Ancient History: From Prehistory to the Early Middle Ages
Ancient History in the West typically spans the period from the development of writing to the fall of the Roman Empire. Traditionally, we think of the people of Mesopotamia as having created the first writing system. They used a tool to impress wedge shapes in clay. These clay tablets hardened, either naturally or through fire, creating an enduring record. This wedge-shaped style is called cuneiform, from the word cuneus meaning “wedge”. The region associated with the earliest writing is Sumer, located in today’s southern Iraq/Kuwait, in the floodplains of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Cities in Sumer include Eridu, Uruk, Ur, Larsa, Isin, Adab, Kullah, Lagash, Nippur, and Kish. Thus, there is the expression “civilization began in Sumer.”
Cities are critical in the study of ancient history — including the city-states of ancient Greece known as poleis, singular polis, as in “politics”. Cities were the centers of the regions’ administration. Citizen and city are linked. Cities were also religious, cultural, economic, and social centers. When we think of the Roman Empire, the main place we think of is the eponymous city of Roma (Rome). It was the center of an expanding empire during the years of the Roman Republic. At the start of the period of Roman emperors, Rome was still the heart, but it gave way to other cities. Then the emperors split the center, since controlling the immense expanse became impossible to do from one spot. Rome remained the symbolic center, though, the glamorous, brilliant, powerful, flexible, eternal, and sacred city. When it fell, the symbolism was worse than the event. It fell not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Since we are excluding other contenders for first place of writing, like the Indus Valley or China, the center of the ancient world lies between the eternal city, Rome, and the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia. It was the Mediterranean Sea, whose name refers to its “middle” location. The Romans called it “our sea” mare nostrum. It connected the continents of Eurasia and Africa. The Roman Empire covered 1/9 of the circumference of the earth, according to the Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World. The Roman Empire reached roughly to this extent during the reign of the Emperor Trajan (r. A.D. 98-117). Compared with the extent of the Empire at the start of the Imperial period, it had added only Britain and some of northern Africa. Well, there was also the territory the Persians repeatedly fought the Romans over, but those borders were in flux. [I just noticed this related article: Unintended Consequences of the Original Crusade: The Defeat of Persia [623 CE – 624 CE], from the edgyhistory blog.] So the enormous Roman Empire lasted from about 27 B.C. to A.D. 476 — right about 500 years.
Within these rough borders, Roman-themed structures spread, along with roads and currency. In A.D. 212, Emperor Caracalla granted universal citizenship. Latin became the legal language and also the main western language, but Greek dominated in the East, where, in time, the Roman Empire’s center shifted.
The Roman Empire of later centuries we know by the name Byzantine Empire. Its heart was Constantinople, now Istanbul. By the time of the conventional date of Rome’s fall, there was one emperor in Constantinople and one in the west, not at Rome any longer, but in Ravenna. Bearing a name consisting of the name of the first king of Rome and the title of the first Roman emperor, the final Roman emperor (at least in the west) was Romulus Augustulus. In A.D. 476 (September 4) he was deposed and sent off to live his life in obscurity. The man who deposed him was a fellow Christian, Odoacer of the Heruli, whom many call a barbarian. This date is one among many possible dates for the Fall of Rome. The sacking of Rome, for instance, is a good alternative, as is the loss of the final dregs of the empire to the Ottoman Turks in the fifteenth century (1453: May 29). The latter has the beauty of making the span of Roman history from kings to fall a full two millennia.
See https://ancthisttangents.wordpress.com/2016/05/17/fall-of-rome/ for the context. Also, please note that this is a revision of an earlier, and now illegible article at About.com: http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/bl/bl_From_Prehistory-to-the-Middle-Ages.htm.