The Methods and Nature of Ancient History

History is illusive. The reason it is illusive is because we are not there; even if we once were. History is the study of the past, attempting to narrow down the possibilities to one most probable event. But it is only “most probable”, cursing us with doubts against our desire to make a science out of history. In the sciences one is able to test hypotheses and theories, whereas history cannot be referenced, isolated or tested. The only things that a historian has are human accounts (some many degrees removed) and physical evidence subjected to human unpredictability. Consequently, anything and everything about our past could be true or false. Even the myths we read may be truer than we know. Neville Morley, author of Writing Ancient History, said “As historians we are likely to find ourselves emphasizing that the myth offers just one of many possible interpretations of events.”[1] The methods employed are the same as a detective’s methods. There are primary sources or the witnesses and there are secondary sources, which for every degree of removal away from the historic event the source’s credibility is damaged. 

How then are we to approach ancient history? The temporal distance increases every day and we have yet to gather all the data we can; it breaks apart, disintegrates and disappears without our consent. Laodicea remains unexcavated though it promises of new material. Why should it stand still untouched, when there may be a copy of Paul the Apostle’s letter to the Laodicaeans somewhere in the ruins? If there is anything that we can learn from history that we are certain of it is that money is the large driving force. This may be the most difficult thing for a historian to understand; his interest in collecting data is so great that he would be happy to unload millions of dollars to everything he could. Often the historian is not the millionaire. He must get grants or loans to fund a dig. Those who have the ability to give out free money or a loan usually do not share the same delight. One might blame progressivism which seems to suggest that anything new is better than the old, so why waste one’s time rediscovering old obsolete things? Those with money invest in the future. What could possibly convince them otherwise?

 Karl Marx, whether or not one agrees with his social philosophy, did have a bit of sage advice. Paraphrased, he suggested in regards to history that we know where we have been in order to know where to go. To popular society ancient history seems irrelevant to the modern world; it is all too alien. But for the classicist or the historian their desire is like a literary man’s desire to know all he can about Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy; except the presumption is that these cities rising and falling, and the massive armies marching across the country side have or had a reality. When we can derive our cultures, habits, politics, economies and governments from these nations the size of Idaho the curiosity heightens for no other reason than to be aware of the delicacy of the present circumstance. The year 1066 in England holds much to be discussed: what would a Viking ruled England turn out to look like in a hundred years or how would that affect the present year? The big question: how easily could that have come? One method for learning and uncovering ancient history is tracing lineages as far back as one can. One might remember their experience with the exhaustive genealogies in the bible and resent them entirely, but for the historian they serve as a useful thread. That is one of the tasks of the historian. To connect threads and create a story satisfies the desire for an answer; falsification and debunking only come after this fact. Historical nihilism does nothing but falsify, leaving no room for an actual answer. People would rather be wrong about the Greeks than not believe and not have faith in something. Our origins really do end up being that important to us and perhaps rightly so. 

And so, western civilization remains curious since it owes so much to the Greeks and Romans. They gave us the very idea of history. They asked the questions we may never have thought to ask ourselves. How many great civilizations have faded into obscurity all because they did not ask the right questions or take time to write down their histories? We know very little about ancient African civilization because we have very few primary sources. But these histories must occur as stories. This is because our cultures define themselves according to the plot-arch and the moral. Neville Morley mentions that “the Victorians had a very Romantic view of history as progress, where as we tend to see history in more satirical terms, as a succession of events which cannot be understood in terms of any monolithic Grand Narrative.”[2] Morley subjects history to the same structures as literature: Romance, Comedy, Tragedy and Satire. It should be noted as well that the word “history” comes from the Greek historia, which was termed because of the temples upper stories often related a tale, whether it was myth or fact. In other words, story-telling and history are one in the same. 

But whose story? Since historians will often write in one of the four literary genres mentioned by Morley there is an implied agenda. In Mary Beard and John Henderson’s book Classics: A Very Short Introduction, they asked, “Is it fair to judge the Greeks and Romans by our own contemporary moral standards? Or is impossible not to?”[3] There are difficulties in interpretation because everyone has an ego connected to their ancestors. It is blatant in Virgil’s poetry. The Aeneid was a paid venture to represent Caesar Augustus’ lineage in a good, if not great, light. While at the very same time the poet Ovid was mocking and disowning the ancestral gods. These two poets would write vastly different histories. Morley said, “We might take any one of these stories and undermine it, turning it into a satire: a tragic account of the Republic’s demise that ends not with the death of Cicero but with the elevation of his son to the consulship in 30 B.C. or an account of Augustus’ career which emphasizes the gap between his public persona and his actual deeds.”[4] For modern laymen of history, it is usually enjoyable to learn of Rome’s transition from a republic to an Empire because the Pax Romana resembles the Pax Americana; but for a die-hard republican (a term I use vaguely) this is a sorry story. These are some of our baser motives, but one must not presume that these motives will produce the basest product, for even bald face lies contain a little truth. Morley quotes Thucydides saying “people are inclined to accept all stories of ancient times in an uncritical way – even when these stories concern their own native country.”[5] What is your country? To whom do you belong? To whom are you loyal? Whether it is the present or former regime that you are loyal to, it matters not; the personal historian’s bias may or may not affect his studies, but it is our job to weigh the arguments he makes soundly. One should like to have these answers, because one should like to hold some one accountable. It may be futile hindsight, but an answer to our questions will do enough to settle the origins of one’s past. 

The pursuit of history may be trumped up to a psychological inconsequential necessity, or a real moral compass that perpetually judges. For the Greeks it is evidenced in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Shortly and bluntly, bad things were happening and bad things were anticipated to happen based on a dead man’s actions, and the people in the story drew these lines. History has a practical purpose; our actions have consequences and we should like remember which actions had bad results. And yet, Herodotus and Thucydides wrote histories that were chronologically close in proximity to their own time. For them it was modern history, whereas for us it ancient history. Because of this, the classics seem hardly relevant to the modern man. Rather, many an average educated person has a sizable amount of information about the French Revolution, American Revolution and both World Wars. These events are direct testaments to the present man’s position and so he values the information more. We can trace our lineages far back enough to know just how our family was involved and hopefully increase the pride and dignity of our family. But this behavior is not an exclusive hard and fast rule. Fads and trends exist in the study of history as much as anywhere else. Beard and Henderson said “Yet at the same time there is much debate about which works of art or literature surviving from the ancient world are the best. Such judgments are deeply affected by changes in our own contemporary culture.”[6] The will of the culture decides what is to be studied. Sometimes, a piece’s objective good is ignored because the customs it represents are seen as immoral in the present day and they will be left ignored. Other times there will be calls for man to return to his roots and pay homage to his ancestors; new curriculums will evolve from this but it will always be focused on the same material. 

Our relationship with modern history is perhaps far more rewarding than with ancient history. Simply, by the time Gutenberg’s printing press was in use, record keeping became more and more precise, and the keeping of records grew exponentially. Suddenly, questions as to what happened on such and such a date were put to rest by the five separate accounts from five different people, who were all witnesses. Our studies of World War II are intriguing because we are not left in the dark anywhere; if it were fiction nothing would be left to the imagination. Though, we use the same methods in studying modern history as we do in ancient history and there may be more dots to connect, most of them have already been connected. Beard and Henderson said, “The rediscovery of Greece was, in a way, the rediscovery of the origins of western culture as a whole.”[7] The key word is “rediscovery”. This implies that these cultures along with their classics were once known and loved. With this in mind, there are two options for the history of man: either history is linear on an upward progressive incline or man is an animal of predictable patterns and history holds the pictures. For those who study modern history the former option is how our past is viewed; man is ever ascending to perfection, backed by science and improving economies with higher standards of living. Eventually, man will become Nietzsche’s ubermensch. For those who study classics/ancient history the desire is based on a deficiency of a lost good. The classicists find Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and praise their insight into the human condition and social constructs. They find Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey unlike anything out of their own era; they have beauty that is misunderstood by the common man. To study classics is to say that man is not always improving himself. It is to say Livy may have more to teach than Churchill’s war histories. Beard and Henderson said, “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.”[8] They say Classics aim to define and debate our relationship to that world. This is exactly what Karl Marx touched upon. One should not be as fatalistic as George Santayana when he said that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but since the ancient world has influenced our world to such a great degree, it might be vulgar to ignore such things. 

