The Past Is Like A Foreign Country

There’s a famous quote by LP Hartley that you have probably heard of; “the past is like a foreign country, they do things differently there”. As someone living in a foreign country where they definitely do things differently does this mean that I am living in the past? Of course this is just me being ridiculous which is not exactly unusual for me but I was reading a book on ancient Rome the other night when I was reminded of this quote and persuaded that maybe the past isn’t that foreign after all.

The book that I was reading was Mary Beard’s excellent SPQR and she mentioned in passing Cicero defending an immigration case. Now I was interested in this and did some of my own research and found that Cicero defended the citizenship case of a Greek poet called Aulus Licinius Archias in a Roman court in 62BC. We do not know how the case turned out but it struck me as an immigrant who has to submit papers regularly to maintain residency and who will have to submit more to apply for citizenship that maybe things might not have changed that much in over 2000 years. Below we have an excerpt of Cicero’s speech in the trial which to me still seems relevant today especially given the debates about immigration and citizenship.

It is ridiculous to say nothing to the proofs which we have, but to ask for proofs which it is impossible for us to have; to disregard the recollection of men, and to appeal to the memory of documents; and when you have the conscientious evidence of a most honourable man, the oath and good faith of a most respectable municipality, to reject those things which cannot by any possibility be tampered with, and to demand documentary evidence, though you say at the same moment that that is constantly played tricks with.

It makes you think, doesn’t it? We don’t know much about Archias other than what we know from this case but I wonder if he won the case and I wonder how he felt as a Greek living in Rome. Did he complain about the honey not tasting the same and did he miss Greek theatre in the same way that I moan about chocolate and miss British TV? Did he resent constantly having to provide proof of residency? It’s fascinating to think that over 2000 years ago people were also immigrating and having to present documents to prove their citizenship.

Now assuming that I haven’t sent you to sleep I will share another piece of evidence that the past is not as different as we think. The Vindolanda Tablets are Roman letters on wood that were found in a waterlogged archaeological deposit in the Hadrian’s Wall fort of Vindolanda. They contain a range of Roman letters from around AD 100 including requests for more beer and an invitation to a birthday party. My favourite one is a letter one of the inhabitants received from his brother complaining that he didn’t write enough. The text from the letter is below; you can imagine 2000 years later and the complaint being that the brother didn’t respond to his Facebook posts. Maintaining friendships and relationships long distance is still difficult today!

“Sollemnis to Paris his brother, very many greetings. I want you to know that I am in very good health, as I hope you are in turn, you neglectful man, who have sent me not even one letter. But I think that I am behaving in a more considerate fashion in writing to you … to you, brother, … my messmate. Greet from me Diligens and Cogitatus and Corinthus and I ask that you send me the names … Farewell, dearest brother (?). (Back, 1st hand) To Paris … of the 3rd Cohort of Batavians, from Sollemnis …”

So a bit of a departure from my usual type of post and perhaps nobody will read it but if you did I hope it didn’t bore you to death. Maybe the past isn’t as foreign as we’d like to think.

14 thoughts on “The Past Is Like A Foreign Country

  1. sail5610

    Great post but the quote is ” The past is a foreign country ,they do things differently there ” Its a favourite book of mine . Not criticising just saying 😊

  2. Mrs Dookes firmly believes that I am living in a time warp. She basis her theory on my love of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull….
    As Ian Anderson once sang,”Let’s go living in the past!”

    All probably well before your time Tom, but hey, humour an old geezer eh?

    Good post by the way!

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