The Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis, built of marble and limestone between circa 460-406 BC, is a symbol not just of Ancient Greek architecture, but for Antiquity in general

Ancient history as a term refers to the aggregate of past events[1] from the beginning of writing and recorded human history and extending as far as post-classical history. The phrase may be used either to refer to the period of time or the academic discipline.

The span of recorded history is roughly 5,000 years, beginning with the Sumerian cuneiform script, with the oldest coherent texts from about 2600 BC.[2] Ancient history covers all continents inhabited by humans in the period 3000 BC – AD 500.

The broad term "ancient history" is not to be confused with "classical antiquity". The term classical antiquity is often used to refer to Western history in the Ancient Mediterranean from the beginning of recorded Greek history in 776 BC (first Olympiad). This roughly coincides with the traditional date of the founding of Rome in 753 BC, the beginning of the history of ancient Rome, and the beginning of the Archaic period in Ancient Greece.

The academic term "history" is not to be confused with colloquial references to times past. History is fundamentally the study of the past, and can be either scientific (archaeology) or humanistic (history through language).

Although the ending date of ancient history is disputed, some Western scholars use the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD (the most used),[3][4] the closure of the Platonic Academy in 529 AD,[5] the death of the emperor Justinian I in 565 AD,[6] the coming of Islam,[7] or the rise of Charlemagne[8] as the end of ancient and Classical European history. Outside of Europe the 450–500 time frame for the end of ancient times has had difficulty as a transition date from ancient to post-classical times.

During the time period of ancient history (starting roughly from 3000 BC), the world population was already exponentially increasing due to the Neolithic Revolution, which was in full progress. According to HYDE estimates from the Netherlands, world population increased exponentially in this period. In 10,000 BC in prehistory, the world population had stood at 2 million, rising to 45 million by 3,000 BC. By the rise of the Iron Age in 1,000 BC, the population had risen to 72 million. By the end of the period in 500 AD, the world population is thought to have stood at 209 million. In 3,500 years, the world population increased by 100 times.[9]


Historians have two major avenues which they take to better understand the ancient world: archaeology and the study of source texts. Primary sources are those sources closest to the origin of the information or idea under study.[10][11] Primary sources have been distinguished from secondary sources, which often cite, comment on, or build upon primary sources.[12]


Archaeology is the excavation and study of artifacts in an effort to interpret and reconstruct past human behavior.[13][14][15][16] Archaeologists excavate the ruins of ancient cities looking for clues as to how the people of the time period lived. Some important discoveries by archaeologists studying ancient history include:

  • The Egyptian pyramids:[17] giant tombs built by the ancient Egyptians beginning about 2600 BC as the final resting places of their royalty.
  • The study of the ancient cities of Harappa (Pakistan),[18] Mohenjo-daro (Pakistan), and Lothal[19] in India (South Asia).
  • The city of Pompeii (Italy):[20] an ancient Roman city preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Its state of preservation is so great that it is a valuable window into Roman culture and provided insight into the cultures of the Etruscans and the Samnites.[21]
  • The Terracotta Army:[22] the mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor in ancient China.
  • The discovery of Knossos by Minos Kalokairinos and Sir Arthur Evans.
  • The discovery of

    Most of what is known of the ancient world comes from the accounts of antiquity's own historians. Although it is important to take into account the bias of each ancient author, their accounts are the basis for our understanding of the ancient past. Some of the more notable ancient writers include Herodotus, Thucydides, Arrian, Plutarch, Polybius, Sima Qian, Sallust, Livy, Josephus, Suetonius, and Tacitus.

    A fundamental difficulty of studying ancient history is that recorded histories cannot document the entirety of human events, and only a fraction of those documents have survived into the present day.[23] Furthermore, the reliability of the information obtained from these surviving records must be considered.[23][24] Few people were capable of writing histories, as literacy was not widespread in almost any culture until long after the end of ancient history.[25]

    The earliest known systematic historical thought emerged in ancient Greece, beginning with Herodotus of Halicarnassus (484–c. 425 BC). Thucydides largely eliminated divine causality in his account of the war between Athens and Sparta,[26] establishing a rationalistic element which set a precedent for subsequent Western historical writings. He was also the first to distinguish between cause and immediate origins of an event.[26]

    The Roman Empire was an ancient culture with a relatively high literacy rate,[27] but many works by its most widely read historians are lost. For example, Livy, a Roman historian who lived in the 1st century BC, wrote a history of Rome called Ab Urbe Condita (From the Founding of the City) in 144 volumes; only 35 volumes still exist, although short summaries of most of the rest do exist. Indeed, no more than a minority of the work of any major Roman historian has survived.

    Timeline of ancient history

    Brief ancient chronology
    Coming of IslamEarly Middle AgesGupta EmpireLate antiquityRoman EmpireMaurya EmpireHellenismClassical GreeceAchaemenid EmpireRoman KingdomArchaic GreeceNeo-Assyrian EmpireAncient Pueblo PeoplesBronze Age collapseHittite Empiresack of BabylonLate Bronze AgeHammurabiSumerian RenaissanceMiddle Bronze AgeXia DynastyGreat Pyramid of GizaHarappan CivilizationAegean civilizationThree Sovereigns and Five EmperorsFirst DynastyBronze Age writingEarly Dynastic Period (Egypt)Egyptian hieroglyphsEarly Bronze Age

    This gives a listed timeline, ranging from 3200 BC to 400 AD, that provides an overview of ancient history.



Prehistory is the period before written history. The early human migrations[28] in the Lower Paleolithic saw Homo erectus spread across Eurasia 1.8 million years ago. The controlled use of fire first occurred 800,000 years ago in the Middle Paleolithic. 250,000 years ago, Homo sapiens (modern humans) emerged in Africa. 60–70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa along a coastal route to South and Southeast Asia and reached Australia. 50,000 years ago, modern humans spread from Asia to the Near East. Europe was first reached by modern humans 40,000 years ago. Humans migrated to the Americas about 15,000 years ago in the Upper Paleolithic.

The 10th millennium BC is the earliest given date for the invention of agriculture and the beginning of the ancient era. Göbekli Tepe was erected by hunter-gatherers in the 10th millennium BC (c. 11,500 years ago), before the advent of sedentism. Together with Nevalı Çori, it has revolutionized understanding of the Eurasian Neolithic. In the 7th millennium BC, Jiahu culture began in China. By the 5th millennium BC, the late Neolithic civilizations saw the invention of the wheel and the spread of proto-writing. In the 4th millennium BC, the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture in the Ukraine-Moldova-Romania region develops. By 3400 BC, "proto-literate" cuneiform is spread in the Middle East.[29] The 30th century BC, referred to as the Early Bronze Age II, saw the beginning of the literate period in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. Around the 27th century BC, the Old Kingdom of Egypt and the First Dynasty of Uruk are founded, according to the earliest reliable regnal eras.

Middle to Late Bronze Age

Original Civilizations

The Bronze Age forms part of the three-age system. It follows the Neolithic Age in some areas of the world. In most areas of civilization bronze smelting became a foundation for more advanced societies. There was some contrast with New World societies, who often still preferred stone to metal for utilitarian purposes. Modern historians have identified five original civilizations which emerged in the time period.[30][31][page needed]

The first civilization emerged in Sumer in the southern region of Mesopotamia, now part of modern-day Iraq. By 3000 BC, Sumerian city states had collectively formed civilization, with government, religion, division of labor and writing. Among the city states Ur was among the most significant.

In the 24th century BC, the Akkadian Empire[32][33] was founded in Mesopotamia. From Sumer, civilization and bronze smelting spread westward to Egypt, the Minoans and the Hittites.

The First Intermediate Period of Egypt of the 22nd century BC was followed by the Middle Kingdom of Egypt between the 21st to 17th centuries BC. The Sumerian Renaissance also developed c. the 21st century BC in Ur. Around the 18th century BC, the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt began. Egypt was a superpower at the time. By 1600 BC, Mycenaean Greece developed and invaded the remains of Minoan Civilization. The beginning of Hittite dominance of the Eastern Mediterranean region is also seen in the 1600s BC. The time from the 16th to the 11th centuries BC around the Nile is called the New Kingdom of Egypt. Between 1550 BC and 1292 BC, the Amarna Period developed in Egypt.

East of the Iranian world, was the Indus River Valley civilization which organized cities neatly on grid patterns.[34] However the Indus River Valley civilization diminished after 1900 BC and was later replaced with Indo-Aryan peoples who established Vedic Culture.

