A history of Latin part 2: history vs. the past

The Latin-speaking people who lived in central Italy around 800 BCE were not, from a historian’s point of view, very interesting. They were just one group of semi-nomadic herders among many, and their language was just one Indo-European language among many. If some of their descendants had not, centuries later, created the Roman Empire, no-one would pay any attention to them at all.

And yet, being historically uninteresting is not the same as being actually uninteresting.

Imagine if you could build a time machine and travel to the landscape of prehistoric Italy. Imagine if you could get to know the people there, learn their language, stay as a guest in their home, and share meals with them; learn their daily routines, their customs, their habits, their stories, their jokes; follow along with them as they led their herds to new pasture – if you could do all this, the people you met would undoubtedly prove to be fascinating, puzzling, wonderful, and compelling, like people everywhere.

History and the past are not the same thing, though we often speak of them as if they are.

History is not so much the study of the past as it is the study of things that have been written about the past. Historians study inscriptions on tombs and temples and palaces and monuments; they study the edicts of kings carved in stone or written on animal hide or tree bark or paper or papyrus or impressed onto clay tablets; they study religious literature and bureaucratic records of long-ago tax collections, and above all, historians study the writings of other historians.

A photograph of a white stone statue in the classical Greek style of a man wearing a toga, holding a scroll, who seems to be deep in thought. In the background are steps leading up to a building with classical Greek pillars, all carved of the same white stone.
Herodotus, who lived in 484–425 BCE, is sometimes called ‘the first historian’. Photograph by Wikimedia user Pe-Jo. Public domain.

A Venn diagram. There is a large circle labelled 'The past' and a much smaller circle, labelled 'History' is mostly inside the the larger circle but partly outside; the outside part is shaded in and is labelled 'Things historians believe about the past that are not actually true.'

There are other ways to get information about the past, or course. Archaeologists study old buildings and tools and pottery and things like that. Linguists study the similarities and differences between languages, and the ways that languages evolve over time. Anthropologists and ethnographers study how people belonging to a particular culture live, their technologies, habits, customs, religious beliefs, and how they view the world.

However history, and archaeology, and ethnolinguistics and all the rest of it, will always be different from, and smaller than, the past. If you want to know about history you can read a history book, and if you want to know about old buildings and pottery and burial customs, you can read about archaeology. If you want to learn about ancient languages, you can read a book on historical linguistics.

But if you want to get an idea of what the past might have been like, you have to use your imagination. You have to go into the vast empty space that facts can never fill, where only speculation and a sense of wonder can take you.