A verse in Psalm 135, in the Old Testament, goes, “[God] struck down many nations, and killed mighty kings. – Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan….”.
Sihon and Og were clearly seen as great rulers in their time. Today, however, apart from tiny walk-on parts in the Bible, they are completely unknown; and in the great scheme of world history, they are rightly relegated to utter obscurity. They ruled what we would regard as tiny realms in what are today Israel and Jordan in the 2nd millennium BC.
Famous men in their time
But these verses show that contemporary perspectives are very different to those of later ages. Men who are great in their own times are completely forgotten centuries later. There’s that wonderful poem, Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley, that illustrates it so well:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
And it’s not only people powerful three thousand years ago who are, to all practical purposes, forgotten. Who in Britain, apart from historians, has heard of the 3rd Duke of Grafton or the 1st Viscount Goderich? They were prime ministers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even Lord Liverpool, prime minister for a total of twelve years between 1812 and 1826, is completely unknown to 999 out of 1000 modern Brits. Indeed,probably scarcely 1 in a 100 could say with any approximation when King George IV reigned.
I bet you Americans aren’t much better. Millard Filmore? Chester Arthur? Look ‘em up.
All these men would have been headline news in their time, but now all consigned to oblivion.
Long forgotten countries
It’s not only people. It’s countries as well. Going back to the Biblical example referred to above, where was Bashan? What of Isin, for centuries one of the most powerful of the Sumerian states?
In a way, these are non-questions – how on earth could we be expected to know al of the thousands of states which flourished in the ancient world? Not only in the Middle East, but in other parts of the world such as India and China there were a multitude of states, some centres of great power and influence in their time, which we can’t be expected to recall.
The same is even true of states closer to us in time and space. Arles? Piedmont? Mercia? The geographical labels might tell you where they were in Europe, but when did they flourish? What was their significance in the great scheme of things?
I’m not complaining about this at all. You can have a real grasp of 18th and 19th century British history with barely an awareness of the existence of the duke of Grafton and Lord Goderich; and of 19th century America with knowing nothing of Messrs Filmore and Arthur. In fact, one of my criticisms of some history curricula around the world is that they are far too heavy on facts. This means that students can easily lose sight of what was really important in a particulate era in history. They also come to think that history is nothing more than (almost meaningless) facts. Such curricula can be dreadfully boring, and thus commit the unpardonable crime of putting people off the fascinating subject which is history.
No. The point I’m trying to emphasis is an obvious one, but which we often forget. This is that, at any point in history, things seem firmly fixed in place. But they aren’t.
To the people of much of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, the Roman empire was a permanent part of their universe – hence the awful shock they got in 410 when its capital, Rome (the “Eternal City”), was sacked. Similarly, to us the United States of America is a rock-solid part of our understanding of the world. But as sure as eggs are eggs, there will come a time when it is no more. This might be a thousand and more years in the future; maybe, however, the next 50 years will see it tear itself apart: from an outsider’s perspective this scenario seems all too likely, with no one apparently willing to heal the culture wars apart from with platitudes.
It seems even more likely that my own country, Britain, will cease to exist within the next few years. If the country’s exit from the European Union is on terms which are harmful to the Scots and Northern Irish, one can easily imagine both peoples exiting the United Kingdom as soon as they can.
In the long term, all nations and states get pulverized in the grinder of history; and the status of big powers is ever changing. Countries rise and fall in status. When I was a kid, a quarter of the world was painted pink: little did I realise that the British empire was by then little more than a mirage. America has been the big kid on the block, but is now being challenged by China. China already looks vulnerable for various reasons, not least its demographic trends. What will be the future superpowers – India? Brazil? Argentina? Indonesia? In due course, a state not yet born may be the powers to which all other countries defer: the United States of South America, perhaps, or even the Confederated Habitats of the Outer Asteroid Belt.