My Western Culture lectures/articles 1 2

JISHOU, HUNAN — You can blame David H over at my Facebook page for these multiple postings. He wanted to see them.

Seriously, I’d welcome comments and suggestions. Keep in mind I am writing for English as a Foreign Language students whose familiarity with Western history is spotty.

Also keep in mind that their appearance on these pages automatically gives them copyright protection. So, watch your fair usage there, kids!


Chinese culture developed among peoples who were closely associated in language and culture. By contrast, the culture of the West developed not in one place, but in many; not by one people, but by several separate (and contentious) civilizations. Taken as a whole, Western culture and civilization is as old as China’s, but its development has been comparatively disjointed and discontinuous.

Western culture is primarily the product of three great cultural movements: ancient Greece, ancient Rome and Christianity. But, underlying these three are more ancient civilizations dating back to 3500 BC or later: Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Hebrews (the Jews). Clustered as they were around the Mediterranean Sea, the ancient civilizations of the West borrowed and traded ideas as much as they did goods and warfare. So, Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Hebrews influenced the later cultures of Greece and Rome, and the religious movement, Christianity. In addition, the trading civilization of Phoenicia contributed perhaps the most important cultural advancement, a phonetic alphabet, which other cultures adapted for their own purposes. To understand Western culture, one must know something about these seven great pillars of the West.

We could also argue that the West was shaped by conflicts with the Persian Empire beginning in the 7th century BC. with Islam, after the 7th century AD, and with the Huns and Mongols throughout the Middle Ages.

Early Western civilization was marked by nearly constant warfare and conquest. Ancient empires rose, expanded and fell. Each previous empire left something for its successors to use and improve upon, if they so chose. Vestiges of those ancient cultures are still with us today.

Links are to

Pre-classical period
Mesopotamia美索不达米亚 (now Iraq and Syria): The area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers had been settled since at least 10,000 BC. The wheel was developed here about 6500 BC, and the first city-states around 4400 BC. Several kingdoms and empires – Sumer, Akkad, Assyria and Babylon – rose and fell between 4400 and 550 BC, before the Persian Empire conquered the region. These people developed a form of syllabic writing called cuneiform 楔形文字, which was in use by 2900 BC. They left a heroic tale, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which inspired later stories in other cultures, and a formal set of civil laws, the Code of Hammurabi, which also influenced later cultures. They were adept at math and astronomy. Our system of 24 hours, 60 minutes and 60 seconds, and the 12 signs of the zodiac all come from Mesopotamia. They, like the Egyptians, understood medicine quite well.

Egypt古埃及:The banks of the Nile River were also settled well before 10,000 BC. The kings of Egypt, called pharaohs 法老, ruled a united Egypt beginning around 3200 BC. Unlike Mesopotamia, the Egyptian civilization was relatively stable and survived nearly 3000 years, despite two invasions. The Egyptians built the pyramids 金字塔 of Giza and the Great Sphinx 大狮身人面像 around 2600 – 2500 BC. Many other great buildings, all for the pharaoh and the ruling class, survive and are being discovered even now under the desert sands. Egyptian writing is called hieroglyphics 象形文字; after thousands of years of use, it could be used to express complex and abstract ideas. The Egyptians were also adept at astronomy and at building with stone. They were good physicians, and knew (for religious reasons) how to preserve dead bodies as mummies 木乃伊. Cleopatra 克利 帕特拉 was the last Egyptian pharaoh before the Romans finally took control of the kingdom around 30 BC.

The Minoans 米诺斯文明: As old as the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations, these people developed a vigorous trading culture on the island of Crete. They left behind many public buildings, sumptuous villas and artwork, but very little literature and no clues as to their disappearance. A volcanic eruption on Crete around 1350 BC may have contributed to the Minoans’ downfall about two centuries later. Or, invasions from Mycenae, Doria and elsewhere may have doomed them as well. The Greeks were certainly influenced by Minoan art and architecture. Several traditional Greek stories take place on Crete and one mentions King Minos by name.

Phoenicia 腓尼基: These people were seafaring traders, who lived in present day Lebanon and Turkey beginning around 1350 BC. They did not build a huge empire, but they had a profound influence on the surrounding nations. First, their trading connected the Greeks, the Minoans, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Persians and others, not only by goods but also by ideas. Second, their efficient alphabet was quickly adopted by the surrounding nations. All modern Western nations and their former colonies use a version of the Phoenician alphabet. Third, their religion influenced the Hebrews, a nomadic pastoral people from the east who later founded the kingdoms of Israel and Judah and became the Jews.

Mycenae 迈锡尼文明 (1900– 1100 BC): This was the early Greek civilization. These people were warriors and invaders. One of their famous battles, against the city-state of Troy, is celebrated in Homer’s Iliad 伊利亚特, which was written down in the 9th century BC. The Mycenaeans conquered the Minoans around 1400 BC and adopted the Minoan script. Much of later Greek mythology and religion dates from this period, but the Mycenaeans left very little literature behind. What survives of their religion was written down many centuries later. Even Homer’s works, Iliad and Odyssey, were originally oral and handed down generation after generation by bards, men specially trained to memorize and deliver these long epic poems. The Mycenaeans disappeared as a civilization around 1100 BC, for mysterious reasons. Following was a 400-year “Dark Age” until the rebirth of Greek civilization around the 8th century BC. No archaeological remains have been found from the so-called Dark Age, so we can only guess what happened during that time.

