Interactions in the Late Classical Period


Summary: The classical period came to an end with the weakening and fall of the empires of Rome, Han China, and Gupta India to invaders. The fall of the three great classical empires showed a number of similarities. At the same time, the late classical period featured increased interactions among the classical empires and other peoples of Asia, the Indian Ocean basin, and the Mediterranean world.


Key Terms



latifundia *

Silk Roads*

White huns

Han China

The Han dynasty of China began to decline around 100 CE. Among the causes of its decline were:

•  Heavy taxes levied on peasants

•  Decline of interest in Confucian intellectual goals

•  Poor harvests

•  Population decline from epidemic disease

•  Social unrest, particularly by students

•  Decline in morality

•  Weak emperors and the increased influence of army generals

•  Unequal land distribution

•  Decline in trade

•  Pressure from bordering nomadic tribes

As political, economic, and social decay befell Han China, Daoism gained a new popularity. In 184 CE, the Yellow Turbans, a Daoist revolutionary movement, promised a new age of prosperity and security which would be initiated by magic. Buddhism also spread as Chinese cultural unity was dissolving.

The decay of the Han Empire made it difficult for the Chinese to resist nomadic invaders living along their borders. These invaders, or Hsiung-nu , had for decades been raiding Han China, prompting the Chinese to pay them tribute to prevent further invasions. By 220 CE, however, Han China’s strength had deteriorated to the point that it could no longer repel a final thrust by the invading Hsiung-nu, who then poured into the empire. The fall of Han China was followed by centuries of disorder and political decentralization until Chinese rulers in the northern part of the country drove out the invaders. In 589 CE, the Sui dynasty ascended to power and continued to establish order in China. In spite of significant threats to Chinese civilization, it did ultimately survive. Confucian tradition endured among the elite classes, and the nomads eventually assimilated into Chinese culture.


The golden age of Rome—the Pax Romana —came to a close with the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 CE. Historians have noted a number of causes of the decline and fall of Rome including:

•  Ineffective later emperors concerned more with a life of pleasure than a desire to rule wisely

•  Influence of army generals

•  Decline of trade

•  Increasingly high taxes

•  Decreased money flow into the empire as conquests of new territory ceased

•  Population decline as a result of epidemic disease

•  Poor harvests

•  Unequal land distribution

•  Social and moral decay and lack of interest in the elite classes

•  Roman dependence on slave labor

•  Recruitment of non-Romans into the Roman army

•  Vastness of the empire, rendering it difficult to rule

•  Barbarian invasions

Attempts to Save the Roman Empire

As the Roman Empire declined economically, small landowners were frequently forced to sell their land to the owners of large estates, or latifundia. The self-sufficiency of the latifundia lessened the need for a central authority such as the Roman emperor. Furthermore, the economic self-sufficiency of the estates discouraged trade among the various parts of the empire and neighboring peoples. The decline in trade eventually produced a decline in urban population.

Some emperors tried desperately to save the empire. Diocletian (ruled 284 to 305 CE) imposed stricter control over the empire and declared himself a god. When the Christians refused to worship him, Diocletian heightened persecutions against them. The Emperor Constantine (ruled 312 to 337) established a second capital at Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. Converting to Christianity, Constantine allowed the practice of the faith in Rome. Although the Western portion of the empire steadily declined, the eastern portion, centered around Constantinople, continued to thrive and carry on a high volume of long-distance trade.

The last measure that weakened the Western Roman Empire originated in the steppes of Central Asia. In the fifth century CE, the nomadic Huns began migrating south and west in search of better pasturelands. The movement of the Huns exerted pressure on Germanic tribes who already lived around the border of the Roman Empire. These tribes, in turn, overran the Roman borders. By 425 CE, several Germanic kingdoms were set up within the empire; by 476 CE, the last Western Roman emperor was replaced by a Germanic ruler from the tribe of the Visigoths.

The eastern portion of the empire did not fall at the same time as the Western empire. One reason for its endurance was that it saw less pressure from invaders. Located on the Bosporus, it was the hub of numerous trade routes and a center of art and architecture. Neighboring empires—most notably the Parthians and, after 227 CE, the Sassanids—served as trade facilitators. Not only did they preserve the Greek culture, but they continued to bring Indian and Chinese goods and cultural trends to the eastern, or Byzantine, empire. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian (ruled 527 to 565 CE) attempted to capture portions of Rome’s lost territory. Justinian’s efforts were largely in vain, however, as the Western empire increasingly fragmented into self-sufficient estates and tiny Germanic kingdoms. Trade and learning declined, and cities shrank in size. The centralized government of Rome was replaced by rule based on the tribal allegiances of the Germanic invaders.

