(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

“To describe the past is always to oversimplify it and general history above all is open to adverse criticism on this count.” Thus, J. M. Roberts acknowledges a central difficulty encountered in writing A History of Europe: How should roughly three thousand years of human affairs on a continent roughly the size of the modern United States be described in just under six hundred pages? What events can be excluded? How much detail is necessary for illustrative purposes? How can sequences of events be explained? In short, how should Europe’s history be “oversimplified” while retaining a sense of its richness and preserving its essential meaning?

Roberts’s magisterial History of the World (1976) managed to strike such a balance. It is that book’s sections on Europe that serve as the core of this new work. Roberts has written a history of Europe that examines the political, social, economic, and cultural facets of the Continent’s development. That history is organized at three primary levels.

First, in allocating space to the different eras of European history, Roberts uses an essentially logarithmic approach. That is, successive “Books” (of which there are six) focus on ever-shorter time spans. Such an approach is desirable and defensible for a number of reasons, including the fact that more plentiful and accurate records are available for more recent history, as well as the fact that the larger populations and more advanced technology of later eras have produced a “denser” human history. Roberts calls the latter of these “historical acceleration.”

At a second level of organization, Roberts divides each of the Books into several chapters examining different aspects of the era under discussion. Each Book’s chapters are not simply arranged chronologically; rather, they explore various dimensions of European affairs during the larger era assigned to the Book.

Finally, at a third level, Roberts describes specific figures and events—the individual stones in the mosaic of history, as it were. It is here that history is most “oversimplified.” Only the tiniest fraction of history’s specifics can be described in a general history, of course; thus, the value of the historian’s selection is judged by the standard of representation, not comprehensiveness. Still, although Roberts is judicious in offering illustrations of finer points, his preference concerning larger events and phenomena is usually to compress and simplify them rather than exclude some on the (increasingly mistaken) assumption that the reader is familiar with them. Roberts explicitly acknowledges, in the foreword, that knowledge of even the most essential historical facts cannot be taken for granted. His narrative, therefore, frequently pauses to identify central figures and to define even the most basic terms. Such explanations are, nevertheless, offered with a gentle felicity. After posing rhetorical questions about the meaning of the phrase “Middle Ages,” for instance, Roberts writes: “Most people who read this book are likely to know the answers to such questions, approximately at least, before they open it, but only because the phrase Middle Ages’ has come to be taken for granted.”

The six Books of this volume divide European history into six major eras. Book 1 examines the “heritages” of Europe—its geography and earliest peoples. Separate chapters discuss the “bedrock” of Europe’s Neolithic revolutions and early Aegean civilization, Ancient Greece, the rise of Roman power, and Imperial Rome’s influence on the world.

Book 2, which covers, roughly, the millennium between 500 c.e. and 1500 c.e., is devoted to Europe’s emergent self-identity as Christendom. More essentially, it charts the growing awareness of a European identity itself—a shared sense of civilization among the peoples of Europe. That this identity would be founded, in large part, on the Christian faith helps to explain both the nature and the source of the strongest bonds that have united a cohesive European people. Indeed, Christianity repeatedly arises as a central theme of this entire history.

The life of Jesus and the early influences of Christianity were cogently explained in Book 1, but here, in Book 2, the full flourishing of the Church is described. Book 2’s first chapter begins in the sixth century c.e. after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It examines the early divisions within Christendom (especially between the West and the Orthodox East) and the clashes between Christianity and challengers such as “barbarians” and the Islamic peoples. Chapter 2 focuses...

(The entire section is 1887 words.)