BMCR 2012.05.11

The Western Time of Ancient History: Historiographical Encounters with the Greek and Roman Pasts

, The Western Time of Ancient History: Historiographical Encounters with the Greek and Roman Pasts. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xiii, 356. ISBN 9780521883139 $99.00.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The famous line regarding posterity’s habit of glancing back at what has come before for guidance, making us ”dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants,” can be read in many different ways. To Bernard of Chartres, to whom the twelfth- century quote is unanimously ascribed, it referred to the use of exempla taken from the Greeks and Romans, and sometimes later great figures, studied as guidance for contemporary man. Used as such, it may bring a certain potential inferiority complex. At least this is how Harold Bloom uses the concept in The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994), and particularly in reference to Shakespeare, whom Bloom considers to fulfill all the requirements of a Good Writer, and in front of whom all other authors, be they preceding or subsequent, should bow. But history is not uniform, and there are as many different ways of looking at the past as there are individuals doing it. In 1690, Englishman William Temple commented that Greek and Roman thinkers certainly must have had their giant’s shoulders to stand on, too. And one century later, in 1676, Isaac Newton remarked, in a letter to his rival Robert Hooke, that a dwarf thus standing would, at least in theory, be able to see further than the giant itself.

This tripartite perspective—history as a source of exempla; history as a structure, many layers deep, onto which contemporary man builds his own future; and history reduced to a distant past with little impact on the present—may act as a condensed summary of the changes within historiographical discourse presented in Lanieri’s volume. This collection of essays (for essays they are—reasoning and yet personal) investigate, analyse and question the various perspectives employed in the historiographical narrative of ancient Greek and Roman history from the perspective of time as a central topic. And the essay method emerges as what must be exactly the right tone of address for the mission. The various authors individually dismantle the Western historical and historiographical tradition into its minute pieces, and make the encounters—for ”encounters” is the only justifiable word for it—of the Western world with its ancient pasts, at periodised stages through history, emerge in a different, and more assertive light. The three perspectives on the use of Bernard’s phrase just mentioned correspond, roughly, to the three sections into which these essays are divided, partly following Hartog’s three regimes of historicity (which are also addressed by Burke, p.48).

The first section, ”Theorizing Western Time: Concepts and Models”, comprises discussions of history as authority, and the view of history as a storehouse of exempla, the historia magistra vitae concept. The essays in this section are highly philosophical and theoretical. Hartog himself traces the notion of history as ”authority,” from ancient Rome to the Renaissance, Burke discusses the aforementioned use of exempla, and Cambiano’s contribution is an evaluation of the perception of the basically Eastern and Egyptian origins of ”Greek” philosophy. Hartog’s second regime of historicity involves aiming at the future, the telos in the making, and with the second section, ”Ancient history and modern temporalities,” the reader is brought into the eighteenth century. Most of the content of this section circles around the growth of German Altertumswissenschaft. The impact of the two historians studied, Wilhelm von Humboldt (Rebenich) and Leopold von Ranke (Muhlack), is explained through comprehensive analysis of their works and deeds, at the same time contextualised. Ceserani’s and Vlassopoulos’ pieces are also closely interlocked, discussing the history of Ancient Greece and the different temporalities that emerge in the study of this from the eighteenth century onwards. The third and final section, ”Unfounding time in and through ancient historical thought,” is not an exact representation of Hartog’s third regime, the postmodern take on history which privileges the present over both past and future, unless perhaps from the point of view of present interpretation of past text through the light of intervening philosophers and historiographers. Where the earlier essays in the volume are rather philosophical, the four essays in this section are primarily philological; two (Thomas, Grethlein) dealing with Greek historians, one (O’Gorman) on the fear of modernity in ancient Rome, and the last essay (Williams) on the Chronicle of Sulpicius Severus.

The volume strikes the reader, at the very first glance, as extremely appetising, given the variety of authors and topics. The division into three separate sections runs a natural course, and at the same time adds up to a accordant tone. The different essays are tastefully bound together by a delicate striving on the part of the editor for a general coherency, most evidently displayed through the presence of a single bibliography at the end of the volume. There is also a shared index locorum that could, however, easily have been a lot more detailed. Translations, where such are needed, are well done, sometimes by some of the other authors. This is definitely an extremely valuable volume, which will certainly fill a hole in the historicity debate with its coherent perspective and over-reaching goal. It must be stressed, however, that this is not a didactic book, and irrefutably not a reader’s guide, but rather a highly philosophical enterprise where some chapters are less easy to navigate than others. The prose is fairly dense throughout, and explanatory references are often lacking. There is, for example, no overt definition of the concept of historicity, but the reader is expected to be familiar with this from page one.

