I remember playing a pool game when I was young where one person chose a category and then called out options until the specific example one of the other players had secretly chosen came up. If I recall the game correctly, you then had to race that person across the pool. On this day, I chose the category “empires,” which left the other players wracking their brains trying to come up with enough empires for each to have one. There was the Roman Empire, sure, and the British Empire. Were the Aztec an empire? Maybe? Being a know-it-all at that age, I rattled off a bunch more (Inca, Mongol, Persian-Achaemenid, Parthian, etc, etc) before choosing another category.
I would not have included the United States in my list of empires. My understanding of the United States and its possessions at that time was what Daniel Immerwahr calls “the logo map.” That is, the lower 48 states with little corner cutouts for Alaska and Hawaii. I knew of other possessions at that time, including both bases and territories, but they did not register as parts of the United States. For Immerwahr, that gloss is part of the problem. From there, it is just a short hop to a sitting US congressperson referring to Guam, a US territory for longer than she has been alive, as a foreign country.
Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire is an intensely sophisticated, yet immensely readable history of the United States beyond the logo map. To do this, he offers two interlocking investigations.
First, how did the United States get colonial possessions and how were those possessions treated? Here, Immerwahr starts with the very early days of the American Republic, using Daniel Boone and the Indian removal acts to explore the imperialism that created the logo map and how those borders quickly became treated as eternal. Starting in the third chapter, though, Immerwahr sets sail beyond those territorial borders, first landing on the guano islands (literally islands buried under tons of bird droppings) that fueled 19th century industrial agriculture and later landing on Spanish territorial possessions around the world.
Suddenly, the United States had territorial possessions, just like the countries of Europe. Welcome to the club, wrote Kipling, with a heap of racism:
Take up the White Man’s burden— Have done with childish days— The lightly proffered laurel, The easy, ungrudged praise. Comes now, to search your manhood Through all the thankless years, Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom, The judgment of your peers!
However, for the United States, these possessions marked a turning point. Most of the states had begun their existence as territories that later applied for statehood. Would these new territories have the same privilege? The Philippines had millions of residents and a city in Manila nearly as large as any in the country. Just putting the territories to scale against the logo map was revealing (naturally, cartographers made a point of not doing this).
Of course the answer would be “no.” Even if the civilizing mission took, as they saw it, the people of the Philippines weren’t Americans. Some, and far more than most Americans thought, spoke English, but they weren’t white, which was itself disqualifying. But neither would the United States give up the territorial claim, which led to the brutal repression of the archipelago, including extensive use of “water torture,” a forerunner of modern water-boarding.
With this empire gained, Immerwahr sets out to tackle the second part of the book: why don’t people consider this an empire? After the second world war, the United States began to divest itself of imperial holdings. Alaska and Hawaii did indeed become states, while The Philippines became independent. The US kept most of the small islands, which it still uses to house military bases, but during this period it also expanded the global network of military bases that had developed for the purpose of fighting the war. Thus, Immerwahr argues, the United States went from being a territorial empire to being a “pointillist” one, capable of extending military power almost anywhere in the world. But the change in form only serves to hide the imperial structures of the United States.
How to Hide an Empire is not a celebration empire, and Immerwahr does not shy away from the atrocities committed in the name of civilization, but neither is it simply anti-imperial. Rather, Immerwahr aims to understand the consequences of this empire, identifying any number of social and cultural developments from birth control pills (developed in tests on Puerto Ricans) to the Beatles (coming of age in the shadow of a US military base) that are the consequences of American imperialism.
I have been meaning to read How to Hide an Empire since hearing Immerwahr talk about this research a few years ago. It does not disappoint. This is a meticulously researched book that offers a timely reconsideration of what the borders of the United States look like — so much so that I am seriously considering this as one of the book I assign when I get a chance to teach US history next year.
I am still plugging away at writing about books I’ve read, and will at least be writing about Arkady Martin’s A Memory Called Empire. Since the last books post went up, I have finished Anne Zouroudi’s The Lady of Sorrows, a seven deadly sins novel that brilliantly evokes the Greek Islands. I just started C. Pham Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold.
President Joe Biden gave an address Monday night to memorialize the grim milestone of 500,000 Americans dying from COVID-19, according to the official tally. I am not saying anything novel when I say the event played to Biden’s strength as a politician. His ten-minute address was filled with empathy as he spoke about how lost loved ones remain with the living, about how we have to remember lost loved ones rather than becoming numb to the pain, and about how we should carry their memories forward into in our actions.
Biden’s first month in office has been spent activating the government bureaucracy that had been allowed to atrophy in the past four years, so while there are many people understandably angry about the vaccine rollout, distribution is heading in the right direction. This was a somber moment marking a systemic failure, but the address also worked to model best practices and encourage people to turn their grief into action.
In Biden’s role as Mourner-in-Chief, this was a powerful line that tries to use collective trauma as a catalyst to unify the country. It asks people to think about their loved ones and turn that memory into thoughtful, considerate behavior where individuals take responsibility for the safety of everyone. Certainly, this is a believable sentiment coming from someone who has lived with loss almost his entire political career.
Nowhere in the speech did Biden ask his audience to remember anything but their lost loved ones.
