Ancient History & Civilisation


‘INVISIBLE’ IS AN ADJECTIVE often used to describe the people I have talked about. These people, of course, were not invisible at all; they made up almost the entire population of the Romano-Greek world and were perfectly visible to each other. It is the elite’s blindness to them that creates their historical penumbra, a shadowy world where brief illuminations only heighten the overall sense of their invisibility. This blindness is not so much to the literal existence of invisibles, but rather is an almost complete lack of interest in their lives on the invisibles’ own terms. This bias makes using elite sources to discover the lives of ordinary folk very problematic. But given the significantly undersourced nature of ancient evidence for almost any aspect of history or life, muscling aside elite material in favor of lesser-known evidence might seem at least counterproductive and perhaps even foolhardy. I became convinced, however, that starting at the other end of the evidence, so to speak, would yield what the high-profile elite literature problematized or even obfuscated. And so I worked primarily with the lesser-known material of inscriptions and papyri, and used admittedly problematic insights from fiction, fable, Christian sources, fortune-telling, and magic.

These sources gradually revealed to me a world that once was invisible. It was a world of down-to-earth assessments, choices, chances, successes, and disasters. It was a world of limited options and limited opportunities for bettering oneself. But it was not a world of despair. Fundamentally, people have always excelled at making the most of their situations; the race would hardly have survived if in the face of daunting challenges, manipulation, and oppression, people had just given up. Rather, people cope within the parameters of their lives. And sometimes even do very well. The visible that emerged was a tapestry of people working to make their lives as good as possible, struggling with all the emotional crosscurrents and enjoying all the satisfactions that came with it. Opening up their mind worlds was a revelation.

In the end, the people now made visible do not seem all that different from moderns. Not in the material ways, not in all moral norms, not in political sensibilities, or in the specifics of careers and possibilities. But in the gritty reality of dealing with what comes along, seeking solace and reward in interpersonal relationships and the supernatural, and carving out a place for themselves, they are much like other people, ancient and modern. While this banal reality stands far apart from the excitement of great deeds by great men, and certainly is not the engine of high-profile historical transformations, that does not mean it is inconsequential. There is a certain importance to the lives of the nonheadline makers; in them we glimpse the crowd in which the rich and famous move, and understanding them helps us to understand the whole culture and society. We can without hesitation turn from them to the Alexanders, the Caesars, the emperors and generals of the ancient world; we can study and be inspired by their philosophy, laws, literature, and architectural wonders. But behind all these accomplishments stood tens of millions who sustained the world of those accomplishments – ordinary men and women, slaves and freedmen, fairly wealthy and abysmally poor, even common soldiers, prostitutes, gladiators, and outlaws. They deserve to be made visible on their own terms, and I hope I have succeeded in making a start at doing so.

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