The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there
Hosting the most recent Carnivalesque made me think about the enduring interest of ancient history. You’ll know from looking around this blog that I have gravitated toward early modern history in the last few years, but this is a relatively recent return to that subject area. For much of my Bachelor and Masters degree I specialised in Jewish history, and in particular ancient Jewish history. I wrote my first dissertation on the Pharisees (c.50 CE) and my second dissertation on Jewish communities in the Persian period (c.300 BCE), so I was getting further back in time as I went.
Aside from academic study, ancient history has always been one of my interests and I think that this common to many, many people who like history either as a hobby or casual interest; ancient history is cool. Ancient history has Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Celts temples, pyramids, invasions, inventions and the founding of modern philosophy and religion. I would happily place a bet that the first four on that list alone are what drew most of us to history as children, it was certainly true with me. One of my first memories of school is of drawing a Celtic warrior, along with his Golden Labrador (the teacher was kind enough not to point out the slight historical license). You could almost argue that children have an instinctive interest in the long distant past.
But what draws us so instinctively to ancient times? The above quote from L.P Hartley only partly touches on it, the ‘past is a foreign country’. Curiosity about foreigners, about exotic countries with strange and unique traditions is universal, even if it is often driven by fear and suspicion. This instinct to observe, and in some to understand, foreign things is part of what draws us to the ‘foreign land’ of history. These ancients, with their strange abodes, myths, imaginative violence and curious customs are aliens to our modern eyes. Because of that we want to investigate and marvel at them.
But, that in itself is not enough, observing something that’s different in of itself doesn’t go to explain the enduring popularity of looking at our far past. Instead I would argue that it is observing the similarities amongst the differences that draws us there, and the further back we get in time the more fascinated we are in the things we recognise. We love hearing about domestic gossip and curses discovered in graffiti or inscriptions, we love to hear about bravery and folly of soldiers and generals, we love to discover that amongst the sword and scandals were people surviving the same problems that we do today. Coming back to our metaphor, toilets in foreign countries are a constant source of fascination to English people; continental toilet seats, Japanese heated toilets that heat up and talk to you and 100 other thing, my goodness how many different ways to deal with the same bodily function. This is true of our experience of the ancient past, they often came up with solutions to, or explanations of, the same issues that we have today that seem unusual now. The further we go back the more we are curious and delighted when we see the parallels.
I never intended to specialise in ancient history, let alone ancient Jewish history, at university but the lure of both proved too much to resist. The Parkes centre at Southampton university is a world class research in the study of Jewish history and culture so that helped. I’ll talk about Jewish history in another post, but one aspect of ancient history that I was drawn to was biblical history, or more accurately the history of the people contemporaneous with biblical history. The actual, historical context in which the mythical, semi-mythical, and occasionally historical tales of the bible are set. Why? Well, ideas people had and the decisions that they made, two thousand years ago, still reverberate around our culture today. Like it or loathe it, if you have any significant contact with Europe or America then Christianity, that mix of greek philosophy and Jewish millenarianism, impacts on your life in a thousand little ways. I’m sure that this is not just true of Christianity but also of other ideas, religions and mythologies. My experience just happens to be in that area. So, this is another aspect of the popularity of ancient history, it’s enduring relevance to modern life. Understanding what happened then is useful, it sheds light on what is happening now.
The popularity of ancient history isn’t just about mummies, gladiators and wars, it is also about the delight in finding empathy with ancestors in a ‘foreign land’ and it is about understanding the origins of our modern cultures and beliefs. That said, romans are just cool, and the ancient Chinese buried servants alive, and I totally forgot to mention the vikings! How can the poor old early modern period compete?