Category Archives: Civilization Semester 1

From Reformation to Enlightenment. Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.

Reformation and religious conflict

Martin Luther established the twin pillars of the Protestant Reformation: the doctrine of justification by faith alone and the Bible as the sole authority in religious affairs. But by 1555 Lutheranism had lost much of its momentum outside of Scandinavia. Protestantism fragmented into different sects opposed to Catholicism but divided over the interpretation of the sacraments and religious practices. Among these, Calvinism had a clarity of doctrine and a fervor that made it attractive to a whole new generation of Europeans.

At the same time, Catholicism was also experiencing its own revival. New religious orders based on reform, a revived and reformed papacy, and the Council of Trent, which reaffirmed traditional Catholic doctrine, gave the Catholic Church a renewed vitality.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, the religious division (Catholics versus Protestant) was instrumental in beginning a series of religious divisions and wars:

  • The English Reformation 1509-47
  • The French Wars of Religion 1562-98
  • The 30 Years War 1618-48
  • a revolt of the Netherlands against the Catholic King Philip II of Spain (1568-1648)
  • conflict between Philip II and Elizabeth I of England, which led to the failed attempt of the Spanish armada to invade England in 1588.

The English Reformation was initiated by King Henry VIII (1509–1547), who wanted to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, because she had failed to produce a male heir. Henry had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine. Anne was unwilling to be only the king’s mistress and the king desired to have a legitimate male heir. The king requested the Catholic pope grant him a divorce, but the request was denied. So, he obtained an annulment of his marriage in England’s own ecclesiastical courts

Anne Boleyn had become pregnant and he had secretly married her in January 1533 to legitimize the expected heir. In May, as archbishop of Canterbury and head of the highest ecclesiastical court in England, Thomas Cranmer ruled that the king’s marriage to Catherine was ‘‘null and absolutely void’’ and then validated Henry’s marriage to Anne. At the beginning of June, Anne was crowned queen. Three months later, a child was born. Much to the king’s disappointment, the baby was a girl, whom they named Elizabeth.

Henry V, Jane Seymour and son, Edward VI.

In 1534, Parliament completed the break of the Church of England with Rome by passing the Act of Supremacy, which declared that the king was ‘‘taken, accepted, and reputed the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England.’’ This meant that the English monarch now controlled the church and the authority of the Catholic Pope was no longer recognized. The Anglican Church, a form of Protestant faith became dominant in England after much conflict ensued on Protestant/Catholic lines. The Catholic dominance ended with the execution of Queen Mary (the first daughter of Henry V in 1558), ordered by half-sister, Queen Elizabeth I.

The English Reformation was not as bloodily violent as the religious wars on continental Europe, where millions died. But it does show that the religious divisions were inseparable from political conflict and the quest for power. In the case of Henry V, the conflict was partly one of state power over religious power, but also one of maintaining power (Henry V wanted to ensure a male successor to continue the Tudor rule).

By the 17the century the concept of a united Christendom, held as an ideal since the Middle Ages, had been destroyed by the religious wars and divisions.

What emerged was a system of European nation-states in which a growing concern for power and dynamic expansion led to larger armies and greater conflict. War remained an endemic feature of Western civilization.

In those states called absolutist, strong monarchs assisted by aristocracies centralized power. Louis XIV, the Sun King of France, was the model for other absolutist rulers. His palace of Versailles, where the nobles were entertained and controlled by ceremony and etiquette, symbolized his authority and was the envy of other European rules.

Palace of Versailles, exterior view.

This street perspective gives an indication of the massive size of the palace, maybe comparable with the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Palais de Versailles

Note the baroque opulence of the design, lots of flourishes in gold and an intricate tiled floor.


The Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, reinforces the impression of grandeur and luxury. Everything gleams goldenly, reflecting the luminous Sun King, Louis XIV (1661-1714)


Strong monarchy also prevailed in central and eastern Europe, where three new powers made their appearance: Prussia, Austria, and Russia.


Peter the Great attempted to westernize Russia, especially militarily, and built Saint Petersburg, a new capital city, as his window on the west.

Peter the Great

There were exceptions to the trend of absolutism. In England, conflict between the Stuart kings, who were advocates of divine-right monarchy, and Parliament led to civil war and the creation of a republic and then a military dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell.

After his death, the Stuart monarchy was restored, but a new conflict led to the overthrow of James II and the establishment of a new order. The landed aristocracy gained power at the expense of the monarchs, thus laying the foundations for a constitutional government in which Parliament provided the focus for the institutions of centralized power.


The Flourishing of European Culture

In the midst of religious wars and the growth of absolutism, European culture continued to flourish. The era was blessed with a number of prominent artists and writers.

After the Renaissance, European art passed through a number of stylistic stages. The artistic Renaissance came to an end when a new movement called Mannerism emerged in Italy in the 1520s and 1530s.

The Reformation’s revival of religious values brought much political turmoil. Especially in Italy, the worldly enthusiasm of the Renaissance gave way to anxiety, uncertainty, suffering, and a yearning for spiritual experience.

Mannerism reflected this environment in its deliberate attempt to break down the High Renaissance principles of balance, harmony, and moderation (the term Mannerism derives from critics who considered their contemporary artists to be second-rate imitators, painting ‘‘in the manner of’’ Michelangelo’s late style).

Italian Mannerist painters deliberately distorted the rules of proportion by portraying elongated figures that conveyed a sense of suffering and a strong emotional atmosphere filled with anxiety and confusion.

(Domenikos Theotocopoulos 1541–1614). (called ‘‘the Greek’’—El Greco) was from Crete, but after studying in Venice and Rome, he moved in the 1570s to Spain, where he became a church painter in Toledo. El Greco’s elongated and contorted figures, portrayed in unusual shades of yellow and green against an eerie background of turbulent grays, reflect the artist’s desire to create a world of intense emotion. Pictured here is his version of the Laocoon, a Hellenistic sculpture discovered in Rome in 1506. The elongated, contorted bodies project a world of suffering while the somber background scene of the city of Toledo and the threatening sky add a sense of terror and doom.

La0coon El Greco

A new movement—the Baroque —eventually replaced Mannerism. The Baroque began in Italy in the last quarter of the sixteenth century and spread to the rest of Europe, where it was most wholeheartedly embraced by the Catholic reform movement, especially in Madrid, Prague, Vienna, and Brussels. Although it was resisted in France, England, and the Netherlands, eventually the Baroque style spread to all of Europe and to Latin America.

Baroque artists sought to bring together the Classical ideals of Renaissance art with the spiritual feelings of the sixteenth century religious revival. The Baroque painting style was known for its use of dramatic effects to arouse the emotions.

Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio (1571-1610) was an Italian painter active in Rome, Naples, Malta, and Sicily from the early 1590s to 1610. His paintings combine a realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional, with a dramatic use of lighting, which had a formative influence on Baroque painting.

Caravaggio employed close physical observation with a dramatic use of chiaroscuro (painting with great contrast in shadow and light). He made the technique a dominant stylistic element, darkening shadows and transfixing subjects in bright shafts of light.

The Lute Player


St. Jerome writing at his desk

Caravaggio vividly expressed crucial moments and scenes, often featuring violent struggles, torture and death. He worked rapidly, with live models, preferring to forgo drawings and work directly onto the canvas.


His influence on the new Baroque style that emerged from Mannerism was profound. It can be seen directly or indirectly in the work of Peter Paul Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and Rembrandt, and artists in the following generation heavily under his influence were called the “Caravaggisti” or “Caravagesques”, as well as tenebrists or tenebrosi (“shadowists”).

Baroque painting was known for its use of dramatic effects to heighten emotional intensity.

This style was especially evident in the works of the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens (1577– 1640), a prolific artist and an important figure in the spread of the Baroque from Italy to other parts of Europe. In his artistic masterpieces, bodies in violent motion, heavily fleshed nudes, a dramatic use of light and shadow, and rich, sensuous pigments converge to express intense emotions.

Rubens oude vrouw

The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus

This 1618 mythological painting concerns the rape of the daughters of King Leucippus of Messene by the demigods Castor and Pollux, as related by ancient poets such as Theocritus and Ovid. The powerful image indicates Rubens’ fascination for classical sculpture — this time inspired by Giovanni Bologna’s statue group The Rape of the Sabines, located in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence.  Mysteriously, a cupid (an angel of love) holds the horse’s reins, while glimpsing mischievously out of the canvas, perhaps signalling the eventual fate of the daughters, who were to be happily married to the demi-gods.

‘The Rape of the Sabine Women’ by Giovanni Bologna, Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence

Rubens sometimes used his art to make social/political commentary. He worked during the time of Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), the origins of which originated from the animosity between Protestants and Catholics and was perpetuated by struggles for political power. Nearly all European states were pulled in; the fighting involved Spain, France, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire.  See the painting below.

The Consequences of War, Rubens

The main figure of the image is the god of war, Mars, who has departed the open temple of Janus — which in times of peace was closed, according to Roman custom — and he grips a shield and blood smeared sword, threatening the surrounding people. Mars is encouraged by the Fury of War, Alecto, accompanied by two monsters that symbolise Plague and Famine, while Venus unsuccessfully attempts to restrain her lover. A woman on the left personifies wretched Europe, while there are also personifications of Fecundity, Harmony, Maternity and Charity, who all are known to thrive under peace. A terrified mother grasps her child to her breast, indicating that procreation and charity are threatened by War, which inevitably destroys everything. An architect lies on his back, his instruments held uselessly in his hand, suggesting that creative works that were used to ornament a city are now razed to the ground in this time of conflict.

Artemisia GentileschiSelf portrait

The great works of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653) are part of the Baroque tradition. Born in Rome, she studied painting under her father’s direction. In 1616, she moved to Florence and began a successful career as a painter. At the age of twenty-three, she became the first woman to be elected to the Florentine Academy of Design.

In the 17th century she was internationally renowned as a portrait painter and even the king of England had her come and stay in London so she could paint his portrait.

In modern times, her fame rests on a series of pictures of heroines from the Old Testament (the first and older part of the Christian bible).

1612-3 Artemisia Gentileschi_Judith_Beheading_Holofernes_Naples
Judith Beheading Holofernes

Most famous is Judith Beheading Holofernes, a dramatic rendering of the biblical scene in which Judith slays the Assyrian general Holofernes to save her besieged town from the Assyrian army.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes. Artemisia Gentileschi painted a series of pictures portraying scenes from the lives of courageous Old Testament women. In this painting, a determined Judith, armed with her victim’s sword, struggles to saw off the head of Holofernes. Gentileschi realistically and dramatically shows the gruesome nature of Judith’s act. The image of women being represented here is strong and violent and quite a rebuke to the male sexism of the period. In fact, Gentileschi was herself, to say the least, a strong woman who took her rapist to court, trying to have him convicted. She did not succeed, but the very fact that she attempted to do so shows her outstanding individual power and strength. Also, the fact that she was a rape victim helps us make sense of this series of painting with its female heroines enacting violent justice against men.

Baroque art and architecture also reflected the search for power that was so important to the seventeenth century ethos. Baroque churches and palaces were magnificent and richly detailed, as we have seen in the example of Louis XIV’s palace of Versailles. Kings and princes wanted other kings and princes as well as their subjects to be in awe of their power.

The Italian architect and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) celebrated the power of the church in his baroque architecture and sculpture.

Bernini designed Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican and also the vast colonnade enclosing the piazza in front of it.


Bernini’s work exemplifies the grandeur of Baroque power-architecture. St Peter’s signifies the power of the Catholic Church through its massive proportions, luxuriously ornate style and classical features (including the repetitions of columns).


In his most striking sculptural work, the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, Bernini depicts a moment of mystical experience in the life of the sixteenth-century Spanish saint. The elegant draperies and the expression on her face create a sensuously real portrayal of physical ecstasy.

The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa

In the second half of the seventeenth century, France replaced Italy as the cultural leader of Europe.

French Classicism maintained the classical values of the High Renaissance, including clarity, simplicity, balance, and harmony. The art reflected the shift in seventeenth-century French society from chaos to order. Though it rejected the drama of the Baroque, French Classicism continued the portrayal of noble subjects, especially those from Classical antiquity.

Nicolas Poussin (1594– 1665) exemplified these principles in his paintings. His choice of scenes from Classical mythology, the orderliness of his landscapes, the postures of his figures copied from the sculptures of antiquity, and his use of brown tones all reflect French Classicism of the late seventeenth century.

Saint Elizabeth and Saint Jean on journey
Apollo and the muses

Dutch realism

Brilliant Dutch painting paralleled the supremacy of maritime and finance-based Dutch commerce in the seventeenth century. Wealthy patricians and burghers of Dutch urban society commissioned works of art for their guild halls, town halls, and private dwellings. Neither Classical nor Baroque, Dutch painters were primarily interested in the realistic portrayal of secular everyday life.

The subject matter of many Dutch paintings reflected the interests of this burgher society: portraits of themselves, group portraits of their military companies and guilds, landscapes, seascapes, genre scenes, still lives, and the interiors of their residences.

Judith Jans Leyster_zelfportret op 21-jarige leeftijd (1630)

Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait.

This interest in painting scenes of everyday life is evident in the work of Judith Leyster (1609–1660), who established her own independent painting career. Like Gentileschi before her, it was a remarkable achievement for a woman in Europe. Leyster became the first female member of the painting Guild of Saint Luke in Haarlem, which enabled her to set up her own workshop and take on three male pupils. Musicians playing their instruments, women sewing, children laughing while playing games, and actors performing all form the subject matter of Leyster’s paintings of everyday Dutch life (see paintings below).

Girl with a straw Hat
Children with a cat.

The finest golden Dutch painter was Rembrandt van Rijn (1606– 1669). During his early career, Rembrandt painted opulent portraits and grandiose scenes that were often quite colorful.


The Nightwatchmen above, is painted in more muted tones than some of his early works.

Rembrandt was prolific and successful, but he turned away from materialistic success to follow his own artistic path.


One of many self-portraits

Rembrandt shared the Dutch predilection for realistic portraiture.

Young Girl by the Window
Saskia, portrait of his wife

As he grew older he refused to follow his contemporaries, whose pictures were largely secular; half of his own paintings depicted scenes from biblical tales. Since the Protestant tradition of hostility to religious pictures had discouraged artistic expression, Rembrandt stands out as the one great Protestant painter of the seventeenth century.

1629-30 Bust of an Old Woman at Prayer oil on copper 15.5 x 12.2 cm Residenzgalerie, Salzburg, Austria

in the process of following his own artistic path he eventually he lost public support and died bankrupt.

An Age of popular theater

In England and Spain, writing reached new heights between 1580 and 1640. All of these impressive new works were written in the vernacular.

Except for academic fields, such as theology, philosophy, jurisprudence, and the sciences, Latin was no longer a universal literary language. The greatest age of English literature is often called the Elizabethan era because much of the English cultural flowering of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries occurred during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Elizabethan literature exhibits the exuberance and pride associated with England’s international exploits at the time. Of all the forms of Elizabethan literature, none expressed the energy and intellectual versatility of the era better than drama. And of all the dramatists, none is more famous than William Shakespeare (1564–1616).

-Shakespeare Chambos

Shakespeare was the son of a prosperous glovemaker from Stratford-upon-Avon. When he appeared in London in 1592, Elizabethans were already addicted to the stage. In Greater London, as many as six theaters were open six afternoons a week.

London theaters ranged from the Globe, which was a circular unroofed structure holding three thousand spectators, to the Blackfriars, which was roofed and held only five hundred. In the former, an admission charge of a penny or two enabled even the lower classes to attend; the higher prices in the latter ensured an audience of the well-to-do. Elizabethan audiences varied greatly, putting pressure on playwrights to write works that pleased nobles, lawyers, merchants, and even vagabonds.

William Shakespeare was a ‘‘complete man of the theater.’’ Although best known for writing plays, he was also an actor and shareholder in the chief company of the time, the Lord Chamberlain’s Company, which played in theaters as diverse as the Globe and the Blackfriars.

Shakespeare has long been recognized as a genius of the English language for his poetry and drama. His wonderful language was matched by an incredible insight into human psychology and the politics of Elizabethan England in his tragedies, histories and comedies.

As was common in the period, Shakespeare based many of his plays on the work of other playwrights and recycled older stories and historical material. Playwrights of the time wrote fast because the demand for new plays was great, so relying on existing stories made the process easier. In addition, plays based on already popular stories appear to have been seen as more likely to draw large crowds. There were also cultural reasons: Renaissance writers believed tragic plots should be grounded in history. For example, King Lear is probably an adaptation of an older play, King Leir, and the Henriad probably derived from The Famous Victories of Henry V.[28] For plays on historical subjects, Shakespeare relied heavily on two principal texts. Most of the Roman and Greek plays are based on Plutarch‘s Parallel Lives ,[30] and the English history plays are indebted to Raphael Holinshed‘s 1587 Chronicles. This structure did not apply to comedy, and those of Shakespeare’s plays for which no clear source has been established, such as Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Tempest, are comedies. Even these plays, however, rely heavily on generic commonplaces (common ideas of the time).

The plays tend to fall into three main stylistic groupings. The first major grouping of his plays begins with his histories and comedies of the 1590s. Shakespeare’s earliest plays tended to be adaptations of other playwrights’ works and employed blank verse and little variation in rhythm. However, after the plague forced Shakespeare and his company of actors to leave London for periods between 1592 and 1594, Shakespeare began to use rhymed couplets in his plays, along with more dramatic dialogue. These elements showed up in The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Almost all of the plays written after the plague hit London are comedies, perhaps reflecting the public’s desire at the time for light-hearted fare. Other comedies from Shakespeare during this period include Much Ado About Nothing, The Merry Wives of Windsor and As You Like It.

The middle grouping of Shakespeare’s plays begins in 1599 with Julius Caesar. For the next few years, Shakespeare would produce his most famous dramas, including Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear. The plays during this period are in many ways the darkest of Shakespeare’s career and address issues such as betrayal, murder, lust, power and egoism.

The final grouping of plays, called Shakespeare’s late romances, include Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. The romances are so called because they bear similarities to medieval romance literature. Among the features of these plays are a redemptive plotline with a happy ending, and magic and other fantastic elements.


Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film version of Romeo and Juliet is wonderful.

The theater was also one of the most creative forms of expression during Spain’s golden century.

As in England, actors’ companies ran the first professional theaters, which were established in Seville and Madrid in the 1570s. Soon a public playhouse could be found in every large town, including Mexico City in the New World. Touring companies brought the latest Spanish plays to all parts ofthe Spanish Empire.

Beginning in the 1580s, Lope de Vega (1562–1635) set the agenda for playwrights. Like Shakespeare, he was from a middle-class background. He was an incredibly prolific writer; almost one-third of his fifteen hundred plays survive, which have been characterized as witty, charming, action packed, and realistic.

Lope de Vega wrote his plays to please his audiences. In a treatise on drama written in 1609, he stated that the foremost duty of the playwright was to satisfy public demand.

Shakespeare is likely to have believed the same thing, since his livelihood depended on public approval, but Lope de Vega was considerably more cynical about it: he remarked that if anyone thought he had written his plays for fame, ‘‘undeceive him and tell him that I wrote them for money.’’

As the great age of theater in England and Spain was drawing to a close around 1630, a new dramatic era began to dawn in France that lasted into the 1680s. Unlike Shakespeare in England and Lope de Vega in Spain, French playwrights wrote more for an elite audience and were forced to depend on royal patronage.

Louis XIV used theater as he did art and architecture—to attract attention to his monarchy.

French dramatists cultivated a style that emphasized the clever, polished, and correct over the emotional and imaginative.

Many of the French works of the period derived both their themes and their plots from Classical Greek and Roman sources, especially evident in the works of Jean-Baptiste Racine (1639–1699

Like the ancient tragedians, Racine, who perfected the French neoclassical tragic style, focused on conflicts, such as between love and honor or inclination and duty, that characterized and revealed the tragic dimensions of life). In Phedre, which has been called his best play, Racine followed closely the plot of Hippolytus by the Greek tragedian Euripides.

Jean-Baptiste Moliere (1622–1673) enjoyed the favor of the French court and benefited from the patronage of King Louis XIV. Moliere wrote, produced, and acted in a series of comedies that often satirized the religious and social world of his time.


In Tartuffe, he ridiculed religious hypocrisy. His satires, however, sometimes got him into trouble. The Paris clergy did not find Tartuffe funny and had it banned for five years. Only the protection of the king saved Moliere from more severe harassment.

Scientific revolution

The seventeenth century was a period of transition toward the more secular spirit that has characterized modern Western civilization to the present. A key foundation for this spirit could be found than in the new view of the universe that was ushered in by the Scientific Revolution.

In the Scientific Revolution, the Western world overthrew the medieval, Aristotelian- Ptolemaic worldview and geocentric universe and arrived at a new conception of the universe: the sun at the center, the planets as material bodies revolving around the sun in elliptical orbits, andan infinite rather than finite world.

This new conception of the heavens was the work of a number of brilliant individuals:

  • Nicolaus Copernicus, who theorized a heliocentric, or sun-centered,
  • universe;
  • Johannes Kepler, who discovered that planetary orbits were elliptical;
  • Galileo Galilei, who, by using a telescope and observing the moon and sunspots, discovered that the universe seemed to be composed of material substance;
  • Isaac Newton, who tied together all of these ideas with his universal law of gravitation.


The contributions of each individual built on the work of the others, thus establishing one of the basic principles of the new science—cooperation in the pursuit of new knowledge.

With the changes in the conception of ‘‘heaven’’ came changes in the conception of ‘‘earth.’’

The work of Bacon and Descartes left Europeans with the separation of mind and matter and the belief that by using only reason they could in fact understand and dominate the world of nature.

The creation of scientific societies and learned journals spread its results. The Scientific Revolution was more than merely intellectual theories. It also appealed to nonscientific elites because of its practical implications for technology, economic progress and for maintaining the social order, including the waging of war.

The new ways of thinking created a more fundamental break with the past than that represented by the breakup of Christian unity in the Reformation.

The Scientific Revolution forced Europeans to change their conception of themselves. At first, some were appalled and even frightened by its implications. Formerly, humans on earth had viewed themselves as being at the center of the universe.  Now the earth was only a tiny planet revolving around a sun that was itself only a speck in a boundless universe.

If it was just a speck it was nonetheless fascinating. Newton demonstrated that the universe was a great machine governed by natural Laws and that motion in the universe could be understood in terms of the law of gravitation.

There was a hunger among scientists to discover other laws.  Were there not natural laws governing every aspect of human endeavor that could be found by the new scientific method? Thus, the Scientific Revolution leads us logically to the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century.

Enlightenment in the 18th century

The eighteenth century was a time of change but also of tradition. The popularization of the ideas of the Scientific Revolution, the impact of travel literature, a new skepticism, and the ideas of Locke and Newton led to what historians call the Age of Enlightenment.

Its leading figures were the intellectuals known as philosophes who hoped that they could create a new society by using reason to discover the natural laws that governed it.

Like the Christian humanists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they believed that education could create better human beings and a better human society. Such philosophes as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, Hume, Quesnay, Smith, Beccaria, Condorcet, and Rousseau attacked traditional religion as the enemy, advocated religious toleration and freedom of thought, criticized their oppressive societies, and created a new ‘‘science of man’’ in economics, politics, and education.

In doing so, the philosophes laid the foundation for a modern worldview based on rationalism and secularism.

Although many of the philosophes continued to hold traditional views about women, female intellectuals like Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft began to argue for the equality of the sexes and the right of women to be educated.

Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin
Mary Wollstonecraft

The Enlightenment appealed largely to the urban middle classes and some members of the nobility, and its ideas were discussed in salons, coffeehouses, reading clubs, lending libraries, and societies like the Freemasons.

Innovation in the arts also characterized the eighteenth century. The cultural fertility of the age is evident in:

  • Rococo painting and architecture;
  • the achievements of Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart in music;
  • the birth of the novel in literature;
  • new directions in education and historical writing.

Although the philosophes attacked the established Christian churches, many Europeans continued to practice their traditional faith. Moreover, a new wave of piety swept both Catholic and Protestant churches, especially noticeable in Protestant Europe with the advent of Pietism in Germany and John Wesley and Methodism in England.

Thus, despite the secular thought and secular ideas that began to pervade the mental world of the ruling elites, most people in eighteenth-century Europe still lived by seemingly eternal verities and practices—God, religious worship, and farming.  The most brilliant architecture and music of the age were religious.

And yet the forces of secularization were too strong to stop. In the midst of intellectual change, economic, political, and social transformations of great purport were taking shape and would lead to both political and social upheavals and even revolution. Those upheavals and revolutions will be the subject our lesson next week, the last for this semester.

Les Miserables

The European Late Middle Ages: towards Renaissance

In the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, European society developed many aspects of social development. It developed territorial states, parliaments, capitalist trade and industry, banks, cities, and vernacular literature.

The Catholic Church under the direction of the papacy reached its height  conflicted with the state, and led the disastrous Crusades in which a Christian west was pitted against the Middle East and Islam.

Fourteenth-century European crises led to the disintegration of medieval socities. However, new ideas and practices were emerging and the pace of change was quickening. The rebirth of Classical culture that some historians have called the Renaissance had begun.

Developing complex European society

During the High Middle Ages, European society was dominated by a landed aristocracy whose primary function was to fight. The nobles rationalized their warlike attitudes by calling themselves the defenders of Christian society, continued to dominate the medieval world politically, economically, and socially.

Over time medieval kings began to exert a centralizing authority and inaugurated the process of developing new kinds of monarchical states. By the thirteenth century, European monarchs were solidifying  the machinery of government that would enable them to become the centers of political authority in Europe. The actions of these medieval monarchs laid the foundation for the European kingdoms that have dominated the European political scene ever since.

The power of both nobles and kings, however, was often overshadowed by the authority of the Catholic Church

The High Middle Ages also witnessed a spiritual renewal that led to numerous and even divergent paths:

  • The development of centralized administrative machinery expanded papal leadership both within the church and over European society
  • There were new dimensions to the religious life of the clergy and laity.

A wave of religious enthusiasm in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries led to the formation of new religious orders that worked to provide for the needs of the people, especially their concern for achieving salvation.

First of all, there was a tendency to stress the performance of good works, including acts of charity, as a means of ensuring salvation.

  • Bequests to hospitals and other charitable foundations increased.
  • Family chapels were established, served by priests whose primary responsibility was to say Mass for the good of the souls of deceased family members.
  • A growing emphasis on indulgences.
  • people sought to play a more active role in their own salvation.
  • Greater participation in pilgrimages (journeys to holy sites)
  • Popular mysticism (the immediate experience of oneness with God) and lay piety in the fourteenth century.

Meister Eckhart (1260–1327), sparked a mystical movement in western Germany. Eckhart was an educated Dominican theologian who preached that a union with God was attainable by all (including the uneducated) who pursued it wholeheartedly.

