What do we know about the past?

Before it slipped completely away I wanted to comment on a post of Dean’s about our alleged Graeco-Roman heritage. Hooey.

To understand why it’s hooey, I’ve got to explain a little about how we know what we know of the distant past.

Writing has only been around for around 5,000 years and practically every imaginable surface has been used as a place to put writing. We’ve chiseled inscriptions into stone, carved them onto metal, and engraved them on gems.

The Sumerians and Babylonians wrote by putting marks on soft clay tablets with a pointy stick. When the clay tablets dried they were pretty durable but we completely lost track of their civilizations until the remaining tablets were re-discovered and we learned how to read what was written on them in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Egyptians wrote on the leaves of plants. They learned to make the leaves smoother and more uniform by processing them into paper. That wasn’t nearly as durable as the clay tablets but it was easier and, I suspect, cheaper. The Chinese invented paper, too. As best as I can tell at one time or other the Chinese have invented everything.

The cultures that we claim some connection to—the Greeks and Romans—left most of their writings on paper and leather (when leather is smoothed and processed for writing it’s called “parchment”). Neither paper nor parchment are incredibly durable—lasting a hundred years is pretty darned good unless enormous care is taken. Look at a hundred year old book. Paper leaves have become quite fragile by then. Parchment does better.

Until the invention of the printing press in the West in the 15th century (the Chinese invented that, too), any time you wanted an additional copy of a book or your old copy was wearing out and you wanted to replace it somebody had to copy that book by hand. That made books expensive and rare. From roughly 300 CD to 1200 CE the copying of books was virtually exclusively the province of Christian monks. After 1200 secular scribes began to take over the job. For a period of almost a millennium nearly every work that was copied passed through a Christian filter.

If a book was not copied, its contents were lost forever.

After a couple of hundred years the original reasons for the writing of the book became unimportant. What really mattered in whether a book was copied i.e. preserved was the agenda of those doing the copying or their patrons. Books that they disagreed with or thought were harmful or useless were not copied. They were lost. The very fact of the copying of a book means that the work in question was approved and furthered the agenda of the copyists or their patrons.

Take the example of a single book, Plato’s Republic. The book was written in something like the 4th century BCE. Until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt in the 1945 the very earliest manuscript of The Republic that was known to exist was from around 895 CE. The version of The Republic in the Nag Hammadi library dates from something like 325 CE. Assuming that the text that came down to the Founding Fathers was derived from the 895 manuscript (a very bad assumption—it wasn’t), the book had been preserved for a half millennium by Christian scribes for Christian purposes.

This would be a good point for a digression-within-a-digression about the Arab copyists who preserved many works of classical antiquity but that would be too big a digression. Suffice it to say that these copyists took copies that had been preserved by Christians and preserved them themselves for their own, presumably Muslim, reasons.

So The Republic has a history something like this. We don’t have a single copy of the work from Plato’s time. For six or seven hundred years it was copied by Greek and Roman scribes for reasons we can only guess at. It was then copied for between a half and a full millennium by Christian, Jewish, and Arab scribes for Christian, Jewish, and Muslim reasons.

That is the history of every single work from classical antiquity that survived until the time of the founding of our republic. We have, essentially, no idea of the entire body of work produced by the ancients. What was known of classical antiquity at the time of the founding our republic consisted of the buildings that still survived that they had built (often highly modified for Christian use), works of art and other artifacts, classical writings that had been preserved by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim scribes for their own purposes and that, presumably, furthered their agenda, and accounts of classical antiquity from Christian and Jewish writers.

That’s it.

The Founding Fathers knew very little of the reality of the classical world (nor do we). What they did know was an implicitly Christianized version of the classical world. They were creating a republic and models of republics were fairly rare so they adopted lots of symbolism from Roman antiquity in recognition of the Roman republic which was itself highly mythologized but that’s a subject for another time.

As a final salvo I’ll just note that the Russians also claim cultural descent from classical Greece and Rome (with significantly more evidence). The notion that both Western rule of law and liberal democracy and Russian autocracy are both heritages from classical antiquity seems strange to me.

15 comments… add one
  • You are making a mis-assumption: that culture is only transmitted in writing. Many of the aspects of our culture are inherited from our parent cultures, just as we individually inherit genes from our parent organisms. Some easy, trivial and classic examples are the Christmas ham or goose, which came to us from England, but to England via (respectively) Norse and French invaders; the Christmas tree, a Germano-Celtic survival; and the reckoning of seasons by northern European climate rather than local climate or even Mediterranean climate.

