Phantom Time

A little more than a decade ago in graduate school I took a Roman history seminar where the professor assigned a (then) recently published book, Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization by the pseudonymous John J. O’Neill, named after an FBI agent killed in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. There is an old adage that when you read the work of historians, you should listen for the sound of the bees buzzing in their bonnet, and, here, the name alone suggests that one ought to don a bee suit.

[O’Neill]’s argument is two-fold. First, he argues, modern historians have inappropriately discarded the work of Belgian historian Henri Pirenne, who, in the 1920s had articulated a thesis that the Muslim conquests had transformed the Mediterranean and formally ended the Roman system. Far from preserving the Classical inheritance, Muslim society was inherently antithetical to it—and inherently violent. At several points he asserts that religious change in the Indian subcontinent was driven by the need to confront the onslaught:

“One long-term consequence of these invasion was the virtual disappearance of the hitherto prevalent and pacifist Buddhism and its replacement by a form of Hinduism…” (146)

However, he also picks up on the apparent absence of securely-dated archaeological material for the early Middle Ages and thus argues that contradictions found by Pirenne in Mohammed and Charlemagne is evidence that the so-called “Dark Ages” were not real, because those centuries never existed. They were an invention of the German Ottonian dynasty.

Now, professors assign books for all sorts of reasons and seminars frequently have a more productive discussion when there is disagreement. However, I have never seen a seminar so vehement and unanimous in its fundamental rejection of an assigned book. The theme of the course was sociological concepts like complex societies in late antique history and, in this respect, Holy Warriors might have been a productive vehicle for talking about Pirenne and Roman systems if framed as such and paired with some supplemental readings, but I suspect, based on the professor’s response to the class’s repudiation of the book overall, that his purpose in assigning the text wasn’t so much Pirenne as Phantom Time.

The back portion of Holy Warriors where [O’Neill] argues that Charlemagne never existed is based on the Phantom Time Hypothesis first espoused by Heribert Illig in 1991. While challenges to establishing a secure chronology for this period exist, this hypothesis is, fundamentally, based on conspiratorial thinking that simply rejects out of hand any evidence that contradicts it.

Nor is Phantom Time an isolate.

The Russian mathematician Anatoly Fomenko, for instance, espouses a “New Chronology” wherein there is a conspiracy to deny the Russian Horde (a slav-turk empire, in his estimation) its rightful place in history. Fomenko claims that the history that we know it is an artificial creation based on real events all of which take place since the year 800 CE. Thus, he argues, primary model of Jesus being the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos I Komnenos who (can I say “he claims,” again? I think I should) was born in Crimea on December 25, 1152 and was crucified on the Bosporus on March 20, 1185. Columbus is a Cossack who is also Noah.

Fomenko’s thesis is entirely absurd, and based particularly on statistical correlation between events and ruler lists. But it is also extremely popular in Russia, where it dovetails with other types of ultranationalist fictions, and was, for a time, promoted by Garry Kasparov, who thought it explained why science, art, and culture seemed to die until the Renaissance.

Which brings me to Donna Dickens, a social media “historian” who has gained some traction with assertions that ancient Rome is a fiction created by the Catholic Church to synthesize and co-opt indigenous cultures from around Europe and the Mediterranean. Rome of course synethesized and co-opted cultures from around its empire—that is one of the most interesting things about Roman History—but it also existed.

When confronted with evidence to the contrary, Dickens responds by demanding to see hard scientific evidence to verify the dates. As though proponents of theories of this sort don’t dismiss scientific evidence that runs counter to their claims as inadequate, too. In this case, Dickens rejects any evidence based on stone or other materials that cannot be carbon dated.

Anyone familiar with the recent dustup between the supporters of Graham Hancock’s Ancient Apocalypse theories and academic archaeologists has probably seen the allegation of racism levied against pseudo-archaeology. Hancock, for instance, argues that surviving ruins around the world are much older than archaeologists claim and are thus evidence of an early civilization that perished in, wait for it, an ancient apocalypse. The theory explicitly claims that anything sophisticated in indigenous cultures (e.g. agriculture) was introduced by survivors of this ancient flood, which is an echo of how European colonizers articulated their relationship to the people they met the world over.

I am not an archaeologist by trade or training, but as an interested outside from an adjacent field, I think that Bill Caraher has been raising important points about what attracts people to pseudo-archaeology in the contemporary moment. In another post, he notes that pseudo-archaeology itself isn’t any more or less colonial or racist than regular archaeology, while an indigenous understanding the world can be anti-scientific in ways that also put them at odds with contemporary archaeology. The problem with Hancock, then, is that he leverages the “documentary” format to espouse a theory that reinforces white supremacy rather than the pseudo-archaeology ipso facto.

What I find particularly interesting about Dickens is that she inverts the usual paradigm in a way that echoes the discourse about pseudo-archaeology broadly.

Fomenko, Illig, and the adherents of each theory, broadly speaking, adopt positions that draw people toward the political right. Fomenko’s theory is wildly popular in Russia, while Illig’s appeals to anyone who wants to excise Islam from a complex history of the early Middle Ages.

Dickens, by contrast, is explicitly not right wing. She sees herself as a defender of indigenous cultures in the United States and elsewhere against the predations of the Catholic church and an opponent of a discipline (Classics) concocted by “Victorian eugenicists.” While there are numerous issues with her theory, I have little interest in “debunking” Dickens and less in defending Victorian classicists. Rather, I am fascinated by the phenomenon.

