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The Ancient World: Introduction

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. I choose not to tell that entire story, though your textbook does.

The general drift of that story is westward. The early civilizations are Near Eastern, centered in the Fertile Crescent and in Egypt.  The focus of a Western Civilization course then moves westward to Greece and then westward again to Rome.

In my own presentation, I acknowledge a certain 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.

The Ancient world in the narrower sense I give it was a world centered on the Mediterranean Sea. It was a pagan world, with a great many gods and goddesses, not all of whom were Greek or Roman. Politically it was dominated by city-states and empires rather than by kings or nation-states. Commerce, and especially sea-borne commerce, unified the world economically. 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, 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 world.  While commerce continued to focus on the Mediterranean, it was no longer a unified 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 this transition in class, but few historians would place the end of the Ancient world earlier than about 400 C.E., and many would place it much later. 

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Copyright 1999, Ellis L. Knox. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.