This essay by Sir Richard Lambert, chair of the board of the British Museum, is part of Tortoise’s File on The Future of History, which considers what history should look like in the 21st Century – as a subject of study, but also an area of action and protest. To see the rest of the File’s contents, please tap here.
This is a personal essay by Richard Lambert and does not reflect the views of the Trustees of the British Museum.
Over the past 400 years, ideas about antiquity have in good measure been shaped in and by the West. Art and literature from ancient Greece and Rome have had an enormous cultural and political impact, in Europe and beyond. For most of this period, these works have been regarded as an essential inheritance of the West, and other people’s antiquities have tended either to be ignored outside their home countries or dismissed as somehow inferior.
It didn’t have to be that way.
For one thing, the legacy of Greece and Rome was not always seen through a Eurocentric lens: it was shared for a thousand years with Muslim scholars. In ninth-century Baghdad, the palace library contained the works of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras and Euclid translated into Arabic. Sultan Mehmed II, who captured Constantinople for the Ottoman Turks in 1453, could read ancient Greek: his manuscript copy of the Iliad, made for him in 1463, is still to be found in the Topkapi Palace library.
In the many centuries when the texts of Greek philosophy were lost to view in the Christian West, these works were studied and preserved in the Islamic world and only rediscovered by Europe in the Renaissance.
Moreover, if you were able to turn the clock back by a few centuries and find yourself in the year 1600, the world of antiquity would have looked very different. Other countries and regions had their own deep histories, often at least as rich and sophisticated as those of the West.
China had been a unified state since the Third Century BCE, a continuous civilisation linked to its ancient past through the philosophy of Confucius, through its art and literature, and through its written characters which had first evolved around the Second Millennium BCE. In 1600, its economy was by a multiple bigger than the whole of Europe combined, and over the course of the next hundred years it was to become under the Qing dynasty a major military power, extending its influence across Asia.
In India, the long reign of Akbar the Great was drawing to a close. The Mughal Empire had expanded under his leadership to include much of the subcontinent. The economy was strong and stable, and the legal foundations were in place for a state in which religious tolerance was to be accommodated. Akbar himself was deeply interested in his empire’s rich cultural history. He had an enormous personal library, and he arranged for the translation of Sanskrit epics.
In Persia, Shah Abbas was busy with his grand project of turning Isfahan into one of the great capitals of the world. In the course of the following decades, it would match London in terms of population and outstrip it in magnificence. Abbas secured the country’s borders and established it as a prosperous commercial centre on the trading routes between Europe and East and South Asia. And his Safavid Empire contained some of the great treasures of antiquity – the legacy of the Emperors Ashurbanipal, Cyrus and much more.
What of Europe at the same time? The Renaissance was under way, bringing with it thrilling new ideas about culture and classical antiquity. But in political terms this was a group of small and medium-sized states, constantly ripping each other apart in religious and regional wars. Greece was subject to Ottoman rule. Rome was a cosmopolitan city, but located in a peninsula that in the following century was to be ravished by plague and under constant threat from foreign intruders. Spain was sucking in wealth from its conquests in South America, and European navigators were venturing out in greater numbers around the world – but nothing to compare with China’s Admiral Zheng, who in the early years of the 15th Century had set out with massive fleets and tens of thousands of sailors and reached as far as the Horn of Africa and the Strait of Hormuz.
So against this background there are two questions to be addressed.
What explains the wide impact of Greek and Roman antiquity, which has lasted for most of the last 400 years and continues to this day?
And are there any political, economic or social reasons for thinking that the future of antiquity will be very different from its past?
The first answer to question one is brutally simple: Western hegemony. For roughly 1,000 years up to the late 17th Century, the East had outstripped the West in measures of economic and social development. Then something changed.
By 1800, Britain’s industrial revolution was roaring away, European military power was leaving everything else in its wake and scientific ideas were buzzing. There is endless room for debate about exactly why this happened: Ian Morris’s magisterial Why the West Rules – For Now is a great starting point. But whatever the explanations, the consequences are clear. While countries of the West were dominating global trade and building great empires, China was retreating behind its borders, India was faltering under the sway of European traders and Persia was visibly in decline.
One result of these developments was that other people’s antiquities started to flow West, to the great museums that were opening in Europe and North America, and it was there that they came to the attention of cosmopolitan audiences for the first time. The world’s antiquity was to be presented in the way that the West chose to do so.
It was archaeologists from Europe, not Peking or Delhi, who made their way in growing numbers to Egypt, Mesopotamia and the wider region as this branch of scholarship developed in the 19th Century. And under the system of partage that then applied, their finds were shared between the host country and their patrons back home. Foreign-led archaeological teams were allowed to keep part of what they found in return for their efforts, and as a direct result galleries of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and the region opened in London, Berlin, Paris, New York and beyond.
Another consequence of Western hegemony was the widespread notion that the culture of the ancient Greeks had shaped a distinctive – and somehow superior – way of life in the West. The antiquity of the East could be dismissed with racist arrogance – in Macaulay’s infamous words, “A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”
One explanation for the impact of European antiquity was its accessibility, both physically and intellectually. The excitement caused by the rediscovery of the art of ancient Greece and Rome spread rapidly right across Europe. The first book to be printed in the English language was the Recuyell of the historyes of Troye, published by William Caxton around 1474.
