Why did many ancient civilisations falter?

[1] A map showing the once great and ancient civilisations of the world – amongst them the Meso-American tribes in Central and South America, modern day Egypt, India and China


It has been some time since my last post and I do wish this article is worth the wait. In this edition, I will be discussing why the once great and ancient civilisations vanish from the world’s dominance and remembrance. In a world where a lot of things are occurring, amongst them being revolutions and pain-staking political transitions in countries looking into the future, I thought I would look explore the past and answer a question that has popped up in many family discussions. I dedicate this article to my sister, who has posed a very interesting question I wanted to set out and answer. Anyway, I will use a few countries from each region so that we get an overview about the topic itself – the Mayans in Central America, the Egyptians in Africa, Greece in Europe, India in Asia. Constructive comments are appreciated below.


1) Central America – Mayans 

The Mayan civilisation dominated Central America for 1200 years, with 900 A.D. as their golden age. Their cities glimmered with 2,000 people per square mile, almost the entire size of Los Angeles County. [2] The Mayans’ demise came to a self-inflicted tragedy that came from the aftermath of deforestation. It was believed that the Mayans used an equivalent of 20 trees so that they could accumulate enough fuel to heat up limestone, an essential component to build many structures like temples and monuments. However, 20 trees only equated to 1 square metre of lime plaster. [2] This was significant, as deforestation was detrimental to the over atmosphere, despite its agricultural (forests were cleared to plant maize) and construction properties. This was signfiicant, as according to PhD student Robert Griffin, this increased temperatures to 3 to 5 degrees higher than normal, and 20 to 30 per cent less chance of rainfall. This was also key, as this dramatically increased droughts and therefore famines. As you will see in other civilisations, many of their falterings were down to self-inflicted, man-made reasons. [2]


2) Africa 

2.1) Egyptians

One of the main reasons why Egypt is believed to have faltered is due to the demise and result of Pharaoh Pepy II’s long reign. After his 90 years of reign as a monarch, the whole Egyptian administration or Old Kingdom had altered drastically. [3] This was significant, as the administration became increasingly more decentralised, and thus more inclined to overthrow the monarchy. This was because the government had forbid the general public to practise key social and religious rights – namely, practise Islam and Christianity simultaneously. [3]


Another major reason why the Old Kingdom had vanished was down to the destruction that the River Nile brought with its flooding, due to climate changes. [3] It must be remembered that the Nile was and still is a source of income, commerce and trade for the Egyptians. Without it, this was significant, as this caused radical famine problems and brought key political institutions at a standstill. Consequently, there were many cases of cannibalism within the community and a less efficient way to control the people. [3]


3) Europe – Greece 

Like the Roman Empire, the height of the Greek civilisation eventually took its toll as a superpower. Greece had many city-states that participated in many activities that favoured their own self-existence. Despite having united as one collective force to defeat the common enemy in Persia, greed, corruption and conflict was tragic and saw Greece falter as a civilisation. [4] This can be highlighted through the Peloponnesian War. This was significant, as it has to be noted that with the riches of the empire, Greece was able to accommodate great philosophers, artists, mathematicians to the world. [4] However, with such high achievements, Greece became too arrogant for their own good. This was important, as this meant that a lot of soldiers became mercenaries rather than being protectors of their land as part of their civic duties. Ultimately, they fought against each other, rather than for each other. [4] 

Furthermore, since the death of Alexander the Great as a conqueror, the Greek Empire went down in decline. After the general’s death, the conquered regions were divided amongst Alexander’s generals. This was key, as this meant a lot of background conflict amongst themselves, disputing area for area. [4] Consequently, this ended as a civil war. On the one hand, the Ptolemy dynasty ruled in Alexandria in Egpyt, and on the other hand, the Seleucid dynasty ruled Persia, Mesopotamia and parts of Eurasia. However, with so many incentives to emigrate to these new lands, this prevented Greece from increasing in population and protecting herself properly. [4] 


4) Asia – India 

Let us move eastwards to India as an ancient civilisation. Certainly, you, as the reader, may disagree and contest my decision to have selected India especially when it is currently one of the more successful countries due to their potent textile industry found primarily in the Bengal region, that is still very much flourishing to this date. In the same light, one may also argue that China at one point, did disintegrate as a great civilisation and why it has not been included, having excelled in many arts, including literature, astronomy, inventions and mathematics.


However, I do think India gives a fine example of resurrecting a civilisation, despite struggling through various internal and external hiccups throughout the course of history. Personally, I feel it is more complex, and thus more interesting to discuss. For example, under Ashoka and the Mauryan dynasty, India was economically weak as they were conquered by a Greek faction state called Bactria. [5] Despite having been replaced by the Mauryan as the dominant dynasty, the Gupta’s were not as politically apt – in the sense that it was not a centralised governmental administration. This was significant, as this meant local politicians locked horns for their self-interests. [5] This was key, as this meant socially speaking, Hinduism and the caste system were favoured as a religion and form of social policy, favouring the elites particularly in the nobility or Nawabs.


This continued to the British, French, Dutch and Portuguese East India Companies, all competing to achieve alliances with the Nawabs, Confederacies and factions in exchange of trade and military training by these foreign powers. [6] This was significant, as this was an example of colonisation and imperialism by many countries – particularly through Orientalism and Anglicisation – which transformed the very social, political and economic climate of India, like a pendulum swinging to and fro in favour of traditional and Oriental, or modern and British methods.


Effectively, many of the ancient civilisations faltered due to many natural disasters and man-related reasons. In the case of the Mayans, the monumental effort to use as much wood taken from deforestation for construction building, meant that there were not enough trees to prevent any flood and in turn, increased the overall climate of the region and famines. Similarly, we have the Egyptians and the Old Kingdom, who collapsed mainly due to a decentralised government and the aftermath due to floodings from the River Nile, an important financial source for the country.


With natural disasters aside, Greece poses a man-related demise to the civilisation. After their golden years as an imperial power under Alexander the Great and their numerous artists, including Plato and Aristotle to name but a few, the generals became greedy amongst themselves for status and prestige, forcing the Peloponnesian War and factions within their ever-diminishing empire. Finally, we have the Indians, who faltered down to their bankruptcy and internal problems due to alteration and colonisation, brought up by the imperial powers and more importantly, through Orientalism and Anglicisation. Perhaps more importantly, these factors can definitely be considered by future leaders in their diplomacy-making, and hopefully be fundamental reminders on how to avoid further wars, conflicts and possible demise of the world. Right, I hope you enjoyed your read, and I shall join you next time on Speaking Seb – till then! Bye for now! 🙂



[1] http://anthro.palomar.edu/political/images/map_of_ancient_civilizations.gif

[2] http://phys.org/news174152911.html

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/apocalypse_egypt_01.shtml

[4] http://www.squidoo.com/fall_ancient_greece

[5] http://www.historyhaven.com/APWH/Decline_of_%20classical_civilizations.htm

[6] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/east_india_01.shtml


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