More History Stuff

First of all, I made an omission yesterday when talking about both my story and the way the Pre-Conquest people of England would be described.

Gimme a break, my brain is still re-booting from vacation.

Within the story itself I used “English” because that is how the people of England saw themselves from, at the most, the 10th century after England was collected into the Heptarchy under Egbert. Certainly they they saw themselves as English by the time of the Conquest.

Now, I am currently reading The First Clash by James Lacey, a history of the first war between the Greeks and the Persians. It quickly became obvious this was an example of how historians can lose their objectivity and write bad history.

In dealing with the son of Cyrus the Great, he is far too quick to discount the sources closest to the events of the time.

The oldest son of Cyrus, Cambyses, remains one of the great enigmas of history. If one believes Herodotus’ account, Cambyses was both cruel and mad. The great historian presents a lengthy list of the kings transgressions, including the sacrilegious murder of Egypt’s sacred Apis bull, the kicking to death of his pregnant wife, and the scourging and murder of Egyptian priests. The truth is probably somewhat more complex. For instance, Egyptologists have proven that the sacred Apis bull did die soon after Cambyses conquered Egypt, but they also uncovered a stone tablet showing the Bull’s respectful burial.

Herodotus’ account often represents the evidence and opinion offered by persons with a vested interest in presenting Cambyses in the worst possible light. Therefore there is good reason to discount many of the negative stories about Cambyses. Moreover, as Cambyses’ successor Darius, who had usurped the throne, had no interest in glorifying his predecessor, making the official records of his reign untrustworthy on this matter. For instance, much of what Herodotus tells us comes from Egyptian priests, whom he met almost a half century after Cambyses’ death. Herodotus would have no way of knowing that these stories were the result of malice engendered by official propaganda and that had nothing to do with actual cruelty or sacrilege on Cambyses part. It is likely that the priests disapproved of Cambyses because he reduced the payments promised to them by the pharaoh Amasis, who bought their loyalty with great gifts to the temples…

This passage reeks with bias that is affecting Lacey’s objectivity.

1. Lacey seems to discount the idea that any ruler of the ancient world could be insane and cruel. Caligula and Nero were just “misunderstood” I guess.

2. A respectful burial does not mean that Cambyses did not slay the Apis bull. (Or that he did not kill the priests for that matter.) The burial is something the priests could have done on their own as a mark of their own piety and respect.

3. Herodotus’ account is not an “offical record” of a reign. The official records of a government are the documents produced by that government. Herodotus is an account pieced together after the fact. If the official records of Cambyses’ reign is available as Lacey seems to suggest, why are they not discussed? Why are Darius’ accounts of Cambyses’ reign not discussed to see if they match up with Herodotus?  Why are they dismissed as propaganda out of hand before quickly deflecting back to Herodotus and how wrong Lacey assumes he was?

4. Why is Herodotus, the first historian to research Cambyses’ rule, the one closest to what happened, account here dismissed with no substantial proof that he was wrong? No conflicting account, only Lacey’s assumptions and rationalizations.

(The fixation on taxes being the only cause of discontent rather than a very common sacrilegious display, including murder, by a conqueror over the conquered also makes me raise an eyebrow.)

Now I am not saying Lacey is wrong, but he is not presenting a worthy argument. I’m not saying Herodotus should not be taken with a  grain of salt. He should. All histories should be verified against the contemporary records, other accounts and the archaeological record. But without proof, conflicting accounts or information, you can’t dismiss Herodotus out of hand. He was the first person to research this stuff and was the closest to the events and source material. If you are going to accept much of the rest of his account (as Lacey does), you can’t just toss out what you don’t like.

In an earlier passage about Croesus, Lacey also seems to discount just plain bull headedness and stupidity in military decisions, attempting to rationalize all the mistakes of a non-Persian ruler as somehow right or the best option he had. As a former military officer and historian, he should know that generals are not infallible and history is replete with just plain stupid decisions on the battlefield. Even the best generals could make tragically dumb choices. Lee ordering Picket’s Charge is the first that springs to mind. Historians and military people have been questioning “WTF was he thinking?” ever since Gettysburg went down.

(I believe Eisenhower probably hit closest to the mark when he said, after surveying the battlefield, “The man (Lee) must have got so mad, he just wanted to hit the guy (Meade, then head of the Union Army) with a brick.”)

(You should read that article because Montgomery was also there with Eisenhower discussing the battle.)

If you can’t admit your favorite military or political leaders made mistakes, how can your readers or students be expected to learn from them? This is why one of my favorite books is Tuchman’s March of Folly which highlights the force of stupidity in history.

Now, this passage does not have much to do with Lacey’s principal theory of Western military might and tactics being inherently superior to Persian, but it does call his objectivity into question which weakens his argument. What else is he dismissing out of hand to make his point? I have not read that far (I was so frustrated by that passage I had to put my e-reader down lest I throw it, the one disadvantage e-readers have vs. dead tree books: You can’t huck it against a wall in anger), I am going to be reading this book with a much more critical eye. At least he admits there are sources that don’t agree with his view, which gives me some comfort.

So this why it is important for historians to be objective and readers to read history books critically.


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