An Introduction to Ancient (Classical) History

Pharaoh Hatshepsut making an offering to Horus.
Pharaoh Hatshepsut making an offering to Horus.

While the definition of "ancient" is subject to interpretation, there are some criteria that may be used when discussing ancient history, a period of time distinct from prehistory and late antiquity or medieval history.

  1. Prehistory: The period of human life that came before (i.e., prehistory [a term coined, in English, by Daniel Wilson (1816-92), according to Barry Cunliffe
  2. Late Antiquity/Medieval: The period that came at the end of our period and lasted into the Middle Ages

Meaning of "History"

The word "history" may seem obvious, referring to anything in the past, but there are some nuances to keep in mind.

Pre-history: Like most abstract terms, pre-history means different things to different people. For some, it means the time before civilization. But this does not get at an essential difference between pre-history and ancient history.

Writing: For a civilization to have a history, it must have left written records, according to a very literal definition of the word 'history.' "History" comes from the Greek for 'inquiry' and it came to mean a written account of events.

Although Herodotus, the Father of History, wrote about societies other than his own, in general, a society has a history if it provides its own written record. This requires the culture to have a system of writing and people schooled in the written language. In early ancient cultures, few people had the ability to write. It wasn't a question of learning to manipulate a pen to form 26 squiggles with consistency—at least until the invention of the alphabet. Even today, some languages use scripts that take years to learn to write well. The needs of feeding and defending a population require training in areas other than penmanship. Although there were certainly Greek and Roman soldiers who could write and fight, earlier on, those ancients who could write tended to be connected with a priestly class. It follows that much ancient writing is connected with that which was religious or holy.


People can devote their entire lives to serving their god(s) or their god(s) in human form. The Egyptian pharaoh was the reincarnation of the god Horus, and the term we use for their picture writing, hieroglyphs, means holy writing (lit. 'carving'). Kings also employed scribes to record their deeds, especially ones that redounded to their glory—like military conquests. Such writing can be seen on monuments, like stele inscribed with cuneiform.

Archaeology & Prehistory

Those people (and plants and animals) who lived before the invention of writing are, by this definition, prehistoric.

  • Prehistory goes back to the beginning of life or time or the Earth.
  • The area of pre-history is the domain of academic fields with the Greek form arche- 'beginning' or paleo- 'old' attached. Thus, there are fields like archaeology, paleobotany, and paleontology (dealing with the time before people) that look at the world from before the development of writing.
  • As an adjective, prehistoric tends to mean before urban civilization, or simply, uncivilized.
  • Again, prehistoric civilizations tend to be those without written records.

Archaeology & Ancient History

Classicist Paul MacKendrick published "The Mute Stones Speak" (a history of the Italian peninsula) in 1960. In this and its follow-up two years later, "The Greek Stones Speak" (archaeological excavations of Troy conducted by Heinrich Schliemann, provide a basis for his history of the Hellenic world), he used the non-written findings of archaeologists to help write history. 

Archaeologists of the early civilizations often rely on the same materials as historians:

  • Both take note of artifacts that survive the elements, like ones made from metal or pottery (but unlike most clothing and wooden products that decay in most environments).
  • Underground burial sites may contain and protect objects that would have been used in life.
  • Housing and those structures deemed ceremonial fill in more gaps.
  • All these can corroborate the written information, should it exist at the time.

Different Cultures, Different Timelines

The dividing line between pre-history and ancient history also varies across the globe. The ancient historic period of Egypt and Sumer started about 3100 B.C.E.; perhaps a couple of hundred years later writing began in the Indus Valley. Somewhat later (c. 1650 B.C.E.) were the Minoans whose Linear A has not yet been deciphered. Earlier, in 2200, there was a hieroglyphic language in Crete. String writing in Mesoamerica began about 2600 B.C.

That we may not be able to translate and make use of the writing is a problem of historians, and would be a worse one if they refused to avail themselves of the non-written evidence. However, by using the pre-literate material, and contributions from other disciplines, especially archaeology, the boundary between prehistory and history is now fluid.

