Western civilization as one cultural inheritance
Examples of classical influences include Heracles’ assimilation with Vajrapani, one of the Buddha’s most faithful attendants, and illuminated manuscripts created in the Byzantine style by Christian monks in Ethiopia. Illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Wikimedia Commons under public domain.
Naoíse Mac Sweeney, The Myth of the ‘Dark Ages’ Ignores How Classical Traditions Flourished Around the World, Smithsonian Magazine, 18 May 2023
The author of a sweeping re-examination of Western history reveals the global reach of Greek and Roman antiquity.
Origins matter. When we pose the question, “Where do you come from?” what we are really asking is often, “Who are you?” This is true for individuals, families, even countries. It’s also true of an entity as large and complex as the West.
The term “the West” can mean different things at different times to different people. Today, it usually refers to a set of modern nation‐states that are geopolitically aligned and share cultural features and political and economic principles, including representative democracy, market capitalism and a secular state overlying a Judeo‐Christian moral tradition. Of course, nothing on this list is exclusive to the West or universal across it. The same can be said of many symbols of Westernization—Coca‐Cola, opera houses, shopping malls. But one defining feature of the West is the notion of a common origin resulting in a shared history, a shared heritage and a shared identity.
This story imagines Western history as unfurling backward in time through the Enlightenment, the brightness of the Renaissance and the darkness of the Middle Ages, all the way to its origin in the classical worlds of Greece and Rome—“from Plato to NATO,” as a popular 1998 history book put it. This has become the standard version of Western history, both canonical and clichéd. But it is wrong. Today, all serious historians and archaeologists acknowledge that the cross-fertilization of “Western” and “non‐Western” cultures happened throughout human history, and that the modern West owes much of its cultural DNA to a wide range of non‐European and non‐white forebears. Yet the nuances of these cultural interactions have yet to be fully untangled, and traditional narratives about Western history remain stubbornly ubiquitous.
What would Western history look like if we abandoned the myth of “Western civilization” and dug deeper to uncover the historical realities beneath it? We could start at the supposed birthplace of the West, in the classical worlds of Greece and Rome. Recent research shows that the ancient Greeks didn’t think of themselves as predominantly European. Indeed, the famous historian Herodotus derided the very concept of separate continents, arguing instead that they all belonged to the same connected world. Similarly, the Romans ruled an empire that spanned three continents and claimed they were descended from the Trojans of Asia. Celebrating their mixed heritage, they would not have considered themselves to be white, and certainly not Western.
The misunderstandings accumulate after that. After the Roman Empire split in the late third century—the western half eventually splintering into independent kingdoms, the eastern half developing into the Byzantine Empire—some elements of classical culture were lost, some preserved and others transformed for a radical new world: the early Middle Ages.
Traditional narratives cast this period as a dark age of backwardness and barbarism, before the “rebirth” of classical tradition during the European Renaissance. But the evidence suggests otherwise. In the Eastern Mediterranean, the Byzantine Empire dazzled with splendor and sophistication. The Islamic world stretched from Seville to Samarkand and from Mosul to Mali, enjoying a period of unrivaled prosperity in addition to artistic and scientific advancement. In East Asia, the Tang dynasty transformed China, and the Buddhist Srivijaya Empire ushered in a golden age for the Southeast Asian archipelago.
Back in Europe, the familiar story goes, people hung on to the inheritance of Western civilization “by the skin of our teeth,” as historian Kenneth Clark put it in a 1969 documentary series, thanks to the efforts of solitary monks and nuns laboring in obscure libraries and scriptoria across Europe, squirreling away the cultural legacy of antiquity for future generations. While many Latin texts were indeed kept and copied in monasteries, recent scholarship has largely dispelled the myth of a European medieval dark age, bringing to light a wealth of scientific, literary and artistic achievements, from the treatises of the philosophical friar Roger Bacon to the medical texts of the nun Hildegard of Bingen.
Moreover, while some clergy drew on scientific and especially theological thinking from antiquity, they were certainly not the only people to do so. The bloodline that we think of as Western did not flow in a single channel from Greece to Rome and from there to Western Europe. Instead, it sprayed rather chaotically in all directions, carrying the cultural inheritance of Greek and Roman antiquity to all four points of the compass.
Take the Byzantine Empire itself. At its zenith in the sixth century, the Byzantines controlled the entire Eastern Mediterranean, as well as parts of Italy and Tunisia. Its core, however, was Anatolia and the Aegean, with the great city of Constantinople straddling the Bosporus. Politically, the Byzantine Empire was a straightforward continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire, occupying the same territories and using the same structures of governance, law and administration. Crucially, its people never called themselves “Byzantines” but referred to themselves as Romaioi, or Romans.
Culturally, the Byzantines drew from Greek as well as Roman traditions. They spoke Greek, and ancient Greek texts remained a standard part of elite education. Indeed, it was common practice for Byzantine scholars to demonstrate their erudition by imitating the ancient dialect of authors such as Herodotus, Sophocles and Plato in flamboyant displays of literary anachronism. Byzantine scholars also mined ancient texts, collating useful information about everything from cavalry tactics to advice on beekeeping in encyclopedic reference works such as the tenth‐century Constantinian Excerpts.
Farther to the east were yet more heirs of Greek and Roman culture. Many people do not think of the Indian subcontinent as part of the Greek world, but it was. The conquests of Alexander the Great brought him as far as the Punjab Valley in what is now India and Pakistan. When he left, some Macedonian soldiers stayed behind, permanently settling in Bactria (in modern‐day Afghanistan), and culturally hybrid Indo‐Greek kingdoms emerged in Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of northern India. This Hellenistic Far East was unequivocally part of the ancient Greek world, becoming especially influential in the development of later Greek philosophy.
In southwestern India and in Sri Lanka, excavations have yielded thousands of Roman coins and amphorae. This trade route is described vividly in a Roman text called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, which is full of lively local knowledge. Apparently, the wealthy townsfolk of Barigaza (in modern Gujarat, India) were especially fond of Italian wines, and Muziris (on the Malabar Coast in India’s Kerala State) was the best place to buy pearls. Gandharan art from the first to fifth centuries often depicts episodes from Greek mythology. One famous relief carving from the Peshawar District of Pakistan, now on display at the British Museum, depicts the wooden horse being wheeled toward the gates of Troy and the prophetess Cassandra wailing in grief for the fate of her city.