A Short History of Europe

From Pericles to Putin


By Simon Jenkins

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A sweeping, illustrated history of Europe–a continent whose imperial ambitions, internal clashes, and existential threats are as vital today as they were during the conquests of Alexander the Great

In just a few hundred years, a modest peninsula off the northwest corner of Asia has seen the rise and fall of several empires; served as the crucible for scientific dynamism, cultural innovation, and economic revolution; and witnessed cataclysms and bloodshed that have almost destroyed it several times over. This is Europe: a continent whose identity emerged not so much by virtue of geographic or ethnic continuity, but by a long and storied struggle for power.

Studded with infamous figures–from Caesar to Charlemagne and Machiavelli to Marx–Simon Jenkins’s history of Europe travels briskly from the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages, and the Reformation through the French Revolution, the World Wars, and the fall of the USSR. What emerges in this thrilling and expansive telling is a continent as defined by its continually clashing cultural identities and violent crises as it is by its tireless drive for a society based on the consent of the governed — which holds true right up to the present day.


List of Illustrations

Section 1

1. Hecataeus’s map of the world, nineteenth-century copy of Ancient Greek original. Bridgeman Images

2. Marble torso from Miletus, Greece, fifth century BC. Granger/Alamy

3. Bust of Pericles, Roman copy after a Greek original from c.430 BC. Vatican Museums, Rome. Peter Horree/Alamy

4. The Acropolis, Athens, constructed fifth century BC. Lonely Planet/Getty Images

5. Coin with possible portrait of Hannibal and an elephant, struck in Carthage or Sicily, 221–201 BC. Heritage Images/Getty Images

6. Fresco showing the Good Shepherd (an early representation of Jesus Christ), third century. Catacombs, Rome. Interfoto/Alamy

7. A View of the Forum, Rome, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, c.1775. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1937, 37.45.3(58)

8. Head from the Colossus of Constantine, c.312–15. Musei Capitolini, Rome. Deco Images/Alamy

9. The Meeting of Pope Leo the Great and Attila, Raphael, 1514. Stanza d’Eliodoro, Vatican. Stuart Robertson/Alamy

10. Emperor Justinian I, Byzantine mosaic, c.547. San Vitale, Ravenna. Bridgeman Images

11. Empress Theodora, Byzantine mosaic, c.547. San Vitale, Ravenna. Bridgeman Images

12. Reliquary bust of Charlemagne, German school, 1349. De Agostini/Getty Images

13. Interior of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, ninth century. Mauritius Images/Alamy

14. The death of King Harold, from the Bayeux Tapestry, eleventh century. Musée de la Tapisserie, Bayeux. Bridgeman Images

15. Carved dragon head excavated from the Oseberg Viking ship burial, 834. Photo12/Alamy

16. Folio from the Flateyjarbók, Icelandic school, fourteenth century. Árni Magnússon Institute, Reykjavik. Werner Forman Archive/Bridgeman Images

17. The Crusader assault on Jerusalem in 1099, French school, fourteenth century. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Bridgeman Images

18. King Henry II with Thomas Becket, illustration from the Chronicle of England, English school, c.1307–27. British Library, London. Hirarchivium Press/Alamy

19. Pope Innocent III, Italian school, thirteenth century. Museo di Roma, Rome. Bridgeman Images

Section 2

20. The Black Death at Tournai, Gilles Le Muisit, 1349. Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique, Brussels. Bridgeman Images

21. The execution of Jan Hus (or one of his priests) at the Council of Constance, Ulrich von Richental, fifteenth century. Private collection. Bridgeman Images

22. The month of October, from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the Limbourg Brothers, fifteenth century. Musée Condé, Chantilly. Bridgeman Images

23. The Taking of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, from Voyage d’outremer de Bertrand de la Broquière, French school, 1455. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Leemage/Getty Images

24. The Calling of SS. Peter and Andrew, Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1481. Vatican Museums and Galleries, Vatican City. Bridgeman Images

25. Johannes Gutenberg, Flemish school, 1695. Granger Collection/Alamy

26. Queen Isabella of Castile, Flemish school, c.1490. Prado, Madrid. Bridgeman Images

27. Girolamo Savonarola, Italian school, fifteenth century. Palazzo Giovio, Como. Toni Spagone/Alamy

28. Martin Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1529. Artexplorer/Alamy

29. Lisbon, from Civitates Orbis Terrarum, Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg, c.1572. The Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman Images

30. Charles V of Spain, Bernaert van Orley, 1519. Heritage Image Partnership/Alamy

31. François I, Jean Clouet, 1525–30. Louvre, Paris. Bridgeman Images

32. Henry VIII, Joos van Cleve, c.1535. Royal Collection Trust. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2018. Bridgeman Images

33. Suleiman I, Nakkas Osman, 1579. Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul. Bridgeman Images

34. The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, François Dubois, c.1529. Science History Images/Alamy

35. Catherine de’ Medici, François Clouet, c.1580. Utcon Collection/Alamy

36. Henry IV, Frans Pourbus, c.1610. Louvre, Paris. Bridgeman Images

37. The Defenestration of Prague, 1618, engraving by Matthias Merian from Theatrvm Evropevm, mid-seventeenth century. Prisma Archivo/Alamy

38. The Hanging, from The Miseries and Misfortunes of War, Jacques Callot, 1633. Grosjean Collection, Paris. Bridgeman Images

Section 3

39. Louis XIV of France and his family, Jean Nocret, c.1670. Château de Versailles, France. Roger Viollet/Getty Images

40. A View of the Castle and Gardens of Versailles, Pierre Patel, 1668. Château de Versailles, France. Leemage/Getty Images

41. Battle of Blenheim, tapestry, Flemish school, early eighteenth century. Blenheim Palace, Woodstock. Bridgeman Images

42. Frederick II of Prussia, German school, 1740. Castello Sforzesco, Milan. Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

43. Maria Theresa of Austria, detail from a family portrait, Martin van Meytens, 1764. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. De Agostini/Getty Images

44. Title-page of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, 1751. Historic Images/Alamy

45. Marble bust of Voltaire, Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1778. De Agostini/Getty Images

46. Catherine II of Russia, after Alexander Roslin, 1776. Museum of Art, Serpukhov. Bridgeman Images

47. The Tennis Court Oath, 20 June 1789, Jacques-Louis David. Musée Carnavalet, Paris. Active Museum/Alamy

48. Plan of the Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805, by Alexander Johnston, showing the British breaking the French and Spanish line, c.1830s. Private Collection. Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman Images

49. Napoleon I, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1806. Musée de l’Armée, Paris. Bridgeman Images

50. The Retreat from Russia in 1812, Nicolas Toussaint Charlet, 1836. Beaux-Arts Museum, Lyon. Leemage/Getty Images

51. The Congress of Vienna, 1815, print after a painting by Jean-Baptiste Isabey. Granger/Bridgeman Images

52. Liberty Leading the People, 28 July 1830, Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix, c.1830–31. Louvre, Paris. Louvre-Lens/Bridgeman Images

53. Barricades in Märzstrasse, Vienna, Edouard Ritter, 1848. Wien Museum Karlsplatz, Vienna. Bridgeman Images

54. A View of Bradford, William Cowen, 1849. Bradford Art Galleries and Museums. Bridgeman Images

55. Georg William Frederick Hegel, 1831. GL Archive/Alamy

56. Karl Marx, c.1870. Photo12/Alamy

Section 4

57. The Opening of the Great Exhibition, Henry Selous, 1851–52. Private Collection. Bridgeman Images

58. The Relief of the Light Brigade, 25 October 1854, Richard Caton Woodville Jr, 1897. National Army Museum, London. Bridgeman Images

59. Giuseppe Garibaldi during the landing of the Thousand at Marsala, 11 May 1860, Gerolamo Induno. Museo Nazionale del Risorgimento, Turin. PVDE/Bridgeman Images

60. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Franz Seraph von Lenbach, 1890. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Bridgeman Images

61. Fallen statue of Napoleon I in the Place Vendôme, Paris, 1871. Marguerite Millan Collection. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

62. Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Archduchess Sophie of Austria at Sarajevo, Bosnia, 28 June 1914. Granger/Alamy

63. The Taking of Vimy Ridge, Easter Monday 1917, Richard Jack, 1919. Canadian War Museum, Ottawa. Bridgeman Images

64. Female munitions workers, Germany, 1915. akg-images

65. The Signing of the Treaty of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors, Joseph Finnemore, 1919. Australian War Memorial, Campbell, Australia.

66. Reich Party Congress, Nuremberg, Germany, 1937, Hugo Jaeger. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

67. Adolf Hitler with Nazis at the Eiffel Tower, Paris, June 1940. The Print Collector/Getty Images

68. Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference, February 1945. Photo12/Alamy

69. The destroyed city of Dresden, 1945, Richard Petersen. Deutsche Fotothek/dpa picture alliance/Alamy

70. US C-47 cargo plane flying over locals during the Berlin Airlift, 1948, Walter Sanders. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

71. Czech citizens on top of a Soviet Tank, Wenceslas Square, Prague, 1968. Sovfoto/Getty Images

72. Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989, Peter Timm. ullstein bild/Getty Images

73. Margaret Thatcher meeting Mikhail Gorbachev at the Russian embassy in Paris, 1990. PA Photos/TopFoto

74. German Chancellor Angela Merkel with migrants, Berlin, 2015. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

75. Inauguration of Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin, Moscow, 2018, Alexander Zemlianichenko. AFP/Getty Images

76. Angela Merkel with Donald Trump at the G7 summit, Charlevoix, Canada, 2018, Jesco Denzel. Bundesregierung/Getty Images



The cliffs of Cape St Vincent stand high and wild on the Portuguese coast, forming the south-west tip of Europe. Here we can watch the sun sink at dusk into the Atlantic, where the earliest Europeans believed they had reached the end of the world. Each night they thought they were seeing their source of heat and light extinguished by the ocean, to be reborn the following morning. I know of nowhere more conducive to such myths. Beyond these barren cliffs the viewer sees nothing but an eternity of sea. Behind is a land mass over which have rolled waves of tempestuous history.

Europe is primarily a modest peninsula off the north-west corner of Asia. It extends from the Portuguese coast north to the Arctic, south to the Mediterranean and east to the Caucasus and Ural mountains, where a rough metal sign by a road marks an arbitrary boundary. This continent has no deserts and just one notable mountain range, the Alps. Mostly it is fertile alluvial plain under a temperate sky, home to 750 million people, or more than twice the population of the USA.

Europe has no claim to pre-eminence among the world’s agglomerations of peoples. Others can rival it in size, civilization and prosperity. Its emergence into imperial dominance towards the end of the second millennium was spectacular and short lived. But Europe’s diversity and military supremacy, its dynamism and economic energy, its scientific prowess and cultural creativity give it a special place in human history. Even today, in a period of relative decline, it remains a magnet to refugees, migrants, scholars and travellers from across the world.

The word Europe emerged in the sixth century BC as referring to the mainland north of Greece. It has never had agreed borders. At first it was synonymous with the Roman empire and then with Christendom, both of which extended beyond the limits of present-day Europe to embrace large tracts of Asia and Africa. The eastern boundary has never been fixed but is generally accepted as the Urals, the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains. This includes European Russia but excludes Turkey east of the Bosphorus as well as Georgia.

Any short history of this continent is essentially about its politics, the struggle of people for power over land. Hobbes declared that humans are born to perpetual conflict. Whether that conflict need be violent remains an open question, but Europe’s story starts with those who were successful in battle, with the rulers rather than those they ruled. This is a narrative of power in a continent whose story, at least until recently, has been dominated by the practice of war, and therefore by the processes by which wars are prepared and concluded. Even today, Europeans seem unable to find a constitutional formula for living at peace with each other. They argue incessantly over what is meant by ‘Europe’.

I am aware that history is the home to controversy. Some historians will regard a political approach to Europe’s story as partial, seeing it as shutting out those who were victims of power, variously the poor, the enslaved, women, immigrants and outsiders. They all have their histories, as ‘valid’ as mine. So too would foreigners who lived under Europe’s imperial yoke see Europe in a different light. I can only repeat that this book is about the wielding and distribution of power in the narrative of one continent. It must stand as the beginning of all other narratives.

Mine is a conventional history. I have divided Europe’s story into periods. Most broadly they are the classical world, the Middle Ages, the growth of states, and the modern era. The first embraces Greece and Rome. The second covers the triumph of Christendom, first around the Mediterranean and then over northern Europe, coupled with the rise of the Holy Roman Empire and the coming of Islam to the Mediterranean basin. The third period sees the rise of nations, the wars of religion and succession, and the ideological revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I end with the cataclysms of the past century, and the reconstruction of the continent we know today.

