Tag Archives: ancient history

Making (or constructing) history

When you sit down to read a book about history, it is not always apparent where the narrative set out by the modern authors has come from. Indeed, it often looks like a straightforward story of Person A doing Thing Y, while Person B does Thing Z in response. And no one need question if that is how things actually occurred. Or perhaps one assumes that modern history-writing is simply a pooling of different narrative accounts of the same events by earlier history writers — taking, say, Livy and cutting out all the bits that modern, rational, scientific history discounts, and giving us the ‘pure’ story of ancient Rome, simple, no problem.

Well, even if we actually had narrative sources like Livy for all of history, that still wouldn’t be the way we construct the stories you read in histories.

This morning I was reading through Chapter 1 of my PhD thesis in preparation for my upcoming ‘viva’ (viva voce examination). In this chapter, I discuss the life and papacy of Leo the Great from two perspectives: first, from sources he didn’t write, second, from his letters with a little support from the sermons. Leo’s correspondence is our best source for the events of his tenure in the Roman episcopate as well as for the middle decades of the fifth century more broadly.

Where to look for those other, non-Leo sources? A person might assume that the tantalisingly-titled Liber Pontificalis, or ‘Book of Pontiffs’ would be a good place to start. This contains biographies of all the Bishops of Rome into the fifteenth century, being added to successively over the years. However, the earliest layer of this series of episcopal biographies dates to the early 500s, so it is not contemporary with Leo, who died in 461. Still, it’s only about 50 years later. That’s not bad, is it? After all, our earliest narrative history of Alexander the Great is Quintus Curtius Rufus, writing over 300 years after the Macedonian conqueror died. But we know that there are lost sources that Curtius would have used, so we do not fear to use it.

As it turns out, though, not all narrative sources are created equal, and whoever wrote the Liber Pontificalis didn’t really know what he was talking about at this stage — since we have other, earlier sources (say, Leo’s letters!), we can judge how well this book tells the story of Leo. And even if some details might be true, others aren’t.

Where do we turn now, then? What can we do to construct our story? We turn to the contemporary sources for the history of fifth-century Rome. None of our surviving Latin sources for this period gives us a tidy narrative like Livy or Tacitus. We have to make it ourselves. For Leo, we turn to a different kind of history-writing, very different from the garbled biography of the Liber Pontificalis and the extensive histories of Ammianus and Gregory of Tours — the chronicle.

Chronicles, in case someone has misled you, are a genre of scientific history writing concerning with chronology. They are brief, annalistic accounts of major events organised by year. Here’s an online translation of the Chronicle of Jerome from 2005; you can also take a look at The Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine, The Gallic Chronicle of 452, and The Chronicle of Marius of Avenches, from From Roman to Merovingian Gaul: A Reader by Alexander Callander Murray on Scribd. They look non-biased (but they aren’t because nothing is), and different chroniclers have different interests. Some like to tell you about strange stellar phenomena; others will tell you about church councils; some mention great battles; others great heresies; most of them most of these things to one degree or another. The entries, I repeat, are short, and organised chronologically. The genre existed in the ancient Near East, and forms of it in the Graeco-Roman world; its origins have nothing to do with Easter Tables and, in fact, nothing to do with Christianity. Finally, longer narrative histories of the Middle Ages are obviously not chronicles; they are closer to histories such as those by Tacitus and Gregory of Tours.*

For Leo, two such chronicles are important, that by Prosper of Aquitaine, finished in 455, and that of Hydatius, written in 467. Prosper wrote in Gaul, Hydatius in northwestern Spain. From these we are able to piece together a lot of facts and information about Leo’s pontificate and the wider history of the Roman Empire at the time, although both also display a certain amount of local concern. This local concern is helpful, since Hydatius shows us the impact that some of Leo’s anti-Manichaean activities had in Spain, as well as the local context of the letter he wrote to Turribius of Astorga about Priscillianism.

Prosper is especially important because he tells us about Leo’s meeting with Attila in 452 and then his attempt to dissuade Geiseric from sacking Rome in 455. Prosper is very helpful for 455, telling us about Valentinian III’s assassination of the patrician general Aetius, then the assassination of Valentinian, the accession of Petronius Maximus, and then the Vandal sack under Geiseric, during which Petronius was killed (Hydatius says a mob did the deed). Prosper also tells us, in this year, about how the date of Easter was promoted as one date by the tenacious will of Proterius of Alexandria against the proposed date of Leo.

For Attila, we also have the sixth-century historian Jordanes whose Getica, a history of the Goths, deals with Attila in detail. More detailed and more reliable is the Greek historian Priscus, who exists only in fragments, but who went on a delegation from Constantinople to Attila in 449 (if my date is correct). Later sources of Leo meeting Attila turn it into the, stuff of legend, including sword-bearing apostles and the like.

For the Vandal sack, Procopius of Caesarea’s account of the Vandal war of Belisarius is also of help, discussing the loot Geiseric and his men took. For the events of 455, the seventh-century Greek historian John of Antioch is also of assistance.

