The idea that Asia and Europe are distinct continents is a funny thing. They’re joined at the hip, with a land boundary more than 3,500 km long. But the names are very
firmly ingrained. And, like so many traditions, the distinction comes from ancient Greece.
|Count the major landmasses.|
The more you think about it, the sillier it seems. Boundaries at the Ural and Caucasus mountains? Why? You wouldn’t say Oregon and Montana are on separate continents. The Urals don’t even extend all the way along the supposed Asia-Europe boundary: south of Orenburg and the Ural River they’re more gentle rolling hills.
The names aren’t going to go away, but let’s look at where the tradition comes from. We’ll finish off with a look at the linguistic origins of Asia
, and Africa
A cultural divide?
I imagine some people might take the line that ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’ are culturally distinct, and that is a good reason to distinguish them. Of course that means ignoring the colossal cultural variation within
both Asia and Europe.
And it means ignoring the linguistic links between
India, Persia, Armenia, and most of Europe. It means ignoring the folktales, mythology, and poetic conventions that go along with them. Indian mythology has more in common with Greece and Ireland than with China.
Just in case you haven’t seen this kind of thing before, take a look at the verb ‘to be’ in five Indo-European languages — three Asian, and two European. Each column shows the personal forms of the present tense (‘I am’, ‘you are’, ‘she is’, ‘we are’, ‘y’all are’, ‘they are’).
|Vedic Sanskrit||Avestan||Hittite||Early Greek (selected dialectal forms)||Lithuanian|
Sanskrit is from ancient India, Avestan from Iran, Hittite from Turkey. Lithuanian and Greek are obvious. The gaps are places where the relevant forms don’t appear in any surviving evidence. (Some parallels crop up in English too, but much less clearly: am/is
come from the Indo-European es-
is less certain. Be
come from two other separate roots.)
Anyway, that’s just a taster. The iceberg goes down very, very far. And linguistic parallels come with baggage. Ancient Vedic poetry has metrical features in common with Aeolic Greek, just as Latin Saturnian verse has with Old Irish heptasyllabic verse; there are parallels between the legends of the Irish hero Cú Chulainn, the Greek Odysseus, the Persian Rostam, and the Indian Arjuna. Odysseus, Arjuna, and Rama all compete for a woman’s hand in marriage in an archery contest, with a bow that only they can wield. It’s easy to push the parallels too far, but there’s no denying they’re substantial.
This is just a long-winded way of saying that there’s no tidy cultural divide.
The history of the names
Since the divide is arbitrary, its history is really a history of the names, not of the landmasses or the people who live on them. Let’s start in the Roman era and work our way backwards.
Ancient geographical writers used the same names. The 1st century writer Strabo, Geography 11.1.1
, states that the boundary between Eurōpē
is at the river Don (ancient Greek Tanais
), in the southwest corner of modern Russia. Ptolemy does the same in the 2nd century: he calls the region west of the Don as ‘Sarmatia’ (Ptol. Geog. 3.5
), and the east ‘Sarmatia in Asia’ (Geog. 5.9
). (See here
for a map based on Ptolemy’s coordinates.)
|Strabo’s and Ptolemy’s division of Europe and Asia.|
But Strabo also goes on to say (11.1.2) that the Taurus mountains split Asia down the middle. The Taurus range is in Turkey, or Anatolia to use the geographical name. That is: when Strabo thinks of ‘Asia’, he’s mainly thinking of Anatolia. He does include regions further afield in Asia too, east of the Caspian Sea and as far as India, but his attitude is a nice illustration. When people referred to ‘Asia’ in ancient Greek, they didn’t mean what we mean today. Mostly, they meant Anatolia.
And that makes complete sense if you think about it from the point of view of earlier Greeks, before the time of Alexander’s conquests. For them ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’ simply meant the lands on either side of the Aegean Sea. It’s just that as their interests expanded further afield, it ended up not working so well.
This early usage, Asia = Anatolia, has stuck around in the phrase ‘Asia Minor’ (‘smaller Asia’). The scope of ‘Asia Minor’ varies depending on who’s talking. Sometimes people mean Anatolia; sometimes just western Anatolia. Modern historians writing about classical Greece often use it to refer to the Greek colonies on the west coast, as opposed to non-Greek areas further east.
Herodotus, writing centuries earlier in the 420s BCE, is aware (4.36–4.45
) of a conventional division of the known world into ‘Europe’, ‘Asia’, and Africa (named ‘Libya’ in ancient Greek) — but he, too, thinks the division is a bit silly.