    While it is true that the written records of the time – including the Bible, mind you – have come down pied, altered, edited and/or mangled if at all, it is also true that the main function of those documents has been to recall those parts of the Greco-Roman culture that were/are still relevant and meaningful. Many of the basic traditions have continued to be passed on in living memory, from generation to generation, through various cultural practices. And at the end you hit on one example: throughout the intervening millenia, the Athenian democratic ideal, the Spartan autocratic ideal, and the Roman republican ideal have all come down to us not merely through ancient writings or archaeology, but through the constant formation and reformation of governments with those bases, all around the Mediterranean rim. When the Dark Ages began to drop away, and people began to look for alternatives to monarchy, the examples were in the books, but those books served to push people to travel to the living examples then present. And it is their histories, as well as the surviving Roman and Greek manuscripts, that engaged the Founding Fathers, and gave them the historical background to do something that had never before been done: to create a government designed to promote liberty, to apply to many diverse people over a large geographical area, and to survive long-term – all at once.

    I think that they succeeded at all but the last goal, and they came close to succeeding at that. And that is a worthy, worthy accomplishment, and it is tied to our cultural roots, Pagan, Christian and Jewish alike. It was more than just borrowed symbolism (though a lot of that pretty obviously happened as well).

  • Jeff, if the claim was that Italians and Greeks had a heritage from the Romans and ancient Greeks passed down in oral tradition, I’d accept it with reservations. That’s not the claim. The claim amounts to a claim that the descendants of Angles, Saxons, Scots, and Gaels have transmitted classical Greek and Roman culture via an oral tradition and I just don’t find that credible.

    Is there a relationship between our culture and those of classical antiquity? Sure. But the relationship has been mediated and filtered through Christianity.

    I’m glad you brought up the Bible. I wish more Westerners in general and more Christians specifically paid more attention to the context of the preservation of the Bible. Study of Gnostic and other contemporaneous non-canonical scriptural works provides additional insight into why what was preserved was preserved. That has particular relevance right now with the brouhaha over The Da Vinci Code. When you read the texts it’s obvious why they were lost.

    And the Hebrew Bible! In my view a close reading of the material suggests that its a very ancient justification (c. 600BCE) to a claim on the land of Canaan. That, and specific historical claims on kingship and inheritance, along with the use of other portions as a manual of worship are very clearly the reasons it was preserved.

  • Of course it’s been mediated and filtered through Christianity. Christianity is a big part of our cultural infrastructure, and it is a part that effaced in some cases the pre-existing Paganism and kept it in others. (Usually, as with Roman law, Latin language, or Greek philosophy, because Christianity did not have anything of its own to replace the Pagan sources in that domain; where Christianity had things to replace a Pagan concept, Christians did so no matter how weak the Christian equivalent was in comparison.)

    But while the Scots may be an exception, the other tribes you mentioned were all very much influenced by Roman culture and custom, and through Rome by Greek culture and custom. Rome was to Europe during the time of the Empire as the US is to the world today: the sheer power and reach of the Empire warped everything around it. There is no European culture not descended from Greco-Roman roots, except possibly the Gaelic survivals and the Basque, and there is significant Greco-Roman influence that survived in Africa and Mesopotamia until the Arab conquest washed much of it away. (The English got a double dose, because after the Roman legions left Britain, and the Romano-British were slowly ground down, the French invaded and brought a great deal of their Romanized culture with them. Triple dose if you count the coming of the Catholic missionaries between those two events, including the destruction of the Celtic Christian Orthodoxy and the Pagan remnants in Ireland.)

    That is not to say that Pagan religious elements survived: those were mostly destroyed except for a few symbols, and are only now being somewhat reconstructed. Instead, cultural practices and structures that are secular, but were first created in Pagan Greek and Roman cultures, frequently survived. After all, the practices and structures that survived were, as you point out, not a threat to the Church, while the religious practices were, and were literally burned away.

  • J Thomas Link

    When you read the texts it’s obvious why they were lost.

    Sure. The ones that supported the church hierarchy were kept, and the ones that tended to oppose it were disposed of.

    And the Hebrew Bible! In my view a close reading of the material suggests that its a very ancient justification (c. 600BCE) to a claim on the land of Canaan. That, and specific historical claims on kingship and inheritance, along with the use of other portions as a manual of worship are very clearly the reasons it was preserved.

    Also texts that hint at how to manage palace revolts and win wars of succession. And one (Job) that shows how the Ba’alist competition organised things. The sort of history that a prince or a prospective high priest would need.