Eckhart’s movement spread from Germany into the Low Countries, where it took on a new form, called the Modern Devotion, founded by Gerard Groote (GROH-tuh) (1340–1384). His messages were that to achieve true spiritual communion with God, people must imitate Jesus and lead lives dedicated to serving the needs of their fellow human beings His followers came to be known as the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, spreading through Germany, Netherlands.

A number of female mystics had their own unique spiritual experiences. For them, fasting and receiving the Eucharist (the communion wafer that, according to Roman Catholic doctrine, contains the body of Jesus) became the mainstay of their religious practices. Catherine of Siena, for example, gave up eating any solid food at the age of twenty-three and thereafter lived only on cold water and herbs that she sucked and then spat out.


But as Dissent from church teaching and practices grew, a climate of fear and intolerance developed as the church responded with inquisitorial procedures to enforce conformity to its teachings. this small beginning, a movement developed that spread

Changes in Theology

The fourteenth century presented challenges not only to the institutional church but also to its theological framework. In the thirteenth century,

Thomas Aquinas’s grand synthesis of faith and reason was not widely accepted outside his own Dominican order.


The philosopher William of Occam (1285– 1329) posited that the truths of religion could only be known by an act of faith and were not demonstrable by reason. The acceptance of Occam’s nominalist philosophy at the University of Paris brought an element of uncertainty to late medieval theology by seriously weakening the synthesis of faith and reason that had characterized the theological thought of the High Middle Ages. At the same time, Occam’s emphasis on using reason to analyze the observable phenomena of the world had an important impact on the development of physical science by creating support for rational and scientific analysis.

The Middle Ages spiritual renewal also gave rise to the crusading ‘‘holy warrior’’ who killed for God.

Byzantine Decline, renewal and the road to the Crusades

After the Macedonian dynasty was extinguished in 1056, the empire was beset by internal struggles for power between ambitious military leaders and aristocratic families who attempted to buy the support of the great landowners of Anatolia by allowing them greater control over their peasants. This policy was self-destructive, however, because the peasant-warrior was the traditional backbone of the Byzantine state.

The Byzantine Empire faced external threats to its security as well. The greatest challenge came from the Seljuk Turks who had moved into Asia Minor—the heartland of the empire and its main source of food and manpower. After defeating the Byzantine forces at Manzikert in 1071, the Turks advanced into Anatolia, where many peasants, already disgusted by their exploitation at the hands of Byzantine landowners, readily accepted Turkish control.

The growing division between the Latin script Catholic Church of the West and the Greek  script Eastern Orthodox Church of the Byzantine Empire also weakened the Byzantine state. schismThe Eastern Orthodox Church was unwilling to accept the pope’s claim that he was the sole head of the church. This dispute reached a climax in 1054 when Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael Cerularius, head of the Byzantine church, formally excommunicated each other, initiating a schism between the two great branches of Christianity that has not been healed to this day.

The Comneni, under Alexius I Comnenus (1081–1118), were victorious on the Greek Adriatic coast against the Normans, defeated the Pechenegs in the Balkans, and stopped the Turks in Anatolia. Lacking the resources to undertake additional campaigns against the Turks, Emperor Alexius I turned to the West for military assistance. The positive response to the emperor’s request led to the Crusades.

The Crusades

The Crusades were based on the idea of a holy war against the infidels or unbelievers. The wrath of Christians was directed against the Muslims and had already found some expression in the attempt to reconquer Spain from the Muslims and the success of the Normans in reclaiming Sicily.

At the end of the eleventh century, the Byzantine emperor, Alexius I, asked Pope Urban II (1088– 1099) for help against the Seljuk Turks. The pope saw an opportunity to provide papal leadership to rally the warriors of Europe for the liberation of Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the infidel (the Holy City of Jerusalem had long been the object of Christian pilgrimages.) At the Council of Clermont in southern France (1095), Urban challenged Christians to join in a holy war to recover the Holy Land.

The Peasant’s Crusade


The First Crusade was preceded by a ‘‘Peasants’ Crusade,’’ or ‘‘Crusade of the Poor,’’ Peter the Hermit, who preached of his visions of the Holy City of Jerusalem, convinced a large mob, most of them poor and many of them peasants, to undertake a Crusade to the east. They moved through the Balkans, terrorizing the natives and looting food and supplies. Their misplaced religious enthusiasm led to the persecution of the Jews, long depicted by the church as the murderers of Christ.

Two bands of peasant crusaders, led by Peter the Hermit, reached Constantinople. Emperor Alexius shipped them over to Asia Minor where the Turks massacred them.

The First Crusade 1096+

Pope Urban II drew on the warriors of western Europe, particularly France, for the first crusading armies. The knights (nobles) were motivated by religious fervor and opportunities for adventure (fighting), to gain territory, riches, status, possibly a title, and salvation—the pope offered a full remission of sins for those who participated.

For the pope and European monarchs, the Crusades offered a way to rid Europe of contentious young nobles who disturbed the peace and wasted lives and energy fighting each other. The Catholic Church had tried earlier with the ‘‘Peace of God’’ and ‘‘Truce of God’’ to limit the ongoing bloodletting in Europe, without much success.

Merchants in many Italian cities relished the prospect of new trading opportunities in Muslim lands.

In the First Crusade, begun in 1096, the crusading army probably numbered several thousand cavalry and as many as 10,000 foot soldiers. After the capture of Antioch in 1098, much of the crusading army reached Jerusalem in June 1099. After a five-week siege, the Holy City was taken amid a horrible massacre of the city’s men, women, and children (see Spielvogle, p. 295).

After further conquest of Palestinian lands, the crusaders ignored the wishes of the Byzantine emperor (who believed the crusaders were working on his behalf) and organized four crusader states (Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli, and Jerusalem). Because the crusader states were surrounded by Muslim enemies, they grew increasingly dependent on the Italian commercial cities for supplies from Europe. Some Italian cities , such as Genoa, Pisa, and especially Venice, became rich and powerful in the process.

The Second and Third Crusades

By the 1120s, the Muslims were striking back and the crusader states soon foundered. In 1144, Edessa became the first of the four Latin states to be recaptured. Its fall led to renewed calls for another Crusade, especially from the monastic firebrand Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who gained the support of King Louis VII of France and Emperor Conrad III of Germany. Their Second Crusade proved to be a total failure.

In 1169, Sunni Muslims under the leadership of Saladin brought an end to the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt. Proclaiming himself sultan, Saladin succeeded in establishing his control over both Egypt and Syria and in 1187, Saladin’s army invaded the kingdom of Jerusalem and destroyed the Christian forces there.


Unlike the Christians of the First Crusade, Saladin did not permit a massacre of the civilian population and even tolerated Christian religious services in conquered territories. For some time, Christian occupation forces carried on trade with Muslim communities in the region.

In reaction to the fall of the Holy City of Jerusalem, Three European monarchs agreed to lead the Third Crusade: Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, King Richard I the Lionhearted of England (1189–1199), and Philip II Augustus, king of France. It was another failure. Barbarossa drowned while swimming in a local river. The English and French attacked by sea and met with success against the coastal cities, but were defeated when they moved inland. Philip retreated and, Richard negotiated a settlement whereby Saladin agreed to allow Christian pilgrims free access to Jerusalem.

The fourth crusade

Following Saladin’s death in 1193, Pope Innocent III initiated a Fourth Crusade, led by Venetians. On its way to the Holy Land, the crusading army became involved in a dispute over the succession to the Byzantine throne. The Venetians saw an opportunity to rid themselves of their greatest commercial competitor, the Byzantines. The crusaders sacked the great capital city in 1204 and created a new Latin Empire of Constantinople. It In 1261 the Byzantines ecaptured Constantinople. Their Empire had been saved, but it was no longer a great Mediterranean power, but comprised only the city of Constantinople, its surrounding territory, and as some lands in Asia Minor. Though reduced, the empire survived until the Ottoman Turks to conquer it in 1453.

The Children’s Crusade.


In Germany in 1212, a youth known as Nicholas of Cologne announced that God had inspired him to lead a Children’s Crusade to the Holy Land. Thousands of young people joined Nicholas and made their way down the Rhine and across the Alps to Italy, where the pope told them to go home. Most tried to do so.

The Fifth, Six, Seventh and Eight Crusades (fail).

The Fifth Crusade (1219– 1221) attempted to recover the Holy Land by way of the powerful Muslim state of Egypt. The Crusade achieved some early successes, but its ultimate failure marked an end to papal leadership of the western crusaders.

The Sixth Crusade was led by the German emperor Frederick II, took place without papal support because the emperor had been excommunicated by the pope. In 1228, Frederick entered Jerusalem and was crowned as its king without any battle as he had made an agreement with the sultan of Egypt. However the city soon fell to a group of Turks allied with the sultan of Egypt.

The last two major Crusades were poorly organized by the pious king of France, Louis IX. They were complete failures. Soon the remaining Christian possessions in the Middle East were retaken. Acre, the last foothold of the crusaders, surrendered in 1291.  The Crusades failed to capture and keep the Holy Land for the Christian West.

The Effects of the Crusades

European stability?

Some historians think the Crusades help stabilize European society by removing large numbers of young warriors who would have fought each other in Europe and believe that Western monarchs established their control more easily as a result.


Although there may have been some broadening of perspective that comes from the exchange between two cultures, the interaction of Christian Europe with the Muslim world was more intense and more meaningful in Spain and Sicily than in the Holy Land.


The Crusades contributed to the economic growth of the Italian port cities, especially Genoa, Pisa, and Venice (see also below). However, while the Crusades may have enhanced the revival of trade, but they did not cause it. Even without the Crusades, Italian merchants would have pursued new trade contacts with the eastern world.

Negative legacies

Some historians have argued that the Crusades might be considered a ‘‘Christian holy war’’ whose memories still trouble the relationship between the Muslim world and the West today.

Other historians argue that the early crusaders were motivated as much by economic and political reasons as religious ones.


The first widespread attacks on the Jews began with the Crusades. As some Christians argued, to undertake holy wars against infidel Muslims while the ‘‘murderers of Christ’’ ran free at home was unthinkable. With the crusades, the massacre of Jews became a regular feature of medieval European life.

Jewish people were massacred in Rhineland, in 1096;  expulsed from England, for example, in 1290 by order of Edward I, and had previously been required to wear badges identifying themselves as Jews.

In 1168 the accusation of ritual child murder was made among the Gloucester Jews and more were killed. The fabrication spread to Northern France in 1171, where the population of an entire Jewry at Blois was burned to death. Whenever a Christian child died accidentally or in some uncertain manner, the Jews were accused, in Bury St. Edmund in 1181, in Bristol 1183, in Winchester 1192, in London 1244 and in Lincoln in 1255, resulting in massacres of Jews each time. This Blood Libel which began in England would, over the next hundreds of years, spread to more than 150 other Jewries from the Rhineland to the Middle East, with great loss of Jewish life each time.

13-14th century crisis

The Papacy

The papacy of the Roman Catholic Church reached the height of its power in the thirteenth century and met its limit during the fourteenth.

The struggle between the papacy and the monarchies began during the pontificate of Pope Boniface VIII (1294–1303).

King Philip IV (1285–1314) of France, desired new revenues and claimed the right to tax the French clergy. Boniface VIII responded that the clergy of any state could not pay taxes to their secular ruler without the pope’s consent.

Underlying this issue was a basic conflict between the claims of the papacy to universal authority over both church and state, which necessitated complete control over the clergy, and the claims of the king that all subjects, including the clergy, were under the jurisdiction of the crown and subject to the king’s authority on matters of taxation and justice. In short, the fundamental issue was the universal sovereignty of the papacy versus the royal sovereignty of the monarch.

The confrontation between Pope Boniface VIII and Philip IV of France led to a loss of papal power and the removal of the papacy to Avignon on France’s border in 1305 from Rome.

In 1377, Pope Gregory XI returned to Rome. He died, in the spring of 1378. When the college of cardinals met, they elect the Italian archbishop of Bari as Pope Urban VI (1378–1389). Many of the cardinals (the French ones) withdrew from Rome, claiming that they had been coerced by the mob into electing Urban. The dissenting cardinals thereupon chose a Frenchman, who took the title of Pope Clement VII and returned to Avignon.

Since Urban remained in Rome, there were now two popes, initiating what has been called the Great Schism of the church. Europe’s loyalties soon became divided: France, Spain, Scotland, and southern Italy supported Clement, while England, Germany, Scandinavia, and most of Italy supported Urban. These divisions generally followed political lines and reflected the bitter division between the English and the French in the Hundred Years’ War.

The Great Schism lasted for nearly forty years and had a baleful effect on the Catholic Church and Christendom in general. A new conciliar movement based on the belief that church councils, not popes, should rule the church finally ended the Schism in 1417.

The Black Death


At mid-14th century, the Black Death, a devastating plague that wiped out at least one third of the European population, with even higher mortality rates in urban areas.

Social responses

  • Some people escaped into alcohol, sex, and crime.
  • Some, such as the flagellants, believing the Black Death to be a punishment from God, attempted to atone for people’s sins through self-inflicted pain. I
  • Jews were scapegoated in many areas, suffering discrimination and worse.


  • Economic crises including a decline in trade and industry, bank failures, and
  • Social upheavals, including peasant revolts pitting the lower classes against the upper classes.

The Hundred Years War (1353-1453)

The Hundred Years’ War, a long, drawn-out conflict between the English and the French.

Armored knights on horseback formed the backbone of medieval armies, but English peasants using the longbow began to change the face of war.

After many defeats, the French cause was saved by Joan of Arc, a young peasant woman whose leadership inspired the French, who also began to rely on cannon and were victorious by 1453.



The Italian City-States

Italy, fourteenth century. Papal opposition to the rule of the Hohenstaufen emperors in northern Italy. Lack of centralized authority had enabled numerous city-states in northern Italy to remain independent of any political authority.

The center of the peninsula remained under the rather shaky control of the papacy.

southern Italy was divided into the kingdom of Naples, ruled by the French house of Anjou, and Sicily, whose kings came from the Spanish house of Aragon.

Two general tendencies:

  • the replacement of republican governments by tyrants and
  •  the expansion of the larger city-states at the expense of the less powerful ones.

By the end of the fourteenth century, three major states came to dominate northern Italy: the despotic state of Milan and the republican states of Florence and Venice.

Duchy of Milan

Located in the fertile Po valley, at the intersection of the chief trade routes from Italian coastal cities to the Alpine passes, Milan was one of the richest city states in Italy.

The Visconti family established themselves as the hereditary despots of Milan in 1322. Giangaleazzo Visconti who ruled from 1385 to 1402, extended Milan’s power over all of Lombardy and even threatened to conquer much of northern Italy until the duke’s death before the gates of Florence in 1402.

Republic of Florence

Florence, like the other Italian towns, was initially a free commune dominated by a patrician class of nobles known as the grandi. But the rapid expansion of Florence’s economy made possible the development of a wealthy merchant-industrialist class known as the popolo grasso—literally the ‘‘fat people.’’

In 1293, the popolo grasso assumed a dominant role in government by establishing a new constitution known as the Ordinances of Justice. It provided for a republican government controlled by the seven major guilds of the city, which represented the interests of the wealthier classes. Executive power was vested in the hands of a council of elected priors.

Around the mid-fourteenth century, revolutionary activity by the popolo minuto, the small shopkeepers and artisans, won them a share in the government. Even greater expansion occurred briefly when the ciompi, or industrial wool workers, were allowed to be represented in the government after their revolt in 1378. Only four years later, however, a counterrevolution brought the popolo grasso back to power. After 1382, the Florentine government was controlled by a small merchant oligarchy that manipulated the supposedly republican government.

By that time, Florence had also been successful in a series of wars against its neighbors. It had conquered most of Tuscany and established itself as a major territorial state in northern Italy.

Republic of Venice



The republic of Venice, on the north eastern coast, had grown rich from commercial activity throughout the eastern Mediterranean and into northern Europe.The Venetians took to piracy and derived some of the early wealth from attacking Islamic trading ships in the Adriatic sea.

Venice also developed a trading fleet and by the end of the tenth century had become the main western trading center for Byzantine and Islamic commerce. It sent wine, grain, and timber to Constantinople in exchange for silk.

By 1100, Venetian merchants began to benefit from the Crusades and were able to establish new trading centers in eastern ports. There the merchants obtained silks, sugar, and spices, which they carried back to Italy and the West.

A large number of Venetian merchant families became extremely wealthy. In 1297, these patricians took control of the republic. In this year, the Great Council, the source of all political power, was closed to all but the members of about two hundred families. Since all other magistrates of the city were chosen either from or by this council, these families completely dominated the city.

Although the doge (or duke) had been the executive head of the republic since the Early Middle Ages, by 1300 he had become largely a figurehead. Actual power was vested in the hands of the Great Council and the legislative body known as the Senate, and the Council of Ten (formed in 1310) came to be the real executive power of the state. The Venetian government was respected by contemporaries for its stability.

In the fourteenth century, Venice also embarked on a policy of expansion. By the end of the century, it had created a commercial empire by establishing colonies and trading posts in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea as well as continuing its commercial monopolies in the Byzantine Empire. Along with Italian merchants from other cities with ttrading posts in Cairo, Damascus,and a number of Black Sea ports,  they acquired goods brought by Muslim merchants from India, China, and Southeast Asia. Some journeyed to India and China in
search of trade.

At the same time, Venice also began to conquer the territory adjoining it in northern Italy.

Medieval Culture

Much of the art of the period depicted the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse described in the New Testament Book of Revelation: Death, Famine, Pestilence, and War. to some people, the last days of the world appeared to be at hand. the ‘‘fat people’’ back into virtual control of the government.

In art, the period also produced Giotto, whose paintings expressed a new realism that would be developed further by the artists of the next century.

Latin remained the language of the church liturgy and the official documents of both church and state throughout Europe, the fourteenth century witnessed the rapid growth of vernacular literature, especially in Italy. The development of an Italian vernacular literature was mostly the result of the efforts of three writers in the fourteenth century:

Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio.

Their use of the Tuscan dialect common in Florence and its surrounding countryside ensured that it would prevail as the basis of the modern Italian language.

Dante Alighieri (DAHN-tay al-lih-GAIR-ee) (1265– 1321) came from an old Florentine noble family that had fallen on hard times. Although he had held high political office in republican Florence, factional conflict led to his exile from the city in 1302. Until the end of his life, Dante hoped to return to his beloved Florence, but his wish remained unfulfilled.

Dante’s masterpiece in the Italian vernacular was the Divine Comedy, written between 1313 and 1321. Cast in a typical medieval framework, the Divine Comedy is basically the story of the soul’s progression to salvation, a fundamental medieval preoccupation. The lengthy poem was divided into three major sections corresponding to the realms of the afterworld: hell, purgatory, and heaven or paradise. In the ‘‘Inferno’’ (see the box on p. 323), Dante is led by his guide, the Classical author Virgil, who is a symbol of human reason. But Virgil (or reason) can lead the poet only so far on his journey. At the end of ‘‘Purgatory,’’ Beatrice (the true love of Dante’s life), who represents revelation—which alone can explain the mysteries of heaven—becomes his guide into ‘‘Paradise.’’ Here Beatrice presents Dante to Saint Bernard, a symbol of mystical contemplation. The saint turns Dante over to the Virgin Mary, since grace is necessary to achieve the final step of entering the presence of God, where one beholds ‘‘the love that moves the sun and the other stars.’’16

Petrarch Like Dante, Francesco Petrarca, known as Petrarch (1304–1374), was a Florentine who spent much of his life outside his native city. Petrarch’s role in the revival of the classics made him a seminal figure in the literary Italian Renaissance. His primary contribution to the development of the Italian vernacular was made in his sonnets. He is considered one of the greatest European lyric poets. His sonnets were inspired by his love for a married lady named Laura, whom he had met in 1327. Though honoring an idealized female figure was a long-standing medieval tradition, Laura was very human and not just an ideal. She was a real woman with whom Petrarch was involved for a long time. He poured forth his lamentations in sonnet after sonnet:

I am as tired of thinking as my thought

Is never tired to find itself in you,

And of not yet leaving this life that brought

Me the too heavy weight of signs and rue;

And because to describe your hair and face

And the fair eyes of which I always speak,

Language and sound have not become too weak

And day and night your name they still embrace.

And tired because my feet do not yet fail

After following you in every part,

Wasting so many steps without avail,

From whence derive the paper and the ink

That I have filled with you; if I should sink,

It is the fault of Love, not of my art.17

In analyzing every aspect of the unrequited lover’s feelings, Petrarch appeared less concerned to sing his lady’s praise than to immortalize his own thoughts. This interest in his own personality reveals a sense of individuality stronger than in any previous medieval literature.

Boccaccio Although he too wrote poetry, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) is known primarily for his prose. Another Florentine, he also used the Tuscan dialect. While working for the Bardi banking house in Naples, he fell in love with a noble lady, and under her inspiration, he began to write prose romances. His best-known work, the Decameron, however, was not written until after he had returned to Florence. The Decameron is set at the time of the Black Death. Ten young people flee to a villa outside Florence to escape the plague and decide to while away the time by telling stories. Although the stories are not new and still reflect the acceptance of basic Christian values, Boccaccio does present the society of his time from a secular point of view. It is the seducer of women, not the knight or philosopher or pious monk, who is the real hero. Perhaps, as some historians have argued, the Decameron reflects the immediate easygoing, cynical post plague values.

Boccaccio’s later work certainly became gloomier and more pessimistic; as he grew older, he even rejected his earlier work as irrelevant. He commented in a 1373 letter, ‘‘I am certainly not pleased that you have allowed the illustrious women in your house to read my trifles. . . . You know how much in them is less than decent and opposed to modesty, how much stimulation to wanton lust, how many things that drive to lust even those most fortified against it.’’18


Another leading vernacular author was Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400), who brought a new level of sophistication to the English vernacular language. His beauty of expression and clear, forceful language were important in transforming his East Midland dialect into the chief ancestor of the modern English language.


The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories told by a group of twenty-nine pilgrims journeying from the London suburb of Southwark to the tomb of Saint Thomas a` Becket at Canterbury. This format gave Chaucer the chance to portray an entire range of English society, both high- and low-born. Among others, he presented the Knight, the Yeoman, the Prioress, the Monk, the Merchant, the Student, the Lawyer, the Carpenter, the Cook, the Doctor, the Plowman, and, ‘‘A Good Wife was there from beside the city of Bath—a little deaf, which was a pity.’’

The stories these pilgrims told to while away the time on the journey were just as varied as the storytellers themselves: knightly romances, fairy tales, saints’ lives, sophisticated satires, and crude anecdotes. Chaucer also used some of his characters to criticize the corruption of the church in the late medieval period. His portrayal of the Friar leaves show’s his disdain for the corrupt practices of clerics. Of the Friar, he says: He knew the taverns well in every town. The barmaids and innkeepers pleased his mind Better than beggars and lepers and their kind.19

And yet Chaucer was still a pious Christian, never doubting basic Christian doctrines and remaining optimistic that the church could be reformed.

Christine de Pizan (c. 1364–1430)

Because of her father’s position at the court of Charles V of France, she received a good education. Her husband died when she was only twenty-five (they had been married for ten years), leaving her with little income and three small children and her mother to support. Christine took the unusual step of becoming a writer in order to earn her living (see Spielvogel, p. 315). Her poems were soon in demand, and by 1400 she had achieved financial security.

City of Ladies on accusations of men quotepic

Christine de Pizan is best known, however, for her French prose works written in defense of women. In The Book of the City of Ladies, written in 1404, she denounced the many male writers who had argued that women needed to be controlled by men because women by their very nature were prone to evil, unable to learn, and easily swayed. With the help of Reason, Righteousness, and Justice, who appear to her in a vision, Christine refutes these antifeminist attacks. Women, she argues, are not evil by nature, and they could learn as well as men if they were permitted to attend the same schools:

‘Should I also tell you whether a woman’s nature is clever and quick enough to learn speculative sciences as well as to discover them, and likewise the manual arts. I assure you that women are equally well-suited and skilled to carry them out and to put them to sophisticated use once they have learned them.’’20

Much of the book includes a detailed discussion of women from the past and present who have distinguished themselves as leaders, warriors, wives, mothers, and martyrs

for their religious faith. She ends by encouraging women to defend themselves against the attacks of men, who are incapable of understanding them.

A New Art: Giotto

The fourteenth century produced an artistic outburst in new directions as well as a large body of morbid work influenced by the Black Death and the recurrences of the plague.

The city of Florence witnessed the first dramatic break with medieval tradition in the work of Giotto (JOH-toh) (1266–1337), often considered a forerunner of Italian Renaissance painting.

Born into a peasant family, Giotto acquired his painting skills in a workshop in Florence. Although he worked throughout Italy, his most famous works were done in Padua and Florence.

Coming out of the formal Byzantine school, Giotto transcended it with a new kind of realism, a desire to imitate nature that Renaissance artists later identified as the basic component of Classical art.

St. Francis of Assisi Sermon to the Birds

Giotto’s figures were solid and rounded; placed realistically in relationship to each other and their background, they conveyed three-dimensional depth. The expressive faces and physically realistic bodies gave his sacred figures human qualities with which spectators could identify. Florentine painting in the early fifteenth century pursued even more dramatically the new direction his work represents.

Medieval Society

New inventions made an impact on daily life at the same time that the effects of the plague were felt in many areas of medieval urban life.

One immediate by-product of the Black Death was greater regulation of urban activities by town governments. Authorities tried to keep cities cleaner by enacting new ordinances against waste products in the streets. Viewed as unhealthy places, bathhouses were closed down, leading to a decline in personal cleanliness. Efforts at regulation also affected the practice of female prostitution.

Medieval society had tolerated prostitution as a lesser evil: it was better for males to frequent prostitutes than to seduce virgins or married women. Since many males in medieval towns married late, the demand for prostitutes was high and was met by a regular supply, derived no doubt from the need of many poor girls and women to survive. The recession of the fourteenth century probably increased the supply of prostitutes, while the new hedonism prevalent after the Black Death also increased demand.

As a result, cities intensified their regulation of prostitution. By organizing brothels, city authorities could supervise as well as tax prostitutes. Officials granted charters to citizens who were allowed to set up brothels, provided they were located only in certain areas of town. Prostitutes were also expected to wear special items of clothing—such as red hats— to distinguish them from other women. It was assumed that the regulation of prostitution made it easier to supervise and hence maintained public order.

Family Life and Gender Roles

The basic unit of the late medieval town was the nuclear family of husband, wife, and children. Especially in wealthier families, there might also be servants, apprentices, and other relatives, including widowed mothers and the husband’s illegitimate children.

Before the Black Death, late marriages were common for urban couples. It was not unusual for husbands to be in their late thirties or forties and wives in their early twenties. The expense of setting up a household probably necessitated the delay in marriage. But the situation changed dramatically after the plague, reflecting new economic opportunities for the survivors and a new reluctance to postpone living in the presence of so much death.