Casts and prints of classical sculptures were sought after everywhere. Such was the fondness of England’s Charles I for casts of ancient statues that it was said he had caused “a whole army of Old forraine Emperours, Captaines and Senators all at once to land on his coasts, to come and do him homage”. Louis XIV’s Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert had a simple demand: he wanted everything that was beautiful in Italy to be brought to France.
For centuries, the mark of an educated person in Europe was a thorough knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin. This helped to create a common culture and one that ignored national borders – a republic of letters, which made it possible for intellectuals to correspond with each other everywhere, exchanging knowledge and sharing ideas.
Through these multinational networks, the antiquities of Greece and Rome came to have a defining impact on all aspects of cultural life. On drawing and painting: in 1586, Giovanni Battista Armenini’s treatise on painting recommended all students to draw from casts of the finest statues in Rome. On architecture: Abbé Laugier declared in 1753 that “Architecture owes all that is perfect to the Greeks”. On poetry: Joseph Addison wrote that “Homer fills his readers with Sublime Ideas, and, I believe, has raised the imagination of all the Good Poets that have come after him”. On education: Thomas Arnold, the archetypal Victorian headmaster, insisted on the overriding importance of “studying the languages, the history, and the thoughts of men who lived nearly or more than two thousand years ago”.
“For centuries, the mark of an educated person in Europe was a thorough knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin.”
Freud’s thinking was influenced by his passion for antiquity and his own collection of antiquities. Marx launched himself as a philosopher with an essay on Democritus and Epicurus.
And the stories continue to reverberate to the present day. Over 190,000 people visited the British Museum exhibition Troy: Myth and Reality in the winter of 2019-20. In her wonderful cultural history of Homer’s Odyssey, Professor Edith Hall lists over 50 films which have been shaped in some way by Homer’s work, starting with L’Île de Calypso in 1905, and including both the obvious – the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? – and the more surprising, such as The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, released in 2004.
Greek drama has also left a continuing mark on the theatre. This has been especially visible in the UK since the Lord Chamberlain’s office lost its role as the official censor for theatre performance just over a half-century ago. It had always taken a dim view of incest and the like, which constrained production of some of the great classics of antiquity. But with that barrier out of the way, Professor Hall has claimed elsewhere that “Greek drama is being performed on both the commercial and amateur stages of Britain, as of the world, with greater frequency than at any point since classical antiquity. At times during the 1990s, more plays by Euripides or Sophocles were available to the London theatregoer than works by any other author, including Shakespeare.”
It’s a similar story with fiction. The writings of ancient Greece and Rome – and especially of Homer – have inspired novelists across the centuries. In the past few years, there has been a stream of bestsellers from female authors, often giving a voice to women in the classical texts: Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad; Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Circe; Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls; Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships – the list goes on.
Artists like Cy Twombly, Eduardo Paolozzi and Anthony Caro have responded to Homer’s work in their own ways. And some very different characters have been brought together over the centuries by their literary reflections on Homer: for example, Alexander Pope, whose translation of the Iliad in 1715 was hailed by Samuel Johnson as “the greatest version of poetry which the world has ever seen”; T.E. Lawrence, who explained that one of his qualifications for translating the Odyssey in the late 1920s was that “I have killed many men”; and Sir Derek Walcott, the Nobel prize-winning poet and playwright from the West Indies, whose stage version of the Odyssey was published in 1993, and whose epic poem Omeros reflects on the transatlantic slave trade.
What explains this continuing relevance of Greek and Roman antiquity? The catalogue for the British Museum’s Troy exhibition puts it well: “Scholars, writers, artists and musicians through the ages, all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, have found their own truths within the story, discovering in it archetypes of human character and human experience closely related to their own, contemporary concerns. The richness of responses to the myth of Troy, at all times between antiquity and the present, shows the vitality of this long tradition.”
In Walcott’s epic Omeros, a memory of slave ships replaces Odysseus’ homeward journey. Anthony Caro’s forty sculptures representing the Trojan battlefield were, he said, “more to do with the sort of brutality we’ve seen in Bosnia than with the Greek and Trojan heroes we’re meant to admire. It’s about fighting and it’s about being human.”
The myths of antiquity could be deployed to represent glorious success in battle: by my count, fifteen of Nelson’s ships at Trafalgar were named after Greek gods or heroes – HMS Agamemnon, Ajax, Bellerophon, Neptune, to list just a few. At the start of the Second World War, it was the cruisers HMS Ajax and Achilles that defeated the German heavy cruiser Admiral Graf Spee in the Battle of the River Plate.
But those same heroes could also be called on in the face of fear, trauma, or desperate loss. Young men charged up the beaches at the Dardanelles in 1915, conscious of their proximity to Troy. Patrick Shaw-Stewart was there: his poem ‘I saw a man this morning’ speaks of:
O hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
Why must I follow thee?
And ends with the lines:
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me.
Shaw-Stewart survived this confrontation, but was killed in France two years later.
