HONOURS GEOGRAPHY
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-Europeans.

*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 BC. 

*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 Conqueror. 

*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 killed.

*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 accordingly.

*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 New World. 

*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.



This page last updated 25 September, 2005.