The Birth of Classical Europe by Price and Thonemann

Book Review by Ursus

Europe as a geographical construct is a rather easy concept to digest: it's that stretch of land from the Straights of Gibraltar to the Ural Mountains. Europe as a historical and cultural construct is a little more difficult to pin down. What really defines Europe? The Roman Empire enjoined Europe to Asia and Africa; indeed, there was a time when the residents of North Africa might have been considered more a part of Western Civilization than their contemporaries in what is now Great Britain. The question is no longer just an academic exercise; the possible growth of the European Union beyond the aforementioned geographic definition of Europe is a pressing political debate. The Birth of Classical Europe may offer some insights as to how Europe defined itself in ages past.

Simon Price and Peter Thonemann are both Greco-Roman historians at Oxford University. What they have offered here is not a mere chronological survey of European history filled with meaningless dates and unconnected events. In their introduction they state three main foci of inquiry. The first is "memory," or how civilizations remembered their own pasts, whether real or invented. The second is communal identity, or how various groups saw themselves as a distinct whole apart from other peoples. And last, the authors look at the geographic dimensions of western history; while the Mediterranean forms the core of what we can understand from history, other peoples and other places exerted their own influence.

How do these three foci come together? Spatially, civilized history as such really began in the Mid East, where various empires uniting the city-states of the fertile crescent rose and fell in a confusing cascade. The Persian Wars and their aftermath brought Europe into the picture as Greeks forcefully imposed themselves onto the imperial scene. Rome naturally took over from Greece, extending the imperial domains to North Africa and Europe north of the Alps. It was thus Rome who was responsible for "Europe" as such; before that the lands north of the Alps had simply been a region of tribesmen with whom more civilized people were happy to trade but otherwise ignore.

But how do memory and communal identity enter the picture? The Greeks always placed their own heritage in a mythical world defined by the Trojan War. (And the very name of Europe comes from Europa, a minor figure in Greek myth). The authors recount amusingly how western Asian city-states in the Hellenistic era suddenly discovered their own links to the Homeric past; a city could gain economic and political favors with its Greek overseers if it could assign itself a "historic" link to such-and-such a mythic hero.

The Romans invented their own past by spuriously linking themselves to the Trojan War of Greek myth (Aeneas somehow sailed from Troy c.1200 BCE and landed in Italy shortly before the founding of Rome in 753 BCE). This Greco-Roman mythic past was reinforced in the literary education of the elite, and those seeking entry into civilized Roman life in the West were forced to adopt this narrative. Peoples such as the Carthaginians, Celts and Etruscans became displaced from their own histories in the process. Finally, the rise of Christianity added a new narrative to the mix: the mytho-historical narrative of the Hebrew tribes, as Christianity considered itself the successor and fulfillment of Judaism. And while Greco-Roman paganism fell by the wayside, Greco-Roman mythology as a literary tool for the educated elite endured (indeed, it survived in some ways till the 20th century).

The book is roughly chronological in scope. It begins with the proto-Hellenic civilizations of the Aegean and passes through the so-called Greek dark age, then explores Classical Greece and the subsequent Hellenistic civilization. From there we witness the rise of Rome through its various conquests of the Mediterranean, and then the birth of empire to decay and Christianization. But this is not just a Greco-Roman history. The Phoenicians and Carthaginians, the Etruscans and the Celts, the Persians and the Jews and various others are given due justice.

An interesting feature here is the inset box. This is a slight diversion from the main narrative that discusses how Classical Europe influenced later generations of Europeans. Unlike most books of this nature, the insets aren't scattered haphazardly about the book, sloppily breaking up the main narrative. Instead the insets occur right after a pertinent area of discussion. For instance, the inset on Shakespeare's Roman plays occurs after mention of Caesar's assassination.

This work also contains maps, photographs, a chronology, and suggestions for further reading. It makes use of the latest archaeological information. Finally, it is written in a conversant prose that should endear itself to the reader.

The Birth of Classical Europe offers a sweeping survey of various places and phases of development, with an eye on how societies constructed their identities in the presence of an idealized past. It may not appeal to those who want a more traditional politico-military narrative filled with details and dates and bloody battles. But to those who enjoy explorations of culture and identity, and who might find some fodder for more modern debates on European identity, this work should prove enjoyable and rewarding.

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