One Thousand Years of Dialogue: the Historical Foundations of European Identity

I. A seductive fallacy

The document has, with good reason, fallen into obscurity. Its general line of argument, on the other hand, has been widely perpetuated. Late Czech president and statesman Václav Havel, writing in the year 2000, expressed it comprehensively: “The basic set of European values formed by the spiritual and political history of the continent is, to my mind, clear. It consists of respect for the unique human being and humanity’s freedoms, rights and dignity; the principle of solidarity; the rule of law and equality before the law; protection of minorities; democratic institutions; separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers; political pluralism; respect for private ownership and private enterprise, and a market economy; and the furtherance of civil society.”

This notion that our ‘identity’ is roughly an articulation of the political ideals behind the institutions of liberal democracy has become a cliché of European discourse. In a variety of forms, it comes up again and again and again. Few of its proponents seem willing to address the fact that most of Europe’s 19th and 20th Century history is, in fact, distinctly undemocratic, and that until the death of Francisco Franco in 1975 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, rule by the people could hardly be called a standard for the continent. Also problematic is the fact that many historical actors who fought for democracy and human rights — from Thomas Jefferson to Sun Yat-sen and Gandhi — were simultaneously battling European oppression; are we to deduce that foreign freedom fighters were basically fighting for Europe against Europe?

Only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 could democracy be called a European standard

Bearing in mind that identity is about who a person or a group of people are, it may be that equating Europeans with such lofty and fundamental ideals is one way of evading a political question that nobody seems quite certain what to do with. Parties on the right usually have no qualms about beating the drums of cultural identity, but accepting that Europeans share larger commonalities with each other seems like an implicit argument in favour of integration, and this grates with their substantial (and growing) euroskeptic base. The left is equally suspicious, though for different reasons: describing Europeans as ‘a people’ risks validating the same sort of exclusionary discourse (particularly with regards to migrants) that is typically linked to old-school nationalism.

Thus, the question ‘what does it mean to be European?’ is answered with ‘democracy and human rights’, which is both flattering and culturally vague, and therefore good enough for everyone.

II. The origins of Europe as an idea

Writing in 1796, Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke claimed that ‘no European can be a complete exile in any part of Europe’. The phrase, of course, resonates today: many well-travelled Europeans might testify that moving within the Union’s member states, particularly by comparison with visiting other regions of the world, comes with a sense that ‘home’ is not entirely left behind.

It is questionable whether this claim had anything to do with democracy and human rights. Burke was writing at the twilight of the Age of Enlightenment, which is typically credited with articulating and establishing those very concepts, but the thinkers of that age (the ‘philosophes’) did not see themselves as part of the great collective but as a relatively small, anti-establishment, transnational club which they affectionately referred to as the ‘Republic of Letters’. Yet the maxim is not ‘no philosophe’ but a much broader ‘no European can be a complete exile in any part of Europe’.

Given that democracy was not exactly widespread in Europe in 1796 (and considering that nowadays it can be found in countries as remote from the continent as Brazil, India and Japan), it’s plausible that Burke’s proposition was not political in nature, but historical. ‘Europe’, in the latter sense, refers not to a system of civic and legal institutions but to an idea, and any notion of a shared identity — including the feelings of familiarity and cultural affinity of a travelling European — is essentially postulating the sharing of this idea.

But what kind of idea is it? It evidently cannot be reduced to a purely spatial demarcation; it’s not just some place, however expansive. Recall that in geographical terms, Europe as such does not exist; it is not a continent of its own but a continuation of the greater landmass of Eurasia. The Ancient Greeks — Anaximander, Herodotus, Strabo — disagreed on whether to place its borders at the rivers Phasis or Tanaïs (the modern Rioni and Don), while the current line of demarcation at the Ural mountains was only drawn some 300 years ago, by Swedish cartographer Philip Johan von Strahlenberg. Even then, Strahlenberg’s maps might never have gained much currency without the endorsement of the Russian empress Anna Ioannovna, who was keen for her lands to be considered ‘European’.

