Saturday 4 January 2014

What's In an Ancient Place-Name?

Apuleius, tried in a Sabratha court

On the radio news this morning the place-names of the two international tragedies reported as headlines sent shock-waves round my system. Near Sabratha, north-western Libya, a British man and his friend from New Zealand have been found dead. A horrible thing to happen to people who may have been visiting the ruined city there.

Sculptures on the Sabratha Theatre
It was in Sabratha, in 158 AD, that Apuleius, the author of the amazing Golden Ass, the archetypal Latin novel about the man who was turned by magic into an ass, was himself tried for witchcraft. He was accused of casting spells in order to captivate a wealthy older woman. There is little I would not give to time-travel and be present at that trial. The Sabratha theatre itself is a miracle of 3rd-century architecture, its relief sculptures offering some of the best evidence for ancient ballet dancing—‘pantomime’—in existence.

Battle of Cunaxa, near modern Fallujah
Next up was yesterday’s fall of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, to Al-Qaeda, with at least a hundred fatalities. This retrieves bitter memories of the ferocious second battle of Fallujah in 2004, with heavy losses on both US and Iraqi sides. But Fallujah also reminds any classicist of the bloody battle of nearby Cunaxa in 401, when two Persian royal brothers decimated each other’s armies, leaving Xenophon and his fellow Ten Thousand Greek mercenaries stranded, to march their way up-country (the Anabasis) to freedom.

So what difference is made by knowing the vivid ancient history of places today in the news? It is useful in that I can locate them quickly on my internal mental map. But I’m not at all sure it is useful emotionally. On the one hand it reminds me that humans have been vile to each other for all of documented history, and in some ways little has changed. On the other hand, it reminds me that we are so privileged in modernity at least to have the lost world of the ancient pagan Mediterranean to enrich our thinking about the really long view, the one that matters, into the future. 

What I have to miss because of my lager-and-front-crawl habit
Meanwhile, I have just declined an invitation to help make a film based on a Greek tragedy in Iran, specifically at the ancient seat of the Achaemenid monarchs in Persepolis. There is no reason why I should not visit Iran, except that I would last about three days in a country without being rude to someone in power because I could not drink a cold beer or splash in a Speedo! swimming costume in a pool in public. Having to say ‘no’ to such a wonderful project really does make me slightly ashamed and wish I was a better person.


  1. Countries beset by turmoil inevitably experience massive cultural loss on top of everything else. It's nothing that can be compared to the cost in lives - no one with a heart could ever make the argument that American tanks bulldozing parts of Babylon is worse than American bombs blowing up Iraqi children - but it's part and parcel of the same thing, and the experience of grievous cultural loss is traumatising, affecting individuals and societies as they attempt to recover from periods of devastation. I don't think we can really understand that, or properly empathise with it, without knowing what that culture, and history, is.

    The same is true where it's less a case of cultural destruction, and more one of cultural isolation. Places like Persepolis, Damascus, Bamyan and Samarkand should be full of tourists - but they're not. The same repressive circumstances that keep the people impoverished deter tourists, furthering the spiral. It's much easier to realise the tragic lost opportunity all of that is if we know enough to see those places as every bit the equals and contemporaries of Rome, Athens, or the Pyramids. I think the points you make here - and in many such posts relating the sites of current events to those of past - are emotionally useful for all those reasons.