As a Classics major, I am asked frequently why I chose to study ancient history and languages since history is “in the past” and Latin is a “dead” language. When asked, I typically retort, “I have always been interested in studying cultures of the past,” and while that is true, recently I have discovered another reason: history shows insight into the human experience, and how all people can connect to some extent regardless of time period, location, race, gender, sexual orientation, or ability. My professor may not have intended on it, but I immediately saw a connection with the perceived differences between the ancient and modern worlds and of the disabled and able-bodied “worlds.”
In my Latin class today, we read an epigram by Martial, a poet who lived in ancient Rome. The poem, which is now referred to as “Dr. Fell,” may only be a meager two lines, but it sheds light into Roman society. The speaker of the poem expresses his hatred for a man that he is barely acquainted with, an experience that many people have. Thus, the Romans were not too different from modern societies: people felt normal emotions such as annoyance and hatred. While humorous, this epigram exemplifies characteristics of ancient societies that are often eluded in history textbooks: commonness. Most textbooks depict stories of wars, royalty, and politics, yet in my modest Latin 101 class, we read about an average man observing the city around him, and his observations are far from extraordinary; he tends to write about daily life in Rome. His snarky comments do not reflect the glamorous images of nobles feasting on elaborate meals or chill-inducing love stories, but instead tell of an average man. There is a certain beauty in that.
Life is not about dramatic romances or fighting a victorious battle; those are rarities. These rare experiences should not define societies or the individuals in a society; their everyday choices are more telling than one triumphant moment. Yes, stories of war are more entertaining than stories of average citizens, but average people represent the human experience better than a war story ever could, and may help us understand our own society better. Martial is average compared to the infamous Julius Caesar, yet studying Caesar leaves one with little insight into Roman society and all societies past and present. Politics and war tactics change, but human emotions are consistent.
As a disability activist, this is profound for me. I am treated differently than my able-bodied peers regularly; even a poet from thousands of years ago is seen as more relatable than me. If ancient societies share common human emotions with modern societies, it can be said that people within those societies share common emotions as well. Like Martial I feel annoyed sometimes, and like other poets and people all over the world I have been heartbroken, overjoyed, inquisitive, and frustrated.