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The myth of “the West”

Our simplistic attitude to Western civilisation overlooks the global trade and culture that created it.

By Lucy Hughes-Hallett

“I cannot guess,” wrote Herodotus in the fifth century BCE, “for what reason the Earth, which is one, has three names.” Josephine Quinn is equally unimpressed by the practice of dividing the Afro-Eurasian landmass into segments (called continents) when considering its shared history.

One of the big ideas behind her book is that civilisation/culture (the terms are not exactly interchangeable) has evolved through a process of exchange and communication linking human communities over millennia and across vast tracts of land and sea. Civilisation is at once an amorphous but unified whole, and a conglomeration of thousands of separate cultures, in each of which shared elements are differently combined. Quinn argues that the habit of bundling those entities according to geographical principles – as Europe, Asia and Africa; or as West, East and South – is so simplistic as to lead to all sorts of false conclusions, some ideologically toxic (West is best), others just plain wrong.

This book is written in opposition to “civilisational thinking”, which suggests that there is such a thing as “Western civilisation” existing independently of all others. To Quinn, the concept is not only a manifestation of arrogance on the part of the Westerners who promoted it (especially 19th-century imperialists): it is also a recipe for sterility. Civilisation thrives on cross-pollination.

Quinn’s second big idea is that the notion of “influence”, suggesting that successor cultures are shaped by those that precede them, is misleading. A conventional narrative relates that the collective European mind was formed by the thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome, with modifications by Christianity. On the contrary, says Quinn: the past is dead. It is the living who pick and choose the ingredients they will throw into the stew of their own culture. Peoples of the “West” cooked up their material and conceptual world using the wheel from the Central-Asian steppe, poetry from Persia, legal codes from Mesopotamia, mathematics from Babylon and India, Mongolian stirrups, gold from sub-Saharan Africa, maritime skills from the people of the Levant and the far north, and an Asian religion. The founders of “Western civilisation” didn’t limit themselves to any hemisphere, geographically or intellectually, and without their interminglings the mongrel culture we have inherited would have been infinitely poorer and less dynamic.

None of this is news. Quinn’s two epigraphs are from James Joyce – master of random association – and from Salman Rushdie, who praises the creativity of “mélange, hotch-potch, a bit of this and a bit of that”. As for fiction writers, so for classicists. Anyone interested in antiquity will already be aware how diverse the casts of Graeco-Roman mythology and history are. Homer’s epics – the foundational works of European literature – tell of years-long journeys and protracted overseas wars. Romans of the ruling class lived abroad for most of their careers: some of their emperors never saw Rome. Quinn is far from being the first historian to have pointed all this out. It was for instance, a dominant theme of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s 2016 Reith Lectures, in which he brought to a public platform ideas that were already orthodox in academia. But if Quinn’s central argument is familiar, the evidence she has accumulated is rich in arresting detail and she delivers it with engaging gusto.

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Her book is slow to get started. She doggedly catalogues the ways in which the culture of fifth-century Athens was a patchwork drawn from originators across Asia, asserting that this has been ignored because it interferes with “the modern idea that the Greeks themselves invented Western culture from whole cloth”: I found myself wondering irritably who still really thinks this. When she moves from the theoretical overview to the material particular, though, her narrative lights up. There is something truly marvellous – to give that overused word all its original force – about the finding of a string of amber beads from the Baltic, strung with jet in Britain, in a shaft-grave at Mycenae from the 16th century BCE. Even the history of the domesticated chicken makes for an amazing tale of cultural diffusion and long-distance travel – beginning in south-east Asia, reaching Thailand around 1,650 BCE and arriving in Britain, via Mesopotamia and Iberia, a millennium later.

Archaeological evidence is always mute, but though readers may sometimes tire of ploughing through Quinn’s catalogues,  her intelligence remains alert. Why, she asks, do we so glibly assume that a lack of written records signifies a “dark age”? Oral cultures can be sophisticated too. “Writing isn’t in itself… an advance on language, just one thing to do with it.”

