Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Robert Strassler, the 70-year-old president of Riverside Capital Management Corp., a private investment firm, is a Harvard graduate who describes himself as a historian of the ancient Mediterranean. Back in 1996, he edited "The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to The Peloponnesian War," that was published by CBS Corp.'s Free Press. This book received excellent reviews and sold over 24,000 copies. It has taken 10 years for a sequel "The Landmark Herodotus" is now available from Pantheon with 20,000 copies in print.
When Wall Street Journal columnist, Jeffrey Trachtenberg asked Strassler why it took so long to write this sequel, Strassler says, "Thucydides is more narrowly focused. He was interested only in military and political history. Herodotus is interested in everything. He wants to know what people wear, what gods they worship, what crops they grow. I needed 11 appendices for Thucydides to provide context, but we have 21 for Herodotus, and we could have done another five to 10."
When asked about the reliability of Herodotus' chronicles, Strassler replies, "There are a lot of questions. He does tend to write about fables, things that aren't real. His job was to tell you what he heard. He's critical, but there are anecdotes where you don't know if he's pulling your leg, or his leg is being pulled. For example, he said he saw a sign on one of the Pyramids. He asked his Egyptian guide about it and says he was told that the sign listed the amount of garlic, leeks and onions consumed by the workmen over the 20 years it took to build the pyramid. Do you think he believed it? But he put it in his book. You can't always be sure. And he wasn't an eyewitness to everything. But this book has survived for 2,500 years, and it offers a huge panorama of his world."
If you wish to learn even more about Herodotus, I would highly recommend an audio course offered through the Teaching Company, Herodotus: Father of History presented by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver of Whitman College.
"... for almost every detail of this picture - familiar as it is from sword-and-sandal epics and Asterix books - is, according to Mary Beard, up for grabs. Yes, the triumph was a vivid and central part of Roman culture. In fact, she argues, it was in some ways more central than we have ever realised. Triumphal imagery and triumphal language bled into the Roman games and seeped into the ceremonies that marked the election of a consul or the arrival (or through deification, the departure) of a new emperor. Triumph was inscribed into the architecture of arches, theatres and temples, and also sarcophaguses and tombs. It penetrated epic and erotic poetry and comic drama too. But almost every detail of this great ceremony is maddeningly difficult to seize upon. Everything on which we were agreed turns out to be just that little bit more difficult to demonstrate than anyone ever imagined.
Beard has in her sights three processions. The first is that long historical sequence of actual celebrations. The second is a series of rich and extravagant accounts of triumphs, what she calls "rituals in ink" although they include a mass of images too, such as the Arch of Titus. Third, there is a long procession of classical scholars, who follow Beard's chariot with placards hung around their necks detailing their wild conjectures, hypotheses and claims about what the triumph "really meant".
It would be convenient if each could be examined separately, but the processions keep colliding in the winding, narrow streets of Roman cultural history. The actual triumphs are known to us only through the representations, and these are difficult to disentangle from the dense foliage of scholarly exegesis. Beard prunes ferociously. The evidence for the triumphal route is alarmingly inconsistent. The slave in the chariot whispering to the general is a modern composite, compiled of late testimony, no one piece of which tells exactly this story. The clothes borrowed from the god, the chariot itself are insecure. So is much more.
Once the factoids are swept away we are left with modern attempts to create some sort of general rule-book for triumphs. How many enemies did you need to kill? What sort of general could celebrate? Who decided? Ancient writers made many claims, but their generalisations stand up no better than those of the moderns. It does not help that when a Polybius or a Livy or a Josephus sets out to describe a particular triumph, he focused on what was remarkable, extraordinary, controversial and bizarre. And who was to say what was "normal" and what excessive?"