Introduction
to antiquity

 

 

 

 

 

by Christian Schaller

Introduction
to antiquity

 

 

 

 

by Christian Schaller

When we speak of “antique” today, it can mean many things: an old piece of grandparents’ furniture, a dusty view and opinion, or even legacies of past cultures. The Latin word antiquus means exactly that: old, venerable, ancient. However, if one speaks of antiquity in the historical sense, one must draw the circle more narrowly. Although, as with all epochs, it is difficult to draw an exact spatial and temporal boundary, at least on the whole, historians agree on some key dates.

Antiquity in the Mediterranean region and thus also in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe lasted from about 800 BC to about 600 AD. The concept of antiquity is largely congruent with antiquity, but usually begins much earlier and sometimes covers the period from the fourth millennium BC to 600 AD, roughly the centuries between the Stone Age and the Middle Ages. The term antiquity thus also includes the ancient oriental advanced civilizations such as Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia. Another related term is the Bronze Age, which is the period in which mankind learned to make and use metal objects from bronze. However, this epoch always encompasses different periods in different cultural areas. In Central Europe, for example, the beginning of the Bronze Age is considered to be from 2200 to 1700 BC. The end is estimated at about 800 BC. This was the beginning of the Iron Age, during which people invented and used iron processing. Around 800 B.C., the end of the so-called “dark centuries” in the Mediterranean region is also estimated. The related terms Iron Age and Antiquity then coincide in their temporal extension, both ending around the 5th century AD.

Classical antiquity is usually conceptually and temporally limited to the high phases of ancient Greek, Hellenistic and Roman history, which established relatively constant and common cultural traditions in the Mediterranean region.

The Beginning: The “Dark Centuries”

As a historical epoch, the so-called Bronze Age followed the Neolithic Age. While large parts of Europe were already settled and archaeological traces of settlements, graves and also elaborate weapons and artifacts can be found in all European countries, the societies traditionally defined by historians as the first European “advanced” civilizations initially developed in the Aegean alone. In the Bronze Age, three large cultural groups developed here. The Minoan culture developed on Crete, the Mycenaean culture on the Greek mainland, and the Cycladic culture on the Aegean islands around Delos. Crete in particular flourished and adopted many ideas from other cultures – such as the typical palace culture from the Egyptians. Around 1400 BC, the Mycenaeans on the mainland finally achieved a kind of supremacy in the Aegean. But only 200 years later, these first great cultures were to perish.

Löwengrab Mykene; © Gina_Janosch

The reasons for this are still not fully understood – crop failures, earthquakes or raids by the mysterious “Sea Peoples”, whose exact identity remains unclear. In the Mediterranean region, these “dark centuries” refer to the period between the 12th and 8th centuries BC. Around 1200 BC is also traditionally dated the Trojan War. Around 800-750 B.C., archaeological finds once again reveal a cultural and artistic upswing. It is the beginning of the so-called orientalizing phase of Greek and also Etruscan art, in which increasingly luxury goods, but also knowledge from the Middle East were exported to the Aegean and to Italy. The life and work of Homer, the earliest poet of the Occident and, through his works Iliad and Odyssey, even a founder of identity for the Greek world, is dated to this epoch, which is also called Archaic. In archaic Greece, a culture was finally able to emerge that was to have a great influence on Europe up to our present day.

The cradle of democracy and philosophy: Greek history

Around 800 B.C., a large number of autonomous city-states had already emerged in Greece, all of which had their own political institutions such as popular assemblies. The reason for this was probably the special environmental conditions: The many islands and the separating mountain ranges on the mainland had created a cohesive but immensely small-scale region that differed fundamentally from the centrally governed cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The settlements were surrounded by farmland and a frontier area used by pastoralists. Legends, gods and heroes played an important role in everyday life, which was marked by religious festivals. The aristocracy set the tone, but in the beginning their position was only based on their merits for the community, which is why this status could be forfeited in case of doubt. The Greeks were seafarers and traders, they possessed nautical knowledge and a highly developed mobility. These were also prerequisites for Greek colonization, i.e. the founding of numerous planting cities throughout the Mediterranean region. Greek foundations can be found on the Black Sea coast, in Asia Minor and Cyprus, in Cyrenaica and even in southern France and Spain. Southern Italy, often including Sicily, was even called Magna Graecia, meaning “Great Greece.” Through the colonies, the Greek way of life, language and also polis culture spread.

