Friday, June 10, 2011

Does It Matter?

FLG mentioned how he is listening to a Roman history podcast. Since he going in chronological order, much of the history at this point, Romulus and Remus, the Seven Kings of Rome, the final war with Veii, is a mixture of myth and history. Well, the podcaster keeps trying to bring in what archaeological records have found. This is one of those things that just doesn't matter to FLG.

So, Livy says some war lasted ten years, but the archeological record says it's closer to 6-7. FLG just can't be bothered to care.

FLG actually got into an argument with a classic professor about the importance of fact in the Alexander histories. Trying to ascertain where fact ended and the legend began was of great importance to this professor. FLG could never understand why. Who cares whether it was snakes or crows that led Alexander to Siwah. Maybe he had an awesome guide or sheer dumb luck prevailed. How is that meaningful or relevant?

Maybe the classics and history professors who read this blog have a different take, but FLG is less concerned about what actually happened, especially when we have no way of knowing, rather than what the story or history means. Perhaps it's emblematic of some sort of virtue or vice or whatever.

And it's not just ancient history. FLG couldn't possibly care less whether Anthony McAuliffe actually, in point of fact, responded "Nuts" or not. He probably did, but that's not the God Damn point.


J. Otto Pohl said...

Apart from our specialized fields we do not care either. I was reading a book on West African history aimed at last year high school/first year university students yesterday and I had some of the same reactions. Since a lot of earlier African history has sketchy records there are these debates about details. However, I do not know enough of the broad outline of African history yet to care about the details yet. I am sure that the target audience of the book also have the same problem.

william randolph brafford said...

Trying to ascertain where fact ended and the legend began was of great importance to this professor.

What I like about archaeological information is not so much figuring out the legend-fact transition point, but rather finding out that there's more to the story -- some extra bit we've found that tells us about the culture of the people who lost the big battle, or whatever. For example, the Mesha Stele is the kind of thing that fascinates me.

So I guess what I'm saying is that I like to get "the facts" when they make "the meaning" more complicated and interesting.

Andrew Stevens said...

I sometimes care, I sometimes don't. If I'm trying to understand why things happened the way they did, I'd better have an accurate idea of what actually happened. I think it would be beneficial to have a more accurate account of the early history of Rome so we have a better understanding of why the Romans came to dominate the Mediterranean. On the other hand, do I care whether Numa set down the calendar or whether it was some king or priest whose name is lost to history? No, I don't.

Any classicists who have listened to this podcast? I've been listening to it myself since FLG brought it to my attention. To the best of my knowledge, it seems to be a pretty good capsule guide. His pronunciations sometimes drive me a little crazy and I'm guessing he has very little, if any, Latin. Not a big criticism since I'm sure if I had attempted something like this, my pronunciations on occasion would have driven real classicists up the wall (particularly when non-Latin names came up).

Alpheus said...

I feel like I should respond to this post, but I'm not quite sure what I'm responding to. I don't think you can be saying that facts are unimportant or that the archaeological record is useless. I think you're saying that it's tedious to teach history by questioning every detail. I don't disagree with that. One of the things students expect (or should expect) from a history course is familiarity with traditional accounts of the period under consideration. So teaching the early history of Rome means talking about the rape of Lucrece, Horatius at the bridge, Numa meeting Egeria in the sacred grove.

On the other hand, I think it can also be important to know why history takes shape the way it does. If the Romans stretched the truth to make the final war with Veii last ten years -- and to have Veii taken by a clever strategem -- that suggests they may have been influenced by the Greek account of the Trojan War. This is part of a discernible tendency to pattern early Roman history on the histories the Greeks had already written. (For example, it seems a little too neat that the Roman Republic and Athenian democracy were established, by some accounts, in the same year.) That seems to me significant and interesting -- worth mentioning to undergrads and laymen. It's worth knowing how profoundly the example of the Greeks influenced the Romans' ideas of themselves.

I haven't listened to this podcast (though I want to). So I can't comment on it specifically. I guess I would say that sometimes you need to teach the legend and sometimes you need to question it. You should question it when doing so allows you to put forward some interesting insight.

One last observation: some students are strangely impatient with anything that looks like myth. They prefer hearing facts, no matter how trivial, and they like hearing traditional accounts debunked -- even when they've never really learned the traditional accounts in the first place! Sifting the evidence and challenging traditions allows a professor to look smart in front of that type of student. Probably this shouldn't be a consideration, but sometimes it is.

arethusa said...

I think Alpheus's second paragraph gets at your question. In fact you touch on it yourself when you say you care about "what the story or history means." In the broad sense, of course historians care about the why of events (or they should). But with figures like Alexander and civilizations like ancient Rome, the stories and how they were formed can be pretty fascinating. The Roman foundation myth(s), for instance, are clearly a result of attempts at synthesizing various traditions, and various versions can be dated as coming to prominence at a certain time; one wonders why. Likewise, since there are no contemporary sources about Alexander, it can be very illustrative not of Alexander but of later ages how they interpreted his career and actions.

By the way, if you are interested in early Rome, read TJ Cornell's The Beginnings of Rome. Wonderful book, and it will address some of the issues you raise.

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