The Birth of Classical Europe: A History from Troy to Augustine

Christopher Kelly examines an elegant tour through ancient Greek and Roman history that doesn’t wait for stragglers

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Reviewed by: Christopher Kelly
Author: Simon Price, Peter Thonemann
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £30

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The past is too often cut up for the convenience of historians. The ancient Mediterranean world, for example, is conventionally sliced into a succession of periods. Greece is archaic, classical and then Hellenistic; Rome is republican, imperial and finally late-antique. By contrast, Simon Price and Peter Thonemann’s attractive new book offers a seamless history across more than two millennia, from 1750 BC (the flowering of Minoan civilisation in Crete) to AD 425 (the completion by the great Christian thinker St Augustine of his City of God, one of the most influential works written in antiquity).

Of course, an account of 2,000 years in just a few hundred pages has its costs. Experts are likely to be dissatisfied with what might seem too brief a treatment of their specialist period. But these are risks worth taking. Price and Thonemann have struck a well-judged balance between telling the grand political narrative of the rise and fall of Mediterranean states, and thinking more broadly about culture, religion and the way these societies work.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the authors are at their best on their own territories. Chapter eight on the Roman empire in the three centuries after Augustus is a compact and thoughtful guide to the complex issues surrounding the formation of a superstate. The run through Roman history concludes imaginatively with a brief engagement with St Augustine. City of God sets an account of a fleeting and all too fallible pagan Greece and Rome against a Christian storyline that runs from the Creation to the Last Judgement.

Price and Thonemann do not embrace Augustine’s historical vision, but they do share his strong sense that one of the defining features of classical culture was its reference to its own past: “memories defined, united and divided peoples in the ancient world”. The Greek past was fundamental to Roman identity (anchored by the poet Virgil in the story of Aeneas’s journey from a burning Troy); the Jewish past was central to Christian thought (Augustine’s argument in City of God would have foundered without the Old Testament); the traditions of Christianity and Judaism had a profound effect on Islam.

Indeed, one of the most striking features of Price and Thonemann’s account is that it looks two ways: backward, to underline the importance of memory in the ancient world, and forward, to capture more recent recollections of the classical. The latter are cleverly presented. Clearly marked off in boxes, these brief interventions stand as deliberate interruptions to the main text. Ancient disputes on the ‘Greekness’ of Alexander the Great and his father, Philip of Macedon, are refracted in a sharply ironic account of modern Greece’s objections to FYROM (the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). The description of Rome under Augustus is in neat counterpoint to accounts of Italian fascism under Mussolini and Sigmund Freud’s fascination with his own extensive collection of antiquities. It is this continuous recycling of the classical that gives this book’s nine boldly compressed chapters an elegant coherence.

What matters is an acute sensitivity to the remembrance of things past. Ancient societies were insatiable consumers of their own heritage. Greece and Rome made sense of their place in the world, and justified it to themselves, by remembering. By insisting on the unifying relationship between the present and what has gone before, Price and Thonemann place themselves in the same intellectual tradition as Augustine. For them, carefully tracing a web of connections across 2,000 years remains the most compelling reason for writing – and for reading – ancient history.

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Christopher Kelly is a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge