Citanda: Eleven Reasons Plutarch and Herodotus Still Matter

This is really good and I’m sure many Classicists will miss it because of its source. The incipit:

Is the study of classical history pointless? What useful knowledge will I glean from reading about some dead Roman governor of Britain? How will studying what the Delphic oracle had to say about the Persian advance into Greece help me in my future job at the State Department?

I hear such questions often in my seminar on Thucydides and other classical writers, which I teach at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. My students — future policymakers, pundits, and managers — approach the class with a good dose of skepticism about the value (aside from mere amusement) of reading about ancient times. Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War — in particular the Melian Dialogue, a quintessential tale of the small, neutral Melians defending themselves against the strong Athenians — is relatively common reading among budding wonks. But Tacitus, Herodotus, Julius Caesar, Plutarch? Most students favor the latest tome on the rise of China over the insights of these long-dead writers.
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My students’ predilections reflect a wider skepticism about the present-day relevance of old texts. For modern academics and policy analysts, ancient authors are guilty of adopting an unscientific approach, relying on anecdotes, and showing a primitive fear of natural events. What good does it do the reader to know that before battle the Romans often consulted a pullarius, a chicken-feeding augur? Such texts say nothing about modern life, critics say, and certainly will not help one get a job at Goldman Sachs or the Pentagon. The ancients were not worried about the movement of the IS and LS curves.

But that’s precisely the point. Reading Thucydides’s description of the revolution in Corcyra, Tacitus’s praise of Agricola, or Julius Caesar’s tale of Vercingetorix’s uprising is refreshing because these works do not simplify human affairs to logical models. These books are full of contrasts and contradictions, showing above all that not everything can be understood. Human affairs cannot be fully understood through a single lens, whether politics or economics; we are often at the mercy of incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces. Events can sometimes only be appreciated when taken as they are.

With that understanding, let me relate 11 ancient lessons relevant to today’s world.


… and you really just have to watch the news for half an hour or so to know these lessons are bang on …

Eleven Reasons Plutarch and Herodotus Still Matter — By Jakub Grygiel | Foreign Policy.

17 thoughts on “Citanda: Eleven Reasons Plutarch and Herodotus Still Matter

  1. As Jakub Grygiel, points out in his work, “The Classics Rock”, he opens with the complain of so many students these days: “Why oh why must I read ancient history if I’ll be working for the people in public service for the next 37 years?”. To answer the skeptics, one must look at the dynamics of what service in politics actually means. For a career like that there is no manual, no how to book, no course to tell one how to be a god politician. One can read up on tips, on things to stay away from and things to always do, but these are so very limited. The writings of Herodotus, Livy, Thucydides and Cicero are chock full of the actions and insights of politicians from all time. If one is to be a politician them self they must know how to react in all sorts of situations. By reading up on how Darius talked his way into the hearts of his colleagues to take control of all Persians and establish a monarchy with him as head of state will show a reader what sort of rhetoric will work when speaking on the floor of the Senate, for instance (Hdts. 3.80-82). Politics is about experience, for if one doesn’t understand their constituents then they will never accomplish anything. Polybius writes in his introduction that his writings, “certainly possesses no better guide to conduct than the knowledge of the past (Poly. 1.1)”. Polybius self proclaimed that he wrote for politicians, meaning his stories must be geared so that they may learn something from his Histories how do conduct and govern. The ancients and their writings are full of passages and stories that will help any politician on his way to greatness. Knowledge of experience that has come before you will show you the best do’s and don’t’s on your way to greatness.

