There are many vestiges of Prehistory in Europe: from cave walls covered with paintings to remains of Neanderthal man, such as the Tautavel man (-450,000 years).
The Celts occupied a large part of Europe: they were mainly craftsmen and farmers. Two major empires were formed during Antiquity: the Greek Empire, and later the Roman Empire. Both of these empires gave Europe art and philosophy and can be attributed to the rich culture and heritage we have today.
Who has never heard of Alexander the Great, the conqueror? Who is unaware of the crossing of the Alps by the Carthaginian general Hannibal, riding on elephants?
Homer left two books filled with epic tales, allowing us to discover this part of the world as it used to be (the Peloponnese, the rivalry between Sparta and Athens, rivalries between Gods, the pride and wishes of men which gave rise to the Illiad – the Trojan War, and then Ulysses´ journey...). Our imagination is fired by images from those times, which have often been taken to the silver screen.
Julius Caesar´s conquests are still well-known today: how he subjugated Egypt by conquering the beautiful Cleopatra, how he conquered Gaul after defeating the Gaulish chief Vercingetorix… The Roman Empire was eventually swept away by the Byzantine Empire.
The Middle Ages
The Emperor Charlemagne is known as the Father of Europe, as he was first one to sketch out the outline of Western Europe: the King of the Franks (France) was crowned Emperor of the West in Rome (Italy) and chooses Aachen (Germany) as the capital. These were feudal times, which witnessed the birth of the first modern States, often rivals, as was the case of France and England.
Those were also times for humanism: thinkers, theologians and philosophers strived to reconcile faith and reason (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Abelard, Roger Bacon….). Trade enjoyed a golden age, as commerce developed in Western Europe thanks to the power of certain city-states, such as Genoa, Florence, Venice and Flanders (Bruges and Antwerp). Hanse lived its glory days.
Those were also the times when the Great Schism between Catholicism and Orthodoxy took place. The power of Muslims started to grow in that period. The Crusades followed one after another. But the Eastern Empire was dismembered by the Ottoman Empire.
Those were the times of the Renaissance and of the Reconquest led by the Catholic Kings against Muslims. Charles the Fifth became head of the Holy Empire. During this period, wars and alliances constantly modified Europe´s borders. In religious terms, the Reformation promoted by Luther and Calvin prevailed, which fractured the Catholics´ unity and led to religious wars. This resulted in the creation of the Federation of United Provinces (presently Dutch provinces) and of the Helvetian Confederation (Switzerland).
The 16th and 17th centuries were marked by religious wars and by the wars led by Louis XIV. An exacerbated nationalism consolidated, leading to rival countries attempting to expand overseas. Colonial empires started to appear, first in America and later in India.
These times are marked by the French Revolution and the development of new concepts, such as democracy. As a result of the campaigns led by Napoleon I, Europe was again torn apart by war. The Congress of Vienna, after Napoleon´s downfall, reshaped the map of Europe. This period saw the unification of Italy and of Germany, as well as the birth of new countries in the Balkans.
Industrial revolution intensified rivalries overseas: colonisation was at its height. Europe was weakened by the two world wars and the spotlight was turned to two new super-powers: the USA and the USSR.
After World War One, the map of Europe was greatly modified by several peace treaties: Germany and Russia lost territories, the Austro-Hungarian Empire disappeared and new countries were born, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Baltic States and Finland became independent.
The main political consequence of World War Two was the splitting of Germany into two different countries: the times of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War. Europe was reconstructed, but its prestige lost splendour in its colonies which, without hesitation, started to claim and obtain their independence.
The Berlin Wall fell in 1989: Germany was reunified. Meanwhile, Yugoslavia ruptured, giving rise to the birth of several States: Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Bosnia. Europe saw its earliest unions, such as the Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg), the European Coal and Steel Community (E.C.S.C.), which brought together France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux in 1950, later the European Economic Community (E.E.C.) and finally the European Union.