Thoughts on Book 3 of the Histories of Herodotus

I gave a short lecture this evening on Book 3; my comments are reprinted below:

Book 2 deals largely with Egypt, and Book 3 marks a return of Persia to the narrative, although we get the usual Herodotean diversions, including Samos and Corinth in the Greek world; and India, Arabia and Ethiopia on the periphery. Of course, the farther afield you go, the more exotic the people’s customs, like the Ethiopian crystal coffins or the Indian use of ants to collect gold.

An important episode in Book 3 is the so-called Constitutional Debate, starting at section 80. A group of seven Persian conspirators has deposed and killed the Magi who have usurped the throne. They then hold a debate on what sort of constitution they should adopt for their new regime. Otanes goes first, and speaks in favor of popular government (isonomia, or equality before the law), although this speech is more anti-monarchical than pro-democratic and reminds me of Samuel’s speech on the dangers of monarchy in 1 Samuel 8. Essentially, by giving monarchs absolute power, it absolutely corrupts them. Equality before the law acts as a check on this tendency. Megabyzus then speaks in favor of oligarchy, or rule by a few, on the principle that the masses are fickle and feckless. Oppression by kings is bad, but at least kings act deliberately; mobs do not. The next best thing is to adopt a constitution favoring rule by a few – included, of course, would be all the conspirators themselves. Finally Darius speaks in favor of monarchy. It is best to have one ruler – provided he is the best. Oligarchy leads to violent quarrels among the members of the ruling clique, from which a victor, and thus a monarch, emerges – so why not just pick a monarch right off the bat? Democracy, too, leads to faction and partisanship, and then the advent of a people’s champion (a monarch again) who promises to break it up. And anyway, says Darius, Persia has always been a monarchy – why change now? The remaining four conspirators find this speech convincing, and vote for it. So Persia does indeed remain a monarchy.

Now it is highly unlikely that this debate actually occurred. Herodotus himself claims that “some Greeks refuse to believe the speeches took place, nevertheless they did” – without providing any further evidence. It is easy to see why people would be skeptical. Discussing the ideal constitution was a Greek pastime (as the works of Plato and Aristotle confirm), and really only applicable at the level of the polis, where one could afford such constitutional experiment. Ancient democracy, or even oligarchy, did not really scale up; empires required emperors. So of course Darius won the day with his vigorous defense of the traditional arrangements – as though there was ever really another choice.

We have talked about how Herodotus is genuinely curious about and even respectful of other peoples’ customs. But it seems to me that ultimately The Histories is pro-Hellenic, since ultimately it is a Greek history of the Persian Wars. It makes sense that the Persians should choose the form of government that suits them – as Herodotus says in 38: “if anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably, after careful consideration of their relative merits, choose those of his own country.” But I would say that Herodotus, the Greek, in this case ultimately looks down on the Persian system. Darius claims that monarchy is good if the king is “the best” – but how does one guarantee this? Does monarchy really serve Persia well when someone like Cambyses is on the throne? Cambyses of course is the Persian successor to Cyrus, and defeats the Egyptian pharaoh Psammetichus, thereby incorporating Egypt into the Persian empire. He executes numerous Egyptians who offer him resistance, humiliates the family of Psammetichus, burns the body of the Pharaoh Amasis in defiance of both Persian and Egyptian custom, and in a fit of anger sends his men on an expedition into Ethiopia without proper supplies, leading to the loss of most of them. But his greatest crime is the impious killing of the Apis bull in Memphis, for which the gods punish him with madness. In this state he kills his brother and sister, shoots a boy through the heart with an arrow, arbitrarily buries twelve Persians upside down, kills the men who had not carried out an order that he had come to regret, and many other crimes. He is put out of his misery when a self-inflicted wound becomes gangrenous.

This is the major drawback of monarchy. There is no guarantee that you’ll get the best man for the job.

Karl Marx proposed that history always repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. He was referring to the advent of Louis-Napoleon in nineteenth-century France, but he might as well have been referring to Book 3 of the Histories. As we read, it is Darius, the defender of monarchy, who becomes monarch. Having agreed that they should have one king, the conspirators devise a method to see which one of them should assume the office. Rather than selecting the one most likely to rule well, they essentially cast lots for the job by seeing whose horse would neigh first at dawn. Of course, this process is gamed by Darius through the judicious use of the pheromones of a mare in heat. Herodotus can’t resist a story of cleverness, and perhaps, he implies, such skills are precisely what a monarch needs to have. But I can’t help but feel that the whole thing makes the Persian monarchy into a sort of joke.

