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Cultural Literacy: History to 1550

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy

Section: World History to 1550


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Spanish Inquisition
The church court of the inquisition, as established in Spain in the late fifteenth century. (Use context clues!)
A queen of Egypt in the first century B.C., famous for her beauty, charm, and luxurious living. She lived for some time in Rome with Julius Caesar. For several years after Caesar was assassinated, she lived in Egypt with the Roman politician Mark Antony. Antony killed himself on hearing a false report that she was dead. After Antony's death, she committed suicide by allowing an asp, a poisonous snake, to bite her.
Julius Caesar
A Roman general and dictator in the first century B.C. In military campaigns to secure Roman rule over the province of Gaul, present-day France, he gained much prestige. The Roman senate, fearing his power, ordered him to disband his army, but he refused, crossed the Rubicon River, returned to Rome with his army, and made himself dictator. He was assassinated by his friend Brutus and others on the ides of March in 44 B.C.
Dark Ages
A term sometimes applied to the early Middle ages, the first few centuries after the Fall of Rome. The term suggests prevailing ignorance and barbarism, but there were forces for culture and enlightenment throughout the period.
Richard the Lionhearted
An English king of the twelfth century. He was a famed warrior and fought in the crusades.
A leading city of ancient Greece, famous for its learning, culture, and democratic institutions. The political power of the city was sometimes quite limited, however, especially after its defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. Pericles was a noted ruler of the city.
Iron Age
The period of history, succeeding the Bronze Age, when people first learned to extract iron from ore and use it to forge tools, weapons and other objects. The first organized production of objects developed in southwestern Asia shortly after 2000 B.C.
A huge territorial empire that flourished in west Africa during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Its capital was Timbuktu, which became a center of Islamic learning. The empire controlled trade routes that stretched from the edge of the Sahara in the north to forests in the south that had carried gold and other luxuries.
(Johann) Gutenberg
A German printer of the fifteenth century, who invented the printing press. He also invented the technique of printing with "movable type"--that is, with one piece of type for each letter, so that the type could be reused after a page was printed.
A statesman of ancient Greece, who tried to unite the country under the leadership of his own city, Athens. He also promoted democracy within Athens. His rule is sometimes known as the Golden Age of Greece. Many magnificent buildings, including the Parthenon, were built under his administration.
Attila the Hun
A king of the Huns in the fifth century. His forces overran many parts of central and eastern Europe. His armies were known for their cruelty and wholesale destruction. He was called the "scourge of God."
Hundred Years' War
A war between France and England that lasted from the middle of the fourteenth century to the middle of the fifteenth. The kings of England invaded France, trying to claim the throne. Toward the end of the war, Joan of Arc helped rally the French, who finally drove out the English.
A system of writing with pictures that represent words or sounds. The ancient Egyptians wrote with them.
Under feudalism, a landed estate given by a lord to a vassal in return for the vassal's service to the lord. The vassal could use this estate as long as he remained loyal to the lord.
A cruel and insane ruler of the Roman Empire in the first century A.D.; one of the twelve Caesars. To humiliate the senators of Rome, he appointed his horse to the senate.
Hellenistic Age
The period from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. to the middle of the first century B.C. It was marked by Greek and Macedonian emigration to areas conquered by Alexander and by the spread of Greek civilization from Greece to northern India.
(Juan) Ponce de Leon
A Spanish explorer and conquistador of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, who conquered Puerto Rico. He discovered and named Florida while searching for the legendary Fountain of Youth.
(Girolamo) Savonarola
An Italian religious reformer of the fifteenth century. He spent most of his career in Florence, Italy, where his fiery oratory whipped up popular fervor against corruption of church and state. He was eventually convicted of heresy and hanged and burned.
The language of ancient Rome. When Rome became an empire, the language spread throughout southern and western Europe.
A tribe from western Asia who conquered much of central and eastern Europe during the fifth century. They were known for their cruelty and destructiveness.