  2. The first two points Grygiel makes are the most relevant. Since I am working on a paper about Polybius’ notions of Fate and Fortune and how they are mirrored or contrasted in Greek tragedies, I can see how vital superstition and religion were and are. The Greeks were, by nature, superstitious people, and Polybius explains his own opinions about what we would term “acts of God”: “As regards those phenomena which it is impossible or difficult for a mortal man to understand, it is reasonable enough to escape from the dilemma by attributing them to the work of a god or of chance…But as for those events whose causes we can discover and give an explanation as to why they happen, we should certainly not in my opinion regard them as acts of God.” (Poly. 36.17) Fate, chance, luck, and fortune are all still at play in the minds of modern people. When things cannot be explained by science, or even when it can, those with religious or superstitious beliefs will cling to the idea that it was luck, fate, etc. The reason this knowledge is so important is that politicians need to know their audience. If they did not take consideration of the public’s beliefs, they would never know how to relate to the people they govern. In today’s world, religion plays heavily into politics. Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in the debates regarding gay marriage and stem cell research. These are deemed amoral by the Catholic Church and other religions as well, and those beliefs affect how people vote for political candidates. While politicians may hold their own views about controversial subjects, they must cater to the wants and needs of the people they serve.

  3. Grygiel makes a number of interesting points about the importance of ancient historians in the modern world. One point that he does not explicitly make, yet is one I think particularly important to today’s study of politics is that the ancient historians were not only the first historians, but also the first political scientists. Grygiel does point out how the ancients have points and advice to give that can aid the political systems of today, like how one can learn from Nicias that sometimes things don’t make sense and one should expect the unexpected. He doesn’t go as far to talk about how the historians actually discuss political systems. From Herodotus to Polybius to Tacitus, there were ancient historians that describe the different forms of government and how one can best maintain that form. Polybius’ discussion of how governments fall into decline and change is a lesson that I think is intrinsic to the understanding of political systems. There are certainly stories in the writings of the ancients that may not seem important, but as Grygiel points out the stories are important because they provide messages that can help us still today. Even the ancients’ analyses of ancient political systems can help aid us in strengthening our own system today.

  4. As a student of ancient history, reading an article of this sort is beneficial to me because the skepticism that is mentioned in the second paragraph is the same skepticism that I, along with other students may often feel. Why is studying ancient history important? Jakub Grygiel, a history teacher himself who sees the skepticism in his students, gives us 11 examples about the value of reading about ancient times. A particularly valuable lesson I find from studying the ancients is that you do not know what the future holds, for every power and fortune is not meant to last forever. Although not specifically one of Grygiel’s examples, he does go about this in some ways. Throughout history every powerful empire experiences defeat and downturn. Just as we may think that our country is on top and will stay on top now, people of ancient powers had the same type of arrogance and were completely taken by surprise when their fortune was up. Do you think the people of the great Roman Empire could have seen a fall in the future? While Grygiel refers back to Thucydides, he mentions “even families, the rock of societies, can fall apart”. Natural disasters occur, other states become more powerful, and in the case of Athens a plague struck. There are many circumstances which can weaken and potentially destroy a civilization. We should turn whatever arrogance we posses into gratitude for our fortunes, so that we may not become over zealous or “stupid” in future actions. Many lessons can be learned from reading on the ancients. Many of these lessons apply to government and how none are created perfectly, and I believe there are more to be learned with further reading and interpretation.

  5. Ancient history is an important study focus. The study of history enables government to improve functionality. For example, Polybius and Tacitus discuss the best forms of government. Through their discussion, we glean important principles. Polybius and Tacitus impart knowledge on governmental forms. Through each of their accounts, readers learn the trial/error process of ancient governments. Specifically, Polybius wrote during the height of the Roman Empire and Tacitus wrote during the low point of the Roman Empire. Polybius believes that the best government contains elements from a kingship, aristocracy, and democracy. To support his position, he cites Lycurgus’s successful Spartan constitution. He also introduces the natural cycle involving governmental forms: One-male rule gives rise to kingship, kingship gives rise to tyranny, tyranny gives rise to aristocracy, aristocracy gives rise to oligarchy, oligarchy gives rise to democracy, and democracy gives rise to mob rule. Polybius concludes his argument and states the Roman republic properly incorporated aspects of each government. Their amalgamated government explains their success. (Polybius, Rise of the Roman Empire, pg. 303) If one reads Polybius’s account and not Tacitus’s account, we wouldn’t comprehend the malfunctions within Roman government and learn lessons. Tacitus explains the failure of Rome’s republic. The Senate and the people had formed a skeptical relationship. Eventually Rome became “incapacitated by violence, favoritism, and bribery.” (Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome pg. 35) In response, the people publicly praised the transition to an emperor. The upper-class loved the financial and power security, whilst the Senate and law were absorbed under one person. Through reading Polybius and Tacitus, government improves. The educated study how government officials became corrupt. Or what form of government insures societal stability. Tacitus also elaborates on Polybius’s writings. Despite the attempt to amalgamate different constitutional forms into one, this ideal is easier said than done. Rome’s failure exemplifies such. As Tacitus states, studies of governments allow “most men to differentiate write and wrong, advantage and disadvantage. (Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome pg 173) Thus, without ancient historical accounts, we cannot form adequate legislative, executive, and judicial systems. Without ancient historical accounts, chaos is more likely.

