What is History? – Edward Hallett Carr

This post consists of snippets of wisdom from What is History? by E.H. Carr, that I put out on Twitter over the past few months as I read the book in fits and starts through that period. It is not intended as a review, but does highlight some notable passages and themes, some that I agree with, some that would make for good conversation primer in a class. For people interested in the “meta” aspect of history, it is well worth reading.

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Isocrates, on the importance of history and oratory

Furthermore, if it were possible to present the same issue in just one shape and absolutely no other, then one might think it superfluous to bore the listeners by speaking in the same manner that had been done in the past. But logos (discourse or oratory) has such as a nature that the same issue may be interpreted in many ways, whether making the great small or bestowing greatness (on the insignificant), and laying out the things of old in a new fashion or speaking of recent events as though they were old; no one can escape the topics that people in the past spoke about, but [we] must endeavor to speak about them better.

The past is an inheritance held in common, but to lead it forth at the appropriate time, to conclude the appropriate things about each example, and to arrange the right expression is the individual gift of the wise.

πρὸς δὲ τούτοις, εἰ μὲν μηδαμῶς ἄλλως οἷόν τ᾽ἧν δηλοῦν τὰς αὐτὰς πράξεις ἀλλ᾽ ἢ διὰ μιᾶς ἰδέας, εἶχεν ἄν τις ὑπολαβεῖν ὡς περίεργόν ἐστι τὸν αὐτὸν τρόπον ἐκείνοις λέγοντα πάλιν ἐνοχλεῖν τοῖς ἀκούουσιν: ἐπειδὴ δ᾽οἱ λόγοι τοιαύτην ἔχουσι τὴν φύσιν, ὥσθ᾽ οἷόν τ᾽ εἶναι περὶ τῶν αὐτῶν πολλαχῶς ἐξηγήεσασθαι, καὶ τά τε μεγάλα ταπεινὰ ποιῆσαι καὶ τοῖς μικροῖς μέγεθος περιθεῖναι, καὶ τά τε παλαιὰ καινῶς διελθεῖν καὶ περὶ τῶν νεωστὶ γεγενημένων ἀρχαίως εἰπεῖν, οὐκέτι φευκτέον ταῦτ᾽ ἐστὶ περὶ ὧν ἕτεροι πρότερον εἰρήκασιν, ἀλλ᾽ ἄμεινον ἐκείνων εἰπεῖν περατέον. αἱ μὲν γὰρ πράχεις αἱ προγεγενημέναι κοιναὶ πᾶσιν ἡμῖν κατελείφθησαν, τὸ δ᾽ ἐν καιρῷ ταύταις καταχρήσασθαι καὶ τὰ προσήκοντα περὶ ἑκάστης ἐνθυμηθῆναι καὶ τοῖς ὀνόμασιν εὖ διαθέσθαι τῶν φρονούντων ἴδιόν ἐστιν.

Panegyricus 4.7-10

This passage comes near the start of the oration published in 380 BCE, in a section that Isocrates gives over to justifying and explaining why he is returning to a theme that has been addressed before. The obvious explanation is a clear justification for the study of history. If history was nothing more than a timeline of events that happened in the past, then there would be little incentive to keep studying the same things and history could be taught almost exclusively by video. Isocrates does not go as far as, for instance, E.H. Carr, in arguing that history is a dialogue between the past and the present, but, then, neither is “history” his primary emphasis.

Oratory and history share a common DNA, with the distinction, perhaps, that history looks backward while oratory looks forward.

In this passage, Isocrates alludes to a common critique of sophistry that it allows the speaker to invert the proper order by making the stronger argument weak and the weaker one strong, but does so with some modification. First, he distinguishes between the mean rhetoric of the courts and that which deals with important issues. Second, and more importantly, he removes moral weight from both great and small. This feature of oratory, then, is not about the individual allowing an unjust argument to be stronger, but giving importance to issues that might not have been considered. Once again this line of reasoning is very much in step with the opinion of many modern historians.

For Isocrates, analyzing the events of the past and deploying them in the appropriate cause is the purview of a wise man, one who would not apply this skill to corrupt purposes. Obviously in this instance the wise man is Isocrates, who, he’ll have you know, is going to speak about the past in a way that is better and more prudent than those who did so in the past. A digression on the misuse of history is simply beyond the scope of this address, but it remains the natural reverse side of the coin. Great harm may follow good intentions and vise-versa, but intent matters.

