The Purpose of History, pt. 2

Yesterday I wrote that the biggest threat to history is the lack of truth. Will Durant, an eminent historian, once said that history is mostly guessing, and the rest is prejudice. This is similar to “History is written by the victors.” It may be true in some cases, but is this a general truth?

Unfortunately, it is almost completely true in the “Classic History” category, where scholars dived deep into source material. My daughter reminds me that “truth and evidence” for the professional historian is barely two hundred years old. So what drove the classic historian before that? Patronage and ego!

One of the great mysteries in history is the event that occurred in the late Bronze Age. There were hundreds of cities that had archeological evidence of being destroyed within a very short time in a broad are of the world. Cities and cultures that had been developing for a long time didn’t just slowly morph into sleepy villages. They were burnt entirely to the ground with thousands of arrowheads in the ash. There was only one superpower the survived the assault. Egypt!

Egypt had a complex writing system, and artisans trained in illustrative ability. They could have documented what had happened, and instead, a giant temple complex provides a blank slate for Pharaoh Ramesses III to record his “victory”. To his credit, he did seem to fight off the invasion, but this rest of the known world was in chaos. Egypt was highly involved in trade, there were connections made, and markets established. Egypt had no place to sell her goods, and no place to buy the goods they required. Ther may have won the battle, but it was the first stage of a long decline. If “truth and evidence” had been applied maybe the decline would have been shorter, and less steep.

So what do we know from the temple of Medinet Habu? It appears that the attackers were a confederation of different peoples. Today’s scholars simply lump them together as the “Sea Peoples”. Ramesses gives us some names, and even illustrates the differences in dress, armor, and facial characteristics. Later Pharaohs even hired some of these tribes as mercenaries. Unfortunately there was no effort to record where they came from, or what was there purpose. They were simply pirates and barbarians looking for plunder and delighting in destruction. We are not even sure that some of the tribes even existed, perhaps Ramses inflated his enemies to give himself more credit. It is no accident that the officially approved style of illustration was to represent Ramses as a giant twenty times larger than the other individuals in the battle.

I can understand this, there is no question where Ramesses stood in the thick of battle. If you look at the Bayeau Tapestry of the Battle of Hastings , it can be hard to spot William and Harold.

Some of the Sea Peoples are quite different from the Egyptians, with feathered headdresses and horned helmets. Not the great horns of the Wagnerian opera, but small goat horns, or small disks on a stem. we know them as the Peleset, Sherden, Deneen, Ekwesh, Lucca, Shekelesh, Teresh , Tjerker, and the Weshesh.

The only definitive statement was their connection to the sea. Like the Vikings centuries later, they showed up suddenly, with no warning, fought hand to hand, and with bows and arrows. The late Bronze Age had highly developed chariots powered by horses, they were destroyed by lightly armored runners with javelins.

This “propaganda” was repeated thousands of times by the victors as history was mostly about war.

The first great historian, “the father of history” was Herodotus, 484 BC. His book The Histories, a detailed record of his “inquiry” on the origins of the Greco-Persian Wars. The bulk of his writing has been verified by scholars and archeologists. Herodotus did receive some criticism by Athenians in his own time. They called him a “storyteller.” It is true that Herodotus included many fanciful tales in his book, as supplemental material. He did provide the caveat that it doesn’t mean that he believed it, he was just repeating what he had been told. At one of the Olympic Games in Athens, Herodotus read the entire Histories to the crowd, and they cheered him on with great applause.

The other great Greek historian was Thucydides, 460 BC. There is a great deal of difference between the two historians. Thucydides was much more “scientific” and did not record “facts” told by travelers in taverns. Thucydides was also a general so he had an inside perspective on warfare.

We actually only have three or four authors whose works have survived. There were many more historians that we known only by their names, not the actual books. The third Greek historian was Xenophon, my personal favorite. His book, The Anabasis, is about the ten thousand Greek mercenaries that found themselves trapped in the middle of Persia, having to fight their way back to the Black Sea and safety. Xenophon was a minor leader of the troops, but after the Persian had murdered the Greek leaders at a banquet, Xenophon was elevated to lead the remaining men back to Greece. The book was essentially about the journey and difficulties faced when behind enemy lines, but was very informative about the customs of the times. Xenophon was also great friends with Socrates.

If war and military exploits were the subjects of Greek historians, it didn’t change much with Roman authors. Livy, Strabo, Plutarch, and Tacitus stand out for me. It’s true that much of what they wrote was the military victories of Rome, but they also included snapshots of daily life. Fortunately we have quite a few lesser known author’s works.

The interesting one for me is Flavius Josephus, who wrote the Jewish War. Josephus had the unique perspective of having been a former Jewish general who had been captured, then worked with the Romans to put down the rebellion. He was rewarded by citizenship in Rome, a villa, and protection by powerful leaders. The fact that he reported on the destruction of Israel and the beginning of the Diaspora, was in his favor because his readers were Roman.

Because I’ve introduced Rome, I have to mention the historian that organized the best concise history of the fall of Rome, Edward Gibbon. His book, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is a Western classic. What most people do not know is that Gibbon is not a modern writer, he was born in England in 1737, and published his book in 1780. He a perfect example of the Enlightenment of the times, but later critics question the central reason that he presented for the cause of Rome’s fall. Gibbon believes that Christianity was the reason of the collapse. He specifically states that the wealth of the Church siphon off money that could have been used the beef up the military to stave off the barbarians. Remember, he was an Englishman in the late 1780s, and no friend to the Catholic Church.

Recent historians have traced the negative stories of the Crusaders to Gibbon. In his view the Crusaders were pawns of the Popes, and the Crusades were entirely caused by the Church. From that premise, the Crusaders were pirates, interested only in greed, power, and regions bigotry. There is no doubt that some of that is true. Modern scholars now believe that the Crusaders were also motivated by a number of issues, including a desire to protect pilgrims. Muslim invaders had invaded Spain and created independent states, the Crusaders also invaded to create the Latin States. It was the way of the world.

I jumped right through the medieval period, bypassing many historians that I have enjoyed. My favorites are:

Gregory of Tours (538–594), A History of the Franks

Bede (c. 672–735), Anglo-Saxon England

Adam of Bremen (later 11th century), historian of Scandinavia, Gesta

Anna Komnene (1083–1148), Byzantine princess and historian

Ambroise (fl. 1190s), writer of verse narrative of the Third Crusade

William of Tyre (c. 1128–1186)

Snorri Sturluson (c. 1178–1241), Icelandic historian

Templar of Tyre (c. 1230–1314), end of the Crusades

Of the Modern historians, I haven’t decided on my favorites. I’m fond of Carl Sandburg’s work, and Will Durant. But there are so many, and so many with specific agendas. I have trouble enough with my own agendas.

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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