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About the Author:
Ernst Breisach is professor emeritus of history at Western Michigan University
The Emergence of Greek Historiography
The Timeless Past of Gods and Heroes
We and the bards. The Homeric epics, now innocuously enshrined in the treasure house we call Great Literature, were in centuries past sources of inspiration and pride. The ancient Greeks found them endlessly fascinating, edifying, and particularly useful for the education of the young. The Romans traced their origin to the Trojans, and so did other people in their quest for prestige. As late as four hundred years ago, some English and French scholars pointed with pride to their peoples' Trojan lineage.
Yet for us today Homer's magnificent Troy (most likely Troy VIla, destroyed around 1240 or 1230 B.C.) was just a town favorably situated at the entrance to the Hellespont (the modern Dardanelles) whose inhabitants had become moderately prosperous through trade, levying tolls, textile manufacturing, and horse breeding. Its conquerors were a motley lot of Mycenaean nobles bent on destroying and looting. The Trojan campaign may have been the "last hurrah" of the Mycenaeans (or Achaeans) who, between 1600 and 1200 B.C., had dominated the Aegean area as sharp traders and even keener warriors. Soon after the Trojan War the Dorians moved into the Aegean area, shattered the Achaean world and ushered in the Greek Dark Age.
Four to five hundred years after Troy had been laid waste, Homer (or, as some scholars would have it, a number of rhapsodes or bards) "composed" the Iliad and the Odyssey, either by creating through artistic imagination new epics from traditional material or by simply coordinating a few existing epics. More troubling to the historian is the fact that the surviving versions of the two epics which so greatly influenced Western civilization were, of course, those versions somebody wrote down. Yet, the first of these appeared only during the sixth century B.C. in Athens, about two centuries after the emergence of the epics. The most influential version was that by Aristarchus of Samothrace from the second century B.C., in which the Mycenaean or Achaean, the Dorian Homeric, and the post- Homeric elements were already intermingled. Gradually and still dimly, the modern image of the Mycenaean period and the Greek Dark Age is taking shape. Its elements are trade relationships, empires, expeditions of plunder and destruction, strategies of war and trade, and intricate social hierarchies: conceptual schemes which would puzzle the bards of the Homeric period. These differences between the early Greek and the modern views of the past are not the result of mere communication problems. The bards and we do not agree on such fundamental issues as how one knows about the past, which forces shape events, and what is the purpose of historical accounts. Two different experiences of the world confront each other.
Language, gods, and heroes. As bards sang of gods, heroes, deeds, suffering, and glories, they created a characteristic appreciation of the past: the heroic epic. It could contain humor or stories about mundane life, even some irreverent passages, but in essence it spoke of life in the grand and noble manner and of gods. Hence the language of the epics was not that of the daily routine or of the marketplace. The bards recited the tales of the past in a lofty manner using a rhythmic speech, which alternated long and short syllables according to strict patterns. In the case of the Homeric epics, which were the heirs of many song traditions, the hexameter added to the solemnity with which heroic history was recited and listened to. It all enhanced the reverence in which listeners held the epics as the records of the distant past and the respect they gave the bards as the teachers about the past. The latter were able to maintain a seemingly unbroken epic tradition by the process of adaptation. In the absence of an "authoritative" written text, the bards could adjust their messages to the changing preferences and realities of collective life.
The Iliad is aristocratic history. Merchants, craftsmen, and peasants play little part in the actions. It fitted aristocratic tastes that there was not a chronological narrative of a war lasting ten years but a dramatic account of a few weeks; by implication the rest of the siege was uninteresting, dull, and of no importance, and it appears only in some explanatory flashbacks. The campaign which moved men and ships in great numbers became the background for the actions of gods and the deeds, passions, glories, and defeats of a few heroes. "Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus and its devastation ...," begins the Iliad, and it keeps to that theme. Exceptions are few, the foremost being the undramatic catalogue of Achaean allies and ships. While that list delights the modern historians, since it describes the Mycenaean coalition which waged the war against Troy, it retards the action and lessens the excitement. Those who loved to listen to the Iliad were much more enamored by the dramatic core of the epic, the story of Achilles—his courage, strength, moral code, excessive passion, and doom; the related deeds of other heroes; the sufferings of noble women; and the machinations of gods and goddesses.
Does Homer in his Iliad ever venture beyond the aristocratic world and refer to the broader human life and its order? On occasions he says "the will of Zeus was accomplished." But Zeus was far from being the author of all human events, and he was not even the initiator of the Trojan War; it had what must appear to moderns a frivolous base: the vengeance taken by Athena and Hera on the Troy of Paris, who had judged their beauty to be less than Aphrodite's. In return, Aphrodite had seen to it that Paris could carry off the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. Menelaus, Helen's husband, became the instrument of vengeance. Other gods and goddesses interfered in the war according to their preferences by participating actively in battles, directing and deflecting weapons, scheming against others, persuading Zeus, influencing mortals, or quarreling among themselves. The gods shared influence with the heroes whose fighting, winning, wounding, and dying fill epic history. Indeed, heroic history shrank the world and time to the world of the hero who struggled, inspired by an unchanging code of honor, guided by often excessive passions, hindered and helped by gods and goddesses, and finally met death as the noble end to a triumphant life.
