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“As on a Darkling Plain”: Practitioners, Publics, Propagandists, and Ancient Historiography

  • T. C. McCaskie (a1)

I am a professor of the history of Africa. I have spent four decades researching and writing about the historic West African forest kingdom of Asante (or Ashanti, now in Ghana), the most richly documented and most complex state and society in all of sub-Saharan Africa. In recent years I have become intrigued by the ways in which African histories authored by academic practitioners have been subjected to an ever-rising tide of readings, and misreadings, by interested publics and partisan propagandists. This paper addresses the problematic but understudied interaction between practitioners, publics, and propagandists in the understanding of history today. However, it is not about Africa.

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1 Ferguson N., Civilization: The West and the Rest (London: Allen Lane, 2011) terms non-Westerners “Resterners,” a neologism at once as unlovely as it is revealing.

2 Casanova P., La république mondiale des lettres (Paris: Editions de Seuil, 1999).

3 Pocock J., “The Historian as Political Actor in Polity, Society and Academy” (1996), reprinted in his Political Thought and History: Essays on Theory and Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 217–38, quote 227.

4 Ferro M., Le ressentiment dans l'Histoire (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2007).

5 Ibid., 131–32.

6 Cairncross F., The Death of Distance: How the Communications Revolution Will Change Our Lives (London: Orion, 1997) is a prizewinning account of a future now in the past; see Cressler J., Silicon Earth: Introduction to the Microelectronics and Nanotechnology Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Brügger N., ed., Web History (New York: Peter Lang, 2010); Ryan J., A History of the Internet and the Digital Future (London: Reaktion, 2010).

7 Eley G., A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), xi.

8 Spiegel G., “Presidential Address to the American Historical Association: The Task of the Historian,” American Historical Review 114, 1 (2009): 115, 14.

9 Porter P., “Good Anthropology, Bad History: The Cultural Turn in Studying War,” Parameters 37, 2 (2007): 4558; Gregory D., “The Rush to the Intimate: Counterinsurgency and the Cultural Turn in Late Modern War,” Radical Philosophy 150 (2008): 823.

10 Arnold M., “Dover Beach,” in his New Poems (London: Macmillan, 1867); the poem was actually written c. 1850.

11 I use the freighted terms “Persia” or “Iran” throughout as these seem appropriate.

12 Rorty R., Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980); “Rationality and Cultural Difference,” in Philosophical Papers, vol. 3, Truth and Progress (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 186201; Rawls J., A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999); Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001). Robert Brandom, Donald Davidson, Robert Nozick, Michael Sandel, Thomas Scanlon, Bernard Williams, and others have produced a large philosophical literature on Rorty's and Rawls' ideas.

13 Byron R., The Road to Oxiana (London: Macmillan, 1937); Knox J., Robert Byron: A Biography (London: John Murray, 2003).

14 Adelson R., Mark Sykes: Portrait of an Amateur (London: Jonathan Cape, 1975); and see Storrs R., Orientations (London: Nicholson and Watson, 1937).

15 Gunter A. and Hauser S., eds., Ernst Herzfeld and the Development of Near Eastern Studies 1900–1950 (Leiden: Brill, 2005). In brief, S. Hauser “Herzfeld, Ernst,” in Encyclopaedia Iranica Online (2003), at:; the Encyclopaedia is published in multi-volume print and electronic formats by Columbia University Press, but more articles are available online than have appeared thus far in print.

16 For the German context, see Marchand S., German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race and Scholarship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

17 Pringle H., The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust (London: Fourth Estate, 2006), 183–85.

18 See Briant P., “Milestones in the Development of Achaemenid Historiography in the Time of Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948),” in Gunter A. and Hauser S., eds., Ernst Herzfeld and the Development of Near Eastern Studies 1900–1950 (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 263–80; and Daryaee T., “The Study of Ancient Iran in the Twentieth Century,” Iranian Studies 42, 4 (2009): 579–89.

19 Olmstead A. T., History of the Persian Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948); see too, Albert Ten Eyck Olmstead (1880–1945) Memorial Issue,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 5, 1 (1946).

