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.

Thinking Through Course Design

On my ever-growing to-do list for this summer is thinking through the design of three new (to me) classes for next year. The most imminent—an interdisciplinary seminar on food and drink in the ancient mediterranean that I’m offering in the fall—is, ironically the one I am least worried about of the three. Its proximity means that I have already given the course a decent amount of thought, have already ordered a course reader, and have a good sense of the outcomes I am expecting the students to come away with.

I am having more trouble envisioning these same features of the upper-level survey courses on Rome and ancient Persia set to run in the spring semester—for not entirely dissimilar reasons.

By its next iteration, my Archaic and Classical Greek History course will likely reach a rough equilibrium that takes students through three interlocking units. The first one will deal with an introduction to Ancient Greece, its place in the mediterranean world, and social and political institutions down to roughly 500; the second unit engages with war, empire, and imperial culture down to roughly 404, and then the third unit takes a thematic approach to society and culture, with a focus on the fourth century (300s) down to the foundation of the Hellenistic World.

No course of this sort can take a truly catholic approach to a society, but I have made deliberate choices in this course to generally eschew a blow-by-blow recounting of events like the Peloponnesian in favor of leading students through a sequence that gives them a broad understanding of major issues in Greek history. However, what made this most possible was limiting the chronology of the course to a totally manageable 500 years.

By contrast, my Roman history course is going to cover a minimum of 1,000—and maybe more. I am also the sole ancient historian in a small department and responsible for teaching a number of other courses means that I can’t divide “Roman History” into a two or three semester sequence.

And yet, despite these issues, the Roman history course is the less troublesome of the two. I know the mandate, the broad arc, and a lot of the resources that I can use. I am also brushing up on scholarship and have several syllabus models that I think will work for what I envision.

I am facing more foundational issues in coming to my Persian history course. When I first imagined teaching such a course, I envisioned a deep-dive into Achaemenid Persia as a counterpoint to my Greek history course. It would start with the regal traditions of Western Asia, tackle dynastic and institutional issues, explore the historiographical issues of the many topics that are filtered through a Greek lens, and engage with the diverse cultures that flourished under Persia before culminating with the sticky issues of Alexander’s conquest. I even had the core textbook picked out, Maria Brosius’ A History of Ancient Persia: The Achaemenid Empire.

I absolutely course teach the course this way. There is more than enough material to fill a full semester, and I left the course description flexible for a reason.

However, I also course teach the course across three units, each covering a different ancient Persia—Achaemenid, Asakid Parthian, and Sasanian. Doing the course this way would cut into the amount of time that could be given over to the study, replacing them instead with themes of continuities, historical memory, and the diverse subject populations.

While I have a gut feeling that the latter approach would better fit in the cycle of courses that I teach, I also have some misgivings.

First, it would require significantly more preparation on my part simply by dint of my being less familiar with these empires than Achaemenid Persia. This is, of course, not a deal-breaker, and I have begun collecting resources in case this is the direction I end up going. My reading list as it currently stands can be found below, though I will need to supplement it with edited collections as well.

Second, while there are good options for books to use for Achaemenid history or Sasanian history (and, to a lesser extent Parthian history), there are to my knowledge no good options for resources that cover all three. Thus, a course of this model taught by Touraj Daryaee, whose history of the Sasanian Empire is an early leader for one that I might use, requires students to purchase four books—Ferdowsi’s Shahnehmah, histories of the Achaemenid and Sasanian empires, and a book of sources on Zoroastrianism—and compresses the Parthian empire into one week out of ten, just after the midterm exam.

My concern is that I am extremely sensitive to the price of my courses, almost to a fault. I can point out multiple occasions where I opted to assign an open-access version of a resource that I did not particularly like rather than ask my students to purchase yet another book and generally not assigning complete monographs in order to keep the cost of my course to roughly $50 dollars worth of materials. I was reminded by colleagues that textbooks in STEM routinely run into the hundreds of dollars, so I should not feel guilty if my courses occasionally creep north of $100 as this one is threatening to do, but I still find myself wrestling with these decisions.

I have a little bit of time, at least, and all of these are reasons to be working on course planning so far in advance. Both of these syllabuses will be ongoing projects this summer, so I welcome suggestions or recommendations.

