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Why Does History Matter?

This is/was my blog for Chapters Indigo (Canada’s largest book retailer) last week.

I just wrote a nine-hundred page novel about Alexander the great—embedded in a seven book series on the dawn of what we now call the ‘Hellenistic’ period in history. Alexander died about three and a quarter centuries before Jesus was born; almost a thousand years before Mohammed was born. He lived about one hundred years after Siddhartha Buddha. And when he conquered Babylon, and rode through the streets to the great Temple there, the priests showed him texts—and weather tables—dating back another three thousand years.

Alexander’s image was the most commonly repeated image of an actual human being in the modern world. When early Christian sought an image for Jesus, they made him look like Alexander. When Julius Caesar sought for the correct image to embody valor and conquest, he looked to Alexander.

Human history is a set of stories—our stories, really—some of which are forgotten and some of which are remembered all too well. And some of which are mythologized endlessly to fit various needs—national, familial, factional. Really, it is no different from your memory of your last tiff with your partner.

Alexander was probably a monster. His pursuit of glory left a trail of blood and destruction whose effects in some places, like Afghanistan, echo to this very day. His desire to achieve—the Greeks called it a <i>pothos</i> or a divine yearning—to achieve unending glory also left us with an archetype that still resonates from Captain America to Luke Skywalker—and Anakin.

While we look at Alexander and rank him with our own conquerors and military men—and monsters—there is a danger, I think, for an historical novelist to be too much of this world. I’m a military veteran—and a former intelligence officer. I’ve met some presidents and some prime ministers, and I have, I think, a fairly clear notion of how—how, exactly—the world of diplomacy and violence interact. Is my experience valid when dealing with a king with delusions of godhood leading an army across half the world to prove he was a better man than Achilles? Is my experience of the 20th and 21st century appropriate in the Hellenistic? Is it fair for any of us to say “They were just like us?”

Let me examine two examples—slavery, and sexuality. One of the few—very few—rock solid assertions of modern society almost anywhere in the world is that slavery is wrong. Yet in the ancient world—the very world that, through Plato and Aristotle and Jesus and Mohammed and Abraham and Siddhartha, gave us our modern morality, slavery was a commonplace. And it could happen to you as easily as a mugging in a modern city. One moment you were free—pirates landed on your coast (the terrorists of their day) and off you went to a life of incredible drudgery—or degradation.

Sexuality is even more complicated (and isn’t it always?). People in the past might be taken to be just like us—they were men and women, and they had the same bodies and drives. And yet—lack of effective contraceptives and a hefty risk of death in childbirth had an effect. Men loved men and women loved women—it’s in everyone’s literature—in ways that may or may not have played out as overtly sexual. We surround ourselves with the imagery of sexuality. Did they? Why, or why not?

See? This historical writing is hard.

Luckily for all of us, there are hundreds of sources available to inform us about the Hellenistic era—from the plays of Menander, which I plundered wholesale for my book, to the music of the period, like the Seikilos Epitaph (which my family can sing in Ancient Greek—just to give you an idea what it’s like to live with research…) to the food (we eat Ancient Greek at least once a week. I learned to cook from the process.) Riding bareback with a spear in hand? Done that. Wearing armour all day in the heat of Greece? Yes. Rowing a heavy ship? Yes. Fighting with a spear and aspis? Yes, but only with my friends. Starting a fire with flint and steel—no problem.

What does it feel like to oil your body after exercise instead of having a shower? What do people do for toilet paper in 350 BCE? What do marble floors feel like under your feet? Why, exactly, did the Greeks water wine?

Why do people fight wars?

It all fascinates me, and I hope it interests you, too. Because it’s not all ‘back in the day.’ It is the story of our world, and every mistake we’ve ever made. And Alexander played a big role in it.