Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Historical approaches becoming history.

I've recently been reading A.R Burn's "History of Greece" (the 1965 edition) and it I felt compelled to make a post regarding the differences in approaches to the study of history over time.

Burn's book itself is excellent. It spans Greece from it's first peoples until her role under the Christian Roman Emperors, with the focus mostly on the Classical and Hellenistic periods, especially in Athens. The focus itself betrays the preoccupations of 1960s scholarship - the Classical period and Classical Athens in particular. However, where it becomes quintessentially old fashioned is in it's content.

For the purpose of this post I focused on a section of the book called "The Great Fifty Years: Athenian Society", as I think it helps contrast the differences in scholarship over the past fifty years.

It got me to thinking: If there was a new book out today called "Athenian Society" what topics may it cover? Politics and public life would be, naturally, part of it, but there would be so much more and they wouldn't necessarily be the focus. There would be sections on the family, the role of women, gender, social activities and what they said about the Athenian character, sexuality, an interest in other forms of literature and what they can tell us (the novel for example, esp. in Hellenistic times). Most of these topics are inherently modern, and they're not included in any real doses within Burn's section on "Athenian Society".

For him, "Athenian Society" means the way democracy operated, the intellectual atmosphere (philosophers and sophists) and what Pericles was up to. Attitudes really have changed. In many respects Burn's brand of narrative history is no longer in fashion, and I think that's a bit of a shame.

Some of my finest memories from my time at University were in "narrative" style lessons on Greek history. Covering the Persian Wars, or Greece after the Peloponnesian War. Discussing how many boats were at Artemisium and what our sources tell us. Asking whether Herodotus exaggerated something yet again and all the time quasi-worshipping Thucydides as a proto-modern historian (modern, of course, now meaning old fashioned).

The foreword to the book has a nice section where Burn introduces the book's "modern" approach, insomuch as it doesn't just consider the military or political events (which "have been traditionally considered the stuff of history proper") but seeks to introduce "public affairs" to the area of study. The thought dawned on me that all things that are once modern will also be once old fashioned.

In some respects reading the book reminded me of the fact that we should never forget to remove the goggles of our own time, nor the dogmatism of our approaches - for those of the past can still teach us much. I love reading Burn's book (it's almost in pieces these days) and enjoy the style of it, it's handy "for travelling" size, the wonderful fold-out chronological table, and it's dedication to "young travellers".

There is a spirit in the book that transcends historical approaches, and I believe it's that love of history that kept Greek history lectures at 4pm on a Wednesday afternoon in a basement with an aging, ruffled haired, academic cape wearing Professor absolutely essential viewing.

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