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History documents the existence of many great civilizations over the past four millenniums. At their prime, the greatest of these empires controlled vast territories and enjoyed great economic prosperity. One defining characteristic of these empires and dynasties is that they all suffered from decline and eventually collapsed. While there might have been some differences in the causes of the collapse of the empires, there are some common reasons. Two of the historical civilizations that declined and eventually collapsed are the Sumerian civilization of southern Mesopotamia and the Gupta Empire of India.
While these civilizations existed at different periods in history and in different geographical regions, their declines had some important similarities. An important similarity between the declines of both civilizations is that they were caused by foreign invasions, which weakened the empires to the point where they could no longer protect themselves. An important difference is that while the local rulers of the Gupta Empire contributed to the decline of the empire by fighting amongst themselves, the Sumerian Civilization was weakened by the rapid expansion that made it impossible for the empire to defend itself from enemies effectively.
Both the Sumerian and Indian civilizations faced the constant threat of invasion from foreign enemies. In its prime years, Sumer was a civilization thriving with innovations and experiencing economic prosperity. It enjoyed a rapid increase in population, which led to great wealth for civilization. Due to this success, Sumer was under the constant threat of attack from the nomads of the Arabian Desert and the nearby mountain peoples.1 To protect the empire, the Sumerian king had to organize a large army to defend the city-states from the invaders.
King Sargon, I of Akkad, who reigned from around 2275BC, was able to protect the empire from the attacks. However, these efforts required significant financial resources, and while the King was able to defend Sumer during his lifetime effectively, it collapsed soon after his death in 2220BC. From then onwards, the empire was in a weakened state, and the constant attacks from foreign enemies depleted the resources of the Sumerians. By the year 2000BC, Sumer was in a weakened state, and it lacked the ability to defend itself effectively from the invading tribe of the Amorites from west Syria.2
The Amorites were able to conquer the strong city-state of Ebla, and it did not take long for the other cities to fall into the hands of the invaders. The Amorites took control of much of the land that the Sumerians had occupied, effectively marking the collapse of the Sumerian civilization. These invaders changed the name of the Akkad city to Babylon and proceeded to assimilate the Sumerians into the Babylonian kingdom.
Just as Sumer had faced external enemies, the Gupta Empire of India was threatened by aggressive foreign invaders. The Gupta Empire had been founded in 320AD after a long period of civil wars between local rulers across India.3 This new dynasty was able to bring about peace and stability in the subcontinent. However, from the beginning, civilization experienced sporadic attacks from foreign enemies. The empire was able to protect itself from these invaders and ensure relative peace and prosperity for its people. The kingdom started to experience intensive foreign invasions over the course of the 5th century.
The most vicious enemies of the empire were the Hephthalites (known as the Huns), who came from Northern China.4 The Huns were able to settle in northern and central India by 454AD, making them an even greater threat to the empire. King Skandagupta, who reigned from 455AD, had the difficult task of keeping these invaders in check. He spent most of his reign warding off attacks from the Hans, who were becoming increasingly aggressive. Large portions of the empire’s treasury were used to sustain the military efforts against the Hans.5
The expense of the war caused the empire to disintegrate after the death of Skandagupta in 467. The Huns were able to conquer various regions of the Gupta Empire, including Punjab, Gujarat, and Malwa. Divided in its form, the empire was unable to repel the Han hordes that attacked in greater numbers and eventually destroyed the empire by 550AD.
An important difference is that while the local rulers of the Gupta Empire contributed to the decline of the empire by fighting amongst themselves, the Sumerian Civilization was weakened by its rapid expansion, which made it impossible for the empire to protect itself from enemies effectively. Until the 23rd century BC, the Sumerian city-state had experienced significant growth and stability for some 800 years. Historians attribute this long period of stability to the military, cultural and economical of the Sumerians to all of their neighbors.6
The city-state only started to show signs of weakness starting from 2334, when the empire began expanding. During this period, King Sargon took power in Sumer and founded the Semite country of Agade. Sargon became the most prominent king of Sumer, and he was able to unite the Sumerian cities under his control.7 He was able to conquer all of Mesopotamia and expand from the Persian Gulf up to the shores of the Mediterranean. While this great conquest was celebrated by the Akkads, it presented significant challenges for the empire.
Due to the expansion, the empire had to absorb numerous cultural heritages of the diverse region. There was also an expansion of the trading activities across the empire. This enlarged cultural and trade area led to a sense of disconnect among the city-states.8 The traditional politics of the Sumerian cities were eroded, leading to a weakening of individual city-states. Instead of getting economic benefits from the expansion, most city-states suffered losses. Local resources were siphoned away to benefit the metropolis and fund the administration of conquered territories.
In contrast to this, the Gupta Empire did not experience an imperial overreach, and the decline of the empire was precipitated by the actions of the regional lords. When the empire was founded in 320AD, it did not adopt a strong centralized form of government. The local rajas were unwilling to surrender their interests to a unified political settlement headed by the Gupta king.9 This made it impossible for the empire to construct a strong central government and bring about lasting peace to the region.
The Gupta Empire, therefore, allowed its territory to remain divided into semi-autonomous regions that were governed by local rajas who were in charge of the daily running of their domain. However, these local leaders were expected to pay tribute to the Gupta empire and contribute soldiers when needed. Due to the divisions among the regions, the local lords constantly fought against each other. In addition to this, many of the regional lords disliked the empire, and they were eager for their independence.
As the empire weakened due to the high cost of defending itself against external invaders, the local rajas gained more autonomy.10 The empire was unable to administer its territory or collect taxes effectively. By the beginning of the 6th century, most of the regional lords were already declaring their independence. These local rulers refused to pay tribute to the empire and attacked each other with great frequency. They were not concerned about protecting the empire from foreign invaders.
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This paper set out to highlight an important similarity and difference between the decline of the Sumerian Civilization and the Gupta Empire. It began by acknowledging that while the two civilizations existed at different times and in different locations, they both suffered from the common fate of eventually collapsing. The paper has observed that an important similarity between the decline and collapse of both civilizations is that it was caused by the constant attacks by a foreign enemy. These attacks diminished the financial resources of the once-powerful empires, and eventually, they were unable to resist the attackers.
The Sumerian civilization fell to the Amorite invaders while the Gupta civilization was destroyed by the Huns. The paper observes that there were differences in the declines of the two civilizations. The Sumerian civilization was weakened by its rapid expansion, which led to the Sumer Empire being unable to control all the conquered land. On the other hand, the Gupta Empire was weakened by the actions of the local ruler who not only opposed the central rule, but they also engaged in wars between themselves.
Chandra, Anjana. India Condensed: 5000 Years of History & Culture. New Delhi: Marshall Cavendish, 2007.
Finer, Samuel. The History of Government from the Earliest Times: Ancient monarchies and empires. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Whittemore, Walter. A Compendium of Decline and Destruction of Major Civilizations During Ancient Times. Indiana: Indiana University, 2013.
1 Walter Whittemore, A Compendium of Decline and Destruction of Major Civilizations During Ancient Times (Indiana: Indiana University, 2013), 10.
2 Ibid 11.
3 Anjana Chandra, India Condensed: 5000 Years of History & Culture, (New Delhi: Marshall Cavendish, 2007), 24.
4 Ibid 30.
5 Ibid 30.
6 Samuel Finer, The History of Government from the Earliest Times: Ancient monarchies and empires, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 128
7 Ibid 128.
8 Ibid 129.
9 Chandra 30.
10 Chandra 26.