“The battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings,” reflected Victorian philosopher John Stuart Mill on the decisive Athenian defeat of the Persians in 490BC. “If the issue of that day had been different, the Britons and the Saxons might still have been wandering in the woods.”

Mill was not alone in framing the ancient past as a civilisational struggle with ready implications for the present. When in 1896 Arthur Evans, the keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, oversaw archaeological digs of “Minoan” ruins (an entirely invented term), he extolled Crete, calling it “the champion of the European spirit against the yoke of Asia”.

It is the Oxford professor of ancient history Josephine Quinn’s contention that we continue to remain ideologically hidebound by such misplaced historicism. This “civilisational thinking”, as she puts it, provided the cultural rationale for western European supremacy during the 19th century, enabling colonial expansion and racial hierarchies.

And in the 21st century it is still the norm, Quinn suggests, misguidedly to distinguish “the west”, a Christian culture with Greco-Roman or even earlier “Indo-European” roots, from “the east”, whether centred on Russia, China or Islam.

Tracing 4,000 years of predominantly European history, Quinn unpicks this paradigm to emphasise the west’s permeability. Her purpose is to dethrone the “privileged connection” between ancient Greeks and Romans and the modern west, and focus instead on the millennia of interaction with other cultures. So-called western values — freedom, rationality, justice and tolerance — are not only or originally western, she suggests, but “the West itself is in large part a product of long-standing links with a much larger network of societies.”

As any brief study of museum antiquities in Athens, Rome or Berlin will testify, an appreciation of the reflexive relationship between cultures of the eastern and western Mediterranean, or human settlement across the Levant and north Africa, or trade flows between northern Europe and the Iberian peninsula, is not the most startling revelation. Few public accounts of the past today subscribe to mid-Victorian ideals of an unblemished classical inheritance. Nevertheless, Quinn pursues this claim with an impressive display of rigorous scholarship lightly worn, successfully covering a huge amount of material.

We begin near Ur in ancient Mesopotamia — modern-day Iraq — in 2400BC as wealthy tombs fill up with exotic stones from far-flung places, “lapis lazuli from Afghanistan and turquoise from Uzbekistan, as well as carnelian from the Indus Valley”. Then to Crete’s plateau of Knossos, where by the third millennium BC islanders adopt Syrian-style goblets for wine and import hippopotamus ivory and blue faience beads from Egypt. On through the extensive trading systems of the Levant, the Bronze and Iron Age, charting the history of the Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks, Etruscans, Egyptians and Romans up until the fall of Rome. Which did not actually fall in AD476. Instead, rather anticlimactically, “Things were changing in the western Roman provinces, leading to different ways of life and government”, and the locus of empire was shifting eastward to Constantinople.

Among Quinn’s achievements is her use of advanced discoveries in DNA to scuttle dearly held civilisational myths. The idea of a separate Etruscan race in the ninth century BC is shot down by evidence of their genetic profile being very similar to their Italian neighbours. From burial sites, we can now also chart Iron Age immigration from ancient Carthage and north Africa into Sardinia.

Time and again, Quinn emphasises the importance of climate change in the evolution of civilisations, with the mild weather of the “Roman Warm Period” (c250BC to cAD150) assisting Rome’s stability and power. She is also fascinating on the historical construction of such core western texts as the Iliad and the Aeneid — the latter of which is represented in a diverse, multicultural reading, with Virgil championing “Roman society as not only open to but dependent upon outsiders”.

As a museum worker, I was interested in the focus on cultural appreciation — with Greek potters, for instance, noted for “borrow[ing] a technique from eastern metalwork” of incising details into silhouettes, giving rise to the “black figure” vase painting that characterised their pottery for almost two centuries.

Encyclopedic museums replete with world collections, from Louvre Abu Dhabi to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, have also long sought to suggest that “the study of antiquity 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”. We are, in other words, places of accretion and hybridity whose extensive array of objects and artefacts seeks to deny the notion of an organic, pure or essential culture.

Yet, at the same time, Quinn comes down hard on Lord Elgin for importing the Parthenon reliefs, still controversially in the British Museum, and, in a disappointing retreat into campus-think, dismisses the ideal of universal citizenship, enlightenment or cosmopolitanism (which so much of the book has in fact extolled) as a privilege-laden “convenient lifestyle choice . . . one that appropriated foreign customs, symbols and resources for personal benefit”.

At the end of this supremely professional history, I was left with the question of who is it for? Approaching the 50th anniversary of Edward Said’s seminal Orientalism, our undergraduates certainly don’t lack for cultural relativism or calls for decolonisation. In the UK, Generation Z already has precious little appetite for defending “western civilisation”, with a recent YouGov poll showing 38 per cent of under-40s say they would refuse to serve in the armed forces in the event of a new world war, and 30 per cent say they would not serve even if Britain was facing imminent invasion.

If, on the other hand, this weekend I was sheltering in a bombed-out apartment block in Kyiv, fearing another wave of barbaric Russian bombardment, I think I might be hoping that “the west” did retain some sense of a historic identity and purpose in the world.

How the World Made the West: A 4,000-Year History, by Josephine Quinn, Bloomsbury £30/Random House $38, 576/592 pages

Tristram Hunt is the director of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum

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