What is ancient history?

By Owain Williams

What is ancient history?

While this may seem like a simple question – one you would hope the editor of Ancient History magazine would be able to answer – it is, in fact, not so simple. If we want to discuss cultures beyond the Mediterranean basin in Ancient History magazine, it is an important question.

If one takes a look at the curricula for Ancient History courses from universities, there is a pretty clear definition. Ancient History is history, usually of Europe and the lands adjacent to the Mediterranean basin, up to the late fifth century AD. This definition is clearly connected to the Roman Empire, both geographically and chronologically, with the late fifth century being approximately when the Western Roman Empire fell and is certainly the logical end date for the areas under the control of the Western Roman Empire.

However, this definition also has significant limitations, even before we consider cultures completely unconnected to the development of the Roman Empire. For example, what of the regions the Western Roman Empire lost before its collapse? The traditional date for the exit of the provinces of Britannia from the Western Roman Empire is AD 410 (although archaeology does not quite agree with this date). Is Britain in the Medieval period from 410 AD onwards? What of North Africa, which, by the second quarter of the fifth century, was part of the kingdom of the Vandals?

A restored Mosaic of the Privileges from The Basilica of Saint Apollinaris in Classe depicting Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV.

What of the Eastern Roman Empire? The fifth century was certainly a tumultuous time for the entire Roman world, and the fall of the Western Roman Empire undoubtedly had a significant impact on its eastern twin, but the Eastern Roman Empire continued until 1453, known in modern parlance as the Byzantine Empire. Indeed, Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire ended with the fall of Constantinople. A new book on Roman history, New Rome by Paul Stephenson, continues to AD 700 with the Heraclian dynasty. It seems arbitrary to call all Eastern Roman history after the fifth century AD Medieval history – although all periodisation of history is arbitrary by nature. Of course, the transitionary period of Late Antiquity does alleviate this problem somewhat, but that still has issues.

These dates, however, are still very much Euro- and Mediterranean-centric. What qualifies as ‘ancient’ history when we consider parts of the world that remained largely unconnected to the developments of the Roman world? Ancient China, for example, encompasses Chinese history until the first unification of China under the Qin. Scholars working on Chinese history, though, tend to discuss ‘early’ China, which includes the short-lived Qin and the more successful Han dynasties. Should Ancient History magazine restrict itself to covering ‘ancient’ China, or should it also include discussions of ‘early’ China? 

An Eastern Han Dynasty (ca. AD 25-220) fresco from a Dahuting tomb, in modern Xinmi, Henan Province.

For a magazine called Ancient History, it is important that we understand what ancient history is. The periodisation of history is necessary to help scholars and casual readers alike narrow their focus, lest they be overwhelmed attempting to gain an understanding of a single, undivided world history (an impossible task). Yet, it is also important that we understand that the periodisation of history is arbitrary by necessity – it would be impossible to account for every single variable that contributed to the end of antiquity and decide on a single date. Must we also be as arbitrary? 


The Great DJ of History was subtly blending together the two tracks Ancient and Medieval, and the dancers in the club may not have noticed an era change during their own lifetime. Little accents and tone shifts would have been introduced…but abrupt tempo shifts were probably rare. For Western Eurasia, I think this transition was bookended between 486 and 636 CE…Battle of Soissons with Clovis in the West being one tempo shift, and Islamic conquests of the Levant another. I’d welcome your magazines exploring the transitions…era changes are fascinating to learn more about.


Start and end dates for any period are always fun to debate!
Biblical history is a terrible description for the earliest millenia of history because so much (Sumer, Akkad, Old, Middle and New Kingdom Egypt, Assyrian Empire, etc, etc) predates the Bible, and so much more (Europe, Africa, central and east Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the early Americas, etc) falls outside its scope.
The “end” of Ancient History is pretty fluid as many here have already indicated. People used to talk about the “Dark Ages” as if it was one thing, but these lacunae in the history of civilizations occur at different times in different places. For anyone who tries to define a fixed cutoff that applies in all cases, another dozen people will tell them why they’re wrong.
If all you are looking at is classical civilization until the fall of the Western Roman Empire it is so much simpler to define, but I get the impression the magazine is trying to do more than that, so will have to be more fluid in its conclusions.

Duncan Whinton-Brown

Ancient history begins with the development of the first writing sytems in the first Sumerian cities (Uruk, Ur) around 3.000 BCE. ‘Biblical history’ (?) : sounds to me like something from elementary school. As for the end of antiquity, there is not one date : for Western Europe between 400 and 500 CE or AD, depending on which region or province you are looking at. For the Eastern Meditteranian and the Middle East I would take the period around 650, when Arab armies took over control of Sassanid Persia and parts of the Eastern Roman empire.

Peter Vanhooren

@Brian van de Walker You raise a very good point concerning practicality, especially your point about the appearance of Scandinavians in Byzantium. What should we do if we discuss a culture that is still considered ‘ancient’ which interacts with a culture that is thoroughly considered ‘Medieval’? Do we take the time to explain the differences? Do we avoid discussing the Medieval culture and any aspect of the ancient culture that interacts with it? Do we select a relatively arbitrary end date for the ancient period across the entirety of history?

Moreover, what makes the Viking Age Medieval?

You have really highlighted how complicated such a simple question can be!

Owain Williams

@Jon Yeungling The beginning of history is also not so straightforward. Pre-history and history are divided based on the use of writing (although pre-history has alternatively been called pre-literary history). This is not so straightforward, however, when we consider the Mycenaeans and later Greeks. While it was not a widely understandable system, much like Cuneiform or Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Mycenaeans had a writing system, placing them within ‘history’ if we use the literary definition. However, what of the post-Mycenaean Greek period? After the Late Bronze Age collapse, it appears that the Greeks no longer had writing until ca. 800 BC – are they now back in pre-history?

As for Biblical history, I would say this is a subset of ancient history.

Owain Williams

This is thought provoking, I on the other hand wonder about the start of the period, my interest is in early biblical history. Do the Sumerians count as Ancient or Biblical? It is a subject that does come up with arm chair historians and generals of the miniature persuasion. Thank you for your time.

Jon Yuengling

Well, I am not an expert on the matter but for China I would focus on Chinese History up to either the fall of the Jin Dynasty cause that is 420 CE merely 10 years after traditional date Western Rome lost England (not so far off the average Englishman’s end date for the Ancient era) or just to and through the Jin Dynasty as 380CE is also considered a rough date candidate for the end of antiquity. The other good stopping points are the brief lived but important Sui dynasty or the introduction of gunpowder in the late Tang Dynasty (a real game changer overall though that might be better to talked about in Medieval life).

Also unless you really want to cover Vikings up to their fall in your Ancient Life magazine, I really think you should consider Eastern Rome a separate post ancient cultural and Civilization offshoot with Western Rome being Rome proper for practicality if nothing else. After all a great deal of the trappings of old Hellenist culture were married to Ancient Paganism that only a mostly politically excluded minority still practiced in predominantly Christian Eastern Rome.

That said in general though, I have seen Charlemagne’s reign also consider the real start of the Medieval period in a general medieval history overview book I read as a child in a library over here in the USA, which if we are going directly from Ancient to Medieval would be around the middle of the Tang Dynasty in China (which isn’t a bad stopping point for Ancient Chinese articles and possibly even articles on Ancient Persia, Arabia, Africa, India, etc. since I think the spread of Islam was starting to drastically change a good chunk of the world’s cultures around that point).

Brian R. Van De Walker

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