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Defining the West


This is one of those nebulous concepts that doesn’t really have a good definition and it changes a great deal depending on who you’re talking to. When people talk about “The West”, “Western Civilisation” or “Western Countries” everyone has an idea in their head of what they mean, but how it’s understood is hardly ever made explicit.

There are several ways you can define The West – geographically, culturally, politically, historically and racially, just to name a few. In this post I will examine the history of the term “Western Civilisation” and show that it really just refers to whatever people are pointing at.

The West, as we know it (so to speak) probably has its earliest beginnings as a concept during the semi-mythical days of the Trojan War. This happened some time after the Achaeans (think of them as proto-Greeks) started to build their empire.

Their civilisation owed a lot to the Minoan and Egyptian civilisations that came before them and at this time, they were living in what, to the advanced societies in Crete, Africa and Mesopotamia, was a wild backwater. They were great warriors, proud and strong, but had little to contribute to the knowledge that civilisation had amassed. They were importers rather than exporters of knowledge. Still, their star was on the rise.

To their east, on the coast of what is now Turkey, lay the rich and powerful city of Troy, a city that over the years fell in and out of the Hittite Empire that controlled most of the area. They were the biggest rivals that the ascendant Achaeans had to deal with, controlling the lucrative trade between the Achaean homeland and the rich civilisations to the east.

The Achaeans and the Trojans weren’t alien societies at the time of the Trojan war, not by any means. Thanks to trade, they had much if the same technology, they traded, intermarried and even spoke related languages. Under any other circumstances, they might have been friends.

But it was not to be. The Trojans had something the Achaeans wanted and war was, quite frankly, inevitable. Whether it started over a bit of bride stealing or for some other, less romantic excuse, it was always going to come to conflict and Troy, as we know, lost.

Regardless of the truth of what happened, the Trojan war became legendary among the Achaeans and all their literal and cultural descendants, to the point where later Greeks and Romans would date the start of world history (at least in the West) to this one event. Later Greeks could all claim kinship thanks to their (mostly) common language, their common gods and their ancestor’s common participation in this war.

It was kind of a big deal.

What did this mean for the concept of East and West? It mightn’t have meant a lot at the time the war was fought, but later poets, writers and thinkers would make a lot of Troy and its people being Eastern, exotic and different. Its king, Priam, would be painted as an autocratic potentate similar to those of the Mesopotamian cities instead of what he probably was.

In these stories, regardless of what the Achaeans and Trojans may have had in common, the Trojans were made into Easterners and to be Eastern meant to be an other.

The later invasions of Greece by the Persians and all the famous battles that took place during that time, Marathon, Thermopylae et al only confirmed this in the minds of the Achaeans, and later, the Greeks. We are the West, they thought. We are different.

Alexander the Great muddied the waters a little by spreading Greek culture into the East, including into what are now Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. In some places, this helenisation may have been superficial or tentative at best, as it was in Egypt and Judea, but it did blur the line enough that, for instance, in later Roman times and right up until the Islamic invasions in the Middle Ages, Anatolia (modern day Turkey) had a very definite Greek character. Despite these places being situated on the Asian continent like Troy, did this make them part of the West?

The next stage shoots forward to the Roman Empire, after the emperor Augustus took the reins of power. From this point until more than six centuries later. The eastern-most Mediterranean became Roman territory, although since the lingua franca remained Attic Greek, the process of helenisation continued apace. Rome and Persia to the East had a more-or-less stable border, somewhere to the east of Syria/Lebanon/Israel, with Armenia in the north providing a buffer state.

The fall of the Western Roman Empire, though unfortunate from the point of view of the Roman emperor over in Constantinople, was hardly a blip in terms of how East and West were viewed. In Italy, Spain, Gaul and North Africa, people were now ruled by barbarian kings, but they still thought of themselves as Romans. In fact, some of these barbarian kings even kept up a pretense of ruling in the Roman emperor’s name, with coinage used in these areas bearing said emperor’s image.

Over the previous five or six centuries, Greek and Roman culture fused together into one great whole. Yes, on one end of the Mediterranean, this culture was expressed in Latin and on the other in Greek, but the links between them were deep and abiding, so much so that you had Greek-speaking emperors in Constantinople ruling over a domain that at various times didn’t actually include Rome.

None of this stopped them from thinking of themselves as Roman.

To be Roman came to mean to be civilised, to be Christian, to be of the West, to be of Europe. It was a state of mind, a culture and you could be Roman without having ever set foot in Italy. Just because your rulers happened to be barbarians didn’t change this ingrained assumption.

The Islamic invasions and the genesis of what we now think of as the Arab world changed all that, however. Where previous conquerors would come in, change a few things before being subsumed in the culture of the conquered peoples, the armies of Islam were different, acted differently. Far from being business as usual with a change of management, they remade society in the conquered territories from the ground up.

New cities sprang up where none had been before, surrounding the barracks of the conquerors. The residents of the conquered lands, in former Parthian territories as much as in Roman, they were ignored and their home cities allowed to wither in favour of the new towns. Cairo and Baghdad taking over from Alexandria and Ctesiphon respectively.

The big difference, however, was the shift in the centre of gravity, from Rome and Constantinople to Damascus, from Latin or Greek to Arabic, from Christianity to Islam. Egypt, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt and North Africa, the richest parts of the Roman Empire, all fell away and in many ways ceased to be a part of the West, as they had been for so long. Their transformation was so complete that nowadays, nobody ever thinks of (say) Lybia as being part of the West.

