That seems to be the plight of a writer on the Ancient/Classical History forum who asks if 1 B.C. wasn't the start of civilization. [See Barbaracism thread.]
Perhaps you find yourself in a similar same situation in school. An ancient history test is coming up tomorrow and not a word of the teacher has penetrated your memory. What can you do? Of course, you could start by reading or re-reading the materials you were assigned, if you're a speed reader, end of chapter summaries, if available, and reviewing study notes taken by one of your friends with less difficulty in the area of ancient history, but what if that won't work?
I can't guess what's on your curriculum; even less can I divine what will be on your test, but I can point you to possibly helpful material right here on the Ancient/Classical History site. Such tips will not get you an A on their own, but just might help you pass the test. Since your time is very limited, only use these tips as a supplement to any study questions and study tips provided by your instructor:
Find the syllabus you were given at the start of the term. Read it carefully. Note topics that you were supposed to have learned about and what time periods and civilizations were covered.
Are there any study suggestions? Will your test be multiple choice or essay or both? The teacher has probably stressed particular concepts. Were they battles, social status, government forms? Keep an eye out as you read through articles for items related to the focus of your course.
Prehistory and the Start of Civilization
You may need to start somewhat earlier than the material covered on the Ancient/Classical History site -- with the archaeology of prehistory. Kris Hirst and company cover that topic admirably at Archaeology at About.com.
Particularly if you're looking for the beginning of civilizations or agriculture (farming) or cities, you should use the search box on her pages to find what you're looking for.
Use a Timeline
Look at relevant timelines to see what came first, second, third, etc. Knowing the order is important. You probably need to keep some dates in mind if you will be writing essays. While it is hopeless for most of us to remember long lists of dates, you might get partial credit on essay questions for remembering the decade or century or millennium. In ancient history, exact dates are few -- at least before the common era (see below in #4). For multiple choice exams, this may not help.
If some of the events seem particularly interesting to you, try extra hard to remember their dates and details so if an essay offers you wiggle room you can write about them with confidence.
A general timeline for Ancient History can be found here: Major Events in Ancient History.
- Click on the hyperlinked items to find out more about the events. Unless you have time, skim the information or read only the first couple of paragraphs.
- Test your knowledge of the events with this quiz.
The timeline begins with the Sumerians in about the 4th millennium B.C. That's 4000 years before the traditional dating of the birth of Christ.
- Print out a copy of the timeline.
If you can't print it out, copy the dates by hand. For some of us, the only way to memorize something is to write it out over and over again. Feel free to write out the chart if time allows and you learn this way, even if a printer is available.
- Use a highlighter to mark events covered in your course.
- Write in events that are not listed.
- If you know your teacher uses a different date, change it on your copy.
How to Read or Write Dates
The birth of Christ or the Common Era is the turning point in dates that can be visualized as a number line. I will assume you know what a number line looks like: there is a zero with positive numbers in one direction and negative ones in the other. For dates B.C., you use a "B.C." instead of the minus sign. You put the "B.C." after the number instead of before. For dates in the positive region, you can use the abbreviation A.D., but it is usually assumed the dates are A.D. Instead of B.C., many use "B.C.E." and instead of A.D., many use "C.E."
Dates in the 3rd millennium B.C., run from 3000-2000;
Dates in the 5th century B.C., run from the beginning of 500 to the end of 401;
Dates in the 4th century B.C., from 400 to the end of 301;
Dates in the 3rd century B.C., from 300 to the end of 201;
Dates in the 2nd century B.C., from 200 to the end of 101;
Dates in the 1st century B.C., from 100 B.C. to the last day in the year 1 B.C.
Dates in the 1st century A.D., from A.D. 1 to the last day of A.D. 100.
Dates in the 2nd century A.D., from A.D. 101 to the end of A.D. 200.
Quick challenge question: What is the first year of the 7th century B.C.?
The Cradle of Civilization
If your ancient history deals mostly with the Mesopotamians and Egyptians, some of the material on this site and some of the material on the Archaeology site may help. You may find answers in the African History and Asian History sites, as well. Here are some very basic pages on this site covering important aspects of the region:
Classical Civilizations: Greece and Rome
If your ancient history course focuses on ancient Greece and Rome, you have a lot more exact dates, battles, and specific individuals to know.
The proverbial they say a picture speaks a thousand words. It may help you to make sense of the periods if you look at the following timelines and picture galleries.
- Roman Era-By-Era Timeline
- Greek Era-By-Era Timeline
- Ancient Rome in Pictures
- Ancient Greece in Pictures
- Timeline of Roman Battles
- Timeline of the Peloponnesian War
- Timeline of the Persian Wars
Once again, since you're running out of time, you can't learn it all, but may be able to:
- get a general picture or
- learn about specifics that interest you and are therefore easy enough to remember.
Good luck and don't forget to check out About.com's Guide to test prep Test Taking Strategies!