Claudius Meets Pollio and Livy

Currently rereading Robert Graves’s I, Claudius (1934), in the wake of teaching HIS 302 this past semester. I was taken with this section from Chapter 9, in which a young Claudius meets the historians Livy and Pollio and discusses competing theories of history writing.

***

Livy said: “The trouble with Pollio is that when he writes history he feels obliged to suppress all his finer, more poetical feelings, and make his characters behave with conscientious dullness, and when he puts a speech into their mouths he denies them the least oratorical ability.”

Pollio said: “Yes, Poetry is Poetry, and Oratory is Oratory, and History is History, and you can’t mix them.”

“Can’t I? Indeed I can,” said Livy. “Do you mean to say that I mustn’t write a history with an epic theme because that’s a prerogative of poetry or put worthy eve-of-battle speeches in the mouths of my generals because to compose such speeches is the prerogative of oratory?”

“That is precisely what I do mean. History is a true record of what happened, how people lived and died, what they did and said ; an epic theme merely distorts the record. As for your general’s speeches they are admirable as oratory but damnably unhistorical: not only is there no particle of evidence for any one of them, but they are inappropriate. I have heard more eve-of-battle speeches than most men and though the generals that made them, Caesar and Antony especially, were remarkably fine platform orators, they were all too good soldiers to try any platform business on the troops. They spoke to them in a conversational way, they did not orate. What sort of speech did Caesar make before the Battle of Pharsalia? Did he beg us to remember our wives and children and the sacred temples of Rome and the glories of our past campaigns? By God, he didn’t!…”

Livy said: ‘Pollio, my dear fellow, we were not discussing Caesar’s morals, but the proper way to write history.”

Pollio said: “Yes, that’s right. Our intelligent young friend [Claudius] was criticizing your method, under the respectful disguise of praising your readability. Boy, have you any further charges to bring against the noble Livy?”

I said: “Please, sir, don’t make me blush. I admire Livy’s work greatly.”

“The truth, boy! Have you ever caught him out in any historical inaccuracies? You seem to be a fellow who reads a good deal.”

“I would rather not venture…”

“Out with it. There must be something.”

So I said: “There is one thing that puzzles me, I confess. That is the story of Lars Porsena. According to Livy, Porsena failed to capture Rome, being first prevented by the heroic behaviour of Horatius at the bridge and then dismayed by the astounding daring of Scaevola; Livy relates that Scaevola, captured after an attempt at assassinating Porsena, thrust his hand into the flame on the altar and swore that three hundred Romans like himself had bound themselves by an oath to take Porsena’s life. And so Lars Porsena made peace. But I have seen the labyrinth tomb of Lars Porsena at Clusium and there is a frieze on it of Romans emerging from the City gate and being led under a yoke. There’s an Etruscan priest with a pair of shears cutting off the beards of the Fathers. And even Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who was very favourably disposed towards us, states that the Senate voted Porsena an ivory throne, a sceptre, a golden crown and a triumphal robe; which can only mean that they paid him sovereign honours. So perhaps Lars Porsena did capture Rome, in spite of Horatius and Scaevola. And Aruns the priest at Capua (he’s supposed to be the last man who can read Etruscan inscriptions) told me last summer that according to Etruscan records the man who expelled the Tarquins from Rome was not Brutus but Porsena, and that Brutus and Collatinus, the first two Consuls at Rome, were merely the City Stewards appointed to collect his taxes.”

Livy grew quite angry. “I am surprised at you, Claudius. Have you no reverence for Roman tradition that you should believe the lies told by our ancient enemies to diminish our greatness.”

“I only asked,” I said humbly, “what really happened then.”

“Come on, Livy,” said Pollio. “Answer the young student. What really happened?”

Livy said: “Another time. Let’s keep to the matter in hand now, which is a general discussion of the proper way to write history. Claudius, my friend, you have ambitions that way. Which of us two old worthies will you choose as a model?”

I looked from one face to the other. At last I said, “I think I would choose Pollio. As I’m sure that I can never hope to attain Livy’s inspired literary elegance, I shall do my best to imitate Pollio’s accuracy and diligence.”

“A joke is a joke, Pollio, and I can take it in good part. But there’s also a serious matter in
question and that is, the proper writing of history. It may be that I have made mistakes. What historian is free from them? I have not, at least, told deliberate falsehoods: you’ll not accuse
me of that. Any legendary episode from early historical writings which bears on my theme of the ancient greatness of Rome I gladly incorporate in the story: though it may not be true in
factual detail, it is true in spirit. If I come across two versions of the same episode I choose the one nearest my theme, and you won’t find me grubbing around Etruscan cemeteries in
search of any third account which may flatly contradict both — what good would that do?”

