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Reviews of Human Drama, Volume II: From 500 to 1450 C.E.

Teachers’ Guide for Volume II
The Human Drama: World History from 500 to 1450 CE

Volume II of The Human Drama deepens the complexity of existing patterns by focusing on the development of new technologies, ideas, values and circumstances and it introduces the societies and beliefs of people who originated in the Western Hemisphere and how their lives and beliefs differ from those of the earlier societies.  Moreover, this volume examines the results of increasing cultural contact as explorers, traders, and pilgrims travel and settle far from home.

Volume Two also introduces and examines the concept of a Universal Religion: a faith that anyone is welcome to join so long as he or she accepts and follows its insights and rules.  The major universal religions are Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.  Believers of a universal religion usually actively recruit new members, and a majority of their followers now live in regions far removed from where the faith originated.  Buddhism, founded in the Indian subcontinent, now has far more followers in the rest of Asia than in India. Christianity, which originated in West Asia, now has many more followers in the Western Hemisphere, and followers of Islam can also be found far from Saudi Arabia.

Because The Human Drama asks you to use the concept of recurring patterns in world history, we suggest that you build on what your students have already studied. For example, in Volume One, students had a chance to identify the characteristic and importance of ancient cities and to consider the strategies leaders devised for controlling diverse populations. As you consider what follows, we encourage you to refer back to the material about the growth of cities and review how cities developed into centers of political power and commercial activity.

Act One: Complex Societies Develop in Mesoamerica              (from ca. 1500 BCE to 900 CE)

Setting the Stage: Introduce or review the importance of geography and non-verbal evidence such as art and other artifacts when trying to understand different societies. Have students identify the area known as Mesoamerica: that is, the area that now comprises southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador and part of Costa Rica.

            Scene One: Use artifacts to infer initial information about the Olmecs. Because historians have not discovered evidence of written records from the earliest human communities in Mesoamerica, scholars rely on artifacts and art to piece together the early history of this area of the world.  Encourage students to speculate the meaning and importance of the image of a jaguar spirit or the colossal heads. Might they represent leaders or gods or important spirits? What do they suggest about Olmec values? What might be the significance of a calendar? Why might these people have disappeared? What other questions do you have about Olmec society?

Scene Two: Cosmopolitan Teotihuacan. First introduce or review the characteristic of a city-state and of a sacred site or city. Then have student identify the seeming importance of religious beliefs in Teotihuacan. What do they suggest about what the people believed and the importance of those beliefs?  What does the lay-out of the city suggest about the people’s beliefs? What is the evidence of social stratification among the people but also their need for and the importance of unity?

Scene Three: The Maya: How did Mayan leaders establish and sustain their legitimacy and power? What do rituals such as the ball games suggest about Mayan values and beliefs? Describe some Mayan achievements. What are possible reasons for the Mayan collapse?

Summary, Review and Comparisons: While studying the Maya, students can review the concept of a city-state and compare the Mayan city-states with the Greek city-states examined in Volume One. Be sure to emphasize that the Mesoamerican communities shared many of the same characteristics as the Eurasian cultures studied in Volume One. However, there were also many differences. Some of the obvious differences were:

  1. Mesoamerican cities developed first in Central America and then spread North and South rather than East and West that was the pattern of exchange in Eurasia.
  2. Mesoamericans did not develop many domesticated animals for power and transportation.
  3. Mesoamerican agriculture depended on maize rather than wheat and rice and was far more varied.
  4. Mesoamericans did not develop immunities to many of the diseases common in Eurasia. This fact will be crucial when Europeans first settle in the Americas.