Marco Polo
An Italian explorer of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries; one of the first Europeans to travel across Asia. He visited the court of Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler of China, and became a government official in China. His account of his travels was distributed after his return to Italy.
Byzantine Empire
An empire, centered at Constantinople, that began as the eastern portion of the Roman Empire; it included parts of Europe and western Asia. As the western Roman Empire declined, this one grew in importance, and it remained an important power in Europe until the eleventh century. It was conquered by Turkish forces in the fifteenth century.
(Thomas) More
An English statesman and scholar of the sixteenth century; the author of Utopia, and a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. He was beheaded because he refused to recognize Henry VIII as head of the Roman Catholic Church in England.
Ottoman Empire
An empire developed by Turks between the fourteenth and twentieth centuries. It was succeeded in the 1920s by the present-day Republic of Turkey. At its greatest extent, it included many parts of southeastern Europe and the Middle East.
A Roman slave of the first century B.C. He led an insurrection of slaves that defeated several Roman armies before being crushed.
A court established by the Roman Catholic Church in the thirteenth century to try cases of heresy and other offenses against the church. Those convicted could e handed over to the civil authorities for punishment, including execution.
Holy Roman Empire
A major political institution in Europe that lasted from the ninth to the nineteenth centuries. It was loosely organized and modeled somewhat on the ancient Roman Empire. It included great amounts of territory in the central and western parts of Europe. Charlemagne was its first emperor. In later years, the emperors were German and Austrian. The empire declined greatly in power after the sixteenth century.
The greatest orator of ancient Greece. He is said to have overcame a childhood stutter by forcing himself to speak with pebbles in his mouth, He delivered speeches called Philippics attacking King Philip of Macedon, who was an enemy of his city of Athens.
(Christopher) Columbus
An Italian explorer responsible for the European discovery of America in 1492. He had sailed across the Atlantic Ocean from Spain, under the patronage of the king and queen, Ferdinand and Isabella, hoping to find a westward route to India. His ships were the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. He made four voyages to the New World, visiting the Bahamas, Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Trinidad, Venezuela, and the coast of Central America.
Peloponnesian War
A long war between the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta in the fifth century B.C. Sparta won the war.
Alexander the Great
A ruler of Greece in the fourth century B.C. As a general, he conquered most of the ancient world, extending the civilization of Greece east to India. He is said to have wept because there were no worlds left to conquer. In his youth, Aristotle was his tutor.
Wars of the Roses
A series of wars fought by two English houses, or families, in the late fifteenth century for rule of the country. The House of Lancaster had a red rose as its emblem; the House of York had a white rose. The forces of the House of Lancaster won, and their leader, Henry Tudor, father of the future King Henry VIII, became king.
An ancient Roman politician who helped assassinate his friend Julius Caesar. He is a leading character in the play Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare.
(Cesare) Borgia
An Italian politician of the late fifteenth and early sixteen centuries, known for his treachery and cruelty. His sister was Lucrezia.
(Desiderius) Erasmus
A Dutch scholar of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, who attempted to sole some of the controversies of the time of the Reformation. He urged changes in the general views of Christians, including more personal piety, reforms that would make the Roman Catholic Church less worldly, and the study of the literature of ancient Greece and Rome. His most famous work is a satire entitled The Praise of Folly.
Black Death
A disease that killed nearly half the people of western Europe in the fourteenth century. It was a form of the bubonic plague.
In the Roman Catholic Church, a declaration by church authorities that those who say certain prayers or do good deeds will have some or all of their punishment in purgatory remitted.
William the Conqueror
The duke of Normandy, a province of France, and the leader of the Norman Conquest of England. He defeated the English forces at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and became the first Norman king of England.
A region of western Asia, in what is now Iraq, known as the "cradle of civilization." Western writing first developed there, done with sticks on clay tablets. Agricultural organization on a large scale also began here. Governmental systems in the region were especially advanced.