Isocrates takes an optimistic stance on the use of history. He is aspirational in a way that asserts both the importance of the past and the capacity of people in the present to improve that discourse whether by elevating the importance of the underappreciated or by changing how we think about about our forebears. Isocrates is of course being self-serving in these declarations since they serve to set up the larger arguments he is going to make later on, but this alone does not invalidate what he says.

I returned to the Panegyricus recently in the course of my research and this short section jumped out at me because of the debate over public monuments that has been going on in the United States. This context made what Isocrates omits all the more glaring because both sides assert that the other is attempting to misuse history, sometimes as though public monuments are the primary vehicle for recording the past. (They aren’t, but commemoration and the construction of monuments are their own history that reflects how we think about the past…but that is a topic better suited to another post.) History is an ongoing dialogue and the onus is on all historians (broadly construed) to engage with it responsibly. A modern mind might call for history to be used in ways that are more just or accurate, but there is a simplicity to Isocrates’ dictate: do better.

“Glorious Confusion”

A review of: From Herodotus to H-Net, Jeremy D. Popkin

[Ed. Note: What follows is an attempt to recreate an earlier post that was written earlier this week with access to the text but, with a perfunctory “document could not be saved,” vanished to the devils of technical difficulties.]

Jeremy Popkin’s From Herodotus to H-Net is an excellent introduction to historiography, or the history of writing history. After a brief, but sufficient, introduction, the text is divided into two parts, the origins of history to 1960 and 1960 to the present. The title of this post, “Glorious Confusion,” is taken from the opening chapter of the second part, but could aptly describe the book as a whole.

Popkin has a catholic vision of history and, as such, tries to balance two divergent visions of recounting the past. On the one hand, he walks the reader through what might be termed the “grand narrative” of historiography to show the general developments in how mainstream history has been written; on the other, he tries to show the extreme diversity in terms of representations of the past–so much so that he even name-drops “the Hitler Channel” as a nickname for the History Channel. The result of this diversity is that Popkin implies the “glorious diversity” after 1960 was a radical reinvention of history as an academic discipline post-1960, rather than a revision of how to think about the past.

The two threads to From Herodotus to H-Net frequently results in summary of the major historiographical works. Most of the major figures and/or works make their way into the dizzying series of names such as Marx, Weber, Wallerstein, Foucault, Said, and Chakrabarty. For the ones I have read, Popkin’s summaries and critiques are more than adequate, generally presenting the approach and how it came to be adopted by historians without being dismissive. After all, his objective is to show the multiplicity of historical approaches.

Specialists may quibble with the specific character of “history” in their time period, even though this “problem” actually furthers the core assumptions. For instance, Popkin’s account of ancient historiography is dominated by the canonical authors Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Livy, and Tacitus. Certainly he suggests that these authors were not alone in their writing, but, unlike later periods, there is no recognition that ancient peoples represented the past through poetry, rhetoric, and even plays the way that he acknowledges for later periods. Too, despite nods towards Chinese (and to a lesser extent) Muslim histories, there is an excessive focus on Western historiography, as building toward the creation of history as an academic discipline. As a result, representations of the past in Babylon, Persia, and Africa in both written and non-written forms are given short shrift.

The penultimate chapter, “historians at work” is a radical departure from the preceding historiography that would be of particular interest to undergraduate and MA students. In it, Popkin provides an overview of how one goes from being a history major in college to applying to college to graduate school to applying for jobs, getting tenure or finding jobs outside the academy. The process he gives is somewhat distilled and runs the risk of becoming dated, but is neither overly optimistic nor pessimistic. I appreciated his frank discussion, though it was somewhat surprising that there was no mention of being interdisciplinary in graduate school given the preceding vision of historiography. Another issue that Popkin raises in this chapter is that it is common for students to arrive in college with an aversion to history because of how it is taught in high school. He solution, it seems, is to have his legion of readers, history devotees all, reform how history is taught from the inside, without acknowledging the institutional limitations faced by such instructors.

Despite, or perhaps because of these issues I think that From Herodotus to H-Net is an excellent introductory text to a historiography course. It would, of course, be necessary to pair it with more pointed studies about or using the variety of methods Popkin discusses, but the book sows the fields from which fruitful discussion may grow.