On the one hand, this specific event was not the place for a discussion about accountability. Merrick Garland as much as said that an investigation into the events of January 6 where a lynch mob stormed the Capitol would be his first priority as Attorney General and other inquiries into the events of the past year will unfold over the coming months.
On the other hand, remembering the loss without also remembering why they died is cold comfort. I understand the impulse to not stoke what talking heads on any number of cable news channels might decry as partisan anger, but transparency and accountability are very different from partisanship. The one seeks to rebuild the infrastructure and trust in institutions by applying rules equally, irrespective of party; the other sees the world only in terms of friends and enemies.
I have a lot of sympathy for President Biden right now. He is attempting to walk a fine line and live up to his casting as a man who could unify a deeply-divided country. The result is events like this one where he can strike an empathetic note and talk about healing while trying to restore the government bureaucracy into something that actually works for the citizens of the country. However, may of the forces dividing the country are outside of his control and have been building for years to the point where anything he does, however centrist, is going to be labelled socialist. A Newsmax host even attacked Biden’s dog compared to past presidential pets.
Cultural memory always entails a push and pull between remembering and forgetting. These memories are malleable and open to manipulation. While working on an article about Ancient Greece in the pre-pandemic times, for instance, I read a lot about the historical memory genocide in Rwanda, where the ruling party led by President Paul Kagame has consciously shaped the memory of its role in ending the genocide in order to secure political legitimacy. By contrast, after a particularly brutal civil war in Athens in 402/1 BCE, the Athenians swore an oath of reconciliation that required both sides to “not remember” what had happened, formally renouncing reprisals.
But I also fear that the emphasis on remembering framed in terms of the personal grief and loss risks forgetting that these deaths weren’t just something that happened. These people did not die because of some avoidable happenstance. We only reached this mind-numbing number because of specific actions and inactions.
President Biden is right: we cannot forget those who died, and already people are beginning to discuss what form COVID memorials ought to take. But we ought to also take stock of what we are choosing to remember. For my part, I would love to see a Vietnam War-style memorial to commemorate the dead and also agree with the former Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith that local memorials dedicated to both COVID and the surrounding events of the past year would be appropriate. But I also believe that any memorial on its own would be inadequate. Remember the dead, yes, but also remember how we got here.
A few months back I received a message on Twitter from a friend. An editor had come to him with an idea for a piece bridging the ancient and the modern, using ancient Greece to confront modern dilemmas, but he was drawing a blank on the specific idea. Do I have anything that might appeal to the editor and, if so, should he pass along my information?
To be honest, I was in a bit of an end-of-semester daze, but I can usually find an argument once I start writing, so I said sure. One phone call and a month and a half of allowing my thoughts to percolate later, I pitched a piece that tied together Hesiod’s Works and Days, methods of divination in ancient Greece, and a doomed invasion of Sicily in 415.
In short: we live in an iron generation Zeus decrees that people are going to suffer. Risk mitigation requires both human preparation and appeasing the gods, but the steepest consequences of failing to adequately prepare for risk happen when a person’s action or inaction puts the community at risk.
Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week.I am making this quick format a regular Friday/Saturday feature, except that the end of the semester crunch for most of my classes broke this schedule before it even began.
This week: Bagman
My podcast listening tends toward conversation, sports, and current events and while I am periodically on the hunt for a new show I am rather hit and miss with “true crime” investigative podcasts. I didn’t give in to the Serial fad, for instance, but was quite taken by Crimetown. The latter hit a sweet spot for me in that it looked not just at a single crime, but at institutional corruption, which is also the subject of Rachel Maddow and Mike Yarvitz’ limited run podcast turned book Bagman. However, rather than painting a portrait of a city at a given time, Maddow and Yarvitz take aim at Spiro Agnew.
I have taught US history, but I would never describe myself as a specialist. When I cover the end of Nixon’s administration, I focus on the Watergate break-in, the cover-up, and give the students something to analyze for themselves in the form of Herb Block’s cartoons. I mention Agnew in passing, mostly in order to set up how Gerald Ford became president—probably trotting out the standard line that Agnew was forced to resign because he was under indictment for tax evasion. What I’ve told students in the past is not wrong, but only by the most technical definition.
The false memory about Agnew’s time in office is the starting point of Bagman. In point of fact, Agnew had had a meteoric rise from winning an election as Baltimore County executive in 1962 to becoming governor of Maryland in 1966 to vice president in 1968 and, along the way, built a corruption ring based on his control of government contracts that he doled out in return for cash.
Maddow and Yartvitz take the audience back to 1972 just when the Watergate scandal was beginning to heat up: George Beall, the US district attorney in Maryland, had opened an investigation into the sitting Baltimore County executive on suspicion of a bribery ring. What he found was not only that the ring had been developed by Agnew, but that Agnew’s activities had continued throughout his term as governor and into his time as Vice President. When Agnew heard of the investigation—in February 1973—he immediately set about trying to discredit the attorneys and quash the investigation, but eventually, was forced to resign. Thus, as Maddow and Yarvitz told Terry Gross on Fresh Air, their purpose was two-fold: first, document the Agnew story; second, explore how the prosecutors’ primary aim of removing Agnew from office and the series of events worked together to allow people to remember Agnew’s crimes as tax evasion rather than political corruption and obstruction of justice.
