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The First Civilizations

Although the species of homo sapiens had evolved by 400,000 BC, it was not until 8,000 that people started to settle in agricultural villages. Before that time, during the Paleolithic Age, the early humans were food gatherers.

The opportunities of agriculture were discovered in the Neolithic Age, replying to the needs of growing population and resulting in the necessity for social cooperation and control. The first permanent villages appeared on the territories of modern south Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, and featured agricultural communities that involved in travel and trade.

The region of Mesopotamia gave birth to two of the most powerful ancient civilizations, Sumer and Babylonia, characterized by sophisticated division of authority and labor, the earliest forms of government and law, and a clear dominance of the city over the village.

Situated between the rivers of Tigris and Euphrates, Sumer comprised independently governed city-states which actively involved in trade and developed mathematics and writing systems. Babylonian heritage features one of the first law codes and multiple records in mathematics, astrology, and astronomy.

The most permanent ancient civilization, Egypt was characterized by administrative hierarchy, with the pharaoh as the head of the state equal to god. The Egyptians developed a system of writing in hieroglyphs, applied mathematics and medicine, and left a heritage of advanced architectural constructions. Semitic civilizations of Canaanites and Phoenicians evolved on Palestinian territory, settled multiple trade colonies, and left an alphabet that would be later used by the Greeks.

The Hebrew monarchic society created semitic chronicles, the morality and ethics of which make the basis of Christianity and Islam. Later on, the Near Eastern States flourished — the military Assyrian State, the lavish Neo-Babylonian Kingdom, and the mighty Persian Empire — left their share in the world cultural heritage.

The Forming of Greek Civilizations

The first Greek civilization arose in 3,000 BC on the island of Crete. Ruled by a king and dominated by men, Cretan civilization with its rich art and writing traditions influenced the development of the Greek society. The Greeks themselves started to form settlements in around 2,000 BC, establishing independently ruled fortified cities, with one of the most significant places being Mycenae.

The only instance when the sovereign cities united was during the Trojan War. After Mycenae fell into decay around 1100 BC, the Dark Age of Greece settled in and culture was in decline.

Starting from 800 BC, Greece enjoyed two centuries of Renaissance in culture, economy, and politics. Religion crystallized with a system of gods, and the tradition of the Olympic games was started. Newly-founded colonies boosted trade, and alphabet allowed to perpetuate many of Greek legends.

Highly structured self-governed settlements emerged under the name of polis, where citizens were protected by a system of legal regulations and could exercise their right to vote. In contrast to the democratic Athens, the polis of Sparta was characterized by a military regime and isolated austere lifestyle.

Although the Classical period of Greek history implies prosperity of the state, it was also marked by violent conflicts with the Persian Empire. In two exhausting wars from 499 to 479 BC, the Greeks managed to defend their land from the Persian invaders.

However, Sparta and Athens were so divided against each other that this confrontation led to a century of internecine wars, including the Peloponnesian war, during which Athens lost its former power and never regained it again. The loss of democratic feeling and the moral lapse characterize the Greek society of the time and make many citizens wonder about the future of their state.

Classical and Hellenistic Greece

Despite the trials and tribulations multiple wars brought onto Greek society, an unprecedented uprise in culture could be observed during the 5th and 4th centuries BC. The Greek “golden age” brought about insights in philosophy that attempted to comprehend the structure of the universe and the theoretical principles governing it.

The nature of human beings was studied by the Sophists, opposed by Sophocles; Plato searched the answer to the question of reality, and Aristotle dwelled on the issues of form and matter. In literature, the form of tragedy was perfected, addressing profound moral and ethical issues; on the contrary, comedy was dedicated to satirizing contemporary issues and people involved in them.

Severely weakened after a century of interstate wars, Greece became dominated by its northern kingdom Macedonia and its leader Alexander the Great. Under his reign Greece became the most powerful it had ever been. Alexander invaded the Persian Empire and drove the Persians out of Egypt, where he founded the city of Alexandria.

Although Alexander established democracy in the territories of Asia Minor that he had taken from the Persians, he also let Persians enter governmental bodies and regiments. Thus he implemented his ideal of united humankind living in peace within one global empire. The great spiritual power of the Macedonian commander won him fame and recognition both among his contemporaries and among subsequent generations.

With the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, Greece entered the Hellenistic Age, characterized by enormous popularization of the Greek language and culture among the peoples of the Near East. Achievements were made in such spheres of science as geometry (Euclid’s theorems), mathematics and engineering (Archimedes), and astronomy (Aristarchus ideas on the orbit of the Earth).

The Roman Republic

The many inhabitants of the Apennine peninsula, including Etruscans highly influenced by the Greek culture, were united under the leadership of the city of Rome by about 500 BC. The political organization of the Roman Republic comprised three elements: the monarchy represented by the Consul, the oligarchy represented by the Senate, and the democracy represented by common people.

Within the latter group there existed a distinction into the minority of patricians who were socially and legally superior to the majority of plebeians. The conflicts between two groups were so serious that they could have led to a civil war, but for the necessity to unite against the outside enemies.

