Post-classical history

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Post-classical history (also called the Post-Antiquity era, Post-Ancient Era, or Pre-Modern Era) is a periodization commonly used by the school of "world history" instead of Middle Ages (Medieval) which is roughly synonymous.[1] The period runs from about 500 to 1450 AD though there may be regional differences and debates. The era was globally characterized by the expansion of civilizations geographically, the development of three of the great world religions (Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism), and development of networks of trade between civilizations.[2][1]

In Asia, the spread of Islam created a new empire and Islamic Golden Age with trade between the Asian, African and European continents, and advances in science in the medieval Islamic world. East Asia experienced the full establishment of power of Imperial China, 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 Mongol Empire connected Europe and Asia creating safe trade and stability between the two regions.

Terminology and periodization issues[edit]

Leonardo Bruni was a Renaissance historian who helped develop the concept of the Middle Ages.

Post-classical history is a periodization used by historians employing a "world history" approach to history, specifically the school developed during the late 20th and early 21st centuries.[1] Outside of world history, it is also sometimes used to avoid erroneous pre-conceptions around the terms 'Middle Ages', 'Medieval' and 'Dark Ages' (see medievalism).

Post-classical corresponds roughly from 500 to 1450 AD.[1] Beginning and ending dates might change depending on the region, with the period beginning at the end of the previous classical period: Han China (ending in 220), the Western Roman Empire (in 476), the Gupta Empire (in the 550s), and the Sasanian Empire (in 651).

Post-classical is one of the five or six major periods world historians use: (1) early civilization; (2) classical societies; (3) post-classical; (4) early modern; (5) long nineteenth century; and (6) contemporary or modern era.[1] Sometimes the 19th century and modern are combined.[1] Although post-classical is synonymous with the Middle Ages of Western Europe, the term 'post-classical' is not necessarily a member of the three traditional divisions of Western European history: classical, middle and modern (see tripartite periodisation).

World history looks at common themes occurring across multiple cultures and regions. It recognizes that post-classical history is mainly in the sphere of Afro-Eurasia.[1] Historians recognize the difficulties of periodization and common themes for the Americas since they were following their own historical developments prior to the Columbian exchange.[1]

Main trends[edit]

The Post-classical era saw several common developments or themes. There was the expansion and growth of civilization into new geographic areas; the rise and/or spread of the three major world, or missionary, religions; and a period of rapidly expanding trade and trade networks.[1]

First was the expansion and growth of civilization into new geographic areas across Asia, Africa, Europe, Mesoamerica, and western South America. However as noted by world historian Peter N. Stearns, there were no common global political trends during the post-classical period, rather it was a period of loosely organized states and other developments, but no common political patterns emerged.[1] In Asia, China continued its historic dynastic cycle and became more complex, improving its bureaucracy. 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.[3] An entirely different political system was applied in Western Europe (i.e. feudalism), as well as a different society (i.e. manorialism). 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 occurred, with Islam seeing a large expansion during this time. Christianity continued into Scandinavia, the Baltic area, and the British Isles – ousting the old pagan religions;[4] 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. Additionally, Buddhism spread from India into China and flourished there briefly before using it as a hub to spread to Japan, Korea, and Vietnam;[5] 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 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.[4] Western trade into East Asia was pioneered by Marco Polo. Importantly, China began the sinicization (or Chinese influence) of regions like Japan,[5] Korea, and Vietnam through trade and conquest. Finally, the growth of the Mongol Empire in Central Asia established safe trade such as to allow goods, cultures, ideas, and disease to spread between Asia, Europe, and Africa.


In Europe, Western civilization reconstituted after the Fall of the Western Roman Empire into the period now known as the Early Middle Ages (500-1000), during which the Catholic Church unified the region. The Early Middle Ages saw a continuation of trends begun in Late Antiquity: depopulation, deurbanization, and increased barbarian invasion. In Eastern Europe, the Eastern Roman Empire survived in 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 near the end of the Middle Ages. Later in the period, the creation of the feudal system allowed greater degrees of military and agricultural organization. There was sustained urbanization in northern and western Europe. 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 the 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.

Middle East[edit]

The Arabian peninsula and the surrounding Middle East and 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 continually, a reflection of the rivalry between the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire seen during the previous five hundred years. The fighting weakened both states, leaving the stage open to a new power. Meanwhile the nomadic Bedouin tribes who dominated the Arabian desert saw a period of tribal stability, greater trade networking and a familiarity with Abrahamic religions or monotheism.