I can’t conjecture why the earth, which is a single thing, has three women’s names; or why its boundaries are set at the river Nile in Egypt, and at the Phasis in Colchis [the river Rioni, western Georgia, which meets the sea just south of the Caucasus] — though some put the boundaries at the Tanais [= river Don] and the Cimmerian strait [= Kerch].
That is, even in his time the division was purely a convention, and people disagreed on where to put the dividing line. Even more interestingly, he pauses to consider the names’ origins:
Most Greeks say that the name of Libyē [= Africa] comes from a woman of that land, and Asiē is named after the wife of Prometheus. But the Lydians play a part in this name too: they claim that it was called after Asias, son of Cotys, son of Manes, not after Prometheus’ wife; and that the Asiad clan in Sardis was named after him too. As for Eurōpē, no one knows ... where it got this name, nor who it was that apparently bestowed the name — unless we shall say that the region got the name from Europa of Tyre, and that it had been nameless previously, like the others. But Europa comes from Asia, obviously. She never came to this land, which the Greeks call ‘Europe’. She only travelled from Phoenicia to Crete, and from Crete to Lycia [in Anatolia]. Well, all right, enough said: we’ll use their conventional names.
|Asia. Here Asie is a sea-nymph, one of the Oceanids. Herodotus makes her Prometheus’ wife; in pseudo-Apollodorus 1.2.2 she’s Prometheus’ mother.|
Europa. Europa is the mythical Phoenician princess that Zeus carried off in the shape of a bull, into the sea and all the way to Crete, where he raped her. Herodotus makes it clear that that’s just people’s best guess, and he doesn’t buy it. Some of his contemporaries agreed that it makes no sense: they tried changing things up in order to get a Europa on European soil. The epic poet Antimachus (fr. 3 Wyss = fr. 3 Matthews) had Zeus take her to Boeotia instead of Crete, while Hippias (BNJ 6 F 10) decided the name must come from a different woman named Europa. They’re pretty transparently just trying to rationalise a problem away. In any case the role of the bull and parallels with Pasiphaë strongly suggest that the story is closely associated with Crete, not the mainland (Beekes 2004: 167).
|Left: Europa and the bull. Right: starting in 2013, the EU decided to commemorate a fictional Lebanese person on all its banknotes, because of a false etymology that even Herodotus didn’t believe.|
Herodotus didn’t invent the division, of course: he hates it. The responsibility probably lies with Hecataeus, an ethnographer writing in the late 500s BCE. He seems to have been the first person to use ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’ in something like their modern senses. Hecataeus’ Tour
) is lost, but surviving geographical writers refer to it frequently, citing separate sections called ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’. And for Hecataeus, these weren’t just Greece and Anatolia: he treated Italy and Ukraine as part of ‘Europe’, and India as part of ‘Asia’.
The organisation isn’t totally clear, though. Our sources cite Hecataeus on Africa too, and when they do, they sometimes cite the ‘Asia’ section, sometimes a Tour of Libya
. And the citations show some vagueness about whether places in between the river Don and the Caucasus mountains belong in the ‘Europe’ or ‘Asia’ section.
|Note. ‘Europe’ = BNJ 1 F 38 to F 192, ‘Asia’ = F 193 onwards. On the structure of Hecataeus see Pownall’s commentary on BNJ 1 T 15a. On the vagueness about whether the dividing line is at the Don or the Caucasus, see Pownall on F 191. There’s some doubt about whether Hecataeus’ ‘Tanais’ really is the Don.|
Some popular accounts
bring up Anaximander as another 6th century writer who divided the landmass into ‘Asia’ and ‘Europe’. This one is bogus. Anaximander is supposed to have drawn up a schematic map of the known world (fr. 12 A 6
Diels-Kranz), but there’s no indication he was in the business of naming continents.
Two sea-nymphs named Europa and Asia pop up in the Hesiodic Theogony
(ca. 700 BCE), lines 357 and 359, but not as a pair: they’re in a long list of names of Tethys’ and Oceanus’ children. Let’s forget them.
The closest we get in Greek sources to the original ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’ as geographical terms is in two poems of the 7th and 6th centuries BCE. First: ‘Asia’ appears in Homer as a place in western Anatolia (Iliad 2.461
). The line refers to the ‘Kaystrian river in the meadow of Asias’, or possibly ‘in an Asian meadow’. The Kaystros (modern Küçük Menderes) is a river in western Anatolia to the south of Izmir. In antiquity it had the city of Ephesus at its mouth.
