The Importance of Narrative History

Columns from the Roman city of Palmyra. Photo by B. Gagnon (Creative Commons, April 2010)
The Roman landscape of Palmyra, Syria. Photo by B. Gagnon (Creative Commons, April 2010)

“To say that all the buildings came down…would be an understatement. They all came down, almost column by column.”

The horrific event being described, the willful destruction of an entire city, is not one that very many people know. In fact, it may sound like something perpetrated by the so-called Islamic State, but it’s actually a fanatical fifth-century Christian taking delight in the toppling of a historic Roman temple. The Christian writer could not contain his excitement that the past was now obliterated. (Rufinus of Aquileia: here).

Now, another kind of fanatic has arrived in a city full of ancient columns. Fifty thousand people have been displaced during recent raids on Palmyra. On Thursday, a warning was broadcast—from the city’s mosques—that families who were harboring local members of the Syrian state army should turn them in to the militants. A ghost city now waits for the next announcement. Will it, too, have to be sacrificed as cultural collateral in this internal Islamic war?

Although I was disheartened to read (from this May 21 CNN Politics interview) that President Obama thinks his strategy to combat ISIS is working, there may not be many policy options available to us. Robert Kaplan’s piece in the June Atlantic (“The Art of Avoiding War”) does a nice job of cataloguing the many competing interests at play in the region, giving greater context to the U.S. policy of consciously deciding not to engage in them. I’ll say more about Kaplan’s piece below, but I wanted to write this post because of what I know about fourth century and why I think it matters.

At the moment of the eruption of Christian violence described above, Christians had already begun to outlaw every single act of “pagan” worship—at temples, shrines, and altars. Resplendent temples would be pulled down. Precious statues that had stood for centuries in city centers would also soon be packed away or hacked to pieces. Never before had the Roman world witnessed such an outburst of religious violence.

Why am I so concerned to retell this history now? Let’s say I’ve had a bit of an intellectual conversion. For one, I am no longer convinced by scholarship which would try to downplay the effects that Roman law had on eliminating “pagan” worship at Greek and Roman temples. Although I expressed appreciation for this interpretative approach in several of my earlier studies, long held to be the “received wisdom” in the field (a summary here), it now strikes me as special pleading. You don’t have to buy widespread enforcement of the laws to recognize a growing social stigma against traditional practices during this time. The fact is, several Christians in Late Antiquity wanted to ban sacrifice and stop worship at Greek and Roman temples. Whether they succeeded as quickly as many of them would have liked can be debated, but the fact itself is important, historically. It certainly can’t be swept under the carpet because, say, it makes modern Christians uncomfortable with their faith history.

Indeed, archaeological and textual sources consistently attest to the phenomenon of Christian cultural conflict with the Roman world around them. Many Christians were lashing out throughout the fourth century (for the sources, see here). The effects on history were profound. By centuries’ end, it led to a period of intense civil war, more legislation targeting non-Christian religions, even Jews would soon see their synagogues torched. Many of the Christians who participated in these acts saw themselves as waging a spiritual battle against society. We shouldn’t overemphasize the effects of violence, social rupture, and cultural discontinuity during this time. That said, the apocalyptic thinking which drove these tragic events—a consistent feature of the sources which describe them—was undeniably catastrophic. It, too, cannot be wished away.

The proud pluralistic society of ancient Rome soon went up in smoke, and it’s not because the world was hungering for an alternative to its long, deeply-held religious practices. Christianity would soon be enrolled in the law as the official religion of the empire, but I highly doubt—with all due respect to some of the leading names in my field—that Christians won this political battle because they were better conversationalists. Not withstanding the currently scholarly love affair for the “literary turn”—emphasizing the rhetorical nature of documents, like laws, and our inability to reconstruct events from them—we cannot and should not dismiss the idea that a series of political events shaped the direction of the Late Antique world.

Narrative helps us see this larger picture. It also needs to be seen as supplementing current theoretical approaches, not targeted as its antithesis. Above all, where we choose to start the clock matters.

A Late Antique clock that starts after the destruction of the Temple of Serapis in Alexandria, the event described by Rufinus; after the start of legislation against traditional cults; and after the Edict of Thessalonica, which may have established Nicene Christianity the official religion of the empire, is a wholly different Late Antiquity than one that includes all these events.

Similarly, a Late Antiquity that sees every text as a bricked-up window of rhetoric, behind which no historian shall ever pass, will also tell a much different story. That story will largely consist of historical dead ends, in which nothing real is ever known and nothing factual ever happens, aside from, perhaps, a proliferation of interpretative “discourses.” Good luck with that. Just look at the tangled mess scholars have gotten themselves into translating the Greek word “Ioudaioi.” (The article is called: “The Vanishing Jews of Antiquity.”)

So why do I still think narrative history can be a powerful guide in times like these? Why do I think we can and still should attempt to do it?

The great chronicler of Rome, Livy, knew why. From the events of the past, Livy said, we reflect on “what to imitate and also what…to avoid” as we prepare for our own uncertain future. I’m certainly thinking about the past as I finish writing my textbook on Late Antique social and cultural history. I’m also thinking about it as a concerned member of the cultural heritage community. In the absence of any dedicated military campaign against ISIS or plan to support the rebels in the Syrian civil war or desire to collaborate with the current Syrian government—three options that each come with significant challenges, as Kaplan noted in his article—reflecting on the past is the least that we can do right now.

The issue, after all, is not just what happened in ancient history when a religious group lashed out at the world. The issue is how those people responded to it and what we can learn from their response.

Cultural Heritage, Law, Method