How the World Made the West: A 4,000-Year History by Josephine Quinn - review by David Abulafia

David Abulafia

Europe and All That

How the World Made the West: A 4,000-Year History


Bloomsbury 576pp £30

The study of classics, Josephine Quinn avers, is in crisis. The very term ‘classics’ is questionable, since it implies a position of cultural supremacy. Beginning with John Colet’s Renaissance syllabus five hundred years ago, a diet exclusively of Greek and Latin was commonly served in English public schools, in order to provide a supposedly perfect education to those who would go on to occupy commanding positions in society. By the 19th century, the notion had also developed that the Roman Empire was worth studying as a model for modern empires, and that learning about the battles of Julius Caesar was a good way to master the modern art of war. This meant that a certain amount of ancient history was studied alongside grammar and syntax, but even today ‘ancient history’ in university syllabuses indicates the history of ancient Greece and Rome, and ‘Greece’ mainly means Athens. Close neighbours with whom the Greeks and Romans engaged, such as the Etruscans and the Carthaginians, might have walk-on parts in the story, but even the Persians are examined only from the perspective of Herodotus’s account of their attempt to subdue Athens. Ask classicists about the daily life of the Volscians (as in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus) and they will likely be lost for words, even though chapters of Livy brim with their warriors. Nor do classicists have much to say about the early history of Gaul, Carpathia and other lands where writing was not used. The consensus is that their inhabitants count as ‘prehistoric’ and unworthy of study within an ancient history syllabus.

A broader view of antiquity, and indeed of the Middle Ages, is therefore required. Quinn is the right person to provide it: she teaches in the classics faculty at Oxford, while her previous book was concerned with the Phoenicians (known in Greek as Phoinikes, ‘purple traders’) – or rather not concerned with them, as her argument was that they did not really think of themselves as a coherent group. Instead, they identified with their city of origin, whether Tyre, Sidon or Carthage. 

Alongside the argument about the need to understand a bigger, connected ancient world, Quinn presents two further arguments about the way we look at civilisation. Her first point is that American universities have a long tradition of teaching ‘Western civ’ and of placing western Europe – first Greece and Rome,

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