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Foundations of Western Civilization

An Overview: 8000 B.C. to 476 A.D.
BIRTH OF CIVILIZATION   Humans first began to live in settled AGRICULTURAL VILLAGES about 8000 B.C.

In the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (Mesopotamia) and the valley of the Nile in Egypt, these agricultural societies made another shift to a more advanced form of organization called CIVILIZATION.   Here are the steps involved in the process:

Food Surplus

Arts Sciences

IRRIGATION increased agricultural productivity and population growth.
A FOOD SURPLUS supported non-farming specialists – artisans, merchants, priests, and soldiers – and made possible the earliest cities.
The need to organize these activities and to keep records led to the invention of WRITING.
There were great advances in the ARTS & SCIENCES, in LITERATURE, and in the development of COMPLEX RELIGIOUS IDEAS AND ORGANIZATION.
  The earliest civilizations had powerful CENTRALIZED GOVERNMENTS dominated by kings
  The king's power, supported by RELIGIOUS AUTHORITY, rested on CONTROL OF THE ECONOMY and the ABILITY TO COLLECT TAXES.
In Mesopotamia, kings were considered to be representatives of the gods; in Egypt they were considered to be DIVINE.
Their control over the economy permitted them to RAISE, TRAIN, AND SUPPORT ARMIES.
Social Classes  
The concentration of political, military, economic, and religious power resulted in societies that were divided into rigid SOCIAL CLASSES:  slaves, free commoners, priests, and aristocrats, as well as the divine or semi-divine monarchs.
Social mobility and individual freedom were strictly limited.
Only a handful of people took part in government.

The cities of PHOENICIA, in what is now Lebanon, produced great sailors and traders who came into early and frequent contact with the Greeks.

Through the Phoenicians, the Greeks learned the art of writing and were influenced by the art, technology, and mythology of the earlier cultures.

Transmitted by the Greeks, the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt became indirectly part of the Western heritage.


Neighbors of the Phoenicians, called Hebrews or ISRAELITES, would have a direct influence on the civilization of the West.

They conceived a religion based on the belief in a single all-powerful God who ruled over all peoples and the entire universe and made strong ethical demands on human beings.

The religion of the Jews (the name comes from one of their kingdoms, Judah) became the basis for two later religions of great importance:   Christianity and Islam.

  GREEK CIVILIZATION arose after the destruction of the Bronze Age cultures on Crete and the Greek mainland before 1000 B.C.

Based on the independent existence of hundreds of city-states called POLEIS, it developed a sharply different pattern than its predecessors in Egypt and western Asia.

The poleis retained their autonomy for hundreds of years before being incorporated into large units.

Consequently, they attained a degree of SELF-GOVERNMENT, BROAD POLITICAL PARTICIPATION, and INDIVIDUAL FREEDOM unknown elsewhere.

New Way
of Thinking



The Greeks also introduced a NEW WAY OF THINKING, looking on the world as the product of natural forces that could be understood through the senses and HUMAN REASON, rather than as the product of supernatural forces.

The result was the invention of SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY.

Greek LITERATURE, focusing on humanity, had a  great variety of literary genres -- epic, lyric, and dramatic poetry,  history, philosophy, rhetoric, and fiction..

The Greeks' way of thinking, their forms of art and literature, and their commitment to self-government and political freedom remain central to Western civilization.





Engineers and
Road Builders

  The ROMANS were originally tough farmers who inhabited a small town on the Tiber River in west-central Italy.
After deposing their king in about 500 B.C., they invented a REPUBLICAN CONSTITUTION and a code of law that provided a solid foundation for a stable and effective political order.
Constantly at war with their neighbors, the Romans achieved MILITARY DISCIPLINE and skills that allowed them to fight off attacks and to gain control of most of Italy by about 270 B.C.
They developed an INGENIOUS way of organizing the lands they conquered that made the peoples of those lands allies and even
fellow citizens rather than subjects.
The Romans were fine ENGINEERS AND ROAD BUILDERS, but in art, literature, and philosophy, they had barely made a start when they came into contact with the advanced Greek civilization of the Hellenistic world.



  Pressure from barbarian tribes on the frontier, economic troubles at home, weak and incompetent emperors, and civil wars all strained Rome's human and material resources.
By the fifth century A.D., the Roman Empire in the west had collapsed and was taken over by various GERMANIC TRIBES.
The eastern portion of the empire, known as the BYZANTINE EMPIRE, with its capital at Constantinople, was to survive for a thousand years more.
CHRISTIANITY   Before Rome's fall, the empire had abandoned paganism and had adopted CHRISTIANITY as its official religion.
  HERITAGE OF THE ANCIENT WORLD:  The heritage that the ancient world passed on to its medieval successor in western Europe was a combination of cultural traditions, including those coming from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Israel, Greece, Rome, and the German tribes that destroyed the Roman Empire.


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  :For more information on this topic, see the following online resources:
Hyperhistory Online: Presents 3,000 years of world history using  colorful graphics, lifelines, timelines, and maps.
Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: The best location for primary sources from the Ancient World
Themes in Understanding Ancient Societies: The Ancient History Sourcebook arranged according to themes in human history
The Great Books of Western Civilization: The site is a little difficult to navigate, but if you're persistent, you'll usually find what you're looking for.
How did agriculture change the lifestyle of primitive man? Was the change from a hunting and gathering society to an agricultural society completely advantageous?
Why did the earliest civilizations have centralized governments?  How was centralization achieved?
How did the the political organization of Greece differ from that of its predecessors in Egypt and Mesopotamia? How do you account for these differences?
To what extent was Greece's "New Way of Thinking" attributable to geographic factors? To political and social factors?
Greece's achievements were in the areas of art, literature, and philosophy while Rome's were in the areas of law, military conquest, and engineering. How do you account for these differences?
What contribution did Christianity make to the Ancient World?

Send mail to Dr. Edrene S. Montgomery  with questions or comments about this web site.
Copyright 1999-2000 Edrene S. Montgomery
Last modified: July 11, 2000