The Renaissance was a time of rebirth and renewal in Europe. It was a time of great intellectual and artistic achievement when the arts, science, literature, and philosophy flourished. But how did Europe get there? What came before the Renaissance?

The easiest answer is to say “the Middle Ages” or “Medieval times”. While this was the era that came immediately before the Renaissance and overlapped with it a bit, to really know what came before the Renaissance we need to turn the clock back 2000 years.

In this article, we’ll review the period of Pre-Renaissance starting with the Roman Republic and leading to the end of the Middle Ages.

Buckle up!

Pre-Renaissance: What Came Before the Renaissance?

As we mentioned in the introduction, we’ll cover a 2000-year arch of history to truly understand and appreciate what came before the Renaissance. Each era before the Renaissance contributed to what the Renaissance became.

The Renaissance clearly harkened back to an older “Golden Age” of Classical Antiquity. But did you know that events at the height of the Middle Ages – like the Black Death and the Crusades – also affected the Renaissance?

Let’s find out how.

We will be reviewing the following eras in European history that came before the Renaissance:

  1. Roman Republic: 509 BC – 27 BC
  2. Roman Empire: 27BC – 395 AD
  3. Western Roman Empire – 395 AD – 480 AD
  4. Eastern Roman Empire – 395 AD – 1453 AD
  5. Middle Ages – 500 AD – 1500 AD

The Renaissance started in Florence in the 1300s. But it took time before it fully spread across Europe. For instance, the Renaissance was late in reaching Northern Europe. It also took time for it to be adopted in England.

So when we look at the chronology of eras, there was an overlap between the start of the Renaissance and the late Middle Ages. Some parts of Europe were experiencing the Renaissance while others were still in the Middle Ages. Only when we reached the period of the high Renaissance, do we truly close the chapter on the Middle Ages in Europe.

So with that as background, let’s take a closer look at each of the eras that came before the Renaissance.

#1. Roman Republic: 509 BC – 27 BC

Rome is set to have been founded around 753 BC near the Palatine Hill in central Rome where during the empire, Emperors like Augustus built palaces, ruins of which are still visible today. From the time of its founding till 509 BC is the earliest period of Roman history and is referred to as the period of the Roman Kingdom.

Precise records of this time are sketchy but somewhere around the turn of the 6th century to 5th century BC, the Roman Kingdom was overthrown and a Republic was established. Today, we consider the Roman Republic to have started around 509 BC.

The Roman Republic expanded its power beyond the city of Rome and would eventually conquer the entire Italian peninsula. It was now a major power in the Mediterranean, rivaled only by Carthage. Inevitably, Rome and Carthage clashed in a series of wards referred to as the Punic Wars. Eventually, Carthage was defeated and Rome became the sole, dominant power in the Mediterranean. It could now focus on expansion.

The Roman Republic’s expansionary attempts radiated in all directions from Rome. They defeated Perseus of Macedonia (a successor of Alexander the Great), Vercingetorix the Gaul (in modern-day France) and Cleopatra in Egypt.

Before the Renaissance - The Roman Forum
The Roman Forum
(Source – CC BY-SA 3.0)

The success of these military conquests conferred great political power to Generals and eventually led to civil wars where the Generals clashed with each other. The most famous of these were Julius Caesar and Pompey. Julius Caesar was declared dictator for life but was assassinated in 44 BC.

Julius Caesar’s assassination led to more civil war with Octavion (Caesar’s heir) and Mark Antony on one side against Caesar’s killers Brutus and Cassius on the other. The former defeated the latter, and then they turned on each other. At the famous Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra. 4 short years later, in 27 BC, the Roman Senate gave him enough powers to effectively make him Emperor. Octavian became Emperor Augustus and the Roman Republic came to an end.

The Roman Republic was important for the Renaissance because it was a time before the Renaissance that had a democracy and a republic. City-states in Renaissance Italy, like Genoa, Venice and Florence would look back on this time in Roman Antiquity as a model to be emulated.

#2. Roman Empire: 27BC – 395 AD

In this section, we will talk about the unified Roman Empire – that is the empire before its split into Eastern and Western halves.

