Reading the buzz surrounding this latest discovery from Pompeii prompted me to ask the following questions: Why should I study ancient history? Does learning about ancient events, such as the Peloponnesian Wars, the destruction of Pompeii, or the rise and fall of the Ptolemaic kingdom in Egypt, really have any relevance today?
After all, we now live in a modern age where the average person has, thanks to the Internet, instantaneous access to a wealth of information on demand, sourced from around the globe, at a rate and volume unimaginable to those living just a few decades ago.
Contributions to Human Knowledge
So how does ancient history contribute to human knowledge, progression and the future? A common answer presented is that it lets us recognize the mistakes of the past, in order to prevent ourselves from repeating them in the future. Studying ancient history allows us to understand where we have come from and why we are here, and by doing so, shows us how the ancients’ attempts to shape their futures relate to our own actions in the present day.
Knowing about how ancient people and societies dealt with issues in the past helps us to recognize, and be prepared for, dealing with our own issues both currently and in the future. While the causal relationship between the ancient era and our own isn’t as apparent as say, more modern historical periods (where we are still living through the aftereffects of ‘recent’ historical events such as the American Revolution and World War I, for example) – there is still enough common ground for us to learn from our forebears’ words and deeds.
There are also other reasons for studying ancient history that go beyond the “avoiding the past” trope.
Studying ancient history contributes to our cultural understanding and intellectual development. If we don’t know where we come from and the trials and tribulations which faced our forebears how can we understand ourselves? The study of history on any level can potentially help to define our own identities. I know that if I didn’t know about my culture I wouldn’t be the person I am today. If my society didn’t know about its past what would there be for them to celebrate or avoid in its future. History builds who we are and by furthering our understanding of our past we better understand ourselves. One cannot deny that understanding oneself is vital to the progression of humanity – otherwise how could we better ourselves as a species?
Studying ancient history also contributes to scientific progress. If we understand the origins of issues, then we can better understand similar issues that we face today. One example is the study of disease, starting with their origins. There are historical accounts of plagues, etc. that have allowed scientists to track the progression of the disease through the ages to the present day. This has helped them to work on new treatments or cures. In other cases, these scientists are able to work with actual physical evidence, gathered from archeological sites, such as those dating back to ancient Rome or Egypt. An example is the work being done in cancer research, thanks to mummies, that is providing new information for scientists as to the progression of the disease over a wider temporal period than previously thought possible.
History is intertwined with hundreds of other areas that could not so easily progress without it. These include medical knowledge, sociology, psychology, social structure, health and safety, linguistics, forensics, construction, planning; the list goes on and on.
A Moral Obligation
In addition to being able to explain certain modern situations, the study of history is essential to the progression of the human race. Understanding the past, for instance, gives us comfort because we are not the first people to experience things and we can see the potential of the future. A person moving to the other side of the world is comforted and enabled by the fact that thousands of people (if not more) have done so previously. A company sees potential in the future because of what people have achieved in the past.
Studying history in itself is a tradition and one with a firm base, it is vital to the progression of humanity personally and on a wider stage, but above all it fulfills a moral obligation to our ancestors. It allows cultures to continue with a better understanding of where they came from, and gives them a respect for their heritage. Perhaps, most importantly, it provides a better and wiser comprehension of everything passed down to us.
Interested in learning more about ancient history? You can review a list of OTA’s History courses here: