Early European History
*The earliest known humans probably arrived in Europe about 35,000 BC;
the first permanent settlements were in the southern Balkans about
7,000 BC. The first people in Europe were probably not
*Indo-European people arrived in Europe about 3,500 BC, where they
conquered or mixed with the local cultures. The Indo-Europeans
probably brought horses with them, and may have brought copper tools
with them as well—this is certainly the period when those first show up
in Europe. These advanced technologies are probably part of the
reason the Indo-Europeans came to dominate Europe. Most of these
peoples would eventually be regarded as Celts or Gauls.
*The earliest major culture of Europe was that of the Minoans, on
Crete. It flourished from about 3,500 BC to 1,450 BC. It
was the first culture to have a written language in Europe.
No-one knows what kind of language it was, for sure, although it
probably wasn’t Indo-European (although some scholars think it
was). It was written with an alphabet that is just known as
Linear A, and which is still largely un-deciphered.
*The nearby Mycenaean culture borrowed aspects of Linear A, and created
a script called Linear B. The Mycenaeans occupied Greece, and
were the basis of the Greek civilisation. This was the
civilisation that (in myth) fought the Trojan War.
*The Minoans and Mycenean civilisations declined before or around 1,000
BC, partly due to natural disasters such as volcanoes, partly due to
invaders from the sea, and partly due to the creation of iron weapons,
which accompanied a period of debilitating warfare.
*Greece began to recover from this Dark Age about 800 AD. At this
time they adopted the Phoenician alphabet and began to change it for
their own use—this is the basis of all modern European alphabets.
*The ancient Greeks did not create a unified state; they spend
centuries as independent or loosely confederated city-states (most of
them democratic in form), each with its own culture, customs, and
army. Warfare was seen as one of the highest duties a citizen
could perform, and the Greek hoplites were among the best soldiers in
the world, defeating the Persians in a series of wars in the early 400s
*For a brief period in the late 300s BC, especially 352-323 BC
(especially 334-323) Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great
created a Greek empire that spread across Greece, Asia Minor, and much
of the Middle East and South Asia, reaching as far as India.
However, Alexander died of fever in 323, and three of his generals
split the empire between them.
*Eventually the Greeks and the kingdoms that followed Alexander’s reign
made war against one another, and the warfare among the ancient Greeks
left them easy prey to a new culture rising in Europe, that of Rome.
*At least according to legend, the City of Rome was founded by (and
named after) Romulus in 753 BC. He served as the first of Rome’s
seven kings (some or all of whom may have been mythical or
semi-mythical). The last king Tarquin the Proud, was deposed in
or about 509 BC, and the Roman Republic was founded.
*The Roman Republic had two consuls, who served as co-executives (and
also had religious duties), and a Senate of powerful men who advised on
the creation of laws, and three or four assemblies that could create
and enforce laws (most of which were dominated by the wealthy and
powerful, but not all).
*Eventually the city-state of Rome spread out and conquered the other
peoples of the Italian Peninsula, and from there began to dominate the
rest of Europe. In 264-241, 218-202, and 149-146 BC, Rome fought
with Carthage in the Punic Wars, ultimately destroying Carthage, the
only other major empire of the period. After that, Rome conquered
most of the remaining Greek lands (including much of the land
controlled by Alexander the Great’s successors), as well as some of the
Celtic lands of Central Europe.
*With no-one left to fight, the Romans turned to civil war, and in the
mid-first century BC, the greatest leader of the civil wars was Julius
Caesar, a consul who was later made dictator (a neutral political title
at the time), but who refused to be named king. However, he still
seemed too powerful to many, and he was murdered on the Ides (15) of
March, 44 BC.
*A new civil war began, and Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian (later
Augustus Caesar), eventually won control of Rome and between 27 BC and
23 BC completed the process of turning the republic into an empire,
with himself as emperor, or Caesar, a name that has since come to mean
‘emperor’ in many languages.
*Over the next few centuries, the Roman Empire, already large when it
was a republic, expanded until it controlled most of Southern and
Central Europe, most of Britain, North Africa, Asia Minor, the Middle
East, and even the shores of the Black Sea.
*Eventually the empire grew so large that it was thought one man could
not run it, and it was divided into eastern and western empires.
This did not last long, as the co-emperors of the empires tended to
fight one another, but it did result in the capital of the Roman Empire
being moved to New Rome, at the old city of Byzantium, by Emperor
Constantine I in 324; in his honour, it was often called Constantinople.