An Ancient Persia Reading List (post Achaemenid)

  • Matthew Canepa, The Two Eyes of the Earth (California 2009)
  • Uwe Ellerbrock, The Parthians (Routledge 2021)
  • Parvaneh Pourshariati (ed.) Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire (I.B. Tauris 2008)
  • M. Rahim Sheyegan, Aspects of History and Epic in Ancient Iran (Harvard 2012)
  • M. Rahim Sheyegan, Arsacids and Sasanians (Cambridge 2011)
  • Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Iran 224–651 CE: Portrait of a Late Antique Empire (Mazda 2008)
  • Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (I.B. Tauris, 2009)
  • Sauer Eberhard (ed.), Sasanian Persia: Between Rome and the Steppes and Eurasia (University Press, 2017)
  • Marek Jan Olbrycht, Early Arsakid Parthia (Brill 2021)
  • Vesta Sakhosh Curtis, Michael Alram, Touraj Daryaee (edd.), The Parthian and Early Sasanian Empires (Oxbow 2016)

Planning ahead: a Roman history reading list (updated)

A few months ago I posted a reading list for a hypothetical summer grad class designed to introduce teachers or aspiring teachers to recent scholarship in Greek history. The list (archived and updated here) included eight selections for an eight-week class, as well as a few other books that I considered. I am currently scheduled to teach a Roman History course for the first time next year. My comprehensive exams list is a bit dated at this point and while I have not been wholly neglectful of Rome, I should still probably brush up.

My goal for the list is to have recent 8–10 works that provide a cross-section of approaches to Roman (republic and imperial) History that a) catches me up on key approaches; b) does not just offer a narrative history; c) some of which might offer secondary readings that complement the primary sources the students will read.

So far this is the list I have come up with:

  • Guy Maclean Rogers, For the Freedom of Zion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2021)
  • Andrew B. Gallia, Remembering the Roman Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)
  • Ian Haynes, Blood of the Provinces (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)
  • Jared T. Benton,The Bread Makers (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2020)
  • Robert Knapp, Invisible Romans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014)
  • Rabun Taylor, Roman Builders: A Study in Architectural Process (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2003)
  • Lindsey A. Mazurek, Isis in a Global Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022)
  • Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Divine Institutions: Religions and Community in the Middle Roman Republic (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020)
  • Martijn Icks, The Crimes of Elagabalus (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012)
  • Kathryn Lomas, The Rise of Rome: From the Iron Age to the Punic Wars (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018)
  • Steven Ellis, The Roman Retail Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018)

Others considered:

  • Myles Lavan, Slaves to Rome: Paradigms of Empire in Roman Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)
  • Meghan DiLuzio, A Place at the Altar: Priestesses in Republican Rome (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016)
  • Kyle Harper, The Fate of Rome (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018)
  • Christopher Fuhrmann, Policing the Roman Empire: Soldiers, Administration, and Public Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)
  • Barbara M. Levick, Faustina I and II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)
  • Anthony Birley, Septimius Severus: The African Empire (New York: Routledge, 1999)

The problem right now for both this list and for thinking about how I want to teach this course is that there is an awful lot of Roman History. I don’t have much on the second or third centuries, and there are a bunch of other imbalances or omissions I will want to address—but I also don’t know what I don’t know. What did I miss?

To this point, I have received the following additional suggestions:

  • Kyle Harper, Slavery in the Late Roman World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)
  • Michael Kulikowski, The Tragedy of Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019)
  • Michael Kulikowski, Rome’s Gothic Wars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)
  • Valentina Arena, Libertas and the Practice of Politics in the Late Roman Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)
  • Harriet Flower, Roman Republics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009)
  • Kim Bowes, Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)

A few thoughts about Late Hellenistic Egypt

A few weeks ago I was in a bar with a friend of mine, a diplomatic/US and the World historian. In the course of our conversation, we stumbled onto late-Hellenistic Egypt and Cleopatra, a topic I was to give a lecture on to my advisor’s class. I mentioned Egypt’s relative weakness and, in my opinion, unimportance in the first century BCE. He was taken aback by the way I dismissed Egypt, noting the glamor, the wealth, the prestige, and the grain. I shrugged and alluded to Augustan propaganda and the work of another diplomatic historian slated to take up a post here at the university in the fall.

Before I expand on these thoughts, I should lay my biases on the table. I don’t like Ptolemy (#teamSeleucus) and Egypt itself holds minimal allure for me. Certain issues do, certainly, but I have limited interest in the poetry, the technology and bureaucratic apparatus of the state, or even the dynastic intrigue and incest. Some of this disinterest is my dislike of Ptolemy, some of it is my contrarian streak in that Ptolemaic Egypt gets a ton of attention because there is evidence for it, not necessarily because it is inherently interesting. Yes, it has its place and I am grudgingly grateful for their diligence in appropriating literary works. But Egypt, with all its potential is not “all that,” so to speak.

The potential is the key here. Egypt is comparatively defensible as an entity compared to the other Hellenistic kingdoms, the Nile is potentially prosperous in agricultural products, and Alexandria is well situated for trade in the Mediterranean. But by the first century BCE, the Ptolemies were not capitalizing on this potential. There were problems collecting taxes, as well as droughts (despite the Nile’s reputation, this did happen at times–the story of Joseph comes to mind). There were also local rebellions with a variety of causes and Egypt lacked a native military infrastructure, so the kingdom relied on mercenaries. Add in dynastic intrigue–exiles, assassinations, and children aspiring to rule in the place of their parents– and this is not a situation conducive to exploiting the potential.

