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History for Dummies: What Classicists “do”

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Ancient history and Classics are two of those humanities disciplines where it appears nobody really knows what we do. Well, as someone who got a BA, a post-bac, and attended grad school, I’m here to say we don’t really know either. That said, history isn’t all imagination and alcohol. There are things like the historical method, but they’re more guidelines than hard and fast rules—like pirate codes. There are standards though, and despite popular opinion doing history well takes brains and effort. This is a quick look at how historians get down to business, and some of the many steps involved in putting things in the history books.

First, a quick word about what Classicists and ancient historians do– besides drink, that is. The short and skinny is that we write books and papers to try to make sense of the past. Kind of like crime scene detectives with slightly less use for blood spatter analysis. For the most part, our weapon is narrative. As best as possible, we’re telling the story of the past. Obviously, given the crappy form that academic books and papers take, there is not a lot of room for a good yarn. Professors do not make good novelists. Other media and genres have been tried, but nobody’s really improved on the historical narrative for information and factual accuracy. The closest we get are History Channel specials, and those sometimes aren’t very accurate or end up being extremely boring (and sometimes involve aliens). There is also a new game out that uses ancient pottery. Rome: Total War isn’t bad either. Technology is definitely opening possibilities for new media for historians, but old habits die hard and this habit is 2500 years old, the “historical narrative” stretches back to Herodotus.

Now comes the fun (and hard) part; writing a professional and accurate historical narrative. The first step is defining the scope of the project, most commonly done through examining a historical “problem”. The reason a lot of historians adapt a “problem” approach is because it helps frame the mindset in terms of something to “solve”; a lot of the so-called history books you can buy at Barnes and Noble or off Amazon have good information but are littered with the researcher’s personal politics and opinions. They are not typically peer-reviewed, even if the book was written by a Ph.D. Thinking about problems and solutions helps eliminate subjective thinking; if there is no “problem”, there’s only personal opinion and therefore no reason to write a historical narrative.

The next step is, obviously, defining the historical problem. When did Rome fall? What was Roman slavery like? How did Alexander the Great approach building his legacy? Each could be a problem worth asking. This process can be harder than it seems. For example when Rome fell could be a simple thing; just look it up online, find it’s 476, and call it a day. Here’s a term historians love to use, “unpack”. We need to unpack our question to answer it like pros.

In the case of the fall of Rome, the traditional 476 date signifies when Emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Odoacer, king of the Ostrogoth, a Germanic tribe. That’s the textbook high school answer. The textbook college answer adds that this is only for the Western half of the Empire, the Eastern Empire survived until 1453, when the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople. The post-grad, Masters and Ph.D. answer is it depends on what you mean by “Rome” and “fall”. Rome itself ceased being the capital in the third century, replaced by Mediolanum (modern Milan) in 286, and the more defensible Ravenna in 402. Romulus Augustulus was also only the de fact emperor—he was actually a usurper—the de jure emperor was Julius Nepos, who lasted until 480. Even then, the emperor wasn’t even “Roman” after Vespasian, and times had fallen hard enough that Odoacer’s invasion wasn’t a big deal; the Sack of Rome in 410 was much more shocking.  Beyond that, Odoacer wasn’t even an invader; he was a Roman general (and a Christian) and had been ordered by Emperor Zeno in the east to depose the false Romulus Augustulus. For the second half, what do we mean by “fall”? Do we mean legal and political fall, do we mean destruction of the city, or collapse of Roman influence and power? Did Rome fall? The city still stood and the people didn’t stop calling themselves “Romans”. The Eastern Empire was still up and running, and even then, what do we do with the Holy Roman Empire? Charlemagne was made Emperor and Augustus, and even minted coins as “Imperator Augustus”, like all the other Roman Emperors. This is how the historian approaches the problem of Rome’s fall; each and every issue needs to be carefully considered before a solution can be found.

Now to select our evidence. This is a good skill everyone should know how to do; think about the anti-vax or crazy Ken Ham type people as those who don’t have this skill. This can also be a hard one. For instance, above I mentioned the coins of Charlemagne. Are those valid for the question of Rome’s fall? Why or why not? How about letters or official documents, if we have them? Is there archaeology that could be used? The decline of Roman artifacts and the use of German wares could be used to show Rome’s decline, couldn’t it? How about Roman temples falling into disuse and German temples being built? How about the shift of language? There is no magic box of “evidence” we pull from, and what we use can be determined by the problem we’re addressing and how we’re trying to solve it. Sometimes we use literature and inscriptions, sometimes we use pots and coins, and sometimes we use both.

