A New Volume on Suetonius in English

An excellent discussion of the death of Suetonius scholarship and a welcome reversal of this trend with new collections of papers on the great Roman biographer-historian.

Κέλσος

As part of my blog series on ancient biography, I thought that it would be fitting to discuss a new volume that was published just earlier this summer (July 3, 2014) on the Roman biographer Suetonius Tranquillus.

SuetoniusThe new volume Suetonius the Biographer: Studies in the Roman Lives provides a much needed collection of  essays on Suetonius in English. I say that these essays are “much needed” in light of the fact that there as been a dearth of studies on Suetonius in English over the last several decades. The most recent English monographs on the author Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s Suetonius: the Scholar and His Caesars and Barry Baldwin’s Suetonius— were both published in 1983. In addition to those, Richard Lounsbury published a short work on Suetonius — The Arts of Suetonius: An Introduction — back in 1987. But, aside from those, Suetonius has largely…

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Herodotus, Hayden White, historical fiction and communicating the past

In 2011, the Institute for Historical Research held a conference titled ‘Novel approaches: from academic history to historical fiction’, addressing the role of historians in writing fiction and the growing subset within the publishing world of historians-turned-novelists. Though now moribund, the resources produced for and by the conference are available here and bear noting for all interested in writing historical fiction or for that matter any fiction which involves an historical subject.

Several questions remain perennial for historians and history enthusiasts when discussing fiction, the novel and popular literature generally. Some constants can be found in the relationship between ‘literary’ history and its professionalised or ‘scientific’ descendant in the modern academic discipline of History and the realm of fiction and entertainment – the enmity felt for sacrifice of truth on the altar of myth being a basic archetype that has roots in antiquity. As Dr. Vasiliki Zali of UCL notes in ‘Agamemnon in Herodotus and Thucydides: Exploring the historical uses of a mythological paradigm:

Thucydides does not favour mythological argument much, especially in his speeches, and when it is deployed it is all too often proved to have little or no meaning at all. Moreover, his pragmatic outlook, his interest in hard facts and the intra-Hellenic nature of the war he describes render the use of myth as political argument hardly relevant and highly questionable.

But it would be a grave, even anti-historical error to summarise the positions of Herodotus, his successor Thucydides and the legacy of historical writing to follow them in the Greco-Roman world and beyond as having drawn resolute distinctions between ‘history’ and ‘myth’ or even between fact and fiction. Katharina Wesselmann provides exposition on the mythological frameworks of the work of Herodotus which provided more than mere underpinning or communicative facility for his Histories:

Especially his treatment of myth has been of great interest to scholars, who have often emphasised his critical distance from a mythical tradition, seemingly explicit in his resolution to focus on human achievements in the prooemium. And indeed, tradition is criticised in the Histories, as can be seen e.g. in Herodotus’ rationalisation of mythical stories, one of the most famous examples being the discussion of Helen’s stay in Troy in the second book (2.120): Helen could not possibly have been in Troy, says Herodotus, because the Trojans would have been crazy not to give her back.
However, it has always been obvious that Herodotus could not simply have been the great rationalist, easily detaching himself from every poetic or religious tradition. Of course he remains indebted to myth; mythical elements permeate his entire narrative.
Nor does Herodotus make a clear distinction between a spatium mythicum and historicum, as has sometimes been claimed.

The postmodernist critiques of history that reached the high-water mark in the later twentieth century, also at a time when the ‘hard’ sciences came under similar or equal attack from postmodernism and cultural studies, provided the most polarising answers to questions of proper relations between history and fiction. The 1960s and 1970s had seen Roland Barthes and his disciples infamously characterised the work of historians as reliant upon the production of a ‘reality effect’ in the same manner as the writing of fiction, and Hayden White’s hugely influential criticisms of traditional historical empiricism and the validity of historical paradigms; White declaring famously that “all stories are fictions”, he identified the ‘narrative’ basis of historical writing as existing in the same form of representation as those of myth and fiction. Summarizing White’s positions from this period is a 1984 article, ‘The Question of Narrtive in Contemporary Historical Theory’ (usefully available as a free HTML download here) in a more accessible distillation than his groundbreaking 1973 work Metahistory. It is here that White makes plainest his assertions on the probing relationship between history and fiction:

