Introduction: Why is it important to understand and define ‘The West’?
The term ‘The West’, ‘The Western world’ and ‘Western culture’ are used quite widely by ‘Western’ politicians, media and academics to refer to the very specific phenomena of ‘Western Civilisation’. Most people who use the term ‘the West’, do so intuitively, and generally agree on who are the main Western countries and states.
However, there are times when some people challenge the label ‘the West’, and seek to dismiss its use – especially when faced with arguments criticising ‘The West’ for its collective history of colonial abuses, ongoing foreign military interventions, and the endless stream of cultural products it exports aggressively across the world.
Generally, most people would agree that England, France, Germany, USA, Canada and Australia are Western countries, while countries such as Nigeria, Turkey and South Korea are ‘Westernised’. Obviously ‘The West’ doesn’t just mean europe, otherwise Australia and USA wouldn’t be included – and Russia would be included.
But what does ‘Western’ mean, where did the term come from, and what definitive criteria can be use to determine what is ‘Western’, ‘Westernised’ and ‘non-Western’?
An understanding of the origins of the West, and what defines it, will decisively help to ascertain and predict its character and behaviour.
The Origins of the West [Part 1]
The Roman Empire
The discussion about the West begins with the Roman Republic (509BC-27BC). The Roman republic lasted until 27BC when its republican political system of elected representatives and unelected aristocrats was overturned by the rise to power of the military general Octavian who became Rome’s first Emperor, transforming Rome into an Empire. The Roman Republic already controlled many provinces around the Mediterranean that it had conquered before it transformed into an Empire. This is because Rome under elected representatives was no less warlike than when ruled under Emperors, in fact probably more so before the imperial period . Between 274–148 BC, the Roman Republic never had a year where it wasn’t at war with other states – including against other republics, like Carthage.
While Western Civilisation certainly arose in Europe, many falsely assume that Western Civilisation is based upon the lands occupied by the Roman Empire, but this is historically inaccurate. The Romans didn’t see themselves as a european empire but more of an mediterranean empire (the word ‘mediterranean’ means in Latin: ‘middle of the Earth’). Rome wasn’t exactly European as there were many places in europe that were unconquered and uncivilised to them, like the north western european territories outside roman control – which were populated by peoples the romans considered barbarians like Caledonia (Scotland), Hibernia (Ireland), or in the north, like Scatinavia (Scandinavia) and in the east, like Magna Germania (Germany/Poland). Furthermore, the Roman Empire was not a european Empire because it had numerous middle-eastern and north african possessions which were integral parts of it
The Roman Empire’s territories do not correspond with the modern ‘West’, nor Europe. The seeds of Western civilisation wouldn’t start in Europe, but in the middle-east. Rome’s acquisition of a middle-eastern province it called Judea, would later see the rise of an obscure middle-eastern religious sect that would later be called Christianity – which would have a seminal role in the creation of Western civilisation.
The Roman Occupied Province of Judea and Judaism
Roman Judea was situated upon the area formerly occupied by the Biblical Ancient Kingdom of Israel (1050–931 BC).
The Kingdom of Israel comprised the 12 tribes of Israel, a nation led out of slavery in Egypt, according to the Tanakh (Jewish scriptures/Old Testament for Christians) and the Quran, who were favoured by God to bear witness of monotheism to the world and righteousness under the law of Moses.
There are a number of archeological and biblical sources for the history of the 12 tribes of Israel, but dates and events are still speculative. However, what the Tanakh teaches, is that Moses took the 12 tribes of Israel out of Egypt and into the wilderness of Sinai. The 12 tribes constitute the 12 clans originating from the 12 sons of Prophet Jacob (Yaqub [a.s.]), who was given the name Israel .
While in the wilderness, Moses conveyed the Law of God he received from revelation (called the Law of Moses, or Mosaic Law) and decreed the building of a mobile tent-shrine to the one God – the Tabernacle. Moses’ teachings are alleged to be incorporated into the ‘5 books of Moses’ (called the Torah by Jews. The books that would come later would record the stories of Prophets, the history of the tribes of Israel, and the Prophetic kings that came after Moses. These texts would be gathered and added to the 5 books of Moses, and later called the Tanakh by Jews, or the Old Testament by Christians).
The 12 tribes were promised by Moses the land of Canaan (modern day Lebanon and Palestine) except  the Philistine city states (modern day Gaza) .
