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.

In some ways, however, Finley’s attack on the practice of ancient history now seems misplaced, or at least strikingly dated. He had started out with a healthy scepticism about the ‘reliability’ of Classical sources and a healthy mistrust of many ancient historians when confronted with any texts in Latin and Greek. But in his later work this scepticism turned into an almost ludicrous rejection of the literary tradition. So by 1985, in the final chapter of Ancient History, he could claim that the very idea that ‘sources written in Greek or Latin occupy a privileged status ... is unwarranted and constitutes a major stumbling-block to any proper historical analysis’. No doubt his target here was the apparent naivety of some of his colleagues – those, for example, who failed to understand that Dio Cassius’s History of Rome (written in the middle of the third century CE) was an inadequate and unsatisfactory guide to the reign of the Emperor Augustus, 250 years before. But he failed to take the step beyond that essentially positivist objection to state explicitly what he must have recognised: that any modern analysis of the nature of Roman imperial society has to be founded on just these unsatisfactory accounts; that, in fact, there is a very important kind of history to be written using the flagrant fictions of Roman élite writers, their miscognitions, their wilful, partisan misrepresentations to themselves of earlier periods of their society, of their heroes and their villains.

Finley was himself a highly sophisticated reader of ancient texts – despite his paraded rejection of the privileged position of Latin and Greek literature. But he always flinched at the idea that the practice of ancient history is, and must be, essentially a practice of reading. By that I do not mean that it should be a naive fact-searching or narrowly philological reading; nor do I mean that it should be the reading of a restricted literary canon in isolation – without the essential concomitants of archaeology, numismatics, art history, epigraphy, anthropology, hermeneutics, sociology and all the other disciplines that Finley rightly regarded as indispensable. Ancient history is reading in its very widest sense, but it must remain centred on the vast quantity of literary and non-literary written material that survives from the Classical world, and which serves to distinguish that world so sharply from neighbouring prehistory.

At the same time as Finley was framing his most strident protests against the dominance of Classical philology over Classical history, Classical philology itself was starting to undergo a major epistemological revolution. That revolution is far from complete; nor is it universal. The study of Classical literature still attracts more than its fair share of under-theorised practical criticism and clever, but ultimately inconsequential studies of variant manuscript readings and scribal errors. There has been, nevertheless, a growing tendency for specialists in the literature of the ancient world to offer a reading of Classical texts informed by the ‘seriousness’ and ‘commitment’ that Finley demanded – informed not only by modern literary theory but also by the debates and conflicts of feminism, psychoanalysis and contemporary cultural politics. Literary studies in this sense cannot be seen as the enemy of history; if anything, they are part and parcel of the same subject.

Simon Goldhill’s Reading Greek Tragedy, for example, published in 1986, is a book born out of the tradition of the ‘new’ Classical philology. It does not claim to be a work of history, but by showing how Athenian drama acted as a privileged arena for defining and negotiating gender relations, cultural change, the nature of Athenian tradition, conflicts of political power and so forth, Goldhill puts Greek tragedy at the centre of the historical stage. According to his analysis, these plays are not simply quarries from which the determined ancient historian might now dig out pieces of evidence for particular political events – as with the well-known use of Aeschylus’s Eumenides to throw light on the otherwise ill-documented democratic reforms of Ephialtes in 462 BCE. For Goldhill, Athenian tragedy and the broad cultural questions that it negotiates are an integral part of the political and social processes of Athens as a city-state. As such, tragedy – just as much as the structure of loan transactions, or the details of voting procedures in the assembly – is Athenian history.

These changes in the wider practice of the Classics and of Classical philology make Finley’s underlying aim to liberate ancient history, and to find it an intellectual home with ‘proper’ history, seem outdated. Finley was, in any case, always guilty of a little deception here. He wrote as if the kind of wide-ranging, committed articles that are found in Past and Present were typical of modern history in general, when, in fact, as he well knew, most historical journals include numerous pedantic pieces which are just as narrow in their focus as the worst specimens of Classical history. He also strategically failed to mention, when he eulogised the intellectual range of the modern discipline, the chauvinist privilege accorded to specifically British history within many university departments – compared to which the traditions of the Classical discipline seem admirably broad. However it appeared to Finley ten or twenty years ago, the fact that ancient history has its institutional home within the wider discipline of Classics now seems less a pressing problem than a positive benefit.

Ramsay MacMullen, professor of history and Classics at Yale, is one of the leading figures of the generation of ancient historians after Finley (who was 16 years his senior). The author of numerous monographs on aspects of Roman imperial history (ranging from paganism and Christianity to the ‘crisis’ of the third century CE and the corruption of late Roman imperial administration), MacMullen has now collected together in Changes in the Roman Empire about a third (24 in all) of his short papers. It is a display of dazzling breadth, including pieces on women’s power in Rome, the social organisation of the Roman legion, bureaucratic language in late Roman documents, the art and ceremony of the fourth century CE and much more. I want to concentrate, though, on the first three articles in the volume (two previously published in 1980 and 1989, one specially written) which are grouped together under the heading ‘Historical Method’. His reflections here on the state of his subject show all the uncertainties that you might expect of a senior scholar watching a discipline in a state of flux.

