When does the history of European union start?

One thing comes up sometimes in reading about the idea of Europe, a suggestion that we cannot equate the project of European political union with the Roman Empire or Alexander’s earlier European based imperial venture.  A prime recent example is the economist and social philosopher Amartya Sen in ‘What happened to Europe?’.  Sen argues that Alexander the Great was more concerned with India than much of Europe, while both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony identified more with Egyptians than north Europeans (possibly a reference to the amorous relations both Romans enjoyed with Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen descended from Alexander the Great’s General, Ptolemy).

The first claim is undoubtedly correct.  What did Alexander know of northern and western Europe?  Very little, and he probably cared even less.  The second claim is slightly more shaky.  Caesar did invade England twice, and did cross the Rhine at least once in Germany, all tied up with the conquest of Gaul, which must have seem very western and northern to the Romans of the time.  Mark Anthony’s rather more long term involvement with Cleopatra than that of his mentor Caesar (yes Anthony did live as the husband of the woman his surrogate father had tarried with, quite the Oedipus, or maybe Polyneices since he was at war with Caesar’s adoptive son Augustus) was not popular in Rome.  He either hope to found an eastern dynasty with Cleopatra, or to rule the Roman wold from Alexandria, either way was most unacceptable to the elite and the crowd in Rome.

Returning to Sen, his article suggests that he thinks that a political idea of Europe comes from Christendom, with the decisive moment being a manifesto of George of Podĕbrady, a 15th century King of Bohemia.  Podĕbrady was arguing for a political union of Christendom against the Muslims.  At that time Christianity had been displaced by Islam from Morocco to Istanbul.  Islam had also spread beyond those areas which are still predominantly Muslim into Greece and the Balkans, through the conquests of the Ottomans.  Some of those territories still have large Muslim minorities, pluralities and outright majorities (Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece, Bosnia, Bulgaria).

If Christendom, the Medieval understanding of a transnational Christian community, has a history though, that history begins in Rome.  The Catholic Church was the state church of the Roman Empire in the west, and the Pope still enjoys a title used by the Roman Emperors, which goes very far back in Roman history, Pontifex Maximus (High Priest).  The Orthodox church began as the state church of the Roman Empire in the east (what became known as Byzantium). The original centres of Christianity were Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch (now the Turkish city of Antakya).

Turkey,  I believe, is part of political Europe.  That is not just a belief, it is an institutional and legal fact, however much some may resist the necessary outcome of Turkish membership of the European Union.  If history had been very slightly different Antakya would be part of Syria, and I would not argue that Antakya was part of Europe then, but this just shows us that there are no absolute frontiers.  After all Europe without Turkey is Europe without Edirne (Adrianople), Istanbul (Constantinople), Izmir (Smyrna) and so on.

Anyway, the main point here is that Christianity began outside Europe in Jerusalem and some other major centres were clearly outside Europe, including Carthage where Augustine of Hippo was Bishop of Carthage, in what is now Tunisia (he was born in what is now Algeria).  We could complicate this picture by dealing with claim that has been put forward for Israel joining the European Union.  I am sure, however, this makes no sense and that if such a policy was implemented the European Union would have to expand to cover all of the states bordering the Mediterranean, south as well as north.

The North African and Near Eastern territories became part of the House of Islam rather than Christendom soon after the death of Mohammed, but crusaders tried to claim back territories from Anatolia down to Palestine, and did create Christian states which lasted for a couple of centuries.  Anyway, Islam was dominant in Iberia for centuries, with some presence still in the time of George of Podĕbrady, and had a shorter period of dominance in Sicily.  So really we’re not going to get very far in equating Medieval Christendom with Europe, even if it is certainly true that some sense of solidarity between Christians had a part in the emergence of a European political structure.

We cannot talk of Christendom without talking of Rome, and while we cannot talk about the history of the idea of Europe without reference to Christendom, it is no way the bedrock reference.  Alexander the Great evidently reinforced Greek influence in the non-European Mediterranean world.  It did already have a considerable presence, so that the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek precedes Alexander’s conquests.  He took that influence to what is now Iran, then what is now Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.  The influence was not a matter of just transmitting Macedonian-Hellenic influence to those lands.  Alexander’s idea of his sovereignty was shaped by the Persian Great Kings, and that influence was transmitted to Julius Caesar and then to the Roman Emperors, and then to all European monarchs. Europe has interacted with other regions, and in a great many ways.

We could regard Europe as an off shoot of the ancient Near East, an exaggeration but a useful one.  None of this is reason to deny that the idea of Europe has reference to political structures long preceding 15th century proposals to unite Christian against Muslims.  The Roman Empire importantly expanded outside Europe, but was always centred in Europe (despite Mark Anthony’s ambitions), whether that centre was Rome (sometimes Milan or Ravenna towards the end of the Empire in the west) and Constantinople-Istanbul.  Ottoman Sultans claimed to be Caesars of the Romans (in Ottoman Turkish) after the fall of Constantinople, not before.

Alexander’s Empire fragmented after his death, which is where we get the Ptolemaic dynasty to which Cleopatra belonged.  Clearly everyone thinks his Empire was an expanded Macedonian-Hellenic Empire that continued more in the major fragment centred on Macedonia than it did in the other major fragments of Ptolemaic Egypt or the Seleucid Empire, centred on Antakya/Antioch for a large part of its history.  The Ptolemaic dynasty adopted Egyptian customs and forms of sovereignty, the Seleucids were more distinctly Macedonian-Greek for a longer time, but that identity belonged to an elite not the people they ruled as a whole.

There is no absolute beginning to the history of European political sovereignty, just as there is no absolute definition of the boundaries of Europe.  We can see threads of European sovereignty go back to Alexander, and further back to the very loose notions of Greek community which preceded Macedonian dominance.  We could make a case for seeing some very early stage of emergent sovereignty in the bonds between celtic peoples across Europe.  That is open to debate.  One thing is for sure, forms of European sovereignty precede the 15th century, precede Christendom and are bound up with Roman antiquity.

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