I am currently halfway through this limited-run series and am consistently fascinated by their account of Agnew’s fall from grace. I’m not sure how well they’ll be able to pull off the second half of their objective, but I am looking forward to finding out.
I didn’t watch last night’s presidential debate. But while I chose to spare myself the rage, anxiety, and dread of watching live, I was not above rubber-necking the proceedings on Twitter. Even vicariously, the debate was a mess and one would be forgiven for seeing this as the death pangs of a superpower being televised.
Nevertheless, a tweet from from PFTCommenter, made me think once again about the which practices from Ancient Athens might be of value. The tweet made a flippant comment about how the particulars of the debate made a strong case for the Athenian practice of sortition. He describes sortition as drawing a name out of a hat, though, naturally the process was a little more complicated . According the Constitution of the Athenians, the ten tribes of Athens nominated eligible candidates for archon and then the sortition process chose from among those candidates. This is not a bad suggestion, but since final authority at least in theory resting with the Assembly (ἐκκλεσία) rather than with the magistrates so real power lay in the hands of individuals capable of convincing a crowd.
The real virtue of the sortition process is that it does not merely apply to who becomes the chief executive. Instead, almost every magistracy—from the wardens overseeing prisoners, to the clerks, auditors, and chief magistrates—were appointed by lot. Combined with these other mechanisms of government like the courts and the Assembly, sortition was designed to encourage wide widespread participation in democracy.
What sortition gains in civic participation, though, it loses in expertise and this year of all years should teach us the value of that. As a result, my first instinct actually went to a practice of “straightening” (εὐθύνη):
εὐθύνη amounted to an end-of-term accounting for their conduct in office. Any official who handled money was required to submit his accounts for public audit that could lead to criminal charges against him. The United States budget is bit more complicated than Athenian public finance, but the spirit of public accountability is spot on.
Equally useful, therefore, would be the Athenian process dokimasia (δοκιμασία) where appointed and elected officials underwent formal review before taking office. The candidate for office had to answer a series of questions before presenting their references (witnesses) and faced potential charges from the general public before the jury gave a thumbs up or thumbs down. Finally, the official entered office by swearing an oath to uphold the laws and not take presents (bribes) on account of the office.
Some of the questions are not particularly relevant today. Despite the racist allegations made about President Obama’s eligibility, we don’t need to ask who someone’s father is and what deme he belongs to, for instance, and I think we’re okay not asking about their devotion to Zeus or Apollo. But οther questions are still worth asking. According to the Constitution of Athenians, the next set of questions were (55.3):
Whether he treats his parents well, and whether he paid the taxes he owes, and whether he served his military service.
What about ostracism, perhaps of a particular individual?
In fifth-century Athens, there was an annual question brought before the Ekklesia, asking whether there should be an ostracism vote. If they answered in the affirmative, then a second vote was set at which time every voter received an ostrakon (a pot sherd) on which they wrote a name. If the votes reached a certain quorum, the leading vote-getter was required to leave Athens for ten years.
Sounds great, right?
In practice, this process was much messier and less suited for today’s situation. For one, recent research into the surviving pottery sherds has revealed numerous votes to ostracize “hunger,” so one might imagine many Americans voting to send away COVID. For another, ostracism fell out of practice in Athens after the vote of 416/15 when two political opponents in an extremely polarized Athens, Nikias and Alkibiades, decided against to minimize the risk of losing a vote by turning their supporters against a third candidate, Hyperbolus. The 2020 election is an extreme example, but this would be the equivalent of Jill Stein “winning” the ostracism vote held in 2016. Some people would have wanted that to happen and others could argue it would be for the best, but neither was she the reason an ostracism was called.
(I jest. Somehow Ted Cruz probably would have gotten ostracized.)
My bigger issue with ostracism is another aspect of the practice. In Athens, ostracism was meant to mitigate the risk of any one politician becoming too powerful. Thus the ten-year exile was designed to remove them from their base of political support but did not strip the person of their property. In a modern globally interconnected world the former is impossible unless they’re somehow banished to a moon of Jupiter while the latter rather misses the point given the reporting about how much money has been leeched from the American taxpayers.
Fantasizing about ostracism is fantasizing for a quick fix, but it is too toothless and fickle an institution to resolve any of the problems facing the United States. The debate stage last night might have had on it a face and a name who has come to embody every one of those issues, but slipping into the wishful thinking of ostracism buys into his cult of personality as though what was on display were not the product of long-developing processes. If we’re going to be learning lessons from the Athenian democracy—and I’m not saying that we should—I think it would be better to look to the mundane procedures of accountability and oversight.
In short, let’s bring back the dokimasia. Who’s with me?
One of the most revolutionary ships in the history of seafaring launched on February 10, 1906.
Just over a century earlier, Horatio Nelson had seized control of the seas for the British Empire by defeating the combined fleets of Spain and France. He did this from the deck of the HMS Victory, a first-rate ship of the line carrying 104-cannons launched a full four decades before earlier. In effect, ships of the line were floating artillery batteries that lined up next to each other and pounded each other into submission. Displacing 3,500 tons and launching a full-broadside of over half a ton of metal, the Victory was not the largest battleship at Trafalgar (the Spanish flagship Santísima Trinidad was larger by nearly a third), but was representative of its age. Effective distances were quite close and Nelson and his fellow British commanders attempted to magnify their firepower through superior seamanship by sailing their ships into close contact before opening fire, even at great cost to themselves—the Victory was practically disabled at Trafalgar, and Nelson fatally wounded.
