1. Education

What Is Ancient/Classical History?

2. Ancient History vs. Medieval History



Solidus of Justinian I, 527-565. Found in the collection of the Benaki Museum, Athens.

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Part 1: Pre-History vs. Ancient History
Part 2: Medieval History vs. Ancient History

Ancient, Modern, and the Middle Ages

Generally, ancient history refers to the study of life and events in the distant past. How distant is determined by convention.

The Ancient World Evolves Into the Middle Ages

One way to define ancient history is to explain the opposite of ancient (history). The obvious opposite of "ancient" is "modern", but ancient didn't become modern overnight. It didn't even turn into the Middle Ages overnight.

The Ancient World Makes a Transition in Late Antiquity

One of the transitional labels for a time period that crosses over from the ancient classical world is "Late Antiquity."

  • This period covers the period from 3rd or 4th through 6th or 7th centuries (formerly, roughly the period known as the "Dark Ages").
  • This period was the one in which the Roman Empire became Christian, and
  • Constantinople (later, Istanbul), rather than Italy, came to dominate the empire.
  • At the end of this period, Mohammad and Islam started to become defining forces, which makes
  • Islam a firm terminus ante quem (a term to learn, it means 'point before which') the period of ancient history ended.

The Middle Ages

Late Antiquity overlaps the period known as the Middle Ages or Medieval (from Latin medi(um) 'middle' + aev(um) 'age') period.

  • The Middle Ages were a period of great change, bringing Europe from the Classical age to the Renaissance.
  • As a transitional period, there is not a single, clear breaking point with the ancient world.
  • Christianity is important to the Middle Ages and polytheistic worship is important to the ancient period, but the change was more evolutionary than revolutionary.
  • There were various events along the path to a Christian Roman Empire within the ancient period, from the acts of toleration permitting Christians to worship within the Empire to elimination of imperial and pagan cults, including the Olympics.

The Last Roman

In terms of labels affixed to people of Late Antiquity, 6th century figures Boethius and Justinian are two of the "last of the Roman..." whatevers.

  • Boethius (c. 475-524) is called the last of the Roman philosophers, writing a treatise in Latin, De consolatione philosophiae 'On the Consolation of Philosophy,' and translating Aristotle on logic, with the result that Aristotle was one of the Greek philosophers available to scholars in the Middle Ages.
  • Justinian (483 - 565) is called the last Roman emperor. He was the last emperor to expand the empire and he wrote a law code that summarized the Roman legal tradition.

End of Roman Empire in A.D. 476
Gibbon's Date

Another date for the end of the period of ancient history -- with a substantial following -- is a century earlier. Historian Edward Gibbon established A.D. 476 as the end point of the Roman Empire, because it was the end of the reign of the last western Roman emperor. It was in 476 that a so-called barbarian, the Germanic Odoacer sacked Rome, deposing Romulus Augustulus.

The Last Roman Emperor
Romulus Augustulus

Romulus Augustulus is called the "last Roman emperor in the West" because the Roman Empire had been split into sections at the end of the 3rd century, under Emperor Diocletian. With one capital of the Roman Empire at Byzantium/Constantinople, as well as the one in Italy, the removal of one of the leaders is not tantamount to destroying the empire. Since the emperor in the east, in Constantinople, continued for another millennium, many say that the Roman Empire only fell when Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453.

Taking Gibbon's A.D. 476 date as the end of the Roman Empire, however, is as good an arbitrary point as any. The power in the west had shifted before Odoacer, non-Italians had been on the throne for centuries, the empire had been in decline, and the symbolic act put paid to the the account.

The Rest of the World

The Middle Ages is a term applied to the European heirs of the Roman Empire and generally wrapped up in the term "feudal." There is not a universal, comparable set of events and conditions elsewhere in the world at this time, the end of Classical Antiquity, but "Medieval" is sometimes applied to other parts of the world to refer to the times before their era of conquest or feudal periods.

For more details, please see Europe's Kingdoms From the Ashes of the Roman Empire.

Previous Page: Prehistory vs. Ancient History

Terms Contrasting Ancient History with the Medieval Period

Ancient History Medieval
Many Gods Christianity & Islam
Vandals, Huns, Goths Genghis Khan and the Mongols, Vikings
Emperors / Empires Kings / Countries
Roman Italian
Citizens, foreigners, slaves Peasants (serfs), nobles
The Immortals The Hashshashin (Assassins)
Roman Legions Crusades

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