Map of Europe 200 BCE
In the early 5th century BCE, the princely centers of the Hallstatt area were abandoned. The center of gravity shifted further west, with richly furnished graves occurring in Switzerland, France and Belgium, with goods decorated in what archaeologists call the “La Tene” style. This style is associated with a people whom the Greeks called “Keltoi”, or Celts.
In the following centuries, elements of this style spread across the whole of western and central Europe. Settlements continued to grow in size, and the larger fortified settlements may well have taken on the dimension of small towns. With its several hundred wattle-and-daub huts, wooden halls and defenses of earth and timber, the Romans had no hesitation in calling such a settlement an “oppidum”, or town.
The trading links between the Mediterranean city-state and temperate zones of Europe grew stronger during this period, but aggressive contact on a large scale also developed between the two regions. From the early 4th century BCE, the Celts of present-day France entered an expansionist phase, raiding and migrating down into Italy. They destroyed several Etruscan city-states in northern Italy and famously sacked Rome, at that time a city-state of only local importance, before being turned back. They then settled in the Po valley of northern Italy, which for a couple of centuries reverted – culturally at least – from being within the Mediterranean city-state zone of Europe to being in the temperate tribal zone.
Another branch of Celts migrated south-east towards the Balkans and Greece. In 279 BCE they ransacked Macedonia and Greece. One group then crossed into Asia Minor, where they would eventually be contained in a region of Anatolia which later became known as Galatia.
The independent city-states of the Mediterranean region continued to flourish for a century and a half after 500 BCE, a period which opened with the defeat of the huge Persian empire by the tiny Greek states in wars of 490-479 BCE. The two leading cities in this struggle were Athens and Sparta. In the period immediately following the Persian Wars, Athens experienced a brief moment of glory, when she ruled the Aegean with her navy and the city was adorned with what many view as some of the greatest architecture and sculpture in human history.
From the 430s the Greek cities were embroiled in the long and bitter Peloponnesian Wars, which ended in Sparta becoming the dominant city in Greece. Like Athens, Sparta’s moment of greatness was brief, and the 4th century saw a continuing struggle for leadership between the cities of Greece.
The walls Surrounding Athens
Finally, the kingdom of Macedon, in the north of Greece, defeated the squabbling cities of the south and established a firm control over the land. The great Macedonian king, Alexander the Great, then led the Greeks in a combined attack on the Persian empire, and within a few short years completely conquered it.
In the west, meanwhile, there was continual conflict between the many Greek cities, as well as between the Greeks, the Carthaginians and the Etruscans. The leading Greek city-state in the regular wars against Carthage was Syracuse. The Etruscan city-states were faced with increasing pressure, first from the north, from the Celts who established themselves in northern Italy in c. 400 BCE, and then, a century later, from the rising power of Rome.
By 300 BCE, the city-state of Rome had come to dominate central Italy. In the following decades she brought the Etruscan cities under her control, and in southern Italy, her hard-won conquest of the Apennine hill tribes put her in a position to threaten the independence of the Greek cities there.
From that moment on, all the great Mediterranean powers took it in turns to oppose Rome. First, the Greek cities of southern Italy called in one of the great generals of the day, Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, to see off the Romans. He failed, and left Italy advising the Greek cities to come to terms with Rome. This they did.
Pyrrhus of Epirus.
Museo Archeologico Nazionale (National Archaeological Museum of Naples)
Then the leading city of Sicily, Syracuse, called on their historic foes, the Carthaginians, to resist Roman power. This led to two great wars between Carthage and Rome (the Punic Wars). The second of these saw the dramatic invasion of Italy by the Carthaginian general Hannibal, and the near-destruction of Roman power. The wars finally ended in 202 BC, in a decisive victory for the Romans.
Her victory over Carthage gave Rome unchallenged leadership in the western Mediterranean, a position which she would use to extend her power inland into Spain and France. Meanwhile, in the east, the conquests of Alexander the Great had been divided between his leading generals, who had each founded a powerful kingdom. Three dominated the eastern Mediterranean – Macedonia, Syria and Egypt.
All three would now each face the Romans in turn.