The Conquest of Canaan and the era of Judges
After 40 years of waiting in the wilderness as nomads and growing in strength, the death of Moses saw the 12 tribes begin a successful conquest of Canaan led by Joshua, who was given the title ‘Judge’ in the Tanakh. Each tribe was given an area to settle – except the tribe of Levi, who were to be the priest caste for the other tribes, and would dwell in the cities being paid a tithe by the others. The 12 tribes lived under a loose confederation under successive leaders called ‘Judges’ but were more than judges in the legal sense, and were considered as Prophets in the Tanakh. Judges arose amongst the 12 tribes to unite them to fight external enemies, and sometimes they would arise to revive Mosaic law and monotheism in the face of lapses by the 12 tribes.
Due to border wars with the Philistines, the loose confederation of 12 tribes demanded a King over them, and were united into the Kingdom of Israel by Prophet Samuel (a.s.) under the King Saul (1050BC). Saul was later deposed by the Prophet Samuel due to allegedly not following God’s commands, and was replaced as King by David (1010BC), from the Israelite tribe of Judah.
The Jewish Concept of the Kingdom of God
The lands of Israel were described in the Tanakh as ruled by God, who would be its King . During the time of the Judges, the Judges would direct the tribes of Israel by God’s judgements. After the beginning of kingship, the King was considered the deputy of God, and would rule Israel on His behalf according to Mosaic law. Courts would be set up and to judge by Mosaic law - where even the King would be held accountable and deposed upon serious breach.
Mosaic law was a complete way of life for its time, guiding personal spiritual rituals, personal virtues to economic transactions, structure of Jewish society, laws and state. The Jewish understanding of the Kingdom of God, was an earthly Kingdom that established justice and the worship of God on earth.
The Prophet Kings of Israel
King David (a.s.) conquered the city of Jebus from the Jebusite tribe of Canaan , after which it is eventually renamed Jerusalem (as well as ‘The City of David’, and ‘Zion’). After the passing of David, his son, Solomon [a.s.] becomes king of the Kingdom of Israel (970BC to 931BC), and builds its temple to the One god in Jerusalem. The Kingdom of Israel continued until Solomon’s death (931BC), where it split, with 10 tribes forming the northern Kingdom of Israel (centered around their capital of Samaria) and two tribes, the tribes of Benjamin and the dominant tribe of Judah forming the southern Kingdom of Judah (with the tribe of Levi, or Levites, moving to them shortly after), centered around their capital of Jerusalem.
The Northern kingdom of Israel was eventually conquered by the Assyrian Empire (720BC), and is portrayed in the Tanakh as being conquered as divine retribution for its sins and turning to idolatry. It’s ten tribes were exiled by the Assyrians and became known as the ‘ten lost tribes of Israel’.
It was from the remaining Kingdom of Judah, which was dominated by the Judah Tribe, that the word ‘Judaism’ and ‘Jew’ originate from, i.e. the religion of the people of Judah.
Destruction of the Kingdom of Judah and the beginning of the era of Occupation
The Babylonians eventually conquered the Assyrians, and then took the southern kingdom of Judah in 587BC – destroying the first temple of Solomon – and taking the Jewish population as slaves into exile in Babylon.
The Babylonians were then conquered in turn by the Achaemenid Persians under ‘Cyrus the Great’ (539BC), who allowed the Jews to return back to Canaan and rebuild their (second) temple in Jerusalem. The Jews were given the region around Jerusalem as an autonomous region within the Achaemenid Persian empire, called Yehud Medinata. The Persians were then in turn conquered by Greeks led by Alexander III of Macedon, or ‘Alexander the great’ (331BC) which spread Greek culture (called Hellenism by historians) and Greek language throughout the eastern part of the mediterranean and the middle east, which would later have a decisive impact on creating the borders of Western civilisation.
Alexander’s greek empire split after his death (323BC) and was divided by his generals. Alexander’s General Seleucus eventually took control of the area from modern day Turkey and the Levant (Palestine/Syria) to modern-day Pakistan. This would be the later called the Seleucid Empire. It would clash with Rome in greece, and later crumble and fall to Parthian Persians invading from the East.
Under Seleucid rule, there were many Jews who adhered to the laws of Moses and the belief in one God, and strongly preserved the teachings of their ancestors against the ‘modern’ pagan Hellenism that dominated the Middle-East and eastern mediterranean. However, many Jews became Hellenised and adopted Greek culture, and even greek pagan religions.
The end of occupation, and the establishment of the Kingdom of Judea
In 167BC, the Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes ordered that non-Hellenised Jews were forbidden from practicing their religion, laws and culture, and were ordered to adopt Hellenistic religion, customs and laws. This caused a revolt amongst Jews, called the Maccabean Revolt, which lasted 7 years and pitted Jews against collaborators amongst the ‘Hellenised Jews’ and and Seleucid authorities. The revolt eventually lead to a victory from the Jewish forces, and the establishment of the Kingdom of Judea (160BC-63BC). Hellenistic Pagan temples were torn down and the temple of Solomon was cleansed of idolatry and re-dedicated to the one God (which Jews still celebrate today as Hanukkah) .