“The fact that narrative is the mode of discourse common to both “historical” and “non-historical” cultures and that it predominates in both mythic and fictional discourse makes it suspect as a manner of speaking about ‘real’ events… One can produce an imaginary discourse about real events that may not be less ‘true’ for being ‘imaginary’. It all depends upon how one construes the function of the faculty of imagination in human nature.” (White, ‘The Question of Narrative’, p.33)

Under this paradigm, would it be possible to declare Tudor ecclesiastical history better served by Hillary Mantel than David Starkey and the Late Roman Republic better by Robert Harris than Mary Beard? Other questions of discourse and power would be a relevant follow-up here. If public understanding of history constitutes a discourse in itself, the novelists command far greater influence than even popular historians, at least in Anglosopheric literary cultures at this point in the twenty-first century. The much-maligned (and not without cause) Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown yields a greater by-numbers readership than any combination of books on Early Christianity or European art history – his historically spurious Gnostic-fancying conspiracy thriller remains the bestselling book in UK publishing history according to the statisticians behind Nielsen Bookscan. No Religious Studies professor or biblical scholar could hope to top that, not even popular Christian apologetics masquerading as ‘investigations’ into New Testament Studies such as Lee Strobel’s similarly distorting tract, The Case for Christ.

Is White therefore partly to blame for mass historical ignorance and misunderstanding fostered by Brown and his contemporaries in the commercial fiction world, as the Christian apologetic scholar Scott McKnight claims? McKnight, writing in Jesus and his Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus and the Atonement Theory (Baylor University Press, 2006), explicitly ties White’s ideas to the problems associated with popular fiction and historical imagination:

“The impact of this theory is at times quixotic… History, the postmodernist says, is the study of ancient texts, not the ancient past… In effect, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Jaroslav Peliknan’s Christianity and Classical Culture (to pick an egregious example) are simply different readings of phenomena, but neither is right, neither is wrong. Any search for the “best explanation” is removed from the map.” (McKnight, ‘Jesus and his Death’, p.7)

Hayden White’s critique of the practice of history, it is carefully emphasised in a 2011 text on White’s thought written by Herman Paul, does not advocate the wholesale destruction of the scholarly apparatus integral to the historical profession and learned by the freshest inductees to the study of history (archival research, the use of footnotes, bibliogrphical tables, etc.) Nor is it sympathetic to the egregious distortions of the kind engaged in by Brown and other fiction authors in pursuit of a bestseller. Both caveats are summarised in a review of Paul’s work (one may uncharitably call it ‘apologetics’) on White’s ideas conducted by Adam Timmins:

“Given the charges of relativism that have been levelled at White throughout his career, Paul is at pains to stress that the forcing open of the ironists’ cage does not leave historians free to write whatever they please. Although White frequently challenges the authority that historians bestow on practises such as archival research or source criticism, he does not advocate doing away with them. Nor does he hold that there is no difference between the writing of history and the writing of fiction, or that there are no criteria for distinguishing between good and bad historiography.”

It is a stretch to link the critiques made by White to the pained non-history (not to mention the nightmarish prose) produced by Brown and disseminated in mass-market paperback. McKnight’s position on White and postmodernism in this text is superficial; but what is lacking from White is an effective means of combating or at least nullifying the appeal of bad history and pseudo-scholarly knowledge when it marches under the banner of fiction and popular myth.

One possible solution that this blogger proposes is a broader collaborative effort between academic and university-based historians with the literati of the bestseller pages. Mantel has already proved that readers of popular historical fiction can be respected enough to be treated to historically faithful and plausible exploration of past events in the confines of a gripping yarn. The reading public are not hopelessly ignorant about historical matters despite the disinformation packaged in many glossy paperbacks, and the continued interest in historical novels which fuels their ascendancy of the bestseller lists is more than sufficient evidence of hunger for good history. Historical fiction can spur interest in the subject ‘proper’ among non-historians; my own Damascene conversion to the pursuit of history came whilst enthralled by a copy of Robert Graves’ classic I, Claudius on a train.