In the first of the blog posts linked to above, Caraher identifies contributing factors to pseudo-archaeology that are equally relevant to other sorts of alternative histories. The whole post is worth reading, but I was particularly struck by two points:

First, Caraher makes an astute observation about the present moment and its relationship to both the past and the future.

In Search of Foreclosed Pasts. One thing that I’ve started to think about over the last week or so is how alternative views of the past tend to emerge at points where there is both perceived discontinuity in the past (i.e. the end of the ancient world, apocalypses, vanish civilizations, episodes of collapse, and so on) and in the present. I guess everyone knows this, but for whatever reason it didn’t quite register with me.

I suppose the reason for this is that when we recognize that the past does not necessarily culminate in the present. That is to say, when we come to realize that our past actions as humans have not necessarily produced a sustainable present. In other words, our current historical trajectory, despite the hopes and promises of progress, has become dead end. Climate change, environmental degradation, social fracturing, and resurgent totalitarianism has revealed the bankruptcy of modernity, scientific thinking, capitalism, and narratives of progress.

As a society, then, we’ve started to look at the past with a growing sense of urgency in an effort to identify a moment when things went wrong. In this context, a renewed openness to new ways (both good and bad) at engaging with the plurality of human experiences has made it possible to explore pasts foreclosed by the hegemonic power of modernity.

I would add to his observation that this historical moment is one when so many traditional master narratives are rightfully being challenged. Mostly, this is a good thing. In my American history survey, for instance, I try to offer students complexity and context that they generally missed in their high school history courses. In fact, I explicitly leverage the fact that they are familiar in broad strokes with the master narrative as something that I can play off in class discussions. Mostly this works, and I often will receive comments about how the course deepened their understanding of US history. However, some few go further to seeing the machinations of a conspiracy at work in every corner of history. I have noticed the ranks of the later group growing in recent years, in part perhaps because of conspiratorial thinking like Q-Anon, but also because so many books that challenge the master narrative are marketed as a secret history.

Second, at the end of the post, Caraher mentions “too much science.” I have been known to joke in some classes that the work that scientists do might as well be magic. I immediately follow this up with deep appreciation and and exploration of what that magic science can reveal about the past, but there is a kernel of truth behind my declaration. I know generally what is going on with a lot of science, but so much of it remains a mystery to me. I think that in a world where science and magic are virtually indistinguishable to a lot of people, there is a temptation to reject it all in favor of what your eyes are seeing or your gut is thinking, no matter how superficial or nonsensical that observation may be. I am reminded in this about how, about five years ago, there was a spate of prominent flat-earthers whose belief was based on nothing more than how Kansas [vel sim.] is flat for as far as the eye can see or, as in the case of Kyrie Irving, that educators are hiding the real truth.

Another contributing factor, I think, is the way in which we interact with texts. I certainly count myself among the number of professors who cringe when my students refer to a history book as a novel. In part, that particular error is like nails on a chalkboard to me, but I think it is also symptomatic of an inability to distinguish between different types of sources and media—something I have been thinking a lot about how to address in my teaching recently because I’m coming to believe that it is an essential part of sifting through the mountain of information at our fingertips online. Some of the challenge is, as Caraher notes, an issue of genre-bending, but I think it is a more fundamental challenge even without the added layer of one form mimicking another.

Nor is it just an issue for students. Years ago at a party I was talking with several people who I think were MIT engineering post-doctoral researchers. When they found out that I was a historian they wanted to know what I thought about Game of Thrones. I was happy to give my thoughts—I had only been reading the novels since middle school—but at some point in the conversation it occurred to me that they were asking my thoughts on its historical accuracy, not as an analysis of the world-building, but in whether this world invented by a single author was real.

When Dickens compares the history of Ancient Rome to Tolkien’s Silmarillion, I think back to this conversation. When every text is offered the same weight, it is altogether too easy to pick and choose the ones that suit the story you want to tell—to say nothing of how it erases the amazing work down by paleographers whose work creates every standard Greek or Latin text that we have from multiple competing manuscript traditions.

This post has gone on long enough, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that these sorts of fictions are ripe for satire. In October 2010, The Onion published what remains one of my all-time favorites: “Historians Admit to Inventing Ancient Greeks.” The article “reports” on a press conference in which historians invent that everything about Greece is pure invention, and I love it because it is both extremely silly and touches on ways in which history is invented, albeit in the sense that making meaning out of the past is a matter of interpretation. The Onion article might be satire, but these sorts of conspiracies are only a joke until they very much aren’t.

Facing an Avalanche: Weekly Varia, 12/3/22

The fall semester is rapidly drawing to a close and, despite some effort this semester to change the schedule on which students submit their assignments, I am finding myself staring down an avalanche of grading. Under the best of conditions I am deeply ambivalent about this time of year because it generally does not allow students to do their best work, and, this year, I already feel worn down from a semester that has been nothing but an endless cycle of grading.

