The Birth of Classical Europe

Is there a role for popular grand history—the grand oldhistory of names, narratives, and (scariest and dodgiest of all) nations—in theage of Wikipedia?

At thedawn of the present century, writers, publishers, and readers of the genre musthave counted not merely on its survival, but revival. September 11, for all itsself-consciously seismic effects on the surrounding discourse, only affirmedthe apparent trend. What, after all, is the end of History—in the teleological,species-encompassing monotony of either classic liberalism or revolutionaryMarxism—but a return to the colorful history of maps and chaps,sects and infidels, great walls and defenestrations, the past as telenovela? Indeed, following fivedecades or more of the most totalizing, ineludibly modern sort of ideo-economic(not to mention industrio-ballistic) conflict, we’ve reached a historicalmoment transfixed, and perplexed, by goings-on in Mesopotamia, revolts againstPharaoh, and cultural–fiscal tiffs between Latin and Germanic Europe.

So Penguin was, in a way,exquisitely prescient when it set off, in the parlance of comic-book mythoswithout beginning or end, to “reboot” its Penguin History of Europe a decade ago. After William ChesterJordan’s Europe in the High Middle Ages (2004), Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome:Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400­–1000 (2007),and Tim Blanning’s The Pursuit of Glory: Europe1648­–1815­ (2009)—Penguin’schronology is as confoundingly ad hoc as a Hulkor Superman film franchise—theseries now alights on the origin story, or “A History from Troy to Augustine.”Series editor David Cannadine is a scholar of the British Empire by trade (hewrote 2001’s clever and influential Ornamentalism), but his instincts as historiographical castingdirector appear as well acquitted to the haze of Pax Romana and its B.C.antecedents as they were to the more recent Peaces, of Westphalia and Vienna,which bookended Blanning’s well-received entry. Perhaps the greatest tributeone can give Oxford classicists Simon Price and Peter Thonemann is that The Birth of Classical Europe reads nothing at all like a textbook, despite beingcharged to cover about twice the ground in 350 pages—1750 B.C. to A.D. 475,give or take—than its three much longer predecessors combined.

Of course there was, forbetter or worse, probably more of the raw “stuff” of history—written(and electronic) correspondence, commercial records, diplomatic “cables”—createdin the first month of 2011 than in the entire second millennium B.C. Still,Price and Thonemann have an uncanny feel for evidence capable of appealingviscerally to modern, relatively well-informed civilians as neither arcane (thepointy-head specialist trapping us in the trees) nor cheap (the silver-tongued “intellectual”cultivating his public). Though the derivative high literature is properly (andsuccinctly) surveyed, the outsize affective role of Troy—a war, after all,which no serious archaeologist will quite exactlyconfirm took place—is most neatly demonstrated by a bit of Banksy­-cleverfound art: already in 730 B.C., far afield in the Bay of Naples, atwelve-year-old boy is buried with a wine cup inscribed, in Euboean, with ajoke obliquely referencing Nestor, mythic king of Pylos. Similarly, the ratherabsurdist hangover of classical prestige that’s plagued Europe since thenineteenth century is evoked through episodes perfectly pitched betweenfarcical and tragic. Consider, for instance, modern Greece’s decade-longgeo-linguistic campaign against international recognition of the Republic ofMacedonia, because the Macedon of Alexander the Great was Hellene while today’simposters are Slavs. This is the richest irony; as Price and Thonemann recountelsewhere, Alexander’s sixth-century forbearer needed a legal dispensation tocompete in the Pan-Hellenic Olympics since no one was convinced the tribal andking-ruled Macedonians were Greek, atleast in the way of the city-states.

