In her new book, classical archaeologist Naoíse Mac Sweeney sets out to challenge and reinterpret the notion of “western civilisation” over the past 2,500 years, through the lives and writings of 14 women and men – ranging from Herodotus, the great Greek historian of the fifth century BC, to Carrie Lam, the 21st-century chief executive of Hong Kong, who presided over its recent slide into authoritarian rule.
Does that sound interesting to you? Frankly, I was dubious. We all know that publishers love this kind of big-picture proposition, but it’s easy to imagine how this one could turn into an ungainly mashup of second-hand knowledge and lukewarm platitudes.
What’s more, as Mac Sweeney acknowledges straight away, her premise is hardly original. In popular understanding, the history of western civilisation, from Plato to Nato, is one of superior ideas and practices (Liberty! Democracy! Free Speech!) whose origins lie in ancient Greece, and have since been refined, extended, and transmitted down the ages (through the Renaissance, the scientific revolution and other supposedly uniquely western developments), so that we in the west today are the lucky inheritors of a superior cultural DNA.
It’s a powerful notion that, not surprisingly, has always been particularly popular in the US – for it’s a more uplifting narrative to connect your national history to than, say, one of genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass racialised enslavement and ecological ruin. But in scholarly circles “western civilisation” is no longer taken very seriously as a concept. Instead, there’s now a huge literature deconstructing how the idea of “the west” has been invented, repurposed and put to use in different times and places – often in ways that we ourselves would find deeply distasteful.
Mac Sweeney sets out to explain to ordinary readers why this should be so – and why the idea took hold in the first place. She must be a terrific teacher, as well as a talented writer, for this challenging task is pulled off in style. One by one she takes on hoary old myths – about the character of the ancient world, the nature of the Crusades, or the superiority of European powers in imperial contests – explodes them with panache, and leaves us instead with a richer, fuller understanding of epochs, worldviews and fascinating individuals from the past.
As befits a classicist and expert on the history of Troy, she starts with half a dozen scintillating chapters on the Greeks, the Romans, and how later cultures disdained, manipulated, or claimed their inheritance – not just in what we now think of as countries of “the west”, but across Anatolia and the Middle East, and from sub-Saharan Africa to India. In all these instances, Hellenic and Roman cultures were regarded as fundamentally distinctive – indeed, even the idea of the Hellenes as an ethno-political unit, rather than an assemblage of different states, was largely conjured up by the Byzantine emperor Theodore II Laskaris in the 13th century. Before its invention in the Renaissance, the notion of a unified Greco-Roman “classical antiquity”, let alone one whose inheritance was confined to Europe, would have seemed even more unfathomably bizarre.
Along the way, we’re introduced to Herodotus, not just the composer of “a great smörgåsbord of historiographical delicacies”, but also a bicultural political refugee whose text subtly undercuts Athenian xenophobia and imperialism – as well as to a host of lesser-known but noteworthy figures. Among them are Livilla, the beautiful and ruthless favourite grand-daughter of emperor Augustus; Godfrey of Viterbo, chronicler and chaplain to emperor Frederick I of the Holy Roman empire; the brilliant 16th-century Italian courtesan, poet and philosopher Tullia d’Aragona; and an irresistible nobleman from Basra, Abu Yusuf Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi, who as a physician, scholar and lover of Greek texts in ninth-century Baghdad, the dazzling epicenter of the Islamic world, wrote hundreds of philosophical treatises on every subject under the sun: perfumes, tides, optical lenses, theological truth, the meaning of the universe, and how best to remove stains from dirty clothes.
The second half of the book switches to the increasingly dark story of how, from the 17th century onwards, European thinkers and politicians constructed a more and more dichotomous worldview. Catalysed by global explorations and encounters, new ways of understanding knowledge, and colonial conquest, it gradually became commonplace in the self-defined “west” to think of humanity as divided into Christians and non-Christians, Europeans and others, the superior West versus the inferior Rest.
Though this argument again treads over familiar ground, Mac Sweeney’s gift for sparkling synthesis and gripping personal vignettes never flags. She’s especially alert to the many reinterpretations of Greco-Roman antiquity that accompanied every new fabrication of “western civilisation”. Around 1700 it was possible for a European observer to say of the fearsome Angolan warrior queen Nzinga that she was as wise as a Greek and as chaste as a Roman (though only after she converted to Christianity). By contrast, the ostentatious classicism on which the United States was founded, and which later infused British imperialism, was always highly racialised – even if cases like that of the classically literate 18th-century African American poet Phillis Wheatley challenged its white supremacist premises.
What should “western” identity mean now? The book ends by reflecting on this question from a variety of standpoints: the work of the postcolonial critic Edward Said, and the current anti-western diatribes of Islamic State, Putin and the Chinese Communist party. There’s no single answer, of course – like Herodotus, and like this book, civilisation itself is a great smörgåsbord of delicacies. We pick and choose how we conceive of our identity; our appetites change; your tastes are different from mine. But I imagine that lots of people will enjoy this clever and thought-provoking account.
• The West: A New History of an Old Idea is published by WH Allen (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.