*Early in the Roman Empire, a new religion appeared in the Middle East,
composed of people who thought that a Jewish teacher named Jesus was
the saviour of mankind and the Son of God. Eventually called
Christians (from a Greek title for saviour (Christ)), their religion
spread throughout the Empire, in part because they had close-knit
communities that took care of one another, even the poor. They
were seen as subversive and probably even unpatriotic and dangerous,
because by refusing to worship the gods of Rome, they invited
catastrophe on the empire. They were at times persecuted, and
often used for scapegoats, but were never crushed completely.
*Eventually Christianity became so widespread that it was recognised as
an official religion of the Empire in 313 AD by Emperor Constantine
I. It was later made the only acceptable religion in 380 by
Emperor Theodosius I.
*The late 400s AD saw a number of invasion of the Roman Empire from
Northern Europe, mostly by Germanic tribes, called Goths. In 476
BC, a Gothic King, Odovacer, deposed the last Roman Emperor. He
was followed by Theodric the Great, who in many ways tried to act like
another Roman Emperor (and claimed to rule as viceroy of the Eastern
Emperor); so the Roman Empire never quite fell, it just faded away in
the west—in the East, the Roman Emperor would reign for almost a
thousand more years.
*With the power of the empire destroyed, the Catholic Church stepped in
to fill the power vacuum. The old Roman provinces became diocese,
the roles of the old governors were filled by Catholic bishops, and
quietly the Catholic Church took over Europe.
*This period, lasting from the late 400s through about 1000 (and
sometimes much later, according to some) is sometimes called the Dark
Ages, because without the Roman Empire to provide order, a great deal
of obvious culture and power vanished, along with a great deal of
knowledge, and it was certainly a period of violence and danger.
However, the Catholic Church preserved much of this information in
written records (along with providing a continuity of authority) so
some view the designation of Dark Ages as inaccurate and even offensive.
*It is also acceptable to call this period the Middle Ages, dividing it
into the Early (476-1000 AD), High (1000—1300 AD), and Late (1300-1453
AD) Middle Ages.
*During most of this period, especially the Early Middle Ages, Europe
was a feudal society. Under feudalism, a large stretch of land
was owned by one king or great lord. In return for military
service and taxes, he would allow lesser lords to manage parts of his
land; they in turn might grant parts of that to minor lords or even
knights. In short, feudalism was a series of overlapping
obligations—the minor lords had to support their liege lords, but in
return, their overlords also had to protect them, and paid them off to
begin with by giving them land for their support. At the bottom,
of course, were serfs, who were almost like slaves, and tied to the
land, unable to leave it. They worked for protection, and because
they had no other choice.
*Between 771 and 814, Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, a king of the
Franks, a Germanic Tribe, conquered most of what is now France,
Germany, the Low Countries, and Northern Italy. In 800, he was
crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III, and ever afterwards,
some of his heirs would call themselves the Holy Roman Emperors until
1806. Charlemagne died in 814, and his empire was divided among
his three sons, but the part that would become Germany, Switzerland,
Northern Italy, and Austria remained the Holy Roman Empire (which was
not Holy, Roman, or an Empire).
*South of Charlemagne’s kingdom, Moslem invaders known as Moors had
taken over Spain between 711 and 732 AD (they were only kept out of
France by Charles Martel, Charlemagne’s grandfather). The Spanish
would spend the next 760 years trying to retake their country in what
they called the Reconquista (reconquest). The Moslems also began
attacking the Eastern Roman Empire.
*The 9th and 10th centuries saw Viking raids across Europe, and Vikings
essentially set up their own kingdoms in Great Britain, Northern France
(where they were called northmen or Normans), Sicily, and along the
major rivers of Russia. They also discovered Iceland, Greenland,
and North America.
*In 1066, William of Normandy invaded England, and defeated King Harold
II at the Battle of Hastings, the last time England has successfully
been invaded—Queen Elizabeth II can trace her ancestry to William the
*About the same time, the Moslems of Arabia began to attack the Eastern
Roman Empire, and the emperor called on the Pope for help, which was
tricky, because in 1054, Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael I
excommunicated one another and all their followers (thus dividing Roman
Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy). Nonetheless, Pope Urban II
agreed, and called on the Christian kings of Europe to defend the Roman
Empire from the invaders, and to re-take the Holy Land, which had
already been conquered.
*The Crusades took place periodically between 1095 and 1271. The
most successful were the earliest, and they did set up new Christian
kingdoms in the Middle East, most of which lasted about 200
years. The Crusaders were rarely kind to the local populace,
massacring Moslems (and even local, non-Catholic, Christians and Jews),
and even today, the Crusades are seen by some Middle Easterners as an
offence by the West against the Middle East (despite the fact that the
Moslems began the process by attacking the Christian kingdoms and the
Eastern Roman Empire in the first place—the Crusades were defensive
wars, albeit often cruel and misguided ones).