The drama and literature of antiquity tell universal human stories that have resonated for two thousand years and more. And there is no reason to think that their qualities will become any less relevant to wide audiences in future years. After all, Virgil has already been part of the world’s cultural life for a hundred generations, and Homer for perhaps a hundred and fifty.
All this adds up to the background for Eurocentric perceptions of antiquity over the past 400 years. And it also helps to explain why such perceptions are likely to change in the years ahead.
The counterpart of the hegemony of the West was the relative weakness of the East, and its narrowing intellectual horizons. This had cultural as well as political and economic consequences.
China, which had for centuries been able to take its imperial and intellectual pre-eminence for granted, found itself under increasing pressure through the 18th and 19th Centuries. Admiral Zheng’s ships had long since been dismantled, and his expeditions were never to be repeated. Cut off from easy access to the West by the massive deserts of Central Asia, China’s antiquity – if it was known at all in the West – tended to be regarded as strange and exotic.
And as time passed, the foreigners intruded. From the West, Europe began pressing for trade concessions, Russia was pushing to expand its borders from the north and west, and Japan was becoming ever more challenging from the east. Humiliation followed humiliation. The sacking of the Summer Palace by British and French troops at the end of the Second Opium War has been described as one of the greatest acts of cultural vandalism of the past two centuries.
“As time passed, the foreigners intruded.”
Domestic upheaval, the collapse of the imperial dynasty, a deeply divided republic, increasing aggression from Japan, civil war and the Communist revolution. In 1949, the defeated Nationalists headed off to Taiwan, taking with them exquisite treasures from the Beijing Palace collection.
The final assault on Chinese antiquity came with Mao’s cultural revolution, and the violent attacks he encouraged on the “Four Olds” – old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits – qualities that had shaped Chinese society for millennia and which, Mao believed, explained its weaknesses. It has been estimated that Red Guards destroyed 4,922 of Beijing’s 6,843 designated places of cultural or historical interest in the ten years from 1966. Confucius, who lived from 551 to 479 BCE, was a particular subject of revolutionary rage. Red Guards stormed his birthplace and destroyed his grave and those of his descendants.
In India, too, the wealth and cultural glories of the Mughal court at its peak were to be rapidly dissipated. Guerrilla raiders from Maratha began attacking the Mughal armies, and insurgencies spread across the empire so that by the end of the 17th Century an Italian traveller complained that nowhere in Mughal India was safety to be found from thieves.
The British East India Company, which had hitherto treated Mughal authority with some respect, sensed an opening and became increasingly assertive. And the true weakness at the heart of the empire was exposed in 1739 when Nader Shah, the brutal Persian emperor, crossed the border and took Delhi. Tens of thousands were slaughtered in the subsequent massacre, and Nader Shah left the city with unimaginable quantities of wealth and antiquities, including the Peacock Throne with its Koh-i-Noor diamond. Over the next century, the East India Company showed its ability to fill the power vacuum he left behind, and its India was not, by and large, a place where indigenous antiquity was celebrated.
One reason in some cases was the inaccessibility of its ancient treasures. Great epic poems, like the Mahabharata – many times longer than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined – were admired in Europe by the likes of Wilhelm von Humboldt and, later, by Christopher Isherwood and T.S. Eliot. But Sanskrit was a real barrier, and it has been argued that detailed knowledge of the epic’s contents did not penetrate much beyond scholarly circles in India until the last hundred years.
And with some exceptions, the Raj was not very interested in exploring Indian culture and antiquity. The History of British India by James Mill, published in 1817, captured widespread attitudes and was influential in its time. Amartya Sen writes that “Mill disputed and dismissed practically every claim ever made on behalf of Indian culture and its intellectual traditions, concluding that it was totally primitive and rude”.
Exceptions might be made for any traces that could be found of Alexander the Great, who invaded the Indus Valley with 50,000 troops in 327 BCE. Henry Cole, who surveyed Indian architecture for the British government in the late 19th Century, reported that one group of sculptures was so good “that Greek masons, or possibly designers, may have been called in to assist”. The assumption would be that Indians were incapable of such work.
As Jawaharlal Nehru, the first leader after independence, was to argue: “It is quite extraordinary how ignorant English people, outside some experts and others, are about India. If facts elude them, how much more is the spirit of India beyond their reach?”
The Safavid dynasty in Persia fared no better than the Mughals in India. Shah Abbas murdered one of his sons and blinded two more: perhaps not surprisingly, enfeebled government followed. The silk trade declined, and government revenues were squeezed. Civil disturbances broke out, and in 1722 Afghan armies besieged and then took Isfahan. The warlord Nader Shah rebuilt Persia’s military might, but at the crushing cost of continuous warfare. Increasing mental instability led to his assassination, and a long, bleak period in Persia’s history as Russia and Britain pressed to exert their influence over the country.
One ruler who tried to exploit the rich antiquity of what was by then Iran was Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah, and for him the effort led to disaster.