There will be time for a semester debrief once it has ended. Not for the first time I have been reflecting this week on how much time it takes to grade the way I think grading ought to be done. There are, of course, grading systems that take little or no time on the part of the professor, but these are generally a concession to volume in large classes for what I am teaching rather than an ideal substitute for more labor intensive pedagogies. However, this also means that I have had less time to write, to say nothing to the knock-on effects of this grading like the reading and types of writing I do to find my writing voice again after reading student writing and the time it takes to switch modes. Some days recently I just haven’t had the brain space to make that transition and only one of these activities pays my bills.

This also means that I have a backlog of things I want to write about. Setting aside my academic writing, to which this also applies, I started writing a post about phantom time conspiracies this week, have been compiling my thoughts about both Andor and Rings of Power, and intend to write about at least three books I finished this semester and the one I am currently reading. Then there is a recap of #AcWriMo and a semester reflection. By a quick count, that is nine posts without including weekly varia, my annual end of year series, or any topics that might move me to write before the end of the year. Now, I wouldn’t expect to publish all of these posts before the end of the year even without the avalanche of grading, but simply having these things on the docket means that I feel the lack of time all the more acutely.

This week’s varia:

  • In September James Sweet, the president of AHA, published “Is History History?,” in the professional organization’s Perspectives magazine. The essay prompted an enormous amount of push-back online, leading David Frum to write favorably about Sweet’s position in The Atlantic. This week, Jonathan Wilson published a sensitive rebuttal to both in Clio and the Contemporary.
  • The Bryn Mawr Classical Review is the preeminent book review outfit for Classics, both for good and for ill. It is open-access and prestigious, but the place it holds in these systems also leads to controversy over its impact, what styles it allows (and who gets to write in what register), and editorial choices. I have volunteered to review books a half dozen or so times over the years and been turned down every time, but I nevertheless found of interest Clifford Ando’s reflection on process.
  • There is apparently a deal in the works to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece (BBC). These are friezes taken from Greece in the 19th century and Britain has refused to return them for decades on a variety of excuses and their return would be a welcome development.
  • Paul Campos at LGM Blog responds to the president of the United States asserting on Twitter that the Holocaust happened, as though this were legitimately in question. One critical point he makes: the problem with Hitler is not that he was possessed by demonic powers, which simultaneously makes him remarkable and takes him off the hook for his crimes. The Holocaust is what happens when the worst impulses and desires of people are heightened, enabled, and then realized.
  • A Florida school district tried to block a parent from doing a presentation to her child’s class about Channukah on the basis of the new Parent’s Bill of Rights, but they relented when the parent threatened to make an issue out of the school claiming that Christmas decorations were generically “holiday-themed” rather than an endorsement of Christmas.
  • Related, Paul Bowers writes in “Notes from a School Board Takeover” about how national rhetoric plays out in local communities when conservatives seize control of a school board and warp policy to reflect their political agenda. One of his most important observations: the people enacting these policies are immune to shame and don’t care about lost teachers. This is about the exercise of power.
  • San Francisco’s board of supervisors gave permission for police to arm potentially-lethal robots. Police assure the public that they have no plans to put guns on the robots, just explosives, as though that is much better.
  • A Qatari official put the body count of workers killed in stadium construction (ESPN) between 400 and 500, which is significantly higher than the official line of three dead in work related incidents and 37 others outside of the job.
  • College football is a deeply corrupt sport. All aspects of this corruption is currently on display at Auburn University, which just hired Hugh Freeze as its head coach. Freeze was fired from his job at Mississippi amid scandal and hasn’t done much better at Liberty. He also has a history of harassing critics and worse, while hiding behind bible verses, as Jason Kirk details in his latest newsletter. The latest Split Zone Duo podcast (with host Steven Godfrey who created the Foul Play docuseries about Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss) had, I thought, a compelling discussion of how sports media is allowing Auburn to rehabilitate Freeze’s image.

Album of the Week: Trampled by Turtles, “Alpenglow”

Currently Reading: Sequoia Nagamatsu, How High We Go in the Dark; Emma Dench, Empire and Political Cultures in the Roman World

Smashing Statues

I have a draft blog post from a few years ago where I tried to grapple with my thoughts about monumental statues. The thrust of the post explored how statues are neither mere art nor monuments imbued with an immutable meaning. Rather, they are objects of memory and part of a dynamic process by which history, culture, and commemoration are woven. Their meaning emerges from decisions about what ought to be commemorated and how, so what gets evoked will not only change over time, but will also vary from person to person. They are always contested.

The post worked toward a discussion of the Emancipation Memorial created by Thomas Ball in Washington DC in 1876 and with a copy (formerly) in Boston.

I hate this monument.

Emancipation is a wonderful thing to commemorate, of course, but this is also a monument that shows Abraham Lincoln with his one hand holding his proclamation, which rests on symbols of federal authority like the fasces, his other held beneficently over the back of a barely-clothed black man. Abe towers above, looking on placidly.

Emancipation Memorial, Lincoln Park Washington DC (Wikimedia Commons)

I never finished that post, obviously. I was writing a collection of loosely-connected thoughts and I ran out of steam.

Erin Thompson’s Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments (Norton 2022) makes the argument I was trying to articulate in that post, only, you know, better.

Smashing Statues consists of two parts—four chapters on monuments going up, and four chapters on them coming down—all of which build from a simple premise:

American monuments were built to show us our place within national hierarchies of power. Regardless of our race, they tell us to sacrifice ourselves to the interests of those more powerful than us.

