Identity politics empowers people to make all sorts of claims, not because they are true but because it makes them feel superior. ‘All whites are racist’, ‘all empires are evil’ and ‘all men are rapists’ are typically brain-dead examples of this increasingly popular genre. Classical elites were equally susceptible to fabrications of self-importance.
Ancient literature reflects the interests of those who composed it: i.e. educated elite males moving in highly competitive political, military and literary circles. Their wives rarely feature, as if they were people of little relevance and less agency — just staying at home, under male protection, producing and rearing children. Yet the evidence clearly indicates that, as wives, mothers and managers of family life, they were crucial to both the existence and the working of the state. Legal texts and public inscriptions, for example, illustrate not just the role women could play in the control of family resources, but their widespread public involvement too — not least in the ritual life of the state’s religion, as well as in retailing, manufacturing and banking.
As for the workers, it was by human labour that the world went round, but the elites contrasted their intellectual skills with those who only used their hands and made things. For Cicero, the ‘hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, retailers, mechanics in workshops, and those who cater for sensual pleasures such as fishmongers, butchers, cooks, and poulterers’, were all beyond the pale. But from the visual, literary and inscriptional evidence, it is clear this view was not shared by ordinary people, proud of their manual skills. And were generals — all members of the elite — really contemptuous of their soldiers, who built bridges, roads, walls and aqueducts, knocked up a decent overnight camp and, incidentally, won them their battles?
Ancient intellectual male elites made up — what? Five per cent of the population? And they massaged their precious identities as mindlessly as some modern ones do because it was a way of justifying their unequalled value to the world. But as the evidence shows, that world did not necessarily share their assessment. Plus ça change …
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