20 Lewis D., Sparta and Persia: Lectures Delivered at the University of Cincinnati, Autumn 1976 in Memory of Donald W. Bradeen (Leiden: Brill, 1977); see too, Rhodes P., ed., D. M. Lewis's Selected Papers in Greek and Near Eastern History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), which also contains a bibliography of Lewis' writings.

21 Iranian Studies in Europe and Japan,” Iranian Studies 20, 2–4 (1987). Quoted material is from the essays by J.T.P. de Bruijn, “Iranian Studies in the Netherlands,” 173, and B. Hourcade, “Iranian Studies in France,” 17. Initial accounts of Sancisi-Weerdenburg's project are in Persica: Uitgave van het Genootschap Nederland-Iran 9 (1980): 231; 10 (1982): 273–75; 11 (1983): 185–94. See too Briant P., Etat et pasteurs au Moyen-Orient ancien/State and Herders in the Ancient Middle East (Paris and Cambridge: Maison des Sciences de l'Homme and Cambridge University Press, 1982); and L'Asie Centrale et les royaumes proche-orientaux du premier millénaire (c. VIIIe–IVe siècles avant notre ère) (Paris: Editions Recherche sur les Civilisations, 1984).

22 The Proceedings of the Achaemenid History Workshops were all published by NINO Publications (Leiden). They are: Sancisi-Weerdenburg H., ed., Vol. 1: Sources, Structures and Syntheses (1987); Sancisi-Weerdenburg H. and Kuhrt A., eds., Vol. 2: The Greek Sources (1987); Kuhrt A. and Sancisi-Weerdenburg H., eds., Vol. 3: Method and Theory (1988); Sancisi-Weerdenburg H. and Kuhrt A., eds., Vol. 4: Centre and Periphery (1990); Sancisi-Weerdenburg H. and Drijvers J. W., eds., Vol. 5: The Roots of the European Tradition (1990); Sancisi-Weerdenburg H. and Kuhrt A., eds., Vol. 6: Asia Minor and Egypt: Old Cultures in a New Empire (1991); Sancisi-Weerdenburg H. and Drijvers J. W., eds., Vol. 7: Through Travellers' Eyes (1991); Sancisi-Weerdenburg H., Kuhrt A., and Root M. C., eds., Vol. 8: Continuity and Change (1994).

23 See H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg, “Yauna en Persai: Grieken en Perzen in een ander perspectief,” PhD thesis, Leiden University, 1980.

24 White H., Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973); The Greco-Roman Tradition (New York: Harper Collins for Joanna Cotler Books, 1974); White H. and Doran R., The Fiction of Narrative: Essays on History, Literature, and Theory, 1957–2007 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010); and see Wess R., Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, Subjectivity, Postmodernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

25 Said E., Orientalism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978). For ongoing debate thirty years after publication, consult Warraq I., Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said's ‘Orientalism’ (London: Prometheus, 2007); Irwin R., For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies (London: Allen Lane, 2007); and Adib-Moghaddam A., The Metahistory of the Clash of Civilisations: Us and Them Beyond Orientalism (London: Hurst, 2010).

26 Said, Orientalism, 21, 56–57.

27 Bernal M., Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987).

28 Hornblower S., “Achaemenid History,” The Classical Review 40, 1 (1990): 8995.

29 Ibid.

30 Hornblower S., The Greek World 479–323 BC, rev. ed. (London: Methuen, 1991), 34, 324.

31 See Henkelman W. and Kuhrt A., eds., A Persian Perspective: Essays in Memory of Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg (Leiden: NINO Publications, 2003), 17, for a bibliography of Sancisi-Weerdenburg's publications in Dutch and English; Kuhrt A., “Sancisi-Weerdenburg, Heleen,” Encyclopaedia Iranica Online (2009), at:, is an appreciation by a close collaborator; see too Kuhrt's Memorial Lecture, “Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg and the reassessment of Xerxes' reign,” Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Osten, 2010.