An ancient Greek historian, often called the father of history. His history of the invasion of Greece by the Persian Empire was the first attempt a narrative history and was the beginning of all Western history writing.
An ancient Greek historian and general. His history of the Peloponnesian War, in which he fought, is famous for its careful reporting of events and its sharp analysis of causes and effects.
A city founded by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great as capital of the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Constantine ruled over both parts of the empire. It was conquered by Turkish forces in the fifteenth century. Today it is known as Istanbul.
A family of skilled politicians and patrons of the arts who lived in Florence, Italy, during the Renaissance.
Battle of Hastings
A battle in southeastern England in 1066. Invaders from the French province of Normandy, led bu William the Conqueror, defeated English forces under King Harold. William declared himself king, thus bringing about the Norman Conquest of England.
The first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire; his name means "Charles the Great." He was kind of France in the late eighteenth and early ninth centuries and was crowned emperor in 800. He is especially remembered for his encouragement of education.
An ancient Roman emperor, famed for his cruelty. He had his mother and wife killed and kicked his mistress to death while she was pregnant. He also persecuted Christians, blaming them for a great fire in Rome. According to tradition, he put the apostles Peter and Paul to death.
(Thomas) a Beckett
An English bishop of the twelfth century. He was archbishop of Canterbury and thus leader of the Christian Church in England. He defended church interests against interference by the king. Four of the king's men, thinking that the king wanted him put to death, went to the cathedral and murdered him.
An ancient Greek astronomer, living in Egypt, who proposed a way of calculating the movements of the planets on the assumption that they, along with the sun and the stars, were embedded in clear spheres that revolved around the Earth. His beliefs prevailed for nearly fifteen hundred years, until the modern model of the solar system, with the sun at the center, was developed from the ideas of Copernicus.
A king of ancient Mesopotamia, known for putting the laws of his country into a formal code.
A city in ancient Mesopotamia, famed for its hanging gardens and for the sensual lifestyle of its people. The Jews were taken captive here in the sixth century B.C.
A general from the ancient city of Carthage. During the second of the Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome, he took an army of more than 100,000, supported by elephants, from Spain to Italy in an effort to conquer Rome. The army had to cross the Alps, and this troop movement is still regarded as one of the greatest in history. He won several victories on this campaign but was not able to take Rome.
Constantine the Great
A Roman emperor of the fourth century. Early in his reign, he issued a document allowing Christians to practice their religion within the empire.
Trojan War
a war in ancient times between forces from the mainland of Greece and the defenders of the city of Troy, in what is now Turkey. The war seems to have begun about 1200 B.C. It is the basis of many classical legends, some of which appear in the ancient poems the Iliad and the Aeneid.
Lady Godiva
An English noblewoman of the eleventh century. She supposedly rode naked through her town of Coventry to save the people from an oppressive tax.
(Anne) Boleyn
The second wife of King Henry VIII of England; the mother of Queen Elizabeth I. She was convicted of adultery and beheaded.
The methods of training and standards of behavior for knights in the Middle Ages. The code emphasized bravery, military skill generosity in victory, piety, and courtesy to women.
Augustus Caesar
The first emperor of Rome. In his reign, from 44 B.C. to A.D. 14, Rome enjoyed peace (Pax Romana), and the arts flourished. The time of his reign is considered a golden age for literature in Rome. Jesus was born during his reign. A month is named after him.
Genghis Khan
A Mongolian general and emperor of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, known for his military leadership and great cruelty. He conquered vast portions of northern China and southwestern Asia.
Warriors from Scandinavia who raided much of coastal Europe in the eighth to tenth centuries. They traveled in boats with high bows and sterns, carefully designed for either rough seas or calm waters. Eventually some settled in the countries they plundered and established new societies.
