Promoting a fresh look at history
By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann
Princeton NJ — As he scribbled the names and dates of several Roman historians on the blackboard, Professor Marc Domingo Gygax challenged students in his freshman seminar to dig deeper.
Instead of discussing facts and figures, the students analyzed the methods, biases and narrative strategies of those writers and many others to try to answer the question, “Is there any such thing as historical truth?”
Professor Marc Domingo Gygax (left) asked Ned Bennett (right) and the other students in his freshman seminar, “Truth and Objectivity in Ancient and Modern Historiography,” to analyze the biases and narrative strategies of historians to try to answer the question, “Is there any such thing as historical truth?” (photo: Denise Applewhite)
“In high school, we just learned names and dates,” said Clayton Schwarz, one of 13 students in the class. “Here, we’re looking at how people write history — how they evaluate sources — instead of what they’re writing. “
The freshman seminar, “Truth and Objectivity in Ancient and Modern Historiography,” compares the writings of ancient Greek and Roman historians such as Polybius and Tacitus with the work of modern historians to explore the degree to which objectivity can be achieved in the study of history. The students also read the work of 20th-century historians who have written about the problem of truth and objectivity to think about how to evaluate a historical text.
“The line between fact and fiction often is not clear,” said Gygax, who is an assistant professor of classics. “We can see that in ancient history, and then we can ask ourselves if the same thing happens in modern history.”
The students had plenty of questions during a recent class as they discussed the influence of rationalism and the use of specifics versus generalities in the writings of Herodotus and Thucydides. They also debated the reasons why Fabius Pictor, a Roman historian born about 250 B.C., wrote in Greek.
“Maybe he thought the language was more descriptive?” suggested Nick O’Neill.
“Greek was the international language spoken all around the Mediterranean,” noted Suzie Raga. “By writing in Greek, he’s implying Rome needs to pay attention to other nations.”
“It was the language spoken by educated people at the time,” the professor remarked. “Pictor also does it as a way for Romans to introduce themselves to the Greeks.” Gygax also noted that “Pictor was influenced by Greek historiographic models and may have felt that Greek was the most adequate language for writing history in prose.”
Arda Bozyigit said he chose the class because “I follow politics, and I often wonder if the political decisions countries make depend on truthful accounts of history or on historians who were opinionated.”
Raga, who is interested in studying classics, said she was enjoying the class because “we’re looking at history from a different angle than I’ve ever encountered before.”
O’Neill said he has benefited from the conversations that go on in class. “We’re learning about Greek writers that I had heard about but never delved into,” he said. “It’s interesting to hear not just the professor but what everybody else has to say.”
The students are learning critical skills that will serve them in many fields, whether they go on to major in history, classics or even engineering, the subject in which Bozyigit plans to major.
“I hope at the end of the course the students will have many more questions than answers,” Gygax said. “The first step in scholarship is asking the right questions.”