Room for the imagination
About a week ago, I found myself sharing personal space with a somewhat agitated black bear. A few seconds beforehand that bear had been in the neighbours' yard, with a substantial wooden fence between us. When the neighbours' dog disturbed the bear, I discovered that the secure-looking fence actually slows down a bear in a hurry by around a quarter of a second. Something to remember for the future, not least to ensure that I actually have a future.
The bear kept right on going, fortunately, but this brush with the wild reminded me that for most peoples before the modern era such close encounters were pretty much routine. Even within a few miles of ancient Rome there was enough wildlife for hunters to regularly bring their catch to markets within the city, and travellers pretty much expected to encounter wildlife on the road.
Places like classical Greece were almost 80% uninhabited, meaning that the peoples of the land saw themselves as islands of humanity surrounded by wilderness. In those forest fastnesses were centaurs, satyrs and other beasts which we inhabitants of crowded modern landscapes know as fantastical.
Yet where I live, the Canadian boreal forest stretches around and over the mountains, untouched for hundreds of miles in every direction. There are far more bears living locally than humans. Sasquatch (that hairy semi-human also known as 'Bigfoot') is regularly reported by hunters, just as those roaming the deep forests of antiquity probably glimpsed the occasional centaur.
This isolation was brought home to me one night when flying into a rural town hereabouts. The lights below were a thumbnail-sized patch of gold in an otherwise totally unlit sea of inky black. Whole communities of Sasquatchi could have been out there in those miles and miles of dark forest, and possibly fauns, satyrs and centaurs too.
That's the joy of a wilderness. You just don't know.
The last time I knew all about ancient history was probably at the start of year one as a postgraduate at Oxford. At that point I was pretty clear in my mind. Greek history, Roman history, Early Medieval period - check. Yup, it was all there. There were a few corners that needed updating and polishing, but essentially my knowledge of ancient history was complete.
In a way, that was correct. Admittedly, the Hellenistic era was a complete blank, but I did know the history of the rest. However, there is a huge gap between ancient history and the ancient world. While it is possible to get a good grasp of ancient history, the ancient world is a vastly different proposition. And I do mean vast.
Understanding the ancient world involves knowing not only but history, but geography. (This month has involved studying Hellenistic Sogdiana - a place half the size of Germany that even a decade ago I had no idea existed.) There are also the ideas of philosophers such as the Presocratic Atomists. Oh, and demographic and anthropological studies to learn more about the lives of ancient peoples. Then there's architecture - just understanding Roman aqueducts properly takes months - and also art, the road system, economics and ancient medicine. Understanding these means learning to use tools such as app. crits., epigraphy, prosopography, and all of archaeology.
Did I mention religion and mythology? Recently I've been getting into that along with ancient magic and superstition. So far I've written two books on myth, with at least another three to come. There's also military history, which is itself enough to keep some scholars happily occupied for an entire lifetime, and if I ever get through all that, there is the world of late antiquity where everything is all different again.
There are writers - Damasippus, Justin and Bacchylides on the 'to read' list, where once I thought ancient history stopped with Tacitus, Livy and Thucydides, and felt myself erudite for knowing there were two writers called Pliny. As Aristotle remarked, 'the mind ages just as does the body'. But hopefully by the time I can no longer grasp new ideas from the world of antiquity, all I have learned will remain, preserved in a solid set of books on the shelf.
Building for the future
One of the problems with living on a mountainside is that while there's a great view, a certain degree of effort has to go into preventing one's home and its contents from sliding down into the undoubtedly scenic valley below.
At present that effort is being done by the roadworks people, who are rebuilding the embankment in front of the house. This is admirable, and a great use of my tax dollars even if it is hard to work when an orange-painted steel monster is chewing through concrete and tarmac a few feet from the window.
I observed to an engineer that the current embankment seems to be a much bigger project than its predecessor. He told me that previously such embankments were designed to last fifty years. The current thinking is that the job gets done once and permanently. Certainly with the amount of concrete they are pouring, this one looks set to outlast the pyramids.