A Native American people, living in what is now Mexico and northern Central America, who had a flourishing civilization from before the birth of Jesus until around 1600, when they were conquered by the Spanish. They are known for their astronomical observations, accurate calendars sophisticated hieroglyphics, and pyramids.
A politician of Ancient Rome, known for his insistence that Carthage was Rome's permanent enemy He had a custom of ending all his speeches in the Roman senate with the words "Carthage must be destroyed."
Bronze Age
A period of history from roughly 4000 B.C. to the onset of the Iron Age. During this age, people learned to make bronze tools. In Mesopotamia, the wheel and ox-drawn plow were in use.
An ancient city in north Africa, established by traders from Phoenicia. It was a commercial and political rival of Rome for much of the third and second centuries B.C. The general Hannibal attempted to capture Rome by moving his army from Spain through the Alps, but he was prevented and finally defeated in his own country. At the end of the Punic Wars, the Romans destroyed this city, as the senator Cato had long urged. The character Dido, lover of Aeneas in the Aeneid was a queen of this city.
Persian Empire
An empire in western Asia in ancient times. Darius and Xerxes attempted to conquer Greece several times in the fifth century B.C. but were defeated in the Battle of Marathon and several other land and sea battles.
Stone Age
A period encompassing all of human history, perhaps several million years, before the Bronze Age.
Battle of Marathon
A famous battle in the fifth century B.C., in which the ancient Greeks defeated a much larger army of the Persian empire.
(Leif) Erikson
A Norwegian explorer of about the year 1000. He is said to have discovered a place n North America called Vinland. Several locations are possible for Vinland, including the Canadian province of Newfoundland and New England. He is sometimes called the European discoverer of America, instead of Columbus.
An Aztec emperor of the sixteenth century. HE was overthrown by the Spanish conquistadors under Hernando Cortes.
The family name of eleven rulers of Rome, who were emperors. The emperors of Germany and Russia in modern times adapted the word into titles for themselves--kaiser and czar
A major dynasty that ruled China from the mid-fourteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries. It was marked by a great expansion of Chinese commerce into East Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.
(Vasco Nunez de) Balboa
A Spanish explorer of the sixteenth century who discovered the Pacific Ocean and claimed it for Spain.
The cultural rebirth that occurred in Europe from roughly the fourteenth through the middle of the seventeenth centuries, based on the rediscovery of the literature of Greece and Rome. During this period, America was discovered, and the Reformation began; modern times are often considered to have begun with this rebirth. major figures include Galileo, Shakespeare, da Vinci, and Michelangelo.
Henry VIII
A king of England in the early sixteenth century. With the support of his Parliament, he established himself as head of the Christian Church in England, in place of the pope, after the pope refused to allow his marriage to Catherine of Aragon to be dissolved. Since that time, except for a few years of rule under his daughter Mary I, who was a Roman Catholic, England has been officially a Protestant nation.
Ancient circles of large, upright stones that stand alone on a plain in England. There is some controversy about who shaped, carried, and set up these huge stones, which perhaps had religious and astronomical uses. Scholars theorize that it was built in three phases beginning in about 2800 B.C. The huge stones are believed to date from 1800 to 1500 B.C.
The Spanish military leaders who established Spanish rule in the New World by overthrowing Native American governments.
(Nicolaus) Copernicus
A Polish scholar of the sixteenth century who argued that the Earth moves about the sun.
Organizations of artisans in the Middle Ages that sought to regulate the price and quality of products such as weaving and ironwork. They survived into the eighteenth century. They gave way to trade unions, a very different type of organization.
A Native American people who ruled Mexico and neighboring areas before the Spaniards conquered the region in the sixteenth century. Starting in the twelfth century, they built up an advanced civilization and empire.
A system of obligations that bound lords and their subjects in Europe during much of the Middle Ages. In theory, the king owned all or most of the land and gave it to his leading nobles in return for their loyalty and military service. The nobles in turn held land that peasants, including serfs, were allowed to farm in return for the peasants' labor and a portion of their produce.
