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How the World Made the West by Josephine Quinn: A sprawling new history

Using archaeology and DNA analysis, Quinn shows how dividing lines mislead us about the ancient world

How the World Made the West: A 4,000-Year History
How the World Made the West: A 4,000-Year History
Author: Josephine Quinn
ISBN-13: 978-1526605184
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Guideline Price: £30

“Our civilisation,” James Joyce wrote, “is an immense woven fabric in which very different elements are mixed,” from “Nordic rapacity” to “Roman law” to the modern “bourgeois conventions” we have laid over “a Siriac religion”. “In such a fabric,” he argued, “it is pointless searching for a thread that has remained pure, virgin and uninfluenced by other threads nearby.”

Pointless it may have been, but that hasn’t stopped the West from trying. For the last 200 years, writes ancient historian Josephine Quinn in this sprawling new history, we have become trapped in “civilisational thinking”.

“Human history,” wrote the influential political scientist Samuel Huntington after the end of the cold war, “is the history of civilisations. It is impossible to think of the development of humanity in any other terms.” And “during most of human existence, contacts between civilisations were intermittent or non-existent”.

The catastrophes of Afghanistan and Iraq may have chastened those who championed Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations book, but it is still embedded in the political and popular mind. Every year Quinn still sees the same line on applications to study classics with her at Oxford: “I want to study the ancient world because Greece and Rome are the roots of western Civilisation.”


This is, Quinn writes, “demonstrably, historically, wrong”. Even asking whether “western civilisation” was or is “a good thing” misses the bigger question of whether the idea “explains anything at all”. In a 4,000-year history, Quinn shows that seeing the world as a collection of different “civilisations” blinds us to the fact that it is connections, rather than separation, that has always driven human progress.

Until the 18th century, Europeans did not think in “civilisational” terms at all. Once their increasing global power made them start thinking about “civilisation”, they did so in the singular, with the idea that all cultures could, with education and Christianity, become “civilised”. It just so happened, John Stuart Mill wrote, that “these elements exist in modern Europe, and especially in Great Britain, in a more eminent degree, and in a state of more rapid progression, than at any other place or time”.

Such thinking, of course, justified European imperialism without end, since colonised and indigenous people were still “savage” and thus in need of European-directed “improvement”. But those very ideas, Quinn explains, along with the developing idea of “race”, encouraged a superiority that would split “civilisation” into a hierarchy of “civilisations”, with “irredeemably different and inferior peoples” at the bottom.

The foundational myth of this thinking lay in a rewriting of ancient history into “a binary between the West and the rest”, with classical Greece and Rome as what Mill called “the true ancestors of the European nations”. Other ancient cultures may be “impressive”, but they were not “ours”, and so they were ignored in favour of a long “western” lineage of learning, liberty, and democracy.

All roads did not lead to Rome: there were trading networks across the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and rising trading empires across the Sahara

Clearly up to date on the latest research all across her field, Quinn brings archaeology, DNA analysis and history together to show how such dividing lines mislead us about an ancient world defined by connections, both peaceful and violent. “Millennia of interaction,” Quinn writes, have been “largely been forgotten, drowned out” by Victorian ideas that ancient “civilisations” were “separate and often mutually opposed”.

There was, for example, no “Minoan civilisation” until British archaeologist Arthur Evans invented “a culture entirely unattested in antiquity”. Like Victorian Britain itself, Crete was to Evans a small seafaring island pioneering something superior in a barbaric world: “I believe in the existence of inferior races,” he wrote, “and would like to see them exterminated.” The civilised Minoans, Evans’s student Vere Gordon Childe would write, were “thoroughly European and in no sense oriental”.

On the mainland, Greek archaeologists were promoting the idea of a “Mycenaean civilisation” that mapped conveniently on to newly independent Greece and the parts of Ottoman Turkey to which it laid claim. But Quinn shows how more complex history was set aside as “an inconvenient obstacle to the modern idea that the Greeks themselves invented western culture from whole cloth”.

In reality, the ancient Greeks themselves knew and acknowledged that “they stood at the end of much longer foreign traditions”: alphabet and writing had come from Ugarit and Tyre; city walls and participative government from around the Aegean; mathematics and science from Babylon and Egypt.

“Classical Greece” was also little like its later image. As “the first slave society”, an estimated one-third of all people could have been enslaved. Its culture certainly makes an odd model for today’s alt-right, who had to recently condemn a Netflix documentary on Alexander the Great as “woke” for showing the Macedonian leader kissing men. Even when Alexander took Greco-Macedonian power across the “known world”, Quinn writes that “one of the most interesting things” about the “Hellenistic” world he created “is how much art, science and empire owed to Asia and Africa”.

