What does the future of Europe look like? Geopolitical times such as these do make one ponder such questions as, say, “In what shape (if any) will the European Union make it through this century?” But as any historian of Europe knows, that continent has seldom had an easy time of it: European history is a history of conquests, rebellions, alliances made and broken, and of course, wars aplenty — a major piece of the rationale behind the creation of organizations like the European Union in the first place. As a result, the division of Europe by the many groups and individuals who have laid claim to pieces of it has, over the past 2500 years, seldom held steady for long, as you can see on the animated map above.
The Roman Empire did manage to paint the map red, literally, in the second and third centuries, but during all eras before and after it looks as multicolored as it was politically disunited. In earlier times, Europe was home to peoples with names like the Gauls, Iberians, Celts, and Scythians, as well as empires like the Achaemenid and Seleucid Empire.
After the First World War, though — and the dissolution of such entities as the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth — the labels start to look more familiar. Most of us remember the event marked by the last big change to this map, the end of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (Many of us even spent years thereafter in classrooms whose world maps still depicted the USSR as one mighty bloc.)
The map’s animation begins in 400 BC and ends in 2017 with Europe as a collection of nation-states, each of which we now regard as not just politically but culturally distinct. But watching the full two-and-a-half-millennia time-lapse reminds us that every country in Europe has broken off from, joined with, or otherwise descended from another place, indeed many other places, most of which have long since ceased to exist. In the 21st century, one often hears Europe described as essentially unchanging, stuck in its ways, ossified, and an afternoon spent watching the proceedings of European Union bureaucracy would hardly disabuse anyone of that notion. But then, wouldn’t observers of Europe have felt the same way back in the heyday of Rome?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.