32 Briant P., Antigone le Borgne (Ann. Lit. de l'Univ. de Besançon, 152, Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1973).

33 Briant P., Histoire de l'Empire perse: De Cyrus à Alexandre (Paris: Fayard, 1996); this was translated by P. T. Daniels and published with a new Introduction by Briant as From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2002).

34 Wiesehöfer J., Ancient Persia from 550 BC to 650 AD (London: I. B. Tauris, 1996); Stolper M., “Une ‘vision dure’ de l'histoire achéménide (note critique),” Annales. Histoires, Sciences Sociales 54, 5 (1999): 1109–26.

35 Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander, 1–10.

36 Ibid., 873–75.

37 Ibid., 515–67; see too, Tuplin C., ed., Persian Responses: Political and Cultural Interactions with(in) the Achaemenid Empire (Swansea: University of Wales Press, 2007); Loraux N., Nagy G., and Slatkin L., eds., Antiquities: Postwar French Thought, Volume III (New York: New Press, 2001).

38 Bourdieu P., Homo Academicus (Paris: Minuit, 1984); and Esquisse pour une auto-analyse (Paris: Raisons d'Agir, 2004).

39 P. Briant, “Leçon inaugurale,” delivered at the Collège de France (10 Mar. 2000); and “New Trends in Achaemenid History,” Noruz Lecture of the Foundation for Iranian Studies, delivered at the Collège de France (23 Mar. 2001); the website is at:

40 Briant P., Darius dans l'ombre d'Alexandre (Paris: Fayard, 2003); and Lettre ouverte à Alexandre le Grand (Arles: Actes Sud, 2008).

41 Kuhrt A., ed., The Persian Empire: A Corpus of Sources from the Achaemenid Period (London and New York: Routledge, 2007); Curtis J. and Simpson St. John, eds., The World of Achaemenid Persia: History, Art and Society in Iran and the Ancient Near East (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010).

42 See, most starkly, P. Briant, “New Trends,” 1.

43 Kuhrt, ed., Persian Empire (2007), “Index of Texts,” 890–909.

44 Dusinberre E., Aspects of Empire in Achaemenid Sardis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Roosevelt C., The Archaeology of Lydia, from Gyges to Alexander (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

45 See Paris Match, no. 1172, “Farah et le Chah: les fêtes fastueuses de Persépolis,” 23 Oct. 1971; an oral account of the Persepolis celebrations by Abdolreza Ansari, ex-Iranian minister of the interior, given to Cyrus Kadivar in Paris in 2002, is at; and see too, T. Grigor, “Preserving the Antique Modern: Persepolis ‘71,” On the Cyrus Cylinder, see Mitchell T. C., The Bible in the British Museum: Interpreting the Evidence (London: British Museum Press, 2004), doc. 49, 92; Kuhrt A., “The Cyrus Cylinder and Achaemenid Imperial Policy,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 8, 25 (1983): 8397, esp. 84.

46 See Aminat A., “Historiography IX: Pahlavi Period,” in Yarshater E., ed., Encyclopaedia Iranica. Vol. 12. Harem I–Illuminationism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004); Bayat K., “The Pahlavi School of Historiography on the Pahlavi Era,” in Atabaki T., ed., Iran in the 20th Century: Historiography and Political Culture (London: I. B. Tauris, 2009), 113–20.

47 Aghaie K. S., “Islamist Historiography in Post-Revolutionary Iran,” in Atabaki T., ed., Iran in the 20th Century: Historiography and Political Culture (London: I. B. Tauris, 2009), 233–64.

48 See Root M. C., “Obituary: Heleen W.A.M. Sancisi-Weerdenburg,” University Record (University of Michigan at Ann Arbor), 19 June 2000.

49 Bryn Mawr Classical Review, online at: See Farrokh K., Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War (Oxford: Osprey, 2007).

50 Holland T., Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West (New York: Little, Brown, 2005).

51 Bryn Mawr Classical Review, online at:

52 King C., The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). For “The Official Website of Dr. Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.),” see, which links to his “Pan-Turanianism Takes Aim at Azerbaijan: A Geopolitical Agenda.” For revivals of Azerbaijani separatism in Iran now, see Keddie N., Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, updated edition, 2006), esp. 332.

