What is the true definition of Europe? Where does it begin, and where does it end? Why, for example, is Siberia not considered part of Europe, even though many Europeans live there, and it has a European style of thinking and living? To the south of the community of Russian peoples, where do the borders of Europe disappear? Which Atlantic islands are European and which are not? Europe is a geographic term only in a secondary sense: Europe is rather a cultural and historical concept.
Experts on the origins of Europe traditionally refer back to Herodotus (c. 484-425 B.C.), the first known writer to designate Europe as a geographic concept: "The Persians consider something of their property to be Asia and the barbarian peoples who live there, while they maintain that Europe and the Greek world are a separate country."
Though the lands at the heart of today's Europe were completely outside of the visual field of the ancient historian, the formation of the Hellenistic states and the Roman Empire led to the establishment of a "continent" that would be the basis for the later Europe. As a whole, the lands facing the Mediterranean came to form a true continent by virtue of their cultural ties, trade routes, and common political system. It was not until the advance of Islam in the seventh and early eighth centuries that a border would be drawn across the Mediterranean, subdividing what had been a single continent into three: Asia, Africa, and Europe.
In the East the ancient world was transformed more slowly than in the West. Shifting its capital to Constantinople, the Roman Empire would resist in the East until the fifteenth century, although it was pushed further and further to the margins. During the same period, the southern Mediterranean region found itself cut off completely from what had been a cultural continent for centuries, while Europe grew steadily northward. The ancient continental border that the Romans called limes disappeared. A new historical space opened up whose heartland encompassed Gaul, Germany, and Britannia, and whose northern reach expanded more and more toward Scandinavia.
Amid this process of shifting borders, a theology of history was constructed that guaranteed ideal continuity with the earlier Mediterranean continent in its various configurations. According to this thinking, rooted in the Book of Daniel, the Roman Empire had been renewed and transformed by the Christian faith, which therefore became the last reign in the history of the world. The framework of peoples and states that emerged defined itself as the permanent Sacrum Imperium Romanum, the Holy Roman Empire.
The process of forming a new historical and cultural identity took place in a fully conscious manner under the reign of Charlemagne, when the ancient name of Europe returned to circulation with a new meaning. It was now used to define the kingdom of Charlemagne and to express an awareness of both the continuity and the novelty of this new aggregate of states, which presented itself as a force that would be propelled into the future--into the future, because it saw itself as a continuation of a world history that until then had been mired in an unchanging situation. This emerging sense of self-consciousness expressed an awareness of finality and of mission.
With the end of the Carolingian reign, however, the concept of Europe almost disappeared, surviving only in erudite usage. The term did not become popular currency again until the beginning of the modern era--as a means of self-identification, in response to the Turkish threat--and was asserted more generally in the eighteenth century. Apart from the history of the name, the decisive step toward Europe as we understand it today was when the Frankish kingdom constituted itself as the heir to the Roman Empire.
In Byzantium (which considered itself the true Rome), the Roman Empire had withstood the upheaval of migrations and the Islamic invasion. The Eastern Roman Empire continued to advance claims on the Empire's Western half. It extended as far north as the Slavic world and created its own Greco-Roman world that distinguished itself from the Latin Europe of the West by introducing variants in the liturgy and in the ecclesiastical constitution, adopting a different script, and renouncing the use of Latin as the common language.
The two worlds also had enough unifying elements, however, to be considered a single continent. First of all, both the East and the West were the heirs to the Bible and to the ancient Church, which in both worlds refer beyond themselves to an origin that lies outside today's Europe, namely in Palestine. Secondly, both shared the idea of the Roman Empire and of the essential nature of the Church, and therefore of law and legal instruments. The last factor I would mention is monasticism, which throughout the great upheavals of history continued to be the indispensable bearer not only of cultural continuity but above all of fundamental religious and moral values, of the ultimate guidance of humankind. As a pre-political and supra-political force, monasticism was also the bringer of ever-welcome and necessary rebirths of culture and civilization.
Alongside the common ecclesiastical inheritance of the two Europes, however, a profound difference remained. In Byzantium, Empire and Church were virtually identified in each other. The emperor was also the head of the Church. He considered himself a representative of Christ and--following the Biblical example of Melchizedek, who was king and priest at the same time (Genesis 14:18)--he bore the official title, "king and priest," from the sixth century on. Once the Emperor Constantine had left Rome, the autonomous position of bishop of Rome--as successor to Peter and supreme pastor of the Church--could be transplanted to the ancient capital of the Empire, where a duality of powers had been established at the beginning of the Age of Constantine. Neither the emperor nor the pope was absolute; each had separate powers.
Pope Gelasius I (492-496) expressed his vision of the West in a famous letter to the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I, and, even more clearly in his fourth treatise, where, with reference to the Byzantine model of Melchizedek, he affirmed that the unity of powers lies exclusively in Christ: "Because of human weakness (pride!), they have separated for the times that followed the two offices, so that neither shall become proud." On worldly matters, priests should follow the laws of the...