“It would serve the cause of the truth,” said Pollio gently. “Wouldn’t that be something?”

“And if by serving the cause of truth we admit our revered ancestors to have been cowards, liars and traitors? What then?”

I’ll leave this boy to answer the question. He’s just starting in life. Come on, boy, answer it!”

I said at random: “Livy begins his history by lamenting modern wickedness and promising to trace the gradual decline of ancient virtue as conquests made Rome wealthy. He says that he
will most enjoy writing the early chapters because he will be able, in doing so, to close his eyes to the wickedness of modern times. But in closing his eyes to modern wickedness hasn’t he sometimes closed his eyes to ancient wickedness as well?”

“Well?” asked Livy, narrowing his eyes.

“Well,” I fumbled. “Perhaps there isn’t so much difference really between their wickedness and ours. It may be just a matter of scope and opportunity.

“I hadn’t considered the matter before, that there are two different ways of writing history: one is to persuade men to virtue and the other is to compel men to truth. The first is Livy’s way and the other is yours: and perhaps they are not irreconcilable.”

***

This is always the issue, isn’t it? Of course, I stand with Claudius and Pollio here – call me a naive positivist, but I still believe there is such a thing as the truth, and we can get close to it if we really try. If you want to write a novel (say, like I, Claudius) then you should clearly label it as such. The trouble is that truth-seeking history really takes effort, as Livy notes, and if taken to extremes leads to tedious books like The Lion, the Lily, and the Leopard. There is nothing wrong with making a historical argument, or retelling a historical narrative, in a clear, compelling way. Just make sure that you don’t go too far in making things up, especially in the service of your fatuous politics (a shockingly common occurrence, I regret to admit).

A Professor Speaks Out

From Quillette, some confirmation of a theory of mine:

When first published, Zinn’s book was a disruptive and influential text, which would have made it a wonderful teaching tool then—but circumstances have changed. I know this because my classes were all Zinn, all the time (even though his textbook itself never made an actual appearance). In my head, this made my classes all about counter-narrative. But to my own students, my classes were just plain old… narrative.

Much more at the link.

Also:

There are two values in conflict here. One is the idea that engaging with an opposing idea makes the other idea stronger. The opposing position is that by engaging with other ideas, you make your own ideas stronger. Gay chose the latter approach, at some risk. Indeed, the prevailing logic among many is that by debating Sommers, Gay became just as “offensive” as Sommers herself.

It is hard to imagine anybody with more progressive bona fides than Gay, yet even she still feels somewhat apprehensive about engaging with ideological adversaries. This trend toward freezing out controversial ideas is a deadly threat to any trend in academia that even comes close to my own teaching approach. That career counselor was absolutely correct to recommend dropping any detailed discussion of my methods in my cover letter.

“Whitesplaining”

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The Whitesplaining of History Is Over

When the academy was the exclusive playground of white men, it produced the theories of race, gender, and Western cultural superiority that underwrote imperialism abroad and inequality at home. In recent decades, women and people of color have been critical to producing new knowledge breaking down those long-dominant narratives. Sociological research confirms that greater diversity improves scholarship.

Yet the struggle to diversify the academy remains an uphill battle; institutional biases are deeply ingrained, and change evokes nostalgia for times past. Both of these obstacles were fully in evidence at a recent Applied History conference at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Although history is a discipline with a growing number of nonwhite faculty members, and a healthy percentage of female scholars — indeed, women constitute more than a third of the faculty in Stanford’s own history department, across the bike lane from the Hoover Institution — the Hoover conference was made up of 30 white men (and one woman, who chaired a panel).

Etc.

This sort of critique is becoming all the more common in my profession (the article above was approvingly linked by two friends on Facebook), and I hate it. I hate the jargon (“whitesplaining”) and glibness (“exclusive playground”) – but most of all I hate the Jacobinism of it, how anything produced by “white males” in the olden days is necessarily tainted, while anything “diverse” is necessarily better (the link goes to a book entitled The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy which, as anyone who has spent time in the world of work can attest, is no more true than its opposite*). Before we learned to care about the identity of the author in order to prompt us how we should respond to his ideas, it was possible for an idea to be considered largely on its merits, and I sure wish we could return to that dispensation. To suggest that all those bad old white males produced scholarship to justify Western imperialism, etc., is contradicted by the author’s own examples of Edward Thompson and E.P. Thompson, white males both who said things that she apparently agrees with (one can think of any number of others, like Charles Beard or Marc Bloch). But more importantly, how dare Priya Satia dismiss the work of (almost) everyone who came before her because they weren’t diverse enough for her tastes? Presumably they were men of integrity, who investigated the past to the best of their ability and who opened up new vistas in human understanding. Just because their race and gender are distasteful to her is no reason to preemptively dismiss their entire body of work.

