Some notes on Western Civilization

1. On being the heir to Rome

The Parthenon in Athens. Photo credit: Steve Swayne, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

The western world prides itself on being the heir to the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.

It’s true that some parts of the world that we would not normally think of as being in the West – Russia and the Arab world, for example – have also been strongly influenced by classical Greco-Roman culture. Nevertheless, we feel, the western world is Rome’s true successor.

It’s hard to explain why. Perhaps, we believe, there is some unique essence of westernness which began in the ancient world, and which western Europe alone was heir to.

2. Fuzzily mapped

Pretty much everyone has a rough idea what “western civilization” means, even if we aren’t sure how to define it. It started in ancient Greece and Rome, with Plato and Aristotle. It is predominantly white and Christian, and its main language is English. It is associated with rationality, individualism, technological progress, democracy, and freedom, and it currently dominates the world.

And when people talk about “the west” or “the western world” we roughly know what that means. On a map it looks like this:

A world map with North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa coloured in red.
The western world. Image based on Blank Map of the World 6

which goes to show that “west” does not necessarily have anything to do with geography.

Perhaps “the west” really means western Europe, plus those parts of the world whose cultural origins lie in western Europe as a result of colonisation. Except for Mexico and all of South and Central America and the Caribbean. And Israel is culturally western but it isn’t in the west. Um.

“West” is a fuzzy concept.

3. On Europe, and the ancient Roman Empire, and how they were not the same place

The origins of western civilization are said to lie in ancient Greece and Rome, but the ancients themselves did not think they were “west”. They considered themselves to be right at the center of the world, straddling Europe and Asia. They even named their sea the Mediterannean, which means “center of the Earth”.

And the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations are sometimes called “European”, but they weren’t, really.

The boundaries changed with time. This map shows that the Roman Empire at its greatest extent, in 117 CE, covered most of the south of Europe – Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Greece and the Balkans, England (but not Scotland and Ireland) and parts of Germany – but it left out most of northern Europe – Holland, the rest of Germany, Denmark, Poland, and all of Scandinavia and the Baltics.

A map showing the the Roman Empire in year 117.
The Roman Empire at its maximum extent: not so much European as Mediteranean. Image: Andrei nacu

And it included quite a lot of the world outside Europe: all of the Mediteranean’s south coast, from Morocco through Algeria, Tunesia and Libya to Egypt, and Jordan, Syria, part of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and parts of Iran and of the Caucassus.

Which brings up a question: what is Europe, anyway?

4. Geographical Europe

According to Wikipedia, geographical Europe is “by convention” one of the world’s seven continents. It is the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia (an actual continent) and is bordered by the Arctic Ocean to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. To the east Europe is divided from Asia by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting the Black and Aegean Seas.

A map showing Europe in red against an blue sea.
Geographical Europe. Image based on Europe polar stereographic Caucasus Urals boundary by Ssolbergj with modifications by Dbachmann, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

The concept of Europe as a cultural identity was unknown in the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome – it would grow up in the Middle Ages, centered on the Catholic Church.

5. A fable

The fable goes like this: Western Civilization was born in ancient Greece, then moved to ancient Rome and after a while became Christian. Then the Roman Empire collapsed, and Western Civilization went to sleep for 1000 years, and this was called the Dark Ages or the Medieval Period or the Middle Ages. In some versions of the fable, Western Civilization was preserved and kept safe in the Islamic world during its long slumber. Then Western Civilization awoke in western Europe and soon began to take over the whole world, because actually it was destined to do that all along.

An old-fashioned book cover titled "Aesop's Fables" with some pictures of animals.

6. Byzantine

In 479 CE the western part of the Roman Empire officially collapsed under the pressure of attacks from barbarian invaders. The empire’s capital was moved from the city of Rome, Italy, to the city of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey). That city also had another, older name, given to it by the Greeks in ancient times: Byzantium.

From this time onwards western Europe became a patchwork of small, warring states, and the form of political and social organisation known as feudalism gradually developed. Meanwhile the Roman Empire in the east, with its capital at Constantinople, continued to exist and even expanded its territory. It was still called the Roman Empire by the people who lived there. It still had the same laws and traditions, the same form of government, and the same state religion (Christianity).

Roughly 1000 years later, a German historian named this empire in the east the Byzantine Empire. No-one living at the time would have called it that, but from the perspective of sixteenth century European scholars, the Roman Empire after the western part of it fell wasn’t really Roman anymore. Not really.

7. On being the heir to Rome (continued)

Being the successor to the Roman Empire was surprisingly popular in western Europe during the middle ages, despite the fact that the actual Roman Empire still existed to the east.

In 800 CE the Frankish king Charlemagne founded an empire which roughly covered what is now France, Germany, and northern Italy. It is now known as the Carolingian Empire, but at the time, Pope Leo III declared that it was actually the continuation of the Roman Empire. Charlemagne and his successors were given the title ’emperor’, and Charlemagne was known as the ‘father of Europe’. This empire collapsed in 880 CE.

Even more confusingly, the Holy Roman Empire was formed in 962 CE, covering modern-day Germany plus parts of Italy, Holland, and France, and continued to exist until 1806. The writer Voltaire famously said that it was not holy, not Roman, and not an empire.

Why was being the heir to Rome so popular? It was more than just an appreciation for classical Greco-Roman culture. In its heyday, Rome was the largest empire the world had ever known. Its ruler was not just an emperor, he was the emperor. Roman rule was considered to be legitimate and a force for good. Long after the western part of the Roman Empire had collapsed, Roman culture continued to be a source of authority and legitimacy in Europe; civilization meant Roman civilization, and law meant Roman law. Saying that you were the heir to Rome was like saying that you, and you alone, should rule the world.

This should make those of us who are part of the West (whatever that is) think long and hard about why, even today, we are so eager to claim the Roman Empire as ours, alone.