Current Mood

And for the plurality of readers, I have no doubt, that [the distant past] will offer little pleasure. They will hurry toward these modern times, in which the longstanding superior power of a people is sweeping itself away. In contrast, I myself will seek an advantage in my work, that I turn my gaze from the troubles which our time has seen for so many years, while I put my whole mind to those old days, having no part in the conflicts which, even if they cannot bend the mind of the writer from the truth, may nevertheless cause disturbance.

et legentium plerisque haud dubito quin primae origines proximaque originibus minus praebitura voluptatis sint festinantibus ad haec nova, quibus iam pridem praevalentis populi vires se ipsae conficiunt; ego contra hoc quoque laboris praemium petam, ut me a conspectu malorum, quae nostra tot per annos vidit aetas, tantisper certe dum prisca illa tota mente repeto, avertam, omis expers curae, quae scribentis animum etsi non flectere a vero, sollicitum tamen efficere posset.

Livy, AUC pr. 4-5

I have been particularly busy these past two months, between job applications, writing, teaching, and the election. This week has brought to my head a number of existential crises, while reinforcing my conviction about the central importance of humanistic education. Don’t expect a flurry of posts, but I expect activity to pick up here in the coming weeks, including a backlog of book reviews, collected thoughts about ancient history, teaching, and one post about my experience as an election judge this past Tuesday.

Before I go (this post was composed in a one-hour break between classes), I do want to make one point of clarification about how I interpret the post above. It is, of course, the famous passage from Livy’s introduction to his history of Rome Ab Urbe Condita, “From the Founding of the City,” which suggests that history is a refuge from the contemporary troubles society faces. Note, too, that he suggests that the end is nigh for Rome, when, in fact, the empire survived intact for another several centuries. But is history really a refuge in which one can retreat indefinitely and excuse him- or herself from culpability for the problems of modernity? Of course not, and, rhetoric aside, I don’t believe that Livy is saying that. All history is political and history is a space in which we can understand issues confronting society while also avoiding some of the worst polemics of contemporary discourse.

At some level I feel that I am at a crossroads of sorts and suspect that I am not alone in this. History is my primary medium and one of the things I aim to do going forward is to do a better job of using it “to think with,” but in a considered, careful way rather than leaping to hyperbolic judgements. But first, I am looking to my work for some solace.

Privilege and Civilization

“…a person is by nature an animal that lives in a community [polis], and one who is by nature and not by fate without such a community [polis] is surely barely–or more than–human.”

[ὁ ἄνθρωπος φύσει πολιτικὸν ζῷον, καὶ ὁ ἄπολις διὰ φύσιν καὶ οὐ διὰ τύχην ἤτοι φαῦλός ἐστιν, ἤ κρείττων ἤ ἄνθρωπος, Politics, 1.1253a]

So Aristotle says early in his Politics, a phrase that is often repeated, but usually truncated to “man is a political animal.” This observation comes only at the end of a passage where Aristotle analyzes human relationships, concluding that the polis is the highest form of community. He, of course, prioritizes free citizens and regards the civilizations of Asia as inferior on the grounds that they were slaves to the Persian king. A similar sentiment emerges in other Greek sources, such as Homeric Hymn 20, to Hephaestus, which says:

“With gleaming-eyed Athena, he taught humans on the earth splendid crafts, men who formerly dwelt in caves in the mountains, like wild beasts. But now, through the famed-craftsmen Hephaestus, they have learned crafts and they live a peaceful life all year, easily and in their own homes.”

[ὃς μετ᾽ Ἀθηναίης φλαυκώπιδος ἀγλαὰ ἔργα ἀνθρώπους ἐδίδαξεν ἐπὶ χθονός, οἳ τὸ πάρος περ ἄντροις ναιετάασκον ἐν οὔρεσιν, ἠύτε θῆρες. νῦν δὲ δι’ ᾽Ἣφαιστον κλθτοτέχνην ἔργα δαέντες ῥηιδίως αἰῶνα τελεσφόρον εἰς ἐναυτὸν εὔκηλοι διάγουςιν ἐνὶ σφετέροισι δόμοισιν.]

