What is Ancient History?

Ancient History is considered to be the first period of the History of Humanity, preceded by pre-history and followed by the Middle Ages. According to tradition, the invention of writing marks the beginning of Ancient History, as it was a very important moment in history that allowed humans to develop a more advanced form of communication. Likewise, the end of Ancient History is dated around the year 476 AD with the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

What is Ancient History?

What is ancient history
What is ancient history

Throughout Ancient History humanity’s first great civilizations developed which, in addition to writing, meant greater complexity in urban life, the division of labor, the establishment of different social organizations, the creation of religions and the implementation of the first governments or States. This is why in this period of history we can find evidence of large villages and cities that were superior in many ways to the simple and primitive Neolithic villages.

The aforementioned features have become present in different parts of the globe in which human communities settled permanently. Hence, the study of Ancient History includes the civilizations of Ancient Mesopotamia located in the valley of the rivers Euphrates and Tigris (where the Sumerian civilization was the first to develop its power), Ancient Egypt, the small Hebrew and Phoenician communities, Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, perhaps the most important in terms of its geographical extension during the Empire. Lastly, Ancient History should also include the historical civilizations that remain outside the geographical framework known as the Old World and within these we can find China, India and the small pre-Columbian communities in America.

The legacy of Ancient History is without doubt a very rich and diverse one and its influence still affects us today. Some of humanity’s most important and significant phenomena were developed in this point in history, and amongst these we find Cuneiform writing (the first human way of writing), the development of important religions (like the Egyptian, the Greek and the Roman, the Jewish and the Christian), important literary works (such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, Hammurabi’s Code, the Bible, the Book of the Dead, amongst many others), the construction of incredible monuments and buildings (such as the Egyptian pyramids, the Sphinx, the Parthenon, the Roman Coliseum, Ishtar’s Gate, and the Palace of Knossos), and the creation of unique elements such as democracy, law, different sciences, philosophy, the Olympics, and engineering, amongst others.

Why do we categorize history?

History has been divided into different periods for practical reasons, such as making the study of it easier, but the periods are also there for a reason. They mark the changes or substantial differences between one era and the former and subsequent eras.

For example, the classic division of history into Ancient History, Medieval and Modern coincides with the materialist (Marxist) division of eras according to the modes of production: slavery, feudal and capitalist.

However, it is also interesting to make a comprehensive history (of all people and cultures), as in the end there is one unique line of study, otherwise known as Humanity. We could say that after there are “various sub-divisions” that would be the history of each specific group of people.

According to Collingwood: “History books have a beginning and an end, but not the events that they describe”.

These facts do not end because they truly stay forever, permanently fixed in time.

Historian
Historian

It could also be understood that Collingwood was saying that in books only the facts are written down, and not the “processes” that lead to the facts.

Thus, the archaeological remains all together make up what Binford calls “static” (the last goal; the football inside the goal post). The archaeologist analyzes the mute and immobile object, and it is from there, history is made.

But what we really want is “dynamics”: how the match unfolded and how the ball made it into the goal; how this object got there.

Obviously, this is the most difficult part that, above all, cannot be proven.

Traditional Chronologies

Formerly, the Egyptians, Greeks, Sumerians, Acadians, and many other groups of peoples had become interested in history and wrote history treatise, dividing it into different periods.

Keller (17th Century) divided history in a very similar way to the way we still use today:

  • Ancient History (until Constantine the Great)
  • Medieval History
  • New History (the beginning of his era, the 17th Century)

Materialist historians talk of different stages according to the modes of production:

  • Slave-driving
  • Feudal
  • Capitalist

Definition of Ancient History, Writing, Civilization, and State

We say that a region makes history when there is presence of writing, civilization and a state. These are the 3 key elements to name the beginning of Ancient History.

Note: when we talk about a civilization, we also refer to certain cultural traits that are spread throughout time and space (we also refer to art, etc.).

Auxiliary Disciplines of History

With this we refer to which other fields of knowledge can help historians to elaborate on and understand history. So, lets see how history is constructed.

