An ancient history Manifesto?

My reading this week has been Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s The History Manifesto, an appropriately polemic case for a certain form of historical practice in the twenty-first century. The short book, available for free under a Creative Commons license and published last Fall, has already been subject of serious debate among modern historians. See here for an impressive list of reviews and discussion of the book.

I’m currently teaching Livy and have been writing over the last couple of years about the history of antiquarianism and of historiography, so I found myself thinking about The History Manifesto in a long (longue-durée?) tradition of justifications for writing history and claims about the form that should take.

Guldi and Armitage have three main arguments, one historiographical and two normative. The historiographical argument (Chaps. 1 and 2) seems to have been particularly controversial – the authors claim that a historical preference for the longue durée and works of broad scope before 1975 was then displaced by histories of the Short Past or microhistory (used not just in the Italian sense, but to characterize a varied set of short term historical approaches). Only recently, they suggest, have we turned again to the history of the long term. The other arguments (Chaps. 3 and 4) are normative: historians, they suggest, should be at the forefront of public discourse and, when they are, they should be using (digital) Big Data to make their arguments. These normative arguments are rooted in a sense of crisis: historians are not being listened to, at least not in high places – Davos perhaps – and not compared to economists, and need new weapons to displace the ‘dismal science’ from the public-intellectual sphere. Guldi and Armitage seem particularly keen that historians contribute to the formation of discourse around climate change, the growth of inequality and land reform.

Guldi and Armitage gesture to the ancient historical tradition early in the book, starting from Thucydides supposed notion of human nature (Neville Morley has already addressed this here and here), as a source for useful and future-oriented history. In several ways, though, all three of their arguments can be found in ancient discussions of history-writing. I’d like to offer some more Roman parallels:

  1. The idea that readers favor short-termism and that long-term history is more beneficial can be found in Livy’s famous preface:

    The subject, moreover, is one that demands immense labour. It goes back beyond 700 years and, after starting from small and humble beginnings, has grown to such dimensions that it begins to be overburdened by its greatness. I have very little doubt, too, that for the majority of my readers the earliest times and those immediately succeeding, will possess little attraction; they will hurry on to these modern days in which the might of a long paramount nation is wasting by internal decay. I, on the other hand, shall look for a further reward of my labours in being able to close my eyes to the evils which our generation has witnessed for so many years…

    Lucian complains about a contemporary ‘micro-historian’ in his Quomodo historia conscribenda est (28):

    For instance, I have known a man get through the battle of Europus in less than seven whole lines, and then spend twenty mortal hours on a dull and perfectly irrelevant tale about a Moorish trooper. The trooper’s name was Mausacas; he wandered up the hills in search of water, and came upon some Syrian yokels getting their lunch; at first they were afraid of him, but when they found he was on the right side, they invited him to share the meal; for one of them had traveled in the Moorish country, having a brother serving in the army. Then come long stories and descriptions of how he hunted there, and saw a great herd of elephants at pasture, and was nearly eaten up by a lion, and what huge fish he had bought at Caesarea. So this quaint historian leaves the terrible carnage to go on at Europus, and lets the pursuit, the forced armistice, the settling of outposts, shift for themselves, while he lingers far into the evening watching Malchion the Syrian cheapen big mackarel at Caesarea; if night had not come all too soon, I dare say he would have dined with him when the fish was cooked. If all this had not been accurately set down in the history, what sad ignorance we should have been left in! The loss to the Romans would have been irreparable, if Mausacas the Moor had got nothing to quench his thirst, and come back fasting to camp. Yet I am wilfully omitting innumerable details of yet greater importance–the arrival of a flute-girl from the next village, the exchange of gifts (Mausacas’ was a spear, Malchion’s a brooch), and other incidents most essential to the battle of Europus. It is no exaggeration to say that such writers never give the rose a glance, but devote all their curiosity to the thorns on its stem.

  2. As in Guldi and Armitage’s book, the argument for the utility of history is often summed up by a phrase torn from Cicero’s de Oratore: historia magistra vitae. Although not always expressed so concisely, the idea is very common in Roman writing on history – to take Livy’s preface again:

    There is this exceptionally beneficial and fruitful advantage to be derived from the study of the past, that you see, set in the clear light of historical truth, examples of every possible type. From these you may select for yourself and your country what to imitate, and also what, as being mischievous in its inception and disastrous in its issues, you are to avoid. Unless, however, I am misled by affection for my undertaking, there has never existed any commonwealth greater in power, with a purer morality, or more fertile in good examples; or any state in which avarice and luxury have been so late in making their inroads, or poverty and frugality so highly and continuously honoured, showing so clearly that the less wealth men possessed the less they coveted. In these latter years wealth has brought avarice in its train, and the unlimited command of pleasure has created in men a passion for ruining themselves and everything else through self-indulgence and licentiousness.

    Polybius (1.1) gets a little closer to Guldi and Armitage in concern for a specifically political utility:

    Had previous chroniclers neglected to speak in praise of History in general, it might perhaps have been necessary for me to recommend everyone to choose for study and welcome such treatises as the present, since men have no more ready corrective of conduct than knowledge of the past. But all historians, one may say without exception, and in no half-hearted manner, but making this the beginning and end of their labour, have impressed on us that the soundest education and training for a life of active politics is the study of History, and that surest and indeed the only method of learning how to bear bravely the vicissitudes of fortune, is to recall the calamities of others. Evidently therefore no one, and least of all myself, would think it his duty at this day to repeat what has been so well and so often said. For the very element of unexpectedness in the events I have chosen as my theme will be sufficient to challenge and incite everyone, young and old alike, to peruse my systematic history.

  3. By its digital nature, Big Data is a modern concept. Nevertheless Guldi and Armitage make clear that part of the reason they find it compelling for the historian is its power for compelling presentation of the past. They write of ‘shock and awe visualizations’ that will allow historians to compete with economists (122) and of tools that can condense big data into narratives that can easily circulate among readers (89). In many ways, it seems that the Big Data argument in The History Manifesto is a return to older – much older – ideas about the importance for style in history. The full context of the Ciceronian phrase historia magistra vitae offers an example:

    Historia vero testis temporum, lux veritatis, vita memoriae, magistra vitae, nuntia vetustatis, qua voce alia nisi oratoris immortalitati commendatur?

    By what other voice, too, than that of the orator, is history, the evidence of time, the light of truth, the life of memory, the teacher of life, the herald of antiquity, committed to immortality?

    Famously, Cicero argues here for the centrality of presentation to the act of history-writing; there is a very long reception-history to this idea of history as communication – Guldi and Armitage’s ideas about Big Data may be just a latest instantiation of this meme.

It is a rather tired Classics-y game to spot ancient antecedents for modern phenomena – I’m neither trying to support or criticize The History Manifesto on the basis of the parallels. Instead, I find the ideas in The History Manifesto rather provocative for looking again at ancient historiography. It is now a commonplace in recent work on ancient historiography, particularly in anglophone scholarship of a literary bent, to claim that ancient history-writing is fundamentally different to modern – Tony Woodman’s point that ancient historiography is more akin to the modern historical novel than to modern history-writing comes to mind.

I find in Guldi and Armitage a rather vivid case against this idea: the history of The History Manifesto is recognizable as a descendent of ancient historiography – at least in terms of aspirations for a politically engaged and publicly persuasive history. Similarity seems more prominent than difference. Perhaps a reading of the Manifesto can encourage us to revisit the modernity of ancient history?

[Edited for clarity after posting]

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