The Story So Far: Western Civilization Before 1648

Globe showing Europe


Ancient Period (3500 - 500 BC)

The story begins around 3500 BC, when peoples in West Asia and north Africa settled into the Neolithic pattern of agriculture. It continues through the development of Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations, and the rise of the Hebrew peoples.

Map of Mesopotamia

Sumeria: symbolic writing
The earliest Mesopotamian civilization, centered in the south, developed a symbolic writing system. Although they began as pictographs, Sumerian cuneiform evolved into a written language based completely on abstract symbols.

Assyrian Relief

Military Empire
Mesopotamia's geographic exposure to its neighbors left it open to attack. The result was the development of militarized states, including the most brutal, that of the Assyrian Empire. This empire was destroyed in 612 BC by a combined force of Babylonians and Medes.


Geography  Dominated by the unreliable and violent Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Mesopotamian were subject to droughts and floods. This gave them a pessimistic view of religion, where human-like gods played with people like toys. The afterlife was a ghastly place where souls ate dust and were slaves to the gods. It also gave them a penchant for change, and an impetus for developing sophisticated technologies.


Kings and law
Mesopotamian kings were mortals who needed to unify their rule through written law. One of the most famous collections of law is called Hammurabi's Code, which instituted punishments based on a person's rank in society.

Map of Egypt

Egypt was polytheistic, with many gods. But one pharoah, in a combination of personal spirituality and an effort to destroy the power of the priestly class, developed a cult to the worship of one god, Aton. When he died, his nephew Tut (originally Tutankaton, then Tutankamen) became pharoah. He died young and was buried in extraordinary splendor.

Tut Death Mask



Unlike Mespotamia, Egyptian geography was stable. The Nile River reliably rose and fell each year, leaving behind rich silt on either side for planting. This gave the Egyptians a benign view of the supernatural, with gods that helped humans. The afterlife was a pleasant continuation of life on earth.

Head of Pharoah

Egyptian kings were also part god, and thus had little need for written codes. If the pharoah said it was law, then it was law.

Egyptians relied on continuity to guide their lives, thinking of time as cyclical rather than linear. Change was seen as meaning discontinuity and strife. Although later creating an Empire of her own, originally Egypt relied on trade and diplomacy. An era of Nile droughts and unpredictability led to an era of empire.

Map of Palestine

The Hebrew belief in messiahs, people who rose to lead during times of trouble, led to a forward-looking faith in progress. Times past were seen as behind us, and the future stretched ahead as a time of promise where justice would be achieved and things made right. This is the origin of our idea of progress.

Solomon's Temple

Solomon's Temple
Despite nomadic origins, the Hebrews founded stable kingdoms in Palestine.They preserved their culture despite takeover by large empires like Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome.


The Hebrews became a people when Abraham left Mespotamia for the eastern Mediterranean. Abraham and his followers believed in one god, and that the Hebrews had been given a special mission of worship.

Invisible God
Unlike the civilizations that surrounded them, the one God of the Hebrews was everywhere, thus there were no images of him. He was invisible, which made religion portable. This separated the ceremonies of worship (performed by priests) from prayer (performed by believers). The Jewish religion was the first loyalty of a Hebrew, regardless of where s/he was living.

Study of the law
Priests would gradually fade from Judaism as the emphasis grew on studying the laws of God. During the Babylonian Empire, Jewish priests and rabbis (scholars) had been forcibly relocated to Babylon. Prophets and scholars living in Babylonian codified the laws of Moses and provided a textual base for studying God's law and interpreting it for future generations.


Classical Period (2000 BC - AD 500)

This is the era of Greek and Roman domination.

Map of Greece

In looking at the natural world, Greeks developed techniques of rationalism. Instead of explaining natural phenomena as the acts of gods, Greek scholars created explanations based on natural laws and reason. This is seen as the origin of our modern scientific world view.

Limited Democracy
Athens during the 5th century BC created a system of limited democracy. Male adult Greek citizens were all able to take part in decisions. Argumentation skills were necessary to dominate politics. People look to Athens for the origin of modern democracy.

