Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.09.37

Neville Morley, Writing ancient history.   London:  Duckworth, 1999.  Pp. 175.  ISBN 0-715-62880-1.  £12.99.  

Reviewed by Jane Chaplin and Chris Kraus, Middlebury College and Oriel College, Oxford ( and
Word count: 1871 words

This is an intensely and intentionally personal book, written explicitly out of 'dissatisfaction, with the present state of ancient history--the books and articles that get published, the comments of reviewers, the way the subject is taught, the things that people say in seminars and conferences' (p. 165). In a sense then, to review it is to force it into an academic straitjacket and thereby to insult M.'s project. One of his objectives, however, is to try to change what he perceives as the oppressively dominant conventions of the scholarly establishment, so presumably M. also wants recognition from the academy. At the same time, his explicit audience is students, primarily undergraduates and to some extent graduates. Although the ultimate tribute to M. would be for this joint review to consist of diametrically opposed readings of his text, our views are substantially in agreement. We have chosen to respond from the perspectives of teachers in the US and the UK.


Is this a book for undergraduates? The first chapter addresses the question 'What is History?', running through Herodotus and Thucydides as its originators, and then explaining how history is distinguished from fiction, myth, propaganda, science, and 'fringe' history. The second chapter discusses how historians work with data and offers a useful explanation of what makes a 'fact' a 'fact' as well as pointing out various forms and roles of interpretation. Chapter 3 deals with the practice of history: the relationship between narrative and analysis, the 'voice' of the historian, and the weight of a historian's rhetorical stance and use of figurative language. In the final chapter M. lays out what he sees as the reasons for studying the past, ranging from answers imminent graduates might give in job interviews to his own psychology.

So is this really a book for undergraduates? On the one hand, yes, absolutely. It aims at accessibility, stating and repeating the obvious, with a goal always in sight. Though many teachers of ancient history probably do tell their students over and over to aim for analysis of problems, rather than re-telling the story, it does not hurt to have the point made in print with an explanation of the fact that narrative is not as highly regarded as a more analytical approach. The same can be said of M.'s discussion of 'rhetoric'; it is not new, but there is no harm in having written a published version of the sorts of comments one might make on a student essay.

On the other hand, perhaps because of M.'s double audience, I think this book might be rather disconcerting for students who have not yet encountered the windmills M. battles. One challenge is the abundance of paradoxes. Only one chapter (3) has footnotes (some of them self-destructing, some of them apparently 'straight')--but it's not the chapter on sources, as one might expect. Is there a point? An undergraduate--and indeed these readers--might be told what it is. The impersonal third person is twice excoriated (pp. 16 and 111-112), but also consistently used (e. g. pp. 39, 45, 48, 63, 65, 71 and so on). M warns his readers against the unthinking use of modern terms to describe antiquity (p. 81) but, in a mid-second to late first century context, refers to 'Italy' and 'France' as 'countries', apparently without irony. The voice of the ancient historian is white, middle-class, and male, all self-confessed attributes of the author (pp. 114-115 and 154; the first passage is cited in the index; the second is not). M. is critical, in a sympathetic way, of undergraduates' tendency to absorb passively the attitudes and practices of their teachers, but as he points out, he too wants the book's audience to adopt his approach (e. g. pp. 115-116). While M. draws attention to the latter two points, I was not clear about his use of the third person impersonal or contemporary terminology. Perhaps I was supposed to notice these contradictions and be prodded by them into deconstructing the book even as it attempts to take apart the contemporary practices of ancient history; but is an undergraduate trying to come to terms with those practices best served by a book that alternates between playfulness and a 'just the facts, ma'am' tone to deliver its message?

Ultimately, I found it hard to imagine a context in which the book would be essential reading for American students, whether undergraduate or graduate. Every country has its academic establishments and conventions, and anyone might read this book and emerge more thoughtful about the ways in which s/he is being or was professionally socialized. Nonetheless, M.'s imagined atmosphere, with regularly assigned essays based on a bibliography drawn up by the instructor, and the divorce between the activity of 'proper historians' (the adjective is telling in itself) and theory do not, in my experience, apply in the United States. To put it another way, undergraduates probably get more out of reading Herodotus and trying to figure out what he was doing than from learning that there are professional ancient historians with an allergy to some guy named Hayden White; and graduate students should simply read some Hayden White and try to figure out what he is doing. (There is certainly an intermediate category, advanced undergraduates or graduates first embarking on research for whom this book might make useful recommended reading.) In short, I cannot speak for other countries with Anglophone educational systems, but in a setting where few undergraduates take more than one course in ancient history and where theory is not an easy bullet for graduate students to dodge, this book has potentially less utility than in the UK.


