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European History


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Classical Europe & Middle East

The Birth of Classical Europe: A History from Troy to Augustine by Simon Price and Peter Thonemann (Viking) An innovative and intriguing look at the foundations of Western civilization from two leading historians.
The influence of ancient Greece and Rome can be seen in every aspect of our lives. From calendars to democracy to the very languages we speak, Western civilization owes a debt to these classical societies. Yet the Greeks and Romans did not emerge fully formed; their culture grew from an active engagement with a deeper past, drawing on ancient myths and figures to shape vibrant civilizations.
In The Birth of Classical Europe, the latest entry in the Penguin History of Europe, historians Simon Price and Peter Thonemann present a fresh perspective on classical culture in a book full of revelations about civilizations we thought we knew. In this impeccably researched and immensely readable history we see the ancient world unfold before us, with its grand cast of characters stretching from the great Greeks of myth to the world-shaping Caesars. A landmark achievement, The Birth of Classical Europe provides insight into an epoch that is both incredibly foreign and surprisingly familiar.

Excerpt: In October 2005 a huge steel, bronze and glass sculpture was unveiled outside the seat of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The sculpture, donated to the European Parliament by the town of Agios Nikolaos on Crete, depicts the mythological princess Europa, cast in bronze, riding on the back of a steel and glass bull. Once upon a time (or so the story goes), the god Zeus fell in love with a beautiful girl named Europa. In order to gain her affections, Zeus turned himself into a magnificent bull, and carried her on his back across the sea to Crete. According to some accounts, one of their three sons was a certain Minos, who became king of Crete. So the Strasbourg sculpture acts as a elegant symbol for the place of Crete in the history of Europe: since Europa later gave her name to the continent of Europe, the Minoan civilization on Crete marks the true beginning of European history.

The viewer of the Strasbourg statue of Europa and the bull is offered a neat definition of 'Classical' Europe: a region named after a figure in Greek mythology (Europa), whose son Minos gave his name to the region's first great civilization. There is, of course, some truth in this cosy modern take on the story, but the tale will bear a little closer examination. The Strasbourg statue of Europa is far removed from the Greek and Roman versions of the story.

The story of Europa and the bull was well known in the ancient Greek world. The rape of Europa is mentioned in the earliest surviving work of Greek literature (Homer's Iliad), and is commonly depicted in Greek art, on painted vases and in sculpture. It is thus a good example of a Panhellenic myth, a story known in different parts of the Greek world, and told for a variety of different reasons. The most striking local telling of the story comes, once again, from Crete. Here, coins minted by various Cretan cities between the fifth and third centuries BC feature Europa.

Sometimes they show her being carried on the back of the bull, but sometimes they show her lying under a plane tree. It was apparently beneath this plane tree that Europa and Zeus first lay together. The city of Gortyn was particularly successful in asserting its claim to the story and the tree itself became a notable landmark there. In the Roman period the tree was celebrated for never losing its leaves, and cuttings from it were used to propagate clones in other parts of Crete. In other words, the Gortynians asserted a special place for themselves in the wider Greek world by laying claim to this famous Panhellenic myth. It was right here in Gortyn, underneath this actual tree, that Zeus had made Europa pregnant with Minos and his brothers. This claim should no doubt be understood as part of Gortyn's long-standing rivalry with the nearby cities of Knossos and Phaistos. If Gortyn was the true site of the passion of Zeus and Europa, then Knossos and Phaistos were the losers. This account should warn us that the Greeks did not regard their myths as `mythical', as fairy stories, but as tales of a remote past which could be rooted in real places and things. This local version of the tale is still popular among tourist guides at the site of Gortyn, who point out a particular huge tree as the very one under which Europa lay in the arms of Zeus.

The story of Europa was also popular among Roman writers. In his Metamorphoses, the Latin poet Ovid recounts how Europa, the daughter of the king of Tyre in Phoenicia, was out playing with her young female friends on the seashore. Zeus had fallen in love with her, and wanted to seduce her. So he transformed himself into a magnificent bull, and joined the herd of bullocks that he had arranged to be grazing by the sea. Europa fell for the splendid animal, and after a while climbed onto its back. The bull then bore the frightened young woman across the sea to Crete. Here he resumed his own form. Ovid's telling of the story is a world apart from the local myths of Gortyn, Knossos and Phaistos. It is a 'floating', deracinated version, privileging no one place on Crete over any other, which simply forms an elegant (and slightly allusive) episode in the sequence of transformations that constitutes his Metamorphoses. And precisely because it is so deracinated, it was Ovid's account of this, and other myths, which achieved canonical status in the Renaissance and afterwards. It is the Ovidian version that inspired paintings by artists like Titian and Rembrandt.

The spin that makes this myth emblematic of European civilization is very recent indeed. In antiquity, the myth does not bear this meaning. The region of Europe is hardly ever personified in antiquity; it was only in the nineteenth century that the continent regularly came to be personified in the form of Europa on the bull. The connection between the Minoan civilization of Crete and the origins of Europe is also a modern one. The Greeks simply regarded Minos as one of several early rulers of Crete, not as the founder of a primordial civilization. Although the Strasbourg statue of Europa and the bull is based on a story dating back at least to the eighth century BC, its cultural significance is intimately tied to the particular political circumstances of the early twenty-first century AD.

