The long-suffering Muse of History

  • Themes: Classics

Theoretical approaches only get ancient scholars so far in the quest for historical truths.

Christophe Veyrier's terracotta statue of Clio, the Muse of History.
Christophe Veyrier's terracotta statue of Clio, the Muse of History. Credit: Penta Springs Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

The Muse of History: The Ancient Greeks From the Enlightenment to the Present, Oswyn Murray, Allen Lane, £30

Students of ancient history at Oxford in the 1970s and 1980s, as I was, attended Oswyn Murray’s lectures with pleasure and appreciation (another such was, somewhat later, the former PM Boris Johnson, to whom Murray sent a formal renunciation of friendship after Brexit). Murray communicated ancient Greek history with infectious enjoy­ment, bringing to it a range of sources and approaches that enlivened the sub­ject. His affable demeanour made him unusually approachable, and his emin­ence as a pedagogue was confirmed when his Early Greece, published in 1980 (now in a second edit­ion from 1993), became an instant favourite among students of classics and ancient history. Now in his late 80s and ever youthful in demeanour, Murray can surely claim to be included in the pantheon of ancient historians whose life and work span the period ‘from the Enlighten­ment to the Present’.

This informative and accessibly written book confirms that claim. ‘At a certain point,’ we read, ‘one wakes up to discover that one has become truly an “ancient histor­ian”… a part of history itself.’ Murray continues in autobiographical mode: ‘I was born in 1937…’ (‘History will be kind to me’, Churchill is quoted as saying, ‘for I intend to write it.’) Scattered throughout the book are personal accounts of the author’s disc­overies and insights, along with first-hand reminisc­ences of such figures as his mentor, the Italian historian Arn­aldo Momig­liano, and his friend, the Czech academic Pavel Oliva. The books of the latter histor­ians are still widely consulted; few will be equally fam­iliar with Temple Stanyan, author of ‘the first substantial narrative history of Greece’, or with the writings of such historians as Charles Rollin, J.-J. Barthélemy, Cornelius de Pauw, and other 18th- and 19th-century historians to whose work Murray presents himself as an informative guide.

‘The pres­ent’ will have caused more problems of selection than the past. Murray’s attention to close personal acquaintances risks eliding the consid­erable contributions of eminent contem­poraries less well known to him, many of whom go unmentioned. Of recent Oxford-based histor­ians of ancient Greece such as George Cawkwell, George Forrest, David Lewis, and Russell Meiggs, and the younger generation such as Robin Lane Fox, Simon Horn­blower, Peter Rhodes, and Robert Parker, only Caw­k­well and Lewis are mentioned (once each and en passant). ‘Murray, Oswyn’ merits nine references in the index, but of Camb­ridge and other non-Oxford counter­parts younger than Moses Finley, only Geoffrey Lloyd and Simon Goldhill are cited, thanks to their having acknowledged the influence of the ‘Paris school’ of historians Jean-Paul (‘Jipé’) Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet. While other recent Cambridge-based lumin­aries go unmentioned, more regret­table is the complete absence from the account of the 20th- century French wom­en historians Jacque­line de Romilly and Nicole Loraux, who surely stand compar­ison with others of their era; and the 19th_20th century Cambridge historian of religion Jane Harrison might have merited at least as much space as that given to Max Müller.

