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Who Writes History? Who Reads it?

Statue of Posidon/ZeusI-Tunes have been a great thing for those who like university lectures.   You can download full courses that would have been almost impossible to find before, or at least very expensive. The one I am listening to now is Donald Kagan’s history of ancient Greece from Yale University  I have admired Kagan’s books and I find that his lectures are equally well presented and prepared. 

Greek history is something I knew very well, but it is surprising how much you forget and how much you can still learn from a basic survey course taught by a good professor.   It is also interesting how my perspectives have changed over the years since I studied the Greeks in graduate school.  

Experience is the big difference.  I studied history back then w/o experiencing much of it myself.   Human events look a lot different after you have been involved more of them.   Things seem a lot neater back then.   As far as I understood, leaders made decision and people followed them.  I now understand that leaders often make unclear or confused decisions, or they don’t make them at all.  Even when they are clear and definitive, the details get mixed up by the time they move to the lower layers.   And even if the communications are clear, their followers often don’t follow.   

Many times the writing of the history itself is what makes sense of the events.  Historians provide frameworks that sometimes don’t really fit, but still may be persistent.   Thucydides, the great historian of the Peloponnesian War, influenced the writing of history and ideas about democracy for 2500 years.  He evidently tried to be fair, but in his act of choosing made the narrative what it became.  The father of history, Herodotus, told many of the stories we still remember.   We probably would not have heard of the 300 Spartans and they certainly would not be making movies about them today, if not for the compelling story told by Herodotus and many of the quotations he used.   When the Persians threatened that their arrows would blot out the sun, the Spartans responded that they would fight in the shade.   That sticks.  

Thucydides was a participant in some of the events he wrote about.  He had been a man of politics.  He had led an expedition in battle.  Herodotus was also a man of the world.  Not so much modern historians.   I wonder how much a scholar can understand the events they write about if their only experience is vicarious.   Sometimes shit just happens.  There is no good explanation.   A scholar tends not to like this.

Kagan addressed the problem of agriculture in Greece.  He mentioned that it was a difficult area, long debated by historians. I know that, since I wrote my master’s thesis on the reforms of Solon.   (It was a very bad thesis and I hope it has been lost, BTW).   Kagan mentioned Victor Davis Hanson on several occasions.   Hanson is a classical scholar, but his insights come from the fact that he is also a farmer.  Few historians have that kind of background and it was this unique background that gave Hanson his insights.  Some things make perfect sense to someone with experience.  For example, why do you grow a variety of crops on a small farm?  Because you want to take advantage of all the diversity of soils and seasons.   Sometimes the “optimal” crop just won’t grow.  Beyond that, if you have just one crop, you will have too much to do at some short times during the year and than almost nothing to do the rest of the time.   It is obvious once somebody says it.   Most Greeks were small farmers.  The rhythms of the season influenced their history.   It is good to understand them. 

For example, it is easy for a marauding army to burn a wheat crop, but only at certain seasons.   Greek farmer-soldiers usually had to be close to home at this time to protect and harvest their own crops.  Spartans were an exception to this, since they lived off Helot-run estates and didn’t do any farming themselves. (or any work at all besides war)  It is nearly impossible to kill an olive tree.    An invading army can chop at them, but they sprout back.  Ancient historians sometimes refer to these things and/or to weather conditions, but a lot of it goes clear over the heads of any historian or student who has not experienced such thing.

I wonder how much else we all miss.


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