Sunday, April 7, 2013

Greek and Roman Historians, II: Should We Read Them

Revisiting Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation by Michael Grant (Routledge, 1995) and in particular his penultimate chapter, "Should We Read the Ancient Historians?"

Not surprisingly, the answer is yes and in some respects an unqualified yes. The qualifications make their way into the assessment if you ask, "should we read them in order to know exactly what happened in ancient history?" Grant takes a quick look at all histories, whether written last week or a couple of thousand years ago. He writes that "the truth is hard to capture" despite the fact that it is the truth toward which historians aim. Grant evokes the 19th century and its turn toward a scientific approach to the reliance on facts, events, and dates supported by evidence found in documents and observation. But facts are of little use without interpretation. Historians must present the facts, as well as the ideas behind the facts. He quotes Ranke who wrote that historians must, "show why things happened and . . . the forces which were at work." Ranke urged the historian to note "changes, relationships, causes and consequences, and to explain the sequence and connection of events" (92).

But science is not without its biases and how we think, the values we've inherited, color or influence what we see and how we interpret what we see. No amount of science or evidence can do away with the bias that comes with recording history. Isn't this why we exhort students to critically assess the sources they are working with--author affiliation and previous works, supporting entities such as publishers and associations, and sources cited in any particular work. Isn't this why we have controversies over smoking, global climate change, immigration policy, the trade offs of nuclear power, and so on.

Grant offers that each generation of historian has a greater share of historical experience than the previous generation, but despite the availability of more and more accurate documentation, each historian is a product of his or her time and place. He offers three caveats regarding the difficulty of objectivity--concepts to keep in mind when reading history:

1) Every age rewrites history and revisits the past, this can shed new light and new perspective, but, he writes, "that can result in anachronism when the past is being considered" (92).

2) Any person, any one writing history, cannot escape their own personality. Grant quotes Theodore Mommsen to elucidate this, "history is neither written nor made without love and hate" (92).  In addition, he invokes Benedetto Croce to point out that "history is always contemporary history," and the past is meaningless "except as it exists for us" (93). Historians are always present in their work.

3) Finally, historians have to select. Grant devotes a significant amount of attention to this detail in the body of his book. Historians can only select from what they know--what is buried or otherwise lost might reveal a different story, but it is a story that is lost to us.

Grant views the ancient historians as working within the genre of literature. They are literary artists, focusing on people and events they deemed to be important. They elaborated, created speeches, made choices about which tales and stories to incorporate and which to leave out; they aimed to please their audience. Despite this, they are our best single source of information, and they represent their particular universe regardless of the veracity of their assertions. Grant recommends that readers apply literary analysis when interpreting the ancients. "The glory of the ancient historians is unrelated to any particular age, because it is timeless. We must read them because of the  wonderful and influential literature that they wrote" (99).

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