Naval technology developed through the nineteenth century, with the French navy introducing a steam-powered battleship, Le Napoléon (5100 tons), in 1850 and ironclad battleships starting with Gloire (5600 tons) in 1859. Sail slowly fell out of use, and smoothbore cannons gave way to more powerful rifled guns and explosive shells. By the 1890s most major navies used fully-steam powered battleships of roughly 15,000 tons, with mixed-caliber weaponry, including several batteries of four 10- or 12-inch guns as a main armament, designed to combat threats of various sizes and speeds.
Then, in 1906, the Royal Navy launched the HMS Dreadnought, which, in a stroke, made earlier battleships obsolete. Fifteen years later, the Dreadnought, now obsolete, was sold for scrap in part of the downsizing of navies after World War One.
The Dreadnought was revolutionary in several respects. First, it was enormously large, displacing up to 21,000 tons, with the extra weight coming in large part from its armor. Second, it was fast, with a new steam turbine system that pushed water through the engine to generate steam rather than older reciprocating engines. But most notable was that the Dreadnought only carried a single caliber of main battery, ten 12-inch guns of which up to eight could be fired at once. Each shell weighed 850 pounds, giving the Dreadnought a broadside of 6,800 pounds made up of high-explosive shells capable of hitting a target at a range of more than 15 kilometers. Streamlining the caliber of the armament and centralizing the firing systems also served to increase accuracy because the main batteries all fired at the same elevation and range. In short, this was a superior warship worth two or even three battleships of the type launched even a year before.
Within ten years, the Dreadnought itself had been superseded by battleships built in its image, setting up a clash between the German and British fleets of Dreadnought battleships at Jutland in which the HMS Dreadnought did not participate. However, although the launch of the Dreadnought was a crucial development in the history of naval warfare, it was merely one turning point in a larger story of the naval arms race that led up to World War One.
Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnought sets out to tell this story, but winds up telling a different, albeit connected, one. While the development of the Dreadnought appears in a pivotal chapter at the center of the book, Massie is much more interested in the personalities involved the naval arms race between Germany and the UK. The result is a book of high politics and biography.
I was mostly familiar with Massie by way of his massive biography of Peter the Great that I read in high school, and individual scenes showed many of the same flairs. Most chapters followed one or more characters, using a mini-biography to chart a particular developments, and Massie works to bring those characters to life with little details like their smoking habits and gustatory tendencies (it is little wonder so many of them suffered from gout). The picture of Otto von Bismarck and King Edward VII smoking like chimneys and Bismarck staring a table full of people down over a plate of pâté are images not likely to leave me any time soon, but the need to paint a new portrait for nearly every chapter also serves to cover a lot of the same ground through each repeated character.
The issue to my mind was that that the high political approach too often put the focus on the arms race between Germany and England as it played out in the halls of Parliament and the German Reichstag and in the personal letters between two royal families. This is not to say it is wholly uninteresting. I was only loosely familiar with the origins of the Boer war, for instance, or just how much of a international incident it became because the German establishment saw it as a war of British aggression, which was a reasonable, if not wholly accurate, interpretation. Similarly, given the seriously extravagant costs of building and maintaining these fleets, explaining how seriously the British government took its mandate of maintaining an overwhelming advantage that served to explain the international arms race and I was fascinated to learn that the day of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, British battleships were in Kiel on their way to tour Baltic ports.
However, personality-driven approach worked particularly well when exploring the principal characters in the Royal Navy. The middle portion of Dreadnought leading up to the ship itself introduces the reader to the likes of Admiral John (Jacky) Fisher, whose oversight led to the construction of the Dreadnought and sweeping naval reforms, and his arch-rival Admiral Charles Beresford.
In sum, I found Dreadnought to be a highly frustrating book. In part, I went into it hoping that there were would be more, well, boats. Beyond their relative absence, however, there lies a more substantive critique: Dreadnought is frustratingly uneven. Massies’ richly detailed, biographically-centered narrative largely focuses on the building of a bipolar world between Germany and the UK, with other countries generally appearing in the story only insofar as they connect to one of his protagonists. That France, Italy, Austria-Hungary, and other naval powers were building up their own fleets gets mentioned, but is of secondary concern to the “coming armageddon,” while the fact that British companies were constructing Dreadnoughts for the Ottoman Empire gets omitted.
Now, one of the hallmarks of a poor review is to critique an author for not writing the book he or she wanted them to write. I would have preferred a more traditional naval history, either of the Dreadnought as a style of ship that got only about fifteen years of ruling the seas or a social history of the British navy. Massie is telling a different story, however, one that is a more sophisticated spin on the idea of a family rivalry that spurred on a global war. But even as a more sophisticated spin, I found the narrow focus on these two powers is limiting and incomplete. For instance, the discontinuities between the personalities of the British navy on the one side and the German army leading to a discussion of the German navy primarily through the lens of politics on the other led to an imbalance even just between these two powers. To be sure, there was a lot of information packed into this lengthy tomb but I couldn’t help but feel that Massey’s style was better suited to the biography of one or more people than it was to the story of this particular arms race.
