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Ancient History: From Prehistory to the Early Middle Ages

Europe's Kingdoms (From the Ashes of the Roman Empire) Part I

395 A.D. Map

Rome AD 395
From The Historical Atlas, by William R. Shepherd, 1911.

Start and End of Ancient History

Geographically, ancient history customarily refers to the history of the Mediterranean region (coastal regions of southern Europe, northern Africa and western Asia), as well as eastward across the region known as the Fertile Crescent. Chronologically, it stretches back in time to the urban revolution or the start of writing. This is when what is thought to be the earliest writing form, the wedge shape we call cuneiform, was produced in the Mesopotamian city of Sumer.

Cuneiform tablet
Library of Congress

Ancient history covers more recent urban developments, including the city-states (poleis in Greece), and their empires, to the end of yet another city, this, the heart of an ancient superpower and the home of the Latin language. The city was the glamorous, brilliant, powerful, flexible, eternal, and sacred city of Rome. The end of ancient history conventionally ends with its end, the Fall of the Roman Empire.*

500 Years of Empire

Quite unlike the customary Eurocentric world of medieval history, with its focus on more northerly countries, including Britain, France, and Germany, the Roman Empire was centered on "our Sea" (mare nostrum), which we call the Mediterranean, the sea connecting Europe, Asia, and Africa -- the known world. The imperial expanse, covering 1/9 of the circumference of the earth, according to Orbis (The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World), remained more or less the same for more than two hundred years during the Roman Empire, beginning with the reign of Emperor Trajan (98 to 117 A.D.) when the empire was at its greatest extent. Even at its height, it wasn't then much bigger than it had been at the start of the Imperial Period, roughly 27 B.C.

Linking the Empire

450 A.D. Map

'Historical Atlas,' by William R. Shepherd, New York, Henry Holt and Company, [1926 ed.] Alt: The Roman and Hunnic Empires about 450.

Note that except for northern Africa, the Roman Empire still firmly controls the Mediterranean littoral, but the edges of the Empire have fallen to the so-called barbarians.

A.D. 476
Europe in A.D. 476 by Melissa Snell
© 2012 Melissa Snell About.com Guide to Medieval History

Note that only the Eastern Empire remains. All of Europe has been divvied up.

You could say that, give or take a Britain, some land in northern Africa, and hotly disputed territory in Asia, the Roman Empire lasted almost half a millennium.

The Roman Empire encompassed much of today's Middle East, sometimes controlling land in Asia as far as east as the Tigris River (Babylonia/Iraq) and parts of Arabia; westward to Spain and Portugal; north-westward through Gaul (France/Belgium) across the Channel to Britain; south to include a northern slice of Africa, to the first cataract in Egypt and the Sahara; and northward to the Balkans, the Rhine and Danube Rivers, and other parts of Europe -- Romania and Armenia, today.

Roman roads linked the territory by land. Public buildings -- like temples, theaters, aqueducts, and circuses, were consistent throughout, linking the area culturally. Economically, currency was close to universal. After Emperor Caracalla granted universal citizenship (212), citizenship and taxes united diverse populations. Its main languages were Latin, for legal matters and in the West, and Greek, in the East. These two international languages complemented the native populations' traditional tongues. Gradually, through the start of the fifth century, but more quickly by the last quarter, the political geography of the Roman world had changed.

The Progress of Time

Ancient history spans man's time on Earth from around the fourth millennium B.C. to somewhere between the first and second millennium A.D. Not only is the ancient period long (although shorter than the preceding era, the prehistoric one -- the period that can claim credit for humans' making use of fire, developing agriculture and weapons, and some pictographic writing), but historical eras are slow to shift: There are transitions and only elusive dates at this level.

Resources on the Prehistoric Period

Prehistoric Archaeology - From Archaeology at About.com

Domestication of Wheat - From Archaeology at About.com

Characteristics of Ancient Civilizations - From Archaeology at About.com

A.D. 476

For convenience, however, we like dates. The influential 18th century British historian of the Fall of Rome, Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) popularized a single event in A.D. 476, that we can date to around September 4, as the end of the Roman Empire, and, effectively, the start of the Medieval period. On that day, in Ravenna, Italy, the Western Roman emperor, named after the first king and first emperor of Rome, Romulus Augustus, but generally referred to by the diminutive Augustulus, a man of Germanic heritage, was deposed -- relatively peacefully; that is, Romulus wasn't killed: He probably died sometime in the sixth century. A so-called barbarian Christian named Odoacer of the Heruli evicted him.

Next: Dates for the Fall of Rome

Also see: Why Does Rome Dominate Ancient History? and Defining Ancient History

The Rise of Kingdoms in the Roman Empire Part:

1 - Ancient History: From Prehistory to the Early Middle Ages
2 - Other Dates for Rome's Fall: Pros and Cons
3 - How the Romans Handled Problems of Imperial Successions
4 - The Barbarian at the Gates
5 - Early Rome and the Issue of Kings
6 - Caesar's Role in the Collapse of the Roman Republic
7 - Challenges the Empire Faced and Resolved by Division
8 - Administrative Units of the Later Roman Empire
9 - Kings Replace the Roman Emperor

*An aside: The emphasis here is centered on the European countries of Greece and Rome. Although the Middle East has thousands of years of history, it is relegated to the sidelines. Places elsewhere in the ancient world appear as mere footnotes.

This is the tradition, but it may be changing, especially as more Asian documents become available to the public via the Internet, assuming there are dedicated scholars who can translate and interpret them.

The same modern shift is true in studies of the Medieval world -- all part of the burgeoning field of Late Antiquity, interest in which increased around the publication of Peter Brown's 1971 The World of Late Antiquity [source: Averil Cameron's Byzantine Matters (Princeton: 2014)]. Late Antiquity, whether dating to about the A.D. 750 of Brown or a more recent interest extending to about 1000, is a more encompassing term covering late Roman and early Medieval studies. Indeed, this article series is part of an attempt to bridge the period from ancient history proper to the start of the early Middle Ages. Melissa Snell, Guide to Medieval History, has written a corresponding piece going back in time: The Roots of Medieval Civilization


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