The Birth of Classical Europe: A History from Troy to Augustine

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It was hardly a coincidence, of course, that Rostovtzeff should have been pondering the collapse of the Roman empire in the immediate wake of the Russian revolution.

The Birth of Classical Europe

Antiquity, for Europeans, has always served this function: as a mirror held up to their anxieties, or their ambitions, or their ideals. Simon Price and Peter Thonemann, taking a leaf out of Norman Davies's one-volume history of Europe, bring this home very effectively by the use of inset boxes — ring-fenced digressions which enable them to discuss how Dante, Hitler or the European Union have used, and misused, the classical past.

As in a hall of mirrors, however, these examples also cast reflections back on to antiquity itself. The most effectively drawn theme of the book concerns the way in which, over the course of a millennium and a half, the Greeks and Romans consistently re-imagined their own origins.

Classical Era - History of Europe

Although the book ends with Augustine's masterpiece, The City of God , in which the saint subjected the entire framework of classical history to a radically Christian makeover, attempts at cultural appropriation in antiquity generally reflected not hostility to what had gone before, but rather a profound sense of identification with it. As early as BC, the Mycenaeans had been attempting to cast themselves as figures from a "remote, 'heroic' past".


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Frescoes showed them fighting bare-chested, or wearing helmets fashioned, retro-style, out of boar tusks. Right from the beginning, it would appear, people living in Europe had a certain taste for fancy dress.

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But does that mean that the Mycenaeans were distinctively European? The answer, as Price and Thonemann cheerfully acknowledge, is a resounding no: for the palaces of the Mycenaean world, and of Minoan Crete as well, are best regarded as planets in orbit around the sun of the near east. The first European leader to be mentioned in international dispatches, a king of the "Ahhiyawa", or Achaeans, was listed as just one of a number of regional strongmen, all the rest of whom were either Asiatic or African.

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With five volumes now out, the Penguin History of Europe series He has written, co-written, or co-edited books on ancient religions and rituals and also co-edited The Greek City from Homer to Alexander. His first book, The Maeander, will be published shortly. For the latest books, recommendations, offers and more. By signing up, I confirm that I'm over View all newsletter. Paperback Books Categories.

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The Birth of Classical Europe: A History from Troy to Augustine by Simon Price and Peter Thonemann

Price and Thonemann have struck a well-judged balance between telling the grand political narrative of the rise and fall of Mediterranean states, and thinking more broadly about culture, religion and the way these societies work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the authors are at their best on their own territories. Chapter eight on the Roman empire in the three centuries after Augustus is a compact and thoughtful guide to the complex issues surrounding the formation of a superstate.

The run through Roman history concludes imaginatively with a brief engagement with St Augustine. City of God sets an account of a fleeting and all too fallible pagan Greece and Rome against a Christian storyline that runs from the Creation to the Last Judgement. The latter are cleverly presented.


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Clearly marked off in boxes, these brief interventions stand as deliberate interruptions to the main text. What matters is an acute sensitivity to the remembrance of things past.


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