Historians use, and rely upon, some sources to build history (the main objective). These sources will be studied according to some disciplines, further explained below:

1 – Material Remains. These are “Primary Sources”: everything that is found on the excavation site.

It must not be forgotten that these excavation remains could have written documents. The material remains will later be studied by archaeologists and with archaeological auxiliary techniques.

2 – Written Documents (which are obviously also “material remains”)

This refers to any type of document that could help us to construct history. The study of such documents gives us Philology, Epigraphy and Papyrology.

3 – Coins

These can be studied as a Material Remain, or even by its lettering (from the point of view of the Written Document). The study of this is called Numismatics.

4 – The Ethnographic Testimony of current cities in order to interpret the remains discovered in the excavation. This way, hypotheses can be made about the way of life of the community being studied. Ethnologists or Cultural Anthropologists studies these.

Ancient anthropology
Ancient anthropology

Historians divide the work between a team (they have specialists in other fields). Thus, the most important disciplines that help historians are:

1 – Remains without lettering will be studied by:

a) Archaeologists
b) Also by Numismatists, taking into account the fact that in the end, coins are just simple objects.

2 – Written Documents will be studied by:

a) Philologists
b) Epigraphy
c) Papyrology
d) Numismatists (they will study the lettering embossed on the coins that are found in excavations).

3 – Ethnographic Testimonies will be studied by Cultural Anthropologists and Ethnologists.

For example: let’s say an archaeologist finds a piece of crockery in an excavation. There were times in Rome where they “mass-produced” objects in Campania (Naples) and from there sold them throughout all of the Mediterranean. This means that we can make a catalogue with dates etc. And when we see a similar piece in the archaeological site we can immediately date the whole site.

Or for example, if we find some tombs with human remains with their burial goods etc., a paleoanthropologist could tell us by looking at the cranial capacity exactly what type of hominid it was, the possible cause of death and other information such as fractures, cavities, etc.

What is the Ancient Age?

The Ancient Age is a historical age that coincides with the emergence and development of the First Civilizations (Egypt, Greece, Rome, etc.) also known as the Ancient Civilizations. According to the historiography, the beginning of this period is characterized by the emergence of writing (around the year 4000 BC), which also represents the end of Prehistory. According to this system of historical periodization, the Ancient Age spans from the emergence of writing until the collapse of the Roman Empire, due to the barbaric invasions of the 5th Century. It would have lasted 5500 years.

Main historical characteristics of the Ancient Age

  • Emergence and development of urban life
  • Political power centralized by Kings
  • Societies marked by social stratification
  • Development of organized religions (mainly polytheists)
  • Militarism and occurrences of continuous wars among groups of people
  • Development and strengthening of trade
  • Development of the system of tax collection and social obligations
  • Creation of legal systems (laws)
  • Cultural and artistic development

Major Civilizations or Ancient Cultures

Ancient Egypt

This was an ancient civilization in the Eastern side of North Africa, concentrated along the lower course of the Nile River in what is now the modern State of Egypt. The civilization was unified around the year 3150 BC with the political unification of upper and Lower Egypt during the reign of the first Pharaoh, and it flourished over the next three millennia. Its history occurred in a series of comparatively stable periods, called by today’s scholars as kingdoms separated by periods of relative instability known as intermediate periods.

The Egyptian civilization reached its pinnacle in what is now called the New Kingdom, and shortly after entered a period of slow and steady decline. Egypt was conquered by a succession of foreign powers in its late period, and the rule of the Pharaohs officially ended in 31 BC, when the Roman Empire conquered and absorbed Ptolemaic Egypt, which disappeared as a State. This event did not represent the first period of foreign domination, but it did lead to a gradual transformation in the political and religious life of the Valley of the Nile, marking the end of the independent development of their culture.