Technically, this passage could apply to any group of people who live in man-made structures, but the progression from living like (and with) animals to a civilized, urban life appears is fairly common. In Arrian’s account of Alexander’s speech to his men at Opis says that Philip found the men “impoverished wanderers” (πλανήτας καὶ ἀπόρους), “dressed in animal hide” (ἐν διφθέραις) and “feeding a few sheep on the hills” (ἀνὰ τὰ ὄρη πρόβατα ὀλίγα) and made them civilized city-dwellers (πόλεων τε οἰκήτορας). It should not be a surprise that the common thread privileges what is considered a typically Greek way of life, nor that the Greek authors looked upon their own culture as the ideal arrangement of society. The people at the top have a tendency to think that way.

It is also notable how infrequently “non-civilized” people show up in ancient sources unless they a) pose a threat to more civilized people, b) are an object of curiosity, or c) is used as a contrast to civilized cultures as either c1) to demonstrate how far civilization had come or c2) to espouse the prelapsarian virtues of people uncorrupted by luxuries of civilization. Barring that they are invisible. For instance, Livy gives the briefest accounts of tribes of people living in the Alps only because they block Hannibal’s passage into Italy.

The phenomenon of privileging civilization is old, but it is not a relic of the past. In recent history, the Worlds Fairs put “exotic” humans, including eskimos, on display. Exhibits depicting “non-civilized” peoples tend to be relegated to Natural History museums, and they are studied in the context of anthropology museums–or, at least, in specialized history classes for, for example, Native Americans. Other peripheral communities of people are simply excluded from the narrative. That is a feature of narratives–there are those within the spotlight and those on the outside. Yet, there is also a privileging of those whose societies are in some sense structured like ours and those that are declared to be the ancestors in the truest sense, namely not just those that came before, but those that established cultures and civilizations that led to ours. Those on periphery are curiosities of secondary importance.

Ivory Tower

I recently heard the opinion that ancient history (and possibly even Classics more generally) should only be taught at a graduate level at a select few universities across the country. Schools not in that elite core (e.g. the Ivy League, most Big 10 schools, Berkeley, Stanford, Duke, UNC, etc) should offer programs for undergraduates, but should not offer graduate degrees. Though I heard this opinion third hand, it originated from an ancient history professor. I agree to a limited extent with the sentiment about the necessity of standards, but wholeheartedly disagree with the actual opinion–not least of which is because I have thrice failed to gain acceptance into those elite programs and am therefore at another school.

I have three qualms with the opinion:

  1. There are too many deserving applicants for too few spots at those top programs
  2. There are too many quality advisors who, for one reason or another, are not at those universities
  3. The notion that those are the programs that can produce doctorates and none other can is a cause of stagnation in the profession. It is not only possible, but also necessary for “tier-2” schools to build viable programs.1</sup

1For the moment overlook the increasingly vocal proponents of reducing the number of people who get advanced degrees in the humanities.

Let me examine each of these in somewhat more depth. Despite the overall trend wherein a lower percentage of the population attains a college degree than in recent history, there has been record application and acceptance rates at most, if not all colleges. A college degree is seen as necessary for advancement or employment in many jobs and though I have strong objections to both this and the claim that college is a place to learn jobs skills and the the movement to turn colleges into money making machines, the perception is transformed into a reality because businesses actually put it into practice. So, with enrollment at record highs, and the job market remaining spare, particularly at those jobs that college does prepare students for, the rates (and the percentages, I think) of application to advanced degrees has gone up. For some students this is a dodge on student loan payments or an extension on college in the same way they received extensions on papers, and in these cases the academic world only serves to further coddle them. But for others, graduate school or other post-Baccalaureate programs are the right fit and it stands to reason that these numbers are also at an all-time high. Lump these numbers together and combine it with funding cuts across the academic world, and there simply are not enough spots at the top universities for all deserving applicants. The rejects, as they may be, then go to other schools where classics and ancient history are taught, and they may join the other rejects to study the field they love, build a program, and so on. Note that reject here is not a negative term and applies to all graduate students in the field not at these universities–you can not succeed if you do not try, so not applying is not an excuse (unless you are pointing out how much money you saved).