The beginning of the Shang dynasty emerged in China in this period, and there was evidence of a fully developed Chinese writing system. The Shang Dynasty is the first Chinese regime recognized by western scholars though Chinese historians insist that the Xia Dynasty preceded it. The Shang Dynasty practiced forced labor to complete public projects. There is evidence of massive ritual burial.

Across the ocean, the earliest known civilization of the Americas appeared in the river valleys of the desert coast of central modern day Peru. The Norte Chico civilization's first city flourished around 3100 BC. The Olmecs are supposed to appear later in Mesoamerica between the 14th and 13th century.

Early Iron Age

The Iron Age is the last principal period in the three-age system, preceded by the Bronze Age. Its date and context vary depending on the country or geographical region. The Iron Age over all was characterized by the prevalent smelting of iron with Ferrous metallurgy and the use of Carbon steel. Smelted iron proved more durable than earlier metals such as Copper or Bronze and allowed for more productive societies. The Iron Age took place at different times in different parts of the world, and comes to an end when a society began to maintain historical records.

Map of the late Bronze Age collapse, c. 1200 BC

During the 13th to 12th centuries BC, the Ramesside Period occurred in Egypt. Around 1200 BC, the Trojan War was thought to have taken place.[35] By around 1180 BC, the disintegration of the Hittite Empire was under way. The collapse of the Hitties was part of the larger scale Bronze Age Collapse which took place in the Ancient Near East around 1200 BC. In Greece the Mycenae and Minona both disintegrated. A wave of Sea Peoples attacked many countries, only Egypt survived intact. Afterwards some entirely new successor civilizations arose in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In 1046 BC, the Zhou force, led by King Wu of Zhou, overthrew the last king of the Shang dynasty. The Zhou dynasty was established in China shortly thereafter. During this Zhou era China embraced a feudal society of decentralized power. Iron Age China then dissolved into the warring states period where possibly millions of soldiers fought each other over feudal struggles.

Pirak is an early iron-age site in Balochistan, Pakistan, going back to about 1200 BC. This period is believed to be the beginning of the Iron Age in India and the subcontinent.[36] Around the same time came the Vedas, the oldest sacred texts for the Hindu Religion.

In 1000 BC, the Mannaean Kingdom began in Western Asia. Around the 10th to 7th centuries BC, the Neo-Assyrian Empire developed in Mesopotamia.[37] In 800 BC, the rise of Greek city-states began. In 776 BC, the first recorded Olympic Games were held.[38] In contrast to neighboring cultures the Greek City states did not become a single militaristic empire but competed with each other as separate polis.

Axial Age

The preceding Iron Age is often thought to have ended in the Middle East around 550 BC due to the rise of Historiography (the historical record). The Axial Age is used to describe history between 800 and 200 BC of Eurasia, including Ancient Greece, Iran, India and China. Widespread trade and communication between distinct regions in this period, including the rise of the Silk Road. This period saw the rise of philosophy and proselytizing religions.

Philosophy, religion and science were diverse in the Hundred Schools of Thought producing thinkers such as Confucius, Lao Tzu and Mozi during the sixth century BC. Similar trends emerged throughout Eurasia in India with the rise of Buddhism, in the Near East with Zoroastrianism and Judaism and in the west with Ancient Greek Philosophy. In these developments religious and philosophical figures were all searching for human meaning.[39]

The Axial Age and its aftermath saw large wars and the formation of large empires that stretched beyond the limits of earlier Iron Age Societies. Significant for the time was the Persian Achaemenid Empire.[40] The empire's vast territory extended from modern day Egypt to Xinjiang. The empire's legacy include the rise of commerce over land routes through Eurasia as well as the spreading of Persian culture through the middle east. The Royal Road allowed for efficient trade and taxation. Though Macedonian Alexander the Great conquered the Achaemenid Empire in its entirety, the unity of Alexander's conquests did not survive past his lifetime. Greek culture, and technology spread through West and South Asia often synthesizing with local cultures.

Formation of Empires and Fragmentation

Separate Greek Kingdoms Egypt and Asia encouraged trade and communication like earlier Persian administrations.[41] Combined with the expansion of the Han Dynasty westward the Silk Road as a series of routes made possible the exchange of goods between the Mediterranean Basin, South Asia and East Asia. In South Asia, the Mauryan empire briefly annexed much of the Indian Subcontinent though short lived, its reign had the legacies of spreading Buddhism and providing an inspiration to later Indian states.