I remain better at writing then reading of late, but am still holding out hope that I will write about some of the recent mysteries I have read as well as Kevin Gannon’s pedagogy manifesto Radical Hope. I also recently finished Maja Novak’s bizarre satire about Slovenia’s transition to a capitalist economy, Feline Plague, and have nearly completed Cixin Liu’s Death’s End, the concluding volume to the trilogy that began with The Three-Body Problem. Liu’s trilogy has gotten better as it went along, building out a future history of humanity in the mode of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series or Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Man.
What I would write about if I were no longer pursuing an academic career has been on the forefront of my mind of late, and I have found myself gravitating back toward Alexander as a result. The following post is adapted from something I have recently started to work on in that vein.
Alexander the Great is deceptively easy to write about, which has led to oceans of ink spilled about the Macedonian king over the past several millennia. In fact, he makes almost any short-list of individuals about whom the most has been written over that span, up there with the likes of a certain Jewish man born in Bethlehem during the final years of the 1st Century BCE and an Arab merchant of some renown born some six centuries after him. Alexander’s afterlives are numerous and varied, appearing across Eurasia from Malaysia to Persia to Ethiopia to Medieval European manuscript, as well as on screen in India in 1941 and in Hollywood in 1956 and 2004, as well as in a Japanese Anime Series from 1999–2000.
Alexander also appears in numerous novels, including recently Dancing with the Lion by the ancient historian Jeanne Reames that explores Alexander’s childhood and relationship with Hephaestion. (Jeanne does more justice talking about their relationship than I can, though I have not yet read her novel.) I also personally own more than thirty-non fiction books with Alexander in their title, which represents just a fraction of the total. And yet, the sheer volume of work that has been done about Alexander obscures the fact that Alexander is actually very difficult to write about well.
One issue is an issue of genre. Biography, by its very definition attempts to write the life of an individual. In antiquity, this meant using a famous life to offer moral exempla, both good and bad. Perhaps the most famous description of purpose comes from Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, part of a pair of lives that also included Julius Caesar, where he declares:
For I am writing not histories, but lives, and distinguished deeds do not always reveal either virtue or vice, while a slight deed, word, or idle pastime reveal one’s character more than a battle where tens of thousands die or the greatest siege of cities. So, just as the portrait artist takes the likeness from the face and the appearance of the look, which is where the character appears, but pays little mind to the remaining parts, so too must I be allowed to enter into the signs of the soul that I may portray the life of each, leaving their great deeds to others.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of modern biography, both of which evolved from the ancient genre much as that ancient genre evolved from earlier forms of praise poetry. The first type of biography is a character study that offers a deep dive into the every detail of an individual in order to discover what makes that person tick. These biographies tend to make academic historians skittish. Even when they are well-researched, and many are, these studies often plumb the depths of unanswerable questions and cannot escape moral overtones because their focus is on what Pierre Briant termed “psychologistic” questions. Equally insidious, though, is that the focus on one individual smacks of an antiquated type of history that centers historical development on the deeds of “great men.”
The second type of biography aims to subvert these issues somewhat by using the life of an individual person as a vehicle to explore a particular period or issue. Douglas Boin, for instance, just published a biography of Alaric the Goth that aims to understand the fall of Rome from the outsider’s perspective, while the New Historicism literary movement pushed by, among others, Stephen Greenblatt aims to understand the literary production of an individual through how they interacted with society. And yet, even Boin mentions in the linked video that he wants readers to come away with an understanding about how one person can change history and Greenblatt’s The Swerve, which came under fire for inaccuracies, aims to show how the singular discovery of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura and its atomistic, scientific world view made the world “modern.”
Biographies about Alexander fall into both categories, but tend to follow a predictable template. First, the reader is introduced to the Macedonian kingdom that Alexander’s father Philip built. Then we meet the precocious young Alexander in the Macedonian court where he demonstrates his potential and chafes against the yoke of his father, often egged on by his intense mother, Olympias. When Philip meets his ends in the theater at Aegae in 336, Alexander ascends the Macedonian throne by popular acclaim of his soldiers and proceeds to crush any and all opposition inside and outside of his kingdom. By 334, Alexander is ready to meet his destiny, crossing the Hellespont and launching an invasion of Persia where he slaughters his way across Asia before being “defeated” at the Hyphasis when his soldiers simply refuse to advance any further. By 323, Alexander returned to Babylon for his second date with destiny.
In other words, a precocious young man takes the throne at 18, conquers everything from the Mediterranean to India, and dies at 33 or 34.
Along the way this template prescribes a certain set of questions: How did Alexander’s drinking affect his reign? What caused Alexander’s growing orientalism? Did Alexander think of himself as a god and, if so, when did that begin? What were Alexander’s plans when he died? Who killed Alexander? Did Alexander believe in the ‘Unity of Mankind’? Was Alexander Great?
Despite more than a century’s worth of scholarship and dozens of books that have shed light on any number of aspects about Alexander’s reign, we are barely closer to answering the fundamental questions about Alexander. In part, these issues stem from the tenuous nature of the sources for Alexander’s reign, but there is an even more insidious issue at work. The questions that frame studies of Alexander are designed as though they can be answered using evidence when, in fact, they are unanswerable except by imparting a healthy dose of opinion. For example, if you look closely at how I framed the questions above, one takes for granted a fundamental change in Alexander’s character as he progressed into Asia and frames that change in terms of a modern concept.
