Ancient History

In the battle of Archbishop vs. Prime Minister, who has history on their side?


Over the Easter weekend, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby spoke out against the Government’s newly announced plan to send some people seeking asylum in the United Kingdom to Rwanda. Welby called the plan ‘against the judgment of God’; his predecessor, the distinguished theologian and scholar Prof Rowan Williams concurred. Neither the Prime Minster, nor the Home Secretary, were thrilled when Welby called the UK plan to send away those arriving via small boats across the English Channel ‘subcontracting out our responsibilities’. Rumours suggest Boris Johnson criticised Welby harshly for the comments.

Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby. Credit: World Council of Churches

There is important historical context for Welby’s claim against the Prime Minister, but it might go unnoticed because of the current public verbal jabs. If one goes all the way back to when the biblical statements on the treatment of people seeking asylum on which Welby builds his argument were written, one can see clearly that Johnson’s government closely resembles the imperial, colonial programme of the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires that oppressed the authors of the relevant texts in the Bible. This parallel matters, whatever one makes of Welby’s Christian faith.

The Hebrew Bible—as scholars call the anthology of texts central to Judaism and Christianity, known most widely as the Old Testament—was written over a period of 500 years or more, but the critical historical period that motivated them lies between about 800 BCE and 500 BCE. In that period, two imperial powers from Mesopotamia (the area we now know as Iraq and Iran) ruled over the whole ancient Near East. Both powers pursued policies of forced displacement that treated those outside of an elitist, learned, narrowly privileged class as human resources who could be moved about like chess pieces on a gameboard. The Assyrian kings of the 9th to 7th centuries BCE routinely ‘resettled’ people, as did their Babylonian successors in the 6th century BCE. Some skilled craftsmen (in the ancient world, they were all men) were brought to Assyria’s burgeoning heartland to assist with its economic development and immense urban building programmes. Many, many others were systematically relocated according to plans crafted by a small group of government officials. Those who were forcibly moved were ‘distributed’ in ways that were economically profitable to the Assyrians, often with populations being swapped in order to achieve this economic goal. All of this had the aim of ‘Assyrianising’ the population and minimising the chance of rebellion against the Empire.

One can be forgiven for thinking this all sounds familiar. Announcing the recent British scheme, Home Secretary Priti Patel explained that it would ‘provide human capital opportunities for migrants and the host community’. Just days after the scheme was announced, it emerged that the UK would ‘resettle a portion of Rwanda’s most vulnerable refugees in the United Kingdom,’ a contemporary form of population swapping expressed in politically correct bureaucratic language.

Consider, for contrast, the Hebrew Bible: this anthology is the product of the society most know as ancient Israel. Despite being far more familiar to most than Assyria or Babylonia, ancient Israel was a small, marginal, and colonised society. Its attitude towards migration was shaped by the ever-present threat of being forcibly displaced by the Assyrians or Babylonians—a reality that came to fruition in waves of conquests and displacements in 722, 592, and finally 586 BCE, when Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians, who exiled many of its residents.

The Hebrew Bible speaks about migration from the perspective of those who have experienced it. It may be no surprise then that a frequent refrain in the Hebrew Bible is that one should establish justice for widows, orphans, and the stranger—the final term meaning something very close to what we mean by migrant or think of with regard to a person seeking asylum. In fact, the logic for this behaviour is that the ancestors of Israel were themselves ‘strangers’.

Just a few sentences after the famous command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) that became the touchstone of what Jesus of Nazareth taught (Matthew 22:34-40), one finds the command on how to treat the alien—an archaic translation of a Hebrew term better read as migrant since it connotes a foreigner who wants to settle into their new host society. ‘When an alien resides with you in your land,’ the command goes, one ‘shall not oppress the alien’, but treat them ‘as the citizen’ because one’s ancestors were themselves such migrants. Since the society that produced the Hebrew Bible experienced the world as colonised, and disempowered on the international stage, under threat from larger powers, and as involuntary migrants snatched from their homeland, it spoke with openness, compassion, and an attitude of acceptance about those who wanted to settle in its midst, whatever their background.

One might legitimately differ on the theological point made by Archbishop Welby that Johnson and Patel are acting in an ungodly fashion, but it is impossible to deny that their policy resembles that of the imperial, colonising Assyrians. Indeed, that might be the most important insight ancient history provides for us: whatever one makes of the UK-Rwanda pact, it reveals an imperial mindset that is at ease with treating people on the move as a disembodied ‘human resource’ that can be distributed and redistributed according to the plans of a narrow elite. The present case, like its Assyrian forebearer, seeks to protect national identity (read ‘British values’ for ‘Assyrianisation’) and minimise the chance—however small it be—of any unrest. The entire ‘hostile environment’ policy that the Home Office has pursued for years now has the hallmarks of a modern incarnation of the Assyrian programme for establishing and maintaining power. An imperial mindset is hard to shake it seems.

If one reframes the dispute between the Archbishop and the Prime Minster in historical instead of theological terms, it is clear what perspective the two represent. Johnson and his ministers are thinking and acting like the ancient imperial and colonising elite; the Archbishop has articulated the view of the colonised, those being forced to migrate, whether he knows it or not.