Disdain for the unheroic. Heroic history paid little heed to the collective human fate. The Iliad remained silent on the siege, even on the destruction of Troy and was followed by a personal adventure story, the Odyssey, as if the fate of the Achaeans did not matter. Only that part of the Achaean past was important which was ennobled by the presence of extraordinary persons, the heroes who still mingled with the gods. Since epic history clearly wished to inspire rather than to inform, events could remain timeless. What did it matter to those who imitated or admired the heroes when exactly the Trojan War had occurred?
Only the unheroic, the stuff of everyday life, is under the yoke of continuous time. Homer knew of the flow of unheroic life: the sun rises and sets; people are born, grow up, age, and die; and winter yields to spring and summer. He was aware of the fate of the many—their joys and sorrows, their institutions and possessions—but he rarely recorded it. No bard would recite to aristocratic audiences events lacking heroism, or tell the people at religious festivals and public gatherings about things which reminded them of their own daily toil. The audiences came to be inspired, excited, and in the best sense entertained. Neither they nor the bards had any notion that events, big and small, when told in proper time sequence, would result in an explanatory narrative. The past showed only heroic deeds performed in connection with isolated great events, and the future could be foretold only by oracles and portents. The idea that the events of the past could influence those of the present was far from the minds of the bards and their audiences. They recognized only the continuity of timeless ideals and virtues which the heroes of the past taught to the people of the present. Hence the persistence of heroic history throughout centuries when life no longer resembled that in archaic Greece. In the fourth century Homer's influence was still so strong that Plato regretted the poet's hold on Hellenic education and his power over individuals.
The didactic use of the Iliad was not defeated—even if the stunning dramatic unity of the work was weakened—when its story was spun out into a quasi-continuous account, which elaborated on and added stories to the Homeric epics. The authors of the subsidiary epics "filled in" what they considered to be missing links in the Iliad: an elaborate story centering around the rape of Helen, the tale of the Trojan horse, the Laocoön story, and the return of the heroes from Troy.
Discovering a Past of Human Dimensions
Hesiod and the collective human fate. Notwithstanding the enduring enthusiasm for Homer, the dominance of heroic history could not last. An approximate contemporary of Homer, Hesiod of Ascra, already suggested a different view of the past. His Theogony (700s B.C.)showed a greater sense of abstract order as the cosmos emerged from chaos and sketchy genealogies of gods and goddesses were established. Most remarkably, Hesiod affirmed a collective human past and divided it into five ages ("races"): the Golden Age, in which people lived like gods, without care, suffering, and chores, and in which they died peacefully without aging; the Silver Age, when life was marked by utmost cruelty and unbridled love of war, and people revolted against all things divine and met an early death; the Age of Bronze, which was peopled by a race of extraordinary physical strength and vigor that destroyed itself by incessant warfare; the Age of Heroes (not identified with any metal), filled with noble humans and half-gods, who, unfortunately, also destroyed themselves in wars, one of them being Homer's Trojan War; and the Iron Age, the time of Hesiod and common man, which offered little but misery, injustice, a general lack of benevolence, aging, and death.
The past had acquired not only something akin to continuity but also a direction. The assertion that human history is the story of a decline from a Golden Age would reverberate throughout Western historiography, although other forces would be blamed for it than the will of Zeus.
New views on the world and time. After 800 B.C. the Greek world changed remarkably with the emergence of the polis, that is the city-state with an urban center and a contiguous rural district. These states, of widely varying sizes, types of government, and degrees of cultural development, were closely knit, self-governing communities marked by a keen and creative tension between their assertion of the individual's autonomy and their demand for conformity to the order of law and custom. During its best years the polis provided a context for Greek life that released a wave of human energy. One of its significant manifestations was the colonization movement, and soon the Greeks sat on the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea "like frogs around a pond." When these Greek colonists, particularly those on the coast of Asia Minor, confronted other cultures with different sets of customs and beliefs, they were reminded of their identity as Hellenes. Although the Greek sense of superiority limited cultural assimilation, the awareness of a wider and diverse world did affect Greek thought. It assisted substantially in bringing about changes in poetry, art, and thought, with philosophy receiving most attention.
The intellectual revolution began in the sixth century B.C. with Thales of Miletus and was continued by other philosophers. Under its impact the cosmos lost its anthropomorphic structure. Instead, philosophers searched for the basic substances from which all known objects were made up and for the processes which transformed these substances into the great variety of things. Yet all of these early philosophers explored the mystery of the cosmos rather than the problems of human existence. Only in the fourth century did the Sophists turn their attention to the phenomena connected with human life. But the changes in Greek life, of which the intellectual revolution was an important aspect, soon affected Greek views on the past.