The economic difficulties of the fourteenth century also tended to strengthen the development of gender roles. Based on the authority of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and other scholastic theologians had advanced the belief that according to the natural order, men were active and domineering while women were passive and submissive. As more and more lawyers, doctors, and priests, who had been trained in universities where these notions were taught, entered society, these ideas about the different natures of men and women became widely accepted. This was evident in legal systems, many of which limited the legal capacity of women. Increasingly, women were expected to give up any active functions in society and remain subject to direction from males (see the box above). A fourteenth-century Parisian provost commented that among glass cutters, ‘‘no master’s widow who keeps working at his craft after her husband’s death may take on apprentices, for the men of the craft do not believe that a woman can master it well enough to teach a child to master it, for the craft is a very delicate one.’’21 Although this statement suggests that some women were, in fact, running businesses, it also reveals that they were viewed as incapable of undertaking all of men’s activities. Europeans in the fourteenth century imposed a division of labor roles between men and women that persisted until the Industrial Revolution.

In practice, however, some women in the fourteenth century benefited from the effects of the Black Death. The deaths of many male workers in cities opened up new jobs for women, such as metalworkers and stevedores. In cloth making, women were allowed to assume better-paying jobs as weavers. Brewing became an all-female profession by 1450.

Widows also occasionally carried on their husbands’ shops or businesses.

Medieval Children

Parents in the High and Later Middle Ages invested considerable resources and affection in rearing their children. The dramatic increase in specialized roles that accompanied the spread of commerce and the growth of cities demanded a commitment to educating children in the marketable skills needed for the new occupations. Philip of Navarre noted in the twelfth century that boys ought to be taught a trade ‘‘as soon as possible. Those who early become and long remain apprentices ought to be the best masters.’’22 Some cities provided schools to educating and training the young.

As a result of the devastating effects of the plague and its recurrences, these same communities became concerned about investing in the survival and health of children. A number of hospitals existed in both Florence and Rome in the fourteenth century, and in the 1420s and 1430s, hospitals were established that catered only to the needs of foundlings, supporting them until boys could be taught a trade and girls could marry.

New Directions in Medicine

The medical community comprised a number of functionaries. At the top of the medical hierarchy were the physicians, usually clergymen, who received their education in the universities, where they studied ancient authorities, such as Hippocrates and Galen. As a result, physicians were highly trained in theory but had little or no clinical practice. By the fourteenth century, they were educated in six chief medical schools—Salerno, Montpellier, Bologna, Oxford, Padua, and Paris. Paris was regarded as the most prestigious.

The pre-plague medicine of university-trained physicians was theoretically grounded in the Classical Greek theory of the ‘‘four humors,’’ each connected to a particular organ:

  • blood (from the heart),
  • phlegm (from the brain),
  • yellow bile (from the liver),
  • and black bile (from the spleen).

Because the four humors corresponded in turn to the four elemental qualities of the universe—air (blood), water (phlegm), fire (yellow bile), and earth (black bile)—a human being was considered a microcosm of the cosmos. Good health resulted from a perfect balance of the four humors; sickness meant that the humors were out of balance. The task of the medieval physician was to restore proper order through a number of remedies, such as rest, diet, herbal medicines, or bloodletting.

Beneath the physicians in the hierarchy of the medical profession stood the surgeons, whose activities included performing operations, setting broken bones, and bleeding patients.

Their knowledge was based largely on practical experience.

Below surgeons were midwives, who delivered babies, and barber-surgeons, who were less trained than surgeons and performed menial tasks such as bloodletting and setting simple bone fractures. Barber-surgeons supplemented their income by shaving and cutting hair and pulling teeth.

Apothecaries also constituted part of the medical establishment. They filled herbal prescriptions recommended by physicians and also prescribed drugs on their own authority.

All of these medical practitioners proved unable to deal with the plague. When King Philip VI of France requested the opinion of the medical faculty of the University of Paris on the plague, their advice proved worthless. This failure to understand the Black Death produced a crisis in medieval medicine that resulted in some new approaches to health care.

One result was the rise of surgeons to greater prominence because of their practical knowledge. Surgeons were now recruited by universities, which placed them on an equal level with physicians and introduced a greater emphasis on practical anatomy into the university curriculum. Connected to this was a burgeoning of medical textbooks, often written in the vernacular and stressing practical, how-to approaches to medical and surgical problems.

Finally, as a result of the plague, cities, especially in Italy, gave increased attention to public health and sanitation. Public health laws were instituted, and municipal boards of health came into being. The primary concern of the latter was to prevent plague, but gradually they came to control almost every aspect of health and sanitation. Boards of public health, consisting of medical practitioners and public officials, were empowered to enforce sanitary conditions, report on and attempt to isolate epidemics by quarantine (rarely successful), and regulate the activities of doctors.

Inventions and New Patterns

The technological innovations that had characterized the High Middle Ages continued through to the 14th century.

The Clock

The mechanical clock was invented at the end of the thirteenth century but not perfected until the fourteenth. Some historians believe it was actually invented in Song dynasty China, and that the technology gradually made its way westwards.

The European time-telling clock was a by-product of a larger astronomical clock. The best-designed one was constructed by Giovanni di Dondi in the mid-fourteenth century. Dondi’s clock contained the signs of the zodiac but also struck on the hour. Since clocks were expensive, they were usually installed only in the towers of churches or municipal buildings. The first clock striking equal hours was in a church in Milan; in 1335, a chronicler described it as ‘‘a wonderful clock, with a very large clapper which strikes a bell twenty-four times according to the twenty-four hours of the day and night and thus at the first hour of the night gives one sound, at the second two strikes . . . and so distinguishes one hour from another, which is of greatest use to men of every degree.’’23

Clocks revolutionized how people thought about and used time. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, time was determined by natural rhythms (daybreak and nightfall) or church bells that were rung at more or less regular three-hour intervals, corresponding to the ecclesiastical offices of the church.

Clocks made it possible for people to plan their day and organize activities around the regular striking of bells. This brought a new regularity into the lives of workers and merchants, defining urban existence and enabling merchants and bankers to see the value of time in a new way.



Like clocks, eyeglasses were introduced in the thirteenth century but not refined until the fourteenth. Even then they were not particularly effective by modern standards and were still extremely expensive. The high cost of parchment forced people to write in extremely small script; eyeglasses made it more readable.


A significant change in writing materials occurred in the fourteenth century when parchment was supplemented by much cheaper paper made from cotton rags. Although it was more subject to insect and water damage than parchment, medieval paper was actually superior to modern papers made of high-acid wood pulp.


Another Chinese invention, gunpowder appeared in the West in the fourteenth century. The use of gunpowder eventually brought drastic changes to European warfare.



Its primary use was in cannons, although early cannons were prone to blow up, making them as dangerous to the people firing them as to the enemy. Continued improvement in the construction of cannons, however, soon made them extremely valuable in reducing both castles and city walls. Gunpowder made castles, city walls, and armored knights obsolete.


Middle Ages: The East and Europe


Carolingian Empire

Charlemagne was a Christian military warrior.

  •  In 773, he led his army into Italy, crushed the Lombards, and took control of the Lombard state. Four years after subduing Italy,
  • He his forces advanced into northern Spain but failed to conquer it; the Basques harassed his army as it crossed the Pyrenees on the way home, and ambushed and annihilated his rear guard.
  • Charlemagne invaded the lands of the Bavarians in southeastern Germany in 787 where the southern Slavs and the Avars lived. He incorporated them into his empire by 788 . The latter disappeared from history after their defeat.
  • Charlemagne conquered eastern Germany, including the Saxons, who had settled between the Elbe River and the North Sea. However, his insistence that the Saxons, who were pagans,  convert to Christianity fueled their resistance. Not until 804, after eighteen campaigns, was Saxony finally defeated.
  • carolingamtimeline

By the end of the eighth century the Carolingian Empire controlled much of western and central Europe.


Not until the time of Napoleon in the nineteenth century would an empire of this size be seen again in Europe.

Administering the Carolingian Empire

The economy of the eighth and ninth centuries was based almost entirely on farming, which proved inadequate to maintain a large monarchical system. Charlemagne depended on the royal estates for the resources he needed to govern his empire. Food and goods derived from these lands provided support for the king, his household staff, and officials.

The Carolingian system was inefficient. Great distances had to be covered on horseback, making it impossible for Charlemagne and his household staff to exercise much supervision over local affairs. What held the system together was personal loyalty to a single ruler who was strong enough to ensure loyalty by force when necessary.

As a result, a new political and military order, known as fief-holding, subsequently evolved to become an integral part of the political world of the Middle Ages. Fief-holding was characterized by a decentralization of political power, in which lords exercised legal, administrative, and military power. This transferred public power into many private hands and seemed to provide the security sorely lacking in a time of weak central government and invasions by Muslims, Magyars, and Vikings.

The king’s chief representatives in local areas were the Counts, members of the nobility who had already existed under the Merovingians. They had come to control public services in their own lands and thus acted as judges, military leaders, and agents of the king.

Over time, many counts had simply attached the royal lands and services performed on behalf of the king to their own family possessions. In an effort to gain greater control over his kingdom, Charlemagne attempted to limit the power of the counts. They were required to serve outside their own family lands and were moved about periodically rather than being permitted to remain in a county for life. By making the offices appointive, Charlemagne tried to prevent the counts’ children from automatically inheriting their offices.

As another check on the counts, Charlemagne instituted the missi dominici (‘‘messengers of the lord king’’), two men, one lay lord and one church official, who were sent out to local districts to ensure that the counts were executing the king’s wishes. They had the power to remove counts if they were abusing their power, thus making the missi an important instrument in bolstering royal power.

Charlemagne also used the Catholic Church to govern his kingdom. Pepin and his son Charlemagne took up church reform to create a functional structure, creating new bishoprics and archbishoprics, restoring old ones, and seeing to it that the clergy accepted the orders of their superiors and executed their duties.

A growing alliance had emerged between the kingdom of the Franks and the papacy during the reign of Pepin. The popes welcomed this support, and in the course of the second half of the eighth century, they severed more and more of their ties with the Byzantine Empire and drew closer to the Frankish kingdom.

In 799, after a rebellion against his authority, Pope Leo III (795–816) fled escape from Rome and found safety at Charlemagne’s court. Charlemagne offered assistance, and when he went to Rome in November 800 , he was received by the pope like an emperor. On Christmas Day in 800, after Mass, Pope Leo placed a crown on Charlemagne’s head and proclaimed him emperor of the Romans.

The significance of this imperial coronation has been much debated by historians.

  • Charlemagne was now on a level of equality with the Byzantine emperor.
  • The papacy now had a defender of great stature.
  • Charlemagne’s coronation as Roman emperor demonstrated the strength of the concept of an enduring Roman Empire.
  • it symbolized the fusion of Roman, Christian, and Germanic elements.

A Germanic king had been crowned emperor of the Romans by the spiritual leader of western Christendom.

Had a new civilization emerged? And should Charlemagne be seen as the ‘‘father of Europe’’?3 Some historians disagree and argue that there was only a weak sense of community in Europe before 1000. As one has stated, ‘‘Europe was not born in the early Middle Ages. . . . There was no common European culture, and certainly not any Europe-wide economy.’’ Perhaps we could say the Carolingan Empire represented a precursor for what later developed as the idea of a distinct European identity

There was a shift from the Mediterranean as the centre of power. Italy and the Mediterranean had been the center of the Roman Empire. Charlemagne had created an empire that stretched from the North Sea in the north to Italy in the south, and from France in western Europe to Vienna in central Europe. This empire differed significantly from the Roman Empire, which encompassed much of the Mediterranean world. The lands north of the Alps now became the political center of Europe, and increasingly, Europe emerged as the focus and center of Western civilization.

The Carolingian Renaissance


Charlemagne had a strong desire to revive learning in his kingdom, an attitude that stemmed from his own intellectual curiosity as well as the need to provide educated clergy for the church and literate officials for the government.

Charlemagne personally promoted learning by establishing a palace school and encouraging scholars from all over Europe to come to the Carolingian court. These included men of letters from Italy, Spain, Germany, and Ireland.

Best known was Alcuin, from the famous school atYork, founded as part of the great revival of learning in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. From 782 to 796,
while serving at Charlemagne’s court as an adviser on ecclesiastical affairs, Alcuin also provided the leadership for the palace school. He concentrated on teaching Classical Latin and adopted Cassiodorus’s sevenfold division of knowledge known as the liberal arts, which became the basis for all later medieval education.

Charlemagne’s official seal carried the words ‘‘renewal of the Roman Empire.’’ For Charlemagne, who made a number of visits to Italy, this included a revival of the arts, which meant looking to Italy for inspiration. Charlemagne encouraged his own artists to look to the arts of ancient Rome and the Byzantine Empire. The chapel he built at Aachen was modeled after the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, a church that had been built by the emperor Justinian. All in all, the Carolingian Renaissance played an important role in keeping the Classical heritage alive.

Much of the revival of Classical studies and the efforts to preserve Latin culture took place in the monasteries, many of which had been established by the Irish and English missionaries of the seventh and eighth centuries. By the ninth century, the work required of Benedictine monks was the copying of manuscripts. Monasteries established scriptoria, or writing rooms, where monks copied not only the works of early Christianity, such as the Bible and the treatises of the church fathers, but also the works of Classical Latin authors.Following the example of the Irish and English monks, their Carolingian counterparts developed new ways of producing books. Their texts were written on pages made of parchment or sheepskin rather than papyrus and then bound in covers decorated with jewels and precious metals. The use of parchment made books very expensive; making a Bible required an entire herd of sheep. (Papyrus was no longer available because Egypt was in Muslim hands, and the west could no longer afford to import it.)

Carolingian monastic scribes also developed a new writing style called the Carolingianminuscule. This was really hand printing rather than cursive writing and was far easier to read than the Merovingian script.

About eight thousand manuscripts survive from Carolingian times. Some 90 percent of the ancient Roman works that we have today exist because they were copied by Carolingian monks.

Life in the Carolingian World: religion, family, sexuality

In daily life as well as intellectual life, the Europe of the Carolingian era witnessed a fusion of Roman, Germanic, and, especially, Christian practices.

By Carolingian times, the Catholic Church had begun to make a significant impact on
Frankish family life and marital and sexual attitudes. Marriages in Frankish society were arranged by fathers or uncles to meet the needs of the extended family.

Although wives were expected to be faithful to their husbands, Frankish aristocrats often kept concubines, either slave girls or free women from their estates. Even the ‘‘most Christian king’’ Charlemagne had a number of concubines.

To limit such sexual license, the church increasingly emphasized its role in marriage and attempted to Christianize it. Although marriage was a civil arrangement, priests tried to add their blessings. To stabilize marriages, the church also began to emphasize monogamy and permanence. A Frankish church council in 789 stipulated that marriage was ‘‘indissoluble’’ and condemned concubinage and easy divorce.

During the reign of Emperor Louis the Pious (814–840), the church formally prohibited divorce. Now a husband was expected to remain with his wife ‘‘even though she were sterile, deformed, old, dirty, drunken, a frequenter of bad company, lascivious, vain, greedy, unfaithful, quarrelsome, abusive . . . for when that man was free, he freely engaged himself.’’5

This change was not easily accepted, however, and it was not until the thirteenth
century that divorce was largely stamped out among both the common people and the nobility.

The acceptance and spread of the Catholic Church’s views on the indissolubility of marriage encouraged the development of the nuclear family at the expense of the extended family. Although kinship was still an influential social and political
force, the conjugal unit came to be seen as the basic unit of society.

The new practice of young couples establishing their own households had a significant impact on women. In the extended family, the oldest woman controlled all the other female members; in the nuclear family, the wife was still dominated by her husband, but at least she now had control of her own household and children.

In aristocratic families, women had even more opportunity to play independent
roles. The wives of Carolingian aristocrats were often entrusted with the management of the household and even the administration of extensive landed
estates while their husbands were absent in the royal service or on a military campaign.

Christianity and sexuality

The early church fathers had stressed that celibacy and complete abstinence from sexual activity constituted an ideal state superior to marriage.

Subsequently, the early church gradually developed a case for clerical celibacy, although it proved impossible to enforce in the Early Middle Ages.

The early fathers had also emphasized, however, that not all people had the self-discipline to remain celibate. It was thus permissible to marry, as Paul had indicated in his first epistle to the Corinthians: ‘‘It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. . . . I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is
good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn [with passion].’’6

The church thus viewed marriage as the lesser of two evils; it was a concession to human weakness and fulfilled the need for companionship, sex, and children.

Although marriage was the subject of much debate in the early medieval church, it was generally agreed that marriage gave the right to indulge in sexual intercourse. Sex, then, was permissible within marriage, but only so long as it was used
for the purpose of procreation, or the begetting of children, not for pleasure.
Because the church developed the tradition that sexual relations between man and wife were legitimate only if engaged in for procreation, it condemned all forms of contraception.

The church accepted only one way to limit children: abstinence from intercourse, either periodic or total. The church also strongly condemned abortion, although its prohibition failed to stop the practice. Various herbal potions,whose formulas appear in writings from Roman and Byzantine doctors, were available to prevent conception or cause abortion.

Neither Roman religion nor Roman law had recognized any real difference between homosexual and heterosexual eroticism, and the Roman Empire had taken no legal measures against the practice of homosexuality between adults.

The church’s condemnation of sexual activity outside marriage also included homosexuality. In 538 the Byzantine emperor Justinian condemned homosexuality,
claiming that it brought down the wrath of God (‘‘we have provoked Him to anger’’) and endangered the welfare of the state: ‘‘For because of such crimes, there are famines, earthquakes, and pestilences; wherefore we admonish men to abstain from the aforesaid unlawful acts, that they may not lose their souls.’’7

Justinian recommended that the guilty parties be punished by castration.

Although the early medieval church similarly condemned homosexuality, it also pursued a flexible policy in its treatment of homosexuals. In the Early Middle Ages, homosexuals were treated less harshly than married couples who practiced contraception.

New valuing of children

The Catholic Church also had an impact on another aspect of family life—children.
The ancient Romans had limited their family size through infanticide, primarily the exposure of unwanted children, which was accepted in Classical society. The Romans then paid much attention to the children chosen to survive, as is especially evident in the education of upper-class children.

In the early medieval world, German practices of child rearing became influential. the Germanic law codes listed wergelds, whose size represented acrude evaluation of a person’s  importance  The value of females was only half that of males, although it also jumped tremendously (to 250 solidi) for women between the ages of fifteen and forty because of their importance as bearers of children.

Although the Christian church condemned infanticide, it was not able to eliminate the practice, especially among the poor and among victims of seduction who did not want to keep their illegitimate offspring. Nevertheless, priests tried to discourage such practices by urging people to abandon unwanted children in churches. Often such children were taken in by monasteries and convents and raised to be monks
and nuns.

The Six Ages of Man. Medieval writers and artists adopted different systems for
identifying the ages of man, which were symbolically tied to the ages of the world ora Christian conception of history. This fifteenth-century French manuscript illustration shows the six ages of man: the infant in the cradle and learning to walk, the child playing with a hobbyhorse, the adolescent boy, the young man with a sword, the seated mature man, and the old man with white beard and walking stick.

The role of the monastery: hospitality

Monasteries served an important function in the early medieval world as providers of hospitality. Both monasteries and aristocratic households were expected to provide a place to stay for weary travelers, who were ever at risk from thieves or violence of many kinds.

Burgundian law stipulated that ‘‘anyone who refused to offer a visitor shelter and warmth shall pay a fine of three solidi.’’8

Hospitality, then, was a sacred duty,were especially active in providing it. It was customary for monasteries to have two guest houses, one for the rich and another for the poor. One could not always be sure of hospitality in the Early Middle Ages, however. The famous English missionary to Germany, Saint Boniface, reported that female pilgrims to Rome had been forced to become prostitutes in every town along their route in order to obtain their sustenance and reach their goal. The church responded by forbidding females to go on such pilgrimages.


Charlemagne was succeeded by his son Louis the Pious who was not a strong ruler and was unable to control either the Frankish aristocracy or his own four sons, who fought continually.


In 843, after their father’s death, the three surviving brothers signed the Treaty of Verdun, which divided the Carolingian Empire among them into three major sections: Charles the Bald (843–877) obtained the western Frankish lands, which
formed the core of the eventual kingdom of France; Louis the German (843–876) took the eastern lands, which became Germany; and Lothar (840–855) received the title of emperor and a ‘‘Middle Kingdom’’ extending from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, including the Netherlands, the Rhineland, and northern Italy. The territories of the Middle Kingdom became a source of incessant struggle between the other two Frankish rulers and their heirs. Indeed, France and Germany would fight over the territories of this Middle Kingdom for centuries.

Two different cultures began to emerge. Although the later kingdoms of France and Germany did not yet exist, by the ninth century, inhabitants of the western Frankish area were speaking a Romance language derived from Latin that became French. Eastern Franks spoke a Germanic dialect.

In the ninth century, the frequent struggles among the numerous heirs of the sons of Louis the Pious,  and aristocrats acquiring even more power in their own local territories, and external attacks on different parts of the old Carolingian world led to disintegration of the Carolingian Empire.

Invasions of the Ninth and Tenth centuries: Vikings, Magyars, Muslims.

In the ninth and tenth centuries, western Europe was beset by a wave of invasions by several non-Christian peoples—one old enemy, the Muslims, and two new ones, the Magyars  and the Vikings.

The Muslims began a new series of attacks in the Mediterranean in the ninth century.
They raided the southern coasts of Europe, especially Italy, and even threatened Rome in 843. Their invasion of Sicily in 827 eventually led to a successful occupation of the island. Muslim forces also destroyed the Carolingian defenses in northern Spain and conducted forays into southern France.

The Magyars were a people from western Asia who moved into eastern and central Europe by the end of the ninth century. They established themselves on the plains of
Hungary and from there made raids into western Europe.They were finally crushed at the Battle of Lechfeld in Germany in 955. At the end of the tenth century,
they were converted to Christianity and settled down to establish the kingdom of Hungary.


By far the most devastating and far-reaching attacks came from the Northmen or Norsemen of Scandinavia, also known to us as the Vikings. The Vikings were a Germanic people based in Scandinavia. They were warriors and superb shipbuilders and sailors. Their ships were the best of the period. Long and narrow with beautifully carved arched prows, the Viking dragon ships carried about fifty men. They had banks of oars as well as a single great sail. Their shallow draft enabled them to sail up European rivers and attack places at some distance inland.

Osebergship820CE Oslo
Oseberg Viking Ship 820 Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, Norway

Viking raids became more regular and devastating in the ninth century. Vikings sacked villages and towns, destroyed churches. Viking attacks frightened people and we still use the phrase ‘rape, pillage, plunder’ to describe raid like the Viking raids.

Norwegian Vikings moved into Ireland and western England; Danes attacked eastern England, Frisia, and the Rhineland and navigated rivers to enter western Frankish lands. Swedish Vikings dominated the Baltic Sea and progressed into the Slavic areas to the east. Moving into northwestern Russia, they went down the rivers of Russia to Novgorod and Kiev and established fortified ports throughout these territories. There they made contact with the Byzantine Empire, either as traders or as invaders. They also made contact with Arab traders on the Volga River and the Sea of Azov.

By 850, groups of Norsemen had settled in Ireland, and northeastern England by 878. Agreeing to accept Christianity, the Danes were eventually assimilated into a larger Anglo- Saxon kingdom. Beginning in 911, the ruler of the western Frankish lands gave one band of Vikings land at the mouth of the Seine River, forming a section of France that ultimately came to be known as Normandy. This policy of settling the Vikings and converting them to Christianity was a deliberate one, since the new inhabitants served as protectors against additional Norseman attacks.

The Vikings were daring explorers. After 860, they sailed westward in their long ships across the North Atlantic Ocean, reaching Iceland in 874. Erik the Red traveled even farther west and discovered Greenland in 985. A Viking site has also been found in Newfoundland in North America.

By the tenth century, greater control by the monarchs of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden over their inhabitants and the increasing Christianization of the Scandinavian kings and peoples were inhibiting Viking expansion. But by then, Viking settlements had been established in many parts of Europe. Like the Magyars, the Vikings were assimilated into European civilization. Christianity proved a decisive civilizing force and Europe and Christianity were becoming virtually synonymous.

The inability of royal authorities to stem Viking raids and settlements caused local populations to turn instead to local aristocrats for protection. As a result, the landed aristocrats increased their strength and prestige and assumed more of the functions of local government that had previously belonged to the kings; over time these developments led to a new political and military order.

The Emerging World of Lords + Vassals (feudalism)

When governments ceased to be able to defend their subjects, it became important to find some powerful lord who could offer protection in exchange for service. The contract sworn between a lord and his subordinate is the basis of a form of social organization that historians have called feudalism (although many historians today prefer to avoid using the term).


The Germanic practice of vassalage involved warriors swearing an oath of loyalty to their leader. They fought for their chief, and he in turn took care of their needs. By the eighth century, an individual who served a lord in a military capacity was known as a vassal.

Remember the hoplite revolution and how it led to democratic power for the poor (because the rich needed them to fight)? In the Carolingian era, a change in fighting techniques also contributed to social change (but in a very different way). The Frankish army had originally consisted of foot soldiers,dressed in coats of mail and armed with swords. But with the introduction of larger horses and the stirrup in the eighth century,a military change began to occur. Earlier, horsemen had been throwers of spears. Now they wore armored coats of mail (the larger horse could carry the weight) and wielded long lances that enabled them to act as battering rams (the stirrups kept the riders on their horses). The horse, armor, and weapons for this kind of fighting were expensive and learning to wield these instruments skillfully from horseback took much time and practice.

Consequently, lords who wanted men to fight for them had to grant each vassal a piece of land that provided for the support of the vassal and his family. In return for the land, the vassal provided his lord with one major service, his fighting skills. Each needed the other.

In the society of the Early Middle Ages there was little trade and wealth was based
primarily on land ownership. So land was the most important gift a lord could give to a vassal in return for military service.


The land or some other type of income granted to a vassal in return for military service came to be known as a fief. In time, many vassals who held such grants of land came to
exercise rights of jurisdiction or political and legal authority within their fiefs. As the Carolingian world disintegrated politically, many people were now responsible
for keeping order. In some areas of France, for example, some lords—called castellans—constructed castles and asserted their authority to collect taxes and dispense justice to the local population.

Lack of effective central control led to ever-larger numbers of castellans and complicated subinfeudation. The vassals of a king, who were themselves great lords, might also have vassals who would owe them military service in return for a grant of land from their estates. Those vassals, in turn, might likewise have vassals, who at such a level would be simple knights with barely enough land to provide their equipment. The lord-vassal relationship bound together both greater and lesser landowners.

