The earliest civilizations which influenced the development of western culture were those of Mesopotamia ; the area of the Tigris—Euphrates river system , largely corresponding to modern-day Iraq , northeastern Syria , southeastern Turkey and southwestern Iran: What we think of as Western thought today originates primarily from Greco-Roman and Germanic influences, and includes the ideals of the Middle Ages , the Renaissance , and the Enlightenment , as well as Christian culture.
Alexander the Great In Homeric literature , and right up until the time of Alexander the Great , for example in the accounts of the Persian Wars of Greeks against Persians by Herodotus , we see the paradigm of a contrast between the West and East. Nevertheless, the Greeks felt they were the most civilized and saw themselves in the formulation of Aristotle as something between the wild barbarians of most of Europe and the soft, slavish Middle-Easterners.
Ancient Greek science , philosophy , democracy , architecture , literature , and art provided a foundation embraced and built upon by the Roman Empire as it swept up Europe, including the Hellenic World in its conquests in the 1st century BCE. In the meantime, however, Greece, under Alexander, had become a capital of the East, and part of an empire.
The Celts also created some significant literature in the ancient world whenever they were given the opportunity an example being the poet Caecilius Statius. They also developed a large amount of scientific knowledge themselves, as seen in their Coligny Calendar. It is a mid-sized Augustan provincial temple of the theocratic Imperial cult of the Empire. The Imperial cult was inseparable from that of Rome's official deities, whose cult was essential to Rome's survival and whose neglect was therefore treasonous.
Traditional cult was a focus of Imperial revivalist legislation under Decius and Diocletian. The Roman Empire at its greatest extent.
For about five hundred years, the Roman Empire maintained the Greek East and consolidated a Latin West, but an East-West division remained, reflected in many cultural norms of the two areas, including language. Although Rome, like Greece, was no longer democratic, the idea of democracy remained a part of the education of citizens.
In the Roman world one could speak of three main directions: North Celtic tribal states and Parthians , the East lux ex oriente , and finally South, which implied danger, historically via the Punic Wars Quid novi ex Africa? From the time of Alexander the Great the Hellenistic period Greek civilization came in contact with Jewish civilization. Christianity would eventually emerge from the syncretism of Hellenic culture , Roman culture , and Second Temple Judaism , gradually spreading across the Roman Empire and eclipsing its antecedents and influences.
Roman culture also mixed with Celtic , Germanic and Slavic cultures, which slowly became integrated into Western culture: Medieval West[ edit ] Two main symbols of the medieval Western civilization on one picture: Justinian I The Medieval West was at its broadest the same as Christendom ,   including both the "Latin" West, also called "Frankish" during Charlemagne 's reign and the Orthodox Eastern part, where Greek remained the language of empire.
After the fall of Rome , much of Greco-Roman art, literature, science and even technology were all but lost in the western part of the old empire. However, this would become the centre of a new West. Europe fell into political anarchy, with many warring kingdoms and principalities.
Under the Frankish kings, it eventually, and partially, reunified, and the anarchy evolved into feudalism. Much of the basis of the post-Roman cultural world had been set before the fall of the Empire , mainly through the integration and reshaping of Roman ideas through Christian thought.
The Greek and Roman paganism had been completely replaced by Christianity around the 4th and 5th centuries, since it became the official State religion following the baptism of emperor Constantine I. Orthodox Christian Christianity and the Nicene Creed served as a unifying force in Christian parts of Europe, and in some respects replaced or competed with the secular authorities.
The Jewish Christian tradition out of which it had emerged was all but extinguished, and antisemitism became increasingly entrenched or even integral to Christendom. The Church founded many cathedrals , universities , monasteries and seminaries , some of which continue to exist today. Medieval Christianity created the first modern universities. These hospitals were established to cater to "particular social groups marginalized by poverty, sickness, and age," according to historian of hospitals, Guenter Risse.