For two days in October 1971, extravagant celebrations took place in Persepolis to mark what were said to be 2,500 years of monarchy in the country. Heads of state from around the world were lavishly wined and dined, with catering laid on by Maxim’s of Paris and with 25,000 bottles of imported wine. Thousands of participants dressed up as Medes and Persians, and the Shah spoke at the tomb of Cyrus the Great, who had ruled from around 559 to 530 BCE: “Sleep easily, Cyrus, for we are awake.”
But an event that was intended to celebrate the country’s rebirth only served to widen the gap between the Shah and the public, and give extra voice to Ayatollah Khomeini, exiled then in Iraq. And when the Ayatollah returned in triumph in 1979, he immediately made it clear that the days of such pre-Islamic nonsenses were over. “We are Muslims who have wandered,” he thundered. Iran had its own cultural revolution, in which university libraries were attacked, museums and historical monuments plundered and poets and intellectuals persecuted.
Like China, Iran by the latter part of the 20th Century was determined to shake off the relics of its ancient past. Like China and India, the political, economic and cultural background of the previous 400 years had not served to project Iran’s ideas of antiquity onto an international stage. While the West had been pushing its ideas and influence everywhere, the East had been struggling.
All this helps to explain why classical Greece and Rome have played such a big part in ideas about antiquity in the past. And it also points to the likelihood of changes in this perspective in the years to come.
There are two reasons for expecting a different trend. One is that the hegemony of the West is visibly fading, and with it the power to project its ideas across the world. The other is that ideas of antiquity are taking on a new political salience at a time when nationalism is on the rise in many places. Politicians in different parts of the world are turning to their country’s deep history to reinforce a sense of national identity, and with it their authority. This is evident in different ways in China, India and Iran, as well as in a number of other countries around the globe.
“Politicians are turning to their country’s deep history to reinforce a sense of national identity.”
There are different views about whether and when China will overtake the US as the world’s largest economy. In some ways, this is a pointless debate. As has been the case for the past 200 years, there continues to be a vast gap between China and the US in terms of GDP per head, social development and military resources. But there is no doubt that the balance of power has shifted in a marked fashion. The fraught relationship today between the US and China over trade issues shows two superpowers confronting each other more or less as equals, rather than with one pushing the other around.
At the same time, the US under President Trump has been backing away from its leadership role in global affairs. This has been most visible during the Covid-19 crisis. The response in Washington has been chaotic. But following its grave mishandling in the early stages of the pandemic, Beijing has, by contrast, been playing a part that in past times might have been expected from the US, offering assistance to Serbia, Italy, Spain, sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. In the financial crisis of 2008, China coordinated its support efforts with the US. This time around, it has worked alone – and pointed sharp criticism at other rich countries for lagging behind. President Xi, apparently unabashed by China’s performance in the early stages of the pandemic, has been talking confidently about what he calls “the health Silk Road”.
Perhaps connected with these geopolitical trends, difficult questions are being asked in Europe and the US about their place in the world and their own histories. In these less confident times, empire guilt is evident in the UK and elsewhere, and debates about the restitution of objects from museum collections have taken on a new life.
Nor are classical Greek and Latin studies what they were. The London Times reported in February 2020 that Oxford University was considering changes in its classics degree, and could decide to make the Iliad and the Aeneid optional in the second part of the degree. The reason given was that the classics were seen as elitist, and the faculty was under pressure to accept more state school pupils.
It’s against this background that China is pushing hard to build a new kind of world order – one in which it would challenge and even replace the US-led international system that has shaped global affairs for so long. What is striking is that its campaign is being built in part on a foundation that Mao had attempted to destroy – China’s ancient history, its antiquity.
In the years after Mao’s death in 1976, China adopted a low profile on the global stage. Deng Xiaoping called it a “hide-our-capacities approach”. But the 21st Century brought a strategy of much more assertive diplomacy, in which soft power had an important part to play. President Hu Jintao signalled the new direction in 2007, when he told the 17th Party Conference that Chinese culture needed to “go global” by building on its arts and its history. And this is exactly what has happened in subsequent years.
Just five decades after his name was being vilified, Confucius has now become a pillar of China’s soft power policy. The Ministry of Education has established over 500 government-funded Confucius Institutes in 140 countries – nearly 200 of them in the past five years alone. They offer language classes, sometimes along with a broader cultural offer such as traditional Chinese medicine. And the ideas of Confucius himself have been honed to reinforce the arguments in support of a hierarchical society based on respect for those that are most powerful, and on the need for service on the part of individual citizens in pursuit of greater harmony.
Along with the institutes, China has also set up more than 1,000 Confucius Classrooms and school-based language hubs in foreign schools to help children learn Mandarin and to experience Chinese culture.
Chinese antiquity was also the platform for launching what is by far China’s biggest foreign policy initiative, the Belt and Road project. In the words of one commentator, this “represents the transformation of China from a regional into a global power”. Still vague in its outline, this is the ambition to build a global economic order with China close to its heart. And President Xi Jinping has always presented it as a continuation of China’s long history, and of its relationships with the world – in short, a modern-day version of the Silk Road.
Speaking in Kazakhstan in one of his early speeches on the subject, he said: “Today, as I stand here and look back at history, I can almost hear the camel bells echoing in the mountains and see the wisps of smoke rising from the desert, and this gives me a specially good feeling.”
