Western civilization is the basis of much of our modern culture. As such, our society rests on thousands of years of history stretching back into antiquity. If you want to understand the modern world and make sense of current events, you have to learn a bit about the history of western civilization.

Of course, the best way to beef up your knowledge of history is to study Brainscape’s adaptive history flashcards. But if you want a quick guide for the most critical events and periods in Western history, check out our list below.

The 11 most pivotal periods in western history

1. Ancient Greece

One of the smaller ancient civilizations, Greece has exerted an influence out of proportion to its size on the development of Western civilization, largely due to the intellectual accomplishments of Greek philosophers, who laid the foundation for much of modern science and governance, as well as art, mathematics, poetry, and more. Ancient Greece flourished from around 800 B.C. to 146 B.C.

2. Roman Civilization

The Roman Republic rose around 500 B.C. and lasted for about 500 years, after which the Roman Empire was established. At its height, the Roman Empire stretched across the entire Mediterranean region, laying claims from Spain to the Red Sea and from Britain to Iraq. As such, this culture, which originated in central Italy, has played a huge role in the development of Europe and western civilization as a whole in realms such as religion, law, architecture, warfare, language, and more.

3. The rise of Christianity

Although the history of Christianity is a hotly debated subject, much is known. Christianity began in the Levant (the region of modern Syria, Palestine, Israel, and Jordan) about 2,000 years ago, originally emerging as a sect of Judaism. Over the next 400 years, the religion spread across the region and become the official religion of the Roman Empire. It spread throughout Europe, North Africa, India, and other regions during the course of the Middle Ages.

4. Middle Ages

Between the 5th and 15th centuries, following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, European society entered something of a plateau—a period of cultural stagnation that lasted 1,000 years. This is the classical era of knights, kings, and damsels in distress.

Society in the middle ages was generally organized via feudalism, a custom whereby land was given from the centralized leadership of a nation (often a king) to vassals or lords, who in return agreed to tend the lands and provide soldiers and supplies to the nation in case of war. This political structure dominated European politics until the 1400s.

5. The Protestant Reformation

Within the Roman Catholic Church of 1500s Europe, corruption was rife—especially signified by the widespread sale of “indulgences.” If you had the money, you could erase your sins by paying the Church.

Based on this and many other gripes, Martin Luther began the Reformation in 1517 when he wrote The Ninety-Five Theses. This critique of the Church led directly to the conversion of much of northern Europe to Protestantism, and contributed to major conflicts such as the Thirty Years’ War.

6. The Renaissance

The end of the Middle Ages is generally defined as the beginning of the Renaissance, a cultural movement which led to artistic and cultural changes across the European continent.

The period is generally regarded as beginning in Florence, Italy, in the 14th century, where wealthy merchant-elites bankrolled the expensive pursuits of Renaissance figures. Advances during the Renaissance include development in art techniques, the invention of printing text, new theories and discoveries in astronomy and other fields of science, and the Protestant Reformation.

7. European Colonization

While colonialism has been a feature of almost every known empire and civilization, the most recent colonial era was dominated by European states. Between the late 1400s and mid-1900s, European powers built massive overseas empires by force and guile.

The largest empire was built by Britain, which at its height ruled over 25% of the world's surface. Since the Second World War, the world has seen increasing decolonization as occupied states are given—or have taken—their sovereignty back again.

8. African Slave Trade

Slavery has been present in human society since the earliest civilizations (although not in many other human societies), but perhaps the worst example of slavery in human history is the Transatlantic Slave Trade which took place between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Arguably the darkest era in the history of western civilization, European powers and the nascent American colonies bought and stole more than 12 million Africans from slave traders and communities in Western Africa. The slaves were shipped around the world to work in plantations and other hard-labor industries and to serve as personal servants. Much of the wealth of this period was built with slave labor.

9. Early America

The country we know now as the United States of America began originally as 13 British colonies on the Atlantic seaboard of North America. Originally founded in 1607 (Virginia), the colonies became economically independent through various industries, especially cotton and tobacco plantations in the South and trade in the North.

Starting in the 1760s, American colonists began to rebel against the British government, arguing that “taxation without representation” was not fair. This led to the American Revolutionary War, wherein the colonists defeated the British forces and founded a new nation.

10. The Industrial Revolution

Starting around 1760 in Great Britain, a revolution in the manipulation and control of energy was made. It revolved around the manipulation of steam to generate mechanical power, the development of machinery to replace human labor, increased use of water power, and the rise of intensive iron production. This mechanization led to a massive increase in productive (and destructive) capacity, and changed industry forever after.

11. Globalization

The world has been changed a great deal by globalization: the increased interconnection between the planet in terms of communication, trade, and transportation. The term generally refers to the process that began in the mid-1800s with the installation of overseas telegraph cables.

Since the beginning of globalization, the world has changed a great deal. The world’s economies are more interdependent than ever before. Advocates of increased globalization believe that it has facilitated great wealth, while critics of globalization point to sweatshops and other issues.

The fascinating history of western civilization

We hope you enjoyed this look into history. We know one thing: this just stimulates our thirst for more learning. Dive into the Brainscape's world history flashcards for more striking facts about the world.

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