Speaking up for Latin and Greek

Mary Beard

  • Changes in the Roman Empire: Essays in the Ordinary by Ramsay MacMullen
    Princeton, 399 pp, $35.00, December 1990, ISBN 0 691 03601 2

Twenty-five years ago M.I. Finley made a plea in the TLS for ‘unfreezing the Classics’. The discipline of ancient history, he argued, was in crisis: submerged in the stultifying traditions of old-fashioned Classical philology, cut off from dialogue with ‘proper’ history, political science and sociology, it was no longer part of any wider cultural debate. Finley believed that ancient history (at least in Britain) had lost its claim to be considered ‘serious’ history. It simply failed to broach ‘important matters of broad human concern’. It didn’t even try to reflect ‘the historian’s own seriousness and his values’. It had no ‘commitment’, no ‘point of view’.

This article was one of a series of attempts by Finley to analyse the ills of his own discipline. Right up to his last book Ancient History: Evidence and Models, which was published in 1985, he was engaged in prising apart the comfortable, narrow-minded, unreflective assumptions that lay behind much ancient-historical practice. On what possible grounds, he asked, could his colleagues treat a biography by Plutarch (writing in the second century CE) as a ‘primary’ source for the career of Pericles – who lived more than five hundred years earlier? How could they trust any ancient account of Rome’s foundation in the eighth century BCE when it could easily and conclusively be demonstrated that no written source could be traced back before 300 BCE?

The answer lay in the blind faith that modern scholars place in anything written in Latin and Greek. Unlike Finley himself, most ancient historians had been originally trained as Classicists, with long years of study devoted to Classical languages and literature. They emerged from this process overawed by the authority of the great Classical texts, predisposed to treat as fact whatever fiction the ancient authors offered. Worse than that, they allowed the canon of literary texts to set the agenda for the modern discipline of ancient history – parading it as a virtue that the Classical authors should ‘speak for themselves’. The result was that ancient history had a lot to say about generals, emperors and battles; precious little about ‘proper’ historical topics, about structure, slavery and economics.

If Finley were here to reflect on the practice of ancient history in the Nineties, he would probably be disappointed at the impact of his critique. The ‘great tradition’ of Classical philology is peculiarly adept at incorporating its enemies. So today in most school and university courses (there are some honourable exceptions) the inheritance of Finley is represented by a few questions on slavery and trade which appear at the end of the exam paper – after the regular run of old chestnuts on the strategy of the Archidamian War, or the foreign policy of the Emperor Claudius. Finley’s sting, in other words, has been drawn by a casual genuflection in the direction of a few socio-economic topics. Meanwhile specialist Classical journals continue to produce articles of just the kind of narrowness that first provoked Finley’s attack. ‘Did Galba visit Britain in AD 43?’, ‘The Illyrian Atintani, the Epirotic Atintanes and the Roman Protectorate’, ‘Pliny HN 7, 57 and the Marriage of Tiberius Gracchus’ are among recent offerings in respectable, mainstream British periodicals – titles that could entice only the most masochistic, even of the professionals. Nor has the presentation of ancient history in the press or on television changed very much. There have been some valiant attempts, such as Channel 4’s Greek Fire, but articles of the ‘Twenty things you did not know about Hannibal’s elephants’ variety are still more common than any discussion of Finley’s ‘important matters of broad human concern’: imperialism, censorship, exploitation, democracy. It is the Mastermind view of the ancient world, the fascination with curious trivia, that still dominates.

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