Thompson organizes each chapter around the story of one monument or type of monument as a way of exploring the disconnect between how they went up and the authority and reverence with which they are sometimes received.

For instance, Chapter 3 (“Shafts”) unpacks the history of Civil War monuments showing, among other things, how the most common monument was one that shows a common soldier at parade rest. That is, a monument that celebrates not the soldiers who died or the sacrifices of the living, but the obedience of the soldiers who fought for the cause.

My favorite chapter in the book, and one I’m considering assigning in class in the fall, is “A Shrine for the South,” which details the creation of Stone Mountain in Georgia in the 1920s. This site was intended to be the shrine described in the title, with a ghostly army of Confederate heroes riding along the mountain face. She starts the chapter with the story of how the sculptor Gutzon Borglum took an ax to the model head of Robert E. Lee, declaring that the project was a scam by the KKK to siphon off funds—before revealing that he was Klansman upset that he was being cut out of the profits.

To my mind, this chapter put on display all of the fissures involved in these monuments. Borglum joined the Klan, but he lived in Connecticut and was so enamored of Lincoln that he named his son after the dead president. The project relied on the Lost Cause mythology, but it also grew continuously because this was the surest way to secure additional funding. And, of course, Thompson concludes with a discussion of the project Borglum moved to from Stone Mountain: Mount Rushmore.

Smashing Statues is a quick read. Thompson is an art history professor with a special interest in the destruction of cultural heritage, and this book is based on her numerous articles on the topic of monuments since the summer of 2020. But it is no worse for the sense that it is a series of interconnected essays. The core message comes through like a clarion call, and not a moment too soon.

Traditional monuments put heroes on pedestals to tell us our troubles are over. They are our nation’s selfies—perfectly posed and cropped to show only our best angles. They cover up complications and give a too-rosy view of the past and the future. We need debates, not pieties. we need to question our past in order to remake our future. If monuments try to keep us where we are by holding up examples of impossibly perfect people, well, maybe we don’t need them at all.

Addendum: in the few minutes past when this post went up, a digital friend brought to my attention how these same tactics have been weaponized in Latin America. Smashing Statues is fundamentally oriented toward the the politics of commemoration in the United States where most these statues uphold the traditional political order. But in the sense that statues are not value-neutral, the instinct to tear down can be weaponized against monuments looking to establish a pluralistic vision of the future in much the same way that “heritage” can be used as a rallying cry to preserve those that enshrine the existing political order. Attacks that symbolically lynch the commemorated subject not only assert a political order, but also serve to intimidate the communities that would dare erect the monuments in the first place. This is because, as Thompson argues throughout Smashing Statues, monuments serve as an arena that reflects political debates in society writ large.

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I am hoping to write more in this space now that my semester is drawing to a close. This will likely include some book posts like this one where I give a few thoughts, if not a full review. Since the last one of these went up, I have also finished Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene, Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, and Kathryn Schulz’s Lost & Found, and I am now reading Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s The Silence of the Sea.

A family and social history of bread in the United States

A couple weeks ago, one of my students invited me to give a presentation on sourdough bread to a club she’s involved in, which I did last night I decided to script part of my talk so that I didn’t just blabber in a million different directions.

Below the jump is the transcript of most of that scripted portion, which I called “A family and social history of bread in the United States.” I lightly edited the script to remove the presentation cues and moved forward a paragraph on yeast culture from later in the talk. Enjoy.

Continue reading A family and social history of bread in the United States

Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America

Black and white image of the cover of Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home.

On January 6, 2021, a crowd people stormed the US Capitol Building in order to stop the certification of the electoral votes that made Joe Biden president. This was the result of actions meant to undermine faith in election and polarization heightened by the present media ecosystem, but it was also the culmination of decades of growing extremism among white nationalist and anti-government militia movements. That growth is the subject of Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.

While there has been a pronounced strain of separatism in the United States as long as there has been a United States, Belew identifies the modern iteration in the resolution to the Vietnam War in the 1970s. White power was at the heart of the militia movement from its inception, but she argues that the perceived betrayal in Vietnam prompted a very specific metastasis beyond bog-standard racism. It prompted people like Louis Beam to form militia groups with the stated intent of continuing the war. Naturally, they found common cause with groups like the Knights of the Ku Klux Klax that David Duke founded in 1975.

In these early ears, the militia movement claimed to be fighting against insidious forces and on behalf of the United States. They were soldiers taking the war into their own hands. However, Belew traces how this resentment and frustration transformed over the course of the 1980s until their orientation had turned 180 degrees. By the start of the 1990s militia groups operating around the country–and not merely at places like Ruby Ridge–saw themselves as soldiers in a war on behalf of white people against the United States, which they referred to as the Zionist Occupation Government. She concludes with a chapter on Timothy McVeigh and his terrorist attack in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, though that incident clearly did not put an end to the movements Belew documents is documenting.

At this point, I feel like I need to offer a caveat. I finished Bring the War Home a month ago and while I take copious notes on the books I read for “work” take only haphazard notes on books that I read for “fun.” This book technically falls in the latter category even though parts of it will undoubtedly make its way into my US history classes. I meant to write this post within a day or two of finishing the book, but it turns out that writing here is a lower priority than, say, my classes or work on academic publications. All of this is to say that the following analysis is going to be more a reflection on what I saw as a couple of key themes and less an actual review.