The first 200 years of the Roman Empire were of relative peace. The Pax Romana ensured political stability and economic prosperity. In this period, Rome’s empire expanded further into the Middle East, Northern Europe and parts of Africa.

Before the Renaissance - Augustus
Emperor Augustus
(Source – CC BY-SA 3.0)

Cities were built, and the Romanizing of provinces was accelerated. Latin became the lingua franca of the empire, and many of the Roman systems, like law and taxation were adopted throughout much of Europe.

Romans prayed to many gods and goddesses, and the persecution of Christians was widespread and supported by a succession of Roman emperors. But in 313 AD, at the Edict of Milan, Emperor Constantine I declared tolerance of Christianity within the Roman Empire and in 380 AD it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

In 324 AD, Constantine built his capital city on the Bosporus and called it Constantinople. The center of gravity of the Roman Empire shifted eastwards and on the death of Emperor Theodosius I in 395 AD, the empire was divided between his two sons. Honorius became Emperor of the West and Arcadius of the East. The split between the Eastern and Western Roman empires was complete.

#3. Western Roman Empire – 395 AD – 480 AD

Honorius ruled first from Milan (then called Mediolanum) and then from Ravenna. Ravenna remained the capital of the Western Roman Empire till its collapse in 476 AD at the Battle of Ravenna when the Western Roman Army was defeated by the Ostrogoths.

Ravenna remained the capital of the Ostrogoths for about 65 years until 540 AD when it was recaptured by the Eastern Roman Empire also called the Byzantine Empire. It remained in Byzantine hands for another 200 years.

Before the Renaissance would bring in beautiful works of art, the Byzantines left their architectural mark on Ravenna. This is why Ravenna is today one of the best places in the West to see amazing Byzantine art and architecture.

#4. Eastern Roman Empire – 395 AD – 1453 AD

The Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantine Empire became the sole continuation of the Roman Empire after the fall of The Western Roman Empire in Ravenna in 476 AD. The Byzantine Empire differed from the Western Empire in some critical ways.

First, the dominant language was Greek and not Latin. Its culture was Hellenistic rather than traditional Roman. And the dominant religion was Eastern Orthodox Christianity rather than Roman Catholicism.

The split between East and West would be more than territorial and temporal. It was also religious. Known as the Great Schism of 1054, the Pope in Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople declared their mutual excommunications.

The Byzantine Empire was in its heyday during the reigns of Justinian I (527 AD – 565 AD) and his wife Theodora. In these years, the Byzantine Empire reconquered much of Italy and parts of North Africa from the Ostrogoths.

The decline of the Byzantine Empire started with the Fourth Crusade in 1204 AD when Constantinople was sacked by crusader armies. The city eventually came under Ottoman rule when it finally fell in 1453 AD. The fall of Constantinople marked the end of the Eastern Roman Empire and with it.

This particular event – the Fall of Constantinople – was to have a profound impact on the Renaissance. Renaissance Europe, which was already trying to revive Classical Antiquity, now saw an inflow of manuscripts, Greek scholars and artists from Constantinople who had fled the city before its fall. This influx further enriched the cultural landscape of Europe and helped spur the Renaissance further.

#5. Middle Ages – 500 AD – 1500 AD

The start of the Middle Ages started roughly after the fall of the Western Empire and continued for a thousand until the Renaissance had fully blossomed and spread across Europe.

Sometimes, the Middle Ages get dismissed as this period between the great Roman Empire and the amazing Renaissance. But the Middle Ages had a lot to offer to history.

Here are some names from the Middle Ages to prove this point: Charlemagne, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard Lionheart, Joan of Arc, Marco Polo, the Magna Carta, The Black Death, The Crusades, Gothic Cathedrals, and Universities. It is important to note that the latter – Universities – were set up before the Renaissance and so when new Universities were set up during the Renaissance, they had a body of knowledge to draw upon.

The Middle Ages can be broadly split into three parts: The Early Middle Ages, the High Middle Ages and the Late Middle Ages. The Early Middle Ages began around 500 AD and went on till about 1000 AD. The High Middle ages from 1000 AD till 1300 AD. And the Late Middle Ages from 1300 AD till 1500 AD. None of these dates are truly exact and so should be used solely as guideposts.

