Europe today is a continent, or a group of countries each with its own identity, language, culture, customs and some shared history. This is similar to India, where a number of states with different cultural backgrounds have come together to form the Union of India, except that, Europe is not a single country – but a group of countries. The member countries of Europe have worked together in recent times, and signed a number of agreements, so that for a person traveling to Europe, it looks like a single country. There are not much border checks, customs and separate visa requirements when moving between several European countries. Yet each of the country in Europe is an independent sovereign state. More on this later.
Things with Europe have not always been so hunky dory as they are today. Until very recently, there have had been countries of Europe, which were ruled by monarchs and dictators. There were times when member countries of Europe had been at bitter war against each other, when they had invaded their neighbor’s territory, executed mass killings of people with alternative religious views, and had strict restrictions for movement across the borders. Two huge wars fought between the countries made them realize the devastating effect of war, and the impact it had on the politics and economy of the continent. The countries of Europe have realized the need for co-existence of members with opposing views, and have made huge strides improving the relations with their neighbors, which have helped the region to a vast extent.
Let us go back in time to trace how things got from how they were to how they are today. This will help you appreciating Europe in a much better way when traveling through the continent.
Three independent civilizations which date back to around 5000 years from today rose at different parts of the world, along the shores of massive rivers. These civilizations were settlements where humans started trying out a civilized life for the first time. These were the Indus valley civilization in present day Pakistan, the Sumerian civilization in present day Iraq, and the Egyptian civilization along the river Nile. Each of these civilizations lasted several centuries, during which humans learnt to lead a farming, trade and business oriented urban life.
Around the same time as these ancient civilizations, in present day Greece, the seeds for a new world was being sown. People inhabiting the Greek islands were involved in trade, developed art and cultural symbols, practiced organized religion, spoke a common language, and in general laid the ground for the start of a new empire. This continued for over 2000 years, and gave rise to one of the first recognized civilizations in present day Europe – the Greeks. The Greeks ruled over the region surrounding the Mediterranean sea for a thousand years starting from 1000 BC. Science, mathematics, religion, philosophy, trade, and art flourished during the times of the Greeks. At the height of Greek civilization, the time around 500 BC and later, personalities well-known today, like Pythagoras, Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, lived and taught. To cap it all, Alexander the great, a well known Greek emperor, conquered and ruled a large part of the world known to humans back then, including parts of India. This was the period when Chandragupta Maurya, and Emperor Asoka ruled over a majority of the Indian subcontinent.
The war of the Greeks with a number of their neighbors have been romanticized by the Hollywood. Also, Greek mythology has had been a Pandora’s box of ideas for film makers through the years, and a number of Hollywood films are based on the wars waged by the Greeks.To name a few, Troy, Clash of Titans, 300, Percy Jackson, and Alexander are some of the recent movies done based on Greek wars, or mythology.
During the Greek era, the rest of the European mainland was still inhabited by a variety of tribes, who kept moving across the land, and conquering new areas from other tribes. There were tribes like the Celts, the Germanics, the Slavs, the Etruscans, the Iberians, and what not. Hostility was in the air, and cut-throat rivalry and war was the norm of the day. Anarchy ruled over around Europe, and finally lead to the rise of the Roman Empire, which paved the way for a greater civilization of the continent.
After Alexander, Greeks became weak. At the same time, another mighty civilization was getting prepared to rule the world, in present day Italy – the Romans. Several wars were fought between the Romans and the Greeks, and finally, Romans established themselves as the biggest empire that ruled the world till then. In fact, Rome was established as a republic, and continued to thrive through a large part of the 500 years before Christ. Wealth and treasures poured into Rome, and most of the European nations today – including France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Turkey were part of the Roman republic. There was a proper government, taxation, traders, entertainment, art and music. Eventually, corruption and favoritism grew, and the Roman republic had to fall. A prominent politician and warlord in Rome, Julius Caesar, worked for the establishment of a mighty Roman Empire.
Even though the Romans conquered the Greeks, they followed the Greek symbolism to a large extent. The Greek and Roman gods and cultural icons were mostly similar, and the Romans were never shy of acknowledging the intelligence of the Greeks wherever necessary. The Roman Empire, during its heyday, extended from Turkey in the east, all the way to Britain and Spain in the West. The people from outside the Roman Empire were called barbarians. Huge temples, aqueducts, roads, theaters, baths, palaces and whole cities were constructed all over Europe by the Romans. A large part of art and cultural remains, baths, and amphitheaters you will see today in Europe were from the Roman era. Trade flourished as far east as India and China. Christianity, which was founded during the Roman times, was established and widely flourished in all of the Roman conquered lands. Though Roman emperors opposed Christianity initially, the religion spread slowly and surely to the whole of the Roman empire. When the Roman empire finally fell, almost the whole of Europe had been converted to Christianity and the religion was here to stay.
Anything too big and complex would be unstable. Over the course of time, too many barbarians and new empires were attacking the Roman Empire on all sides, and given the spread-out nature of conquered lands, Romans could not hold their fort too long. The people in the faraway conquered lands of the empire loathed the transport of all their wealth and earnings to Rome. Add to this, the conflicts with the Persian empire in the present day Arab world, and the attacks from the Nords and Germanic tribes lead to the fall of the empire. By around 500 AD, the Roman Empire was no more, though the effect of the Romans would stay behind for centuries to come, and remain till the present day.