Gupta India

The fall of Gupta India to invading forces was less devastating than that of Han China or Rome. By 500 CE, Gupta India endured a number of invasions by the White Huns , nomadic peoples who may have been related to the Huns whose migrations drove Germanic peoples over the borders of the Roman Empire. Simultaneously, the influence of Gupta rulers was in decline as local princes became more powerful. Until about 600 CE, the nomads drove farther into central India. India fragmented into regional states ruled by the princes, who called themselves Rajput.

Although political decline occurred as a result of invasions, traditional Indian culture continued. Buddhism became less popular, while Hinduism added to its number of followers. Traditional Indian culture met another challenge after 600 CE in the form of the new religion of Islam.

Other Contacts with Classical Civilizations

Although the civilizations of Han China, Gupta India, Greece, and Rome dominated world history during the classical period, other societies and civilizations came into contact with and were influenced by them. Indian merchants drew the people of Southeast Asia into long-distance trade patterns. Contacts between India and Southeast Asia were further broadened by the spread of Buddhism and Hinduism from India to Southeast Asia.

Trade contacts also drew Africa into the classical Mediterranean world. South of Egypt lay the kingdom of Kush. The Kushites had long admired Egyptian culture and adapted their own writing system from Egyptian hieroglyphics. Kush also was a center of the independent invention of iron smelting. About 750 BCE, as Egypt weakened, Kush conquered Egypt. Kush, in turn, was defeated by the Christian kingdom of Axum about 300 CE. Axum and its rival, the kingdom of Ethiopia, traded with parts of the Roman Empire along the eastern Mediterranean. Greek merchants had carried Christianity to Ethiopia in the fourth century CE.

Silk Road Trade

One of the most far-reaching of the contacts between classical civilizations and other societies was the contact of the pastoral nomads of Central Asia with established societies. Central Asian herders often served as trade facilitators along the famed Silk Roadsthat linked trade between China and urban areas in Mesopotamia in the last millennium BCE. During the time of the Roman Empire, the Silk Roads were extended to the Mediterranean world. Named for their most prized trade commodity, the Silk Roads also were noted for the exchange of a variety of other goods between East and West. Nomadic peoples frequently supplied animals to transport goods along the Silk Roads. The Silk Roads served as an artery that transported not only trade goods but also religious beliefs, technology, and disease.

Indian Ocean Trade

The Silk Roads included not only land routes across Central Asia and Europe but also sea lanes in the Indian Ocean. Chinese pottery was traded along with Indian spices and ivory from India and Africa. The Indian Ocean trade network, which included the South China Sea, involved mariners from China, Malaysia, Southeast Asia, and Persia. Sailors used the seasonal monsoon winds to chart their course and carry out voyages that linked sections from East Africa to Southern China.

Trans-Saharan Trade

A third principal trade route in classical times was one across the Sahara. One of the most significant developments in the trade across the Sahara was the use of the camel and the development of the camel saddle. It is possible that the camel arrived in the Sahara from Arabia in the first century BCE. Early Saharan trade patterns included the exchange of salt and palm oil. During the days of the Roman Empire, North Africa also supplied Italy with olives and wheat, and with wild animals.

Images Rapid Review

Although they ultimately fell to nomadic invaders, the classical civilizations of China, India, and the Mediterranean produced traditions that stamped an enduring mark on world cultures. Major world belief systems spread throughout Eurasia. The Silk Roads, Indian Ocean network, and trans-Saharan routes linked the Eastern Hemisphere to the foundations of a global trade network.

