The Birth of Classical Europe, by Simon Price and Peter Thronemann is the first book in a series, The Penguin History of Europe. This first book covers the beginnings of Western Civilization from the Trojan War to the time of Augustine of Hippo. That is a lot of ground to cover in only four hundred pages, and The Birth of Classical Europe barely skims the centuries of history. Still, these are appropriate endpoints.
The Birth of Classical Europe is really not so much a narrative history as a study on how history was used by the Greeks, Romans, and others to establish their place in the world. For the people of classical Europe, the Trojan War was, in many respects the beginning of history, as the first event of consequence that they could date and had any information about. The fact that their information was filtered through the legends memorialized in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and that they did not, in fact, have any real knowledge of the events centuries before their time was irrelevant. Greek cities and families traced their origins to heroes and events in Homer and other myths and any new custom or institution was invariably held to have had its actual origins in the legendary past. Thus, Athenian democracy, which was only fully established in the fifth century, was believed to have been started by Theseus. The Persian invasion was another chapter in the long struggle between East and West. The Romans got into the act too. They believed themselves to be descended from the Trojan prince Aeneas and placed themselves firmly in the mythological history of the Greeks. Even unrelated peoples such as the Gauls and inhabitants of Asia came to view themselves in this context.
If the Trojan War is a good point to begin this survey, than Augustine is the natural endpoint. For by Augustine’s time the rising faith of Christianity had begun to create a new historical context for the people of the West. While the Romans hardly abandoned their classical heritage, they did begin to draw more on the history in the Bible to understand their place in the history and the world. This tendency perhaps reached its climax with Augustine’s greatest work, The City of God, and it may well be said that after him we find the habits of thought we associate with the medieval period.
The Birth of Classical Europe is worth reading in order to get a good bird’s eye view of the formation of our civilization and if it has a fault, it is simply that there is not enough space in the book to give every cultural and historical development its full attention.