By Elke Close |
As an ancient historian, one of the questions I get asked most often is: ‘So if you’re working on something that happened over 2000 years ago, what sources are you using?’. The answer is that, thankfully, classicists have quite a few different types of sources to work with from ancient authors to inscriptions, coins to papyri and even archaeological evidence. In most cases your research will force you to combine several of these different kind of sources, mostly because a lot of the evidence that previously existed has been lost due to the passing of time, choices made by those copying down the text for posterity and the destruction of places/archaeological sites. This lack of source material is one of things that has caused many scholars – and I’m sure this is applicable to anyone working with sources – to utter a few choice words in frustration after discovering that that one book/volume dealing with the topic of your research has simply disappeared. This notwithstanding, a lack of sources does not mean there is nothing (new) to say about Ancient Greece or Rome. Moreover, I would say that it forces us to be more creative in doing our research and immerse ourselves more in the sources, applying new methods of interpretation or visiting archaeological sites that are connected to one’s research in order to gain a fresh perspective.
It can be quite problematic however to have to deal with one source which dominates your research. In my case, I’m dealing with Polybius an ancient Greek author who lived in the second century B.C. Born in the city of Megalopolis, he seemed to be destined for a promising career in the Achaean Koinon, a powerful Greek federal state in the Hellenistic period, until he was banished to Rome in 168 B.C. Whilst living in Rome he wrote his Histories, a work consisting of 40 books/volumes about the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean. As my PhD thesis deals with both Megalopolis and the Achaean Koinon, I have spent countless hours perusing the works of this Greek guy and somehow over all of those hours I have come to both love and hate Polybius.
Firstly, I am extremely happy that his work is, for the most part, still around and that it contains all of the information that I need to be able to do my research. Though it is extremely challenging to have to wade through his extensive work, which incidentally has been relied upon very heavily by other authors, and try to figure out when Polybius is talking about someone he clearly does not like, if this person really was that bad or as influential as he paints him out to be. Trying to objectively work out certain events, is even trickier as his work like any historian is always subjective to a certain degree. On the other hand, it can be extremely amusing to find political theories or little and very subjective passages in which you can clearly see that the author does not like the person, event or even a group of people he describes. It makes both research and reading just that little bit more entertaining, and allows my mind to ponder about the kind of person I imagine Polybius would have been. In a way I think Polybius has become some sort of distant friend I have made by reading his work so thoroughly over the course of the past two years. It has allowed me to make statements like ‘Polybius would have hated this guy, because he was not from a political elite.’ or ‘That is not how Polybius sees the ideal ladder.’
I guess what I’m trying to say is that for an ancient historian like me who is working with a single source a lot of the time, it can be tricky trying to navigate having this one particular source. While it becomes annoying to constantly having to disregard information because you cannot know how reliable/objective it is, it is ultimately nothing when compared to the actual value of the wealth of material you can gain from an in-depth analysis of one source. As for Polybius: sometimes I feel like I could travel back in time and kill him, but overall I think it must be love.
Elke Close is a third year PhD student in Classics at the University of Edinburgh and is working on the influence of the Greek polis of Megalopolis on the ancient federal state known as the Achaean Koinon. She is also the Secretary of ISHA International and Pubs and Publication’s Publicity Editor. You can find her on her academia.edu page or on twitter as @ElkeClose.
(Image (1) is a combination of two pictures: http://www.languagetsar.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Blank-profile.png and http://bearingdrift.com/wp-content/uploads/Polybius.jpg1.png.)