There are other, more conventional, ways of promoting soft power on the international stage. One is by lending wonderful objects from antiquity to museums around the world. The First Emperor’s Terracotta Army has been a brilliant ambassador in this respect – thrilling large audiences in the UK, Spain, Chile, the US, Canada, India and beyond.
All this adds up to a breathtakingly large state investment. The US Council on Foreign Relations has estimated that China now spends about $10 billion a year on what it describes as soft power initiatives. For comparison, the US State Department budget for public diplomacy was $666 million in 2014 – and the Trump administration has subsequently cut the Department’s budget by 30 per cent.
“It’s estimated that China now spends about $10 billion a year on what are described as soft power initiatives.”
This is part of a very much larger investment in international engagement of all kinds. The British Council published in 2020 an estimate of Beijing’s global investment plans, taking in such initiatives as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the various Silk Road projects. The figure for a ten-year period amounted to $1.41 trillion. By comparison, the post-war Marshall Plan cost the equivalent of $103 billion in today’s money. This represents an extraordinarily ambitious set of foreign policy initiatives. And perhaps that is an argument for wrapping them up in the comfort blanket of antiquity.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also adapting history in general, and antiquity in particular, to suit his ambitions for India. But unlike President Xi, he is not doing this primarily to project India’s influence across the world. Instead, he sees his versions of history as a way of consolidating his political power at home, and of developing an idea of India that is very different from that of most of his predecessors.
Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders of India after independence championed the toleration of heterodoxy and pluralism in Indian culture and history, seeing this as a cornerstone of the secular society they were determined to build. There was to be no simple foundation story. In the words of Rabindranath Tagore, the poet and painter, “the idea of India” was something opposed to “the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others”.
Prime Minister Modi comes from a very different starting point. From childhood, he had been attracted to the ideas of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, a right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation, and he served as a full-time campaigner on its behalf through most of his twenties and beyond. The RSS has been a prime driver behind the Hindutva movement, which promotes an exclusively Hindu view of Indian civilisation, and draws inspiration from the period from around the Third Millennium BCE to the beginning of the Second Millennium CE before the Muslim conquest of India. Its guiding text is the Ramayana, the great epic poem.
One violent manifestation of this belief came in 1992, when rioters destroyed a mosque in Ayodhya in order to build a temple to Rama, the epic hero, who they believed had been born on that exact spot thousands of years earlier.
From this early background, Mr Modi rose to increasing prominence in the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP first came to power in 1998, and immediately showed the importance it attached to its version of history. Textbooks for schoolchildren put out by the National Council of Educational Research and Training were extensively rewritten, laying emphasis on the priorities of the Hindutva movement and deleting events that didn’t fit the narrative.
There are problems with this view of the world, starting with the fact that the Indus Valley civilisation flourished well before the timing of the earliest Hindu literature, the Vedas, which are usually dated to the middle of the Second Millennium BCE. Amartya Sen puts it this way: “The Hindutva view of history, which traces the origin of Indian civilisation to the Vedas has, therefore, the double ‘difficulty’ of 1) having to accept that the foundational basis of Hindu culture came originally from outside India, and 2) being unable to place Hinduism at the beginning of Indian cultural history and its urban heritage.”
But this hasn’t greatly troubled the Hindutva champions, who like to promote the idea of a golden age for Hindu culture and science in pre-history. Hindu nationalists have claimed that many discoveries of modern science and technology – guided missiles and stem cell research among them – were known to the people of ancient India. And in 2014 Mr Modi himself advanced the idea that cosmetic surgery had been familiar to the ancients.
He won his first election as Prime Minister when the BJP returned to power in 2014, largely on the promise of economic reform and growth: his slogan was “all together, development for all”. But with the economy faltering, this inclusive approach started to fade. The rewriting of history books began again in earnest, and the government was slow to condemn a spate of murders by Hindu mobs.
And since winning an outright parliamentary majority in May 2019, Mr Modi has used this victory to pursue what The Economist describes as an explicitly Hindutva social agenda.
In August that year, he annulled the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir, leaving the 7.5 million inhabitants of the Kashmir Valley, nearly all of them Muslim, under the watch of very large numbers of Indian soldiers. In November, the Supreme Court asserted the right of Hindus to take over the contested site at Ayodyha. And then, in December, came the big moves. First, a change in the law to make it easier for adherents of all the subcontinent’s religions, except Islam, to acquire citizenship; second, a proposal to compile a register of all India’s 1.3 billion citizens in order to hunt down illegal immigrants. This is seen as a particular threat to India’s 200 million Muslims, many of whom don’t have papers to prove their citizenship. The government is proposing to build camps to detain those who can’t pass the test.
Writing in the New York Times, historian Romila Thapar says: “The most dangerous aspect of the implanting of the Hindutva version of history across Indian society is that the divide between professional history and the version of the past used to legitimize Hindu majoritarianism is increasing. The latter has the patronage of the government, is well financed, and is popularized in a variety of ways. Those critical of this Hindutva history are already being labelled anti-national in an attempt to subvert historical research.”