Akropolis Athen; © Nick115

The period and style of Greek history between 700 and 500 BC is referred to as the Archaic period, which then transitioned into the Greek Classical period. This epochal boundary resulted from the internal Greek upheavals during the Persian Wars, in which the Greek city-states united against the overpowering Achaemenid Empire.

After the Battle of Plataiai in 479 B.C., Persia’s attempts to conquer Greece ended and an era of peace and prosperity began in which art, literature and philosophy flourished. Athens’ rise to power as a leading city-state also shaped the development of Attic democracy, which was based on the principle of popular sovereignty. However, only adult male citizens with property were allowed a political say. Women, slaves and foreigners – and thus a large part of the population – were excluded.

Although there were many other powerful city-states during the Archaic and Classical periods, such as Thebes or Corinth, we are most familiar with Athens and Sparta today. What is interesting about these two powers are the fundamental differences in their political systems. Athens is still considered the cradle of philosophy and democracy, while Sparta was a military territorial state. From 431 to 404 BC, Athens, Sparta and their allies fought each other in the Peloponnesian War. The fighting covered almost the entire Greek world. In the decades that followed, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, three of the most important philosophers in world history, lived and worked in Athens and Greece. Meanwhile, in the north, the kingdom of Macedonia rose to become an important military power. King Philip II, in particular, increased his country’s influence in long-standing battles beginning in 359 BC. But it was his son Alexander who would lead Macedonia and Greece to undreamed-of greatness.

Ancient Globalization between Alexander and Augustus: Hellenism

The numerous Greek cities throughout the Mediterranean contributed to the sense of belonging and identity. Common language and customs, shared gods and heroes, the works of Homer, and alliances against external enemies such as the Persians, not to mention unifying major events such as the Olympic Games, created a sense of a connected, Greek world. The Greeks called themselves “Hellenes.”

But it was Alexander the Great’s conquests that brought Hellenic culture an unprecedented spread and relevance in the then-known ancient world and established the three-hundred-year age of Hellenism. The young Macedonian king managed to subjugate and unite the city-states of Greece within a few years after the death of his father. Then he was drawn to the East to fight against the ancient enemy of the Greeks, the Persian Empire. He conquered Asia Minor, liberated Egypt, entered Babylon victoriously, finally reached the capital Persepolis, and in the following years went as far as India. Alexander considered himself the successor of the Persian kings and – unlike many of his compatriots – did not see the conquered cultures as barbaric. Rather, he was fascinated by the Oriental splendor and way of life, and he envisioned merging Greek culture with the Eastern – a cosmopolitan and far-sighted project that would shape the Eastern Mediterranean for centuries. Alexander’s gigantic empire was not to outlive his untimely death in 323 BC.

His generals fought bitterly over his inheritance and the vast territories were divided into several spheres of power after years of war. Alexander’s former generals acted as new rulers here and established their own dynasties. These are also known as diadochic empires, from the Greek word diadochos for successor. Probably the most long-lived and successful of these domains were the Ptolemies in Egypt, the Seleucids in Syria, and the Antigonids in Macedonia.

Alexander der Große, Thessaloniki; © dimitrisvetsikas1969

Although Hellenism was significantly influenced by Greek culture, the Mediterranean world was nevertheless inhabited by numerous cultures and ethnic groups. In addition to the large successor empires, there were also a large number of smaller territories, city-states and colonies, such as the occasionally very powerful kingdom of Syracuse in Sicily or the trading metropolis of Carthage in North Africa. The age of Hellenism also saw the rise of the young local power Rome. The three hundred years between the conquests of Alexander the Great and the rise to power of the first Roman emperor Augustus were a colorful and complex epoch, in which changing alliances and countless wars took place, but also a lively cultural transfer and artistic and scientific achievements. In the decades following Alexander’s death, for example, Epicureanism and Stoicism emerged in Athens alongside the already established philosophical schools – two philosophies that were to have a decisive influence on the Greek world, and later on the Roman Empire and the entire history of philosophy.