Suggested Teacher aids about Mesoamerican civilizations:

Act Two: The Development and Spread of Universal Religions 200 BCE to 800 CE

Mahayana Buddhism, Christianity and Islam are the three Universal Religions.  Buddhism and Christianity were introduced in Volume One of The Human Drama. After reviewing what is meant by a universal religion, this act introduces Islam and examines how and why the ideas and beliefs of this Universal religion spread to and took root in Gupta India, the Byzantine Empire and the Tang and Song dynasties. Around 800 CE, Buddhists accounted for about one half of the world’s population. Hinduism had close to a billion followers, [Don: is that figure correct for 800 CE?]  This faith [you mean Hinduism, right?] also spread to Southeast Asia and the great civilization at Angkor Watt was deeply influenced by Hinduism. You should also share with students the influences that Judaism has had on both Christianity and Islam and the profound influences that Hinduism has had on Buddhism.

Characteristics of Universal Religions

  1. Universal religions are open to anyone, and anyone may become a member by following its tenants and beliefs.
  2. Worship centers on a single universal divinity.
  3. The faith promises comfort and salvation for all who believe.
  4. The believers offer spiritual leadership to help others experience salvation.
  5. The message is in a form that everyone can understand.
  6. The faith tries to address and answer problems and insecurities people are experiencing.

Factors that Facilitate the Spread of a Universal Religion

  1. The times seem to be “out of joint” and people feel the need to believe.
  2. The values people hold do not satisfy them, so they are open to new insights and ideas.
  3. Communities of believers spread the faith and try to attract non-believers.
  4. A written set of beliefs (a cannon) guides believers and can be shared with potential converts.
  5. The government often supports believers and/or grants them certain advantages.
  6. Believers are able to communicate with one another over large distances.
  7. Believers have a solid economic base so they can reach out to others.
  8. The beliefs and rituals resonate with existing worldviews in various areas. (This is often referred to as a degree of syncretism.)

Suggested teaching strategies:  Be sure students understand the difference between Universal Religions and the many other faiths in world history. Just because a religion is “Universal” does not mean it is superior or closer to the Truth. Rather, that designation underscores the fact that it is open to anyone who wants to follow it teaching. That said, the three Universal Religions now make up the vast majority of the world’s people. Christianity has about 2 billion adherents, Islam about 1.6 billion and Buddhism about 600 million, not counting those in China.

As your student consider the universal religions, it is important to include some of the many adaptations the beliers have made with many local cultures to which the faiths have spread. For example: spirits in Southeast Asia that have become part of modern Buddhism; the importance of trees in Christianity and Buddhism; the incorporation of local Gods into Christianity as saints; the adoption of veiling in Islam; the role of prayer beads in Islam, Christianity and Buddhism; the adoption of aspects of Mother Goddess worship in Christianity and Buddhism.

Additional teaching suggestions:  Teaching Units from AP History Center and World History Center at Northeastern University: “The Spread of Universal Religions: Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.” Religions in World History: The Spread of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam by Donald and Jean Johnson, published by McGraw-Hill, 2005. Also see Donald Swearer, The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia. Albany, NY:  State University of New York Press, 2010. and “World History for Us All: Afroeurasia and the Rise of Islam, 600 – 1000 CE”

Act Three: The Flowering of Empires 500 to 1450

Briefly review the characteristic of empires, what makes an empire strong, and the signs of growing weaknesses.  Your students may find the chart that introduced empires in Volume One of The Human Drama helpful.  Remind your students that empires are composed of many diverse subjects and usually need a strong military to keep order and to protect the people from outside threats.

This act introduces theatre states.  Theater states were usually much smaller that empires, and instead of using force to keep their subjects loyal and willing to obey the rules, theater states try to find ways to attract subjects who will be willing to obey the government’s rules and help finance many of its activities. A government needs people to support its activities, protect its land and people, produce needed goods, and perform other necessary jobs. But because the boundaries of a theater state are usually porous, and many subjects settle far from or flee beyond the government’s control, to keep subjects from being discontented, leaders usually try to provide exciting festivals and elaborate displays of wealth that draw their subjects to the state and make them eager to remain loyal. An excellent example of a Theater State is Angkor Watt in Cambodia.

Subjects near the capital of a city state are usually very aware of the central government’s power and authority. People living farther away are usually not as conscious of its power. Encourage your students to keep in mind that most empires have characteristics of both land based empires and theatre states.  (For that reason, you may also want to refer your students to the questions about the flowering of empires at the end of the Chapter III.)