Starting from 264 BC, Rome conducted a series of wars during which it conquered a large number of territories and expanded its power to most Italian regions, Sicily, Macedonia, Syria, and Greece. Success was secured by establishing rigid military control over the territories and collecting taxes from the subordinate lands.

In 133 BC Spain was finally conquered, and a political transformation known as the Roman Revolution began. Influential military commanders contested for power, and the constitutional order in Rome was shaken. The conflict between the Senate and the consul culminated in the years of Caesar’s rule.

After Caesar’s dictatorship and death, attempts were taken to restore the republic. However, struggle for power did not allow to establish the desired order in the Roman state.

Rivalry between Caesar’s adopted son Octavian and his reputed partner Anthony ended in the latter’s suicide accompanied by the same act by his lover, Cleopatra. Having eliminated his main enemy, Octavian agreed on a compromise and shared his powers with the Senate. The Roman Empire rose to provide a model of state security and legislation for centuries onwards.

The Empire and Christianity

The three interdependent elements that secured the success of Octavian’s Roman Empire — the emperor, the civil servants and the city councils, and the army — were further maintained and expanded after Octavian’s death. Power was centralized in the hands of an emperor, who was named from among the most worthy citizens.

International relations were greatly stabilized and the Silk Road signified successful trade between East and West. The Roman Empire witnessed a peaceful transfer of power and enjoyed prosperity in economy, law, politics, and culture until emperor Marcus Aurelius proclaimed his worthless son the new ruler.

As the three elements that served as a strong basis for the Roman state decayed, the Empire entered a century-long period of crisis. Emperors were corrupt, and the civil and military spirit of the citizens was demoralized. 4th century AD brought hope to restoring the bygone power of the Empire under the rigid command of such emperors as Diocletian and Constantine.

However, despite their efforts Rome fell as a result of many factors combined: rigid social division, weak central government, declining trade, shortage of labor, as well as barbarians raids.

As classical values no more succeeded in answering the spiritual needs of people, a new religion emerged on the debris of the Roman Empire — Christianity. Various kinds of “mysteries” became popular among the people, inspired by the perspective of a better life after death. The openness of the Christian community to all the people irrespective of their background attracted supporters.

Justice and mercy became the key qualities of a pious life, coming from the sacred writings of the Judaic tradition. Although heavily persecuted by the Roman authorities, the followers of the new religion popularized the teaching of Jesus, and Christianity gradually became the dominant religion in Europe.

The Making of Western Europe

Following the decline of the Roman Empire, Europe witnessed a period of great migrations that spanned three hundred years starting from the 5th century. Among the first tribes to migrate were the Celtic people, followed by the numerous and formidable Germanic tribes whose migration routes covered a vast territory from Scandinavia to the Black Sea.

Visigoths, Vandals, Burgundians, Ostrogoths, and Germanic tribes in Gaul populated the whole territory of modern Europe, while Anglo-Saxons settled in Britain and the Slavic tribes penetrated the Balkan Peninsula and moved east beyond the Dnieper River. Gradually absorbing the Roman traditions, the Germanic tribes accepted Christianity and developed a system of writing to record their laws.

As the tribes gradually settled, the European political landscape started to feature several new monarchies. On the one hand, the Eastern Empire (Byzantium) with the capital in Constantinople continued to flourish especially under emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora.

The Frankish Kingdom was founded by Clovis in early 5th century, and eventually strong bonds with the Christian Rome were established. Italy was populated by the Ostrogoths, and the Visigoths fled from their old settlement to Spain. The Anglo-Saxon England was divided into separately governed kingdoms and was not converted to Christianity yet.

Starting from 6th century, European economy witnessed a series of breakthroughs: the single-family peasant farm gave rise to agriculture, trade and manufacture flourished, while towns shrank into oblivion. The Church expanded and obtained unprecedented rights, with the institute of papacy and monasticism playing the key role in forming the social attitudes and views in the Middle Ages.

The Empires of the Early Middle Ages (800-1000): Creation and Erosion

The early 7th century witnessed the origination of a new world religion: in the Arabian town of Mecca a system of religious beliefs called Islam was actively preached and popularized. Unifying the pagan, Christian, and Jewish ideas, the new religious leader Muhammad aspired to make Arabs a strong nation.

Claiming to pass to the followers the words of God (Allah), Muhammad presented them in the collection of prophecies called Koran. Easy to understand, Islam expanded rapidly in the second half of 7th century, and its followers unified their efforts in the conquest of North Africa and Spain. Numerous economic systems emerged, with centers in the cities of Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba, and vast heritage was left in such disciplines as medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and theology.

Despite constant attacks on the Byzantine Empire by the Persians and the Muslims, the state managed to survive in its full glory. A significant occurrence in the cultural life of the time was the period of iconoclasm, forbidding the veneration of any images in churches. In addition to theological differences and the languages of liturgy, iconoclasm increased the tensions between the Western and the Eastern Christian churches, with the final schism taken place in 1054.