This history of Classical Europe will travel from the so-called Minoan civilization of Crete to the later Roman empire, from the middle of the second millennium BC to the fourth and early fifth centuries AD. Although our geographical canvas stretches from Scotland to the Nile valley, and from the Atlantic coast of Portugal to the mountains of Armenia, we have not tried to present a full history of all the area now counted as `Europe'. At the centre of our canvas stand the ancient peoples of the northern Mediterranean basin, the Greeks and the Romans. For this we make no apology: the principal long-term developments in this period were driven by the people of the Aegean sea, the southern Balkans and the Italian peninsula. The nine chapters of this book are structured chronologically, because analysis of history has to go hand in hand with understanding the flow of events. We have tried to avoid presenting a timeless account of 'the Greek view of X', or 'the Roman view of Y': there is no such thing as the ancient myth of Europa. Even very general ideas are rooted in particular circumstances and events.

Histories have to begin somewhere, and this one begins rather earlier than most accounts of the Classical world. (The Date Chart at the end of this book provides a concise summary of the key dates.) We begin with the age of the Minoan and Mycenaean palaces on Crete and in mainland Greece. We look, too, at relations with their neighbours in the eastern Aegean and beyond, placing special emphasis on Troy, in northwestern Asia Minor. In Chapters 2 and 3, we expand our horizons westwards, to take in the whole of the central Mediterranean world. We examine the period of turmoil that followed the collapse of the palaces (the so-called Dark Age), and the emergence of the first Greek and Italic city-states. Chapters 4 and 5 then take the history of the Greeks through the Classical era and into the Hellenistic age, when the culture of the Greek city-state spread far beyond its Aegean homelands into the heart of Asia. Chapters 6 and 7 return to the Italian peninsula, moving from the founding of the Roman Republic to the growth of the Roman imperium overseas, culminating with the breakdown of Republican institutions, and the transition from Republic to Empire. Chapter 8 is occupied by an in-depth analysis of the workings of the Roman empire. Finally, in Chapter 9, we examine the transformation of the imperial system in the fourth century AD, the increasing impact of Christianity on the empire, and the changing attitudes of the period towards 'classical' culture. St Augustine's attempts to reconcile Christian culture with the `Classical' inheritance of Rome form an appropriate conclusion to the book (and also a starting point for the next volume in this series).

The geographical scope of the book, therefore, varies over time. Each chapter begins with a brief exposition of its context and compass, and offers some account of the extent of the area under consideration. The main part of the chapter includes discussion of the characteristics of the state in that period. Was the state a palace, a city-state, a monarchy? How large was it? Did the area have a single centre, or was it multi-centred? What sort of settlement hierarchy was there? What sorts of connections were there between the area and the outside world? The obvious storm-centres of Greek and Roman history (Knossos, Sparta, Athens, Macedon, Rome) will receive due treatment, but a number of other, less well-known places will also appear repeatedly in the course of the book: cities like Massilia (modern Marseilles), Carthage and Miletus, and regions like Sphakia in south-west Crete, Lycia in south-west Turkey and the island of Cyprus.

Although our story does proceed in roughly chronological order, we have tried to offer something more than a mere narrative history of the ancient world. Instead, we have aimed to explore, in a series of different contexts, three main themes.

The first and overarching theme is 'memory'. This book offers (among other things) a historical study of memory, which does not draw a simple line between the 'true' and the 'false' memory claims of the past. All history is an act of remembering, an attempt by the historian to preserve the memory of the past by putting it on record (as the Greek historian Herodotus says in his opening sentence). There are other possible justifications for the study of history, but this one is surely basic, our moral duty to recall the past, and to oppose those who rewrite the past for unsavoury ends. But the historian cannot (or should not) claim to be the simple guardian of objective truth. History is, at least in part, a constructed artefact, the product of intellectual, social and political pressures. This is not to suggest that memory and history are the same thing. History makes claims for truth which are defensible because of the disciplines and rigour of history. The narratives of history are differently constructed from those of memory. But there are also similarities between memory and history. Neither memory nor history provides an innocent account of past events: both create their own versions of the past, and both are products of their own time. The interest in studying memory in the past is that it places centre stage the self-understandings of particular peoples, and so gets us closer to understanding their world. Study of memory ought to place us closer to the mind-sets of people in the past; it should help to prevent us from advancing anachronistic interpretations of the period, and make it possible for us to see how the choices people make relate to their own view of their past.

