Since the summer, I’ve been intent on gaining a comprehensive knowledge of the history of Ancient Rome. To achieve this goal, I purchased a number of readings from an array of primary and secondary sources which detail the expanse of Roman history (a period of over 1000 years). I’ve read a number of these sources and thus now consider myself learned on the history of ‘archaic’ Rome from the founding of the city up until the Second Punic War, a period which covers almost half of a millennia. Today, however, I was asked about a reading which I had purchased but had yet to open or even consider starting until I had completed my study of the complete chronology of Roman history. This reading was a book called “The Common People of Ancient Rome, Studies of Roman Life and Literature”; it details the culture, norms, and daily life of the average people living under Roman rule. Reflection on this book, and on the knowledge I currently possess about Ancient Rome, has left me with an acute realization: perhaps I am more unfamiliar with Roman history than I had previously thought. Indeed, perhaps the majority of the world’s history I felt I knew is more foreign to me than I had expected. What prompted this recognition of my lack of understanding? It was the realization that the study of daily life for the common person throughout history is considered supplementary knowledge, and is commonly overlooked. Yet it is this daily life which the vast majority of humans from the past had experienced. What I know and have learned about history is mostly a review of wars, leaders, changes in borders, and major social and cultural developments. Perhaps these should be considered the supplements to the ‘real’ history of mankind: the experience of life for those living in the past.
I can name the wars fought by the Roman Republic from its founding to 215 B.C.E., along with the names of its most prominent leaders and the shape of its governmental institutions. I can easily list off the greatest conflicts in European history or the names of the English monarchs since William the Conqueror. If asked to present my knowledge on the migrations of people from the steppes into Europe in the 1st millennia A.D. or to detail the conquest of the Inca by Francisco Pizarro, I would be able to do so with ease. Yet I admit that I know next to nothing about the daily lives and struggles, about the cultural norms and taboos, about the social relationships and familial structures of the common person living during these eras. If I am lacking in the knowledge of what it was like to live as the average person did during a time, then do I truly understand that era? Am I comfortable in suggesting that someone living thousands of years from now understands my present day and time because he can detail the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and perhaps list off the presidents of the United States? I do not believe that my life, or indeed the nature and history of the era of my life, can be accurately described by the wars fought during it or by the leaders who populate it. Instead, these times can be detailed much more comprehensively by the struggles of the common man, but the norms we follow, by the culture we profess, and by the fears and hopes of our collective society. Yet these are things which are, for much of the distant past and a significant portion of the more recent past, considered supplementary or which are shrouded from our understanding by the distance of their time.
It is unfortunate, then, that my understanding of Roman history is an understanding of the wars it fought and of the names and lives of the Emperors and Consuls who led it. I lament the fact that I know little about the millions of people who lived under the banner of the Empire. I no longer feel that I truly understand Roman history, at least not until I understand what it was like to live during those times. If we as scholars and students of history are to derive any tangible meaning from our studies other than a capacity to list off great conflicts and great men, we need to be able to relate our own lives and our own experiences with those from the past. The vast majority of us are common people with experiences and lives which the histories written in the far future might, if the current histories of the past have set any precedent, totally ignore. I believe that we cannot relate to the past until we can relate to those who lived in it like we live in our own present. Instead of feeling connected to the past, as I strive to feel being a student of history, I now feel detached from it. For me, the past is not as much a story of wars, dates, and important names as it is the collective struggles, hopes, and lives of those who populated it.