Sparta and Athens
Unlike cosmopolitan Athens, Sparta was a land-based militarized city-state. Its ideas of collectivism, state responsibility, and military virtue contrast with Athens' focus on trade and individualism. The "Golden Age" of Athenian trade empire ended with the Peloponnesian War against Sparta.


Greek geography is dominated by rocky landforms and water. As a result, farming was limited and the sea became the source of products and trade. Geographic isolation produced competing city-states.

City-states like Athens, which relied on foreign trade, were open to the ideas of other peoples. They developed highly sophisticated societies, and philosophies based on the role and responsibilities of the individual person. Most people look to Ancient Greece for the origins of modern individualism.


Map of Hellenistic Empire

Cosmopolitanism and Freedom
The Hellenistic Empire broke up into kingdoms soon after Alexander's death, but retained a cultural unity. This era was one of extraordinary cosmopolitanism, where people began to identify themselves by what city they came from rather than their family or religion. Individualism seemed to be a technique for placing oneself in such a large world, where many religions, cultures, languages and people existed together. It was a time of unprecedented freedom and respect for women, who had been relegated to private roles in all previous cultures except for Sparta.


Alexander's Empire
A Macedonian king, Alexander's love of 5th century Athenian culture motivated him to create an empire. Beginning by capturing Greece itself, his army went on to conquer the Persian Empire which had taken over Greek colonies on the coast of Asia Minor. Accompanied by scholars and scientists, Alexander proceeded to expand this empire all the way to the Indus River. His intention was to spread the culture of the Greek world.

Head of Alexander

Map of Rome


As the Roman empire expanded, it brought new peoples into the Republic and experienced new challenges to ideas of citizenship and civic duty. Economic unity and taxation systems supported an increasingly independent military, providing opportunity for leaders like Julius Caesar to gain power.

Roman Forum

Life in the Empire
The Roman Empire would boast baths, aqueducts, water-powered grain mills, and solid roads. The Romans invented concrete and advanced techniques for building monumental structures. Rome itself was a huge city with many neighborhoods crammed with poor workers. In order to prevent revolt, Emperors provided "bread and circuses": free flour and cheap entertainment at the chariot races or gladiator fights.

The Fall of Rome
Overexpansion, weak emperors, health problems, and the expansion into the empire of "barbarians" from the east all caused the western half of the Roman empire to fall apart. The new religion of Christianity was providing an alternative spirituality, which was eventually adopted by the Empire in an effort to provide unification. Ultimately the empire would split into the western half, which would be controlled by the Germanic tribes, and the eastern half, which became the Byzantine Empire.


At first just a city on the Italian peninsula, Rome began expanding in the 6th century BC. It overtook its neighbors to the north, the Etruscans, and adopted their form of government and technology. Conquest of Greek colonies to the south brought trade, religion and science.

Two-house governing
The Roman Republic is the origin of our two-house government, where the Senate was controlled by land-holding patricians and the Council by plebeians.

Legion Soldier

Roman Victories
Rome expanded from the Italian peninsula to take over the Carthaginian empire, most of the Hellenistic empire, and beyond. One reason was the Roman legion, superior to the phalanxes and formations used by other armies. Gradually, soldiers' loyalty to Rome would be replaced by loyalty to individual commanders.

Medieval Period (300 - 1500)

Not a dark age at all, the Middle Ages was a time of expansion and reorganization.

map of barbarians

Custom as Law
Unlike the Romans, the tribal peoples were not literate. This meant that they had extraordinary memories, which people lose when they learn to read and write. They could listen to a story for hours, hear it once, and repeat it word for word. Their legal system was thus based on the memory and testimony of witnesses. Our system today of having witnesses in the courtroom and wedding chapel derive from Germanic custom.

Women in Barbarian Europe
Surprisingly to some people today, the tribes gave women more independence and respect than the Roman system they were replacing. In the warlike cultures of the tribes, women played a vital role in the community and could own property and act independently in legal issues. This would be lost with the readoption of Roman law.