  6. The article entitled “The Classics Rock, Eleven reasons Plutarch and Herodotus still matter,” is certainly very interesting with the eleven points which it argues make the ancient writers relevant to the modern day. However, the author only points out ancient examples for each of the said points and does not give modern ones. Therefore let me endeavor to provide modern examples for each. The first, “Superstition Bests Logic,” can be exemplified in the modern day by the countless individuals who have possessions which they deem lucky, or by the large number of Americans who accept creationism while deeming the theories of evolution and the big bang to be false. The second, “Theology is far more important than economics,” can be exemplified by the resistance of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, which has caused enormous destruction, particularly to their own communities and economy, all of which is partially the result of their desire to live separate from the Buddhist majority in that country. The third, which effectively states that political leaders are keen on cultivating their own historical image even if it means disaster, is perhaps best exemplified by Hitler’s plan to destroy industrial equipment and supplies of food and clothing in Germany near the very end of World War II in an attempt to destroy the German people as a result of their failure to conquer successfully. The fourth, that men are the sinews of war rather than money, has been proved true in Afghanistan. There, in one of the poorest countries on earth, a group of poorly equipped rebels, insurgents, and bandits have managed to bog down the greatest military power on earth and its allies for years due to their high moral, determination, and fanaticism. The fifth, that in order to conquer an enemy you must change them, held true in the case of the Marshall Plan which saw Germany and Japan rebuilt by the United States as parliamentary democracies that have since become close allies of ours. The sixth essentially says that Machiavelli was not totally correct in saying that it is better to be feared than loved since love of country, faith, etc can push a person or group to great extremes in the face of danger. This can be seen in the recent protests in Iran in which hundreds of thousands of people openly defied a repressive and homicidal regime. The seventh, the states are inherently fragile, is exemplified by the collapse of states such as Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. The later was a superpower and major player on the world-stage, the former an old country with a strong heritage and great national pride. The eighth, expect the unexpected, needs no example given the uncertainties of life, though if anything could be held up as a reason for anticipating that which seems highly unlikely would be the fall of the Berlin Wall and the regime changes in the Communist Bloc even though few at the time thought such drastic change was possible. The ninth, which essentially says that some people like carnage for carnage’s sake and see war as an end in and of itself, could be applied to various careerist officers in world militaries some of whom seek national conflict as a chance to get their hands bloody, as can be seen in the incessant skirmishes between Israel and its neighbors and with its own domestic Muslim-Palestinian population. The tenth, that nature is and always will be a force to be reckoned with, can be exemplified by the difficulties afforded by the current wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan where some of the world’s hottest deserts and highest, coldest mountains have made warfare a three-way battle amongst both armed groups and mother nature. Finally the eleventh, that “success is elusive” and perfection is impossible, can be seen in our current political system which draws upon some of the best qualified and educated people on earth yet never ceases to alienate at least half the country. Thus the observations of the ancients hold true even today, just as Grygiel asserts.

  7. Although the individual reasons for studying ancient history, presented by Jakub Gryriel, certainly function separately as valid justifications, it is important not to forget the overarching theme presented in this reading: the universality of human nature. There is certainly a level of truth in Gryiel’s assertion that, “most students favor the latest tome on the rise of China over the insights of the long dead writers.” There is heavy support for the idea that human nature is purely based on the society and culture one exists in, and, following this line of thought, it seems that the concepts presented by the ancient writers are completely irrelevant. While Gryiel does not directly address this idea, the rational he presented for focusing on the works of the ancients certainly seems to indicate that he views human nature as universal. Examining the reasons he presented, there does seem to be some merit to this theory. If a reading of this essay was done, without knowledge that it was referring to ancient history, these lessons presented seem completely applicable to the modern world. It would be interesting for Gyriel to relate these reasons to human nature, in order to establish some all-encompassing perspective on our behavior.

