Pagan & Christian

The Birth of Classical Europe
A History from Troy to Augustine
Simon Price and Peter Thonemann
Viking, $35, 416 pp.

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...

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About the Author

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.