Roman sources consider the migration of Germanic tribes an invasion which destroyed Roman civilization. The people who came from the 4th century onward were seeking land, and had no interest in the cities of the Roman Empire. They destroyed the infrastructure, and until they were Christianized by the Roman Church, sacked churches and towns alike.


The Roman Church
The division of Europe in tribal kingdoms left the Bishop of Rome as the only person who could claim any authority over all of Europe. Eventually separating from the other Christian bishops to the East, he became Pope, or father of the Church. This meant little until the tribes were Christianized.

Map of Charlemagne's empire

Carolingian Legacy
Charlemagne's Empire is considered the origin of the modern idea of Europe, although it only encompassed the western portion. Although the empire broke up into kingdoms after his death, Charlemagne's institution of Christian learning began a system of education for a rational system of government. The recovery of Justinian's Code, a Roman law compilation discovered in Byzantium, set the stage for the revival of Roman law.

The Church
During this era, the power of the Pope expanded enormously. Basing their supremacy on the Petrine theory (that Rome is the seat of power due to the martyrdom of St. Peter), Popes asserted their authority over matters temporal and spiritual. The network of the Church extended through a Europe run by bishops and priests, providing believers with a path to God. Popes came into conflict with kings and emperors trying to assert their own power over thse regions.


In AD 800, a Germanic king of the Frankish tribe became ruler of the first unified empire since Rome.


Charlemagne's people had formed an alliance with the Pope to achieve this end. The Church supported the Christian Franks, and in turn the Franks supported the Church. This led to the expansion of Christianity throughout Europe and the institution of civic authority.

map of Crusades

As the invasions quieted down, Europe was left with a highly militarized feudal society. The result was numerous wars amongst the lords. At the same time, bishops in the east were pleading for support against the expansion of Muslim kingdoms in Palestine. Popes saw an opportunity to channel the violence of European knights and unify Europe under the cause of Christianity, not coincidentally also increasing their own power. The Crusades were not always successful, but they provided an outlet for Christian culture and the opportunity of possessing lands to the east.


Chivalric culture
The cult of knights and ladies emerged into its own culture, creating a foundation for our modern ideas of romantic love. It also put women on a pedestal. While this might have been an improvement from women being derided by Church fathers as the founders of evil (because of Eve's transgression in the Garden of Eden), it did not increase rights for women.


Viking invasions and feudalism
During the 9th century, Europe again experienced invasions. From the north, Vikings began raiding coastal towns, eventually moving into the regions and setting up farms. From the east, Magyars and other eastern tribes threatened, and from the south, Muslim Saracens from north Africa raided Italian and Spanish ports. The result was decentralized government, since kings were unable to respond quickly to such threats. A feudal system developed, with kings partitioning their land among lords loyal to them. These lords in turn partitutioned their areas. Those receiving land pledged military service to their lords.

medieval shops

Trade and Towns
Once the invasions had settled down, markets emerged to trade the new surpluses of agriculture. Most historians agree these markets became the basis of towns. Medieval towns were controlled by merchant guilds, with craft guilds controlling the production of goods.

Unlike aristocratic women, townswomen might experience considerable independence as part of a guild or running a business. The most independent vocation for females was that of midwife, a woman who cared for pregnant women and delivered their children.

Black Death map

The Late Middle Ages was also a time of war and corruption. The Hundred Years' War, fought as much by ordinary people as trained knights, dragged on between France and England. The Church was corrupt, having moved the Pope's court from Rome to Avignon to secure protection from the French king. The papal court was extravagant and distant from the increasing needs of the people. The Church had no answer for why everyone was dying, considering it God's punishment and telling people to pray. The result was that many began to turn away from the Church, worshipping God directly in ways that violated Church dogma. This mysticism would provide the foundation for later attacks against the Church, but it provided some comfort to people tormented by famine, disease, and war.


Around 1300, the climate of Eurasia became cooler and wetter. Crops unused to these conditions began to fail, and famine resulted. Poor nutrition and cooler climate led to a decrease in people's immunity, and many caught colds.

