We were watching a TV show about ancient Egypt and the voiceover told us the pyramids we were visiting were “35 centuries old,” and that phrase suddenly struck me in a new way.
I am now 68 years old, which is a bit more than two-thirds of a century, and I have a body-sense, a memory-sense — a conceptual awareness — of what a century feels like. I wrote for the newspaper for a quarter of a century. Four times that and Bingo! So, a century has a palpable meaning for me. I feel it in my bones. Hearing the TV presenter, then, made me react, “Thirty-five is not a very large number.” I can picture in my mind’s eye what 35 centuries might be, and it really doesn’t seem like all that long. The Viking Age ended only 10 of them ago.
After all, my grandfather, who I knew when I was a boy, was born in 1890, which was the year Vincent van Gogh died. It was also the year Sitting Bull died, and the Elephant Man (John Merrick), and Heinrich Schliemann — the man who discovered Troy. My grandfather was seven years old before Johannes Brahms died. These historical figures seem that much less remote when I think of it that way.
For my wife, it is even more present. When she was a girl, her great-grandmother lived with her family. Her great-grandmother, Nancy Jane Steele, was a Civil War widow. She married Rowan Steele after that war, but Rowan had been a cavalry soldier during the battle at Appomattox. That dumps the War Between the States right in my wife’s lap. History is not some remote collection of facts gathered from a book, it is family.
The word, “century,” has its roots in family. The Latin word was “saeculum,” which was an indistinct time period that measured, basically, the time from your grandfather to the time of your grandchild. Caesar Augustus regularized that time to be 110 years, but in effect it varied from 90 years to about 120 years. It was an “age.”
History, as a subject, is different if you think of it that way. It is not a set of facts for a trivia contest, but a continuity, of which we are each a knot along a string.
For many, these days, that continuity is found in genealogy: How far back can you trace your ancestors? With various DNA tests, you can discover ancestry beyond the civic records of the standard genealogy. A y-DNA test can follow the paternal haplogroup all the way back to Africa, with punctuated stops along the way. A maternal mitochondrial DNA test can do the same for the distaff side.
It means that you are very personally connected to the history you study in school. Somewhere among those pogroms, crusades, wars and massacres, your strands of DNA were either slaughtered or doing the slaughtering, and probably both at different times. Looked at through the small lens, genealogy is your story; looked at through the big lens, all of history is your story. How can one not be interested?
My granddaughter is now studying AP world history, and sometimes, she comes to me for help understanding the subject. I wish I could somehow inspire her to see it not as an impersonal school subject she has to be graded on, but the story of how she got here, what happened on the way to her creation, and how she fits into that grand, long picture. She makes good grades, but it would be more important to think of history as something personal, something that informs her life: She is Southern, so the slavery that ended 151 years ago colors her life every day; the arguments held in Philadelphia in 1787 affect what she can and cannot do today; that the battle of Plataea in 479 BC is part of the reason she speaks English today and not some descendant of Farsi.
The horsemen from Mongolia shaped what later became Russia, which became the Soviet Union, which defeated Nazi Germany, became our enemy in the Cold War, and led to Vladimir Putin today. It is not ancient history, it is merely the dangling end of a long cord: The same people who gave us Xanadu and Kublai Khan gave us the Silk Road and the Golden Horde, and is one of the reasons given for why Hungary is named HUN-gary, and, incidentally, gave their name to the tartar sauce you put on fried fish.
It is disappointing to see so many Americans with so little sense of history, of where we came from. We hear the resurrected Know-Nothing-ism of Donald Trump and too many of his followers hear no resonance of the anti-Catholic, anti-Irish sentiment of the earlier wave of xenophobia. The past, for them, is a black hole out of which no wisdom can emerge.
Presentism, as it is sometimes called, is rampant: the belief that what is now is somehow “true,” and the past was all a big mistake; it is the error that what we think and believe now is the “right” and “correct” version of the world, and those benighted people of old were merely beta-versions of humanity. We require more humility; history can provide that humility.
I can remember when the faces of Eisenhower and Stevenson on the tiny black and white television we had in the house when I was yet too young to go to school. I remember the Dodgers at Ebbets Field. I remember when they added the second deck to the George Washington Bridge. These things are now history. They are ink on a page in the history book my granddaughter reads for class. But I was a real person who lived through them. My father lived through the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. My great-uncle wore puttees as a dough boy in the first War to End Wars. My wife’s great-grandfather fought in the Civil War. Somewhere, back before my genealogy became writ into the family bible, I surely had ancestors who went a-viking and worshipped the lord Odin.
I feel those connections, not as dry intellectual answers to history-class homework questions. History is not something merely read, it is red, it runs through our veins. It’s been there for 35 centuries, at least.