And second: ‘Europe’ appears as a relatively small region in northern Greece in the Hymn to Apollo
. Cynaethus put the Hymn
in its final form in the 520s BCE, but it’s pretty clear he used large chunks of older poetry. The Hymn
refers twice to
the people who live in the rich Peloponnesos,
and those in Europe, and in the islands surrounded by sea
This checklist seems to indicate the original state of things. Cynaethus isn’t listing continents, but chunks of the Greek mainland
and the islands. The Peloponnesos and Europe are the southern and northern mainland respectively.
|This is how the Greeks appear to have divided up their world before Hecataeus came along and got people thinking about huge tracts of land. The scope of ‘Europe’ is shrunk down even further by the extent of Eurōpos toponyms in northern Thessaly and Macedonia: see below. The ‘Asia’ circle is centred on Sardis; the Kaystros is further south, and the Hittite ‘Assuwa league’ extended much further, including all the way to Troy in the northwest.|
This much more limited scope for ‘Europe’ is encouraged by some other places where Herodotus refers to ‘Europe’. At 6.43, Mardonius crosses the Hellespont then travels ‘through Europe’ as far as Thasos; at 7.8 Xerxes states his intent to cross the Hellespont and then travel ‘through Europe against Hellas’. This strongly suggests that it doesn’t just refer to the northern mainland, but maybe just the far north.
The actual origins of the names
The origins of ‘Asia’, ‘Libya’, and ‘Africa’ are pretty clear, even if a lot of details are missing. They all come from ethnic groups, or names for specific areas. None of them comes from a person’s name, mythological or otherwise. ‘Europe’ is more difficult.Asia.
This origin story is straightforward. (For details see Corcella 2007: 614–615; Brügger et al. 2010: 135–136). We’ve got Herodotus looking at Lydian customs; we’ve got Homer putting Asia/Asios on the banks of the Kaystros; we’ve got independent evidence of a real ethnic group called ‘Asias’ at Sardis, the Lydian capital in western Anatolia; and we’ve got a Hittite name that matches with all of these beautifully.
‘Asia’ comes from ‘Assuwa’, a region within the Hittite empire in the Bronze Age. Assuwa, too, was in western Anatolia. We don’t know that it was specifically at Sardis, but that’d be a decent guess. Hittite assus
means ‘good’, so the name meant ‘good land’. The derivation went like this:
Hittite Assuwa (toponym)Europe.
> Mycenaean a-si-wi-yo (male personal name), *Aswia (presumed toponym)
> classical Greek Asios (male personal name), Asia (toponym)
The linguistic origin of this name is unknown, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. (For details see Beekes 2004.) But we do at least know that it’s linked to the northern mainland. See above on Herodotus using the name to refer to Thrace. In addition, Eurōpos
was the name of two towns in Macedonia, one town in Thessaly on the river Peneios, and a tributary of the Peneios. From the 4th century onwards the Mycenaean rulers Philip II and the Antigonid dynasty were referred to as ‘rulers of Europe’ (Hartmann 2012: 40, with references). All this suggests Europe was further north than Boeotia, which is what Beekes suggests: I doubt it included even southern Thessaly. Beekes suspects the name originated with a pre-Greek goddess or demigod, as some goddesses had cults with Europa or Europia as a title. But these cults weren’t in the north, so I doubt this too.
|Note. Goddesses with the title ‘Europa’: see Beekes 2004: 168, still citing Ninck; Peeters 2009: 79 n. 10, citing studies from 1937 by Technau, and a 1940 doctorial dissertation in Dutch. Demeter Europa at Lebadeia, Boeotia; Europa Hellotis in Crete; Hera Europia in Argos. Peeters also mentions Lucian’s ‘Europa Astarte’, but as I mentioned above, that’s a crossover under the influence of the Europa myth.|
So we can roughly outline where Europe originally was (maybe). But for its linguistic origin, we can’t say anything positive: we can only rule things out.
(1) It definitely doesn’t come from Greek euru
- ‘broad, wide’. If it did, the second u
would have been preserved, as in the Homeric adjective euruopa
(2) It definitely doesn’t come from a mythical Phoenician princess. The only way it could be linked to Europa is if the Greeks had transplanted Europa to Phoenicia from somewhere on the Greek mainland. That is a real possibility: there’s a variant where her father is Phoenix (Iliad
14.321), and that name could prompt thinking of a Phoenician setting. Once Europe was seen as potentially linked to the Phoenician princess, then
people like Lucian started drawing links between Europa and Astarte (Ishtar); but that’s all post hoc
. It can’t have been the case originally.
