Salvete Amici!!! :)

Hello friends (in English)! I have been busy as mentioned before, and am working on a more substantial post now I found an idea that you all will enjoy, I hope. A little spoiler alert: It is again touching on the idea of cultures thinking differently shaped by their own worldview! This time, writing or lack of it comes into play! That’s all the hints I’ll give for now, but can YOU think of ideas about how writing and literacy in our culture, or any culture might affect how one perceives the world around them??? ;) Stay tuned for that post, and in the meantime, please tell me in the comments your ideas!!!

In the mean time, I wanted to share this amazing YouTube channel called Caeso Vincentius Lentulus! He makes amazingly well done Latin videos with English subtitles on a variety of topics! My favorite is this one:

It’s so so funny, and I can now follow along matching most of the Latin to English subtitles. He also provides a bilingual description of the video in the about section below it!

Latīnē/Latin: Sperō necesse numquam esse tibi hoc sufferre. Vicinus suprā mē magnā vōce cantat per omnēs hōrās diēī. Nonne aliō locō clāmāre potest? Tam clāra (sed nōn bonō modō) est vox eius, nīmīrum sōlus nōn sum, quī ab eō vexātur.

Anglicē/English: I hope you never have to suffer through this. The neighbor above me sings loudly through all the hours of the day. Can’t he do it somewhere else? So loud and clear (but not in a good way) is his voice, surely I’m not the only one annoyed by him.

He is amazingly skilled at Latin, impressive considering I believe he is still a student, either college or graduate, but he doesn’t specify which! I am floored by his mad skills, as many today have lost the art of the educated learning Latin as they did in the past as a hallmark of being learned and scholarly. Here is his most recent video, touching upon the Cambridge Latin course, which I’ve read and also enjoyed! I tried to comment, but fear I got my Latin wrong!!! Mea Culpa ;)

I highly recommend you check out his amazing Latin channel! It is a fun and cool way to help absorb some of this amazing ancient language!!!

—Until next time, valete :)

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Posted in Ancient History, Helping Make History More Interesting, Linguistics and History, Reviews | Leave a comment

Ancient Greeks and Romans Wouldn’t Mourn The Loss of a Mother???

I apologize if this post is a bit late, but I have been busy lately and in a drought of substantial ideas to write about. I just don’t want you all to think I’ve fallen off the grid! However, I did find one thing of notice that got to me enough to comment on!

I follow Eidolon, which I’ve mentioned before in a previous post, since I like classical history. They have some really cool stuff on there written by some really fascinating scholars. However, they can be a bit biased too as they view the ancient world through a more post modernist lens of social justice. As mentioned even in my last post early this month, I always stress that we cannot judge ancient cultures by our modern standards. While again, I enjoy reading stuff from Eidolon, sometimes they can come off as very judgmental of the ancient world by our modern standards for fairness and equality. This happened not too long ago, in a post entitled “Her Absence is Like The Sky” written about any material of grieving about the loss of a mother within the corpus of classical texts. The author, Jason Nethercut wrote in it his deeply tragic personal experience of the loss of his own mother, and how he wanted to find solace in the ancient world for his grief by writers of their time. Issue was, he said there was a striking absence of texts on the subject, surprising, as the loss of many others, such as husbands, fathers, children etc… were touched upon. One reasonable explanation was the texts simply weren’t discovered yet, or lost, as much of the ancient world’s texts are unfortunately lost to history :( I feel deeply for Nethercut, as his experience was immensely painful and any one with a heart could feel empathy for his pain. However, I had to object to one particular part, as a scholar, in his article asserting the Ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t feel the same way towards the loss of a mother:

“I wish I knew why we have this lack, because even that might offer me some sort of grounding. It’s a scary thought, but perhaps this feeling isn’t universally human. Perhaps Greco-Roman patriarchy was so entrenched that the loss of a mother was of no consequence to the ancient Greeks or Romans. “

That to me, sounded intensely callous. I do not deny that the ancient world was indeed less equal for women, and much more patriarchal. That is true, even in many societies today. However, that would not mean a son or daughter would grieve a mother any less. Greek and Roman women may not have been as free to be in the public sphere, but that does not mean they were any less valued in the home. It is our modern society that has determined women are fulfilled more by being in the public sphere, as politicians, business people, CEO s, doctors, lawyers etc… This may be good for our society now, but why project what we have decided is best onto ancient people millennia in the past??? Maybe, and this is my own presumption, maybe not all Roman women desired to be senators who felt enslaved to be in the house. Maybe not all Greek women wanted to go speak in the agora or be on the jury in a public trial. Could some have wanted more than what society told them was proper? Sure! Not everyone is happy in our own society either! But in a culture that raised men and women from birth to have distinct roles in the ancient world, many I would think may just be content to do what society deems right. We live in a more individualistic society, one of “I have to be unique and forge my own unique path and my own unique identity”, but many ancient societies were far more collectivist, and emphasized what the community needed as a whole. The ancients in many societies were big on order and stability. The order of society was immensely important, as without defined roles and hierarchies to them, chaos would ensure and it could be the literal end of the world! A woman doing a man’s job could be seen as threatening in that way too, and vice versa.

