Is ancient history relevant today?

Is ancient history relevant today? – Editorial

Alfred J. Andrea

In his interview with The Historian, Peter Calvocoressi, a distinguished writer of contemporary history, acknowledges his debt to the classical education in Greek and Latin language, literature, and culture that he received at Eton in the late 1920s. Such testimony undoubtedly seems eccentric to many readers of this journal, who consider an education in the languages and history of antiquity to be worlds removed from the affairs and concerns of the late twentieth century, useless for anyone interested in modern history, and irrelevant for someone who is preparing to take an active leadership role in the coming twenty-first century.

If study of the West’s Greco-Roman history has no relevance to the contemporary world, then someone should inform the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Its course of studies titled “Strategy and Policy,” which is aimed at helping future Navy admirals and Marine Corps generals learn how to think strategically, begins with analyses of the Peloponnesian War of 431-404 B.C. between Athens and Sparta and the Roman-Carthaginian conflict of 219-202 B.C. known as the Second Punic War.

In the spring 1992 issue of The Historian, this editor argued in an essay titled “The Lessons of History” that history does not repeat itself and, therefore, offers no predictive powers to its students. Notwithstanding the fact that history is an art fraught with, uncertainty and not a science, knowledge of the past does provide instruction and perspective, and it can even be the basis of wisdom. Accepting this premise, the Naval War College, where today’s naval commanders and captains and Marine colonels prepare for the responsibilities of flag rank, offers a curriculum centered around history Here student-officers examine historically thirteen periods of grand strategy and war from fifth-century B.C. Hellas to the 1991 war in the Persian Gulf. The basic assumption is that by analyzing the various ways in which armed force has been used from antiquity to the present as a political instrument and by exploring the recurring but never quite the same problems that confront the policymaker and the military strategist, these future leaders of navies and armies will be better prepared to help prevent war and, when reason has failed, to bring armed conflict to a quick and successful termination.

Most people would have no quarrel with the relevance of studying in depth the decisions made in the course of the Cold War, the Korean Conflict, the war in Vietnam, and the Gulf War. Most would also concede the relevance of exploring the origins and conduct of World War I, the policies pursued during the interwar years, and the origins and course of World War II. But what possible relevance, many will ask, can wars fought over 2,000 years ago in oared wooden galleys and with armies wielding spears and swords have to our world? Whatever can we learn from them?

The answer is deceptively simple. The Peloponnesian and Punic wars are models of fundamental issues that recur throughout the history of human conflict. They were certainly not the first significant wars in human history, but they are the two earliest for which we have a wealth of detail, thanks to the labors of Thucydides and Polybius, the Greco-Roman world’s two greatest historians. Each has left a deeply etched portrait of his particular war and the policy debates and decisions that surrounded it. Study of the protracted Athenian-Spartan and Roman-Carthaginian struggles illuminates the roles chance and human miscalculation, as well as careful planning, play in the dynamics of grand strategy and the course of war – a lesson that should be learned in a classroom, not on the field of battle. Study of these wars also demonstrates, among other things, how the way in which a state develops strategy and directs its armed might is shaped by its political and social order. By understanding that there were distinctive Athenian, Spartan, Roman, and Carthaginian ways of conducting diplomacy and war, the Naval War College student should ask: Is there an American way of war? If so, what are its characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses? Awareness of one’s own cultural values and structures of thought, and the limitations imposed by that culture on one’s options, is an invaluable asset for any leader. Study of these two Mediterranean “world wars” also reveals the complex factors that contributed to their outbreak, the ways in which these two conflicts soon engulfed regions and powers far beyond their original flash points, and the decisions that ultimately contributed to the victories of Sparta and Rome and the defeats of Athens and Carthage. Both wars certainly demonstrate how strategic flexibility, the ability to hold coalitions together, and constancy of purpose are qualities that greatly enhance the prospects for victory of any state at war.

Thucydides wrote almost 2,400 years ago: “I shall be satisfied if my words are judged useful by those who desire a dear understanding of the events which occurred in the past and which will occur again, in much the same way, in the future, human nature being what it is.” We may quibble over the issue of how cyclical and repeatable history is, but we would be foolish to turn a blind eye to the lessons we might draw from conflicts waged, won, and lost so many centuries ago.

Needless to say, the relevance of our ancient past neither begins nor ends with the military and political lessons we can draw from its study. Antiquity is as much a part of our heritage and the fabric of the human experience as is the history of more recent periods and events. The Roman comic playwright and poet Terence wrote: “I consider nothing that is human as alien to me.” This noble sentiment certainly is true of our historical past. No history, no matter how remote or alien it might initially seem to be, is irrelevant or unworthy of study. Every age and culture has much to teach about who we are as a species and how we react in a variety of circumstances. To blind ourselves deliberately to any part of our rich and variegated past is small minded and self-limiting.

Suggested Reading

Edward H. Carr, What is History? (New York, 1961).

Arthur N. Gilbert, ed., In Search of a Meaningful Past (Boston, 1972), especially Arno J. Mayer, “Vietnam Analogy: Greece Not Munich,” 203-210.

Leonard M. Marsak, ed., The Nature of Historical Inquiry (New York, 1970).

COPYRIGHT 1993 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group