Sunday, August 11, 2013

Thoughts on The Association of Ancient Historians Annual Meeting

Although I’m academically trained, my degree is not in ancient history, so exposure to new research in the subject is a necessary activity for me. I always want to use current academic thinking as a compass for my own work and try to rub elbows with academics whenever possible. The lens through which academics look at ancient history gets adjusted over time as points of view change so like other disciplines it’s an evolving subject. Ancient writers have been analyzed ad nauseam, so it remains for archaeology to help us gain new knowledge through their uncovering of new artifacts. And it’s a slow process.

This blog is designed to walk the line between purely academic treatment of my subject and a more general discussion. My goals have always been twofold: show how history is interesting, unlike the way it is taught in school, and give dedicated readers some meat to chew on. I want to get into the details of the story in a way that enlightens and challenges the minds of my readers.

Below are two examples of papers presented at the annual meeting, which I outline to give the reader a sense of the proceedings.

One paper was called “Ex Usuris: interest, Investment, and Economic Growth in North Africa”. Ex Usuris means “of interest” and in this context the author described how Roman officials took money from the people either through taxation or other means but then often used that money to invest back into the local economic system. Using this technique, they could take economic control away from the natives and determine which projects received funding and were allowed to move forward. Along the way, they made sure that the money they spent contributed, and even glorified, their reputation in the community.

Another paper was titled “The Professionalism of Advocacy in the Late Roman Empire”. It discussed how qualifications to practice law evolved in the late Empire under the influence of the church. In the beginning, men could not me appointed as lawyers unless they had training in the law. Later the credentialing became much more sophisticated, specifying no conflict with imperial duties, sound birth status, and personal eloquence.  Lastly the requirement was added that the advocate support the Christian religious orthodoxy. In this small example, we see the structure of the church becoming a disciplinary substitute for the decaying structure of the Roman political system.

Esoteric stuff, no doubt, but each piece contributes to our knowledge of the ancient world. The body of work on any subject is like clay that gets re-molded by each generation of academics. I suspect much of the change is fashion but the truth gets sorted out over time. Ancient history has its unique limitations, as I have mentioned, most notably the impact of time on the preservation of the facts. We were pretty deep into the history before we had any historians to write things down, and of course it was Herodotus who helped get things going.

Thank goodness there are so many good stories to tell. The Romans and Greeks are the fathers of us all through their creation of the theoretical (Greek) and practical (Roman) foundations of western civilization. They give us a glimpse of modern society in its embryonic form and if we take the time to go on the journey, we can watch man invent political systems as he gave up being a nomad and settled into urban life.

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