Rewriting history


‘The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on; nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
      The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam tr Fitzgerald

The past is fixed, and the events of the past are still there, adding their meshes to the net of causation. Now involves then.

How a society views the past gives a flavour of its character. Tacitus says that to the Britons of his time, their origins and past were something ut inter barbaros parum compertum—‘too little explored, as is usual with barbarians.’ Meanwhile at the opposite corner of the empire were the Jews, who then, as now, had an experience of the past so vivid and so important that it merged with the present. For them it has always been the case that the centuries blend and blur, and memories coalesce with present life.

‘To be a Jew is to know that over and above history is the task of memory.’
Jonathan Sacks, The Chief Rabbi’s Haggadah (Essays) p. 31

The people of Athens were interested in ἱστορία and and their politicians were interested in rewriting its narrative to suit their needs, starting perhaps with Iliad II, lines 557-8, popped in, it has been said, at the command of Peisistratus, when he had the works of Homer written down, to validate Athenian claims to the island of Salamis:

Αἴας δ᾽ἐκ Σαλαμῖνος ἄγεν δυοκαίδεκα νῆας:
στῆσε δ᾽ἄγων ἱν᾽ Ἀθηναίων ἵσταντο φάλαγγες.

And Aias brought from Salamis twelve ships:
and he brought them and beached them
where the Athenians’ ranks were stationed.

Then there was the jiggery-pokery with the account of Solon’s reforms, which varied according to your political colour. And the silence was notable about how Peisistratus—the tyrant—had laid a solid foundation for the democratic reforms of Cleisthenes; not to mention the glorification of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, the ‘tyrant-slayers’, whose killing of Hipparchus was in reality a matter of personal revenge, and they killed not the tyrant, but his brother.

For the Greeks, then, history was about enquiry and also manipulation. Michael Scott in his recent book about Delphi gives an amusingly sardonic account of when the Athenians for once decided not to rewrite history. Of the new temple of Apollo at Delphi he says:

‘By 340 BC, it was complete enough for the Athenians, still spoiling for a fight having felt cheated by Philip of Macedon in the peace agreed in 346 BC, to rehang the Persian shields the Athenians had placed on the metopes of the previous temple after that great victory against the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC. In a sanctuary already teeming with examples of the rewriting of history to suit present circumstances, this was one in which history was deliberately not rewritten to make a point. The rehanging of the same old shields pointed to the continued glory of Athenian history, but also, more specifically, to the past misdemeanours of Thebes, a city now enjoying considerable influence, but which, according to the inscriptions on the shields, had fought with Persia against Greece back in the fifth century BC.’

Of interest:
Michael Scott, Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World, Princeton University Press, 2014

Next post: more about history.

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