Man’s study of modern history is “cause and effect” and nothing but the facts. For man to study the Enlightenment and the French Revolution he will understand the immediate reason modern man operates the way he does. For man to study the Classics he will understand what facilitated the Enlightenment and the French Revolution to happen in the first place. Again, out of Beard and Henderson, “ancient Athens can still be seen as the ultimate ancestor of democracy world-wide.”[9] And this is the greatest distinction between ancient and modern history. Because of our close proximity with modern history we focus on finding out “what happened”, while because our distant blood relation with ancient history we focus on finding out “why it happened”.

 When studying ancient history one may be simply intrigued with the alien nature or the stories told, whether they be myth or historical accounts, one certainly does not see anything so base. Our sophistication has made man either jealous of their grand simplicity or outright snobbish towards the ancients. A classicist is perhaps more often the jealous kind. A classicist unconditionally loves most ancient things; he translates and interprets and then discerns what must be added to the curriculum of schools everywhere. A historian may be either of the two kinds, but most of all, they attempt to be non-biased while using their powers of deduction to let the facts speak for themselves. There is a danger here; Morley says, “Facts don’t speak: the historian who tries to listen to nothing but the facts will produce an interpretation that is driven by his own unconscious preconceptions, assumptions and prejudices.”[10] The accounts of historians who claim the utmost objectivity are often most dangerous for reliable information. They neglect surrounding histories and hardly make an attempt to falsify their own position and answer their detractors. The classicist would be a formidable opponent for these historians; they might be taught humility. While the historian cites his data to make an argument, the classicist cites the very zeitgeist of the age, which he gathered through the literature, language and other avenues. The classicist seems to have a much more intimate relationship with the material at hand than the historian. 

But there are more points of contention. For a classicist, he is free to interpret materials however he pleases since no one will ever gain any more evidence about a dead man’s thoughts. E.M. Tillyard (a classicist) was free to write a whole book on the mind of an Elizabethan and generalize the entire way through. A man’s mind is nebulous, vague and unclear which makes for open season for the classicists. Historians do not have this luxury. Simply, it is accepted by everyone everywhere that only one thing happened at a particular time and place. Because of this, the objective for the historian has become to get nearest the truth as possible, but not all agree on where “near” is. The argument may go on for centuries about some event which may lead a man into historical nihilism giving him no hope of finding truth; it may be wise for the historian to imitate the classicist. The historian can bear to gain some imagination. Morley says of this, “imagination plays an indispensable role in the interpretation of evidence, helping the historian to make connections, fill in gaps and build up a wider picture of the period being studied.”[11] Ancient history in the broader study of classics ought to fit quite nicely. For early classical material it will give a clear context; an example would be reading the Annals of Tacitus and Catullus. Modern classical material is often inspired by the ancients like the works of the Victorians and Romantics. They praised and glorified the ancients, because of their imagination. The historian, though he often fulfills the stereotype of the monotone lecturer, could adopt and benefit the humility and imagination of the classicist. 

This relationship between these different areas of study is just another thread that we find ourselves connecting in order to find an origin. All too often, we presume that certain customs were created out of irrational nonsense. But if you trace things far back enough you will find a creator and reason. Our methods are to trace and deduce, like a detective, in order that we might praise the past or condemn it. Our cultures make us biased towards these things, but perhaps this is unavoidable. Ancient history is very like modern history except with much more theory attached to it. The question “why?” is more important than the question “What?” A historian may arrive at these answers more quickly if he employed the tactics of the classicists.

[1] Neville Morley. Writing Ancient History (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press). 1991. P. 156

[2] Morley. Writing Ancient History. P. 106

[3] Mary Beard and John Henderson. Classics: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 2000. P. 54

[4] Morley. Writing Ancient History. P. 107

[5] Morley. Writing Ancient History. P. 37

[6] Beard and Henderson. Classics: A Very Short Introduction. P. 87. Examples they used were how the earliest Greek sculpture became valued during the Early Twentieth Century when abstract art was most popular.

[7] Beard and Henderson. Classics: A Very Short Introduction. P. 15

[8] Beard and Henderson. Classics: A Very Short Introduction. P. 6

[9] Beard and Henderson. Classics: A Very Short Introduction. P. 16

[10] Morley. Writing Ancient History. P. 93

[11] Morley. Writing Ancient History. P. 32