Black Death
In 1347, bubonic plague arrived in Italy. A blood-borne disease from Central Asia, it was brought in the belly of fleas who lived on Eurasian Black Rats. These rats travelled on ships from the east, living happily among people and nesting in crowded port towns. Although plague was deadly, it was not usually easy to catch. But the respiratory problems of the population turned the plague into a pneumonic form, easily communicable through coughing and sneezing. An epidemic ensued which killed off 1/3 to 1/2 of the entire population of Europe, and changed its culture.


Renaissance, Reformation and War (1350 - 1648)

Venetian Trade Map

But there was more to the Renaissance than just recovering the classical past. Old knowledge was updated to fulfill new agendas. Those who looked to a pre-Christian past for information found themselves with a great respect for those who had lived and written during ancient times. Pre-Christian sources provided a perspective from before the communitarianism of the Church, and revealed a time when people acted according to earthly motives and opportunities. Those who prized the efficacy of human action, and exalted the role of human beings in determining their destiny, were called humanists.

Civic Humanism
Some down-to-earth politicans and philosophers applied humanism to the particular character of the Italian city-state. This created a form of civic patriotism which fueled economic, political and military competition among the city-states. This competition led to a fast spread of humanist knowledge along with the trade goods.


Christian Humanism
In the north of Europe, civic humanism never took hold because of the continuing problems of disease and war. Instead, humanist ideas combined with Christian traditions and mysticism to produce Christian Humanism. Christian Humanists like Erasmus criticized the worldliness of the Catholic Church and argued for the revival of true Christian virtues, such as peace, humility and charity.


Around 1350, a scholar named Petrarch revived the classics through his letters to dead classical figures like Virgil. Petrarch bemoaned the terrible times he lived in (this was during the plague years) and longed for the days of the classical past. Classicists recovered the works of Greek and Roman writers, and translated them into vernacular languages.

Renaissance Women

Wealth from trade
The trading families of Renaissance Italy became very wealthy, but medieval standards did not value monetary wealth. In increasing their social status, the wealthy merchant classes spent much money on patronizing the arts and sciences. Renaissance artists became famous creating commissioned works incorporating the new values and scientific perspective.

Da Vinci Madonna

Reformation Map


Catholic Reform
Historians argue as to whether the reforms instituted by Pope Paul III in the 16th century were a response to Protestant rebellion or an independent clean-up of the Catholic Church. Either way, reforms were instituted clearing up issues of orthodoxy and instilling formal training for priests, concrete responsibilities for bishops, and a revived papacy.


This Catholic Reformation emphasized the emotional appeal of the relationship with God, affirming the mystics who abided by Church orthodoxy. Baroque art reflected these trends.


The group that would be called Protestants advanced medieval mysticism and Christian humanism by claiming that all Christians should read the Bible for themselves.

A monk, professor, and translator of the Bible into German, Martin Luther had a personal crisis in which he concluded that salvation occurred by faith in God alone. Good works and sacraments did not instill faith.


His Ninety-Five Theses (1517), presenting his reasons and denying the power of the Pope, started the Protestant Reformation. Because of its start in the support of competing German princes, Lutheranism stayed a predominately German phenomenon.

A French lawyer, John Calvin developed ideas of predestination (if God is all powerful, he already knows the destiny of every soul). Calvin codified Protestantism and created a community in Geneva, Switzerland. Calvinism achieved an international focus: French Calvinists were called Huguenots, English Calvinists were called Puritans.

Trade Goods Map

European expansion created a colonial system, where colonies were developed in the Americas, coastal Africa, and India. Spain and Portugal controlled the Americas, and the French, British and Dutch competed for Africa and Asia. As trade ports were set up, and Iberian-run plantations and mines in the New World, what historians have called the "Columbian Exchange" evolved. Plants and animals from Europe (cattle, sheep, horses, wheat) came to the Americas, and American plants and animals (especially the potato, tomato, and cocoa) came to Europe. Slaves were purchased from coastal West African tribes to supply labor for the plantations, which was needed because European diseases had killed off 90% of the Native Americans who first contacted them.

