Revising Ancient History

By William Urban

Among humanity’s most persistence traits is the desire to rewrite the past. Courthouse denizens are perhaps more aware of this than average citizens, because alternative versions of the truth appear when money, time and reputation are at stake, and when fear and anger become most prominent.

Historians run into this all the time, too. Partly this is because no one can fully separate the past from the present. Whatever one’s ancestors or political party or religious affiliation did or suffered in the past is always with us, shaping the ways we think about current issues.

Sometimes individuals and groups change their minds; they become ashamed and occasionally even try to make amends for past misdeeds. But more often not. A famous Quaker philosopher, Kenneth Boulding, remarked one evening at our place that “death is a means of social change.” He meant the passing of generations, not the firing squad.

I spent part of my youth far enough into the South that one was supposed to face the equator whenever Dixie was played. The fact that Richmond was a bit north of east and way off never crossed anyone’s mind. I constantly heard statements that The War Between The States (it was never the Civil War) was not about slavery. It was only later that I learned to ask, “then, if the North had reduced the tariff, the war could have been avoided?” (Forget states’ rights. The Compromise of 1850 and the Dred Scott decision had eliminated states’ rights if a state was opposed to slavery.) Living in Kansas every summer I learned how Missourians had sought to impose a pro-slavery constitution on Kansas Territory against the wishes of the people.

Bleeding Kansas, in fact, was such a divisive issue that the citizens of Monmouth decided to remove national politics from the local scene by creating two artificial parties. One still survives to puzzle local voters every spring.

Until recently I had never heard that “The Patriarchy” was actually the cause of the war: Southern male values which emphasize dominion over women, children and slaves. I am still not sure what the North was supposed to have done about that “value system”. Give in?

Such disputes are the historian’s tools of the trade. They make more interesting an occupation already enjoyable because it deals with human beings, and the variety and complexity of human beings are always fascinating. Often enough, too, these disputes illuminate the intellectual trends and politics of our times.

Recently I ran across a story in the Wall Street Journal about Tunisian efforts to revise its earliest history. Carthage, the most important ancient city on the northern coast of central Africa, was the home of Hannibal, the implacable enemy of Rome. Carthage had been an immensely wealthy commercial center founded by refugees from Phoenicia (modern Lebanon) who hurriedly escaped the Assyrians on one of their terrible rampages through the Middle East. (This partly explains today’s tensions between the Lebanese and Syrians, though I wouldn’t make too much of it.)

The Phoenicians were worshippers of terrible gods who featured prominently in the Old Testament. Among them was Baal (as in Hanni-bal), who demanded that his followers sacrifice their first-born sons to him. The Romans had written that the Carthaginians had followed this practice, but it was not until thirty years ago that archeologists found cemeteries of children and identified them as sacrifices.

Recently the Tunisian government instructed guides who take tourists around the ruins of Carthage to deny that human sacrifice ever happened.

What is interesting about this is that Moslems had long used the religious slaughter of infants to prove the barbarity of pre-Islamic societies, and thus the superior morality and justice of Islam. What seems to be shaping up is a contest between the nationalists, who are embarrassed that Tunisia looks bad in the eyes of a world that even looks askance at the practice of cutting off the right hand of thieves, and the religious activists, who want every societal practice based on the Koran.

This rewriting of ancient history puts modern secular historians in agreement with medieval religious zealots. Yes, human beings are fascinating creatures. We sometimes find ourselves in strange company. Money and pride will do that.

Monmouth Daily Review Atlas (June 30, 2005), p 4; Peoria Journal Star (August 14, 2005).