It is foolish to take sides in history. After events pass from living memory, they become the common heritage of humanity – good and bad. We are all descended from conquerors and conquered, from slaves and slave owners, from scholars and fools. We can all benefit from all their experience.
History favors those who write history
That said, it is hard not to take sides, even in conflicts from thousands of years ago. And history has its own biases. The old dictum that history favors the victors is generally true but there are a lot more complications. History is biased in favor victors who are around to write it; it also favors those who write. Illiterate cultures technically have no history at all in many senses. Their stories are always told by others, if they are told at all
We remember better those who build and especially of those who build in stone. The Egyptians have a bigger place in the minds of modern people than do the people of ancient Mesopotamia because Egyptians build in stone, while they people of Mesopotamia build with mud brick that long since has disappeared. Spending massive resources to the glory of powerful dead is dead stupid, but the pyramids are impressive to see even thousands of years later.
There is also bias in favor of those whose languages survive, or have evolved into something similar and it is bias in favor of those whose traditions survive. In language and culture, the Romans Empire never fell; it simply evolved into modern languages and cultures in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Romania, and later to much of the world.
“My people”: the Barbarians
Roman civilization has all that going for it. When we talk about civilization versus barbarism, we are often thinking of the fall of the Roman Empire as our model. There is a funny thing about this. I generally take the Roman side, but “my” people are the barbarians. People of central and northern European ancestry, like me, like most Americans even today and certainly most of the founding generations, appropriated the culture of the ancient Mediterranean, or if we want to speak the language of victimization, should we say that it was imposed on us. But my ancestors didn’t write until they learned how to do it from the Romans. We know about them from Romans sources, most notably from Tacitus’ “Germania.” But then, culture trumps DNA and the Romans had more to offer. I feel more the heir to the Romans than to the northern barbarians who vandalized the buildings and couldn’t figure out how to keep the aqueducts running.
Common heritage of humanity lets us choose our “ancestors”
All that said, we do have the common heritage of humanity working here. There were a lot of pluses for the Romans, but also lots of negatives. The Romans gave us many of our concepts of law, but it was a top-down type of idea. The barbarians brought in something more like common law that allows for a more organic evolution of justice. So our modern western American culture benefits from both strands of this. The Roman part is maybe easier to document because we literally have written documents. But we all understand that culture does not run on documents alone.
Historians do not only report history; they create it
We don’t really study history; we study historians. History just kind of happens. It needs to be put into context and order. How much historians do or should do to this is a subject of strong disagreement among the few who care about it and the fewer who deeply think about it. It is important, however. All of us have a concept of history, whether we think about it or not. This concept is not based on THE truth. It is based on some sort of structure or narrative that we picked up from historians whose names we have forgotten or never knew. I wrote about Gibbon yesterday and how his interpretation has affected how we think about the Romans and about ourselves. IMO, he was fundamentally wrong in the way he interpreted the fall of the Empire. It really was not a one-way decline and it was less a fall than a wasting and an evolution. But Gibbon’s better story line precludes, or at least makes difficult, this alternative explanation. It is instructive also that I think of it as an alternative, implying that the other is the normal one.
How you tell the story makes the story. We are off to see more of Rome today and get more of the visual.