III. The Postclassical Period, 500–1500
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
III. The Postclassical Period, 500–1500
A. Global and Comparative Dimensions
1. Periodization, 500–1000
During the postclassical period, following the decline of the great classical empires of Asia and the Mediterranean, three major developments stand out in world history and the history of many individual societies: the expansion of civilization to new areas—in Asia, Africa, and Europe, this involved contact with and outreach from the older centers (China, India, the Middle East and North Africa, and Byzantium); the spread of major world religions, including the development of Islam, the most successful single religion during this period; and the intensification of international contacts in the Eastern Hemisphere. These themes were all established in the first part of the postclassical period, 500–1000. Changes in the Islamic world, the rise of new empires spreading from central Asia, new patterns of international contact (involving new policies in China and in Europe), and solidification of the major religions mark the second phase of the postclassical period, 1000–1500. In European history this period coincides with the Middle Ages (See Europe, 461–1500), and the resultant label “medieval” was formerly applied to world history more generally during the postclassical era.  1
The regional civilizations of the Eastern Hemisphere were transformed in this period. The Eastern Hemisphere ecumene continued to expand through trade, the spread of religions, migrations of peoples, and conquests. In the Western Hemisphere, Mesoamerican and Andean civilizations emerged in a context of complex, nonurbanized societies.  2
a. Transformation of Regional Civilizations
The major traditions of classical empires ended either through defeat and collapse or transformation.  3
CHINESE IMPERIAL EXPERIENCE. The end of the Han Empire in 220 created an era of warfare among small rival states. This “period of the Six Dynasties” lasted until the reestablishment of imperial unity by the SUI DYNASTY (589–618) and the TANG DYNASTY (618–907) (See 618–907). The new imperial system was more clearly based on the bureaucratic skills of the scholar-gentry class, with the aristocracy and military playing a less central role than in the classical system. This postclassical style of empire was confirmed by its continuation in the SONG DYNASTY in 960, following a time of instability after the fall of the Tang.  4
POST-ROMAN WESTERN EUROPE. When Roman rule collapsed in western Europe, a number of states were established by groups that had migrated into the region. The Franks (See The Frankish Kingdom), in the area of modern France and Germany, established a kingdom whose leader, Charles the Great, or CHARLEMAGNE (r. 768–814), was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the pope in 800. The Carolingian Empire disintegrated, and the later efforts by a German king, OTTO THE GREAT (r. 936–73), also failed to reestablish regional imperial unity. The major sources of unity were the ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH and the teachings of Latin Christianity.  5
EASTERN ROMAN EMPIRE AND BYZANTIUM (See The Byzantine Empire). Imperial rule continued in the eastern Roman Empire under the emperors in Constantinople. JUSTINIAN (r. 527–65) reconquered most of the Mediterranean areas of the Roman Empire (See 532), but was unable to recreate broader Roman unity. The postclassical eastern Roman Empire gradually became a powerful Greek imperial monarchy known as the BYZANTINE EMPIRE, identified with the ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN CHURCH. Despite losses to invaders from central Eurasia in the north and to Muslims, it remained a major regional empire. The MACEDONIAN DYNASTY (867–1055) led a resurgence, but following the death of Basil II (1025), internal divisions and territorial losses reduced the empire to a minor state around Constantinople.  6
POST-GUPTA INDIA. The most successful effort to restore regional imperial unity in India was made by HARSHA (r. 606–47) (See 606–47). However, his empire collapsed at his death, and no later state assumed a dominant position until the end of the 10th century, when Muslim military dynasties from the northwest continued the Muslim conquest of India. Hindu culture provided the foundation for regional civilizational unity without political integration.  7
EMERGENCE OF THE ISLAMIC MIDDLE EAST. The rise of ISLAM (See Continued Spread of Religions) in the 7th century brought an end to the classical imperial systems of the Middle East. Islam was a continuation of ethical monotheism and is recorded as the revelation to the prophet MUHAMMAD (570–632). Muhammad's successors as leader of the Muslim community, called caliphs, conquered most of the Middle Eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire in 634–43 and brought an end to the Sassanid Empire in 637. Civil wars brought the UMAYYAD CALIPHATE (661–750) and then the ABBASID CALIPHATE (750–1258) to power in an empire that initially continued classical Sassanid and eastern Roman structures. However, the Islamic world became a postclassical society unified by the faith and institutions of Islam. By the mid-10th century, the caliphate imperial structure was replaced by a new style of state based on commanders called sultans (See Overview), who initially gained titles and legitimacy by supporting the then-powerless caliphs.  8
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.