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Big Era Five: Landscape Unit 5.1

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Centuries of Upheaval in Afroeurasia
300 - 600 CE

Why This Unit?

Many of the major long-lived empires that dominated Big Era Four suffered collapse between 200 and 600 C.E. This unit is an investigation of the reasons behind this disintegration, using the Han, Roman, and Gupta empires as models. Students naturally look for, and will readily latch onto, simple mono-causal explanations for such events. It is therefore important for students to learn that major events in history often have highly complex interrelated causes and that they must learn to probe beyond simplistic answers to really understand what happened and why. The unit begins with a look at the definition of empire and the ingredients that make an empire successful. Students are then asked to speculate about what might go wrong that could bring down such an empire. The rest of the unit seeks to answer this question. In the second and third lessons, students investigate the demise of the Han and Roman empires. In both cases, students use a variety of materials including graphic organizers to discover the enormous number of interrelated factors that contributed to the downfall of both empires. The attempts made to reestablish unity are also studied, contrasting the successful unification of China under the Sui emperor Wen with Emperor Justinian’s failed attempt to reunite Rome. The Gupta empire is examined in the fourth lesson, which begins with a study of the empire’s rise and the “golden age” in India that resulted. Students are then introduced to the Hepthalites, the pastoral nomads from Central Asia, who, in a swift and brutal campaign, annihilated the Gupta. The Gupta model demonstrates to students that, although enduring empires often collapsed for complex reasons, occasionally an overwhelming force armed with superior military technology and tactics obliterated an otherwise strong and well-organized empire. Sometimes the answer is simple after all. Students must consider all of the models in the final lesson, which consists of a writing assessment answering the question, “Why do empires fall?”

Unit Objectives

Upon completing this unit, students will be able to:

1. Identify characteristics of empire.”

2. Explain multiple causes for the fall of the Han empire.

3. Research and evaluate the multiple causes for the fall of Rome.

4. Describe Justinian’s attempt to recreate the Roman empire and why it failed.

5. Describe the rise of the Gupta empire and its golden age.

6. Give reasons for the success of pastoral nomads in Inner Eurasia Asia.

7. Explain the role of pastoral nomads in the collapse of the Gupta empire.

8. Use evidence from the Han, Roman, and Gupta empires to identify reasons for the demise of long-enduring empires.


Time and Materials

This unit should take 5 to 8 class periods, depending on the length of the class, the abilities of students, and whether teachers choose to teach all parts of each lesson. Materials required:


  • Variety of texts or access to the internet to conduct research on China’s Emperor Wen and the Sui Dynasty and on the fall of Roman empire
  • A rhyming dictionary

Table of Contents

Why This Unit?


Time and materials


Unit objectives




The Historical Context


This Unit in the Big Era Timeline


Lesson 1: Empire


Lesson 2: A concatenation of miseries (or, CSI Han China)


Lesson 3: Rome didn’t fall in a day


Lesson 4: Gupta kaputa


Assessment: Why do empires fall?


This unit and the Three Essential Questions


This unit and the Seven Key Themes


This unit and the Standards in Historical Thinking




Correlations to national and state standards


Conceptual links to other lessons


Complete Teaching Unit in PDF Format


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