This does not mean, however, that women’s roles were devalued in their own proper function. Men could seek the glory of the public eye, while women, the glory of their homes and family. Just because our society is more egalitarian in deciding who can do what, that does not mean the role of provider and nurturer for the family was any less important than the career outside the home, or running wider society in law and government. Yes, then as now, mind you, people devalued and took women for granted. However, as now, it is so outlandish to think many in the ancient world appreciated their wives and mothers, in the societal role they were assigned? I mean, humans were always human, with the same fundamental attitudes, behaviors and desires. Going back to the critique at hand, the assertion a mother’s death would not be of notice is absurd! Humans have always needed mothers to nurture and raise them. The role of a mother is one that in countless cultures is deeply honored and cherished, for good reason! Mothers have been the rock, the shoulder to cry on, for countless great men (and women) throughout history! They may not have been in the front lines of history, but their behind the scenes influence is sorely overlooked! The role of a mother’s love and nurturing impacted people deeply then as now. In what culture is that concept of motherly love so alien, that mothers are inconsequential and easily forgotten? Name one! To imply the Ancient Greek and Romans couldn’t care enough to grieve their own mothers because they had more separate gender roles defies logic of what the human experience has been for millennia! To think women were merely slaves simply because they had different roles than men is a projection of our modern bias towards the subject seen through the lens of modern cultural values, not their own cultural lens. I mean, class distinctions were far greater back then too! But in many cases, even slaves could be mourned and trusted as family in all but name, despite cases of cruelty. Just because some women were abused, or felt trapped, does not represent all of Greek and Roman women!

The Romans honored motherhood greatly for instance. Roman mothers were tasked in the great responsibility of raising their children with proper roman virtues, not unlike Republican Motherhood within US history. Many mothers are known to have influenced great men, such as Julius Caesar, whose father died early in his young teens. Some even were well versed in politics, and guided their sons, albeit not being able to be a public part of them. Ancient Greek mothers had similar roles albeit not as public as Romans probably, as their situation, such as in Athens was stricter. They valued raising a family and many thought hat was their most important calling. “No citizen woman in her right mind, with the opportunity to get married, would chuck it all away just to get a job, assuming even that there was a job to get” (Motherhood in Ancient Athens). A woman, like anyone, is influenced to value what the culture she grows up into values. Women in our society are raised to seek out public careers, and be more than just a mother. I would argue, if motherhood is devalued, then it’s our culture, not theirs doing the most devaluing! The ancients had goddesses dedicated to the home and family, such as Hera, to the Greeks, and Juno to the Romans.

Just look at the human aspect of it too! You don’t have to be a historian to realize the impact of a mother’s love and care! Anyone lucky enough to have a dutiful mother can testify to the great influence of them in shaping your life, and great sorrow when she is no longer with you. The author proves that exact point by writing his intensely emotional article in tribute to his own mother and his immense loss! Yes, many cultural concepts are taken for granted as universal, when in fact, they are merely cultural, I certainly know that. But there are core human universals, I would argue, that humans simply evolved with as a species, and bonding deeply with one’s mother makes evolutionary sense! There has always been war, suffering, pondering the big questions about life and death, etc… in the human experience. Familial ties to one’s mother is one of those things many humans have experienced over the millennia of human history. To say that the Ancient Greeks and Romans literally devalued women so much that a mother meant nothing to them in her loss, I bet would be insulting to countless Greeks and Romans as it could be for many of us.

A better explanation for this lack of material? Maybe it was too great a loss to write about for others to see, or a cultural taboo, or simply, the texts have been lost to history, or not found yet. Either way, the theory mothers were devalued to the point of not even being grieved over is too far fetched, and biased with our own cultural bias towards the ancient world’s cultural values. I do not in the least, mean to tear apart a man so broken and in grief on any sort of personal level. But he writes as a scholar, and scholars need to be objective. His assertion that the Ancient Greeks and Romans would not feel as much grief over their mothers defies human experience in countless cultures past and present, and dare I argue, human nature.

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Posted in Ancient History, Issues in History, Opinion Piece, Reviews | 1 Comment

Some Things I Learned About Studying History…

Throughout my history blog, I’e reiterated time and time again many points when it comes to the study of history, but I wanted to put some of the most important ones in a list that have been touched upon in History is Interesting.

Value Judgments From the Present Have no Place in the Past 

I’ve said it until my face turns blue: It’s not scholarly to decide who’s good or bad by our modern day standards and cultural norms! Judging a historical figure and saying they’re this label or that label that hasn’t even come into existence in their time period is ludicrous. All this hysteria around trying to dismantle historical figures over contemporary attitudes of the period that don’t line up with ours only succeeds in a witch hunt for who’s not in line with modern social justice attitudes! However, while politically correct today to think one way, in past eras, the opposite attitude would be the PC way to go! Even so, many historical figures we honor today are honored for achievements completely unrelated to some unsavory opinion they held. Yes, that person might have been a slave owner, or racist, or sexist, or a host of other things we have decided not to be anymore, but were those attitudes racist, sexist etc… at the time? And do their personal opinions on such matters have anything to do with what we honor them for? Maybe they do, but maybe not. Of course, the issue of value judgements is not just having to do with individuals, but also cultural practices and general attitudes of the times. For example, gender roles. Men and women’s roles were more separate throughout history, and it was the norm for thousands of years. We may have decided differently in this era, but in past eras, it was the norm, and strange to think otherwise. Or consider social class. Our egalitarian attitude and social mobility was quite alien to many in the past! What would be considered classist today would simply be a factual opinion. The “wrongs” of our ancestors back in their day and within their cultural matrix were no more wrong than we feel our opinions are! To judge them by standards they haven’t even dreamed of is unfair and unscholarly. Who are we to be so arrogant as to say “We’re on the moral pinnacle, and everyone else was WRONG!”? Studying history in a scholarly light means learning about the culture for what it was, not what we wish it were. After all, what will people be saying a century or more from now about us? ;)