As we shall see, the Greeks and Romans had a very different sense of the past from that of the modern historian. For example, we know (or think we know) that the end of the Mycenaean civilization in Greece C. 1200 BC was followed by a 400—year 'Dark Age'. The earliest Greek city-states, which began to emerge in the eighth century BC, owed nothing to the culture and institutions of the Mycenaean palaces; the eighth-century Greeks began with a 'slate wiped clean'. However, the Greeks themselves preserved no collective memory of a centuries-long 'Dark Age'. The Greeks of the seventh and sixth centuries BC believed that their present-day city-states were the direct successors of the palace-states of the remote past (including the period of the Trojan War). We are now able to say with some certainty that the Greeks were, empirically, wrong: this ancient model of continuity between the 'heroic age' and the present day is not a true historical chronology, but a 'chronology of desire'. Nonetheless, this Greek 'chronology of desire' has to be taken seriously. hat the Greeks thought about their past (whether true or not) was central to Greek self-definition. The development of Greek society between the seventh and fourth centuries BC was driven not by what we know about their early history, but by what they thought they knew.

This book therefore aims to take seriously the question of how people in the past saw themselves in relation to their own past. It offers, in other words, a set of 'rolling pasts'.

The theme of 'memory' can also be explored in another way. While trying to show what the Greeks and Romans made of their own past, we also want to explore the kinds of uses that people in more recent periods have made of antiquity. For example, the contested cultural identity of Macedon in the fourth century (was it Greek or not?) has become inextricably entangled with the current political controversies about the cultural identity of that region, and about the nomenclature of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. And why was it that Josiah Wedgwood named his factory 'Etruria'? Why has 'Boadicea' proved to be so potent a symbol of British national identity? These examples will be presented as inset boxes, so as not to break up the flow of the main narrative. Our own uses (and abuses) of the classical past are part of the web of connections that links us to 'Classical Europe'.

One final aspect of the theme of memory is the definition of certain moments, places or monuments as 'classical'. For historians today, one such privileged moment is 'Classical Athens', Athens of the fifth and fourth centuries BC. But when and why was it so regarded? Was Classical Athens regarded as 'Classical' already in antiquity? By whom? Virgil has held a privileged position as a 'Classical' author since the Middle Ages (after all, he was Dante's guide to hell). Was this true also under the Roman empire?

The second major theme of this book is that of communal identity. Uses of the past are one way in which communal identities are defined, but they are not the only way. This book explores the changing ways in which the peoples of Europe defined themselves in antiquity: civic, ethnic, regional, cultural and linguistic. We pay particularly close attention to the multiple cultural identities of the peoples of the Roman empire, including Greeks, Jews and Christians. Did the Roman empire try to foster a specifically Roman identity among its subjects? Did it succeed? Many of Rome's subjects certainly borrowed Roman ways (the process commonly known as `Romanization'), but these borrowings took widely different forms in different parts of the empire. We shall see that the `Romanization' of the western Roman provinces in the first three centuries AD led to a widespread obliteration of historical memory; the inhabitants of Roman Gaul or Britain became, in a real and powerful sense, 'peoples without history'. By contrast, in the eastern provinces of the empire, the memory of the Classical Greek past was not just preserved but actively privileged (and encouraged by the Roman imperial state). Other minority groups founded their communal identity on their shared religious beliefs; we focus in particular on Jews and Christians, considering both their views of each other and their differing perceptions of the past, and also their views of the contemporary world.

The book's third theme is spatial (and conceptual). If part of the theme of memory concerns changing definitions of what counts as 'Classical', part of this theme is an analysis of changing ideas about what 'Europe' was. As a result of the expansion of the European Union between 2004 and z007 (from 14 to 2.7 members), the outer borders of 'Europe' have come to seem disconcertingly fluid. It is quite possible that, in a decade's time, Europe will share a border with modern Iran. Nonetheless, and particularly in western Europe, many people retain an underlying sense of the natural boundaries of 'old Europe', the Europe of the earlier European Union. But of course even this 'old Europe' is not a natural but a historical and cultural construct. At various points in this book we shall explore when and how 'Europe' was defined in antiquity, from its initial definition as being different from 'Asia' (that is, the area east of the Hellespont, and ruled by the Persians), to the new spatial interests created by a Roman empire stretching from Scotland to the Euphrates. In the time period covered by this book, the centre or centres of the `civilized' world changed in location, and the boundaries of that world were differently defined, often by natural features such as seas, rivers and mountains.

Centralization, Early Urbanization, and Colonization in First Millenium B.C. Greece and Italy by P. A. J. Attema (Bulletin Antieke Beschaving. Supplement, 9: Peeters) This volume brings together a number of case studies in the landscape archaeology of South and Central Italy by distinguished scholars writing from first-hand experience. The contributions illustrate the growing interest among Mediterranean landscape archaeologists in long-term regional trends and processes, such as the centralization of indigenous society during protohistory, the interaction between indigenous and Greek and Roman colonial culture, and the formation of the early historic landscape of town and country. The contributions also reflect the increasing sophistication of field methods and material studies as well as Itheoretically informed desktop studies, which now succeed in mapping a wide range of forms of permanent human settlement and ritual activity in the Italian landscape — from subsistence farms to complex urban settlements and from ritual cave sites to institutionalized sanctuaries. Contributions by Marianne Kleibrink, Alessandro Vanzetti, Helle Horsnæs, Bert Nijboer, Gert-Jan Burgers, Peter Attema & Martijn ván Leusen. More

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