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An Old History Worth Reading

But the memory of man is short, and his imagination is fertile. Facts in their actual form are easily forgotten and soon covered up by the accruations of imagination. Religion and reality overlap in human life; and therefore historical incidents easily assume the form of fairy-tales and legends, and are mixed up with man’s belief in higher powers which direct his life. For this reason many historical facts, in the course of oral or even written transmission, assume the form of myths, or tales which describe the interference in human life of divine and superhuman powers.

Man has not only a strong impulse to learn the truth, but an equally strong impulse to mutilate it, consciously and unconsciously. Man’s tendency to poetic creation and the fertility of his imagination cause him often to restate facts till they are unrecognizable; he fills up gaps where he is ignorant and alters what he knows; he mixes up the region of religious and the fabulous conceptions with the sphere of actual events. Myth and legend are inseparable from history, and even in our own time grow up round great historical events and, even more, round great historical persons. Together with this process, facts are also deliberately distorted under the influence of various motives—material advantage, or the endeavour to defend the reputation of the narrator or his friend, or or the tendency to support a particular point of view or political theory. The influence of patriotism is active here…we must never forget that historical events were not recorded by machinery but by men, distinct personalities with definite characteristic of their own. Few of them have kept free from prejudice while recording historical events, which, in one way or another, touched themselves nearly.

Both quotes are taken from the first part of M.I. Rostovtzeff’s A History of the Ancient World, volume 1: The Orient and Greece. He continues the second quote with a discussion of historical criticism that includes determining whether what one is reading actually adheres to historical reality. Personally, I believe this influence of “accruations” and distortions of the historian carry over into secondary histories. Ironically, Rostovtzeff himself succumbs to this in his book Caravan Cities, where, amid all of the wonderful descriptions of getting to the archeological sites, he goes on lengthy tirades about the criminality of the bedouin. Events that touched him nearly bleeding into the narrative. It is charming in its quaintness, but horrifying in actuality, and colors how I think about early twentieth century archaeology.

As a history book, A History of the Ancient World is dated. This is hardly a surprise, given that it is 95 years old, and to a contemporary eye it suffers from this. Entire schools of history have risen and fallen in the intervening years. Too, some of the underpinning assumptions about the format of the ancient economy have been debunked. From a bird’s eye view, though, one assumption that may have, so to speak, accidentally been tossed out with the bathwater, is the fundamental linking of Greece with the Orient, rather than with Europe. Following K. Vlassopoulos in Unthinking the Greek Polis, though, this was (usually) not a coincidence, but rather an ideological decision wrought by, among others, people committed to Greece’s indo-european heritage. In contrast, Rostovtzeff fundamentally links Greece with the Near East.

Still, his conception of the orient is rather limited. The orient, in this book, consists of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and, to an extent, the Iranian plateau, and barely includes areas linked by trade and excludes entirely China. As a result, this vision of the ancient world doesn’t look much different from how (in my limited experience) Western Civilization courses are often taught. The one point that Rostovtzeff might quibble with is the teleological assumption that from the Near East to Greece to Rome and beyond came Western Civilization. Yet, it also appears to me that instructors are blurring some of these lines because the camp committed to Greece as foundational for Western Civilization did not want the Near East to even be included. Many textbooks do prioritize Greece and Rome (and Christianity coming within that milieu), but these courses are a mashup of the two divergent schools.

Rostovtzeff is not as prone to the memorable turn of phrase as some of his contemporaries, but I am nonetheless enjoying working my way through his oeuvre as a way of familiarizing myself with the classics and giving myself food for thought.