Monday, March 18, 2013

Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation

This book by Michael Grant, published by Routledge in 1995, is more or less written as a catalog of the short comings of the ancient historians. Grant is not necessarily comparing the ancient historians with our modern day historians, but does touch on the differences here and there. Primarily, today's historians are writing document based history and the ancients, while they had access to some documents and inscriptions were not that concerned (according to Grant) with supporting their histories through documentary evidence. Grant looks closely at 12 historians, although drops the names of at least a dozen more in his writing. Sadly, or perhaps just as a matter of fact, we are dependent on a lot of what we know from these writers of the ancient world. And, much of our historic method probably directly descends from their preferences to write about wars and famous men (and a troublesome woman here and there).

I don't know if I find it comforting or not that studying the ancients is really like studying our own modern day selves. Is it terrible that since the dawn of recorded history we really haven't evolved emotionally or psychologically? Or is it comforting?

When I was younger I used to think about the crime that I read about during Shakespeare's time or poverty described by Dickens and comfort myself that the world really wasn't less scary then than it was then, just different scary. But now, I'm not so sure. I guess we will always be wise and foolish, caring and selfish, dangerous and protective.

But back to the historians.

Misinformation and Disinformation: Getting something wrong by accident is misinformation, getting something wrong on purpose is disinformation. In Grant's chronicle of the short comings, this is the last entry: errors. Yes, in the current rendition of the facts of today, I think we can see pretty clearly that we are presented with plenty of both mis- and disinformation. Is it heavy on the side of disinformation? In the future, which type of error will end up as the history of our time? Possibly no history at all, is we madly convert everything to temporarily viable digital files.

Selectivity: Sorting through the available information and picking out what best suits the agenda of the ancient historian. This takes me to the reason I read this book in the first place. I came across a reference to it as I was looking into the last twenty years of writing (and honestly, the 20 to 40 years preceding--he (Martin Bernal) gets the credit and notoreity, but he wasn't the first)  Martin Bernal's Black Athena. There is nothing about the representation of race in this book, but we know that 19th century and even into the twentieth century, historians, classicists, were keen to literally white wash the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians. They were selective in their sources and biased in their interpretations and I find it shameful and disheartening. Which leads me to Paul Ricoeur and his philosophy of time and history. Very briefly, history changes as time passes. I am not an expert, so I won't dwell on this, but it makes every kind of sense to me. As Michael Grant reiterates, history is written by the victors, by the oligarchy in power. As the victors change, one oligarchy fades into another, the libraries are burnt and rebuilt, the facts and their interpretation shift. We see plenty of that on the campaign trail, in Congress, over the air waves, in our own heads. The more we tell a story, the more we consciously or unconsciously shape it.

Imagination: Grant sees Homer as the great model for both history and literature to the Greek and then Roman writers to follow. (And of course we see Odysseus and his travels everywhere in our own modern day literature.) Herodotus, for instance, left a written record, but he read his histories aloud to an audience. He needed to entertain as well as to inform. Some of our ancients were successfully literary; sometimes a good story was more important than strict adherence to the facts. And of course, some of the facts, so to speak, that Herodotus and his fellow historians incorporated into their histories were passed on as part of an oral tradition.

Michael Grant writes, "One must not ... be over critical of [the ancient historians' errors], because they are only human and it is human to make mistakes. Besides, their sources are not as good as those which are available to modern scholars."

I especially like this sentence, in that it reminds us of our frailties, then and now. But, it is a little harder to excuse our mistakes.

Next chapter, does Michael Grant think we should continue to read the ancient historians? I'm pretty sure he will say yes, if for no other reason than that we can see ourselves so clearly both in realizing their mistakes and learning from the past as they describe it. Whether it is completely accurate or not--it is as they believed it to be and it is as they chose to see it. But more on that later.

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