Along the way I have indicated the controversies that have dogged Europe’s history, in the hope that readers may be encouraged to dig further. I am aware that views diverge over any division of Europe’s story into ‘ages’. They differ over the relative importance of Greece and Rome to classical culture; over the significance of Byzantium in Europe’s evolution; over the impact on the continent of the Muslim invasions; over the role of the church in Europe’s many conflicts, and its role in spurring, or impeding, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. I can only nod at these differences in passing.

This is a history of Europe, not of the nations of Europe. It is an attempt to describe how a group of states, interacting with each other over time, developed a collective, continental consciousness. Geography means that some regions are more critical to that development than others, and this has guided my narrative. We shift from the eastern to the western Mediterranean, then north of the Alps to the great river basins of central Europe. France, Germany and their immediate neighbours have remained at the heart of the European story for the past millennium, and do to this day. Likewise Iberia, the British Isles, Scandinavia and eastern Europe have played more spasmodic and peripheral roles. I realize this leaves many countries out of the picture, and can seem cursory to those whose native country is omitted. My father’s land of Wales does not play a role. But this is a story of Europe as a whole, not of its component parts.

My focus is chiefly on those individuals whose activities have been a part of that story and spread their influence beyond their national boundaries, leaders such as Augustus, Charlemagne, Innocent III, Charles V, Catherine the Great, Napoleon, Hitler and Gorbachev. As a student of economics, I am aware of the role of resources and money in politics, but this is not an economic history. Nor is it a cultural one. I mention Europe’s rich cast-list of artists, writers and musicians, and its leading intellectual figures where I feel they illuminate the central story. Hence we meet Socrates, Aristotle, Gregory the Great, Shakespeare, Goethe, Beethoven, Hegel and Marx. They are the Greek chorus to the ever-pressing drama of these times.

Various themes surface in the course of the narrative, serving to bind it together. One is the extraordinary role of violence, and the technology of violence, in that narrative, at least until very recently. Another is the dualism of Hellenistic and Roman culture on the one hand, and Christian ethics and belief on the other. Both influences projected an external moral authority over the individual, but also stirred ideas of the individual as a force against that authority, whether embodied in church or state. Two further themes are the restless search, from the Greeks onwards, to legitimate governing power and relate it to consent, and the creative energy of trade and then of capital to drive forward the emergence of nation states. A final theme is how these forces brought the continent close to self-destruction in the twentieth century. From that crisis forged Europe’s most benign legacy to the modern world, the idea of a social market economy under a democratic regime.

I have kept the narrative strictly chronological, because I believe history acquires meaning only if we can see effect following cause over time. Therefore, wherever possible I have avoided detours, backtracking or leaps forward. I have omitted anything that does not, in some sense, carry the story’s central thrust while giving pen portraits of people and ideas that are important to that story. It drives towards what I hesitate to call a conclusion in the difficulties being experienced by the post-war efforts at European union.

I have long been a sceptic of the constitution and behaviour of the present European Union and its offspring the eurozone, but of the importance of its co-operative vitality I have no doubt. I have emerged from this survey with an enhanced admiration for my native continent. For all its oppressions, cruelties and ongoing mistakes, I see it as a remarkable corner of the globe, fertile in its culture and in its capacity for leadership and charity. I have learned how easily and often in the past its diplomacy has collapsed into chaos and bloodshed. I have also learned how often attempts to bond it together as one political entity have failed. Finding a balance between unity and diversity remains what it has always been, the defining challenge of European politics. I return to this theme in my epilogue.

Lastly, a note on brevity. This short book is aimed at those without the time or inclination for a longer one. I disagree with syllabuses that maintain history is better taught in depth than breadth. Depth should follow breadth, for without it history is meaningless. Without awareness of the timeline of human activity, individuals become dissociated figures on a bare stage. Those who cannot speak history to each other have nothing meaningful to say. Context–which means a sense of proportion–is everything.

I am with Cicero that ‘to be ignorant of history is to be always a child’, yet history as a series of random events leads to distortion and exploitation, to the weaponizing of exaggerated loyalties and long-held grievances. That is why the art of history is not just of remembering but also of knowing what to forget. It is about giving past time a plot and a narrative. That is the task that a short history should undertake.


Aegean Dawn–The Glory of Greece 2500–300 BC

Before the dawn: the first Europeans

It helps to be a god. As Zeus gazed along the Phoenician shore, his eye fell on a fair princess named Europa, playing on the beach. Seized with desire, he changed himself into a white bull and sauntered to her side. Entranced by the lovely creature, Europa put a garland around its neck and climbed on its back. According to the poet Ovid, the bull swam out to sea and reached the island of Crete. Here bull and princess somehow contrived to give birth to the future King Minos, stepfather of the monstrous Minotaur. From this improbable encounter was created a king, a country, a civilization and a continent.

