Europe

Definition

Joshua J. Mark
by
published on 14 July 2010
Map of Europe in 125 CE (by Andrei nacu)

Europe is the second smallest of the seven continents covering roughly 2% of the earth’s surface. The name 'Europe’ has long been thought to have been derived from the ancient myth of Zeus and Europa. According to this tale, the great god Zeus, seeing the lovely Phoenician princess Europa bathing (or, according to other versions, playing with her handmaidens) by the sea shore, transformed himself into a magnificent white bull and slowly approached her from the sea. So gentle and sweet was this bull that Europa placed garlands of flowers around his neck, petted him and then climbed onto his back when, much to her surprise, the bull ran off across the surface of the seas, abducting her to the isle of Crete. On Crete Zeus and Europa became lovers and she bore him three famous sons. Her family back in Phonecia, distraught at her disappearence, sent her brothers in search of her, each one finally being unsuccessful in his quest but each founding important cities and lending their names to various regions around the Aegean (Thebes being one example, originally known as Cadmea after Europa’s brother Cadmus).

Herodotus, however, does not believe the tale of the Phoenician princess had anything to do with the naming of the continent, writing in Book Four of his Histories, “Another thing that puzzles me is why three distinct women’s names should have been given to what is really a single land-mass…nobody knows where it got its name from, or who gave it, unless we are to say that it came from Europa, the Tyrian woman, and before that was nameless like the rest. This, however, is unlikely; for Europa was an Asiatic and never visited the country which we now call Europe.”

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Theories regarding the origin of the name 'Europe’ range from it being of Greek origin meaning “wide gazing”, a reference to the breadth of the shoreline as seen from sea or from the Phoenician for “evening”, as in the place where the sun would set. Today, as it was in Herodotus’ time, no one can say for certain where the name 'Europe' originated. To the ancient Greeks, the Aegean sea and environs were the center of the world. The Phonecians regularly sailed across and up the Atlantic to harvest tin from Europe at Cornwall but, to the Greeks, Europe was a dark continent (in the same way that 19th and early 20th century CE Europeans would later view Africa).

Culture, on even the most basic level, had been on going in Europe since at least 20,000 BCE as evidenced by cave paintings (the most famous being the Cave of Lascaux complex in modern day France) and by 5000 BCE heirarchical societies had begun to emerge and peas were cultivated, evidence of a sturdy agricultural society. Even so, to the Greeks, the people of Europe, more so than any other non-Greeks, were barbarians (from the Greek barbarophonos, “of incomprehensible speech”, a word first coined by Homer in his Iliad, Book II) who banded together diverse tribes such as the Balts, Slavs, Albanians, Italics and, best known, the Celts (who included the Gauls and the Germanic tribes).

By the year 4300 BCE megalithic tombs were in use in Europe, by 3500 farming was wide spread across the face of the continent and by 2000 bronze work was introduced by the Wessex culture of present-day Britain. In 1860 BCE the construction of the impressive and mysterious Stonehenge was begun. Even so, such accompishments were not so impressive to the Greeks nor, later, to the Romans. As late as 78 CE, the Roman historian Tacitus refers to the Britons under the governorship of his father-in-law Agricola as “rude, scattered and warlike people” to whom the Romans, of necessity, had to bring cultivation and civilization. Earlier, Julius Caesar had the same opinion of the Gauls, referring to them as little more than animals in his description of the massacre of the Ubii tribe by the Rhine.

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In his The Gallic Wars he devotes as much space to a description of the Alces (elks) of Europe as he does to the Ubii in any important way writing of the elk that “their shape and dappled coat are like those of goats but they are rather larger, have stunted horns and legs without joints” and then goes on to give the earliest narrative we have of what would come to be known as “cow tipping” as the Romans would hunt the elk by pushing them over while they slept standing up and killing them easily because they were too large to raise themselves back up. Even so, it is impossible to argue that Caesar brought nothing of consequence to the people of Gaul and, by extension, Europe. The historian Durant writes,

For three hundred years Gaul remained a Roman province, prospered under the Roman peace, learned and transformed the Latin language, and became the channel through which the culture of classic antiquity passed into northern Europe. Doubtless neither Caesar nor his contemporaries foresaw the immense consequences of his bloody triumph. He thought he had saved Italy, won a province and forged an army; he did not suspect that he was the creator of French civilization.

The Romans brought their civilization, not just to Gaul (later France and part of Italy) but to the whole of Europe, providing innovations such as paved roads, indoor plumbing, fortified cities of great administrative efficiency and culture and, of course, their language, slowly 'civilizing’ the disparate tribes of the various European regions. Tacitus writes of the efforts of Agricola in Britain to establish schools to spread the knowledge of Latin and his encouragement of the populace to build temples and to regard personal hygiene as a matter of importance in the use of public baths. Tacitus continues, “By degrees the charms of vice gained admission to British hearts; baths, porticoes and elegant banquets grew into vogue; and the new manners, which in reality only served to sweeten slavery, were by the unsuspecting Britons called the arts of polished humanity.”

Even so, not every Briton appreciated Roman culture equally nor accepted its civilizing touch easily as evidenced by the rebellion of Queen Boudicaa of the Iceni tribe (only the most famous among many) in 60/61 CE which resulted in over 70,000 Romans slain by Britons before she was defeated by Paulinus. Still, for over three hundred years, Roman rule obtained in Europe and, without doubt, contributed greatly to what the various countries of the continent are today.

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Editorial Review This Article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.



About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
A freelance writer and former part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark has lived in Greece and Germany and traveled through Egypt. He has taught history, writing, literature, and philosophy at the college level.

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Cite This Work

APA Style

Mark, J. J. (2010, July 14). Europe. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/europe/

Chicago Style

Mark, Joshua J. "Europe." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified July 14, 2010. https://www.ancient.eu/europe/.

MLA Style

Mark, Joshua J. "Europe." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 14 Jul 2010. Web. 25 Sep 2018.

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