History as Rhetoric

A pale red marbe statue of a man in robes and cap seated at a weighty desk
The protective statue of Virgil, Mantua’s patron, now looks down from the inside wall of a museum instead of the outside wall of the Palazzo della Ragione (Palazzo Te, collezione civiche inv. n. 11605, photo by author)

There is a school of thought which says that ancient Greek and Roman historians were more interested in telling pretty stories than about critically comparing different reports to understand what had happened in the past. Generally advocates of this view appeal to later and Roman writers like Livy and Tacitus, and to proscriptions by rhetoricians about how history ought to be written; opponents appeal to earlier and Greeker writers like Thucydides, and note that those proscriptions were seldom written by working historians, and often fail to say what the relativists wish they said. And like unto the battle-lines in Homer, back and forth the combat goes, enlivening the discussion periods at conferences, fattening journals, and keeping librarians busy delivering the latest salvo. Since ancient historians only left incidental traces of their working methods in their writings, and not many non-historians wrote anything about the subject at all, the debate will keep scholars happily bickering for decades to come. I tend to lean against this way of thinking, but because the debate focuses on later periods than I do, I would recommend that interested readers check Luke Pitcher’s book below for an introduction.

One of my favorite tools in such situations is to look for parallels. Medievalists tell me that very little is known about how chroniclers worked in the middle ages, and little research has been done (Anne Curry’s book on Agincourt has some helpful footnotes here). More seems to be known about writers from the sixteenth century as in the following quote from Robert Black, Machiavelli (Routledge: London and New York, 2013) pp. 248-252. I was struck by his remarks on how Italian humanists in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries wrote history, and since they are evidence against my own views they deserve to be quoted:

Machiavelli intended his work to conform to the norms of humanist history, aiming to imitate Bruni’s and Poggio’s Florentine histories. The text is laden with features characteristic of ancient Roman historiography such as lengthy speeches … It is clear that Machiavelli was attempting to recreate the periodic style of the classical Roman historians, and particularly Sallust and Livy, in the modern vernacular … In line with the conventions of humanist historiography, Machiavelli showed little concern for factual accuracy. The work’s many methodological shortcomings, errors and even inventions have been frequently highlighted, beginning in the sixteenth century with the definitive historian of grand-ducal Florence, Scipio Ammirato (1531-1601) …

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Technologies of recordkeeping in Mesopotamian history

Although this is the end of term in Austria, I made time to hear a very exciting talk by Dr. Jens Høyrup of Copenhagen. What was billed as an overview of mathematical and scribal culture turned into a survey of Mesopotamian history from the Agricultural Revolution to the Neo-Assyrian Empire as seen through the lens of the technology of numbers. Høyrup has some provocative views, including the idea that Sumerian is descended from a creole. He also had a good overview of the transition from counting tokens to impressions of tokens to sketches of tokens to cuneiform writing. The first stage of this transition does not seem to have soaked the popular literature, and I will try to find and link a good article on it one of these days. (A famous book is How Writing Came About by Dr. Denise Schmandt-Besserat of Texas).
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Im Abendland

Some of my recent reading has reminded me that German has two interesting expressions for “East” and “West” in the sense of two broad cultural and geographical regions. One can speak auf Deutsch of the Abendland and the Morgenland, the land of dawn and the land of twilight. I admire these phrases, which are much... Continue reading: Im Abendland

Two thoughts on the accession of Darius I

Darius the Great, fourth notable king of Persia, came to the throne under unusual circumstances. In the version which he tells, he was a distant relative of king Cambyses, an impostor pretended to be the king’s brother Bardiya and took the throne, and when Cambyses suddenly died it was necessary for Darius and six of his companions to slay the impostor, fight nineteen battles in a single year against rebels and pretenders, and restore order and unity to the world. This story has been preserved in one of his inscriptions at Behistun in Iran, in a damaged papyrus from Elephantine on the Nile, and by the Greek historian Herodotus. Some of my recent readings have made me reconsider my views on it.
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A New Book

After a recent trip to the bookstore, I believe that I have a copy of every English or German book on the Achaemenid army. This is easier than it sounds, because there are only three of them. One could of course add other books- Bezalel Porten’s on everyday life in a garrison town on the... Continue reading: A New Book

A Comment to Herodotus

Herodotus, Histories 7.44-46, tr. George Rawlinson: Having arrived here at Abydos, Xerxes wished to look upon all his host; so as there was a throne of white marble upon a hill near the city, which they of Abydos had prepared beforehand, by the king’s bidding, for his especial use, Xerxes took his seat on it,... Continue reading: A Comment to Herodotus

An Ajax or a Socrates?

A bust of Themistocles from the Roman empire, presumably based on a much earlier original. C/o Jona Lendering under a CC0 1.0 Universal license (original post: https://www.livius.org/pictures/italy/ostia/ostia-museum-pieces/ostia-themistocles/) My estimable colleague Jona Lendering recently expressed dismay that historians of the Macedonian Kingdom of Bactria tried to read kings’ personalities in their portraits on coins (here).  Since no literature from... Continue reading: An Ajax or a Socrates?

One Of Our Years Is Missing

In the course of my Master’s studies, I discovered a number of curious and unsettling details which are well known to specialists but not by the interested public.  One of these is that we know very little about what happened for a year of the Peloponnesian War, and that we are not sure where to... Continue reading: One Of Our Years Is Missing