  8. In Eleven Reasons Plutarch and Herodotus still matter by Jakub Grygiel, Jakub brings up some interesting points about why students do not study the ancient historians in high school. First of all, I can relate to this article because I never studied any of the ancient historians in high school. But, after reading the article, out of the eleven points, the point that stuck out to me was the third point provided by Jakub Grygiel. His point was “Political leaders care about public opinion, but they also care about history and their place in it.” In his discussion of this, he brings up a quote by a British soldier. The soldier stated, “Think of those that went before you and of those that shall come after!” This quote by the British soldier reminded me of Pericles Funeral Oration when he stated, “Congratulate yourselves that you have been happy during the greater part of your days; remember that your life of sorrow will not last long, and be comforted by the glory of those who are gone. For the love of honor alone is ever young, and not riches, as some say, but honor is the delight of men when they are old and useless.” For people of Greece and Rome, you were not citizens until you died for the country in war. Also, war was a noble and honorable way to die. In modern times, this is not the same as war is looked down upon in most cases and with military drafts; people are more concerned with the individual, not the state or community. However, the one the point that does remain relevant in today’s society is that politicians do care about their place in the history books, as many of the recent presidents leave evidence behind to make themselves look better. But, in general, history is viewed and taught much more differently than it was back in ancient times.

  9. It should come as no surprise that when today’s readers come upon such texts as those of Herodotus and Tacitus, many are quick to question their pertinence. After all, it easy enough to believe that Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue are as closely connected to the Appian Way as geography would seem to suggest. Yet, as Jakub Grygiel denotes, the decrees of the Roman Senate and the deliberations of the Athenian Assembly are as relevant to us today as they were all those centuries ago. For, the fact of the matter is that no matter how far we may claim to have advanced beyond the days of the Coliseum, we are still deeply connected with those who participated in the Eleusinian Mysteries and built Hadrian’s Wall. That is to say, while we may no longer look to the babblings of Greek priestesses, we are still driven by the same nature as those who came before us. The same greed and ambition which drove the sons of Brutus to try and overturn the Early Republic of Rome is still as prevalent today as the sense of patriotism and responsibility that forced Brutus to sentence his sons to execution (Livy 2.6). Hence, the very issues we encounter today are echoed in the writings of the ancient historians, where questions of imperialism are openly debated between Athenians and Mytilenians (Thuc. 3.37) and notions of proper governance are clearly contended between Persian nobles (Herod 3.80). Just as Polybius believed that history is “an education in the truest sense” (Poly. 1.1) we can see in the writings of the classic historians a reflection of ourselves, and while our world has undoubtedly and irrevocably changed since the time of Livy and Thucydides, many of the concepts and notions that manifested in these ages have remained with us and continue to influence us today. Thus, to disregard these ancient histories is to disregard some of the most prevailing aspects in the narrative of the human race, and as Polybius asked when referring to the rise of the Roman Empire, “can there be anyone so completely absorbed in other subjects of contemplation or study that he could find any task more important than to acquire this knowledge?” (Poly. 1.1).