The Early Middle Ages (500 AD – 1000 AD)

The Early Middle Ages were marked a continuation of the decline that had started with the split of the Roman Empire and the center of gravity shifting to Constantinople. The population declined, people moved out of urban areas and central authority broke down with the old Western Empire now getting fragmented into many smaller kingdoms.

Two dynasties that stood out during the Early Middle Ages were the Merovingians and the Carolingians. Both were Franks, a Germanic tribe from the area around the Rhine in modern-day Germany. The most famous Merovingian kings were Childeric I and his son Clovis I. They united the Franks and conquered most of Gaul.

Gradually the role of Merovingian kings became ceremonial and power shifted to the Mayor of the Palace – the second in command under the King. Eventually, the Merovingians were supplanted by the descendants of the most powerful Mayor of the Palace, Charles Martel. Charles Martel’s grandson would become the greatest King in Europe in the Middle Ages – Charlemagne – after whom the Carolingian dynasty is named. Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome in 800 AD and that was the start of the Holy Roman Empire which would last for a thousand years until Napoleon dissolved it in 1806.

The High Middle Ages (1000 AD – 1300 AD)

The 300-year period between 1000 AD and 1300 AD is most known for the Norman Invasion of Britain, the Crusades, Gothic Architecture and the founding of the first Universities in Europe

In 1066 AD, William the Conqueror of Normandy invaded England and defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. This Norman Conquest began a new era in British history and the old Anglo-Saxon traditions were replaced by the new Norman influences.

The Crusades were a series of military campaigns, mainly by the Europeans, in and around the Middle East to reclaim the Holy Land for Christianity. The Crusades to the Holy Land started with the launch of the First Crusade in 1095 AD and lasted until the fall of Acre in 1291 AD. These Crusades went on to impact the Renaissance in different ways.

Some later Crusades were launched against other Christians who did not toe the line of the Catholic Church. Examples include the Crusades against Constantinople and Albigensian Crusades against the Cathars in Languedoc.

The High Middle Ages was a period before the Renaissance that was also characterized by remarkable architecture mostly in the Gothic style. Notable examples include the Notre Dame in Paris, the Cologne Cathedral and Westminster Abbey in London.

Before the Renaissance - Notre Dame de Paris
Notre Dame de Paris
(Image Source)

The first Universities in Europe were founded during this period. These include the Universities of Bologna (1088), Paris (1150), Oxford (1167), Cambridge (1209), Northampton (1261), Pisa (1348) and many others.

The Late Middle Ages (1300 AD – 1500 AD)

The Late Middle Ages, once again, saw a slowing down of prosperity and growth. It was a time of warfare, most notably the Hundred Years War between England and France which began in 1337 AD. It was also a time of famine and plague. This period in history which was just before the Renaissance was to affect it greatly.

Perhaps the most devastating event of the High Middle Ages was The Black Death. This pandemic killed millions in Europe – estimates vary from 25-50% of the population. The Black Death had a tremendous impact on Europe’s economy and social fabric, as whole families were wiped out and large numbers of laborers were lost. Ironically, the Black Death would contribute to the Renaissance yet it would slow its growth and be one of the causes why the Renaissance was late in reaching Northern Europe.

But slowly, the 14th century was beginning to see the early signs of the renewal that was to come. In the early part of the century, the Renaissance started in Florence and then spread to other parts of Northern Italy. The Middle Ages and the Renaissance co-existed for almost 200 years while parts of Europe experienced a rebirth while other parts were still pulling themselves out of the previous era.

By the year 1500, the Renaissance was in full swing across Europe, and all the eras before the Renaissance could be confined to history.

The Wrap Up

One of the best ways to appreciate what happened during the Renaissance and understand why it happened requires us to look further back and study the eras before the Renaissance.

In this article, we reviewed the arch of history going back almost 2000 years before the Renaissance and tried to draw connections between events that took place during these periods and how they impacted the Renaissance.

We hope you found this look at the fascinating ages before the Renaissance – or Pre-Renaissance – to be useful. Thank you for your patience!