But what about the scene of Antony cutting off Rome’s grain supply? Rome did get grain from Egypt–one figure gives ⅓ of the total imports came from the Nile. “Rome” used more Egyptian grain than that, too, but the Urbs Roma usually imported most of its grain from North Africa and Sicily. Without looking into it too deeply, I would more equate Egyptian grain to Middle Eastern oil. The US doesn’t get much oil from the Middle East, but it needs oil from the region for two things: military use and price regulation. The US needs x amount of oil in the system or else the price will rise prohibitively and the US needs to supply troops in the Middle East and Europe where it is more cost-effective to purchase it locally. Rome did locally supply troops as best it was able, including legions along the northern frontier raising cattle for meat and leather and republican armies requisitioned supplies (or accepted gifts, same thing) from client kingdoms, including Egypt. By the same token, Rome needed to keep grain prices to remain stable in the Mediterranean, particularly since Urbs Roma was not the only large city that needed to import grain, so the halt of the Egyptian supply could cause a catastrophic economic ripple effect, but not necessarily because people in Rome were starving from the outset.

The last piece of this puzzle is Octavian. the master manipulator portrayed his war against Antony as a war of salvation against a powerful, extravagant other that could threaten rome. Sicily and Africa had also both suffered during the decades of civil war, so the grain supply was not as abundant in the 30s as it was at other times. Of course, Octavian had every reason to exaggerate the wealth and threat of Egypt, its corrupting influence on Antony, and the dire consequences of the grain supply in order to justify his war against Antony. Actium and the rest of the campaign were only as close as they were because they predominantly pitted Octavian’s Roman legions against Antony’s Roman legions. Egypt provided troops, sure, but Roman forces had defeated the Egyptian mercenaries in at least two invasions in the past decades and Egypt’s territory had only approached the boundaries of the early Ptolemies because Antony had given territory back to Cleopatra (and usually left the Roman tax farmers in place). Antony may have intended this to be a permanent restoration and to create a series of client kingdoms ruled by his and Cleopatra’s children, but the power still flowed from Rome. Egypt had enough potential that Octavian was prudent to take it for himself, but in the first century BCE the myth of Ptolemaic Egypt created by the early Ptolemies and encouraged by Octavian far outpaced Egypt’s actual position in the Mediterranean system.

Assorted Links

  1. A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical-An op-ed in the New York Times that suggests that while nobody likes to be criticized, having these flaws is part of what it is to be human, and that real criticism is not petty putdowns, but thoughtful response.
  2. Ira Glass: By the BookAn interview in the Sunday Book Review with Ira Glass, the host of “This American Life.” He says that he would like to meet Edgar Allen Poe, but “I don’t have a question, but dude just seems like he could use a hug.”
  3. Siberian princess reveals her 2,500 year old tattoos-From the Siberian Times, an ancient mummy is being returned to the Altai Republic. Research and tests on her body reveal significant tattoos. There is a local movement to prevent further archeological digs in the area, particularly since the mound where this mummy was found is a sacred burial ground (though the ethnic group in antiquity is not at all related to the present inhabitants).
  4. Yemen: Days of Reckoning– A feature in National Geographic that examines the massive upheaval that is taking place in Yemen.
  5. Roman Frontiers-A feature in National Geographic that looks at the limes or boundaries of the Roman Empire. It charts a rather standard line on most of the issues here (except Hadrian’s beard), though the claims that the frontier strategy could not withstand a large, determined foe, is misleading since it seems that the Roman opponents around the time that the frontiers collapsed were actually weaker than Roman enemies of earlier times, but the Romans were proportionally even weaker. The article offers the Roman walls as a comparison to some of the wall-building today, but the lack of ability and lack of space for the author to actually grapple with the socio-political and economic causes for Roman decline makes the comparison superficial. There probably are comparisons to be drawn, but a deeper understanding and explanation of both the Roman frontiers and the modern situations (including intent, maintenance, and determination about keeping the walls impermeable) is needed before the comparison can really work.
  6. America’s Worst Historians-Via Jonathan Jones, a story in Salon about plagarism and the perpetuation of histories that lack rigorous standards, but are popular because of the ease of reading and catchy premises.
  7. Alcohol Apartheid: The New Turkish Laws that Segregate Drinkers– An article in the Atlantic about some new laws in Istanbul that seek to make certain neighborhoods in the city “dry,” thereby segregating drinkers to certain areas rather than tolerating a mixture of secular and religious groups (and tourists) that, in some ways, defines Istanbul.
  8. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Democracy, republicanism and war

Are democracies inherently flawed when it comes to running a war? Does a strong executive (to use the modern terminology) make the running of a war more efficient, if not always more successful?