Darius does not die until Book 7, and enjoys certain successes throughout his reign. But before Book 3 is out he is already executing his co-conspirators and their families because he has grown suspicious of them. This is another drawback of monarchy.

Thoughts on Book 2 of the Histories of Herodotus

Book 2 of the Histories largely concerns itself with Egypt. Herodotus is not just the father of history,* he is also the father of ethnography, and his description of the Egyptians suggests that they often do the opposite of whatever the Greeks do: in Egypt, women pee standing up, men sitting down; Egyptians, “preferring cleanliness to comeliness,” practice circumcision; women go to market and are employed in trade, while men stay home and do the weaving (which they do downwards, not upwards). But the Egyptians are not so odd that they have nothing in common with the Greeks. Although they may not be the oldest people in the world (the pharaoh Psammeticus ran a language deprivation experiment and determined that the Phrygians were older), they are certainly older than the Greeks. And Herodotus, being the lumper that he is, matched up Greek with Egyptian gods – and assumed that the Greeks derived their gods from the older Egyptians. (Elsewhere he suggests that the Greeks learned geometry and other things from the Egyptians as well.)

This is a touchy subject. If modern Europeans looked back on the Greeks with admiration, African scholars, in riposte, idealized the Egyptians. There is nothing essentially wrong with this, but the Herodotean notion of cultural priority was emphasized quite a lot by so-called Afrocentrists, including Marcus Garvey, George James, and Cheikh Anta Diop, and was developed into the charge that the Greeks stole everything from the Egyptians – just as nineteenth-century Europeans colonized Africa and expropriated its resources. (When I lecture on this topic I try to say that it is silly to hold the past hostage to present day concerns. Greeks are not stand-ins for “Europe,” nor is Egypt symbolic of “Africa.” They were different people in a different time, and interacted in various ways that may bear little resemblance to our current age. They should be studied as much as possible on their own terms.)

Herodotus is still our main source for Egypt’s Twenty-Sixth Dynasty (664-525 BC), but not for nothing is he called the “father of lies.” It seems that he can’t resist a good story, and I often get the distinct impression that his informants are pulling his leg, while he earnestly writes down everything they tell him. His theory of Egyptian cultural priority is an example of another characteristic: he often draws logical inferences from the facts as he discovers them, which may not actually be borne out by further investigation. Martin Bernal in Black Athena (1987) suggested that Europeans abandoned Herodotus’s Egyptian theory in the nineteenth century because their racism couldn’t bear the thought that the Greeks weren’t original, but Mary Lefkowitz in Not Out of Africa (1997) points out another reason: the decipherment of hieroglyphics in the 1830s meant that we no longer solely dependent on Herodotus for our information on ancient Egypt. As a consequence, we started to discover just how original the Greeks really were, and how Herodotus was simply wrong on this count.

*Patrick Wadden of Belmont Abbey College noted that Herodotus’s extensive discussion of the geography of Egypt, and how it has changed over time, is a topic that historians have only recently returned to.

Thoughts on Book 1 of The Histories of Herodotus

I am currently teaching a multi-institutional course on Herodotus through Sunoikisis, “a national consortium of classics programs.” Combined with the Council on Independent Colleges’ seminar on Herodotus that I participated in last summer at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC, I have been learning quite a lot about this most fascinating of ancient authors. Here are some notes on Book 1; others may follow.


“I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history.” Thus it begins: the father of history designates himself as the author of his own prose work, winning glory (and presumably taking responsibility for any errors that he may commit). Such a move, of course, contrasts with Homer’s call to the muse to help him sing of gods and heroes at Troy, in dactylic hexameter. So just as Herodotus puts himself forward as the author of his own work, the gods themselves play little direct role in the Histories – although the actors reverence gods in various ways, and frequently consult the Oracle, which is never proven wrong.