With Nehru and his colleagues dismissed by the BJP leadership as Europeanised elites, history has become a battleground in India. And the way its antiquity is portrayed in the future will help to determine what kind of country it is going to become.
Iran is also reconsidering its relationships with antiquity. In this case, the process can perhaps most easily be observed in the story of a single object – one of the great treasures of the British Museum, the Cyrus Cylinder.
It’s not much to look at. A clay cylinder, covered in cuneiform script, the size of a loaf of bread with a few bits missing. Yet it is of immense importance both in Iran and the wider Middle East, and has come to play a significant part in Iranian culture over the past 50 years.
The cylinder was made shortly after Cyrus, king of the Persians, entered Babylon in 539 BCE without a fight, and took with it the mighty Babylonian Empire that ran from southern Iraq to the Mediterranean. And what makes this object so special is the message that it carries – that the people whom the Babylonians had conquered and oppressed, Jews and others, were free to leave and to take their temple goods and their gods back to their homelands.
The cylinder was found in 1879 in modern-day Iraq in excavations supported by the British Museum, and came to political attention in 1917, when the Balfour Declaration promised a Jewish national home in Israel. Cyrus’ message was seen in Israel as a symbol of unique tolerance, and revered accordingly.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was also much taken by the message. For his famous banquet in the desert he borrowed the cylinder from London and gave it a place of honour. A gold medal was struck, showing the Shah’s head on one side and the cylinder on the other.
A pre-Islamic king much favoured by the Shah – small wonder that the clerics shunned the cylinder immediately after the revolution. But the terrible war with Iraq, which started in 1980, began to shift Cyrus back into official favour. As Neil MacGregor, former Director of the British Museum, wrote: “it became critical for Iranians to remember their great past, the moment when they had heroically fought Iraq and won.” In 2005, 34 years after it had appeared on a postage stamp under the old regime, the cylinder again made its appearance on an Iranian stamp. And when the British Museum lent it to Teheran in 2010, it was welcomed by President Ahmadinejad in person and viewed by around 500,000 people.
Large crowds now gather each year at the end of October at Cyrus’ tomb in Passagardae to celebrate his birthday. Some reports claim that state officials seek to repress these gatherings – others say they are simply maintaining order. In a visit to the country last year, I saw images of the cylinder on display in consumer advertisements and casts on sale in the marketplace, and I had the impression that it promoted very mixed feelings among the public. For the majority, it was a symbol of national pride. For others, particularly young people, it represented the country they wanted Iran to be – open, and with proper respect for human rights. I was told that some wear miniature versions around their necks, hidden under their shirts as a kind of silent protest. I met one elderly man for whom it clearly prompted nostalgic memories of what for him was the much-missed Pahlavi dynasty.
There is other evidence of growing Iranian interest in their ancient past, apparently without government opposition. For example, ancient festivals are again being celebrated in a marked way. The Norouz New Year, of course, but others, too, such as Yalda or Mehregan. Lots of young people, and some older ones, now wear a Faravahar symbol, the winged figure of the Zoroastrian religion that originated thousands of years ago.
Iran is a complicated country, and it would be unwise to read too much into this popular interest in pre-Islamic culture. What is clear, though, is that this is a country very conscious of its glorious history, and where the theocracy, for all its formidable physical presence, still has limits to its reach.
China, India, Iran; these are countries where antiquity is, in one form or another, developing growing political salience. There are others – including Egypt, where the Grand Egyptian Museum is due to open next year and is seen as a powerful symbol of national identity. The same can be said of the Zayed National Museum in Abu Dhabi. A more extraordinary example was President Putin’s justification in 2014 for Russia’s annexation of Crimea which had, he said, “invaluable civilisation and even sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism”.
The wish to assert national identity is also part of the explanation for restitution claims. Greece has long been making the case for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, and there is growing pressure now being felt from sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and elsewhere for the return of indigenous objects.
What this all adds up to is a future for antiquity that is more diverse, more contested and more political than the past. There could be real benefits if the outcome is a culture in which other people’s antiquity is better understood and more respected than has often been the case in the past few hundred years. But there are also risks – and one big question.
For example, there are risks to scholarship and freedom of speech in countries where history is being rewritten to align with political ideas, and where challenging those histories can be labelled as unpatriotic.
“What this all adds up to is a future for antiquity that is more diverse, more contested and more political than the past.”
And a big question to be addressed in this changing climate is about the purpose and future of those institutions that act as custodians of so much of the world’s physical antiquities – the great museums of the Western world. Many were set up in the 18th and 19th Centuries as encyclopaedias of physical objects. Hans Sloane, whose collection laid the foundations for the British Museum, said in his will that he wanted it to be “rendered as useful as possible, as well towards satisfying the desire of the curious, as for the improvement, knowledge and information of all persons”.
But that is no longer a sufficient justification for keeping vast amounts of other people’s antiquity under one roof. This is a world where there are many other ways of finding knowledge than by visiting museums, and where the consequences of Western hegemony and empire are being challenged – and with it the legitimacy of keeping objects that came to the museums in very different times.
In today’s very different environment, these museums face five big challenges.
