I created a storify collection of tweets and retweets I posted during the annual meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South this past weekend in Kitchener, Ontario. For some reason WordPress doesn’t want to embed the reader in a post and I have a little too much left to do today to figure out how to fix it, so here is a like to the collection. There may be a longer post in the works because I have a lot of thoughts, but, for reasons, I am putting that off until later in the week, at least.
And for the plurality of readers, I have no doubt, that [the distant past] will offer little pleasure. They will hurry toward these modern times, in which the longstanding superior power of a people is sweeping itself away. In contrast, I myself will seek an advantage in my work, that I turn my gaze from the troubles which our time has seen for so many years, while I put my whole mind to those old days, having no part in the conflicts which, even if they cannot bend the mind of the writer from the truth, may nevertheless cause disturbance.
et legentium plerisque haud dubito quin primae origines proximaque originibus minus praebitura voluptatis sint festinantibus ad haec nova, quibus iam pridem praevalentis populi vires se ipsae conficiunt; ego contra hoc quoque laboris praemium petam, ut me a conspectu malorum, quae nostra tot per annos vidit aetas, tantisper certe dum prisca illa tota mente repeto, avertam, omis expers curae, quae scribentis animum etsi non flectere a vero, sollicitum tamen efficere posset.
Livy, AUC pr. 4-5
I have been particularly busy these past two months, between job applications, writing, teaching, and the election. This week has brought to my head a number of existential crises, while reinforcing my conviction about the central importance of humanistic education. Don’t expect a flurry of posts, but I expect activity to pick up here in the coming weeks, including a backlog of book reviews, collected thoughts about ancient history, teaching, and one post about my experience as an election judge this past Tuesday.
Before I go (this post was composed in a one-hour break between classes), I do want to make one point of clarification about how I interpret the post above. It is, of course, the famous passage from Livy’s introduction to his history of Rome Ab Urbe Condita, “From the Founding of the City,” which suggests that history is a refuge from the contemporary troubles society faces. Note, too, that he suggests that the end is nigh for Rome, when, in fact, the empire survived intact for another several centuries. But is history really a refuge in which one can retreat indefinitely and excuse him- or herself from culpability for the problems of modernity? Of course not, and, rhetoric aside, I don’t believe that Livy is saying that. All history is political and history is a space in which we can understand issues confronting society while also avoiding some of the worst polemics of contemporary discourse.
At some level I feel that I am at a crossroads of sorts and suspect that I am not alone in this. History is my primary medium and one of the things I aim to do going forward is to do a better job of using it “to think with,” but in a considered, careful way rather than leaping to hyperbolic judgements. But first, I am looking to my work for some solace.
A few weeks ago I was in a bar with a friend of mine, a diplomatic/US and the World historian. In the course of our conversation, we stumbled onto late-Hellenistic Egypt and Cleopatra, a topic I was to give a lecture on to my advisor’s class. I mentioned Egypt’s relative weakness and, in my opinion, unimportance in the first century BCE. He was taken aback by the way I dismissed Egypt, noting the glamor, the wealth, the prestige, and the grain. I shrugged and alluded to Augustan propaganda and the work of another diplomatic historian slated to take up a post here at the university in the fall.
Before I expand on these thoughts, I should lay my biases on the table. I don’t like Ptolemy (#teamSeleucus) and Egypt itself holds minimal allure for me. Certain issues do, certainly, but I have limited interest in the poetry, the technology and bureaucratic apparatus of the state, or even the dynastic intrigue and incest. Some of this disinterest is my dislike of Ptolemy, some of it is my contrarian streak in that Ptolemaic Egypt gets a ton of attention because there is evidence for it, not necessarily because it is inherently interesting. Yes, it has its place and I am grudgingly grateful for their diligence in appropriating literary works. But Egypt, with all its potential is not “all that,” so to speak.
The potential is the key here. Egypt is comparatively defensible as an entity compared to the other Hellenistic kingdoms, the Nile is potentially prosperous in agricultural products, and Alexandria is well situated for trade in the Mediterranean. But by the first century BCE, the Ptolemies were not capitalizing on this potential. There were problems collecting taxes, as well as droughts (despite the Nile’s reputation, this did happen at times–the story of Joseph comes to mind). There were also local rebellions with a variety of causes and Egypt lacked a native military infrastructure, so the kingdom relied on mercenaries. Add in dynastic intrigue–exiles, assassinations, and children aspiring to rule in the place of their parents– and this is not a situation conducive to exploiting the potential.