Herodotus, for the most part, acts as his own authority. He narrates events, including direct speech, as though he were a witness to them (e.g. 84: “This is how Sardis was captured”). But we know that he was not – how then did he get this information? He claims direct observation for his ethnographic descriptions (131: “I speak from personal knowledge [about Persian customs]”), and this we can accept, even if we are skeptical of some of the more outlandish stories he relates. We can assume therefore that his major source was simply conversations with various people in order to collect information about their past, and indeed he occasionally reveals that he has heard things, particularly when he encounters contradictory information, or when he disagrees with it. (20: “So much I know, for I heard from the Delphians that this was how it was. But the Milesians add this besides…”; 76: “I do not accept… the general report of the Greeks”; 172: “personally I believe that the Caunians have always lived in the same country though they themselves say they are from Crete”). But these are simply groups; he does not list any one person as a source.

(One instance of him consulting a historical record as such comes at the very beginning, when he invokes “Persian chroniclers.” He proceeds to dismiss them, however (5: “For my part I am not going to say about these matters that they happened thus or thus.”) A poem of iambic trimeters by Archilochus of Paros is also cited as corroborating evidence of the story of Gyges and Candaules in 12.)

Whether Herodotus is “true” is a question for which we would dearly love corroborating evidence of our own. We are heartened, however, to read that the author is unafraid, at least occasionally, to employ reason to test the veracity of his stories.

Battle of the Translations

This week students in History 111 read a number of Biblical passages to illustrate ancient Hebrew history. Of course, if we were all proper scholars, we would be reading them in the original Hebrew, but no one (including me) would be able to handle that, so we are reduced to using a translation into a “language understood by the people,” as Protestant Reformers recommended.

But what translation? You can translate texts in more than one way, of course, and with something as important as the Bible, translation becomes a serious issue. Martin Luther himself, I understand, translated the Bible in certain ways in order to justify his own theology – and one of the reasons why he dropped several books of the Old Testament, bringing the Bible into conformity with Jewish usage, is because such books as Maccabees, Judith, Tobit, and Esdras did not support his interpretation of Christianity (thus their current designation as “apocryphal”).

The translation that I have used in my classes is the New International Version, simply on account of its readability. Of course, a lot of people don’t think the Bible should be “readable” – or rather, they think the prose should be elevated, like the Authorized Version sponsored by King James (r. 1603-1625). According to Adam Nicolson in God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (2003), even in the early seventeenth century the dialect of this bible was artificial – self-consciously created in order to bestow majesty on its subject and its sponsor, and hopefully to bind the Church of England together, divided as it was between Puritans and High Church Anglicans. Here is the KJV’s famous rendering of 1 Corinthians 13:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

And if prose like this sounded grand back in the seventeenth century, how much more grand does it sound now! This is what people love about it – so much so that there exists a King James Only movement, whose adherents hold that the Authorized Version is the ne plus ultra of English translations – that it is even divinely inspired. Somehow it exists above and beyond the politics of the Church of England in 1611.

Now, I have no problem with people who prefer a majestic bible! And given the influence of the KJB on the history of the English language, everyone should read it anyway for the sake of cultural literacy. But given that in HIS 111 we’re reading the bible, not for spiritual edification, nor as a primary source for the seventeenth century, but to discover something about the ancient Hebrews, we should probably try to avoid elevated prose, in favor of current American Standard English, to help us understand the meaning of the original text as much as possible.

As far as I can ascertain the translators of the New International Version did not have a particular agenda beyond clarity. They do seem to have been from evangelical Protestant backgrounds but it does not seem to me that they skewed their translation accordingly (they certainly resisted inserting marginal explanatory notes, as did the Puritans who composed the sixteenth-century Geneva Bible). All this is prefatory to a forum post by a student, who doesn’t much care for the NIV:

I see on the back the NIV was used for these translations. The NIV has removed 40 verses and over 64,000 words. Verses such as Matthew 18:11 – “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.” Mark 11:26 – “But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses.” So the question is, why was this version decided upon when so much was taken out?

“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:” -2 Timothy 3:16 KJV

I confess that I was unaware of this issue, and I assure my readers that censorship was not my intention! However, I cannot imagine the translators of the NIV acting as a sort of sinister cabal, removing verses at will in order to further a certain agenda. Instead, they were simply using the best original manuscripts they could come up with. Unfortunately, the Bible, in its early days, was rather like a Wikipedia article, which people felt free to edit according to their taste. (Forget tendentious translation, this is monkeying with the text itself! Nowadays there are taboos against this sort of thing.) This then raises the question, what did the original text look like? How shall we go about establishing it? In the sixteenth century, the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus set himself the task of publishing a Greek New Testament, to which end he collected as many manuscripts of it as he could. Perhaps unsurprisingly, not all of these manuscripts agreed with each other, leaving Erasmus to make a few judgment calls. This effort has been ongoing since his time – and as more and more biblical manuscripts are uncovered, and our linguistic knowledge has grown more sophisticated, our sense of the original Greek text has sharpened – which means, unfortunately, that what we now realize are later textual additions must be excised, no matter how edifying we might find their sentiments. The Hebrew Masoretic Text (“𝕸”) and the Nestle-Aland Koine Greek New Testament, used by the translators of the NIV, are simply more accurate than the Hebrew and Greek sources that were available to the translators of the KJB (who themselves were constantly comparing their efforts to the Bishops’ Bible of 1602, i.e. the KJB isn’t entirely a fresh translation).

As for the NIV’s lack of Matthew 18:11: Bible Gateway says, in a footnote, “Some manuscripts include here the words of Luke 19:10.” For Mark 11:26, it says “Some manuscripts include here words similar to Matt. 6:15.” So it seems that the compilers are willing to acknowledge the editorial decisions they’ve made – and these particular verses appear elsewhere in the bible anyway.

Heraldry in Medieval Literature

Largely through the readings of my interdisciplinary course on medieval chivalry, which I am teaching again this semester, I have husbanded a number of passages dealing with a favorite subject of mine: heraldry. Like Melville’s librarian, I reprint them here.

• Gerald of Wales, De principis instructione (English, 12th cent.). It’s difficult to see how exactly this would work (interior of the shield, maybe…).

When King Arthur went out to fight, he had a full-length portrait of the Blessed Virgin painted on the front of his shield, so that in the heat of battle he could always gaze upon Her; and whenever he was about to make contact with the enemy he would kiss Her feet with great devoutness.

• Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain (English, 12th cent.). This one’s a little better – and the shield has a name, to boot.

Arthur himself put on a leather jerkin worthy of so great a king. On his head he placed a golden helmet, with a crest carved in the shape of a dragon; and across his shoulders a circular shield called Pridwen, on which there was painted a likeness of the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, which forced him to be thinking perpetually of her.

• The Poem of the Cid (Spanish, 12th cent.). Don Jerome talks to the Cid, in terms not exactly in accord with his status as a cleric.

Wishing to honour myself and my order, I demand of you the privilege of striking the first blows. I carry a banner and a shield with emblem of roe deer emblazoned on them. I wish to essay my arms, as it may please God, to bring me joy and give you greater satisfaction.

• Chretien de Troyes, Lancelot (French, 13th cent.). The first herald to appear in literature does not seem to be a very competent one.

On this bed Lancelot was reclining, completely disarmed. As he lay there so uncomfortably, suddenly there appeared a fellow in his shirt-sleeves, a herald-at-arms, who had left his coat and shoes as a pledge at the tavern and came rushing in, barefoot and in a general state of undress. He found the shield in front of the door and inspected it, but was quite unable to recognize it or tell who owned it or was to bear it.

• Later in Lancelot. If you can’t impress the ladies with feats of arms, you can always do so with your knowledge of heraldry!

The queen was back in the stand with the ladies and maidens; and with them too were numerous knights without their arms who had been captured or who had taken the cross, and who interpreted for them the armorial bearings of their favourite knights. They say among themselves: “Do you see the one now with the golden band across the red shield? That’s Governal of Roberdic. And you can see that next one with an eagle and a dragon painted side by side on his shield? That’s the son of the King of Aragon, who has come to this country to win honour and renown. And can you se the one beside him who is spurring so hard and jousting so well, the one with part of his shield green with a leopard painted on it and the other half azure? That’s the much-loved Ignaures, the popular lover. That one bearing the shield with the pheasants painted beak to beak is Coguillant of Mautirec. And do you see, to his side, those two on dappled horses and with sable lions on their golden shields? One is called Semiramis and the other is his companion, which is why their shields have the same decoration. Do you see too the one whose shield is painted with a gate from which a stag seems to be emerging? I swear that’s King Yder.” Such were the explanations given in the stands.

• Chretien de Troyes, Perceval. You’ve got to get those measurements right.

While they were getting ready and arming in the hall, through the door enters Guigambresil bearing a golden shield, on which was an azure band. The band covered precisely a third of the shield, accurately measured. Guigambresil recognized the king and duly greeted him; but instead of greeting Gawain, he accused him of felony.

• Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, fit 27 (English, 14th cent.). Gawain gets his shield, and we get a different explanation for the symbolism of the pentangle than the neo-pagan one in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.

Then they showed him the shield of shining gules,
With the Pentangle in pure gold depicted thereon.
He brandished it by the baldric, and about his neck
He slung it in a seemly way, and it suited him well.
And I intend to tell you, though I tarry therefore,
Why the Pentangle is proper to this prince of knights,
It is a symbol of Solomon conceived once
To betoken holy truth, by its intrinsic right,
For it is a figure which had five points,
And each line overlaps and is locked with another;
And it is endless everywhere, and the English call it,
In all the land, I hear, the Endless Knot.
Therefore it goes with Sir Gawain and his gleaming armour,
For, ever faithful in five things, each in fivefold manner,
Gawain was reported good and, like gold well refined,
He was devoid of all villainy, every virtue displaying…

• Jean Froissart, Chronicles (Netherlandish, 14th cent.). A dispute over an emblem during the Hundred Years War.

Just as Sir John Chandos had ridden round observing part of the French dispositions, so one of the French Marshals, Sir Jean de Clermont, had gone out reconnoitering the English. In doing this, it so happened that their paths crossed and that some strong words were exchanged. These knights, who were young and in love, were both wearing on their left arms the same emblem of a lady embroidered in a sunbeam. Sir Jean de Clermont was by no means pleased to see his emblem on Sir John Chandos and he pulled up in front of him and said: “I have been wanting to meet you, Chandos. Since when have you taken to wearing my emblem?” “And you mine?” said Sir John. It is as much mine as yours.” “I deny that,” said Sir Jean de Clermont, “and if there were not a truce between us, I would show you that you have no right to wear it.” “Ha,” replied Sir John, “tomorrow you will find me more than ready to prove by force that it belongs to me as much as to you.” With these words, they each turned away, but Sir Jean de Clermont shouted, as a further provocation: “That’s just the sort of boast you English make. You can never think of anything new yourselves, but whenever you see something good you just take it!”


From Julian Barnes’s book, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989):

There’s one thing I’ll say for history. It’s very good at finding things. We try to cover them up, but history doesn’t let go. It’s got time on its side, time and science. However ferociously we ink over our first thoughts, history finds a way of reading them. We bury our victims in secrecy (strangled princelings, irradiated reindeer), but history discovers what we did to them. We lost the Titanic, forever it seemed, in the squid-ink depths, but they turned it up. They found the wreck of the Medusa not long ago, off the coast of Mauretania. There wasn’t any hope of treasure, they knew that; and all they salvaged after a hundred and seventy-five years were a few copper nails from the frigate’s hull and a couple of cannon. But they went and found it just the same….

We all know objective truth is not obtainable, that when some event occurs we shall have a multiplicity of subjective truths which we assess have a multiplicity of subjective truths which we assess and then fabulate into history, into some God-eyed version of what ‘really’ happened. This God-eyed version is a fake – a charming, impossible fake, like those medieval paintings which show all the stages of Christ’s Passion happening simultaneously in different parts of the picture. But while we know this, we must still believe that objective truth is obtainable; or we must believe that it is 99 per cent obtainable; or if we can’t believe this we must believe that 43 per cent objective truth is better than 41 per cent. We must do so, because if we don’t we’re lost, we fall into beguiling relativity, we value one liar’s version as much as another liar’s, we throw up our hands at the puzzle of it all, we admit that the victor has the right not just to the spoils but also to the truth. (Whose truth do we prefer, by the way, the victor’s or the victim’s? Are pride and compassion greater distorters than shame and fear?)

The James Dickey Review

The annual James Dickey Review is now being published at Reinhardt, as part of our new low-residency MFA program, “Story and Place in the New South.” Our first issue is now in print or available for download to Kindle (Amazon). I’m pleased to say that I have a piece in volume 32, a review of (or as I described it, a reaction to) Dickey’s most well-known novel, Deliverance (1970), which I read over last Christmas at the suggestion of the editor, Reinhardt’s VPAA Mark Roberts. I suppose it would be in bad taste to print the whole thing, but I’ll give you a teaser here:

I was born and raised in Canada. I attended college in New England and graduate school in the Midwest. Prior to 2004, when I was 33 and accepted a job at Reinhardt College in Waleska, Georgia, I had spent very little time in the American South – less than a month in total, over the course of a few road trips. Just prior to our move, and to celebrate it, my wife and I watched Gone with the Wind, thinking that it might be a good idea to acquaint ourselves with this classic of Southern identity. It never occurred to me to watch Deliverance – even though Waleska is in the foothills of Appalachia and that movie is probably more pertinent to this particular milieu.

