Caput Mundi


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Caput Mundi

  1. 1. The Myth of Europe – Roma Caput MundiEurope is made of people. Normally everybody is born belonging to a people, for the most thismakes out the distinct element that characterizes their identity. Every people has roots that go farback and founds its pride and territorial claims on the achievements of their ancestors.The development of all European nations has been slow and complicated. Contradictions and totalruptures occurred and the results could have been totally different. Basically, people and theirnationalisms are abstract concepts that attach importance to some elements and dissolve manyothers. The different people of Europe do not descend from one original stock, just as if they werebranches of the same genealogic tree, but from different ethnic medleys or changes in ethnicbelonging. All historical people have a heterogeneous origin, where small ethnic groups haveworked as catalyzers for the association of bigger groups. Normally the original core, referring to amyth, would retrace the steps of the community until it would find a far origin from where theycould draw their prestige. At the same time the core of origin would create rules and require acertain behavior that all members of the community had to follow. It is of great importance tounderstand that this was possible not because of closed small groups, but thanks to cores with anopen identity that made the integration of people belonging to different ethnic groups possible.At present it is clear that those nations that gave minor importance to ethnic unity were the ones thathad most success. The fact that the future depends on the capacity of overcoming barriers, prejudiceand diversity of any kind, is evident. Studying European people, their history and theircontradictions show that overcoming differences and inequalities respecting a single people ispossible.Modern European nations and their nationalistic ideologies at the present state are a creation of thelast two hundred years. Nonetheless these nations would not exist without the preliminary historicalsubstrate. A good example is given by the Roman Empire: since it started to become Europe theexisting ethnic panorama contained already most of the names that were to become the names of themodern nations.The name Europe, currently so often used, has become part of the common language even if mostdo not know its ethimology. Europe is a word of Greek origin and an uncertain meaning. Originallyit described a geographic concept that embraced all territories and people from the Atlantic coast tothe Don and the Caucasus region. The geographic concept, linked to the word Europe, starts to havean ethic-politic meaning a long time ago, when a Greek treatise, dating back to the 5th century BC,describes the climate, waters and places and opposes the Asian people- described as corrupt andcoward – to the Europeans that were considered courageous and inclined to freedom. The Greektreatise suggests to follow the example of Greece that is part of Europe but considered moreelevated than the other European countries.This conceptual interpretation, that is concise and clear in many aspects, evolves during thefollowing centuries and is used up to the 3rd century BC, especially by the kings of Macedony, forpolitical propaganda. The latter decided that the heart of the old continent had to coincide with abalcanic area ruled at the time by the Macedonians. The historian Polibian started to redefine theEuropean concept during the 2nd century BC, disconnecting it from the Macedonian limits andreconnecting it to physical and political geography. According to Polybius the European continent,from Spain to Greece is politically unified by Rome. In his Storie Polybius describes Europe as anarea where Barbarians, Romans and Greek live together with the idea of being the counterpart toAsia.Polybius is a precious witness and fundamental for the understanding of the most ancient concept ofEurope, and he is the starting point for the comprehension of the approach of the Roman peopletowards the concept linked to the European continent. When the Romans start to be interested inEurope they face a word already full of meanings, history and contents, some of them incompatiblewith others. This does not mean that the Romans tried to change the concepts linked to the word buton the contrary they were disinterested in most meanings connected to Europe and exclusivelyinterested in the geographical aspect of it. This means that during the 1st century AD the Romans
  2. 2. considered the word Europe a simple geographical expression with no political, ethical, cultural orsentimental meaning.Even during the Augustean period the Romans maintained the same attitude towards Europe and theonly intellectual that fought- idealistically- for freedom and a united continent was the Greekhistorian Dionysus from Halicarnassus. He continued the work commenced by Polybius and hadthe same kind of approach to the subject and reasserted the theory that Europe stands for a whole ofmoral values that should keep together different people that wish to be free and ready to defeatthreatening enemies. This happens at the end of the 1st century AD when the Romans rule the oldcontinent and expand their Empire in all directions, but at the same time the Greek, as witnessed byDionysus of Halicarnassus, claim a role of exceptional importance within the Roman Empire andrefuse to be equal to the other subject people as they consider them provincial.Nonetheless, nothing seems to change for the Romans as they continue to hold a detached and coldposition towards Europe and the only changes made are an ethnic hierarchy. That is the Romanswere the best people, followed by the Gauls, who deserved respect and esteem and the third and lastrank was given to the Orientals, the Greek being part of them. The Romans found the only possibleEurope a place where Italy and Rome were the geographical core that included far away territoriesand that considered the Greek, careless of their many intellectuals, more Asian than European.Maybe we could consider the Romans unconcern towards Europe the weak spot of the greatEmpire; as a common feeling in a multitude of different