But what about the scene of Antony cutting off Rome’s grain supply? Rome did get grain from Egypt–one figure gives ⅓ of the total imports came from the Nile. “Rome” used more Egyptian grain than that, too, but the Urbs Roma usually imported most of its grain from North Africa and Sicily. Without looking into it too deeply, I would more equate Egyptian grain to Middle Eastern oil. The US doesn’t get much oil from the Middle East, but it needs oil from the region for two things: military use and price regulation. The US needs x amount of oil in the system or else the price will rise prohibitively and the US needs to supply troops in the Middle East and Europe where it is more cost-effective to purchase it locally. Rome did locally supply troops as best it was able, including legions along the northern frontier raising cattle for meat and leather and republican armies requisitioned supplies (or accepted gifts, same thing) from client kingdoms, including Egypt. By the same token, Rome needed to keep grain prices to remain stable in the Mediterranean, particularly since Urbs Roma was not the only large city that needed to import grain, so the halt of the Egyptian supply could cause a catastrophic economic ripple effect, but not necessarily because people in Rome were starving from the outset.
The last piece of this puzzle is Octavian. the master manipulator portrayed his war against Antony as a war of salvation against a powerful, extravagant other that could threaten rome. Sicily and Africa had also both suffered during the decades of civil war, so the grain supply was not as abundant in the 30s as it was at other times. Of course, Octavian had every reason to exaggerate the wealth and threat of Egypt, its corrupting influence on Antony, and the dire consequences of the grain supply in order to justify his war against Antony. Actium and the rest of the campaign were only as close as they were because they predominantly pitted Octavian’s Roman legions against Antony’s Roman legions. Egypt provided troops, sure, but Roman forces had defeated the Egyptian mercenaries in at least two invasions in the past decades and Egypt’s territory had only approached the boundaries of the early Ptolemies because Antony had given territory back to Cleopatra (and usually left the Roman tax farmers in place). Antony may have intended this to be a permanent restoration and to create a series of client kingdoms ruled by his and Cleopatra’s children, but the power still flowed from Rome. Egypt had enough potential that Octavian was prudent to take it for himself, but in the first century BCE the myth of Ptolemaic Egypt created by the early Ptolemies and encouraged by Octavian far outpaced Egypt’s actual position in the Mediterranean system.
- Bribery Aisle: How Wal-Mart Got Its Way in Mexico– A story in the New York Times Wal Mart de Mexico and how it used bribes to bypass, manipulate, or acquire zoning and licensing permits for stores in Mexico, including around historic landmarks.
- Ramesses III’s Throat Was Slit– A new cat scan on the mummy of Ramesses III reveals a deep cut in the throat that likely would have caused death instantly, thereby suggesting that that was what caused his death. Likewise, a DNA test on a desecrated body found near the dead Pharaoh, confirms that it was a blood relative and probably his son.
- The Entourage in Antiquity– At PhDiva, classicist Sarah Bond discusses some of the ways that paying for and having an entourage was a symbol of status in the ancient world…not unlike the modern world.
- Defining Learning Expectations-An essay on Inside Higher Ed that looks at the set of standards for skills that students should be able to learn in history classes, while leaving the specific facts up to the instructor.
- Why Workers Are Losing The War Against Machines– An article in the Atlantic that has a somewhat misleading title. Instead of looking at manual labor against the machines (as the followers of Ned Ludd attempted), the article gives a solid, if somewhat basic, account of the ways in which technology disproportionately benefit those people who are already in positions of power or have the technology. In short, those with the resources and training/ability can maintain some level of control over the product and with the rapid growth of communication, the net effects of the decisions made by relatively few people are magnified. There are exceptions, but the article argues that those few who can rise into the category of “superstars” are fewer than in the past while the underlying, structural gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing. Despite the somewhat misleading title, the article provides some figures and a straightforward walk-through of information that has been popping up in fits and starts for a few years (at least).
- Buried Christian Empire in Yemen Casts New Light on Early Islam– A report in Spiegel about an archaeological find in Yemen that further suggests a Christian kingdom that may have exerted influence over Mecca in the years leading up to Mohammed’s birth. It also discusses in passing the environmental conditions and plagues of Arabia during the latter part of the period of the kingdom. As a detailed report and discussion the article is pretty deficient (or, alternately, it tries to let the reader know too much and does it in terms that are too vague), but as a thought piece and article blurb it is interesting.
- A Tsunami in Switzerland– New geological findings provide evidence that Gregory of Tours documented an actual event in recording a wall of water on Lake Geneva in 563 CE. The study discovered a massive deposit of sediment in the middle of the lake, likely put there by massive rock fall into the silt near the mouth of a river.
- Having Gone This Far Without Caring About Syria, Nation To Finish What It Started– The Onion, of course: “at press time, sources confirmed that millions of readers skipped past this story immediately after seeing the word “Syria” in the headline.” Likewise, from eight months ago: Alien World To Help Out Syria Since This One Refuses To.
