The Ancient World and our world:
Review of Mary Beard’s “Confronting the classics”
I enjoyed tremendously Mary Beard’s “Confronting the classics”. Beard is the most engaging writer, her style is fresh and open, and she treats the ancient and the modern world as a continuum which to today’s reader makes the ancient world closer and more easily understandable. It is a book, I believe, directed both to dilettante amateurs of ancient history and to the professionals in the field. The reason for the latter is that the book is a collection of some thirty Beard’s reviews of books on the ancient world written by her peers. Thus, I guess, the original reviews were very likely to have been written for and read by the top professionals in the field.
Beard covers what I would call the “high-school antiquity”, that is the antiquity that most of us have studied in the high school, which includes the Peloponnesian Wars, Alexander the Great, The Roman republic and the Punic Wars, and the peak of the Roman Empire. She brings, at least for me, a very fresh look at a number of people and issues (I will mention some below), but I feel a bit of a regret that she has not engaged, at least not in this book, with less well-known and more difficult periods, especially with the crisis of the 3rd and 4th centuries and the rise of Christianity.
I would like to focus this review on three issues: methodology, role of the individual in history, and a bit of economics (as you would expect).
An overwhelming impression that one retains from Beard’s book is how fragmentary our knowledge of the ancient world is, and how despite a seeming abundance of material evidence (objects of art and daily life, writings, skeletons etc.) many questions will probably never be answered. This fundamental lack of knowledge allows Beard to question our received wisdom: was Hadrian really so much better than Nero?, was Alexander a military genius or an arrogant, drunken youth endowed with incredibly good luck (which might have run out had he not died young)?, and the perennial question of whether Caesar’s assassination was a tyrannicide.
This lack of knowledge leads ancient historians to employ the methodology that Beard beautifully deconstructs in the most devastatingly negative review of any book in this volume, Anthony Birley’s “Hadrian: The restless emperor”. The methodology used by Birley and many others is “a combination of scholarship, conjecture and fiction”. Scholarship is based on a rather narrow interpretation of the evidence. But since that evidence, even for Hadrian, is scant (writings on his reign date for at least a century after it ended), the authors have to resort to conjuncture. The tell-tale terms are “seems”, “he must”, “it might be” “it was done in such-and-such way, no doubt”, “they would have been”, “presumably”, “the odds are” etc. Beard provides a number of such examples, and putting them together amount to a devastating indictment of the approach. And soon, after conjecture, fiction takes over. Why is this bad? Because, Beard writes, “the issue is that this veneer of scrupulous scholarship (“I shall claim nothing as fact that I cannot authenticate”) turns out to act a brilliant alibi for outright fiction”. (p. 173).
This made me think of the same approach used in economics. Since it has become impossible to claim causality between two phenomena unless extremely stringent criteria are satisfied, economists have taken to masking this fact by a legalistic use of language, very similar to what ancient historians do when they “conjecture” (that is, make up) things. The historians do not write that they have a proof that Hadrian walked along the Hadrian wall; they write that “he no doubt was expected to make on-the-foot review”. Of course, the objective is to tell the reader that indeed he did do such a review, but to cover oneself academically through the use of the conditional. Economists are given a Faustian choice of either not publishing anything since they fail to have a proof of causality, or publishing articles that go out of the way to claim that they discuss only “associations” while in reality they convey to their readers the impression that it is really of causality they are speaking. For if the writer really believed that he has uncovered only a mere association, what would be the use of such a finding? Thus both sciences resort to massive cover-ups.
After I became so thoroughly convinced by validity of Beard’s critique, I started paying closer attention to the weasel words that she so aptly identified. And, lo and behold, most of them were there when she too discusses events for which conjecture is the best we can come up with! I did not go back to the earlier reviews to look for such words, but in only two reviews following her demolition of Hadrian’s biographer, there are terms such as “almost certainly”, “most likely”, “we can only wonder” etc. So, it seems that even when we do know what should be done, we are, given the state of our knowledge, unable to follow our own rules---for otherwise we shall publish nothing at all.
Thus conjecture and perhaps fiction is best we can do in discussing Hadrian or Nero (or anybody else in the ancient world). It is here that Beard introduces some really interesting points. Alter showing the similarities between Nero and Hadrian (their peripatetic careers, admiration--kowtowing as some Romans would no doubt see it--- for Greek language and culture, unconventional behavior, love of luxury) she asks whether their rules were really so much different as we conventionally believe. Could not the ideas about the qualities of their rules have been largely conveyed by the elite opinion that prevailed after their deaths? Since Nero was assassinated, the assassins had to claim that his rule was disastrous; Hadrian died in his bed, was succeeded by Antonius Pius, hand-picked by Hadrian, was deified and remained forever enshrined as a “good emperor”. But for the majority of the population (who did not seem to mind, or might have rather enjoyed, Nero’s extravagances), was there any difference?
The problem with ancient history is that paucity of evidence does not allow us (except in some obvious cases like the Gracchi or Caesar) to even so much as glimpse the social forces that were opposing or supporting various emperors. We thus end up in the unfortunate position of judging emperors solely by their, largely attributed, personal character. We have “good” emperors, and we have “bad” emperors. This is obviously a very simplistic view of studying history. However, this simplistic view has in popular culture gone further than explaining only the ancient history and today it informs most of our thinking about the contemporary world. Demonization of individuals without any account being taken of the context within which they operate (all evils of Iraq are due to Saddam—we know now how accurate that view was, or of Syria to Assad, or of Russia to Putin, or of Iran to Ahmadi-Nejad (remember him?)) is made of the exactly the same materiel as Robert Graves’ ubication of all the world’s deviousness in Livia (and Beard is scathing about Graves and even more so of the BBC adaptation). For Rome perhaps we cannot do better since we know so little about the social conditions under Hadrian or Nero, but for the present world we surely can.
Finally, let me come to economics which play a very small role in Beard’s reviews (and presumably in the books she reviews). I found most interesting her discussion of slavery in relation to Henrik Mouritsen, and Keith Bradley and Paul Cartledgge (eds.) books on the topic. There are two huge issues there. First, Rome is among all known societies with extensive slavery the only one where manumission was practiced on an extensive scale. Beard believes that ¾ of the population were freedmen (liberati) or descendants of freedmen. We do not understand what led owners to such massive granting of liberty. Was it because holding people as slaves was uneconomical (in the old age), or because many developed personal relations with domestic slaves (sex and marriage)? But the former cannot explain the scale of manumissions of younger slaves, the latter cannot be something specific to Rome (nor can explain manumission of non-domestic slaves). So, according to Beard, we have no answer. It is surely something that economists should try to understand better, because in our explanation of why Rome never developed labor-saving machinery, the cheap labor of slaves plays a very important role. But the scale of manumissions bellies that interpretation.
Second, what was the social structure of a society where ¾ of the population were freed slaves or children of freed slaves? Here, I think a modern comparison with the role of immigration in the United States may be useful. While being an immigrant does carry a stigma in today’s US, that stigma is minimal (compared to Europe) because almost every American-born person has a parent or a grand-parent who was an immigrant. Then stigmatizing others for something very close to what oneself is, is indeed difficult and makes the societal acceptance of an otherwise “negative condition” easier. In addition, as much as freedmen were proud of having done well after being freed (as we can see from the inscriptions on their funeral monuments), so the number of migrants who have done well further reduces the generality of the stigma.
The fact that I could write yet another review, perhaps of equal size, of Mary Beard book show sufficiently how much both fun and useful it is. Now, I cannot wait to read her “SPQR: A history of ancient Rome”.