Last Thursday, the historical studies department and the Office of the Vice-Principal Academic and Dean hosted their third annual event titled “Local Identities, Movement, and Global Connections in Antiquity” at UTM. Each event featured guest speakers that were given two tasks: to ask bold questions about the ancient material they draw upon and relate that material to the concerns and questions of our own society. This year’s event featured guest professors Elena Isayev from the University of Exeter, and Miguel John Versluys from Leiden University. Both Isayev and Versluys led discussions that addressed different research topics but that, overall, emphasized the modern relevancy of the ancient world.
In his opening remarks, Andreas Bendlin, a professor of Classics and Roman History at the University of Toronto, invited the guest speakers to think about how the ancient world can address issues relevant to the modern world.
Isayev’s research and discussion engages with the notion of mobility, migration, belonging and displacement in the ancient and modern world. Before delving into her discussion, Isayev expressed her intention to “position the present concerns historically and, in so doing, hope to expose the transience of the current condition and also the fact that if the ancient world was imagined differently, we can re-imagine it differently again.”
Isayev claims that the “preoccupation with measurement and limiting human flows is a modern phenomenon”. In the ancient world, however, “movement was something that was accepted as every day, so not very exceptional,” Isayev states.
On the topic of hospitality and asylum in a broader sense, Isayev explains, “there is an ideological move away from the archaic superstate network towards a more exclusive, one might argue, classical democracy of Pericles and Athens which is intolerant of class divisions. With this change, we see a shift from the private ties of hospitality, which can be looked on quite negatively, to more public ones of asylum which require a sponsor or an intermediary.”
In recent years, humanitarians are recognizing an increasing “need to shift the perception of displaced people as victims to that of agents so that victimhood without being negated becomes a force for transformation,” Isayev elucidates. We see this notion of displacement and belonging in the modern world being eluded to when considering what it means “to be in a state of permanent-temporariness when you don’t have rights and access to a political community,” declares Isayev in her closing remarks.
In Versluys’s discussion, he addresses topics of globalization and the connectivity of cultures and their various identities. Versluys explains that it is important to recognize “that studying antiquity from various perspectives can have important resonance for a better understanding of our world today.”
That same concept, can be applied to one of the central topics he discusses: historicizing globalization. “Most people think that globalization is something which is typically for our 21st century but a lot of historians now have discovered globalization as a lens to better understand connectivity in ancient worlds and that gives us a very different picture of those ancient worlds and that might be relevant for all of you,” notes Versluys.
We see, especially in the modern world but also the ancient world, an affinity for a coping practice that Versluys coins as “anchoring innovation,” in which “one of the things that we do with people, ideas, or goods coming from the outside is embedding. That is, giving them a place in our own society and that is called the articulation of belonging.” Belonging is a universal desire that we all have, Versluys states, belonging is “a kind of social imaginary that we belong somewhere.”
The discovery of a much wider world in the middle ages and even before the middle ages is “interesting because it allows us to see the whole history of mankind as one big process of globalization,” Versluys notes.
The ancient world is not completely inapplicable in our endeavors to understand the modern world. This event challenges us to view the world today through the lens of the ancient world so that we can gain a better understanding of our own world as well as the perspectives of past civilizations.