Teaching Ancient History
by Clifford E. Minor, Professor Emeritus, History
There used to be a pub west of CSU, Chico that had the best fish and chips this side of Britain and Ireland. Long after my wife and I had become familiar customers, the proprietor came up to our table with our plates, and in the course of our usual conversation he asked me what my work was. I told him that I was a professor of ancient history and he burst into hysterical laughter. He thought I was joking, but every time I asserted that I really was an ancient historian, all he could do was laugh exuberantly. I had a similar experience this past January.
On other occasions when I am asked what I do, I just say that I am a historian. The question-poser then assumes that I am a Civil War historian. I resist the urge to respond with the question, "Which civil war? There have been quite a few since the dawn of history over five millennia ago." But when I respond by simply saying, "No, … my field is ancient history," dead silence usually follows and that is the end of the conversation.
These examples prompt the questions: "Well, what is the point of studying ancient history?" "Why study history at all? What use is it?"
Imagine yourself waking up some morning and having no memory of who you are and what your earlier life was—total amnesia. That is analogous to not knowing the history of our past: who we are and where we come from, how we got here, and why things are happening in the world, affecting us directly or indirectly, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. We need to know this as much as we need to know about our own earlier existence. Otherwise our lives are unexamined, and you know what the Athenian philosopher Socrates had to say about that.
Some believe that the lesson of history is that we never learn the lessons of history. There is much truth to this, since it appears that we have forgotten what happened in 1929 and the Great Depression, as evident in the economic troubles that we are experiencing now.
Not learning the lessons, however, is no excuse for not studying history. Sometimes in conversation someone will respond to a recent event by exclaiming that history repeats itself. That assertion prompts me to think to myself, "Aha! At least you know some history that enables you to recognize a parallel." Personally, however, I do not think history repeats itself. The longer you study history and the deeper you probe into understanding particular periods or events, the more complicated past worlds get, and you quickly learn that although events may prompt people to respond in certain ways, there are too many dissimilarities to justify the assertion that history literally repeats itself.
So … what do I think one learns from the study of history? Having taught courses stretching from Prehistory to 1453 C.E., I long ago concluded that human nature hasn't changed a jot over known historical time. What we also can learn from history are insights about how past peoples responded to certain situations and what resulted from those responses. Awareness of this helps in comprehending similar dilemmas today and possible approaches to avert or remedy problems.
"Perhaps that is true for recent history, but what about ancient history?" If we look at ancient Greece and Rome, we see instances of arrogant militarism, citizenship restrictions, and erosion of democracy that seem to mirror current events.
If we look at the ancient democratic state of Athens, it might lead us to ask whether or not democracy is compatible with empire. Athens exploited its leadership of an offensive-defensive alliance system and transformed it into an Athenian empire, reducing many of its former allies to tribute-paying subjects. The wealth that came from this empire financed the building of monuments like the Parthenon, now celebrated as a symbol of democracy.
About the same time, Athenian citizens, that is, Athenian males since citizen women were excluded from politics, decided to restrict Athenian citizenship to those Athenians whose mothers and fathers were Athenian citizens. Prior to this decision, having one Athenian citizen parent was sufficient to give a child Athenian citizen status. With citizenship restricted to those with two citizen parents, fewer Athenian citizens could enjoy the wealth of their newly acquired empire.
What is the relevance of this? Currently, there are American ethnic groups expelling fellow members from their groups on the basis of disagreements over what constitutes proper ancestral descent. Newly acquired and sizeable riches may have contributed to these disagreements. With fewer members in the group, each individual share is larger.
Back to Athens: In 415 B.C.E., Athens, which was already militarily overextended in a long war against Sparta and its allies, launched an expedition against Sicily. The Athenian historian Thucydides lived during this time and wrote an extensive history of the war and this expedition in particular. My first exposure to Thucydides came when I was 19. In a survey class, I had to read his account of the Sicilian campaign, and I could not put it down.
The outcome of this expedition was absolute military disaster for Athens to the degree that the Athenian Empire began to unravel, culminating in its eventual total defeat and unconditional surrender to Sparta. Thucydides offers sobering lessons on the hazards of military adventurism such as this, so much so that I remember senators citing passages from his work in the 1960s during the Vietnam War, on the eve of the Desert Storm campaign in 1991, and, most recently, in 2003.
