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).

John Lukacs, 1924-2019

From the New York Times (hat tip: Bruce Patterson):

John Lukacs, Iconoclastic Historian, Dead at 95

NEW YORK — John Lukacs, the Hungarian-born historian and iconoclast who brooded over the future of Western civilization, wrote a best-selling tribute to Winston Churchill, and produced a substantial and often despairing body of writings on the politics and culture of Europe and the United States, has died.

Lukacs died of heart failure early Monday at his home in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, according to his stepson, Charles Segal. He was 95 and had lived in Phoenixville since the 1950s.

A proud and old-fashioned man with an eminent forehead, cosmopolitan accent, and erudite but personal prose style, Lukacs was a maverick among historians. In a profession where liberals were a clear majority, he was sharply critical of the left and of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. But he was also unhappy with the modern conservative movement, opposing the Iraq war, mocking hydrogen bomb developer Edward Teller as the “Zsa Zsa Gabor of physics” and disliking the “puerile” tradition, apparently started by Ronald Reagan, of presidents returning military salutes from the armed forces.

“John Lukacs is well known not so much for speaking truth to power as speaking truth to audiences he senses have settled into safe and unexamined opinions,” John Willson wrote in The American Conservative in 2013. “This has earned him, among friends and critics alike, a somewhat curmudgeonly reputation.”

Lukacs completed more than 30 books, on everything from his native country to 20th century American history to the meaning of history itself. His books include “Five Days in London,” the memoir “Confessions of an Original Sinner,” and “Historical Consciousness,” in which he contended that the best way to study any subject, whether science or politics, was through its history.

More at the link.

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.

The Treaty of Versailles

From Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld:

The Treaty of Versailles, the hundredth anniversary of which will be remembered in June of this year, has attracted more than its share of historical debate. What has not been said and written about it? That it did not go far enough, given that Germany lost only a relatively small part of its territory and population and was allowed to continue to exist as a unified state under a single government (French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau). That it went much too far, thus helping lay the foundations of World War II. That it imposed a “Carthaginian Peace” (the British economist John Maynard Keynes in his 1919 best-seller, The Economic Consequences of the Peace). That it was “made in order to bring twenty million Germans to their deaths, and to ruin the German nation” (according to a speech delivered in Munich on 13 April 1923 by a thirty-four year old demagogue named Adolf Hitler). All these views, and quite some others, started being thrown about almost as soon as the ink on the Treaty had dried. In one way or another, all of them are still being discussed in the literature right down to the present day.

But what was there about the Treaty that was so special? Was it really as original, as unique, as has so often been maintained? Was the brouhaha it gave rise to justified?

Read the whole thing.

Herodotus Vindicated!

From the Guardian (hat tip: Ace of Spaces):

Nile shipwreck discovery proves Herodotus right – after 2,469 years

Greek historian’s description of ‘baris’ vessel vindicated by archaeologists at sunken city of Thonis-Heraclion

Dalya Alberge

In the fifth century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt and wrote of unusual river boats on the Nile. Twenty-three lines of his Historia, the ancient world’s first great narrative history, are devoted to the intricate description of the construction of a “baris”.

For centuries, scholars have argued over his account because there was no archaeological evidence that such ships ever existed. Now there is. A “fabulously preserved” wreck in the waters around the sunken port city of Thonis-Heracleion has revealed just how accurate the historian was.

“It wasn’t until we discovered this wreck that we realised Herodotus was right,” said Dr Damian Robinson, director of Oxford University’s centre for maritime archaeology, which is publishing the excavation’s findings. “What Herodotus described was what we were looking at.”

In 450 BC Herodotus witnessed the construction of a baris. He noted how the builders “cut planks two cubits long [around 100cm] and arrange them like bricks”. He added: “On the strong and long tenons [pieces of wood] they insert two-cubit planks. When they have built their ship in this way, they stretch beams over them… They obturate the seams from within with papyrus. There is one rudder, passing through a hole in the keel. The mast is of acacia and the sails of papyrus…”

Robinson said that previous scholars had “made some mistakes” in struggling to interpret the text without archaeological evidence. “It’s one of those enigmatic pieces. Scholars have argued exactly what it means for as long as we’ve been thinking of boats in this scholarly way,” he said.

More at the link, including images. The baris appears in book 2, chapter 96 of The Histories.

Hierarchies or Networks?

An interesting observation by Niall Ferguson, from The Square and the Tower (2018):

Professional historians have until recently tended to ignore, or at least to downplay, the role of networks. Even today, the majority of academic historians tend to study the kinds of institution that create and preserve archives, as if those that do not leave an orderly paper trail simply do not count. My research and my experience have taught me to beware the tyranny of the archives. Often the biggest changes in history are the achievements of thinly documented, informally organized groups of people.

By the way, it only just occurred to me that “hierarchy” literally means “rule by priests,” parallel to monarchy (rule by one) or anarchy (rule by none). The Greek hiero- may be seen in such English words as hieroglyphics, hieratic, or hierophant. Presumably our sense of “hierarchy” derives from the Roman Catholic Church, whose hieroi really are organized in a top-down command structure.