An Old History Worth Reading

But the memory of man is short, and his imagination is fertile. Facts in their actual form are easily forgotten and soon covered up by the accruations of imagination. Religion and reality overlap in human life; and therefore historical incidents easily assume the form of fairy-tales and legends, and are mixed up with man’s belief in higher powers which direct his life. For this reason many historical facts, in the course of oral or even written transmission, assume the form of myths, or tales which describe the interference in human life of divine and superhuman powers.

Man has not only a strong impulse to learn the truth, but an equally strong impulse to mutilate it, consciously and unconsciously. Man’s tendency to poetic creation and the fertility of his imagination cause him often to restate facts till they are unrecognizable; he fills up gaps where he is ignorant and alters what he knows; he mixes up the region of religious and the fabulous conceptions with the sphere of actual events. Myth and legend are inseparable from history, and even in our own time grow up round great historical events and, even more, round great historical persons. Together with this process, facts are also deliberately distorted under the influence of various motives—material advantage, or the endeavour to defend the reputation of the narrator or his friend, or or the tendency to support a particular point of view or political theory. The influence of patriotism is active here…we must never forget that historical events were not recorded by machinery but by men, distinct personalities with definite characteristic of their own. Few of them have kept free from prejudice while recording historical events, which, in one way or another, touched themselves nearly.

Both quotes are taken from the first part of M.I. Rostovtzeff’s A History of the Ancient World, volume 1: The Orient and Greece. He continues the second quote with a discussion of historical criticism that includes determining whether what one is reading actually adheres to historical reality. Personally, I believe this influence of “accruations” and distortions of the historian carry over into secondary histories. Ironically, Rostovtzeff himself succumbs to this in his book Caravan Cities, where, amid all of the wonderful descriptions of getting to the archeological sites, he goes on lengthy tirades about the criminality of the bedouin. Events that touched him nearly bleeding into the narrative. It is charming in its quaintness, but horrifying in actuality, and colors how I think about early twentieth century archaeology.

As a history book, A History of the Ancient World is dated. This is hardly a surprise, given that it is 95 years old, and to a contemporary eye it suffers from this. Entire schools of history have risen and fallen in the intervening years. Too, some of the underpinning assumptions about the format of the ancient economy have been debunked. From a bird’s eye view, though, one assumption that may have, so to speak, accidentally been tossed out with the bathwater, is the fundamental linking of Greece with the Orient, rather than with Europe. Following K. Vlassopoulos in Unthinking the Greek Polis, though, this was (usually) not a coincidence, but rather an ideological decision wrought by, among others, people committed to Greece’s indo-european heritage. In contrast, Rostovtzeff fundamentally links Greece with the Near East.

Still, his conception of the orient is rather limited. The orient, in this book, consists of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and, to an extent, the Iranian plateau, and barely includes areas linked by trade and excludes entirely China. As a result, this vision of the ancient world doesn’t look much different from how (in my limited experience) Western Civilization courses are often taught. The one point that Rostovtzeff might quibble with is the teleological assumption that from the Near East to Greece to Rome and beyond came Western Civilization. Yet, it also appears to me that instructors are blurring some of these lines because the camp committed to Greece as foundational for Western Civilization did not want the Near East to even be included. Many textbooks do prioritize Greece and Rome (and Christianity coming within that milieu), but these courses are a mashup of the two divergent schools.

Rostovtzeff is not as prone to the memorable turn of phrase as some of his contemporaries, but I am nonetheless enjoying working my way through his oeuvre as a way of familiarizing myself with the classics and giving myself food for thought.

The Lost book of Alexander the Great, Andrew Young

Andrew Young, The Lost book of Alexander the Great, Westholme, 2014.

“This is a book about a book,” Young opens, but that book is lost. Young declares that it nevertheless possible to reconstruct Ptolemy’s history of Alexander’s campaigns in Asia and therefore Ptolemy’s vision of Alexander. A dedicated manuscript–not a not a full reconstruction, obviously, since that is tantamount to tilting at windmills–about Ptolemy’s history would be a wonderful benefit to scholars and general readers alike and recovering the “real” Alexander, or how Alexander died or even the original histories about Alexander are the ambitions of bookwork treasure-hunters everywhere. Ptolemy is even an engaging figure himself, a royal court hanger-on, soldier, governor, king, historian, so situating what is known about his historical work within the context of the early Hellenistic world where he was not the only ruler to engage in intellectual pursuits (see Demetrius of Phalerum and Antipater) would be a worthwhile enterprise. This is not that book. In fact, it is not even a book about a book. The Lost Book of Alexander the Great is another dry regurgitation of Alexander’s campaign, with passing attention paid to passages known to derive from Ptolemy’s history.