*There were also crusades within Europe; some were against heretics,
such as the Cathars of France, some were against non-Christians in
Europe (the nation of Prussia would be created by German knights
overrunning the pagan lands of the Baltic), and, of course, the
Reconquista was a crusade unto itself.
*The Crusades were the result of the intense religiosity of Europeans
at the time, of the intense militarism of feudal society, which was
based entirely on ties of military obligations between knights and
lords, and on the tremendous power of the Catholic Church, which was
seen as the supreme authority over the world in the Early and High
Middle Ages. During the High Middle Ages, however, many kings and
lords began to assert themselves against the authority of the Pope, and
to define more power for themselves within their own nations. In
some ways, this was the start of nationalism in Europe (which had
previously seen itself as a culturally united Christendom).
*In some countries, the lesser lords also began to assert their
rights. In England, in 1215, the barons forced King John to sign
the Magna Carta, recognising certain basic rights of Englishmen,
including trial by jury, and essentially created the basis of
Parliament by claiming that the lords had the right, if they acted
together, to overrule a decision by the king.
*As countries became stronger and developed a greater sense of
identity, they made war upon one another, usually due to dynastic
claims to lands and titles. One of the greatest of these wars was
the Hundred Years’ War, in which the King of England claimed that he
was the rightful heir to the late King of France, and went to war to
take possession of the lands that were rightfully his. The War
lasted from 1337 to 1453, and during it, England took control of most
of France, but eventually lost almost all of it (and the few parts not
lost then were lost later, but the Kings of England would claim the
title ‘King of France’ until 1801).
*There were some exceptions to the tendency of state governments to
grow stronger and most centralised. Italy remained a series of
city-states and small kingdoms (along with the Papal States) and the
Holy Roman Empire, although large and influential, saw more and more
power lost by the Emperor to the electors, lesser lords, and the free
cities—as France, Spain, and especially England grew more centralised,
the Empire and Italy became less so.
*The Late Middle Ages would also be characterised by terrible death
caused by the Great Famine of 1315-1317 (or possibly 1322) and the
Black Death, which struck for the first time between 1347 and 1350,
although it would be back again. Also known as the Black Plague,
this was a Europe-wide (and Asian) pandemic, probably of the bubonic
plague (which is spread by fleas on rats). The Black Death may
have killed 25% of the population in many parts of Europe, and it is
estimated that in some areas between 30% and 70% of the population were
*One benefit of the tremendous death toll in Europe was that labour
suddenly became very valuable, and it was impossible to keep serfs
bound to the land. In the 14th century, most nations’ serfs
became free men, able to move around and seek employment, and in this
period of tremendous death, labour was in high demand, and wages rose
*Many people were also killed in the Mongol Invasion of 1241, when
Mongols from Asia swept into Europe, killing thousands in Kiev, Poland,
Lithuania, Hungary, and other nations of Eastern Europe.
*This was a time of learning and culture, as well. The
city-states of Italy had vast trading networks, and often traded
through Constantinople for goods from China, such as silk and
spices—many of which had first been experienced during the
Crusades. As they grew wealthier, they began a rebirth of arts,
science, and technology called the Renaissance in the 1300s, which
would slowly spread to the rest of Europe. Along with this
rebirth, there was also a rediscovery of old knowledge, and in time,
this would be contrasted with the early Middle Ages by calling those
times the ‘Dark Ages.’
*The Middle Ages themselves would come to a close and the modern era
would begin in the 1400s. Some date the end of the Middle Ages to
the Fall of Constantinople on 29 May, 1453, when the Eastern Roman
Empire was finally defeated by the Moslems. They called
Constantinople Istanbul, but kept it as the capital of the Ottoman
Empire until 1923 (and the name change was only made official in
1930). This cut off European trade routes to Asia, and prompted
the Age of Exploration.
*1453 was the end of the Eastern Roman Empire, although the people
there called themselves Romanians, and the name stuck to some of the
last lands held by the Empire.
*The Age of Exploration also became possible with the completion of the
Reconquista in 1492. In that year, Spain drove the last Moors
from Grenada, and Spain (mostly) occupied its present boundaries under
a strong monarchy. With nothing left to fight at home, some
Spaniards went on into Africa, but many would follow Columbus to the
*In 1494 the Pope divided the world between Spain and Portugal in the Treaty of Tordesilla.
*In 1498, the Portuguese, also free from Moslem control, discovered a
route around Africa to Asia. The Modern World had arrived.