It’s hard to find a time in European history when conflicts recede and stasis takes over, like in the history of the great Asian kingdoms and empires. The European ancient period was a cycle of conflicts between small city-states, tribes against tribes, factions against factions, senators against dictators. In the long classical period, the pax Romana ushered by Octavian, the first Roman emperor, was neither long-lasting nor congenial to the old continent. European imperial projects were attempted but they always failed, sooner rather than later.
The medieval period has the reputation to be a period of orthodoxy and equilibrium through stagnation – with either the Church, emperor, or local kings in control. But that is so far from the truth. At no point was there stability: paganism against Christianity, the Church against the state, Romanity versus Germanity, the Pope against the Holy Roman Emperor, nominalists against realists, archbishops against the king, kings against kings, barons against barons and against the king. The catalogue of conflicts is endless.
Some macro-narratives of European history claim that the European exceptionalism lies precisely in the conflictual matrix out of which Europe grew. That the West cast its shadow over much of the world because the perpetual conflict and fragmentation which ensued allowed a relatively modest landmass to develop intellectually, culturally, and politically in ways which equipped it for world domination. There might be some truth in this, altough I am naturally skeptical of such large-stroke narratives. But surely things would have been different if the West had achieved the same intellectual, cultural and political monolithism which characterised the august empires in the East. One thing is clear, any project begins to fall apart once complacency sets in. But conflict keeps the waters fresh and the minds on edge.