2. Early Empires, the Axial Age, & Premodern World
By the 6th and 5th centuries BCE peoples across the world had entered what is now known as the Axial Age, subjecting old beliefs to critical examination and developing new social structures, religions, and philosophies. In this period of intellectual introspection we see the emergence in the East of Chinese Taoism and Confucianism, in India Buddhism and Jainism, and in Persia Zoroastrianism. In the Near East there was the Hebrew religion of Judaism that existed before the rise of the later Abrahamic religions Christianity and Islam.
Greek Pre-Socratic philosophers and those of the Classical Era, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle would have a lasting impact on Western thought and the development of science. Bronze Age cities expanded their sphere of influence to become nation states and empires began to emerge. Empires could be cruel and authoritarian but they could also impose order on disparate and warring factions. The invention of the wheel c. 3000 BCE, and the domestication of the camel at about the same time, revolutionized transport systems and saw the introduction of carts, permanent roads, and thus trade routes that hastened the transmission of technologies, ideas, cultures, ideologies and religions, goods, and disease. In the West there were the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Hittites, followed by Persian, Greek, Macedonian, and Roman empires. In Asia the Indus Civilization continued and in China the Han dynasty rivalled the Roman empire in sophistication. In Central and South America there were the Incas, Aztecs and Mayans. Later manifestations include the Holy Roman and Byzantine Empires, Islamic Caliphates and Ottoman Empire as well as African Empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire the West Europe was divided into multiple kingdoms squabbling over Christian theology until the revival of Classical Greco-Roman learning in the Renaissance. In the East was the far more advanced pre-modern culture of imperial China. The Qin emperor of Chinas first imperial dynasty (221-206 BCE) unified northeast China. The Qin dynasty was followed by the bureaucratic Han (206 BCE–220 CE), Sui (581-618), T’ang (618–907), Yuan (1279–1368), and Ming (1368–1644) who would produce great philosophers and advances in mathematics, chemistry, and astronomy. Many technological advances in this period pre-dated or were more effective than those in the West advancing social organization. They included: clocks, compass, gunpowder, sophisticated hydraulic engineering and metalwork, paper including paper money, printing, clever plough design, silk fabrics. To this can be added elaborate infrastructure of irrigation systems, canals, river and road transport, elaborate legal systems and bureaucratic record-keeping, weights and measures, coinage and modes of commerce.
One lasting legacy was the Silk Road that linked East and West, gathering impetus as an exchange between the Roman and Han Empires. In the 15th century vast fleets of Chinese ships under Admiral Zheng-he, each dwarfing their European galleon counterparts, had sailed as far as Africa returning to China with animals like the giraffe. But these were not colonial voyages and China now adopted a more inward-looking policy of self-sufficiency. The most active trade routes at this time were overland along the Silk Road and Incense Route, in northern India, the shipping and land routes of the Mediterranean including North Africa and the sea trade of southeast Asia that connected China, Japan and Western Indonesia.