Infact, it may be in the focus on the vagaries and self-flatteries of identitythat The Birth of Classical Europecomes closest to the tone and texture of old-school popular history. Oneimagines the young man, otherwise schooled in engineering or poetry, readingEdward Gibbon before embarking on a career in colonial administration—or WillDurant before joining the State Department. (His female companions were surelyhoning skills more crucial and less remunerative—French, say, or typing.) Thereis, in other words, a certain expansionist philosophy inherent in any attemptto capture 2000 years in 400 pages: that the world is both contingent and, forthe properly acculturated, coherent. Like the best of their predecessors, Priceand Thonemann aren’t propagandists or court chroniclers, but actuallygracefully incorporate recent academic threads and theories—even Martin Bernal’soft-caricatured “Black Athena” hypothesis is given a fair hearing.Their genre, however, remains decidedly touristic and so, arguably, static: likethe Durants’ 11-volume The Story ofCivilization, say, or Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples (which Labour rival Clement Attlee piquantly renamed”Things in History that Interest Me”), the imagined audience is notthe budding scholar primed ultimately to make her own advances in the field,but the cosmopolitan and curious, moving up from the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Which, of course, is whereour own history seems to contravene on Penguin’s good intentions. Launched in January 2001, Wikipediafinally emblematizes nothing less than a revolution for the armchair historian,the cultural dilettante (or polymath) of all kinds. In 1796 or 1996—the year Penguin published its previous History of Europe, a one-volume opus by J. M. Roberts—the layman prodded for whateverreason to vague interest in the Minoans (the mysteriouspre-Greek inhabitants of Crete) could have moved from the Britannica (or Encarta) entry to a treatment like Price and Thonemann’s 22 pages on the topic and come awaysated. Today, via hyperlink and ubiquitous bandwidth, he could spend as manyhours as his determination or day-job allows reviewing hyper-detailedblueprints of every Minoan palace, considering the purported matriarchal oreven proto-feminist subtext of Minoan bull-jumping, “reading” everyextant inscription of Linear A, the undeciphered Minoan script. This iscertainly no replacement for actual scholarship—actual archaeology and philologyand dendrology—but it also represents more than a difference in scale, alongsome trajectory a real classicist might say started with the Library ofAlexandria. Indeed, the library model—the encyclopedia model—has, almostimperceptibly, inverted itself even as we continue using its metaphors: for thefirst time in the popular dispersal of knowledge, it is easier for the casualexplorer to reach the raw details, the material evidence, the internecinetheoretical squabbles and, yes, even the elaborately manicured fabrications,than any finite, authorized, and authoritative account.

In such a world, theobvious defense of a volume like TheBirth of Classical Europe is the one that Britannica, for one, spent years plaintively raising againstWikipedia: namely, that average folk need, above all, not information but proportion—to know, as was famouslyargued, that Tony Blair deserves more words than Harry Potter, even if bothaccounts are exponentially more detailed and current than anything easilyavailable in print. Such an impulse far precedes the Internet. In earliercenturies, popular grand history could rather openly be predicated on impartinga certain chronological and moral elegance to its subject matter—all of Westerncivilization leading, for the Whig historians, to the British parliamentarysettlement; for the Marxists, to bourgeois hegemony, then world revolution. Thereason Price and Thonemann aren’t saved by appeals to proportion or curationis, ironically but unsurprisingly, the same thing that makes their take on anold form so laudably modern: they’re too sophisticated—or too respectful oftheir audience’s sophistication—to attempt the feel-good sophistry longsynonymous with “popular.”

But The Birth of Classical Europe isn’t aformless cloud of facts and dates, without narrative or argument. (Neither isWikipedia, incidentally.) At its core is indeed a “meta-narrative” asdefinitive and, in its way, as political as any of the discredited dogmas.Again and again, this Penguin history foregrounds the way their pasts, real and imagined, loomed in the individual psychesand collective consciousness of people who never knew themselves as “ancients.”Charmingly, Price and Thonemann make a running gag of provincial citieslobbying the metropole—Athens, or Macedon, or Rome—for privileges based on, asthe centuries wore on, ever more convoluted ethno-fraternal ties dating to theTrojan War. One might be tempted to conclude that Troy, across the Aegean onAsia Minor, became in the collective imaginary the ur-instance of that greatEuropean preoccupation: Occident vs. Orient, the West against the rest. Manythird-century Romans, locked in wars with Persia as interminable as America’sagainst “terror,” loudly said just that. But they’d have quickly runup against the complications of history as argument—Rome’s millennium-oldfounding myth had the city settled by the Trojan,not the Achaean (Greek), survivors of the war. 

They were, in other words,as confused about themselves as we are about them—perhaps the grandesthistorical lesson of all.