The Classical Legacy: Identity, Memory and Heritage

Alejandra Guzmán

Universitat Internacional de Catalunya

A territory weaves its history through time with the incorporation of diverse elements. There are also many paths of incorporation, and the reception of the past and its transmission is not established only from an erudite, occasionally institutional, perspective based on the analysis of documentary and tangible sources. Rather, on many occasions, the image of the past is constructed from the collective imaginary, which perceives the tangible and intangible legacy and defines it, thus incorporating it into the memory of each people. This happens with Classical Antiquity, a common legacy in Europe and the Mediterranean, which has often been reinterpreted and reinvented to shape imaginaries which last beyond their historical reality.  


What brings the inhabitants of a territory to value and defend their “ancient” identity? How is this manifested? Which ancient elements are used and which are not? Undoubtedly, there are determinant factors for the process of receiving Antiquity and, without doubt, one of them is the set of archaeological remains that unite a territory with its history. But other factors play a part, such as historical memory, whose paths of transmission are almost never erudite or institutional, and the formation of imaginaries based on the past, perhaps most noticeably reflected in the legendary tales. The perception of a remote past is present in all societies of all times, beyond the universal mythical accounts of the origins. Even in modern societies, knowledge of the past is not always linked to a more or less objective search for reality: the past is fundamentally constructed through memory and, frequently, rather than reconstructed, it is imagined.  

Ideology and Identity 

This is the case of the classical legacy, which has transcended scientific approaches since the Modern Era and currently tends to be at its most rigorous: the different disciplines and technological advances are used to discover exactly what the ancient world was like and faithfully reconstruct it. For several decades, there has been an increasing need to conserve classical heritage and disseminate it, creating for the purpose specific institutions and bodies, both locally and internationally. Moreover, there are theoretical frameworks for its management and its role in social development. Nevertheless, even today Antiquity is not free from subjective interpretations and interested uses. Thus, the tangible and classical intangible legacy continues to be a constantly reinterpreted argument in the different cultural manifestations.   

The Renaissance has traditionally been considered the starting point for the discovery of the Greco-Roman world (Weiss, 1969). The so-called humanists were fascinated by Antiquity, both its tangible and intangible aspects. They sought to discover all its realities, analyse them and reconstruct them. When Flavio Biondo (Forli, 1392Rome, 1463) put forward a theoretical restoration of the city of Rome, he declared his inability to correctly interpret (distinguere) all that surrounded him and challenged future scholars: “There are still many beautiful and worthy things in Rome, but as we do not know how to interpret them well, given their Antiquity, we will leave them to those who will come in time and wish to devote themselves to the exhausting task of describing Rome” (Biondo, 1558). The humanist is one of the first figures that tried to approach Antiquity in terms of rigour and historical reconstruction, but there was also a place for other considerations. The Renaissance saw an assimilation of the main “classical” forms and of their values to the point of transferring them to the present, of identifying with them (Saxl, 1940). This process was taken so far that these classical forms were not only imitated, but new imaginary realities based on them were created.  

To some extent, this process of conceptualisation had already started in the Middle Ages, when certain elements of Antiquity were mythologized and transformed into symbols. This happened in Imperial Rome, an entelechy that could represent different ideas, including, paradoxically, that of Christianity itself. In 1337, Petrarch wondered whether the Romans of his time were aware of living in Rome, the Rome that once existed in another time and was no more, but that could be sensed and revived. He complained: “Who is more ignorant today of Roman Antiquities than the Romans themselves? Moreover: Rome has never been more unknown than in Rome. I attribute this not only to ignorance – although, what is worse than ignorance? – but also to the flight and exile of many virtues. Because who can doubt something that rises up right before your eyes, when you begin to understand it?” In the reflection of this pioneering enthusiast of Antiquity there is much more than a desire for historical reconstruction: Rome is conceptualised (Petrarch’s reflection will finally lead us to the ancient urbs as a lost paradise) and used as an argument. There is a place for identity (what do the Romans of today know about the Romans of yesterday?) and a link is established between the current inhabitants and their predecessors. 

The link with the past would take on great importance in the discourses of identity, in which the presence of Antiquity would be used to bestow illustrious origins on a territory. This phenomenon had occurred since the Middle Ages with the holy history, whose characters they tried to link with real territories. A source from the 1st century AD, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, introduced the grandchildren of Noah, Tubal and Tarshish in Iberia (probably in the current Armenia), which originated a series of explanations about the mythical Tartessus and the first settlers in the Iberian Peninsula (Bermejo, 1982). Moreover, the feats of the Greek Hercules, the civilising hero and founder par excellence, whose legends still populate western and North African coasts today, were well known in the Mediterranean.  

