Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Bad Mental Habit of Anachronism

The Roman roads were not "the Internet of the ancient world." Clipper ships were not "the Internet of the 19th century." I really dislike this tendency on the part of some historians, and some pseudo-historians and sort-of-historians, to say that something was "the (insert 21st-century thing) of (insert earlier era.)" That does not help people to understand what the earlier era was like.

In the ancient world, yes, the Roman roads did improve travel significantly. But it still could take months or years for news to travel from one part of the world to another. But most people didn't travel much at all, unless they were soldiers, which could be a very unpleasant way of traveling.

There were no newspapers in the ancient world. To say that the Roman Acta Diurna were daily newspapers is again a disservice to anyone trying to understand the ancient world. They were daily announcements, but they were not newspapers. More like signs, put up in a public place in Rome, with a little bit of information or misinformation which the government wanted the people to receive. The earliest thing in Europe resembling a news periodical was the Notizie scritte which began to appear in Venice in the 16th century. It only appeared monthly. In 1631 a weekly news publication, La Gazette, began to appear in Paris. The earliest daily newspaper of which I am aware was the Daily Courant, which began publication in London in 1702. And none of these early European news publication was affordable to the general public. Newspapers aimed at the general public didn't begin to appear until the 19th century.

So what? So stop telling me that there are no mentions of Jesus in any ancient newspapers, that's what. The Acta Diurna were not a newspaper; no copies of any of them have survived; they weren't made and distributed in big stacks of papyrus copies. That would have been an extremely extravagant expense. They were scratched into stone or metal, a few words a day. One copy. Occasionally somebody would copy something down from one of them and send the copy to a governor.

It's hard to imagine what earlier eras were like. Often it's very difficult for us to remember earlier times in our own lives. I've noticed this in the records of earlier eras: people who lived most of their lives without the telegraph, for example, or passenger trains, took them completely for granted once they had been available for a few years. (Available to their privileged classes, that is. The difficulty of imagining the lives of those less fortunate seems to be another constant feature of human consciousness.) I'm 55 years old. I know that in my childhood there were 4 channels on TV, 3 commercial networks plus PBS, and that there was no Internet, and that very few people could afford computers, and that computers much simpler than the simplest of today's pocket calculators were as big as typewriters, or bigger.

I know this, but it's hard to really remember what it was like, and how much different things were back then. I know things such as that Presidential candidates could say one thing to one crowd, and something completely different to another crowd later the same day, and it was much harder to nail them for it if there wasn't any audio or video of either speech, and often there wasn't. So, for example, when Hunter S Thompson tells me in his book on the 1972 Presidential campaign, during which I turned 11, that Hubert Humphrey did that sort of thing constantly, I have to take his word for it. (I do take Thompson's word for that. But why should you? Well, that's a tough one.)

Ah, but I'm going to have to explain to many of you what typewriters were.

They were not the Internet of the mid-20th century. There was no Internet back then.

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