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.