From The Sunday Telegraph August 8 2010
Peter Jones reviews THE BIRTH OF CLASSICAL EUROPE: A History from Troy to Augustine, By Simon Price and Peter Thonemann, Allen Lane 398pp £25
In a recent election broadcast from Arbroath in Scotland, it was pointed out that, for all its proud nationalistic history, the locals were far more interested in who would save their jobs than the fortunes of the SNP. In other words, a strong sense of history can be irrelevant to people’s sense of where their real needs and interests lie.
On the other hand, when one looks at the Israel-Palestine conflict, it is clear that no resolution will be reached until both sides agree to forget their history, both recent and ancient. Unshakeable convictions about ‘rights’ to territory, historically accurate or not, are at the very heart of the problem.
One of the major themes of Price-Thonemann’s account of the ‘birth’ of classical Europe is the extent to which these societies’ memories of their history (true or false) helped to create a ‘communal identity’. As the authors demonstrate in fascinating detail, Greek and Roman elites put an enormous amount of effort into calling up or re-inventing the past to suit the present. For example, after Cleisthenes invented democracy in Athens in 507 BC, Athenians soon began ascribing elements of it to an early (to us mythical) founding hero Theseus. In 196 BC, Lampsacus (a town near the Dardanelles) tried to strike up an alliance with Marseilles on entirely bogus claims to historical links with it (which is why historians were regularly members of diplomatic embassies). Both Greek and Roman elites were always harking back to the Trojan War. This invocation of the past is a defining feature of ancient elite mentality.
But it does raise the question how far such a ‘communal identity’ was anything more than simply an elite identity. For example, when the Persians defeated Roman armies in the 3rdC AD, they boasted that they were reliving the glories of their great kings Darius and Xerxes eight hundred years earlier. Price-Thonemann argue that this sort of political image-making ‘profoundly (my italics) shaped’ the Persian world. But in what way did it make an actual difference to anyone other than the elites who created it? Or bring classical Europe to ‘birth’?
Another major theme applies particularly to the Romans and asks how far they tried to impose their own identity on the vast empire they eventually came to control. The answer is: hardly at all.
Greek provinces in the East, rightly proud of the classical ‘glory that was Greece’, did not fully buy into the Roman way. Romans did nothing about it. They did not, for example, try to impose Latin.
In the West, provincials fell over themselves to sign up, quite unprompted, as the Latin-based Romance languages testify. When Roman moulded pottery became wildly popular, Gallic potters in a huge production centre in France started churning out imitations, signing themselves with Latin names (‘Felix’ and ‘Primus’) on their pots to prove their ‘authenticity’ when we know their Celtic names were Matugenos and Cintusmos.
The Aedui, a Gallic tribe, started Romanising their town almost immediately after Caesar’s conquest in the 50s BC. But c.15 BC they decided that was not good enough, moved twenty kilometres away to modern Autun, and constructed a complete ‘Roman’ town covering 200 hectares. No one told them to. It was their own decision.
And all the time this was going on, a sense was gradually developing of the differing identities that made the West ‘European’ but the East ‘Asian’, though in time both identities were submerged under the term ‘Roman’.
This is to scratch the surface of a book rich in illustrative details and examples of its themes from all over the ancient world, from medallions of Roman emperors excavated in the Mekong delta of south Vietnam to Danish burials full of high-class Roman imports.
But it must be stressed that it is not a text-book. While the account is told chronologically, there is little by way of strong narrative structure, and the authors seem determined to avoid the big set-pieces. There is, for example, little on Marathon or Thermopylae, the Peloponnesian War, Hannibal, or any but a handful of Roman emperors, let alone literature and the arts.
But for those who know the broad outlines of classical history, this controversial interpretation of what one might mean by the ‘birth’ of classical Europe contains much of very great interest on the themes with which it deals.