Good and Bad History

Ancient Mesopotamia

by A. Leo Oppenheim
University of Chicago, 433 pp., $8.50

Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles

by Robert Flacelière, translated by Peter Green
Macmillan, 310 pp., $6.95

What is history? This question is exercising an unusual number of historians and others these days, and there is reasons to believe that underneath there is a considerable malaise. To a degree, though not altogether, the question can be re-phrased and divided into two: 1) Why bother? 2) Why bother to get it right? (Only a moment’s reflection is needed to appreciate that these two questions are far from identical, that, indeed, certain answers to the first demand a negative answer to the second.)

Why, to take an off-center example, bother with the history of Mesopotamia? In one of the great European universities, no student today is permitted to study the language, history, and archaeology of the Babylonians and Assyrians without at the same time studying ancient Hebrew. That points to one answer, a common one in the relatively short history of modern Mesopotamian studies; for my second question, a decisive answer. In the Epilogue closing his “Portrait of a Dead Civilization,” Professor Oppenheim sums the situation up:

My discussion of Mesopotamian religion represents a frankly polemic shift of emphasis from the tepid climate of sentimental and patronizing interest in which it is customarily treated. Purposely, the subject matter has not been set forth in what may be called its “best light”—if light indeed can be called the frame of reference provided by our built-in Old and New Testament “guidance system.” A de-westernization of the topic is aimed at….

Now, Mesopotamia really doesn’t matter to us, and that is why this is such a good example to illustrate the very powerful pull ideology exercises on history—and always has, since the day Herodotus invented the subject. Rightly or wrongly, both writers and readers of history expected it to prove something, or at least to reinforce beliefs, prejudices and prophecies. Until the late nineteenth century, at any rate, that was accepted without any argument, whether by Herodotus or Thucydides among the Greeks, or by the great “romantics” in American historiography, Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and the others. Then came the fatal day when the word “science” began to mesmerize historians, and the writing of history became scholarship, “value-free,” an “objective” search for how things really were, for the facts and nothing else.

I am prepared to argue that there is no such history and cannot be, but here I am concerned with a single consequence of that decisive turn in historiography, one which is symbolized by the fact that, almost as a matter of routine, I am obliged to point out that the two books under review are designed for the general reader, that they are examples of haute vulgarisation (for some reason the French phrase is supposed to impart a more intellectual, less Philistine tone than plain English “popularization”). Until the fatal turn, no historian ever dreamed of writing any other kind of history. Why should he have? There is nothing arcane or “technical” about the subject, and if he felt he had something to say, he wished to communicate…

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