Different Time, Different Circumstances

On a relate note, perhaps some of the reasons for different attitudes were because of different circumstances. For example, the staunch abolitionist we all love and admire today was seen as outlandish by many more moderates and slave owners. Not only because, perhaps, of the differentiating attitudes about race and such, but also the fact much of the economy, especially in the South was based on slave labor. Even if they were to agree slavery was somehow unjust, complete and sudden abolition would have overturned the economy! To suddenly free all the slaves, it would mean economic ruin, and many most likely thought it was a “necessary evil”. Even if they wanted to free their slaves, many couldn’t since the slaves were part of the estate, and had to be passed down to an heir unless there were none. For many, it could have been out of their control! Without concepts of “racism” in the modern sense, or a sense of it being as unjust as we feel today, it’s easy to believe that many who were not pro-slavery would be hesitant to take the radical stance of complete abolition. Or another example, slavery in antiquity also helped the economy as well as almost every household in many civilizations! Aside from no racial component unlike American slavery, it was also just seen as the norm if you were born into that class, or captured in war for instance. Anyone could possible become a slave through poverty or war. Abolishing slavery in that system would have been seen as seen more ludicrous. While today slavery is not justified by any means, it deserves an honest look at the past circumstances to see why others back then had a different view.

Another heated example also is conquest. The fact European conquerors came to the New World and did horrible genocides and pillaging while today is appalling, back then was the norm. The expansionist attitude was the usual order of the day for many nations, and let’s not forget all the in-fighting within Europe and the Old World! In fact, the attitude of conquest has been around since humanity began, and there’s not one group who can honestly say they haven’t tried! The indigenous peoples over in the New World did it amongst each other too just as brutally with tribes wiping out tribes, enslaving their enemies and taking their land by force. Europeans just did more devastation since they had more technology, and diseases (Which they can’t be faulted for since Germ theory was not around! And don’t think they were the first ones to do biological warfare!) Luckily, the imperialist attitude of yesterday is not as accepted today, but throughout most of history, conquest was the norm, and we wouldn’t be here today without it, as unflattering as it is.

People in different time periods operated and made their choices and had their opinions shaped by the cultural matrix they lived in. No man is an island, and the outside world and what it thinks, influences what you think, even today! Our culture influences how we perceive the world and what we think is justified. Just look at what we criticize today from only a few years ago in hindsight, yet we fail to remember what it was like to be in the heat of the moment, not knowing the actual outcome to criticize based off of! You don’t have to agree in order to be impartial to why they felt as they did.

There’s Never Just One Side

Which leads to this point! We like to think we would know what choices we would have made. We would have been on this side, not that! We would have been the rebels or followers. Freed more slaves, or hid them. Hidden people in our attics. Fought or objected. Voted this way, not that. Pressed the button, or not. But we can’t know, now can we? We have the bias, and luxury of looking at history after the fact. After it’s all been done and over with and we know the outcome. But isn’t it pretty shortsighted and arrogant to proclaim they did wrong, from our pedestal of knowledge? We cling to one side, the side we were taught as “right”, yet not truly look into the circumstances that motivated the other side. Very few are brave enough to challenge what we’ve been taught was the right thing to do, and only decry our ancestors as misguided, stupid and wrong. But for example, did you ever stop to think of the fear it took our country to go to the lengh to intern Japanese Americans in WWII? We can say from our pedestals of knowledge, it was unfounded and unjust, but could they, in the thick of it all? Why take the risk to national security? Imagine yourself as a leader in a high stakes situation! Would YOU know what you would have done in someone’s place without knowing what we know the outcome was now? Maybe the threat wasn’t founded in the end, or the war could have been prevented. But without knowledge in hindsight, a decision must be made NOW! Maybe you end up right, maybe you end up wrong, but is it fair to condemn someone for what they could not have known??? Imagine you want to help oppressed people, or join the rebellion, but you also know if caught, will be the end for you! It’s easy to say you’d take the risk, but without being in the situation, you can’t truly ever know. Each side acts as they do judging from what they know. After all, future generations will criticize what we decided was the right thing to do!

Re-Writing History to Further Our Agenda is Not Studying History!

Propagandizing history has been done for millennia, it’s not new, but that doesn’t mean it’s right! To honestly study history, one needs to seek out what actually happened, not what we wish happened! Oversimplifying, omitting, even outright lying, is NOT being scholarly! Trying to twist the truth of history to suit some contemporary agenda is not scholarship, or legitimate history, just propaganda! History can be unflattering, even appalling, yet downplayed to minimize damage to a modern image. Conversely, it can be over-glorified, overblown, and the negatives downplayed to heighten someone’s image. In both cases, the nuances get lost in the propaganda that makes it black and white, either or. Either way, sanitizing history to make it what we want it to be rather than what it is is a misuse of history!

