The Cambridge Ancient History–The Pleasures of Reading History
Out of the organic soup of his mind, RT has recently retrieved a powerful memory: of spending an afternoon at the Arlington County Library, engrossed in browsing through the Cambridge Ancient History. He was entranced by the fine writing and descriptions. Here is a passage from volume 1:
“Still more than the contract tablets the private letters give us the daily life of the people…Even a love letter from Sippar is extant, dating back to the First Dynasty. ‘To Bibiya say: thus, Gibil-Marduk. May Shamash and Marduk give thee health for ever for my sake. I have sent (to ask) after thy health; let me know how thou art. I have arrived in Babylon and see thee not; I am very sad. Send news of thy coming that I may be cheered; in the month of Markheswan thou shalt come. May thou livest for ever for my sake.'”
Perhaps this isn’t the sweetest love letter ever penned, but at least it’s honest (and quite ancient): Gibil-Marduk’s health (and perhaps even his life) depends on Bibiya’s attentions. Whether this is true or not, Bibiya must decide. Nothing much has changed.
We live for such encounters with other people’s spirit and lives, and a powerful fascination is added when the information comes from our past, however distant. In addition, this sample from the CAH offers the beautiful prose of its authors and the careful attention to detail invested in its preparation and printing. We are dealing with a rare book, informative, entertaining, and plainly (and elegantly) written. The authors never allow their erudition to cloud their meaning.
RT is working his way through Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, another marvelous history, this time the work of an independent scholar. Comparing these books gives the reader some idea of how individual an author’s approach to history can be.
The writing of history is a much maligned art: history books are supposed to be pedantic and filled with trivialities. Nothing could be farther from the truth: the great historians never lose sight of style and entertainment as they present intricate tapestries of humanity’s past. Since writing was invented, human nature hasn’t changed. We study the past to learn ourselves. RT
Map: Spruner Map of the World Under the Assyrian Empire (1865). Karl Spruner von Merz. WikiCmns; Public Domain.