That got me thinking about the Romans,who certainly shared the engineer's point of view. Indeed, many Roman bridges, water pipes and buildings are still in use in modern Italy and functioning as well as they did sixteen hundred years ago.
However, the academic in me warns that there's a certain fallacy here. We think the Romans were great builders, because we judge them by the buildings that survive. On the other hand, the Romans had their share of lousy builders too, but their works did not survive to condemn them. However, ancient writers were well aware of the many collapsible fire-traps in which they lived and worked.
Likewise, future generations may well examine the monumental embankment being erected in front of the house and form an entirely misguided opinion about our Ministry of Roads.
Apples and oranges
There's a lot of comparisons between the ancient and modern world going around at the moment. Just this week I read one impassioned rant that 'immigrants are destroying the USA, just like they did ancient Rome' (they didn't) and that 'Donald Trump is America's Julius Caesar' (he isn't).
Even academics are not immune. Recently while studying unequal relationships in Roman society, I came across two 'comparison studies'. One looked at slavery in the American south and the other at marriage in the Georgian era in Britain. The aim was to see what these better documented times could tell us about marriage and slavery in Rome. The problem with such studies is that, in my humble opinion, they do not work either.
Roman slavery and Roman marriage were as different from their modern equivalents as, well, Donald Trump is from Julius Caesar. (Can you really imagine The Donald leading legions of American soldiers across the Rubicon/Potomac to take on the US senate? No, me neither.)
American slavery was profoundly coloured by racism in a way that did not exist in Rome. Horace, poet and friend of the Emperor Augustus, was the son of a slave. I can't imagine the president of the Confederacy sharing drinks - and girls - with Horace's American counterpart. For the Romans, slavery was a (potentially temporary) affliction that could happen to anyone crushed by misfortune. For the southern Americans, it was inherent in a particular race. As a result of this difference alone (there are many others) we are looking at two very different institutions which have the same name.
Likewise, marriage in Georgian England was seen as a merging of two people into one legal entity, religiously sanctioned, and for life. Roman women kept their names, and their finances were separate from their husbands. Their dowries were given back when they got divorced. And they got divorced often. Consequently the mindset and expectations of people going into a Georgian and Roman marriage were so different as to make them, again, two different institutions.
I could go on, but I'll finish with the story of a drunk who was scrabbling around under a lamp post looking for his keys. He had lost them in the alley, but the light was not as good back there.
The other day I heard a presenter on TV listing all the ways that the makers of the show could be contacted, including 'old-fashioned email'. Sorry - was that 'old fashioned'? Actually, on reflection, for a younger generation this is indeed the case. I got my first email address in 1990 - probably around the time the presenter of the TV show was born. Though we never see it happening from day-to-day, we are living in an era of whirlwind technological change. That's something that makes us very different from the Romans.
Let us take a Roman from the era of Augustus - almost exactly two thousand years ago. Show him the technology of five hundred years previously and there was very little that he would not consider an everyday item in his own home. Pots were pots, and the Roman's pots were probably slightly inferior to those the Athenians were producing half a millennium previously. The Roman's clothing was cloth woven no differently to the cloth woven for Romulus when he founded the city. Communications - which have changed out of all recognition in the twentieth century - still consisted of the Roman writing on a wax tablet and sending the message off with a messenger.
Now move that Roman forward five hundred years to the end of the empire. Apart from noticing how much standards had deteriorated, that Roman would have had no trouble fitting in with the technology of that day. Things really had not changed that much.
Now try doing the same thing by imagining how a Briton from Shakespeare's day might cope with the 21st century. It's not hard to conceive of how much that Briton would struggle when you remember the struggle to teach your grandfather to use Skype. In fact a Roman from Julius Caesar's day would manage much more happily in Shakespeare's Britain 1,500 years later than someone of 150 years ago can cope in ours.
This leads to a mental disconnect. We are accustomed to the future bringing constant technological change, with all its advantages and dangers. The Romans saw time as pretty much static, with the only real changes happening in the political field. For them the world they would leave their grandchildren was the same world that they currently lived in. It gave them a sense of continuity that is simply impossible for the generations living today.