«Edited by Mladen Popović LEIDEN • BOSTON © 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV CONTENTS List of Figures and Tables Preface List of Contributors The Jewish ...»
This comparison furnishes a serious caution for us who study Roman Judaea. We often write confidently about the motives and intentions of various groups and leaders, or of commanders in the war, on the basis of the single narrative of Josephus: If he said X, and we know that his motives were Y, then we may conclude Z. But where is that wealth of evidence for real conditions on the ground that would permit us to make such reconstructions? We have in Josephus’ War one account by a commander of one sub-theatre in the earliest phase of the war (to July 67), who became a remote observer of the main campaigns in Judaea after his quick surrender (67–70). It is simply not possible to extract from this dramatic literature (or indeed from a less dramatic chronicle) a realistic, multi-sided picture of facts on the ground.
Fortunately, this limitation on the confidence of our conclusions does not inhibit the practice of history as I am presenting it. History is above all a method for exploring the past, and historians must place their primary emphasis on the investigation itself: establishing the problem, gathering potential evidence, interpreting it, and finally trying to explain it by imagining the realities that brought it into being.
A clear narrative of what really happened, understood from all relevant perspectives, is in no way essential to the task of history. This is just as well, or ancient historians would find themselves in a largely hopeless situation.
I.2.vi. Writing Up Arguments Once we have concluded our inquiry into the problem we have pursued, we write up our results. The natural form for writing up an inquiry is not a narrative of events, it seems to me, but rather an argument laying out the problem, its investigation, and its conclusions. Our aim is to communicate a process that others, familiar with the evidence and issues, will be able to follow and check at each stage. It is often said that history differs from science in being unrepeatable, but that difference is easy to overstate, for we can indeed communicate the results of our inquiry, inviting our readers to walk through it with us. We cannot repeat the past, of course, but we were not studying the past itself. We
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invite others to work through the problems we have posed, the evidence for them, and our reasoning processes. That is why we labour to refine our arguments, for repetition by others, and the better kind of review (for example, the Bryn Mawr Classical Review) most often takes just this form of retracing and then criticizing others’ arguments.
Admittedly, we face relentless pressure to champion particular conclusions and write comforting stories, without due regard for the limitations of that evidence, all the possible ways of interpreting it, and the fundamental problem of our profound ignorance of daily realities. At least the email I receive from members of the public presses this kind of question most often (“What do you believe about X?” “What do scholars say about Y?”). Popular magazines can be preoccupied with authors’ conclusions, commitments, discoveries, and beliefs. All of this historians must resist out of professional responsibility. Because we do not know what happened in all of its complexity, and there are likely to be competing possibilities, our arguments must reflect our true state of uncertainty, even where we find one synthesis most appealing.
Now I hasten to qualify my rejection of narrative as the proper mode of historical communication, in two ways. First, constructing provisional narratives can be a helpful heuristic tool in the course of a historical inquiry. For example, if we took it as a working hypothesis that Pilate had something to do with building an aqueduct for Jerusalem, and that this caused a riot for some reason (so Josephus, B.J. 2.175), thinking narratively would force us to ask about what came before and after. Knowing on a longue-durée basis that Roman aqueducts were usually public benefactions by prominent local men, facilitated by permission of the authorities and with financial aid and perhaps Roman technical skill provided, issues not addressed (and not excluded) by Josephus, we could pursue each of those matters and possible scenarios. Was there perhaps an initial benefactor who could no longer fund the project, requiring greater dependence on the temple treasury? What sort of cooperation did Pilate have from Jerusalem authorities? At what point and why could the protests have begun, and who led them? Casting the episode as one event in a lost sequence would require us to think seriously about each possible point in the story with all its variables. Each of these matters becomes for a moment the focus of its own small inquiry, speculation, and provisional argument in turn. All such questioning exposes our ignorance of the real-life issues involved.
Second, narrative has a long and distinguished pedigree in historical writing, from the ancient historians through the modern greats as
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Gibbon, Macaulay, and Trevelyan. It continues on more modest terms in popular accounts of the ancient world. This form of writing, linking the results of inquiries in a substantial continuum, can be helpful to both scholars (for prompting new questions) and the reading public, if it is viewed as one stage in a pedagogical process, to furnish an introductory map schematizing a large territory. But we must be clear that such a joining of the dots from one argumentative peak to another only gives the illusion of a coherent whole and a real past. Writing in this way is perfectly acceptable as long as we emphasize (a) that many of these conclusions offered (the peaks of the arguments) are actually unsettled and (b) that much of the filler material, which we supply to prepare a straight narrative highway, is not yet the assured result of methodical inquiry. If it is merely borrowed from Josephus or Tacitus, or even guessed at so as to complete a coherent story, we should give some signal that this is so.
Whether we are speaking about narratives or the conclusions of proper inquiries, the historical past (i.e., what we can construct through methodical investigation) is separated by an unbridgeable chasm from the lived past two thousand years ago, which must have been no less messy, complex, and insusceptible of capture than our own existence in the world. But it is easy to see how history comes to stand in for the once-real past.
