramids from the Old Kingdom.

Korean Art (3,000 BCE onwards)
History and development of painting and sculpture in Korea.

Minoan Art (3000-1100 BCE)
Noted for its palace architecture and pottery.

Aegean Art (2600-1100 BCE)
Early Greek-style cultures from Crete and Greek mainland.

Egyptian Middle Kingdom Architecture (2055-1650)
Nebhepetre Mentuhotep's Mortuary Temple at Thebes and other designs.

Chinese Art (1700 BCE - 2000 CE)
Types of art through all the dynasties.

Mycenean Art (1650-1200 BCE)
Noted for its sculpture, metalwork, jewellery and gem-engraving.

Hittite Art (1600-1180 BCE)
The greatest early civilization of Asia Minor.

Assyrian Art (1500-612 BCE)
Self-aggrandising militaristic civilization.

Egyptian New Kingdom Architecture (1550-1069 BCE)
Temple of Amon-Ra at Karnak, Temple of Luxor and others.

Pre-Columbian Art (c.1200 BCE - 1535 CE)
Definition, History, Timeline: Maya, Aztec, Inca, Chavin Cultures

Late Egyptian Architecture (1069 BCE - 200 CE)
Temple of Horus at Edfu, Temple of Hathor at Dendera.

Etruscan Art (700-90 BCE)
Renowned for its tomb art and metalwork.

Greek Sculpture (650-27 BCE)
History and timeline.

Roman Sculpture (55 BCE onwards)
History, characteristics.

Fayum Mummy Portraits (50 BCE - 250 CE)
Hellenistic Egyptian portraits.

Traditional Chinese Art
Characteristics and aesthetics of visual arts in ancient China.

Chinese Porcelain (100-1800)
World's earliest fine china.

Islamic Art (c.622-1900)
Characteristics of Muslim arts and architecture, calligraphy, ceramics.

Viking Art (700-1150)
Covers Borre, Jellinge, Mammen, Ringerike and Urnes styles of Norse art.


• For more about ancient cultures and civilizations, see: Homepage.

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