Her structure is roughly chronological, but with detours and flashbacks and many passages where the history of a settlement is plaited with the story of its discovery. Looking back at Minoan Crete, she is interested in its people, and equally interested in Arthur Evans, the uncoverer of Knossos who declared, “I believe in the existence of inferior races” and that he “would like to see them exterminated”. It is relevant that his excavations followed a brutal war on the island between Christian and Muslim populations. Quinn is acutely alive to the ways in which the remote past can serve modern political uses.


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She mocks the prejudices of philhellene Victorians. John Stuart Mill wrote that the Battle of Marathon, “even as an event in English history” mattered more than the Battle of Hastings. Had the Persians defeated Athens “the Britons and the Saxons might still have been wandering in the woods”. But why, asks Quinn, did Mill suppose that the Persians, whose art and technology and mathematics the Greeks were glad to imitate, would have been less desirable predecessors for us British than the Athenians with their enslaved majority?

She is more interested in trade than in conquest, less impressed by Alexander and Julius Caesar than by the Phoenician sailors who rounded the Cape of Good Hope in the sixth century BCE, nearly 2,000 years before the Renaissance explorer Bartolomeu Dias. Readers are likely to seize upon old acquaintances, but she nods only briefly at Achilles and Abraham (whom she describes approvingly as a “travelling man”) and at William the Conqueror. Her project is to remind us that if these names are familiar, it is because the caprices of fate and propaganda have made them so. She prefers to dwell on less celebrated names and societies – not Rome but Etruria; not Sparta but Uruk; not the Egypt of the pharaohs and Cleopatra, but the Garamantes, who built a city that dominated trade across the Sahara for a thousand years, digging tunnels up to five kilometres long to bring water from underground lakes to irrigate their crops.

Her time-scale is immense, and she manages it in quick-quick-slow rhythm. An empire can rise and crumble, four centuries passing, in one sentence. Other times she slows right down to focus on a single encounter. Her geographical reach is equally large. Constantine is in York when he is proclaimed “Augustus” (a term Quinn prefers to “emperor”), and from there he crosses all Europe to establish his capital in the Greek town of Byzantium, on the Roman empire’s easternmost edge.

Every now and then an individual steps forward – notably the sixth-century CE Visigothic princess Brunhilda, who was effectively queen of the Franks for 40 years before being convicted of the murder of ten kings, and then torn apart by wild horses. But Quinn’s main aim is not to tell personal stories. It is rather to shift our attention. The glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome are all too familiar, and they are anyway very late constructs. In the 12th century CE, as the Norman knights went east to establish power bases from Sicily to Syria, Christian scholars looked east as well, avid for Arabic texts to translate into Latin, recognising that in science and philosophy and poetry the caliphates were supreme. Those westerners’ admiration for easterners was unconstrained because, as Quinn puts it, “No one had yet invented classical roots for a European civilisation.”

Her book is subtitled “A 4,000-Year History”. It is an immense achievement, if sometimes an exhausting read. We are battered by wave upon wave of invasions and conquests – Turkic, Mongol, Arab – and snowed under by instances of dazzling brilliance and piquant ignorance: Virgil and Seneca both confidently asserted that silk grows on trees. Quinn finishes in 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, beginning a radical reshaping of the idea of “the West”, and – much more importantly in the short term – the Reyes Católicos, Ferdinand and Isabella, drove the Muslim King Boabdil out of Granada, so that for the first time the geographical concept of Europe and the cultural concept of Christendom mapped neatly on to each other.

Quinn is a professor of ancient history at Oxford, and year after year she reads applications from students saying dutifully that they want to study classics to familiarise themselves with the roots of Western culture. Wrong, she says. This book is a reminder of how much more widely they need to look.

How the World Made the West: A 4,000-Year History
Josephine Quinn
Bloomsbury, 576pp, £30

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen” (Fourth Estate)

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[See also: The dictator’s best friend]

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This article appears in the 28 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The QE Theory of Everything

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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