Images Review Questions

1 .    During the classical period, Africa

      (A)  was cut off from global trade patterns

      (B)  repelled Christian missionary efforts

      (C)  lost contact with classical civilizations

      (D)  saw new technology used in trans-Saharan travel

2 .    The declining years of Han China and the Roman Empire shared all of the following EXCEPT

      (A)  poor harvests

      (B)  epidemic disease

      (C)  attack by powerful neighboring states

      (D)  unequal land distribution

3 .    Attempts to save the Roman Empire from ruin included

      (A)  the division of the latifundia

      (B)  initial acceptance of Christianity followed by increased persecution

      (C)  the emancipation of Roman slaves

      (D)  the establishment of a new capital in the eastern empire

4 .    The eastern portion of the Roman Empire

      (A)  successfully restored the boundaries of the Western empire under Justinian

      (B)  competed with the Parthians and Sassanids for trade

      (C)  was a center of trade, art, and architecture

      (D)  unlike the western portion, did not experience pressure from invaders

5 .    The decline of Gupta India

      (A)  saw the increased power of local princes

      (B)  resulted in the decline of traditional Indian culture

      (C)  unlike Rome, did not result in the fragmentation of the country

      (D)  occurred without pressure from invading peoples

6 .    Silk Road trade

      (A)  flourished in spite of constant interferences from nomadic tribes

      (B)  was confined to land routes across Asia

      (C)  bypassed Mesopotamia

      (D)  established links between the empires of Han China and Rome

7 .    Indian Ocean trade

      (A)  linked all areas of the Indian Ocean basin except Africa

      (B)  saw mariners utilize the geographic forces of the Indian Ocean

      (C)  declined with the fall of classical empires

      (D)  failed to establish connections with land routes

8 .    The decline of Han China

      (A)  saw the end of Chinese established traditions

      (B)  like Rome, saw invaders permanently dominate the empire

      (C)  witnessed Daoism, rather than Confucianism, gaining popularity

      (D)  resulted in the decline of Buddhism in China

Images Answers and Explanations

1 .   D   The camel saddle was especially important to trans-Saharan trade during the classical era. Africa traded with Rome (C) and was connected to Indian Ocean trade (A). Christianity entered Axum and Ethiopia during this period (B).

2 .   C   Neither Han China nor the Roman Empire was attacked by powerful neighboring states. Both were invaded by tribal peoples from outside their borders. The remaining choices were common to both empires in their periods of decline.

3 .   D   In order to tap into the wealth of the eastern empire, Constantine established a new capital at Constantinople, the former Byzantium. During Rome’s decline the latifundia became larger, not smaller (A). Persecutions of Christians were followed by acceptance of the religion, then by official status under Theodosius (B). Romans continued to rely on slavery (C).

4 .   C   The Byzantine Empire was a cultural center. Justinian’s efforts were only partially successful in temporarily restoring some of the boundaries of Rome (A). The Parthians and Sassanids acted as trade facilitators (B). The eastern empire experienced some pressure from invaders, but not nearly to the extent that the western portion did (D).

5 .   A   After the fall of the Gupta dynasty, India was fragmented (C) into local principalities. Indian culture, however, remained intact (B), and Hinduism remained the dominant religion of India. Like Rome, Gupta India experienced pressure from invaders (D).

6 .   D   The Roman roads connected to the routes of the Silk Roads. Nomadic tribes often assisted travelers and traders along the Silk Roads, providing horses, camels, and supplies (A). The Silk Roads also embraced the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean (B) and went through Mesopotamia (C).

7 .   B   Mariners used the monsoon winds to facilitate travel in the Indian Ocean. Africa was connected to Indian Ocean trade (A). Trade in the Indian Ocean continued after the fall of classical empires, especially after the entry of Islam into the region (C). The waters of the Indian Ocean facilitated long-distance trade from China to Africa and connected with land routes from China to Rome (D).

8 .   C   Daoism enjoyed a resurgence of prosperity as Han China declined, whereas Confucianism declined in popularity. Although Chinese traditions suffered initially, they rebounded after the fall of the Han (A). Invaders eventually assimilated into the Chinese culture (B). Buddhism gained popularity in China after the fall of the Han (D).

PERIOD 2 Summary: Organization and Reorganization of Human Societies (c. 600 BCE to c. 600 CE)



Key Comparisons

1.    Political, economic, and social characteristics of the empires of Rome, Han China, and Gupta India

2.    Exchanges in the Indian Ocean versus those in the Mediterranean Sea

3.    The expansion and appeal of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity

4.    The origins, philosophies, and goals of Confucianism and Daoism

5.    The decline and fall of Han China, Rome, and Gupta India

6.    Trans-Saharan versus Silk Roads trade


Change/Continuity Chart





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