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Book Review


Christian Meier, A Culture of Freedom: Ancient Greece and the Origins of Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. v. + 315. $27.95 (hardcover).


     Is it possible to pinpoint the precise origins of Europe and European culture? Should Europe be defined geographically or historically? Does Europe have a distinct political culture that distinguishes it from other political traditions? In A Culture of Freedom, Christian Meier grapples with these difficult questions that have relevance to very contentious, contemporary political and scholarly debates.

     In order to answer these questions, Meier traces the development of Greek polis culture from the end of the Mycenaean period (ca. 1200 BCE) to the beginning of the Persian Wars (ca. 500 BCE). Structurally, the book is divided into two disparate sections. Part I (chs. 1–7) serves as the author's reflections on the origins of Europe and European political culture. In Part II (chs. 8–24) he provides a well-written survey of traditional themes in Greek historiography. Meier explores such topics as the formation of the polis, colonization, Homer and Hesiod, Greek religion, Pan-Hellenism, territorial warfare among Greek city-states, the emergence of philosophy, science, and political thought, and finally the rise of equality under the law (isonomia) in Athens. Meier uses these topics to highlight the evolution of a distinct culture that emphasized the self-sufficiency of the individual and to chronicle the accomplishments of the Greeks, as individuals and as poleis, in the Mediterranean Basin.

     As the subtitle to the work advertises, A Culture of Freedom is not merely a survey of the prominent themes in early Greek history. Rather, in the first seven chapters, Meier suggests that an overt connection exists between the inception of modern Europe and the ancient Greeks. The wars with imperial Persia (490–479 BCE) prompted the Greeks in their small, independent city-states to account for how they differed from the rest of the world. Aristotle (384–322 BCE) reflected this attempt at differentiation when he later delineated three kinds of people: those who lived in Asia, those who lived in the colder, northern regions of Europe, and the Greeks. These categories represent the way the Greeks had mapped the world geographically and demographically since the Persian conflict. They were neither Asian, nor were they European. The Greeks were intermediaries between two continents and two peoples. As a consequence, Meier explains, "Without the Greeks, Eurasia would never – and certainly not permanently – have been divided into two separate continents" (21). This discussion skillfully avoids "the West vs. the Rest" debate, and Meier makes clear the Greeks did not see themselves in a great conflict between East and West.

     In addition to defining Europe as a continent, Meier argues the Greeks are the forebears to modern Europe because they bequeathed to Europe, through the Romans and medieval Christians, their unique cultural trait, namely, freedom (eleutheria). Part II of the book focuses on the Greeks', beginning in the eighth century BCE, formation of a society wherein individuals assumed responsibility for themselves and for their communities without the guidance of higher political authorities. This political culture differed from other ancient political traditions political traditions because it was based on the idea of freedom of the individual. For the Greeks, freedom "meant freedom from domination, the freedom to establish one's own existence, in the sense of independence, and mobility too" (58). The Greek concept of freedom centered on the individual, but this kind of independence was the prerogative of those who had rights to participate within the collective polis. Since landownership was a basis of participation within the polis, the free individual was ultimately male to the exclusion of women, slaves, and foreigners. Despite this inherent contradiction, in Meier's view, freedom was the catalyst for the creation of Greek culture.

     According to Meier, the pattern of freedom later Europeans adopted as the basis of their political culture exhibited certain observable traits within ancient Greek society. The individual male citizen was self-sufficient (autarkeia). He was able to farm his property as he pleased. He could use his personal money of his own accord. And, he could think, speak, or travel as he wished. The independence of the individual explains Greek colonization beginning in the eight century BCE. Meier proffers that colonization was typically a private venture undertaken by individuals who were willing to risk their lives and their capital. From Meier's point of view, it was reflective of "entrepreneurship, a talent for organization, optimism and daring" (p. 79). Individual freedom also served as the impetus for Greek contributions to philosophy, science, and political theory.

     Meier's work synthesizes the major historiographical themes of Greek history in clear prose and with few endnotes making it a usable alternative, especially for teachers and students who are new to Greek history, to more cumbersome, academic works that focus on the same time period (1200–479 BCE) like Robin Osborne's Greece in the Making (London: Routledge, 1996). In addition, the book provides a diachronic view of Greek history that emphasizes important developments rather than periods. This approach allows Meier to avoid periodizing Greek history in traditional categories such as the "Archaic Age" (800–500 BCE), and he successfully escapes using the problematic term "Dark Ages" (1200–800 BCE), instead referring to this period as the "Post-Mycenaean New Beginning". A Culture of Freedom also explores a less well-known time in Greek history. Many students know of the later Greek intellectual tradition from Socrates to Aristotle, but Meier explains that later intellectual tradition came about because of the lasting influence of the concept of individual independence the Greeks formulated around 800 BCE. Students may have learned about the concept of the city-state known as the polis, usually from an Athenian perspective, nevertheless, A Culture of Freedom informs its readers that Greek political culture began to emerge much earlier, in the eight century BCE, and should not be thought of uniformly. The poleis were diverse in laws, voting practices, and in the concepts of citizenship. Not all Greek city-states engaged in colonization. So, while the ancient Greeks shared the ideal of freedom, Meier demonstrates the expression of that freedom was diverse.

     While the book provides an excellent survey of the political culture of the Greek citizen, specialists might be critical of its details. For example, Meier presents an argument about the origins of Europe that hinges on his interpretation of Greek citizenship and polis culture. Recent scholarship has offered important reevaluations of the origins of citizenship and the polis, but Meier's work neither addresses recent reinterpretations of these topics nor does it offer a defense of his interpretation of the evidence. Scholars in Early European history and world historians might also challenge the central premise of the work that European political culture emerged from the Greeks. Also, the reader remains uniformed about the precise reason the author opens the book with questions about Europe's origins and ends the book at 500 BCE. It is not until the Epilogue that Meier discloses that the work is the first volume of a multivolume series on the origins of Europe. We should, evidently, expect to see future volumes that carry the story forward from 500 BCE to the present.

     There are a number of ways this book could be used effectively in a classroom setting. First, because it is oriented toward non-specialists, it would serve as an ideal text for introducing high school and university survey students to the evolution and spread of Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean. Even though the book is about Greek freedom, Meier provides an extensive discussion of the importance of trade with the Near East for the formation of Greek identity and culture. Thus, readers see a Mediterranean world wherein cultural exchange, exploration for precious metals, and commercial interaction occur from Italy to Phoenicia and North Africa to Cyprus.

     The book could also be used in a World Civilizations II course to encourage students to think more philosophically about how history can be used to shape the way people perceive the present. Meier explores the topic of Greek freedom, but his real purpose is present an argument for the formation of Europe. Thus, his work can be discussed from the perspective of how modern scholars contribute to contemporary debates. If used in this way, it could be contrasted with a work like David Levering Lewis' God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe (New York: Norton, 2008) which offers an alternative explanation for the origin of Europe.

     In addition, A Culture of Freedom could be utilized in a more creative fashion by asking students to read Aescylus' The Persians (free e-book through Amazon) as a companion to Part I. Meier uses the play as a back drop for introducing his book, and consequently, the opening chapters provide students with a general commentary of the relevance of the Persian wars, and the battle of Salamis, in particular, to the shaping of Greek self-perception.

Michael McCoy is a Ph.D. candidate in Ancient History at the University of Arkansas. He serves as an instructor in the History Department teaching Honors World Civilizations I and the History of Early Christianity. He may be reached at


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