You Don’t Have To Agree, to Be Impartial

It’s okay to have a personal opinion though about history! I am not pro-slavery, pro-conquest, racist, sexist or think one must stick to their “place” and never be allowed to better themselves! Many people and cultures I study are, but that doesn’t mean my opinions in the present, must be dictated by what was in the past! I don’t hold with bringing back Greek pederasty into contemporary American society, even though I won’t judge it in the context of 5th century BC Greece. As a scholar, my scholarly study and judgement is kept separate from my personal opinion of the matter at hand. Deciding who was right and wrong is not the purpose of studying history, nor scholarship of any kind. Attempts to do such are propaganda and making false comparisons to modern day circumstances and standards. However, one’s personal opinion is free to be whatever you choose. You can draw impartial conclusions, while also forming your own opinions as to whether it was ethical today.

We Can’t Change The Past, But We Can Change The Future

On a last note, I’m not saying using history to motivate us to make change is bad or biased. We have many times before, all for the better. If we don’t like our past, we can make changes to improve our present and future. The past is past, and is a done deal. However, we can change our future the way we want it to be in the image of our ideals. My issue here I want to speak out on though is when we decide to whine and moan and feel that we’re bogged down by our past, and can’t make changes due to our past weighing us down. Yes, history influenced where we are today, but I can’t fully agree with the saying “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”. We don’t have to be in constant mourning of an unflattering past, to feel we need a change in the present. Can’t we say something needs change in of itself, not just because of a past injustice? For those who feel they are still bogged down by their past, why can’t they change their future still? You can’t change the injustices that happened in the past, or the fact they may have affected how the present is at the moment. However, you CAN change the future to make it the way you want it if you work hard enough to make the change. The past doesn’t come into play, just a present that needs some change. What can be done to change an undesirable present are things that are in the here and now, not way back when! History is important to study and be aware of, but you are not chained as slaves to your past, and you can make the future what you want it to be.

I love studying history, but there are so many things bogging it down I had to speak out!

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Posted in Ancient History, Early Modern History, Issues in History, Military, Modern History, Opinion Piece | 2 Comments

History is Interesting’s 4th Anniversary!

Can you believe it’s been 4 years of blogging about history? I can’t! In 4 years, I’ve covered from pre-history up to modern history! Since my interests in history go by time period, I focus on an time frame, such as classical history, pre history, modern history, 17th century, Middle Ages etc… etc… for a few weeks or months, then move on to the next. Cool thing is though, I can cycle around and come back to previous time periods of interest, and learn brand new things I haven’t the first time around! For example, I liked the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the Middle Ages, then the 1700’s, then the Victorian and Edwardian era, then back again to the Greeks and Romans! If you follow me closely, you can track what I’m into and what I’ve been interested in, through what I choose to write about! Recently, It’s been about classical history. Right now, I’m sort of in between interests, as ever so often, I get a more lull period before moving on to what’s next. However, some topics keep my interest, even if more in the background, all the time! for example, a common interest throughout many time periods is how religion affected society, and the history of religion, especially Judaeo-Christian ones. Syncretism is a huge interest of mine, and the development of early Christianity. I also like intertwining linguistics in history, learning about how languages evolved, and cognates in modern languages for instance. Making history more interdisciplinary with other fields too captures my interest, such as anthropology, and sciences such as biology. I try to have many historical interests, and love studying about the culture and attitudes of the time periods I study.

Writing a history blog has been a real treat for me as a history buff! I love connecting with other fellow history buffs, and reading works by those who are more expert and learned in the fields of study I’m interested in. I’ve discovered many cool and interesting blogs that have taught me much more and go in much more depth than most internet sites! The learned ones who have studied history seriously in their chosen time periods inspire me to get to know more, and develop my own passions and opinions. I also love getting to put my ideas out there too and I feel I have grown a ton as a writer since my first short posts for the beginning, to my longer more detailed ones of recent. History is Interesting has helped me get my voice out there for my love of history and scholarship, and I feel I have grown thus far and hope to continue to grow in my love of history :)

For the moment, unfortunately, I’ve had rather a drought of ideas. If anyone would be so kind to recommend some possible topics, please let me know! 4 years of blogging makes one cover much ground, although history is full of millions of topics! I try to write two well thought out posts per month, but until more ideas flow through, I may have to make it only once a month, as I still do not want to skip a month, as I have never in the past 4 years! Overall though, History is Interesting has been a pleasure to work on, and I hope to continue on my journey as a budding historian for year number 5 :) Until then, here’s to 4 years of History is Interesting!

