Scholia Reviews ns 10 (2001) 2.
Neville Morley, Writing Ancient History London: Duckworth, 1999. Pp. 175. ISBN 0-7156-2880-1. UKsting12.95.
Richard J. Evans
Department of Classics, University of South Africa, Pretoria.
In this volume Morley 'aims to discuss various questions . . . How exactly do ancient historians go about reconstructing and representing the past? How far can their reconstructions be trusted? How does history differ from other sorts of writing about the past? Why do we bother trying to learn about history? Finally, how should we write ancient history?' (p. 12). These are all crucial questions, perhaps not asked often enough, but nonetheless fundamental in studying the Greco-Roman world, which is Morley's focus. And from among the above list broad and specific parameters are laid down, with history employed as the generic, ancient history (as the title suggests) the narrower, though not exclusive, sub-discipline. Following strict methodological procedure, Morley stresses that the answers to the questions he raises are 'complicated and controversial', especially in a discipline whose practitioners are often averse to conceptualisation. Teaching ancient history is one thing, teaching why we study ancient history is quite another.
Chapter 1, 'What is History' (pp. 19-52), deals with those broader problems, 'of defining exactly what history "is"' (p. 19), and marks the 'starting point for studies of the theory and philosophy of history' (p. 20). As Morley states, up to the fairly recent past most ancient historians never even broached the topic of definition and, instead, leapt into the depths of their studies rather like the novice swimmer jumping into the pool at the deep end. Indeed, 'The purpose of definition is to set up boundaries and limits' (p. 22), and so separate good history from bad or non-history, which is Morley's theme here, but he also adds the disquieting note that to 'the question "what is history?", we must always add: "who decides? On what grounds, and to what end?"' History is compared with the historical novel (pp. 28-33), myth (pp. 33-38), propaganda (pp. 38-40), science (pp. 40-45) and 'fringe history' (pp. 45-49), but the differences are, at times, hardly profound, exposing the inherent weaknesses in the discipline and particularly in ancient history which is most highly susceptible to outside influences because of the limitations of sound source material. And so in response to the question of 'what is history?' Morley adds considerably to the reader's anxiety when he states that historians 'define and police the boundaries of history so as to privilege their own version of events over other kinds of account' and that 'the distinction between history and fiction or history and myth is not clear-cut' (p. 50). It is not surprising, therefore, that ancient history, although concerned with the recovery of the distant past, is all too often dismissed as unscientific by the scientists.
In Chapter 2, 'The Use and Abuse of Sources' (pp. 53- 95), Morley delves in detail into the thorny question of selection of source material by the writer of history, which is primarily literature for the ancient historian. It is acceptable to say that facts are the bedrock of history, which cannot exist on 'fiction or mere opinion' (p. 57). However, the interpretation of this factual material, which itself may or may not be reliable, leads us into the quagmire of subjectivity. The result is that history 'is not built on the solid foundations of independent pre-existing facts, but on the shifting, subjective sands of argument and interpretation' (p. 61), and that what we possess of the ancient past is a selection of material by a selection of writers (p. 64). Not only is our view of antiquity obscured by the intermediate source but it is also distorted by the intention and method of that same source. Selection can be tricky since the interpretation of any ancient source can be poles apart. Part of the recipe for a successful account should be that it allows 'us to look at the ancient world in a new way, and should open up new questions and debates' (p. 92), but that there is 'no single correct way of "doing" ancient history' (p. 93), and first and foremost 'we need to know what we're doing, and to tell our readers what we're doing, when we make use of a particular bit of evidence or build up our grand interpretations, rather than behaving as if the whole process is completely natural and unproblematic' (p. 94). Fine sentiments sadly not often fulfilled in practice!
In Chapter 3, 'Telling the Story' (pp. 97-131), whimsically the sole chapter with endnotes (pp. 128- 31), Morley attends to the actual composition of a work: beginnings (pp. 97-100), narrative (pp. 100- 11), the vexing topic of 'voice' (pp. 111-16), and the use (and abuse) of rhetoric (pp. 116-27). Although there is a tendency here to move away from ancient history to become an essay on the thoughts of Hayden White (pp. 98 and n. 3, 105f.), Elton, Finley and others, Morley concludes (p. 127) that, though the transmission of historical writing has become entrenched, 'there should be plenty of scope for change . . . we can also experiment with different techniques of representation . . . to see how these too may alter our perceptions of the past', and presumably carry the message to the reader.
Inevitably, Morley has to pose the very awkward question (Chapter 4, 'What is History For?', pp. 133- 61) regarding the relevance of studying this discipline and does so with the defiant stance that ' . . . there is more to history than the achievement of limited economic and social ends. The study of the past may not be 'useful' in economic terms, but that is not to say that it can be considered a luxury . . .' (p. 137). Therafter, Morley considers many of the usual and by now familiar arguments, at least to academics in Classics, about learning from the past to understand the present 'by placing it in a wider historical context' (p. 152), predicting if not future events at least future scenarios (p. 138), explaining why things are different between then and now (p. 143), 'by changing people's ideas about the past' and so altering their views about the present (pp. 155f.), and, probably the most important factor for most individuals who opted to to study Ancient History, the 'fascination of the past' (p. 159). Finally in a brief but succinct epilogue (pp. 163f.), Morley sees the points raised in this volume as an attempt to bring to the forefront 'the issues raised by historical theory', which he insists are an advantage to all historians, since it 'makes us aware of the limits set on our knowledge, . . . but it also opens up great possibilities, suggesting new ways of thinking about the past and writing ancient history.'
There are some minor points, which, for the sake of accuracy, Morley might have considered, since this work is all about trying to be a good ancient historian. Thucydides says that he began his work as the Peloponnesian War started and, hence, made notes or a first draft from about 431, although a certain amount of rewriting took place at a later date, probably after 404. It is therefore inaccurate to state (p. 24) that Thucydides wrote a generation after Herodotus since this earlier historian was probably still writing in the 430's and 420's. Moreover, although we all know that Caesar (p. 59) crossed the Rubicon on 7 January 49 BC, the actual date, since the calendar was awry, was roughly two months earlier (November 50 BC), before the winter had set in, and not in the middle of the ancient world's inactive season. The Rubicon still flowed, and Caesar was allowed easy access to Rome before the snows arrived to block his way through the mountains. Caesar's own desire for accuracy caused the subsequent calendar alterations, one of his most enduring reforms.[]
Further Reading rather than a bibliography (pp. 165- 72) provide good directions for further study.
This work will clearly become an essential reading for students of Ancient History. Their teachers should not avoid its contents either. It is not a criticism to say that Morley often states the obvious and that the boundary between History and Ancient History sometimes blurs; in ancient historical studies the obvious needs to be stated more frequently and bluntly. In this volume Morley has achieved just that.
[] A single typo occurs on p. 61.