BMCR 1995.09.28

Response: Braund on Wheeler on Braund, Georgia in antiquity

Response to 1995.04.05

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I have never taken the trouble to respond to a review in the past, however much I may have disagreed with the criticisms which one expects and may very well deserve. But I have also never received a review so distorted, unsubstantiated and simply unpleasant as that which appeared in BMCR 95.4.5 under the name of Everett Wheeler. I am grateful to the editors for the right to reply, but will not abuse their openness by labouring every point. Rather, I shall address what I perceive to be Wheeler’s principal “criticisms”, none of which have appeared in other early reviews whether generalist or Caucasus-specific.

Wheeler claims that “B. misrepresents the state of scholarship” on the ancient history of Georgia. I have, it seems, “overlooked western scholarship in Caucasiology” ( sic), but W. does not say which: as far as I am aware, there is nothing of significance to which I have not referred. In what seems to be an attempt to support his allegation, Wheeler proceeds to claim that I have somehow forgotten about or sought to deny the existence of libraries in the West which have relevant holdings, despite my various expressions of thanks to such institutions and their staff in my Preface. I have also—I am told—neglected the existence of the “generous summaries” which appear in Russian and Georgian publications: W. was not to know that I have in fact written some of these summaries as well as assisting nonspecialists and/or graduate students who have been required to write them. Although some summaries are indeed accurate and valuable, I should advise Wheeler and others that many a summary not only omits the core argument of its paper (less often a problem in books, it must be said) but sometimes misrepresents it even more thoroughly than Wheeler has done with my book. Since, as far as I know, Wheeler has no Georgian and little Russian, I cannot condemn his ignorance, but I do object to his petulance.

But most annoying and silly is his assertion that I am somehow unfair to or even contemptuous of the work of Otar Lordkipanidze. Quite apart from the lengthy list of that scholar’s publications in my bibliography (some 22 items, not to mention the 8 vols. on Vani) and his regular appearance in my text and footnotes, Prof. Lordkipanidze is a personal friend of some ten years’ standing. His help and support are gratefully acknowledged in the Preface, where much more could have been said.

Also silly, and rather puzzling, is W.’s view that my omission of references to RE articles “epitomizes (my) scholarly method”. Although RE is often a good source of information, it is simply not a great resource for the eastern Black Sea. In any event, its fans can always look it up.

I am further castigated for omitting a reference to Gelzer’s 1949 biography of Pompey. Where does one draw the line? Gelzer’s book may be a classic of its kind, but is it not enough to refer in detail to much more recent and important studies, such as those of Seager, Sherwin-White and others, who have engaged with Gelzer thoroughly?

The omission that seems really to matter to Everett Wheeler, however, is the dissertation of a certain Everett Wheeler, which is apparently a biography of Arrian, completed in 1977 and not published in book form. Wheeler devotes no less than eleven lines of his review to that “omission”, an attention which I take to indicate the level of his concern. Curiously, he refers to this work in the third person, rather as Caesar refers to his own activities in his Commentarii, presumably in order to establish some distance between himself and the “slighted” author. He can assert with authority that I have indeed known of the existence of this biography since 1989, not because I have ever cited it but because ever since I first met him in that year he has urged me to read it, which I of course have not done, if only for that reason. What I take to be Wheeler’s veiled suggestion that I have plagiarized his dissertation is false and outrageous. However, I am grateful for that suggestion to the extent that it seems to offer some explanation for the otherwise inexplicable animosity of the review.

