Blogs > Cliopatria > Adjunctin'

Nov 29, 2004 4:35 pm


Next semester I will wander into the world of the unknown, teaching a class in a subject that has only tenuous connections with my dissertation topic, in that vaunted and dreaded series of classes known as Western Civilization. I am teaching the first third of this metanarrative, Ancient Civilization: some Sumeria, Egypt, formative Judaism followed by healthy doses of Greek democracy, Roman imperialism, barbarian invasions and Christian theology, hopefully reaching the point when I can drop the curtain on the western empire. Luckily I am not new to teaching Western Civ, and some of the problems are familiar through my topic (the central question to Rhenish history, no matter the period, is what is the boundary between civilizations and what does it mean.)

My biggest problem has been finding the books for the class. There are very few semester-long courses that only deal with the ancient world, so there are few textbooks for that period. Most series for Western Civ divide between the pre-modern and the modern (either 1500, 1600 or 1800). A few stop before the Renaissance. I kept asking myself how I could force students to purchase a 500-600 page book, of which they would read half, for $70. I also thought about assigning more advanced books that were actually less expensive. However, I was warned by the department head at “Higher Education U” that most students were business-minded, and although they are eager to learn, they are not attuned to the humanities. Ultimately, I found a textbook that I like.

The primary sources posed a different problem. The internet has become a vast source for public domain texts. Why should I ask them to buy a specific book when I can refer the students to something like the History Sourcebook? (Personally I would not purchase a “reader” if I could.) Most readings will appear on-line in some form or other: a little Gilgamish, Egyptian hymns, Aristotle’s writings on politics, etc.

However, I felt that I must order specific texts so that they would appear to be more important than others. Antigone is a wonderful artifact from the Peloponnesian War that deals with virtue with respect to the obligations of the citizen to the (city-)state. Tacitus’ The Germans is a personal favorite of mine (“They made a desert and called it peace” is an aphorism that I use too often). Tacitus, more than other Roman historians, examined the mission of civilization with respect to geography, pushing over the Danube into what we would currently call Europe and confronting the differences between culture and civilization. I am waffling on a late inclusion of Augsutine’s City of God as a transition from the Roman world to the medieval. I also considered ordering copies of the Bible, but I found it hypocritical for a Yid to chose between different translations of the New Testament.

So how to teach Ancient Civ? As much as historians criticize the equation of Europe with Rome, Athens, Egypt (what Braudel would see as the Mediterranean World), I cannot ignore that civilization evolved to order, control, and assimilate what we now see as a continent. Moreover, the expansion of civilization acquired a clear orientation toward the north. If the center of Western Civilization would remain in the Mediterranean for another millennium, its frontiers were in Gaul, Britain, Germany, Bohemia, eventually reaching points above Baltic Sea and across to frozen islands in the Atlantic. And even beyond the fall of the empire a “Roman framework” persisted to understand the relationship between political and ecclesiastical entities. Even the notion of a “Roman Empire” enlightened German politics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it has been revived in order to understand European unification and the Christian contribution to Europe.

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Julie A Hofmann - 12/1/2004

I always forget about Texas. I'm still not sure about the idea of a Zoroastrian link -- I just don't know that we have any evidence for it. I think there's more evidence for influence from Manichaeism, but don't quote me on it.

For the periodization thing, really I'd look more at the whole idea of Late Antiquity as a distinct period. It makes life a real bugger for Carolingianists trying to fit in at conferences, but that aside, I think that it solves a plethora of periodization problems.

Julie A Hofmann - 12/1/2004

Happy to do so. or you can also contact me at jkemp at shoreline dot edu

David Lion Salmanson - 12/1/2004

I get what your saying. But the fact that Rome is running a trade deficit with China, whether they know it or not, leads them to water down the currency, which caused inflation (not that they understood the connection) which caused the army to be pissed off, which caused instability (well you get the idea). I always found the most interesting part of history to be the disjunction between how people understood their world and what was actually going on. (NB: I'm not talking some sort of Marxian false conciousness here, unless everybody has it all the time, in which case it really is a useless concept. Rather, I am talking about the ways shifts in daily practices modify or are interpreted through existing lenses although those lenses may produce inaccurate images of reality, more Weber than Marx.