I was vaguely aware of Deliverance. Who hasn’t heard the “dueling banjos” duet? A college friend of mine liked to yell “squeeeal like a pig!” at random times, and another had a T-shirt that read “paddle faster – I hear banjo music!” I thought that I should see the film at some point, not only because of its supposed relevance to north Georgia, but because it is an important film as such, up there with such seventies gems as Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Taxi Driver. But around the time I had kids my movie watching declined precipitously and has not really recovered.

(If anything was holding me back, though, it was my suspicion that Deliverance was just as distorted as Gone with the Wind, but from the opposite point of view. Like Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, would Deliverance be a voyeuristic depiction of the South for the titillation of blue-state Americans? I’ve grown quite fond of Georgia, and do not care for this sort of thing. “That movie set back our image by fifty years,” claims a former student of mine.)

I still have not seen the film. But in honor of Reinhardt’s acquisition of the James Dickey Review, I have now read the book. And I’m pleased to read that at least the original text was not a gratuitously negative portrayal of Appalachia.

Buy the issue to read the rest!


As a card-carrying member of the medievalists’ guild, I am contractually obliged to defend the Middle Ages whenever possible. Of course, after years of teaching the Western Civ. sequence, I have come to appreciate other historical eras as well – even the Renaissance, which originated the whole idea that we had a “Middle Ages” in the first place. But while praising what humanists did, I still dispute the notion that for them to succeed, others had to fail. You know the narrative: the Roman world, in particular the age right before the advent of the Principate, was pretty good, and if we try really hard, we can be as good as them – we can witness a “rebirth” of their ideals, or at least of their beautiful language. Everything between those two points – a period lasting over a thousand years – was designed a “Middle” Age. Aristotle might have favored the mean as particularly “golden,” and even the expression “middle of the road” suggests safety and inoffensiveness, but this middle was very bad indeed, a long slough of despond between two high points. It does not help that the adjective in English, “medieval” (from the Latin “medium aevum”), contains the word “evil.” It definitely has a negative connotation, as in Marsellus Wallace’s promise that his torturers would “get medieval” on the rapist Zed in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), or Aaronow’s line from Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) about how a win-or-you’re-fired sales incentive is “medieval… it’s wrong.”

With that in mind, allow me to comment on this excerpt from Leonardo Bruni’s History of the Florentine People (1442):

The Latin language, in all its perfection and greatness, flourished most vigorously in the time of Cicero, for its first state was not polished or refined or subtle, but, mounting little by little to perfection, it reached its highest summit in the time of Cicero. After his age it began to sink and to descend, as until that time it had risen, and many years had not passed before it experienced a great decline and diminution; and it can be said that letters and the studies of the language went hand in hand with the condition of the Roman Republic, which had also grown in power until the age of Cicero.

After the liberty of the Roman people had been lost through the rule of the emperors, who did not desist from killing and eliminating the men of excellence, the flourishing condition of studies and of letters perished, together with the welfare of the city of Rome. Augustus, who was the least evil of the emperors, had thousands of Roman citizens slain; Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero did not leave anyone alive who had the face of a man. There followed, then, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, who killed off each other within a few months. After them there were no more emperors of Roman blood, since the country had been so ruined by the preceding emperors that no one of any excellence remained… Why am I relating all this? Simply to demonstrate that as the city of Rome was destroyed by the emperors, who were perverse tyrants, so studies and Latin letters experienced a like ruin and decay, to such an extent that finally almost no one could be found who understood Latin literature with any refinement.

That literary and moral development go hand in hand is an interesting theory. I suppose this is true on some level – you do need some measure of prosperity and political stability before you can devote your time to cultivating your prose style. But what about the idea that all great art comes from crisis? Or that famous speech in The Third Man (1949):

Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Of course, this is visual art, and not literature… and I suppose that Bruni is right on some level: in totalitarian regimes, language is utterly debased, in that everyone must publicly consent to lies on a daily basis. In the Roman context, everyone of any influence had to pretend that Augustus actually restored the republic when he didn’t. But note that Bruni is not complaining about truth-telling, but about “style.” He claims that learned men were killed off by the emperors – and I suppose that many of them were. But what about the first century BC, when Rome was still a republic and still featured Romans merrily killing each other, including the great Cicero, who was assassinated by agents of Marc Anthony? What about the “Augustan age” of literature, including Ovid, Livy, Virgil, and other master stylists, some of them sponsored by Augustus himself? What about the eighty-year period of political stability in the second century AD, the so-called Golden Age of the Roman Empire – was this not long and prosperous enough for someone to cultivate a good style? Do Apuleius and Suetonius not count?

