Back in the olden days, when GCSEs were significant exams worthy of veneration due to their nearly departed proximity and A-levels were imbued with importance due to their imminence and their clear life altering impact, I pursued history at both levels with a true sense of relish and with an abiding sense of enjoyment of the past. Then I loved the certainty, the sophistication and the complication of history, the challenge of entangling the knowable fact from the impenetrable murkiness in which motive and involvement could be hidden. The pieces never could be put together to complete the puzzle, and one could instead admire the puzzle from the outside and only imagine what the whole image could look like.
Over time this fascination lapsed. I stopped the academic study of history, got enthralled by the more sociological and meta-historical purpose that authors such as Jared Diamond or Paul Kennedy saw in the tapestry of history. The many histories of many places compiled together to reveal history’s response to Newton’s Laws, precise defined and entirely reflective upon the field which they guided in its direction. They were interesting books, placing much of time into its context, but nonetheless far removed from the more methodological, chronological narrative that history can become when the finer details are appreciated and true distinction can be drawn between epochs, ages and emperors.
Now after a gap of many years I find myself coming back to the historical fold with a more keen interest, but focused on an area of history that I’ve had little effective formal schooling, certainly we were taught it during year 7, but little of those lessons abide with me and I doubt anyone truly remembers the lessons of a decade ago.
I am drawn towards the Antiquities, the history of the ancient world as we so scantily know it. The power of Persia; the worlds first super power, the Awesome empires of China, the fledging Athenian political revolution that endeared Greece to all posterity.
My true interest though has been captured by the most enduring and triumphant of the Antiquities, in the shape of the 2000 year history of the Greatest Empire the civilized world ever saw, clothed under the purple robes of the Roman Imperators. My interest started, as did many an Emperor, with a humble beginning that in all likelihood I should conceal from posterity, but I shall work no such illusion. It began with the HBO series Rome, which charted the end of the Roman Republic and the assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar, one of the most famous events of all western history. It went on to sample the ambiguity and eccentricity of the world inhabited by the world first true historian, Herodotus in his two volumed work. The death throws of the Roman Republic were completed in better detail in the excellent Tom Holland book Rubicon, the title referring to the now forgotten stream that marked the boundary of Italy and the sacred Roman soil from the provinces that the expanding Republic administered. From there it went fictional, in Robert Graves’ highly acclaimed work I, Claudius and now I have started upon an abridged version of the most resplendent monument in the histories of the Roman Empire, in Gibbons famous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
My interest in history has changed as well. The puzzle no longer grips me as intently. I accept that the world is far too complex the details far too finicky and the events too lost too sustain that sort of inquiry. Instead I have taken the lesson to heart that there is nothing truly new under the sun, and in the actions of these old rulers and odd people who lived and died under an empire so vast that exile from it meant that there was no civilized place for its inhabitants to go, can teach valuable and apt lessons for the modern world. History, our past, defines our outlook and our future, and the person who can control or define or even select the apt example from the past will do well to carry events forward in the future. That sense of communion, of belonging to the historical narrative is a powerful sensation. The ancient world is also rich in symbolism, we have images that are enshrined in theirs, and consequently our, myths and legends that provide apt metaphors for much of modern life. Again the power of symbolism is unconquerable, worth if an image is guaranteed a thousand, a hundred thousand words. Our ability to learn from, to use and to exploit the past is one of the most critical concepts that can be taken from history.
We may not have a Monarchy in politics, but many of the other institutions of the modern world could without any dissimulation wear upon their shoulders cochineal dyes. People, the character of humanity, its capacities for high or low, have not changed as much as they ought to have; the realities of people are ever evident in history. This broad brush history can be found in the most vivid colors in the life, organization and necromancy of the Roman Empire and that is perhaps why I find it the most fascinating of all. History is not the study of what has gone for me anymore, it is the study of what is alive today through the forensic lens of what has gone before, to discover the world that exists outside of all the fine surface decoration that has been grafted on modern man. This gritty reality, this reduced essence of man, feels most accessible in the scholarship of antiquity.