And what about the language we use to write up our inquiries? In proposing that the proper form of historical writing is the argument, it may seem that I am ignoring a fundamental problem: that our language cannot be simply neutral or factual. To write in sentences and paragraphs is to make constant decisions about diction, arrangement, and intended effect. This observation we can only embrace. We cannot pretend and should not strive to write neutrally. But our daily experience of reading newspapers, periodicals, monographs, and the kind of book review I mentioned above shows that ideas can be conveyed and debated, even in irreducibly personal styles, if authors make an effort to transcend themselves and to argue publicly, in ways crafted to invite participation from as many others as possible. “I think that this happened because Scripture [or Tacitus or Gibbon] says it did” is not a historical argument because it lacks publicly accessible backing or warrants. All historians would recognize such an obviously intramural argument, though we may succumb to subtler kinds of parochialisms by assuming warrants recognizable only to fellow-travellers. We may quietly lean on both ancient authorities (“Why should we not believe Tacitus here?”) or modern ones (“I assume that the war began in 66
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because this is the view of experts whom I trust”). What ought to distinguish university disciplines from popular interest groups is precisely that we make our arguments on open and debatable grounds.
Arguing publicly need not, however, overlook the very real and thorny problems of language.
I.2.vii. To Imagine Human Experience Finally, I basically concur with perhaps the most controversial of Collingwood’s proposals, that history—as one of the humanities, concerned with the possibilities of being human—is ultimately concerned with the thoughts and intentions behind actions in the past. Of course it is important to try to get the events themselves, what Collingwood called their outside, as straight as possible: for example, that Caesar crossed the Rubicon in January of 49 b.c.e. But since countless people have crossed the Rubicon, and historical investigations might also be constructed of each event, if Caesar is my interest then I shall be most interested in his intentions and those of various Senate constituencies in response to him. Moreover, since things often do not work out as planned, especially in the turmoil of war, to understand particular players we must consider what they were thinking apart from what actually happened. This includes imagining the motives of those who pursued such entirely unsuccessful actions as the revolt against Rome, defiance at the siege of Jerusalem, or the flight to Masada. In practising history, that is, we are ultimately concerned with what is human about events: what we can rethink, re-imagine, or “re-enact,” as Collingwood put it, from our predecessors. For certain kinds of history, dealing mainly with social and economic conditions or demographics, the thoughts of individual actors may be irrelevant. But for such event-complexes as the Judaean war we are dealing with actions initiated by individuals who thought and planned. Whether their intentions were ever realized, or frustrated by others’ intentions or by chance, and whether or not we can reconstruct precisely what happened, the fact that they must have had outlooks, ambitions, and aims invites us to investigate and imagine just these things in their plausible ancient contexts.
I.4. Summary of Part I I have been advocating a view of history as a distinctive way of knowing the human past, which produces not the real past but an imaginative mental image, resulting from a specific inquiry into some problem. In
contrast to tradition, which brings to us unbidden those abstracts from the past that authoritative figures have deemed useful and continually reshape for purposes of socialization, history is investigator-driven, systematic inquiry. It is conceptually different from the lived past, partly in the same way that any effort to represent our lives now (in art, literature, reporting, photography) is different from the constantly moving and interacting reality, but with the serious added problem that the ancient past offers no possibility of direct representation now.
Although the past that interests us is long gone, history offers us a process of disciplined inquiry into it, which takes place in our minds.
The inquiry is methodical. We begin by specifying the problem and the sub-problems that would need resolution in order to produce a solution. We gather the most obviously relevant evidence (that which clearly bears on the question), try to interpret each kind and item in its own right, without requiring it to speak directly to our inquiry (so as not to skew its meaning), and consider various ways in which this evidence might have come into being. All along we remain open to considering other kinds of evidence whose possible relevance emerges in the course of investigation. Finally we make our best effort at solving the larger problem of the inquiry. With due regard for the contingencies affecting our interpretation of each piece of evidence, we venture hypotheses to explain all of it. The best hypothesis is the one that leaves the smallest remainder of unexplained evidence.
Whether we can reach confident conclusions on the available evidence is not our problem. It is above our pay grade: we bear no responsibility for the force majeure by which our evidence has survived. Our task—what historia is—is the responsible investigation of problems in light of available evidence.
To illustrate the application of these principles, we now consider two important episodes in the Judaean-Roman war.
II.1. Campaign of Cestius Gallus Tacitus (Hist. 5.10), Suetonius (Vesp. 4.5), and Josephus agree that a Syrian legate in the mid-60s, C. Cestius Gallus, intervened militarily to stifle the growing Judaean revolt and attendant regional disturbances.
Suetonius has the notion that the Judaeans killed their governor (Gessius Florus), which was what brought Cestius to the rescue, and that he lost a legionary eagle in defeat. Tacitus imagines Cestius making repeated but unsuccessful efforts to quell the unrest. Josephus refers almost formulaically to Cestius’ mistake, screw-up, failure, or blunder (τὸ Κεστίου πταῖσμα) in his prologue (B.J. 1.21), obliquely at B.J. 3.1–3, and at Vita 24–25. His detailed account of the episode in B.J. 2.499–562) has normally been considered the place for historians to begin. We should read his story first and then ask whether and to what extent it is reliable. If it is mostly reliable, we have much of the real past in hand.
In keeping with the method described above, however, I would suggest that Josephus’ account, though it will need to be explained by any hypothesis about the real past, is not the place to start. We ought rather to open a historical inquiry based upon our independent problems, then turn to all the available evidence to consider the possible solutions. The difference is enormous. As soon as we lay aside Josephus’ narrative, a number of historical problems quickly present themselves to us, and we realize that their solution would be necessary if we wanted to recover a realistic framework for understanding Cestius’ campaign. It was not among Josephus’ interests to address these problems, but that is no fault of his and no ground for accusing him of either sloppiness or suppression.