Let's now briefly turn to the Roman Republic. What happens when two longtime senatorial political factions refuse to find a middle ground to achieve political compromise and move forward? This inflexibility on both sides helped bring down the republic. Ignoring the constitution or tampering with it also occurred while political candidates pandered to the electorate by offering them anything to get their votes. As political order in the citizen assembly degenerated into riots, Rome’s leaders brought the military into the domestic governance of Rome. This eventually resulted in the totalitarian rule of the Roman emperors and the end of the Roman Republic.
One of many disturbing elements in this transformation comes when the Emperor Tiberius transferred the election of magistrates from the citizen assembly to the Senate. There is no record of any citizens protesting against this action. Perhaps they were already sedated, as the Roman satirist Juvenal described it, by "bread and circuses," a reference to the emperors providing free food handouts and sensational entertainment in the arena.
Political corruption and its results as well as the subsequent acquiescence and complacency of the electorate are troubling to contemplate when one encounters similar situations in contemporary life.
About 95 years later, a militaristic Roman emperor named Trajan decided to solve Rome's eastern frontier problems with its neighbor, the Parthian Empire, by invading and conquering Parthia’s western territory, lands corresponding to modern day Iraq. This was a gamble because at the time, the Roman Empire did not have sufficient military forces or financial reserves to undertake this enterprise. Trajan's initial conquest proved easier than expected, and he marched all the way to the Persian Gulf. However, the Parthians had melted away into the countryside as he advanced — offering no major battles — and now they rose up in rebellions throughout the land. Trajan then had to fight his way back to Roman territory, but the physical demands made on him broke his health, and he died soon after. Hadrian, his successor, jettisoned the remnants of Trajan’s conquest and returned to Rome's old borders with Parthia.
Two hundred and thirty-five years later in the 360s, another Roman emperor, Julian, with the same ambitions, attempted to conquer the same area, this time facing off with the Parthians’ successors, the Persians. The results were the same, except that he was killed in the course of the Roman retreat, necessitating a humiliating and costly settlement with the enemy that critically weakened the empire when it could ill afford this. Julian’s misadventures occurred in the period known to us as the decline of Rome.
The lessons to take away from these episodes speak for themselves.
What is to be learned from all of the above?
One of CSU, Chico’s mottoes is "Today decides tomorrow," but by the same reasoning, as the historian knows, "Yesterday decided today."
I could go on with examples, but time is short and there remains another, more personal, question to answer: "What have I accomplished in my 36 years of teaching ancient history?"
I have had both failures and successes in my teaching here. The most immediately gratifying rewards, however, have come from students whose work was so good that I urged them to participate in the HFA Symposium.
What did I give them in particular? I gave them tough assignments. I made them read, oftentimes extensively, and I obliged them to write lengthy papers about difficult questions that had no single pat answers. Undaunted, they undertook these tasks and excelled by critically evaluating their sources through assessment of those sources’ strengths and weaknesses. They formulated interpretations and tied together the results of their research into well-organized syntheses.
Their papers were thorough, well balanced, and well researched. These students were masterful in their handling of the ambiguity and complexity of historical problems.
Their papers also were not just boilerplate quality work — they had a certain je ne sais quoi — a unique perspective, a quirky angle, or a new approach that made their papers uniquely theirs. They were a joy to read and always kept me from going the route of Seneca and Frankie Pentangeli.
What did I contribute to these successful outcomes? Perhaps I gave these students nothing except encouragement and perhaps not even that. To me, their accomplishments demonstrated that they had unshackled themselves and made their own way out of Plato’s shadowy cave into the light. They and those presenters here this evening are now the torchbearers to pass our heritage on to the next generation.
We are depending on you — both presenters here tonight and those to come. Nurture and sustain the light! I salute you all for a job superbly done. As a friend and colleague of mine, Professor Tim Sistrunk, often says in encouragement and conclusion, "Excelsior!" a Latin word which we translate "ever higher."