(Tomas de) Torquemada
The first inquisitor-general of the Inquisition in Spain, in the late fifteenth century. He was known for his severity, especially with persons who were charged with illegally practicing Judaism. It is estimated
(Francis) Bacon
An English politician, scientist, and author of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; one of the leaders of the Renaissance in England.
Magna Carta
A list of rights and privileges that King John of England signed under pressure from English noblemen in 1215. It established the principles that the king could not levy taxes without consent of his legislature, or parliament, and that no free man in England could be deprived of liberty or property except through a trial or other legal process.
Joan of Arc
A French military leader of the fifteenth century, a national heroine who at the age of seventeen took up arms to establish the rightful king on the French throne. She claimed to have heard God speak to her in voices. These claims eventually led to her trial for heresy and her execution by burning at the stake. She is a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.
A Native American people who built a notable civilization in western South America in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The center of their empire was in present-day Peru. Francisco Pizarro of Spain conquered the empire.
A mounted warrior in Europe in the middle ages. Over the centuries, the status has lost its military functions, but it has survived as a social distinction in Europe, especially England.
A Kurdish general who conquered Egypt and Syria in the twelfth century. His capture of Jerusalem precipitated a crusade. He became legendary for his military genius and generosity.
(Lorenzo de) Medici
An Italian ruler of the fifteenth century, know as "the Magnificent." He was patron of several of the great artists of the Renaissance, including Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci.
A pharaoh, or king of Egypt, who lived about 1400 B.C. His reign was relatively unimportant, but the discovery of his unplundered tomb in the 1920s is numbered among the great archaeological discoveries of all time.
(Ferdinand) Magellan
A Portuguese navigator of the sixteenth century. His crew was the first to sail around the Earth, although he himself was killed on the voyage.
An ancient Greek city-state and rival of Athens. It was known for its militaristic government and for its educational system designed to train children to be devoted citizens and brave soldiers. They defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War.
(Francisco) Pizarro
A Spanish conquistador of the sixteenth century, who overthrew the rulers of the Incas and established the nation of Peru.
A city of the Roman Empire, on the Italian seacoast, that was known for the luxury and dissipated ways of its citizens. It was destroyed in the first century by an eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius.
A series of wars fought from the late eleventh through thirteenth centuries, in which European kings and warriors set out to gain control of the lands in which Jesus lived, known as the Holy Land. At that time, these areas were held by Muslims. Jerusalem was conquered in 1099 but failed to secure the Holy Land. They were driven out by the late thirteenth century. Nevertheless, they had several lasting results, including the exposure of European to the goods, technology, and customs of Asia.
A religious movement in the sixteenth century that began as an attempted reform of the Roman Catholic Church but resulted in the founding of Protestant churches separate from it. Some of the leaders of it were Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox. It was established in England after King Henry VIII declared himself head of the Christian Church in that country.
A people of northern Europe, known for their cruelty and destructiveness, who invaded the Roman Empire and plundered Rome itself in the fifth century.
(Hernando) Cortes
A Spanish explorer and conquistador of the sixteenth century. He overthrew the Aztec rulers of Mexico and established the authority of Spain over the country.
Ferdinand and Isabella
A king and queen of Spain in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. They united their country and sponsored the exploration of the New World by Christopher Columbus.
A river in northern Italy that Julius Caesar crossed with his army, in violation of the orders of the leaders in Rome, who feared his power. A civil war followed, in which Caesar emerged ruler of Rome. It is also an expression for taking a dangerous step.
Rosetta Stone
A stone discovered in Egypt in the late eighteenth century, inscribed with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and a translation of them in Greek. The stone proved to be the key to understanding Egyptian writing.
An ancient nation of the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Its territory included what are today coastal areas of modern Israel and Lebanon. They were famed as traders and sailors. They developed an alphabet that was adapted by Greeks and Romans into the alphabet used in writing English.

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