History vs Classics: an introduction to some introductions
John H. ARNOLD, History: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. 134. ISBN 0-19-285352-X.
Mary BEARD & John HENDERSON, Classics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pp. 141. ISBN 0-19-285385-6.
University of Birmingham
The year 2000, among other significant events, saw the publication of John Arnold?s History: A Very Short Introduction, which now takes its place alongside Mary Beard and John Henderson?s Classics: A Very Short Introduction from 1995. They make an interesting comparative read for an historian who has worked in many Classics departments. How far is there a gulf between the two specialisms, and what can these two little books tell us about the direction that History and Classics are taking and may take in the future?
I would like to start with a traditional picture of classicists and of historians that borders on parody (and for reasons explained below is less and less true) but which many readers may none the less recognise. Classicists have more concern with the aesthetic qualities of the material they deal with than historians have. Historians may read Homer, but they try to ignore the poetry. Classicists are often readier than historians to accept multiple meanings within texts, recognising how the nature of literature may undermine straightforward readings (the comic poet Aristophanes, for example, is often making fun of the plots of his contemporary Euripides when the unwary might assume that he is reflecting the realities of his day). Classicists have indeed sometimes seemed more concerned with the connections between different texts than between those texts and the society that produced them. They sometimes seemed to have an approach based on genre (working on comedy, or tragedy, or philosophy), while historians seemed to have rather more of a chronological approach. I have often wondered if my late friend and colleague Geoff Lewis knew more about the year 88 B.C. than some people who lived through it. Finally, a rather esoteric, though important, point: the cultural importance of Classics was perhaps rather more under question in the last half of the twentieth century than that of history. For a while at least, Classics seemed a little less fashionable.
How far should the picture given above be consigned to the dustbin of history (or, for that matter, of Classics)? I hope my readers will forgive me, if, as an historian, I begin with Arnold?s book.
Anyone who begins a book about history with the words ?Here is a true story? has to be brave, or stupid, or both. John Arnold is anything but stupid. It quickly becomes apparent that the ?true story? he examines in his first chapter (a murder in Languedoc in the early fourteenth century) has been chosen to illustrate just how many different stories one can write from the historical evidence. It is the start of a work that at a mere 120 pages more than lives up to its title. More importantly it is shot through with enthusiasm and wit. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who wants to know what history writing has been in the past and what it is today. Some passages might be a little densely packed, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking work.
Arnold?s second and third chapters give a guide to history writing from its beginnings to the nineteenth century. Perhaps the most important point he makes is that ancient and medieval historians often wrote ?history? for reasons very different from us. Supporting one?s religion, giving moral examples to contemporaries, glorifying one?s friends or patrons or (particularly in the medieval period) using Greek and Roman models to illustrate a link between classical and contemporary were all seen as forms of ?historical truth? rather than deviations from it. Just occasionally, modern critics of ancient writers forget that. Arnold ends this part of his survey by discussing the ?professionalisation? of history at the time of Leopold von Ranke in the nineteenth century, when the main canons of history writing accepted today came into being.
In chapter 4 Arnold gives an indication of his own professional methods with a discussion of the surviving records concerning the Burdett family in Yarmouth and New England in the seventeenth century. He supplies detailed examples of the difficulties faced by all historians in the selection of evidence and the identification and treatment of bias. It is an examination of the historian as detective. Two points in this chapter are particularly worth the attention of the ancient historian and the classicist. The first deals with the definition of what historians see as ?primary? and ?secondary? evidence (58):
Historians often refer to historical documents produced at or near the event under investigation as ?primary? evidence (like the ?prime witness? to a crime). ?Secondary? sources indicate the works of other, later writers. However, this is only a useful shorthand, and not very philosophical, because the line between the two can be difficult to draw: and ?secondary? sources are also ?primary? evidence of their own time.
There is a tendency sometimes to treat all ancient sources as if they were ?primary? as against modern ?secondary? sources. One continues to see Plutarch (writing in the Roman empire of the second century A.D.) used as if he were direct evidence for life in classical Athens (fifth century B.C.). Likewise Appian for the reconstruction of the history of the Roman Empire in the second and first century B.C., even though he also was writing at roughly the same time as Plutarch. Both Plutarch and Appian were (in their own ways) fine historians, using sources close to, or contemporary with, the events they describe; but I for one would like to see it more consistently emphasized that they are secondary evidence for the subjects of their history and primary evidence for the attitudes of their own times. Texts written a hundred years of more after the events they describe should never be treated as primary evidence for those events.