But if present trends continue, this essentially adolescent pose will be with us for some time to come.

* As I wrote once: “You definitely need something in common – intelligence and a sense of modesty come to mind. Furthermore, it all depends on the purpose of your organization. Sometimes when everyone’s on the same page, sharing the same background assumptions, then you can achieve your goals much more efficiently. The notion that different people with different opinions really have something special to offer could have value, but what is the nature of those opinions? So often “diversity” just boils down to “skin color,” “configuration of genitals,” or “direction of erotic desire,” with any “opinions” that derive from these things being completely irrelevant to the vast majority of problems to be solved or tasks to be completed in the wonderful world of work; worse, there is a very real possibility that the people concerned can be indifferently competent but have massive chips on their shoulders about how allegedly oppressed they are, and will interpret every difficulty as proceeding from some amorphous but entrenched prejudice arrayed against them. This is not conducive to getting anything done.”

UPDATE: Turns out the Hoover Institution conference was organized by the great Niall Ferguson, who responds:

“Masculinity, not ideology, drives extremist groups,” was another recent headline that caught my eye, this time in The Washington Post.

Got it.

I have had to listen to a variation on this theme rather too much in recent weeks. Last month I organized a small conference of historians who I knew shared my interest in trying to apply historical knowledge to contemporary policy problems. Five of the people I invited to give papers were women, but none was able to attend. I should have tried harder to find other female speakers, no doubt. But my failure to do so elicited a disproportionately vitriolic response.

Under a headline that included the words “Too white and too male,” The New York Times published photographs of all the speakers, as if to shame them for having participated. Around a dozen academics — male as well as female — took to social media to call the conference a “StanfordSausageFest.”

So outraged were Stanford historians Allyson Hobbs and Priya Satia that they demanded “greater university oversight” of the Hoover Institution, where I work, as it was “an ivory tower in the most literal sense.”

The most literal sense?

Now let’s be clear. I was raised to believe in the equal rights of all people, regardless of sex, race, creed, or any other difference. That the human past was characterized by discrimination of many kinds is not news to me. But does it really constitute progress if the proponents of diversity resort to the behavior that was previously the preserve of sexists and racists?

Publishing the names and mugshots of conference speakers is the kind of thing anti-Semites once did to condemn the “over-representation” of Jewish people in academia. Terms such as “SausageFest” belong not in civil academic discourse but on urinal walls.

What we see here is the sexism of the anti-sexists; the racism of the anti-racists. In this “Through the Looking Glass” world, diversity means ideological homogeneity. “The whitesplaining of history is over,” declared another heated article by Satia last week. Hideous Newspeak terms such as “whitesplaining” and “mansplaining” are symptoms of the degeneration of the humanities in the modern university. Never mind the facts and reason, so the argument runs, all we need to know — if we don’t like what we hear — are the sex and race of the author.

The process of indoctrination starts early. My six-year-old son stunned his parents the other day when we asked what he had been studying at school. He replied that they had been finding out about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. “What did you learn?” I asked. “That most white people are bad,” he replied.

This is America in 2018.

Historical Debate

I quite liked Andrew Holt’s response to Matt Gabriele’s editorial in the Washington Post: “Islamphobes want to recreate the Crusades. But they don’t understand them at all.” Choice excerpt (emphasis added):

Professor Gabriele may well disagree with these historians [Riley-Smith, Madden, Frankopan, and Crawford, whom Holt quotes], and likely could make a compelling case in some instances. The crusades are complex, after all, and some issues can be approached in different ways. But one of the things I found most objectionable in his piece was the way he claimed to speak for “scholars of the crusades” when I think many of them, including some of the most influential and prominent, do not share his views. To the contrary, I think Gabriele’s seeming rejection of any defensive impetus to the birth of the crusading movement is, by far, the minority position. Although other issues are important to the birth of the crusading movement and sources must always be read critically, the primary emphasis of sources from the era, whether ecclesiastical or lay, highlight the defense of fellow Christians and Christian interests in the Holy Land as the main justification for the calling of the crusade.

I can understand Professor Gabriele not wanting to give ammunition to those on the political right with whom he disagrees, particularly when they make crass calls for medieval solutions to modern problems, but misrepresenting what scholars of the crusades think is not the way to do it, and will backfire in the end. Those he criticizes, after all, can read the same books and articles I provide above.