David Lion Salmanson - 12/1/2004

Good points and I believe I've mentioned that your conception of Western Civ is pretty different from what I have to deal with down on the level where the Texas textbook comission is making decisions for the whole nation.
But onto your point about periodization. Well that's the problem. Byzantium isn't really either ancient or medieval in anyway that makes sense and because we choose to periodize this way the Byzantines get seriously short shrift. I've been crash coursing in the Byzantines over the last three years and the stuff I did not know just blew me away. We use one of the better world history textbooks with the 9th grade but they screw this up pretty badly. They have the cathedral of Ravenna in the "Roman World" and then have Theodora and Justinian in the Byzantium section which is separated from Roman world by chapters on China and India. Blech.

Ralph. Ancient Jews were heavily debating the concept of the afterlife etc. The texts that survive from Hellenized Judaism that are non-canonical (and even late canonical texts) waffle on these types of questions. That's why folks like the Essenes were splinter groups.
Once the choice between Christianity and Judaism starts hinging around questions that Jews have been struggling with since the Babylonian captivity, a whole lot of things that were borderline Jewish (like embracing Aristotle, for example) wind up in Christianity and out of Judaism.

The link between Zoroastrianism isn't direct, of course, it's mediated via Alexander the Great and the mystery religions.

Nathanael D. Robinson - 12/1/2004

I was not offended by anything you said. I just wanted to make clear that I have thought about those issues.

With regard to the class: it is offered, for the first time, at a neighboring university. (Being the trailblazer will not make my job any easier).

If you want to discuss it more, you should contact me at rhineriver **at** earthlink **dot** net. Your suggestions are quite useful

Nathanael D. Robinson - 12/1/2004

There are real tensions between these two classes, and I am having difficulty seeing how the the latter can be integrated (beyond a few sections)into the former. In its traditional design, Western Civ tries to reveal the development of a unique constellation of philosophies and theologies and the institutions that support them. At the core of this project is an arrogance that attempts to differentiate civilization from culture and dominate culture. On the surface, Western Civ is the stuff of intellectual history, and the sources spend little time focusing directly on social and economic issues. World History, however, tends to explore social relations and political economy, using them to compare different milieu. In order to explore the social and economic aspects of the "Mediterranean World", we must go outside the the body of classical texts, whose writers did not think in the terms of established by economics and sociology. In fact, many errors have been made by reading the modern social sciences into ancient texts. Even in the Second Punic War, which had substantial commercial dimensions, the economic aspects are subsumed under the larger political interests. Trade, therefore, must be constructed from other sources that don't fit the pattern of Western Civ; more often these sources are not historical, put archeological (especially marine archeology).

Here is my question: how can trade be used to understand global positionality when the terms to analyze trade were not familiar in classical discourse? My initial impulse is to do what I do best: connect trade to urbans networks as the sites of civilization. But that has its limits, looking at how foreign cultures are received and undermining the power of examining exchange.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/1/2004

In reply to Jon, I'm not sure that I can unpack _all_ of this, but
a) it's my understanding that there is very _little_ notion of "after life" in post-exilic Judaism and even less earlier. So whats to pass on? There is a notion of resurrection at the end of time, which is Hebraic in character, but for Christians the big impact is with Hellenistic thought and the introduction of the notion of a "soul" and consequently immortality. In Christianity, the notion of resurrection of the body at the end of time and the notion of immortality of the soul have lived in rather uncomfortable partnership, however contradictory, ever since.
b) the notion of dying and rising gods in the mystery religions is vaguely and superficially similar to the resurrection of Jesus, except, good heirs to Hebraism that they were, the early Christians insisted that it happened at this particular time and in this particular place to this particular person; that it was not a repetition of prior action, but a singular non-repeatable event. It is only _much_ later, long _after_ Constantine and the suppression of the mystery cults, that the church begins to talk about Baptism and Holy Communion as a participation in and recapitulation of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/1/2004

I don't think the similarities are superficial, nor is the connection at all obscure. No religious text admits that it's drawing on other traditions, but the stories clearly migrate from one to another, the practices are imitated (mostly because they work so well), the literary tropes are so ingrained in the prevailing culture that they can be drawn in without seeming unnatural.

