‘The Past is a Foreign Country’: Reflections on Travelling and the Study of History

Andrew J. Pottenger is a PhD candidate at the University of Manchester (Nazarene Theological College). He is preparing a thesis on three ‘doctrines of power’ guiding the Roman emperor Constantine’s interactions with various Christian bishops to address the ecclesiastical problems of schism and heresy. His essay on Constantine’s attempts to manage divine favour as the ‘servant of God’, which was presented at the Summer 2016 Conference, will appear in Vol. 54 of Studies in Church History.

‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’.

– L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)

As an American undergraduate studying the history of Christianity, I read about far away places like Rome, Carthage, Chalcedon, Nicaea, and Hippo. At the time (more than twenty years ago), such locations were as distant in my imagination as Hogwarts or the Land of Oz, and only slightly more real. For example, my imagined version of ancient Rome appeared in pristine Technicolor and everyone spoke English in accents that sounded like either Laurence Olivier or Charlton Heston.

The more I read, however, the closer and more familiar such historical locations became. Norman Cantor’s Civilization of the Middle Ages (New York, 1993) and Europe: A History by Norman Davies (New York, 1998) vastly increased my general understanding, as did Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Interestingly, however, it was Ernest Hemingway’s brief semi-fictional memoir A Moveable Feast that transported me for the first time to a real place that later turned out to be almost exactly the way I had imagined it while reading. The only memorable difference between Hemingway’s version of Paris evoked in my imagination and the reality as I subsequently experienced it was approximately seven or eight decades’ worth of modernisation. Prior to my literary and literal Paris experiences, however, was my first visit to Rome.

A photograph could not preserve as perfectly as my own memory the moment I rounded a street corner shortly after arriving, glanced left, and caught my first glimpse of the Flavian Amphitheatre (more popularly known as the Colosseum).

The Flavian Amphitheatre (Colloseum), Rome. Source: Personal Photograph by Andrew J. Pottenger

It was, of course, the first time I saw it beyond a two-dimensional image on the page of a book. It was real. This titanic engineering marvel of a fascinating, but long-dead ancient people was real. Later, I lazily strolled through the Forum and gazed in open-mouthed awe at the magnitude of the Pantheon but these pale in my memory compared to the moment I first lightly ran my fingers across the centuries-worn marble blocks of the Colosseum, trying to visualise those whose very hands had carefully shaped and placed each one.

‘History’ became, for me, something far more concrete and significant than words on a page and the cinematic reproductions in my mind’s eye. The Rome of history, as I stood surrounded by its grand leavings, had become as solid and real a thing as my hometown of Colorado Springs, Colorado.

I experienced something similar when touring the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii (featured image) several years later. Upon first learning of the disaster as a child by reading an article in National Geographic, the images conjured in my mind ever after closely resembled the ‘Destruction’ panel in the nineteenth-century American painter Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire. Additionally, as a Colorado native, I imagined certain images of what a ‘ghost town’ should be (for example, see the accompanying photograph of St. Elmo, Colorado). The combined result was that I read about the disaster as something terribly tragic yet beautiful, sweeping and epic in its scope while the excavated ruins whistled in the breeze to the tune of Ennio Morricone’s theme from ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’.

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Thomas Cole, ‘Destruction’ panel from The Course of Empire (1833-1836). Source: Wikipedia

But to feel the dusty, stony streets of Pompeii beneath travel-sore feet on a blazing summer day with the crater of Vesuvius looming over you … it changes the way you think about what happened there two thousand years ago. I couldn’t tear my gaze from the preserved figures showing the bodies of human beings and animals contorted in fear and torment, but I felt ashamed in looking on their suffering as a mere spectator. I could hardly bear to look and taking photos felt like sacrilege, but I couldn’t stand not to lock each one in my memory. I suppose only the innocent victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki could have known what it was to experience such a sudden disaster whose causes they couldn’t fathom in the early days of August. The ancient ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii are, truly, ghost towns. There are, of course, no actual ghosts winding their ethereal and melancholy way through the empty doorways and windows of every domus. Yet these places are nevertheless haunted in ways that St. Elmo, Colorado will never approach.

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St. Elmo, Colorado. Source: Wikipedia

Travelling adds something powerful and vital to the experience of studying history. Whenever I have travelled to a location hitherto known to me only in the pages of a book, I have been overcome by awe and wonder. But might such experiences lead to exactly the kinds of distortion that the modern profession of history exists to straighten out? Speaking for myself, I have found the very opposite to be the case.

For me, it is in such moments that I discover the concrete reality of what has up until then only been described to me. Any lingering assumptions or biases about an ancient people due to my own modern standards or expectations begin to melt away. To the extent this is possible, I leave my own time and culture that much further behind as I become more fully immersed in another ‘when’ as well as another ‘where’. Evoked by the right ancient and modern authors, my imagination as well as analytical understanding is shaped and magnified by standing in the places where history (even ostensibly or at least reasonably enough) occurred.

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Istanbul, Ancient Quarter. Source: Personal Photograph by Andrew J. Pottenger

I rediscover my love for the subject when visiting locations associated with history. It renews my commitment to research when I start feeling daunted or dry. It re-affirms my connection with the subject of my research as a concrete human being in his complexity and ambiguity, rather than as an abstract or legendary historical figure who functions as a mere symbol for something else. Travelling, in that regard, also has the ability to de-mythologise history even while at the same time I experience that almost mystical sense of awe and wonder by seeing and touching the locations and artefacts of history. Finally, international travel with its requisite cultural sensitivity and flexibility easily translates to helping me seek (to the extent it is possible) to understand other times and places on their own terms rather than according to my own standards or assumptions. All of this is true for me regardless of the location or its particular historical associations. Though my research primarily involves the Roman Empire during the time of Constantine the Great (r. 306-337), the experiences and their benefits have been the same when walking along Omaha Beach in Normandy, standing over Martin Luther’s grave in Wittenberg, photographing manuscripts of a few letters by John Wesley for a fellow researcher, or exploring the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde in Colorado.

— Andrew J. Pottenger, University of Manchester (Nazarene Theological College)

3 Comments Add yours

  1. I, myself, am also from the Colorado Springs area! Great post btw!


  2. Beth Rotz says:

    Excellent article, Andrew!


  3. Trudi Morrissey says:

    I loved this. Thank you.


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