Classical Period
Archaic Greece (8th century – 6th century BC): A new Greek civilization arose beginning in the 9th century BC. The earlier written language, based on Minoan script was lost, so the Greeks of this time adopted the alphabet of Phoenicia. (Greece still uses this alphabet today.) Archaic Greeks were traders and not as warlike as their predecessors, though they battled neighboring nations for land and trade routes. By the middle of the 6th century, they had established colonies all around the Mediterranean Sea, from Spain to the Black Sea and from Italy to northern Africa. Trade increased the wealth of the Greek city-states and their people many times over, resulting in more leisure time for the upper classes to devote to art, music, education and literature. The written forms of Homer’s works date from this time.

Classical Greece (6th century – 4th century BC): This was the peak of Greek civilization, which historians agree was the foundation of later Western civilization and culture. Classical Greece left us beautiful art and architecture, complex literature and theater, philosophy, science, mathematics, medicine, the basics of western music, and political science. The republic of Sparta and the democracy of Athens date from this time. The Greeks were strong enough at this time to defeat in 479 BC the armies of the Persian Empire, which had conquered every major civilization in the Middle East. But, because the Greeks never unified under one government, the independent city-states were unable to defend against an invasion from their northern neighbor, Macedonia, in the 4th century. King Philip conquered the Greeks, and his son, Alexander (also known as “the Great”)亚历山大大帝 expanded Greek influence with a new empire stretching from Spain to the Indus River valley in India. For a time, Alexander’s empire ruled what used to be the Egyptian, Persian and Babylonian empires, plus many smaller kingdoms besides.
Etruscans伊特鲁里亚 (8th – 3rd century BC): This was a fairly advanced civilization in northern Italy (Tuscany) that for a time controlled the area that included Rome. Probably the first kings of Rome were Etruscans. This culture was influenced a great deal by the Greeks, who had colonies in southern Italy. Etruscan art and cities had much in common with their Greek neighbors, but the Etruscans lived under a theocracy, with a king who was also the chief religious leader. In that, they were more similar to the Egyptians and Mesopotamian city-states. Historians debate whether Etruscans founded Rome, and were later conquered by the Roman state, or if other people from Italy founded Rome, who then conquered the Etruscans.

Ancient Rome 古罗马 After the Greeks, the Romans were another crucial foundation of Western Civilization. First a kingdom, then a republic, then an empire, Rome preserved Greek culture and spread it far and wide for nearly 2300 years. The only other western civilization with as long a lifetime were the Egyptians, whose empire became part of Rome around 30 BC. The Romans built roads, bridges, buildings, walls and aqueducts 渡槽 that knit their vast empire together. Their language, Latin, evolved into the Romance languages 罗曼语族 -– French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and others -– which are now spoken by millions across the world. And Latin has greatly influenced English. While the Romans were not an especially creative people like the Greeks, they preserved much of Greek culture. Additionally, the Roman emperor in AD 380 made Christianity 基督教 the official religion of the empire, giving it a much wider sphere of influence. Without Greece, there would be no Rome, and without Rome, there would be no Western culture as we know it today.

Roman Kingdom 753 BC – 509 BC: A series of elected kings (tyrants) ruled Rome, until the people toppled the last one after the military refused to serve him.

Roman Republic 509 BC –27 BC: A complex system of offices, governing bodies, and checks and balances developed to form the Roman Republic, which expanded Roman influence throughout Europe and the Mediterranean.

Roman Empire 27 BC – AD 476 (Western) AD 1453 (Eastern): Julius Caesar 尤利乌斯•凯撒, a powerful and well liked general, nearly became the first emperor of Rome, but was assassinated in 44 BC. The civil war that followed ended with his adopted son, Octavian 屋大维, becoming the first emperor. By the 2nd century, the empire had expanded to its greatest extent, with an estimated population of 88 million people. The huge empire became difficult to rule, so it was divided around AD 300 into West and East. The Western Empire, based in Rome, fell to Germanic invaders in 476, leaving a power vacuum that persisted for several hundred years. The Eastern Empire, based in Constantinople, survived to 1453, when it fell to the Muslim Ottoman Empire 奥斯曼帝国.

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2 thoughts on “My Western Culture lectures/articles 1

  1. Reply David H Dec 3,2012 4:30 am

    These are great, John! I do have one comment. After the Jews are introduced as one of the pillars of Western civilization, they receive only a sub-mention under the Phoenicians. Throughout modern Asia, Jews remain an object of fascination, ignorance, and confusion between their historic and modern roles. They probably deserve their own paragraph. Not only are the theological influences of Judaism on Christianity and Islam profound, but the movement of peoples and ideas (and even racial/ethnic tensions) that accompanied the Jewish diaspora may have been as important as the like phenomena which accompanied Phoenician, Greek or Roman trade. But great job. I love the timeline on part II, also. Speak of which, you do mention the evolution of Western alphabets, but this could probably use some more elaboration and contrast with Eastern pictographic/ideographic systems. There might also be fuller discussion of evolution of Western numbering systems, in which south Asia had some significant influence over western practice, arguably much more than in the domains of language or literature.

  2. Reply eljefe Dec 3,2012 10:14 am

    Thanks very much! The Jews and Christians get a more detailed review in the religion unit lectures. A more detailed look at the Diaspora is a good idea, though. I gave that short shrift in retrospect. As for the Asian contributions in math, that comes in the Sci-Tech unit. Remember, these are just the introduction to the course. More to come.

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