2.3.1 Classical Greek constructions of Europe

The word Europe is first found in Greek mythology. In some myths Europa was a Phoenician princess who was seduced by Zeus in the guise of a white bull. Europa abandoned her homeland in present-day Lebanon and moved to Crete, where she later married the King. In many of the myths Europa was the half-sister to Asia and Libya (the Greek name for Africa). In other myths Europa was the daughter of Phoenix. In fact, the varieties of mythical characters called Europa suggest that the concept was not highly differentiated. The origins of the name, however, are Phoenician or perhaps even Semitic, rather than Greek (Sattler 1971). Bernal suggested that the origins of Europe as a pure, classical Greek concept can be traced through to the point of formation of the Modern Greek nation in the 19th century. During this period historical connections between Greece and the Orient were obliterated (Bernal 1987).

Historian Eric Hobsbawm identified the original concept of Europe as a dual confrontation; the military defence of the Greeks against the advance of an eastern empire in the Persian wars, and the Greek encounters with a 'barbarian' people, the Scythians, who lived on the steppes of South Russia (Hobsbawm 1997, 290). Both of these themes of differentiation – threat (perceived and real) from the east and a sense of superiority over 'uncivilised' peoples – have been recurrent in constructions of Europe.

Authors of antiquity only rarely used the word Europe, and when they did so it was as a geographical term (Hay 1957). Europe was used to describe certain regions to the north of and outside Greece. The Greek world was simply represented by a duality that Hobsbawm noted in their relations with the Scythians; there was Greece and the rest of the 'barbarian' world. The term Asia was used in association with Persia, the threat from the east and the bitter enemy of the Greeks but, like Europe, the term Asia was geographic while Persia was cultural and political.

In the 4th century, the historian Isocrates associated Europe with Greece, and Asia with Persia (Hay 1957, 3). This construction of Europe shows that on some occasions the Greeks did consider themselves Europeans and may have marked the beginnings of the opposition between European and Asian. The idea of Europe took firmer root in the period of decline of the Greek city-states and the eventual rise of Alexander to the north in Macedonia. Delanty suggested that the idea of Europe served as a geographical entity to bind the many territories that Alexander conquered (Delanty 1995). The opposition between Europe and Asia was cemented in this period as Alexander pushed eastwards. Delanty suggested that under Alexander Greece came to be part of Europe.

'The idea of Greek superiority against the "barbarians" of Europe (which probably included Macedonia) diminished and a broader concept of Europe emerged and came to refer to what is essentially Asia Minor and included Greece, but with Asia still being the focal point of otherness' (Delanty 1995, 19).

During the period of Macedonian expansion Europe pushed Asia back east beyond the conquered Persian Empire.


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