I’ve always been quite biased in my historical readings.
For one, I’ve spent a lot more time pouring over art history books than that I have been reading ‘regular’ history. I’ve always found art history a marvellous, consoling invention, weaving a story of meaning & aesthetic sensibility, reaching beyond the furies of human history. (1)
And, secondly, when I do read history books I tend to ignore established precedence & chronology. For a couple of years now I’ve been reading greedily about Late Antiquity and Byzantium, with ever more books on the subject piling up on shelves & window sills. The Byzantine readings in particular, probably testify to a fascination for a tradition that is irrevocably lost, surviving only in disjointed fragments, without a real established heritage. (2)
Only now, having amply toured the fragmentary remains of “Late Antiquity”, I have at last turned to “Antiquity” itself, at its full victorious heights, reading “SPQR”, a best-selling history of ancient Rome. The book is vivid and well written, quite instructive. Names & dates faintly resonate with old high school memories, but the book offers a far more kaleidoscopic image and, contemporary history writing oblige, also a view of Rome through the lens of our current preoccupations. (3)
But, however instructive the book & however relevant for our times, having turned its final page, still “I have no love of Rome”. No fascination for this Rome that so utterly destroyed Carthago, this Rome where even a philosopher-emperor didn’t hesitate to erect a column with images of “conquered, bound and trampled barbarians“ .
It’s probably my sentimental “slave morality” (in Nietzschean terms) which recoils from ruthless victors; or my “peripheral” mindset which distrusts the centres of power. No wonder I avidly underlined following passage in yet another book, recounting a parallel history:
“I know that Rome created Europe and that her law, language, literature, architecture, and engineering are part of the heritage of western man. I know she served as a conduit through which the warm-weather civilizations of the Mediterranean and the Fertile Crescent were passed to the dark worlds beyond the Alps. But […] I have no love of Rome. “ (4)
piling up notes against the ruins
- I’ve come to think that much of art history is some sort of 'after the fact synopsis', carefully pulled together by the more thoughtful & sensitive souls of our species – painstakingly extracting artefacts from the debris, lovingly conserving fragile human relics, tirelessly interpreting & transmitting beauty & meaning across generations.
- Maybe reading about lost worlds also satisfies a certain sense of poetic duty – piling up books against obliteration? Or is mine the attention of a scavenger, morbidly attracted by decay? Only when Palmyra and Apamea are threatened by utter destruction, I start tracking them down in books and museums. Only when Christianity has all but disappeared from the Middle East, do I trudge faithfully to an exhibition“les Chrétiens de l’Orient – 2000 ans d’histoire” ( an exhibition which turned out to be a poignant elegy for a millenary tradition now about to disappear forever, indeed perhaps surviving only in books & museums). Or probably it’s just the dismal imagination of a melancholic, trying to make sense of a confusing contemporary world by pondering the fate of lost civilisations.
- "SPQR - A History of Ancient Rome", by Mary Beard The book makes much of the extra-ordinary openness of Rome , right from the start, and throughout its history - “By the end of the second century CE more than 50 % of the senators were from the provinces. […] In effect, the provincials were now ruling Rome.” Is it the polytheistic tolerance which made that so many ‘conquered’ people so swiftly wanted to become part of the ‘Roman project’? And isn’t it then a sublime paradox that monotheist Christianity would grow and spread thanks to the very extent, openness and mobility of the Roman empire? And what lessons can we draw for our own times? Still pondering that ...
- Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews – Wanderings