Supplanting the warring Greek Kingdoms in the western world came the growing Roman Republic and the Iranian Parthian Empire. As a result of empires, urbanization and literacy spread to locations which had previously been at the periphery of civilization as known by the large empires. Upon the turn of the millennium the independence of tribal peoples and smaller kingdoms were threatened by more advanced states. Empires were not just remarkable for their territorial size but for their administration and the dissemination of culture and trade, in this way the influence of empires often extended far beyond their national boundaries. Trade routes expanded by land and sea and allowed for flow of goods between distant regions even in the absence of communication. Distant nations such as Imperial Rome and the Chinese Han Dynasty rarely communicated but trade of goods did occur as evidenced by archaeological discoveries such as Roman coins in Vietnam. At this time most of the world's population inhabited only a small part of the earth's surface. Outside of civilization large geographic areas such as Siberia, Sub Saharan Africa and Australia remained sparsely populated. The New World hosted a variety of separate civilizations in the but its own trade networks were smaller due to the lack of draft animals and the wheel.

Empires with their immense military strength remained fragile to civil wars, economic decline and a changing political environment internationally. In 220 AD Han China collapsed into warring states while the European Roman Empire began to suffer from turmoil in the Third Century Crisis. In Persia regime change took place from Parthian Empire to the more centralized Sassanian Empire. The land based Silk Road continued to deliver profits in trade but came under continual assault by nomads all on the northern frontiers of Eurasian nations. Safer sea routes began to gain preference in the early centuries AD

Proselytizing religions began to replace polytheism and folk religions in many areas. Christianity gained a wide following in the Roman Empire, Zoroastrianism became the state enforced religion of Iran and Buddhism spread to East Asia from South Asia. Social change, political transformation as well as ecological events all contributed to the end of Ancient Times and the beginning of the Post Classical era in Eurasia roughly around the year 500.


Religion and philosophy

Jupiter Ammon
Roman cast terracotta of ram-horned Jupiter Ammon, a form of Zeus 1st century AD. Gods, could sometimes be transferred or adopted by many civilizations, and then adjusted for local conditions.

The rise of civilization corresponded with the institutional sponsorship of belief in gods, supernatural forces and the afterlife. During the Bronze Age, many civilizations adopted their own form of Polytheism. Usually, polytheistic Gods manifested human personalities, strengths and failings. Early religion was often based on location, with cities or entire countries selecting a deity, that would grant them preferences and advantages over their competitors. Worship involved the construction of representation of deities, and the granting of sacrifices. Sacrifices could be material goods, food, or in extreme cases human sacrifice to please a deity. New philosophies and religions arose in both east and west, particularly about the 6th century BC. Over time, a great variety of religions developed around the world, with some of the earliest major ones being Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism in India, and Zoroastrianism in Persia. The Abrahamic religions trace their origin to Judaism, around 1800 BC.

The ancient Indian philosophy is a fusion of two ancient traditions: Sramana tradition and Vedic tradition. Indian philosophy begins with the Vedas where questions related to laws of nature, the origin of the universe and the place of man in it are asked. Jainism and Buddhism are continuation of the Sramana school of thought. The Sramanas cultivated a pessimistic world view of the samsara as full of suffering and advocated renunciation and austerities. They laid stress on philosophical concepts like Ahimsa, Karma, Jnana, Samsara and Moksa. While there are ancient relations between the Indian Vedas and the Iranian Avesta, the two main families of the Indo-Iranian philosophical traditions were characterized by fundamental differences in their implications for the human being's position in society and their view on the role of man in the universe.

In the east, three schools of thought were to dominate Chinese thinking until the modern day. These were Taoism, Legalism and Confucianism. The Confucian tradition, which would attain dominance, looked for political morality not to the force of law but to the power and example of tradition. Confucianism would later spread into the Korean peninsula and Goguryeo[42] and toward Japan.

In the west, the Greek philosophical tradition, represented by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, was diffused throughout Europe and the Middle East in the 4th century BC by the conquests of Alexander III of Macedon, more commonly known as Alexander the Great. After the Bronze and Iron Age religions formed, the rise and spread of Christianity through the Roman world marked the end of Hellenistic philosophy and ushered in the beginnings of Medieval philosophy.

Science and technology

Ancient technology
The Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct in France.