Thucydides would say so, and indeed he lays the blame for Athenian defeat mostly at the hands on the demagogues, who were non-aristocrats who became leaders. Lincoln and Roosevelt would also say so, and both took extraordinary steps to suspend basic liberties in light of wars, intending to relinquish their hold once the crisis passed. Romans would agree, having two consuls run the war efforts, but when times became most critical they nominated a dictator to take over all power for six months and completely direct the war effort. Napoleon would agree, Han Solo would agree, and every president since Vietnam would agree, the list goes on.

The virtue of having a sole, or very small group of leaders does not guarantee success in a war, and in some instances the virtue of having one person in command of the overall strategy could guarantee defeat, but there is not the fickle aspect of democracy and there is a time when one person needs to step to the fore and expedite the process.

Historical narrative, largely a created phenomenon

There is only so much complication that the human mind can comprehend; once complexity reaches a certain level, one that is different for each person, the ability to perceive the interplay amongst each component disappears. In books, movies and TV shows, this results in a limited number of main protagonists and antagonists. If the scope is not contained, then the story feels disjointed and convoluted to the audience.

The same is true in the study of history and in particular ancient history. Rome is a simple example; there is Rome and the “others.” The intricacies of the Roman state may be infinitely complicated, deep and full of characters pulling for one agenda or another, but when it comes to identifying a period as a historical one that can be covered in a continuous narrative, Rome is the ultimate. In fact, Rome is so much of a historical era that it is written in three or more eras: the republic, the empire and the fall. Of course each of those eras can be further broken down into smaller narratives, but such is always the case.

The nature of “Greece” makes even this level of narrative more difficult as nearly every city was a polis and each polis was an autonomous state. This has not stopped historians from covering the so-called Golden Age as a historical narrative, but they tend to actually be covering Athens and Sparta, with other city states such as Corinth, Thebes and Megara appearing as side, rather than main, characters. There is some justification for this decision, largely resting in the dearth of information from most Greek city states and the undeniable preeminence of Athens and Sparta. This said, it is still an artificial creation.

This brief introduction in the creation of historical periods and narratives leads up to the Hellenistic Age, called because it saw the spread of Greek-ish (as Hellenistic implies) culture throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and parts of Asia. Loosely this period is defined from Alexander’s death until the advent of Rome, but when precisely it ends it difficult to say. This seems a solid block of time that could well be considered for a narrative, yet almost every historical book on the age covers three narratives, one-third of the whole narrative or only covers it in topical format. My proposition is that this stems from there being three main Hellenistic Kingdoms, each with their own peculiarities and issues. Then there are the Greek city states and two further Kingdom’s of sorts, one the Attalid state in Pergamum and the other the city state of Syracuse. All in all, the Hellenistic age is complex, but even with several thorough books on many of these issues, most scholarship and writing is set on avoiding the other end of the spectrum, which is to say that all three Hellenistic kingdoms were the same and therefore can be painted with one brush.

Security vs Stability

In the post-Soviet world we live in, borders are largely static. The borders of the United States, for example, have been set since World War II; The borders of the United Kingdom have been consistent since then, Britain for longer. Since the second world war, the borders of all Western Europe have been stable. In the last 20 years much of the rest of the world has had the same happen. Sure, Kosovo has demanded independence, Russia is claiming Georgian provinces, Chechnya and Tibet would like to be independent and there are some other border and sovereignty disputes, but there is no concept that the only way to maintain stability for a nation is to dominate the world around. Static borders are considered important for sovereignty and to demarcate boundaries for defense, not a sign of weakness.

In antiquity static defense was weakness. If a state had to react instead of forcing others to react, then it was weak. Lycurgus knew this when he made his third law: to make war on all neighbors, but none too frequently. Sparta was a pristine land that was almost never violated for hundreds of years, but more than intrinsic fear of the unbeatable warriors, Sparta was largely inviolate because they spent all of their time attacking others instead.

Such was the case with Athens, a paradox, wherein it was routinely invaded by land and considered weak because of it, but strong because it could go on the offensive via sea. Such was the case in Macedonia where the strength of the state was reckoned by the ability to expand into its neighbors, culminating with Alexander’s sweep across Asia. And such was the case with Rome where Hadrian received derision because of his decision to cease expansion and lay down firm, physical borders (including the wall that bears his name).

Perhaps today the equivalent to this physical domination of others being the route to safety is the mobilization of economic power to subdue troublesome nations in the form of sanctions and by the maxim of Lycurgus as applied to US foreign policy post World Wars.

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.

Classes

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.