The first thing that stood out to me in Bring the War Home was how Belew traces multiple loosely-connected organizations joined by a common sense of purpose and sometimes, marriage. The various groups saw themselves as part of the same conflict and Belew shows how they used the early internet to support one another, but the absence of a hierarchy meant that quashing one did nothing to slow the spread of the movement. In fact, efforts by the federal government to address the militia movement in places like Ruby Ridge only galvanized other cells and sympathizers. This part of the book sometimes meant trying to keep track of a web of names, but it effectively highlighted the challenge of addressing the militia movement.

Second, perhaps the most striking chapter in Bring the War Home was “Race War and White Women.” In this chapter, Belew shows how white women were of central importance to the militia movement. That is, they claimed to be defending the virtue of vulnerable white women who, in turn, were expected to bear white children. These vulnerable white women were both an abstract ideal, rather like love interests in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and people who played a concrete role in spreading the militia ideas. In the case of a the Fort Smith sedition trial in 1988 that ended with the jury rendering a not guilty verdict, two of the white women on the jury subsequently entered into public relationships with defendants.

(One of the key witnesses in that trial went on to murder three people at Jewish centers in Overland Park, Kansas in 2014.)

Bring the War Home is a terrifying book in many ways. It brings into focus a strain of extremism in the United States that has been steadily growing in prominence in the past few decades. This movement coalesced around racism, anti-semitism, and christian identitarianism, took advantage of new forms of media new media, and, as Belew put it on the first anniversary of January 6, ruthlessly seizes any opportunity. And yet, while these militia movements have themselves shed blood in their war against ZOG and fully intend to do so again, I can’t help but feel that their presence reveals a bigger and more insidious danger. The militia movement emerged from a specific knot of beliefs, but its growth and evolution stems in no small part from how many people not directly affiliated with any tentacle of the movement express sympathy for their positions. That is, the militia movement won’t win its war through force of arms, but through a steady campaign of radicalization that plays on preexisting prejudices. The fact that their ideas can be found elevated into nearly every level of government demonstrates that it is working.

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Crunch time on getting my book together meant giving almost all of my spare time to that, but I have still been reading a little bit every day because it helps me feel normal. Since my last one of these posts I finished Trevor Strunk’s Story Mode, a literary analysis of video games that had some interesting things to say about the evolution of games and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, which had a gift for rich descriptions of place and with a clever story structure but that I ultimately found disappointing in terms of the characters and how the plot was written, James S.A. Corey’s Nemesis Games (Expanse, book 5), and S.A. Chakraborty’s Empire of Gold. I intend to write about the latter two series at some point. Currently, I am reading Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne.

What is Making Me Happy: Byzantium and Friends

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 semi-regular feature.

This week: Byzantium and Friends

I am a longtime listener to podcasts, so much so that I wrote one of these entries on the topic way back in 2016. I also once suggested that every history program ought to have a student-run semi-regular podcast where members of the department and alumni could talk about their their research. In addition to being outreach for the program, such a podcast would give students multiple types of experience, as producers, as interviewers, and, of course, talking about their own work. This idea came to me too late in my graduate career to put something in action, though, and I have largely resisted the urge to start a podcast of my own both because I don’t have a clear sense of what I would want the project to do and because I haven’t had time.

Several weeks ago I started listening to the Byzantium and Friends podcast hosted by Anthony Kaldellis thanks to a recommendation on Twitter from Matthew Simonton. Four episodes in, I am already prepared to say that his is what I would want it to look like were I to start a Greek history podcast.

The stated goal of the podcast is to make current research in the diversifying field of Late Antique studies accessible a wider audience such as students and teachers.

Each episode features a conversation between Kaldellis and a guest grounded in something that the guest has written, whether a book or an article, but then flows outward. Kaldellis is adept at guiding this discussion, informed by careful and generous readings of their work, as well as his own scholarship, and a curiosity about trends and different methodological approaches in historical study. Since the goal is explanatory and collaborative rather than critical, I find that the discussion transcends the limits of the specific publication and become about the process of doing history. Some of the resonance stems form the broad similarities between ancient history and Late Antiquity, but other parts are universal to the study of the past. This was particularly true in the fourth episode with Kristina Sessa about environmental approaches to ancient history, which I am going to suggest as an assignment for a World History course next fall, but it was also present in the other episodes—with George Demacopoulos about colonialism and post-colonial theory in the Fourth Crusade, Ellen Muehlberger about imagination, and Leonora Neville on gender.

As much as I love the conversations, though, it is the final question that particularly makes me happy. Kaldellis closes the show by asking the guest for two reading recommendations outside their specific field. This is a show about Late Antiquity and Byzantium, but this closing question reinforces how historians bring a wide range of influences to their work and benefit from looking beyond the narrow bounds of their research. Every time he asks this question I think about how I might answer the question. As I write this, I’m still trying to decide.

In short, this is my platonic ideal of an academic podcast and I would love to see this format proliferate. Even if I had time to take on such a project, though, I could only hope to emulate Kaldellis’ erudite and considered skill as a host so while I could could provide a lengthy list of scholars I would excitedly badger to come talk to me about their work, I will save everyone the embarrassment by just pressing play on episode five.

