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March 26, 2018718Views

The Antique World: A Personal View

Ben Shields, in the first part of a series, introduces his project to explore what archaeology can show us of the transformation societies in the ancient world underwent as they transitioned to the Christian era

William Blake asked: 'What can this Gospel of Jesus be? What Life and Immortality, what was it that he brought to Light that Plato and Cicero did not write?' Reconstructing it in historical terms, we might read this highly sophisticated question as, what really happened in antiquity, during both the high empire and its later periods, to precipitate the awesome changes that would overturn traditional religion, transfigure the features and obligations of public (and private) life and recalibrate not only the conclusions but the very methodologies of all serious intellectual and spiritual pursuits? If the difference between the pre and post-Christian worlds seems too obvious or familiar an inquiry, consider the pervasive belief that all religions and their corresponding traditions are, in essence, identical to one another, different in only the most superficial of terms (namely, aesthetics).

By its very approach, this ongoing series rejects the latter assumption, that aesthetics constitute only ‘surface’ or ‘shallow’ features of a civilization’s character. A great deal of the forthcoming entries are grounded in an archaeological approach, and are a result of visits to and careful study of the actual sites and regions in question. The art, architecture, and material culture – the aesthetics – that are available to us are invaluable, not only for what they may reveal in terms of cold information, but for the colour, drama and sensual connection that they provide to us as we imagine what life was like in antiquity. In studying ancient history my guide is Polybius, who felt that the discipline required physical travel and observation, in addition to the mere study of texts.

Most, but not all, of the sites that we will encounter are in modern Israel-Palestine, mostly because of the region’s obvious significance to the historical trends and developments of interest here. It is also, conveniently, where this author resides. The first site that we investigate will be Khirbet Qumran, a site that throws up more questions the closer that one studies it (hence the touted 'mystery' or 'secret' of Qumran). But despite the settlement’s murkiness, it is hard to imagine a more appropriate beginning for us, as from the moment of its discovery it has symbolized many of the individuals, societies, and worldviews that came to disrupt and permanently reshape the ancient world. Whether that is entirely consistent with ‘historical reality’, we shall attempt to find out.

From there, continuing to in part rely on archaeological sites and finds, we will explore the religious and social realms of Roman pagan society that operated in Palestine, taking as much as we reasonably can to represent Roman society, and especially the polis, as a whole. Though many of these sites are in close proximity to Qumran, they offer up a way of life so different that the change in focus will seem at first abrupt. This abruptness is a trifle in comparison to the sociological and psychological shifts that were actually occurring in this period, albeit at a mostly gradual rate. Since we are free to pursue this endeavor outside of academia – and because this process is only partially premeditated – there is no pressing need to follow any ‘thesis’ purporting to connect every curve of the explorations; however, it will be evident again and again that, as society’s outer structures – its 'body' – shift and transfigure, so do individual’s attitudes about their own bodies and what Michel Foucault usefully called 'care of the self'. Without undermining our enjoyment in contemplating change in the ancient world, some psychoanalytic thinking will be of help along the way as we encounter this dialectical relationship.

It is not by accident that we have begun our study with the remarks of a poet, Blake, and not those of a traditional historian. Every student of ancient history knows the old joke about the Classics professor who, perhaps with a mixture of glee and chagrin, confessed to a pupil that the distant past is 'just far enough away that you can make stuff up'. The masterpieces of ancient historical criticism, from Herodotus’ Histories to Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity, by necessity take on a sublime, novelistic quality only genuinely present in a work of art, rather than 'pure' science. Dozens of books and articles by astonishingly erudite scholars are the foundation of the forthcoming entries, and thus we wouldn’t dream of writing off their noble scutwork. What they have added to our knowledge of historical reality is irreplaceable; and yet so are the gaps in that knowledge that will never be filled. The things we know, quite as much as those we do not, are precisely what allow us to plunge into this memorable fancy.

Finally, to explore the changes that separate pre and post-Christian society far from privileges the individuals who actually called themselves Christians. Besides investigating its precursors, those who fought or were shut out from its emergence into orthodoxy are of immense interest to us as well. It is my chief wish, through reading, writing and photography, to describe a society in which reassessment (and sometimes abandonment) of received notions went hand-in-hand with daily reality for a great many of its members – elites, fringe groups, and those in the middle. To walk on the same floor mosaics that they did as we contemplate that reality is as close as we can come to living it.

Ben Shields

Writer, journalist and teacher; lives in Brooklyn and Tel Aviv

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