Jetzt kann man meine Kritzelei auch auf Deutsch lesen! Ja, ich habe schon ein paar Rezensionen geschrieben, und einen Aufsatz (im Druck), und ein paar Vorträge gehalten, aber jetzt ist die Übersetzung meines Buchs Writing Ancient History veröffentlicht (von Antike Verlag: erhältlich hier). Ich freue mich sehr darüber: ich fühle mich immer gezwungen, für die Sprachunkenntnis meiner Landsmänner zu entschuldigen, und versuche immer in Tagungen nicht nur auf Englisch zu sprechen, aber jetzt erscheine ich ganz klar als Europäischer Historiker, als einer, den auch deutsche Studenten lesen können, und vielleicht muss ich mich nicht soviel entschuldigen – oder am wenigsten nicht wegen meiner Sprachkenntnis…
For everyone who doesn’t read German: I’m celebrating the publication of the translation (by Martina Trampedach) of my 1999 book on Writing Ancient History, with a foreword by Uwe Walter (whose idea this was) and a new Afterword by me. This was a great, though sometimes disconcerting, opportunity to reflect on the circumstances of the original publication and how much has changed since then, both in the field of ancient history and as far as I’m concerned – since I am now, presumably, to a degree that still makes me deeply uncomfortable, thoroughly transformed into the sort of complacent, established senior figure against whom doctoral students and early career academics rail on Twitter… It therefore seemed worthwhile publishing here the English version of these reflections:
I first became interested in historical theory nearly thirty years ago, when the first book of Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War was one of my Greek set texts in school. History was already my favourite subject, so it was natural to think about Thucydides in relation to what I was learning there. Natural, but disconcerting: Thucydides sometimes felt astonishingly modern, with his call for critical analysis and his claim that studying the past was useful rather than simply entertaining, but he could also feel very alien, for example in his willingness to include made-up speeches in his account. Was his work ‘proper history’ or not? Clearly it depended on how ‘proper history’ was defined – and who got to decide that? These questions then implied other questions, about epistemology, methodology, rhetoric and the institutional structures of the modern discipline, and they have been troubling and intriguing me ever since (although it is only recently that I have returned to the study of Thucydides and his influence on modern debates about the nature of historiography).
I find such questions fascinating in themselves, but more importantly I cannot imagine how one can study the past properly without having thought about them. The theory of history is not a separate subject, a set of abstract ideas with no connection to what historians actually do; rather, historical practice is always permeated by theoretical assumptions and conceptions – even if historians are not always conscious of this in their own work, or even claim to be eschewing ‘theory’ (by which they generally mean either the social sciences or the ideas of modern literary theory). It is possible that I have a heightened sense of the importance of theory because of my particular career path. Firstly, much of my work has focused on the history of ancient economies, a subject that simply would not exist without a theoretical perspective (the Greeks and Romans did not have any concept of ‘the economy’; we can study this topic because we moderns have developed such an idea). Secondly, I completed my doctoral research at Cambridge, where there was a strong tradition of paying attention to methodological and conceptual issues in ancient history, through historians like M.I.Finley (who had died before I arrived, but who remained a powerful influence) and Keith Hopkins. I followed in the footsteps of their students, people for whom theoretical questions were basic and indispensible, and so came to take it for granted that this was how one did history. This can be clearly seen in almost all the things that I have published as a historian: not only in the books and articles specifically on questions of theory, but in the way that I write about topics like ancient trade and Roman imperialism, always starting with the ideas and concepts that influence how we think about the past, before starting to consider the evidence that we can use to try to reconstruct it.
When I first arrived in Bristol, nearly twenty years ago, I was asked to teach an introductory course on theories and methods in ancient history, and this offered an ideal opportunity for me to think through these ideas at greater length – it is entirely true that the best way to understand complex arguments oneself is to have to break them down into a form that can be readily grasped by students at the beginning of their university studies. For almost all the students who take the course – it’s compulsory for all students specialising in ancient history – these theoretical ideas and issues are strange and new, not something that they’ve ever thought about in relation to their study of history. For many of them, the topic actually feels threatening, undermining their belief in the knowability of the world, or at any rate calling into question everything they have learnt so far. At the beginning of the course, therefore, I always expect to be faced with a mixture of incomprehension, indifference and hostility from most if not all the class, and perhaps one or two students who think it sounds interesting and different. Depending on the proportions of these different groups, the class is more or less hard work at the beginning; it is always easier if the hostile students are willing to express their disagreement and engage in discussion – because, as I constantly emphasise to them, these are not settled facts but controversial, ongoing debates – rather than sit resentfully in silence. Most years, the class then becomes easier and more relaxed as the weeks pass. I do not set out to turn all my students into fully-committed theoreticians, but only to persuade them to take the issues seriously, and to develop their own, better-informed idea of how to write ancient history rather than simply accepting what they were taught at school.
