Europe is in the Eye of the Beholder
By Uzume Wijnsma
These words, spoken by the Spartan Leonidas, were written for the 2006 movie 300. Both it and its sequel, 300: Rise of An Empire (2014), were a box-office successes, watched by millions of people, and earned hundreds of millions of dollars in the process.
On the face of it, these blatantly American Hollywood movies seem to have little to do with the idea of Europe and unity, but they are in fact intricately tied to it. They express exactly the kind of historical thinking that has dominated many European histories and history-writers up until today. It is the (hi)story of the roots of Europe and of the rise of the West. It is the story of one of the pillars of the ‘European idea’: of Greece, of democracy, of freedom. And it is the story that I will argue against in this article.
Let me explain. When you open up a random history book on Europe, you are bound to come across three names: Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. These classical cities function as a general shorthand for the three pillars that Europe is (allegedly) made of, namely: a Judeo-Christian culture, rooted in Athenian democracy and the freedom of (philosophical) thought, and consolidated in the rational-legal framework of the Roman Empire.
Whether people are aware of these historical notions or not, the essentials of them still resonate all over the West. You hear them when people complain about the refugee crisis, when people argue against the influx of Islam, when people condemn ‘Eastern’ despotism and dictatorship (i.e. Putin), and when Sharia is contrasted with the secular rule of law that reigns in most European countries today. These ideas, false or not, are embedded within our culture. It is what countries such as Ukraine think of when they want to become ‘more European’. It is what extremist-islamic groups such as ISIS reject when they call us ‘the crusaders’. And it is, in part, why movies such as 300 are so successful: they feed the image of ourselves that we already have - the one of freedom-loving democrats standing tall in the face of tyranny.
But are we?
How our pillars came to be
As a historian, I study the Persian Empire and the responses that it generated among different groups in the region. Two of those groups would become, completely unbeknownst to them at the time, ‘pillars of Europe’. They were the Greeks, and the Jews (or ‘Judeans’).
I hope you’ll allow me a short history lesson...
In the 6th to 4th centuries BC the Greeks and the Judeans were underdogs, living in the shadow of the Persian Empire. Athens produced a short-lived democracy (excluding women, slaves, resident aliens etc.), and Jerusalem, counting no more than 1.500 people at the time, produced the first books of the ‘Tanakh’ (or ‘Old Testament’). Neither - no matter how ‘heroic’ the Greeks are portrayed in the Hollywood movies - could withstand the power of the Persians. And the two remained underdogs for centuries to come.
Now, before you start arguing with me, let me just say this: it is true that Jerusalem reached ‘global’ significance when it became a holy city to Christianity, and later to Islam, religions that spread all over the Middle East and Europe. And it is also true that the literature and philosophy of classical Greece was read and spread by the Romans. But: both cities were cut off from (western) Europe with the fall of the Roman Empire. This was the start of the Middle Ages - and much of what was known about antiquity became lost in the Latin West.
Jerusalem became subject to a succession of Arab caliphates, some of them reaching all the way into Spain. Athens became part of the Byzantine and then the Ottoman Empires - the latter of which, by the way, occupied much of Eastern (and at times even Central) Europe until the 20th century. There were times when Jews actually fled to these empires in order to escape persecution in the ‘Judeo-Christian’ West, which had become increasingly polarized and oppressive. And while the West had largely forgotten the Greek philosophers of old, they were still read and copied in these ‘Eastern’ and Islamic states.
It was through them that Europe managed to ‘rediscover’ antiquity in the Renaissance, and it was only then, after two whole millennia, that Europe adopted ancient Greece as its own - as if some red, unbroken thread had really connected underdog-Athens with Christian, monarchical Europe through twenty centuries of change.
The two cities, then, were hardly European pillars in reality - they were just claimed to be. And by claiming these, Europe by-passed all other threads of history, from its native pre-Roman tribes to its Arab and Islamic past. A strong and stubborn idea - and largely a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So much for (hi)story.
Europe’s (hi)story is yours to choose
‘So what’s your point?’ you might ask. ‘Are you just trying to underline Europe’s historical ignorance, or what?’ Well, no, that’s not my point at all. It is not just historical nitwits, let alone Europeans, who have engaged in this sort of thinking. The same process of adopting, of claiming antiquity for modern self-identification happens all over the globe, engaged in by everyone. It happens when an Iranian Nobel-laureate proudly (but anachronistically) asserts that the Persian Period Cyrus Cylinder was the first human rights charter in history, or when an Egyptian-Belgian journalist subtly (but anachronistically) suggests that Ancient Egypt could be an example for Middle Eastern feminism. I’m using the word ‘anachronistically’ here, and not ‘wrongly’, since the point is not so much that they’ve got their history wrong, but rather that they continue to infuse that history with emotions and values that resonate today. History is not simply some dead object to be dusted off and studied - it is a vibrant and essential part of life. To paraphrase an oft-repeated claim: a community without history is like an individual without memory - it has no identity, it has no sense of self.
What I am trying to underline here is not so much historical inaccuracy, but the arbitrariness of which historical periods, events, groups and cities are chosen as ‘pillars’. Why Jerusalem, when Jews were widely discriminated against up until the Holocaust, when Christians were so fragmented in sects, cults and different churches that they warred amongst themselves, when large parts of Europe were part of an Islamic empire for centuries, and when atheists make up much of north-western Europe today? Why Athens, when two whole millennia of Roman-imperial and European-monarchical rule separated that city from, say, the Dutch Republic in the 16th century? And why Rome, when much of what Europe holds dear today is precisely anti-dictatorial?
What we choose as meaningful examples for our idea of nationhood and European identity is not dictated by any ‘inevitable’ history, but is informed by our own values and by what we hold dear today. Meaning: we can choose what represents us. We can change the traditional story of inevitable European supremacy, of East vs. West and Christian vs. Muslim - of stories told and spread by movies such as 300. Historians may connect the dots of random happenings, and make us believe that there is a meaning to it all - but what that meaning is, that is for us to decide.
Europe, then, is in the eye of the beholder. What you want it to be, it is. And if you want it to be less racist, less Islamophobic, and less Western supremacy-dominated, but more diverse, more multicultural and more inclusive than it is right now, then the possible historical examples are up for grabs.
The richness of our history is not confined to the discourse that dominates today; it is made of an infinity of possible threads. So come, go look. Go read and explore. Tread down the steps of our past and come back with your story. Europe, and the world, is in dire need of hearing it.