If White was indeed ‘correct’ in his interpretation that history cannot be, much less claim to be a scientific discipline and is anchored in the use of narrative to represent and convey information about the past, then historical fiction must undoubtedly play a stronger role. This follows from the recognition that history cannot be made without ‘story’ – so narratives built in the ‘fictional’ camp that seek access to the realm of history can be a useful means of deliverance. In a crude analogy, popular historical fiction may act as a re-purposed neurotransmitter; though this would involve the academe acting as the cerebral cortex and the reading public as the rest of the anatomy – a rather medievalist elite conception of knowledge and receivership that I would rather avoid here.

And Hayden White himself? As anybody introduced to history in the last three decades will known, he is no longer any guerrilla theorist fighting the established regime under the dense canopy of historical theory. As a recent conference held in his honor proudly declared in a vindication narrative of its own:

“To them [historians critical of Metahistory], White’s rapprochement between literary or fictional storytelling and the historical or biographical account amounted to an indictment of history as a factual discipline, scientific in spirit, if not in method. Nevertheless, White’s books and articles are standard reading in history and humanities courses.”

Rebels becoming the establishment. Now there’s a constant mythos that history and popular fiction can find agreement on without much argumentation.

One youth’s take on the History Wars

With the exit of Michael Gove in the surprise reshuffle of July 2014, teachers up and down the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (potentially soon to be the United Kingdom of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Commonwealth of Scotland) will be celebrating the start of a new term sans the man described by the Financial Times as the “most hated education secretary in history”. The struggle for direction of the state education system in every area of policy-making from performance-linked pay to P.E. lessons fractured relations between the Coalition Government and teaching unions. Opposition struck Gove not only from the unions but from unusual opponents such as the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference, a group of elite private schools whose “grave reservations” about Gove’s plans to replace GCSE exams with a proposed English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC) was one factor in Gove’s eventual abandonment of the project in February 2013.

But one policy which drew the intense focus of academics and ratcheted the stakes of national emotions perhaps more than any other was Gove’s designs for school history curricula. Affecting pupils from ages five to fourteen, the ages at which history is a compulsory subject in British schools, the curricula would have determined the content, interpretive framework and teleology of how history was taught and examined in schools in England and Wales. The proposed changes were ardently opposed by Professor Sir Richard J. Evans not least for establishing a chronologically-driven curriculum whose main aim was “to foster a sense of British national identity”, an agenda Evans first accused Gove and his supporters of pursuing in a scathing March 2011 article in the London Review of Books, ‘The Wonderfulness of Us (The Tory Interpretation of History)’.

Evans remained the new curriculum’s most prominent public critic, responding to each revision with meticulous rebuttals in The Guardian from August 2011 up to Gove’s removal from the Department for Education in July 2014. When the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge is leading opposition to your designs on history, you may wish to reconsider. Leading figures from the Historical Association, the British Academy, History UK and the Royal Historical Society criticized the British-centric character of the new curriculum in an open letter to the Observer, though offered an olive branch to Gove in proposing a new consultation with historians.

Despite revisions to the first published plans and Gove’s expression of ‘openness’ to a broader consultation, the first rumblings of the need for “major revision” to the DfE’s plans became public in June 2013, thanks in no small part to the opposition by historians and the backtracking of some of the project’s erstwhile supporters. The historian Simon Schama, initially selected by Gove as an advisor and public champion of the history curriculum became a virulent opponent, describing the curriculum as including a “pedantic, utopian scheme” guilty of “insulting, offensive, imperviousness” comparing it to the classic history satire “1066 and All That, but without the jokes”. In a bully-pulpit address at the Telegraph‘s Hay Festival 2013, he urged history teachers to oppose and obstruct the implementation of the plans and was met with rapturous applause. At this point, a reading of Antony’s Funeral Oration might have assisted Gove, though it is unlikely that colleagues in school English departments would have been enthusiastic in assisting his comprehension.

Professor Evans, Schama and the academics were not lone Ivory Tower reactionaries shouting in the wilderness – the Historical Association produced a shocking poll result that revealed the level of discontent among history teachers resulting only from how the curriculum plans were announced and formulated: “96.2% of all the secondary teachers we surveyed felt that not enough attention had been given to the views of history teachers”. Teachers’ opinions of the plans themselves did not rate much more favorably for Gove – the Historical Association’s poll further stated that “93% of respondents strongly disagree that everything from Stone Age to 1700 should be taught at primary” and that “96% of our survey respondents thought the new NC [National Curriculum] was over prescriptive”. What Michael Gove and the supporters of his proposals, including the right-wing historians Niall Ferguson, David Starkey and Max Hastings failed to recognise was that history, from the seminar to the schoolroom, had refocused to more internationalist perspectives not without good cause.

The retreat or rather calculated extraction from ‘kings and battles’ history was undertaken as an essential task in the expansion of the historical profession in the postwar era. The limitations of nation-centric historical chronologies was recognisable even to perceptive school pupils in the periods where it dominated private and state education. Whilst Schama lambasted the contents of Gove’s proposed curriculum as “essentially memories of A-levels circa 1965, embalmed in aspic and sprinkled with tokenism”, the realisation that historical fixation on the nation-state, elite culture, power-brokers and military campaigns was inhibiting the potential of historical understanding had been expressed even before the mid-1960s. The Orwell of the 1930s recalled the history education of his Etonian boyhood and the shortcomings of chronological periodisation: “…in 1499 you were still in the Middle Ages… and then suddenly the clock struck 1500, and you were in something called the Renaissance.”

No less a towering intellect as E.H. Carr recognised the continued blinkering effect that ‘kings and battles’ history held over students’ interpretations of historical periods when more complex historiographical debates were consuming the attention of academics, dedicating part of his classic 1961 study What Is History? to addressing the problem. It was a worthy effort to take time out from his arguments with Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin in a text adapted from the 1961 G.M. Trevelyan Lectures in order to speak almost directly to younger students. His effort was well-timed. A young Christopher Hitchens in 1962, found a life-affecting outlet of discussion in an American history teacher who “wanted to stray into the awkward territory of “modern” history, which broke the usual bounds and challenged the idea that the past was a pageant – of one damn king after another – culminating in a map of the world (still displayed in my boyhood) which showed the British Empire in majestic red.” (Hitch-22: A Memoir, p.207). In 1963, the independent historian E.P. Thompson published his classic social history, The Making of the English Working Class, made all the more celebrated for its contributions to the English historical lexicon via Thompson’s objective to rescue “the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott from the enormous condescension of posterity.” (The Making of the English Working-Class, p.13). It was to condescension that the topics set for the chop under Michael Gove’s proposed curriculum were to be lost, replaced with a reversion to the national myth-making and treehouse history which fails even at its intended purpose. As Evans put it, “The patriotic British – or for the most part English – historical narrative, envisions mainland Europe largely as the scene of British triumphs over evil foreigners… Propagating inaccurate myths about alleged British victories is no way to create a solid national identity.”

The limited perspective that I can offer is one of a student whose school years ended in the same month as the Coalition deal was brokered. Having said Goodbye to 1066 and All That (an artless literary elision I have for long lurked awaiting an opportunity to make) in May 2010, my experience can relate only to the much-maligned primary and secondary curriculum which Gove and the DfE sought keenly to hurl into the abyss in favour of the kind of school history last promoted in state schools at a time when the Union Jack still flew above colonies in sub-Saharan Africa. All that can be said for my history schooling can be bracketed to my current position – that of a BA History student at a leading research university possessing a commitment to the subject and its relevance for society. There were undoubtedly problems – any education programme which claims imperfection can be deduced without much inference to be under the control of a totalitarian state – but flaws were most common in preparation for externally set exams. Driving students to please and propitiate multiple examination boards that possess the empathetic capacity of an early experiment in A.I. robotics (“it hasn’t quite figured out ‘irony’ or ‘tears’ yet, boss”) is, as the majority of teachers in any subject will inform you, never consonant with instilling or inspiring passion.

I left school having got a better grasp what history was and how to do it than I think I would have received at any state school a century or even fifty years heretofore. I would not trade my comprehensive-wrought GCSE in History for any substitute at the Eton of Orwell or the Leys School of Christopher Hitchens; my A-Level in Modern History from a state Sixth Form College would rank among my most precious personal effects, in the “save from house fire” list close to passports and birth certificates.