Historians used to speak of a hierarchy with the king at the top, greater lords on the next level, lesser lords on the next, and simple knights at the bottom; this model was rarely reflected reality. The reality in the tenth-century west Frankish kingdom was that the Capetian kings actually controlled only the region around Paris. They possessed little real power over the great lords who held fiefs throughout France.

The lord-vassal relationship at all levels always constituted an honorable relationship between free men and did not imply any sense of servitude.

Subinfeudation became ever more widespread in the ninth century. The new practice of lordship was basically a product of the Carolingian world, but it also spread to England, Germany, and central Europe, and in modified form to Italy. Fief-holding came to be characterized by a set of practices worked out in the course of the tenth century, but such obligations varied considerably from place to place and even from fief to fief. As usual, practice almost always diverged from theory.

Mutual obligations

The major obligation of a vassal to his lord was to perform military service.  In turn, a lord had responsibilities toward his vassals. His major obligation was to protect his vassal, either by defendinghim militarily or by taking his side in a court of law if necessary.The lord was also responsible for the maintenance of thevassal, usually by granting him a fief.

Failing obligations. If a lord acted improperly toward his vassal, the bond between them could be dissolved. Likewise, if a vassal failed to fulfill his vow of loyalty, he was subject to forfeiture of his fief.

By the tenth century fiefs tended to be hereditary.Following the principle of primogeniture, the eldest son inherited the father’s fief. If a vassal died without heirs, the lord could reclaim the fief.

East and West Frankish Kingdoms in the Tenth Century

In the tenth century, Europe began to recover from the invasions of the century before.  In the east Frankish kingdom Germany (as we think of it) , the last Carolingian king died in 911, whereupon local rulers, first elected one of their own number, Conrad of Franconia, to serve as king. But Conrad did not last long, and after his death, the German dukes chose Henry the Fowler, duke of Saxony, as the new king of Germany (919–936).

Henry’s son, Otto I, Duke of Saxony  (936–973) defeated the Magyars in 955 and encouraged an ongoing program of Christianization of both the Slavic and the Scandinavian peoples and relied on bishops and abbots in governing his kingdom.  Otto was crowned emperor of the Romans by the pope in 962, . But the creation of a new ‘‘Roman Empire’’ in the hands of the eastern Franks (or Germans) added the task of ruling Italy as well. It proved impossible task.

In the ninth and tenth centuries, the Carolingian kings had little success in controlling the great lords of the western Frankish kingdom (later called France). In 987, when the Carolingian king died, the western Frankish nobles and chief prelates of the church chose Hugh Capet, count of Orleans and Paris, as the new king (987–996).

Coronation of Hugh Capet

The territory (later to become France) France was not a unified kingdom but a loose alliance of powerful lords who treated the king as an equal. They assisted him only when it was in their own interests to do so. Although the nobles did not intend to establish a new royal dynasty, the Capetian dynasty did come to rule the western Frankish kingdom for centuries.


England in the early middle ages


England’s development in the ninth and tenth centuries was defined by a long struggle of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms against the Viking invasions ultimately produced a unified kingdom. Alfred the Great, king of Wessex (871–899), played a crucial role. He defeated a Danish army in 879, and made peace with the Danes in 886 after strengthening his army and creating a navy.

Alfred of Wessex

Alfred believed in the power of education. He invited scholars to his court and encouraged the translation of the works of such church fathers as Augustine and Gregory the Great from Latin into Anglo-Saxon (Old English), the vernacular, or the language spoken by the people. Old English was also soon used for official correspondence as well.

Alfred’s successors established a unified Anglo-Saxon monarchy. By the time of King Edgar (959–975), Anglo-Saxon England had a well-developed and strong monarchical government. In the counties or shires, the king was assisted by the shire-reeve or sheriff.

The Manorial System

The landholding class of nobles and knights comprised a military elite whose ability to function as warriors depended on having the leisure time to pursue the arts of war.

Landed estates worked by a dependent peasant class provided the economic
sustenance that made this way of life possible. A manor (see Map 8.3) was simply an agricultural estate operated by a lord and worked by peasants. Lords provided protection; peasants gave up their freedom, became tied to the lord’s land, and provided labor services for him.

Manorialism grew out of the need of small farming families for protection or food in a time of bad harvests. Free peasants gave up their freedom to the lords of large landed estates in return for protection and use of the lord’s land.

Although a large class of free peasants continued to exist, increasing numbers of them became bound to the land as serfs. Unlike slaves, serfs could not be bought and sold, but they were subservient to their lords in a variety of ways. Serfs were required to provide labor services, pay rents, and be subject to the lord’s jurisdiction. By the ninth century, probably 60 percent of the population of western Europe had become serfs.

reeve_and_serfsA common work obligation was three days a week. The serfs paid rent by giving their lord a share of every product they raised. Serfs also paid the lord for the use of the manor’s common pasture lands, streams, ponds, and surrounding woodlands. For example, if tenants fished in the pond or stream on a manor, they turned over part of the catch to their lord. For grazing a cow in the common pasture, a serf paid a
rent in cheese produced from the cow’s milk. Serfs were also obliged to pay a tithe (a tenth of their produce) to their local village church.

Lords possessed a variety of legal rights over their serfs, giving him virtual control over both the lives and the property of his serfs.Serfs were legally bound to the lord’s land; they could not leave without his permission. Although free to marry, serfs could not marry anyone outside their manor without the lord’s approval. Moreover, lords sometimes exercised public rights or political authority on their lands. This gave the lord the right to try serfs in his own court, although only for lesser crimes (called ‘‘low justice’’). In fact, the lord’s manorial court provided the only law that most serfs knew.

Manorial system

Finally, the lord’s political authority enabled him to establish monopolies on certain services that provided additional revenues. Serfs could be required to bring their grain to the lord’s mill and pay a fee to have it ground into flour.


The Byzantine Empire

Compared with the Byzantine Empire or Muslim caliphates, western Europe in the Early Middle Ages was an underdeveloped, predominantly agrarian society and could not begin to match the splendor of either of the other heirs of the Roman Empire.The tenth century was the golden age of a prosperous and flourishing Byzantine civilization. Under the Macedonian dynasty, trade flourished, the Bulgars were defeated, Muslim armies were repelled, and Byzantine territory was increased.

The brilliance of the urban cultures of both the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world stood in marked contrast to the underdeveloped rural world of Europe.

Byzantine Empire
Michael III 842–867
Macedonian dynasty 867–1056
Leo VI 886–912
Basil II 976–1025
Vladimir’s conversion to Christianity 987

In the seventh and eighth centuries, the Byzantine Empire had lost much of its territory to Slavs, Bulgars, and Muslims. During the reign of Michael III (842–867), the Byzantine Empire began to experience a revival.  reforms were made in education, church life, the military, and the peasant economy. There was an intellectual renewal.

But the Byzantine Empire under Michael was still plagued by persistent problems. The Bulgars mounted new attacks, and the Arabs continued to harass the empire. There were religious differences over differences between the pope as leader of the western Christian church and the patriarch of Constantinople as leader of the eastern (or Orthodox) Christian church.

The Macedonian Dynasty

The problems that arose during Michael’s reign were dealt with by a new dynasty of Byzantine emperors known as the Macedonians (867–1056).

This dynastic line held off its external enemies, went on the offensive, and reestablish domestic order. Supported by the church, the emperors thought of the Byzantine Empire as a continuation of the Christian Roman Empire of late antiquity.(Remember, the Roman General Mark Anthony had actually wanted to move the centre of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople). For diplomatic reasons they occasionally recognized the imperial title of western emperors, such as Charlemagne, they still regarded them as little more than barbarians.

Achievements of the The Macedonian emperors in the late ninth and tenth centuries.

Strengthened the position of the free farmers, who felt threatened by the attempts of landed aristocrats to expand their estates at the expense of the farmers who made up the rank and file of the Byzantine cavalry and provided the military strength of the empire.

Fostered economic prosperity by expanding trade relations with western Europe, especially by selling silks and metalwork. The Byzantine empire was well-situated for trade at the intersection of the Silk Roads, the Volga river and the Mediterranean.


Further developed Constantinople. Thanks to this prosperity, the city of Constantinople flourished. Foreign visitors continued to be astounded by its size, wealth, and physical surroundings. To western Europeans, it was the stuff of legends and fables.

Expanded Byzantine cultural influence through the active missionary efforts of eastern Byzantine Christians. Eastern Orthodox Christianity was spread to eastern European peoples, such as the Bulgars and Serbs. Perhaps the greatest missionary success occurred when the prince of Kiev in Russia converted to Christianity in 987.


Maintained strong rule, with efficient civil service, talented emperors, and military advances. The Byzantine civil service was staffed by well-educated, competent aristocrats from Constantinople who oversaw the collection of taxes, domestic administration, and foreign policy. Outstanding emperors skilled in administration and law, included Leo VI (886–912) and Basil II (976–1025).

In the tenth century, the Bulgars were defeated, and the Byzantines annexed Bulgaria. The Byzantines added the islands of Crete and Cyprus to the empire, defeated Muslim forces in Syria, expanding the empire to the upper Euphrates. By the end of the reign of Basil II in 1025, the Byzantine Empire was the largest it had been since the beginning of the seventh century.


Women in Byzantium

In Byzantium, as in western Europe, women were regarded as inferior to men, and at times, even considered to be the instrument of the devil.

In general, women were expected to remain at home. They could leave to shop, visit parents, and take part in civic celebrations, but they were supposed to wear veils on these occasions.

Women were generally expected to fulfill three major functions: to marry and bear children, to maintain the household, and to weave clothes for their families.

Contrary to these ideal female roles, some women in the Byzantine world
worked outside the home as artisans and sellers, especially of foodstuffs, in the markets of Constantinople. Others served as midwives, bakers, cooks, or dancers, although some dancers also worked as prostitutes.

Upper-class women had greater opportunities to play important roles in the empire. Some aristocratic wives funded the establishment of monasteries, occupied important positions at court, and patronized the arts. Imperial wives could exercise considerable political power as regents for their sons; some even became empresses in their own right. Irene, for example, served as regent for her son until 797 when she blinded and deposed him; she then ruled in her own right until her death in 802.

Islamic developments

Overthrow of Umayyad dynasty by Abbasids 750
Harun al-Rashid 786–809
al-Ma’mun 813–833
Creation of caliphate of al-Andalus 929
Establishment of Fatimid caliphate in Egypt 973

arabian pennisulaThe Arabs had a long history of nomadic trading between the Persian Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean, and then as far as Yemen and across the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. . When Muhammad developed his religious teachings, he based them in part on Christian and Jewish beliefs of the region. In the year 622 he moved from Mecca to Medina, and that year is known as year 1 in the Islamic calender. The Muslim faith was based on submission to the will of Allah (God) and their system saw no separation between politics and religion. Once established in Medina the faith quickly came to dominate the Arabian pennisula.

The Umayyad dynasty of caliphs had established Damascus as the center of an Islamic empire created by Arab expansion in the seventh and eighth centuries. In the eighth century, the new Abbasid dynasty moved the capital east to Baghdad, where Persian influence was more pronounced.

Greek and Persian scientific and philosophical writings were translated into Arabic, and the Muslims created a brilliant urban culture.

The Abbasid Dynasty

In 750, Abu al-Abbas, a descendant of the uncle of Muhammad, brought an end to the Umayyad dynasty and established the Abbasid (uh-BAH-sid or AB-uh-sid) dynasty, which lasted until 1258.

Abbasid dynasty

The Abbasid rulers brought much change to the world of Islam. They tried to break down the distinctions between Arab and non-Arab Muslims. All Muslims, regardless of their ethnic background, could now hold both civil and military offices. This helped open Islamic life to the influences of the civilizations the Arabs had conquered. Many Arabs now began to intermarry with the peoples they had conquered.

In 762, the Abbasids built a new capital city, Baghdad, on the Tigris River
far to the east of Damascus. The new capital was well placed. It took advantage
of river traffic to the Persian Gulf and at the same time was located on
the caravan route from the Mediterranean to Central Asia. The move eastward
allowed Persian influence to come to the fore, encouraging a new cultural orientation. Under the Abbasids, judges, merchants, and government officials, rather than warriors, were viewed as the ideal citizens.

The Abbasid dynasty experienced a period of splendid rule well into the ninth century. The reign of Harun al-Rashid  (786–809) is often described as the golden age of the Abbasid caliphate. His son al-Ma’mun (813–833) was a great patron of learning. He founded an astronomical observatory and created a foundation for translating Classical Greek works.

This was also a period of growing economic prosperity. The Arabs had conquered many of the richest provinces of the old Roman Empire, and they now controlled the trade routes to the east. Baghdad became the center of an enormous trade empire that extended into Europe, Asia, and Africa, greatly adding to the wealth of the Islamic world.


The Abbasid kingdom tended towards disintegration even as Islamic culture spread. Rulers of the provinces of the empire broke away from the control of the caliphs and established their own independent dynasties.

Islamic Moors entered Spain from North Africa around 710. Spain had already established its own caliphate when Abd al-Rahman fled there. In 756, he seized control of southern Spain and then expanded his power into the center of the peninsula. He set up the emirate of al-Andalus (the Arabic name for Spain) with its center at Cordoba. The rulers of al-Andalus developed a unique society in which all religions were tolerated. They also supported writers and artists, creating a brilliant and flourishing culture.

The Moor’s also attacked Constantinople in 717 southern France in 732, and were defeated in both attempts. If they hadn’t been then Byzantine and European histories would have been very different.

In 973 the Fatimid family established a caliphate in Egypt in 973, and an independent dynasty also operated in North Africa. Despite the political disunity of the Islamic world, there was an underlying Islamic civilization based on two common bonds, the Qur’an and the Arabic language.

Islamic Civilization

From the beginning of their empire, Muslim Arabs had demonstrated a willingness to absorb the culture of their conquered territories. They were truly heirs to the remaining Greco-Roman culture of the Roman Empire.  Just as readily, they assimilated Byzantine and Persian culture.

In the eighth and ninth centuries, numerous Greek, Syrian, and Persian scientific and philosophical works were translated into Arabic.

As the chief language in the southern Mediterranean and the Near East and the required language of Muslims, Arabic became a truly international tongue.

The Muslims created a brilliant urban culture at a time when western Europe was predominantly a rural world of farming villages.

This can be seen in such new cities as Baghdad and Cairo, but also in Cordoba, the capital of the Umayyad caliphate in Spain. With a population of possibly 100,000, Cordoba was Europe’s largest city after Constantinople. It had seventy public libraries, and the number of manuscripts in the caliph’s private library reached 400,000. The Moors translated all great works they could lay their hands on from the ancients into Arabic and Latin. This included the knowledge of Egypt, Kush, India, China and the Greece. Translated works included those on geography that later proved valuable to Western sailors and merchants.

The Moors promoted literacy and the advancement of the general population. Schools were everywhere, many of them free of charge. The Great Mosque of Cordoba became a center for scholars from all over the Islamic world. Large numbers of women served as teachers and librarians in Cordoba.

mosque of Cristo de la Luz Toledo 999
Mosque Cristo del la Luz Toledo 999

Islamic cities had a distinctive physical appearance due to their common use of certain architectural features, such as the pointed arch and traceried windows, and specific kinds of buildings.


The latter included palaces and public buildings with fountains and secluded courtyards, mosques for worship, public baths, and bazaars or marketplaces. Muslims embellished their buildings with a unique decorative art.

Seville Giralda Aljama Mosque 1195
Seville Giralda

Although the Qur’an instructed men to treat women with respect, the male was dominant in Muslim society. Women were to be good mothers and wives by raising their children and caring for their husbands. Nevertheless, women did have the right to own and inherit property.

Islamic custom required that women be secluded in their homes and kept from social contacts with males outside their own families.

One jurist wrote that ‘‘a woman should leave her house on three occasions only: when she is conducted to the house of her bridegroom, on the deaths of her parents, and when she goes to her own grave.’’16

The custom of requiring women to cover virtually all parts of their bodies when appearing in public was common in the cities and is still practiced today in many Islamic societies. It should be noted, however, that these customs owed more to traditional Arab practice than to the Qur’an.

Islamic Culture

During the first few centuries of the Arab Empire, it was the Islamic world that saved and spread the scientific and philosophical works of ancient civilizations.
At a time when the ancient Greek philosophers were largely unknown in Europe, key works by Plato and Aristotle were translated into Arabic. They were put in a library called the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, where they were read and
studied by Muslim scholars. Texts on mathematics were brought from India.

The preservation of ancient texts was aided by the use of paper. The making of paper was introduced from China in the eighth century, and by the end of that century, paper factories had been established in Baghdad. Booksellers and libraries soon followed. European universities later benefited from this scholarship when these works were translated from Arabic into Latin.

Islamic scholars preserved much of the Classical knowledge for the West, and also made considerable advances of their own, especially in mathematics, astronomy and the other natural sciences.

The Muslims adopted and passed on the numerical system of India, including the use of the zero. In Europe, it became known as the Arabic system. Al-Khwarizmi, a ninth-century Persian mathematician, developed the discipline of algebra. In astronomy, the Muslims were aware that the earth was round, and they set up an observatory at Baghdad to study the stars, many of which they named. They also perfected the astrolabe, an instrument used by sailors to determine their location by observing the positions of heavenly bodies. It was the astrolabe that made it possible for Europeans to sail to the Americas.

Muslim scholars also made discoveries in chemistry and developed medicine as a field of scientific study. Especially renowned was Ibn Sina (980–1037), known as Avicenna (av-i-SENN-uh) in the West, who wrote a medical encyclopedia that, among other things, stressed the contagious nature of certain diseases and showed how they could be spread by contaminated water supplies. After its translation into Latin, Avicenna’s work became a basic medical textbook for medieval European university students.

Avicenna was but one of many Muslim scholars whose work was translated into Latin and contributed to the development of intellectual life in Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. So there we have a continuation of Eastern innovation and diffusion to the West.

East-West diffusion in the middle ages (from Spielvogel, and Hobson)

Early Middle Ages Europe witnessed a decline in trade. But trade never entirely disappeared. Even in an agrarian society, surplus products could be exchanged at local markets. More significant, however, was that both aristocrats and wealthy clerics desired merchandise not produced locally, such as spices, silk cloth, wine, and gold and silver jewelry, and it took trade to obtain these items.


Much of the trade in luxury goods, especially beginning in the ninth century, was conducted with the Byzantine Empire, particularly the city of Constantinople, and the Islamic caliphs of Baghdad. Products from the west included iron, timber, furs, and slaves (many from eastern Europe, including captured Slavs, from whom the modern word slave is derived). Traders, often Jews, carried goods by boat on European rivers or on caravans with horses or mules.

An Arab geographer of the ninth century left this account of Jewish traders from
southern France:

[They] speak Arabic, Persian, Greek, Frankish, Spanish, and Slavonic. They travel from west to east and from east to west, by land and by sea. From the west they bring eunuchs, slavegirls, boys, brocade, marten and other furs, and swords. They take ship from Frankland in the western Mediterranean sea and land at Farama, whence they take their merchandise on camel-back to Qulzum. . . . Then they sail on the eastern [Red] sea from Qulzum, and onward to India and China. From China they bring back musk, aloes, camphor, cinnamon, and other products of those parts, and return to Qulzum. Then they transport them to Farama and sail again on the western sea. Some sail with their goods to Constantinople and sell them to the Greeks, and some take them to the king of theFranks and sell them there.14

By 900, Italian merchants, especially the Venetians, were involved the trade picture.



John Hobson notes:

With the birth of the Carolingian empire in 751 in Western Europe and the emergence of various Italian trading city states in the eighth and ninth centuries, the global trading system extended into Europe, thereby linking both extremes of the Eurasian landmass into one continuous network of interlinked world empires.

A series of interlinked world empires enabled a significantly pacified environment within which overland – as well as seaborne – trade could flourish.11 The rise of T’ang China (618–907), the Islamic Ummayad/Abbasid empire in the Middle East (661–1258), as well as the Fatimids in North Africa (909–1171) were crucial to the emergence of a sufficiently extensive global trading network.

McNeill has recently argued, the prosperity and commercialisation of the Arab and Chinese (as well as the South Asian) world acted like a huge bellows that fanned the flames of an emergent global economy.

Much of the East-West diffusion was oiled by the wheels of Islamic commerce.

Islam spread not only westwards to Europe but also eastwards right across to India, South-east Asia and China, as well as southwards into Africa through either religious or commercial influence (and often both). Its economic reach was extraordinary for the time – so much so that one scholar has aptly stated that, ‘the self-evident fact must be accepted that they [the Arabs] were among the pioneers of commerce in those far-away countries …  Certainly, by the ninth century – as various contemporary documents confirm – one long, continuous line of transcontinental trade pioneered by Islamic merchants reached from China to the Mediterranean.23

The Middle Eastern Ummayads (661–750), Abbasids (750–1258) and North African Fatimids were especially important, serving to unite various arteries of long-distance trade known in antiquity between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. These included the Red Sea and Persian Gulf routes. The Abbasid capital, Baghdad, was linked to the Persian Gulf route, which in turn fanned out through the Indian Ocean and beyond into the South China Sea as well as the East China Sea.

As Jeffrey Sachs observes in his Globalization course, this is an east-west dynamic:



Jackson Spielvogel, Western Civilization.

John Hobson, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization.

Jeffrey Sachs, Globalization (online course)

Note: the above lesson notes summarize sections of these three texts, Spilevogel in particular. Summaries and extracts shared privately with students for educational purposes only. Please consult your copies of the texts for further information and publisher’s details.

Lesson 5. From the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire


Republican Rome

Rome, in around the eighth century BC, was the usual post-Dark Age cluster of clannish villages, struggling for survival, fighting for pre-eminence and squabbling over cattle-rustling, ownership of water sources and land.

The people who first settled there picked a good spot. Situated in northern Latium (the region of western central Italy surrounding Rome), on a group of seven hills, it was the best crossing point of the Tiber river. Not only did it occupy a good defensive position but it was also blessed with a supply of fresh water and easy access to the sea.

By the end of the seventh century BC Rome had begun to develop those indicators of urban civilization: planned streets, temples and a forum.

Between 509 and 264 B.C.E., this city expanded and united almost all of Italy under its control. During this time of conquest, Rome also developed the political institutions of a republic ruled by an aristocratic oligarchy.

 5th century BCE Etruscan bronze wolf to which two small figures of Romulus and Remus were added in 15th century CE

The founding myth for Romans was the tale of Romulus and his twin brother Remus. They were the children of Rhea Silvia and Mars (or in some versions, Hercules). The story tells that Romulus and Remus were chucked into the Tiber to drown by their great-uncle, the king of a local city who feared that they would grow up to claim the throne. But the infants were washed up at the future site of Rome, where they were sheltered and suckled by a she-wolf. After an argument, Romulus murdered his twin, spilling his blood on the foundations of the fledgling city.

For later Romans, who knew of the tumultuous civil wars that had racked their city, that Rome should have come into being against the backdrop of bloody murder must have seemed fitting. The story of Romulus and Remus highlighted a persistent and well-founded fear of the consequences of destructive strife within its ruling elite.

The Roman Republic came into being, with noblemen Lucius Collatinus (Lucretia’s widowed husband) and Marcus Brutus (who had led the revolt against Tarquin) as the first consuls of Rome, ridding Rome of its line of kings.

The Republic which lasted for over 450 years, was a mix of monarchical, oligarchic and democratic elements. The king was replaced by two elected consuls, who could serve no longer than a year in office. This constitutional arrangement was designed to ensure that no individual could amass too much political power or influence.

The first act of the two consuls was to administer an oath, taken by all the Roman people, which promised never to accept another king. As Rome grew, new roles, or magistracies, were added to assist the consuls: praetors, aediles and quaestors, each one with a fixed set of responsibilities and seniority. Rome’s courts interpreted the huge body of laws based on the twelve tablets (see below).


All these officials were elected from the law-making body of the state, the Senate. Roman government revolved around the Senate’s body of aristocratic citizens who distinguished themselves from everyone else with their titles, purple-striped togas, senatorial rings and even special shoes. Senators held the key public offices and many would command provinces and armies.

Lastly, there was a Popular Assembly made up of the whole citizen body, enacted legislation and an army of magistrates who enforced it. The Assembly, as in many other city-states, was essentially powerless, but used by aristocrats to legitimate their power through its support. Plebians attempted to wrest some power back. In 495 BC, during discord over debt and military recruitment, the Senate realized it could not function if it lost almost its entire army, and agreed to the Plebeians’ demands. From then on, two Plebeian tribunes, in what became known as the Popular Tribunate, were elected every year to protect the interests of the Roman people in the Senate as well as presiding over the Popular Assembly.

Despite the semi-democratic institutions, Patricians (a closed group of aristocratic clans) had power over the Plebeians (everybody else) Republican Rome was basically still in the thrall of an aristocratic warrior class engaged in cattle rustling and attacking their neighbours.

Like all oligarchies, the Roman elite strove to achieve good order by admitting the barest minimum of ‘rights’ to lower social classes while at the same time preventing anyone of their own number from achieving pre-eminence by breaking ranks and recruiting the lower orders to their banner.

To speak of a Roman senatorial elite is to ignore the fact that political life was controlled by an über class made up of just a few select families. Others might become senators, but it was rare for them to break into the charmed circle of consular families. When individuals from less exalted senatorial families did achieve this, it was usually because they had the support of one of the grand aristocratic houses. Once a consulship had been attained, then a family could dare to hope that more might follow and that eventually they might too join the rarefied ranks of the nobiles (The families of Fabius, Cornelius, Metellius and Marcellus, …).

The aristocratic Roman was expected to uphold the virtues of civilitas (being a good citizen). This involved a rigid set of virtues including courage, clemency, wisdom, duty, modesty and gravitas. The aristocratic male was hard-wired to pursue political and military glory. The extreme competitive ethos that was the hallmark of the ruling class was the greatest engine for Roman expansion.

Republican expansion and integration

Rome first expanded through Italy. It’s great strength was its ability to integrate native populations, creating a large and stable territories.

Rome granted full Roman citizenship to virtually all the Latin cities, they also bestowed the old Latin legal status that guaranteed rights such as property ownership, intermarriage and migration on the populations of the new colonies that they established further afield across the rest of Italy. These Latin rights acted as a kind of halfway house between foreigner and Roman citizenship. Using newly created legal statuses, rather than ethnicity or geography, as the basis for membership of their club, all sorts of very different populations could be quickly and fairly painlessly absorbed into the Roman state. They were good incentivizers too, because by maintaining a sliding scale of statuses, Rome could reward loyal allies with an upgrade. At the same time these communities were able to maintain their own local political offices and identities. It was a blueprint that would help Rome to hold together a vast empire for centuries.

For Rome, the most important benefit of this generosity with rights and citizenship lay in military recruitment: Latin rights brought with them an obligation to provide troops for military service. As Roman territory grew, so did the potential size of its army, giving it a huge advantage over other states with far more finite resources. By the second century BC, over half the Roman army was made up of Italians, not Romans.