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Posted in Ancient History, Helping Make History More Interesting, Middle Ages, Modern History, Opinion Piece, Paleolithic and Neolithic, Religion | 3 Comments

Some Resources for Learning Ancient Greek…

I wanted to comment on some great resources for learning more Ancient Greek that I found but never got the change to write about and share as I try to learn some. I thought this would be a good time to share these with those interested in Ancient Greek :)

If you’re really serious about learning Ancient Greek, or Latin for that matter, the Latin/Greek Institute at Brooklyn College in NY offers a 10 week or so intensive course meant to cover two to three years worth of college courses in the language! It runs each summer, and while notorious for being extremely hard and time consuming, many participants felt rewarded by going there. I never went, unfortunately, but it sounds like a great resource for those who live nearby and can jump at the opportunity! I’d love to hear if anyone reading this went or knows someone who did! A description on their website says:

The Latin/Greek Institute offers total-immersion programs in Latin or Ancient Greek that enable students to master the material normally covered in two to three years in a single summer. Founded in 1973 as a collaborative effort between Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, the Institute is the most intensive summer language program of its kind. All programs are team-taught by experienced instructors. Hourly rotation of faculty provides for exposure to a variety of approaches, and faculty closely mentor and advise students. Our graduates typically return to their home institutions prepared to excel in advanced or upper-division reading courses and to pass graduate departmental translation exams.

An article written by someone who did go details his experience of the program- What I Learned About Myself While Learning To Translate Ancient Greek.

For those who don’t have the opportunity to travel all the way to NY and devote the entire summer to that “linguistic boot camp” as I would call it, some helpful videos explain much of Ancient Greek vocabulary, grammar and learning techniques:

This video demonstrates a learning technique called “Where are your keys?”. The object of the game is to learn through relating words to the objects and contexts and slowly working your way up to understanding more complex questions using what you learned before as the foundation. It is also complete immersion in the target language, no native language or other languages allowed. For example, in this video, the teacher introduces what each object is. As the videos progress on his YouTube channel, he asks questions such as if the object is what he says it is, and even negation is taught when the answer is not what he just said. repetition is used frequently so the concept of what he is trying to convey sinks in. This game emphasizes more “natural learning” as children do their first language, rather than memorization of complex grammar rules and tables. It also uniquely, uses some ASL for hand gestures to communicate some rules in the game, as to not break the total immersion bubble. You can learn a lot by following along to the game!

This video shows a different technique called “Total Physical Response”. Like WAYK (Where are your keys?), it emphasizes the more natural, intuitive learning children use to learn their native language versus complex grammar rules. The idea is similar to “Where are your keys?” in that you have to figure out what is being said to you, only this time, it’s much more “physical” hence the name where you move your body around to demonstrate verbs and a sequence of actions. Both can be used to teach many complex grammar concepts, in a more natural way versus a more artificial way like the traditional classroom set up of memorizing grammar rules or translating words using your native language as the middle man, so to speak. This too is also complete immersion in the target language. By watching the video, you can start to learn to associate the verbs used to command with the action, as well as the nouns featured in the commands.

This video shows a similar method to both WAYK (Where are your keys?) and TPR (Total Physical Response) where you answer questions in a story in the language. Same idea about immersion leading the way to language learning. The teacher can circle around by cycling back to details in the story by asking questions about them then asking multiple ways to drill the ideas and details from the story in your head. You can learn new grammar concepts by modifying the details in the simple story, such as making everything in the past tense, or adding plurals, or negating statements, for some examples.

The pros of these methods, are a more natural way to learn a language, cutting out the middle man of one’s own native language and artificial grammar rules to memorize. However, for me at least, using some more traditional methods helps speed things along when there’s confusion in the immersion environments. Sometimes, it’s good to know a general rule, so you can apply it to other situations beyond what is immediately being learned. You can gradually pick up on patterns learned the more “natural” way, but it is nice once in a while to be told straight up what the rule is! More abstract concepts, like the subjunctive for instance, can be harder to convey through acting out alone.

This video is helpful for beginners like me to learn the sounds of the alphabet! I like they give example words to see how the language sounds. Some videos are obvious they have an American or English accent versus a more native sounding one, but this one sounds more authentically Greek!

Sometimes, it’s good just to listen to how the language is supposed to sound like spoken, and not just read about:

This comes from the New Testament, and is read completely in Koine Greek… I love it’s in this cool cartoon form!

I love the way the reader reads it so smoothly! I found out he’s a native speaker of Modern Greek, so that must help a lot. Many videos people make sound very stilted in speaking Ancient Greek, so it’s rare to find it treated more like a living language.

Lastly just for fun :)

 

Posted in Ancient History, Linguistics and History, Reviews | 1 Comment

“What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us?”: Rightful Acknowledgement or Western Supremacy?

There’s this Monty Python sketch from The Life of Brian where one of the Jews asks the question in the title above, as the Romans were their “oppressors” in Roman Palestine at the time of Jesus (and Brian). Another comically responds with Roman achievements like great literature and aqueducts as some examples of “what the Romans did for them”. The asker of the question tries to deflect and downplay these achievements, to much humor as more keep coming and coming, good ones too!

