A Culture of Freedom: Ancient Greece and the Origins of Europe

Barbara Graziosi on a grand historical narrative that fails to recognise the widespread roots of Europe

November 17, 2011

Christian Meier is one of the most celebrated ancient historians writing today. One reason for his success is that his work resonates with contemporary concerns. His first book, Res publica amissa (1966) - while not explicitly engaged with contemporary politics - struck a chord in post-war West Germany, with Meier arguing that the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of Julius Caesar's totalitarian rule had been "a crisis without alternative". His analysis was firmly grounded in academic research, but it was already clear that Meier had a talent for the striking phrase and the ability to make his subject matter come alive to his readers. In later work, he became more explicit in his engagement with the contemporary world. He wrote about political thought, current German politics and the responsibilities of the ancient historian, with his (in my view, problematic) 2005 work From Athens to Auschwitz: Reflections on the Situation of History bringing those different strands together. Now, in A Culture of Freedom, the focus is squarely on Europe. The European Union features on page 3, but otherwise stays in the background: the book focuses, rather, on the links between Hellenic antiquity and medieval Europe in the first part, and on classical Athenian culture, particularly its emphasis on freedom and equality, in the second.

Linking the European Middle Ages to classical antiquity is far from easy: the Greeks and Romans always remained focused on the Mediterranean and the Near East, even if the Romans eventually conquered large parts of Western and Northern Europe. Meier makes two standard arguments in response to this. First, he points out that the idea of Europe has its roots in ancient Greece: under the threat of Persian attacks, the Greeks (or, more precisely, some Greeks) insisted that Xerxes had "unnaturally" tried to yoke Europe to Asia by building a bridge of ships across the Hellespont.

Meier's second and weightier argument is that although the political history of Europe may start in the Middle Ages, its cultural history is fundamentally shaped by classical antiquity. Partly because he tries to talk about the whole of Europe, and partly because he needs to establish links with antiquity, the picture he draws in the first part of the book is rather general: towns, forests, kings, wars, and - importantly - the constant drive towards change, innovation and freedom that (in Meier's view) characterises the European spirit. In the second half, the book becomes more specific: it focuses on classical Athens and makes the case that its remarkable achievements in politics, theatre, philosophy, art, literature, architecture and science sprang from the Athenians' determination to live as free and equal citizens. Meier does not linger on the fact that these devotees of freedom practised slavery and - worse still - theorised about it. (Indeed, Aristotle's views did much to justify the European slave trade.) His picture, while briefly acknowledging Athenian deficiencies, is celebratory. And, indeed, that same celebration extends to contemporary Europe.

One problem with Meier's book is that it is isolationist. He likes and relies on the great historians of the 19th century (Johann Gustav Droysen, Jacob Burckhardt, Ernest Renan), but in our post-colonial world, his own grand historical narrative sounds rather more defensive than theirs. He admits that these days, "one cannot trace the development of cultures back to genes or innate abilities", but thinks history can replace genes in explaining the uniqueness of Europe. There are other ways of doing ancient history - ways that emphasise how the ancient Greeks and Romans were in dialogue with Babylonians, Persians, Egyptians, Jews and many others. Those dialogues fundamentally shaped their innovations in science, philosophy, religion and art. Rather than trying to defend the cultural borders of Europe, it thus seems to me that ancient historians may usefully point out how those borders were always, to various degrees, open.

A Culture of Freedom: Ancient Greece and the Origins of Europe

By Christian Meier

Oxford University Press

344pp, £18.99

ISBN 9780199588039

Published 22 September 2011

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