The Kingdom of Judea was independent for almost 100 years and expanded its borders during this time. However, Hellenism still was a potent political and cultural force, and Jewish society was split into a number of factions or political parties, with some based upon the preservation of Jewish tradition and the rejection of hellenism, and others who had a mild accommodation to hellenistic culture and philosophy. The three main factions were the Pharisees (Jewish traditionalists), Sadducees (aristocratic and inclined to hellenist philosophy, which, for example, denied the existence of an afterlife) and the Essenes (ascetics) .
Beginning of the Roman Occupation of Judea
In 63BC a civil war in the Kingdom of Judea allowed the Roman Republic an excuse to intervene. Jerusalem was then conquered by the Roman general ‘Pompey the Great’ in 63BC, and the Kingdom of Judea became a client state of Rome with puppet figurehead rulers (known to be oppressive and silence political dissent), like King Herod. In 6BC, the puppet ruler Archelaus was made ruler of Judea by Roman approval, but was even more unpopular than his predecessors. This led to Rome deposing the ruler and turning the Kingdom of Judea into a Roman province under direct Roman rule from 6AD onwards.
Roman occupation and taxation caused the rise of two new factions, the Zealots (followers of Pharisee intent, but actively opposed to Roman occupation and paying taxes to them), and another faction faction or group, known as the Sicarii (Greek, ‘dagger men’), a group of violent individuals, who undertook extreme violent actions against romans and jews identified as tax collectors and collaborators.
The Coming of Jesus (a.s.)
The factionalism between the Jewish movements increased, and over the centuries since the time of Solomon (a.s.) the understanding of Judaism had become stale, with blind adherence to doctrines and laws of Moses, lacking nuance and subtlety in places. The laws of personal conduct and jurisprudence had over the centuries become overly-complex and prescriptive, becoming cumbersome and leading to contradictions beyond the law’s original intent. On the other extremes, many Jews had succumbed to greek philosophy and adopted corruptions into Jewish theology (like denial of an afterlife or a continuing soul), while others adopted asceticism and complete separation from worldly life.
Into this milieu came Jesus (a.s.), an alleged carpenter by trade, and raised in Nazareth (Galilee, north of Judea). He claimed receipt of divine revelation and that he was the prophesied Messiah (from Hebrew, ‘anointed one’) that would come and lead Israel to follow the commands of God, establish justice and vanquish its enemies. It is believed he (a.s.) preached throughout Judea, correcting the superficial and over-complicated understanding and practice of the law held by the Pharisees, returning the understanding to the original practice of the time of Moses. Jesus (a.s.) also is alleged to have argued against the corrupt greek-influenced theology of the Sadducees, and lived a life amongst the community and not separate from it, like the Essenes.
However, although it is believed by many historians today that Jesus was executed by Romans at the initiation of Jewish colonial authorities, however the New Testament’s collection of books and the Quran allege he was seen alive and well after his alleged crucifixion (the Quran argues he wasn’t killed). According to both sources, Jesus (a.s.) was later raised up to heaven and believed will return to fulfill his mission in the future.
Since the raising up of Jesus (a.s.) from the earth, (speculated around 27AD), the disciples of Jesus formed a Council in Jerusalem, capital of the roman province of (occupied) Judea. These individuals were considered practicing Jews for all intents and purposes and some historians go as far as to call them, at this juncture, a sect of Judaism. This Jewish sect followed the teachings of Jesus (a.s.) which attested that the promised Jewish Messiah had come, and were devout Jews adhering to the laws of Moses. They became known by others Jews as the ‘Notzrim’ (Hebrew: Nazarenes, the people of Nazareth, or ‘Nazoraioi’ in Greek).
