Mexico’s Golden Age:
The Classic Period
When, around 200 B.C., much of the Old World was being introduced to Roman ways, there was in the New World only a glimmer of complex civilization. Six centuries later, when the Roman Empire crumbled and Europe entered its Dark Ages, Mesoamerica was resplendent.
The Classic period in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica spanned nearly a millennium (dating from about the birth of Christ on our calendar), and the period from A.D. 300 to 800 has been viewed as a Golden Age of intellectual and artistic endeavor. Because of the many cultures under consideration, the Classic cannot be put into any simple chronological framework.1 Some sites, such as Teotihuacán and Monte Albán, developed Classic features much earlier. Most Classic cultures declined in the ninth century, but some persisted as late as A.D. 1000.
One is struck by the grandiose scale of human endeavor in those centuries, most notable in the monumental architecture but also by the excellence of the ceramics, sculpture, and murals. Religion was the cohesive force in an increasingly stratified society, and the hierarchy of priests commanded the power to exact both labor and tribute from the masses. It was a time of great vigor, with the proliferation of crafts and skills necessary to provide for complex communities. The leadership was dedicated to a sense of order and progress, made possible by an apparently strict adherence to regimentation. Pressures to provide sustenance for a burgeoning population led to more careful consideration of planting cycles, which in turn produced exact calculations of the sea-
1. With only a tiny fraction of the thousands of known archaeological sites in Mexico
having been scientifically excavated, the complexities of charting can be appreciated.