The Ancient World


Our course divides into three sections, and while there is much overlap between them, each era is quite distinctive. In the ancient world, we are dealing with a variety of civilizations over the course of a few thousand years. That is a lot of material, so I've chosen to make some cuts.

Why don't I cover Egypt?

The School of Athens, by Raphael

Or Babylonia or the rest of the Near East?

That's where I've chosen to make my cuts. I choose to skip over the ancient Near East civilizations for a variety of reasons. For one thing, there'd be no end to them; we would be doing whole civilizations in a couple of paragraphs, to cover them all. For another, we have much more information about Greece and Rome, more readily available, and we can examine them more thoroughly. So, we begin the Ancient section around 600BC, and we end around 500AD. A thousand years will be plenty!

I acknowledge the inheritance from those Near Eastern cultures, but I emphasize the greater influence of Greece and Rome. Whereas we can compile a very long list of the contributions made by the Greeks and the Romans, we can compile only a comparitively short list of contributions made by Babylon or Egypt, and even less from the Hittites or Assyrians. These were all important and extremely interesting cultures, but I skip over them so that I can devote more time to other, later topics. Any proper study of the Ancient world would, however, need to take full account of them.

A Quick Sketch

The Ancient world in the narrower sense I give it was a world centered on the Mediterranean Sea. While we'll spend nearly all our time on Italy and Greece, other cultures were also extremely important during this thousand years, and we'll take them into account as appropriate. Most, however, lay on the shores of the Mediterranean (Egpyt, Carthage, Phoenicia, and so on).

It was a pagan world, with a great many gods and goddesses. Every culture had its own, and while historians and anthropologists can point out striking similarities, these deities were very much specific to the people who worshipped them. The religious life of the ancient world was diverse and complex.

Politically it was a world dominated by city-states and empires rather than by kings or nation-states. That's an important distinction because we moderns know very little about city-states or empires, so we naturally try to understand them in terms of our nation-states. It will be important to understand the past in its own terms.

Commerce, and especially sea-borne commerce, unified the world economically. Industry was less important.

Socially it was defined by whether one was a slave or a citizen, and if a citizen, by what family one belonged to. Culturally, it was bounded by language: by Greek first, then by a combined dominance of Latin and Greek.

It was a "civilized" world in the pure sense of the word: the Latin word for city is "civis".  People who lived in cities, or who were citizens even if they lived in the country, were ipso facto civilized.  And anyone who lived outside the range of city-states were by that very fact uncivilized. This is another reason why I start the story of "Western Civilization" with Greece: because it was the first culture that was "civilized"; it was the first that was dominated by its cities.

At some point (we'll learn when), these characteristics changed fundamentally. The pagan religions gave way to Christianity. People began to speak of "Christendom" rather than "Hellas" or the imperium, and "Rome" meant a city rather than a whole world. While commerce continued to focus on the Mediterranean, it was no longer a unified sea (the Romans called it mare nostrum--"our sea") but was deeply divided between Christian lands and Islamic lands. While Latin was a common language, it was used only by a handful, and "barbaric" tongues predominated as the focus of the culture shifted away from the Mediterranean. Kings and counts and dukes came to supplant consuls and imperators.

All this happened very gradually. We will have occasion to talk about the transition from ancient to medieval in class, but few historians would place the end of the Ancient world earlier than about 400 A.D., and many would place it much later.