I have taught this course on and off ever since, making at least some changes every year in response to comments from the students, and overall I think I have largely succeeded in this aim. It is not a course that ever scores highly in student feedback at the time, but it has an effect in the longer term; colleagues quite often tell me that final-year students in their seminars have referred back to a topic I covered, as they suddenly realise its relevance to their studies. I couldn’t ask for a better compliment; studying theory is not, in my view, an end in itself, but something that should permeate and enrich all our studies of the past (and at the same time, studying theory is always easiest when students bring their own examples into the discussion, rather than just focusing on mine). I had similar hopes for this book, which is simply a written version of the lectures as I gave them in 1998 (they have changed quite a lot since then): it is deliberately general and introductory, not seeking to provide a scholarly account of what theorists of history have to say on the subject, but rather to raise questions about things that most students take for granted. It aims to show how the everyday practice of studying and writing history needs to be thought about more than we usually do, how common sense is not always the best guide for understanding, and how the truth about the past is always a matter of debate and uncertainty – which is why it is so interesting. I’m sure that I can sometimes take this scepticism and love of controversy a little too far; a year or so ago, one of my students bought me a coffee mug which reads ‘The simple answer is … that we just don’t know’, clearly a phrase that I use far too often. But it is often true, and more errors are made in history by people who are excessively certain than by those who remain cautious and curious.
When I wrote this book, there was nothing similar available for ancient historians in English; there were books written for other historians, but they were not always helpful (the problems of evidence, for example, are rather different for ancient and modern historians, so a discussion of the modern archive has nothing to offer us), and also I felt that my approach of drawing out general issues from examples of historical practice had something new to offer. There was a significant gap in the market, therefore, which I felt qualified to fill after several years of lecturing on the subject; moreover it offered an opportunity to make a polemical case on something that I felt strongly about, the limited and untheoretical nature of most ancient historical research – because, of course, everything I have to say about the failure of students failing carefully enough about how they practice history applies equally to many established academics, even if I avoided saying this explicitly. If, as I argue, a theoretically naive piece of historical writing is limited and potentially problematic, then that applies much more to professional historians, who really should know better, than to students who are only just learning to become historians.
Fifteen years on, I would take care to be less rude about my colleagues, or at least to emphasise the great number of exceptions to my account of the ‘typical’ ancient historian. The discipline has changed, at least to some extent. It seems to me that there is today much greater acceptance of theory (or at least of certain theories) in ancient historical research and teaching, much more co-operation with other disciplines like the social sciences, and much more interest in the history of scholarship and the archaeology of ideas. The fastest-growing area of research in Altertumswissenschaft over the last decade, at least in the UK, has been Classical Reception, the study of how antiquity has been understood and reinterpreted by later centuries, and it is difficult to pursue such research without some degree of engagement with theoretical concepts. Moreover, most ancient history students will now spend at least some time studying historical methodology, and they can choose from a wide range of introductory texts; most of them, it is true, still concentrate on introducing the evidence and providing a basic account of the facts of ancient history, but there is at least some attention to more theoretical issues. I can claim no credit for this change – I think of my book rather as a symptom of it – but I do feel less alienated and isolated than I once did. It has helped that I have spent so long at Bristol with colleagues who were equally committed to theoretical debate, so we could feel alienated and isolated as a collective instead of as individuals. It has probably also made a difference that I am now a full professor, and so have become more comfortable and pompous than my younger self would ever have thought possible. Nevertheless, I think it is the case that ancient history has changed, for the better, and perhaps this book has played some small part in that.
