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

By Johnson, Ken | The Historian, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

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


Johnson, Ken, The Historian


The Birth of Classical Europe: A History from Troy to Augustine. By Simon Price and Peter Thonemann. (New York, NY: Viking, 2011. Pp. xvii, 416. $35.00.)

A masterful weaving of narrative, historiography, and discussion of the substantial impact that memory has had on historical subjects constitutes the basis of Simon Price and Peter Thonemann's history of the classical period in Europe. Though subtitled "A History from Troy to Augustine," the book actually considers an even longer time period, as it commences with discussion of Bronze Age civilizations in Crete and mainland Greece. Proceeding in nine chronologically arranged chapters, this book will be of interest to historians of the classical Greek and Roman periods as well as to those interested in the historical study of memory. It will also reach a wider audience; interspersed throughout the text are inset boxes containing interesting stories of how people in more modern times have remembered and utilized the classical past for their own purposes. In addition, the authors provide discussion of many of the central issues current in Aegean and Mediterranean archaeology.

Beginning earlier than most histories of the classical period, the authors see the origins of Greek history lying in the palace-based Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations of the late Bronze Age. Although the authors note differences in these two earliest Aegean civilizations, these societies are depicted in the first chapter as having a greater degree of similarity than has been generally claimed. Discussion of the archaeological site of Troy and the Trojan War at the end of the initial chapter provides the context for one of the main themes of the book, that is, that the Trojan War was the oldest and dearest memory for not only ancient Greeks and Romans but many other peoples of the Mediterranean world as well. The Trojan War and its aftermath thus became the "foundation of European identity" (44).

That the Trojan War was the oldest memory of the classical age Greeks is no surprise, but the authors also fully examine why Romans, Etruscans, the Veneti, and other Mediterranean peoples found it in their interest to create ties with ancient Greece. As we now understand, however, many times these connections did not really exist; thus, these ties to the Greek past show a "chronology of desire" (7). The Romans are said to have learned from early on the importance of presenting themselves as having Greek connections. …

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