The question of what becomes history – what gets remembered, and why – has been troubling me lately.
I recently visited Sicily and rooted around the ruins of classical Greek civilization there. In Agrigento, a series of temples built on a ridge above the sea remain in an astonishing state of preservation. In Taormina, an ancient theater looks down from the vertiginous heights on a receding shoreline and the sparkling Mediterranean. In Syracuse, the ribs of the old temple of Athena stick out of the Baroque cathedral of Santa Lucia.
Of all that aspiration and glory, almost nothing is remembered.
From the heights of Taormina I could gaze on the site of Naxos, located in the next headland, just across the bay. Naxos was the original Greek toehold in Sicily, founded in the mid-700s BC. It had some sort of an existence for 250 years or so, then was destroyed by the tyrant Dionysus of Syracuse, a man who knew Plato personally. The city walls were razed and the inhabitants sold into slavery.
For functional purposes, much of ancient Sicily has no history. If we wish to understand how people lived, or why they died, we have little to go on. About Naxos we know next to nothing. Agrigento has the temples and tales of a couple of tyrants. Even Syracuse, the chief city, has mere patches of historical narrative, a few names and events, stretched over a vast chasm of silence.
Taormina, founded by people from Naxos, has no history at all: only a magnificently-sited ancient theater to lure the 21st-century tourist.
It’s a truism that history is told by the winners. But that’s only for the short term, and in a limited sense. The Israelites were among history’s great losers, and their story is still being told. The Athenians lost their big war to the Spartans, but who cares about Sparta today? (Even 300 was based on Herodotus, a product , if not a native, of Athens. We know the Spartans through Athenian eyes.)
The winners tell their story: what happens then? Time happens. Change happens. Wars, migrations, fire, plagues, earthquakes, all these happen, and they happen inexorably but at random. There’s no predicting disaster, no predicting the next brilliant cultural wave that will sweep the past out of fashion and into obscurity. The winners tell their story but that story, too, is forgotten more often than it is recalled.
Naxos was a city for 250 years, practically the lifespan of the United States of America. Then it was lost to silence. Taormina had no history, but out of that nothingness a beautiful theater endures.
History is entropy. It is in the human spirit to engender systems and to tell stories about those systems, and because these are important to their makers, and sometimes to whole populations, they wish to believe that they will last forever. We build: we seek order, harmony, balance, progress. Time and nature break things down: cities into rubble, memories into silence, life into death.
Ancient peoples were deeply aware of this struggle, since disintegration was ever close to the surface of things. That was one of the great themes in Aeschylus: the human will to impose order colliding disastrously with the chaotic forces that ruled the universe. Cities like Naxos were sacked and destroyed. The people and their memories were exterminated.
In The Seven Against Thebes, the women wail about what will happen if the city falls to the enemy. They weep for young, unmarried girls who will be dragged off “like horses by the hair” to become playthings of foreign thugs.
I suspect that we, the beneficiaries of the Industrial Revolution and the great enrichment that followed, take for granted that our systems are indestructible. Modern life works off that premise. When the system works as it should, we are merely grumpy. When it fails in any respect, we become enraged.
Everyone feels that, in the nature of things, something called “a job,” or even better, “a career,” should be offered to them. Everyone, regardless of condition or talent, demands the right to satisfaction and self-expression. Everyone must enjoy orgiastic sex and a sublimely happy family life – with a spouse or a partner of this sex or that – with just the right number of children, or none.
Our systems are eternal and our claims on life are many and aggressive. The implicit idea is that entropy has folded its bloody beak in its great black wings and fallen asleep.
That is the sort of prideful error Aeschylus would make the starting-point of tragedy.