When the Ancient World Was Still a Living Memory

I often discuss the historical period beginning with the Enlightenment thinkers and ending with the early modern revolutions. There are many obvious reasons for this focus, as in many ways it is the origins of the world we live in. But for the same reason, it was also the end of the world that came before.

That is what makes it so fascinating to read the words of those who were alive then. They were well aware of what was being lost. It was still within living memory, such as the last remnants of feudalism still holding on even as revolutions were remaking society. The costs of change were clearly understood and many thought it necessary to compensate in some way for what was being lost (e.g., Paine’s citizen’s dividend) or at the very least to acknowledge its passing.

That is different today. We live in a world fully changed. There is little if any living memory of what came before, although isolated traces linger in some remote places. This relates to the disconnection I see among so many people today, across the political spectrum, but it stands out most for me among liberals I observe. Liberalism has embraced modernity and so forgotten its roots, the historical development and radical thought that made it possible. Blindness to the past makes for a lack of vision in the present.

All of this was brought to mind because of something I just read. It is a Jacobin article by Alex Gourevitch, in response to Mark Lilla’s review of Corey Robin’s 2011 book, The Reactionary Mind. Gourevitch writes that,

“[I]f liberalism were really committed to the view that the individual is “metaphysically” prior to society, that would almost single-handedly eliminate the French liberal tradition, from the proto-liberalism of Montesquieu, to the sociological liberalism of Benjamin Constant, to the holist liberalism of Emile Durkheim. Constant’s famous speech in 1819 distinguishing the liberty of the moderns from that of the ancients was explicitly based on an appreciation of the social origins of modern individualism. “Ancient peoples,” wrote Constant, “could neither feel the need for [modern liberty], nor appreciate its advantages. Their social organization led them to desire an entirely different freedom from the one which this system grants to us.” Social organization “leads” and systems “grant.” No “metaphysical” priority of the individual there.”

Benjamin Constant was of French ancestry. His family had fled religious persecution and so he was born in Switzerland, but he returned to France as an adult. He was one of the first people to identify as a liberal and he was involved in the revolutionary fervor of the times, although he sought moderation. What interests me here is that it was the French Revolution that led to the abolition of feudalism in that country. Feudalism was still a major force at the time, although it was on the wane across Europe. When Constant wrote of the ancient world, he surely was speaking from the firsthand experience of the persisting ancient social order in the world around him.

Many thinkers of that era wrote about the past, specifically of Western history. They were literally and experientially closer to the past than we are now. Feudalism, for example, had developed from the landholding tradition of the Roman Empire. The influence of the ancient world was much more apparent at the time and so they could speak of the ancient world with a familiarity that we cannot. For us, that earlier social order is simply gone and at best we could read about it in history books, not that many will ever bother to do so. It’s not a living reality to us and so doesn’t compel our interest, certainly not our moral imaginations.

What do beads tell us about the past?

One common find are ancient beads. A friend of mine found a Native American stone bead nearby. It wasn’t necessarily ancient, considering Black Hawk didn’t surrender in Iowa until 1832. That was an end of an era, the defeat of the last major Native American uprising.

The bead she found was, according to her, in an area that “was the safe place camp for Poweshiek’s women, children, and elderly when the men left to fight in the Indian Wars.” Poweshiek was of a separate tribe from Black Hawk, but Black Hawk’s medicine man also had a village on the Iowa River close to Poweshiek’s village, the location not being far from where I live. The two tribes were allied at times.

(As a side note, Poweshiek was born after the American Revolution and died decades after the Black Hawk War, not too long before the Civil War began. His son, James Poweshiek, gave an interview about his father about the time my own father was born. Not exactly ancient history.)

I mention that bead because there is something compelling about a concrete piece of the past. Jewelry, in particular, is special. It is a personal item and yet serves no practical purpose other than as a trade good, maybe some symbolic significance as well in terms of culture and religion. It is strange what immense value such simple things had for people in the past. These kinds of trade goods made their way across continents, even from one continent to another, heck sometimes even across oceans. Ancient trade routes were vast.

I came across an amazing example of this. It is described in a Haaretz newspaper article by Philippe Bohstrom, Beads Found in 3,400-year-old Nordic Graves Were Made by King Tut’s Glassmaker.

The bead my friend found is probably not that old, but this bead found in Northern Europe is truly ancient. Talk about trade routes. I knew so-called Vikings had trade routes that went around much of Eurasia, included the North Atlantic, and down into the Levant and North Africa. I just had no idea that these trade routes would have existed as far back as some of the earliest civilizations. This Nordic grave bead is seriously old—from the article:

The analysis showed that the blue beads buried with the women turned out to have originated from the same glass workshop in Amarna that adorned King Tutankhamun at his funeral in 1323 BCE. King Tut´s golden deathmask contains stripes of blue glass in the headdress, as well as in the inlay of his false beard.

The date caught my attention. That was during the height of early civilization. A little over a century later, there was a mass collapse. Only Egypt survived and even it wasn’t the same afterward. Those early civilizations were fairly advanced and connected by trade. Different material goods were found in different places and trade was the solution. It’s amazing that this included the Nordic world, an area at that time not known for having any great empires.

Just paragraphs later, the author noted the same thing:

However the glass exchange almost stops around 1177 BCE – probably due to attacks by the Sea Peoples.

