The Power of the Ancients: Bettany Hughes Contemplates the Vanity of Her Profession as She Outlines the Reasons Why We Must Continue to Engage with Our Very Distant Past

By Hughes, Bettany | History Today, June 2010 | Go to article overview

The Power of the Ancients: Bettany Hughes Contemplates the Vanity of Her Profession as She Outlines the Reasons Why We Must Continue to Engage with Our Very Distant Past


Hughes, Bettany, History Today


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Brainwashing, mind games, thought manipulation. They are fearful and highly charged words. And so they should be. The expansion or contraction of the mind will determine our chances of survival on this planet. Our very name, mankind, derives from the Indo-European word for the mind, manu. We think, therefore we are human. So little surprise then that the groundhog-day battle for the future of the education of the next generation is with us once again. But so too is the threat to understanding how it all started--to the study of ancient civilisation.

The statistics speak for themselves. Of all arts graduates (excluding lawyers) from Cambridge University, classicists have the highest rate of employment. Overseas students--from the Baltic States to Timbuktu--travel to the UK because of our tradition of teaching classics. Ancient world 'hits' such as the movies Agora, 300 and Gladiator prove that there is a grassroots fascination with this genre. A hyper-real, computer-manipulated version of the Spartan last stand at the Battle of Thermopylae, 300, was a huge commercial success that brought bastardised Herodotus to an unsuspecting generation of 14- and 15-year-olds. The public appetite for a classical education, in all its forms, is beyond doubt.

But the study of classical history and prehistory has to survive not just because we want it to, but because this is the only honest way to chart the human experience on Earth. Civilised life did not begin in Enlightenment France, Tudor England or the Holy Roman Empire. It started 10,000 years ago in settlements such as Catal Huyuk in Anatolia.

Historians have an Achilles heel, something that turns us--and I firmly include myself in this critique--into arrogant romantics. We so love our period, our field of study, that we wish to see in it the birth or ascendancy of many things: technological development, concepts of community, gender roles. This was driven home to me a few years ago when I made a seven-part series for Channel 4 called The Seven Ages of Britain. Rather grandly, the series aimed to tell the story of 'the others' through recorded time from the end of the Ice Age to the Industrial Revolution: not the great and the good, but the experiences of the bulk of men and women whose lives are usually lost to history. Every expert I spoke to, from early-modern specialists back to prehistorians, claimed that their age had witnessed the 'birth' of something. But when one man suggested that the Stone Age had seen the birth of the British middle class, warning bells started to ring. The only answer is to start at the very beginning and walk slowly and steadily through time. That way the map of humanity is not partial, but complete. …

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The Power of the Ancients: Bettany Hughes Contemplates the Vanity of Her Profession as She Outlines the Reasons Why We Must Continue to Engage with Our Very Distant Past
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