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An Ancient Academic’s Rant: My Gripes with Antiquarians of Prior Centuries

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I love ancient history, but I hate reading it.

That’s a statement that some people may find bizarre. I adore the histories of ancient civilizations and cultures. I fantasize about what it must be like to walk the streets of Rome during the reign of Caesar Augustus, or to be on a Greek trireme in the Aegean Sea, or to fight a battle somewhere in the northern wilderness alongside Celtic or Germanic warriors. The histories of ancient times appeal greatly to my creative and imaginative side, and I think that’s why most ancient scholars end up studying ancient history in the first place.

However, I often find the act of researching and studying ancient history to be aggravating and frustrating, and often lead me to yell out some very colorful vocabulary while I’m combing through stacks of info (especially when the records are confusing or contradictory). For this, I largely blame my fore-bearers: the antiquarians, the amateur and quasi-professional scholars of ancient history who lived during the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Scholars from the 1700s and 1800s had several tendencies which really get on my nerves, and most of them are founded in having a Classically-rounded education. During the 1700s and 1800s, studying Latin and ancient Greek was a basic part of your elementary school education. Every well-educated child learned Xenophon’s Anabasis and Julius Caesar’s Commentaries along with reading, writing, and arithmetic. Because of this, certain assumptions were taken for granted, namely the assumption that every educated person was fluent in Latin and ancient Greek, and the assumption that you were familiar with every ancient text that had been published. In fact, most early academic texts were written in Latin, and it wasn’t until much later that they were published in English and other contemporary languages.

So, here is a list of the four principle things that many of these people do which really piss me off.

Firstly, they hardly ever cite their sources. Again, this infers that the reader is so familiar with the ancient texts that he/she automatically KNOWS which one the author is referencing without needing to specify it. This makes it extremely difficult for modern scholars to verify their claims because you don’t know whether they are paraphrasing something from a true ancient text or if they’re just making stuff up.

Secondly, whenever they DO cite their sources, they often use only abbreviations, usually consisting of a puzzling series of letters and numbers which look almost like computer coding. Take the following example: Plin.NH.I:4. What this means is “Pliny the Elder, Natural History, book 1, chapter 4″. Why they simply couldn’t take the effort to write out the citation in-full is beyond my comprehension. Unfortunately, I know a lot of modern-day historians and classicists who still do this (groan). The assumption here is that you are so thoroughly familiar with every ancient document out there that you should just automatically know what these abbreviations stand for. By contrast, I always write out my citations in-full, and I sincerely hope that those who read my books and articles appreciate it.

Thirdly, whenever they quote from someone, they often do it in the original Latin or Greek without providing a translation. In an age when Classical education in Latin and ancient Greek was a basic part of your elementary school education, it was taken for granted that you’d be able to read it without needing a translation. However, things have changed. Latin and ancient Greek are no longer compulsory components of grammar school, and indeed many colleges and universities are dispensing with their Classical curriculums altogether, but that’s a rant for another day. Most people today cannot read Latin or ancient Greek, but thankfully many ancient documents have been translated by now. However, many more aren’t, especially ones that are obscure. It’s extremely tiresome when your reading suddenly stops dead in its tracks because you have to divert yourself away to your Latin dictionary (or in my case, dictionaries, emphasis on plural) and clumsily translate a passage word-for-word, which might take hours.

Fourthly – and perhaps the one that I hate the most – because ancient history has a lot of gaps in the records, these 18th and 19th Century antiquarians were not averse to filling in those gaps with their own imaginations. When in doubt, make stuff up! Just for the record, I am not talking about offering a hypothesis about how events might have played out in order to plausibly connect dots to each other. I do that sort of thing all the time. If you have Point A, Point C, and Point D, then what would the most likely situation be for the missing Point B so that the entire storyline of events makes sense? This is, of course, with the understanding that the author states outright that this is a personal opinion based upon educated guesswork and logical inferencing rather than arbitrarily making stuff up. However, that’s not what many of these Victorian antiquarians have done. They definitely arbitrarily made stuff up. They take a guess, and pass it off as cold hard fact rather than a personal opinion. Sometimes, it boggles the mind to wonder where they came up with some of their info, especially when the information that they give is ridiculously specific. Where on earth did they come up with this? They had to have read it somewhere, right? And that, my friends, is the great trap. The more specific and detailed it sounds, the more authentic it sounds, and the more likely you are to believe it. Never mind the fact that it’s pure BS.

So, with that being said, how do you sort out the BS from the non-BS? The answer: do A LOT of reading. Compare and contrast, analyze, back-check your sources, take proper notations and citations of things so that you can cross-reference them later. After a while, you’ll start to become aware of what’s plausible verses what’s the product of some Victorian’s imagination. However, be prepared for a lot of headaches, tired eyes, and aggravation. There will be times when you make great progress, and there will be times that you’ve researched and wrote all day, only to discover that your original source material was all lies that have been taken-for-granted as truth, and you have to throw an entire day’s work into the trash can. It’s just part of the game.

So, to any would be ancient academics, or indeed to any currently-working academics, please take the following suggestions to heart: don’t assume that I know what you’re talking about, please cite your sources, write out your citations in full without those damned abbreviations, please provide translations, and above all, don’t lie to me.


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