All historians are constrained by their sources and many of the questions I posed above are found already in the ancient evidence. Calling the sources for Alexander “weak” is generous. Five narrative accounts of Alexander’s reign exist in part or whole. The earliest of these, Book 17 of Diodorus Siculus’ Library of History dates to the first century BCE, while the latest, Justin’ epitome of Book 11 of Pompeius Trogus’ history is a synopsis of a first-century BCE work compiled in the third century CE. The three remaining accounts fall between these two dates: Quintus Curtius Rufus’ History (first century CE), Plutarch’s Life of Alexander (late-first or early-second century CE), and Arrian’s Anabasis Alexandri (early-second century CE). In other words, every account of Alexander the Great that exists from antiquity was written between three hundred and six hundred years after he died. Then there are issues with each individual work. Diodorus Siculus and Justin/Trogus wrote “universal histories” that inserted Alexander into their histories of the world down to their current day, while Plutarch wrote biography, a genre that explicitly claimed a moral, rather than historical, purpose. Curtius’ history, which was the most well-known of these throughout the Middle Ages, has long gaps and is missing the first two books in their entirety.
Historians have long sought to answer the question of which source ought to be believed through a process of peeling back the layers in the existing histories to find their sources, which, while fragmentary, offer a more accurate picture of what happened.
This research revealed two overarching traditions for Alexander. The first tradition is the so-called Vulgate of Diodorus, Curtius, and Justin/Trogus that trace their origins to a 3rd-Century BCE work by Cleitarchus, while the second, “high,” tradition of Arrian declares that it follows the accounts of Aristobulus and Ptolemy, who actually accompanied Alexander and therefore before knew him. Based on his preferred sources and largely-intact text, it makes intuitive sense to trust Arrian’s history the most among the five existing accounts, and this is exactly what historians have often done. However, Arrian’s history is also not without problems, including that his sources wrote decades after Alexander had died and he seems blithely trusting that Ptolemy, who had become a king by the time he wrote his history, would have no cause to manipulate his account.
In fact, most sources that purported to be directly connected to Alexander, such as his will, were likely early Hellenistic forgeries created to further the ambitions of one successor or another. The only truly contemporary account of the campaign was that of Callisthenes, Alexander’s court historian and propagandist who wrote dispatches back to Greece extolling Alexander’s successes before Alexander ultimately had him had executed.
These source problems lead modern Alexander biographies to be colored by a rich anecdotal tradition that owes its earliest incarnation to Alexander’s own propaganda and has grown in the intervening millennia as generation after generation has latched onto the same tales. Alexander demonstrates his generosity by granting his mistress Pancaste to Apelles after the artist painted her nude and fell in love or by tolerantly laughing off the potential slight when the Persian queen mother Sisygambis mistakes Hephaestion (or Leonnatus) for Alexander. Meanwhile his temper is on display at a drunken party in Pella where Philip allegedly tries to run him through, and again at Maracanda when a drunk and enraged Alexander impales one of his longest-tenured retainers with a spear. Slicing through the Gordion Knot demonstrates pride, while the conflagration of the temple of Artemis at Ephesus on the same day as Alexander is born—the goddess had allegedly left her home unprotected to watch over the momentous birth—foretold greatness.
Already from the time of Callisthenes ALEXANDER consisted of a larger-than-life facade enveloping a shadow, regardless of whether you were pro-Alexander or against him. This is not to say that Alexander was a non-person—on the contrary, I suspect that his charisma was magnetic. Rather, Alexander the historical figure is even more impossible to recover than most biographical subjects because almost everything we know about his character are projected by later sources onto an ambiguous blank slate.
George Floyd’s murder hit me hard on a number of levels. On a personal level, Minneapolis is my favorite US city, and one where I have both friends and family. On a philosophical one, I am a humanist numb from the colossal disregard for human life in that moment and all that came before. On a political one, the instinct from some circles, including the police and some elected officials, to crush protestors with an iron fist smacks of a turn toward totalitarianism.
My training and background as a historian informs my response on each level. Although my work does not focus on this hemisphere, let alone the past century, I read and teach widely and am always struck both by the historical roots of the systemic problems that surround race-constructs in the United States. This means, among others, the racist roots of policing, the artificial, racist origins of segregated neighborhoods through policies such as redlining, and how the construct of who gets to be white evolved to conscript white-skinned immigrants into the cause of institutional white supremacy.
The first two are obvious, the third is more insidious and leads, in my opinion, to internal contradictions such as many Jews benefitting from White Supremacy and some seeking to reinforce it even while torch-lit marchers chant “Jews will not replace us.”
History is not static, consisting of statues or events frozen in amber with a clear, unambiguous meaning. For one thing, the meaning of both statues and events are contingent, and claims to the contrary are meant to delegitimize challenges to the political status quo. But my assertion that history is not static goes beyond the simple fact that history lives and gets revivified in memory. Rather, history consists of dynamic processes and developments. Named people and events offer concrete case studies that illuminate developments and dates give context, but neither are an end in their own right, whatever the caricatures of history class might suggest.
