Summary of the ‘Ancient Ideology and Imagined Histories’ AMME Seminar

The first seminar of the spring convened on the subject of ‘Ancient Ideology and Imagined Histories’ on January 23rd.

In the first talk of the evening, Dr. Emanuel Pfoh examined some of the many ideologies which have underlain the historiography of ancient Israel. A range of both religious and secular ideologies has affected the region’s historiography, which has moulded our understanding of history, which in turn has shaped prevalent ideologies, forming a loop. The 19th century marked a turning point with Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign and Hegel’s ideas on the philosophy of history: the Near East described in the Bible was brought from the realms of metaphor and allegory into the realm of history. Since then, there have been strong influences from German Protestantism, nationalist ideas, Israeli ethnogenesis, and Zionism, among others.

Since the 1990s, there has been critical discussion on the capacity of the Bible to tell us about the region’s history, and on whether a biblical or ancient Israel is what we should even be looking for. When looking for the origins of Israel, where do we relegate the other histories of the region, or the people living there today?

Prof. Dr. Franco De Angelis then brought us to consider one particular idea affecting classical and Near Eastern studies, Ex Oriente Lux. Translating to ‘out of the East, light’, the phrase refers to the belief that complex ideas, such as developed technologies and social structures, were brought from the east to the backward west. Ex Oriente Lux thinking has its background in antiquity, reaching back to Greek culture-bringers and to Roman Hellenism. It came to be applied to the western Mediterranean due to ideas like the 19th-century stereotype of savage lands meeting civilisation and eagerly adopting this civilisation from their new masters. In our disciplines this has affected, for example, the question of the origin of Etruscans. Because of a tendency for Ex Oriente Lux thinking, the interpretation of Etruscans having a Lydian origin was given perhaps undue emphasis.

De Angelis emphasises that when grappling with this bias, we must not overcorrect and swing the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. Rather, the applicability of an interpretation must be assessed for each individual case. Backwardness adopting progress should be neither assumed nor discounted without evidence.

Audience questions brought up the important matter of why it is important for us to recognise, examine, and discuss the ideologies that have affected scholarship in the past. Though we have certainly made progress in moving away from ideas we have recognised as harmful, this progress is neither complete nor uniform across countries, disciplines, and individuals, and the legacies of old ideologies continue to haunt the corners of our scholarship today. We must also not think that we have become unideological: everyone holds ideological and political views, and they must be seen and made explicit.

The talks and the resulting discussions were excellent and productive, and we would like to thank both speakers as well as all the attendees for their participation. Please join us again on Thursday 7 March, when we will be discussing 'Pictorial Aspects of Ancient Texts'.