54 See, “An Example of Anger and Bitterness: Dr. Wouter Henkelman, a Professor of Iranian Studies.”

55 Ashraf A., “The Appeal of Conspiracy Theories to Persians,” in Arat Y., Ashraf A., Baram A., Harris W., and Lowry H., Challenges to Democracy in the Middle East (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1997), 5788; and, “Conspiracy Theories,” Encyclopaedia Iranica Online, at:

56 Fardid wrote little. His ideas were popularized by Jamal Al-e-Ahmad, in Occidentosis: A Plague from the West, Campbell Robert trans., Algar Hamid, ed. (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1984[1962]) which from 1962 circulated clandestinely but with great impact in Iran. Fardid has been criticized since his death; see M. and Sadri A., eds., Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of Abdolkarim Soroush (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). Guidance for the non-Farsi speaker is provided by Keddie, Modern Iran; and Mottahedeh R., The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985).

57 See, for example,;; and Rozaneh, an online Iranian cultural magazine, at For slavery, see M. Dandamayev, “Barda and Barda-Dari,” Encyclopaedia Iranica Online, at Vidal's GoreCreation (New York: Random House, 1981) is a novel whose premise is that the Achaemenids were more “civilized” than their Greek counterparts; its fictional narrator Cyrus Spitama is Zarathustra's grandson.

58 For lively comment, see Beard M., “Which Thucydides Can You Trust?,” New York Review of Books LVII, 14 (2010): 5254. It is too early to judge, but a minority of (younger?) classicists seem determined to escape textualism and to engage with the classical tradition in relation to current political concerns. See, for example, Vlassopoulos K., Politics: Antiquity and Its Legacy (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010); and consult the publishing and other networks listed at the entry for P. Vasunia, at: The website is busy, irreverent, and informative.

59 See Parsons P., City of the Sharp-nosed Fish: Greek Lives in Roman Egypt (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007); and “Oxyrhynchus Online,” at:

60 Boedeker D. and Sider D., eds., The New Simonides: Contexts of Praise and Desire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

61 Price S. and Thonemann P., The Birth of Classical Europe: A History from Troy to Augustine. The Penguin History of Europe, Vol. I (London: Allen Lane, 2010), 113–17.

62 For “the liar school,” Fehling D., Herodotos and His ‘Sources’: Citation, Invention and Narrative Art (Chester: Francis Cairns, 1989); Pritchett W., The Liar School of Herodotus (Amsterdam: Gieben, 1993); Armayor O., Herodotus' Autopsy of the Fayoum: Lake Moeris and the Labyrinth of Egypt (Amsterdam: Gieben, 1985).

63 Hartog F., Le miroir d'Hérodote: Essai sur la représentation de l'autre (Paris: Gallimard, 1980); Nagy G., Pindar's Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), esp. chs. 8–11; Thomas R., Herodotus in Context: Ethnography, Science and the Art of Persuasion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Munson R., Telling Wonders: Ethnographic and Political Discourse in the Work of Herodotus (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001).

64 Luraghi N., ed., The Historian's Craft in the Age of Herodotus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

65 The best such study is R. Thomas, “Herodotus' Histories and the Floating Gap,” in Luraghi (see note 64).

66 C. Tuplin, “Herodotus on Persia and the Persian Empire,” App. M, in R. Strassler, ed., The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories (London: Quercus, 2008).

67 Baragwanath E., Motivation and Narrative in Herodotus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); see too Iser W., The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980); and The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

68 See Hall E., Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991); Miller M., Athens and Persians in the Fifth Century BC (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Harrison T., The Emptiness of Asia: Aeschylus' Persians and the History of the Fifth Century (London: Duckworth, 2000); and Harrison T., ed., Greeks and Barbarians (New York: Routledge, 2002); Bridges E., Hall E., and Rhodes P., eds., Cultural Responses to the Persian Wars: Antiquity to the Third Millennium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

69 See Garvie A., ed., Aeschylus: Persae (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

70 Maggio T., Mattanza: The Ancient Sicilian Ritual of Bluefin Tuna Fishing (New York: Penguin, 2001); D. Levine, “Tuna in Ancient Greece” (2000), at:

71 On fish eating, see Davidson J., Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (London: Harper Collins, 1997); Miller, Athens and Persians, 29–62, for the loot.

