“No, I can’t have everything. But if only I could control my mind I might be able to experience everything. That’s what I try to do…I want to feel the whole civilised world beating in my heart.” ~ Elagabalus in Family Favourites (1960) by Alfred Duggan
In a world that seems increasingly dangerous, intolerant and cruel, with more than its fair share of present-day suffering, you might wonder, “Why should I care about people who lived and died thousands of years ago, let alone what kind of food they ate?” The past is behind us, and we have to look ahead towards the future, right?
If an ancient Mesopotamian heard you say that, they would strongly disagree. To them, the past lies in front of us and the future lies behind us. We don’t walk forwards through time, but backwards. That’s why we can only glimpse snatches of the future over our shoulder, and that’s why the past gets more distant as time goes by. It recedes from us, a misty horizon line that gets smaller and smaller as we stumble in reverse towards perpetual uncertainty.
We have to keep on shuffling backwards towards our future. That’s unavoidable. But we don’t have to lose the past in the bargain. Sometimes we can stop for a moment, squint at that far-off horizon and try to memorize some scrap of it before it disappears from view.
We can do this, and we should. Not for some debt we owe to the people who walked ahead of us (although we owe them a lot), but for ourselves. Ancient peoples left us their wisdom, the legacy of a thousand lifetimes’ worth of success and failure, wrong conclusions and right decisions: lessons from the past to help carry us towards our future. And they left us so much more besides! Dirty jokes and heart-wrenching love poems, musings on science and philosophy and war, detailed accounts of the natural world and every human experience. Faced with the same problems and challenges as we are, ancient people offer up an endless number of solutions, testament to the remarkable variety and resilience of our species.
I say read about ancient peoples and admire their art, yes, but don’t stop there. Sing their songs, laugh at their jokes, eat their food! Bring them back to life, even for a moment. Celebrate the diverse history of humanity, and use those who walked ahead of us, backwards and blind as we are, as a mirror. Choose what was best in them and strive to emulate it. Point out what was worst in them and push back against it.
People in ancient times derived joy from the same sources as people today: food, drink, music, money, beauty, sex. They danced at weddings, haggled with the fishmonger and prayed when their children got sick. They feared the world around them, sometimes for a good reason and sometimes without cause, but they loved that world too, and fiercely.
They were us, and when we learn about them, we learn about ourselves.