As the Greeks, especially the Ionians, grew more confident in the practical and intellectual mastery of the world, they launched a broad inquiry into the geography and the peoples of the oikoumene. Those who engaged in such an inquiry (a [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or historia), altered Greek views on the two basic dimensions of all of life, space, and time. From Greek explorations of the coastal areas of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, the Middle East, and even a bit of the Atlantic coast, came new descriptions of wide parts of the contemporary world, particularly Hecataeus of Miletus's Periegesis (meaning approximately "journey round the world"). His work and that of other pioneers made 'known, described, and rationally organized the terrestrial space known to the Greeks.
The same zeal for exploration and rational organization soon transformed the Greek view of the dimension of time. The world of geographers and the cosmos of philosophers were continuous, while heroic history was by its nature discontinuous. Homer's heroes had "lived" at an indeterminate point in the past and were connected with the present solely through the inspirations and lessons derived from the heroes and their deeds. There were no dates in the Iliad. Homer neither had a time frame available in which to place the Trojan War, nor would it have mattered to him to "know the dates." Since the heroic epic had no use for the continuity of time, it made little difference to Homer that year followed year. Glaucus mirrored the Homeric attitude when he told Diomedes: "As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity. The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber burgeons with leaves again when the season of spring is returning. So one generation of men will grow while another dies."
Eventually some Greeks would use the very concept of generations, those layers of human life, as a first step towards building a continuous account of the past. But in the Iliad the passage of generations merely points out the unimportance, even futility of routine human life.
Around 500 B.C., the Greeks began to grope towards the concept of continuous time and with it a history in which an unbroken line of years filled with events would stretch from the present into the most distant past. The timeless gods did not decree that view nor did the heroes need it, whose deeds surpassed all time, but the dwellers of the polis had use for it as they began to shape their lives. Life in the polis consisted not of isolated episodes in heroic lives but relied on the continuity of institutions, rules, laws, contracts, and expectations.
The chronological control of the past. Hecataeus of Miletus, who strained so hard to shape the geography of his world according to rational concepts, also dealt with the problem of time in his Genealogies" Fragmentary remains indicate that he attempted to link the age of humans with the so far timeless mythical age by constructing an unbroken sequence of identified generations for that long interval. The habit of looking for illustrious ancestors of cities, peoples, or families in the dim period of heroes and gods had established that link to the distant past which Hecataeus now wished to organize in human terms.
In the fifth century B.C. the Lydian Xanthus recorded the past of his people up to the downfall of their King Croesus. It is remarkable that he already attempted to relate the human events of the past, mythical and otherwise, to memorable and potentially datable natural events such as earthquakes and droughts. Later in the century, Hellanicus of Lesbos used a generation count as a chronological tool in his Troica and, based on it, placed the fall of Troy in the year equivalent to about 1240 B.C. In his Attic History Hellanicus proceeded beyond a mere generation count and, Thucydides' subsequent criticism notwithstanding, proposed a new tool for dating events: lists of officeholders kept by cities and temples. He himself used the list of the priestesses of Hera at Argos and in another work the list of winners of the Carnean games. Using the Argos list, Hellanicus tried valiantly to sort into chronological order a multitude of events—Greek, Sicilian, Roman (including the founding of Rome).
Excerpted from Historiography by Ernst Breisach. Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Posted October 21, 2012
Many History Majors at one of my Alma Maters groaned at the sight of this book. Mine is the green paperback edition and I am glad to still own mine as I feel ill at the thought of selling back my textbooks. At Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania (U.S.A.) Historiography was a "Writing Intensive Course" and was required of every History B.A.
I chose to take the course with the (then) Chair of the History Department; History being one of the University's largest staffed and highest required hours courses and the Chairman William V. Hudon being one of the greatest and prolifically published young Professors of History in history.
I mention this because Dr. Hudon was the most challenging Professors especially in this course. Most Professors assigned a few chapters for the whole semester, my Professor assigned a few chapters a week. We read this entire book with discussion for Historiography.
I am thankful to have been thoroughly soaked in the knowledge contained in this text. It teaches, with example, the way history has been and is written. It shows what skews exist in the spreading of history, where fiction falls into the mix, how multiple accounts of an event (although differing) still allow for a further glimpse of the truth to be seen by one source or even a few sources that are quite nearly the same (which of course tells you whose pockets were filled or what status was granted by the upper echelons who had a purpose and a stake in a "history" being told exactly the same way nearly verbatim), the role of history in current events and thoughts, histories and philosophies leading to revolution and change, and the evolving character of life itself.
It is a hefty read and I do recommend taking it slowly, taking notes, and checking out some of the referenced philosophers and works: Hegel, Locke, Kant, Thucydides, Chomsky, Kierkegaard, Plato.
I must strongly note that this text is strongly based only in what is now called "Western" Civilization; leaving out works such as Confucious, Rumi, Sun Tzu, Takuan Soho, Basho, and most of the Asias and Africas.
If I check back to see if there are other reviews I would like to see if any person knows of a similar book taking into account Eastern Civilization.
Posted May 27, 2010
No text was provided for this review.
Posted October 18, 2010
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Posted June 7, 2011
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Posted September 30, 2010
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