The decline of the Nazarenes and the birth of Roman/Hellenic Christianity
After the disappearance of Jesus (a.s.), Saul of Tarsus, arose to prominence in the new Jewish sect of Nazarenes. Known later as “St Paul”, Saul was a rabbinical student, tent maker and Roman citizen. He was a follower of the Jewish Pharisee school of thought, who initially persecuted the Nazarenes, but later claimed he had a vision of Jesus and converted to the new sect on the way to Damascus. Paul’s charisma combined with his roman citizenship and knowledge of Greek, Roman culture and Greek philosophy, allowed him to take a leading role in preaching to gentiles (i.e. non-Jews) and he described himself as ‘a Messenger to the gentiles’ . Paul preached a message to gentiles of faith and spirituality, but played down the importance of the law of Moses – which guided Jews in their personal, social and political lives. Some scholars would later argue that Paul attempted to make the teachings of Jesus more appealing to gentiles, by not requiring any strict rules. Furthermore, Paul preached a decidedly passive and submissive doctrine, commanding people to pay their taxes to Rome, that Israelites be apolitical and wait for the return of Jesus, and for slaves to be obedient to their masters without complaint. Paul’s ‘interpretation’ on the new sect of Judaism would be more preferable to the Romans and Greeks than the Mosaic social and political way of life that had been causing Jewish uprisings against Roman occupation.
Paul’s ‘Kingdom of God’ would no longer be an earthly kingdom, as Moses understood it, but Paul would reinterpret it to be purely a ‘spiritual kingdom’ that exists only in ‘hearts’ and in the future world of the coming of Jesus.
It is recorded in the works of Paul, a new Greek-based name for followers of the new Jewish sect: Christians (Greek: Christianoi , followers of Christ , the Greek word for Messiah ).
Paul’s virtual abrogation of the law of Moses, saw him come to blows with the council of Jerusalem over whether the Law of Moses should be followed by gentiles or not. His teachings were notably submissive to the current political authorities, and his ‘understanding’ of the teachings of Jesus became the most influential, despite Paul never having known Jesus or learned from his companions. Centuries later, 14 of the 27 books of the modern Christian New Testament would be composed entirely of his alleged writings alone. He died in Rome, having supported Peter in setting up a Christian community there.
A number of Jewish revolts against Rome rule failed, leading to the destruction of the second temple in 70AD by the Romans. 60 years later another failed and disastrous Jewish revolt called the Bar Kokhba revolt (132 AD – 135 AD) led to the Romans destroying the province of Judea, killing and exiling many of the jewish inhabitants. The romans then renamed Judea to an ancient name for the region ‘Palaestina’, and merged the Roman province of Judea with the Roman province of Syria to create a new province called ‘Syria Palaestina‘. At the decree of Emperor Hadrian, Jews were banned from the city of Jerusalem, which was rebuilt and renamed ‘Aelia Capitolina’ and became a purely pagan capital.
After the destruction of Judea in 130AD, the character of Christianity became dominated by non-Jewish (gentile) communities of Christian believers called ‘churches’ (from Greek ‘Ecclesia’: assembly) who were spread throughout the areas of the mediterranean.
After 130AD, the centre of gravity of Christianity shifted from Jerusalem to the church in Rome, which began to rise in prominence due to being in the capital of the Roman Empire. The Christian community in Rome was founded allegedly by Peter (a disciple of Jesus who is reported to have come to Rome, and was killed by Emperor Nero around 67AD) and later supported by Paul.
However, Christianity began to be viewed with distrust throughout the Roman Empire, leading to many persecutions and killings of Christians lasting on-and-off for over two hundred years. Christians were suspected of not being loyal to Rome and the Emperor, not participating the Roman political system or military, and holding ideas that threatened traditional roman values and beliefs.
During this time, the beliefs of Christian communities were written down, with each community writing its own version of Jesus’s (a.s.) teaching and life – called Gospels (Greek: Evangelion, good news), other writings included history of the companions of Jesus (a.s.) or the early churches, and other writings featuring visions later Christians claim they had received about the future (called Apocalyses from the Greek word for ‘revelation’). Centuries later, these gospels would be gathered up, with some being discarded, and others being chosen depending on whether or not they agreed with Christian beliefs held by the majority (who were Greeks/Romans). Eventually these were compiled into a compilation later to be called ‘the New Testament’ (The Jewish Tanakh was then referred to as the Old Testament).
The Roman Empire Adopts Christianity
Eventually, Christianity persisted through the persecutions and continued to spread to the point it was patroned by the Roman Emperor Constantine – some historians say as a means to supplant his rivals, and use it to enforce order in a declining empire. Constantine issued the edict of Milan, in 313AD officially granting tolerance of Christianity. Eventually, after support from following Christian emperors, under Emperor Theodosius I, in 380AD, Christianity was declared the only legitimate religion of the Roman Empire, and therefore the ‘Catholic‘ Church (from Greek: katholikos, universal). In the years that followed, many pagans were forced to convert to Christianity or lose their positions, be threatened, or even killed.
The Christian Church at this point wasn’t hierarchical or strictly unified. It was composed of a scattered collection of Christian communities (churches) in different areas of the Roman Empire, each led by its own Bishop (from Greek ‘epískopos’, meaning overseer or guardian) and following various gospels or other writings.
