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History of Europe

Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece was a collection of city-states. The most powerful was Athens, which was governed by an early form of direct democracy, involving public voting and debates. This contributed to the emergence of such famous philosophers as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

The Hellenic city-states founded a large number of colonies on the shores of the Black and Mediterranean Seas. In the fifth century BC, they came into conflict with the Persian Empire. Although Greece defeated Persia, Athens’ position as the leader of the alliance was challenged by Sparta.

Sparta defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC). The conflict weakened the whole of Greece, which was easily conquered by King Philip II of Macedon (338 BC). The military campaigns of his son, Alexander the Great, spread Hellenic culture as far as India (323 BC).

The Rise of the Roman Empire

A new power arose in the Mediterranean after the Roman Republic defeated Carthage in the Punic Wars (264–146 BC). Rome successfully fought four wars against Macedon (215–148 BC), which led to the surrender and conquest of Greece. The Roman Republic absorbed Athens and Hellenic civilisation.

After Julius Caesar was appointed dictator, he was murdered by Brutus on the Ides of March (44 BC). In the ensuing power struggle, Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra (31 BC). He was given the title of Augustus and crowned emperor (27 BC).

In the first century AD, Christianity emerged in Judea and spread throughout the Roman Empire. The Christians were persecuted by Nero and other emperors. In the 2nd century, the Roman Empire reached the height of its power, stretching from Britain to Arabia.

The Fall of the Roman Empire

In the third century, a series of civil wars undermined the strength of the Roman Empire. Emperor Constantine moved the capital from Rome to the Greek town of Byzantium, which was renamed Constantinople (330). Constantine legalised Christianity in the Roman Empire (313).

Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire (380). After his death, the Roman Empire split into two halves – a Western Empire based in Ravenna and an Eastern Empire ruled from Constantinople (395).

The Western Roman Empire was repeatedly attacked by tribes from Northern Europe. Rome was sacked by the Visigoths (410). German mercenaries fighting in the Roman army revolted and deposed the last Western emperor (476).

The Dark Ages

The fall of the Western Roman Empire led to a period known as the Dark Ages, when classical learning was supplanted by the new Christian teaching (500–1000). Much of Western Europe fell under the rule of the Franks. The Pope crowned King Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor (800).

The Great Schism

Political and religious disagreements between the Latin and Greek worlds culminated in the Great Schism (1054). The Christian Church split into Western and Eastern branches. The Western Christians became known as Roman Catholics, while the Eastern Christians called themselves Orthodox.

The Crusades

In the eleventh century, the Byzantine Empire was invaded from the east by Turkish armies. The emperor appealed to the Pope, who launched a series of military campaigns to defeat the Muslims and recapture the Holy Land (1095–1291). A total of nine crusades were launched, but were all unsuccessful.

The Middle Ages

A series of famines and plagues, including the Black Death, killed half of Europe’s population in the fourteenth century. England and France experienced peasant revolts and fought the Hundred Years War (1337–1453). The Byzantine Empire fell after Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turks (1453).

The Renaissance

The medieval period ended in the fourteenth century, when there was a revival of interest in the classical heritage of Greece and Rome. Beginning in Italy, the Renaissance gradually spread to north and west Europe. This cultural “rebirth” led to a new age of learning in literature, philosophy, art, politics, science and religion.

The Reformation

Corruption in the Catholic Church led to a sharp backlash in the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther nailed his demands for reformation to the door of the church in Wittenberg (1517). The writings of John Calvin were influential in many European countries, while King Henry VIII of England set up the Anglican Church (1529–36).

The Counter-Reformation

The Protestant Reformation led to a reform movement in the Catholic Church (1545). The aim of the Counter-Reformation was to reduce corruption and strengthen the Catholic dogma. The Counter-Reformation led to the Thirty Years War (1618–48), which began as a religious conflict in the Holy Roman Empire, but eventually involved most of Europe.

The Age of Discovery

An era of exploration began when Christopher Columbus discovered America (1492) and Vasco da Gama circumnavigated India and Africa (1498). Portugal and Spain established colonies in Central and South America (16th century). They were soon followed by France, England and Holland, who annexed large parts of North America, India and East Asia.

The Industrial Revolution

The flow of raw materials from the colonies and the introduction of steam-powered machinery led to the Industrial Revolution. Beginning in Great Britain in the eighteenth century, there was a movement away from agriculture towards an economy based on manufacturing and trade. Machines led to increases in productivity, while new canals, roads and railways facilitated trade.

The American Revolution

Britain’s American colonies revolted and declared independence as the United States (1776). Led by George Washington, they defeated the British forces in the American War of Independence (1775–83). The United States passed a republican Constitution (1787) and the Bill of Rights (1791).

The French Revolution

French attempts to help the Americans led to national bankruptcy. The people of Paris revolted and stormed the Bastille (1789). When the king and queen attempted to escape (1791), they were captured and executed (1793).

The Reign of Terror

The French republic fought a series of Revolutionary Wars against the European monarchies (1792–1802). During this period, France was ruled by Robespierre and the Jacobins, who initiated the Reign of Terror. Thousands of people were convicted by the Revolutionary Tribunal and sent to the guillotine.

The Napoleonic Wars

Napoleon Bonaparte seized power (1799) and crowned himself emperor (1804). He planned to invade Britain, but his navy was defeated at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). Napoleon had more success on land, defeating the Austrians at Austerlitz (1805), the Prussians at Jena-Auerstedt (1806) and the Russians at Friedland (1807).

Napoleon invaded Russia with a Grand Army of nearly 700,000 troops (1812). Moscow was set on fire by the retreating Russians and the French army was forced to withdraw. Attacked by Cossacks and suffering from disease and starvation, only 20,000 men survived the campaign.

Napoleon was defeated by a seven-nation army at the Battle of Leipzig (1813). Forced to abdicate after the occupation of Paris (1814), he was exiled to the island of Elba. Although Bonaparte returned to France and raised an army, he was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo (1815).

World War I

In the second half of the nineteenth century, a new power emerged in Europe when Prussia won a series of wars against Denmark (1864), Austria (1866) and France (1870). Britain, France and Russia signed a series of alliances to control the growing power of Germany, leading to the formation of two opposing sides in Europe.

The assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne by a Serbian nationalist set off a chain of events that led to the First World War (1914). The war was fought between the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) and the Allies (Britain, France and Russia). The Allies were joined by Italy (1915) and the United States (1917).

Russia was forced to withdraw from the war after revolution led to the overthrow of the tsar and the establishment of a Communist regime under Lenin (1917). The Allies finally defeated the Central Powers (1918). The defeated Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles (1919).

World War II

The Wall Street Crash (1929) and the Great Depression (1930–33) contributed to the rise of fascism in Europe. Nationalists came to power in many countries and attacked weaker neighbours. Italy invaded Abyssinia (1935), Japan attacked China (1937) and Germany invaded Poland (1939).

Although Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy controlled mainland Europe, they were unable to defeat the British Empire (1940). Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, but was stopped close to Moscow (1941). When Japan attacked the American naval base of Pearl Harbour (1941), the United States joined the war.

The Soviet Union defeated the German army at the Battle of Stalingrad (1942–43), while the Western Allies invaded Italy (1943) and France (1944). As the Allied forces approached Berlin, Hitler committed suicide and Germany surrendered (1945). World War II ended when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan (1945).

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