Firm control over Italy made Rome one of the Mediterranean’s major powers. Between 264 and 133 B.C.E., Republican Rome expanded to the west and east and became master of the Mediterranean. The Romans began to come into conflict with another rising power located just across the water: Carthage. Located in North Africa near modern-day Tunis, Carthage was the capital of a seafaring empire, shown here in red, that dominated commerce in the Western Mediterranean. Rome fought three conflicts with Carthage, known as the Punic Wars, between 264 and 146 BC. The first conflict occurred after Carthage intervened in a dispute on the island of Sicily, just off the southern tip of Italy. While Sicily wasn’t Roman territory at the time, the Romans felt this was a little too close to home. They sent an army to expel the Carthaginian troops. The result was the First Punic War, which lasted for more than 20 years. This map shows the situation after the war: Rome gained control of the islands of Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia, making it a significant naval power for the first time.

Rome prevailed against the Carthaginian empire in Spain and Africa in the second and third Punic wars. In the east, Rome conquered Macedonia and also took control of the Greek states.

The Romans made their rule acceptable by allowing local autonomy and gradually granting Roman citizenship to non-Romans. Rome’s early laws, written in the Twelve Tables, constituted civil law for Romans. As Rome expanded, the Romans developed the law of nations, that applied to Romans and non-Romans alike.


Religion permeated Roman life. Ritual was at the focus of religion, for ritual established the correct relationship with the gods, both for individuals and for the state. or most of its history, Rome was a pagan society. Romans worshiped a pantheon of Roman and Greek deities, including Jupiter, Apollo, and Venus. From the early days of the republic, the Romans built temples and made sacrifices to the gods, and would consult religious leaders to determine which days were auspicious ones for a wedding, military offensive, or other major undertaking. This map shows the temples in Pompeii. Notice that in addition to temples to traditional pagan gods, the map shows a Temple of Vespasian. pompeiiThis is an unfinished structure that some historians speculate was intended to honor the emperor who was in power at the time Mount Vesuvius erupted, destroying the city. Religion and state were closely intertwined in Roman society, and subjects were encouraged to think of their rulers as semi-divine figures.


Rome was a slave state.


When the Romans prevailed on the battlefield, they would often take their defeated enemies captive and sell them into slavery. People could also become slaves due to failure to pay debts or as a punishment for crime. Roman slavery differed from American slavery in some important respects. Roman slaves could be of any race. And while American slaves generally performed manual labor, Roman slaves could sometimes be highly skilled. Educated slaves captured from the Greek world were highly sought after for tutoring children and performing clerical work.

Many slaves resented their subservient status, and some revolted. This map shows a portion of the most famous slave revolt in Roman history. The Third Servile War, also called by Plutarch the Gladiator War and The War of Spartacus, was the last in a series of slave rebellions against the Roman Republic, known as the Servile Wars.

The revolt began in 73 BC, with the escape of around 70 slave-gladiators from a gladiator school in Capua; they easily defeated the small Roman force sent to recapture them. Within two years, they had been joined by some 120,000 men, women and children; the able-bodied adults of this band were a surprisingly effective armed force that repeatedly showed they could withstand or defeat the Roman military, from the local Campanian patrols, to the Roman militia and to trained Roman legions under consular command. The slaves wandered through Italia, raiding estates and towns with relative impunity, sometimes dividing into separate but connected bands with several leaders, including the famous gladiator-general Spartacus.

The war ended in 71 BC when, after a long and bitter fighting retreat before the legions of Crassus and the realization that the legions of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and Marcus Terentius Varro Lucullus were moving in to entrap them, the armies of Spartacus launched their full strength against Crassus’ legions and were utterly defeated. When the rebellion was finally crushed, 6,000 surviving slaves were crucified along the Appian Way, a major road leading into Rome.

(Let’s listen to Bettany Hughes on Roman Slavery, 0.1.00-)

Fall of the Republic

Huge wealth, earned in a series of military victories across the second century BC, largely found its way into senatorial pockets. The senators were keen to invest their new riches in prime agricultural land, much of which was still in the hands of small peasant farmers. In turn, many of these smallholdings were heavily in debt because their men had been called up to serve in the Roman armies often for many years. A land grab ensued, in which Italian smallholders were kicked off and their farms became part of the huge estates owned by extremely rich senators. The evicted peasant farmers went to swell the ranks of the dispossessed urban poor in Rome.

The Gracchi brothers were two aristocrats who thought rule had become too unfair. Their scheme was to redistribute of the huge bank of public land that the Roman state had accumulated during its conquest of Italy and the central Mediterranean region, and to set up subsidized corn rations in Rome.

These proposals put them on a direct collision course with their fellow senators, many of whom had appropriated much of this public land for themselves. The Gracchi’s appealed to the Popular Assembly; this earned them the hatred of the Senate. When they realized that they could not stop the Gracchi by legitimate means, the senators took the law into their hands. In 133 BC, Tiberius was battered to death on Capitol Hill by senators armed with clubs and planks. In 122 Gaius and 3,000 of his supporters were killed, with swords this time. The corpses of both brothers ended up in the Tiber river.

After 133 B.C.E., Rome’s republican institutions proved inadequate for the task of ruling an empire. Ambitious individuals such as Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar saw opportunities for power. Military reforms at the beginning of the first century had made possible the creation of professional armies that were loyal to the generals who recruited them, rather than to the state. Bloody civil war ensued.

In 58 BC, Julius Caesar took command of Rome’s northern frontier and set out to conquer Gaul, which corresponds roughly to modern-day France. He was following in the footsteps of other ambitious Roman politicians who had led foreign conquests as a way to bolster their reputation at home. This map shows Caesar’s exploits, which took almost a decade and brought him to almost every part of modern-day France. While he was on campaign, Caesar’s enemies gained the upper hand in Rome and declared martial law. Roman law forbade a general on campaign to enter Italy at the head of an army. In 49 BC, Caesar took the fateful step of crossing the Rubicon, the river that marked the northern border of Italy, with his army. That triggered the civil war that would destroy the Roman Republic.

The decisive battle came on August 10, 48 BC, when Caesar defeated Pompey at the Battle of Parsalus, in the north of modern-day Greece. Pompey fled to Egypt, but officials there betrayed him and sent Caesar his head. After that, Caesar became the master of Rome. His strategy would be very different from that of Sulla, the last man to have occupied such a position of political supremacy. Under Caesar, there were no proscriptions or illegal land grabs. Former enemies were treated with impressive compassion.

Under Caesar, poverty was alleviated by debt reform, and new colonies were planned for the landless. Road building and drainage projects were introduced to provide employment and improve the infrastructure of Italy. Economic reforms were enacted to revive an economy shattered by war and mismanagement.

In the provinces, unfair taxation systems were overhauled and large numbers of provincials were granted Roman citizenship. Many loyal followers were elevated to an enlarged Senate.

Julius Caesar’s reforms showed that fair and decent government was easier to achieve under the rule of one man. The previous hundred years of political strife proved that Rome’s constitution had not evolved to meet the needs of a city-state that was now a world empire

Caesar ruled Rome as an autocrat despite his efforts to mask it by showing due deference to the political institutions of the Republic – he held successive consulships, but the idea of Caesar as just another senator was clearly preposterous.

Caesar careful to refuse the crown, not wanting to appear to want to rule as king. However, many of the old senatorial elite disliked the personal oath to protect his life that they had been obliged to swear. In fact, they disliked it so much that they decided to break it.

On the ides (the 15th) of March, a group of senators murdered Jul ius Caesar. When he recognized one of his assassins, Marcus Brutus, an Optimate whom he had pardoned and subsequently admitted into his inner circle, he was said to have cried out ‘Et tu, Brute’, ‘Even you, Brutus’, words of injured betrayal that have rattled down through the centuries.

The plotters were driven out of Rome, an then Italy, by an enraged urban mob. Caesar had nominated an heir, Marcus Octavius, his nephew and adopted son

After the series of civil wars, peace was achieved when Octavian (Julius Caesar’s nephew) defeated Antony and Cleopatra (the Egyptian Queen) at the Battle of Actium, in 31 BC. Antony and Cleopatra tried to flee from Octavian’s advancing army by sea, but he was intercepted by a navy commanded by Octavian’s deputy, Agrippa. Octavian’s ships won the battle, and although Antony and Cleopatra escaped, they no longer had enough forces to pose a serious threat to Octavian.

Let’s listen to Bettany Hughes narrating the fall of Mark Antony and the rise of Caesar (video in class 28.40-37.00)

Roman Empire


Octavian renamed himself with the title of Augustus (redeemer of the people) in 27BC (this date is often seen as the end of the Republic).

After a series of bloody civil wars, Augustus created a new order that began the
Roman Empire. Although he never declared the Republic dead and continued
to give the senate a role in governing, most political power remained in the hands of the princeps, or First Citizen, as he called himself. the army swore loyalty to
him, and the restoration of peace soon made the new political order acceptable to most people in the empire.

Augustus established the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which lasted until 68.

In the second century, the five ‘‘good emperors’’ maintained a period of peace and prosperity in which trade flourished and the provinces were governed efficiently.

Within their empire, the Romans were responsible for a series of achievements that were fundamental to the development of Western civilization, a civilization that would arise for the most part in the lands in Europe conquered by the Romans, where Roman culture and political ideals were gradually spread.


The Romance languages of today (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian) are based on Latin.


Roman Republican and Imperial Law and its legacy

Western practices of impartial justice and trial by jury owe much to Roman law. The Twelve Tables (aka Law of the Twelve Tables) was a set of laws inscribed on 12 bronze tablets created in ancient Rome in 451 and 450 BCE. They were the beginning of a new approach to laws where they would be passed by government and written down so that all citizens might be treated equally before them. Although not perhaps a fully codified system, it was a first step which would allow the protection of the rights of all citizens and permit wrongs to be redressed through precisely-worded written laws known to everybody. Consequently, the Roman approach to law would later become the model followed by many subsequent civilizations right up to the present day.


As great builders, the Romans left monuments to their skills throughout Europe, some of which, including aqueducts and roads, are still in use today. Other monuments provided models for public buildings in the West for hundreds of years.

Roman Britain

Throughout the classical period, Britain was at the fringes of civilization. Caesar invaded in 55 BC, but didn’t establish a permanent Roman presence on the island. Conquest of Britain began in earnest under the emperor Claudius in 43 AD. Over the next four decades, Roman troops explored the entire island, including the northernmost parts of Scotland. But the Romans only conquered an area roughly corresponding to modern-day England and Wales. The Romans would govern this territory until 410, when the declining Western Roman Empire was forced to abandon the remote province.


Hadrian, who ruled from 117 to 138 AD,  believed the empire was becoming overextended militarily, and immediately upon taking office he focused on consolidating Roman control of the territories that had already been conquered. One reflection of this shifting thinking was Hadrian’s Wall, whose construction was begun in 122. Over time, similar fortifications would be built all around the edges of the empire, transforming what had been a fluid frontier into a clearly defined border. The wisdom of Hadrian’s decision became apparent after 142, when Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius, conquered additional British territory and ordered a second wall built farther north. The new wall was only manned for a few years before the Romans were forced to abandon the new territory and retreat to the border Hadrian had chosen.


Protected behind Hadrian’s Wall, Roman Britain flourished. The island’s economy became more specialized and more integrated with the continent. The Roman empire provided its subjects with a reliable and standardized system of currency. Uniform money brings major economic benefits because cash transactions are a lot more efficient than those done by barter.

This map, drawn from a database of amateur archeological finds, shows where Roman coins were found between 1997 and 2010. The fact that coins are still being found all over England and Wales, centuries after the empire’s collapse, suggests just how thoroughly Romanized these territories became during four centuries of imperial rule.

The Romans founded London as Londinium in 47 AD, later building a bridge over the River Thames and establishing the settlement as a port with roads leading to other outposts in Roman Britain. As the largest Roman city in Britannia, London remained under Rome’s authority until 410 AD

Model of Roman London

East-West diffusion (Roman Empire)


As Rome was rising in the West, the Han dynasty was consolidating power in China. These two great empires were too far apart to have a direct relationship. But they became linked together indirectly through trade networks. This map, based on geographical data recorded by a Greek writer in the early years of the Roman Empire, shows the trade route from Rome to India. Elites in India and China prized Roman-made glass and rugs, while Roman aristocrats enjoyed purchasing silks made in the Far East. Some Roman writers saw the increasing sums Romans were spending on silks for their wives as a symbol of Rome’s decadence and moral decline.

Fall of the Roman Empire

By the third century, the Roman world was suffering an era of decline. Generals fought each other in civil wars. Between the years 235 and 284, there were twenty-seven emperors, and only four of them did not suffer a violent end. German tribes and Persian armies invaded the empire. There were plagues, population
decline, and economic problems.

A new religion—Christianity—was spreading throughout the empire. Beginning among the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity, with its promise of salvation, its similarity to many mystery religions, and its universality as a religion for all—
rich and poor, men and women, Greek and Roman—slowly gained acceptance.

Late Antiquity, Roman influence, birth of the Middle Ages


The period from the mid-third century to the mid-eighth century was both chaotic
and creative.

During late antiquity, the Roman world of the Mediterranean was gradually transformed. Diocletian and Constantine restored an aura of stability to the Late Empire by increasing the size of the bureaucracy and the army, establishing price controls, raising taxes, and making occupations hereditary.

Constantine made some profound changes to the empire after he became Rome’s sole emperor in 324. He created a new imperial capital at Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople, laying the foundations for an Eastern Roman Empire that would endure long after the West fell. Even more important, Constantine was Rome’s first Christian emperor. When he took the throne, he began the transformation of Rome into a Christian empire. While some of his subjects resisted Christianity, the change ultimately stuck. As a result, Christianity became the dominant religion of Europe for the next 1,500 years.

Upon Constantine’s death in 337, the empire was divided among Constantine’s three sons, who quickly began fighting among themselves. This cycle would repeat itself several times over the next half-century. It became clear that the empire was too big for any one man to rule. The last emperor to rule a united empire, Theodosius, died in 395. This map shows the result: an empire permanently divided between east and west.


Dividing East and West

In 476, the last western emperor was deposed. With fewer resources and little resolve, the government was less able to repel the German migrants who moved into the western part of the empire.As the western part of the Roman Empire disintegrated, a new civilization slowly emerged, formed by the coalescence of three major elements: the Germanic peoples who moved into the western part of the empire and established new kingdoms, the continuing attraction of the Greco-Roman cultural legacy, and the Christian church.

Politically, the Roman Empire in the west was replaced by a new series of Germanic
kingdoms, including the Ostrogoths in Italy, the Visigoths in Spain, several Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain, and a Frankish kingdom in Gaul.Each of these kingdoms fused Roman and Germanic elements to create a new society.

Beginning in the fourth century, under Constantine, Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Christian church (or Roman Catholic Church, as it came to be called in the west) played a crucial role in the growth of a new civilization.

The church developed an organized government under the leadership of the bishop of Rome, who became known as the pope. One of the most significant popes was Gregory I the Great, who gained both religious and political power. The church also assimilated the Classical tradition and through its clergy brought Christianized civilization to the Germanic tribes. Monks and nuns who led the way in converting the Germanic peoples in Europe to Christianity.

In the east, Greek and eastern elements of late antiquity were of more consequence as the Eastern Roman Empire was transformed into the Byzantine Empire. The Germanic kingdoms of the west and the Byzantine civilization of the east came to share a common bond in Christianity.

Despite the Christian bond, the two civilizations continued to move apart.

The rise of Islam, Rome’s third heir, resulted in the loss of the southern and eastern Mediterranean portions of the old Roman Empire to a religious power that was neither Roman nor Christian. The new Islamic empire forced Europe proper back upon itself, and slowly, a new civilization emerged that became the heart of what we know as Western civilization.



Ancient Greek Music (Ancient History Encyclopedia)

published on 05 January 2013

Ancient Greek Forminx
by Mark Cartwright (CC BY-NC-SA)


Music (or mousike) was an integral part of life in the ancient Greek world, and the term covered not only music but also dance, lyrics, and the performance of poetry. A wide range of instruments was used to perform music which was played on all manner of occasions such as religious ceremonies, festivals, private drinking parties (symposia), weddings, funerals, and during athletic and military activities. Music was also an important element of education and Greek drama performances held in theatres such as plays, recitals, and competitions.

Musical Origins

For the ancient Greeks, music was viewed as quite literally a gift from the gods. The invention of specific instruments is attributed to particular deities: Hermes the lyre, Pan the syrinx (panpipes) and Athena the aulos (flute). In Greek mythology the Muses personified the various elements of music (in the wide Greek sense of the term) and were said to entertain the gods on Mt. Olympus with their divine music, dancing, and singing.

The nine Muses are goddesses of the various arts such as music, dance, and poetry and are blessed not only with wonderful artistic talents themselves but also with great beauty, grace, and allure. Their gifts of song, dance, and joy helped the gods and mankind to forget their troubles and inspired musicians and writers to reach ever greater artistic and intellectual heights.

The Muses are the daughters of Zeus and the Titan Mnemosyne (Memory) after the couple slept together for nine consecutive nights. They are:

  1. Calliope, traditionally the most important (beautiful-voiced and representing epic poetry and also rhetoric),
  2. Clio (glorifying and representing history),
  3. Erato (lovely and representing singing),
  4. Euterpe (well-delighting and representing lyric poetry),
  5. Melpomene (singing and representing tragedy),
  6. Polymnia (many hymning and representing hymns to the gods and heroes),
  7. Terpsichore or Stesichore (delighting in dance),
  8. Thalia (blooming and representing comedy),
  9. Urania (heavenly and representing astronomy).

Other mythical figures strongly associated with music are the god of wine Dionysos and his followers the Satyrs and Maenads. Amphion and Thamyres were both famed for their skills playing the kithara (guitar) whilst Orpheus was celebrated as a magnificent singer and lyre player.

The Greeks believed music could have a beneficial effect on both the mind & body of the listener.

The oldest surviving Greek musical instruments are bone auloi which date from the Neolithic Age (7th-4th millennium BCE) and were found in western Macedonia, Thessaly, and Mykonos. The three major civilizations of the Bronze Age in the Aegean (3000 to 1000 BCE), Cycladic, Minoan, and Mycenaean Civilization, all provide physical evidence of the importance of music in their respective cultures. Marble figurines from the Cyclades represent players of both the aulos and the harp. Cretan hieroglyphic script has three symbols which are musical instruments – two types of harp and a sistrum (or rattle, originally from Egypt). An alabaster lyre decorated with swan heads survives from Knossos and a fresco at Akrotiri on Thera depicts a blue monkey playing a small triangular lyre. The Minoan ‘Harvester Vase’ (1500-1450 BCE) from Hagia Triada on Crete depicts a sistrum player and clay versions of the instrument have been found in graves across Crete. There is also some evidence that music may have been written down as early as the Bronze Age if a Minoan Linear A text on a wall in Hagia Triada is interpreted as such.

The combining of words and music, melodic and scalar systems, and several of the most popular musical instruments such as the aulos and lyre probably derived from the Near East. However, the Greeks themselves considered the lyre, in particular, as a ‘Greek’ instrument whilst the aulos is often represented in mythology as an inferior foreign competitor of Eastern origin. Hence, the great Greek god Apollo, who was believed to be the master of the lyre, defeated the Phrygian Satyr Marsyas and his aulos in a musical competition judged by the Muses. The lyre was also the musical instrument, above all others, which young Greeks had to learn in their schooling and was recommended as such by Plato in his Republic.

Musical Instruments

Greek musical instruments included stringed, wind, and percussion. By far the most popular were the lyre, aulos (usually double), and syrinx. Other instruments, however, included the rattle (sistrum and seistron), cymbals (kymbala), guitar (kithara), bagpipe (askaulos), conch and triton shells (kochlos), trumpet (salpinx), horn (keras), tambourine (rhoptron), shallow drum (tympanon), clappers (krotala), maracas (phormiskoi), xylophone (psithyra), various versions of the lyre such as the four-stringed lyre (phorminx) and the multi-stringed and elongated barbiton, and various types of harps, usually triangular shaped (e.g. the psalterion). Two unusual instruments were the rhombos (a wind instrument) which was a flat rhombus pierced with holes, strung on a cord, and played by spinning the cord. The second was the hydraulis, a sophisticated Hellenistic organ which used compressed air and water pressure maintained by two pedals. Incidentally, stringed instruments were always played with the fingers or a plectrum rather than with a bow and in the Classical Period, stringed instruments were favoured over wind as they allowed the player to also sing and, for the Greeks, words were considered more important than musical sounds.

Music Theory

There is evidence that the Greeks began to study music theory as early as the 6th century BCE. This consisted of harmonic, acoustic, scalar, and melody studies. The earliest surviving (but fragmentary) text on the subject is the Harmonic Elements by Aristoxenos, written in the 4th century BCE. Music also became an element of philosophical study, notably, by the followers of Pythagoras, who believed that music was a mathematical expression of the cosmic order. Music was also held to have certain therapeutic benefits, even medicinal powers over physical and mental illnesses.

In addition, one of the unique contributions the Greeks made to the history and development of music is that it can have a moral and emotional effect on the listener and his or her soul; in short, that music has an ethical role in society. For this reason, Plato, considering them rather decadent, banned instruments capable of producing all of the scales. Likewise, overcomplicated rhythms and music with too fast a tempo were considered morally dangerous in the great philosopher’s ideal republic.

Regarding written music, 52 pieces of Greek music survive, albeit in a fragmentary form. For example, a musical excerpt from Euripedes’ play Orestes survives, as does an inscription of music from the Athenian Treasury at Delphi. The most complete surviving piece of Greek music is the song of Seikilos from a 2nd century BCE tombstone found at Tralleis near Ephesus.

Bronze Aulos Player Figurine
by James Lloyd (Copyright, fair use)


Greek musicians were very often the composers and lyricists of the music they performed. Known as the ‘makers of songs’ or melopoioi, they created melos: a composition of words, tune, and rhythm. There is evidence that musicians enjoyed an elevated status in society as indicated by their particular robes and presence on royal household staff lists. There was even a specific symbol for musicians in the Cretan hieroglyphic script and the later Linear B. Professional musicians were male, although an exception were the courtesans or hetairai who performed at symposia. However, there are depictions in art of female musicians, notably the clay dancing lyre players from Palaikastro. Other professional musicians included the trieraules who set the beat for the rowers in triremes and trumpet players and choral singers who accompanied marching soldiers.

Music & Religion

Music and dancing accompanied processions on special religious occasions in various Greek cities and, amongst the most famous in the Greek world, were the Panathenaia and Great Dionysia festivals of Athens. Certain religious practices were usually performed to music, for example, sacrifices and the pouring of libations. Hymns (parabomia) and prayers (kateuches) were also sung during processions and at the altar itself. These were provided by choral groups of professional musicians, notably aulos players, often attached to particular sanctuaries, for example, the paeanists in Athens and the aoidoi and epispondorchestai in the sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus.

Music, dance, poetry and drama recitals were also a competitive activity in events such as the pan-Hellenic festivals held at Isthmia, Delphi and Nemea. However, as with the athletic competitions, the music contests were of a religious nature in that excellence was offered to honour the gods. There were two types of such musical contest: stephanites (sacred with a symbolic wreath as the prize) and chrematites or thematikoi (with more tangible prizes such as money or precious goods). Sparta, Argos, and Paros held the earliest such competitions from the 7th century BCE. In Hellenistic times, musical festivals and competitions became so common that musicians and performing artists began to organise themselves into guilds or Koina.

Aulos Player
by James Lloyd (Copyright, fair use)

Music & Education

Plato informs us that the first schools dedicated to musical education were created by the Cretans. However, the heyday of music in the classroom was during the 6th and 5th centuries BCE when schools of music were established in Athens where pupils aged between 13 and 16 were taught to play the lyre and kithara and to sing, accompanied by their teacher on the aulos. Music taught discipline and order and allowed the educated to better appreciate musical performance. Athletics and other sporting activities, another major element of the Greek education, were also done accompanied to music, particularly in order to increase synchronization.

Music for Pleasure

Music was a staple element of the symposium or all-male drinking party. After eating, the men each sang a song (skolia) with an aulos, lyre, or barbiton providing backing music. Often they sang amusing satirical songs (silloi). Finally, at the end of the evening, it was common for the group to take to the streets as a komos (band of revellers) and sing and dance their way through the town.

Women too could enjoy music in the privacy of their homes. Usually women played stringed instruments and recited poetry to music. In addition, household chores such as weaving and baking were done to music. Children too sang songs (agermos) at people’s doors to receive small change and sweets just as carol-singers do today.

Theatre of Segesta
by Mark Cartwright (CC BY-NC-SA)

In the theatre, performances of Greek tragedy, comedy, and drama were all accompanied by music, and singing was provided by a designated chorus which consisted of as many as 24 singers in Greek theatre performances of the 5th century BCE.

Music in Art

Musicians and musical instruments were a popular subject on frescoes, in sculpture, and on Greek pottery, particularly in the geometric, black-figure and red-figure styles. Aside from all of the major figures of Greek Mythology previously mentioned, a notable addition to the subject of music on Greek pottery is the greatest of heroes Hercules. Late Archaic and Early Attic pottery often portray the hero with a kithara, and perhaps this symbolizes the association between physical and musical exercise which are necessary for a properly balanced education. Other great heroes such as Achilles, Theseus, and Paris are also sometimes portrayed playing a musical instrument (usually a lyre), once again reinforcing the dual aims of an aristocratic education and the virtue of music. Also, many school scenes on 5th-century BCE pottery depict students with both a lyre and a book-roll, illustrating once again the importance of music in education. Finally, Lekythoi, slim jars for holding perfumes, are commonly found in grave contexts and often have music as the subject of their decoration, perhaps in an attempt to ensure that the deceased was accompanied by music on their journey into the next life.

Editorial Review This Article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.

About the Author

Mark is a history writer based in Italy. His special interests include pottery, architecture, world mythology and discovering the ideas that all civilizations share in common. He holds an MA in Political Philosophy and is the Publishing Director at AHE.
Note: AHE article shared in this form rather for educational purposes in China (links and other forms of sharing restricted). Please see the AHE website for subscription information.

Trojan War (Ancient History Encyclopedia)

22 March 2018

The Trojan War, fought between Greeks and the defenders of the city of Troy in Anatolia sometime in the late Bronze Age, has grabbed the imagination for millennia. A conflict between Mycenaeans and Hittites may well have occurred, but its representation in epic literature such as Homer’s Iliad is almost certainly more myth than reality. Nevertheless, it has defined and shaped the way ancient Greek culture has been viewed right up to the 21st century CE. The story of gods and heroic warriors is perhaps one of the richest single surviving sources from antiquity and offers insights into the warfare, religion, customs, and attitudes of the ancient Greeks.