OK, so Bruni is generalizing, and exaggerating. The fall of the Western Empire doubtlessly did have an effect on letters:

Then Italy was invaded successively by the Goths and the Lombards, barbarian and foreign peoples, who almost completely extinguished all knowledge of letters, as appears in the documents drawn up in that time, than which nothing could be found more coarse and crude. From the time when the liberty of the Italian peoples was recovered, by the defeat of the Lombards who had occupied Italy for two hundred and four years, the cities of Tuscany and elsewhere began to revive, and to take up studies, and somewhat to refine the coarse style. So little by little these came to recover vigor, but very feebly, and without any true sense of refinement, paying more attention to writing in vernacular rhymes than to other forms. And so until the time of Dante few knew the cultivated style, and those few understood it rather badly, as we have said in the life of Dante. Francesco Petrarca was the first who had such grace of talent, and who recognized and restored to light the ancient elegance of style which was lost and dead, and although in him it was not perfect, nevertheless by himself he saw and opened the way to this perfection by recovering the works of Cicero, by enjoying them, by understanding them, and by adapting himself as much as he could, and he learned the way to that most elegant and perfect fluency.

The chronology here is a little fuzzy – Charlemagne defeated the Lombards in the eighth century, and Dante died in the early fourteenth, but I suppose that the long-term prosperity of the commercial revolution did invigorate Italian letters. I sure wish that Bruni would provide examples of what he means by “cultivated style” or “elegant and perfect fluency.” Because on one level it seems arbitrary: language changes over time, as the humanists noticed all too well; who is anyone to say what register is “better” than another? As long as language is efficient within its community at conveying meaning, there is no such thing as “good style.” As I like to tell my students, it would be as though we decided that our English was ugly, and that we need to revive the English of Shakespeare. This would be an exercise in pure affectation.

But we have all had the experience of reading beautiful prose, and trying to slog through bad prose, so I’m not prepared to dismiss aesthetic considerations completely. I just don’t believe that morality and “style” go hand in hand, and I especially dislike how the humanists ran down the “Middle” Ages because their style wasn’t as “good” as that of Cicero.

Medieval Chronicle

My grad school colleague Ellen Arnold has an interesting post up about medieval chronicles, and imagines the events of this year rendered as a chronicle entry. Of course, designating the president-elect as a “tyrant” rather ruins the effect, as very few medieval chroniclers would have courted the displeasure of the local ruler with such a gratuitous insult. Other than that, it sounds about right:

MMXVI. In the eighth and final year of Obama, the kings of Thailand and Cuba died. An assembly met in Paris to protect Creation, and the Pope declared a Jubilee year. Many entertainers were lost, including the Prince. In the Americas, infants were born with small heads, the drought continued, fires burned, and buffalo herds gathered to support the Dakota. Earthquakes in Italy. The world was warmer than ever before in human memory, and there was civil war in Syria. Fleeing the rise of a new Islamic State, people flooded into Europe, and Britain fled Europe. There was a total eclipse of the sun, a supermoon was seen, and octopodes walked on land. Baby bears were triumphant in sports and born at the Columbus zoo. A tyrant was chosen to lead America, and Pokemon were sighted throughout the world.

Read the whole thing.


Tim Furnish shares an interesting article on Plato, who “was neither fully liberal, nor a totalitarian”:

Plato is not Ricardo or Locke or Hayek or Nozick. He was probably more optimistic about political authority than most classical liberals. But it’s a mistake to characterize him as a proto-totalitarian on the basis of the “ideal city” thought experiment in the Republic, which is really an argument in individual moral philosophy. He is very explicit about the allegorical nature of the analogy, and his non-allegorical political observations, such as the dangers of unrestrained democracy, are mostly spot-on. It’s not helpful to classical liberalism to rail against a totalitarianism that isn’t there, especially when the ethical insights are both intrinsically worthwhile and relevant to the philosophy of freedom.

More at the link.