The reason why this came into my mind recently were several articles written by this blog dedicated to Classical studies called  Eidolon which while having some interesting and engaging articles, also has a bit of a left leaning political bias. In the articles that grabbed my attention, they claim that it is mistaken to say that Greco-Roman culture was a foundation to the identity of Western Culture today. Also, that it’s an insufficient reason to study Classics at all. Now, I thought most people thought that, and it was mainstream knowledge, so I’ve never heard it challenged before. The arguments for this against the grain claim piqued my interest greatly:

The main argument I got from reading articles from Eidolon was that Classical Studies has a history of white supremacy and Western imperialism. They say their focus was too much on “dead white men” and glorifying Western Culture and trying to justify cultural supremacy as well as White supremacy. They cite the fact some alt-right white supremacist groups and Neo-Nazis have misappropriated the culture and writings of Ancient Greece and Rome and twisted and oversimplified history to suit their own agenda and use it as propaganda for white supremacy. In addition, they also say Classical Studies was always fraught with that sort of bias towards white men and women and minorities were treated as outsiders, the “barbarians” of the Classics Department so to speak!

Historically, they argue much of the Classical World around the Mediterranean was quite diverse and cosmopolitan, with peoples from all sorts of races and ethnicities interacting and living amongst each other, especially after the Roman conquests expanding the empire from Hadrian’s wall in England, all the way over to Palestine! Even the Greek empire had some diversity. Different cultures, technologies, religions, ideologies, material goods, literature and more intermingled all around the Mediterranean building off of and influencing each other. Much of the Greeks’ and Romans’ ideas actually predate them, such as Pythagorean theorem being discovered on a tablet from ancient Babylon, for example. The Romans borrowed many local gods in cults like Mithraism in the East in Persia, or even Christianity from the Middle East and North Africa! The Glory of Greece and Rome was not made in a vacuum, others had a hand in helping it happen.

However, both of those arguments, historically, and issues pertaining to today, I argue, are not strong enough grounds to dismiss the title of “Foundation of Western Civilization”. First of all, while it is certainly true that the Classical world had help from “outsiders”, and there were certainly more than “dead white men” roaming around the Greek and Roman empires, the culture of Ancient Greece and Rome did influence the future of Western Europe greatly. There are countless examples of how Western Europe adopted elements of culture from both civilizations, but first, going into a little history:

Since Rome conquered much of what is now Western Europe, many into late antiquity thought of themselves as Romans. They were Romanized and Roman citizens for many of them and grew up speaking “Latin”. I put “Latin” in quotes because later on, their “Latin” drifted away from actual Latin and evolved into our modern day Romance languages like French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese among a few others. They only realized their “Latin” was corrupted when Irish Monks who came to convert them actually did study real Latin, and told them they were wrong! Point being, people from Western Europe saw themselves as subjects of the Roman Empire for quite a while! Even Charlemagne in the 800’s was emperor of the “Holy Roman Empire”! To say they have no claim to a Roman heritage would be incorrect, as they thought themselves Romans and spoke “Latin” to their knowledge for a long time! Even so, after they stopped being officially “Roman”, many European Law codes, including Canon Law of the Catholic Church is based on old Roman law! Roman law has influenced the legal system in many places throughout Europe, even here in the US! Christianity, a big part of what is “Western” now should credit its rise to power by being adopted by the Roman Empire as the official religion later on by Constantine in the 4th century. Without Rome’s influence, the West might have regarded it as one of those exotic “Eastern Religions” of the Middle East and North Africa. The Catholics church I’d argue, is somewhat of an extension of the Roman Empire, with a Pontifix Maxiumus, bishops, its own little state that once wielded great political power, built near the site of the old pagan temple and has Latin as an official language in Vatican City! Not to mention of course, Latin was the lingua franca of scholars in Europe for much of history, and many words in English have Latin roots today. Mottos for many things too are in Latin to sound sophisticated. Point is, Roman culture is still deeply entrenched in ours!

The Greeks of course, too had just as much an impact on Western culture. The great Philosophers and scientists, like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, playwrights like Aristophanes, historians like Herodotus and Thucydides for examples, are people we still read works by today! The sophistication of the Greek intellect in many areas inspired the Romans too, who were influenced by the Greeks and modeled themselves to be like them too. Greek was the language of scholars like Latin was for the Romans, and another scholarly language for Europe too. Let’s not forget too, there were many Greek speakers in the Roman empire, especially the Eastern half as Rome conquered Greece. The New Testament, foundational to uniquely Christian doctrine, was written in Koine, the average Greek of the day. Plenty of English words have Greek origins too, and even many loan words, like Kudos (κῦδος), for instance. Even the word “Moron” coined by psychologist Henry H. Goddard came from the Greek word for a dullard! ;) In educated circles, a respectable scholar knew his Latin and Greek, and was familiar with many Greco-Roman myths and other literature.

Even then, it would take many volumes to document all the ways Greece and Rome influenced our culture! Sure, we must not forget other influences, such as the Golden Age of the Islamic world bringing much of the Classics to Europe again, but can’t we also acknowledge the glaring influence Greece and Rome had on the West directly as well? I do not see it as cultural supremacy to confirm the great influence the Classical world had on us. As for the arguments pertaining to the prejudiced history of Classical Studies, or the prejudices of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, why dwell on the past so much, and how does that change the evidence for the great influence of Ancient Greece and Rome? If you want to say Classical Studies had a prejudicial biased history then fine, it’s okay to remedy that and make it more inclusive to others who want to study it beyond white men. The issue is, why do we then have to change and deny history claiming it’s biased since it doesn’t serve some social justice agenda? Just because white supremacists misappropriate history for their own damaging agenda, it doesn’t mean we have to rewrite what is true about it, that it’s the foundation for much of Western Culture. Saying the Classical World was one of the pillars supporting our culture does not in itself, assume cultural supremacy, only that our culture had a rich history, like many other cultures in the world. For civilizations that dominated the lands all around the Mediterranean, it would be quite a shock if they didn’t have immense influence far and wide!