The Persians, the Carthaginians, the Egyptians and those simplistically labelled “Phoenicians” were all vital parts of cultural and economic progress. Quinn takes us from Huelva across the Mediterranean to Ugarit, through the Black Sea to Crimea, over mountains and deserts to Baghdad and Persepolis, and later across the steppes to Karakoram. Each chapter’s excellent map helps to keep such journeys in perspective. While the author’s present-tense storytelling and descriptions at times jars with her big picture history, it is extremely impressive to follow the dynamic flow and breadth of her narrative.

“The study of antiquity,” Quinn writes, “gives the lie to the idea that everyone is born with a natural, fixed ethnic identity, tied to specific other people by ancestry or ancestral territory.” “Roman” in particular was “never an ethnic concept, but one based on citizenship”, open to all who served Rome. Indeed, that fact underpinned its conquering ambition: “If Romans came from anywhere, everywhere belonged to Rome.” “Cultural cosmopolitanism” was integrally tied to the thinking and power of an empire that was in no meaningful way “western”.

While many scholars will already agree with Quinn’s arguments, ‘civilisational thinking’ lingers on

Rome was built on mobility: Seneca estimated that the majority of the city’s first century CE population were migrants, while its brutal armies (Julius Caesar’s alone killed millions in his campaigns in Gaul and Germania) were “an engine of social and literal mobility”. Roman Britain was run by people from as far away as Iberia, north Africa and the Levant. The sheer scale of Roman slavery – perhaps more than 10 million enslaved by the second century CE – also brought people across vast distances.

By that time, north Africa “became the driving force of the Roman imperial economy” due to Rome’s dependence on “African agriculture, manufacturing and trade, much of which was in the hands of Africans themselves”. African Romans became increasingly powerful in Rome itself, producing large numbers of senators and emperors.

As the Goths gradually chipped away at Roman power in western Europe, the empire would eventually shift its centre of gravity east to Constantinople. Anachronistically calling that eastern empire “Byzantium”, Quinn argues, “reinforces the notion of Rome as essentially western”.

All roads did not lead to Rome: there were trading networks across the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and rising trading empires across the Sahara. Historians have long since left behind the myth of the “Dark Ages” after Rome’s fall, and Quinn emphasises how the medieval world, like the ancient one, was built on connection.

Medieval Europe included a thriving Islamic culture, powerful (and long pagan) Viking raiders, and a Crusader movement that, for all its “holy war” zeal, did not even see Christianity as naturally located in “the West”. The rise of Venice and Genoa also exemplify how it was a place of trading connections between religious and political worlds, the edge of what Quinn calls “an interconnected set of economic zones” from the Mongols to Mali.

The online alt-right is obsessed with their masculine ‘ancestors’ in ancient Greece and Rome

That world, however, contained “the seeds of its own destruction”. The Black Death – which travelled right across its trade routes – killed more than half of the people living in Europe, western Asia and north Africa, radically altering economic and social life for centuries. “Separation and distance,” Quinn says, became defining features of western European ideas, just as its horizons turned west.

While many scholars will already agree with Quinn’s arguments, “civilisational thinking” lingers on. Binyamin Netanyahu justifies his brutal war on Gaza as a defence of “western civilisation”, and Donald Trump casts himself as its only possible “saviour”. Racists from Ireland to Hungary fear that migrants will “pollute” and “replace” the (white) West. The online alt-right is obsessed with their masculine “ancestors” in ancient Greece and Rome, while Elon Musk worries that the “woke mind virus” is pushing the West towards civilisational “suicide”.

The West’s rivals, too, think and argue in civilisational terms. Vladimir Putin lectures endlessly about Russia’s status as an “original civilisation-state”, and Xi Jinping promotes the Chinese regime’s insistence that “unique and long civilisations” choose “different paths to modernisation”. The geopolitical and cultural consequences of such thinking are sadly plain to see in our fractured world.

After a book that so skilfully expands the limits of how we think about the ancient world, Quinn’s conclusion is perhaps disappointingly brief. But her masterfully woven story shows not just that “migration, mobility and mixing are hard-wired into human history”, but that “it is not peoples that make history, but people, and the connections that they create with one other”.

Christopher Kissane is a historian, writer and host of Ireland’s Edge

Further Reading

The West: A New History of an Old Idea by Naoíse Mac Sweeney (WH Allen, 2023)

Mac Sweeney uses the lives of 14 fascinating characters to sketch how the idea of “the West” has been invented and shaped over centuries.

Phoenicians Among Others: Why Migration Mattered in the Ancient Mediterranean y Denise Demetriou (Oxford University Press, 2023)

Demetriou explores the importance of “Phoenician” migration across the ancient Mediterranean world, showing how important their movement was from Iberia to the Levant.

Empire of the Steppes: The Nomadic Tribes Who Shaped Civilisation by Kenneth W Harl (Bloomsbury, 2023)

Harl covers millenniums to reveal the histories of both legendary and overlooked central Asian nomadic people who lived, fought, and built empires across some of the world’s most vital trade routes.

Christopher Kissane

Dr Christopher Kissane, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a historian, writer and presenter of the Ireland's Edge podcast