The spiritual tensions of an era, generators of religious conflicts, and the political inflections caused the definitive creation of imaginaries based on the history of peoples. The European 16th century was a moment of mythical creation in terms of the construction of the past: religious and political legitimacies were defended in a fragmented Europe in which Antiquity was used as an incontestable argument. The opposition between Catholics and Protestants underlined the demands of the primitive Roman church; the Christian princes were keen to link themselves with this Church even more through its supposed historical inheritance; the new empires looked at themselves in the mirror of the empires of the past. The opposition between Christians, Muslims and Jews found refuge in the biblical and classical world.   

Sometimes, if this past is unknown or does not even exist, it must be invented. The falsification of antiquities through the creation of an object or with the invention without tangible support of a pseudo-history with the aim of ennobling a territory has resulted in interesting episodes, especially concerning the classical past. On occasions, tangible evidence has been used alone, but has been enriched with fictitious elements. In the Neapolitan court of the kings of Aragon, stories were concocted about the colonisation of the Aragonese territory by the brave Roman heroes, which included the foundation of temples and cities (this happens with Barcelona, Tarragona and Aragon itself). Tarragona, Tarraco, became a suggestive setting for pseudo-historical legends related to its tangible evidence: the Scipiones lived and died there, and the famous Cicero left his mark there, as Luís Ponç d’Icart attested with relative conviction in his Libro de las grandezas de Tarragona [Book of the Glories of Tarragona] in 1573.  

Here we will recall the case of the so-called Plomos del Sacromonte in Granada: around the 1590s during some building works, some lead plates were found written in a mixture of Latin, Greek and strange Arabic characters that contained a gospel revealed in Arabic by the Virgin. Also found near the same place, together with bones and images, were the texts of a Christian martyr of Arab origin, Saint Caecilius, who would have accompanied the apostle Santiago in the evangelisation of Hispania and would reveal a conciliatory message between Christianity and Islam. It is more than probable that this famous forgery was a response to the intention of repairing the image of the Moriscos in Granada, linking them with the past of early Christianity and thus legitimising their position in the present (Caro Baroja, 1991; Harris, 2007). Although the Church itself and several contemporary intellectuals regarded the finds with suspicion, the people venerated the place to the point of changing its name: Monte Valparaíso, as it was called until then, became Sacro Monte, the Holy Mount.  

The perception of the classical legacy and its appropriation as an identity argument in later centuries has left numerous manifestations which cannot occupy us here: Romanticism and its looking to the past (indispensable for the case of Greece is Tsigakou’s beautiful book, 1981); the rise of nationalisms and identity conflicts – it is not necessary to recall the case of Greece and its return to Antiquity as a reaffirmation of identity in the face of Ottoman domination – or the advances produced in the late 18th century and especially the 19th, which took several directions: on the one hand, the study of the classical legacy from a scientific perspective; on the other, the recognition of the folkloric aspect of this legacy.   

Interpreting the Remains, Interpreting the Myth 

The discovery of archaeological remains, their reconstruction and study means tangible and more or less objective verification of a historical reality. Nevertheless, on many occasions this reality has been present long before in the group that inhabits the territory: Antiquity, and its ruins, remained latent, and have been perceived and reinvented in order to incorporate them into the collective imaginary. This happens, for example, with determined remains of the Roman era that the popular imaginary has interpreted and converted into closer realities. Here, Antiquity is transformed into a remote yet characteristic and legendary time. In the framework of this process we can understand how the bridges and aqueducts of the Roman era which, thanks to the skill of their builders remained undamaged with the passage of the centuries, became “devil’s bridges”, thus adopting a legendary dimension. The attribution to the devil or to supernatural beings of certain constructions or even natural spaces (rocks, caves, etc.) is not something related only to Greco-Latin heritage, but a phenomenon shared by many peoples. However, the interpretation of the archaeological remains of the classical era in those territories that possess them is representative. Only in Catalonia are there various constructions from the Roman period known as “devil’s bridges”, such as the Pont del Diable in Tarragona (in fact, an aqueduct that supplied Tarraco with the waters of the Francolí river), or the bridges of Martorell and Pineda de Mar. In all cases we find the diabolical figure and one or several inhabitants of the community who must confront it, something highly present in the legends of medieval origin (classified in Uther, 2004). This is so in the legend of the Tarraco aqueduct: Satan constructs the bridge for the locals in exchange for the soul of the first one to drink the water provided by the bridge. In the end, an ass is the first creature to do so (Amades, 1980).   

