Western Civilization: His 101
“The West”
• What do we mean when we speak of “the
– Defining it Culturally: free and participatory political
institutions, capitalist economies, religious toleration,
rational inquiry, and innovative spirit.
– Defining it Geographically: a tradition that began
around the Mediterranean Sea, spent centuries as a
European preserve, then migrated to all the earth.
“The West”
– But definition brings controversy: The West has
had freedom and slavery; women have
historically enjoyed fewer rights and
opportunities than men; some have enjoyed vast
wealth while others endured severe poverty
– Definitions also bring paradox: Western
Civilization began in what is now Iraq; Today
Japan, which is considered “Far East” is
“Western”; and during the Cold War Turkey
was Western while Libya far to the West of
Turkey was Eastern.
• The word itself comes from the Latin root civ-. We
see this in such Latin words as civis (citizen) and
civitas (city). Thus, cities appear crucial to our
sense of what civilization is.
• The Greek vocabulary is similarly revealing. Polis
(city) gives us our words for politics and political.
• Cities emerged as a result of what is called the
Neolithic Revolution, which occurred about 9,000
to 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia and Egypt.
• Essentially, this process involved the rise of
agriculture and the domestication of animals. This
process was Revolutionary, but it took a long time
to produce cities and then, civilization
• Extracting food from arid regions surrounding great
rivers demanded a social cohesion and cooperation.
Irrigation was a key motor process. Concentrated
populations grew as more people could be fed more
• This led to the specialization of labor, which in turn,
resulted in social and political differentiation.
Gradually, arts and crafts emerged and, finally, writing.
With writing we cross into the historical period.
• These key elements seem to mark all civilizations, but
one may also speak of Western civilization of African
civilization, or somewhat more narrowly, of Maya or
Aztec civilization. The West is unique, but it is not
uniquely civilized.
• Civilization arose about 5,000 years ago.
That seems like a long time?
– The Earth is 4 billion years old
– Homo sapiens sapiens are around 40,000 years
– Their ancestors are about 100,000 years old
– Humans in general can be traced in Africa to
about 1 million years ago.
• We mean origins, of course, but not just origins
because all things grow and change.
• Durability is important but paradoxical: The oldest
institution in the world today is the papacy, but
Catholics are just under 20 percent of the world’s
• The Athenian polis lasted in its highest manifestation
less than a century, but it’s ideals have fired the
imagination for 2,500 years. Few places today live by
Roman law, yet Rome’s law was the most influential
ever conceived.
• Foundations seem somehow related to revivals:
Think of the Greek or Classical revival
architecture. Think of the Renaissance. Think of
the Protestant Reformers who thought they were
reviving primitive Christianity, not creating
something new.
• Foundations seem to be related to traditions, but
these can be both invented and discarded. Those
famous and “ancient” Scottish tartans were
mostly invented in the 18th century.
• This course is mostly about our story; Man’s
story; from the beginning of walking, to fire,
to wheels, to Agriculture and all the wonderful
gifts we now enjoy.
• Civilization and culture—difficult to define,
but impossible to live without assuming we are
teleological animals—continually evolving to a
more perfect state of existence.
• Have we traded our minds and souls for the
Gifts by the so-called “Axemakers?”
• These “axemakers” the makers of tools, the innovators
who have reshaped the world in which we live.
• They shaped our hopes, dreams, expectations; they
shaped what and how we love and how we hate by the
gifts and innovations we hold dear and close to our
existence; laws, history, religions and technology.
• The Ancient Hominids reshaped stone into tools that
would chop up the world; slowly, then at a rapid
rate—each new invention forced the brain to adapt to
order and proper sequencing; this agility allowed the
brain to evolve and adapt generating language, logic
and social rules.
• The world and indeed our lives have been altered by
these innovators; domesticated animals, agriculture
(more in a minute), breeding, horticulture, irrigation,
architecture, and mining.
• Not only did the gifts affect their world, but have
transcended to our time—altering our lives and
perceptions dramatically.
• You are able to read this book thanks to the 15th
century printing press; your breakfast food was
delivered to the supermarket and then to you thanks
to the 19th century combustible engine.
• The clothes you are wearing got their start on a prehistoric
loom; you are probably alive today thanks to modern medicine
developed in the 19th century;
• Your notebooks thanks to 13th century paper originating
5000yrs ago in the form of Egyptian Papyrus; you keep track
of assignments whether in written form or digitally because of
the Egyptian calendar developed in 4241 BC;
• You sit in desks modeled on 16th century lathed furniture, 19th
century plastics—you find relief from the form of the 15th
century toilets, with water delivered by a 16th century pumping
system, you see clearly based on 17th century electricity,
communicate with 19th century telephone technology and keep
it altogether with early 20th century computer technology.
• Your social, political, and economic hierarchy or
command structure runs on a top down model
developed almost 10 thousand years ago;
• Male –Female relationships and perceptions were first
influenced and are still in some sense predicated on
the ideals of the Paleolithic period.
• As far as we have evolved the further we have in some
sense digressed—the more civilized we have become
the more barbaric we have become.
• Today millions survive because of medicine, sanitation,
and technology, while millions also starve.
The First Humans
• Hominids
– Australopithecines (3-4 million years ago; simple stone tools;
limited to Africa)
– Homo Erectus (1.5 million years ago; larger, more varied tools;
moves into Europe and Asia)
– Homo Sapiens (“wise human being”)
– Neanderthals, (c. 100,000 – 30,000 years ago)
• Neander Valley in Germany, other parts of Europe and Middle
• More advanced stone tools; burial of the dead
– Homo Sapiens Sapiens, (c. 200,000 B.C. – Present)
• “Wise, wise human being”
• Replaced Neanderthals
• Spread throughout the world
©2003 Wadsworth, a division of Thomson Learning, Inc. Thomson Learning™ is a trademark used herein under license.