  10. The article, “The Classics Rock: Eleven reasons Plutarch and Herodotus still matter” by Jakub Grygiel is an interesting read to say the least. While Grygiel brings up a few valid points, I have to respectfully disagree with a couple of them. Grygiel states, “Theology is far more important than economics. People are humans, not cash registers. And humans, even today, tend to hold strong beliefs about the Supreme Being, eternity, and what happens when you drink the waters of the Lethe River. They act here and now on the basis of those beliefs. Many will be led to great sacrifices, incomprehensible to those without an appreciation for the divine, in defense of their faith” (2). I tend to think Grygiel is incorrect in his statement that humans are not “cash registers”, especially in today’s society where government taxations, deficits, and economical recessions are running rampant. I, for one, care more about what is in my wallet then a “Supreme Being”. While I realize that there still are religious zealots in the world, I don’t think there are as many as Gygiel is making there out to be. In addition, I disagree with Gygiels statement that, “Fear is powerful, but love can overcome it. Our modern understanding is that fear motivates individuals and states…Yet the ancients teach that love of one’s brother in arms, family, city, nation, honor, prestige, justice, and god will make one do things deemed impossible or even suicidal.” (6). There has been a number of times in recent American History in which fear of a certain outcome was much more of a motivator than love. A prominent example is World War II. The Allied Powers fought against the Axis Powers for two main reasons. One was to bring an end to the spread of German and Italian fascism and Japanese imperialism; the other was the fear of world domination of the Nazis, Italians, and Japanese. Despite the qualms I have about these two reasons in particular, I believe that the other nine reasons Gygiel gives are accurate and still hold true in today’s advanced world. That being said, neglecting to read these ancient historians is, in my opinion, a very big mistake especially when so many of the lessons they teach can be projected onto the events that we see unfold each day.

  11. Jakub Grygiel’s article raises interesting points about how relevant the ancient historians can be to modern politics. His third point about how political leaders care about their place in history reminds me of George Washington’s presidency. Washington was so popular among the American people that he could have been president as long as he wanted, but he understood how his actions would influence the future of America. That is why, like Cincinnatus, he stepped down after he had fulfilled his duty to his country. He established order in the young country and set a precedent for the presidents that would follow him. Washington realized that his legacy in American history would last much longer than any tenure in office. Like many of the founding fathers, Washington studied the ancients and learned the lessons that they offered. When Washington was alive the ancient writers were still very long deceased, but their relevance had stood the test of time, and nothing has since happened to change that.

  12. There is much skepticism involved with college students and ancient history courses. Most students who take up these classes are not looking to pursue a career as a historian or history teacher. So the question remains, “why am I taking this class”? Jakub Grygiel understands this notion as he is a history professor and often sees the skepticism in his students. Although, he believes there are many benefits to learning about the ancient times, and compiles eleven convincing reasons why we should be mindful of the past. One of the underlying themes he stresses is that of politics. There is no such thing as a perfect government, implying the ever fragile state every political system is in. “You will never engineer the perfect political administration. Often a group of brilliant generals can lead to a disaster, as the Athenians found out in Sicily”. No matter how powerful a country thinks it is, there is always a possibility of disaster occurring, leading to downfall. All ancient historians such as Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, and Polybius exhibit moments in which seemingly invincible empires fall from power. This can due to war, corruption, and even natural disasters as portrayed with the plague in Athens. It is imperative that we don’t overestimate our power and security, and the best way to understand this concept is to identify ourselves with previous occurrences.

  13. This specific blog article brings up a very valid question among many students who are currently study ancient philosophy and history, “what is the importance of studying ancient history?” This is a question I myself have asked many times at the beginning of the semester, but after each and every class I am reminded of why learning about these times is so beneficial. The most important reason for studying the ancients is the mere fact that we can learn so much from them, whether good or bad. Specifically looking at Polybius, we see his detailed description on what a successful government must obtain. Polybius explains that a successful government must obtain elements from a kingship, aristocracy, and democracy. He cites the Roman Empire at its pinnacle of power. However as we later see the Roman Empire eventually falls because of despotism. What is important about this event specifically is that it shows us that no empire or government can ever truly be perfect. No matter how successful and powerful an empire may be, there is always a chance for corruption to occur. This is why we must read the texts of the ancients, in hopes of learning from their mistakes as well as their successes. We must keep our civil virtue and never settle. Because as ancient history has shown us, when one stops striving for the better and settles for the good, one immediately begins to decline.