(3) It definitely has nothing to do with Akkadian erebu
, Phoenician ʿereb
‘go down, set, evening, west’. That theory has found some support in Hesychius, and some modern scholars of the Near East, but no modern specialist in early Greek language thinks it’s at all likely. (And no, erebos
‘darkness of the Underworld’ doesn’t come from those words either: that one is Indo-European.) Quite aside from the implausible phonological shifts, this theory is ruled out anyway by the Eurōpos
toponyms in Thessaly and Macedonia.Libya. Libya
isn’t originally Greek. (Again, for details see Corcella 2007: 614–615.) It’s a hellenised form of a name that appears as rbw
in Egyptian texts from the 1200s and 1100s BCE. There it refers to a group that lived to the west of the Nile, who sometimes occupied or invaded the western Nile delta. The Greek use of Libyē
to refer to the entire continent stems from the Greek colony at Cyrene, founded in 631 BCE.
|The origin of ‘Africa’: the ancient Afri, in what later became the Roman province of Africa, superimposed on a map of modern Tunisia.|
comes to us via Latin. It’s an adjective derived from Afer
, the Latin for an ethnic group in what is now northern Tunisia. (For details, see Vycichl 1985.) The core of Afer territory seems to have been between the river Bagradas (modern Medjerda) and modern Mateur, about 80 km west of Carthage. The name quickly expanded its scope in Roman thought to cover an entire province of the empire, and eventually an entire continent.
The Afri appear in Livy as vassals of the Carthaginians. Frontinus mentions an occasion when the Carthaginians repressed an Afri rebellion. Scipio’s victory at Zama in 202 BCE, a bit to the south of Afer territory, is one of the reasons for his agnomen Africanus
. The most famous Afer was the comic playwright Terence, full name Publius Terentius Afer (first half of 100s BCE). ‘Terentius’ comes from his former Roman owner: most probably he was enslaved by Carthaginians, sold to a wealthy Roman at an extortionate price because of his exceptional education, then later manumitted.
The linguistic root is Berber fr
, which still survives locally in the name Friguia, a valley that the Medjerda flows through. The a-
is a nominal prefix that still appears in some dialects, with cognates in ifr-
: most notably the Banū Īfran people who dominated parts of Algeria in the pre-Islamic period.
|Note. See Vycichl 1985 on linguistic aspects, and the Afri as distinct from Carthage; Kotula and Peyras 1985 on the Afri politically and geographically. For an English-language treatment see Lipiński 2004: 199–200, who differs in some respects.|
- Beekes, R. S. P. 2004. ‘Kadmos and Europa, and the Phoenicians.’ Kadmos 43: 167–184. [Open access copy]
- Corcella, A. 2007. ‘Book IV.’ In: Murray, O.; Moreno, A. (eds.) A commentary on Herodotus books I–IV. Oxford University Press. 543–721.
- Brügger, C.; Stoevesandt, M; Visser, E. 2010. Homers Ilias. Gesamtkommentar, Bd. II, Fasz. 2, 2nd edition. De Gruyter.
- Hartmann, A. 2012. ‘Europe and the Other: roots of European identity in Greco-Roman antiquity.’ In: Pinheiro, T.; Cieszynska, B.; Franco, J. E. (eds.) Ideas of | for Europe. An interdisciplinary approach to European identity. Peter Lang. 37–57.
- Kotula, T.; Peyras, J. 1985. ‘Afri.’ In: Camps, G. (ed.) Encyclopédie berbère, vol. 2. Éditions Peeters. 208–215. [Open access copy]
- Lipiński, E. 2004. Itineraria Phoenicia. Uitgeverij Peeters en Departement Oosterse Studies.
- Peeters, M. C. 2009. ‘L’évolution du mythe d’Europe dans l’iconographie grecque et romaine des VIIe-VIe s. avant aux Ve-VIe s. de notre ère : de la «déesse au taureau» au rapt et du rapt au consentement.’ Dialogues d’histoire ancienne 35.1: 61–82. [Open access copy]
- Pownall, F. 2013. ‘Hekataios of Miletos (1).’ Brill’s new Jacoby. [Subscription required]
- Vycichl, W. 1985. ‘Africa.’ In: Camps, G. (ed.) Encyclopédie berbère, vol. 2. Éditions Peeters. 216–217. [Open access copy]