The Spread of Homo Sapiens Sapiens
The Emergence of Civilization
• Six Characteristics of Civilization
Urban Focus – Cities become very important
Distinct Religious Structure (gods; priests)
Political and Military Structures (bureaucracy; armies)
Social Structure based on Economic Power
Writing – Record Keeping
Artistic and Intellectual Activity
The Ancient Near East
History Begins at Sumer
Civilization in Mesopotamia
• The City State of Ancient Mesopotamia
Begins at Sumer (c. 3000 B.C.)
City States (Eridu, Ur, Uruk, Umma, Lagash)
Temples to the gods / Ziggurats
Theocracy (gods rule the cities through priests)
Kingship (divine in Origin)
Economy Primarily Agricultural
Some Trade
Three Major Social Groups
• Nobles, Commoners and Slaves
Empires in Ancient Mesopotamia
• Early Dynastic Age (c. 3000 – 2340 B.C.)
– Instability; warfare between city states
• Akkadian Empire (c. 2340 – c. 2100 B.C.)
– Sargon
• Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2112 – 2000 B.C.)
– Amorites
– Hammurabi (1792 – 1750 B.C.)
Rise of civilization in Mesopotamia
• Although Mesopotamia is all the land between
the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, the earliest traces
of civilization appeared in Sumer, in what is now
Southern Iraq, and possibly, at Tell Hamoukar, in
what is now Northeastern Syria.
– The Uruk period (3800-3200 B.C.) was creative, with
the invention of the wheel and plow; the planting of
the first orchards and the development of metal
– Perhaps the most significant was writing: cuneiform
– People built cities with walls, and buildings of mud
Rise of civilization in Mesopotamia
– Most impressive early buildings were the temples:
– “Dynastic Period” (2800-2350 B.C.) fierce competition
inside and out of cities led to the rise of local
strongmen- lugals- who became kings
– Kings claimed to be the representatives of the gods and
to rule by favor of the gods. This process introduced
theocratic kingship.
– As warfare became more important, large landowners
formed military aristocracy.
Rise of civilization in Mesopotamia
• Mesopotamia is a broad open plain,
surrounded by deserts and mountains even
further out.
– The region has no natural frontiers to
ward off migrants or conquerors
– Areas beyond Mesopotamia were
inhabited by people of lower cultural
development who coveted the
comparative riches and security of
Rise of civilization in Mesopotamia
• After about 2350 B.C., Sumer was several times overrun by
– Sargon (2371-2316) conquered Sumer from Akkad to the north,
then expanded it’s holdings, as did his son after him, to the east
and west
– This first imperial state demanded little of its subjects and,
ironically, was itself conquered by Sumerian culture
– After Akkadian rule eventually weakened, there was a period of
relative independence for Sumerian cities, followed by Babylonian
– Hammurabi (1792-1750 was the most famous and powerful of the
Babylonian (or Amorites). His law code was influential for
centuries. Like the Akkadians before, the Babylonians adopted
Sumerian culture
Code of Hammurabi
282 Laws
Strict Justice / Severe Penalties
Principle of Retaliation
Responsibility of Public Officials
Consumer Protections
Agriculture and Trade
Family / Marriage / Domestic Affairs
Features of Sumerian/Mesopotamian culture
• Law: issued by councils of notables in
conjunction with priests and kings
– Law was not abstract and philosophical
– Publishing laws in public places established the
important principles that all are subject to the law;
that the law belongs to all; that the law rules, not
Features of Sumerian/Mesopotamian culture
• Religion: people were polytheists and syncretistic
– Sky gods were generally though of as male and related to power,
while earth gods were thought of as female and related to fertility.
– Individual forces of nature were also invested with divine power:
Animism is a habit of mind that sees nothing as wholly lifeless
– Gods and goddesses differed from humans in supernatural powers
and immortality. They were capricious. Religion sought to
propitiate them.
– Religion was pessimistic and fatalistic; it had no ethical dimension
at all. This outlook was perhaps related to the geography and
politics of the region.
– Religion served as an impressive attempt to begin to systematize
knowledge about the natural world
Features of Sumerian/Mesopotamian culture
Literature: The Epic of Gilgamesh was a remarkable
– The Epic is a Sumerian work dating to around 2500 B.C. that
survives in later versions dating to around 800 B.C.
– An “epic” is a work on a grand scale dealing with gods and heroes; it
is serious in tone, elevated in language, and universalizing in
– Gilgamesh is a tale of the adventures and friendship of King
Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu. It contains a mythical account of
the civilizing process and a poignant reflection on mortality as the
irreducible element in the human condition
– There were other works, too, for example, short poems by
Enkheduana, Sargon’s daughter and the worlds first known female
Features of Sumerian/Mesopotamian culture
• Sciences probably derived from watching the
heavens, measuring the fields, and regulations
irrigation hydraulics
– Sumerians developed the decimal and sexadecimal
systems ( hence why we have 60 seconds in a
minute and 60 minuets in an hour)
– Sumerians understood place value in numbers, that
is the difference between 35 and 53
– They anticipated Greek developments in
Mesopotamia’s legacy
• Sumerian culture gradually spread over
much of western Asia and directly or
indirectly influenced all the peoples who
emerged within or who conquered those
lands, including the later empire building
Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Turks
• Specific Sumerian practices and beliefs
were adopted and adapted for millennia

Western Civilization Definitions