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The Problem With Reading Ancient History

Updated on May 22, 2012

About two years ago I realized that despite History being my favorite subject, I hardly knew anything about Greek or Roman ancient history. I felt that I had to fill this void as most of Western Civilization is based on these two ancient societies. So, I began to read everything I could find concerning these two cultures and histories, and there are tons of books out there about them.

After a while I began to notice that after the first 2-3 books which filled my gap in general knowledge about the Greeks and Romans I began to get very very bored and had a hard time getting deeper into the subjects. I suppose the problem is that it is simply very very hard to actually imagine the people, events and places in my mind's eye as they happened so long ago. Reading that a certain event happened in 340 BC and another happened in around 800 BC is the same to me as if one things happened this afternoon and another thing this morning. They are virtually indistinguishable despite having 500 some years between them. We have very vague ideas and cannot possibly know what the actually difference was in the way people thought, wrote, behaved, dressed, spoke, fought etc. Even though we cannot really imagine how things were in 1500, we know that they were a lot different from 2012. Then again, we don't really know they differences in style, slang, and culture in 1500 as opposed to 1550 for example. However, we know automatically the differences between 2012 as opposed to the 1990s, 1970s, 1950s all the way to about the 1920s, before which things again get murky.

Not being able to relate to a place, time and people makes it hard for me to get into their history. The only writers who are authentic are the ancient writers, but then again oftentimes they wrote about events that happened hundreds of years before their own time obviously making things murky again. Also, reading these histories in translation is bound to make them even more diluted. But since I don't have the patience to learn ancient Greek or Latin I was stuck with translations.

Names of people also get confusing in ancient Greek history (blah, song of blah, grandson of blah in Herodotus) and Roman Latin names that all en in "s" : Augustus, Philipus, Severus etc. all add to the confusion. To a layman all of these things make ancient history daunting. And keep in mind that these are European histories. I won't even get into the ancient history of even more exotic peoples and places such as India, Persia, China, and South America.

After a while I got to the point where I felt ancient history overload with the Greeks and Romans and went back to reading more recent history. Let's be honest, the history of the 19th and 20th centuries are the only ones that we can truly imagine and relate to in terms of attitudes, thought, culture. Anything before that gets into a lot of murkiness and conjecture. We can only reliably imagine so far into the past. Seeing an old 19th century grainy photo of a person or place is immensely more satisfying than seeing a painting that might in fact be a fanciful fit of the painters imagination.

I feel that now I have the basics of the ancient world down I will give it a rest. I will stick to more modern history for the time being instead of getting lost in the fog of the ancient past.


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    • frantisek78 profile image

      frantisek78 5 years ago

      @backporchstories: thanks for reading and for the comment. Glad I'm not the only one who has trouble with ancient history, no matter how much I'd like to enjoy it!

    • backporchstories profile image

      backporchstories 5 years ago from Kentucky

      It is so true how murky and boring it can become when studing the history of long ago, yet some of those bits and pieces have shaped us to what we are today. Kudos to you for the effort!