The case of the old Roman Theatre of Emerita Augusta, in Mérida, constructed in the 1st century BC is very eloquent. Its splendour was concealed with the passage of time under a mound of earth and all that was visible were some fragments of the upper part of the stands (summa cavea), seven terraced structures whose form recalled a seat or armchair. This is why the inhabitants called the place Las Siete Sillas, an imaginary place in which seven Moorish kings had sat down in another time to discuss the governing of the city. A historical element is incorporated into this tale, which is the era of Arab domination, and is also transformed and adapted to the collective imaginary. As we said, this is the legendary construction of a remote past in which the group recognises itself, according to the interpretation of the archaeological remains. 

On some occasions, the group appropriates the ancient object, bringing it closer to its reality. Frequently, a pagan element is adapted a group’s iconography, such as the “Christianisation” of pagan images in some parts of Spain. In this process the chance find of an ancient sculpture can lead to its identification as an image of the Virgin or a saint, as has happened with the finds of Phoenician, Iberian or Roman sculpture in the Iberian Peninsula. This is reflected, for example, by the toponym of the Cerro de los Santos (Albacete), an ancient Iberian sanctuary which housed numerous anthropomorphic sculptures identified by the locals with Christian images.  

The assimilation of intangible heritage has been easier to verify through certain pagan ceremonies, forms of worship and beliefs that followed their course adapting to the popular traditions. The perception of the past is not only limited to the existence of archaeological remains. The past is manifested with tangible evidence but also transmits intangible realities through collective memory.  

The city of Troy goes beyond its archaeological evidence, beyond being a verified historical object, given that its very name contains different meanings. Troy has been a mythical place, transported to Europe within the classical background and exclusively possessed by it, but also present in the memory of the Turkish people. Before its discovery by Heinrich Schliemann in 1870, Troy existed only in myth and literature. The German archaeologist used his intuition when interpreting the Homeric tales and the vague descriptions of the ancient texts, but also the directions of the locals. The site of the ruins of the mythical city was and is still called today Hisarlik, which in Turkish means “fortress place”. The same happened in Mycenae. The discovery of the heroic tombs that Schliemann interpreted as those of Agamemnon and his line – as he also started from an imagined reality through texts and their idealisation – had been stimulated by the popular belief that some very ancient kings hid their treasures in some mysterious buildings. 

The archaeological expeditions carried out in the late 19th century yielded similar results about the classical and biblical world. The most fantastical traditions, such as that which refers to the presence of Noah’s grandchildren in the south of Spain, seemed to find the reflection of a historical truth: the expansion towards the western Mediterranean of the Semite peoples of the sea and their settlements in the Iberian Peninsula. Beyond the archaeological verification of Antiquity, we must consider its cultural importance in societies, in that which “discovers”, but also in that which “houses”. It is in the latter that the mark of the classical legacy roots itself in memory and is transformed into something personal: this is the feeling of the peoples that today inhabit the hillsides of the ancient Troy and that have incorporated Homeric myths, formerly so typical of the West, as their own legacy.  

Classical Heritage and Common Identity: An Evaluation  

The term “classical culture” in some way defines the culture of Europe and of the West in general, while the tangible and intangible “classical legacy” is a reality shared by many regions throughout the Mediterranean, encompassing all its extremes. If we only examine the mythological and literary stories of the early Greeks, Homer and the heroic myths have been an endless source for the cultural and intellectual production of Europe, but have also left an undeniable mark on their settings. From the Georgian coasts bathed by the Black Sea, where Medea, daughter of the Sun, watched over the Golden Fleece, to Cappadocia, a place inhabited by Amazons; from Lebanon, one of the supposed homelands of Dionysus (or perhaps it was Syria?) to Cadiz, the Gadir of the monster Geryon; from Sicily, where the presence of Proserpine, queen of the underworld, is still alive, to Ithaca, the land of Ulysses. From there, the episodes that make up ancient history have had enclaves dispersed all over the Mediterranean geography and their protagonists have been Greeks, Romans, Persians, Carthaginians, Etruscans, Latins, Numids, Celts…  

The classical legacy is, therefore, a factor of union for the peoples who possess it, but also an element that enriches the identity of each territory in a specific way, which describes its history and is secured in the memory of each society. The countries struck by wars and radicalisms are revaluing their classical past, not only as an economic resource but also as a certain form of identity rehabilitation. Moreover, Antiquity is still a concept that can be wielded in situations of conflict and can become an “object” to be used as a projectile. For this reason, it is not enough to assume that it is a common heritage and that, therefore, the ways of approaching it and contributing to its development are the same in each place and culture. It is opportune to consider the link of each people with its heritage and the forms in which this has been received and transmitted: we must examine which elements remain and how. For this reason, the conservation of the classical legacy does not only involve the preservation of archaeological heritage and its musealisation. It is not even about its profitability in terms of sustainable development, even though this is something positive and desirable. It must be observed from a broader perspective, which includes the way it has been assimilated by societies at different stages, from an analysis of the role of the traditions that have interpreted it.    

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