Some key questions for discussions to use during this unit:

  1. In what ways does the Gupta Empire fit the description of a “Theater State?” In what ways is it different?
  2. How did the social structure under the Guptas differ from that of earlier empires such as Rome and the Han?
  3. How did the organization and culture of the Byzantine Empire differ from the earlier Western Roman Empire? Would either (or both) have characteristics of a city-state? If so, mention those characteristics.
  4. Based on the information in this unit, who came out ahead in the “Iconoclastic struggle?”
  5. What information and examples could you use to support the idea that during the Tang and Song dynasties, China was the greatest civilization in the world?
  6. In what ways was Neo-Confucianism a synthesis of earlier Confucianism and Buddhism?

Additional Teaching Aids: For Angkor Watt: Write Donald and Jean Johnson, for “ Angkor Watt, A Power Point presentation. at for a copy. See also: EDSITEment! The Best of the Humanities on the Web.

For major mathematical achievements of the Gupta Age, see The Asia Society’s Unit on Indian Mathematics at <>

Act Four: New States Emerge in Afro-Eurasia

Instead of introducing a new pattern, Act Four of  The Human Drama focuses on the further development and spread of several of the world views and political organizations your students have already studied and also introduces two new concepts, a “theatre state” and a “stateless society.” This act is also a good time to assign students singly or in small groups to do some original research. Possible topics might be: Why did certain ideas spread to some areas but not to others? Why did leaders in some areas have very strong central control and leaders in other areas had almost none? Why did slavery exist in some areas and not in others? What role has the weather and natural resources played in different areas over time? Why were camel caravans so important in the era between 300 and 1300 BCE?  Choose an invention and research its origin, historic role and importance. Or you might want to compare certain works of art, or types of buildings, or important sources of food.  Build on your own interests when possible.

This act also introduces the concept of a so-called stateless society, that is, one where there is no strong central government that controls its subjects and rules over its territory.  Instead, political control is shared among different groups.  Some individuals have authority because of their family and lineage; some by virtue of their age. Some only have authority over specific occupational groups. As you can imagine, in stateless societies, the authority is shared among more than one group and the power of each group is limited. Although this type of governing system may seem weak, some so-called stateless societies may actually be better able to respond to emergencies created by such things as changes in the environment than more centralized states can.

Consider asking your students to do research together in small groups. For example, one group might identify the aspects of Indian and Chinese culture that appealed to people in Southeast Asia and try to explain why people in Southeast Asia found these ideas appealing. Another group could focus on the importance of trade in West Africa and/or consider what aspects of Christianity and Islam people there found appealing and why they rejected or ignored other ideas. If you have several students who are particularly interested in architecture and city planning, they might focus on the design, meaning, and importance of Hindu temples in India, or Angkor Watt in Southeast Asia, or the plan of Baghdad. A fourth group might focus on the appeal of Islam, or on the importance of geography in several different areas. A few students might want to compare European feudalism with the Japanese feudal system and the Code of Bushido.  Make sure each group shares the results of its research and new insights with the whole class. Let your students’ imagination and interests be a guide, and be sure to provide time for students to share what they have learned.

Some Core Questions:

  1. In what ways did the South Indian states differ from the northern Indian civilizations?
  2. Some historians have termed the states of Southeast Asia, “Greater India.” In what ways is this classification justified? In what ways not?
  3. How does the architecture of Angkor Watt suggest the Hindu universe?
  4. How did Vietnam, Korea and Japan adapt Chinese culture to their own traditions?
  5. Describe and explain the importance of the great Bantu Migration in African History?
  6. How did the kingdoms around the Niger River create unique civilizations?
  7. Following Muhammad’s death, how did East African societies relate to the Indian Ocean trading system?
  8. How did major new Chinese dynasties, adapt to new locations and new circumstances?
  9. Compare the economies, scientific production and urbanism of the European Kingdoms after 500 CE with the Islamic Centers of the same period.