It appears that the non-theoretical stance of many British historians (and evidently North Americans, who are wholly omitted with the exception of Jipé-inspired Froma Zeitlin) might have diminished their significance in Murray’s eyes. ‘British empiricism or posit­i­v­ism’ he writes, ‘is based on the belief that only facts exist (whatever they may be), and that history can always be interp­reted on the basis of an unreflec­tive [sic] search for an illusory certainty con­tained in an explan­atory system which is held to be const­antly changing, yet universal in human history.’ This awkwardly condensed and unduly scathing judgment follows the assertion that ‘The Europ­ean tradition of Ancient History was dominated by French philo­sophical interp­ret­ations of hist­ory in the eigh­teenth century and by systematic German scholar­ship in the nine­teenth century. Comp­ared with these two appr­oaches the Anglo-Saxon tradition has lacked any theor­etical or concep­tual basis, with the except­ions of Utilitarian and Marxist historiography.’ We learn none­theless of the work of the ‘robust but parochial’ William Mitford and the ‘Utilit­arian’ banker George Grote, as well as the more continen­tally inspired novelist Bulwer-Lytton, whose writ­ings Murray has championed along with that of the Swiss Jacob Burckhardt. (By contrast, figures such as the English-educated hist­orian Alfred Zimmern, whose Greek Comm­on­wealth was widely popular in its time, are absent). Yet British empir­icists also had their continental counterparts. Leopold von Ranke, no less a German than Karl Marx, ‘laid claim to produc­ing an account of history “as it really was”’ (wie es eigentlich gewesen ist); and at least, as Murray observes, ‘the school of Ranke established a permanent link between archival research and the writing of history’.

What theoretical approach, one wonders, is Murray’s own history of anc­ient histor­ians itself meant to demonstrate? His ‘empirical’ expertise is why many still value his Early Greece and other contributions such as his edition of collect­ed essays on the ancient Greek symposium. In a chapter here entitled ‘The Prob­lem of Socrates’ we read the confident statement: ‘It is quite clear that the picture drawn by Plato in his dialogues as a whole is incompatible with the evidence of Aristophanes and Xenophon.’ In fact, Aristoph­anes’ picture of Socrates as a mid­dle-aged man, though distorted for comic purposes, is far from in­com­­pat­ible with an understanding of Socrates the man (if not the philosopher); but Murray discusses only the idealising accounts of the older philos­opher by such interp­reters as Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Burck­hardt. These are no less biograph­ical fantasies than Nietzsche’s contrastingly hostile attitude to Socr­ates, which led to his bizarre contention that the philosopher almost single-handedly (Euripides was a fellow-culprit) destroyed the spirit of Greek trag­edy.

To claim, then, that ‘Socrates is the first (indeed the only) Greek about whom it is possible to write a biography’ is strange, given that the ev­idence for Socrates’ earl­ier life and intellectual develop­ment has been routinely overlooked by such biog­ra­phers; the latest Socratic biographer cited is Gregory Vlastos, and there is no place for the excellent W.K.C. Guthrie (let alone I.F. Stone, Robin Waterhouse, or Bett­any Hughes). One of the most exciting findings of recent studies is the confirmation of Socr­ates’ early and contin­uing association with Pericles’ circle via his ment­or Archelaus and his pupil Alcib­iades, and his well-reported acquain­tance with Asp­as­ia of Miletus as portrayed in Plato’s Mene­x­enus and arguably underlying the acc­ount of ‘Dioti­ma’ in the Symposium. That Aspasia doesn’t merit even a footnote in this book ­– ­she was, after all, the subject of many accounts inc­luding W. S. Land­or’s Pericles and Aspasia ­­­– feels like an unnecessary rebuff to the long-suffering Muse of History.

Murray begins and ends by restating the familiar premise that ‘all history is contemporary history’ (Benedetto Croce). ‘The past is a rich and varied tap­estry’, Murray writes, ‘that may never be completely understood and must always be re­newed, yet to approach our predecessors with due humility creates a richer inter­pretation than we can achieve on our own.’ In fact, no understanding of the past can but fall far short of ‘complete’; and it would be impossible to create an int­er­pretation of history, rich or otherwise, without reference to historiographical predec­essors. It therefore seems ironic that, given the above-mentioned omissions, a whole chapter is devoted to expounding the story of a ‘lost historian’, the Irish John Gast, whom virtually no one today will have heard of or read, and who caught Murray’s interest only as late as 2008. The obscurity into which Gast’s work fell as early, we are told, as 1812 makes him a curious footnote, a rose born to blush unseen, with no influence on later approaches, theoretical or otherwise, to the discipline. If future students of ancient historiography are able to ack­now­ledge Gast as a minor star in the ancient historical firmament, it will be entirely thanks to Murray’s enthusiasm on his behalf.


Armand D'Angour