19 July 2011

Humorous footnotes

"Incidentally, I find it strange to recall that my education was utterly dominated by two stories: the Bible's and Rome's. Both were disappointing examples of history. One told the story of an obscure, violent and somewhat bigoted tribe and one its later cults, who sat around gazing at their theological navels for a few thousand years while their fascinating neighbors--the Phoenicians, Philistines, Canaanites, Lydians and Greeks--invented respectively maritime trade, iron, the alphabet, coins and geometry. The other told the story of a barbarically violent people who founded one of the empires that institutionalized the plundering of its commercially minded neighbors, then went on to invent practically nothing in half a millennium and achieve an actual diminution in living standards for its citizens, very nearly extinguishing literacy as it died. I exaggerate, but there are more interesting figures in history than Jesus Christ or Julius Caesar."

It's very possible that the (American) focus on Rome instead of Greece or the Phoenicians or Carthage, much less other powerful and/or influential historical cultures and states like the various Chinese dynasties, Shogunate Japan, Prussia, or the Ottoman Turks, in world history courses is due to the specific importance of Rome in the Christian dialectic and that these two end up twinned in over-importance. One obvious reason to note this is the decreasing importance of Rome in casual historical study as it moved to the East and became a Christian empire (the Byzantines). Almost nobody spends a lot of time looking at the sieges of Vienna or Constantinople in a high school history course, for example, relative to the amount of time spent on developments much further in our history, like the various Mesopotamian empires. So yes, when Assyria and Nebuchadnezzar take up more time than, say, Suleiman in our collective lore, there's a problem.

But, to be fair to Rome and Christendom, they're also very long-lasting developments and thus have considerable sway over history as a whole.
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