Chapter 1 - Section 2

Our Cultural Heritage Begins: A Brief Overview

     Before we begin with the topic of Modern Europe, 1648 to the present, the reader should study this chapter carefully to learn how much the present was sculpted out of the past. The following sections provide students with a summary of the achievements of previous civilizations that greatly influenced modern Europe and therefore, all of Western Civilization. Indeed, it can be stated that much of what came before created the present. As a result, modern civilization is a product of its Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance/Early Modern past.

     Western Civilization begins with the development of writing, and therefore history, first used in the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The emergence of cultures and civilizations in the ancient kingdoms of the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates river valleys marks the beginnings of the cultural heritage of Western Civilization. In addition, the societies of Asia Minor and the littoral of the Eastern Mediterranean region add to the richness and significance of this heritage as we will see. Therefore the impact and significance of the contributions of the ancient empires and kingdoms to European history can scarcely be underestimated. This chapter will demonstrate the debt owed by modern Western Civilization to its ancient origins.

     The many civilizations that rose and fell over the course of the centuries before the Common Era spanned approximately the sixth through the first millennium. They firmly established the roots of Western Civilization. Each state, kingdom or empire had its historical moments of flourishing glory and outstanding creativity. Their accomplishments were passed on through the process of cultural borrowing or cultural diffusion to the next civilization. This new culture, in turn, made its own mark on history and over time, passed on the accumulated achievements to the next replacement civilization, and so on.

     Following the study of the achievements of the great civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor, the text moves chronologically to the extraordinary legacy left to the modern world by the Greeks and Romans. Absorbing the achievements of earlier societies, the Greeks and especially the Romans, applied and adapted these precedents to their own cultures. They adjusted earlier discoveries according to their own interpretations and needs of the time through the applications of their own genius and uniqueness.

     In addition, the Greeks and Romans added their own accomplishments to all that preceded them. They significantly expanded the discoveries and learning of the ancient world, thus linking them with the present.

     The ancient world ended with the collapse of the Roman Empire in Western Europe in 476 CE. By this time, a new moral and ethical force had been firmly established in Europe. That force was Christianity and the universal Christian Church of the time. Furthermore the new force of Christianity has to be added to its early origins, that of the principal beliefs and traditions of Judaism.

     The period known as the Medieval Era or the Middle Ages was therefore built not only on its ancient antecedents of the early civilizations, but most dynamically for the social-religious attitudes and life of the times, the Judeo-Christian heritage. Thus the Middle Ages left its mark on our modern world. The Middle Ages is generally identified as having begun with the fall of Rome in the 5th century CE and lasted for about a thousand years until the 14th century CE.

    One of the most fundamental understandings that identify history is the concept of change. Slowly and by barely discernible stages, the attitudes, beliefs, life styles and institutions identified as Medieval evolved and changed into something clearly different from what existed during that time. Emerging in time and culture from the Middle Ages, the new era came to be called the Renaissance. It lasted approximately from the 14th century until the middle of the 17th century or about three hundred years.

     The Renaissance along with the religious movements of the time, the Reformation and Catholic Counter Reformation of the 16th century, witnessed many new changes from medieval times. The intellectual, political, military, and scientific discoveries of the Renaissance-Reformation era signaled the beginning of the Early Modern period of modern European Civilization. The break with the Middle Ages was clear by the later half of the 15th century. It is noteworthy that the people of the Renaissance recognized that they were in a new era from the Middle Ages. As they looked back to the glories of Greece and Rome for their inspiration and ideals, it was the men of the Renaissance who named the period between themselves and the ancients as the Middle Ages.

     A great new time of achievement and spectacular discoveries flowed from the age of the Renaissance-Reformation from approximately 1350 to 1650, of the Early Modern European period of history. Many amazing accomplishments from this time take their place among the cultural heritage of our modern world in general, and modern European civilization in particular.

     The text now examines from the Ancient, Medieval, Early Modern Eras and their major contributions to Modern Western Civilization. In referring to the Ancient Near East, the writer uses the more common term, Middle East, in reference to Southwest Asia and Asia Minor. The Nile and Tigris Euphrates river valleys and the lands along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea are of course, included in this designation.

     For dates and years, the neutral terms of Before the Common Era, B.C.E. or simply, BCE and Common Era, C.E. or CE are used. After the fall of Rome in the West, 476 CE, all dates are of the Common Era.

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