A second issue is that many, if not most, potential advisors are not at those top universities. The best programs have larger staffs, more students, and more opportunities. These are all boons to graduate work, however if none of the programs have a potential advisor for your interests, then it may behoove you to cast a wider net. There are scores of excellent teachers, advisors, and scholars whose careers, for any number of reasons, bring them to schools that are not among the traditional academic factories. Slowly, the field is moving into a time when production counts for as much or more than the name. It is not yet, nor will it likely ever be a true meritocracy, but it is moving in that direction. Would I like the name to bolster my ego and look impressive on my wall? Yes, but the truth is that the name often has little bearing on the formal apprenticeship of graduate school.

Third, and perhaps most important, is that Classics and ancient history are very old fields. Livy, one of our great historians, wrote about events 700 years before his birth, which could easily be considered ancient even in his own day. Gibbon, Napoleon, Collingwood, and all of the founding fathers were at the very least amateur ancient historians, and some of the chairs of Classics at UK universities are themselves hundreds of years old. The field is old, and the only way to keep it relevant is to innovate and change, something best achieved by building new programs to see what can happen. Keeping just a few in their ivory tower will lead to stagnation. In no way am I claiming this is a novel stance–Who Killed Homer first came out in 1998, and there has seemingly always been a tension between tradition and innovation.

The point I have to emphasize is that the only time in which so-called elite universities hold a mystical status is when professors and students at the “lesser” universities accept the status quo. The top programs may remain elite and coveted, but they also work to remain at that level by actively recruiting top scholars and prospective scholars. Yet the position is not guaranteed or divinely mandated. In fact, competition for the services of scholars from a more diverse set of institutions, with a larger number of talented writers and thinkers involved in the process would be good for the field. Scholarship in its own right would advance, and at no point would elite programs be able to take their status for granted. Of course I want to study and teach at premier schools, but until such time as I am seen as Ivy League material, I want to do whatever I can do make the school I am at be the best it can be and, as much as it can be, I want that to be my fault.

The Tapestry of History.

There is safety in simplicity. In limits. In boundaries.

There is safety in precision and detail.

There is mortal danger those traits too.

Aside from Thucydides, upon whom I could dwell ad nauseum, the two historians for whom I have the most respect and desire to emulate are Livy and Edward Gibbon. Whatever their faults, whatever their own limitations, both sought to see the broad picture. Both were undaunted by the enormity of their respective projects. Where other historians may blanch at the corners cut to achieve a unified vision and at the scope involved, I imagine that these two would, perhaps, view the historical ventures of today as too limited, too inconsequential to be of value.

Livy spent much of his life writing his history entitled Ab Urbe Condite, or From the Founding of the City. The story opens with his profession that he would rather dwell in the glorious past than the troubled present and that this pursuit is his passion; Livy, the first self-professed history nerd dedicated his life to this project because he loved it—and he loved Rome. The single-minded goal in this treatise was to prove that Rome was the greatest nation to ever exist.

Gibbon wrote about the opposite end of the Roman experience: the collapse into the middle ages, yes, but also into the “modern world.” In fact, Gibbon wrote so much on the topic that most editions today are abridged and it takes a daring soul to actually read the full text (Livy has no such problem, in part because most of his work is absent). The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, whether abridged or in full, takes the reader through over a thousand years of Roman history, with examination of people, religion, government, and other causes throughout. While sticklers will be quick to point out that Gibbon was biased rather thoroughly himself, any pragmatist would be quick to point out that there is no such thing as an objective historian and that it is actually the core duty of the historian to judge that which has come before, both in the events and in what was written.

Neither the start of, nor the end of the Roman Empire is what I wish to spend my life studying and it is not what Livy and Gibbon were saying that I admire, it is how they sought to say it. Individual events, details and nuances have their value to history, but as clarification and elaboration upon a greater whole. From this logic, the ideal history must be entitled “The Concise History of Human Existence, a summation.” Of course this concept is too much for even the greatest of human minds to conceive and would therefore be broken down into subunits that would form the larger picture.

In the interest of practicality my suggested history should never be written. It would not further scholarship, but would only serve to entangle those writing it. At the same time historians should not be afraid of challenges, of using a wide-angle lens and of using scholarship on the particulars to draw together the larger themes into the grand tapestry of history.


First, I have been remiss in posting just because I have had a lot going on in life, almost none of which pertains to my study of history, but I hope to rectify this by writing about various things I pick up, mostly from the books I am currently reading.

Second, I have been designing classes for almost a year now, in effect just picking topics I am interested in knowing more about or that would make an interesting class or that I would like to teach.

