In defense of studying ancient history.
There has been a lot of debate in recent years as to whether studying ancient history (or history at all) is important, with many arguing that as a society we should focus on the future (e.g. innovation, science and technology) rather than the past, which, in this line of thinking, cannot offer us anything useful for the future.
But I would argue that studying the past is focusing on the future – the current world was not created in a vacuum, and everything that has happened in the past holds resonance for the future we humans are currently shaping. One such example is the Romans. The Roman Empire occupied vast swathes of the ancient world and irrevocably shaped what became the world we live in today. A major part of their culture and society was the concept of exemplarity – that every action has and should have a precedent.
In this article, I will discuss why we should study ancient Rome in 2024, with a focus on Roman socio-cultural values and systems that still affect us and offer lessons for the future.
Studying ancient Rome in 2023 is important because it forces us, as a society, to reckon with our own exemplarity. Ancient Rome’s values, traditions and socio-cultural structures still affect us today in so many ways, from the names of weekdays to the patriarchal constructs still embedded in Western society. A humorous, though rather revealing example of this is the popular social media trend of women asking the men in their lives how often they think about the Roman Empire, with the answer frequently being “every day.”
Roman history has also been taught as a prominent subject in schools for centuries, particularly to elite schoolboys who went on to become colonizers and conservative politicians. This, combined with the fact that pivotal moments (legendary and otherwise) in Rome’s history as a kingdom, republic and empire occurred through the suffering and subjugation of women, like the Sabines and Lucretia, the brutal conquering and/or genocides of other countries and cultures like the Carthaginians and the Gauls, is just one example of why studying Ancient Rome is important because it can help us to better understand the origins of these oppressive concepts and how they have been perpetuated over time. We can’t change or dismantle what we don’t know, and how do we move forward as a society if we don’t know where we came from?
Another reason to study ancient Rome in 2024 that intersects with this is that there is so much more left to discover and relearn. Traditional discussions of Roman history often present an androcentric (male focussed), heterosexual, white-washed depiction of Rome, but as recent discoveries and reevaluations have revealed, this simply wasn’t the case. Many Roman women, although restricted, did create power for themselves and have since been unfairly vilified. Certain kinds of homosexual relationships were considered quite normal to Romans, and Rome itself was a diverse, multicultural society. If ancient Rome is no longer studied, then these truths about what Rome actually was will remain unacknowledged, and therefore still affect modern day misogyny, racism, and homophobia – as the Romans themselves knew, once there is a precedent for something, it is more easily accepted.
Roman literature is just one such place that offers invaluable lessons and parallels to the modern day, including how foundational narratives can reflect the current events and themes of when they were written (Virgil and Livy), methods used to politically destabilize an opponent (Cicero), how poetry and writing can be used to slander or praise (Catullus, Horace and Propertius), the socio-cultural attitudes and themes that can be present in retellings of mythology (Ovid), how posthumous biographies can contain social bias and rumours (Suetonius) and the devastating consequences of unchecked power (Seneca’s Thyestes). These themes are startlingly familiar to modern day problems. By studying Ancient Rome, we can learn from both its positive and negative aspects to create a more just world where the mistakes of the past are no longer repeated.
In this modern age, there is definitely an argument that studying ancient Rome and the wider Classics is irrelevant, and that careers should be focused on innovation rather than the retrospection that studying ancient history provides, but while Rome was an undoubtedly brutal society, Romans were also people, just like us with their own loves, hates, fears, and dreams. Their lives and the monuments and artifacts they left behind don’t deserve to be forgotten in the name of “progress” – they deserve to be remembered with respect and treated with dignity. If we forget the Romans, we would be erasing not just their lives, but our opportunity as a society to learn from their mistakes.