“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” So said L.P. Hartley, a novelist now only remembered for a line that’s increasingly a cliché. Often it’s an aphorism taken by its speaker to mean that the past is unknowable, unattainable, unreachable.
Yet people travel to foreign countries all the time. When they do, they have essentially two options. One is to see the sites, but to do so from within their own comfortable cultural bubble. Alternatively, they could learn the language; study some maps; learn a little bit about the culture; maybe even have a guide help us take a look around. The two experiences of that foreign country will be remarkably different.
The Roman Republic in its last years is a remarkably faraway and foreign country. We might think that we know it; isn’t the United States a republic; isn’t our bank a neoclassical building; didn’t we read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when we were freshmen in high school? Those things that we think we know are the bubble from which we try to understand the Roman Republic. But to appreciate it in all its foreignness, to fully appreciate it as other, we need a guide like Barry Strauss.