A Short History of the Ancient World, Part One: The Growth and Collapse of Civilizations

To mark the publication of our new and beautifully illustrated textbook, A Short History of the Ancient World, we will be featuring two back-to-back posts by the authors. Today, Nicholas K. Rauh provides background on his own archaeological research and how it informs the narrative of the book—particularly the book's emphasis on how civilizations rise and fall, and what we can learn from this today.

For the past 22 years, I have conducted archaeological survey on the south coast of Turkey. Survey is a uniquely non-intrusive field activity that locates and records the remains of past human activity as it survives on the existing landscape. Typically, these remains lay hidden by dense vegetation in remote rural areas. Ruined buildings, scraps of wall, and debris fields strewn with bits of pottery, glass, roof tile, and bone help to confirm the existence of what was formerly an isolated farmstead, a village, or perhaps a small city. An underlying principle of survey archaeology assumes that the current landscape represents a palimpsest of past disturbances, the result of various energies—natural, animal, and human—that worked to transform the landscape over thousands of years. Ruined temples in remote canyons, large fortification walls hidden today by dense forests, and random sherd scatters in the middle of cultivated fields all need to be assessed within the context of a continually changing landscape. Only by analyzing things in context can we hope to determine their appearance, not to mention their purpose in earlier times.

During the past decade, I have investigated more than a dozen ruined settlements in the remote highlands of south coastal Turkey. The extant remains of cemeteries, houses, baths, temples, inscribed dedications, and fortification walls indicate that Roman-era settlements in these highlands once sustained sizable populations. Today these same highlands support scattered villages of perhaps a few dozen inhabitants. In other words, during Roman times the rural landscape of south coastal Turkey was populated far more densely than it is today. Admittedly, modern urban centers such as Antalya and Alanya on the Turkish coast compensate for this disparity by accommodating far larger populations than anything conceivable in ancient times. Nonetheless, the results of my archaeological survey indicate that Roman-era settlement carpeted the rural landscape far more densely than today, with the inhabitants seemingly leaving no viable resource unexploited. This reminds us that in the space-time continuum, human settlements grew in size and complexity and forested terrain was cleared and converted into well-manicured landscapes. Eventually, these same settlements fell abandoned, and the landscape gradually reverted to some semblance of its natural state. Investigating the remains of 2000-year-old habitats in these remote rural hillsides helps to instill a profound sense of history in what I do.

Nick Rauh investigating the remains of an Iron Age fortification wall on Dana Island.

The fact that these abandoned country sides harbor vestiges of past civilizations holds important lessons for our current era of unprecedented population growth. Contemporary pursuit of economic expansion with its inordinate dependence on energy and natural resources calls to mind the inability of past civilizations to transcend unforeseen barriers or thresholds to growth. This theme is precisely what my book with Heidi Kraus, A Short History of the Ancient World, attempts to address. At several points during the ancient experience, societal, and most probably ecological disturbances, interrupted growth by setting in motion sudden epochs of societal collapse and reorganization. Recurring patterns characterized by long fore loops of societal expansion and conservation followed by sudden back loops of release and reorganization appear to have transpired during the Bronze Age and again at the end of the Roman era. These patterns suggest that from a material standpoint societal trajectories of expansion and collapse are largely unavoidable. During antiquity the duration of growth fore loops was sometimes prolonged through active lines of communication between neighboring civilizations (something referred to as interconnectivity). While interconnectivity conceivably extended growth and prosperity in participating societies, it ultimately synchronized their trajectories and rendered the inevitable back loop of collapse and reorganization all the more chaotic. While interesting in and of itself, this recurring pattern of expansion and collapse among macroregionally connected civilizations furnishes a useful bell weather for contemporary global concerns.

A Roman-era rock-cut tomb at Direvli.

In A Short History of the Ancient World, Heidi Kraus and I lean heavily on evidence for the inherent systems and structures used to forge ancient civilizations. We enumerate the cultural attributes of each ancient civilization according to an established set of criteria. We carefully describe the resource potential of each society’s ecological niche. We explore the ideological mainsprings employed by ancient hierarchies to justify their religious and political ascendancy. We evaluate the success with which these hierarchies utilized the fine arts to express their ascendant ideologies. Most importantly, we calibrate the growth fore loop of emergent civilizations by employing constructs of state formation, world systems, and resilience theory. As coeval civilizations achieved the conservation phase of growth fore loops, we explore the admittedly limited evidence for interconnectivity on a macroregional scale. We argue that, while initially conducive to prolonging growth, ancient globalization inevitably synchronized the back loops of interconnected civilizations during the collapse phase of the cycle. Last, we take care to observe how the influx of new peoples, cultural influences, and technologies insured that the processes of renewal would occur under modified conditions of scale and complexity.

Much of what is stated in A Short History of the Ancient World is theoretical and open to debate. We readily concede that our interpretation of the ancient experience represents one of several ways of looking at the past. Our purpose in doing so has been to recount the history of theancient world in a manner that is as meaningful as it is relevant, as approachable as it is compelling.

Nicholas K. Rauh is Professor of Classics at Purdue University and an award-winning teacher. He is the author of The Sacred Bonds of Commerce: Religion, Economy, and Trade Society at Hellenistic Roman Delos (1993) and Merchants, Sailors, and Pirates in the Roman World (2003).