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What The Past Can Learn From The Now


What The Past Can Learn From The Now

Thomas Whitley

Yesterday I watched this documentary on Pompeii. It asks the sensational question, "was Pompeii the secret sex capital of ancient Rome?" I live-tweeted my viewing with quotes, questions, and thoughts prompted by the video. The bulk of my response to the video was centered around how we as historians do history.

This documentary talked about sex in Pompeii as if it were the only thing anyone there could ever think about and so I wondered, what will historians 2,000 years from now write about us? With the proliferation of sexualized images in television, print, and internet advertising, the ubiquity or pornography, and especially the advent of more amateur pornography will we be described as a "sex capital"? That is, if the bulk of what survives about our society in this time period relates to sex, what else will future historians be able to do, but to write about our obsession with sex?

Yet, if we were to write about our world now, while sex would certainly be a significant component, we know that it would not be the main focus, and it would be the over-arching narrative. We would write about economics, politics, higher education, sports, cell phones, wars, and oil. It is not difficult to see that a single narrative would not do justice to our society and thus neither does a single narrative do justice to the ancient world.

As a historian of the ancient world, I often try to liken the ancient world to the modern. I know that the differences in time, space, culture, language, etc. are significant, but I also think that the past is not completely foreign. We can know things about the past and I think that what we know about the present can influence how we view the past. Just as nuance is necessary today, so too is nuance necessary when we write and talk about the ancient world.

Our histories can only take into account the evidence that has survived. But what percentage of physical and intellectual material has survived from the ancient world? 10%? 5%? And I'm one of the lucky few who studies the ancient mediterranean world where the climate is a tremendous aid in preservation. We as historians, then, with all of our texts and archaeological findings and confidence are seeing only a fraction of the world that existed. And yet we have taken it on as our task to understand this world and describe it to others. The paucity of evidence should not be a deterrent - heck, my whole dissertation is about a guy whose writings don't survive and we only have what his opponents said about him - but it should give us pause, especially as we write grand generalizing statements about life or religion in the ancient world.

As much as anything else, this is a reminder to me that my often myopic focus should be expanded a bit. There existed an entire world to which we will never have access and so, as we write (about) the past, we should think of today. Our world is much more than a politician, or a philosopher, or a religious leader, or even a group of people. So too was the past.


Image: Cover of The Limits of History by Constantin Fasolt. It, along with Silencing the Past by Michel-Rolph Trouillot, are great reads when thinking about these sorts of questions.