But there is a clear line from Persia back to the Holy Land via the Jewish Diaspora, the Pharisaic tradition which is deeply ingrained in the Gospels. If Christian Messianism comes from its Jewish roots, then it is Zoroastrian in origin. God as Judge of the Dead might be Egyptian in origin rather than Zoroastrian, but since early Jews had contact with both it really doesn't matter: they took the idea and integrated with their evolving ideas about afterlife (which really don't have much roots in the original texts), and passed it on to Christians.

If the comparison were between early Christianity and Confucianism (and the Golden Rule shows up there, too) I would be happy to suggest convergence and coincidence, superficial similarity: but when Christianity takes up mystery practices that are widespread in the Mediterranean world, combined with literary tropes that are associated with those practices, iconography which is associated with those practices, then I'm sorry, but we're beyond the realm of "superficial" and "coincidental" and well into the realm of reasonable inference.

None of this means that Christianity is not its own thing, because it is, and more so as time goes on, nor that the combination of elements is not creative and original and even divinely inspired.

If you're going to teach the history of the Christian era, you don't need Persia, really. If you're going to teach about the foundations and origins of Christianity, then you do.

Julie A Hofmann - 11/30/2004

Er, David? I'm not sure your assumption is correct -- most the people I know who teach western civ do talk about Zoroastrianism, mystery religions, etc. I do the story of Isis and Osiris precisely because it's got resurrection, afterlife, and all kinds of fun stuff besides. Most of the people I know compare flood stories, too. Not to mention good ol' Stoicism and Epicureanism. But I'm with Ralph, I think, on the dubious connections. One of the reasons I teach those things is specifically NOT to trace the connections that your ninth graders want to make, but to instead show that coincidence often does not equal causality -- and that sometimes we can't know where the line is between them because we don't have evidence. In terms of Christianity, I also do a lot of background because I want to show that Christianity was one of any number of religions and set up the class to discuss reasons why it was particularly successful among so many others, not as part of some progression.

As I said above -- maps really do help, because they really do help to show where civilizations might bump into each other. But I don't know that I've ever mentioned the salt trade. It's not that I don't know about it, but because in a survey I choose to focus more on things like laws, social structure, gender and class issues (and what class even is), daily life, empire and what it means at that time, religion and its relationship to government, etc. A lot of this is because I really want to challenge the students' assumptions and get them to understand what democracy and republicanism -- not to mention tyranny and dictatorship -- meant to the people who invented them. A lot of it is because I'm fortunate enough that some students take more than one section of the survey, so I choose themes that I can build on and I'm just not as fond of trade routes as I am people and institutions. That's one of the great things about teaching history, is that we can teach from a valid viewpoint without having to do it all.

As for ending the Ancient World at 476, I agree with you, but not exactly for the same reasons. If a class is Ancient History, I can see no justification to go on to Islam unless you really want to include all of Late Antiquity -- but that means you might be getting all medieval. Maybe it would be better to end in 304? Some people might go back to the crisis of the 3rd c., but Diocletian seems more ancient to me. 312? 325? 378? 395? 410? 565? They're all pretty good dates. I could make a case for pretty much any of them. But 476 has tradition on its side, and lets us end up with a teaching moment, as they say, on periodization and how it changes over time and according to prevailing theory. After all -- are Byzantinists Ancient Historians or Medievalists?