First, they have to present their collections in ways that reflect the fact that the future of antiquity is going to be different and more diverse than its past. Among other things, that means giving more visibility to parts of the world that have tended to take second place to the classical treasures of the Mediterranean. It also means full transparency about the provenance of contested items in their collections. That in turn will require a wider range of intellectual inputs than has typically been the case. The stories which the objects tell will require different voices, from different communities.
Second, they will need to do more to explore the relationships between the different cultures that are housed under their roofs. This is the great opportunity for these big institutions. In a way that is not open to national collections, they can show how cultures interconnect and interreact, and help to explain ideas and innovations that have crossed borders and spread around the world.
Third, big museums need to do even more than they are already doing to share their collections and their scholarship. This means lending objects, building partnerships around the world, and working together to protect heritage sites at risk from environmental change and war.
Fourth, they are going to have to build on the work they are already doing to generate new knowledge through research and scholarship, and developing new techniques of conservation. Again, this is an important argument for keeping these big collections together.
Finally, technology has a vital part to play. In 2019, 6.2 million people visited the British Museum, making it the most visited attraction in the UK. But those numbers look small in a world where perhaps four billion people have access to the Internet. Covid-19 did not close the BM until 18 March 2020, but in that calendar month as a whole, 1.8 million people visited the website from all across the globe, pushing it to 4.9 million pageviews. In a world where many people don’t feel that museums are for them, and vastly more don’t have the opportunity to visit in person, the Internet allows these institutions to share access to their collections, along with the ideas that they contain, and thus remain relevant centres of cultural understanding.
They have made a start, with virtual tours, curator talks, history timelines and the beginnings of virtual reality programmes. But the museum closures have underscored an urgent need to develop new and more accessible online content in order to bring the collections alive. For example, many museums have millions of objects registered and described online. That’s great for scholars who know what they are looking for, but it does not do much to help the general public to understand their stories. More interactivity, more narrative, and a greater sense of community will be needed to make that happen.
The Internet will also make it much easier to compare different cultures and to understand their development. Over the winter of 2017-18, the CSMVS Museum in Mumbai mounted a special exhibition: India & the World: a History in Nine Stories. By bringing together objects from its collection, the National Museum in Delhi and the British Museum, it was able to address such questions as: what was happening in India when the pyramids were being built in Egypt? How have different civilisations pictured the Divine?
The exhibition was a big success, not least because it showed that the very different cultures on display actually had much in common. But it took years to plan and was expensive to present. Working together in a virtual format, museums from around the world should be able to find it much easier to compare and contrast different cultures in this way.
There is another important way in which technology will help to change the future of antiquity. High-resolution scanning and composite photography make possible new ways of recording and sharing cultural heritage. You can now produce a physical copy of an object that is an exact replica of the original in terms of colour, surface features and size.
In 2017, over a million books in the university library of Mosul were destroyed by Isis action. In October 2019, exact facsimiles of two lamassu statues – Assyrian protective deities in the form of human-headed winged lions – were presented to the university by the British Museum and the Factum Foundation of Madrid, and installed at the library entrance. It was an emotional moment, aimed at keeping alive the memory of Assyrian carvings that had been destroyed in Nimrud and the museum in Mosul, and a symbol of hope for the future. The originals had been brought to London by the archaeologist Sir Austin Henry Layard in the 1840s, and their job as protective deities is to ensure that no evil presence enters the building.
Of course, authenticity matters – both to researchers, who want to be able to examine in minute detail the characteristics of ancient objects, and to the public, who want to imagine the hands that fashioned an object 3,000 years ago.
But the technology will make it possible to show objects in new ways and in new places, as Mosul University has demonstrated. And it must be possible to imagine a future in which original objects and their copies are exchanged, probably on a temporary basis, to excite and inform a wider public.
All this means that different ideas of antiquity and the objects and stories that go with them will in the future be available in many more formats to much wider and more diverse audiences than has been the case in the past.
Partnership and knowledge-sharing will be key to the future of these institutions, and there are already practical examples to point the way. Funded by the European Union and led by the Museo Egizio of Turin, five of the great European museums are working together with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities to help develop a strategic master plan for Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, including new displays and improved interpretation. Their collections were beneficiaries of the partage system in the 19th Century. Now the sharing is about knowledge rather than objects.
It’s possible in these circumstances to imagine two very different scenarios.
In one, nationalist politicians have exploited their countries’ histories to highlight a sense of cultural difference and exceptionalism. Histories have been rewritten to align with their vision. Museums are no longer stores of different cultures and independent scholarship, but arms of the state which shape their narratives to suit the politicians. Criticism is condemned.
In the other, the legacies of ancient Greece and Rome still have universal appeal, but instead of predominating they now stand alongside other people’s antiquity. Museums are seen as hubs for all kinds of different cultural activities, open to many different participants in virtual and physical formats.
They recognise that their great collections bring with them a responsibility to collaborate much more energetically with others, to generate and share knowledge, and to reach out to audiences that don’t easily find their way through the door. Cultures are not presented in separate silos – and great efforts are made to understand their differences and their similarities.
Achieving this second scenario would create great public benefits. But one way or the other, the future of antiquity is going to be very different from the past.