A Good Laff

From The Onion:

Self-Actualized Historians Urge Nation Not To Get Hung Up On The Past

CAMBRIDGE, MA—Warning that nothing was more dangerous than focusing on yesterday’s mistakes instead of being present right here and right now, self-actualized historians at Harvard University urged Americans not to get all hung up on the past. “Now more than ever, we must remember: A society that dwells on what it did 200 years ago is basically trapping itself inside its own head, when it could reach its full potential by simply saying, ‘Hey, whatever happened, happened,’ and making the decision to live for today,” said Dr. Andrew Gordon, cautioning society against relitigating the Crusades, fixating on the actions of Nazi Germany, or preoccupying themselves with the horrors of slavery, since life is going on all around us and won’t wait until you’re ready for it. “I used to harp on how Japan’s rapid late-19th-century industrialization affected attitudes towards underclass Meiji women, which still cause dark rifts in their culture all these decades later. But I can’t change any of that, so what’s the point? Global leaders and citizens alike need to realize you can’t keep your head in a bad place all day. Bad things happened, sure, but bad things happen to everyone. There are a million sides to every story, so come on—let’s begin writing our story.” Dr. Gordon’s new historical interpretation was challenged by traditional historians, who continue to urge Americans to obsess over every wrong thing they’ve ever done, each instance of which demonstrates our helplessness against a bleak future that we are and have always been incapable of changing.

Why a Nation Needs a National Story

Jill Lapore in Foreign Affairs:

In 1986, the Pulitzer Prize–winning, bowtie-wearing Stanford historian Carl Degler delivered something other than the usual pipe-smoking, scotch-on-the-rocks, after-dinner disquisition that had plagued the evening program of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association for nearly all of its centurylong history. Instead, Degler, a gentle and quietly heroic man, accused his colleagues of nothing short of dereliction of duty: appalled by nationalism, they had abandoned the study of the nation.

“We can write history that implicitly denies or ignores the nation-state, but it would be a history that flew in the face of what people who live in a nation-state require and demand,” Degler said that night in Chicago. He issued a warning: “If we historians fail to provide a nationally defined history, others less critical and less informed will take over the job for us.”

Read the whole thing, and the other seven essays in the “New Nationalism” series in the March/April issue.

“Lazy, Arrogant Cowards”

From the Telegraph (hat tip: Chris Berard):

Lazy, arrogant cowards: how English saw French in 12th century

A twelfth-century poem newly translated into English casts fresh light on the origin of today’s Francophobic stereotypes.

Although it is meant to be an ‘entente cordiale’, the relationship between the English and the French has been anything but neighbourly.

When the two nations have not been clashing on the battlefield or the sporting pitch they have been trading insults from ‘frogs’ to ‘rosbifs’.

Now the translation of the poem has shown just how deep-rooted in history the rivalry and name-calling really is.

Written between 1180 and 1194, a century after the Norman Conquest united England and Normandy against a common enemy in France, the 396-line poem was part of a propaganda war between London and Paris.

Poet Andrew de Coutances, an Anglo-Norman cleric, describes the French as godless, arrogant and lazy dogs. Even more stingingly, he accuses French people of being cowardly, and calls them heretics and rapists.

It has taken David Crouch, a professor of medieval history at Hull University, months to complete the translation of what is one of the earliest examples of anti-French diatribe.

The poem was written at a time when Philip II of France was launching repeated attacks on Normandy, taking advantage of in-fighting within the English royal family.

Prof Crouch says that the poem is of great interest to historians because of its “racial rhetoric”, which was deployed by Anglo-Norman intellectuals in support of their kings’ bitter political and military struggle.

Extracts from the poem may be read at the link. I have enjoyed hearing Prof. Crouch present at Kalamazoo. It’s interesting how this is an example of the antiquity of ethnic animus; it’s not as if it was invented yesterday and then projected onto the past.

A Post

Apologies for my blogging silence of late. A cartoon shared by Kennesaw State’s David Parker sums it up well:

Although, I am pleased that I got to have dinner tonight with Dan Audia ’08, who has recently been promoted to Assistant Director of MBA Programs at the Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University. Dan says that he:

currently manages enrollment for the KSU MBA and WebMBA programs, specifically the areas of admissions and academic advisement. Our team provides top-notch customer service from prospective student inquiry to current student graduation. Our efforts for recruitment, retention,and progression to graduation are aimed at maintaining the high quality of the programs as demonstrated by several national rankings.

Dan told me about an interesting blog entitled Faith and History: Thinking Christianly about the American Past, run by Robert Tracy McKenzie, professor of history at Wheaton College in Illinois. He hasn’t updated it in a while, but I quite enjoyed perusing his back catalogue, including this post:

The belief that the Pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom is inspiring, but in the sense that we usually mean it, it’s not really true. I’ve shared this reality numerous times since writing The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History, and I almost always get pushback from the audience. That’s understandable, since most of us from our childhood have been raised to believe quite the opposite. But if we’re going to really learn from the Pilgrims’ story, we need to be willing to listen to them instead of putting words into their mouths.

One of my favorite all-time quotes is from Democracy in America where Alexis de Tocqueville observes, “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.” The Pilgrims’ motives for coming to America is a case in point.

The popular understanding that the Pilgrims came to America “in search of religious freedom” is technically true, but it is also misleading. It is technically true in that the freedom to worship according to the dictates of Scripture was at the very top of their list of priorities. They had already risked everything to escape religious persecution, and the majority never would have knowingly chosen a destination where they would once again wear the “yoke of antichristian bondage,” as they described their experience in England.

To say that the Pilgrims came “in search of” religious freedom is misleading, however, in that it implies that they lacked such liberty in Holland. Remember that the Pilgrims did not come to America directly from England. They had left England in 1608, locating briefly in Amsterdam before settling for more than a decade in Leiden. If a longing for religious freedom alone had compelled them, they might never have left that city. Years later, the Pilgrim’s governor, William Bradford, recalled that in Leiden God had allowed them “to come as near the primitive pattern of the first churches as any other church of these later times.” As Pilgrim Edward Winslow recalled, God had blessed them with “much peace and liberty” in Holland. They hoped to find “the like liberty” in their new home.

More at the link.