The Bright Ages, or I’d love to write one of these for Ancient Greece

This is not a review of Matt Gabriele and David Perry’s The Bright Ages (Harper: 2021). The book is a Grand Tour of medieval Europe, a breezy romp that aims to counteract popular depictions of the period as backward and grim that has received a lot of praise and some disingenuous reviews for that purpose. It is an excellent book that sweeps from episode to episode demonstrating how the vibrancy of the medieval period was the result of its connection to a broader world. Rome didn’t fall, they argue, or, at least, Rome’s “fall” didn’t mean what people usually think. Likewise, this is a world filled with powerful women, muslims, Jews, and people with skin tones of multiple hues. There was violence and prejudice in the Middle Ages, of course, but one only needs to read modern headlines to see that violence does uniquely define the period. The result is a refreshing and synthetic introduction to the period that injects humanity and complexity into a period usually viewed through the lens of Romance.

But, like I said, this is not a review. There are other people who have done an excellent job contributing to the discussion around this book. Rather, I want to reflect on the value of something like this for Ancient Greece.

Last week a friend of mine reached out looking for a book to recommend to a student who wanted an introduction to Greek history. As much as I think there is a lot of great research available right now, I struggled to come up with a satisfactory answer. The textbook I use in class, Pomeroy et al.’s A Brief History of Ancient Greece, is okay, but textbooks and books have somewhat different purposes. However, I also struggled to come up with a good alternative because I am not satisfied with how most synoptic histories present ancient Greece.

Here is how I articulate the problem as I see it in the book I am writing:

Histories of Classical Greece tend to follow well-trod paths. A series of political and military events like the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars mark the trail and point out a standard set of sights. Athens is well-represented, for reasons of evidence as much as anything, and puncturing the Spartan mirage has done little to blunt popular fascination, while Thebes and Macedonia make grand appearances in the fourth century. And yet, if one were to complete this metaphor, most of Greek history takes place elsewhere in the forest and only obliquely intersects with the usual paths. 

That is, the story of ancient Greece is not the history of Athens or Sparta or Macedonia, but the history of more than a thousand independent poleis scattered across the breadth of the Mediterranean and Black Seas bound by ties like language, culture, genealogy, and Panhellenic institutions that together created an imagined community of “Greeks.”

The primary exception to this rule that I could think of is Paul Cartledge’s Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities (now in the Oxford Very Short Introduction Series). To his credit, Cartledge chooses cities outside of the Balkans, but the approach also atomizes the selections into discrete units that he parachutes into as representative of a time or theme where they interact largely through conflict. Similarly, while Cartledge does not deny interaction with the Near East, I often find off-put by the framing of “Western Civilization” that runs through his accounts of Greek history.

When I teach Greek history I like to seed the ground by pointing out to them the complexity of the topic. Any history is, if you look close enough, but other survey courses I teach have a few choices for narrative arcs to follow that, while imperfect, work for the purposes of the course. A survey of Roman history, for instance, usually centers on Rome. Greek history, by contrast, is more like a Medieval history survey in that there is a plurality of actors continuously in states of conflict and cooperation with one another as well as with those outside the “in” group. What I try to convince my students is that that complexity is what makes Greek history interesting, and we usually conclude the semester engaging with how it often comes to be centered on Athens.

It was perhaps inevitable that at the same time that I read The Bright Ages I found myself making mental notes for the sorts of scenes I would include in a comparable volume on ancient Greece — Cynisca’s victories at the Olympics in the 390s BCE, average Athenians choosing to write “hunger” (ΤΟΝ ΛΙΜΟΝ) rather than a name during an ostracism vote in the 480s or 470s, Greek soldiers in Egypt leaving graffiti on a statue of Rameses II at Abu Simbel in the 590s, and the Greeks working at the Persian palace complexes in the 6th century, the poet Choerilus of Samos spending his large stipend from the Macedonian king on fish, the metics credited by the Athenians with saving the democracy in 403, workers constructing the monumental temples and people petitioning small oracles, to name just a few. This hypothetical tour wouldn’t ignore Athens, Sparta, or major figures, but they wouldn’t dominate the narrative and it would have to push back against both histories dominated by the story of military conflict and those dominated by the so-called Greek miracle

I have strong ideas about what I want to see from this book, but equally inspiring about The Bright Ages was its collaboration that seemed to embody some of the larger themes on the page. Were I to write one of these covering ancient Greece I wouldn’t want to produce it like Athena bursting, fully-formed, from the forehead of Zeus. Rather, like Greece itself, it should be the result of a lively exchange that enriches the overall project.

In Defense of the (Historical) Study of Food

I was thinking again this week about a conversation I had with my advisor back in graduate school. I was already on the job market and we were talking about how I was marketing myself in cover letters. My first book project would obviously be the revised version of my dissertation project and I had (and have) plans for a second book that is a natural continuation of that research. But I was already starting to lay the groundwork for a new research project into bread in ancient Greece.

The trajectory of my research has never been solely dictated by the relationship with my Doktorvater, but this was a conversation about how to market myself to jobs and branding is something he is particularly good at. Ultimately, his concerns about mentioning this future project came down to two points:

  1. That this project marked too great a departure from my current research such that there might be questions about my creating a coherent research portfolio. Scholarly publications often build on each other, as it were, with books begetting articles and new leads, so too much dilettantism can just be a distraction.
  2. That telling people I wanted to study food would mean that my research is not taken seriously.

