Blogs > Cliopatria > Keith Hopkins, r.i.p.

Mar 15, 2004 10:48 am

Keith Hopkins, r.i.p.

The New York Times reports the death of Keith Hopkins, an important historian of antiquity. I know that most of the authors of this blog will miss Daniel Boorstin more (or are more likely to have read a book by him), but Hopkins represents the kind of history practiced today in the field of antiquity. The Times perhaps overstresses his"unusual approach" considering the broad acceptance of his work -- maybe they were impressed by his trajectory -- classics degrees, sociology lectureships, back to classics. It's a lot less uncommon than they think; the study of antiquity is interdisciplinary by necessity.

Hopkins' A World Full of Gods: the strange triumph of Christianity would be a great place to start.

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Ralph E. Luker - 3/16/2004

Excellent, as usual, Richard. You really should consider a fuller engagement with Cliopatria.

Richard Henry Morgan - 3/16/2004

I think you're right to draw attention to the passing of a truly interesting historian like Keith Hopkins. I was particularly struck by this quote from his article "Rules of Evidence" from the Journal of Roman Studies (1978):

"The evidence is not holy; it is itself a social construct and so should not be taken at face value any more than one should take The Times or a contemporary academic political scientist as necessarily right."

The "evidence" inevitably, over time, comes to include hypotheses, assumptions, and speculation reified to "evidence", and then used to analyze new facts. Periodically, it helps to go back and review the ground of evidence, strip away all its accretions, and attempt a new synthesis. That's where exciting new history occurs.

I was struck by this when recently reading Eric Alterman's "What Liberal Media?" Therein he takes a sloppily worded NY Times article concerning a protesting crowd at one of the Florida recounts, and uses it for the basis of a claim that hundreds assembled outside of the door of the counting room, banging on the door, threatening violence, and forcing the county election board to abandon a recount. It turns out that the hundreds were outside the building, and any number of eyewitness accounts have the numbers outside the counting room door at a few dozen only. Like some characters from a Star Trek episode, these hundreds got teleported by Alterman to the door of the counting room. An uncritical cut-and-paste methodology from a newspaper is not a solid basis for historical narrative.

My favorite example of Hopkins' methodology is Robert Drews' The Coming of the Greeks. It is so dry that it is hard to read at one sitting -- I had to start reading it on three different occasions before I built up the steam to make it all the way through. Yet it amply demonstrates just what interesting history is possible when one gives up the idea that there are uninterpreted facts, and returns to the data themselves for a revisioning of the whole enterprise.