Why Study Ancient History?

Michael Helfeld puts an interesting spin  on things in a Southern New Hampshire University press release:

It was 7 p.m. on a quiet autumn evening, when I received a call from my alma mater asking me for a donation. When I told the young lady that I had graduated with a degree in Classics, she was perplexed: “Classical music?” she asked. “No”, I replied, “Greco-Roman history.” “Ah, ok, that must be interesting stuff!” she said, and of course, I concurred.

Nowadays, I try to use the expression “ancient history” as a way to refer to my field, but it too often meets with perplexed responses. My friends and family don’t see any practicality in what I study, and yet I see it day after day in the events that transpire around me.

As a history instructor, I relish the fact that in Renaissance Italy (ca. 1350-1550 CE) humanists were often employed in matters of state; their historical research was considered indispensable. And what were scholars like Francesco Petrarch and Lorenzo Valla studying but ancient Greece and Rome? Studying antiquity provides us with the ability to understand our fast-paced world. As Socrates once said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” That’s why I want to offer two examples of how knowledge of the ancient past helped me understand the present.

Sometimes a Statue Isn’t Just a Statue
It was the fall of 2009 in Montreal, when Dawson College announced that it was going to repair the famous Notre Dame De La Garde statue on their roof. The college used to belong to the Congregation of Notre Dame, and it had once formed an intricate part of Quebec’s Catholic landscape. Religion is a hot button issue in the province. When Dawson made this announcement, a debate ensued about the statue’s return. One Montrealer remarked that as “a non-Catholic, non-believer,” he “was not alone in feeling utterly repudiated and excluded by the government’s urgent reaffirmation of the link between church and state.” But why all the fuss about a statue?

The whole affair reminded me of a story found in the Mishnah, a Jewish legal text written around 200 CE. It tells us that a Rabbi was bathing in the (Roman) “bathhouse of Aphrodite,” when an observer asked him how it was that a Jew could be relaxing in front of pagan statuary. After all, the 10 Commandments state that only Yahweh could be worshipped. The Rabbi explained that the statues of Aphrodite were not consecrated images imbued with religious power, but mere decorations. How else could one explain bathers relieving themselves in front of them?

This example of cultural interaction in the Roman Empire allowed me to think constructively about a modern debate; I could see how people saw Dawson’s statue not as mere decoration, but as an active symbol of faith. I found myself better equipped to engage my fellow citizens over a thorny issue.

Rome, Byzantium, Immigration and Community
My second example comes from an experience I had while writing this article. I was listening to NPR on my way home from work. Gary Leitzell, the mayor of Dayton, OH, was being interviewed on the “Here and Now” program about his city’s immigration policy. In the context of a stalled economy and the passing of a controversial bill by the State of Arizona, illegal immigration has become a major issue. Dayton had just approved the “Welcome Dayton Immigrant-Friendly City Plan,” designed to promote citizenship and economic development.

To my surprise, there were two references to ancient history in the interview! Firstly, while defending his city’s decision, he referred to Rome’s legal distinctions between citizens and foreigners. Then, he mentioned that ancient Byzantium (Istanbul) had outlasted Rome because it “was more international in its acceptance of trade and people.” Leitzell was trying to show how Dayton could grow demographically and economically by welcoming foreign workers and businesses.

A grounding in ancient history would allow the listener to understand and even critique Leitzell’s use of the past and his city’s position. I found myself able to do just this, and to know I could engage in dialogue with the mayor of Dayton and anyone else interested in building good, just, and sustainable communities.

In Conclusion
Today, antiquity only seems to be popular when mystery is involved: the enigmatic Dead Sea Scrolls speak about the apocalypse, battling angels, and the war between darkness and light. The Scrolls were recently digitized, and they have received over a million hits in just one week! And yet, the value of history does not only reside in its ability to stir our imaginations. The experiences, travails, and wisdom of our ancestors can serve us in a more pragmatic way: they can help us understand a present laced with nuance and permeated with detail. And this means that ancient history is not merely “ancient history.”

One thought on “Why Study Ancient History?

  1. Couldn’t agree more. I’m about to join for very same reasons a very similar course – ‘Ancient Indian Culture & History’ for masters (M.A.). It’s a shift from computer science after dropping out from my masters course and I am truly excited, although I shouldn’t be!

    It’s sad nobody around me understands the motive. They think I’m lost and on the verge of ruining my career.

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