Teaching Aids:

For Japanese Architecture see:  For feudalism in Japan, see:


For survey of South Asia

For good lessons on African History, see Leon Clark, Through African Eyes. New York: The Apex Press, 2007

Act Five: Hemispheric Interaction (1,000 to 1450)

With each passing century, the pace and extent of cross-cultural interaction has increased.  By 1450, ships and camels—the RVs and 747s of their day—began to knit the entire hemisphere into a truly global system, making possible the exchange not only of goods but of science and technology, new foods, styles, diseases and religious and philosophic concepts. By 1450 it was possible to “post” a letter in China and have it delivered in Vienna in only a few weeks.

Cross-cultural interactions are one of the most important sources of innovation and change in history. In fact, some historians would argue that interactions are the major cause of change. Interactions foster new ideas and invention, but they also lead to the loss of some beliefs and cultural aspects and even to the extinction of some species. Exposure to new ideas and cultural values forces men and women to react, adapting or adopting what they find appealing while ignoring, rejecting or resisting the rest. This kind of interaction may also cause people to modify what they already believe and alter their ways of living. Resistance itself can also result in innovation and change as well.

The Importance of Syncretism

Professor Jerry Bentley, a well-known world historian, identified three ways people adapt or adopt new idea, beliefs, practices, or technology: 1) through voluntary association when people accept the new ideas readily; 2) as a result of political, social, or economic pressure and coercion; and 3) by assimilation. In addition, Bentley argued, in order for people to be receptive to the new ideas, those ideas must resonate with what people are already doing or believe. He calls that process syncretism.

Syncretism greatly enhances change that results from people willingly adapting or adopting new ideas. Syncretism helped Christianity spread in the Roman Empire. For example, certain rituals such as the importance of fire, of lights, reverence for trees, communal singing, and a belief in heaven and hell were already familiar before the birth of Christ.  Churches arose on ancient religious sites or of earlier temples. Images of the Virgin Mary nursing the Christ Child looked similar to the Egyptian Goddess Isis nursing Horus. Syncretism made it easier for people to adopt the new faith.

At first, political and economic pressure worked against Christianity because the Roman authorities persecuted early Christians. But Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 C.E. that made Christianity legal within the Roman Empire, and the economic advantages he gave Christians, helped the faith spread. So did Emperor Theodosius by forbidding the practice of any other faith within the empire and ordering statues of other gods destroyed.

The Balance of Trade

Because cross cultural trade and exchange is so crucial in the teaching of World History, it is imperative that students have a firm grasp of the concepts of money and the balance of trade. Since Volume II of the Human Drama covers the dramatic rise of the Asia centered trading system, it is the optimum place to develop these ideas that will grow in importance down to the present global trading system.

Surprisingly, many students will not know what “money” is. Therefore, you should make sure that they understand money as “a medium of exchange.”  Money is really a symbol or store of value and any tangible commodity can serve as money or currency so long as most people in the trading system accept that it is indeed valuable.  Over time many items have served as “money.” Cowries, beads, gold and silver coins are some of the examples of historic monies. However, most of these monies have certain characteristics in common.  They should be relatively rare, they should be easily recognizable and easy to transport and most of all they should be accepted by all or most of those involved in the trading system. The modern electronic money we use when we swipe our credit and debit cards is ideal in being easily transportable.

As part of your teaching about money, it would be useful if you chose some symbol of money and some commodity such as candy bars. Place on the table two candy bars and two dimes and ask the class, what is each candy bar worth? They should see that the answer is one dime. Then take away one dime and ask “what is each candy bar worth?  The answer is now a nickel. This is a definition of deflation, too many goods not enough money. Then place two dimes on the table and take away one candy bar. The answer this time is that each candy bar is now worth twenty cents. This is a definition of inflation, too much money and not enough goods. Historically, money has fluctuated between deflation and inflation, depending on the supply of whatever symbol is being used as money.  The ideal would be par value where each candy bar is worth a dime.