There is a second point also well worth remembering. Arnold warns (71):
Sources are not transparent or innocent documents. They are written in particular circumstances, for particular audiences ?
He continues later (75):
The sources do not ?speak for themselves? and never have done. They speak for others, now dead and forever gone. Sources may have voices plural which suggest directions and prompt questions, leading to further sources. But they lack volition: they come alive when the historian reanimates them.
This is reinforced later, when he reviews recent developments in cultural history (100):
To get at different ways of thinking, different mentalités, requires a careful use of source material. It may demand ? reading the material in a way in which its creators never intended, for meanings they never considered ?
This has strong echoes of a debate (or perhaps better, row) that took place between two distinguished ancient historians in the late 1970?s. Fergus Millar, in the Preface to his book The Emperor in the Roman World wrote[i]:
In preparing this work I have rigidly avoided reading sociological works on kingship or related topics, or studies of monarchic institutions in societies other than those of Greece and Rome. I am perfectly conscious that this will have involved considerable losses in percipience, and unawareness of whole ranges of questions which I could have asked. None the less, I am confident that the loss in the opposite case would have been far greater. For to have have come to the subject with an array of concepts derived from other societies would merely have made even more unattainable the proper objectives of the historian, to subordinate himself to the evidence and to the conceptual world of the past.
Millar was (and is) a very fine historian, but Keith Hopkins had some point when he wrote, in the midst of a famously bad-tempered review[ii]:
His [Millar?s] declared object of subordinating himself to the ancient sources is unnecessarily restrictive, impossible to achieve and undesirable.
The remaining chapters of Arnold?s book are thematic. History may once have been about kings, battles, and great men, but it is no longer. With the professionalization of history has come a fragmentation of styles of history writing. Arnold illustrates this mainly with examples from modern history, but it is easy to think of some concerning ancient history too.
?Kings and battles? is a type of history that may be making something of a comeback among historians of the modern world.[iii]. In some areas of ancient history however, it has never gone away. This has been most noticeable, perhaps, with many of the biographies of individuals such as Alexander the Great. Here, historians have sometimes been a little too obviously the prisoners of their sources. Ancient writers concentrated on Alexander?s person, so modern monograph writers generally have to do the same. It is amusing to note that the basic ancient division of opinion on Alexander (between the often negative so-called ?Vulgate? tradition of Diodorus Siculus, Curtius Rufus and Justin, and a more positive picture created by Arrian and Plutarch) is mirrored fairly faithfully in the modern literature, with the work of the late, great Nick Hammond accepting much of the Arrian tradition.[iv] This ancient debate on Alexander had its roots in controversies coloured by the Stoic philosophy of the mid Roman empire, four centuries or more after Alexander?s death. We are still (in essence) fighting this historical battle today, long after both Stoic philosophy and the Roman empire have disappeared. That, of course, returns us to the earlier problems of the distinctions between ?primary? and ?secondary? evidence. Can we really write a history of Alexander or merely the history of his image?
What are the newer forms of history writing? Arnold first charts the rise of social history. One might describe this as looking at the people who were not Kings when they were not involved in battle. Some of the thumb-nail sketches of the different varieties of social history, for example of Marxism (82 ff.: stressing the role of economics and economic conflict in history) and the Annales school of history (96-97: moving away from a stress on short-term political events to an understanding of how the environment etc. has affected the way societies think and operate) are quite stunning (and all the better for avoiding jargon). This is a wonderful example of how complex ideas can be put across in simple language.
Again, one can easily choose examples from the study of antiquity to put alongside Arnold?s modern examples. My own specialism is ancient Greek slavery. Major interest in this topic first arose with the modern abolitionist debates of the nineteenth century, but the last part of the twentieth century saw key works by authors such as Moses Finley,[v] Yvon Garlan,[vi] Thomas Wiedemann[vii] and others (it is interesting to note that the first two were influenced by Marxist ideas. The Annales? school has perhaps had less impact among ancient historians).[viii] The whole issue of the history of ancient women (and gender), with inspiration from modern feminist thought, has come to the fore from the 1970?s onwards.[ix] Most recently social historians have often tended to look at the topic of family life, with work, for example, from authors such as Mark Golden[x] and Sarah Pomeroy[xi]. The results of this change of focus are here to stay. No-one studying the shift from Roman Republic to Empire will ever do so again without examining the role of the army and of agriculture, following the work of scholars such as Peter Brunt.[xii] All historians of ancient Rome have had to wake up and smell the sewers (to coin a phrase).[xiii]
The second type of new approach is defined by Arnold as ?cultural?. Arnold gives as an example Robert Darnton?s work on the ?Great cat massacre? in France in the 1730?s. Darnton in turn based his research on the contemporary account of one Nicolas Contat. Reliance on single interpretations (be they of Herodotus or Pliny the Younger or Ovid) has often been a necessity among classicists and ancient historians, for whom evidence is lacking in bulk and is often the product of purely accidental survival. This, of course, raises the thorny issue of typicality. Can we generalise from the viewpoints of scattered individuals? Arnold responds (94):
Whether or not Contat?s account is literally true, Darnton argues, it nonetheless shows us a story which Contat expected to be read and understood by his contemporaries. Documents can show us a ?truth? beyond ?what actually happened?: they can demonstrate how people think, the images and associations they can drawn [sic] upon from their own culture.
Cultural historians have shown that inhabitants of earlier societies have often thought very differently from us, with very disparate views of ?common sense? or what might be ?obvious?. I take great pleasure in showing my final year students that some Classical Greeks believed that the world was flat: and then proving that they were right. For some of the very finest material on Greek cultural history one might look at the work of Francois Hartog and of James Redfield on the Histories of Herodotus.[xiv] They helped to show that Herodotus? ideas on ethnography and even geography were, of all things, symmetrical. His version of the Nile was a reversed image of the Danube (something not immediately obvious from a modern atlas!); and he believed that the customs of northerly Scythians were the opposite of many of those of the southerly Egyptians (which would probably have come as a serious surprise to contemporary Egyptians and Scythians). On a lighter note, while few historians today believe in Herodotus? story of the gold-digging ants of India, his discussion of what sex of camel one should chose to make one?s getaway may give us a fascinating (and utterly unintended) insight into at least one ancient Greek?s basic conceptions about child care.[xv] The recent work on ancient Greek homosexuality is perhaps rather more important. It is certainly a topic highlighted by both Arnold and by Beard and Henderson in their ?Very Short Introductions?. Here is Arnold (116):
The ancient Greeks, to pick an obvious example, did not appear to see men-having-sex-with-men, and men-having-sex-with-women, as two opposite and polarised kinds of behaviour. The terms ?homosexual? and ?heterosexual? (and, for that matter, ?gay? and ?straight?) would have made no sense to them.
From the time of Kenneth Dover?s ground-breaking Greek Homosexuality it has indeed become the modern orthodoxy that the ancient Greeks had a very different view of sexuality to our own.[xvi] The distinction male/female may seem the most obvious to us. To many ancient Greeks the distinction of passive against active (or penetrated against penetrator) would have been very much more important, regardless of differences (or similarities) in genitalia.
This is an illustration not just of the advances made in the cultural history of the ancient world but also of an historical debate which has obvious and important modern connotations, a point to which we shall return shortly. This increasing emphasis on cultural history is also an important reason why traditional distinctions between historian and classicist have begun to dissolve in recent decades.
Arnold?s last chapter deals with an issue which has increasingly come to the fore, partly because of the mighty increase in the number of types of ?histories? we now write. We can have social histories, national histories, Marxist histories, feminist histories, to name but a few. It is often possible to write more than one interpretation of a particular set of events. Arnold quite rightly points out that cultural historians have sometimes been in danger of looking for a single view of the past when societies (indeed individuals) can be much more complicated than this implies. He uses the example of the difficulties of reconstructing a speech given by an ex-slave in the U.S. in the nineteenth century, where the two surviving accounts are contradictory but, in their own terms, equally valid. Ancient historians could again quote their own examples. Are we sometimes too quick to look for a single view by accumulating the views of authors such as Xenophon and Plato and Demosthenes on slavery, or foreigners, or women, when it would be better to accept differences between them and look at each writer individually? Should we indeed examine each individual text separately, given that they were often produced at different times for different purposes and different audiences? When we have done that, is it really acceptable to try to reconstruct a single ?Greek? view of subjects such as these?