  • J Thomas Link

    There is no European culture not descended from Greco-Roman roots, except possibly the Gaelic survivals and the Basque,

    The finns.

  • That’s pretty much the extent of my point, Jeff. What I objected to in Dean’s post was the term “roots”. There are certainly Greek and Roman influences in our culture. But roots? Doubtful.

    Rome had been Christian for a century when the legions left Britain. The Irish probably never saw a cultural Roman. St. Patrick was a Scot (although a Roman citizen). His father was of an aristocratic Roman family and was probably born in Gaul. His mother was from a prominent Gaulish family. The key point is the mediating factor of Christianity.

    IMO if you want to look for real classical roots check the traditional urban culture of the Arab world. A tremendous number of their practices more closely resemble the classical world than anything in Christendom does.

  • You’re on exactly the right track, J Thomas. Those are exactly the sorts of reasons the texts were retained while others were discarded.

  • This might help settle the argument, at least someday soon as it appears to precede Christian dominance of the later Roman Empire


  • I know about that, mark. Very exciting.

    However, I don’t see any way that documents that have been illlegible for probably more than a thousand years influenced the development of our culture. I continue to maintain that every Greek and Roman document that could reasonably be considered foundational to our culture had a Christian imprimatur.

    One of the greatest significances of this find is that, by contrasting these texts with other texts that were, in fact, preserved we can get some idea of why these weren’t.  That could tell us more about the degree of the influence that classical culture has had on us.

    Unfortunately, we don’t really know how much was lost.

  • ” I continue to maintain that every Greek and Roman document that could reasonably be considered foundational to our culture had a Christian imprimatur”

    Fine but these documents are a good yardstick to see the degree to which some later translations may have been selectively ” edited”.

    The burning of the great library at Alexandria and the Mongol sack of Baghdad wiped out an enormous legacy.

  • True. However, the point I’m making is about winnowing or culling rather than editing.

    BTW, the subject of the library of Alexandria is an interesting one. I recall reading a book ten years or so ago in which the author contended that the library never existed. His argument, essentially, was that the number of sources that testify to the existence of the library is actually quite limited, that they’re all quoting the same single source, and that source is actually quoting a significantly earlier description of a different library.

  • Dave, I rather liked this. A good sense of historicism.

    Medcalf likes his cultural mythology, fine, but it has fuck all to do with real historical transmission. The physical evidence in Western Europe of the collapse of Romanised lifestyle etc. rather underlines the silliness of pretensions of cultural transmission as making W. Euro society (and in contrast with rather realer transmission in the Byzantine east).

  • Exactly, Lounsbury. The Enlightenment values that most Americans point to as foundational for our society are derived from (gasp!) the Italian Humanists.

    Plato was peddled by the Church as a pagan foreshadowing to Christian philosophy as was Virgil. That’s why Dante placed Virgil among the righteous pagans in the Garden of Eden between Purgatory and Heaven in Purgatorio.

    The essence off my point is that the notion that the portion of the classical world that’s been preserved actually represents what the classical world was really like is incredible.

  • You’re missing a couple of things.

    First of all, you’re entirely discounting the passion those monks had for learning, including pagan learning. Changing the texts for political and religious reasons tended to only happen with certain sensitive texts. Many of the pagan texts were copied by monks who cared greatly about transmitting the knowledge as it was. This is why we still have the parts of Cicero that certainly weren’t what you could ever call Church-sanctioned, not to mention Ovid. Even when the Church was the one keeping Latin alive and books preserved, the pagan learning was valued. Dearly. In fact, the medieval universities arose out of the need to both create a center of learning to educate priests, and cater to the desire to be educated in the texts of the ancients.

    Second, we have the advantage, today, of having manuscripts more ancient than those the founders had access to. By checking these, we can see that the ancients as we’ve read them through the years have not changed substantially. We can see that the ideas and histories that were present in certain works in the first century are still in evidence today. The works of literature, and the evidence of daily life we are uncovering at Oxyrhynchus, for example, don’t contradict what we thought we already knew.

    Third, there has always been much quoting from, allusion to, and commentary on the ancient works, from the beginning. We can check these over time, to see if they correspond with the modern (older than, say, 1300) instances of the texts.

    I see your point, but I think that if you look into the matter you’ll see that the works the founding fathers used were so prized, even throughout the dark ages, that we actually have a pretty close rendition of them today. Perfect? No. But close enough that we can call them what they are.

    I recommend “Climbing Parnassus” by Tracy Lee Simmons.

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