The eternal empire: Roman history

According to legend, the city of Rome was founded in 753 BC. The brothers Romulus and Remus, nourished by a she-wolf, are said to have been the progenitors. Kings eventually ruled the thriving city until 509 B.C., when the last, particularly cruel ruler, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, was expelled. Rome was now a republic. In fact, early Rome in the Tiber river valley was a confederation of small settlements sheltered on the famous seven hills. Bordering the Etruscan sphere of influence, Rome was able to rise to become a local cultural center. The individual farming villages were united and an agrarian and monarchically run city-state developed. Already in the royal period a senate had been established, which had an important, but only advisory function. This changed around 500 BC, when the monarchy gave way to a republic. At about the same time, however, struggles between the estates arose within Roman society. For decades, the plebeians, the common people, fought to demand rights and justice from the patricians, the powerful upper class. A high point in this regard is the Twelve Tables Law, which originated around 450 B.C. and was publicly exhibited in the Roman Forum. After the end of the internal struggles, rich plebeians also had the right to belong to the nobility, to marry into it and to hold public office. The Roman career of office, the cursus honorum, was a succession of magistracies that could be completed after a ten-year military service. The highest office was the consulship. The Roman Republic always had two consuls, who could dispose of the troops or impose capital punishments.

Kolosseum Rom; © The_Double_A

Over the centuries, the Romans subjugated more and more neighboring tribes and territories, eventually gaining dominion over Italy. Rome found itself increasingly threatened by the Punic-Phoenician city of Carthage, whose sphere of influence included the western Mediterranean and also Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. In the three Punic Wars between 264 and 146 B.C., this great adversary was finally crushed.

Through social and military reforms, the growing Roman Empire was able to successfully continue its campaigns of conquest. Especially in the last century B.C., however, this increasingly plunged the Republic into a political crisis. Dictators like Sulla or later Caesar reached for autocracy, while the Optimates, i.e. representatives of the conservative nobility, fought against the Populars, i.e. representatives of the popular assembly and thus partly of the popular will. The assassination of the dictator Caesar in 44 B.C. was a last, desperate attempt to save Rome’s shattered political system. After the ensuing civil wars, Caesar’s nephew and heir Octavian emerged victorious.

Officially and publicly, Octavian, better known to us today as Emperor Augustus, preserved the old structures of the Republic. To all appearances, he subordinated himself to the old institutions. At the same time, however, he quietly and over the years increasingly disempowered the Senate and the offices and united the powers on his person. He also never called himself autocrat or king, but primus inter pares, that is, first among equals. He founded the Julian-Claudian imperial dynasty, which ruled Rome until 68 AD. This was followed by the Flavian dynasty after the quadruple emperor year of 69 and then the epoch of the adoptive emperors in the second century, which is still considered the golden age of the Roman Empire. This was followed by the Severan dynasty and finally the epoch of the soldier emperors and the imperial crisis in the third century. This period from 235 to 285 was marked by internal and external crises.

After the imperial crisis of the third century, Late Antiquity began in the European and Mediterranean regions. The accession to power of the Roman emperor Diocletian in 284, who was able to overcome the crisis through his reforms, is generally regarded as the beginning of this last epoch of antiquity.

Germanization and Christianization: The End of Antiquity

In late antiquity, the Roman Empire had consolidated once again. The Constantinian, Valentinian and subsequently the Theodosian imperial dynasties were able to hold the crumbling empire together for another 150 years through reforms and military strength. Despite ongoing battles with Germanic tribes in the north and the Persian Sassanids in the east, a creeping inflation and economic crisis, and countless internal intrigues, Rome continued to dominate the entire Mediterranean region. The division of the empire into Western Roman and Eastern Roman halves, which occurred after the death of Emperor Theodosius in 395, was maintained. It was also Theodosius who finally elevated Christianity to the de facto state religion of the empire. The Western Roman Empire officially ended in 476, while the Eastern Roman Empire would continue to decline in power after an early medieval heyday, but would continue to exist as the Byzantine Empire until 1453. The exact beginning and end of Late Antiquity are still the subject of debate today and can rarely be tied to a specific event on a supra-regional basis. Regardless of historical events, however, the epoch of Late Antiquity can be defined by various characteristics, so that the transitional period between antiquity and the Middle Ages from the end of the 3rd to the beginning of the 7th century AD can be counted as a separate and also final period of antiquity and antiquity. The general lines of development during Late Antiquity trace an almost tremendous change in political-military, social-social as well as cultural-religious respects and thus mark the epoch not only – as previously assumed – as a time of decline and fall, but rather as a transitional epoch. The decline of the Western Roman Empire and the end of the ancient Roman state apparatus and political infrastructure – at least in the West – are only the effects of manifold causes and complex processes. The initial situation around 300 included not only reforms and a reorganization of the empire, but also the beginning of the migration of peoples, the increasing “Germanization” of the empire, and the gradual establishment of Christianity and the complex process of Christianization.

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