While the Byzantine Roman and Sassanid Persian empires were both weakened by the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628, a new power in the form of Islam grew in the Middle East under Muhammad in Medina. In a series of rapid Muslim conquests, the Rashidun army, led by the Caliphs and skilled military commanders such as Khalid ibn al-Walid, swept through most of the Middle East, taking more than half of Byzantine territory in the Arab–Byzantine wars and completely engulfing Persia in the Muslim conquest of Persia. It would be the Arab Caliphates of the Middle Ages that would first unify the entire Middle East as a distinct region and create the dominant ethnic identity that persists today. These Caliphates included the Rashidun Caliphate, Umayyad Caliphate, Abbasid Caliphate, and later the Seljuq Empire.

After Muhammad introduced Islam, it jump-started Middle Eastern culture into an Islamic Golden Age, inspiring achievements in architecture, the revival of old advances in science and technology, and the formation of a distinct way of life. Muslims saved and spread Greek advances in medicine, algebra, geometry, astronomy, anatomy, and ethics that would later finds it way back to Western Europe.

The dominance of the Arabs came to a sudden end in the mid-11th century with the arrival of the Seljuq Turks, migrating south from the Turkic homelands in Central Asia. They conquered Persia, Iraq (capturing Baghdad in 1055), Syria, Palestine, and the Hejaz. This was followed by a series of Christian Western Europe invasions. The fragmentation of the Middle East allowed joined forces, mainly from England, France, and the emerging Holy Roman Empire, to enter the region. In 1099 the knights of the First Crusade captured Jerusalem and founded the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which survived until 1187, when Saladin retook the city. Smaller crusader fiefdoms survived until 1291. In the early 13th century, a new wave of invaders, the armies of the Mongol Empire, swept through the region, sacking Baghdad in the Siege of Baghdad (1258) and advancing as far south as the border of Egypt in what became known as the Mongol conquests. 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.


During the Postclassical Era, Africa was both culturally and politically affected by the introduction of Islam and the Arabic empires.[6] 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.[7] 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.


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).

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.


The Silk Road[edit]

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.[8] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

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 ancient Taxila and the Peshwar, allegedly in the mid 1st century.[10]

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."[11] 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.[11]

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.[12] 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[edit]

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.[13] 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.[14][15][16][17][18][19] 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.[20][21]

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.[22] 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.[23] In 1304, the three western khanates briefly accepted the nominal suzerainty of the Yuan dynasty,[24][25] 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[edit]

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.

South America[edit]

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[edit]

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.

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.

End of the period[edit]

As the postclassical era draws to a close in the 15th century, many of the empires established throughout the period were in decline. 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[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Peter N. Stearns (2017). "Periodization in World History: Challenges and Opportunities". In R. Charles Weller. 21st-Century Narratives of World History: Global and Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Palgrave. ISBN 978-3-319-62077-0. 
  2. ^ The Post‐Classical Era by Joel Hermansen
  3. ^ Birken 1992, pp. 451–461.
  4. ^ a b Thompson et al. 2009, p. 288.
  5. ^ a b Bowman 2000, pp. 162–167.
  6. ^ Stearns et al. 2011, p. 184.
  7. ^ "Trade and the Spread of Islam in Africa". Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 15 June 2013. 
  8. ^ a b Christian 2000, pp. 1–21.
  9. ^ Bowman 2000, p. 101.
  10. ^ a b Bowman 2000, p. 568.
  11. ^ a b Stearns et al. 2011, p. 321.
  12. ^ Thompson et al. 2009, p. 310.
  13. ^ Morgan. The Mongols. p. 5.
  14. ^ Diamond. Guns, Germs, and Steel. p. 367.
  15. ^ The Mongols and Russia, by George Vernadsky
  16. ^ The Mongol World Empire, 1206–1370, by John Andrew Boyle
  17. ^ The History of China, by David Curtis Wright. p. 84.
  18. ^ The Early Civilization of China, by Yong Yap Cotterell, Arthur Cotterell. p. 223.
  19. ^ Mongols and Mamluks: The Mamluk-Ilkhanid War, 1260–1281 by Reuven Amitai-Preiss
  20. ^ Guzman, Gregory G. (1988). "Were the barbarians a negative or positive factor in ancient and medieval history?". The Historian. 50 (4): 568–570. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6563.1988.tb00759.x. 
  21. ^ Allsen. Culture and Conquest. p. 211.
  22. ^ Michael Biran. Qaidu and the Rise of the Independent Mongol State in Central Asia. The Curzon Press, 1997, ISBN 0-7007-0631-3
  23. ^ The Cambridge History of China: Alien Regimes and Border States. p. 413.
  24. ^ Jackson. Mongols and the West. p. 127.
  25. ^ Allsen. Culture and Conquest. pp. xiii, 235.
Works Cited

External links[edit]

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