“You started it!”
“We did not start it!”
“Yes you did, you invaded Poland!”
A line to clinch any argument. But also a line from a scene which reflects on the power that history has to influence present-day relationships.
Indeed, history has always played a prominent part in contemporary arguments and humans have always fought over the past – often literally, since historical grievances have regularly played a part in starting new wars and in legitimising conflicts.
But, for all of the divisive who-did-what-to-whom bickering and finger-pointing that we sometimes encounter, the process of arguing about the past doesn’t always have to have negative consequences.
Sometime in the third century BC, Erythrae, a city on the coast of modern-day Turkey, received a letter from the King of the Seleucid Empire, which, at the time, covered much of the Middle East. The king (either Antiochus I or Antiochus II) wrote as follows:
‘And since [your ambassadors] declared that under Alexander and Antigonus (the One-Eyed) your city was autonomous and free from tribute, and our ancestors were constantly zealous on its behalf, and since we see that their decision was just and we ourselves wish not to fall short in (our) benefactions, we shall help to preserve your autonomy and we grant you exemption from tribute, including all the other taxes and [the] contributions [to] the Gallic fund. You will also have [… and any] other privilege which we shall think of or [you will request from us].’ [Translation from Austin, The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest, (2nd ed. 2006), no.170].
At first glance, everything looks straightforward. The representatives of the city tell Antiochus about how the city has been treated by previous monarchs, the king decides that this is a reasonable way to behave, so declares that he will follow suit. Difficulty arises, however, because we don’t actually know anything about the status of Erythrae under these earlier kings. The ambassadors might be lying.
But it really doesn’t matter if they are; indeed, that might actually be the whole point.
It might seem strange for a historian to say that the truth doesn’t matter, but that’s because here the notion of ‘history’ is being used in a fascinating way.
Negotiations between rulers and subjects are fraught with difficulty and can lead to bad blood on either side, if the king demands too much of a city, for instance. Equally, if the king makes concessions to one city, others are going to demand the same treatment.
This problem is avoided here by the invention of a tradition to govern the relationship between king and city. In order to ensure a workable relationship in the present, and one that will be sustainable in the future, Antiochus and the city of Erythrae decide on a mutually-convenient ‘history’: if the king rules in what both parties agree is the established manner, the city will support him. In this dialogue about history, both sides can decide how they want the other to behave and claim that this is simply how things are done. Equally, by pointing to a specific tradition to explain his treatment of a particular city, the king avoids setting a precedent for his relationship with other places in his empire.
More importantly, ascribing the results of the negotiation to history provided a distraction from reality – anybody unhappy with the arrangement could blame only the tradition and not the participants in the discussions; the past is used to diffuse contemporary tension.
This opens up a much broader point about the study of history. Whenever historians are asked why they do what they do, it’s easy to trot out the trite sentiment that examining the past ‘helps us understand who we are today’, but the discussion above suggests that this is all a little too simplistic: here, history is used to create the present. The relationship between Erythrae and Antiochus might well be the result of a conscious decision, almost of a manufacturing of history. Rather than the past determining the present, here, present considerations determine the past.
When we study history, then, we are also engaged in a process which helps to develop modern identity – in the standpoint we take on certain issues, for example, or in what we choose to study. Thus, when we choose to condemn a particular historical event, we are expressing contemporary values, but, at the same time, developing our beliefs by engaging with particular issues. Although our opinions on history are derived from contemporary beliefs, this same history helps create, and then perpetuate, notions of, say, what is acceptable or unacceptable.
The example of Antiochus and Erythrae shows us something else too: the past can be a safe place to locate dialogue which might be contentious. City and king used it to work through contemporary differences, and perhaps for us history can be something we use to create an agreeable present. History is a field in which we can work through contentious issues, and deal with problematic topics and ideas, in an emotionally less charged environment. Indeed, perhaps there are modern debates which would benefit from participants reaching a historical consensus – issues like immigration spring readily to mind.
History, then, doesn’t really make us who we are, not in any predetermined way at least. Rather, we choose who we are – but history helps us to make those decisions and to carve out our own identity. At my university interview I was asked, ‘history is dangerous; why do you want to study it?’, but, whilst we all realise that history can create problems, I like to think that we can use it in constructive ways too.