regional, cultural and ethnic identities ofthe people, linked to a concept called Europe, could have had a lasting effect on the duration of theEmpire.Europe as a concept rises from oblivion of the Roman minds only when the great empire starts toloose its classic and ital-centric form. According to historic sources, just before the 3rd century ADthe concept linked to the old continent re-emerges as a geographic idea with a strong political andadministrative value due to the enormous size of the imperial territory. In a certain way everythingwas linked to Settimius Severus project; he wanted to divide the Empire between his two sons- onewas to rule the European part with Rome as capital city, whereas the other one would rule theAsiaticoriental part with the capital being either Alexandria or Antioch.History holds evidence that Settimius Severus plan was put into effect in 395 AD, when emperorTheodosius 1st died. Certainly already during the reign of Settimius Severus a less emptyinaneconcept of Europe was present. On the contrary it is also true that the big Roman senator familieswere keen to defend their millenary traditions and at the end did not care much about Europe.As usual the strenuous defense of Europe came from the Greek culture. During the 4th century AD,the heirs of Polybius and Dionysus of Halicarnassus submitted once again the dualism betweenEurope and Asia in their treatise and stated the supremacy of the European armies compared to theAsian ones; obviously this time the Greek people being considered part of the European concept.The Greek considered Athens the moral and intellectual capital of entire Europe, even if the deepmeaning that comes to light reading the defensive harangue between the lines seems an ultimateattempt to save the Hellenic tradition that was slowly dying away.At this point, the end of the ancient world is near and a spontaneous question arises: where does theconcept Europe come from? Especially considering that the epicenter has clearly been moved moretowards west than east. Certainly during the 5th century AD, with the fall of the Western RomanEmpire, the contrast between east and west ceased as the millenary political structure that referredto ancient Rome did not exist anymore. But the people that had filled that political structure did stillexist; there still were a religion, a culture and a language that tied together many people and whosuddenly was in need of a concept able to synthesize and summarize their common belonging.So who or what came to rescue Europe? In a certain way, the barbaric people, who wanted todestroy Europe, were the ones who rescued the old continent. Various historic sources showevidence of historians, scholars, religious and ecclesiastic people unified in a battle for Europe andagainst the Barbarians. The Gallic-Roman historian Sidone Apollinare, Pope Gregorius Magnus, theIrish monk saint Colombanus and the great Spanish bishop Isidore of Seviglia seem to be united bytheir will to defend Italy and the transalpine territories from the hordes of Barbarians. Once the
  3. 3. hordes were defied, the terror, plundering and destruction brought by the Barbarians were notforgotten. This time the word Europe stood clearly for Italy and the western provinces of Italy thatused to be part of the Roman Empire. A surprising and admirable confluence of intellectuals ofdifferent origin took place and by referring to Europe they did not intend the mere geographicalaspect of it but considered Europe itself as the first and most important element of a unitary identity.Apparently the defeat of a universal, and therefore not only European empire as the Roman one,was necessary to distinguish the homogeneous and modern concept of Europe. Certainly theconcept was taken from the past but adapted to the new historic focus and spiritual needs and filledwith new contents. New Europe that rose from the ruins of the Roman Empire remained in theembryonic status until the 7th-8th century AD, when Charles the Great founded the Sacred RomanEmpire that was born from the ashes of the previous one and reflected a true European identity.So even if at the beginning of the Middle Ages a so-called European consciousness existed, thisdoes not mean that medieval Europe had the same prerogatives as today. During the Middle Agesthe myth about origin was pursued and several ways of constructing an identity were attempted. Allefforts were based on texts and treatises that almost always had a hidden political purpose. The onlyfact that appears very distinctly is that during the Middle Ages the world changed quickly.During the ten centuries that separate the fall of the Roman Empire (476 AD) from the discovery ofAmerica (1492) many facts that enrich the European concept took place. Starting from the invasionsby the Mediterranean area that overcame the principal coastal people of Roman origin in Italy andSpain and forced them to retire towards the inland, and the subsequent rising of the Gallic-Germanic directional area.During the Middle Ages, the first projects that aimed at the enforcement of coordination betweenthe European nations were made. It might appear strange but during the 8th century AD the firstexplicit recognition of Europe as a common homeland, with all implications linked to this concept,was made. As many times before, several different ethnic groups decided to unite in order to defy acommon foreign enemy. This happened during the battle of Poitiers, where different ethnic groups,led by Charles Martello and united by a true European spirit, fought against the Arabs.Religion was another strong unifying element for Europe during the Middle Ages. During theMiddle Ages the supremacy of the religious elements over the political one was constant andfundamental. In this case the emperors, first Charles Martello and later his successors, overtook therole of protector and spreader of Christianity. Once again the Arabs played an external unifyingrole, triggering off indirectly the crusades and the battle against Muslims and for the liberation ofthe Holy Sepulcher. The latter was the target able to put aside the controversies between Europeancountries that started to talk about a federal organization, confederation and association and beganto think