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The Study of History

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

The study of history works both ways. We need to study the past to inform the present. But we can also populate the past by studying the present. This may lead to some flawed and anachronistic thinking—I agree that it may, but I want to leave that aside for now.

I believe, as a novelist and as an historian, that people are people. They do certain things, they react viscerally to certain ideas, they use violence to accomplish certain ends. Power tends to corrupt. In that one area, at least, there has not been very much progress. There’s another aspect to history that is seldom taught in schools. In a narrow, particular way, history in the West begins with Herodotus, a 5th Century Ionian Greek who wrote the first history we can read. We call him the Father of History. And we speak of things before then as “before the dawn of recorded history.” That’s a fancy way of saying “back in the day.” Back when people were primitive. Right?

A few years ago, I read a superb book by a retired academic, Colin Renfrew, who pointed out that when Alexander conquered Babylon, about three hundred years before Christ was born (if you believe in that) or roughly two thousand four hundred years ago—when Alexander visited the great temple of Babylon, the priests there showed him records that were three thousand years old. Renfrew’s point is that “back in the day” had a “back in the day.” And that when the first scribe wrote the first flood table in Babylon, human beings had been farming, making tools, and fighting wars—already—for nine thousand years. Ever tried to cure a child of a bad habit? The human race has some bad habits that are at least fifteen thousand years old.

When I wrote a fictional biography of Alexander, I didn’t want it to be an “adventure” novel. My Alexander is at least in some part Hitler, and Napoleon, and Frederick the Great and Ghengis Khan. Conquest is never pretty. The extermination of subject populations was every bit as hated, feared, despised and argued against in fourth century Greece as it is today. Few things are more false then our modern notion that “they thought differently back then.” These are the Ancient Greeks. They invented philosophy and ethics as we know them today. They probably thought and talked more about issues of right and wrong than any group of people in modern society. Nor was Alexander widely accepted as a god—or even a great man—in his lifetime. But a hundred years later—his cult was accepted, or even worshipped, almost everywhere in the Mediterranean. His life defined heroism and conquest. It still does.

There is yet another lesson of history. I know what my grandfather thought of Hitler. I know what I think of Hitler. What will my great-grand-daughter think of Hitler?