While recording the most recent Ancient Warfare podcast, we naturally ended up talking quite a bit about the fall of ancient Rome and similar events, most notably the end of the Bronze Age. (It was fresh in my mind since I had just written a review of Eric Cline’s book 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed for the very first issue of Ancient History Magazine.)
Anyway, we ended up talking a bit about the end of civilization and the idea that many people think that we’re approaching some sort of doomsday scenario, what with Islamic State raging in the Near East, the refugee crisis, almost unprecedented levels of gun violence in recent US history, and so forth. With so much amiss in the world, it seems like things could fall apart any moment, right?
Pessimism, ancient and modern
Such pessimism seems to come natural to people. Let’s have a look at Hesiod, for example. In Antiquity, he was ranked alongside Homer as one of the great Greek poets of all time. He lived roughly at the same time as his now more famous colleague, around 700 BC, and came from the small Boeotian village of Ascra. In his Works and Days, he retells the history of various human races (more probably different species), moving from a Golden Age ruled by Cronus, to a Silver Age, a Bronze Age, an Age of Heroes, and finally his own Iron Age.
Of course, his own period is by far the most dreadful. In the late M.L. West’s translation, Hesiod cries, ‘Would that I were not then among the fifth men, but either dead or born later!’ The iron race to which he belongs, ‘will never cease from toil and misery […], in constant distress, and the gods will give them harsh troubles.’ And like the other races before, Zeus will destroy these mortals, too, at the moment when children are born that are already ‘grey at the temples’, and when people no longer respect their elders, nor be friendly to people in general.
It’s human nature to assume that one’s own time is not as good as it ought to be. The past is nearly always better, especially when viewed through rose-tinted glasses. In the modern age, it’s easy to get wrapped up in news reports and to join the chorus of doomsayers in claiming that the world must surely be ending (even if one usually doesn’t side with the prophets who give an exact date for the apocalypse to occur).
Human beings, I would argue, love disaster. That’s the reason why archaeologists and historians like studying and talking about the fall of civilizations. Eric Cline, in his book, occasionally draws comparisons between the past and recent events, something that is not, in my opinion, always warranted and should certainly be done with care. Indeed, the cover of the book has a quote by Adam Gopnik, staff writer for The New Yorker, that reads, ‘Astonishing… with eerie relevance.’
But focusing on the end of civilization is very much a pessimist’s view. I’ve seen people share stuff on Facebook like, ‘I should like to visit this place, provided the world doesn’t blow itself up.’ Don’t worry, it won’t. Our human fascination with disasters, cataclysmic events, and the end of civilization-as-we-know-it sometimes causes our views on matters to become skewed.
Optimism across time
In the podcast, we talked about the end of civilization. At some point, I made the claim that there was actually no better time to be alive at any point in history than right now. And the reason I could make that claim is because, as an archaeologist with an obvious and intense interest in history, I can see where we have come from.
Today, the Humanities faculties at universities are frequently under fire. Why would you go and study history? Why not study something that actually contributes something tangible, certain people would say (like recently in Japan), to our modern society, like physics or engineering? Why throw money at historians or archaeologists? Who cares about the past?
There are many reasons I could give for why studying the past is important and should receive funding. But there’s one reason in particular that I will focus on right now, namely that studying the past affords us with a perspective on how things came to be. It offers the strongest evidence that things, on a whole, have a tendency to continuously improve.
Studying the past allows us to explain why we should be optimistic about our future. Yes, there have been ‘disasters’ in history, like the end of the Bronze Age and the fall of Rome. But those were not end points: they were transitional periods. Yes, to an individual living in a beleaguered Roman town in AD 450, it must have seemed like the end of the world. But, especially as an archaeologist, the focus is not on individual humans, but on humanity as a whole.
The end of the Bronze Age led to the Iron Age, with the emergence of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the so-called ‘rise’ of the Greek city-states, the growth of Rome, and the achievements of the Celtic peoples in Central Europe (to name but a few examples). The fall of Rome brought about the creation of early medieval kingdoms, such as the Merovingians and Carolingians. Both of these process also brought about technological advances. Iron, for example, requires greater temperatures to be worked than tin and copper, requiring an advance in smelting techniques.
When viewed across a vast expanse of time, the tendency has been for human civilization to continuously improve. The ‘Idea of Progress’ may be unfashionable (and certainly isn’t linear), but the proof is undeniable. People live longer now than ever before, thanks to medical advances and improvements in hygiene and living standards. Technology allows us to communicate across vast distances almost instantaneously. There are probably more literate people today – not just in absolute terms, but also relatively speaking – than at any other point in history before.
And things are only improving, not just in Europe or the US, for example, but all over the world. It might not seem like it because the focus in the news tends to be on Bad Stuff: on mass shootings in a US school, on executions by militants in the Near East, or on starvation among African children. Such suffering is undeniable on an individual basis, but on the whole, humanity is doing pretty great, and is in fact constantly getting better (read this blog post by John Stackhouse on the website of Reuters, for example).
You don’t have to deny that there is human suffering in the world. And our hearts should go out to people in pain and we need to offer help in any way we can. But we also shouldn’t believe that our world is a dreadful place to live. We need to realize that the world, as a whole, is pretty great, even if some particular places are awful. Things are good, by and large, and will only get better. Let’s hear it for optimism.