Timeline of World History: Year by Year from Prehistory to Present Day






The 1 Greek and 2, 3 Roman civilizations of antiquity are regarded today as the origins of Western civilization. The Greek thirst for knowledge and structure and the Roman achievements in political organization have shaped European culture to the present day, and their influence has radiated out to other parts of the world as well.

1 Greek theater in Syracuse
2 Forum Romanum
3 The Roman theater of Leptis Magna, Libya

Greek Literature and Philosophy

There are vastly differing opinions concerning the essential nature of ancient Greek culture. The Greeks are regarded as the true inventors of political and historical thought, but also as the proponents of rationalism and science. Their complex system of myths and gods continues to fascinate, and their sense of art and aesthetics is admired.

In addition to their contribution to political evolution, the Greeks influenced Western attitudes and literature with their early epics, particularly 4 Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (ninth century B.C.). While 5 Hesiod, in his Theogony, wrote about the fates of the gods, Homer made the human and social aspects of individually fashioned figures the focus of his epic tales. For this reason, the Greeks are considered to be the forerunners of later Western Individualism.

4 Homer;   Hesiod


Pandora in front of Prometheus and Epimetheus,
from Hesiod's Theogony

The Greek culture, with its thirst for knowledge, was the first to make the conceptual transition from myths to Logos. The Greeks no longer believed in a world ordained solely by the gods, but sought to understand the world around them by inquiring into the origin of things and the ordering structure of the cosmos. From the 7 Ionian natural philosophers of the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., the search for the primary building blocks of life and for the governing principles that guide nature dominated Greek thought through the appearance of Socrates, Plato, and 6 Aristotle. These three great philosophers replaced the capricious gods with natural laws and so stimulated the development of sciences, including mathematics, physics, and engineering.

As a result of intensive observation of nature, biology developed, along with a self-awareness of humans as observers and manipulators of nature. This self-awareness found expression in a desire for political freedom and independence, which for a long time hindered the creation of a united Greek state. It took the wars against Persia and pressure from Macedonia under Philip II and Alexander the Great to bring about a cosmopolitan Hellenism that culturally overarched and politically united the city-states. It was the formation of the Diadoch empires of Alexander and the Diadochi that first made possible the link between Eastern and Western cultural influences that went on to characterize the Mediterranean area.


The Achievements of Roman Civilization

Roman culture appears more "practical" than that of ancient Greece. Its outstanding contributions to intellectual-historical development lie more in state administration and law—areas in which they shaped subsequent history—than in philosophy. Collections of laws were written and then continually supplemented—from the biblical Ten Commandments to the comprehensive Justinian Codes.

Even the ethical philosophy of 12 Cicero or Seneca was written in the service of the Roman Empire and Rome's claim to political and cultural world dominance.

12 Marcus Tullius Cicero,
Roman orator, politician, and writer

In its early period, 14 Rome was a small, free republic with an almost puritanical code of laws.

14 The center of ancient Rome during Emperor Septimus Severus's reign, artist's reconstruction

In the course of its ambitious expansion, Rome gradually overwrote its own laws in favor of foreign, particularly Hellenistic, ideas of governance, which it then integrated into its concept of empire; this was particularly the case under the rule of Julius Caesar. The adoption and integration of foreign cults and ideas eventually allowed for the ascendancy of Christianity, a sect of Judaic origin, until it was established as the religion of all territories of the empire. Within its vast realm, Rome projected the image of a disciplined and militarily invincible organizing power.

Proof of the Roman Empire's impressive engineering capabilities can be seen not only in the many 10 temples and magnificent buildings in Rome and other important centers but also in the garrisons and settlements constructed throughout the empire, the well-developed road networks, the 9 aqueducts, the luxurious thermal baths and 8 villas, and even the capital's ingeniously devised 13 sewage system.

8 Villa Hadriana in Tivoli, built under Emperor Hadrian
9 The Roman aqueduct Pont du Gard, first с a.d.
10 Arch of Titus, part of the Forum Romanum, 81 A.D.

Roman culture demonstrated the intense interaction of the empire's center and its provinces. Rome exported its state and administrative structures and imported finished products, luxury articles, and art—along with ideas and religions. The innumerable military triumphs of the consuls and emperors were celebrated with imposing state celebrations. Under the motto of "bread and circuses," the emperors of Rome, and later also of the Byzantine Empire, entertained the masses with chariot races and bloodthirsty 11 gladiatorial combat in great arenas such as the "Circus Maximus" or Colosseum.

The long existence of the Roman Empire is impressive considering the many upheavals, political reorientations, and the constant social unrest that shaped its history. It developed from a republic founded in the sixth century B.C. to a sprawling world empire by the beginning of the Christian era and survived even the fall of the city of Rome itself in 476 a.d. The Roman legacy was carried on not only by the Byzantin Empire, lasting until 1453, but also by Charlemagne at his coronation in 800 as emperor of the Frankish-German Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne combined the Roman idea of universal emperor and belief system of Christianity, with its supranational and intercultural ideals, and thereby ushered in the first renaissance of classical thought in the transition from Roman antiquity European to the Middle Ages.

13 Cloaca Maxima in Rome, sewage pipe
leading to the Tiber River

11 Gladiators, relief, ca. 50 a.d.



The Dorian Migrations

The migration of the Indo-European Dorians into Greece led to the gradual settlement of the whole region. Individual clans and communities developed, and these eventually merged together into cities.

The immigration into Greece of Indo-European Dorian tribes out of the Balkan region followed in the wake of the sea peoples around 1000 B.C. In a series of waves, the Dorian Greeks settled first in central Greece and then, about 1150 B.C., also in the Peloponnesus. Dorian tribes settled in the Cyclades, on Crete, and on the coast of Asia Minor as well. They vied with with the Phoenicians for maritime supremacy.

The tribes soon divided into separate subgroups: the Spartans, the Messenians, the Argives, and the Northwestern Greeks, among others. With the development of individual clans and distinct communities came the beginnings of the later city-states and their struggles for independence.

The day-to-day lives of these early Greeks were described by Homer: The house (oikos) was the family's living space, and the lot (kleros), a clan's or family's portion of land, was the nucleus of its private property. Family members were subordinate to the head of the family. This world was confined within strict boundaries; warfare and cults led to personal ties to aristocracy or warlords. However, with a modicum of politics and administration, several families or communities could ultimately unite and form a city (polis), usually located on a fortified elevation.