Inspired by this question, I have a more general one: What is, historically speaking, a civilization?

We can identify broad traits that make a society a civilization- agriculture, city building, social structures, etc. But what separates one civilization from another, both geopolitically and chronologically? Is there a widely accepted definition of "a civilization" that identifies a particular time period or region as being one distinct from others? What factors would be considered in defining a specific civilization?

For example, why would (not) the Roman Republic and the Byzantine Empire be considered the same civilization? What about the Byzantine Empire and the Western Roman Empire?

  • Not sure this is a history question. Sociology perhaps? What research have you done? Have you checked wikipedia and google?
    – MCW
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 23:02
  • Much like a language, I'd say the defining characteristic of a civilization is possession of an army.
    – Mark
    Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 1:25
  • The question was about what criteria historians use to delineate one civilization from another. It's been 6 years so I don't recall where I looked first but I wasn't looking for a word definition. Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 16:58
  • Do North and South America belong to the same civilization ? How about medieval Arabs and Ottoman Turks ? Western and Eastern Europe ? Northern and Southern Europe ? Latin, Slavic, and Germanic Europe ?
    – Lucian
    Commented Apr 12, 2020 at 0:54

4 Answers 4


Spengler uses one definition (around 8 civilizations), Toynbee uses another (around 23 civilizations), Huntington has its own (actually close to 10 civilizations). Therefore the question is quite open. in fact, Toynbee dedicates almost half volume to describe the definition of civilization as a study field.

Under Toynbee definition:
A civilization would be a subject of study that can be analyzed as a whole ignoring its relation with other civilizations. I mean, to understand the history of France you need to understand the history of Germany, therefore both countries belong to the same civilization, at the same time, you can ignore the history of Russia to understand France, which means that Russia should be a different civilization.

A civilization often ends in a universal empire which cover the whole civilization irradiation, like Roman Empire which covers all the roman-greek world, or Incan Empire that unifies the whole andean region, but these empires are only visible at the end of the life of a civilization. Once a universal empire falls the civilization might be close to its end.

Under this definition, the Roman Empire was the end of a civilization, and the Bizantine Empire was one of its children in the eastern side of the empire, while the western civilization started in the western side of the empire.

I highly recommend to read the first volume of Toynbee, but maybe the abridged version of Sommerville will be easier to digest.

Spengler https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Decline_of_the_West
Toynbee https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Study_of_History
Huntington https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clash_of_Civilizations

  • I don't understand "civilization irradiation".
    – mart
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 13:24
  • 2
    I'm sorry @mart for the mistake, the "irradiation" is a concept made by Toynbee. It makes reference to the influence of the culture made by a civilization. For example, rock music listened in China is an irradiation of western culture.
    – Santiago
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 14:10
  • That's an interesting way of breaking them down, and much less granular than I would have thought. I'm not sure I see the logic behind the criteria of singular subjects though- can you really study Hellenic civilization without covering Persia and vice versa? Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 15:47
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    @TravisChristian Indeed. You can study greek civilization without any knowledge of persian civilization. They only are related politically, but their cultures almost don't mix (arts, religion, language, etc). But to understand the culture of Athens you need to understand the culture of Jonia, therefore Athens and the Jonia belong to the same civilization. But as I said before, the definition is open to interpretation, and history is part of social sciencies, not to exact sciences, that's why three authors had different number of civilizations.
    – Santiago
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 16:24

Definitions from Free Dictionary, Dictionary.com, and Oxford dictionary (subscriber only) should tell you the official definition.

The Roman Republic and Byzantine Empire are different because of religion, geographical location, population, language and customs. Although the Byzantine did consider themselves the heirs of the Roman Empire. In the same way that the Holy Roman Empire is not the same as the Roman Empire in religion, location, language, population, and customs but again a lineage was claimed.

  • your link is only accessible to subscribers Commented Oct 26, 2011 at 15:33
  • Ah, probably only works in the UK. Apologies and main answer edited. Commented Oct 26, 2011 at 15:45
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    The Byzantine Empire has a much better claim to successor of the Roman Empire though, for quite obvious reasons.
    – Noldorin
    Commented Nov 7, 2011 at 22:13
  • @Noldorin that's a separate topic ... Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 16:31
  • Not at all. It was directly pertinent to the post, I think you'll find
    – Noldorin
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 16:32

Well, with regard to the Roman Empire and Byzantine Empire, you need to understand their distinguishable religious, cultural and political characteristics.

The Byzantine Empire, during its first 300 years-(from Emperor Constantine until the rise of Emperor Heraclius), was essentially, an outgrowth of the old Roman Empire; that is to say, the Byzantine Empire was the Eastern half or zone of the Roman Empire, while Rome-(as well as the city of Milan beginning around 300 AD/ CE), represented the Western half or zone of the old Roman Empire. However, by 476 AD/CE, the Western half of the Roman Empire collapsed and were overrun by the Visigoths-(as well as related Germanic tribes), while the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire continued for several centuries-(until its collapse in 1453).

For the first 300 years, the Byzantine Empire was dominated and governed mostly by ethnic Roman Emperors-(i.e. Constantine, Justinian), though by 606 AD/CE, with the rise of Emperor Heraclius, the Byzantine Empire became an increasingly Hellenic and religiously Eastern Empire. This would last until "The Fall Of Constantinople" in 1453-(though the city of Constantinople was occupied by the Papal backed Crusaders during the first half of the 1200's).

While Greco-Byzantium flourished for much of the Early Medieval period, Rome, the majority of the Italian peninsula and nearly all of its Western and Northern European territories slumbered through "The Dark Ages". Politically speaking, many European territories were either under direct or peripheral control of the Papacy. Even the so-called, "Holy Roman Empire"-(in its early years), was still largely under Papal influence and orchestration. And "Dark Ages" Europe, was a Roman rite Christian religious culture largely influenced and controlled by the Papacy thereby distinguishing itself from the Byzantine Christian East.

So as you can see, there were major ethno-demographic, cultural, political and religious "distinctions" which contrasted Rome from Constantinople throughout much of The Middle Ages.

  1. Stable food supply: A complex can thrive only if its member have enough food.

  2. Social structure: Social structure include different jobs and social levels. People at higher levels have greater status than others.

  3. A highly developed culture: This includes things such as painting, architecture, music and literature.

  4. A system of government: A system of government is needed to direct people’s behavior and make life orderly.

  5. A religious system: A set of beliefs, usually in a god, together with forms of worship.

  6. Advances in technology: They must have created practical tools and inventions.

  7. A highly developed written language: There must be some form of written language within the civilization.

  • 3
    There have been civilizations which do not have a religion or religious system. There have been civilizations formed by people with no advanced technologies. There have been civilizations who did not have a written language. What you state are contributing factors in building a great/established/stable civilization.
    – NSNoob
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 10:53
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    This doesn't really answer the question about the traits that are used to define one civilization as being distinct from another.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 11:11
  • Where did you get this list from?
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 14:05
  • @NSNoob - I don't think that link says what you imply. From the accepted answer, most folks wouldn't call pygmies a "civilization" (they historically were the stereotypical example of "uncivilized" people), and Jainism is most definitely a religion.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 14:10
  • @T.E.D. I was referring to Buddhism in the answer below (Added link to question instead of answer somehow) which can be argued to be a philosophy instead of a religion and subsequent civilizations that adopted to it such as Indian Civilization under Ashoka. I am here using a very loose definition of Civilization e.g. I consider the Altaic Nomads of Steppes to have their own nomadic civilization.
    – NSNoob
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 14:19

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