No class, and certainly no survey class, has time to exhaustively cover every civil rights incident, so teachers choose a few incidents to highlight as representative—the lynching of Emmett Till, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Brown vs the Board of Education, the Little Rock Nine, Freedom Summer, Selma, the March on Washington, the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr., maybe having students read Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi—before moving on to the next topic.
We also spend time dealing with the history of immigration to the US, charting how immigrant food became mainstream and reading documents like a NY Times op-ed from Senator David A. Reed defending the implementation of the Johnson-Reed Act that cut off immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe on the grounds that they needed to defend America for their grandchildren from those non-white people thought to be flooding into the country. Today, of course, the descendants of many of those immigrants are counted as White Americans and have been co-opted into defending that privilege.
Teaching history comes down to political choices, no matter how it is taught. Historical examples drained of their vitality and set on a pedestal can be deployed to defend all sorts of malicious programs, which is one of the insidious problems behind the trope that we need to learn from history so as to not make the mistakes of the past. Even supposedly a-political history is laden with baggage that generally supports comfort and the status quo at the expense of justice.
Take a seemingly innocuous example: The Plessy v. Ferguson supreme court case in 1896 legalized Jim Crow segregation laws and is generally considered a bad decision, but if your story then charts a trajectory of progress that includes Truman desegregating the military in 1948, Brown v Board of Education desegregating schools in 1954, and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 as accomplished through the non-violent protests of Martin Luther King Jr. and co., never mind that King advocated confrontation and law-breaking, before drifting away until the election of an African-American president, then you offer a falsely triumphalist version of US history without dabbling in explicitly White Supremacist ideas.
Now, the example above is deliberately over-simplified and every version of this course I have seen at least punctuates the narrative with struggle (Rosa Parks), White opposition (Bull Connor; George Wallace), and murder (Emmett Till; King).
At the same time, there often seems to be reassuring triumphalism baked into how we sometimes talk about US history, as though the United States is obviously the greatest country on earth, so we should look to its earliest history for why that has always been true. The rest of its history, warts and all, simply explains how the US became even better, all the while leaving most of these terms undefined, thereby allowing for the doublethink assertion that the US now is the best country to ever exist and that it was better sometime in the past. This is a facile interpretation, but the US is hardly the only state afflicted by its circular logic. Johanna Hanink offers a really interesting discussion of how a similar process took hold in Ancient Athens in her bookThe Classical Debt.
I am not particularly interested in debating US greatness. In principle I’m onboard, in execution not so much. However, these triumphal versions of American history belie the processes at work such that every decade or two people can be once again shocked by a George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Rodney King, Marquette Frye and Emmett Till, only to reach the same conclusions about what should be done before reverting to comfortable complacency and bigotry that puts the responsibility for civil rights on African Americans or blames them for conditions created by a history of racist institutions.
My courses are far from perfect and evolve as I develop as a historian, teacher, and person. I am currently listening to the audiobook of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning, which I hope will help me develop better vocabulary to express these different types of racism for if or when I am back in the classroom.
I hope this moment results in meaningful change, and certainly there seems like a groundswell of momentum, but when I watch institutions long steeped in both overt and covert racism resist accountability for their actions, corporations offer empty platitudes so that people will continue to buy their baubles often made and transported in exploitative conditions, and people continue to defend White Supremacy under various guises, I see the deep historical roots.
Lessons from history are not the result of simple equations like [Adolf Hitler] + [wrote Mein Kampf] + [Nazi Party] = [don’t vote for him]. Rather, they force us to look at where and how White Supremacy has entrenched itself because the failure to grapple with and resolve those underlying processes creates the cycle where history appears to be repeating itself.
I am not as well read on Civil Rights as many people, but here are a few books that have particularly informed how I think about these issues. Nancy Isenberg is the only white author on this list, but her thesis about the perpetually unresolved issue of poor and marginalized whites has had tragic consequences for minorities, so I think it is worth considering here as well.
In the second half of the 1800s, at a time when most Americans were farmers, the Department of Agriculture was a tiny outfit mostly charged with discovering ways to make crops more resilient. David Fairchild, the child of an academic in Kansas, joined this small outfit at the same time that the United States was launching itself as an industrial power, with exhibitions such as the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. On the advice of a friend, Fairchild applied for a job at the Smithsonian for a position in Naples, resulting in two fateful encounters. First, on the voyage across the Atlantic, Fairchild met Barbour Lathrop, a wealthy and over-the-top globetrotter. Second, on a trip to Corsica, Fairchild stole cuttings from the citron tree.
These two encounters, according to Daniel Stone’s book, revolutionized the American diet. Fairchild believed that the future of American agriculture was the import of new commodities and Lathrop underwrote the creation of this new program when the US government would not because he decided that Fairchild was his preferred traveling companion. Despite its opponents, the food importation program grew both in the number of explorers scouring the globe and in the bureaucracy to manage the imports, and is responsible for a number of the most recognizable products on the produce shelves, including the navel orange and Meyer lemon.
