Reading (not so) modern historians

I’ve accomplished a little bit of writing for my thesis. The most urgent problem is no longer quantity, but quality, which is a step forward. As I polish up the literature review, I have been dealing with a lot of nineteenth century scholarship on Sicily. There are many Germans, fewer Italians than you’d expect, and a couple of people (mercifully) writing in English. As this blog post will make clear, this seems to have rotted my brain.

Reading this sort of scholarship is jarring on many levels. Some of this is just the passage of time. There are almost no footnotes – despite complaints that “there are very few corners into which the industry of German scholars has not peered”, there was hardly any scholarship to cite yet. Referents are different: when I read about “the one man in our day who has carried out the platform of tyranny in all its fulness”, I expect Hitler, Stalin, Bashir al-Assad… not Napoleon the Third.

Napoleon-IIITyrants had much more style in the 1860s

But more jarring is the difference in style and scholarship. In his 1891 book on ancient Sicily, Freeman, officially Regius Professor of Modern History, says things like this:

“In days when no purer light had yet been given, it was already a crusade to strike a blow for Apollôn by the shore of Naxos, for Athênê on the island of Ortygia, against the foul and bloody rites of Moloch and Ashtoreth. This calling, as the abiding battle-field of East and West, is the highest aspect of Sicilian history.”

I don’t think I’d read this in a modern book. The projection of Christian values and nineteenth century racial theories onto the ancient Greeks, the glorification of warfare, the use of macrons in transliterated Greek; these are all unpopular nowadays (and rightly so). But even adjusting for the fact that we are less racist, more pacifist and better at geography (Carthage is west of Ortygia and Naxos), I still won’t meet anything like this in the next book from OUP. Freeman’s writing is stylised, exciting, and eager to connect ancient and modern worlds. Modern writing is either magisterially neutral, colloquially conversational, or arcane and turgid (I’ve been concentrating on Freeman’s style here, because nineteenth century Germans invented “arcane and turgid”). It is not and does not seek to be literature. Links between ancient and modern worlds are rarer and (my sense is that) they are usually used to contrast rather than compare.

What these nineteenth century historians do is much more like what the ancient sources do: they don’t so much study the past as retell it, with the conviction that the stories they tell are not just relevant, but useful: Freeman cared about ancient Sicily because its story was that of a “meeting point of nations” like Britain, Holm used his research to write for the Society for the Furtherance of Charitable Activities, Freud thought Greek myth explained something essential about the human psyche, and the Great Mommsen used his studies of Roman law to shape the German legal code.


(Mommsen the Wise! Mommsen the All-Powerful! Mommsen the Magnificent!)

This sort of thing is presumably where modern university outreach programmes come from, but modern outreach programmes are mostly concerned with teaching about the ancient world for its own sake. Books generally seek only to establish their relevance to scholarship, rather than the wider world. Statements of “impact” are often perfunctory and tendentious and most engagement with the modern world is in the opposite direction – taking modern theory or constructs and applying them to the ancient world. Serious engagement – articles in newspapers on contemporary events and issues, books seeking answers to the structural issues of our society in the ancient world are pretty rare.

Though I regularly joke about the irrelevance of classics, I think a wide range of people still are interested in taking lessons from the ancient world: when I took Intro to IR, a bizarre caricature of Thucydides was front and centre; Intro to Pols began with Aristotle; the keynote for Sydney’s massive Alexander exhibition was followed by questions the speaker couldn’t answer (and didn’t seem to understand) about Alex and British imperialism; last night the audience of a fascinating talk on sacred slaves wanted to know how Greek ideas on slavery could interact with the modern idea of the “wage slave”.

Answers can be found in the blogs of a small number of unusually interested scholars (Neville Morley, or Mary Beard, or Victor Davis Hansen), but more often they are found in ever more caricatured recapitulations of Freeman, Freud, and the Great Mommsen, providing answers we no longer want to questions we no longer ask, twisted to affirm dogmatic status quo. The afterlife of these nineteenth century scholars has been exceptionally long (and they are now resurrected online as public domain pdfs). Classics as a discipline needs to spend more time thinking about how their research can meaningfully inform modern debates and put these long-dead men to rest.



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