Besides Attila, Leo is best known for his role in the convening of the Council of Chalcedon and its outcome. This happened in 451, although if we had only Prosper, we’d think it was 453. Besides Leo’s voluminous correspondence surrounding the event, we have the full acts of the council, taken down by stenographers. You can, if you so desire, read a blow-by-blow account of everything that took place, including a lot of shouting and some great awkward silences. Most of the chronicles are very summary about Chalcedon, but Evagrius Scholasticus, c. 593, wrote a fairly extensive account (in case the three-volume version seems a bit much to you).

Unlike Evagrius Scholasticus’ Ecclesiastical History or Procopius or the chroniclers, the acts of Chalcedon are not narrative history but what we call documentary evidence. That is, it was not produced after the fact to tell a story but is an official document produced at the time. Leo’s letters would count as such evidence. The wider fifth-century context of Leo’s papacy is greatly aided by such documentary evidence; Leo’s papacy is directly illumined by two imperial edicts that serve to support Leo’s own rulings in canon law, as well as some other imperial documents concerning the treatment of bishops on the road to Chalcedon, and a letter of Marcian concerning an anti-Chalcedonian monk who tried usurping the episcopate of Jerusalem when Juvenal, Jerusalem’s bishop, voted in favour of Chalcedon’s doctrinal statement.

Although it seems long, these are the genres the ancient historian has to work with, the textual evidence for the deeds of the past. This is the raw material we are given, and then we try to construct logical, coherent accounts of events out of them. One source gives some evidence; how reliable is it? Another source gives other evidence — do we trust it? A third source is corroborated by some archaeology. What about that fourth source that is late but plausible? Taking these things and teasing out the details is what the historian does. And it’s good fun.

*For more, see R. W. Burgess and Michael Kulikowski, Mosaics of Time Vol 1.

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My Goodreads review of The Penguin History of the World

The Penguin History of the World: Sixth EditionThe Penguin History of the World: Sixth Edition by J.M. Roberts

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know that I read this book in increments over 13 months — I could have read it in 12, but I took this February off because I was getting wearied by the tome. If you read 3 1/4 pp per day, you will finish this book in a year. If you don’t–if you read it like a normal-sized book, I think the sheer mass of it will make you throw in the towel fairly soon. But 3 1/4 pp are manageable.

It’s hard not to give a magisterial volume like this 5 stars. I liked it because I like history. Here you have the whole sweep of human achievement, from the first stone tools and cave paintings to the Arab Spring. Our technological advancement and cultural changes are tracked in the broadest ways. The movement from small, isolated communities to broader nations and states to integrated polities and economies to the new globalised world is on display in this book.

Along the way, you meet the individuals, the stories that are the other aspect of history that keep people like me coming to read and reread the grand saga of human achievement, sorrow, and struggle. Ashurbanipal. Ramesses II. Plato. Alexander. Confucius. Siddartha ‘the Buddha’. Julius Caesar. Constantine. Mohammed. Charles ‘the Hammer’ Martel. Thomas Aquinas. Martin Luther. Winston Churchill. Mao Zedong. Mohondas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi. Loads and loads of South and East Asian persons I’d never met before but whose acquaintance I was glad to make.

I recommend this book, with its Egyptians and Saxons, its Indians and Mayans, its Romans and Chinese, its Mongols and Americans, its East Africans and Japanese.

My problem — and this is a separate, wider rant, so I’ll keep it short — is epitomised in the following fact: the entire ancient world, from Mesopotamia to the Middle Ages, including the Mediterranean, South Asian, and East Asian worlds, takes under 300 pages, and the final 300 pages cover life from the First World War onwards. I don’t expect equal coverage of the ancient and modern, but this is an extreme case of the usual disparity. (Rant over.)

There are a few other moments throughout that I either disagreed with or felt could have been spun a bit differently, but overall the book is worth the read.

View all my reviews

Egypt had history while Greece had myth

This is a theme I’ve written on before, but I can’t shake the wonderment I have of the sheer bulk of ancient history — especially ancient Egypt! This bulk was brought home to me again today while perusing the appendices at the end of Mosaics of Time Vol 1: A Historical Introduction to the Chronicle Genre from its Origins to the High Middle Ages by R W Burgess and Michael Kulikowski. In these appendices are excerpts from various chronicles to demonstrate to the reader the basic structure and elements of the genre, including Babylonian chronicles, pre-Christian Greek Chronicles, and Roman consularia and chronicles, including late antique chronicles.