For all its appetising content, the most interesting pieces in the volume are the introduction, by Alexandra Lianeri herself, and the two afterwords, by Oswyn Murray and John Dunn. As is stressed throughout all the individual essays in the volume, history is not the product of a single historian, and the task of a historiographer is therefore to come to terms with past analyses, and also to locate him or herself in a wider narrative. Is the present day perspective the consequence and result of all that has come before, or a reaction against it? And all the careful editing mentioned above aside, it is really only in these three pieces, the first and the last two, that this major question is raised and responded to. There is, through all of the main essays in the volume, a distinct lack of a non-Western perspective. Although this is in complete agreement with the intended scope suggested by the title, the fact than none of the authors seems even to reflect upon this is somewhat mysterious. As summarised by Murray in one of the two afterwords (p.303), in order to understand the various forms of periodisation we ought to juxtapose the Western and non-Western heritages, searching for aspects of, for example, Jewish and Persian history in the Western world. This said, it must be conceded that this objection is anticipated by Lianeri in the introduction itself. It is not possible, she writes, to compare Chinese and Western history unless in a certifiably neutral space (considered ”impossible” by the same author). The Greek and Roman traditions, she continues, ”cannot be torn out of European temporalities and bestowed an autonomy” (p.8). In the end, it remains an inherent feature of the foundation of the historical undertaking, that all historians express history based on their own values as well as the values of their own times. In order to view history and time without the prejudiced eyes of the present, one must stand outside of it. And is it really possible to stand outside of time? Apparently none of the other authors involved reaches beyond their own perspective. The closest we ever come to modern historiography within the volume itself is Neville Morley’s contribution on monumentality at the end of section two, reaching as far as Foucault. Fully aware of the problematic undertaking of historiography all of the authors address the conundrum, though the reader sees no real turning of hands in that direction.

Another aspect that might have brought a fuller sense of completion to the volume – although this is admittedly a petty quibble in the context – would have been a central theme, apart from mere ”encounters.” This is, granted, a superlative volume consisting of pieces by different authors, and as has already been stressed the editing is superbly done. All the same, similar images appear here and there, without being sufficiently tied together. This review began by drawing attention to Hartog’s system of three regimes. Laid down as the starting point, by the presence of Hartog himself as the first author, and then referred to in Burke’s section (p.48), this could easily have been better explained and then used as a joint feature tying together the remaining pieces. Instead, Vlassopoulos independently arrives at a similar, but ostensibly completely different, tripartite division in his discussion of temporalities of Greek history (p.176), and similar but alternative systematic views appear elsewhere in the volume. In short, although the various individual perspectives of the essays approach the topic, so commendable in itself, and the volume thus fulfils the promise of the title and the introduction, at the same time this very aspect allows for the seeping through of the separate individual voices of the distinct pieces to such an extent that there is no real harmonious chord struck.

The volume is, nonetheless, highly illuminating, and should be of great interest to anyone even mildly interested in the discourse on historicity.

Table of Contents

Alexandra Lianeri, ’ Un founding times: The idea and ideal of ancient history in Western historical thought’, 3- 30.
Theorizing Western Time: Concepts and Models
François Hartog, ’Time’s authority’, 33-47.
Peter Burke, ’Exemplarity and anti-exemplarity in early modern Europe’, 48-59.
Guiseppe Cambiano, ’Greek philosophy and Western history: A philosophy-centred temporality’, 60-98.
Howard Caygill, ’Historiography and political theology: Momigliano and the end of history’, 99-116.
Ancient history and modern temporalities
Stefan Rebenich, ’The making of a bourgeois antiquity: Wilhelm von Humboldt and Greek history’, 119-137.
Giovanna Ceserani, ’Modern histories of ancient Greece: Genealogies, contexts and eighteenth-century narrative historiography’, 138-155.
Kostas Vlassopoulos, ’Acquiring (a) historicity: Greek history, temporalities and Eurocentrism in the Sattelzeit (1750-1850)’, 138-178.
Ulrich Muhlack, ’Herodotus and Thucydides in the view of nineteenth-century German historians’, 179-209.
Neville Morley, ’Monumentality and the meaning of the past in ancient and modern historiography’, 210-226.
Unfounding time in and through ancient historical thought
Rosalind Thomas, ’Thucydides and social change: Between akribeia and universality’, 229-246.
Jonas Grethlein, ’ Historia magistra vita in Herodotus and Thucydides? The exemplary use of the past and ancient and modern temporalities’, 247-263.
Ellen O’Gorman, ’Repetition and exemplarity in historical thought: Ancient Rome and the ghosts of modernity’, 264- 279.
Michael Stuart Williams, ’Time and authority in the Chronicle of Sulpicius Severus’, 280-297.
Oswyn Murray, ’Ancient history in the eighteenth century’, 301-306.
John Dunn, ’Seeing in and through time’, 307-314.