Does this mean that this book is now redundant? I don’t believe so. In the first place, new generations of students will still need to be introduced to these issues, and I think this book does a reasonable job of that. Further, while the division between ‘theoretical’ and ‘anti-theoretical’ historians is much less sharp than it once was, what I see now is a significant gap between history as it is practised by academics and history as it is understood by the general public, including students who are just beginning their university studies. Of course such a gap has always existed, but it is expanding: as historical research becomes more theoretical and sophisticated, and as the popular idea of history becomes ever more simplistic. History (including ancient history) is as popular as it has been for decades, in books and on television; but, at least in the UK, the successful books are written mostly by professional writers of popular history, not academic historians (even if some of them were once academics), and they offer a polished, seamless and complete account of the past, with no mention of the uncertainties and debates that are unavoidable in ‘real’ history. Television programmes would once present a selection of different historians with different views on a topic; now, a single charismatic presenter talks about a vast subject – the entire history of the ancient world, even – as if he or she is an expert on every aspect of it, while the academic research of countless individual historians, the true basis of the programme, is concealed. I am often struck by the contrast with programmes about archaeology, where the process of uncovering and interpretating the evidence of the past is the focus of attention; in history programmes, the past appears as already uncovered and already interpreted, so the actual role of the historian is reduced to that of a presenter, not an investigator.
The history taught in schools – again, my experience is mainly of the UK – also seems simplified and impoverished, as a result of several decades of educational reforms. It is not, I think, too much of an exaggeration to say that students will get the best results in school history exams by knowing the forty key facts on a topic, which will have been clearly identified by their teacher, and by reproducing these facts in the recommended order; original ideas and arguments are an optional extra, and students who include them will run the risk of detracting from the regurgitation of the approved information and so losing marks. When these students arrive at university, of course they know that the study of history is more complex and difficult than that – but too often they assume this must mean that there are now sixty, or a hundred, key facts to be memorised and regurgitated, not that history at this higher level is all about argument and interpretation.
So, I do believe that a book like this one, about history as an activity rather than history as a lot of information, is still important. Reading through it again after more than a decade, I felt that it was not quite as dated as I had expected. Yes, there are some obsolete references – few of my students now have much conception of Margaret Thatcher or even Tony Blair – but the main argument engages with issues that have been central to historiography since the nineteenth century, and will undoubtedly remain central as long as our culture continues to value history. Indeed, most of the contents of this book are entirely unoriginal as far as the academic study of historical theory is concerned (there is little in the first two chapters that would have surprised Wilhelm Dilthey, and Friedrich Nietzsche would have been unperturbed by anything in the last two); my main claim is to have presented these ideas in a way that is accessible and engaging to today’s students, who would not thank me for requiring them to read Dilthey’s Gesammelte Schriften. Because I raise these questions in very general terms, offering a personal view rather than discussing the ideas of particular theorists of history, there is no pressing need to take account of more recent scholarship. The one section of the book which I do feel is in need of substantial revision is the very last section, on the fascination of the past; at the time, I had not encountered Nietzsche’s essay Vom Nutzen und Nachtheil der Historie für das Leben, which offers a brilliant account of the different reasons why humans turn to different sorts of accounts of the past. Rather than changing the chapter, I would simply suggest that you read that piece afterwards.
I am delighted that this translation has come into being, and I am extremely grateful to Martina Trampedach and Uwe Walter for making it possible. The ever greater gobal dominance of the English language, including in the study of history, is something that I find depressing and alarming. When I was studying for my doctorate, someone told me that it was essential to quote some German scholarship, simply because of the great German tradition in ancient history; I diligently set about teaching myself the language and finding some relevant scholarship to cite (not an especially easy task, since my doctorate was on a subject that has not been very popular in Germany). I do not think that most students today would be given the same advice, and I have colleagues who read no modern language besides their own; it is all too easy for them, because so many European scholars speak excellent English and even publish their work in English – which then creates the belief that work not published in English can’t be worth paying any attention to. That is absurd; scholarship must involve the exchange of ideas between different cultural traditions, in both directions, and not restricted to a single language.
To be published in German makes me feel less complicit in this linguistic imperialism; more European, part of a cosmopolitan tradition of studying the ancient world and reflecting on its significance. Of course, re-reading the book with a mind to its future audience, I am struck by how very, very English it must seem; I can only hope that, just as references to Lutfisk in a Swedish Krimi add to the atmosphere rather than detracting from the plot, the occasional hint of tweed, warm beer and excessive self-deprecation will not detract from the investigation of what I believe to be universal issues and problems in writing and thinking about ancient history. My hope is that, by finding a new audience in Germany, this book can contribute to developing ideas about the past and how we understand it, a theme which remains as vital for Europe and for the whole world today as it ever has been.