Friday, February 12, 2016

The Long View

I've always had an interest in history, but insufficient patience to really do the work. That's probably still true; I've just replaced the biographies and personal accounts I used to use to liven up the dry "names and dates" stuff with short and lively audio presentations of history (via my new podcast habit.)

The toughest thing to grasp in any subject is the gestalt. That overall sense of the whole thing, the boundaries, the large-scale structures, where the basic parts fit in. And frustrating as it has proved to generation after generation of students, the best way to arrive at that gestalt is through the accretion of detail. Endless detail.

All of those endless battles and short-lived kings and tyrants and cities with ever-changing names are washing through me with very few of the specific details remaining. I've been passing back and forth through mostly the Ancient world, getting as far as Rome before dipping back again. I've been coming at it from both overviews and comparatively small pieces of the puzzle -- such as the personal history and writings of the Greco-Roman geographical historian Strabo.

(Strabo was born Greek and wrote in Greek but spent much of his life in Rome. This was the early days of Rome, when they looked back towards the Hellenic Age as the source of culture. His major error in achieving popularity over the next decades, in fact, was in failing to write in proper imitation of the classics.)

The main thing I brought away from that latter was an understanding of how Rome saw history; essentially, that they were the apex, the achievement that all history had led to. Unlike so many who looked forward to those that would come after, and hoped to leave more than just the broken feet of a grand statue for those later ages to admire, the Roman view of that time was what came after Rome would be...more Rome.

This actually helps me understand some of the things I was writing about (or at least had in the back of my head when writing); with the much later Germanic Holy Roman Emperors, the conceit of "The Dark Ages," Dante looking back at Brutus as being the greatest traitor that ever lived, even up to some of that seething mass of racial and religious mud the Ahnenerbe wallowed in.

The toughest thing for me at the moment is trying to get in my mind a real living sense of the ebb and fall of the major empires of the Mediterranean over my period of interest (4,000 BC through the first century AD, or more specifically, from King Narmer to early in the Egyptian New Kingdom). I'm just now finally getting a feel for the transitions between Minoan, Mycenean, and Greek, with Phoenician in the wings, and what is happening simultaneously in Egypt (as well as Egypt's far-from inactive neighbors).

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