The most common commodity that was acceptable across Eurasia was gold closely followed by silver. Both these metals were practical because a small amount of each was worth a lot. Also the metals were durable and could be easily formed into coins, ingots and other easily transportable forms. Moreover, gold and silver were relatively rare and therefore their availability was limited. Rulers could control new gold and silver mines and the circulation of what was already available. Because of these reasons, most traders in the Asian centered trading network accepted gold and silver and were willing to exchange products such as silk, clothing, pottery and spices and raw materials such as furs, timber, food and numerous other valuable items for gold and silver.

States often forced slaves to carry out the dangerous and difficult work of mining for gold and silver. These precious metals often attracted nomadic raiders and expanding empires to the sophisticated cities where they frequently plundered palaces, temples and families and carried off large quantities of gold, silver and jewels.

A merchant in western China might exchange a bundle of silk for a given amount of gold or silver. In turn the same bundle of silk might be exchanged many times across the Silk Roads for silver and gold until it reached Byzantium or Europe.

The balance of trade depended on the ability of those trading partners who bought (imported) more goods than they sold (exported), to pay off the difference in money.  So if state A sold (exported) $100 worth of goods and bought (imported) $200 worth of goods, it would owe other states $100.  If this imbalance continues, gradually State A would lose most of its money (Gold and silver).  On the other hand, if state B sold $200 worth of goods to other trading partners and imported $100, then B would have a favorable balance of trade and if this state continued to sell more than it bought, it would end up with lots of gold and silver. During the era covered by Volume II, India and China sold more than they bought and both had a favorable balance of trade and consequently both had surpluses of gold and silver.

The imbalance of the trading system was one of the most important features of the global trading system. We can look back at almost any historic period and if we can identify which state, empire or city-state had the largest stores of gold and silver, we can usually tell which ones were the most successful manufacturing societies. The areas with the most favorable balance of trade were also the civilizations that tended to be outstanding in the arts, architecture, technology, science and philosophy as well.

Gold and silver were not just attractive metals. They were the symbols that served as universal money and the key to our understanding of just where and when we can identify the most developed societies in the world. As newly developing societies fight to gain equality with their competitors, they must work very hard to raise their standard of manufacturing and political organization so that they will be able to sell more goods than they buy. The way that the amount of gold and silver was distributed among the civilizations of the world offers us something like an economic thermometer that provides us with keys to world power and cultural production as well.

You should share with students the idea that for any time in history, if we know which states had a favorable balance of trade and therefore had stores of gold and silver, then those states would be world powers and relatively wealthy compared to other states.

There are many ways you can teach the balance of trade. One way would be to divide the class into four or five groups. After you have explained the balance of trade, tell the class that for convenience they will use pennies to represent gold and dimes to represent silver. You should provide the groups with five pennies and five dime.  Each penny will be $10 and each dime $1.   Then make slips of paper with a common trading commodity written on it and also its worth.  Some examples might be: tea, 100 pounds (value $50), coffee 50 pounds (value $25), rice 100 pounds (value $100), cotton cloth ($50 per bundle), silk ($150 per bundle). For groups that represent China and India, give India a monopoly on cotton cloth and China a monopoly on silk.  That will mean that the other two groups will have to pay for cotton and silk cloth only with gold and silver.  Play as many rounds of trading as you think necessary to make the point and then debrief.  Once again ask the students “if we know that a state at any time in history has lots of gold and silver, what generalizations can we make about that state?”

You can make the game as complicated as you want, but the object is to show the students that whichever state, city or group that ends of with gold and silver does so because it likely has some form of sophisticated manufacturing system. It is the finished goods that attract the gold and silver. Generally, states with mostly valuable raw materials (rubber, oil, iron ore, coal, etc.) are generally ones that end up poor. If you can effectively teach the balance of trade without the role play, then skip that part of the exercise.

Core Questions:

  1. How does the Viking settlement in Greenland symbolize the differences among groups in their ability to adjust to new environments and how commitments to an ideology, religion or world view can shape those responses.
  2. Some major world historians argue that new human contacts via war, trade, pilgrimages and migration are major factors in historic change. Make arguments for and against this proposition.
  3. List and discuss as many examples of “syncretism” as you can and evaluate the importance of each example.
  4. How did the Silk Roads foster intense contacts and exchange across Eurasia?
  5. What conclusions can be deduced from the “Balance of Trade” in the world?

