Common (ish) perceptions of the ancient world.
What’s Your Civ?
Back in 2012 I offered my small pool of followers the chance to take part in a small experiment I called “What’s Your Civ?”. A kitch hashtag I thought up which tells you as much about my own social media naivety back then as it does anything else. But the idea was to then do a post about the results, highlighting people’s perceptions of past civilisations.
8 people chose Rome, 6 People chose Egypt and 1 person chose Greece. That’s a survey of 15 people, (so roughly comparable to one of those Loreal product surveys, were 70% of 100 women out of a population of millions said this product changed their life). The response tallied that the 8 Romans chose so because of their industrial accomplishments and hygiene standards. If I remember correctly those who chose Egypt did so because they just wanted to be in on that Pharaonic action. The one Greek vote may not have specified.
Now in my 5th year blogging I casually resurrected the idea without the hashtag, but using twitters new polling system. Based on a short but tweet (pardon the pun) exchange with Tom Holland, I had realised back then that the options were too general to actually tell me anything, so I narrowed the field to high points, or popularly known eras, in each civilisation.
On the 6th of August Historyland offered a poll asking which civilisation followers would choose as their favourite from out of New Kingdom Egypt. Classical Greece and 1st Century BC/AD Rome. The next day I asked for people to tell me which they would rather belong to. The results polled a possible 6,170 followers of which (about 170) responded, making it another Loreal canvass, but hey this ain’t no general election), and the results were predictable, and yet dramatically different from the 2012 survey.
Poll 1 (39 people)
Asked which was the follower favourite, the vote was split 46% each between Greece and Rome with the other 8 percent voting Egypt. With the Majority of “Greeks” citing the development of culture and the beginning of western civilisation, while those “Romans” who responded said they just preferred Rome or because of their military and engineering. Two people responded with motives for Egypt, centring around being able to fill in gaps and because they were the Indie or underdog choice.
Poll 2. (65 people)
Asking to which civilisation voters would most like to belong, the answer was in favour of Rome, which swept the poll with 51%, just over half of the total responders. Those who responded cited because it was the most interesting and tumultuous. While Greece came in second with 37%, feedback came in on a humorous tone, freedom of choice due to being able to blame the gods for everything. And because of their thirst for knowledge, which was valued as much as territorial expansion, (plus hopefully low taxes). Egypt trailed once more with only 12% of the vote and no feedback.
Poll 3. (56 people)
This asked people to break the tie between Rome and Greece. It was close for a while but Rome won out taking 56% of the vote, leaving Greece with just 44%. The only feedback that came was that Greece’s achievements stand the test of time, but have fewer aqueducts. That being said another participant adroitly pointed out that without Greece, Rome would have just remained a hut village on the Tiber. After a surprise vote for 10th century Córdoba, there was a pedantic conversation about the specification of civilisations, but it really has no bearing on the result.
After all of that I wanted motive. The following poll which canvassed 30 people, which roughly corresponds to half of the 2nd poll, asking people why they chose Rome, the results were:
Military Security. 30%
Economics and Trade. 20%
Quality of Life. 43%
Other (please specify) 7%.
Specified was prolonged stability, noting that it is pointless to be good at something if there is no stability to support it.
So out of that, we can gather a few things. Firstly that 1st century Rome is the favourite across the board, followed by Classical Greece, followed by New Kingdom Egypt. The majority preferred Rome for the quality of life enjoyed by its citizens, yet in terms of actual feedback much more solid data was gathered in the form of an almost universal acknowledgment of the role Classical Greece played in the making of western civilisation, and although eclipsed by Rome, it was also promoted by her. It’s hard to say why people did not choose Egypt, still harder to say why those few who did voted in that way. The only feedback given seemed to suggest that it was the touristy choice, a nice place to visit.
Notably we can see that since 2012 very few people on my timeline have changed their minds about why they prefer certain civilisations to another. Rome is a healthy & exciting place. Greece is the intellectual, cultural place and Egypt though now dead last in the recent polls is the fun place.
This ties in fairly well to modern tastes and attitudes towards civilisation, not just our appreciation of the past, rather it can show us how our own time and culture informs our choice of which history we identify with. In 2013 the top 20 things British people couldn’t live without were published by the Guardian. At 5 & 6 respectively was a hot shower and central heating, also indispensable were methods of communication and human interaction, and at 18 was a foreign holiday once a year. (Hygiene, communication and leisure are the three main components of that poll which canvassed 2,000 people.)
Maybe in Europe, somewhere deep down we are still see ourselves as the material heirs of Rome, especially those who come from former provinces, while at the same time feeling that we are therefore the intellectual heirs of Greece, whose pens proved mightier than Roman swords. While everyone, now as then, looks upon the works of Egypt and inwardly despairs. A civilisation so great and yet now reduced to a vast collection of cyphers. Yet today most would reject the basic fundamentals that created her.
Perhaps the example of republican and then totalitarian Rome, as opposed to that of Greek democratic thinkers and individual tyrants, make people uncomfortable with the idea of such an unapologetically undemocratic concept as autocratic god-kings whose will created the oldest example of a nation state as we recognise it. Yet we are hypnotised by it, after all glamour, and the allure of absolute power, covers many sins to those who trumpet democratic values. And so I wonder when we boast of Rome, and point to Greece as our key influencers, at a basic level are we not in fact winking at the Sphinx?