This unit addresses the growth and development of empires during Era 3 and their decline and collapse. It also explores other ways in which societies were organized during this period that did not conform to an imperial model. The driving questions of the unit frame students’ investigations: (1) How did the interaction between empires affect their growth and development?; (2) What were the most significant factors that enabled empires to stay in power and why did these empires eventually fall?; and (3) Why did some societies not become empires or parts of empires?
In order to develop an understanding of empires, as well as their social, political, and cultural structures, students examine four empires in-depth: Han, Roman, Kushan, and Gupta. While each is different in certain respects, students focus on the commonalities among them. In exploring the Han Dynasty, students first situate the empire in both time and space through timelines and map analyses. They compare different accounts of the Han Dynasty and examine important Han technologies and innovations. Students revisit Confucianism and explore the civil service in Han China in order to consider the factors that helped unify China during this time.
After investigating the Roman Empire in geographic and historical contexts, students learn about Roman contributions or innovations, as represented by four specific categories: (1) art and ideas; (2) language, writing, and calendars; (3) technology and engineering; and (4) culture and lifestyle. They construct an argument about which advancement was most significant using the criteria for historical significance from Unit 1. They then focus on a lesser known empire, the Kushan Empire of central Asia. After situating the empire in comparison to the chronology of the Han and Roman Empires, students make predictions about the Kushans while studying the image of a Kushan coin. Students then consider how the Kushan Empire demonstrates that Afroeurasia was indeed a connected world zone.
To help students distinguish an “empire” from other political/social organizations, the Mayan civilization is introduced. Students consider whether the Mayans were an empire using the criteria for empire developed in past lessons. They compare the Mayans with the Romans and Han Chinese and make conjectures about the reasons for key differences using the concept of geographic luck.
Next, students explore the Golden Age of the Gupta Empire and take up the question of how the age was “golden” and to what extent it was “golden” for everyone. After situating the Gupta Empire in history and geography with map and timeline work, students are introduced to two claims about the Gupta Empire: (1) it was a “golden age” and (2) the social hierarchy of the caste system meant that not everyone benefitted the same way. Students use evidence they collect through readings and classwork to support their assessment of the Gupta Empire as having a Golden Age.
Students then turn their focus to the question why do empires collapse? Using the empires previously explored, students identify common characteristics shared by these empires and explore the reasons why they declined and fell. They categorize these reasons as internal or external, and then also as economic, cultural, social, political, or natural environment. Students also compare the fall of these empires to the decline of Mayan civilization. The unit concludes with students exploring “other stories” through a web quest and group work. They analyze societies around the world during this era that did not fit the pattern of empires. In comparing these other societies to empires, students make predictions about what filled the power vacuums left by the fallen empires, which will be taken up in the following unit.
Clearly, this unit focuses on the larger common patterns shared by empires and their decline. Again, we are looking at differences, but world history focuses on the larger human story – the story we all share. In learning about how empires addressed common human problems and why they fell, students examine patterns of leadership, social hierarchy, technology development, and societal interactions. In doing so, they consider factors common during the decline of empires, such as over-expansion and loss of control, corruption, disease, warfare, natural disasters, and the failure of social/political institutions to solve problems.
As students proceed through the lessons, they use both timelines and maps to “see” changes in civilizations, and to investigate scale and the impact of geography on people and the existence and decline of empires. They also engage with a range of primary and secondary documents to get a sense of life within empires during their heyday and decline, as well as life outside of empires during this period of human history.