Historian Paul Legutko of Stanford University said the Catholic Church is "at the center of the development of the values, ideas, science, laws, and institutions which constitute what we call Western civilization. The philosophy and science of Classical Greece was largely forgotten in Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, other than in isolated monastic enclaves notably in Ireland, which had become Christian but was never conquered by Rome.
Justinian's Corpus Juris Civilis Roman civil law code was preserved in the East and Constantinople maintained trade and intermittent political control over outposts such as Venice in the West for centuries. Classical Greek learning was also subsumed, preserved and elaborated in the rising Eastern world, which gradually supplanted Roman-Byzantine control as a dominant cultural-political force. Thus, much of the learning of classical antiquity was slowly reintroduced to European civilization in the centuries following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.
The rediscovery of the Justinian Code in Western Europe early in the 10th century rekindled a passion for the discipline of law, which crossed many of the re-forming boundaries between East and West.
In the Catholic or Frankish west, Roman law became the foundation on which all legal concepts and systems were based.
Its influence is found in all Western legal systems, although in different manners and to different extents. The study of canon law , the legal system of the Catholic Church, fused with that of Roman law to form the basis of the refounding of Western legal scholarship. During the Reformation and Enlightenment, the ideas of civil rights , equality before the law , procedural justice , and democracy as the ideal form of society began to be institutionalized as principles forming the basis of modern Western culture, particularly in Protestant regions.
Thomas Aquinas , a Catholic philosopher of the Middle Ages , revived and developed natural law from ancient Greek philosophy. In the 14th century, starting from Italy and then spreading throughout Europe,  there was a massive artistic, architectural, scientific and philosophical revival, as a result of the Christian revival of Greek philosophy, and the long Christian medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities.
In the following century, this process was further enhanced by an exodus of Greek Christian priests and scholars to Italian cities such as Venice after the end of the Byzantine Empire with the fall of Constantinople.
The discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus. From Late Antiquity , through the Middle Ages , and onwards, while Eastern Europe was shaped by the Orthodox Church , Southern and Central Europe were increasingly stabilized by the Catholic Church which, as Roman imperial governance faded from view, was the only consistent force in Western Europe. Until the Age of Enlightenment,  Christian culture took over as the predominant force in Western civilization, guiding the course of philosophy, art, and science for many years.
During the Great Divergence , a term coined by Samuel Huntington  the Western world overcame pre-modern growth constraints and emerged during the 19th century as the most powerful and wealthy world civilization of the time, eclipsing Qing China , Mughal India , Tokugawa Japan , and the Ottoman Empire. The process was accompanied and reinforced by the Age of Discovery and continued into the modern period. Scholars have proposed a wide variety of theories to explain why the Great Divergence happened, including lack of government intervention, geography, colonialism, and customary traditions.
The United States Constitution Coming into the modern era , the historical understanding of the East-West contrast—as the opposition of Christendom to its geographical neighbors—began to weaken.
As religion became less important, and Europeans came into increasing contact with far away peoples, the old concept of Western culture began a slow evolution towards what it is today.
The Age of Discovery faded into the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century, during which cultural and intellectual forces in Western Europe emphasized reason, analysis, and individualism rather than traditional lines of authority. It challenged the authority of institutions that were deeply rooted in society, such as the Catholic Church ; there was much talk of ways to reform society with toleration, science and skepticism.
Upon learning about enlightened views, some rulers met with intellectuals and tried to apply their reforms, such as allowing for toleration, or accepting multiple religions, in what became known as enlightened absolutism. New ideas and beliefs spread around Europe and were fostered by an increase in literacy due to a departure from solely religious texts.
The Dictionnaire philosophique Philosophical Dictionary, and Letters on the English written by Voltaire spread the ideals of the Enlightenment. Coinciding with the Age of Enlightenment was the scientific revolution , spearheaded by Newton. This included the emergence of modern science , during which developments in mathematics , physics , astronomy , biology including human anatomy and chemistry transformed views of society and nature.
The Industrial Revolution was the transition to new manufacturing processes in the period from about to sometime between and This included going from hand production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, improved efficiency of water power , the increasing use of steam power , and the development of machine tools.
