History of Europe

Europe is usually considered a continent, but unlike the other continents, it does not form a distinct geographical unit. Rather, it is only the westernmost portion of the Eurasian landmass. Historically speaking, Europe is more a cultural than a geographical expression. In Homer’s day, “Europe” meant central Greece as distinct from the Peloponnesus and the islands of the Aegean Sea. It then came to be extended to all of what is now Greece and by the 5th century AD to the entire landmass to the north, as opposed to “Asia,” by which the Greeks meant Asia Minor, or Anatolia. There has always been, and is still, some ambiguity as to where the eastern frontier of Europe lies. For the ancients it was the Don River; today the conventional border extends from the Ural Mountains south and west across the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea to the Dardanelles. This boundary runs right through Russia; it also divides Turkey. Somewhat paradoxically, Russia is usually considered a European country, whereas Turkey is not. Although more than half of Russia lies within Asia, the heartland of old Russia was Russia-in-Europe; and the “Christian,” “European” Russians essentially colonized the Asian portion. Very little of present-day Turkey lies within Europe, but historically the Ottoman Empire extended into Central Europe. The Turks, however, came out of Central Asia and were Muslims.

There is an almost equal ambiguity about Europe’s western boundary. Geographically, Great Britain and Ireland are part of Europe. Yet in a way they have always been separate from it. The economist John Maynard Keynes, referring to the shudders of nationalism and revolutionary socialism that were shaking the German, Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires in the aftermath of World War I, wrote of Britain in 1919: “Europe’s voiceless tremors do not reach her.” Inhabitants of the British Isles still speak of travelling to France or Germany as going to “the continent.” The English remain, in their own minds, citizens of an Anglo-Saxon or English-speaking world as much as, or more than, of a European continent. Many “continentals,” especially the French, voice a similar uncertainty about the British. This uncertainty is mistaken, however. For all its distinctiveness, England is and always has been part of Europe, culturally as well as geographically. The great English cathedrals are made of stone carved in France. English writers both influenced and were dominated by continental experience. British armies and navies exercised great power in Europe, and England itself was a continental power deeply involved in France from the 11th to the 15th century.

The southern and northern boundaries have certainly shifted over the centuries. In the time of the Roman Empire, any suggestion that the southern (North African) shore of the Mediterranean Sea be regarded as a separate area from the northern shore would have seemed as absurd as the suggestion that Scandinavia had anything in common with Italy or Greece. Roman ships do not seem ever to have entered the Baltic Sea, and the Romans scarcely knew that Scandinavia existed. This was probably almost equally true of the 16th-century Mediterranean world, which was treated as a unit by the French historian Fernand Braudel. Clearly the Mediterranean Sea remained more of a recognizable entity than the European continent until after the 16th century, when large land armies became the basis of national strength, and the focus of seafaring activity shifted to the Atlantic Ocean and the world beyond.

In its origins, however, European culture owed a great deal to its older and more sophisticated neighbours. In Greek myth Europa, the figure from whom Europe takes its name, was the daughter of Agenor, king of the Phoenician city of Tyre, and this legend expresses an important historical truth. Europe inherited or adapted many inventions or discoveries that originated among the peoples of the ancient Near East: The calendar, the art of writing, numerals, weights and measures, money as a medium of exchange, the first metallurgy, and the idea of commerce were all European imports from Mesopotamia, Syria, or Egypt. The great universal religions were Asiatic in origin, not European. The Hebraic tradition, eventually incorporated into European culture through the medium of Christianity, was one of the most profound Near Eastern influences on the West. Ancient Greece is usually considered the birthplace of democracy, but the practice of consultation in political matters appears to have been common to most nomadic tribes.


It would be difficult to determine the ethnic composition of the later Roman Empire with any great accuracy. Its culture was a blend of the Greek and Roman. The emperors were often of Spanish, Celtic, or Illyrian origin. The emperor Philip (r. 244-49) was of Arabian descent, and the great “Roman” jurist Ulpian came from Syria. The German invaders imposed their rule on and were gradually absorbed by a largely Christian population of mixed Latin and Celtic heritage in Gaul, Britain, Italy, and Spain. The result was an amalgam of Germanic custom, Christian morality, and Roman laws. With the collapse of imperial authority in western Europe, the Christian bishops became the guardians of Roman tradition. During the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuriesÑthe so-called Dark AgesÑwhen civilized life virtually disappeared in western Europe, the church acquired substantial temporal power that lasted in the north until the Reformation of the 16th century, and in Roman Catholic lands until the 18th and 19th centuries.


The history of the West from the 15th to the 20th century is characterised by revolutionary changes in the arts, in religion, in science and technology, in the political and economic spheres, and in people’s conception of themselves.