Eidolon however, is not swayed:

When you hear someone —be they a student, a colleague, or an amateur — say that they are interested in Classics because of “the Greek miracle” or because Classics is “the foundation of Western civilization and culture,” challenge that viewpoint respectfully but forcefully. Engage them on their assumed definitions of “foundation,” “Western,” “civilization,” and “culture.” Point out that such ideas are a slippery slope to white supremacy. Seek better reasons for studying Classics. (Eidolon, How to be A Good Classicist Under a Bad Emperor)

All I have in response to that is why? Why is it bad to be interested in classical studies because it is the foundation of our culture? And why is it a “slippery slope to white supremacy” exactly? They don’t elaborate on why exactly, that point of view is wrong either, in most of their articles. Are they saying too, that there’s no such thing as Western Culture either? That, unfortunately, they don’t address, just imply. They go further to state this in conclusion:

It is time for Classics as a discipline to say to these men: we will not give you more fodder for your ludicrous theory that white men are morally and intellectually superior to all other races and genders. We do not support your myopic vision of “Western Civilization.” Your version of antiquity is shallow, poorly contextualized, and unnuanced. When you use the classics to support your hateful ideas, we will push back by exposing just how weak your understanding is, how much you have invested in something about which you know so little. (Eidolon, How to be A Good Classicist Under a Bad Emperor)

They claim to be addressing the radical white supremacy cohort, which in that context, I totally agree with what is being said. I too of course, do not stand for cultural supremacy of any kind, nor the twisting and oversimplification of history for propaganda. However, the idea alone that asserting Classical civilizations are a foundational part of Western culture supports the “ludicrous theory that white men are morally and intellectually superior to all other races and genders” does not hold up in objective scholarship. As historians, we aren’t here to make judgments about any of this. Sure, some biased people may be invested in one interpretation of how our culture came to be, or some assertion of supremacy based on biased propaganda of their making, but that should in no way hold all of Classical Studies hostage and afraid to acknowledge the greatness of Ancient Greece and Rome and the cultural legacy they left behind for us.

No, we are not the direct cultural descendants of Ancient Greece and Rome. We are not merely an extension of the Roman empire here in the United States, we do have our own culture formed by our own peoples, and so does Europe as well. We have many different values, customs, attitudes, and traditions apart from Greco-roman influence. The Ancient Mediterranean was not “whitewashed” by any means and had influences from many places, it wasn’t any one homogeneous picture like many do think either. However, the evidence is clear they laid the bedrock on which we could build our own culture, our own identities, rooted in the core ideas they gave us. I think that quite a fine reason to study Classics! :) What have the Romans (And Greeks) ever done for us? Help build who we are today…

This sounds a lot like the critics of the idea that Ancient Greece and Rome were foundational to Western Culture…. ;)

Posted in Ancient History, Issues in History, Opinion Piece | Leave a comment

Helping Make History More Interesting: Mary Beard and Joyce Reynolds

As a huge history buff and passionate about the study of history and related disciplines, like linguistics, comparative religion, archaeology, anthropology etc., it is inspiring and immensely fascinating to learn more about prominent scholars in various fields. I’ve covered some scholars, like Douglas Owsley in the past, but have not as of late, covered many of the inspiring scholars I’ve come across and read about. However, I’ve discovered two famous scholars of classical studies who were very interesting to learn about.

The first one, is Mary Beard, a classicist from England. She teaches classics at Cambridge in England and has been in the field since at least 1979 when she started off lecturing at King’s College in London, and at Cambridge since 1984. Beard earned her PhD 1982. What is notable about her, is that in England, she is highly popular by lay people as well Image result for mary beardas scholars. She has been described as an intellectual and serious scholar, but also laid back and approachable, often more unconventional than the stiffer culture of academia. She has also written on other subjects, such as feminism in her book Women in Power, which was influenced by her experiences with sexism within her discipline. Her research interests are mostly around Ancient Rome, and her dissertation is entitled The State Religion in the Late Roman Republic: A Study Based on the Works of Cicero. Beard is also known better to the general public for appearances on documentaries about Ancient Rome by BBC. These got more notoriety when some viewers criticized her in the documentary, attacking her personally and her looks, but Beard stoically chalked it up to sexist men being threatened by an intelligent woman. While Beard said she did not like to hear such harsh things, she has not backed down from addressing her critics head on. Indeed, she became immersed in a twitter firestorm over the thesis that immigration caused the downfall of the Roman Empire, comparing it to immigration today in Britain. Beard said that was incorrect, which led to much criticism, but remarkably, was able to sit down to lunch with her opponent in the debate Aaron Banks, saying people ought to be able to do this, even when they have a spirited disagreement. Beard’s scholarship was summed up by fellow scholar Clifford Ando in two points:

  • she insists that ancient sources be understood as documentation of the attitudes, context and beliefs of their authors, not as reliable sources for the events they address
  • she argues that modern histories of Rome be contextualized within the attitudes, world views and purposes of their authors. (Wikipedia)

My impression of Mary Beard is of a serious objective scholar, but also approachable outside the ridged culture of academia. She has had much influence, at least in Britain, of making the classics more accessible to lay people, not just academia. However, the most notable thing that makes her inspiring in my mind is her objectivity and fearlessness in tackling controversial and emotional topics in a level headed scholarly way. A notable example was when she published an article detailing her views on 9/11, where she said one should objectively also try to understand the side of the terrorists as well in why they did it. Beard did not condone 9/11, but called for an objective analysis of the motives, and believed the US “had it coming” in light of her understanding of their motives. Beard got major backlash for these views, as the topic is so emotionally charged, but she stood her ground in solid scholarship and objectivity.