If the idea of Europe is not the same as the idea of its borders, then what is it? As importantly, where did it come from? We know that it is not as old as Ancient Greece, nor for that matter as Ancient Rome. These two civilisations typically spring to mind when people think of the early history of the continent (more on this later), and of course the name Europa was that of a character in Greek myth, but it’s impossible to think of Europe as a region, or as any kind of meaningful conceptual unity, when discussing that age of humankind. It is much more appropriate to speak of a great ‘Mediterranean’ region, and to see the Romans and Greeks as sharing their world with the peoples in North Africa and the Middle East. Indeed, the Roman Empire at its greatest expansion gives us a sense of what the ‘known’ or ‘civilised’ world would have looked like in the minds of the ancients — and it leaves out almost half of the European continent.

The Roman Empire in the 2nd Century AD, at its greatest extent

At the same time, the idea of Europe is certainly much older than Strahlenberg’s maps. Umberto Eco described it in 2013 as “an identity which has been in the making since the founding of the University of Bologna (in 1088)”. I would argue that it is even older than that, and that we can trace it at least as far back as the year 800 AD, when the great King of the Franks Charlemagne was crowned by Pope Leo III as the new ‘Emperor of the Romans’.

There are two traits of Charlemagne’s empire — later to become the Holy Roman Empire — that I wish to highlight. Firstly, it was a polity that saw itself as inextricably tied to Christianity, not only because of its links with the Pope and the Catholic Church, but particularly since Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles Martel, had defeated the Umayyad Caliphate at the Battle of Tours in 732 AD. That battle was mythologised like no other in European history since Thermopylae, becoming to the medievals (and beyond) a symbolic triumph of Christianity over Islam.

The Battle of Tours/Poitiers, here in an 1830 painting by Eugène Delacroix

Secondly, Charlemagne’s reign was invested with the heritage of a fallen world retrospectively painted as a ‘Golden Age’. The glorification of the Roman and eventually Greek worlds was, and would continue to be, an ambivalent affair, as the paganism of luminaries like Cicero and Aristotle did not agree with the empire’s Christian identification. And yet it became inescapable: in 913 AD, the great Bulgarian Empire followed in the footsteps of the Frankish kingdom as Simeon I was crowned emperor by a somewhat less enthusiastic Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (there were some quibbles on whether the exact title should include the term ‘Romans’). In 962 AD it was Otto the Great’s turn to be crowned by the Pope, establishing the Holy Roman Empire for good. From then on, and for more than a thousand years, the echoes of an ancient, irrevocably lost time of splendour and achievement (often more fabular than historical) would be heard everywhere in Europe, inspiring desires to emulate, surpass, or even break free from it. This was the heritage of the Greco-Roman world — or more concisely, the Classical era.

In broad terms, these are the two constitutive elements of a shared idea that survives to this day. Europe is not a geographical space, nor a country, nor is it a people: it is a civilisation, the two conceptual pillars of which are Christianity and Classicism. If this sounds like a contentious claim, that’s because it should — then as now, European cultures have defined themselves not in terms of how they embraced these two concepts, but mostly in terms of how they struggled with them.

III. One Thousand Years of Dialogue

The ‘Triumph of Galatea’, by Raphael. The influence of Classicism became preponderant in Renaissance art

Trying to paint either Christianity or Classicism as ‘inherently’ or ‘essentially’ European would be no less misleading than attempting to do the same for democracy and human rights. The Christian religion was born outside of Europe, and its most zealous practitioners today are to be found in North America and sub-saharan Africa. As for the Ancient Greeks and Romans, they had a much more substantial material and cultural exchange with the Middle East and North Africa than with inland Europe.

What does hold true, however, is that the dialogue between Christianity and Classicism — a dialogue which has seldom explicated itself in conciliatory terms — is indeed characteristic of the European civilisation, as it increasingly came to recognise itself and continues to recognise itself to this day.

There is a popular narrative that Classicism was forgotten during the Middle Ages and only rediscovered in the Renaissance — a period so designated precisely because even its contemporaries saw it as a ‘rebirth’ of the glories of Antiquity. It is certainly the case that many ancient texts had been lost, and that a great deal of material reemerged thanks to the philological fervour of Renaissance scholars from Petrarch onwards.