In the history of technology and ancient science during the growth of the ancient civilizations, ancient technological advances were produced in engineering. These advances stimulated other societies to adopt new ways of living and governance. Sometimes, technological development was sponsored by the state.[citation needed]

The characteristics of Ancient Egyptian technology are indicated by a set of artifacts and customs that lasted for thousands of years. The Egyptians invented and used many basic machines, such as the ramp and the lever, to aid construction processes. The Egyptians also played an important role in developing Mediterranean maritime technology including ships and lighthouses.[citation needed]

Water managing Qanats which likely emerged on the Iranian plateau and possibly also in the Arabian peninsula sometime in the early 1st millennium BC spread from there slowly west- and eastward.[43]

The history of science and technology in India dates back to ancient times. The Indus Valley civilization yields evidence of hydrography, and sewage collection and disposal being practiced by its inhabitants. Among the fields of science and technology pursued in India were metallurgy, astronomy, mathematics and Ayurveda. Some ancient inventions include plastic surgery, cataract surgery, Hindu-Arabic numeral system and Wootz steel. The history of science and technology in China show significant advances in science, technology, mathematics, and astronomy. The first recorded observations of comets and supernovae were made in China. Traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture and herbal medicine were also practiced.[citation needed]

Ancient Greek technology developed at an unprecedented speed during the 5th century BC, continuing up to and including the Roman period, and beyond. Inventions that are credited to the ancient Greeks such as the gear, screw, bronze casting techniques, water clock, water organ, torsion catapult and the use of steam to operate some experimental machines and toys. Many of these inventions occurred late in the Greek period, often inspired by the need to improve weapons and tactics in war. Roman technology is the engineering practice which supported Roman civilization and made the expansion of Roman commerce and Roman military possible over nearly a thousand years. The Roman Empire had the most advanced set of technology of their time, some of which may have been lost during the turbulent eras of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Roman technological feats of many different areas, like civil engineering, construction materials, transport technology, and some inventions such as the mechanical reaper went unmatched until the 19th century.[citation needed]

Maritime activity

The history of ancient navigation began in earnest when men took to the sea in planked boats and ships propelled by sails hung on masts, like the Ancient Egyptian Khufu ship from the mid-3rd millennium BC. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Necho II sent out an expedition of Phoenicians, which in three years sailed from the Red Sea around Africa to the mouth of the Nile. Many current historians tend to believe Herodotus on this point, even though Herodotus himself was in disbelief that the Phoenicians had accomplished the act.

Hannu was an ancient Egyptian explorer (around 2750 BC) and the first explorer of whom there is any knowledge. He made the first recorded exploring expedition, writing his account of his exploration in stone. Hannu travelled along the Red Sea to Punt, and sailed to what is now part of eastern Ethiopia and Somalia. He returned to Egypt with great treasures, including precious myrrh, metal and wood.


Technical drawing of Roman Ballista mechanism.

Ancient warfare is war as conducted from the beginnings of recorded history to the end of the ancient period. In Europe, the end of antiquity is often equated with the fall of Rome in 476. In China, it can also be seen as ending in the 5th century, with the growing role of mounted warriors needed to counter the ever-growing threat from the north.

The difference between prehistoric warfare and ancient warfare is less one of technology than of organization. The development of the first city-states, and then empires, allowed warfare to change dramatically. Beginning in Mesopotamia, states produced sufficient agricultural surplus that full-time ruling elites and military commanders could emerge. While the bulk of military forces were still farmers, the society could support having them campaigning rather than working the land for a portion of each year. Thus, organized armies developed for the first time.

These new armies could help states grow in size and became increasingly centralized, and the first empire, that of the Sumerians, formed in Mesopotamia. Early ancient armies continued to primarily use bows and spears, the same weapons that had been developed in prehistoric times for hunting. Early armies in Egypt and China followed a similar pattern of using massed infantry armed with bows and spears.

Artwork and music

Ancient music is music that developed in literate cultures, replacing prehistoric music. Ancient music refers to the various musical systems that were developed across various geographical regions such as Persia, India, China, Greece, Rome, Egypt and Mesopotamia (see music of Mesopotamia, music of ancient Greece, music of ancient Rome, music of Iran). Ancient music is designated by the characterization of the basic audible tones and scales. It may have been transmitted through oral or written systems. Arts of the ancient world refers to the many types of art that were in the cultures of ancient societies, such as those of ancient China, Egypt, Greece, India, Persia, Mesopotamia and Rome.