• Email
  • Print

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 that to every educated man who shared his interest. That was still true of Ranke and his German contemporaries, the founders of modern “scientific” historiography, but it is no longer true of most professional historical writing, 90 per cent (or more) of which is directed solely to other historians and to a small captive audience among university students. Specialized scholarship is indispensable, as a prelude, but when it becomes an end in itself, the popular histories are left to amateurs, who often fail to get it quite right; or professionals, having forgotten the art of communication, write down to a popular audience, which is probably worse still.

How unnecessary all this is receives a brilliant demonstration at Professor Oppenheim’s hands. His professional qualifications are impeccable: he is, among other things, editor in charge of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary. What sets Ancient Mesopotamia above any similar synoptic work known to me is a combination of several things. In the first place, Oppenheim pays the reader the compliment of expecting him to treat a serious subject seriously. In particular, he explains at every step in the argument the nature and limits of the available evidence. “We do not have answers to these questions” is a frequent refrain, and the reader understands why it is necessary to say that when it is. Second, there is the rejection of sentimentality already noticed. Professor Oppenheim insists on the alien-ness of the civilization he is portraying, and he is right.

If the new directions here surveyed mean that Assyriology will eventually move away from the humanities and nearer to cultural anthropology, I shall shed no tear. The humanities have never been successful in treating alien civilizations with that tender care and deep respect that such an undertaking demands. Their conceptual tools are geared to integration on their own terms and to assimilation along Western standards.

If modern anthropology and sociology (and current politics, too, for that matter) have taught us anything, it is the fallacy of “there is nothing new under the sun.” Of course there are human needs which are universal and the possible responses are not infinite. But they are varied enough. It was in Mesopotamia, for example, that there first occurred what Gordon Childe called the “urban revolution.” The city was the social foundation on which this earliest of the great civilizations of antiquity was built, as it was the foundation much later for the civilizations of Greece and Rome. And what is a city? That is no simple question; most answers have always stressed, among other things, the economic side, specifically the role of the market in mediating between the producers in the countryside and the consumers in the city. The Babylonians were great traders—even notorious, as every reader of the Old Testament knows—and we possess many contemporary documents in evidence. However, “foodstuffs are never mentioned in any context that would suggest a form of trade.” That one fact, customarily overlooked or ignored, immediately places the Babylonian city in a category distinct from all western city-categories, and therefore its social and economic history must be approached as something which was qualitatively different from the familiar western history. It is not only in the humanities that the “conceptual tools” have to resist “assimilation along Western standards.”

And that brings me to my last point about the book. On every aspect of Mesopotamian civilization Professor Oppenheim remains equally alert to nuances and patterns. Whether he is discussing “economic facts” or epic literature or religion or science, he translates our familiar terms and categories into their specific, alien Mesopotamian meanings—insofar as that can ever be done intelligibly for an alien civilization—and he tries to pursue them through the available concrete data in order to fill out his “portrait.” The procedure is admittedly “selective,” the portrait frankly “subjective.” In the end, any account of how things really were comes down to “how I think they really were.”

So does Professor Flacelière’s book, originally published in France in 1959, but all similarity stops right there. The title itself serves as a warning, for the subject is not Athens at the time of Pericles, who died in 429 B.C., but Athens in the century from 450 to 350, with digressions on Sparta and any other place or period in Greek history the author chooses to deal with in one chapter or another. A man has the right to fix his period as he wishes, but Professor Flacelière’s wayward handling of the time factor blocks at the outset any reasoned consideration of significant changes, in particular of the effects of the Peloponnesian War and the destruction of the Athenian Empire. Loose thinking then leads on to outright contradiction. The city-state was “a basically totalitarian concept,” so that even in Athens “freedom of speech and opinion, especially in the religious sphere, simply do not exist.” That is on page 30, but on page 275 “the Athenians did invent the notions of civil liberty and democracy, and that is greatly to their credit.”

That last, characteristic phrase reduces the legitimate historical judgment to a kind of handing out of marks, of merits and demerits, which in the end denies meaning to historical study. “Such conditions show a fundamental ignorance of common hygiene, let alone of urban development.” “The only kind of morality which seems to me at all elevated is that of certain philosophers.” Of what society can these things not be said, provided one looks in the right directions and never forgets that one is against sin? Flacelière is an expert at choosing where to look. He makes very extensive use of quotations from ancient authors, but, unlike Oppenheim, he does not engage the reader in serious consideration of who his sources are and what they are worth. He builds very heavily on Aristophanes, notoriously the most problematical of Greek writers. It is as if one wrote a “Daily Life in London at the Time of George V” from deadpan quotations from Bernard Shaw, or about New York from Edward Albee. Aristophanes is an important source in many ways, one of which is not as an impartial observer and reporter. Merely to say about a scene of his that “it is, of course, a caricature rather than a realistic portrait, but if we make the necessary allowances and corrections, we can nevertheless take Aristophanes as a reliable guide,” is not nearly good enough. There is no simple mechanical rule for correcting a caricature.

Too often, furthermore, the sources do not even say what they are reported to be saying. For example Xenophon in the Memorabilia did not reckon the number of houses in Athens at 10,000, not even “at a rough estimate.” His Oeconomica is not about “the life of a country gentleman,” but about a city resident who owns a farm which he visits periodically. In the Memorabilia again, we do not find Socrates “attempting to persuade an Athenian to make his parents go out to work,” but rather showing him how in a temporary crisis caused by the Peloponnesian War his female relations could be put profitably to work making clothing at home. And other errors of fact pile up without any reference to the sources at all. In the bad guesses Flacelière accumulates on page 52 to arrive at a population figure, he ends by confusing free men and free citizens. It is not true that the non-citizens “took first place in trade, both retail and wholesale”; retail trade in the market-place was effectively a citizen monopoly. It is decidedly not true that outside Athens “the head of a family had the right to sell his children” or that “an undischarged debtor…was sold into slavery” or that “an unemployed member of the proletariat…could like-wise sell himself as a slave.” But why go on? There are limits of tolerance with respect to errors, and I am sorry to say that this book transcends them.

  • Email
  • Print