Whenever a matter of doctrine or dispute was to be decided, the Roman emperor would summon the bishops of all the areas within the roman empire to attend a council or synod, where each matter would be decided by voting. The Council of Nicaea in 325AD was one such example, convened by Constantine to decide the question of the divinity of Jesus by putting it to a vote, resulting in a majority voting for Jesus being declared one with God, and God himself, despite being opposed by a minority (an example of democracy in theology).
The Split of the Roman Empire into East and West
The adoption of Christianity did not prevent the continuingly endless civil wars, succession crises, constant barbarian invasions and gradual economic decline that wrecked the Roman Empire. After the death of Emperor Theodosius I, in 395AD, the Roman Empire split into two. The Western half being roughly composed of Latin speakers, and the Eastern half of Greek speakers.
The Eastern Roman Empire remained, and was later called by historians, the Byzantines, because Emperor Constantine moved the Roman capital to former Greek city of Byzantium, rebuilt it and renamed it Constantinople. Despite this, the Eastern Roman Empire regarded themselves simply as ‘Romans’ and they viewed their lands as the continuing Roman Empire.
The Western Roman Empire continued to decline, and retreated from its northern territories in europe. The empire lasted (officially) until 4 September 476AD, when Rome was conquered and sacked by a barbarian invasion force led by Odoacer, which deposed the Roman emperor.
The traditions and practices of the West and Eastern churches would later gradually diverge over time, with communication becoming increasingly difficult and theological disagreements would arise due to translation differences, becoming more acute with the decline of the use of Latin and Greek in both areas.
In the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire, the tribes and nomadic hordes of Scatinavia and Germania, the Franks, Visigoths, Vandals, Lombards and Saxons burst into former Roman lands, rampaged and conquered and established a patchwork of new fiefdoms and kingdoms. The relatively uneducated and unsophisticated barbarian tribes couldn’t repair roman technology or buildings, and left them to slowly crumble. The places of learning fell into disrepair and the technological know-how of the romans was lost, which heralded in the what historians would call the european ‘Dark Ages’. The Dark Ages were not a product of Christianity as some modern day Secularists falsely misrepresent, but rather the Dark Ages were an obvious and natural result of the collapse of the (Christian) Roman Empire and the usurpation of its lands by barbarian tribes!
The Eastern Roman Empire didn’t fall, and therefore managed to preserve all the learning and technology from the Roman Empire and never suffered under a ‘dark age’. The Dark Ages would only descend upon the remains of the Western Roman Empire setting the scene for what would come next.
The split in the Roman Empire into a western Latin speaking half, and an eastern Greek speaking half would set the course for the creation of the modern West. The surviving remnant of the fall of Rome, the Church of Rome would operate within the latin speaking half and cause subsequent transformations using a radically altered religion that was taken from the middle-east into Europe and transformed into a hybrid of ancient semitic beliefs and greco-roman philosophy and mythology. This hybrid religion would then create a historical peculiarity over the next 1,000 years that would form Western Civilisation and make it distinct from all others [to be discussed in Part 2].
 For more information about the aggressive expansionism of the Roman Republic, and a philosophical discussion on why republics are prone to war, read ‘Imperialism In Republican Rome: 327-70 B.C’ (1985, William V. Harris)
 The true meaning of the name is disputed amongst historians. Some think it means to ‘rule by God’s authority’, others think it refers to something along the lines of ’success given by God’, or ‘prevailed by God’.
 The Philistines are absent on the list of tribes that were commanded to be destroyed by the 12 tribes of Israel (Deuteronomy 7:1, 20:17 )
 The modern word Palestine is speculated to be derived from Philistine or the Ancient Egyptian word ‘Peleset’ (1100BC-800BC) as the oldest word for south part of Canaan.
 “(God’s) throne, to be king for the Lord thy God” (2 Chron. 9:8; 1 Chron. 28:5; 29:23)
 Exodus 18:13-26, Deuteronomy 1:9-16, Deuteronomy 17:8-20
 1 Chronicles 11:4-5
 2 Maccabees 6:1–11 (Tanakh/Old Testament, Bible)
 For more information, read the account of Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18:1: http://sacred-texts.com/jud/josephus/ant-18.htm
 Romans 15:16
 This term is derived from the Greek translation of the Hebrew work Messiah Christós, the anointed one
Categories: WESTERN POLITICAL THOUGHT, Western Society & Culture
A small correction, the Levant was first under the Ptolemic Empire which had allowed the Jews to practice their religion. When it was conqured by Seleucids then the persecution started.
Love these articles.