- Gaza– A thoughtful consideration of the many problems with the Gaza-Israel issue. In short: there are no good guys in this issue.
- Syrian Rebels Have Lost Their Innocence– A story in Spiegel that discusses the violence in Syria. In short, what was once seen as relatively one sided violence perpetrated by the Assad regime has devolved into violence perpetrated by both sides. Promises of war crimes trials after the regime change seem less and less likely the longer violence continues.
- Turkish Call For Help Puts Germany in a Tough Spot– An article in Spiegel that discusses a recent call for NATO aid in setting up patriot missiles along the Turkish border with Syria after mortar fire landed in Turkey. Commentators says both that this would be a slippery slope toward German involvement in Syria and that Germany is somewhat willing to aid Turkey–and can’t refuse the request.
In a review of a new book, Carthage Must Die,Christopher Hart was generally hostile. I have not read this book, but the sense of the review was that this is a new history of the Roman-Punic conflicts from the Carthaginian angle. In the strictest sense, the criticism is that this is (I can only assume) an academic book and that historiography gets in the way of history.
Frankly I have multiple issues with this review, but the biggest one is this: especially for ancient history the historiography is an essential component to scholarship and history. So much of what we have to work with must be interpreted as something other than history that using the sources is as much dismissing them as accepting them. Historical narratives make for nice reading, but generally speaking they have already been done. Further, this book addresses a topic from the point of view of a civilization that was wiped off the map–literally. To say that being source critical and historiographically novel takes away from the book suggests that he just missed the point. Of course it would be a harder read.
Let me be clear: I have not read the book in question, and for all I know there may be serious issues with it, but my gut instinct is that it was an academic book read by a pop reviewer. As it is I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt to this author for the approach, if for nothing else. Unless you are just telling stories, how the historian handles the texts is what sets people apart and that can only be judged if it is included in the text.
There is only so much complication that the human mind can comprehend; once complexity reaches a certain level, one that is different for each person, the ability to perceive the interplay amongst each component disappears. In books, movies and TV shows, this results in a limited number of main protagonists and antagonists. If the scope is not contained, then the story feels disjointed and convoluted to the audience.
The same is true in the study of history and in particular ancient history. Rome is a simple example; there is Rome and the “others.” The intricacies of the Roman state may be infinitely complicated, deep and full of characters pulling for one agenda or another, but when it comes to identifying a period as a historical one that can be covered in a continuous narrative, Rome is the ultimate. In fact, Rome is so much of a historical era that it is written in three or more eras: the republic, the empire and the fall. Of course each of those eras can be further broken down into smaller narratives, but such is always the case.
The nature of “Greece” makes even this level of narrative more difficult as nearly every city was a polis and each polis was an autonomous state. This has not stopped historians from covering the so-called Golden Age as a historical narrative, but they tend to actually be covering Athens and Sparta, with other city states such as Corinth, Thebes and Megara appearing as side, rather than main, characters. There is some justification for this decision, largely resting in the dearth of information from most Greek city states and the undeniable preeminence of Athens and Sparta. This said, it is still an artificial creation.
This brief introduction in the creation of historical periods and narratives leads up to the Hellenistic Age, called because it saw the spread of Greek-ish (as Hellenistic implies) culture throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and parts of Asia. Loosely this period is defined from Alexander’s death until the advent of Rome, but when precisely it ends it difficult to say. This seems a solid block of time that could well be considered for a narrative, yet almost every historical book on the age covers three narratives, one-third of the whole narrative or only covers it in topical format. My proposition is that this stems from there being three main Hellenistic Kingdoms, each with their own peculiarities and issues. Then there are the Greek city states and two further Kingdom’s of sorts, one the Attalid state in Pergamum and the other the city state of Syracuse. All in all, the Hellenistic age is complex, but even with several thorough books on many of these issues, most scholarship and writing is set on avoiding the other end of the spectrum, which is to say that all three Hellenistic kingdoms were the same and therefore can be painted with one brush.
In the post-Soviet world we live in, borders are largely static. The borders of the United States, for example, have been set since World War II; The borders of the United Kingdom have been consistent since then, Britain for longer. Since the second world war, the borders of all Western Europe have been stable. In the last 20 years much of the rest of the world has had the same happen. Sure, Kosovo has demanded independence, Russia is claiming Georgian provinces, Chechnya and Tibet would like to be independent and there are some other border and sovereignty disputes, but there is no concept that the only way to maintain stability for a nation is to dominate the world around. Static borders are considered important for sovereignty and to demarcate boundaries for defense, not a sign of weakness.