Postscript: Antiquity after Covid-19
Antiquity is at risk in wartime. “Stuff happens” was US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s laconic comment on the looting of the Baghdad National Museum during the invasion of 2003 – and the loss of large swathes of Iraq’s national patrimony has only been partly offset by the recovery of some of the stolen objects.
The damage caused more recently by Isis to the treasures of antiquity in Iraq and Syria was even more shocking.
Covid-19 has been likened to the impact of war, with its enormous human and economic costs. Among many other possible consequences is the threat it poses to cultural heritage, especially in the developing world. It’s not hard to imagine the risks to unprotected archaeological or heritage sites and to cash-starved museums in the face of economic calamity and the political upheavals that could follow.
But just as is the case in wartime, antiquity and the ideas that go with it may come to have special value in the face of a global pandemic. Evidence of how humanity has coped with disasters over the millennia has extra relevance. And stories that have inspired people for thousands of years can do so again today.
Some of the most severe challenges posed by Covid-19 are faced by a number of countries in the developing world – those which have relatively underdeveloped health systems, and which will have to cope with high levels of indebtedness, falling commodity prices, capital flight, much lower levels of remittances and far fewer tourists.
Will the rich world stand back while “stuff happens” to their cultural heritage too? Just as in Baghdad, there may seem to be more urgent priorities at a time of crisis. But as Iraq also showed, there are real costs in allowing a country’s patrimony – its sense of national identity – to be dissipated.
France’s President Macron was the first European leader to recognise that rich countries have a responsibility and a real interest in supporting the worst-affected parts of the world: pandemics don’t stop at national borders. And the private sector has a part to play too, especially when it comes to preserving heritage.
First in this respect come the great philanthropic foundations. The Getty Trust is a model here, already heavily committed to protecting endangered antiquity, and other foundations can play a similar part. Public–private partnerships can be important too, such as the British Museum’s work to preserve Iraq’s cultural heritage, which is supported by the UK government.
The museum sector in the West does not have financial resources to spare for philanthropic work, but it could help in other ways. Knowledge-sharing and conservation training will be especially important. So will enhanced collaboration to identify and return stolen objects.
The big national museums in the developed world could work together to identify antiquities that are at risk and lobby for political and philanthropic help. And they could each identify particular partner museums – perhaps from those parts of the world where their collections are especially strong – and try to help them in every way they can through the difficult times to come.
The pandemic will also have severe consequences for cultural activities of all kinds in the West. Budgets have been wrecked by the enforced closures to the public that were necessary to contain the pandemic. Tourist numbers are likely to be sharply down, and it may be some time before visitors feel confident that a museum is a place where they can relax and enjoy themselves. This will have a painful impact on commercial revenues.
At the same time, public funding will be under enormous pressure, as national and local governments seek to pay off the debts they have run up during the crisis. Philanthropists may feel constrained by falling asset prices and the threat of higher taxes.
So the museum sector will be as badly hit as any. But there are things it can and should do to raise its game in these difficult circumstances.
The first and most obvious is to improve its digital offer. This process has already started, but it has a long way to go. If the world can’t go to the museum, then the museum needs to go to the world. This will mean creating digital content for many different audiences, from PhD students to primary school children, and for the widest possible range of communities. It will mean curating exhibitions specifically for online audiences. And it will require collaboration with other institutions – sharing content, linking collections from around the world with common interests, and giving smaller regional museums full digital access to national collections.
At the same time, museums will need to do more to attract local residents to their physical locations. In the case of the big national institutions, this has not had to be such a priority in the past when rising numbers of foreign tourists have given them all the visitors they could handle. That is likely to change post Covid-19, and the museums’ public programming will need to change with it – not least because widening access will strengthen the argument in favour of more public funding.
Back in 2012, the British Museum opened a major exhibition: Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam. It was the first in the world dedicated to the personal journey every year of millions of Islamic pilgrims to Mecca, and it brought large numbers of first-time visitors to the museum. The same was true of its Manga exhibition in 2019, except this time it was young people who came flooding through the doors.
Of course, scholarship must remain a priority. But so must efforts to introduce more diverse audiences to their cultural heritage, and to that of the wider world.
Finally, museums will have the opportunity after Covid-19 to remind people and themselves of why they exist, and of the public benefits they bring. They are not just tourist attractions or collections of beautiful objects in glass cases. They are places which tell stories of our common humanity, and which help us to understand how different cultures have come together over the millennia to shape the world we live in. They show how people have coped, or not, with environmental change and plague in the past. And they allow us to be optimistic about human resilience.
The world before Covid-19 feels like a very long time ago, and the journey to better times looks lengthy, uncertain and dangerous. Perhaps the world of antiquity in general, and Homer in particular, can help us along the way.
The Odyssey tells the story of a grim and sometimes terrifying voyage to an uncertain destination – but one where dangers that seem insurmountable ahead of time can sometimes turn out to be less fearsome in reality, where there is always room for ingenuity and optimism, and in which the human spirit can rise to unexpected heights.
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Extract from ‘Ithaka’ by C. P. Cavafy, translated by Edmund Keeley
Illustrations by Tim Vyner