There is a more fundamental problem that Arnold mentions, but does not engage with quite as directly as he might. This is perhaps a pity since it is a problem which has exercised the minds of key writers on history writing such as Richard Evans, Alex Callinicos and Ellen Wood.[xvii] It involves a word I hesitate to mention since it has reduced good men and women to tearful distraction: postmodernism. Readers of a less nervous disposition might prefer a word such as ?relativism?. Some modern historians (with Keith Jenkins being perhaps the most strident example[xviii]) have argued that not only can we produce multiple histories from the past but that no one interpretation is any better than another. That sentence might be easy to read but it is a lot more difficult for historians (though interestingly, not so many classicists) to accept. It implies that there is, effectively, no such thing as historical truth. Our view of the past becomes simply a function of the political and social needs of the present. Social groups are seen as attempting (often unconsciously) to monopolise the interpretation of the past to further their own agendas in the present. Some might argue that feminists and Marxist approaches are examples of this, mere fads that will fade away with time, attempts to shoe-horn the facts of the past into theoretical spaces in which they were never meant to fit.
I would not agree, but it is interesting to note, for example, that most of the key work on Greek homosexuality appeared in the particular context of the 1970?s and 1980?s, with comparatively little since. Was this an example of ancient history responding to modern needs and modern debates? The controversy over Martin Bernal?s Black Athena is also significant here.[xix] The key issue (oddly) was not so much Bernal?s argument. One should nonetheless state it. He believes that the contribution of African civilization to the development of ancient Greek society has been systematically written out of history. Modern historians of ancient Greece have (according to Bernal) become what one might describe as ?institutionally racist?: the men who trained the men who trained the men who trained the men and women who trained us were racist and we have neglected our duty to examine the underpinnings of some of the things that we have been taught. That is a pretty controversial theory, but the outraged response to it was equally interesting.[xx] Bernal has effectively been accused of pandering to the Afro-American constituency for political reasons. Now, neither Bernal nor his opponents are postmodernists: both sides believe that they can prove their case, but a postmodernist could easily claim that the existence of (apparently) unresolved rows such as this show us both that the past is unrecoverable, and that debates supposedly about the distant past are actually about us. Maybe we should stop pretending anything otherwise.
It is important to note that postmodern historians tend not to be quite as extreme as Keith Jenkins. Postmodernism certainly has not made much of an impact among ancient historians. It is easy to see that historians actually have an institutional reason not to ascribe to such views. Why should tax-payers fund historians if those historians do not actually believe in traditional versions of historical truth? And why devote one?s life to something that one feels is either impossible or merely a political statement? For these reasons, ?postmodern? historians actually tend to adhere to a rather more moderate position,[xxi] which connects with what Arnold does discuss in his final chapter. They believe that historians can be too swift to make sociological generalisations and that researchers should be much more concerned with individual perceptions and variations than with modern, indeed nineteenth-century, concepts such as ?class? (which helps to explain why so many Marxist historians take such deep exception to postmodernism). Despite the prevalence of the more ?moderate? version of postmodernism among historians, it would have been interesting to see Arnold discuss the more extreme version of the doctrine just a little more explicitly. One may not like the implications of postmodern approaches, but disliking a philosophical position does not make that position self-evidently wrong. I would certainly not describe myself as a postmodernist (indeed I spend a good deal of my time not being quite sure what the term means) but I am increasingly coming to the opinion that our view of the past is often more of a convenient myth than history ?as it really was?, and that the sparse and biased nature of our evidence should lead us to be much more open in our interpretations of the past. To give just one example: how far is it possible to reconstruct what it might have been like to be a slave in ancient Athens? Or can we merely hope to look at the way in which ancient Greek slaveowners thought about slaves, or used the concept of the (imagined) slave? One often has the impression that the way in which modern historians seek to fill the gaps in their interpretations says more about them than it does about life in antiquity.
Hans Klees? recent monograph attempted to stress the inhumanity of ancient slavery.[xxii] To do so he had to fill many evidentiary gaps. One might feel that it was outrageous that he would have to state the case at all. How could anyone seriously claim that ancient slavery was humane? Klees wrote his book at least in part because of the work of some earlier German scholars who did choose to stress the humanity of Greek slavery. Their argument is not so extreme as it might seem: they generally sought to argue that the institution had some humane elements that help to explain its longevity, surviving for over a thousand years.[xxiii] They in their turn chose to argue this partly as a response to Marxist scholars (particularly Russians) who were stressing the inhumanity of slavery. This debate largely took place in the period around the building of the Berlin Wall by the Russians, which divided Germany?s largest city (and many families) in two. As Moses Finley once said of the whole debate, it was more about politics than history (and it certainly created more heat than light).[xxiv] Of course, the fact that he was a left-leaning American intellectual of Jewish origin had nothing to do with the fact that he so roundly attacked the work of Joseph Vogt, a German scholar whose academic career began under the Nazis and who was one of the key figures in the engagement with Russian scholars after World War II mentioned above. The details of my own past might also be seen as helping to explain my reactions to this whole debate. I am not saying that a historian?s work is simply reducible to the facts of their biography, but there is enough here to make me worry that scholars such as Jenkins may have more truth on their side than I am comfortable with. My present position is that historical reconstruction and generalisation may indeed be very difficult, but they are not impossible. Historians inevitably import modern biases into their work, but we can make ourselves (as a community of scholars) aware of them. I would agree therefore with Arnold (116):
None of this, however, means that historians should abandon the ?truth? and concentrate simply on telling ?stories?. Historians must stick with what the sources make possible, and accept what they do not. They cannot invent new accounts, or suppress evidence that does not fit with their narratives. But, as we have seen, even abiding by these rules does not solve every puzzle left by the past, and cannot produce a single, uncomplicated version of events.
I am, however, an increasingly worried critic of postmodernism?
I would like to end my review of Arnold?s book as he ends the book itself: with a discussion of why we should bother writing history (119-120). More attentive readers might also feel that this also has something to tell us about the postmodernism debate just mentioned. Why should we investigate the past? Firstly, it is fun (admittedly a rather selfish reason, but one where I am in agreement with Arnold). More importantly (120):
Studying history necessarily involves taking oneself out of one?s present context and exploring an alternative world. This cannot but help make us more aware of our own lives and contexts. To see how differently people have behaved in the past presents us with an opportunity to think about how we behave, why we think in the ways we do, what things we take for granted or rely upon. To study history is to study ourselves, not because of an elusive ?human nature? to be refracted from centuries gone by, but because history throws us into stark relief? to think differently about oneself, to gather something of how we ?come about? as individual human beings, is also to be made aware of the possibility of doing things differently... history is an argument, and arguments present the opportunity for change. When presented with some dogmatist claiming that ?this is the only course of action? or ?this is how things have always been?, history allows us to demur, to point out that there have always been many courses of action, many ways of being. History provides us with the tools to dissent.
I agree also with this sentiment wholeheartedly (though I might substitute ?there is no alternative? for ?this is the only course of action? towards the end of the quotation above, which perhaps gives away both my age and my politics). Now one can easily imagine that there are some historians who would not concur with Arnold?s view of why we should write history (see some of his discarded ?alternative? reasons: 118-119), but none could deny his enthusiasm or commitment.
On this note, let us turn to the Classics and to Beard and Henderson?s book.
In some ways it is very similar to Arnold?s, and in some ways, very different. Like Arnold, it manages to give a real picture of the variety of the subject and it does it with wit and style. It is a lot of fun. Unlike Arnold they felt more of a need to define their subject. These definitions may confuse the reader a little, but there is a reason for this. Here is their first definition (6-7):
Classics is a subject that exists in the gap between us and the world of the Greeks and Romans. The questions raised by Classics are the questions raised by our distance from ?their? world, and at the same time by our closeness to it, and by its familiarity to us. In our museums, in our literature, languages, culture, and ways of thinking. The aim of Classics is not only to discover or uncover the ancient world ... Its aim is also to define and debate our relationship to that world.
This is later expanded slightly in a manner which perhaps creates just a little distance between themselves and most historians. The authors argue that Classics is not just the admiration of ancient texts or monuments or their use as sources of information (however poor) on the society that produced them (44-45):
But Classics is much more than that. It is an engagement with a culture that was already engaged in reflecting on, debating, and studying both itself and what it is to be a culture.
As suggested, the reader might find that definition a little nebulous, but it is nebulous with very good reason. That reason is the sheer breadth of Classics. Beard and Henderson?s book captures this ably with discussion of art-history, archaeology, philosophy, poetry, all of which help make up the subject. The connections between the various elements of Classics are laid out wonderfully by using the Temple of Apollo at Bassae as the starting point of most of the chapters, continually adding new layers onto the interpretation they are building. The self-reflexivity of the study of Classics is also clearly illustrated in the book. In addition, it is also worth stressing another element raised in Chapter 7. Classics deals with reconstruction. As Beard and Henderson put it (76): ?Their world, our jigsaw?. Classicists often think about those pieces, and how they fit a general picture, more carefully than many modern or even medieval historians. They have to. If one only has ten pieces of a five-hundred piece jigsaw one has to think very hard indeed about recognising patterns.
The Short Introduction to Classics has rather more of the air of a manifesto about it than Arnold?s book, with a number of references to the relevance of the subject today. Once again, Beard and Henderson have a serious point. There is a continuing problem that popular conceptions of Classics bear so little relation to what is on offer in modern schools and universities. Beard and Henderson?s witty book is a major step in correcting that image (though perhaps they try sometimes to criticise the dullness of past approaches a little too much, see e.g. 109 ff.). Historians can suffer from image problems too, but not generally to anything like the same extent as classicists.
Like Arnold?s book, this work also gives a fine feel of the way its subject has changed and is continuing to change. The differing aims of nineteenth-century explorers and scholars serve to highlight the way that all societies (including our own) approach the ancient world with their own agendas and preconceptions (Chapter 2). They came looking for adventure, culture, romance, architectural knowledge (for the Classical revival of the age), and artistic trophies with which to adorn the competing museums of the new nation states. Chapter 4 illustrates how the agendas of different authors can affect even the views of Greece surviving from antiquity. Pausanias wrote a famous guide to Greece in the period of the Roman empire, which was actually his version of the Greek world of several centuries in past, before the Romans had conquered it. Beard and Henderson also highlight other (newer) agendas. Much of the focus for archaeologists of the ancient world has changed in the last generation from an appreciation of art to an investigation of social life (Chapter 5). They have begun to investigate the lives of those who built the temples so admired by nineteenth-century adventurers, thus illustrating also the increased interest in social history mentioned in Arnold?s book. The Short Introduction also illustrates how many modern theories have helped deepen our knowledge of the Classical world (Chapters 6-7). The study of Greek religion and mythology, for example, has benefited greatly from the application of anthropological and psychoanalytical theories. This echoes Arnold?s discussion of ?cultural? history. Classical scholars have been attempting, just like modern historians, to get inside the minds of the dead. What went through the head of an ancient Greek citizen when he saw a frieze depicting fights involving the Amazons, mythical female warriors? Did the Amazons represent their fears of women? Or their ideas of what women should not do? Or something else? Scholars no longer look at such works of art purely for aesthetic reasons. Here, then, we have another example of Classics and History coming closer together. Chapter 10 illustrates one of the traditional strengths of Classics, investigating the meaning of a single Latin phrase ?et in Arcadia ego?, explaining how successive generations have helped enrich the interpretation of a seemingly simple phrase. The importance of Classical culture to our own is discussed in chapters 8 and 9. Drama, philosophy and the idyllic ?Arcadian? image of ancient Greece are all reviewed, as well as the uses of antiquity in modern popular culture (including epics such as Ben Hur). More importantly there is discussion of the importance of the Greek invention of democratic ideas and their relevance (as well as that of Roman political theories) to us.
