Defining the ancient world

The ancient world isn’t limited to Europe, the Mediterranean, and Southwest Asia, but rather encompasses the entire globe. But how exactly do we define the term “ancient” in a global sense?

Josho Brouwers

This website is called Ancient World Magazine, but I don’t think we’ve ever laid out specifically what we mean when we refer to the “ancient world” precisely. When does the ancient world start, chronologically, and when does it end? What regions of the globe does it encompass, and why? Are other regions excluded? On what grounds?

What you would conceive of as the “ancient” world (or era) probably depends on a number of factors. Most notably among these factors, I would guess, is where you’re from. So let’s start there.

In search of the ancient world

In Europe and North America, the ancient era is usually thought of as a discreet period of time. It starts in ca. 3000 BC, give or take a few hundred years, which coincides with the emergence of the first cities in Mesopotamia, the unification of Egypt, the use of bronze (an alloy of tin and copper) for the production of implements and weapons (hence: Bronze Age), and the earliest known actual writing (cuneiform and hieroglyphs).

A starting date of ca. 3000 BC is taken as the beginning of the historical era, i.e. the period for which we have written evidence. The period before is known as prehistoric (literally, “before history”). For Egypt and the Near East, the prehistoric era encompasses the Stone Ages, but this isn’t necessarily the case of other regions. For example, France (Gaul) didn’t acquire a system of writing until the later Iron Age. Other, more remote regions didn’t adopt any writing system at all until after the fall of the Roman Empire, and there still exists societies today that are perfectly fine with being illiterate.

The distinction between where prehistory ends and ancient history begins is vague. Its ending date is similarly vague. For Europe, the ancient era eventually gave way to the Middle Ages, but it’s hard to define exactly when the ancient world ended and the medieval one began. The fall of Rome in AD 476 is taken as a conventional end date for the ancient era, but by then Rome was hardly the powerhouse it had once been. The decay of the Roman Empire, at least in the west, began earlier, and can even be traced back to the instability that Marcus Aurelius tried to stave off during his reign in the second half of the second century AD.

Certainly, after the Soldier Emperors of the third century AD, and the reign of Diocletian, it’s clear that the character of the Roman Empire has changed. Diocletian styling himself as dominus et deus – “lord (of slaves) and god” – does away with whatever humility Augustus tried to placate the Romans with when he referred to himself merely as the primus inter pares, the “first among equals”. From the later third century onwards, Roman emperors began down a path that would, in hindsight, develop into the absolute monarchies that characterize the Middle Ages.

But again, things are not clear-cut: while the Roman Empire in the west was ultimately broken into a number of smaller kingdoms, from which rulers like Charlemagne would later forge larger political entities, the Empire managed to persevere and even flourish in the east. The people of what we refer to as the Byzantine Empire considered themselves “Romans”, even if Greek was the territory’s lingua franca. They would hold onto their culture, now thoroughly christianized, until the fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Turks in AD 1453. (Though, to be sure, Constantinople had by then been severely weakened by the crusaders from the west.)

Beyond the Mediterranean

So far, I’ve focused only on the Mediterranean, including the regions directly adjacent to it (continental Europe and Western Asia). But the ancient world is not limited to particular regions, of course: it encompasses the entire globe. This is something of which readers who live in Asia, Africa, or Middle and South America are probably keenly aware.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, Arthur Cotterell edited two books that I think are still worth checking out for how they define cultures and eras. The first is The Penguin Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilizations (1980). In the preface, Cotterell explains that his focus is on the “first civilizations”, and specifically (p. 8):

their emergence, development, interaction, decline; the termination date for the ancient phase of civilization varies from area to area but everywhere it coincides with a definite rupture in the historical pattern. In Europe we stop at the collapse of the western provinces of the Roman Empire, in Egypt and west Asia with the Arab conquest. In India at the fall of the Gupta Empire, in China at the Tartar partition, and in America with the arrival of the Spaniards.

In my discussion of Bruce Trigger’s book on early complex societies, I already discussed that the term “civilization” is problematic. In Cotterell’s work, it refers to urbanized societies with a degree of social complexity (e.g. social hierarchies, classes, division of labour), and often, too, familiar with a system of writing. These include the Greeks, Romans, Sumerians, Lydians, Indians, Minoans, Egyptians, Chinese (Shang, Chou, etc.), as well as several societies from the Americas, such as the Olmecs, the Maya, the Aztecs, and the Incas.

In 1993, a sequel of sorts to Cotterell’s Ancient Civilizations was published, entitled The Penguin Encyclopedia of Classical Civilizations. Like its predecessor, it took a broad view as regards what qualified as “Classical”, arguing that a number of societies that flourished in the Old World between ca. 550 BC and AD 660 were similar enough to be grouped together.

The cultures discussed in this book included the ancient Greeks (from ca. 500 BC to Alexander), the Hellenistic Kingdoms (after the death of Alexander the Great), the Romans (from the founding of the Republic to AD 476), the empires of Persia, Imperial India (from the time of Buddha to the end of the Gupta Dynasty, i.e. ca. 500 BC to AD 550), and China (between ca. 481 BC and AD 316).

Closing remarks

With Ancient World Magazine, we’ve so far focused mostly on the ancient Mediterranean and adjacent regions. It’s a function of our own limitations as far as knowledge and experience are concerned. But it’s something we want to change. Contributing editor Joshua R. Hall is preparing two articles about ancient Mesoamerican cultures, the first of which will be published on this website next Wednesday.

Our focus here leans heavily towards the Graeco-Roman world. More material on other cultures, and indeed on cultures from beyond the Mediterranean basin, Europe, and the ancient Near East, is most welcome. If you have academic training as an archaeologist or historian, you’re warmly invited to write for us and share your knowledge with a wide audience.

Of course, if you just enjoy reading Ancient World Magazine, feel free to tell us what kind of subjects you’d like us to tackle in the future. We can’t make any promises of course: most of us here are specialists with a focus on the Graeco-Roman world, but we’ll do our best.