January 06, 2004
History as Tragedy: The Peloponnesian War

The Thirteen-Year-Old got Donald Kagan's (2003) Peloponnesian War (one volume) for Christmas. Now I find that the New Yorker's Daniel Mendelsohn doesn't think much of it: Daniel Mendelsohn: Critic at Large: Kagan... informs us that... he wants his work to "meet the needs of readers in the 21st century"... "an uninterrupted account will better allow readers to draw their own conclusions." Uninterrupted, yes, but not unbiased... you tend to come away from his history with an entirely different view of the war than the one you take away from Thucydides.... The only way to do this, unfortunately, is [for Kagan] to flatten Thucydides's presentation of the Peloponnesian War, stripping away the many voices and points of view that [Thucydides] worked so hard to include.... Thucydides tends to be shy about overtly intruding.. not so Kagan. This is most apparent in [Kagan's] revisionist championing of Cleon and other Athenian hawks, whose policies he consistently presents as the only reasonable choice. "It is tempting to blame Cleon for the breaking off of the negotiations," goes a typical bit of rhetorical strong-arming. "But what, realistically, could have been achieved?" Anyone who hasn't read Thucydides will be inclined to agree. [Thucydides's own] explanation of...

Posted by DeLong at 04:48 PM

December 23, 2003
Gaps in Ancient Technology

Gaps in ancient technology: the "why didn't they think of that?" department. Eugene Volokh asks a question: The Volokh Conspiracy: Ancient Rome: I've gotten over 200 responses to my ancient Rome query -- thanks very much for the help; I hope to summarize the results in a week or two. In the meantime, please keep the messages coming. To prevent duplicates (naturally, there've been plenty), let me point out some of the most popular items that people have suggested: stirrups, whipped cream, cowpox as a vaccine for smallpox, penicillin, Arabic numerals, the abacus, sterile technique, distillation, the printing press, the scientific method, pasteurization, the horseshoe, the toothbrush, the compass, the wheelbarrow, glass lenses, gunpowder, soap, and horse plow collars. (Not all of these satisfy my criteria -- among other things, quite a few are the sorts of things that most intelligent laypeople wouldn't know.)     Here again is the query: I am looking for items that match all of the following conditions, and I'd love some help, if any of you would be kind enough to provide. Which items (products or processes) satisfy all these criteria:They were unknown to people in ancient Rome circa 150 B.C.They could be manufactured with then-existing technology...

Posted by DeLong at 09:49 AM

May 16, 2003

What do we mean when we call Henry Farrell an opsophagos?...

Posted by DeLong at 11:29 AM

May 12, 2003
Notes: Polanyi: Aristotle Discovers the Economy

Karl Polanyi, "Aristotle Discovers the Economy," in Trade and Market in the Early Empires... A whole bunch of this article is simply wrong: the claims that "in the fourth century... Greeks initiated the gainful business practices that in much later days developed into the dynamo of market comnpetition" are false. This means that Polanyi is wrong when he says that Aristotle is examining a new phenomenon when he looks at the economy. Aristotle is examining an old phenomenon from the point of view of an Athenian aristocrat. But there is much of value in Polanyi's exposition of what Aristotle says... p. 79: Trade is "natural" when it serves the survival of the community by maintaining its self-sufficiency... the operation of giving a share... from on's surplus. The rate... follows from the requirement of philia, i.e., that the goodwill among the members persist.... The just price, then, derives from the demands of philia as expressed in the reciprocity which is of the essence of all human community... p. 80: Trade... is "natural" as long as it is a requirement of self-sufficiency. Prices are justly set if they conform to the standing of the participants in the community, thereby strenghening the goodwill...

Posted by DeLong at 04:14 PM

February 20, 2003
Thinking About Aristotle of Stagira and Moses Finley

I'm never sure whether I should begin my economic history survey courses with Aristotle or not. As Moses Finley powerfully argues, Aristotle does not care about the economy. The fragments in his Ethics and Politics that economists like Joseph Schumpeter point to are, mostly, concerned with other things than economic analysis. Karl Polanyi thought that Aristotle's naivete was the result of the fact that a mercantile, market, commercial economy was something very new. He was surely wrong: it was not something new, but rather something that Aristotle as a Hellenic aristocrat would have been embarrassed to be caught thinking seriously about. Still, I now wish I'd started this semester's history course with more on Aristotle. His perspective is so different from ours that it provides a useful mental shock: On Aristotle: Consider, first, that Aristotle of Stagira was not an idiot (even if he did believe that women had fewer teeth than men). For two thousand years people--pagan Hellenes, Christian Europeans, and Islamic Arabs, Egyptians, Mesopotamians,and Iranians--called Aristotle of Stagira "the philosopher", as if there could be only one. Think of the way seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century Britons regarded Newton (or the way we regard Einstein). So we need...

Posted by DeLong at 08:57 PM

February 19, 2003
Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea

I last read this book two years ago, and I read it last weekend on yet another trip to Monterey. I found myself, once again, enthralled. I also found myself wishing that I had assigned it--or something similar to it--to my students. And then I thought that my reading lists are too long already, and that adding another two to three hours onto their weekly readings would not please them... I wrote the piece below two years ago... H.N. Turteltaub (2001), Over the Wine-Dark Sea: A Sea Adventure of the Ancient World (New York: Forge: 0312876602). I picked this book up from the Barnes and Noble front table on my way down to Monterey for vacation. I had been looking for something light. Instead, I found myself engaged in the book for perhaps four times as many hours as I would usually spend on a book this length. I was entranced because the subject was interesting, because the writing did not get in the way of the story, and because I found myself greatly admiring the project--the historical, educational project--that the author is engaged in. H.N. Turteltaub is also Harry Turtledove, the author of a large number of heroic fantasy...

Posted by DeLong at 07:46 PM