Monday, March 15, 2010

The Phoenicians

Phoenician funerary mask, 4th-5th century BC

Here’s a interesting statistic about my education. Between primary school, intermediate school and high school I studied the Phoenicians three times and the Second World War zero times. That’s because in Italy we believe in studying history in a strict chronological order, and furthermore we restart the clock of civilisation at each level. Thus in order to get to the great conflicts of the last century you need to have covered Mesopotamia and Phoenicia and the rest of the ancient world, then the Roman Empire and Visigoths and Charlemagne and the age of discoveries and Napoleon and the Risorgimento, so that by the time you get to the final year of each course of study you’re lucky to even make it to the twentieth century, let alone cover Fascism or the Holocaust. What little I happened to be told at school concerning these not insignificant topics was not part of the study of history proper, but of literature, and only at intermediate school, when we looked at authors like Primo Levi or books such as Anne Frank’s Diary or L’Agnese va a morire. I’m pretty sure we also saw a film about Mussolini starring Rod Steiger.

To this day, even though I read independently into these large chunks of neglected history, and saw other films not starring Rod Steiger, I find that when my oldest asks me about the causes of World War I mumble quite a bit, whereas I am far clearer on what caused Sparta and Athens to have regular goes at each other, or indeed the Carthaginians and the Romans.

Not that the Carthaginians, strictly speaking, are the same thing as the Phoenicians. There’s a vexed historiographical question if you’ve ever seen one instead of concentrating on your country’s recent racist past. Phoenicia, also known as Canaan, is a region where the ancient civilisation known to us as the Phoenicians established itself since the Iron Age, that is to say around 1200 BC, whereas the Carthaginians are a related but in important ways distinct civilisation that flourished much later around the city of Carthage after the Persians conquered Phoenicia proper. The confusion arises from the fact that the first city known as Carthage was founded by the Phoenicians, but it’s actually situated in modern Tunisia, and that’s where the Phoenician elites repaired after the Persian conquest (Cyrus, was it?). Then they started to wage wars on the Romans, who referred to them as Punic people, by which they meant no offence: Punic means purple and purple dyes were one of the Pheonicians’ trades. This enmity led to at least three Punic wars, one of which - was it the second? - featured the routing of the Romans at Cannae. Come to think of it, it has to have been the second war because the first one was fought in Sicily, and Cannae is in Apulia. Then I’m pretty sure the third war is the one where Cato the Elder was all 'you’ll never guess where I got these figs from' and 'delenda Carthago est' and the Romans took the war to the enemy shores and that spelt the end for the Carthaginians.

Another thing I remember without having to reach for Wikipedia is that the most notable ancient source for the claim that the Phoenicians gave the alphabet to the Greeks was Herodotus.

Fragmentary inscription on a cup found in Kition, 9th century BC

And there is nothing wrong with that. I don't begrudge my memory the space furnished with these ancient relics, nor am I completely insensitive to the argument that in order to understand modernity it is useful to know something about the pre-modern world. Certainly I like to think for instance that a selective allegiance to classical Greece can be helpful to counter the enforced Christian monoculturalism of the thing we call Europe. But so long as this is true, let us make those connections visible and concrete: let us look at the history of democracy, of revolutions, of migrations, of the city. Plodding along history as if on a train that stops at every station seems designed to do just the opposite, and to quite deliberately ensure that the ultimate destination - the present that, according to cliché, history should help us make sense of - won't be reached, or will be reached too late to be included in the final exams, which amounts to the same thing.

The irony is especially galling since every one of the schools I attended displayed a shield like the one above (from my primary), bearing the name of the school and the symbol of the Republic. That was one of the chief promises of the institutions of 1948: that education would (finally) be a right and a public good, the key to equality of opportunity regardless of socio-economic status. A free education provided by the state to all children under the age of fourteen on the basis of a national curriculum was the paramount instrument for achieving the objective under article 3 of our newly minted constitution, namely
to remove all economic and social obstacles that, by limiting the freedom and equality of citizens, prevent full individual development and the participation of all workers in the political, economic, and social organization of the country.

And yet so few of us ever even got to be told at school about that constitution or the circumstances in which it was forged. That same Republic that was the guarantor of our right to an education was wholly absent from our teachings, as was in most cases the Fascism that it repudiated. And so was the post-war world in which our parents grew up, the economic boom, terrorism, our lasting involvement in the former African colonies. The contemporary world outside our schools seldom made an appearance in our daily schedule, and outside of the study of geography - the primary products of the Sicilian economy are as follows… - it didn’t feature anywhere in our curriculum, except as a sort of afterthought: time allowing, students enrolled in the final year should study Fascism, an important national political movement starring Rod Steiger. But time seldom allowed.

So, as in matters of religion, you grew up with an idea of the country shaped by your family’s beliefs, which were also beliefs about history. This was especially true for my parents’ generation, that lived through Fascism and the transition to the Republic. In the overall context of the nation’s unbecoming, some families and social groups were far keener to forget than others, or had more pressing reasons to cling to their own mythologies: what was our involvement, how did our present (mis)fortunes come about? It is on the basis of those histories that we construct our sense of citizenship.

If it were up to me to reform the Italian education system, my founding principle would be this: that it is the foremost right of each child to be told about the present and to be given the instruments to understand it. Our national pastime of short term memory loss must finally be abandoned, the mirrors uncovered: this is what we look like, this is where we come from. For it is precisely the emptiness of these spaces that allows false histories to grow and fester: the grotesquely distorted picture of the Roman empire evoked by Mussolini, which he revived by annexing with brutal ferocity the bits of Africa that had fallen off the table at which the other colonial powers insisted to dine; or more recently, the heroic warlike lineage that the Northern secessionists trace back to Alberto da Giussano and his Lombard League, garnished by pagan rituals staged along the Po river - as if that plain had ever been one place, one country, one people. It is in that fractured history of symbols emptied of meaning that the Italian far Right constructs its myths of origin. Yet it works also because it plays on something familiar, on stories and names learned more or less by rote in the distant past of childhood and left conveniently unconnected, like my sparse knowledge of all things Phoenician; while the more concrete histories and lineages - of industrialisation, of struggle, of work - that would serve the progressive causes are never or too seldom encountered.

The education of children under Mussolini sought to inculcate absolute faith in the Party and teach its knowledge, which was the only knowledge available. The directive had been written by the Duce himself:
Italian school, in all its levels and in all its teachings, must be inspired by the ideology of Fascism, educate the Italian youth to understanding Fascism, to take pride in it and to live in the historical climate created by the Fascist revolution.

Image via the ANPI Lissone blog, from a post I heartily commend to speakers of the lingo

Primary school-aged children were taught that 'book and musket make the perfect Fascist' (libro e moschetto, fascista perfetto), and the book in question was the one and only primer allowed in the classroom. In it you would read for instance the story of two boys who came back from their holidays, and one of them told the other that he had seen the house where Mussolini was born; or you’d learn about the efforts that the regime made to help the families of Italians abroad so that they could send their children to visit the motherland and draw from its strength and beauty the determination to remain good Italians. They were lies, but told in the present tense. In the new Republic, where the promise of education was that it would set you free, you learnt convenient, harmless truths about the distant past instead.

So here’s one last thing that I remember about the Phoenicians: that they may not even have existed. We give that name to the people who lived in that region, but whether they thought of themselves as a unified people living in a unified nation, or it was in fact the Greeks who succeeded in painting them that way, we just don’t know. And there’s perhaps one last bit of irony, and a lesson: that if you don’t write and understand your own history, somebody else will do it for you.