The European Parliament in Strasbourg is graced by a modern sculpture of the heroine Europa transported over the seas to Crete on the back of an amorous bull, Zeus in disguise. This panhellenic myth appears in the earliest European literature, Homer’s The Iliad, and thereafter is frequently represented in poetry and art. It is appropriate that The Birth of Classical Europe opens with a description of this sculpture and goes on to analyze the varied ways this myth has been used, for Birth is the latest volume in the Penguin History of Europe, and its authors, Oxford dons Simon Price and Peter Thonemann, have cast the Greco-Roman world as a precursor to modern Europe.

This project is not without challenges. The very notion of Europe as a cultural and historical construct does not occur until the fifth century BCE. The Iliad tells of the epic conflict between Greece and Troy, but largely avoids making cultural or moral distinctions between the two. By the early fifth century BCE, however, when the Greek city-states managed against colossal odds to band together and repel the Persian invaders, the distinction between West and East was fixed. It was at this time that the geographer Hecataeus of Miletus created a map depicting the world as a disc evenly divided between Europe and Asia.

Since then, both the physical and cognitive geographies of Europe—its spatial extent and the cultural values associated with it—have been shifting. Between 2004 and ’07 the European Union almost doubled in membership, and our authors speculate that “it is quite possible that, in a decade’s time, Europe will share a border with modern Iran.” The same fluidity can be seen in antiquity: this book traces the emergence of Greek city-states in the context of earlier Aegean civilizations, their coalescence into an Athenian empire after the Persian Wars, the rise of Macedon and the conquests of Alexander that were thought to encompass the oikoumene (the inhabited world), and, finally, the rise of Rome, urbs et orbs (city and world), whose empire eventually spread east beyond the kingdoms of Alexander’s successors, and  west beyond Italy to the Aegean, North Africa, and middle Europe.

At first glance this book looks like a standard, albeit compendious, chronological survey of the classical world. But it is actually different in several quite wonderful respects. In addition to its illuminating European (as opposed to Greco-Roman) perspective, it is also very well written; it is grounded in the most up-to-date scholarship; and it draws heavily on archaeological as well as textual evidence. Most important, it sets itself apart by the way the narrative interweaves the themes of memory and cultural identity, concerns that increasingly preoccupy historians of all periods.

Thus the authors explore how ancient peoples understood themselves in terms of their past—not necessarily their actual past (for even scholarly reconstruction can never be completely accurate) but, rather, the narratives they constructed about themselves. The most powerful and enduring of these is the Trojan War. Frequently used to advantage by Greeks who inscribed themselves and their communities into this story, Troy also served as Rome’s foundation myth. As Virgil tells it, the Romans descended from Aeneas, who fled Troy after the Greeks sacked his city and, with the help of his mother Venus, eventually landed in Italy. Virgil’s patron, the emperor Augustus, sought to legitimate his radical reconstruction of the state, his transformation of a republic into a principate, by associating himself overtly with that past, claiming descent from Venus and encouraging people to see him as Rome’s second founder.

That this creative use (and abuse) of the classical past is not just an ancient phenomenon but continues to the present day is the theme of twenty-seven inset boxes distributed throughout the chapters. The reappropriation of the classics by artists as different as Shakespeare and Derek Walcott; the classical self-fashioning of political figures from Mehmet the Conqueror to Mussolini; the relation of Freud’s theory of the unconscious to the archaeology of Rome; the relevance of ancient history to the current “Macedonian problem”; and the transmission of ancient mathematics, science, and philosophy through Arabic translations—these are just a few of the topics Price and Thonemann explore in these short but fascinating essays.

But memory is not all individuals and societies use to define themselves. Ancient peoples acquired one or more cultural identities in terms of their city or region, ethnic affiliation, cultural practices, and language. Perhaps the best example of this is the Hellenization of non-Greek peoples, which started early but gained momentum after Alexander’s conquests. As the authors show, this transformation was not solely or even predominantly the result of policy; rather, indigenous peoples recognized on their own the advantages of assimilating to the rulers’ culture and began to rediscover (or invent) Greek origination myths for themselves and their communities, to adopt Greek names, institutions, and customs, and to embrace the Greek language, now standardized in the koine or “common” form familiar to us from the New Testament. These lessons were not lost on the upstart Romans who early on took pains to represent themselves “not as foreign barbarians but as kinsmen and benefactors to the Greeks.” And as their vast empire grew over the centuries, the process of Romanization, no less than Hellenization, was largely a bottom-up phenomenon. This, even more than Rome’s projection of power and administrative savvy, may account for what the Greek historian Polybius identified as her great achievement, the unification of the known world into a single whole.

The most interesting chapter of this book, especially for Commonweal readers, is likely to be the final one, on the later Roman Empire, from Diocletian’s accession (in 284) until the mid-fifth century. Responding to threats the empire faced from within and without, Diocletian introduced a team approach to rule (two emperors and two deputies). This led eventually to the division of the empire into an Eastern/Greek and Western/Latin part. The key figure for this period is, of course, Constantine (306–37), who conferred legitimacy on the Christian religion. This book, however, presents the fourth century not as the triumph of Christianity but, more interestingly, as a time in which the relationship between the traditional cults and the new religion was more complex, a combination of antagonism (for example, the emperor Julian’s unsuccessful attempt to turn back the clock), accommodation, and assimilation. Cultural identities continued to be formed around memories and practices, but these now included not only the pagan past but also the history of the Israelites (which had previously been important only to the Jews) and the Christian story (which included not just the life of Christ but also the lives of the saints).

The discussion of the career and writings of St. Augustine at the end of this chapter is particularly valuable. On the cusp of the ancient and modern worlds, Augustine provides a unique perspective on this process, not only because he was a contemporary witness and a key player in these developments, but also because he was himself so preoccupied with the role of memory in both personal and cultural formation. By the time Augustine died in 430, Christianity was, for all intents and purposes, victorious. But the city of Rome had been sacked and the fragmentation of the empire in the West was well underway, while, in the East, imperial power persisted with Constantinople as the center of the Byzantine Empire. But that is another story—and another Europe.

Published in the 2011-05-20 issue: 

Matthew S. Santirocco, a classicist, is Seryl Kushner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at New York University; he also directs NYU’s Center for Ancient Studies and edits the journal Classical World.

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Culture
Collections