Next step, after we have gathered all the evidence we want to use, is to examine it. Caesar was known to exaggerate a bit, so you can’t always trust what he says. When’s the last time a politician ever told the whole truth? Now take a look at the number of works from ancient politicians. We have to classify our evidence and decide what holds the most weight, and why.  Finding evidence is like looking for needles in a haystack. Analyzing the evidence is like examining the quality of each individual needle. What’s more important, Zeno’s official order or Charlemagne’s coin? Who’s the better captain, Kirk or Picard?  We’ve got to separate out the good needles from the cheap Chinese knockoffs.

We’ve gone through 4 steps and haven’t really written anything yet. But here’s the fun part where we get to put our stamp and spin on things. Based on the evidence selected, based on the “problem” being addressed, the “fall” of “Rome” means that point when Roman culture and standards ceased having the impact it used to in earlier centuries. Let’s go with the “culture” choice for sake of example. So maybe we’re looking for a range rather than specific single date or event. Using one example, let’s say we’re setting the “fall” around the 4th-5th centuries. Our evidence includes things like foreign-born emperors and Roman armies, the shift from Rome to Constantinople, the conversion from Paganism to Christianity, and the sack of Rome in 410, all of which highlight the decline in Roman influence. There’s our problem, our evidence, our analysis, and our solution. We did it, we wrote a history book! A feat on par with building the Death Star, with only slightly fewer Force choke related fatalities.

Now we’ve got to double check all our work. We have to defend the thesis. One of the ways of doing this is to nip all the possible complaints in the bud. Why did we pick cultural importance over legal, titular, or political authority? Why did we use Charlemagne’s coins instead of 4th and 5th century coins? Everything we did has to not just be valid in its own right, we have to demonstrate our methods and conclusions are the best possible. All the other possibilities and counter-arguments need to be considered and refuted. This is the “eliminating other variables” step like in science, although historians for the most part cannot really dismiss another option entirely. Some authors devote separate sections to the literature review or discussing possible counterpoints, others put them in as they go. For instance, one might talk about what evidence should and should not be used in more or less the same place. It is also a good idea at this point to fact-check our book, before we start advertising a bunch of factual errors as an accomplishment. Had best make sure we didn’t do anything stupid like leave a 2 meter wide exhaust port where a well-placed proton torpedo can destroy the whole base. That would be really stupid.

Now we’ve got a book finished, fine-tuned, double checked, and published; time to reap the money, fame, and power. Nope. Peer review is an ongoing and grueling process.  We might be published scholars, but there are other scholars looking to make their own name, and they will happily look for any weakness, fire that proton torpedo, and blow up our work (Ok, I’ll finally stop pounding this reference, this is not the droid you’re looking for). If there’s a problem with our scholarship and research, we will hear it in short order. Getting past the peer-review process to be published is only the first step. It is a never-ending process to win the approval of the five or six colleagues who bothered to read the book.

That’s a basic list of the processes of “doing” history. The steps listed here are not meant to necessarily be done in order, or one at a time. You can combine searching for usable evidence and fine-tuning the scope of the project simultaneously. You can re-examine the evidence while refuting competing theories. If this article should demonstrate anything, it is that history is a process. A long, difficult process that does not get much credit in the world today. It ain’t perfect, but it is also not as easy as many believe, and the historical method deserves a modicum of appreciation.

Published scholars, locked in an eternal argument with our peers over minor details nobody really cares about. But the difference between the professionals and the Ancient Aliens guy—besides the hair—is this constant debate, study, and refinement of theories. You don’t have to be a Ph.D to write a history book, you just need to know the process and be willing to put in the time and effort. So if you want to write a history book, now you have a basic how-to guide. Good luck.

May the Force be with you.

Further resources:

Classicists are pretty picky. But rather than go through an M.A. or Ph.D to learn all the research methodology, some places have freely advertised the pain in the butt process that is writing history research. Here’s a bunch of other how-to guides on writing a history paper (or book), so you can start your own blogs or whatever.





And just because, I’ll add in the APA’s (I refuse to call it the SCS, and judging by the url, so do they) statement on publishing and research.




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