Reforming the education system to accommodate for changes in culture and scholarship is a necessity that goes without saying or much need for justification. How those reforms are implemented, however, requires the careful consideration of a vast array of factors, interests and contingencies – something they teach you at the most basic level of studying history beyond the personalities of ‘great men’, and something which Michael Gove’s battle with Britain’s historians and school teahers rather callously overlooked. The work of his successors is just getting underway and the prospect of a change of government in 2015 may consign the current Parliamentary term’s education policies to the dustbin of missed opportunities. Gove’s reforms were announced without consultation, promoted with a propaganda campaign tinged by myth-making and disparagement of entire professions, watered down in the face of overwhelming opposition and eventually put on indefinite hold following Gove’s personal defeat in the reshuffle. The whole affair, like the 1914-18 War, would appear to be a great waste with unresolved outcomes and sufficient bitterness sown for a resurgence of hostilities in the coming decades.

I think the current education secretary, Nicky Morgan, would benefit from taking in a live performance of Alan Bennett’s living masterpiece The History Boys. It would certainly help relations between the DfE and history teachers if Gove’s successors were able to exercise greater use of hindsight and foresight before declaring the start of Great Crusades.

Hello! The Inaugural Post of the HistoryJack Blog!

Greetings to everyone!

Perhaps you are visiting this blog for the first time or revisiting after many years of subscription; I have to consider the teleology of the blog and foresight is important even if the use of history for futurism is bunk. This inaugural post will detail what I am aiming to accomplish with this blog as a venue for historical inquiry, discussion and public debate on matters of interest to myself and what I hope will consist of a much wider community of history enthusiasts within the academic world and without.

This blog has been established as a hub for my historical ideas and perspectives on everything from advances and changes in the Philosophy of History, to education policy (particularly regarding school and college History curricula!), to reviews and commentaries on newly-published books and articles, to art, culture, science and much else! Politics and its intersection with History is an inevitability – G.R. Elton’s hope and vision of an objective divorce between the historian’s personality and their investigation is long the way of the dodo and the telegram – so excerpts and interactions with political blogs will be a common occurrence here. Some of the finest contemporary political commentary comes from historians and history graduates – most notably from Professor Sir Richard J. Evans in light of the recent heated debates over British school history curricula, as well as the visible, celebrated and often controversial insights of Sir David Starkey, Niall Ferguson, Mary Beard and the late Eric Hobsbawm. And who could forget that Owen Jones went from being a 2007 Oxford MA History postgrad to being voted the Fabian Society’s “most influential left-wing thinker of the year” in under four years?

The areas of historical interest that I will be focusing most of the blog’s attention upon for the foresseable near future will be broadly as follows:

  • Controversies in Biblical Studies and their intractable relationship to debates in the Philosophy of Religion as well as cultural conflict between religious apologetics and the ‘New Atheist’ movement.
  • Public understanding of History and the role of historians in increasing access to historical inquiry and methodology in addition to traditional transmission of received knowledge via popular history books and broadcast media.
  • History and education, particularly school curricula in Britain, the United States, Japan and post-conflict states including the Balkan nations. Memory Studies and the relationship between education authorities and political institutions will be a subject of particular curiosity – what role does the teaching of history itself at school and higher level play in historical memory?
  • Historiography and proposed solutions to methodological fragmentation and over-diversification of History as an academic field.
  • Multimedia projects, esp. YouTube videos expanding the blog’s capacity for reaching people interested in history and the role of historiography in the modern world.

This, in addition to commentary on current affairs and culture will be taking up the majority of space on this blog if my intentions for it are effectual in any way!

So thank you kindly for your interest in the blog and I hope that upon revisiting this post, my first tentative step into the blogosphere, it will be with a hindsight informed by many fruitful and insightful postings. Any suggestions, criticisms or advice that you think could help this blog in these early days will be greatly appreciated. Once things are off the ground and reaching a steady altitude, please feel free to share the blog far and wide!

Thank you most humbly and welcome to the HistoryJack blog!