Full of future thoughts and thrills… Published in last week’s The New European.
Europe was invented, or at least first defined, by the ancient Greeks. In the sixth century BCE, geographers like Anaximander and Hecataeus imagined the world divided between Europe, Asia and Libya Africa; their successor Herodotus turned this division into a great historical drama with the confrontation between the Persian Empire, rulers of Asia, and the heroic little Greeks at Thermopylae, Marathon and Salamis.Other Greeks speculated about the influence of climate and environment – Asiatics were soft and slavish, Europeans were tough and freedom-loving – as the start of a tradition of Orientalist stereotypes that persists today. Long before anyone thought of Europe as a political entity, or even knew where its eastern boundary was, it was conceived as a distinct culture.
The Greeks also provided Europe with a founding myth; the continent is named after Europa, a Phoenician princess who was abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull and gave birth to the Queen of Crete. The tasteful classical associations of the story seem to have obscured the violence of the rape; images of Europa and the Bull are associated with key European Union buildings, including the debating chamber of the European Parliament, as well as appearing on the Greek 2-Euro coin. (The reliably confused Christian Soldiers for UKIP denounce these as depictions of the Whore of Babylon riding on the Beast, revealing the satanic agenda of the whole European enterprise.)
Ideas of a common European culture have often emphasised Europe’s roots in the world of classical antiquity and the long tradition, since the Renaissance, of drawing on its legacy: in law, literature, architecture, art and philosophy. Almost every European nation claimed its own special relationship with the ancient world, especially the Glory That Was Rome (always particularly attractive to would-be autocrats and imperialists like Napoleon or the British). But antiquity offers more consensual models of politics; the republican institutions of earlier Roman history, but especially democratic Athens. The draft of the abortive European Constitution from 2004 opened with a line from the Athenian politician Pericles, quoted by the historian Thucydides: “Our constitution is called a democracy”.
The ancient world offers useful resources for modern Europeans. The Romans, for example, pioneered the idea of dual citizenship; Cicero proclaimed equal loyalty to Rome and to his home town. Greece provides models of deliberation and debate; the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, perhaps the fiercest defender of the European project, promotes the idea of the agora, the meeting place at the heart of the ancient Greek city, as a sphere of public discourse. Above all, classical culture transcends national and political boundaries, and has not only inspired artists and intellectuals but also fostered cross-border conversations and intellectual exchange.
No one in Europe proposes the recreation of the Roman Empire or the world of the Greek city states – and there is widespread acknowledgement that these cultural achievements were founded on slavery and violence. But the memory of classical antiquity represents a common legacy; something which everyone can draw upon and reuse in different ways while still sharing in a living tradition. Indeed, the fact that the ancient world had a multiplicity of religious traditions until the fourth century – and the role of the Islamic world in preserving much classical culture after the collapse of classical civilisation – suggests that this tradition may have still greater potential as Europe comes to terms with its multicultural future.
However, the more important a tradition is for one group, the more it can also be used as a weapon by that group’s opponents. A foretaste of this was offered by the Greek economic crisis of 2014, when every cliché of ancient Greekness was employed to characterise and denounce the German government and European officials – a tendency exacerbated by the habit of Yanis Varoufakis of referring to the Melian Dialogue from Thucydides (as in the title of his new book, And the Weak Suffer What They Must?).
More often it is the Roman Empire that is evoked in order to denounce the European project. It represents the first attempt at establishing a single currency, the first attempt at forcing the peoples of Europe into a political union, the first universal citizenship. It ‘made a desert and called it peace’, in the words that the Roman historian Tacitus put into the mouth of a rebellious barbarian. If the European Union is presented as the second Rome, it is revealed as a violent tyranny – and the enemy of Christianity.
Above all, as everyone knows, Rome declined and fell; if the European Union is Rome, then we already know it’s doomed to failure. Historians have disagreed for centuries over the reasons for the failure of the empire, and every possible explanation has been revived to prophesy the collapse of the EU: excessive bureaucracy and control of the economy, inflation, economic mismanagement, moral decadence, race mixture and above all barbarian invasions. Traditionally, this last cause was understood as the threat from east – hence the ‘Huns’ as slang for Germans – but in recent years it has been repurposed for the refugee crisis; as UKIP funder Arron Banks declared on Twitter, “True the Roman Empire was effectively destroyed by immigration”.
Few historians would accept such a view, as Banks discovered when Cambridge classicist Mary Beard responded to his claim. The numbers of such ‘barbarians’ were tiny compared to the empire’s population, and most of them entered Europe to fight for Rome as mercenaries – the ‘fall’ of the empire is better seen as a change within the military leadership, as the empire fragmented for quite different reasons. But the image of barbarian invasion is powerful, and the complex arguments of historians have at best limited purchase on popular understanding.
More recently, the prophets of doom have turned to an earlier period of Roman history: the collapse of the Roman Republic into civil war, followed by the autocracy of Augustus and his successors. A Belgian ancient historian called David Engels claims in a book that has been eagerly seized on by right-wing websites that Europe exhibits the same symptoms as first-century BCE Rome – unemployment, family breakdown, the decline of traditional religion and so forth – and so will inevitably fall into civil war, leading eventually to the popular acclamation of a single charismatic dictator. Even more improbably, former UKIP MP Douglas Carswell is about to publish a book arguing that late Republican Rome shows how Brexit was not nasty populism but a sober restoration of liberal values.
Even if such comparisons were exact, rather than vague and largely fictional, there is still no reason to imagine that events will therefore repeat themselves. The EU is not Rome reborn, or classical Greece; but because of the importance of the classical world for Europe’s culture and sense of identity, people will persist in claiming that it is, so they can claim that it’s doomed. As Thucydides remarked, in one of the founding statements of European thought: “so little trouble do people take to seek out the truth, and so readily do they accept whatever they first hear.”