So much for the summary, what of the intellectual heart of the book? Interestingly, as with Arnolds book, that heart is self-evidently a liberal one. Beard and Henderson mention the importance of Classics within Christian-dominated higher education of the nineteenth century (66-67):
For all the dominance of the church in its teaching, Classics could offer a way of understanding the world that stood apart from Christianity ? The Utopian worlds dreamed up in the fourth-century B.C. philosopher Plato, and described particularly in his Republic and Laws, encouraged radical thinkers to institute and foster a purely secular educational philosophy. Life changes forbidden by Christianity found support and political leverage in the practices and discussions of the Greeks and the Romans. So, for example, Plato?s discussion of the nature of love and desire, the Symposium, was used to justify certain forms of male homosexuality: Plato not only took for granted sexual relationships between men and boys, but (like other aristocratic contemporaries) portrayed them as the highest and noblest form of sexual desire. ? All manner of eccentricities, from universal suffrage to democracy, to vegetarianism, pantheism, free love, eugenics, and genocide, found themselves precedents and authorities in Classics.
This is not just an historical facet of the study of Classics, however. Later they reiterate that Classical sexuality could be very, very different from ?lusty heterosexuality?. They continue (102):
So Classics does more than flood the imaginative repertoire of our cultural heritage. It offers an array of precedents for personal behaviour, sufficiently unlike those in our experience to challenge our comprehension though sufficiently like our own to fray the nerves and upset our certainties. To read the poetry of Sappho, with its celebration of love between women, is inevitably to question the ?norms? of sexual behaviour, both ancient and modern. And even the myths of idyllic ?Arcadia? must prompt us to confront our own protocols of seduction, rape, and sexual violence.
I have already explained that I have a great deal of personal sympathy with such a position, even if I could imagine that some might not. There is, indeed, a difficulty here. Arnold and Beard and Henderson may all want to use the past as a means of relativising the institutions and traditions of the present and as a means of offering alternatives to modern orthodoxies. But might the balance have shifted a little too far towards stressing the contemporary significance of the past (perhaps partly because of Beard and Henderson?s understandable desire to stress the modern ?relevance? of Classics)? Some of their interpretations can seem a little one-sided. For example, they discuss why Herodotus believed that the Greeks had beaten back the Persians invasions. They claim that
[Herodotus (44-45)] explained to late fifth century Greek cities that their collective victory over the Persian king?s invasion should be put down to the variety of what they each contributed, to their differences (in politics and culture) as much as their similarities, finding common cause only in their refusal to surrender their autonomy to the un-Greek aliens from the East.
The Greek states did indeed offer a variety of contributions to the war effort, though I am less certain of the importance to their victory of their ?cultural differences?. Persian weaknesses were perhaps a little more on show in Herodotus. This, of course, is merely a difference in interpretation, but a pattern emerges, a pattern which suggests that Beard and Henderson may see their task as somewhat different from that of Arnold. Here is their view on Herodotus? near contemporary Thucydides: they mention the anti-democratic perceptions of many modern scholars and ancient writers (91-92, the italics are mine):
Thucydides? powerful account of the failure of Athenian democracy to win the drawn-out Peloponnesian War against Sparta and the Sparta alliance stigmatized the volatile descent into mob-rule which later political theorists would pronounce endemic to any democratic system. Thucydides was himself an Athenian failure (exiled for incompetence), but his history turned on democratic Athens as a whole, denouncing it as in reality a ?tyrant city?, fed on extortion and responsible for wholesale massacre of fellow Greeks and, when expedient, cynical genocide. As we noticed in Chapter 4, democracy was for Thucydides little short of a heady mass affliction and delirium which proved suicidal once its leaders jettisoned statesmanship and took to the instant fixes of demagoguery. His writing, however, embodies just that Athenian combination of irreverent intelligence and analytical grip which made possible the city?s daring experiment in handing power to the people.
