I'm trying to make a fairly complete history for a con world and I'm looking at historical groups to make the history more realistic and I noticed something... At some point the names of these groups stop being "the whatever Period/Civilization/Dynasty" and start being called "the whatever culture".

Is there a reason for this? Is there a difference between the two, or is it just that we don't have a real name for this group?

Also would, say, Mesopotamia as a whole be considered one culture/civilization even though divided into several nations? Or would it be said that Sumerian Civilization is in or came out of Halaf (Mesopotamian?) Culture?

Also what exactly are/defines the bounds of a "Culture"? Is Egypt, for example, part of the same culture of Mesopotamia? And, if a city state suddenly arose in Hallstatt Culture, would that City-state not be Hallstatt any more? Would all of Hallstatt culture stop existing, because that city-state exists or would they be two separate cultures?

This is a lot of questions all aimed at trying to figure out the distinction of how cultures are defined, especially in the ancient world.

  • An over-simplified answer is that a 'culture' is an isolated group of people who develop a distinct set of customs and traditions due to their geographic, political, or other reason for isolation. This is distinct from periods and dynasties in that periods/dynasties represent a cyclical churning and evolution of cultures. A great visual example is 'India'. Having been very isolated for most of it's history, it's 'culture' is extremely unique. Mar 26, 2017 at 23:50
  • Trying to fully delineate two closely related cultures is a fruitless process. Regardless, they're related, and their distinguishing features will be directly proportional to how isolated they are from one another. Mar 26, 2017 at 23:54
  • For example, Mesopotamia has like 6 kingdoms in it... are they all 1 culture? And are they the same culture as those outside of those kingdoms? Egypt is connected and seems very similar so why would that not also be part of the same culture? Its religion is different which generates some differences, but I'd imagine other than that they are very similar or interact very closely so it would seem to me they are the same. After all LA and NY in the USA are "different" but considered the same greater culture
    – Durakken
    Mar 26, 2017 at 23:59
  • A large part of my problem is that this divide in naming changes and the term "culture" just goes away. There is no "Sumer is part of X culture" There just is no culture named, but obviously they have to be part of some culture, is it a new one or are they a distinct one because they are a singular nation...even if all the customs and ethnic backgrouns are the same in another nation?
    – Durakken
    Mar 27, 2017 at 0:03
  • As a relatively amateur historian I'd offer the opinion that how you define any group has a lot of subjectivity to it. Rather than trying to find 'best practices' I'd instead focus on what makes sense in whatever context you're working in. For instance, if Mesopotamia has 6 kingdoms, perhaps they have parent and child cultures. It just depends on what the evidence tells you about how to delineate their way of life. The overarching frame is understanding what a 'culture' is, and then slotting groups into the cultures they belong from your own perspective. Mar 27, 2017 at 20:22

2 Answers 2


Permit me to introduce Wikipedia, a tool that can be used to answer many of these questions. Even if Wikipedia doesn't have a clear answer, every question on H:SE should be checked against Wikipedia and Google before it is asked.

Wikipedia gives you an overview of Culture, and explains that there is no simple definition. That said, the Kingdoms of Ancient Egypt have more in common with one another than they do with Mesopotamia. For most purposes, Egypt is a different culture (different religions, funerary practices, etc). If however you're discussing the differences between Egypt and contemporary Mesoamerica, then I think that you would be forgiven for referring to a Middle Eastern culture.

The distinction between culture and Dynasty is a bit more subtle. You refer to a number of references without providing any, which is kind of like asking me to solve 3x^2+2Y^2+13W without giving any of the variables. I don't know if you're reading those references in an encyclopedia, a scholarly journal, or a historical romance. That said, in general we refer to the Second Dynasty of Egypt, or the Silla Dynasty in Korea, which identifies a specific period within a cultural entity. Certainly there are cultural differences between the Federalist period and the ante-bellum period within the USA, but the terms help us to recognize a set of assumptions (for example, the role of political parties changes dramatically between those two periods).

Sometimes an empire may contain multiple cultures; Rome, Persia, Britain all contain multitudes of cultures. Sometimes they are subcultures - if you refer to snake handling culture, even though it is probably technically a sub-culture.

My professional historian girlfriend points out another contextual distinction - different fields use different labels. Fashion historians use the labels of political historical periods; economic historians use different terms. A historian studying religion will refer to the Great Awakening and the Second Great awakening, and their peers will know what they mean. (Ironically, as my professional historian girlfriend and I discussed that, I realized that I was mis-using the term, since that is not a period I tend to study).

Also, speaking in a generalized historical sense, the concept of "dynasty" works reasonably well during periods of personal or monarchical rule. That concept is much less useful after the emergence of the Nation State.

In summary, the questions you ask have no easy answers in theory. In practice, the usage depends on the audience for which one is writing. Depending on the framework of history for your constructed world, it may make sense to refer to the Foo Dynasty of the Bar culture, or it may be more appropriate to refer to the Baz administration of the Quar Empire. It all depends on what you want to construct.

  • I have no history books. You can say that I am more or less referencing wiki, with plenty of random other sources... getting a decent answer is not something you can get from wiki on these types of topics. I am referencing mostly periods around the end of Stone age - Early Bronze age transition... the purpose of questioning is that I'm trying to figure out if it would be appropriate to refer to say if Rome were founded by Gauls, if Rome would be considered Gaul culture, or not, if then Syria was too, would all 3 be Gaul culture, 3 seperate, or Rome and Syria be a single culture & Gaul another
    – Durakken
    Mar 26, 2017 at 23:46
  • History books or no, help center says that H:SE is not the place to ask us to read wikipedia for you. I believe most cultures are eponymous - they claim to be named after their founder (Rome was theoretically founded by Romulus). Some are accidental _ America is named after someone who had nothing do to with America at all. British culture survived as the original Britons were replaced by Romans, then Angles, but we still call it British. Ultimately all the names are arbitrary.
    – MCW
    Mar 26, 2017 at 23:50
  • 1
    I am not asking a question that is answered by Wikipedia. I said I have no history books to partially answer your opening comments. And there is no place that answers this question so far as I know. If there was, I would not ask this site since this site (SE) is so fruitless in providing actual answers most of the time in my experience.
    – Durakken
    Mar 26, 2017 at 23:56

My suggestions for "a con[structed] world" of yours:

  • "Culture" is about artifacts and how we categorize these artifacts today; scientists need to understand other scientists. It's a hierarchy, a general culture can be made of many more specific cultures, etc. The artifacts are produced by many people, not by a king: if the pottery looks different it doesn't matter if it was made under the same king.
  • "Civilization" is a "culture" that had cities.
  • "Nation" does not describe ancient times, it's a modern concept. If you mean physical appearance then it's "ethnicity".
  • "Kingdom"/"dynasty" is about who ruled; one person can rule one, many, or zero (as known to us) cultures. If some written source says there was a king John, we often have no way to connect it with any culture at all (if no 'piece of pottery' can be matched).

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