Still, it is these precise qualities that can, equally, land her in deep water. The point of her notorious 9/11 article was that one could simultaneously deplore the terrorists’ murderous violence, and try to understand their position. After the deluge of angry emails arrived, she tried to reply to most of them, even making a couple of friends along the way. When I asked her if she would countenance taking Isis’s ideology seriously, she said: “That’s the wrong question. There is no argument that I won’t take seriously. Thinking through how you look to your enemies is helpful. That doesn’t mean that your ideology is wrong and theirs is right, but maybe you have to recognise that they have one – and that it may be logically coherent. Which may be uncomfortable.” (The Guardian)

Beard also showed some surprising views and objectivity about one of her old teachers, who would now be unacceptably sexist. To her, she prefers some of the old school traits, even if there is a component of sexism.

One of my own undergraduate teachers, Geoffrey Woodhead, died. He had been a charming misogynist of the old school, who had vehemently opposed the admission of women into his college. I had taken a very dim view of this at the time.Thirty years on, I think I prefer an old-fashioned out and out misogynist, to the crypto-variety that now stalks the Senior Combination Rooms of Cambridge in left-wing disguise. At least you know where you are with the out and out sort.

Whatever his views, Woodhead had to teach a mixed group of us how to study Greek inscriptions. It was only a couple of weeks into the course that I saw how the misogyny found its expression. When it came to the time when he would ask the class questions, the women of the group were always given very simple ones, often with a house-keeping theme. “What would you do when you first found an inscription Miss Beard?”  “Clean it, Mr Woodhead”, was the right answer. The blokes, on the other hand, got really tough googlies. “Could you compare the letter forms of IG 1.2, 4098 with SEG …whatever.” (The Times Literary Supplement)

Overall, Beard is a fascinating scholar to read more about, and definitely helps make history more interesting! This article, The Cult of Mary Beard, really captures her uniqueness and excellence!

There isn’t much competition for Mary Beard in her field, but there is one other incredibly inspiring extraordinary scholar who was in fact, Beard’s mentor: Joyce Reynolds. Right off the bat, Reynolds is amazing due to her sheer age! She is currently 99 Image result for joyce reynolds classicistand has been working in academia late into her nineties, and I haven’t heard yet she’s stopped! Joyce Reynolds was born in 1918 also in England. Reynolds earned a degree in classical studies in 1944. She never got a PhD, but was later given an honorary PhD. It’s incredible she is still alive, as of now, and still in academia! Many of her students, like Mary Beard have gone onto fruitful careers and many are senior scholars in the field. Reynolds started her career in 1951 at Newham College and went to Cambridge and lectured there from 1957-1983. She was elected to the Fellowship of the British Academy in 1982. Her research interest was mainly Roman epigraphy. Her story of how that came about was another scholar published her research ideas first, but luckily, her supervisor needed help in epigraphy!

After a civil service job during the Second World War, she planned to continue there – only to fail the entrance exam, a so-called ‘intelligence test’. “It was depressing,” she recalled. “I took my time over each question, but in fact you have to go like the clappers. Nobody told me this, so I was giving each answer due consideration and I ran out of time.” Instead she took up a research scholarship and headed to post-war Rome, to find that a French researcher had just published an important article on the very subject that she had planned to work on. Fortunately, her supervisor needed help with some inscriptions from his excavations – and the rest was history. (Newham College)

Reynolds’ most prominent work was deciphering inscriptions in Aphrodisias, and her former student Mary Beard noted it was influential in how scholars viewed Ancient Rome.

Her most influential work has been on the inscriptions from the Greco-Roman city of Aphrodisias in modern Turkey. There an extraordinary series of official documents, and letters between the Aphrodisians and high ranking Romans, has been discovered, inscribed and preserved on a wall in the city’s theatre for all to see (now known, for obvious reasons, as the ‘Archive Wall). Reynolds deciphered these, no mean feat in itself, but in a classic volume Aphrodisias and Rome (1982), she explored the importance of these documents for big historical questions about Roman government and the relations between the imperial center and the provinces. (Newham College)

Joyce Reynolds is an inspiration in her scholarship, and the amazing fact she has continued her love of learning and academics into her late nineties, a feat most of us will not live to do, or cannot do! Reynolds is inspiration that a fruitful career can be a lifetime full of purpose and fulfillment.

Both of these amazing scholars inspire me in the study of classics, and history in general!

Image result for joyce reynolds classicist class picture

Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology and Anthropology, Helping Make History More Interesting | Leave a comment