Tuesday, 20 July 1999

M.I. Finley: Ancient History - Evidence and Models (1985)

Edition: Penguin, 1985
Review number: 293

Ancient History is a short collection of essays about one of Finley's major interests, the historical methods used by ancient historians. It is a more homogeneous collection than some of Finley's other cobbled together sets of journal articles.

None of the articles is a general exposition of Finley's criticisms of the methods of his field, though, each being concerned with specific issues which he feels are particularly prone to cause errors in method (such as cliometrics - statistical history - or the history of warfare). Basically, what he has to say can be summarised as two generic faults: non-application of standard historical methods and insights, and misapplication of these methods and insights.

Both of these errors seem to stem from the way in which ancient history is generally taught, as an option within classics rather than an option within history. This means that the discipline is at heart literature oriented rather than historical method oriented. The first error then arises through giving an over-privileged position to the literary sources, particularly those which have a traditional reputation for accuracy (such as the works of Thycydides). Assertions made by these authors are then accepted without question, important conclusions are made by shaky inference from what they say, and generalisations are made from isolated phrases scattered among works by several authors. They might mention a particular item of interest to modern historians in passing, often in different contexts widely separated in time and location, and from conflicting points of view - and none of this is necessarily taken into account. Finley is even able to expose conclusions based on the parts of the historical literature known to be false, such as the speeches put into the mouths of prominent people, which at best reflect the writers' views of what ought to have been said. (A good example of this is given by Finley's discussion of the causes of specific wars, as ancient writers tend to record immediate causes - x insulted y - while historians today are interested in underlying ones - y's seapower undermining x's prosperity.)

The second error arises when historians do try to apply methods such as statistical analysis to ancient historical problems without an understanding of the sort of materials to which such an application is appropriate. The problem here is again related to difficulties with documentary sources; Finley praises analyses of certain archaeological artefacts (for example, studies using pottery distribution to explain features of ancient economics). However, methods appropriate to medieval and modern documents tend to give misleading answers for the ancient world. The reasons for this revolve around the fact that no ancient culture kept official records in the way that we do. (Ptolmaic Egypt may seem to be an exception to this, with copious official-looking documents, but Finley uses a fair amount of space to argue that this is not in fact the case.) Where documents have survived, a rare occurrence, it is often difficult to establish why they were preserved, and without knowing this, their significance is hard to understand. (Finley's example is an Athenian public monument recording the redistribution of property belonging to a group of people exiled for impiety, which remained in the Athenian market place for hundreds of years after a political coup enabled them to return.)

As usual, Finley's arguments are rational and convincing; it is sad that he continued to need to make them throughout his long career.

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