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Introducing the Classical world
Introducing the Classical world

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2.4 Modern sources

As set out in Figure 1, modern sources, too, fall into various subcategories. You’ll look at some of them in more detail a little later. For now let’s just say that most of the sources you will use in this course are broadly scholarly: publications written by people with an expertise in the Classical world. You will come back later to other sources, in particular the internet, which raise questions in their own right.

Scholarly publications try to do exactly what you will do in this course: explore the Classical world. And like you, they do so by using ancient sources as well as earlier modern scholarship. We stressed at some length that you need to ask questions about the reliability of ancient sources when using them. So what about modern scholarship and its reliability? This is quite a different question, with different issues. First, you can probably assume that the modern scholars share the bulk of your assumptions about truth, facts, and the aims of academic work, in a way you can't in the case of authors such as Tacitus, Herodotus or any other ancient source. In this sense you can (and generally will have to) rely on them.

On the other hand, modern sources, scholarly or otherwise, aren't really evidence in the same way, and this is very important indeed. Some people would even refuse to call them ‘sources’, with some justification. You can say: ‘I think it is likely that the population of Attica decreased in the course of the Archaic period. Our evidence for that is a decrease in the number of graves during this period.’ As mentioned earlier, you will then have to discuss rival interpretations of the same evidence, but as such this is a perfectly valid way of arguing. But you can’t say: ‘I think it is likely that the population of Attica decreased in the course of the archaic period. My evidence for that is the course Introducing the Classical world’, or ‘My evidence for that is the book that scholar X, Y, or Z wrote.’ Those scholars have interpreted evidence; their books aren’t evidence. This is a crucial point to remember when you communicate your understanding to others.

So if secondary literature isn’t evidence, what is it? Or rather, why use it? One way of answering this question is to say that it presents a kind of short cut. If you have one year to explore the ancient world, you could spend it exclusively on looking at the ancient evidence. The likelihood is, though, that without the guidance of secondary sources your progress would be very slow. Secondary literature gives you access to the long tradition of scholarship on the Classical world. That’s why you will find it immensely useful. But as you read it, you will always need to ask yourself what the ancient evidence is that justifies any scholarly statements, and in fact whether you agree with those statements.

Another issue to be aware of is that the writing of the history of the ancient world has its own history. Each generation of historians is influenced by its predecessors, either improving upon or refuting previous histories. In this way, modern secondary sources also have their own histories. A famous and influential modern secondary source, for example, is Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, readily available on bookshelves in recent editions. It might appear to be an attractive short cut to the ancient world – it makes good use of the ancient evidence and some passages are a good literary read – but it first appeared in CE 1776. Therefore, it is not a very ‘modern’ modern secondary source. It is a product of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, written at the time of the American struggle for independence; its context is a world very different from today. As such, it has a different status and value to a modern textbook written over 200 years later. The facts it contains are not necessarily now invalid, and some of its themes – the suppression of liberty and the triumph of barbarism – may still have a resonance, but it does not consider many of the contemporary concerns of historians and has not benefited from the advances made in the centuries since it was written. In short, it is out of date, and in many ways is a better source for the Enlightenment than for the ancient world. Of course, it is easy enough to come to a judgement like this about something so old, but where and how can a line be drawn? How can we know that a secondary source is a reliable account of the ancient world?

Ideally, the most recent book on a subject should have discussed and taken into account all previous scholarship on the subject, and so make all of its predecessors redundant. Ideally, again, a reliable recent secondary source should be balanced, discussing other competing secondary scholarship and weighing up its strengths and weaknesses. It should also be free of polemic or distorting theoretical frameworks; or if not entirely free of them, it should at least acknowledge their presence and influence. Primary sources should be critically discussed, and assertions supported by argument and reference to other evidence and scholarship.

The function of secondary literature as a short cut – summarising and criticising earlier generations – explains some of the scholarly conventions of this kind of source:

  1. References to primary sources. Since it is the ancient evidence that counts, secondary literature will normally clearly identify the primary evidence behind a claim. Sometimes such references are put into the text itself; sometimes they are in brackets; sometimes they are in footnotes; and this helps to build up the authority of a secondary source. You, in turn, should learn to adopt a similar discipline.

  2. References to secondary literature. As we have just said, secondary literature gives you access not just to the learning of one particular scholar but to the tradition of Classical scholarship more generally; that is, other books or articles containing the results of the studies of other modern scholars. Whoever is the author of one particular modern source will themselves have used earlier discussions of related issues. Partly because unacknowledged appropriation of other people's ideas is a type of theft called plagiarism, and partly because it is helpful for the reader to know where else to look, secondary literature will normally be careful to point out not just what primary evidence supports a claim, but also which modern sources have informed the writing. There are different ways of doing that, but the most common is to use brackets or footnotes on the relevant page, and then a bibliography at the back, gathering the various items referred to. This is another element of modern scholarship that when carefully done helps to establish its authority.

A further factor that should be considered is who wrote the book. One would expect that a widely known expert on a subject should be qualified to produce a reliable secondary source, but that is no sure guide. Scholars are not generally household names, and those that appear in the media may spend more time with television producers than with ancient sources! And even if an author has impeccable credentials, that is no guarantee of a reliable book, especially if it is simply presented as opinion rather than argument supported by evidence. However, since a subject such as Classical Studies is based upon interpretation, critical argument and debate, rather than independently verifiable facts, a single book will never be the last word on a subject, and the most important thing is to adopt a critically questioning approach to each and every kind of source you encounter. Once again: modern sources aren’t sources in the same way as ancient sources. They are not evidence.