There are a host of issues with Young’s book. First, although he makes broad pronouncements about his angle of inquiry being the reconstruction of Ptolemy’s history, and thus being a textual study, he admitted in a Reddit AMA that he doesn’t know Greek and therefore relied on translations. It was not a surprise, then, to see that Jacoby’s Fragments of the Greek Historians and Brill’s New Jacoby project are absent from the bibliography, both of which provide commentary on the known fragments of Ptolemy’s history. But also absent were Bosworth’s commentaries on Arrian’s Anabasis and From Arrian to Alexander and Hammond’s Sources for Alexander the Great, which include essays about the source tradition. A general audience does not require these sources, but any study looking at the source tradition (which this purports to be) does. A deeper dive into the bibliography reveals further deficiencies. Neither Errington’s “Bias in the Ptolemy’s History of Alexander” (CQ2, 1969) nor Roisman’s “Ptolemy and his Rivals in his History of Alexander” (CQ2, 1984) appears. Nor do the biographies of Bosworth, Hammond (x2), Worthington, Heckel, Cartledge, and Green show up, though Theodore Ayrault Dodge’s volume, published in 1890, does. Young does list the translations he used and honestly includes the list of websites used in composing the manuscript. Of course, without any sort of citations, including for the direct quotations of modern and ancient sources, the bibliography is minimally useful.

this book is intended for a broad audience and while I have thus far identified where he failed w/r/t the declared purpose, I wish that I could recommend it as a general audience introduction to Alexander. I cannot. There are a number of inconsistencies in style (mons/mount; Roxanna/Roxana), but four issues, increasing in severity, stood out.

  1. Young chose to use “Belus”, the latinized version of the Greek name for Bel, rather than keeping the semitic version (97). This is not a problem per se, but it comes off as archaic and awkward.
  2. For some reason Young chose to use “Pexodarus” instead of “Pixodarus” (14), a variant I don’t recognize since the Greek original uses an iota.
  3. Instead of “Hetaira,” the Greek word for courtesan, Young multiple times used “hetera” (101-2), a spelling choice that a simple Google search changes to the latinate “hetaera.”
  4. According to Young (116), Zeus chained Perseus to Mt. Caucasus and allowed his liver to regrow every night, sending an eagle to eat it out every day. Except that that fate belonged to Prometheus.

Note that almost none of these issues actually concern the campaigns of Alexander. The issue is that there is nothing remarkable or innovative about the account. Or about Ptolemy’s history. Young’s book is not a book about a book, but a narrative about Alexander’s campaigns interspersed with vignettes about aspects of Greek culture–often gleaned from the internet–that the author finds interesting. I cannot recommend this book for anyone. May this ill-fated offering inspire someone to write a more current contribution to the study of this history of Alexander the Great in its social milieu than Pearson’s The Lost Histories of Alexander the Great.

The Spartan Mirage and American Militarism

Several years ago I wrote a post for this site claiming that the Spartan mirage is/was rooted in military excellence. As I later pointed out on that post, this characterization is inaccurate. In fact, the Spartan mirage stems from the stability of the Spartan constitution. The state did not suffer from the same internecine stasis that plagued other poleis and thereby allowed the Spartans to have an extended period of military hegemony in classical Greece. But I still had the idea that the mirage was one of military invincibility, ironically calcified by the death of 298 Spartans at Thermopylae, damaged by the Spartan surrender at Sphacteria and shattered by the defeat at Leuctra.

I built the idea from my own readings of translated sources as a college student. I had also heard the term mirage, but I did not know the origin. To me it was self evident that military prowess–the eternal demonstration of Spartan power–was at the crux of the mirage, [1] after all, the other Greeks were aware of the perioikoi with whom they might have traded [2] and they also were aware of the extremely precarious position that the Spartan helot system created.[3] While neither of these situations is the same as stasis, the state of factional violence between citizens, neither was Sparta an entirely stable state.

Even as I write these words in light of what I now know about Greek culture, philosophy and society, they ring false. A citizen body without factional strife was such an ideal situation that if it could be maintained on the brink of a precipice, that could be preferable to stasis.[4] To keep that utopia, any and all means of preservation would be warranted. Sparta might be weird in organization, but whatever weirdness appeared acceptable.[5] The real point here is that this is a first impression that I held on to for far longer than I had any business doing. While my mistaken belief is my own problem, I want to suggest here that it is not one isolated in me.