Yet the Middle Ages were themselves characterised by an ongoing dialogue between Classicism and the Christian polities of the time. Both of the greatest Christian philosophers were influenced directly and decisively by Greek thought — Augustine by Plato and Aquinas by Aristotle, respectively. Classic Latin epics like Virgil’s Aeneid and Lucan’s Pharsalia never faded from the canon, and they resurface triumphantly in Dante’s masterpiece The Divine Comedy, which also draws liberally from Olympian mythology. Roman law endured well beyond the fall of the Western Empire, with both its form and contents proving constitutive to the codes of the new barbarian kingdoms — most notably the Edict of Theodoric, the Lex Burgundionum, and the Breviary of Alaric, all of which were written in Latin. In Eastern Europe too, exported Greek versions of the legendary Code of Justinian shaped the legal sciences until well past the Middle Ages (one version, the Hexabiblos, remained the basis of modern Greek law until 1940!).

Roman Law remained deeply constitutive in Europe even after the fall of the Western Empire

The Catholic Church, which inherited its administration from the empire, was most active in retaining Roman culture — legal, philosophical, linguistic — and its work was expanded on after the foundation of Europe’s first universities from the 11th Century onwards. What the Renaissance truly recovered was not so much the Classical world but the Greek part of it. Events such as the (very temporary) union of the Latin and Greek churches at the Council of Florence in 1439, and of course the fall of Constantinople in 1453 with its subsequent exodus of Byzantine scholars, helped to finally return the study of Greek and Greek texts to the Western world.

If I stress the continuity of Classicism in European history it’s not to prove that it is especially ‘European’ in and of itself. The Arab world of the Early Middle Ages had, if anything, an even closer relationship with ancient Greek scholarship. The point is rather that European polities have always understood their own identity in terms of a dialogue between two specific cultural worlds, sometimes reconciling them, but more often rejecting one in terms of the other. The medieval Church defined its outlook by embracing pagans like Virgil as proto-Christians while rejecting others — for instance, Ovid. The city-states of the Renaissance viewed themselves as a rebirth of lost times only in terms of their relationship with Classical culture. The Protestant Reformation bled out the purity of Christ’s message by rejecting not only Catholic material but all pagan representations, ancient and modern, while the new, self-styled ‘philosophes’ of the Age of Enlightenment understood their ‘enlightenment’ as a liberation from Christian scholasticism (ironically, a school that was itself infused with Greek influence). Later cultural developments like Romanticism, modernism and (European) postmodernism become increasingly varied and contradictory in their international manifestations, but most individual authors implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) embraced or rejected one between Christianity and Classicism in terms of the other, or else attempted a synthesis of the two.

This dichotomy endures to this day, and it informs virtually every aspect of European cultures. Christianity and the ‘traditional values’ of the Church have become a staple of the political folklore of the right, while the culture of intellectual sophistication cherished by the left is largely grounded in an acquaintance with the Classical world. (It goes without saying that both groups view each other with suspicion). The stories, the lessons, the images, the ideas of both these worlds are so deeply embedded in everything from our customs and our icons to our laws and our literature, that it is impossible to imagine Europeans without them. There is a common language that subtends our myriad languages, the same that allows Polish Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski to start one poem with the verse “Come, Heraclitus and Simonides, / Come with your weeping and sad elegies” and contemporary Spanish poet Aurora Luque to end another with the lines, “How could I ever detoxify myself? / I am addicted for life / to a drug. To Greece”.

