Making the Near East Relevant
A little less than two months ago, I wrote a piece about why academic study of the Ancient Near East is important despite often playing third string behind Greek and Roman studies in the world of ancient history. Yet, while the Near East is clearly important, it lacks not only the academic support but also the popularity of the classics.
The world of ancient history scholarship is a small one. At the top of this world are academics, tenured professors of history, archaeology and classics whose illustrious careers have broken new ground or provided old interpretations of ancient history. They publish much of what we read about ancient history, both technical and popular. Below them are the popular authors, who are not professors but write for a broader audience and tend to make more money from it. Separate from the authors, you have the normal academic hierarchy of adjuncts, graduate students and undergraduates with their sights set on graduate school.
Separate from them are the enthusiasts, who read the popular books, watch the History Channel, play computer games such as Age of Empires or Rome: Total War and watch movies such as Gladiator and Alexander. These people may have majored in classics or ancient history in college, but it’s a hobby for them, not a career. In addition, you have producers of popular entertainment based on ancient history, from edutainment TV shows, to dramas, movies and computer games.
Every one of these components of the ancient history world is dominated by ancient Greece and Rome. Ancient Egypt and Biblical lands make a few inroads here and there. Babylon, Assyria, Phoenicia, Mitanni, Persia, Nubia, Hatti and the rest make little impression on the popular imagination. Few popular works, movies or games focus on these civilizations. Few people can name any famous Babylonians or Assyrians.
If one takes a moment to browse the ancient history section at your local Barnes & Noble or on Amazon.com, one finds the field populated by biographies and books about battles. Cicero, Cleopatra, Augustus, Alexander the Great and many others have been the subject of numerous recent biographies. Books analyzing an ancient battle such as Thermopylae or Salamis and assessing its place in history and influence on western civilization make up most of the rest of the selection.
Why are these themes popular with the general public? The public is not so much interested in issues of cultural change, class and identity which consume much academic scholarship. Rather, they are interested in learning from the lives of great men. Part of it is the trend in recent historical writing to try and pinpoint “tipping points,” those precise moments where the course of history hinged on the decisions of one man (whether or not history actually works this way is something I’m not going to get into here).
Now, don’t get me wrong, studying culture, class and identity are vital to understanding the ancient world. Such things should continue to be studied and published. But when academia’s entire output consists of such topics, it does something far more dangerous to ancient history in the long term: It makes history boring.
The point is, war and biography sell because they are compelling. They are interesting to read, and teach us lessons that can be applied to everyday life.
The other reason Greece and Rome currently take precedence over the ancient Near East is that they are viewed as foundational to western thought, culture and civilization. This is undoubtedly true. However, with all due respect to Victor Davis Hanson and other advocates of finding the West’s cultural heritage in Greece and Rome in opposition to the East, this is only half the foundation. Classical philosophy and science do not form the entire foundation of the western experience. The other half comes from the tremendous influence exerted on the West by Abrahamic religions, most notably Christianity and Judaism.
Where do these faiths trace their roots? The Near East.
As Jona Lendering points out, the popular view of ancient Greece as a center of science and enlightened rationalism and the Near East as the cradle of religious mysticism is a false dichotomy. In fact, the Greeks had their own religions. It’s just that we don’t remember them as much because they have had little to influence in the world after 380 AD. Classical paganism was simply out-competed by newer faiths in the competition of ideas.
On the other hand, the ancient Near East had its own scientists. The Babylonians and Egyptians made advanced discoveries in astronomy, mathematics and medicine. Babylonians developed algebra and the Pythagorean Theorem. Egyptians and Babylonians both made detailed records of the movements of stars, planets and eclipses. Egyptian and Babylonian doctors influenced and enabled later Greek and Roman advances in medicine.
This false dichotomy can be overturned by highlighting the scientific advances of the ancient Near East, but this alone is not enough. Faceless inventions are interesting, but they don’t have a narrative that makes for a good story. Raising the profile of the ancient Near East requires compelling narratives, and this can be done by publishing biographies and military history focusing on the ancient Near East.
The Near East has a great cast of characters who remain untapped sources for the enterprising biographer: Powerful rulers like Sargon the Great of Akkade or Darius of Persia. Rulers who fled from the duties of kingship, like Nabonidus. Powerful advisers who worked behind the scenes such as Chancellor Bay or Isaiah. Powerful and enterprising women such as Artemisia of Caria, Elissa of Carthage or Salome Alexandra. Revolutionaries like Judah Maccabee, Simon Bar Kokhba or Eleazar Bin Yair. Reformers like Cyrus the Great or Urukagina of Lagash.
It’s also a simple fact that war sells. Biographies about war sell even more. Books about ancient Near Eastern military history and famous battles will sell too.
Publishing a few solid biographies of compelling Near Eastern personalities and major battles and campaigns could help to create some popular interest in the ancient Near East. In turn, this could create a market for other entertainment. The upcoming Mel Gibson biopic about Judah Maccabee could provide some momentum in this direction, although I’m skeptical of anything with Mel Gibson’s name attached to it and expect the film to be a travesty of the historical record. Nevertheless, it could spark interest in the media and the general public.
In turn, increased popular awareness of the ancient Near East will have a positive effect on the field. More public interest means more exposure, which means more students will be interested in studying the ancient Near East, which means more funding for Near Eastern studies departments, more course sections and more faculty positions.
In modest pursuit of this goal, this blog will continue to publish regular biographical articles. The articles will alternate between men and women. Last month’s bio was of the 1st century BC Hasmonean monarch Salome Alexandra.
A full archive of past posts can always be found at the Site Archives.
Edit: It appears that Mel Gibson’s movie has been canceled, mostly due to Gibson being a violent, psychotic racist and Holocaust denier. That is probably for the best.