In 2005, Andrew Bacevich, a self-identified conservative, wrote The New American Militarism. He argues that in the past century Americans of all political affiliations have become enthralled with military power. [6] Bacevich tries to warn the readers about the dangers of excessive militarism and how it shapes the consciousness of American citizens. I generally agree with his sentiments, but, for my part, I wonder if this sort of cultural fascination makes it more likely that Americans identify the singularity of Sparta in the military success rather than in the political stability. Instead of seeing political stability as leading to military success, military power could be what ensures political stability. More than simply being a chicken-and-egg problem, this inversion can lead to drawing the wrong conclusions entirely.


[1] I am now aware that this is faulty logic. Invincibility could be a mirage of sorts, but the (unbroken?) string of military victories is a fact. The mirage, then, would be the perceived cause of the success.

[2] Recall that the people who defended Athenian honor in the Spartan war council, according to Thucydides, were Athenian merchants. Presumably they were aware who produced any goods they traded for.

[3] In the mid-fifth century, the Athenians sent a military force to help suppress a helot revolt. During the Peloponnesian Wars, one of the Athenian strategies was to encourage helots to escape from Sparta.

[4] Hyperbole, but not by much.

[5] Emphasis on appearance. I am quite convinced by Stephen Hodkinson’s Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta that Sparta functioned much more normally than assumed. Lysander might still take the rap for unsettling the politics, but not because he introduced money to Sparta.

[6] For a single snapshot of this phenomenon, one could look at the foreign policy debate in the 2012 presidential debate.

Relativism

A bit over eight and a half years ago I wrote my college entrance essay. It was an exploratory essay wherein I discussed an evolution in my thought from a world of black and white, good and evil to one of indistinct shades of grey. In this essay I advanced one of my core tenets: that in the most saintly people there are flaws and in the most heinous something of good. If memory serves, my examples were Franklin D. Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler. Admittedly Roosevelt would not have considered himself a saint, but I had an aversion to work back then and the apposition worked nicely.

The larger issue is that a true black and white version of good and evil exists only in fiction. Both moral terms are easy to throw around in writing and speech, but, ultimately, they are perceived categories. To repeat my Hitler example, only taking it one step more polemical, he genuinely believed that the extermination of the Jews was a morally good–or at least necessary–act. I think perpetrators of genocide everywhere feel the same way. This does not exonerate the actions taken by any stretch of the imagination, but when there is active thought behind these actions they must be explained somehow. If not, the actions are done without thought or done in insanity. Actions themselves may be evil when done under these circumstances, but I have a hard time categorically labeling them, or even people who do bad things rationally, truly evil. That is a subjective category.

I am not the same person I was then, both for better and for worse, but that tenet remains. It is part of what it means to be human. There are also evils in the world. There are truths. There are facts. There are “universal” goods. These concepts are unique to each person, at least at the level of understanding. This is relativism.

Relativism is the fundamental claim that perception will not be uniform from person to person to person even if the underlying facts have not changed. What we call universal truths (or facts) are that way because people collectively agree upon them. I believe that the same principal applies to language. Words mean what they do because they are, more or less, agreed upon–not because they simply are. Moreover, many words have multiple meanings and/or carry different meanings to different people. Yes, words are used to convey and describe things that are, but the perception of those things will not be the same.

Perhaps this is a tacit admittance of objective truths. I am willing to admit that they may exist. Nonetheless those objective truths are inaccessible. Relativism–my version of relativism, anyway–argues that perception is what is relative, not the underlying facts. Thus, when someone pokes holes in relativism by demonstrating there are inarguable facts there is no problem. It is merely a demonstration that some perceptions are more universal than others.

Then there is the issue of relativity versus objectivity in history. In the world as we know it today, actions and events do take place. The Olympics are going on right now; the bird flew from the tree to the feed and back again, pausing only to snatch a seed; I am typing with my laptop set on a wooden table. Some of these actions are currently ongoing but will, at some point, exist only in the past, a past that is in that future time entirely inaccessible except through a retelling. It is the job of reporters, historians, essayists, and other storytellers to conjure up that past for an audience. Presumably the storyteller sees some merit in the writing (even if that merit is financial), and the audience will agree or disagree with the merit. Of course, the better the storyteller, the more likely the audience will accept it.