Meanwhile, much further west, the Franks, having become as romanised as was possible without becoming Gauls themselves, had made it their mission to do for Christianity in Germany what the armies of the Caliph were doing in the Middle East, Africa and Spain – spread their faith by the sword.

The christianisation of what is now Germany, and later, of Poland, Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon Britain spread Graeco-Roman culture (via Christianity), and, in a myriad of ways, the West as a concept, northward. With the loss of the south and east Mediterranean parts of their world, a dark age had come to the West, and rebuilding would mean a shift in focus from Constantinople to the north, one that continues to this day.

The West was no longer synonymous with being Roman, but with being Christian.

The Crusades were an attempt to restore what had been lost all those centuries before. Initially, the crusaders even had some successes in lands their ancestors might have felt at home in, but at this point, the transformation was complete and they would never be anything but foreigners in a foreign land. The dream of a restored Christendom was over and no amount of military adventure would ever bring it back.

At this point in our story, most of the Spanish peninsula had also fallen under Muslim rule, with the Moors creating the medieval principality of Al-Andalus. The same process of arabisation that took place elsewhere was taking place here, with a local Spanish population steadily adopting Arabic language, script, dress, customs and, of course, Islam. Here though, northern Spanish Christian kingdoms pushed inexorably south, into Moorish territory, a little more each generation.

It would, all told, take eight hundred years to fully expel the Moors from Spain. The land they left behind, however, was much changed. Not just Roman, not Vandal, not Moorish or even Northern Spanish, but a fusion of them all. Spain had been Moorish land for as long as it had ever been Roman, and its new masters dealt with the aftermath as conquerors, not liberators.

On the other end of the Mediterranean, the Ottoman Empire, successor state to the caliphates, was making incredible inroads into the Balkans, now the heart of the Eastern Roman Empire. Anatolia was in Turkish hands, where it would remain to this day, and most of Greece was under Ottoman control.

Was Greece still part of the West? Were the Balkans? Politically, certainly not. Culturally, you could make an argument about the general populace, though this gets murkier as time goes on. At this point, the last bastion and refuge of the West as it had been was the New Rome, the jewel in the crown, Constantinople.

Much weakened and surrounded on all sides, it alone had survived of the once mighty Roman Empire. Then, in 1453, the unthinkable happened and, following a barrage by a mighty cannon, the Theodosian walls fell and the city was taken by storm. What were left of the city’s treasures that hadn’t been carried off by refugees, by the Venetians two centuries before or destroyed by war, were now Ottoman treasures. Constantinople was gone forever and from its ashes rose Istanbul.

At the moment all this was going on, a two year old boy from Genoa in Northern Italy would have been running around, getting into trouble, blissfully unaware that anything unusual or momentous was going on 1600 km (~1000 mi) away. This boy of course, would one day travel much further afield than that, and in doing so, change the world forever. We know that boy today by the name of Christopher Columbus.

At the time of Columbus’ voyage, the Western European powers, unable to make any headway against the Ottomans, or against each other, had but one avenue for expansion: trade. This of course, meant exploration by sea.

The Conquista and the colonisation of the Americas by the Western European powers of the time is a big topic and I’ll only glance over it here. Suffice it to say, however, that the transformation that took place in the Americas was as effective as those perpetrated by Alexander the Great, by Charlemagne or by Mohammed. Long established societies were turned upside down and foreign languages and cultures were transplanted wholesale onto the conquered people by colonists.

In the Americas, Western Civilisation found fertile ground. Today, European-derived cultures and languages dominate the two continents. The people of the Americas speak to one another in Spanish, in English, in Portuguese and in French. What is left of native languages and culture are remnants in place names, customs and loan words and native speakers of Mayan languages, Nahuatl languages, Quecha, Navajo and a host of others are but a tiny minority.

Today, many wouldn’t consider the countries south of the US/Mexico border to be Western at all, perhaps due to a conflation of “Western” with developed, prosperous or majority ethnically-European, but these places are as Western as Spain and Portugal, Britain or France. In their history, their governmental forms, in their cultures, in their languages, their religion and their customs, they at the end of the great thread that stretches all the way back to Achaea and the Trojan war.

Elsewhere, this same process met with mixed results, either as a result of not enough time passing for these changes to take effect, because the colonists were too few in number to make a dent or because said colonists refused to mix with the locals. India, Indonesia, the Philippines and all of colonial Africa fall into this category. In spite of being the subjects of takeover and colonisation, they managed to retain their own character. Other places, such as Australia and New Zealand, were almost completely westernised, with nobody questioning their status as such today.

Even in Europe, countries that fall into the orbit of Russia tend not to be included in the mental map of the West. Poland, for instance, despite neighbouring with Germany, appears to be neglected in this reckoning. What about Albania, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia and Montenegro? These countries lie between Italy and Greece, which should qualify them as Western as either, but as the state they broke away from, Yugoslavia, was both communist during the Cold War and independent of the USSR, they seem to represent the lacy fringe of the Iron Curtain and “don’t count”.

Today, when we think of the “West”, we think of Western Europe, the UK and most of the former British Empire, notably excluding India, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Not included are Latin America, most of Eastern Europe (excluding Greece) and former colonial subjects of the Western powers in Africa and Asia or the Caribbean. Is this accurate? Is this fair? Does it even make sense?

I would argue not.

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