The good, the bad, and the really good

After that post where I talked about levels of trust in histories, I've given some thought to a few modern examples that illustrate the point.  After a lot of thought, I'd like to list three modern books that are unambiguously one way or the other.

Athenian Homicide Law is a brilliant history book written only a few years ago, on how ancient Athenians managed trials for murder.  It's really well written, it quotes original sources, it states clearly not only what's known, but also what's not known, and best of all, it does not impose a single modern view on how they did things back then.   Highly recommended.

The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens, by Eva C. Keuls.  I'm afraid this goes into the bad basket.  Ms Keuls doesn't like Athenian men.  From her tone, I strongly suspect she doesn't like men of any sort, from any time, from any place, for any reason.  She clearly knows her Greek pottery, which she uses to make her point, while avoiding any evidence that might contradict her apparent position that all men are slime.  Of course, she'd probably argue that I'm only saying that because I'm a man.  Oh well.  I bought this book two years ago at the Getty Villa, so it's getting some airplay in reputable surroundings.  

Both of these are modern histories by professionals, talking about the past.  Are there any real equivalents to Herodotus and Thucydides?  Men on the ground who knew, to the best of their ability, what was going on?  In fact there are quite a few, of varying levels of self-serving motive.  The one that to me stands head and shoulders above the rest is:

The Rommel Papers, by none other than Erwin Rommel, edited by the British military strategist Liddell Hart.  Rommel, as you surely know, was forced to take poison after he was implicated in a plot against Hitler.  What is less well know is that Rommel was an established author.  After WW1, in which he served as a junior officer, he wrote a textbook on infantry tactics called Infanterie greift an (Infantry in Attack).  He planned to do a similar book after WW2, but of course didn't live to write it.  He did however keep copious notes for his book even as he fought the war, plus he wrote to his wife, virtually every day throughout, sometimes twice a day, including piles of war details that really shouldn't have got past the censor.  His family hid his notes from the Gestapo and years later they asked Hart to turn the notes into a book.  Hart did it by touching the material as little as possible, presenting letters as letters and notes as notes, so that you get a perfect feel for what was happening.  There's a mind-blowing amount of information in that book, from what German high command was thinking about strategy, down to minute details about actions and people.  It was all written by someone in an astoundingly good position to know the facts, but written with no axe to grind.  (If you don't count his utter contempt for Italian organization, the Luftwaffe, and a few of his fellow Generals.  But that's part of the fascination).   Xenophon and Rommel would have made terrific co-authors.

How much can we believe ancient history?

Actually the title should be, "How much does Gary trust the ancient histories?"  Because opinions vary quite a lot, and I can only give you my view.  This is one the questions Alun raised in his review, when he said I tended to trust the writings of ancient people.

Which in fact, I do.  At least, I trust them more than the alternatives.

The author John Maddox Roberts likes to reply with a question of his own, when he's asked about historical accuracy in his Roman mysteries.  He asks back, how much do we really know about the Kennedy assassination?  And that was a major event that happened only 50 years ago.

He's right, of course.  Pick any newsworthy event that's happened in the last three months, and I guarantee you'll find at least two, and probably four or more, strongly differing views about what really happened.

If you go to the library and check the books on ancient Greece, you'll see they fall into three simple groups:

  1. Stuff that was written at the time;
  2. Stuff that Roman period people wrote about the Greeks; and
  3. Stuff that was written in the last 100 years.
Category 1 is Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Artistotle et al.

Category 2 is Plutarch, who wrote biographies, and Pausanias, who wrote the world's first Hitchhiker's Guide to Greece.  They're both Greek, but they're writing hundreds of years after the fact.

Category 3 is piles and piles of books, some by academics, some popular.  The more popular they are, the better written, but the less accurate and comprehensive.  

My level of trust in these books is precisely the order 1,2,3.  The only thing that will modify that order is archaeological evidence and common sense. 

When you read an ancient text, you're reading one man's view, but at least it's the view of someone on the ground as it happened, or as close as we can get.  It's like reading the news these days: you read the article, and then you factor in the likely political bias of the person who's writing the news.  Though come to that, Herodotus and Thucydides strike me as noticeably more balanced and unbiased than quite a few modern historians I've come across, and certainly far more unbiased than every journalist.

The guys writing in the Roman period often worked off older books that have since been lost.  Pausanias personally visited just about everywhere he wrote of.  And described it in detail.  Unbelievably. Minute.  Detail.    This makes them, frankly, more trustworthy than most modern books.

This is going to get me into trouble with my academic friends, but I honestly believe it's true, that modern academic texts have an unfortunate tendency to be infected with left-wing ideology.  So I don't see them as any less biased than ancient texts, but biased in a different way.

It's easy to cherry-pick examples one way or the other, so let me choose one that suits me.  Believe it or not, there are ancient historians who are still fighting the Peloponnesian War.  I swear I could guess modern people's voting patterns by whether they support Sparta or Athens.  And the funny thing is, I've a feeling that 80% of the pro-Spartans are of a left wing disposition, and 80% of the pro-Athenians are right-wing.   Not that I can prove it, but it's the distinct impression I get.  Of course there are purely dispassionate modern articles, and when they are, they spend a lot of time quoting the ancient sources and doing logical analysis.  Which ultimately takes me back to the primary sources anyway.  And I must say, by far the biggest use for modern articles is pointers to ancient sources or quotes that I wasn't aware of.

If someone wrote about the Kennedy assassination, 2,500 years from now, how accurate is it likely to be?

So what it comes down to is, I trust the guys on the ground, writing within 50 years of the event, over people writing 2,500 years out.  

Two reviews from interesting sources

Two new reader reviews:

Review number 1 is for The Pericles Commission.

What makes this interesting is that it's reviewed by Alun Salt, who's a for-real archaeoastronomer, which has to be one of the cooler job titles around.  Alun helped me out with some dates for the third book, because the ancient Olympics was scheduled to run according to various phases of the moon around the summer solstice.  So he was able to give me information on how much light there would have been to see by at the time of the murder.

Alun's done some very interesting research on the placement of Greek Temples relative to the sun, which I blogged about some time ago.

So Alun looked at my first book very much from the viewpoint of someone who knows the period in minute detail as a professional.  Here's his review.

He raises quite a few points that I haven't seen elsewhere.  I won't clutter this post with detailed talk about them.  Only insane authors argue with reviews, and in any case there's nothing to argue with, but I'll definitely be back to discuss some of the things he mentions in a later post.

Review number 2 is for The Ionia Sanction.  But not the book; it's for the audio version.

Dreamscape is an audio book producer in the US.  They hired an American actor to read the book end to end.  I hope he liked it, because he had to read every word very clearly!

The audio version of The Ionia Sanction is now for sale, and thanks very much to Dreamscape for doing it.

The audio review was written by Bernadette at Fair Dinkum Crime, who very clearly is not American, and I was interested to see how that affected the listening.

Dead Bolt

Some time ago I wrote about finding one of the books of a US author friend in a resort town in New South Wales, in Australia.  Someone must have bought the book in the US, carried it to Oz, then left it in an obscure place, only to be found by someone who happened to know the author.  A weird coincidence.

Said author was Juliet  Blackwell, whose latest novel Dead Bolt just made #24 on the NYT bestseller list.  Dead Bolt's the second of her Haunted Home Renovation mysteries.  So if you're into paranormal home improvements, this is the book for you, and a lot of people think exactly that.

Yay for Juliet!