about concepts and principles that somehow are still on our minds.The religious aspect started to become less important when the humanistic culture began andtherefore the European concept was not merely linked to a devotional faith anymore. DuringRenaissance Europeans started to be considered and to consider themselves inhabitants of a precisegeographical area united by the same cultural and moral values and a similar level of civilization,despite the many controversies between the European nations.The embryonic idea of Europe that took shape during Renaissance was completed during the 16thcentury when Europe and the Europeans decided to integrate the political aspect, that wasfundamental and of great importance, into the concept. During the Cinquecento many people wereconvinced of the importance of going beyond the idea that considered Christianity the basisof common European people and thought that the political organization inside and outside thenations would be able to define and shape the balance of the old continent.During the 16th century, the relationships and interdependences between European nations and therest of the world started to intensify. Certainly the basis of the globalization everybody talks anddiscusses about at present are to be found in the 19th and 20th century when the consequences ofindustrialization spread over the planet, but somehow the roots are also to be found in more ancienttimes when the great expansion of the European countries towards America, the new world, and theother partly discovered continents, took place. In modern times small Europe was directly or
  4. 4. indirectly in control of a consistent part of the world inducing enormous changes that influencedmany European and non European people.Among others the European expansion in the modern era represents a great modernization andbrings evidence of the fundamental role played by Europe, and obviously the Europeans, in thecreation of a globalized and integrated world, considering the positive meaning of the concept.In short Europe has a good deal of responsibility of the positive and negative consequences thatinfluence the lives of every inhabitant of the planet.If history gives us all this knowledge what do myth, legends, literature and art hand down? Manynations believe they have noble and ancient origins, whereas often the so called historic profunditydoes not date back further then the 19th century. Very often people seize their ancient origin to giveforce and finesse to their identity, ignoring that probably the most ancient identity they should referto is the European one; whereas the nationalism sustained by many people is certainly a more recentcultural and political phenomenonEurope is first of all the name of a beautiful Phoenician princess and became only later a geographicor political concept, cultural and economic identity or an organic and organized community.First written witnesses concerning the myth of Europe date back to the time of Homer, around 8thcentury BC. However, myths would be handed over orally even before being written down. Themythological stories about princess Europe spread, initially only in the oral form, during a period oftime that lasted from 19th century BC till the 15th century BC.The myth tells about a Phoenician princess that one morning, while she was at the shore with hermaids to refreshen and pick and twist flowers, she attracted Jupiter’s attention who was struck byher beauty and decided to conquer her. The god descended from the Olympus and transformed intoa white bull that joined the girl on the beach. The girl was struck by the animals majesty and beautyand because it was very gentle and benevolent, started to caress it. She convinced herself to try andride on it. The bull, who had been good until the girl mounted on his back, suddenly started togallop into the sea and did not stop until he reached Crete. Once they had arrived on the island theanimal showed its true identity and returned to being Jupiter. He and Europe had three childrenMinosses, Radamanthys and Sarpedontes.The myth continues telling how Europes brothers departed and searched for her, but the aspect thatis most interesting is that the ancient Greek decided to call the territory north of Crete ‘Europe’ inhonor of the Phoenician princess. Europe’s children gave origin to other even more famous mythsas the ones about the Minotaur and about Arianne.The myth of Europe was handed down orally for centuries and later re-interpreted throughliterature, poetry and art. Ancient writers, famous artists and poets have developed the mythologicaltale during centuries and embellished it with literary or figurative ornaments, adding some quitefascinating details.Generally the myth of Europe represents a shifting of civilization from East to West. The shorthistory of the Phoenician princess symbolizes a migration and a colonization that moves from minorAsia towards territories lying north or north eastern from it, those – as mentioned before-werecalled Europe.So what is Europe from a mythological or historical point of view? A continent? A geographicalarea? A cultural identity?Apparently at present, in the 21 century, the West, once identified with Europe, has moved towardsthe American continent. With Europe lying at its borders that was still maintaining a certain right ofmaternity.The question we should now ask is: are we entitled to conceive the concept of Europe as a union?Discuss Europe, think about Europe and think Europe coincides more and more with a bet, becauseevery day could be the one before an important moment that might never come or, on the contrary,might have already started: the union of Europe.While some steps have already been taken but it is evident that current Europe is still missingsomething. In the time of globalization the distinguishing features of culture, behavior and lifestandard proposed and accepted by the world, might have European roots and origins but it is
  5. 5. obvious that the world is not euro-centric anymore and Europe lost its spatial and temporalcentrality.So far it is easier to find Europe outside Europe and at this point it would be useful to find acommon identity, taking as a starting point the present pluralities contained in our good oldcontinent.