Paris & Helen

The main source for our knowledge of the Trojan War is Homer’s Iliad (written sometime in the 8th century BCE) where he recounts 52 days during the final year of the ten-year conflict. The Greeks imagined the war to have occurred some time in the 13th century BCE. However, the war was also the subject of a long oral tradition prior to Homer’s work, and this, combined with other sources such as the fragmentary Epic Cycle poems, give us a more complete picture of what exactly the Greeks thought of as the Trojan War.

The Trojan War, in Greek tradition, started as a way for Zeus to reduce the ever-increasing population of humanity and, more practically, as an expedition to reclaim Helen, wife of Menelaos, King of Sparta and brother of Agamemnon. Helen was abducted by the Trojan prince Paris (also known as Alexandros) and taken as his prize for choosing Aphrodite as the most beautiful goddess in a competition with Athena and Hera at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. Menelaos and the Greeks wanted her back and to avenge Trojan impudence.

The Greek Army

The coalition of Greek forces (or Archaians as Homer often calls them) was led by King Agamemnon of Mycenae. Amongst the cities or regions represented were Boiotia, Phocia, Euboea, Athens, Argos, Corinth, Arcadia, Sparta, Kephalonia, Crete, Rhodes, Magnesia, and the Cyclades. Just how many men these totalled is unclear. Homer states an army of ‘tens of thousands’ or rather more poetically ‘as many [men] as the leaves and flowers that come in springtime’.

The gods had their favourites amongst the men fighting down on the plains of Troy & they often protected them by deflecting spears.

Amongst the Greek warriors were some extra special heroes, leaders who were the greatest fighters and displayed the greatest courage on the battlefield. Also, they often had a divine mother or father whilst the other parent was a mortal, thereby creating a genealogical link between the gods and ordinary men. Amongst the most important were Achilles, Odysseus, Ajax, Diomedes, Patroklos, Antilokus, Menestheus, and Idomenus.

The Greeks were aided by several of the Olympian gods of Greek religion. Athena, Poseidon, Hera, Hephaistos, Hermes, and Thetis all gave direct or indirect help to the Greeks in Homer’s account of the war. The gods had their favourites amongst the men fighting down on the plains of Troy and they often protected them by deflecting spears and even spiriting them away in the heat of battle to put them down somewhere safe, far from danger.

The Trojan Army

The Trojan army defending the great city of Troy, led by their king Priam, had assistance from a long list of allies. These included the Carians, Halizones, Kaukones, Kikones, Lycians, Maionians, Mysians, Paionians, Paphlagonians, Pelasgians, Phrygians, and Thracians.

The Trojans, too, had their semi-divine heroes and these included Hektor (son of Priam), Aeneas, Sarpedon, Glaukos, Phorkys, Poulydamas, and Rhesos. The Trojans also had help from the gods, receiving assistance during the battle from Apollo, Aphrodite, Ares, and Leto.

Key Battles

Most of the Trojan War was in a fact a protracted siege, and the city was able to resist the invaders for so long principally because its fortifications were so magnificent. Indeed, in Greek mythology, the walls of Troy were said to have been built by Poseidon and Apollo who, after an act of impiety, were compelled by Zeus to serve the Trojan King Laomedon for one year. There were, though, battles outside the city where armies fought, sometimes with chariots, but mostly by men on foot using spears and swords and protected by a shield, helmet, and armour for the chest and legs. War waged back and forth across the plains of Troy over the years, but the really exciting battles seem to have been reserved for the final year of the siege and the following are a selection of the highlights.

Paris v Menelaos

Tiring of indecisive battles, Menelaos offered to fight Paris in single-combat and so settle the issue of the war. Agreeing to this, the two warriors drew lots to see who would have first throw with their spear. Paris won and threw first but his spear landed harmlessly in the shield of Menelaos. The Greek king then threw his weapon with tremendous force and the spear went through the shield of Paris and carried on through to pierce his armour. If Paris had not swayed at the last moment, he would surely have been killed outright. However, Menelaos was not finished and with his sword he struck a fearful blow on the Trojan prince’s helmet. The sword shattered, though, and fell in pieces into the dust. Menelaos then grabbed Paris’ helmet with his bare hands and proceeded to drag him from the field. Choking as his helmet strap wrapped around his neck, Paris was only saved through the intervention of Aphrodite who broke the helmet strap and, covering the prince in a thick mist, spirited her favourite back to the safety of his perfumed bedroom.

Achilles and Ajax By Exekias
by Dan Diffendale (CC BY-NC-SA)

Hektor v Ajax

The meeting of the two great heroes echoes that of Menelaos and Paris. Each throw their spears but to no effect. Hektor then threw a large rock at the Greek, only for him to fend it off with his shield. Ajax then returned the favour with an even bigger rock, smashing Hektor’s shield. They then drew their swords and closed for mortal combat but were each stopped by their comrades who called for an end to the fighting as night was approaching. Displaying the code of honour for which the good old days were famous, the two warriors even said goodbye on friendly terms by exchanging gifts, Hektor giving a silver-hilted sword and Ajax giving a splendid purple belt.

With the support of Apollo, an inspirational Hektor, in his finest hour, once more beat the Greeks back to their ships.

The Greek Ships Attacked

Following a tremendous day of fighting, Hektor led the Trojans in an attack on the very walls of the Greeks’ camp. Breaking through the gates, the Trojans sent the Greeks fleeing in panic back to their ships. However, as Zeus was momentarily distracted by the charms of Hera, Poseidon stepped in to encourage the Greeks who rallied and forced the Trojans to retreat. Then the tide of battle changed again and, with the support of Apollo, an inspirational Hektor, in his finest hour, once more beat the Greeks back to their ships where he sought to set them ablaze.

Patroklos Falls

Invincible Achilles was quite simply the greatest warrior in Greece, or anywhere else for that matter. Much to the Greek’s frustration, though, he sat out most of the final act of the war in a big sulk. Agamemnon had stolen his female war-booty Briseis and consequently the hero refused to fight. Agamemnon at first doesn’t seem to have been too bothered about losing his temperamental talisman but as the Trojans started to gain an upper hand in the war, it began to look like Achilles would be needed if the Archaians were to actually win the protracted conflict. Accordingly, an increasingly desperate Agamemnon sent an appeal to Achilles with promises of vast treasure if he would only re-join the conflict. These Achilles refused but with the Greek camp under attack, Patroklos appealed to his mentor and great friend Achilles to rejoin the conflict and, when he still refused, Patroklos asked for permission to wear Achilles’ armour and lead the fearful Myrmidons himself. Achilles, on seeing one of the Greek ships already ablaze, reluctantly gave his consent but warned Patroklos to only repel the Trojans from the camp and not pursue them to the walls of Troy.

Ambrosian Iliad
by Unknown (Public Domain)

Patroklos then led the Greek fight-back, the Trojans were swept back and he even managed to kill the great Trojan hero Sarpedon. Flushed with success, the young hero then ignored Achilles’ advice and rashly carried the fighting on towards Troy. However, at this point, great Apollo intervened on behalf of the Trojans and struck the helmet and armour from Patroklos, shattered his spear and knocked his shield from his arm. Thus exposed and defenceless, Patroklos was stabbed by Euphorbos and then Hektor stepped in to deal the fatal blow with a pitiless stab of his spear.

Achilles’ New Armour

When Achilles discovered the death of his great friend Patroklos, he was overcome with grief and rage and he swore to take terrible revenge on the Trojans and Hektor in particular. After a suitable show of mourning, Achilles finally decided to enter the battlefield once more. It was a decision which would seal the fate of Troy.

Resplendent in his shining armour, Achilles, still mad with rage, predictably routed the Trojans.

Before he could enter the fighting, though, Achilles needed new armour and this was provided by his divine mother Thetis who had Hephaistos, the master craftsman of Olympus, make him the most magnificent set of armour ever seen. Using bronze, tin, silver, and gold, the god made a massive shield which depicted a myriad of earthly scenes and all the constellations. So too, he made a dazzling, gold-crested helmet for the hero. Resplendent in his shining armour, Achilles, still mad with rage, predictably routed the Trojans who fled in panic behind the safety of their city walls.

Hektor v Achilles

Hektor alone remained standing outside the walls but at the sight of the awesome Achilles on the rampage, even his nerve gave way and he made a run for safety. Achilles, however, gave chase and pursued the Trojan prince three times around the city walls. Finally catching him, Achilles killed his quarry with a vicious stab of his spear in Hektor’s throat. Achilles then stripped the body of its fine armour and, tying Hektor by the ankles to his chariot, Achilles dragged the body back to the Greek camp in full view of Priam standing atop the fortifications of the city. This was a shockingly dishonourable act and against all the rules of ancient warfare.

Achilles Fighting Hektor
by Trustees of the British Museum (Copyright)

Having avenged the death of Patroklos, Achilles arranged funeral games in his fallen friend’s honour. Meanwhile, Priam entered the Greek camp in disguise and begged Achilles to return the body of his son that he might be given proper burial. Initially reluctant, the emotional pleas of the old man were finally heeded and Achilles consented to return the body. Here the Iliad ends but the war still had a few more twists of fate to turn.

The Trojan Horse & Victory

The war involved several more exciting episodes including Achilles’ fight with and killing of the Ethiopian King Memnon and the Amazon Penthesilea who both came to the aid of the Trojans. Achilles was even said to have fallen in love with the beautiful Amazon just at the moment he killed her with his spear. Achilles himself met his destiny and was killed by an arrow to his only weak spot, his ankle, shot by Paris and guided by Apollo. Odysseus and Ajax squabbled over the hero’s magnificent armour and Ajax went mad with disappointment when he lost out on the prize. Slaughtering a herd of sheep he thought were Greeks, he fell on his sword in a messy and pointless suicide. Philoktetes got revenge for Achilles by fatally shooting Paris with the legendary bow of Hercules. Finally, Odysseus even managed to get into the city in disguise and steal the sacred Palladion statue of Athena.

Troy was sacked & the population slaughtered or enslaved.

The final and decisive action was, though, the idea of the wooden horse. Odysseus, inspired by Athena, thought up the ruse to get a body of men inside the walls of Troy. First, the Greeks all sailed off into the sunset leaving a mysterious offering to the Trojans of a gigantic wooden horse which in reality concealed a group of warriors within. Just to make sure the Trojans took the horse within the city, Sinon was chosen to stay behind and tell a cock and bull story about the Greeks having given up and left a nice present. The Trojans did take the horse inside the city walls but whilst they were enjoying a drunken celebration of their victory, the Greeks climbed out of the horse, opened the city walls for the returning Greek army, and the city was sacked and the population slaughtered or enslaved. Helen was taken back to Argos and of the Trojan heroes only Aeneas escaped to eventually set up a new home in Italy.

Victory had its price though. Due to their pitiless ravaging of the city and its people and even worse, outrageous sacrilegious acts such as the rape of Kassandra, the gods punished the Greeks by sending storms to wreck their ships and those who did eventually return were made to endure a protracted and difficult voyage home. Even then, some of the Greeks who did make it back to their homeland only did so to face further misfortune and disaster.

The Trojan Horse
by Tetraktyas (CC BY-SA)

Trojan War: Art & Literature

Troy and the Trojan War became a staple myth of Classical Greek and Roman literature and were revisited many times by writers in works such as AeschylusAgamemnon, EuripidesTrojan Women, and Virgil’s Aenid. Also in pottery decoration and in sculpture, artists were captivated by the Trojan War. Scenes of the judgement of Paris, Achilles fighting Hektor, Achilles playing dice with Ajax, and Ajax falling on his sword were just some of the myriad scenes from the story that would appear in art again and again over the centuries. Perhaps more importantly, the Trojan War came to represent the struggle of Greeks against foreign powers and it told tales of a time when men were better, more able, and more honourable.

Troy In Archaeology

There has been much scholarly debate as to whether the mythical Troy actually existed and if so, whether the archaeological site discovered in Anatolia which revealed a city which had prospered over thousands of years of habitation was actually the same city; however, it is now almost universally accepted that the archaeological excavations have revealed the city of Homer’s Iliad.

Of the several cities built on top of each other, Troy VI (c. 1750-1300 BCE) is the most likely candidate for the besieged city of Homer’s Trojan War. Impressive fortification walls with several towers certainly fit the Homeric description of ‘strong-built Troy’. The lower town covers an impressive 270,000 m² protected by an encircling rock-cut ditch and suggests a grand city like the Troy of tradition.

Troy VI was partially destroyed but the exact cause is not known beyond some evidence of fire. Intriguingly, bronze arrowheads, spear tips, and slingshots have been found at the site and even some embedded in the fortification walls, suggesting some sort of conflict. The dates of these (c. 1250 BCE) and the site destruction correlate with Herodotus’ dates for the Trojan War. Conflicts over the centuries between the Mycenaean and Hittite civilizations are more than probable, colonial expansion and control of lucrative trade routes being prime motivators. However, such conflicts are unlikely to have been on the scale of Homer’s war, but collectively they may well have been the origin of the epic tale of the Trojan War which has fascinated for centuries.

Editorial Review This Article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.

About the Author

Mark is a history writer based in Italy. His special interests include pottery, architecture, world mythology and discovering the ideas that all civilizations share in common. He holds an MA in Political Philosophy and is the Publishing Director at AHE.

Note: AHE article shared in this form rather for educational purposes in China (links and other forms of sharing restricted). Please see the AHE website for subscription information.

Western Civilization Essay

Western Civilization: end of semester essay

Length: 3000 words

Topic: Your choice (but see ‘planning’, below).


  • Give a critical account of an aspect (or aspects) of Western civilization.
  • Your essay should go beyond the merely descriptive and demonstrate knowledge and understanding.
  • Your essay should draw on an appropriate range of academic sources and cite them in one of the accepted academic styles.

Planning: You should submit a proposed essay topic and plan to me prior to writing the essay. You are encouraged to seek feedback on your plan.

Format: Word.

Submission: submit to me via email.


Proposed submission date: 12/27


Lesson 4b: Hellenikon (the Greek Thing) and its cultural aspects

Jackson Spielvogel’s view on the legacy of ancient Greek civilization for Western societies

For Professor Spielvogel and many other classical historians, the civilization of the ancient Greeks was the fountainhead of Western culture.

Spielvogel writes that:

  • Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle established the foundations of Western philosophy.
  • Herodotus and Thucydides created the discipline of history.
  • Our literary forms are largely derived from Greek poetry and drama.
  • Greek notions of harmony, proportion, and beauty have remained the touchstones for all subsequent Western art and architecture.
  • A rational method of inquiry, so important to modern science, was conceived in ancient Greece.
  • Many of our political terms are Greek in origin, and so are our concepts of the rights and duties of citizenship, especially as they were conceived in Athens, which gave the idea of democracy to the Western world.
  • Especially during the Classical period, the Greeks raised and debated fundamental questions about the purpose of human existence, the structure of human society, and the nature of the universe that have concerned Western thinkers ever since.

Spielvogel does caution that even if their legacy has come be be seen as foundational, the ancient Greeks themselves did not conceive of Western civilization as a cultural entity.

We might note, however, that they had begun to conceive of themselves as of the West, not the East.

We could also note that their democratic ideals were hierarchical (equality among some citizens was greater than among others, and equality of all citizens relied on the subjugation of other peoples). To some degree the roots of these contradictions lay in their identities and culture.


The Greeks had a word Hellenikon, meaning ‘Greekness’ (or, ‘the Greek thing’).

It was first used by the historian Herodotus to sum up everything the ancient Greeks had in common: language, religion, customs, blood.

Today, ‘the Greek thing’ has become a kind of shorthand for the values and ideals that we like to think lie at the root of who we are: rational, cultured, humane and civilized. But beneath the cool marble skin there was a fierce pulse that gave ‘the Greek thing’ its energy and passion, and also its capacity for sudden, shocking violence.

  • Violence and slavery are, equally, legacies of the ancient Greeks.

Ancient Greece shows us, with absolute clarity, the polarities contained within the concept of ‘civilization’.

In the story of ancient Greece, …. the blossoming in art, philosophy and science went hand-in-bloody-hand with political discord, social unrest, endless wars and, ultimately, the complete failure to forge a common political identity (Richard Miles)’.

Mythologizing the Warrior Culture

Let’s have a listen to Bettany Hughes talking about chariots and warriors (play video clip).

So that fighting spirit, we talked about last week, comes from the Mycenean warrior culture, and the Greeks celebrated it, …. they mythologized it.

The Iliad, Homer sometime between 750 and 700 BC epic of the Trojan War.

Iliad and the Odyssey supposedly deal with the heroes of the Mycenaean age of the thirteenth century B.C.E., many scholars believe that they really describe the social conditions of the Dark Age.

According to the Homeric view, Greece was a society based on agriculture in which a landed warrior-aristocracy controlled much wealth and exercised considerable power. Homer’s world reflects the values of aristocratic heroes. Speilvogel.

The Iliad tells the story of war between Sparta and Troy (a city in what is now Turkey). The war was sparked by Paris, a prince of Troy. By kidnapping Helen, wife of the king of the Greek state of Sparta, he outraged all the Greeks. Under the leadership of the Spartan king’s brother, Agamemnon of Mycenae, the Greeks attacked Troy. Ten years later, the Greeks finally won and sacked the city.

The Odyssey, Homer’s other masterpiece, is an epic romance that recounts the journeys of one of the Greek heroes, Odysseus (oh-DISS-ee-uss), after the fall of Troy, and his ultimate return to his wife. But there is a larger vision here as well: the testing of the heroic stature of Odysseus until, by both cunning and patience, he prevails. In the course of this testing, the underlying moral message is ‘‘that virtue isa better policy than vice. Spielvogel

Richard Miles writes that The very first word of this epic poem is menin, meaning rage, and that is what the poem explores … the rage of men fighting for honour, vengeance and personal gain, for victory, survival and the intoxicating adrenaline rush of licensed savagery. Miles.

Here is an exemplary passage:

Achilles drew his sharp sword and struck him on the collarbone by the neck, and the whole length of the two-edged sword sank inside him and lay stretched on the earth: and the dark blood ran from him, soaking the ground. Achilles took him by the foot and flung him to float in the river, and spoke winged words in triumph over him: ‘Now lie there among the fish. They will lick the blood from your wound and give you no loving burial. Your mother will not lay you out on the bier and lament for you … Death take you all, all the way till we reach the city of sacred Ilios, you Trojans running in flight and I behind you cutting you down.’

The Iliad gave the Greeks a conceptual framework with which to think about themselves and the kind of societies they were creating …

  • Well-walled’ Troy, with its ‘lofty gates’, ‘wide streets’ and ‘fine towers’, is in many ways the ideal city-state to which the Greeks aspired.
  • And Hector, the noble, doomed warrior who fights and dies for its survival, is civilization’s champion and the true hero of the Iliad. Richard miles

The Greeks regarded the Iliad and the Odyssey as authentic history as recorded by one poet, Homer. These masterpieces gave the Greeks an ideal past with a cast of heroes and came to be used as standard texts for the education of generations of Greek males. As one Athenian stated, ‘‘My father was anxious to see me develop into a good man . . . and as a means to this end he compelled me to memorize all of Homer.’’3

The values Homer taught were essentially the aristocratic values of courage and honor (see the reading on ‘excellence’).

A hero strives for excellence, which the Greeks called arete (ahr-ih-TAY). In the warrior-aristocratic world of Homer,

Arete is won in a struggle or contest. Through his willingness to fight, the hero protects his family and friends, preserves his own honor and that of his family, and earns his reputation.

In the Homeric world, aristocratic women, too, were expected to pursue excellence. Penelope, for example, the wife of Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey, remains faithful to her husband and displays great courage and intelligence in preserving their household during her husband’s long absence. Spielvogel

The rise of individualism and the valuing of ‘excellence’

Membership in the elite of a polis came, ideally at least, to be something men earned by their success, rather than inherited as members of the aristocracy. This flourishing of the role of the (for example, worthy, or excellent) individual was tied to the competitive character of ancient Greek society, and the Olympics give us a great example of that culture.


The first Olympic Games were held in 776 BC and the first event was a 200-metre sprint. In contemporary western culture there is an idea that ‘it isn’t winning that counts, what’s really important is taking part’. The ancient Greeks were not like that, for them winning was everything.

The kudos of victory brought material rewards and political power. For the losers there was no silver or bronze – all they could expect were derision and ignominy. The poet Pindar describes them slinking back home, spurned by their mothers and girlfriends, ‘lurking in byways, hoping to avoid their enemies, stung by their ill fortune’. (Miles)

Greeks saw a direct link between prowess on the sports field and on the battlefield. Greek athletes competed as individuals. It was every man for himself. This accorded with the view given to Achilles who was said to believed that glory cannot be shared (it can only be earned by an individual winner).

Let’s have a look at Homer’s idea of excellence (from Jason Spielvogel)

This passage from the Iliad, describing a conversation between Hector, prince of Troy, and his wife, Andromache (an- DRAHM-uh-kee), illustrates the Greek ideal of gaining honor through combat. At the end of the passage, Homer also reveals what became the Greek attitude toward women: women are supposed to spin and weave and take care of their households and their children.

Homer, the Iliad

Hector looked at his son and smiled, but said nothing. Andromache, bursting into tears, went up to him and put her hand in his. ‘‘Hector,’’ she said, ‘‘you are possessed. This bravery of yours will be your end. You do not think of your little boy or your unhappy wife, whom you will make a widow soon. Some day the Achaeans [Greeks] are bound to kill you in a massed attack. And when I lose you I might as well be dead. . . . I have no father, no mother, now. . . . I had seven brothers too at home. In one day all of them went down to Hades’ House. The great Achilles of the swift feet killed them all. . . .

‘‘So you, Hector, are father and mother and brother to me, as well as my beloved husband. Have pity on me now; stay here on the tower; and do not make your boy an orphan and your wife a widow. . . .’’

‘‘All that, my dear,’’ said the great Hector of the glittering helmet, ‘‘is surely my concern. But if I hid myself like a coward and refused to fight, I could never face the Trojans and the Trojan ladies in their trailing gowns. Besides, it would go against the grain, for I have trained myself always, like a good soldier, to take my place in the front line and win glory for my father and myself. . . .’’

As he finished, glorious Hector held out his arms to take his boy. But the child shrank back with a cry to the bosom of his girdled nurse, alarmed by his father’s appearance. He was frightened by the bronze of the helmet and the horsehair plume that he saw nodding grimly down at him. His father and his lady mother had to laugh. But noble Hector quickly took his helmet off and put the dazzling thing on the ground. Then he kissed his son, dandled him in his arms, and prayed to Zeus and the other gods: ‘‘Zeus, and you other gods, grant that this boy of mine may be, like me, preeminent in Troy; as strong and brave as I; a mighty king of Ilium. May people say, when he comes back from battle, ‘Here is a better man than his father.’ Let him bring home the bloodstained armor of the enemy he has killed, and make his mother happy.’’

Hector handed the boy to his wife, who took him to her fragrant breast. She was smiling through her tears, and when her husband saw this he was moved. He stroked her with his hand and said: ‘‘My dear, I beg you not to be too much distressed. No one is going to send me down to Hades before my proper time. But Fate is a thing that no man born of woman, coward or hero, can escape. Go home now, and attend to your own work, the loom and the spindle, and see that the maidservants get on with theirs. War is men’s business; and this war is the business of every man in Ilium, myself above all.’’

Another place we can find the Greek idea of the individual is in their art where we find a celebration of physical beauty. Recall what we learned from the historians Mary Beard and Jonathan Jones and colleagues: (clips from Civilizations, How do we Look?)

The Body Beautiful

Jackson Spielvogel notes the resemblance of early Greek statues, the kouros to Egyptian statues of the New Kingdom. The figures are not realistic but stiff, with a slight smile; one leg is advanced ahead of the other, and the arms are held rigidly at the sides of the body.

Life-size stone statues of young male nudes known as kouros (KOO-rohss) figures.

Mary Beard (in the film) observed that early Greek sculpture was gave an ideal form of the virtues of deities and types, but the sculptures were not realistic representations.

Phrasikleia (the maiden) tomb stone circa 550BCE

The subsequent transformation in Greek sculpture was more realistic in style. Famous works of Greek sculpture such as the Parthenon Marbles and Discobolos (the discus thrower) epitomize the artist’s interest in depicting human emotion, beauty, and accomplishment realistically, even if those qualities are presented in works featuring immortals. (Mary Beard and Jonathan Jones and colleagues).

What we can see developing is a new, more realistic form of idealism, where the ideal is the perfect beauty of the human body. This is true of the individuals celebrated in sculpture, like the disc thrower, and of the Gods (whose perfection takes the form of the beautiful human).


It’s a kind of realism, but still idealized (the ideal is beauty). Compare, the realism of the modern British Lucien Freud’s painting below with the Ancient Greek sculptures.

Sleeping by the Lion Carpet, 1996 (oil on canvas)
Lucien Freud, seated nude.

Harmony in architecture

The arts in Classical Greece were designed to express the eternal ideals of reason, moderation, symmetry, balance, and harmony.

In architecture, the most important form was the temple, and the classic example of this kind of architecture is the Parthenon, built between 447 and 432 B.C.E

The Parthenon
Ancient Greek Temple Columns Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The size and shape of a column constituted key aspects of Greek temple architecture. The Doric order, with plain capitals and no base, developed first in the Dorian Peloponnesus and was rather simple in comparison to the
slender Ionic column, which had an elaborate base and spiral-shaped capitals, and the Corinthian column, which featured leaf-shaped capitals.

Much important classical architecture was built in the 5th century using funds from the Delian League. The Parthenon, built between 447 and 432 B.C.E. was consecrated to Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. The Parthenon typifies the principles of Classical architecture: the search for calm, clarity, and freedom from superfluous detail.

The individual parts of the temple were constructed in accordance with certain mathematical ratios found in nature. The architects’ concern with these laws of proportion is paralleled by the attempt of Greek philosophers to understand the general laws of nature, and of artists like Polyclitus (pahl-ee-KLY-tuss), whose sought to find the ratios that would express the ideal beauty of the human body.

This statue, known as the Doryphoros, or spear carrier,
is by the fifth-century B.C.E. sculptor
Polyclitus, who believed it illustrated the ideal proportionof the
human figure.

Religion and mythology


Greek religion was based on twelve chief gods who supposedly lived on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece.

The Olympian gods, and Zeus in particular, gained supremacy over the cosmos after a long war in heaven with the previous ruling gods, the Titans, led by Cronus. However, the Titans had actually won an earlier rebellion against a primordial god, Uranus (sky/heaven).

These primordial gods seem to have been personifications and concepts, such as heaven, earth, sea, light, darkness, time, etc. According to (one  version from) Greek mythology, Cronus wanted the power of his father, Uranus. Uranus had angered Gaia (earth, mother goddess) after placing some of their children (Titans) in the darkness of Tartarus (the abyss) because he was angry at them. Gaia then created a gigantic stone sickle and organized Cronus and others of the lesser gods to defeat Uranus (Hesiod, Theogany). Cronus then ambushed Uranus and attacked him with the sickle, castrating him.