We know little of the earliest occupants of the land to which Europa later gave her name. Prehistoric remains attest that they included both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. Their culture embraced humans and animals, as depicted in France’s Lascaux caves. Dating back some twenty millennia, these caves are still astonishing works, conveying the urge to depict reality in plastic form and hinting already at a shared humanity. At some point after the seventh millennium BC, Stone Age settlers either evolved from those crossing the Straits of Gibraltar or moved west from central Asia. They are commemorated in their henges, often gigantic structures such as England’s Stonehenge, indicating a remarkable degree of social organization and engineering ability. Bone analysis shows visitors to Stonehenge travelling from as far as Switzerland. Early Europe was already bonded by travel.

Population movement greatly advanced with the discovery that tin and copper could be smelted to produce bronze. This made possible the making of utensils and the fashioning of weapons. Bronze meant trade, most easily by sea, and with it the growth of coastal settlements. Europe’s interior was forested and largely impenetrable, but these settlements along rivers and coasts developed an outward-looking maritime culture, as travel by water was easier than by land.

From the fifth millennium, archaeologists have traced successive movements westwards out of Asia, the so-called Kurgan peoples from Anatolia, speaking proto-Indo-European and, from the third millennium, the incoming Celts. Trade was the lubricant of these movements. Artefacts were exchanged, from north to south and along the shores of the Baltic and North Seas and the Mediterranean. People travelled. People met. People learned.

With the late Bronze Age in the third millennium, Europe saw newcomers from two points of origin: east and south. From the east, people arrived from the Asian steppes and the Caucasus. Germanic peoples brought with them new Indo-European languages, mutating into Brythonic, Germanic, Slavonic, Greek, Italic and others. Their landlocked origins are suggested by having root words for family and farming, but none for sea and sailing. Indo-European offers a linguistic archaeology that, together with advances in the study of DNA, is constantly redefining this early period in Europe’s story.

Other influences permeated the Mediterranean from further afield. By the second millennium BC, the world’s most developed societies were emerging in the valleys of China’s Yellow River, India’s Indus and the ‘fertile crescent’ of the Euphrates and the Nile. Long before the stabilization of European settlement, these peoples mastered agriculture, construction, trade, art and, in Mesopotamia, writing. They developed cities and worshipped their ancestors as gods. Their buildings could be colossal. The great pyramid at Giza (c.2560 BC) was, at 146 metres, the highest structure on Earth, until topped by Lincoln Cathedral in the fourteenth century.

Europa’s supposed son, King Minos, was regarded as founder of the Minoan empire based on Crete. It appears to have lasted at least a thousand years, from c.2500 to c.1450. Though traditionally traced to settlers from Egypt or Mesopotamia, DNA archaeology finds Minoan skeletons more closely related to ancient Greeks. They were a people who traded across the eastern Mediterranean, built palaces, settled colonies and enjoyed athletics and bull-leaping. Their lives appear to have been pacific. Despite the practice of human sacrifice, we know of no warrior caste or cult of military violence. In the murals and ceramics of Minoan Knossos we glimpse the elegant youths of Knossos leading what seems a charmed life, the first delicate link in the chain of a distinctively European culture.

The Minoan empire is thought to have declined when the island’s forests, crucial to bronze production, became exhausted. Its death blows appear to have been a series of natural catastrophes, chiefly the eruption of the island of Thera, radio-carbon dated to around 1630 BC. This great catastrophe produced a tsunami that swept across the eastern Mediterranean and all but eradicated the settlements on Crete. Influence now passed north to the Achaeans of Mycenae, forerunners of the mainland Greeks.

Aegean dawn and diaspora

The Achaeans (or Mycenaeans or Danaans) came to dominate the Aegean basin from c.1450 to c.


On Sale
Mar 5, 2019
Page Count
400 pages

Simon Jenkins

About the Author

Sir Simon David Jenkins is a British author and newspaper columnist and editor. He served as editor of the Evening Standard from 1976 to 1978 and of the Times from 1990 to 1992. He currently writes columns for both the Guardian and Evening Standard. He is the author of many books, among them A Short History of England (PublicAffairs). He lives in London.

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