The Frankish Empire thrived under the rule of Charlemagne who secured military victories and converted the captured peoples to Christianity. The latter achievement was marked in 800 by crowning him the emperor of Romans.

The Carolingian Renaissance gave rise to education, and an official curriculum was established to provide the state with scholars. At the same time, Europe experienced the invasions of Vikings, who played a role in the emergence of the Kiev Rus and the eradication of Anglo-Saxon learning centers on the British Isles.

Restoration of an Ordered Society

In European context, 10th and 11th centuries were characterized by major economic and social innovations called feudalism and manorialism. Feudalism as a patron-client system of relations between a lord and a vassal referred to 5% of the population. The vassal’s obligations included providing military service and advice, while the lord secured the vassal’s protection and material support. The elite families would live in massive stone castles and develop a warrior cult that celebrated knighthood.

Manoralism referred to over 90% of the population and described a community of serfs working on the lord’s land. Strips of land were owned by the lord who rented them for serfs’ private use in exchange for their labor and rent. Under such system Europe demonstrated rapid economic and cultural expansion, and urban life was born anew. Larger governmental units emerged in Norman England, Capetian France, and the German Empire.

After the collapse of the Carolingian Empire, the Western Church was in decline. Monastic and papal reforms were conducted to introduce the proper morality within the church, and a strong central bureaucracy secured vast political right to the papal system.

Under the aegis of the Western Church, a series of crusades was undertaken in order to convert the eastern infidels into Christianity. Besides, there were also motives of economic profit and social necessity: Europe overpopulated with knights fighting for lands and castles.

Despite initial success in the conquest of the eastern lands, the crusaders did not end well: facing the challenges of survival in a different climate and culture, they had to retreat. However, the crusades themselves resulted in introducing evident improvements into the military technology, as well as stimulated economy and promoted exploration of the other cultures.

The Flowering of Medieval Civilization

A wave of intellectual revival swept Europe in 12th and 13th centuries, and brought about the emergence of universities that offered degrees in theology, law, medicine, and science. Created on the basis of monasteries mostly in Italy and France, universities became the centers of medieval thought.

A remarkable feature of the time was that students could wander from one university to another seeking the best teachers. A scholastic approach to reasoning became widespread, applying dialectic analysis to arguments. In architecture, a change of styles from Romanesque to Gothic was reflected in sharpening the tops of the arches and introducing more realism into carved sculptures and ornaments. A new code of behavior called chivalry developed and was reflected in vernacular literature.

The appearance of universities promoted systematization of governmental and legal procedures, and European states could introduce more uniform law and thus exercise more control over their subjects. In England, the latter was practised especially aggressively, which led to tension between the monarchs and the members of the clergy and nobility.

France encountered a still greater independence of vassals from the king, and the Iberian kingdoms faced the challenge of unifying the territories under Christian rule. The situation in Germany was unstable as well, since, unlike France or England, the country did not have a capital city, the king was not hereditary but elective, and German dukes willingly maintained their autonomy.

The Church witnessed the problems of unification as well: despite the ambitious plan of unifying the whole Europe under the papal rule, the moral situation within and without the church remained unstable. Expansion of Europe resulting from crusades and trade exposed the population to new ideas of the Greek Church, Islam, and the Eastern pagans. This was classified and punished as heresy by the Church.

The Urban Economy and the Consolidation of States

The growth of prosperity among the European population in 12th and 13th centuries led to the re-emergence of town life: people who did not fit in the limited social model of peasants, nobility, and clergy, fled to towns to practice new trades and earn money in banking and commerce. Towns gained independence from feudal lords and could exercise their own government through communes.

Safety and sanitary controls, city amenities, as well as morality of the population was regulated by the town authorities. Crafts flourished, with wool cloth production being the most typical trade, and workers formed guilds that protected their rights and regulated issues concerning the quality and the price of their production. Reflecting the growth of trade relations a system of banks was introduced to facilitate monetary operations.

With a view to exercising more control over their subjects, monarchs in France and England established a system of representative institutions. In England, the Parliament was designed to introduce the nobility and the free population in the government. In France, the Estates General were viewed as a way of manipulating society to meet the needs of the royal government. A new form of state organization was introduced in Switzerland: a number of independently governed cantons was protected by a unified militia force.

Following the fall of Constantinople during the crusades, Byzantium was weakened. The eastern scene was dominated by the Mongol tribes penetrating Eastern Europe and destroying the city of Kiev.

Feudal Russia rose to existence starting from 14th century, and its rulers called themselves tsars, as equals the Roman caesar. Against this background, papal rule continued to expand, forming new orders and increasing corruptive practices. The literature of the time reflects a radically new philosophy that foreshadows modern scientific inquiry.

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1. IvyPanda. "World's History." July 11, 2018. https://ivypanda.com/essays/worlds-history/.


IvyPanda. "World's History." July 11, 2018. https://ivypanda.com/essays/worlds-history/.


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