The famed Washington-based satirising internet newspaper, the Onion, launched a story in early October lifting the lid on the study of the ancient Greek world: it had, in fact, all been made up by the historians. Everything from the Iliad to ancient Greek vases to entire archaeological sites had been faked because, as the Onion puts it, no one really had any idea what happened in the 800 years before the Christian era in Europe.
I have, along with other ancient historian colleagues I’m sure, received several joking emails from academics in other disciplines revelling in the fact that we had been “busted”. I was even asked by one tourist traveller in Greece last week if it was true.
No, I can categorically state we didn’t make it all up. But that’s not to say we have not been involved in the way the ancient world’s story has unfolded. Archaeologists have imposed their own views about how ancient buildings should be reconstructed, scholars of the ancient texts have argued for how they think the fragments surviving should be completed and more importantly interpreted. Ancient historians have applied modern models of thought to cast the social, economic and political realities of the ancient world in certain lights. Issues that have occupied our 19th, 20th and 21st-century worlds have become guiding questions for investigation of ancient societies.
Of course the best traditions of scholarship have always worked incredibly hard to ensure the ancient world is allowed to speak for itself, without refraction or alteration through the myriad of lenses with which it is studied and through the layers of societies and historical time that stand between us and them. That search for an ‘objective’ way of studying past human society will always be on-going and I have no doubt that we will continue to get better at it.
But we will never be able to take ourselves entirely out of the equation. Nor should we want to, because it is in that very multiplicity of approaches, views, understandings and ideas that the debate about what the ancient world was like is fired up, and it is through that debate that we gain a better understanding of our humanity and its past.
Reprinted from Neos Kosmos www.neoskosmos.com