Again, one could argue that this view of Thucydides is quite correct. The rhetoric with which they undermine Thucydides? interpretation is very interesting, however. Some might argue that Thucydides? cynicism about the Athenian democracy and its policies may have been justified. Beard and Henderson are, of course, aware of that. They could maintain justifiably that they have no time to get bogged down in details. The impression persists, however, that democracy is a Good Thing and that its critics must be properly damned. One might compare also their treatment of the anti-democratic philosopher Socrates (93). The rather particular relationship between present and past in their description of Classics is also seen in a comparison made slightly later between Athens and Rome. After a discussion of the different types of popular spectacle in the two societies they suggest that (97-98):
The spectre of self-recognition in imperial Rome gives us, as it once gave Roman thinkers and poets, food for thought and debate. Today we may be drawn in particular to the telling contrast between, on the one hand, Athens? outspoken civic theatre and direct democracy, and on the other, the silencing of discussion and repression of the human voice in Roman parade and spectacle. Instead of votes, a yearly round of ?Bread and Circuses? massaged the public away from issues, arguments, and decisions.
No-one would doubt that there were fundamental differences between Greek and Roman society and that their different entertainments reflected this, but would I be the only reader to suspect that the nuances of those differences are being deliberately ignored the better to make a point about the modern world?
Beard and Henderson are, of course, entirely open about the interplay of modern and ancient. They are also quite correct that this interplay has been a crucial element in all interpretations of Classics. As an historian, however, I find myself slightly uneasy that this sometimes seems to shift towards the kind of relativism mentioned earlier in the discussion of Arnold?s book. I hope the reader will forgive me a final example on this theme taken from my own specialism, slavery. Three pages are devoted to this topic in the Introduction to Classics. As one would expect from the rest of the book, they are three very fine pages. Beard and Henderson argue (51):
There can be no explanation of anything in the classical world, from mining to philosophy, from building to poetry, that does not take account of the presence of slaves.
My difficulty with this statement is not that it is wrong. Instead, I wonder this: If the writers think that it is actually true (and, after all, they have decided to make the point), why is there no reference to slavery outside of pages 51-53? Is a modern agenda again affecting their description of Classical culture here? On one level this is inevitable, but it is something that seems to worry Arnold perhaps more than Henderson and Beard.
This is a book I would heartily commend to those curious about how modern Classics has come to be and how its practitioners operate. It sets out to inspire and it does it. The authors also live up to their final statement (123):
We hope these pages have given some idea of how difficult it is for Western Art, Literature, History, Philosophy and the rest of our cultural heritage, to speak to our lives without, at the very least, A Very Short Introduction to Classics.
Beard and Henderson show clearly that Classics is a field which is very much on the cutting edge of theoretical approaches. If only I could convince some of my colleagues and particularly the occasional scientifically-trained Vice-Chancellor of that fact. The world they might find in this book is very different from the world they last met in school rooms many, many years ago?
So, where does this leave History and Classics? In one sense, closer together than for generations, given their increased shared interest in the cultural and social aspects of ancient society. If anything, Classics is even more to the vanguard than History. There is a potential price to pay for that, however. Beard and Henderson are sometimes a little too modern in their reading of Classics for me. I hope to have explained that, at least in some eyes, they may be quite right to be so, simply being more honest than many historians in sharing their agenda. That said I suspect that they are being just a little too eager to show the relevance of their subject. The story they tell and Classics itself are fascinating enough without it.
[iii] E.g. Simon Schama?s recent television ?History of Britain?.
[viii] Though see Purcell & Horden 2000.
[ix] For some excellent summary of the current position, see Blundell 1995, E. Fantham 1994.
[xii] Brunt 1971 and 1962.
[xiii] See, for example, Stambaugh 1988.
[xiv] Hartog 1988; Redfield 1985. For another example of cultural history, see Davidson 1998.
[xv] Herodotus, Histories 3.102 ff.
[xvi] Dover 1978; Winkler 1989; Halperin 1990.
[xvii] Evans 1997; Callinicos 1989; Wood 1997.
[xx] See, for example, Lefkowitz & Rogers 1996, or Lefkowitz 1996.
[xxi] For a range of possible approaches, see Jenkins 1997.
[xxiii] The work of S. Lauffer (for example Lauffer 1979) might serve as an example. The work of J. Vogt (including Vogt 1974) is perhaps a more sophisticated work than some of its critics (including Moses Finley) implied. For Finley?s views of the events described below, see Chapter 1 in Finley 1983.
[xxiv] Finley 1983: 62Brunt, P. (1971) Italian Manpower 225 B.C. A.D. 14,
Part 2: Works cited->