Ancient Egypt pyramid
Ancient Egypt pyramid

The success of the ancient Egyptian civilization comes in part from its ability to adapt to the conditions of the Nile River Valley. They had an ability to predict flooding and control irrigation of the fertile valley with crops that offered a surplus of products that fueled social and cultural development. With surplus resources the administration sponsored mining within the valley and the surrounding desert regions. They soon developed a way of writing and collective organization in construction and agricultural projects, helped by trade with the surrounding regions, and a military policy to defeat foreign enemies and assert Egyptian dominance helped motivate the State organization to make these activities efficient and productive. The bureaucracy was formed by an elite: scribes, administrators and religious leaders ensured the cooperation and unity of the Egyptian people in the context of an elaborate system of religious beliefs under the control of a Pharaoh.

The many achievements of the ancient Egyptians include the exploitation of quarries, surveying and construction techniques that facilitated the building of monuments, pyramids, temples and obelisks, a mathematical system, a practical and effective system of medicine, systems of irrigation and agricultural production techniques, the first known ships, pottery and glass with Egyptian technology, new styles of literature, and in politics, their Peace Treaties.

Egypt left a long lasting legacy. Its art and the architecture were widely copied, and their antiques were taken all over the world. Its monumental ruins have inspired the imagination of writers and travellers for centuries. A newfound understanding of the antiquities and excavations in the early modern period gave rise to the scientific investigation of Egyptian civilization and a greater appreciation of its cultural legacy, from Egypt itself and the rest of the world.

Ancient Greece

The term Ancient Greece refers to the period of Greek history, which lasted from the Greek Dark Ages around 1100 BC, and Doria’s invasion around 146 BC and the Roman conquest of Greece after the Battle of Corinth. It is generally believed that the Greek culture formed the basis of Western civilization and the cultures in all of South West Asia and North Africa. The Greek culture influenced the Roman Empire in a big way. The civilization of the Ancient Greeks has been incredibly influential in terms of language, politics, education systems, philosophy, science and art. They were an inspiration for the Islamic Golden Age and the European Renaissance and again the resurgence during various neo-classical renovations in the 18th and 19th Centuries in Europe and America.

Ancient Rome

This is the name given to the Roman Civilization, which developed in the Italian Peninsula during the 8th Century BC, as of the establishment of the city of Rome. Throughout the twelve centuries of its existence, the Roman civilization had forms of government such as the Roman Monarchy which was then replaced by the Roman Republic, until it became a great Empire which dominated Western Europe and the vicinity of the Mediterranean Sea through conquest and cultural assimilation: this was the Roman Empire.

However, a series of social-political factors caused the decline of the Empire, which was divided in two. Half was the Western Roman Empire, which also included Hispania, Gaul and Italy, which eventually collapsed in the 5th Century (Barbaric invasions) and gave place to various independent kingdoms; the other half was the Eastern Roman Empire, which governed the Eastern part of the Roman Empire from Constantinople. This Empire is also known by modern historians as the Byzantine Empire from the year 476 AD, the standard date of the fall of Rome, which marks the beginning of the Middle Ages.

Ancient Rome tends to be inserted in what is known as Classical Antiquity, which belongs to the Ancient Age, along with Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia which preceded and greatly inspired the Roman culture, and in particular the Greek culture.

Mesopotamia

The Mesopotamian civilization arose in a geographically determined historical period. In the Fertile Crescent, a term coined by German historians, which describes a territory in the shape of a half moon that unifies two big rivers: the Tigris and the Euphrates. The civilizations that resided in this Fertile Crescent (Sumer, Akkad, Lagash) are determined by a common element, which is the presence of a river, which became the backbone of the Mesopotamian civilization. The Mesopotamian civilization emerged in the year 3000 BC, and came about through the ancient Neolithic settlements, which became city-States, which then developed their own Governments.

Mesopotamian Art - Painting
Mesopotamian Art

Phoenician Civilization

The Phoenicians settled between the foothills of the Lebanon Mountains and the Mediterranean, on the coasts of Asia Minor, on a small and narrow geographic strip about 200 km long and 40 km wide, which in ancient times was known as Phoenicia, which meant “Land of Palm trees”.