I would point out, though, that there isn’t agreement about the cause. The Sea Peoples were involved, but they might have been a result of other changes. In the region of these early civilizations, there was also decades of earthquakes, volcanoes, flooding, and changing weather patterns. More likely than not, the Sea Peoples had societies that also were disrupted which sent them out marauding. They took advantage of already weakened empires.

By the way, these civilizations are what Julian Jaynes considered to be bicameral. It was during this era that nearly all of the Egyptian pyramids were built. Of eighteen pyramids, only two were built after the collapse of the other civilizations. And those two pyramids came five centuries after the collapse when entirely new societies were forming—during the early Axial Age. The kind of society that built those earliest pyramids was entirely different than the world we know—from Harvard Magazine (Who Built the Pyramids? by Jonathan Shaw):

If not slaves, then who were these workers? Lehner’s friend Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, who has been excavating a “workers’ cemetery” just above Lehner’s city on the plateau, sees forensic evidence in the remains of those buried there that pyramid building was hazardous business. Why would anyone choose to perform such hard labor? The answer, says Lehner, lies in understanding obligatory labor in the premodern world. “People were not atomized, separate, individuals with the political and economic freedom that we take for granted. Obligatory labor ranges from slavery all the way to, say, the Amish, where you have elders and a strong sense of community obligations, and a barn raising is a religious event and a feasting event. If you are a young man in a traditional setting like that, you may not have a choice.” Plug that into the pyramid context, says Lehner, “and you have to say, ‘This is a hell of a barn!'”

Lehner currently thinks Egyptian society was organized somewhat like a feudal system, in which almost everyone owed service to a lord. The Egyptians called this “bak.” Everybody owed bak of some kind to people above them in the social hierarchy. “But it doesn’t really work as a word for slavery,” he says. “Even the highest officials owed bak.”

It’s hard for us to imagine that world. It seems bizarre to us that there would be such massive, difficult trade going on involving the large-scale movement of gems and beads that served absolutely freaking no practical purpose. A single trade item could travel for thousands of miles and the world was an extremely dangerous place back then. The motivations of ancient people are obscure to us. Why were so many people willing to risk their lives for what to us seems like a mere personal decoration?

Galen and the Roman Empire

I listened to the audio version of a biography about Galen, and reading sections of the text. The author is Susan P. Mattern. The title of the book is The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire.

The title is fitting. The author does a great job of describing and explaining the society Galen lived in, the early Roman Empire. I’ve read a fair amount about that time, but this is the first book that gave me a clear sense of how different it was compared to the world today.

Mattern also made clear what this meant for a Greek like Galen. It was tricky business navigating that often dangerous world. As a physician and anatomist, he had a career that was highly respected and ruthlessly competitive. It meant not just having the skills and knowledge to heal people, but also to be a philosopher, performer, and much else.

There was one thing that stood out to me more than anything. Everything was social. Our notion of individuality would have been incomprehensible to them. They seemed to have done everything as a social activity.

When a person needed medical care, friends and family would accompany the patient. And if they needed long term care, those friends and family would stay with the patient for as long as it took, someone constantly at their bedside. These friends and family would advocate for the patient, even arguing with the physician.

That was the easy part of the job. Someone like Galen had his own entourage of students, followers, and friends. Either with Galen or out in a group, these social groups would roam the streets and public spaces of whatever city they were in. There were many other social groups with other leaders. It wasn’t easy to distinguish physicians, philosophers, monks, and other similar types. For example, Jesus and his disciples would have been just one group among endless groups.

These groups constantly were seeking other groups to challenge and debate. Anyone who wanted to be a leader was forced to accept challenges and to deal with hecklers. Sometimes physical fights broke out.

Another interesting thing relates to my other readings about ancient societies. Others have noted that even into the Roman Empire evidence of the bicameral mind could still be found. In Christian religious texts, body parts were sometimes described as having minds of their own.

This carryover of bicameralism apparently even was found in the medical theories back then. Here is a description of this from Mattern’s book, although the author doesn’t acknowledge its strangeness (pp. 232-233):

“He mentions speaking with many women who described themselves as “hysterical,” that is, having an illness caused, as they believed, by a condition of the uterus (hystera in Greek) whose symptoms varied from muscle contractions to lethargy to nearly complete asphyxia (Loc. Affect. 6.5, 8.414K). Galen, very aware of Herophilus’s discovery of the broad ligaments anchoring the uterus to the pelvis, denied that the uterus wandered around the body like an animal wreaking havoc (the Hippocratics imagined a very actively mobile womb). But the uterus could, in his view, become withdrawn in some direction or inflamed; and in one passage he recommends the ancient practice of fumigating the vagina with sweet-smelling odors to attract the uterus, endowed in this view with senses and desires of its own, to its proper place; this technique is described in the Hippocratic Corpus but also evokes folk or shamanistic medicine.”

This bicameralism (or whatever one wants to call it) was already in decline at this point. It’s unlikely that many Roman citizens actually experienced bicameralism. But bicameralism was still recent enough that the traces of it survived in the cultural heritage.

The Roman Empire existed through the late Axial Age. It was a time of transition. The seeds were being planted for modernity. Yet much of the ancient world still held immense power.