The Parian Marble

One of these appendices is the Parian Marble, an inscribed Greek chronicle written in 263 BC beginning in 1581 BC (pp. 301-309). The earliest entries of this chronicle are all mythological. I give three:

Cecrops became king of Athens and the country was called Cecropia, having previously been called Actica from Actaeus who was a native (of the area) 1318 years ago. (1) (1581-1580 BC)

There was a flood in the time of Deucalion, and Deucalion fled the inundation from Lycoreia to Cranaus in Athens, built the temple of Olympian Zeus, and made thank offerings for his deliverance 1265 years ago, when Cranaus was king of Athens. (4) (1528-1427 BC)

Demeter arrived in Athens and discovered wheat, and the pre-tillage festival (Proerosia) was celebrated for the first time, under the direction of Triptolemus, son of Celeus and Neaera, 1146 years ago, when Erichtheus was king in Athens. (12) (1409-1408 BC)

Cecrops, Deucalian, Demeter — figures well-known from Greek myths. Elsewhere in this chronicle we meet Minos (of the Minotaur), Heracles, Theseus, the Trojan war, Orestes, and so forth. The earliest ‘historical’ event is the birth of Hesiod, put somewhere in the 900s BC — far too early, according to modern reckonings of Greek poetry. For the Classicist, this blurring between ‘myth’ and ‘history’ should serve as a reminder that what we call ‘mythology’ and ‘history’ are not necessarily at a great remove from each other in the Greek mind — after all, what is mythos but a story, and historia but an enquiry?

Now, the Greeks knew that the Egyptian culture was older than theirs (although they would try to find ways to show how, really, it wasn’t), but I don’t know that many of them, or of us, for that matter, spent a lot of time thinking about what it really meant in practical terms. Thankfully, modern archaeological and the decipherment of hieroglyphics can help us see the vast swathe of time separating ancient Egypt and the emergence of ancient Greece from the ‘Dark Age’ in the eighth century BC.

Palermo Stone, a frag of the Egyptian Royal Annals

At some point between 2470 and 2450 BC in the middle of the Fifth Dynasty, the Egyptian Royal Annals were first compiled.* This chronicle provides an annual reckoning of about 550 years of Pharoanic activity in Egypt. One thousand years before the essentially mythological beginnings of the Parian Marble, the Egyptian Royal Annals were inscribing Egyptian history.

And before these Royal Annals were composed, the Great Pyramids at Giza had already been built, back in the 2500s. As in, over 2000 years before the composition of the Parian Marble, and about 1800 years before Homer. Temporally speaking, ancient Greece is small beans compared to ancient Egypt!

I do not write this to minimise the achievements of the classical culture of ancient Greece and the dynamic synthesis it enjoyed with the world of Rome. It is simply a reminder of the bigness of those Egyptians and the might of their power — they were building pyramids while the Indo-European ancestors were nomads on the Eurasian Steppe. Wow.

*Mosaics of Time, p. 63ff for my info about the text.

Ancient Egypt: Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings, Episode 1

Me and a pyramid at Giza. On a camel.

Me and a pyramid at Giza. On a camel.

Today I watched the first episode of what looks to be a very interesting two-part documentary called Ancient Egypt: Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings by Dr Joann Fletcher. If you live in the UK, you can watch it on the BBC here. This episode is called ‘Life.’

Hitherto, my contact with ancient Egypt has been with Pharoahs and mummies, with its monuments and suchlike as well as with, inevitably, the afterlife. Some items from daily life creep in, such as strange head-rests for whilst sleeping that I saw at the Royal Ontario Museum. One of the better Egyptian exhibits is the current permanent display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford that traces Egyptian culture from pre-Pharaonic times to the Nubian pharaohs.

Fletcher takes you into the world of daily in the 18th Dynasty, the reign of Amenhotep III (1400s BC), to the village uncovered at Deir el-Medina. The Egyptian name of the village was, in fact, The Village. It was populated by the workers and artisans who constructed the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, about two miles away. Here we are brought face-to-face with Kha and his wife Meryt.

Thankfully, their mummies have never been unwrapped, so not literally face-to-face. Rather, we get to see paintings of them both, a statue of Kha, and the gilt grave-mask of Meryt. The tomb of this couple was found very well-stocked with everything the pair would have needed for the afterlife — which means everything from their own lives.

Kha was the chief architect for Amenhotep III. He designed and helped execute Amenhotep’s tomb. He was a well-to-do, free Egyptian who was fond of black eyeliner and who was so good at his job that the Pharaoh gave him a golden cubit relating his achievements as an architect.

One of the tombs Kha began work on was that of Akenaten, son of Amenhotep III. But that tomb was never finished because of Akenaten’s attempted religious reform and the building of the imperial city of Amarna.

Meryt was the ‘Lady of the House’ — an ancient Egyptian housewife. She would bake the bread and brew the beer made from the grain given to them as their payment (Egypt had no money as yet) and raise their three children.

I could go on. All sorts of details about daily life and the lives of Kha and Meryt. Fletcher read for us ancient Egyptian love poems from potsherds found at Deir el-Medina. We learned about courtship. We learned a bit about religion beyond the giant temples. We learned about food and payment and … life. Life in ancient Egypt.

Hopefully, oh friends in the UK, you’ll have a chance to view this documentary.