Phoenicia was a Kingdom of antiquity, which was located in the coastal plain, which today is Lebanon, in the East of the Mediterranean. This civilization developed between the 10th and 5th centuries BC, when colonies were being established throughout North Africa and southern Europe.

It is not clear up to what point the Phoenicians were considered a single ethnic group. Their civilization was organized in city-States, in a similar way to ancient Greece. Each city-State was a politically independent unit, and there was a possibility of a city entering in conflict and being dominated by another city-State, although they did also collaborate, forming leagues or alliances.

Despite the narrowness of their lands, and the steep and rocky coast, the stretch of the land offered magnificent ports and natural shelters. The mountains also provided excellent wood that the inhabitants of the region used to build ships. For this very reason, due to the ruggedness of the terrain and the scarcity of earth for cultivation, the Phoenicians tried to get out of the sea the space and substance that geography had denied them; they became excellent sailors, great colonizers and enterprising businessmen, bringing together, perhaps for the first time in history, the products and crops of the East and the West.

Persian Civilization

The Persians’ geographical scenery was the plateau of Iran, in Central Asia. Their territory in the North reached from the Caspian to the Turkestan Seas; in the South, with the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, and in the West, their territory bordered with Mesopotamia. The Persians used to live where we can find Iran today. From the 6th Century BC onwards, the Persians began to conquest their surrounding territories, and that was how they formed one of the biggest empires of ancient times.

The Persians were the greatest empire in the ancient east, they unified several villages in the Fertile Crescent, and their borders extended from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean. They inhabited the Iranian plateau, situated to the east of the region of Mesopotamia, a semi-arid region, with mountains rich in minerals, deserts and few fertile valleys, with a dry climate, and big fluctuations in temperature.

From the year 2000 BC onwards, the region was occupied by groups of shepherds and farmers (Medes and Persians), who came from the South of what is now Russia; these groups invaded the Iranian plateau. The Medes settled in the North of the Iranian plateau, whilst the Persians settled in the South Eastern part of the Iranian Plateau, next to the Persian Gulf.

The first inhabitants in the Iranian plateau mainly worked as shepherds and farmers, and in these fertile valleys they developed the cultivation of cereals, fruits and vegetables. The region was also rich in minerals, which inspired them to make metal tools to improve agricultural production and the art of war. They found iron, copper, silver and more in the mountains.

Hebrew Civilization

The Hebrews was the name given to the people who lived in the region of the Middle East around the second millennium BC, which would later give rise to the Semitic people such as the Arabs and the Israelites, the spiritual and historical ancestors of today’s Jews.

The Palestinian region was the territorial target of the Semitic people of the Arabian Desert. The first to arrive were the Canaanite Semitics, who took the name of the country named Canaan; who were defeated by the Hebrew Semitics who settled in the region divided into tribes (in the 14th and 11th Centuries BC); they founded two kingdoms: Israel (Capital Samaria) and Judas (Capital Jerusalem) in the 11th and 8th Centuries BC. Subsequently they were conquered by powerful civilizations. Their main contribution was in religion (Monotheism); they promoted the belief in one God, Jehovah, whose worship did not require statues or material figures.

Ancient Hebrew History
Ancient Hebrews

Indian Civilization

Indian or Hindu culture (Indian Civilization) has been molded by its long millennial history, its unique geography, its diverse demographics, and its acquisition of customs, traditions and religious ideas of its neighboring regions. They have also preserved ancient legacies, which were formed during the Indus Valley Civilization and later transmitted to the Vedic Civilization. During the Muslim conquests and European colonization they maintained their own traditions, but mixed them with other customs.

India, also known as Hindustan, is a wide peninsula located in the South of Asia. It has a triangular shape, bordered by the Arabian Peninsula to the West and Indochina to the East. The Northern border is limited by the Himalayan mountains; by the Bay of Bengal to the East; the Indian Ocean to the South; and the Oman or Arabic Sea to the West.

What is Ancient History?
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