I found this book easy to read, entertaining, and irritating in about equal proportions. M. has explicitly directed it toward undergraduates and graduate students, especially (but not exclusively) in British universities. Yet, as Chaplin has pointed out above, the volume's unveiled (and occasionally deconstructed) polemic is directed squarely against the body of scholars (and their practices) whom he characterizes--loosely--as 'ancient historians': the people and institutional expectations who have established the ground rules for how to do ancient history, and who judge all those who wish to become ancient historians. A double audience, then, of students and professionals, to match the double voice of the author: for M., as he freely admits, is an integral part of that august, exclusive body of ancient historians with impressive educational credentials and permanent jobs in prestigious university departments. This is part of the point: M. is interested both in the process by which one becomes professionalized and in the debates about the nature of the profession and its practices which are, to a greater or lesser extent, carried out within the academy. His Ancient history: Key themes and approaches (2000), a sourcebook of secondary writings, continues this interest into the meta-discourse of ancient history. But that second slim volume shares problems with the first, primarily--as its reviewer points out in this journal (D.A. Phillips, BMCR 2001.04.18)--a paradoxical lack of guidance to the ideas and sources presented. In both cases, this may be due largely to the format: these are not in-depth scholarly works but form part of an increasing, and to some degree welcome, deluge of quick-and-dirty introductions, summaries, and digests of various aspects of the ancient world and its modern study. In the case of the 1999 volume under review, however, one is left with the impression that, by and large, only very modern approaches to ancient history are worth reading (Elton and Carr, for instance, are dismissed as 'historical curiosities,' p.166); that theorized approaches to ancient history are as scarce as hen's teeth (articulated most clearly in the Introduction and Epilogue); and--despite reference to 'other people's ideas' (p.16)--that the important questions asked and the thoughtful, often provocative answers offered here are being asked and offered for the first time.

I certainly share M.'s frustration with what I have perceived as the under-theorized nature of contemporary ancient history. And I understand, as does M. (esp. pp.116-27), the value of rhetorical presentation in making one's argument the stronger. On the plus side, Writing ancient history raises very important questions, and points students in the direction of some equally important answers, concerning the nature of the discipline; the use of sources; the role of rhetoric, narrative, and style in the telling of history; and the purpose (taking a remarkably Livian line!) of 'doing' history. But M. surely exaggerates, to the point of caricature, the degree to which ancient historians fail to ask questions of method and approach; for instance, Momigliano--not a fan of Hayden White, but not undertheorized, either--is not mentioned in this volume; nor are the recent studies on the use of literary sources emanating even from Oxford,1 nor is the important work of T. P. Wiseman or Robin Osborne. Focalizing the 'typical' ancient historian, M. describes narrative history as 'bad' and for children (pp.101-2: this is of course an ancient criticism of some historians, cf. Quintilian 2.5.19); yet on p.170 complications of this view are introduced by citation of works discussing the resurgent interest in narrative history. Only someone who knew of that interest, however, would understand why M. mentions these works--he doesn't tell you, presumably because it would weaken his point in the text. Most importantly, perhaps, though Leopold von Ranke's (in)famous 'wie es eigentlich gewesen' is quoted (in translation) half a dozen times (Index, p.174), each time held up as what history (the bad, undertheorized kind of history, that is) aims to describe, nowhere does M. tell us where the phrase comes from (only von Däniken features in the Index), nor does he cite any of the many discussions of what the phrase actually implies.2 More ancient historians, and in particular more ancient historiographers (surprisingly, not a category noticed by M.), have taken Woodman's and Wiseman's challenges to heart than you would guess from reading this book.

One problem, then, with the format, and with M.'s chosen persona, is that some fairly basic, and common, material is presented as if de novo. A second--more to do with the persona than the format--is that adversarial relationships are constructed between M. and his reader and the establishment; and between those two groups, broadly considered as 'we academics', and the rest of the world, explicitly configured as 'Them' (p.134 e.g.). The latter tension, which may primarily reflect the beleaguered position of contemporary British academics, is less problematic to me, at any rate, than the former: though certainly M. exaggerates the general public's lack of interest in history (what about all those best-selling biographies? all those TV shows on topics historical and archaeological?). More seriously, however, M. hovers uneasily between teacher and student. and between someone who is at home in the scholarly discourses he sometimes rightly mocks, always rightly demands we take seriously as theorized rather than 'normal' or 'commonsensical' positions, and someone who sees these discourses as self-serving, oppressive smoke screens designed to wield power over the have-nots. Yet, if this book is intended, on some level, to help students of ancient history justify and understand their chosen course/métier, such playful hovering between roles risks cynicism and a disregard for the benefits still offered by traditional scholarly methods, rather than the healthy skepticism at which it aims.


1.   Particularly C. Pelling, ed., Greek tragedy and the historian (1997) and idem, Literary texts and the Greek historian (2000).
2.   Less simplistic and monolithic than M. would have us believe: see e.g. Grafton, The Footnote (1997) 69 (a book M. does cite, and recommend: p.171).

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