I like to listen to stuff on my commute, and right now, that’s a bunch of lectures from The Great Courses. Recently I finished listening to the lecture series in the title, presented by Professor Robert Garland. It’s always interesting to learn history as seen through the eyes of the common person.
1. People throughout history were a lot like us.
It can be humbling to see how people throughout history relate to people today. There’s nothing like reading a letter written centuries ago – maybe from a Roman woman to her sister, or a Medieval wife to her husband – to feel some sort of connection to people of the past. The emotions expressed in them are timeless. And of course, history repeats itself – we have always had cultures resistant to change, blind to their own shortcomings, and convinced of their own grandeur.
2. Women have been treated like crap throughout much of history.
Ancient Greek women lived an average of 5 years less than men. Osteological evidence suggests that this is because their women started having children so young in life, and from there, were almost constantly pregnant or nursing. A Roman man once wrote a casual letter to his pregnant wife, mentioning casually that she should “discard it” if the child turns out to be a girl. Women in Egypt and Medieval Europe had it slightly better, but overall, history reports the lives of countless women who’ve seen great hardship.
There are plenty of other people groups, of course, in various cultures throughout history who’ve also, historically, experienced similar or more oppression.
3. Understanding culture norms is central to understanding the culture.
Professor Garland complains, in one lecture, about watching movies where historical costumes are researched down to every last stitch, but the characters say things that would never have crossed the mind of someone living in that time and place. Many American films insert modern Western thought into the minds of Medieval, Ancient, and non-Western historical figures, and it’s easy for us as students of history to do the same. So the professor, on multiple points, doesn’t just show us how similar we are to those of the past. He highlights our differences in how the average person thought in that culture.
For example. The democracy of ancient Greece was built on the backs of slave labor; the common man would not have been able to attend all those scholarly and political town hall discussions if slavery had not been commonplace. Even the poorest free Greek male owned at least one slave, and even great thinkers like Aristotle and Plato defended it blindly.
Europeans in the Middle Ages valued security over autonomy; their unbalanced feudalistic system was left largely unchallenged for so long largely because the common man accepted his lot in life as determined by birth. He didn’t think in terms of “I have a right” so much as “I have a role in this community.”
And many women in the ancient world (a dangerous place) saw living under a patriarchy as providing needed security, stability, and livelihood. It was just the way things were.
Looking at the past through their point of view doesn’t excuse everything that happened, but it does explain the common person’s behavior, why subpar political and cultural standards were endured for so long. And it also means I can start looking at my own culture’s presumptions in new ways.
I love science, but history allows me to listen on audio without missing out on visualized data so many science lectures include. And history, when well put together, often reads like an epic adventure story with real-life characters and events.