Intents and Purposes

I have not been writing on my blog recently. There are a variety of reasons for this, including the demands of graduate school, several alternate places that I write and some issues that I have run into in life, but perhaps the biggest concern for me in regards to the blog is the sense of purpose. When I started this blog I meant it to be a way for me to think about and talk about history while I did not have a formal platform. It was that general and as a result there was a sense of aimlessness. The one thing I did not want was excessive narrative of my own life. As I have gotten back into school the content changed slightly, and I spent more time reflecting on academia and society, as well as history. This is closer to what I want, but I am still not sure.

My ideal would be to help foster my own blog network among people I know who are writing and thinking about various topics, connected through mutual readership, commenting and supporting one another and collaborating whenever possible. In this goal, I have a standing offer to host blogs for other people. My dream in this event is to also host a forum community connected to this blog network that would (hopefully) foster collaborative and peer-review opportunities, as well as the opportunity to participate in academic debate. There are a number of problems with this goal, though, particularly in that my colleagues, much as I am, are pressed by their own work even if they are inclined to blogging, the internet or this sort of collaboration. There is also a fundamental lack of participants in general. The most successful forum communities I have or still do participate in have dozens of regular participants and hundreds, if not thousands, of members and occasional contributors. Of course this will not deter me from creating this forum with the hope that eventually something will come of it. Now, if only I had time to set all of this up.

But those are the goals for the aspects that are beyond my control and I still have uncertainty about my own blog, in part because I have heard horror stories about intellectual property and research projects stolen because they were posted online before publication. Now in my experience there tend to be five type of historian-academic blog:

-Relating everything that happens in the modern world to whatever project the author is currently working on
-Discussion of the academy and classes
-“This day in History”
-Commentary on politics and society
-Posting links

Now most blogs blend two or more of these different elements and, inevitably, mine will be no different. I started this for history and that will still feature prominently simply because it is central to my life, but more and more I expect that I will write about more diverse topics, including academia generally, self-review, book discussion, methodology, and commentary about society. Whatever piques my interest is fair game, though I expect narrative of my life will rarely feature. The key here is that I will also rarely feature straight narrative history. If some story comes up in my research then I may recount that, but that is about it. More often I expect my historical discussion to be in the form of contemplation and working through various arguments.

Ancient Historians did not write history?

The following thoughts are retransmitted from and the product of a discussion held by Dr. Kurt Raaflaub, emeritus professor from Brown University, at The University of Missouri on the Ulterior Motives of these historians.

When the word history is mentioned, there is a certain preconception held, namely that there will follow a discussion of those events that came before. Often this would take the form of a simple narrative, with the emphasis on what happened, though with some discussion, too, of why, how, and the repercussions. In Greece and Rome there was a somewhat different conception of history.

What happened was of secondary importance, especially in contrast to why, how, and the overarching patterns. To this end, and to maintain audience interest, speeches could be added, depictions exaggerated, etc. At one level the changes fit the broader picture sought by the author, but at another it was meant as a tool of immediacy, a way to bring the past events home to the reader or listener.

Due to these it was suggested that perhaps ‘history’ is not the best descriptor of what these people were doing, but something of historical importance that also bears resemblance and kinship with drama, biography, poetry and others forms of artistic production. In particular there is the reverse assumption from today, not that the historian must remain removed from the subject, but that the historian must have personal involvement and passion (though not rancor)for the subject matter.

What really matters?

Is what matters about history the narration of the events that came before or the interpretation of the events? Are the events themselves, or the historians’ perception thereof, more significant than the analysis of how the causes? Are there historical events with a deeper truth that are more valuable than those without? Is the true value of history the series of stories that may be used to provide solid basis for analytical arguments? How much about history is sequencing and descriptions, and how much is nothing more than an exercise in self-discovery?

Whether consciously or not, these are all questions that must be addressed by a historian at some point or another and even more so by a would-be history teacher. Sciences tend to be about facts, statistics, proofs; history has no such luxury. There is no such thing as truly unbiased source information, be it modern or historical. Historical research is a journey into the human condition, biases and perceptions, as much as it is a journey into the story of what came before. Successive generations of historians seek to surpass their predecessors in point of style or in revealing new inner truths, to paraphrase Livy. Most often these author’s merely bring to light a new or, at most a slightly varied, perspective. Whether this validates the acclaim (or lack thereof), accorded to them is another matter entirely.

This point about perspective can be seen clearly in a brief review of two famous scholars and their work: the late N.G.L. Hammond, and Victor Davis Hanson. In his time, the former was the best known scholar of Macedonian and Illyrian history, concentrating on the time before and after Alexander III (the Great). To read his obituary is to discover a man who threw himself completely into the pursuit of ancient Macedonia. As a senior at Brandeis University, I found myself sputtering at what I wryly derided as the prattling of a dead Englishman. I wanted to throttle, argue and prove him wrong all at once. In time that feeling subsided and I was able to laugh at the presumptiveness of this upstart college student, full of himself and still sophomoric, despite two years’ removal. Later, I found renewed respect for this esteemed scholar, but I was no less convinced that his conclusions were wrong. This is an argument that will never be resolved; he is incapable of providing me with any more counterexamples or clarifying his argument; likewise, I am unable to elucidate my argument to him. However, I am able to use his work and perspective as a foundation for my own analysis.

Victor Davis Hanson is best known for his theory about the Western Way of War, which, simply put, is that “the West” prefers to settle conflicts and disputes with a decisive conflict or battle that is often horrifying. In contrast, “the East” prefers a prolonged conflict with light-armed troops, one that is less likely to provide a decisive victory, but will also prevent catastrophic loss. I would not call his views on this and other matters scripture, but I tend to agree with most of what Professor Hanson argues. In the grand conflict between East and West, as is the setting for the history of Herodotus, scholars may point to other fundamental differences or claim that Hanson’s is nonsensical, but their argument is as indicative of their perspectives as is Hanson’s. Neither One is not more valid than another. Once a perspective exists, the only barometer of validity is the ability to persuade; the ability to persuade resides in argumentation.

Alexander is the perfect example of this challenge of validity. At times it seems as though everyone under the sun has written a book on the greatest and worst of humans, and, invariably, entitled it “Alexander the Great.” Many of these are “whodunits” built around the claim that the author has discovered who really killed Alexander. Two of the more recent books claim that either Ptolemy or Roxane killed him and offer “definitive” proof that the cause of death was poison based on the symptoms. Neither of these books is persuasive, in large part because of the unreliability of the sources to the required degree of detail, and Alexander’s death will forever remain one of the world’s great mysteries, because of the dearth of evidence. If, on the other hand, someone were able to provide evidence and afterwards argue their theory, then it would gain validity and come into vogue.

My own thoughts on the subject of Alexander’s death not withstanding, for merit is these core philosophical truths about history that move it from the beyond the simple memorization of names and dates and into the realm of higher learning. To embrace the fundamental concepts of discourse, research, analytical thought, the written word and to connect it to the personal—and the more general human—story, is to embrace history. To embrace history is to embrace not only the stories, the events and the dates, but also the nature of people and the beauty of language. Whether an idle pastime or a vocation, history transcends names and dates of the simple timeline and the arbitrary boundaries of subjects; history is universal and should be taught as such instead of tedious memorization.

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.