The victory resulted in a period in which Cronus and the Titans ruled, and was called the Golden Age (Hesiod, Days and Times). This was a period of peace, leisure and virtue. After this though, Zeus led a rebellion of the Olympians, defeated Cronus and imprisoned him for eternity, and became the ruler of the gods. … This same war in heaven concept in which the original god or gods suffered defeat after a rebellion of some of the created lesser gods is found in the even more ancient literature of the Near East. (DTH)



Each polis usually chose one of the twelve Olympians as a guardian of its community.

Because it was desirable to have the gods look favorably on one’s activities, ritual prayers and gifts were practiced, involving sacrifices (animals or agricultural products).

Divination was a common practice (seeking to know the will of the Gods). Oracles were used, sacred shrines dedicated to a god or goddess who revealed the future.

Ancient Greeks understood their gods through myths, (myths were often performed by bards) Homer’s works were an expression of the eternal order of the world and his conception of the individual striving for excellence form the foundations of the Greek outlook. In time, his epic poems formed the basis of the Olympian religion accepted throughout Greece. [Perry, M].

The legends of gods and heroes like Athena, Zeus, and Oedipus embodied the central ideals and values of Greek civilization notions like civic responsibility, the primacy of male authority, and humility before the gods.

The stories weretrue” not in a literal sense but as reflections of important cultural beliefs. These myths assured the Greeks of the nobility of their origins; they provided models for the roles that Greeks would play in their public and private lives; they justified inequities in Greek society; they helped the Greeks understand human life and destiny in terms thatmade sensewithin the framework of that culture. (Colombo et al.,)

Legacies of Greek mythology

Greek mythology has many legacies for western societies (civilization). We can trace some of those through culture (poetry, drama), and in language.

Living in the twenty-first century we are constantly surrounded by the resonances of Greek mythology, and, though we seldom pause to reflect on it, we talk the language of myth all the time. We inhabit a chaotic world (Khaos was the primal void) where Trojan horses threaten our computers and Ajax is a cleaning product and a Dutch football team. Politicians dismiss their opponents’ opinions as ‘myths’ (i.e. lies), while at the same time television archaeologists try to unearth ‘the truth behind the myth’ of Atlantis. Centaurs grace the pages of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series; football managers say their star strikers have the Midas touch; a man can be an Adonis, a woman a siren or a harpy; and we all have our Achilles heel. Others are nymphomaniacs, use aphrodisiacs and read erotic literature – all activities with Greek mythological semantic roots. Meanwhile we undertake Herculean tasks, wrestle with our Oedipus complexes, make personal odysseys, and should certainly beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

There is nothing new in our fascination with the myths: no self-respecting Renaissance palazzo was complete without an array of mythological paintings, perhaps with underlying meanings referring to the politics of the day; opera has constantly drawn on the corpus of Greek myths, from Monteverdi’s Orfeo through to Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and beyond; dance has done the same, be it classical ballet or more contemporary pieces such as Martha Graham’s Andromache’s Lament. Film thrives on a Greek background, drawing directly on such myths as Jason (Jason and the Argonauts, directed by Don Chaffey, 1963) and the Trojan War (Troy, Wolfgang Petersen, 2004, where the abduction of Helen becomes an excuse for an attack on an eastern state by a ‘Greek superpower’ and has been seen as analogous to the recent American-led invasion of Iraq, which some commentators think has opened a Pandora’s box in the Middle East), or operating more allusively as in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite (1995), which deals with the power of love and parodies Greek tragedy at the same time. Rock, jazz and other contemporary music styles draw on the myths too, from Led Zeppelin’s sublime ‘Achilles’ Last Stand’ to Virgin Steele’s ridiculous ‘symphonic metal’ The House of Atreus, from Ivo Papasov and his Bulgarian Wedding Band’s Orpheus Ascending to the tumbling chords of the Anglo-Scandinavian jazz trio Stekpanna’s ‘Ikaros’. Ian Hamilton Finlay created a stunning garden at Little Sparta, Joe Tilson produced a series of Nine Muses at the most recent Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. There is no escape from Greek mythology. (Kershaw)



Greek theatre began in the 6th century BCE in Athens with the performance of tragedy plays at religious festivals. These, in turn, inspired the genre of Greek comedy plays. The two types of Greek drama would be hugely popular and performances spread around the Mediterranean and influenced Hellenistic and Roman theatre. Thus the works of such great playwrights as Sophocles and Aristophanes formed the foundation upon which all modern theatre is based. (Cartwright)

Drama was used to educate citizens and was supported by the state for that reason. Plays were presented in outdoor theaters as part of religious festivals.

Ruins of the Theater of Dionysus in Athens.

The form of Greek plays three male actors who wore masks acted all the parts.

Ancient Greek dramatic masks
Ancient Greek costumes

A chorus, also male, spoke the important lines that explained what was going on. Action was very limited because the emphasis was on the story and its meaning.

The first Greek dramas were tragedies (trag?ida), plays based on the suffering of a hero and usually ending in disaster.

The exact origins of tragedy (trag?ida) are debated amongst scholars. Some have linked the rise of the genre to an earlier art form, the lyrical performance of epic poetry. Others suggest a strong link with the rituals performed in the worship of Dionysos such as the sacrifice of goats – a song ritual called trag-?dia – and the wearing of masks. Indeed, Dionysos became known as the god of theatre and perhaps there is another connection – the drinking rites which resulted in the worshippers losing full control of their emotions and in effect becoming another person, much as actors (hupokritai) hope to do when performing. The music and dance of Dionysiac ritual was most evident in the role of the chorus and the music provided by an aulos player, but rhythmic elements were also preserved in the use of first, trochaic tetrameter and then iambic trimeter in the delivery of the spoken words. (Cartwright)

Aeschylus (525–456 B.C.E.) is the first tragedian whose plays are known to us. His plots focus on a single tragic event and its meaning. Greek tragedies were sometimes presented in a trilogy (a set of three plays) built around a common theme. The only complete trilogy we possess, called the Oresteia (uh-res-TY-uh), was composed by Aeschylus.

The theme of this trilogy is derived from Homer. Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae, returns a hero after the defeat of Troy. His wife, Clytemnestra, avenges the sacrificial death of her daughter Iphigenia by murdering Agamemnon, who had been responsible for Iphigenia’s death.

In the second play, Agamemnon’s son Orestes (uh-RES-teez) avenges his father by killing his mother. Orestes is now pursued by the avenging Furies, who torment him for killing his mother. Evil acts breed evil acts, and suffering is one’s lot, suggests Aeschylus.

In the third play, Orestes is put on trial and acquitted by Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. Personal vendetta has been eliminated, and law has prevailed.

Athenian playwright Sophocles (SAHF-uh-kleez) (c. 496–406 B.C.E.) was very successful. His most famous play was Oedipus the King. The oracle of Apollo foretells that a man (Oedipus) will kill his own father and marry his mother. Despite all attempts at prevention, the tragic events occur. Although iOedipus suffered the fate determined by the gods, Oedipus also accepts that he himself as a free man must bear responsibility for his actions: ‘‘It was Apollo, friends, Apollo, that brought this bitter bitterness, my sorrows to completion. But the hand that struck me was none but my own.’’15

In Sophocles’s play Antigone, Antigone (an-TIG-uh-nee), the daughter of Oedipus, is caught in a terrible dilemma. Her brother Polynices (pol-uh-NY-seez) has died in an attempt to seize the throne of Thebes, and now the king of Thebes, Antigone’s uncle Cleon, has forbidden his burial as a traitor to the state. Should Antigone adhere to her principles and fulfill her obligation to the gods by burying her brother or face death by defying the authority of the state? In the confrontation between Cleon and Antigone, Sophocles bears witness to the complexity of human existence.

Euripides (uoo-RIP-i-deez) (c. 485–406 B.C.E.), moved beyond his predecessors in creating more realistic characters and plots. His play The Bacchae deals with the introduction of the hysterical rites associated with Dionysus (dy-uh-NY-suss), god of wine. Euripides is often seen as a skeptic who questioned traditional moral and religious values.

Euripides was also critical of the traditional view that war was glorious. He portrayed war as brutal and expressed deep compassion for the women and children who suffered from it.

Greek tragedies dealt with universal themes that are still relevant in our day.

the nature of good and evil,

the conflict between spiritual values and the demands of the state or family,

the rights of the individual,

the nature of divine forces, and the nature of human beings.

The lessons of tragedy were that humans were free and yet could operate only within limitations imposed by the gods. The real task was to cultivate the balance and moderation that led to awareness of one’s limited position. (Spielvogel)

However they also celebrated the achievements and independence of humanity. As the chorus chants in Sophocles’s Antigone: ‘‘Is there anything more wonderful on earth, our marvelous planet, than the miracle of man?’’16

Greek Comedy

Greek comedy developed later than tragedy and was often satirical and political.

The plays of Aristophanes (ar-is-STAH-fuh-neez) (c. 450–c. 385 B.C.E.), used both grotesque masks and obscene jokes to entertain the Athenian audience, and to attack or satirize politicians and intellectuals. In The Clouds, for example, Aristophanes characterizes the philosopher Socrates as the operator of a thought factory where people could learn deceitful ways to handle other people.

Aristophanes was opposed to the Peloponnesian War. His play Lysistrata, performed in 411 B.C.E., at a time when Athens was in serious danger of defeat, has a comic but effective message against the war.

The birth of history

History as we know it, the systematic analysis of past events, was a Greek creation. The Greek word historia (from which we derive our word history) means ‘‘research’’ or ‘‘investigation,’

Herodotus (huh-ROD-uh-tuss) (c. 484–c. 425 B.C.E.), wrote The Persian Wars, the first real history in Western civilization. he viewed the wars as a struggle between Greek freedom and Persian despotism.

Herodotus traveled widely for his information and was dependent for his sources on what we today would call oral history. His history was a combination of sometimes fantastical storytelling and critical reflection.

THUCYDIDES Thucydides (c. 460–c. 400 B.C.E.) Thucydides was an Athenian
and a participant in the Peloponnesian War who drew on his experiences to write his History of the Peloponnesian War.

Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides was not concerned with underlying divine forces or gods as explanatory causal factors in history. He saw war and politics in purely rational terms,
as the activities of human beings. He examined the long-range and immediate causes of the Peloponnesian War in a clear, methodical, objective fashion. Thucydides placed much emphasis on accuracy and the precision of his facts. As he stated:

And with regard to my factual reporting of the events of the war I have made it a principle not to write down the first story that came my way, and not even to be guided by my own general impressions; either I was present myself at the events which I have described or else I heard of them from eyewitnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible.(Thucydides, 1954, 24)

Thucydides thereby gave us one of the fundamental principles of research and investigation (relevant to history and other social sciences), that of fact-checking, or corroboration.

For Thucydides, studying history aided understanding the present. He thought that past events were likely to be repeated in some way as human nature was unchanging.


Religion and mythology pervaded daily life, but in time, traditional religion was challenged and undermined by a growing secular and rational spirit.That transition was in part the work of the philosophers. [Perry, M]

Philosophy is a Greek word that literally means ‘‘love of wisdom.’’

Early Greek philosophers were concerned with the development of critical or rational thought about the nature of the universe and the place of divine forces and souls in it.
Much of early Greek philosophy focused on the attempt to explain the universe on the basis of unifying principles. Their theories eliminated the role of the gods as portrayed in Greek myths, but they did not eliminate divinity itself from the world, tending instead
identifying divinity with the underlying, unchanging forces that govern the universe.

Thales of Miletus (circa 600BCE), postulated the unity of the universe. All things were linked by water as the basic substance.

Pythagoras (c. 580–c. 490 B.C.E.), taught that the essence of the universe could be found in music and number.

Sophists (SAHF-ists) were a group of philosophical teachers in the fifth century who thought the only worthwhile object of study was human behavior and, especially, self-improvement.

The Sophists stressed the importance of rhetoric in winning debates and swaying an audience, a skill that was especially valuable in democratic Athens. We get the word sophistry from them (the art of persuasive speaking).

Sophists were what we call relativists. They believed that there was no absolute right or wrong—what was right for one individual might be wrong for another. Wisdom consisted of being able to perceive and pursue one’s own good.

Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.) developed a teaching method employing a question-
and-answer technique to lead pupils to see things for themselves using their own reason (we still call this the Socratic method). Socrates believed that all real knowledge is within each person and that ‘‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’’

Socrates’s questioning of authority and public demonstrations of others’ lack of knowledge led him into trouble. Athens had had a tradition of free thought and inquiry (in or modern terms we might think of that as free speech). However, at times Athens became intolerant of open debate and soul-searching. Socrates lived in one of those periods, following Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War. He was accused and convicted of corrupting youth by his teaching, and an Athenian jury sentenced him to death.

Plato (c. 429–347 B.C.E.), one of Socrates’s students, is considered to be one of or perhaps the greatest philosopher of Western civilization.

Plato’s works were concerned with questioning of reality: How do we know what is real?
According to Plato, a higher world of eternal, unchanging Ideas or Forms has always existed. To know these Forms is to know truth. These ideal Forms constitute reality  The objects that we perceive with our senses are simply reflections of the ideal Forms. The objects we perceive are just shadows, and reality is actually the Forms themselves.

Plato believed that the ideal Forms could only be recognized by by a trained (i.e., philosophical) mind (a very different idea from Socrates’ belief that we all have the truth within us and can and should seek it).

Aristotle. Aristotle’s philosophical and political ideas became important to important role in the evolution of Western thought during the Middle Ages (as we wil see in a later lesson).

Aristotle was a polygot, whose subjects included ethics, logic, politics, poetry, astronomy, geology, biology, and physics.

He was interested in analyzing and classifying things based on thorough research and investigation. He believed that by examining individual objects, we can perceive their form and arrive at universal principles, but they do not exist as a separate higher world of reality beyond material things (as Plato thought); rather the principles are a part of things themselves.

Aristotle was the first philosopher to developed a systematic study of logic. His framework would become an authority in deductive reasoning for over two thousand years. The doctrine of syllogism is his most influential contribution to logic. He defined the syllogism as a discourse in which certain things having been stated, something else follows of necessity from their being so. A well-known example is:

  1. All men are mortal.  (major premise)
  2. Socrates is a man.  (minor premise)
  3. Socrates is mortal.  (conclusion)  [Violatti]

Aristotle wrote about gender relations and his ideas about women and their role in society later became influential (especially in the Middle Ages). Aristotle believed  marriage was a good, as it provided mutual comfort between man and woman and contributed to the overall happiness of a community:

‘‘The community needs both male and female excellences or it can only be half-blessed.’’

However, men were more excellent than women, Aristotle argued that women
were biologically inferior to men:

‘‘A woman is, as it were, an infertile male. She is female in fact on account of a kind of

Therefore women must be subordinated to men (in the community and in marriage).

In these beliefs he was aligned with the beliefs of many Ancient Greeks that a woman’s place was in the home, bearing and raising children and managing the household. Yet there were exceptions. The Spartans believed in the independence of woman, allowed women to own property in their own right and manage their households, and celebrated and encouraged female strength and power.

After the fall of ancient Greece and the rise of Hellenic society women enjoyed fewer restrictions, and women of all classes had a new freedom of movement. The most notable gains, especially for upper-class women, came in the economic area.


Building on Egyptian and Babylonian knowledge, figures such as Thales of Miletus, Pythagoras, and Aristotle developed ideas in mathematics, astronomy, and logic that would influence Western thought, science, and philosophy for centuries to come. Aristotle was the first philosopher who developed a systematic study of logic, an early form of evolution was taught by such figures of Greek philosophy as Anaximander and Empedocles, and Pythagoras’ mathematical theorem is still used today. 

Scientific explanations for the world

Thales of Miletus, c. 600 BCE

He first developed the idea that the world can be explained without resorting to supernatural (mythical) explanations.

It is likely that the astronomical knowledge that Thales got from Egyptian and Babylonian astronomy allowed him to predict a solar eclipse which took place on 28 May 585 BCE.

Anaximander, another Ionian, argued that since human infants are helpless at birth, if the first human had somehow appeared on earth as an infant, it would not have survived. Anaximander reasoned that people must, therefore, have evolved from other animals whose young are hardier.

Empedocles who first taught an early form of evolution and survival of the fittest. He believed that originally “countless tribes of mortal creatures were scattered abroad endowed with all manner of forms, a wonder to behold”, but in the end, only certain forms were able to survive.


Ancient Greek Mathematics was aided by the influence of Egyptian mathematics; itsastronomy was, aided the influence of Babylon.

The Greeks derived rules of thumbs with specific applications from Egyptian mathematics and furthered them into general principles with broad applications

Egyptians knew, for example, that a triangle whose sides are in a 3:4:5 ratio is a right triangle.

Pythagoras took this concept and stretched it to its limit by deducting a mathematical theorem that bears his name: that, in a right triangle, the square on the opposite side of the right angle (the hypotenuse) is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.


Limits of the ancient Greek method

Besides its great achievements, Greek science had its flaws. Observation was undervalued by the Greeks in favour of the deductive process, where knowledge is built by means of pure thought. This method is key in mathematics, and the Greeks put their emphasis on it. The starting point to discover principles was always an idea in the mind of the thinker: sometimes observations were undervalued and some other times the Greeks were not able to make a sharp distinction between empirical observations and logical arguments. Modern scientific method no longer relies on this technique; today science seeks to discover principles based on observations as a starting point. Likewise, the logical method of science today favours induction over deduction: instead of building conclusions on an assumed set of self-evident generalizations, induction starts with observations of particular facts and derives generalizations from them.

Imagining Greek superiority and Eastern inferiority

For the ancient Greeks – the story of heroic resistance and the ultimate victory over a regional superpower (Persia) showed that ‘the Greek thing’ produced a different and superior class of human being.

In Athens, Aeschylus would write the first The Persians, which marks a critical break between a reconstituted ‘Greek’ culture and the Near East that had spawned it.

Greece would default on the cultural debt that it owed to the East, insisting that it owed nothing to anybody.

The virtues of Greece were now juxtaposed with the supposed oriental barbarity of the East as represented by Persians, the ‘East’ would come to stand for everything Greece was not – an anti-type to be despised and parodied.

Greek Eastern
Liberty Despotic, slave-like
Reason Irrational
Civilization Barbaric
Virility Effeminate, hen-pecked
Courageous Cowardly
Noble/honorable Treacherous



Cartwright, M. ‘Ancient Greek Theatre’, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2016.

Colombo et al., Reareading America, 11th ed. 2019.

Kershaw, S. A Brief Guide to the Greek Myths, Robinson, London, 2007.

Perry, M. Western Civilization, A Brief History, Volume 1. Cenage Learning, 2011.

Spielvogel, J. Western Civilization, 9th edition. Cenage Learning. 2013.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner, Harmondsworth, England, 1954

Violatti, ‘Ancient Greek Science’, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2013.




Reading: the brutality of Golden Age Athens

The tutoring of the Mytlinese

An Example of the ruthlessness that governed Athenian imperial policy took place in 427 BC, after a revolt by the city of Mytilene, an Athenian ‘ally’ that attempted to defect to the Spartans at a critical point in the Peloponnesian War. Once the uprising was suppressed, the Athenian populist politician Cleon (a tanner by trade, a butcher by nature) proposed that every man, woman and child there should be slaughtered. The motion was passed and a ship was sent, carrying the orders for the massacre.

The following day, the debate was revived and, mercurial as ever, the Athenians decided that only the ringleaders should be put to death (though with a thousand names on the list, the Athenians cast the ring pretty wide). So a second ship was dispatched with the new orders.

The historian Thucydides gives a vivid description of the scene on this second boat, with the anxious Mytilenean envoys supplying the Athenian rowers with barley mixed with oil and wine to keep them going so they could overtake the first ship. They only just made it in time, but the people of Mytilene were saved.

Mercy had its own propaganda value: this dramatic story crisscrossed the Aegean and mainland Greece and served as yet another emphatic reminder of the disaster that awaited any city tempted to try to leave the alliance. The episode was the final instalment in the Delian League’s transformation from mutual protection alliance to Athenian protection racket.

(extract from Ancient Worlds, Richard Miles).

Lesson 4a: Ancient Greek civilization. The rise and fall of the Polis and democracy

The Greek (Mycenaen) Dark ages and the route back to civilization

The Dark Age collapse had hit the Mycenaean kingdoms of ancient Greece hard.

From the time of the breakdown of the Mycenaean civilization in the twelfth century BC, Greece regressed.

  • Farming practices reverted from agriculture to pastoralism, and almost all contact with the outside world ceased.
  • In the last centuries of the second millennium BC, the population dropped by 75 per cent.
  • Its inhabitants had abandoned sophisticated settlements
  • they forgot many of the facets of civilized life/complex society: monumental architecture, figurative art and the ability to write.

Ancient Greece: renewal via diffusion

When society began to develop again, it was by way of diffusion.

Herodotus (Greek, the first historian) wrote the multi-volume Histories. In it he acknowledged the debt the Greeks owed to the Phoenicians for the alphabet (phoinikeia grammata, Phoenician letters).

Later historians have added more items to this diffusion of Phoenician innovations:

  • the cultivation of olive trees and vines (for olive oil and wine),
  • the use of weights and measures,
  • interest-bearing loans and banking,
  • gods like Heracles
  • political concepts like kingship

By the tenth century BC, the goods, skills and ideas brought by the Phoenicians essentially revived Greece. The resumption of trade in Greece and beyond, with networks spanning from Syria in the east to Italy in the west., a dramatic rise in the population, great increase in private wealth, growing economic and social distinctions that would provide the foundation stone for the Greek polis, or city-state, the entity that gave birth to forms of democracy.

The Greek colonial world


Ancient Greece was the home of many important innovations that came to be diffused throughout the Mediterranean and beyond.

Greek expansion overseas developed during  the Archaic Age. Between 750 and 550 B.C.E., large numbers of Greeks left their homeland to settle in distant lands. Poverty
and land hunger created by the growing gulf between rich and poor, overpopulation, and the development of trade were all factors that led to the establishment of colonies.

Most Greek colonies were larger settlements that included fertile agricultural land taken from the native populations in those areas. Some Greek colonies were simply trading posts or centers for the transshipment of goods to Greece. . Each colony was founded as
a polis and was usually independent of the mother polis (the metropolis) that had established it.

In the western Mediterranean, new Greek settlements were established along the coastline of southern Italy, including the cities of Tarentum (Taranto) and Neapolis (Naples) (see Map above). So many Greek communities were established in southern
Italy that the Romans later called it Magna Graecia (MAG-nuh GREE-shuh) (‘‘Great Greece’’). Greek settlements were also established at Syracuse in eastern Sicily in 734 B.C.E. in southern France at Massilia—modern Marseilles (mar-SAY)— in eastern Spain, and in northern Africa west of Egypt. A trading post was also established in Egypt, giving the Greeks access to both the products and the advanced culture of the East.

To the north, the Greeks set up colonies in Thrace, where they sought good agricultural lands to grow grains. Greeks also settled along the shores of the Black Sea including cities on the Hellespont and Bosporus, most notably Byzantium, site of the later Constantinople (Istanbul).

Greek colonies contributed to the diffusion of Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean basin. The later Romans had their first contacts with the Greeks through the settlements in southern Italy. Furthermore, colonization helped the Greeks foster a greater sense of Greek identity.

Colonization also led to increased trade and industry. The Greeks sent their pottery, wine, and olive oil to these areas; in return, they received grains and metals from the west
and fish, timber, wheat, metals, and slaves from the Black Sea region.

Chronology of ancient Greece

Archaic Period (800-500 BCE)

  • the introduction of republics instead of monarchies (which, in Athens, moved toward democratic rule) organized as a single city-state or polis.
  • the institution of laws (Draco’s reforms in Athens),
  • the great Panathenaic Festival was established,
  • distinctive Greek pottery and Greek sculpture were born,
  • Homer’s Iliad and Odysseus
  • the first coins minted on the island kingdom of Aegina.

Classical Period 480-323 BCE

Greece reached the heights in almost every area of human learning during this time and the great thinkers and artists of antiquity (Phidias, Plato, Aristophanes, to mention only three) flourished.

Golden Age of Athens, when Pericles initiated the building of the Acropolis and spoke his famous eulogy for the men who died defending Greece at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE.

Greek victory at the Battle of Salamis

Leonidas and his 300 Spartans fell at Thermopylae  (480 BCE),

Themistocles won victory over the superior Persian naval fleet at Salamis leading to the final defeat of the Persians at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BCE.

Democracy (literally Demos = people and Kratos = power, so power of the people) was established in Athens allowing all male citizens over the age of twenty a voice in the Greek government.

The Pre-Socratic philosophers, following Thales’ lead, initiated what would become the scientific method in exploring natural phenomena. Men like Anaximander, Anaximenes, Pythagoras, Democritus, Xenophanes, and Heraclitus abandoned the theistic model of the universe and strove to uncover the underlying, first cause of life and the universe. Their successors, among whom were Euclid and Archimedes, continued to advance Greek science and philosophical inquiry and further established mathematics as a serious discipline.

The example of Socrates and the writings of Plato and Aristotle after him have influenced western culture and society for over two thousand years.


This period also saw advances in architecture and art with a movement away from the spiritual ideal to a more realistic form with its own new ideal (human beauty). See Lesson 4b for more on this)


Late classical period: A tale of two cities (c. 400-330 BCE).

Victory over the Persians in 480 BCE saw  the ascent of Athens. The peace and prosperity which followed the Persian defeat provided the finances and stability for culture to flourish. Athens became the superpower of the day and, with the most powerful navy, was able to demand tribute from other city-states and enforce its wishes. Athens formed the Delian League, a defensive alliance whose stated purpose was to deter the Persians from further hostilities.

The city-state of Sparta, however, doubted Athenian sincerity and formed their own association for protection against their enemies, the Peloponnesian League (so named for the Peloponnese region where Sparta and the others were located). The city-states which sided with Sparta increasingly perceived Athens as a bully and a tyrant, while those cities which sided with Athens viewed Sparta and its allies with growing distrust.

The tension between these two parties eventually erupted in what has become known as the Peloponnesian Wars. The first conflict (c. 460-445 BCE) ended in a truce and continued prosperity for both parties while the second (431-404 BCE) left Athens in ruins and Sparta, the victor, bankrupt after her protracted war with Thebes.

The power vacuum left by the fall of these two cities was filled by Philip II of Macedon (382-336 BCE) after his victory over the Athenian forces and their allies at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE. Philip united the Greek city-states under Macedonian rule and, upon his assassination in 336 BCE, his son Alexander assumed the throne.