Rev Dr Casey Strine is Senior Lecturer in Ancient Near Eastern History and Literature at the University of Sheffield. He studies the history, literature, and cultures of the ancient Middle East, with a specialization in ancient Israel and Judah, the two societies that produced the texts known widely as the Old Testament. Strine is also the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Palestine Exploration Fund, the world’s oldest organisation for the scientific exploration of the so-called ‘Holy Land’.

Cover image: Home Secretary Priti Patel and Minister Biruta sign the migration and economic development partnership between the UK and Rwanda. Credit: UK Home Office

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Why I use modern LGBTQ+ terminology for the pre-modern past

The Warren Cup 1999,0426.1, AN594242001

The Warren Cup, 15BC – AD15, Made in Levant, at diplay in the British Museum, ref. 1999,0426.1, AN594242001

If Michel Foucault is to be believed, ‘homosexuality’ was invented in the nineteenth century as a discourse of power structures. This is not to say that same-sex sexual activity has not been around as long as any other practices – that would be an impossible assertion! – but rather that people would not have categorised themselves and others on account of gender-based attraction. Words like ‘homosexual’ as well as ‘bisexual’, ‘asexual’ and others in the ever expanding alphabet soup of LGBTQ+, are not applicable to the ancient Mediterranean, so the argument goes, because they are anachronistic.

There is a meaningful point here: in many ways it is reductive to question whether the first century BCE poet Catullus, who wrote erotic verses about both men and women, was bisexual, because Roman society would not have categorised and considered him in that way. Similarly, because of the social setting, he would not have experienced biphobia – or bi pride – and his understanding of himself and his place in the world would not have been impacted by his explorations of sexual desires.

Yet, by disallowing ourselves our own contemporary terminology, there is a risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, to an extent this position highlights the differences in societies past and present, but in doing so we reassert the ‘Otherness’, and the ‘non-normativity’ of these identities. We must restrict our language surrounding the (potential) same sex desire evoked in Sappho’s poetry, unable to call her a Lesbian in any sense except her citizenship of the island of Lesbos. On the other hand, we feel no need to dance around, or call into question the normativity of Julius Caesar’s many marriages and extramarital (hetero)sexual pastimes. This reasserts heterosexual activity – if not the identity – as the ‘norm’, the universal, the unquestioned, whilst even the naming of any other ‘deviances’ is criticised as ahistorical.

The point becomes much more explicit when we turn the focus on gender. It is generally agreed that gender – and gender roles – are a social construct that fluctuate across different societies, and that the conditions for ancient masculinity, for example, differed strongly from the modern. Yet, the gap between the apparently ‘normative’ and ‘non-normative’ genders, and how we treat them, remains vast.

Queer gender identities and roles in contemporary society are frequently dismissed and derided as ‘modern inventions’; similarly, academic focus on pre-modern queer genders has followed the path set by queer sexualities, with ‘trans history’ tied to Western modernity. Thus, we may marvel, scrutinise and unpack the second century CE satirist Lucian’s authorial intentions, but must ultimately again couch our terminology, in his Dialogue of the Courtesans, where (the fictional) Leaina recounts meeting Megillos, who repeatedly asks for male pronouns and references, claiming that ‘I was born a woman like the rest of you, but I have the mind and the desires and everything else of a man’ (5.4).

We can question here what Megillos means by being a man, where he locates his masculinity and ultimately, we are given the opportunity to deny him that identity, as Leaina ultimately does. I doubt, however, that anyone would ever ask if Lucian was a ‘man’. No one questions the author’s masculinity, where he locates himself and whether we as his readers are allowed to deny him that. Once again, the contemporarily understood norms are the universal, whilst the rest must submit to the same debates over existence and invention of identity.

At a recent conference, I gave a paper on an ancient identity that is neither man nor woman, and thus is quite simply non-binary. During the question and answer, a delegate asked me if I considered what I am doing as ‘political mythmaking’. My answer, then as well as now, is yes: all history is by default political, and our discipline constructs as much as reveals (versions of) the past. Furthermore, the stories we choose to tell – and how we choose to tell them – be they of ‘normative’ identities or otherwise, will always be a form of mythmaking. Translation, linguistic but also cultural, is and can only be interpretation. So, I choose to interpret a history in which I see myself, and other ‘non-normative’ identities and feelings, represented too.

Chris Mowat is a Teaching Associate in Ancient History at the University of Sheffield. Their research interests focus on religion and gender, particularly queer gender identities, and the intersection between these two areas in the Roman Republic. They are also an editor for the blog NOTCHES – (re)marks on the history of sexuality. They tweet at @chrismologos.

Image Description by curators: The cup is said to have been found in Palestine with coins of the Emperor Claudius (41 – 54 AD). The age and status of the figures in both scenes is carefully shown. The bearded man and youths are shown in a style typical of the classicizing art of the reign of the emperor Augustus (30BC – AD14), and can probably be dated more closely to approximately 15BC-AD15. The musical instruments, wreaths and mantles suggest a cultured, Hellenized setting. Both partners in the reverse scene have long locks of hair, the youth’s bound up, the boy’s loose. Such locks were worn by Greek boys, and were offered to the gods in a rite celebrated at puberty.


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