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In Mantua did Gonzaga a stately pleasure dome decree. Being a renaissance tyrant, he decorated that dome with plaster frippery and curliques and paintings of fashionable Greek and Roman themes, but he also decorated it with these:

A roof decorated with neo-classical reliefs and fake heiroglyphics

A decorated roof at one of the palaces in Mantua.

Those are fake hieroglyphics! Nobody could read heiroglyphics in the sixteenth century, but that was not a problem for the plasterers of Mantua any more than it had been for the priests of Isis at Pompeii 1500 years before. Putting up some old sculptures with a sphinx or obelisk and some mysterious inscriptions communicated a message of exotic cosmopolitanism, and that (not “a thousand of bread, a thousand of beer, a thousand of all good things to Semtutefnakht” or “Pa the scribe was here, these other scribes have trembling hands and stumbling lips”) was the message which visitors needed to read. Looking fashionably ancient in sixteenth-century Italy included Egyptian inscriptions as well as Greek friezes and busts of emperors. This raises the question when Europeans, and European settlers overseas, decided that the Greeks and Romans were ‘us’ and Egyptians, Syrians, or Persians were ‘them.’

Franks in the Middle Ages usually took the same inclusive view of the pre-Christian past. Lists of the Nine Worthies had places for Christians, Jews, and pagans, Boccaccio drew exempla from Justin’s tales about Artaxerxes I defeating the schemes of the murderous chiliarch Artabanus, and the English decided that they were descended from the Trojans. This does not mean that they were not full of prejudices against foreigners, but in a world where Europeans divided their neighbours into “Christians, Greeks, and heathens”, pagan Persians did not necessarily seem more exotic than pagan Athenians or Jews who disagreed whether the messiah had come.

Some people blame Johann Joachim Winckelmann who rhapsodized about the genius of Greek art and the beauty of bare white marble, or thinkers from the 19th century who split philology into classics (reading what we would call Indo-European languages) and religious studies (studying Hebrew and Arabic and other Semitic languages plus Sanskrit), but in the 1920s there was still wide popular interest in taking wisdom from the ancient Near East. One of the most popular American books on personal finance, The Richest Man in Babylon by George Samuel Clason (first published as a book in 1926), is a series of parables set in Babylon. His audience of small-town, middle-income Americans had never been taught that they were from one civilization and Babylon was from another and the only acceptable to interact with other civilizations was to conquer them with overwhelming force, so they were happy to look for wisdom in Babylon. At the same time, the Berkeley Daily Gazette for 20 August 1928 announced a tablet I have written about before as follows:


Accidental discovery of a hitherto unstudied clay tablet in the University of California museum of anthropology has completely upset previous interpretations of ancient Babylonian documents by Assyriologists, and established the fact that pre-Christian Babylonia existed under a feudal system similar to those of Europe and particularly England as late as the seventeenth century.*

This small-town newspaper accepted that ancient Babylonians and medieval Europeans were both people, who under similar circumstances could develop similar institutions which could be studied both as institutions and within the context of a particular place and time. It did not assume that they were from two incommensurate and alien civilizations.

It may be that secularization in the late 20th century, and the decline of forms of Christianity which encourage broad and deep knowledge of the Bible, created the climate where some Europeans and European settlers could convince themselves that their only cultural ancestors were Greeks and Romans and that their civilization and Near Eastern civilization had nothing to do with one another. Even now, plenty of Americans are enthusiastic about Vikings and Norse myth. It does not take a genius to see that American culture draws on Greco-Roman traditions, and Jewish and Christian traditions, and Germanic traditions, and indigenous traditions from the New World. It does not take someone very clever to remember that Americans have been snatching at things Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese in search of artistic inspiration or spiritual wisdom since the 19th century. The only thing which takes a slippery mind is overlooking these facts, and explaining away these uncomfortable details, and distracting an audience from seeing things which are before their eyes. And as we saw yesterday in Christchurch, slippery words about how only some people are really part of your community or your heritage, how other people should stay where they are while your people can move to their land and take it over, or how part of the common heritage of mankind is only safe as long as a pure and select group control it, these words are often pretexts for despicable acts.

Can my gentle readers recommend some good books on this?

* I thank John Lee at the University of California Santa Barbara for a photo of this newspaper article ↑ back to top ↑

Edit 2019-03-24: Peter Harrison, “An Eccentric Tradition: The Paradox of ‘Western Values’,” ABC Religion & Ethics 18 January 2018 (Wayback Machine) argues that “western values” and “Judeo-Christian” are hard to find in English books before the 1940s (the later dates back to Ferdinand Christian Baur, a Tübingen theologian in 1831 and was popularized by Friederich Nietzsche, but Americans often think they invented it in the postwar period) and that for most of the last 2000 years, western Europeans saw texts from outside their geographical and cultural world- Greek literature, the Bible, a long-lost pagan Roman antiquity- as the highest source of cultural authority.

This post was written some time ago, and scheduled for posting a few days ago before events required me to add the second to last sentence.