Assimilation is another major factor in the spread of ideas and power. Assimilation takes place as ideas, individuals and distinct groups are absorbed into other, usually larger and more powerful cultures. Many groups that invaded Mesopotamia were gradually absorbed into the existing cultures. Similarly, the Hebrew “lost tribes” were likely absorbed into the cultures of their neighbors. After the death of their leader Attila, Huns (Xiongnu) who put pressure on the Germanic tribes bordering Rome returned to Central Asia, intermarried with other nomadic groups, and were gradually lost to history.

The Importance of the Mongols

The Mongol Empire will give your student a chance to review and extend the concept of empires and to expand their understanding of the theme of empires. Most of the nomadic groups, like the Mongols, originated from the great Steppe Lands of Central Asia that spanned from Europe to China. As one of our students observed, “The Mongol Empire was the Super Bowl of nomadic empires.” At its height, it covered 6,948,000 square miles, approximately twice the area of the United States.  Building on their knowledge about earlier nomadic groups, encourage your students to expand their knowledge of nomadic empires by using the Mongol examples to enlarge their categories of nomadic life. Such examples might include: the use of gun powder, siege techniques, new forms of administration and religious pluralism.


Core questions for the Mongols:

  1. What innovations in warfare did the Mongols achieve?
  2. How did the Mongol Era facilitate cross cultural trade and exchange?
  3. Analyze how the Yuan Dynasty became a synthesis of nomadic and settled cultures.

Suggested Activity: 

Divide the class into four or five groups and have one group represent either the Mongols or one of the areas over whom the Mongols ruled such as China, Russia, Persia and Western Asia. Give the groups a day or two to research Mongol Rule in those areas. Within each group, individual students can represent traders, merchants, religious leaders, peasants and intellectuals. Then organize a role play class in which the various groups react to   rule, some praising them and some damning them.

Recommended teaching aids

Morris Rossabi, Kublai Khan: His Life and Times. Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1988,  for a rich picture of a major Mongol Emperor.

For teaching about the Mongols, see “The Mongol Moment,” Unit for World History for Us All:  Written by Ann Chapman.

Interactions, exchanges, and borrowing have been constant themes in this act. In the past several decades, World History historians have written many exciting books on this topic. Their work offers excellent examples of cross cultural trade and exchange. We especially recommend:

The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, And the World Economy, 1400 to the Present by Kenneth Pomerantz and Stephen Topik. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2013.

ReOrient. Global Economy in the Asian Age by Andre Gunder Frank, Berkeley, CA., University of California Press, 1998.

Trade and Civilization in the Indian Ocean: An Economic History from the Rise of Islam to 1750 by K. N. Chaudhuri. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 2005

You could also have students trace the origins of some of products they routinely buy and use. For example: divide the class into pairs and ask each group to examine one another’s  clothing labels and electronic gadgets to find out where each item was made or manufactured. Or you might make a list of items such as tea, coffee, sugar, tobacco, opium, cotton, silk, rubber, jute, oranges, potatoes, wheat, rice, yams and other common consumer products and assign students to find the origin of these products and the major producers of them  now.




A more complete description of this game is available in AP(R) Best Practices in World History,

Additional Teaching Suggestions

A good role play exercise on the Balance of Trade is:

Highly recommended is: World History for Us all Big Era 4, Expanding Networks of Exchange and Encounter, 1200 BCE – 500 CE  Also, World History for Us All, Big Era Five. Patterns of Interregional Unity, 300 – 1500 CE.

During this era, the Silk Roads became a vibrant series of connections across Eurasia. Good teaching ideas involving the Silk Road include  B1: Travel And Interchange: 1000-1450 by A. J. Andrea. We also recommend. The Asia Society project on the Silk Roads: at:  For religions along the Silk Roads, see the Asia Society’s