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) carried on his father’s plans for a full scale invasion of Persia in retaliation for their invasion of Greece in 480 BCE. As he had almost the whole of Greece under his command, a standing army of considerable size and strength, and a full treasury, Alexander led his army into Egypt, across Asia Minor, through Persia, and finally to India. Tutored in his youth by Aristotle, Alexander would spread the ideals of Greek civilization through his conquests and, in so doing, transmitted Greek art, philosophy, culture, and language to every region he came in contact with.

Hellenist period

In 323 BCE Alexander died and his vast empire was divided between four of his generals. This initiated what has come to be known to historians as the Hellenistic Period (323-31 BCE) during which Greek thought and culture became dominant in the various regions under these generals’ influence.

After the wars of the Diadochi (‘the successors’ as Alexander’s generals came to be known), Antigonus I established the Antigonid Dynasty in Greece which he then lost. It was regained by his grandson, Antigonus II Gonatus, by 276 BCE who ruled the country from his palace at Macedon.

The Roman Republic became increasingly involved in the affairs of Greece during this time and, in 168 BCE, defeated Macedon at the Battle of Pydna. After this date, Greece steadily came under the influence of Rome.

In 146 BCE, the region was designated a Protectorate of Rome and Romans began to emulate Greek fashion, philosophy and, to a certain extent, sensibilities.

In 31 BCE Octavian Caesar annexed the country as a province of Rome following his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. Octavian became Augustus Caesar and Greece a part of the Roman Empire.

Greek achievements

In the West we associate ancient Greece:

  • rationally ordered city-states
  • rise of democracy
  • poetry, Homer and Hesiod
  • drama, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes
  • history Herodotus
  • philosophy (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle)
  • The process of today’s scientific method was first introduced through the work of Thales of Miletus and those who followed him; The concept of an atomic universe was first posited in Greece through the work of Democritus and Leucippus
  • Maths Pythagoras and Euclid
  • Physics and engineering: Archimedes, of the Greek colony of Syracuse, among others.
  • The individual (in art, literature, social structures of city-states)
  • Sport the Olympic Games,
  • “superb statues of the human body at its most powerful and beautiful” (Miles)
  • perfectly proportioned buildings, classical columns
  • The Latin alphabet also comes from ancient Greece, having been introduced to the region during the Phoenician colonization in the 8th century BCE,

Greeks took the Phoenician alphabet and developed it, devising five new letters to represent vowel sounds. No longer confined to the abbreviated text-speak of the Phoenician alphabet, the Greek alphabet became an even more expressive tool, better at capturing the melodies and rhythms of speech – poems as well as cargo manifests. (Richard Miles)

(list based on Joshua Marks, “Ancient Greece”, AHE, and Richard Miles, Ancient Worlds)

The polis (poh-liss) City-state

The Greek polis (plural, poleis) developed slowly during the Dark Age but by the eighth century B.C.E. had emerged as a unique and fundamental institution in Greek society.

The polis = a town or city or even a village and its surrounding countryside. Each had a central place where the citizens of the polis could assemble for political, social, and religious activities.

Most poleis were small, consisting of only a few hundred to several thousand people. A few like Athens were exceptionally large (by the 5th century BCE it had around 250,000 people).

Poleis were communities of citizens involving all political, economic, social, cultural, and religious activities. A polis consisted of citizens with political rights (adult males), citizens with no political rights (women and children), and noncitizens (slaves and resident aliens).

All citizens of a polis possessed rights and these rights were coupled with responsibilities. The Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that the citizen did not belong just to himself: ‘‘We must rather regard every citizen as belonging to the state”.

The Hoplite revolution

Warfare was an inescapable part of the life of the Greek city-states. Plato, who lived in the aftermath of decades of destructive inter-city war, wrote bluntly: ‘Peace is nothing more than a name; every State is, by a law of nature, engaged in a war with every other State.’

The way that war was fought changed, and that change in the way of fighting caused social and political changes.


The ‘hoplite revolution’, as it has been called, was partially about military tactics.

Wars had traditionally been fought by aristocratic cavalry— nobles on horseback. These aristocrats, who were large landowners, also dominated the political and economic life of their poleis. (Speilvogel)

At the end of the eighth century, a new military order came into being based on hoplites (HAHP-lyts), heavily armed infantrymen, some of whom were aristocrats, but many of whom were local farmers and other kinds of ordinary workers from the poleis.

Fighting for your polis was a privilege rather than an obligation, but the introduction of hoplite tactics made it possible for more people to take part than ever before: a spear, a helmet, some body armour, and most importantly a shield to protect your neighbor.

Hoplites advanced into battle as a unit, shoulder to shoulder, forming a phalanx (a rectangular formation) in tight order, usually eight ranks deep. As long as the hoplites kept their order, were not outflanked, and did not break, they either secured victory or, at the very least, suffered no harm. The phalanx was easily routed, however, if it broke its order.

The Hoplite revolution was part of the Greek development of warfare, which contributed to the wider Western way of fighting.

  • devised excellent weapons and body armor, making effective use of technological improvements.
  • Armies of citizen-soldiers, training and discipline, giving them an edge over their opponents’ often far-larger armies of mercenaries.
  • Greeks displayed a willingness to engage the enemy head-on, thus deciding a battle quickly and
  • with as few casualties as possible.
  • Greeks demonstrated the effectiveness of heavy infantry in determining the outcome of a battle.

The Hoplite revolution brought profound political changes as well, because, as Aristotle would later observe,

‘The class that does the fighting wields the power.’

With more and more ordinary citizens finding their place in the phalanx, standing shoulder to shoulder and shield to shield with the well-to-do, the unequal distribution of power within a city-state would have been called into question every time the battle flutes sounded. Richard Miles

Those who could become hoplites and fight for the state could also challenge aristocratic control. Thus, the development of the hoplite and phalanx became an important factor in the rise of democracy in Greece. Spielvogel

Sparta and Athens: Homoioi, Helots, Demos

Greeks city states rejected monarchy and tried different systems of government all with the aim of system that might achieve eunomia and autarchy – good order and self-sufficiency.

Sparta was unusual. Aristotle described it as having a ‘mixed constitution’. It was partly radical and democratic, partly conservative and authoritarian. It had:

  • two royal dynasties, antagonistic towards each other,
  • a council of elders, all of them over sixty,
  • a public assembly that voted but rarely debated
  • five annually elected ephors who squabbled over the levers of this political structure

its aim was to create and sustain a stable society based on the absolute equality of all its male citizens, known as the homoioi, or the Equals.

This ideal was reinforced by strict codes of behaviour that suppressed all outward displays of wealth and status, from food to clothes to houses. There was to be no ‘us and them’ threatening the unity of this totalitarian Utopia (Miles)

Underlying their egalitarian values were the pressures of warfare, and particularly, competition from neighbouring city-state of Messenia (whom they fought and defeated after a 20 year war). The Spartans believed they had achieved good order and self-sufficiency (eunomia and autarchy) in the Eurotas valley and needed to be militant to protect them and equal to realise and maintain them. They made their city-state into a full-time military training camp, where the needs of the individuals were sacrificed to the good of the collective with the aim of defending themselves.

Sparta’s cultural revolution of the early eighth century BC, led by the law-giver Lycurgus, centred on the principles of extreme egalitarianism, severe austerity and obsessional physical fitness. They practised eugenics at birth, killing off any male child deemed to be weak or infirm. Those who survived were sent, at the age of seven to the agoge for thirteen years of savage training to prepare them as full-time warriors. Spartans lived and died for fighting. Their men trained, fought and hung out together in their all-male messes, where homosexuality was obligatory.

Spartan women were free to enjoy economic, educational and sexual freedoms unheard of in the ancient world, and indeed, in many parts of the world today. (Watch Bettany Hughe’s film on Helen of Troy).

The Spartans enjoyed equality between citizens, but turned the defeated rivals into slaves (they called them Helots), and relied on these for servants, shield-carriers, potters, cooks, agricultural labourers and breeding machines. The helots surrendered half their harvest to the Spartan military elite. They had no rights and were obliged to wear dog-skin caps and animal skins, making them objects of mockery. Every year the Spartans declared war on the helots, and were allowed to kill any of the with impunity. Despite subjecting them, Spartans also relied on them for soldiers during war, and in this way some helots became parts of the Spartan polis.


As the Greek city-states emerged from the Dark Age and began to reconnect with the rest of the ancient world through colonization and trade, the rich inevitably got richer. In Athens and elsewhere these enterprises were financed by private wealth rather than the common purse, and the profits were distributed accordingly. As the poor got poorer, many were forced to sell themselves and their families into slavery to service their debts. Towards the end of the seventh century BC, the Athenian poor were in danger of becoming the helots of the Athenian rich.

Sparta had solved the problem of rising inequality through extreme measures, a combination of absolute equality, a warrior culture, and subjugation (of the people they called helots).

Athenians also felt the pressures of inequality. The risks from below were severe and some city states witnessed very violent mass revolts.

Instead of extreme measures, the Athenian elites made a series of reforming accommodations. Conceding protections, rights and privileges to the demos, the people. Solon, a statesman who lived from about 638 to 558 BC, was the first of a series of cautious aristocratic reformers (he made debt slavery illegal, and made wealth rather than birth the deciding factor for the social hierarchy for example). The aim, for the elite, was to buy stability as cheaply as possible. Over the 7th to 5th centuries BCE, these gradual reforms ultimately led to the establishment of a form of democracy.

Athenian democracy was limited to the elite, except for the times when the city state was ruled by populist tyrannos tyrants, a ruler who has come to power by illegitimate means and who maintains his power with support from the demos rather than the governing structures of the elites.Peisistratos was one such tyrannos (ruling from 546 to about 527 BC) and under his rule Athens first became one of the dominant city-states of ancient Greece. He embellished the scope and number of the city’s cult celebrations, commissioned the first definitive edition of the Iliad, and built the first Parthenon, the remnants of which can be seen today in the new Acropolis Museum.

Eventually, the dominance of the tyrranus came to an end and aristocratic reformers came to rule Athens again. In the last decade of the sixth century BC, Kleisthenes introduced a series of reforms based on isonomia – equality before the law.

These reforms laid the foundations of the first democratic system in Athens.

  • Election to public bodies, political and judicial, was thrown open to all citizens chosen by lot.
  • The deme, or district, where you lived now gave the Athenians their political identity instead of tribal allegiances to old aristocratic families.
  • Members of the boule, or council of citizens, swore an oath ‘to advise according to the laws what was best for the people’.
  • A system called ostraca (487 BC) to guard against the return of tyrants like Peisistratos. If you earned 6,000 ostraca pottery shards with your name scratched on them, you would be ostracized, exiled, from Athens for ten years. The system came to be abused, being used against legitimate political opponents instead of actual/potential tyrranus. Still, it was an early form of what the current Westminster system of democracy calls ‘checks and balances’ that seek to limit excessive power and maintain democratic rule.


Creating West versus East: The Persian Wars and their aftermath

The general consensus among historians is that Western Civilization, including the Ancient Greeks, owes a vast debt to Eastern culture. Even historians famous for celebrating Western civilization acknowledge these debts.

The ancient Greek view that it’s own achievements (it’s Greekness, Hellenikon) was in fact entirely self-made and not a legacy of earlier and ongoing Eastern culture emerged at the end of the Persian wars.

The Persian Empire

The Great Kings of Persia, Xerxes and Darius had the territorial wherewithal to justify their claim to be a ‘universal empire’,

By the time of Kleisthenes’ reforms (see above), the Persians ruled in the East. The Persian Empire was a monster: 13 million square kilometres spanning three continents, from Afghanistan in the east to the west coast of Turkey, from Libya in the south to Macedonia in the north. Forged by Cyrus the Great in the mid sixth century BC, it became the greatest empire the ancient world would ever know.

Rather than stamping a centralizing authority on their vast dominions, Persian kings embraced the cultural and political diversity of their subject peoples. Nowhere was this better symbolized than at their magnificent new capital, Persepolis, in what is now western Iran.

Herodotus, the so-called ‘Father of History’:

And although it [the Persian Empire] was of such magnitude, it was governed by the single will of Cyrus [the king]; and he honoured his subjects and cared for them as if they were his own children; and they, on their part, revered Cyrus as a father.

The Persian regime had an enlightened attitude towards its subject peoples. As long as taxes were paid and military levies met, the constituent parts of the Persian Empire were autonomous.

Greek cities of western Asia Minor (known as the Ionian cities) became part of the Persian empire during the 540s BC.  The story of Greek relations with Persia would be recast later into one of total resistance against the incursions of a barbarous power. In fact:

  • During the rebellion of the Ionians against Persian rule many Greeks chose to abstain and even sided with the Persians.
  • Large numbers of free Greeks were employed at Persepolis
  • The Persian army, which would eventually attempt to invade Greece, was full of Greeks.
  • Most of the Greek states maintained friendly relations with their new neighbours.

The Persian Wars

This conflict was the first great war pitting a Western civilization against a Western civilization.

The Greeks provided the provocation and the justification for Persians to attack.

Aristagoras, tyrant of the city of Miletus, one of the Ionian cities, offered to annex the Greek island of Naxos for the Persian Empire, in 499 BC. When this enterprise failed and he was threatened with imperial displeasure, he decided to foment rebellion among the Ionian cities.

Darius defeated the Ionian Revolt and then sought to secure his empire and punish the cities on mainland Greece for the destruction of Sardis.

The first Persian invasion of Greece took place in 494 BC but, after early successes in Macedon and Thrace, was pushed back in 490 BC, on the plain of Marathon where the larger Persian force was defeated by a mixed force of 9,000 Athenian and 1,000 Plataean hoplites.

Xerxes, the new Persian monarch, returned to attack Greece a decade later, with 150,000 men and a fleet of 600 ships. The Persians crossed from Asia into Europe by way of an enormous floating pontoon, which his engineers built to bridge the Bosphorus.

At the narrow pass of Thermopylae, 300 Spartan hoplites under the command of the Spartan king Leonidas went on a suicide mission, attempting to keep the Persians at bay for as long as possible while the remainder of the Greeks tried to organize themselves. The Spartans were vanquished through treachery, but Leonidas became famous for his gallows humour when he encouraged his men to breakfast well as they would be having their dinner in the Underworld. (The 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans and Sparta’s shield-carrying helots who also got their dinner there would be routinely overlooked in the retelling of this glorious defeat.)

Eventually, the Persian land army was destroyed and their commander Mardonius was killed by a huge Greek army led by the Spartan king Pausanias at Plataea (479 BC). The Persian army retreated in disarray, never to return to the Greek mainland.

Imagining Greek superiority and Eastern inferiority

For the ancient Greeks – the story of heroic resistance and the ultimate victory over a regional superpower (Persia) showed that ‘the Greek thing’ produced a different and superior class of human being.

In Athens, Aeschylus would write the first The Persians, which marks a critical break between a reconstituted ‘Greek’ culture and the Near East that had spawned it.

Greece would default on the cultural debt that it owed to the East, insisting that it owed nothing to anybody.

The virtues of Greece were now juxtaposed with the supposed oriental barbarity of the East as represented by Persians, the ‘East’ would come to stand for everything Greece was not – an anti-type to be despised and parodied.

Greek Eastern
Liberty Despotic, slavelike
Reason Irrational
Civilization Barbaric
Virility Effeminate, hen-pecked
Courageous Cowardly
Noble/honorable Treacherous

Democracy and the golden age of Athens.

Sparta and Athens evolved into very different societies. After the Persian War victories, Athens embarked on more radical experiments in democracy.

During the wars, Athenian men of fighting age had taken their places on the rowing benches of the triremes moored at the port of Piraeus, from where they set out to face the enemy in the bay of Salamis. On the rowing benches, the richest citizens sat next to the poorest (the thetes), and the sweat of hoi oligoi (elite) mixed with the sweat of hoi polloi (commoners). After the war the thetes were able to claim greater sway over the political structure of the polis.

So, the democratising momentum of the hoplite revolution continued in the Persian wars. (Remember Aristotle’s dictum: ‘The class that does the fighting wields the power.’)

Post-war Athens was the scene of a radical experiment in government that, at that time, was an extraordinary departure from the way that other states had organized their affairs.

By the middle of the fifth century BC, the city was no longer ruled by an aristocratic, elite like other states, but by its whole citizen body, whether they be young or old, rich or poor.

The exceptions were females and those who could not prove that both their parents were Athenians.

Really democratic?

Athenian democracy left the rich in control.

  • In the city, many workers were unable to participate the political process because they had to work.
  • Many Athenian citizens who worked the land and lived too far away to travel into the city each day.
  • Participation in democratic politics required skills which were usually possessed only by those with an expensive education – oratory, legal training and sophism.
  • The elite were concerned that democracy should not allow the people (the masses) too much power.
  • Aristotle argued that democracy could lead directly to tyranny if the rule of law was ignored. In his famous treatise Politics, Aristotle warned of a harmful alliance between the ignorant mob and the manipulative politician (nowadays we call this idea, ‘the rule of the mob’, or populism).
  • Plato’s (circa 428 to 348 BC) ideas of government were set out in a dialogue titled The Republic. Plato was opposed to democracy and offered an alternative model of socio-political organization that he called the Ideal State.For individuals to be able to live an ethical life they needed to live in a just and rational state. An ideal state would divide its people into three basic groups, the elite, the warrior class, and the masses.

    At the top was a ruling elite, the philosopher-kings, the embodiment of wisdom:

    Unless either philosophers become kings in their countries or those who are
    now called kings and rulers come to be sufficiently inspired with a genuine desire for wisdom; unless, that is to say, political power and philosophy meet together . . . there can be no rest from troubles . . . for states, nor yet, as I believe, for all mankind.

    Plato, The Republic, trans. F. M. Cornford (New York, 1945), pp. 178–179

    The second group consisted of the warriors who protected the society, who Plato considered as the embodiment of courage.

    The third groups was the masses (the artisans, tradesmen, and farmers). Plato thought of the masses as people driven not by wisdom or courage but by desire (or self-interest).

    For Plato, democracy represented the rule of desire and self-interest, and thus a constant state of trouble, and poor grounds for individuals to realize the aim of living an ethical life.

The Golden Age and its dark underside.

The second half of the fifth century BC is known as the Golden Age of Classical Greece.

Athenian democracy, although not equitable, did create a society in which free speech was encouraged, including that of the Philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle (despite their anti-democratic sympathies).

The development of drama thrived in an environment where freedom of speech was enshrined in law, and where the audience was involved in the political process.

So in this period in Athens, there was a flourishing of arts and literature, philosophy and science and exchange of opinion.

Athenian democracy could exist only because of slavery, just as Sparta’s warrior society could exist only because of the helots,

Aristotle and other Athenian intellectuals believed that freedom for the few could be built only on the slavery (the denial of freedom) of the many.

The arguments were economic and military.

Democracy was expensive. the land surrounding Athens was good for little more than growing olives and much food had to be imported and paid for. Money was also needed to pay for the poorer citizens to skip work and exercise their democratic rights in the assemblies and law courts. Costs could be managed with free labour (slaves) to do the menial work.

Because food had to be imported, Athens was vulnerable to military blockade, and needed to be in a constant state of readiness for defense. Again this required expensive manpower and the Athenians decided that was best achieved by slavery.

In (historical) hindsight, we might note that Athenian democracy was inequitable among citizens (for example, iequality existed between the elite and the poor, its men and its women, and in terms of ethnicity and residence), and the degree of freedom its citizens enjoyed was based on the enslavement of others.

Who were the slaves?

The Persian Wars the Athenians led an anti-Persian alliance, the Delian League (forged in 478 BC), which brought together an alliance of 173 city-states.

The Athenians imposed financial, political and military enslavement on their allies as a form of payment for their leadership in the wars. ‘Allies’ that resisted suffered threats, economic embargoes, political indoctrination, murder, rape and starvation.

Why were the Athenians so ruthless?

Democracy relied on a fragile consensus of its richest and poorest citizens. To keep everybody happy (to prevent revolt), democratic governments drew on the resources of others, they used the extra wealth and benefits so that different groups of citizens would feel that they were sufficiently (if not perfectly) equal.

(For an example of Athenian brutality, see the reading ‘The tutoring of the Mytlinese‘ from Ancient Worlds, Richard Miles).

 The fall of Athens

As we noted briefly last week, the polis of Sparta and Athens came into conflict in nearly sixty years of the Peloponnesian Wars (1. c. 460-445 BCE, and 2. 431-404 BCE). The wars eventually left Athens in ruins and Sparta bankrupt.

In Athens, war fatally destabilized the fragile political consensus on which its democracy relied.

In 411 BC, a group of 400 wealthy citizens mounted an oligarchic coup.  Democracy was briefly restored because of war against the Spartans (the elites had to include the thetes because they were essential to the fighting).

In 404. Athens lost its empire across Greece and was forced to join the Peloponnesian League under the leadership of the Spartans who had won, in part, because they’d gained financial backing from the Persians. Athens subsequently suffered the violent rule of ‘the thirty tyrants’ before democracy was once more restored, through a violent revolt.

The Fall of Sparta

Sparta declined through a combination of internal problems and the loss of a war against Thebes.

Sparta was a city-state built on the exclusivity of its Spartiate (elite warrior class) combined with strong rights and privileges for women.

The tradition of late marriage caused a low birth rate. Additionally, women inheriting property and choosing their own husbands had a cumulative effect. More and more property fell into the hands of heiresses, with the result that by the fourth century BC two fifths of Spartan land was in female hands.

The Spartiate’s status relied on them holding enough land to produce an agricultural surplus to pay their mess bills. As the warriors became impoverished, they were forced were forced to drop down to an inferior (non-Spartiate) class. Upward mobility into the Spartiate class was virtually impossible, so the Spartiate virtually moved toward self-inflicted extinction.

Finally, the Thebans, in defeating Sparta, freed the helots from the submission to Sparta. This took away the economic basis of the Spartan policy, and Sparta went bankrupt and declined.

Failure to achieve unity

The next seventy years (404–338 B.C.E.) witnessed continuing warfare among the Greeks, with the leading roles shifting among Sparta, Athens, and a new Greek power, the city-state of Thebes.

Aristotle, like many Greeks of his time, looked back with regret at the wasted opportunities of the fifth century. He wrote:

‘If only the Greeks could achieve a single politeia, or constitution, they would rule the world.’

It had remained the big ‘if only’ of ancient Greece. Neither the democracy of Athens nor the warrior code of Sparta had been able to weld the Greeks into a single politeia.

Hellenistic Age: Return to Monarchy

Aristotle and other fourth-century BC Greek writers and thinkers noticed the enviable cohesion and stability of some of their near neighbours. Under the rule of kings, Macedon and Persia had become major powers, while the city-states of Greece remained mired in inter-communal violence and endless wars. The Peloponnesian War had not only damaged the belief that oligarchy or democracy could produce a well-governed state but also made many in Greece re-evaluate the relative merits of political freedom against those of personal security.

Greeky city-states were suffering from stasis; political or ideological disputes that descended into inter-communal violence. So, as well as fighting their enemies, the citizens of the polis were turned upon themselves.

Greeks were aware of the paradox that the polis, the very thing that made them great, also made them weak and divided. The strength and democratic character of their separate city-states made it difficult to unite in any kind of Pan-Hellenic form.

In the end, it actually took an outsider with no  polis and citizenry to unite them.

Macedon was part of northern Greece, and often viewed by Athenians as being part of an older, barbaric Greece. Entering Macedon in the fourth century BC would have been like stepping back to a time before the emergence of the citizen-led Greek city-state, to the tribal, warrior society described in the epic myths of Homer. Although the influence of Greek literature, art and architecture had long reached Macedon, the political systems of Classical Greece held no sway. In Macedon, powerful clans ruled, under a single monarch. Kings were judged on their military prowess as much as on their political acumen. The Macedonians excelled in hunting, horse riding and fighting; they were a warlike people.

Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, was the king who led Macedon’s ascent from percieved barbarism to regional supremacy, in the process  reunifying Greece into a formidable imperial power during his reign (359 to 336 BC).

One of his first acts as king was to rebuild the Macedonian army, inspiring the unity of both the military and the people as a whole.  In the 350s, Philip’s armies conquered a series of Greek armies. By 346, Philip had much of the land to the north of Greece either under his control or in alliance. He had also subjugated the region of Thessaly, in northern Greece.

Macedon had become so powerful that there was little that the Athenians and the other Greeks could do but join an alliance with the Macedonians.

The Athenian statesman Isocrates, with others, then called on various Greek leaders to launch the first fully united Western ‘crusade’ against the ‘East’ (against Persia). None of the major polis-leaders wanted to lead the Pan-Hellenic campaign, so Isocrates turned to Philip of Macedon.

The Macedonian-led Pan-Hellenic League came about after Philip routed a combined Athenian and Theban force at the battle of Chaeronea in 338. League of Corinth, established by Philip in 337, was a confederation of Greek states, excluding Sparta, with the underlying purpose of a unified Greek campaign against Persia. However, before any expedition against Persia could be launched, Philip was assassinated (in 336).

Phillip’s son Alexander, who became Macedonian king at the age of 20, grew up loving Homer’s myths of the Illiad. It was rumored that his tutor, the famous Aristotle, had helped prepare a special text of the poem, which Alexander kept under his pillow along with a dagger. Alexander’s identity and ambitions were defined by Homeric values: he self-consciously lived by the heroic quality of philotimo, the competitive urge to win honour and glory, and modelled himself on the poem’s hero Achilles and the strongman Heracles. At that time this kind of belief seemed outdated to the polis-dwelling Greeks. For example, the Athenian Demosthenes ridiculed him as a kind of village idiot from the barbarous north. Yet, Alexander was tutored by Aristotle, and he was very well versed in Hellenikon (he was totally familiar with ‘the Greek thing’).

In fact in expressing support for the polis and Pan Hellenism, Alexander was able to garner much support from the Greeks. He was elected leader of the League of Corinth, and then under the banner of the League’s Pan Hellenism, brutally supressed a Theban revolt (massacred most of the city’s inhabitants, enslaved the [approx.] 30,000 survivors, destroyed the city). Greece was suitably terrified and submitted to rule by one of his lieutenants.

Alexander then undertook a Pan Hellenic crusade in which he conquered Persia (over a period of 5 years, routing them at the battle of Granicus river, 334BCE). He then restored democracy in western Asia Minor where many Greeks lived and worked, in order to undermine the pro-Persian regimes in the Greek cities.

Alexander however, did not have democratic ambitions and in fact had himself declared King of Asia. His rule represented the death knell of Ancient Greece democracy. After his reign, Greece declined and eventually came under Roman rule. Despite this decline, the influence of ancient Greek society continued and it became thought of as a foundation of Western civilization.









Bettany Hughes Ancient Worlds 4: the chariot and the warrior culture 30+? 50

Mary Beard, Jonathon Jones at al., Civilizations, How do we look? 11.00-13.15;  29.40+ the Greek body beautiful … 40.30 up to legacy of the renaissance and enlightenment …