Ralph E. Luker - 11/30/2004

Ah, I can spend a _whole_ lot of time on Christianity with virtually _no_ attention to Zoroastrianism. There's an awful lot of sloppy reasoning out there about patterns of superficial similarity necessarily meaning influence.

David Lion Salmanson - 11/30/2004

I'm sorry but I still think Western Civ sucks. How in the world (pun intended) can you teach Christianity without spending time on Zoroastrianism? Gold-Salt Trade ring a bell for Rome's economy? Indian Ocean Trade? North Africa and the Cartheginian (read Phonecian) alternative? I have my 9th graders starting an essay that basically asks them to pick one theme from the Perso-Greco-Roman world and follow it through from the Persian empire to the collapse of the Western half of the empire. (Almost everybody goes with religion and afterlife from Zor. through mystery religions to Christianity. 2nd most popular land empires vs. sea empires) And doesn't ending with the collapse of the West just reinforce all kinds of wrong assumptions about Byzantium? If you have to go this way, you should at least take it up to the rise of Islam. There are some great Zoroastrian web sites by the way. My favorite documents to use with 9th graders out of the Sourcebooks: Excerpts from Mary of the Desert and the Coptic Christian same sex spell.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/30/2004

I am a "World-y" (but we gotta come up with a better term: Worldist?). Have been ever since I picked up Ross Dunn's collection The New World History in preparation for teaching the World surveys, after three years of teaching (enjoying, but feeling the strain of the limits) Western Civ. As an Asianist I was pretty primed for that anyway: seeing the Western Civ texts cavalier attitude towards the rest of the world was pretty frustrating.

I think Nathanael is right about the "chauvinistic aspects" of civilization, though I prefer to teach that in direct tension with the syncretic and interconnected aspects. Plus some awareness of what's happening elsewhere in the world tends to keep the triumphalism to a minimum.

Julie A Hofmann - 11/30/2004

Sorry, Nathanael -- I didn't mean to imply that you weren't aware, but that your definition made it sound like it would be to simply ignore them. I meant to ask -- I've never seen a Western Civ course that stopped at ancient before. How does your school's sequence work?

Nathanael D. Robinson - 11/30/2004

I am aware of the interconnectivity between the Mediterranean and the East, and I intend to address it (actually a week comparing the world of the principate to other entities of its time and discussing their relations). Much of the work that has called Finley's arguments into question deal concern Rome's trade with rich areas (not to be found north of the Alps). But as much as goods and ideas were exchanged across great distances, often facilitated by Hellenistic and Roman cities in the Near East, I feel that it is more important to emphasize the chauvanistic aspects of "civilization". I guess the question is how to deal with two types of frontiers: one focused on expansion and assimilation, the other with exchange (in lieu of further conquest).

BTW, thanks to everyone for your advice.

Julie A Hofmann - 11/30/2004

LOL Jonathan Dresner is talking like a World-y! Seriously, though, I think that's one of the misgivings I have with the last part of Nathanael's post. Persia should always be included, I'd say. It's not just the Ancient Near Eastern Stuff, but important to make that connection to the Babylonian Captivity and then to the Achamaenids. It's also important (I think) to point out that Persia is useful to both China and Rome as a buffer between them. And it's kind of hard to talk about the rise of Islam without talking about how Mecca's (and the Quraysh's) power grew partially as a result of disruption in the eastern trade routes, unless you've made those connections beforehand.

I agree that we tend to see a Mediterranean focus, but it's important to show just how far-reaching the trade and diplomatic connections were. It's something I really didn't think much about until I started looking at where places were in proximity to, say, Rome. I'm not willing to go as far as JD here, but even by looking at the campaigns of Marius, or Pompey, or Caesar, or Hadrian, for that matter, the Mediterranean focus becomes far less certain.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/30/2004

I realized, after reading Julie Kemp's comments, that I'd really ignored your main point, so let me return to it.