There are a number of interesting stories at work in The Food Explorer, including about the growth of the American bureaucratic state, about the history of food and food safety, and a unique lens on the US and the world, leave alone Fairchild’s biography, but I found it an immensely frustrating book. Part of my frustration came from quirks of Stone’s writing. Some readers might be interested to learn that the walnut is technically a fruit, but I found the persistence in explaining things were fruits rather than whatever their name or common wisdom suggests about as tiresome as people reminding you that tomatoes are fruit. However, there are also a couple of more substantive complaints.
First, The Food Explorer is a book that can’t decide what it wants to be. The main arc of the book is Fairchild’s biography, which means that by the second half of the book he is no longer an explorer, but a bureaucrat overseeing the work of other explorers, including Frank Meyer, who I found more compelling than Fairchild himself. But this section also becomes mired in accounts of his courtship of and marriage to Marian Bell, the daughter of the inventor Alexander Graham, as well as Bell’s aeronautical competition with the Wright Brothers.
Such stories give a fuller picture of Fairchild’s life, but they sit awkwardly beside the frame of this as a story about the massive changes going on in American society or about the fascinating institutions that Fairchild helped create. In fact, the most iconic plants Fairchild had a hand in bringing to the US were either inedible (Washington DC’s flowering cherry trees) or not his finds (the Meyer lemon). Similarly, I was struck by the vast number of imported plants that were almost immediately supplanted or simply discarded. Fairchild and his program did change the way Americans eat in significant ways, but behind the glitz and glam of Fairchild’s life is a more compelling story about the growth of the commercial agriculture industry and the role of the federal government in both facilitating and inhibiting the import of new crops.
Second, this is a particularly American book. Stone frames the story against the backdrop of American industrial power and the story is built around the privilege of American interlopers cavalierly begging, stealing, or buying whatever they want to populate their new garden of Eden. I don’t want to pass any aspersions on Stone since he periodically offers light critiques of American ignorance, such as during a potential row between US and Japanese officials after the first batch of cherry trees had to be burned. Nevertheless, his sources are swept up in the potential of the US and the backwardness of most of the rest of the world and he is generally happy to echo their sentiments, and makes a few truly egregious gaffes along the way, such as in identifying Egypt as both “Mesopotamia” and “the birthplace of civilization.”
As noted above, there is a compelling story here and I can understand why so many people and at least one podcast I listened to raved about the book. The decision to follow Fairchild’s charmed life keeps it from getting too heavy with either discussions of institutions and business or war and death, but I closed it more more frustrated than enlightened.
A short discussion of Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z, since I am likely not going to do a full summary: The first half of the book consists of non-stop action of a fateful night when a socialist politician is assassinated after a gathering in Thessaloniki by ruffians hired by the police, who simply stand by and watch. Much stronger, in my opinion, was the second half, which explored the inquests that followed and is highly critical of political officials who seek to sweep their complicity under the rug. My failure to write this up earlier has dimmed the individual characters in my memory, but I was repeatedly struck by the resonance with contemporary political agendas.
I have also finished Bilge Karasu’s The Garden of Departed Cats and am now reading Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, a strange and sensual novel about a group of young poets who call themselves “the visceral realists.”
My scholarly interests have recently begun to drift the way of my stomach, leading to more time spent thinking about ancient bread. About a year ago I delivered a paper at the Classical Association of the Middle-West and South annual meeting that looked at bread in the public food-scape of the Greek city, concluding, among other things, that most of the labor was done by women and non-citizens, both free and enslaved. Meanwhile the celebrated baker of Ancient Athens, credited with training a generation of bakers and introducing large bread ovens was a man named Thearion.
(The introduction to the paper is available here.)
Plato’s Gorgias (518B–518c) mentions Thearion at a point where Socrates is dismantling the idea that food can train the body for gymnastics:
As if, when being asked with regard to gymnastics who were or are good trainers of the body, you say to me in all earnestness, “Thearion the baker, Mithaecus the author of a book on Sicilian cooking, and Sarambus the tavern-keeper, these have all shown themselves to be marvelous attendants of the body, the one by preparing marvelous loaves, the next opson, the third wine.” Equally you might be aggrieved if I were to say to you: “Sir, you know nothing about gymnastics: you speak to me of servants, providers for the appetites of human beings, but without any right and proper understanding of [those appetites], those men who first fatten and fill human bodies to great applause and then wipe away even their original flesh.
Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae (3.78) includes several fragmentary references to Thearion, including a clipped section of Plato’s Gorgias that inverts Socrates’ point.
Antiphanes also recalls the Attic loaves as particularly excellent, thus in the Omphale:
How could one of good birth Be able to come out from such a chamber, Looking upon these white-bodied loaves Fill the oven close-packed in the passage And seeing them, form shapes in covered vessels Copied by Attic hands, who Thearion Trained for the common people.
[Note: I struggled to reconcile δημόταις, settling on something akin to “for the public good.”]
This is that Thearion the bread maker whom Plato recalls in the Gorgias and along with him Mithaicus, writing so: “about those who were or are good trainers of the body, you say to me in all earnestness, “Thearion the baker, Mithaecus the author of a book on Sicilian cooking, and Sarambus the tavern-keeper, these have all shown themselves to be marvelous attendants of the body, the one by preparing marvelous loaves, the next opson, the third wine.” And thus Aristophanes in his Gerytades and Aeolosicon:
“I come, having left Thearion’s bakeshop, where is the abode of the cookwares.”