72 See T. Holland, Persian Fire; Cartledge P., Thermopylae: The Battle that Defined History (London: Macmillan, 2006); Cartledge P., Thermopylae: The Battle that Changed the World (London: Pan, 2007); Strauss B., Salamis: The Greatest Battle of the Ancient World, 480 BC (London: Hutchinson, 2004); Strauss B., The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece—and Western Civilization (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005); Billows R., Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization (New York and London: Overlook Duckworth, 2010).

73 Pressfield S., Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae (New York: Doubleday, 1998). Pressfield has written subsequent novels in the same vein about Alkibiades and Alexander of Macedon. “Agora” is a subscription website, but entering “Pressfield Agora” on the Web will bring up the public pages from which the information given here is drawn.

74 Miller Frank, 300 (Milwaukie, Ore.: Dark Horse Books, 1999). Director Michael Mann was said to be considering filming Gates of Fire when Snyder's movie was released.

75 Nisbet G., Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture: Greece and Rome Live (Exeter: Bristol Phoenix Press, 2008), contains the most subtle reading of 300 in terms of its popular reception as a film and, importantly, as an item for comment on now-pervasive global electronic media like YouTube.

76 See Porter P., Military Orientalism: Eastern War through Western Eyes (London: Hurst, 2009).

77 An early example is Keegan J., A History of Warfare (New York: Knopf, 1993). The cultural turn is the organizing principle in Parker G., ed., The Cambridge History of Warfare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

78 See Hanson V., Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (New York: Encounter Books, 2003).

79 Hanson V., The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (New York: Free Press, 1995); Fields without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea (New York: Free Press, 1996).

80 Hanson V., The Western Way of War (New York: Knopf, 1989); Hoplites: The Ancient Greek Battle Experience (London: Routledge, 1991); Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (New York: Doubleday, 2001); Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live, and How We Think (New York: Random House, 2004). It is interesting to compare Hanson's views with those expressed in Grene D., Of Farming and Classics: A Memoir (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

81 Paulin T., “The Critic as Artist: Edward Said,” in his Crusoe's Secret: The Aesthetics of Dissent (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), 382400. This book is dedicated to Edward and Mariam Said.

82 As is, perhaps, Said's conflicted relationship with his cousin and ultimately rejected mentor Charles Malik. Malik ended by thinking that the suasion to dignity and personhood prompted “the clash of civilizations” rather than an incorporationist world view; see Moyn S., The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010), esp. 65–66.

83 The first edition is Briant P., Alexandre le Grand (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1974); the English edition is Alexander the Great and His Empire: A Short Introduction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

84 Ibid., xvi–xvii.

85 Ibid., xviii–xix.

86 See Gomme A. W., Andrewes A., and Dover K. J., A Historical Commentary on Thucydides, 5 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1945–1981); Hornblower S., A Commentary on Thucydides, 3 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991–2008).

87 Beard, “Which Thucydides Can You Trust?”; see also her provocative “Would It have Been Better Had some Surviving Works of Ancient Authors Been Lost?,” Guardian Review 25 Sept. 2010: 2.

88 Harrison T., Writing Ancient Persia (London: Bloomsbury for Bristol Classical Press, 2011).

89 Ibid., 7.

90 Ibid., 127.

Acknowledgments: Thanks are due to Niels Kastfelt, John Peel, Benedetta Rossi, Gavin Schaffer, Kate Skinner, Pierluigi Valsecchi, Chris Wickham, and Simon Yarrow for reading a first draft of this paper. CSSH's readers contributed valuable insights to the final draft and I am grateful to them. The author can be contacted at ; .

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