Guide Thinking, Recording, and Writing History in the Ancient World

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Munich ; revised and updated English ed. Chicago Molho and J. Questions and Challenges Dubuque, Iowa, , with I. About articles in journals and volumes of collected essays. Back to search. Save Cancel. Brown Affiliations Classics. Research Research Overview. Kurt Raaflaub studies the social and political history of the Roman republic; the social, political, and intellectual history of archaic and classical Greece; and the comparative history of the ancient world. Recently, his research has focused on the society and politics of Homer's epics, on the origins and workings of Athenian democracy, on war and peace in the ancient world, on the purpose of writing history in Greece and Rome, and on the origin and function of Greek political thinking.

Background Education and Training. Greek-speakers lived in hundreds of different villages, towns and cities, from Spain to Libya and the Nile Delta, from the freezing river Don in the northeastern corner of the Black Sea to Trebizond. They tolerated and even welcomed imported foreign gods.

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And what united them was never geopolitics. With the arguable exception of the short-lived Macedonian empire in the later 4th century BC, there never was a recognisable, independent, state run by Greek-speakers, centred in and including what we now know as Greece, until after the Greek war of independence in the early 19th century. What bound the Greeks together was an enquiring cast of mind underpinned by a wonderful shared set of stories and poems and a restlessness that made them more likely to sail away and found a new city-state than tolerate starvation or oppression in a mainland metropolis.

The diasporic, seafaring Greeks, while they invented new communities from scratch and were stimulated by interacting with other ethnic groups, made a rapid series of intellectual discoveries that raised the Mediterranean world to a new level of civilisation.

This process of self-education was much admired by the Greeks and Romans of the centuries that followed. When the texts and artworks of classical Greece were rediscovered in the European Renaissance, they changed the world for a second time. Yet over the last two decades the notion that the Greeks were exceptional has been questioned. It has been emphasised that they were just one of many ethnic and linguistic groups centred in the eastern end of the ancient Mediterranean world.

Long before the Greeks appeared in the historical record, several complicated civilisations had existed — the Mesopotamians and Egyptians, the Hattians and Hittites. Other peoples provided the Greeks with crucial technological advances; they learned the phonetic alphabet from the Phoenicians, and how to mint coins from the Lydians. They may have learned how to compose elaborate cult hymns from the mysterious Luwians of Syria and central Anatolia.

During the period in which the Greeks invented rational philosophy and science, after BC, their horizons were dramatically opened up by the expansion of the Persian empire. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, our understanding of the other cultures of the Ancient Near East advanced rapidly. There has been a stream of newly published texts in the languages of the successive peoples who dominated the fertile plains of Mesopotamia Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians. New texts as well as fresh interpretations of writings by the ancient Egyptians continue to appear, requiring, for example, a reassessment of the importance of the Nubians to North African history.

Many of these thrilling advances have revealed how much the Greeks shared with, and absorbed from, their predecessors and neighbours. Some scholars have gone so far as to ask whether the Greeks came up with anything new at all, or whether they merely acted as a conduit through which the combined wisdom of all the civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean was disseminated across the territories conquered by Alexander the Great, before arriving at Rome and posterity.

Taken singly, most Greek achievements can be paralleled in the culture of at least one of their neighbours. The tribes of the Caucasus had brought mining and metallurgy to unprecedented levels. The Hittites had made advances in chariot technology, but they were also highly literate.

Thinking, Recording, and Writing History in the Ancient World by Kurt A. Raaflaub (Hardback, 2013)

They recorded the polished and emotive orations delivered on formal occasions in their royal court, and their carefully argued legal speeches. One Hittite king foreshadows Greek historiography when he chronicles in detail his frustration at the incompetence of some of his military officers during the siege of a Hurrian city.


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The Phoenicians were just as great seafarers as any Greeks. The Egyptians developed medicine based on empirical experience rather than religious dogma and told Odyssey -like stories about sailors who went missing and returned after adventures overseas.

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Pithy fables similar to those of Aesop were composed in an archaic Aramaic dialect of Syria and housed in Jewish temples. Architectural design concepts and technical know-how came from the Persians to the Greek world via the many Ionian Greek workmen who helped build Persepolis, Susa and Pasargadae, named Yauna in Persian texts. But to function successfully as a conduit, channel or intermediary is in itself to perform an exceptional role.

It requires a range of talents and resources. In this sense, the Romans fruitfully took over substantial achievements of their civilisation from the Greeks, as did the Renaissance Humanists. Of course the Greeks were not by nature or in potential superior to any other human beings, either physically or intellectually. Indeed, they themselves often commented on how difficult it was to distinguish Greek from non-Greek, let alone free person from slave, if all the trappings of culture, clothing and adornment were removed. But that does not mean they were not the right people, in the right place, at the right time, to take up the human baton of intellectual progress for several hundred years.

And that period of intellectual ferment produced ideas that have subsequently informed the most significant moments in western political history. Thomas Jefferson, framing the Declaration of Independence, took the idea of the pursuit of happiness from Aristotle. Thomas Paine argued that issues such as the relationship of religion to the state should be discussed with reference to historical examples from antiquity onwards. Chartist leaders were inspired by the Athenian democratic revolution. Women suffragists recited at their meetings the resounding speech that the tragedian Euripides gives his heroine Medea on the economic, political and sexual oppression of the entire female sex.

The Greeks, more even than the Romans, show us how to question received opinion and authority. The earliest myths reveal mankind actively disputing the terms on which the Olympian gods want to rule them, and the philanthropic god Prometheus rebelling against Zeus in order to steal fire — a divine prerogative — and give it to mortal men.


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  6. Aristophanes, in his democratic comedies, subjected politicians who wielded power to satire of eye-watering savagery. Socrates dedicated his life to proving the difference between the truth and received opinion, the unexamined life being, in his view, not worth living. The recent general election has exposed the danger inherent in vote-based democracies: that they inevitably entail large disaffected minorities being excluded from executive power.

    The ancient Greek inventors of democracy vigorously debated this issue, having painful historical experience of it — recorded by Thucydides — and theoretical solutions — discussed by Aristotle. Yet in Britain today, few secondary school students are ever given the opportunity to investigate the dazzling thought-world of the Greeks.

    This is despite the existence for half a century of excellent GCSE and A-level courses in classical civilisation, which have been a success wherever introduced, and can be taught cost-effectively across the state-school sector. The failure to include classical civilisation among the subjects taught in every secondary school deprives us and our future citizens of access to educational treasures which can not only enthral, but fulfil what Jefferson argued in Notes on the State of Virginia was the main goal of education in a democracy: to enable us to defend our liberty.

    History, he proposed, is the subject that equips citizens for this. To stay free also requires comparison of constitutions, utopian thinking, fearlessness about innovation, critical, lateral and relativist thinking, advanced epistemological skills in source criticism and the ability to argue cogently. All these skills can be learned from their succinct, entertaining, original formulations and applications in the works of the Greeks.

    The situation is aggravated by the role that training in the ancient languages, as opposed to ancient ideas, plays in dividing social and economic classes.

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    One of the many ways in which the schism between rich and poor in Britain is reflected educationally is in access to Greek and Latin grammar. In the last year for which figures are available , 3, state-sector candidates took A-levels in classical civilisation or ancient history. High grades in the ancient languages — easily enough won by solicitous coaching — provide near-guaranteed access to our most elite universities.

    The chances of admission for these are in line with other courses such as English and history.