The name originally stood for central Greece. It was soon extended to the whole Greek mainland and by 500 bc to the entire land mass behind it. The boundary between the European continent and Asia was usually fixed at the river Don. Homer's range of information hardly extended north of Greece or west of Sicily. The Mediterranean seaboard of Europe was chiefly opened up by the Greeks between c.750 and c.550 (see colonization, greek). The Atlantic coasts and ‘Tin Islands’ were discovered by the Phoenicians; Pytheas circumnavigated Britain and followed the mainland coast at least to Heligoland. Thule remained a land of mystery. The Greeks penetrated by way of the Russian rivers as far as Kiev. North of the Balkans they located the mythical Hyperboreans. Greek pioneers ascended the Danube (see danuvius) to the Iron Gates, and the Rhône perhaps to Lake Léman. But Herodotus had only a hazy notion of central Europe, and the Hellenistic Greeks knew little more.
The land exploration of Europe was chiefly accomplished by Roman armies. They completed the Carthaginian discovery of Spain; under Caesar they made Gaul known; under Augustus' generals, Licinius Crassus, Tiberius, and Drusus (see Claudius Drusus, Nero), they opened up the Balkan lands, the Alpine massif, and the Danube basin. Tiberius and Drusus also overran western Germany to the Elbe.
The Europe–Asia polarity was important in Greek ideology; the two together were taken to represent the whole inhabited space (Africa/Libya being sometimes added as a third constituent). A Eurocentric chauvinism is evident in Roman thought: acc. to Pliny the Elder, Europe is ‘by far the finest of all lands’.