The steam engine , made of iron and fueled primarily by coal , propelled the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain and the world. In particular, average income and population began to exhibit unprecedented sustained growth. Some economists say that the major impact of the Industrial Revolution was that the standard of living for the general population began to increase consistently for the first time in history, although others have said that it did not begin to meaningfully improve until the late 19th and 20th centuries.
The First Industrial Revolution evolved into the Second Industrial Revolution in the transition years between and , when technological and economic progress continued with the increasing adoption of steam transport steam-powered railways, boats, and ships , the large-scale manufacture of machine tools and the increasing use of machinery in steam-powered factories. The Bayeux tapestry is one of the supreme achievements of the Norman Romanesque.
Some cultural and artistic modalities are characteristically Western in origin and form. While dance, music, visual art, story-telling, and architecture are human universals, they are expressed in the West in certain characteristic ways. In Western dance, music, plays and other arts, the performers are only very infrequently masked. There are essentially no taboos against depicting a god, or other religious figures, in a representational fashion.
In music, Catholic monks developed the first forms of modern Western musical notation in order to standardize liturgy throughout the worldwide Church,  and an enormous body of religious music has been composed for it through the ages. This led directly to the emergence and development of European classical music, and its many derivatives.
The Baroque style, which encompassed music, art, and architecture, was particularly encouraged by the post-Reformation Catholic Church as such forms offered a means of religious expression that was stirring and emotional, intended to stimulate religious fervor. Many musical instruments developed in the West have come to see widespread use all over the world; among them are the violin , piano , pipe organ , saxophone , trombone , clarinet , accordion , and the theremin.
The solo piano , symphony orchestra , and the string quartet are also significant musical innovations of the West. Painting and photography[ edit ] Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata , attributed to Jan van Eyck, from until Jan van Eyck , among other renaissance painters, made great advances in oil painting , and perspective drawings and paintings had their earliest practitioners in Florence.
Depictions of the nude human male and female in photography, painting, and sculpture are frequently considered to have special artistic merit. Realistic portraiture is especially valued.
Photography, and the motion picture as both a technology and basis for entirely new art forms were also developed in the West. Dance and performing arts[ edit ] Classical music , opera and ballet. Swan lake pictured here, Zenaida Yanowsky as Odette The ballet is a distinctively Western form of performance dance.
The polka , the square dance , and the Irish step dance are very well known Western forms of folk dance. Greek and Roman theatre are considered the antecedents of modern theatre , and forms such as medieval theatre , passion plays , morality plays , and Commedia dell'arte are considered highly influential. Elizabethan theater , with such luminaries as William Shakespeare , Christopher Marlowe , and Ben Jonson , is considered one of the most formative and important eras for modern drama.
The soap opera , a popular culture dramatic form, originated in the United States first on radio in the s, then a couple of decades later on television. The music video was also developed in the West in the middle of the 20th century. Musical theatre was developed in the West in the 19th and 20th Centuries, from music hall , comic opera , and Vaudeville ; with significant contributions from the Jewish diaspora , African-Americans , and other marginalized peoples.
It is widely considered the preeminent work in Italian literature ,  and is seen as one of the greatest works of world literature. In this scene, Charon comes to ferry souls across the river Acheron to the Christian Hell. Of course, extended prose fiction had existed much earlier; both novels of adventure and romance in the Hellenistic world and in Heian Japan.
Both Petronius ' Satyricon c. Tragedy , from its ritually and mythologically inspired Greek origins to modern forms where struggle and downfall are often rooted in psychological or social, rather than mythical, motives, is also widely considered a specifically European creation and can be seen as a forerunner of some aspects of both the novel and of classical opera.
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November Rayonnant rose window in Notre Dame de Paris. In Gothic architecture , light was considered the most beautiful revelation of God. Important western architectural motifs include the Doric , Corinthian , and Ionic columns, and the Romanesque , Gothic , Baroque , and Victorian styles are still widely recognised, and used even today, in the West.