In antiquity static defense was weakness. If a state had to react instead of forcing others to react, then it was weak. Lycurgus knew this when he made his third law: to make war on all neighbors, but none too frequently. Sparta was a pristine land that was almost never violated for hundreds of years, but more than intrinsic fear of the unbeatable warriors, Sparta was largely inviolate because they spent all of their time attacking others instead.
Such was the case with Athens, a paradox, wherein it was routinely invaded by land and considered weak because of it, but strong because it could go on the offensive via sea. Such was the case in Macedonia where the strength of the state was reckoned by the ability to expand into its neighbors, culminating with Alexander’s sweep across Asia. And such was the case with Rome where Hadrian received derision because of his decision to cease expansion and lay down firm, physical borders (including the wall that bears his name).
Perhaps today the equivalent to this physical domination of others being the route to safety is the mobilization of economic power to subdue troublesome nations in the form of sanctions and by the maxim of Lycurgus as applied to US foreign policy post World Wars.
There is safety in simplicity. In limits. In boundaries.
There is safety in precision and detail.
There is mortal danger those traits too.
Aside from Thucydides, upon whom I could dwell ad nauseum, the two historians for whom I have the most respect and desire to emulate are Livy and Edward Gibbon. Whatever their faults, whatever their own limitations, both sought to see the broad picture. Both were undaunted by the enormity of their respective projects. Where other historians may blanch at the corners cut to achieve a unified vision and at the scope involved, I imagine that these two would, perhaps, view the historical ventures of today as too limited, too inconsequential to be of value.
Livy spent much of his life writing his history entitled Ab Urbe Condite, or From the Founding of the City. The story opens with his profession that he would rather dwell in the glorious past than the troubled present and that this pursuit is his passion; Livy, the first self-professed history nerd dedicated his life to this project because he loved it—and he loved Rome. The single-minded goal in this treatise was to prove that Rome was the greatest nation to ever exist.
Gibbon wrote about the opposite end of the Roman experience: the collapse into the middle ages, yes, but also into the “modern world.” In fact, Gibbon wrote so much on the topic that most editions today are abridged and it takes a daring soul to actually read the full text (Livy has no such problem, in part because most of his work is absent). The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, whether abridged or in full, takes the reader through over a thousand years of Roman history, with examination of people, religion, government, and other causes throughout. While sticklers will be quick to point out that Gibbon was biased rather thoroughly himself, any pragmatist would be quick to point out that there is no such thing as an objective historian and that it is actually the core duty of the historian to judge that which has come before, both in the events and in what was written.
Neither the start of, nor the end of the Roman Empire is what I wish to spend my life studying and it is not what Livy and Gibbon were saying that I admire, it is how they sought to say it. Individual events, details and nuances have their value to history, but as clarification and elaboration upon a greater whole. From this logic, the ideal history must be entitled “The Concise History of Human Existence, a summation.” Of course this concept is too much for even the greatest of human minds to conceive and would therefore be broken down into subunits that would form the larger picture.
In the interest of practicality my suggested history should never be written. It would not further scholarship, but would only serve to entangle those writing it. At the same time historians should not be afraid of challenges, of using a wide-angle lens and of using scholarship on the particulars to draw together the larger themes into the grand tapestry of history.
First, I have been remiss in posting just because I have had a lot going on in life, almost none of which pertains to my study of history, but I hope to rectify this by writing about various things I pick up, mostly from the books I am currently reading.
Second, I have been designing classes for almost a year now, in effect just picking topics I am interested in knowing more about or that would make an interesting class or that I would like to teach.
The first class I made was with a fellowship from Brandeis University in which I designed a course on the fall of the Roman Empire, tracing it from the mid 200’s until 1400, largely with the help of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I think I did well and could find myself teaching it if called upon, but it was not my favorite subject.
The second class that I decided upon was a class on classical eduction. It is designed as a freshman seminar (for Brandeis students, think USEM), wherein it looks at the classical tradition, why it is important and makes people think about requirements and what they want to do. In part I chose to do this because of one book I read, and in part it is because I think I would have benefited from a course about it. At present the course is about 1/3 set and I need to find some of the additional books I lined up for it.
The second class I am currently working on is one that I only thought of today. It is still in the brainstorming phase, but I am thinking it would be on scandals in the ancient world and going against cultural norms. Like I said, I don’t have anything on paper yet, but I was thinking about selecting a number of scandalous situations and the characters involved and then going from there. The list so far includes The Queen of Bythinia, Alcibiades (his divorce and other scandalous behavior), Agrippina and Nero (Nero’s boat designed to collapse and kill her), and Procopius’ secret history.