Several of MacMullen’s complaints about the practice of ancient history are identical with those of Finley – who is, quite extraordinarily, never referred to in these chapters. MacMullen’s paper ‘History in Classics’ (1989) is a version, as its title suggests, of the old Finley-style attack on the dominance of Classical philology. If anything, MacMullen is more extreme. He pillories the whole institutional framework of ancient history for the way it delegates the training of its specialists to a completely separate discipline: no one, he argues, would entrust trainee physicists to a political scientist, or anthropologists to an economist, so what possible grounds are there for enlisting Classical philologists as the sole educators and guardians of those who are to become ancient historians? Like Finley, he sees the answer in the priority still given to mastery of the Latin and Greek languages, and in the prevailing belief that the choice of specialising in historical aspects of the ancient world can only be offered after the student has become fluent in the ancient languages and their literature. For most ancient historians, he suggests, the initial attraction of their discipline comes from an enjoyment of the great historical texts of the ancient world, from Herodotus or Plutarch. ‘I like it,’ he imagines them saying. ‘I’ll try my own hand at it.’

This is all even more palpably absurd than Finley’s version of the argument. It is certainly true that an intelligent reading of Classical literature can stimulate an interest in ancient history, in its broadest sense. The very opacity of Classical texts, the paradox that they remain so insistently strange and foreign while at the same time being such a reassuringly familiar part of our own cultural traditions, ought to provoke the reader’s curiosity about the nature of the society that produced them. But this is quite different from some woolly desire to emulate the ancient authors themselves, to become a new Thucydides. MacMullen’s heroes in this chapter are, needless to say, those historians who have turned away from the Classical literary tradition to draw on Roman law-codes, inscriptions, coins and on comparative anthropology. Some of the work that he cites for approval is important and innovative; some of it represents what I would call the best type of reading – for, after all, Roman law is as much a ‘text’ as Tacitus. But it is wilful blindness to current discussions in other areas of the Classics to imply that it is only in these (to use MacMullen’s term) ‘extra-philological’ subjects that good history can emerge.

MacMullen’s opinions are not simply, though, a revised version of Finley’s. Some of his interests make very clear the decade and a half that separates them. Finley, for example, was not particularly concerned with the language of history. He was, when he chose to be, a winning rhetorician, but he did not regard style, rhetoric and the criteria of plausibility (rather than of truth) as central issues in historical method. MacMullen, by contrast, reflects a contemporary sense that good history-writing must be seductive: it is about persuading, amusing, teasing and enticing. More scholars, he argues, should have the courage to recognise that a lot of ancient history has been quite simply ‘dull’, and that boring writing (however worthy, however true) will never persuade.

That kind of straight talking to the often puritanical and unseductive discipline of ancient history can only be a good thing, but MacMullen offers widely contradictory views when he considers, at various points, how ancient history can best persuade and convince its readers. The first chapter, for example, includes a plea for more Annales school history within the ancient discipline, by which he appears to mean more assemblages and analysis of social-historical data – more demography, statistics and tabulation. This culminates with an extraordinary eulogy of the bar-chart (or ‘linear-graphic presentation’), with praise for its ‘vividness’ and the ‘striking quality of visual argument’. However one reacts to this enthusiasm for counting and graphs, it is unsettling to find in the next chapter, ‘Roman Elite Motivation’ reprinted from Past and Present (1980), an apparently diametrically-opposed position. Turning to careful attempts to estimate the proportion of Roman citizens engaged as serving soldiers in Rome’s imperial expansion, MacMullen concludes that these calculations add up only to the glaringly obvious conclusion that ‘the Romans exerted themselves in war very greatly. They made a big effort.’ And, of course, we knew that already from Roman literature. Even Macaulay knew that, he sneers, when he wrote The Lays of Ancient Rome.

To be sure, there is good and bad use of statistics. Some calculations are worth doing, others are not. Maybe MacMullen means no more than that, but throughout these methodological chapters there is a lurking sense that good practice in ancient history is increasingly difficult to pin down, and that even a man of MacMullen’s distinction is far from certain about the direction in which the subject is going. Even when he sounds the same old cries as Finley, we get a sneaking sense that the subject has moved on, and that those cries no longer have the same resonance. It is a reasonable prediction that in another decade and a half ancient history will be celebrating its integration in the new kind of Classical philology – not feeling that it needs to make apologies for its Classical status.