His first point is both more and less valid than it was when we had this conversation maybe a half decade ago. I suspect that there is some benefit on the job market to being a generalist unless you happen to research the specialty that is hot in a given year, provided, of course, that your research in whatever you do is compelling to committees. But, at the same time, I have recently found myself wondering if the various strands of my research are too dissimilar from each other. That is, I currently have ambitions to write four books (three non-fiction, one fiction) after the one I am currently writing. Each one scratches a different itch that I have as a person, but they only tangentially intersect with each other.

However, the second point is the one I want to develop further here. Some of my advisor’s concern is a matter of his personal research, which skews to the political and diplomatic with a heavy dose of biography. He is not so myopic as to think that these are the only things that matter as far as I am aware, but he raised the possibility that the study of food might be regarded as too frivolous to be taken seriously.

I suspect that he is right, at least in some circles.

Without question, some of this is discipline- and sub-discipline-specific. For instance, here are excellent books on food written by modern historians. For instance, I particularly enjoyed Jeffrey Pilcher’s Planet Taco and my friend and graduate school colleague Christopher Deutsch is working on the delightfully-titled Beeftopia, which looks at how the United States became a beef-eating country. Although Maria Balinska is a journalist by trade, my favorite one-star Amazon review calling her The Bagel “Jewish social history” warrants honorary status.

My casual survey of work from the ancient Mediterranean suggests that food studies receive more attention among archaeologists. Patrick McGovern, for instance, is a molecular archaeologist who collaborated with Dogfish Head brewery on their Ancient Ales series and delivered a keynote address at the AIA meeting in Philadelphia in 2012. Likewise, Farrell Monaco and J.T. Benton are both archaeologists who work on bread and technology in the Roman world. And yet, just two years ago the zooarchaeologist Flint Dibble nevertheless published a “manifesto” at Eidolon where he conducted a survey of recent research and defended the study food because of what it can reveal about climate and a given society.

In a similar manner to Flint in his manifesto, I want to suggest that food isn’t just a valid topic of historical study, but an important one.

The truth is that I receive very different responses from people when I talk about my work on Ionia (that is, all of my publications so far) and when I talk about even the little bit of food research I have done to this point. This is not meant as a strike against my other work. I think it is important and hope that the book will help change some ideas on how to look at Classical Greece, but I also once delivered a paper on Ephesus, perhaps the best-known of the cities in the region, and had an ancient historian tell me on the way out that he wouldn’t have been able to identify Ephesus on a map. That is, there are more barriers to entry for my work on Ionia. Sometimes it results in long, sprawling conversations. Sometimes I can see eyes glaze over.

The latter almost never happens when talking about food.

There is an appetite for learning about food. This likely explains the burgeoning market for food-related books, almost all of which are historical in nature but relatively few of them are actually written by historians. (To say nothing of Gastropod, which looks “at food through the lens of history and science.”) Other than a handful of exceptions like those listed above, two broad groups of people write these books: journalists and scientists. Both make sense. Journalism is where a lot of food writing takes place and books are a logical extension of this form in much the same way that science journalists turn their reportage into books. Thus you get Jonathan Kauffman’s Hippie Food and Daniel Stone’s The Food Explorer. Scientists, on the other hand, have multiple points of entry. Food involves at minimum chemistry, biology, and agronomy, so books like Cheese and Culture (Paul Kindstedt, a chemist and food technologist) and Sourdough Culture (Eric Pallant, an environmental scientist) are natural extensions of these disciplines. After all, the Global Sourdough Project at North Carolina State University belongs to the Ecology Department.

These are all fascinating projects, but their history is, to put it nicely, wildly inconsistent. I will write a full post of Eric Pallant’s Sourdough Culture later this week, but it can stand in as an example here since I just finished reading it.

Pallant is telling a particular story about trying to trace the origins of his Cripple Creek starter, in much the same way that Kindstedt’s book follows a particular arc for cheese and Balinska’s book largely treats New York bagels as normative until starting a discussion of how the Lender’s company took the bagel mainstream. What Pallant does here is blend the story of learning about his starter with a longer discussion of attitudes toward sourdough breads. In this second objective, his discussion of the transition to industrial bread was particularly fascinating. Not coincidentally, this was also a topic that had served as the basis of a Fulbright project. By contrast, other parts of his historical discussion weaker and included a few turns of phrase that made me physically wince.

Sourdough Culture is not the sort of book designed to have a comprehensive bibliography and a review of the references revealed omissions that could have strengthened the book. At the same time, though, I found myself reflecting on how at least some of the limitations reflect the contours of the existing scholarship, meaning that Egypt and Rome are better represented than was Greece. This is understandable, at least to an extent; Pallant is not an ancient historian. However, it did lead him to give Greek in particular only cursory treatment when there is a more compelling to story to tell there.

I like these books, broadly speaking, and am not at all saying that scientists and journalists need to stop writing about historical food. However, when historians pass the responsibility for writing about historical food to non-historians then they forfeit the right to complain when their historical periods get misrepresented.

