Set in Stone…Like Talc or Something

One of the more interesting and appalling aspects of history is its malleability.

I constantly have to relearn what I thought I knew about history. For example, it’s common knowledge that Egyptians used slave labor to build their pyramids, who were a bunch of sad bastards who were worked to death against their will.

Except that’s not true. Being a pyramid builder was apparently considered a pretty sweet gig. They were fed, housed and paid. They got weekends, unlike farmers. And they chose to do it.

Or take Rome. Every fifty years or so, they reevaluate how the Romans are viewed. They’re either barbaric murdering savages or the bright light of republicanism, architecture and science. Or both.

Or English feudal peasants: beaten down mud farmers or experts in local law and self governance? Depends on who you ask, but it’s starting to look like the latter more than the former.

This kind of constant re-evaluation has to do with a variety of factors. Sometimes it’s just getting more information, sometimes it’s the result of a change in attitudes and sometimes it’s just removing all the white-washing (pun intended). Columbus used to be a great hero who discovered America and proved to all those morons back home that the world was not flat.

Now, Columbus is considered a genocidal, incompetent fool and a damned lucky one at that. People thought he was crazy to sail to India via a western route because they thought the world was far too large for a ship to sail that distance, whereas Columbus thought the world was much smaller. And Columbus was wrong. Had there been no America to land on, he and his fellow sailors would have died long before they ever reached India.

History is such a strangely flexible thing, especially considering how inflexible most people view it. Most folks view it as a collection of facts that are immutable. Whereas it’s more a collection of interpretations of sometimes very sketchy and incomplete records that are influenced by the biases of the person reading those records. One way, Columbus is a hero, another he’s a barbarian. One way, Caesar was a leader of the people unjustly murdered, another is he’s a power hungry dictator who was put down before he could destroy the Republic.

This makes history either infuriating or wonderfully fluid, depending on the kind of person you are.

Me, I’m just interested in what makes the better story. So, to me, Caesar is a time traveling cyborg trying to stop the evil Fourth Dimensional Wizard Pompey from gaining control of the S.E.N.A.T.E., a gestalt super-robot formed by 100 other robots.

Dylan Charles

3 thoughts on “Set in Stone…Like Talc or Something

  1. as people, we are driven by the narrative of stories. it’s part of what makes history interesting. yet history is more a discordant cacophony of conflicting forces which only from the lens of retrospection becomes cohesive. or not. perhaps the constant rewriting of history is not because society changes the tint of the truth, but because the truth – an overarching narrative – was never there to begin with.

  2. Aye, that’s definitely true. The need for narrative definitely has a shaping impact on history.
    A closer thing to an “honest” history would probably be something more akin to a census: a list of facts and figures detailing a group of people at a given point of time.

  3. All history is viewed through the lens of the present day.

    For example, take something a tourist said to me at an 18th century event, while watching me spin wool. “Oh, life was so hard back then. Do you think they were happy?”

    As a history major and a multi-century re-enactor, all I could do was sit there with my mouth hanging open, because it seemed like such a stupic question to ask (I never said what I was thinking, though!). But that’s the way most people look at the past, isn’t it? Even some historians, who should know better, can’t seem to help but compare the past to the present day.

    But you just can’t apply today’s morals, standards, laws, etc., etc. to the past. Because just as people who never had a washing machine never knew what they were missing, so people who didn’t have freedom on par with that enjoyed by Americans today knew what they were missing.

    Or, as a more immediate example, that most people can understand today: I didn’t have a cell phone growing up, or a computer at home until I was 15, and I grew up perfectly normal and happy. If it doesn’t exist, you don’t know what you’re missing.

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