Monday, 7 March 2016

Antiquity and Europe

Studying classical antiquity and its continuing afterlife, I find that the theme of Europe constantly recurs in different forms. The dominant conception of a common European culture and heritage looks back to classical Greece; not just as the birthplace of ideas and institutions like democracy, science and critical thought that are still vital to us today, and the starting-point of a literary and artistic tradition that continues to inspire, but even as the likely origin of the word itself, and certainly the earliest conceptions of Europe as a distinct region. It was scarcely coincidental that the draft of the ill-fated European Constitution began with a quotation from the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, presenting the statement of the Athenian politician Pericles that “our constitution is called a democracy” – and it was also not an accident that this quotation, as well as the constitution in general, was greeted with hilarity by British parliamentarians.

Of course this idea of ‘common European culture founded in antiquity’ is a myth – it was never continuous or uncontested, it is largely a modern invention – and it has often been a dangerous myth, supporting an idea of European superiority and exceptionalism that was then imposed violently on much of the rest of the world. But the same can be said of petty nationalism, and claims that Britain is separate from and superior to ‘Europe’.

The fact that such stories are partly fictional and often ahistorical doesn’t lessen their power or importance as a source of identity, and the idea of Europe as a trans-national culture, founded on a continuing engagement and negotiation with the classical past, is a myth with tremendous creative potential. The study of the reception of antiquity is not just a historical exercise; it’s also a basis for thinking about who we are, how we think of ourselves, and how such ideas can continue to inspire.

Even if we as scholars didn’t engage with such themes and issues, they would be unavoidable in debates about and around Europe. Rome is the go-to analogy for a united Europe, for better or worse: a single political structure, unified legal and coinage systems, the assimilation of different peoples into a common culture. This can equally well be presented in positive terms as the establishment of peace, prosperity and civilisation across the region – hence the claims of later regimes to be the legitimate continuation of the Roman Empire – or negative, as the violent conquest and colonial exploitation of native peoples by a rapacious elite – “they made a desert and called it the single European market”, to paraphrase Tacitus.

The historical reality is of course complex and ambivalent, but that doesn’t hinder simplistic evocations of Roman analogies in public discourse. The implied threat of ‘decline and fall’ if we fail to learn the lessons of Rome – currently, the threat of migration looms large, and provokes comparison with the V√∂lkerwanderungen that supposedly overwhelmed the frontiers of the Roman Empire – pervades our view of the world.

We see classical antiquity through the distorting lens of different European traditions of interpretation, and we understand Europe, past and present, through templates and analogies drawn from Greece and Rome. Finally, the tradition of scholarship on classical antiquity is thoroughly European (albeit increasingly conducted in English, whatever the nationality of the researcher). My work is inconceivable in isolation from that of French, German, Dutch, Italian, Danish, Greek and Spanish scholars.

A British decision to cut us off from such traditions would directly affect my current collaboration with colleagues in Berlin, where I’m currently an Einstein Visiting Fellow, and would undermine the possibility of applying to European funding schemes for collaborative projects, but my networks are sufficiently well established to weather such a change; however, I would fear for younger scholars, coming to maturity in an intellectual context that is suddenly more insular, introverted and impoverished.

Neville Morley is Professor of Ancient History at the University of Bristol and Einstein Visiting Fellow with the TOPOI Exzellenz-Cluster in Berlin. E-mail

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