The first class I made was with a fellowship from Brandeis University in which I designed a course on the fall of the Roman Empire, tracing it from the mid 200’s until 1400, largely with the help of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I think I did well and could find myself teaching it if called upon, but it was not my favorite subject.

The second class that I decided upon was a class on classical eduction. It is designed as a freshman seminar (for Brandeis students, think USEM), wherein it looks at the classical tradition, why it is important and makes people think about requirements and what they want to do. In part I chose to do this because of one book I read, and in part it is because I think I would have benefited from a course about it. At present the course is about 1/3 set and I need to find some of the additional books I lined up for it.

The second class I am currently working on is one that I only thought of today. It is still in the brainstorming phase, but I am thinking it would be on scandals in the ancient world and going against cultural norms. Like I said, I don’t have anything on paper yet, but I was thinking about selecting a number of scandalous situations and the characters involved and then going from there. The list so far includes The Queen of Bythinia, Alcibiades (his divorce and other scandalous behavior), Agrippina and Nero (Nero’s boat designed to collapse and kill her), and Procopius’ secret history.

Why I do what I do

I know I posted about the introduction to Livy back in January, but I want to bring it up again. Throughout the thesis process, one of the questions people keep throwing my direction is “Why are you writing this?” or “What relevance does your topic have?” (two variations on the same question).

There is value in studying history, even history several thousand years old. In the case of Greece and Rome there is something to be said for learning the roots of Western Civilization, but when you get into particulars in those societies, this value becomes obscured simply because you are not looking at the broad spectrum of influence. Instead you have what to most people seem inanities of the subject that you obsess over without any tangible practical value. Further, it is all too possible to get worked up over a piece of minutiae that someone who doesn’t know the subject looks at without understanding in the least why you refuse to remove it, but insist that it is a crucial point.

Therefore when I am asked those two questions above, my first reaction is that there is no great value and you should only read it if you are genuinely interested, because otherwise it is just a waste of time for all parties. I do not claim that my writing is good enough, profound enough or relevant enough to life to cause an epiphany for the reader. If it draws them in and makes them want to know more, then I have done my job, but I will leave epiphanies to self help authors and priests, because that is just not what history is really about. More and more I want to explain myself by throwing the (slightly modified) words of Livy back at the interrogator:

“The task of writing history…fills me, I confess with some misgiving, and even were I confident in the value of my work, I should hesitate to say so. I am aware that for historians to make extravagant claims is, and always has been, all too common: every writer on history tends to look down his nose at his less cultivated predecessors, happily persuaded that he will better them in point of style, or bring new facts to light. But however that may be, I shall find satisfaction in contributing, not, I hope, ignobly…”

Livy wrote history as a distraction from his troubled times and because he wanted to. For these reasons I feel close to him. I, as he once did, want to discover the truth, figure out what happened and explain it.

Dorks existed 2,000 years ago, too

A question that has intrigued me for some time now is “Why does a given person write about what they write?” Within this question one may look at all places and genres, including modern works writing reviews of other authors and on down through the ages. For me this interested primarily manifests itself in the purposes behind ancient historians, which is significantly aided by the admittance as to purpose in the author’s own introduction.

The task of writing a history of our nation from Rome’s earliest days fills me, I confess, with some misgivings, and even were I confident in the value of my work, I should hesitate to say so. I am aware that for historians to make extravagant claims is, and always has been, all too common: every writer on history tends to look down his nose at his less cultivated predecessors, happily persuaded that he will better them in point of style, or bring new facts to life…

…I am aware, too, that most readers will take less pleasure in my account of how Rome began and her early history; they will wish to hurry on to more modern times…My own feeling is different; I shall find antiquity a rewarding study, if only because, while I am absorbed in it, I shall be able to turn my eyes from the troubles which for so long have tormented the modern world…
~Livy, The Early History of Rome
Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt

As a student of Ancient History and in particular one whose desire is to study in a history department, this passage is incredibly warming to me. Even today there is more enthusiasm for ‘modern’ history than there is for antiquity. Granted, this means there are fewer people job hunting in the field, but it also leads to less recognition.

Livy is admitting he is a dork in this passage. Despite what is trendy and popular, Livy is writing about something he is interested in and love. If there is a better reason to study something, I have not yet heard of it and it is the same reason I am intending to stay in school for years to come.