You don't seem likely to make the gross error that most textbooks seem to make, but I'll point it out anyway. For me, one of the most striking things about the ancient world is its connectivity. We like to think of our "globalization" as something special, but sea and land trade routes were much more substantial much earlier than we realize. And they were part and parcel of the great civilizations: Persia, with its roads (and if you leave Persia out of the Western Civ survey, I don't think it makes any sense at all); Hellenic Greece, with its sea trade; Egypt and Rome with their sea trade and roads (or, in the case of Egypt, river and oasis routes). In addition to being an economic fact, it is also a cultural one: these "civilizations" were incurably syncretic, culturally, politically, religiously.

That's just me, of course....

Julie A Hofmann - 11/29/2004

Hi Nathanel -- some random suggestions ...

Antigone is great for that, but you can also use it to discuss public vs private and gender issues quite successfully.

Bible -- Revised Standard is always good, but it's also nice to have different translations for that special teaching moment. Frankly, I don't use it much. You can talk about all kinds of great Early Christianity stuff and only do a general gospel recap. After all, you don't need the Bible to teach Christian origins -- it's the accepted version, but not the only one out there. How it got to be accepted is arguably more important to historians. There are all kinds of good saints' lives -- and the Fordham site has SS. Perpetua and Felicity. Major heresies and church councils might be better than scripture, too.

I use a LOT of the Paul Halsall/Fordham site -- and I always use the documents dealing with Rome and the Jews, Pliny and Trajan, and the Edict of Milan.

I also think it's nice to contrast Germania with bits of Juvenal and Petronius (after all, why are those barbarians such relative paragons?). I can't say I've ever seen Tacitus in quite the way you do, though -- after all, some of what he writes is pure supposition and hearsay. (Oh -- Barbarian invasions or migrations? Are you invading if they invite you in? What if some are invited, others are refugees, and still others come with weapons and make you pay them to go away? Just wondering ...)

I know you modernists get stuck on Augustine, but have you tried Boethius? Sidonius Appolinaris? Fun stuff!

While I think you and I might agree on some of your last paragraph, by the way, I have a feeling we understand those things very differently. Very differently. Oh! I use Bailkey and Lim's sourcebook, and the students seem to feel it's worthwhile. My one caveat is that there is far too much in the way of editorial commentary and explanation of the texts. I have a very hard time getting some students to get beyond what the authors say and actually look at the texts in and of themselves.
Hope some of this helps!

Richard Henry Morgan - 11/29/2004

The question of which Bible to choose is an interesting one. I'm not sure any one version is necessary to teaching the course, and there is an interesting relationship between the different translations and the history of related events. For instance, there's an interesting foundation for that curiosity known as Marian theology, in the adoption by the Roman Catholic Church of Jerome's Vulgate version -- a poor Latin translation leads to "Mary, full of grace", and Mary as a repository of grace which she can dispense upon supplication, like a god. How that was exploited by some authorities on the one hand, and denounced as idolatry by others, and all that attended that, is an interesting take. And the NRSV translates the ancient Hebrew for silver as 'money' -- millenia before money was invented!!

Ralph E. Luker - 11/29/2004

I agree with Jonathan. Make a smart choice. Jefferson is, ah, well, a bit dated and his text tells us more about him than about early Christianity. The Jesus Seminar text probably raises a lot more questions than you have time to handle.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/29/2004

I understand your hesitation as a Jew teaching Western Civ: the first two years I taught early Christianity I punted and used portions of "From Jesus to Christ" instead of lecturing myself. I've gotten over it now, and treat Christianity much the same way that I treat Islam or Buddhism: integral to the civilization in which it was created and with an evolution and reverberations to which we have to return on a regular basis.

Unless you're seriously considering one of the more controversial renditions -- the Jesus Seminar marked text or an egalitarian language version, or the Thomas Jefferson redaction -- I don't think there's anything wrong with picking one of the cheap basic modern translations and using it. Teachers make these judgements about other cultures and religions all the time: it's something to take seriously, but not to be squeamish about.