So there is an objective history that once happened, but merely from a narrative standpoint, the past is beyond our reach and therefore subject to the relative perception and interpretation of first the storyteller and then the audience. The relativistic nature is further pronounced when the objective behind the story is to draw conclusions from the past or to ascribe motive.

This is not an indictment of the endeavor, either. If anything, the relative nature of history means that more people should become involved in the research and writing so that more voices get heard. Historians themselves are conduits of the stories and of the past, but, by their very human, flawed, nature, do not have access to the Truth.

Pity, really

It has taken me a lot of years, but I think that I have finally found someone who I truly feel sorry for in the ancient world. Usually people aren’t well enough known or have too much personal capacity to simply pity them. Sure, individual things that happen to them I feel bad, but not the entirety of their life.

This person is a nameless anonyma with her birth, death and child situation entirely unknown. I speak of the daughter of Parmenion, the great Macedonian general.

Following the most common chronology for her life, she married Attalus, the uncle of Cleopatra (Philip II’s last wife) in 337/6 when he would have been around 45 years of age. Attalus was then sent to Asia Minor with Parmenion to lead the advance force for Philip’s planned invasion. We do not know whether Attalus brought his wife with him, but within the year Philip had been assassinated; the new king, Alexander ordered the execution of Attalus, which was accomplished with the aid of Parmenion. Sometime in the next two years, though likely within a year, our young heroine was married again, this time to Coenus, one of Parmenion’s adherents. Between 336 and 334 Coenus actively campaigned with Alexander in Europe, and then in 334 crossed into Asia. Later in 334 Coenus returned home with a detachment known as the newlyweds– supposedly in order to see his wife, though he apparently spent a portion of this leave in the Peloponnese recruiting.

Coenus never returned to his wife. In fact, in 330 Coenus was the most vocal opponent of his brother in law Philotas in a treason trial that ended with the conviction of Philotas and Parmenion. Coenus died in India in 326.

Parmenion’s daughter is entirely unknown beyond the sketch above. No children are known and every man that she was married to or related to died. Life for women at the time was not easy, even for aristocratic women, but this one went through two husbands effectively within three years–possibly having spent as little as three months with them as they would have been on campaign the rest of the time.

Macedonia was far from civilized.


I should add a historiographic note that further complicates and perhaps ameliorates some of the horrors visited upon her (though adding others).

The most basic point is that Parmenion may have had two daughters, with one marrying each man. I cannot entirely discount this possibility, but generally point to Occam’s Razor in this. By the time Coenus married, Attalus was dead, and remarriage seems rather common, so there doesn’t need to be a second daughter. In the lack of any actual evidence I am quite comfortable to have one daughter.

The second issue is the chronology. There is a school of scholarship that suggests that the Attalus marriage took place as much as a decade before Philip’s murder, in which case she would have known Attalus much better–for good and for ill. My only quibble with the earlier date for the wedding is that there are no known children. If the kings of Macedonia are to be any judge, men wasted little time in impregnating their brides. and if Attalus was (as the sources claim) a threat to Alexander’s throne with a kid of 5-10 years old, I think that it would be mentioned. Every other scandalous child murder was.

I realize there are any number of reasons that she may have not had a child, so this is in no way conclusive. It is just to my mind the primary consideration unaccounted for in claiming that Attalus married so early.

Meta-Marxism in Wilhelmine German anti-Semitism

Disclaimer: This is a further discussion built off of my Historiography seminar 4.14.2010, and the book The Butcher’s Tale, by Helmut Walser Smith.

This book is focused on the Jewish ritual murder case of Konitz in 1900. In his section on accusations, Smith refutes that they were inherently about class and power struggles. He argues that some of the cases were, but that not all of the charges were brought by a lower class person against a higher class and therefore there was something more than class struggle at play.

What struck me, though, was the rhetoric used by the anti-Semitic newspaper making the ritual murder charges. When the Prussian army deployed to stop the riots, the newspaper denounced the act as the result of Jews running the state and running the police and army. This sounded eerily familiar to another book, namely Mein Kampf. This led to me ask another question: if the rhetoric claims that Jews are in power, can there be a larger sort of analysis that will hold up in terms of groups, but not individual cases? May any attack on a Jew, no matter class in either situation, be seen as a class struggle because of the perceived class?

This further begs the question of whose worldview matters: the historian or the contemporary? For example, if a group claims that the world functions via class struggle, and shapes their actions accordingly, does a historian a hundred years down the line have the right to claim the world functioned differently?

Midnight Musings: Historical Narrative

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.