Of course, depending on their spiritual outlook, many Europeans will resist the relation of their ‘identity’ with Christianity. This misses the point that it is not Christianity itself that is European but our dialogue with it, and this very much includes the possibility of rejecting or dismissing it, the way that numberless Europeans have done from the medieval Bogomils and Cathars to rationalist champions like Voltaire, Giosuè Carducci, and Richard Dawkins. Identifying oneself as European in no way mandates an adherence to the Christian religion, and indeed the author of this article is an atheist. Besides, to the extent that all people have not a single identity but a plurality of coexisting identities — one may describe oneself as a woman, a Canadian, a soldier, a person of colour, a vegan, and a Trekkie all at once — there is nothing contradictory or inconsistent about identifying as a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Hindu or an atheist, and simultaneously as a European. It simply means that one sees oneself as contributing to a particular, historically-grounded dialogue which draws half of its vocabulary from a Christian matrix, and not that this vocabulary necessarily describes one’s personal spiritual beliefs.

IV. The dangers of misinterpretation

An EU flag raised at the Ukrainian frontlines

Let us summarise: from the historical perspective, what it means to be European is primarily to understand oneself as being part of a civilisation, one that defines itself in terms of the dialogue — and as importantly, the tension — between the two poles of Classicism and Christianity. The idea of such a civilisation began to take form roughly around the age of Charlemagne, and was gradually adopted by (and sometimes imposed on) all European polities. It is the foundation of European identity, because there is no other cultural element that is both characteristic of and exclusive to the history of all European societies.

There are many other countries in the world that have centuries of Christian heritage — the United States, for instance, which also share our tradition of democracy and human rights. But the USA never formed a ‘Golden Age’ myth around Classicism, and the way their culture shaped itself over time owes far more to Native American and non-European immigrant populations than it does to Greece and Rome. There are some vestigial Roman references in their political system (they have a ‘Senate’), which are mostly superficial, and there are occasional Classical tropes sprinkled across American literature, but these are not essential for reading Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman in the way they are for reading Dante, Cervantes and Shakespeare.

Similarly, Classicism is not purely a thing of Europe, neither from an historical nor from a cultural point of view. A country like Egypt, where the Library of Alexandria once stood, or like Tunisia, once home to Carthage, could claim as intimate a link to Greece and Rome as any nation in Europe. But more than one thousand years ago these countries picked up the mythological, cultural and literary baggage of Islam, the rise of which split forever the ‘great Mediterranean region’ of Antiquity into two civilisations that to this day are struggling to mend their rift.

With all these real distinctions noted, there is a risk of interpreting the ‘European identity’ as something categorical and clean-cut, when in reality — and inevitably — the concept blurs at the edges, and is subjectively informed by the many national identities it comprises. Christianity, for example, was interpreted discordantly in Catholic and Protestant countries, while the imprint of the Greeks looks qualitatively different on German philosophy than it does on Scandinavian theatre.

Thus, the dialectic at the heart of Europe’s identity is not a one-size-fits-all monolith, but something that requires unpacking for each individual nation. Ireland, for example, was never part of the Roman Empire, and so the form of their Classical influence must be traced not in roads and temples but in a literary tradition that starts from Saint Patrick’s writings in Latin and runs all the way through to James Joyce’s Ulysses. Small countries like Kosovo and Albania have long taken part in the greater dialogue of the Orthodox Christian Balkans, but are nowadays prevalently Muslim. And by far the most controversial question remains that of Turkey, a territory that turned decisively away from Christianity, but did so much later than most of the Middle East. Prior to the Ottoman takeover in the 15th Century, the Turkish lands were the fulcrum of a Christian and Classical dialogue that no European country except for Italy can match: does that enormous heritage still make them European, particularly in their own eyes?

A criticism sometimes voiced by euroskeptics is that the idea of a ‘European identity’ represents a threat to national identities. But any mature, nuanced discussion of the topic must acknowledge liminal cases like those I outlined, and not negate them. Europe as a sense of belonging does not only coexist with other, smaller, local traditions and cultures, it embraces and enshrines them. The purpose of the European institutions (whatever one may think of their effectiveness) is not to impose the terms of globalisation but to protect us from global players whose populations and resources are orders of magnitude above those of our own countries. To think that the European civilisation somehow competes against the very cultures that compose it represents a radical misinterpretation that flies in the face of over one thousand years of history. Whether it takes the form of an integrated political system or purely that of an abstract idea, Europe does not replace national identities. It guarantees them.

Writer, Berlin-based.

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