In the same way, a country looks very similar to the culture that founded it. The best word to describe this is heritage. Heritage means something inherited from the past. The United States of America started as 13 English colonies, originally founded by Great Britain in the 1600s. Because of this, much of America can be traced to our British heritage.
When we look at a person’s past for understanding, we do not stop with studying his or her parents. We also look at grandparents, great-grandparents, and ancestors as far back in time as possible. It is the same when we study America’s heritage. Even though Great Britain founded the 13 English colonies that would become the United States of America, we can trace America’s heritage to thousands of years ago, to cultures and countries much older than Great Britain.
Historians divide history into different periods, or times, so that we can understand them better. Ancient history refers to the beginning of the history of man up to the end of the Western Roman Empire (A.D. 476). Medieval history begins with the end of the Roman Empire and continues until about 1500. And modern history refers to the time from about 1500 to today. Our first unit focuses on the ancient heritage of America. Although the United States of America is a modern nation, beginning with the founding of Jamestown in 1607, its heritage can be traced back to ancient times.
The United States of America is strongly influenced by the great civilizations of the Ancient Near East and northern Africa. By great, we mean that the civilizations had a large influence on future civilizations. By civilizations, we mean that these peoples had complex agricultural, urban settlements that allowed for inventions and societal developments that made life better. Early, uncivilized peoples are hunters and gatherers who roam over an area (nomads), who do not read and write, and who do not have the technology to build permanent structures. Their lives are short and they do not give much to later nations. Great civilizations, however, are marked by people who develop writing, and who pass on to others inventions or technologies that prolong or improve life. Civilized nations in the ancient world used farming technology that allowed people to have permanent homes and a consistent food supply.
The world’s great early civilizations began on the banks of rivers. Ancient people who lived near rivers could fish for food, drink water, travel on boats, and use the water to irrigate their lands. Irrigate means to water fields so crops can grow. Water from large rivers allowed these people to build strong societies.
One of the beliefs of nearly all ancient people was that the world was created and ruled by many gods. There was a god for the wind, a god for the ocean, and a god for the rain. People who believe in many gods are called polytheists. Polytheists believe that if you want something, you can make a sacrifice to a god, and this god might then give it to you. If you want it to rain, you might kill an animal and burn it to make the rain god happy. Sadly, some polytheists sacrificed other humans, even children, to their gods.
Polytheists did not believe that there was a clear right and wrong. Since there were many gods, and sometimes the gods competed with each other, what was right often depended on what the ruler said was right. In Egypt, in ancient Africa, the leader was called pharaoh, and all Egyptians had to consider pharaoh a god. For the pharaoh, right was whatever made him strong. This meant that if the pharaoh believed killing someone made him strong, then killing was right.
One people of ancient times, the Hebrews, believed in one God. This idea is known as monotheism. The Hebrews believed that their God created a moral system built on what was right and what was wrong. Hebrews believed that God gave them their moral system as well as their system of laws. It is from the Hebrews that Western man received these foundations. America’s laws are founded on Mosaic Law, which includes the well-known Ten Commandments.
Much of America’s culture, language, laws, government, philosophy, and performing arts comes from ancient Greece and Rome. Classical Greece and Rome established democracy and representative democracy, cultural norms, and artistic practices that are exhibited in the United States of America today. The American Founding Fathers thought so highly of ancient Greece and Rome that they used the architectural styles of the Classical world, known as Neoclassicism, for the most important buildings in Washington, D.C. To appreciate American history, it is necessary to understand ancient Greece and Rome.
Within the Roman Empire, a Hebrew carpenter and his wife had a boy named Jesus who founded the first universal belief, the first religion open to all people in the world, and brought the idea of equality before God to all. This belief would have a direct role in the establishment of the United States of America. Jesus Christ taught that God loved all people in an equal manner and that salvation was open to all, regardless of one’s tribe or nation. About one thousand, seven hundred and seventy-six years after the birth of Christ, Thomas Jefferson wrote in America’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, “…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Jefferson linked the ancient religious beliefs of Christianity to the founding of the world’s first modern republic. This heritage from ancient times shaped the United States of America that we know today.