Ancient, Modern, and the Middle Ages

Generally, ancient history refers to the study of life and events in the distant past. How distant is determined by convention.

The Ancient World Evolves Into the Middle Ages

One way to define ancient history is to explain the opposite of ancient (history). The obvious opposite of "ancient" is "modern", but ancient didn't become modern overnight. It didn't even turn into the Middle Ages overnight.

The Ancient World Makes a Transition in Late Antiquity

One of the transitional labels for a time period that crosses over from the ancient classical world is "Late Antiquity."

  • This period covers the period from 3rd or 4th through 6th or 7th centuries (formerly, roughly the period known as the "Dark Ages").
  • This period was the one in which the Roman Empire became Christian, and
  • Constantinople (later, Istanbul), rather than Italy, came to dominate the empire.
  • At the end of this period, Mohammad and Islam started to become defining forces, which makes
  • Islam a firm terminus ante quem (a term to learn, it means 'point before which') the period of ancient history ended.

The Middle Ages

Late Antiquity overlaps the period known as the Middle Ages or Medieval (from Latin medi(um) 'middle' + aev(um) 'age') period.

  • The Middle Ages were a period of great change, bringing Europe from the Classical age to the Renaissance.
  • As a transitional period, there is not a single, clear breaking point with the ancient world.
  • Christianity is important to the Middle Ages and polytheistic worship is important to the ancient period, but the change was more evolutionary than revolutionary.
  • There were various events along the path to a Christian Roman Empire within the ancient period, from the acts of toleration permitting Christians to worship within the Empire to the elimination of imperial and pagan cults, including the Olympics.

The Last Roman

In terms of labels affixed to people of Late Antiquity, 6th-century figures Boethius and Justinian are two of the "last of the Romans."

  • Boethius (c. 475-524) is called the last of the Roman philosophers, writing a treatise in Latin, De consolatione philosophiae 'On the Consolation of Philosophy,' and translating Aristotle on logic, with the result that Aristotle was one of the Greek philosophers available to scholars in the Middle Ages.
  • Justinian (483 - 565) is called the last Roman emperor. He was the last emperor to expand the empire and he wrote a law code that summarized the Roman legal tradition.

End of Roman Empire in A.D. 476 Gibbon's Date

Another date for the end of the period of ancient history -- with a substantial following -- is a century earlier. Historian Edward Gibbon established A.D. 476 as the end point of the Roman Empire because it was the end of the reign of the last western Roman emperor. It was in 476 that a so-called barbarian, the Germanic Odoacer sacked Rome, deposing Romulus Augustulus.

The Last Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus

Romulus Augustulus is called the "last Roman emperor in the West" because the Roman Empire had been split into sections at the end of the 3rd century, under Emperor Diocletian. With one capital of the Roman Empire at Byzantium/Constantinople, as well as the one in Italy, the removal of one of the leaders is not tantamount to destroying the empire. Since the emperor in the east, in Constantinople, continued for another millennium, many say that the Roman Empire only fell when Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453.

Taking Gibbon's A.D. 476 date as the end of the Roman Empire, however, is as good a point as any. The power in the west had shifted before Odoacer, non-Italians had been on the throne for centuries, the empire had been in decline, and the symbolic act put paid to the account.

The Rest of the World

The Middle Ages is a term applied to the European heirs of the Roman Empire and generally wrapped up in the term "feudal." There is not a universal, comparable set of events and conditions elsewhere in the world at this time, the end of Classical Antiquity, but "Medieval" is sometimes applied to other parts of the world to refer to the times before their era of conquest or feudal periods.

Contrasting Terms in History

Ancient History Medieval Period
Many Gods Christianity & Islam
Vandals, Huns, Goths Genghis Khan and the Mongols, Vikings
Emperors / Empires Kings / Countries
Roman Italian
Citizens, foreigners, enslaved people Peasants (serfs), nobles
The Immortals The Hashshashin (Assassins)
Roman Legions Crusades
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Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "An Introduction to Ancient (Classical) History." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Gill, N.S. (2021, February 16). An Introduction to Ancient (Classical) History. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "An Introduction to Ancient (Classical) History." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).