Spanish Armada

Trade wars
By the 16th centuries, Europeans were involved in global trade wars to dominate the colonies. Spain and England were particularly at odds in the Caribbean, and England and France in India.


Iberian Expansion
In 1453, the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople, the cross-over city between Europe and Asia. It was one of the wealthiest cities in the world, and had been Christian-controlled under the Byzantine Empire. The Ottomans became wealthy taxing all those who passed through the city, which they renamed Istanbul. Portuguese explorers began to look for ways to sail around Africa to get the goods they wanted from Asia.


In fighting the Muslims and pushing them out of Spain, the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) brought Catholic ideals to the fore. Spain would sponsor voyages to compete with Portugal in trying to find a sea route to Asia. After being rejected by several courts due to his faulty geographic ideas, Italian navigator Christopher Columbus was finally sponsored by Spain for a voyage to sail west. Although he thought he'd found islands near India (the latitude was the same), he'd actually discovered a New World.

Wars of Religion map


Catholic vs Protestant
Internally, Europe was torn apart in the 16th and early 17th centuries by wars of religion. Catholics and Protestants fought for religious and political control of principalities and kingdoms. Battles often took place in the streets and villages, and civilians were often involved.

Gustavus Adolphus

Thirty Years War
Between 1618 and 1648, most European countries were involved in alliances against each other. Though at first it was strictly Protestant against Catholic factions, by 1648 the motives had shifted. Nationalism became more important than religion, for example when Catholic France allied with Protestant Sweden to prevent the expansion of German and Spanish Habsburgs.

Overview: 1648 - present


Modern politics
In the early modern era, kings will struggle to increase their power through taxation and the creation of professional standing armies. Some, like Louis XIV of France, will achieve legendary status as absolute monarchs.
Louis Xiv

Scientific Revolution
Concepts of rationalism and empiricism (knowledge gained through the five senses) will combine to create the scientific method. We use this all the time: develop a hypothesis (or thesis), gather data, and reach conclusions.

Applying scientific rationalism to society will bring us to the Enlightenment of the 18th century, which will give birth to ideas like political liberalism. Several of today's economic and political philosophies will have their origins in this era.



The application of cheap coal-based fuels to run steam engines will create a power and technology revolution. This will lead to steam-powered pumps, railroads, and steamships.

American and French Revolutions
Enlightenment concepts of political liberalism will create movements for independence and freedom. The American and French Revolutions, based on the natural rights of man, will set precedents for the world.

The new industrial classes, who own the factories, will attempt to create social status for themselves through the application of moral and ethical standards. These will include the separation of male and female spheres of life.


Among the art movements we'll encounter is Impressionism, which sought to balance the portrayal of nature with the challenges of the new technological landscape.

World War I
The Great War will begin in 1914 as a result of secret alliances and a political assassination. Millions will lose their lives, and the aftermath will leave Europe scarred for generations.

Russian Revolution
During the war, Russia will become a communist country through two revolutions.


Among the modern art movements will be several that will reflect the anxiety of the war years, reflecting the questioning of civilization and reality.

In the midst of post-war depressions, fascism will become a nationalistic, militaristic alternative to more socialist programs. Emerging first in Italy, fascism will become the policy of the Nazi government of Germany.

World War II
The expansion of the fascist powers will lead us into World War II, where the nations and colonies of the Allied powers will fight Italian fascists, German Nazis, and Japanese imperialists.

Mussolini and Hitler


Cold War
Allied during World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States will face each other during the Cold War, which lasted from 1945-1989. Soviet Communism and American Capitalism will face off at several sites throughout the world. The Korean and Vietnam Wars will demonstrate the power of Asian communism as well.

In the post-World War II depression, Europe will lose many of her colonies to nationalist revolutions. These revolutions will be based on the same Enlightenment ideas of earlier revolutions, but will be impacted by Cold War rivalries as well.

Berlin Wall

Current Trends
The goals of the European Common Market will come close to reaching fulfillment in the creation of the European Union. Globalization will impact Europe and the rest of the world.




All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.