The subject of my book is the history of Colchis and Transcaucasian Iberia from the sixth century BC to the sixth century AD. Quite large enough a historical canvas, one might have thought, chronologically and geographically. But no. Wheeler complains (his italics), “This book is not a comprehensive treatment of Transcaucasia: Albania (Azerbaijan), Armenia, and tribes north of the Caucasus are omitted.” Indeed, it is not a history of the whole of Transcaucasia, nor does it claim to be, though other Transcaucasian peoples and places are discussed where they impinge upon Georgia. So far from being omitted, I find Albania and Armenia in my index with a combined total of some 42 references, often to more than a single page. An important part of my discussion of Roman Iberia, in my view, is the connection between the Iberi and the “Sarmatian” peoples to the north (esp. pp. 208-11), while I also devote several controversial passages to the rather neglected links between Colchians and “Scythians” (see index under “Scythians”).

He proceeds to thunder “as a work of archaeology the book is curious: Stone Age and Bronze Age Colchis are treated perfunctorily”. True enough, for this is a work of history, as my introductory discussion stresses and as its title suggests. It is not archaeology and it is not prehistory. Indeed, there would be a case for omitting all mention of prehistory (my book begins c. 550 BC) had it not become a marginal issue in local debates about regional identities. More interesting is Wheeler’s complaint (“Iberia is slighted”) that I have little to say about early Iberia. He is right, but, as I explain, we are not yet in a position to write the history of early Iberia: scholars who have devoted their lives to attempting to wrestle with Iberian questions have not taken umbrage but have cited my work on Iberia with apparent approval (e.g. Apakidze and Nikolaishvili, The Antiquaries Journal 74 (1994) 16-54). Wheeler may feel slighted, but the Iberians do not.

Wheeler spins through the book denouncing each chapter in terms so vague and laden with bile that I find it difficult and distasteful to engage with them satisfactorily. His triumphant dismissal of my first chapter (on the place of Colchis in the thought-world of the Greeks and Romans) seems to derive from a belief that I consider myths of Argonauts and the like to be in some crude sense historical realities. Only on p. 74 do I realise my mistake, it seems: better late than never, I suppose. My second chapter he pronounces OK for “beginners in Caucasian studies” but not satisfying for “advanced students”, presumably like Everett Wheeler. I cannot resist the observation that the reviewer has never visited the Caucasus to my knowledge: while much can be gained from books a significant part of my second chapter derives from autopsy. Each subsequent chapter is dismissed in turn and in much the same sweeping fashion: en passant I have been unfair again to my friend Otar Lordkipanidze and have produced many a dubious and unconvincing hypothesis, though I remain to be told what is wrong with any of them.

It seems that I exhibit incompetence throughout. In particular, “misprints occur” (one is noted), I fail to refer adequately to SEG (though I refer to fuller and more accurate discussions of relevant texts), I am in a muddle about the Historia Augusta and, perhaps above all, I do not know the difference between Aristotle and Heraclides Letobus. Those who might be bothered to look at my text will find, for example, a discussion of Letobus which shows the nonsense of such allegations: see pp. 75-6, to which Wheeler does not refer, though it is indexed under “Heraclides Letobus”. Of course, his misreading, however wilful, might mean that I should have expressed myself more clearly.

Wheeler berates me for the apparent immodesty and boastfulness with which I begin the book. Accordingly, I should say, as I wrote in the opening paragraph of my Preface, that the book “…is not meant to be the last word. On the contrary, I hope that it will spark further debate and enquiry, not least in Georgia” (p. vii). I am sure that better can and will be done. For example, if I had been competent in Armenian I would have taken my history on a century or so. If finance and attendant circumstances had not been a consideration, I would have produced fuller maps (Wheeler’s best area of complaint), though I expect the Atlas of the Classical World to remedy that deficit.

However, Wheeler’s own recipe for “a much better book” does not attract my palate—”a division of the material into sections of Evidence and Studies” seems to me not only dull, but also to illustrate a complete ignorance of the problematics of Evidence. Accordingly, in complaining about my approach to colonization (apparently trendy, which I find surprising but gratifying), Wheeler intones “B. marshals the evidence to support his hypotheses. Definitive answers still lie far in the future”. So long as I am not accused of suppressing evidence (which I am not, it seems), I am proud in response to that particular charge to plead “Guilty!”