Read the whole thing.

Personality Type

Scholars in the humanities and social sciences seem absolutely obsessed with the categories of race, gender, and sexual orientation (and to a lesser extent social class, although old-school Marxism isn’t as cool as it once was). But I wonder if we don’t need to open new avenues of inquiry. As far as I’m aware, no one has analyzed any historical situation according to the enneagram or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, even though personality type is far more useful in explaining human behavior than it’s given credit for.

Historiography

The word “historiography” has two meanings of which I am aware: 1. the literal meaning, “the writing of history,” as in the Historiographer Royal that the Tudors employed and 2. “the history of history,” that is, a book or article that uses secondary sources as primary sources and charts the changing views of successive generations of historians toward a particular occurrence in the past. I favor the latter meaning for the word, because I also favor the restriction of the meaning of the word “history” itself to its academic sense of “the study of the human past as elucidated through documents” and not simply “whatever has happened in the past.” This is not academic snobbery, but humility – we can never know for certain what really happened in the past, but think we have a pretty good idea because we have documents that were composed by eyewitnesses to the events in question. That’s all that “history” ever is. And besides, to say that Prof. X’s new book on the Civil War is “a great work of historiography” is the sort of verbal inflation that saw “methodology” replace “method” and “discipline” replace “field” (See Paul Fussell, BAD, pp. 103, 102).

Footnotes

From R. Allen Brown, The Normans and the Norman Conquest (1968). Alas, this heresy is now orthodoxy:

It is a heresy, spreading among publishers and symptomatic of our ‘instant’ age, that footnotes put off even intelligent readers. Such readers should protest at the insult thus offered them behind their backs. Footnotes have an honourable place in history. They cite the authority for statement made, and they also lead all those who wish to follow into the deep woods, green pastures, and rewarding byways which lie on either side of the motorway of the text.

 

The Middle Ages Vindicated!

Tim O’Neill shows how the notion that “science made little progress in the Middle Ages” is false, a product of Renaissance and Enlightenment prejudice:

The standard view of the Middle Ages as a scientific wasteland has persisted for so long and is so entrenched in the popular mind largely because it has deep cultural and sectarian roots, but not because it has any real basis in fact.  It is partly based on anti-Catholic prejudices in the Protestant tradition, that saw the Middle Ages purely as a benighted period of Church oppression.  It was also promulgated by Enlightenment scholars like Voltaire and Condorcet who had an axe to grind with Christianity in their own time and projected this onto the past in their polemical anti-clerical writings. By the later Nineteenth Century the “fact” that the Church suppressed science in the Middle Ages was generally unquestioned even though it had never been properly and objectively examined.

It was the early historian of science, the French physicist and mathematician Pierre Duhem, who first began to debunk this polemically-driven view of history.  While researching the history of statics and classical mechanics in physics, Duhem looked at the work of the scientists of the Scientific Revolution, such as Newton, Bernoulli and Galileo.  But in reading their work he was surprised to find some references to earlier scholars, ones working in the supposedly science-free zone of the Middle Ages.  When he did what no historian before him had done before and actually read the work of Medieval physicists like Roger Bacon (1214-1294), Jean Buridan (c. 1300- c. 1358), and Nicholas Oresme (c. 1320-1382) he was amazed at their sophistication and he began a systematic study of the until then ignored Medieval scientific flowering of the Twelfth to Fifteenth Centuries.

What he and later modern historians of early science found is that the Enlightenment myths of the Middle Ages as a scientific dark age suppressed by the dead hand of an oppressive Church were nonsense.  Duhem was a meticulous historical researcher and fluent in Latin, meaning he could read Medieval scientific works that had been ignored for centuries.  And as one of the most renowned physicists of his day, he was also in a unique position to assess the sophistication of the works he was rediscovering and of recognising that these Medieval scholars had actually discovered elements in physics and mechanics that had long been attributed to much later scientists like Galileo and Newton.  This did not sit well with anti-clerical elements in the intellectual elite of his time and his publishers were pressured not to publish the later volumes of his Systeme de MondeHistoire des Doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic – the establishment of the time was not comfortable with the idea of the Middle Ages as a scientific dark age being overturned.  Duhem died with his painstaking work largely unpublished in 1916 and it was only the efforts of his daughter Helene’s 30 year struggle for her father’s opus to see the light of day that saw the whole 10 volume work finally released in 1959.

Read the whole thing. One of the Renaissance books I recently read (can’t remember which one) suggested that scientific enquiry (like the status of women) actually abated in the Renaissance, which was obsessed with art and literature, to the impoverishment of natural philosophy.