  14. The question of why one should study Ancient history is one that I hear often among my peers. “Dead people, writing in a dead language, about things that have no relevance to my life,” some might say of Ancient historians. I have always found some worth in the study of Ancient history, or at the very least found it to be interesting. However, Grygiel articulates his reasons much better than I could. The most important and recurring theme in Grygiel’s “Eleven Reasons Herodotus and Plutarch Still Matter” is the emphasis writers of Ancient times placed on humanity. The most pivotal sentence in his article, I feel, is, “Human affairs cannot be fully understood through a single lens, whether politics or economics.” Ancient historians did not write with the objective rigor that permeates modern political writing. If, in twenty years, I were to read about the war in Iraq (this, of course, is going on the bold assumption that the war would be over by then), I would likely read about which side did what, when it happened, how many people died, and what the political and economical results were. The facts will be presented, and maybe I will read theories about why it happened based on rigorous study of economics and political climate. What I won’t get, however, will be an account of an inspirational speech given by a general to his soldiers. I won’t gain an understanding of the character of particular men on either side, and I won’t hear of how a commander prayed to whatever Supreme Being he or she worships on the night before an important operation. I may read about America taking over a city on June 12, 2013, and I may be told that it was due to the 3.5 million dollars that were allocated to fund the operation as well as the Iraqi general’s documented hesitation to call for backup. I may also be told that this was a crucial victory because the loss of that city irrevocably stunted the Iraqi government’s economic output. But just these facts cannot begin to truly describe the incident. Grygiel writes of the works of Ancient historians: “These books are full of contrasts and contradictions, showing above all that not everything can be understood.” This relates to the reader a great truism – that most occurrences, especially in the realm of humans, are immensely complex, and cannot be reduced to a single objective explication. Contained in the heart of inter-human politics are humans themselves, and any prudent thinker will be able to tell you that to fully analyze the nature of humans is no easy task. In fact, I’d argue, it is impossible. Nevertheless, writers like Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Tacitus, Suetonius, and countless others wrote their history with human nature at the forefront of their minds. Modern political writers treat politics as an exact science, where an answer can be found to everything. The truth is, however, that the question of human nature has no answer, and Ancient historians wrote knowing this.

  15. “Human affairs cannot be fully understood through a single lens, whether [in] politics or economics,” states Jakub Grygiel. While Grygiel’s essay refutes the critics and demonstrates the necessity for learning about ancient texts, he forgot one more important aspect.

    12. Cultural understanding creates multiple lenses to perceive human affairs.

    In The Histories, Herodotus created a collection of cultural descriptions including the Lydians, Persians, Babylonians, Messagetae, Egyptians, and the Ethiopians. Following the story about the life and upbringing of Cyrus, Herodotus immediately relates several Persian customs regarding religion, ceremonies, social status, dress, and the customs of raising children. Herodotus even remarked that some practices were “sound” and that he admired them. (Hdt. 1.131-141) But what do outdated Persian customs have to do with modern life? As Grygiel stated, the ancients did not perceive the world as “logical models” but rather as “contrasts and comparisons”. One can not commit the cultures of the world to a logistical model; all cultures vary. By enlarging one’s scope and remaining open to the abundant cultures of the world, one will gain the ability to conduct business (or law or politics) in a socially acceptable manner. Dealing with international business especially requires knowledge of various customs, and without this knowledge, one could fail miserably. Therefore, in agreement with Grygiel’s argument, the ancient historians can reveal information that is still relevant to today’s issues.

  16. i think blogs like this one here really help understand the material or topic of conversation. when you read or have read something there are usually things that you have seen that other people have not seen and there are things that you have not thought of that other people have thought of. one of the points that was easily seen or understood in the article was the relavence of ancient history to modern politics. to add to what kbroderick stated in his blog post about how politicians or leaders care about their place in history im sure that there is not one politician who, like in the world of science, wants to live forever. not in a practical sense, but a more of a want to place their mark in the history books type of eternal life. even though leaders care about their place in history sometimes the events to put them where they are or the events that politicans are judged most by are out of thier hands. for example president hoover was once noted as man who did many great things for this country to be where it was at that point in time. he became so loved and well known that in the presidential election of 1928 he won over four hundred electoral votes. a man who was so loved so popular for both parties took the reign of presidency at the wrong point in time and the depression taht had occured was out of his hands but he is still known for not being a good president and is in my point of view judged unfairly. for the most part, politicians can only make their mark on history as much as their cards they were dealt let to them.

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