Providing material for scientists to improve their books is just a side benefit. Food offers insight into a whole range of historical topics, from gender roles, to cultural values, to turns of phrase, to economic and political systems. Food also provides opportunities for historical work to be interdisciplinary in the best ways possible. Not every scholar needs to start studying food, of course. But where food’s ubiquity may make it seem banal, the very fact that food (or its absence) is intimately connected to every single person’s daily existence means that it is threaded into every historical time and place, if we’re only willing to look for it.

The Scapegoat

—That’s the danger with freedom: it’s an abyss. Will you fall in? It’ll depend on you Georgiou.

In May 1948 a Greek fisherman discovered a body floating in the Thermaic Gulf. George Polk was a CBS foreign correspondent then reporting on the Greek Civil War where he was unsparing in his coverage of government corruption and atrocities. Despite receiving death threats, he had nevertheless travelled to Thessaloniki, only to disappear until his body was fished from the bay. The government, naturally, blamed their communist enemies and arranged a show-trial that ended in the conviction of three men: two in abstentia (they also had not been in Greece at the time of the murder) and the journalist Gregoris Staktopoulos, who confessed under torture and served more than a decade in prison.

A fictionalized version of this murder and wrongful conviction serves as a jumping off point for Sophia Nikolaidou’s The Scapegoat (trans. Karen Emmerich).

The Scapegoat consists of two intersecting storylines, though neither strictly adheres to a single chronology. The first plot centers on the 1948 murder of the American journalist, here named Jack Talas, who we meet in the opening pages. At the same time, we are introduced to Manolis Gris, a journalist who accompanies an officer to the police station thinking he is dealing with the theft of his laundry by gypsies that he had reported earlier that day:

“It was twelve years before Manolis Gris made it home. His eyes were still chestnut brown, but his hair had turned gray.”

This narrative unfolds through the voices of people around Manolis, including his sister Violeta, his mother Kyria Maria, and Jack Talas’ widow Zoe (Zouzou), as well as a host of others. We learn how Manolis and his family were refugees relocated from Pontus during the forced population exchanges of the 1920s and how he generally kept his head down while diligently working to support his family. And we learn how Zouzou faced a torrent of accusations after the death of her fiancé as the institutional forces in Greece worked to close the case quickly and ensure that the “right” people took the blame. Manolis’ signed confession seals the deal.

The second plot line flashes forward sixty years. In the 2010–2011 school-year, at the height of the financial crisis in Greece, Minas Georgiou has decided that he does not want to go to college. Previously a star student, Minas’ decision has shattered the peace of his household, particularly devastating his mother, Teta, who gave up a career after college to raise him. Minas’ decision also caused his grades to start slipping in advance of the mandatory exams, which serve as a critical point of divergence for the rest of his life. His history teacher Souk (Soukiouroglou) makes him an offer: instead of completing homework for the class, Minas can complete a research paper and presentation for his grade.

His topic: The trial of Manolis Gris.

Minas throws himself into research, aided by materials put together over the years by his own journalist father — albeit distracted the ordinary pursuits of high school seniors, like trying to strike up a relationship with Evelina, the other star student in the class.

Each plot works on its own, the second somewhat more than the first, but The Scapegoat comes alive in the resonances between the two stories. Nikolaidou takes the universal position that the 1949 trial was a sham that turned the convicted into scapegoats who absolved a community of responsibility for its sins. (These were called pharmakoi in Ancient Greek practice, though the original Greek title of this novel is Χορεύουν οι ελέφαντες, or The Elephants are Dancing.) In and of itself, that part of the story is not particularly exceptional except that she uses the kaleidoscope of voices who articulate the layers of disruption in 1940s Greece.

The second plot, set at another time of disruption in Greece that was creating waves of new sacrificial victims, responds to the first. Three generations of Greeks are invested in Minas’ investigation, and are caught up in a tighter web of relationships than they first realize. Minas’ investigation eventually leads him to Evelina’s grandfather Nikiforos, the lawyer who defended Manolis Gris in 1948, but the old man refuses to speak to him until he arranges a meeting with his grandmother Evthalia — who Nikiforos admired from afar as a young man about to marry. Meanwhile, Souk is the sort of eccentric literary teacher who is easy to admire until you realize the consequences of his methods (his father Tasos knew Souk’s advisor and can’t stand him, but his grandmother, a former teacher, approves). Nikiforos doesn’t see the value in re-litigating the past, but Souk demands that Minas do just that in taking a stand. Minas concludes:

In studying them carefully, in marking passages with his highlighter, Minas had come to realize that justice is an abstract concept. Perfect on paper. But in practice, riddled with qualifications, asterisks, interpretations, clashes of opinion. History books offered no catharsis, as tragedies. did; there were no happy endings, as there were in fairytales or soap operas.

In sum, The Scapegoat is an impressive novel that grapples with the living consequences and echoes of historical events, even as Nikolaidou injects light into that darkness through a number of sweet relationships, none more so that the clumsy tenderness and unbridled optimism of young love.

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Since my last books post, I finished reading Charles Soule’s The Oracle Year and David Elliot’s Bull. The latter is a verse re-imagination of the Minotaur story where each character receives a different meter. It wasn’t my favorite riff on the Minotaur story (that would be The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break), but it had some powerful moments. I am now reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, a memoir about trying to find information about the six family members none of his relatives will talk about — the six who were killed in the Holocaust.

How to Hide an Empire

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.

ΔΔΔ

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.