Tag Archives: Research

Lest Historians Are Too Sure of Themselves

Actually by George L. Richardson

Horace in his Studium not thinking what you think he’s thinking. Source.

Classical Criticism

21 B. c.

Old Horace, on a summer afternoon,
Well primed with sweet Falernian, let us say,
Lulled by the far-off brooklet’s drowsy croon
To a half -doze; in a hap-hazard way
Scratched off a half a dozen careless rhymes,
As was his habit. When next day he came
Awake to work, he read them several times
In vain attempt to catch their sense and aim.
“What was I thinking about? Blest if I know!
Jupiter! What’s the difference? Let them go.”

1886 A. D.

“Lines twelve to twenty are in great dispute,”
(Most learnedly the lecturer doth speak)
“I think I shall be able to refute
Orelli’s claim they’re taken from the Greek.
I think, with Bentley, Horace’s purpose here
Is irony, and yet I do not know
But Dillenburger’s reading is more clear
For which he gives eight arguments, although
Wilkins gives twelve objections to the same.”
(So on ad infinitum.) Such is fame.

History Has a Liberal Bias?

For more on how Texas dictates history education in America see this report from The Daily Show.

Our New Understanding of Lincoln’s Assassination

(NSFW, Really)

This past Tuesday, April 15th, was the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. Recent research has changed our understanding of this event. The following is a reenactment of the true events of that fateful day.

The Reason For All Historical Research

From the Public Historian blog

“The primary purpose of this monograph is to answer the question ‘Man, what’s up with that?’” (Vicente Diaz)

When Not in Rome, Why Do As the Romans Did?

Actually by Robert Benchley

Curator’s Comment: Admit it, you still resort to using an online converter.

There is a growing sentiment among sign painters that when a sign or notice is to be put up in a public place it should be written in characters that are at least legible, so that, to quote “The Manchester Guardian” (as every one seems to do) “He who runs may read.”

This does not strike one as being an unseemly pandering to popular favor. The supposition is that the sign is put there to be read, otherwise it would have been turned over to an inmate of the Odd Fellows Home to be engraved on the head of a pin. And what could be a more fair requirement than that it should be readable?

Advertising, with its billboard message of rustless screens and co-educational Turkish-baths, has done much to further the good cause, and a glance through the files of newspapers of seventy-five years ago, when the big news story of the day was played up in diamond type easily deciphered in a strong light with the naked eye, shows that news printing has not, to use a slang phrase, stood still.

But in the midst of this uniform progress we find a stagnant spot. Surrounded by legends that are patent and easy to read and understand, we find the stone-cutter and the architect still putting up tablets and cornerstones, monuments and cornices, with dates disguised in Roman numerals. It is as if it were a game, in which they were saying, “The number we are thinking of is even; it begins with M; it has five digits and when they are spread out, end to end, they occupy three feet of space. You have until we count to one hundred to guess what it is.”

Roman numerals are all right for a rainy Sunday afternoon or to take a convalescent’s mind from his illness, but to put them in a public place, where the reader stands a good chance of being run over by a dray if he spends more than fifty seconds in their perusal, is not in keeping with the efficiency of the age. If for no other reason than the extra space they take, involving more marble, more of the cutter’s time and wear and tear on his instruments, not to mention the big overhead, you would think that Roman numerals would have been abolished long ago. Of course, they can be figured out if you’re good at that sort of thing. By working on your cuff and backs of envelopes, you can translate them in no time at all compared to the time taken by a cocoon to change into a butterfly, for instance. All you have to do is remember that “M” stands for either “millium,” meaning thousand, or for “million.” By referring to the context you can tell which is more probable. If, for example, it is a date, you can tell right away that it doesn’t mean “million,” for there isn’t any “million” in our dates. And there is one-seventh or eighth of your number deciphered already. Then “C,” of course, stands for “centum,” which you can translate by working backwards at it, taking such a word as “century” or “per cent,” and looking up what they come from, and there you have it! By this time it is hardly the middle of the afternoon, and all you have before you is a combination of N’s, I’s and an L, the latter standing for “Elevated Railway,” and “Licorice,” or, if you cross it with two little horizontal lines, it stands for the English pound, which is equivalent to about four dollars and eighty-odd cents in real money. Simple as sawing through a log.

But it takes time. That’s the big trouble with it. You can’t do the right thing by the office and go in for Roman numerals, too. And since most of the people who pass such inscriptions are dependent on their own earnings, why not cater to them a bit and let them in on the secret?

Probably the only reason that the people haven’t risen up and demanded a reform along these lines is because so few of them really give a hang what the inscription says. If the American Antiquarian Turn-Verein doesn’t care about stating in understandable figures the date on which the cornerstone of their building was laid, the average citizen is perfectly willing to let the matter drop right there.

But it would never do to revert to Roman numerals in, say, the arrangement of time-tables. How long would the commuter stand it if he had to mumble to himself for twenty minutes and use up the margins of his newspaper before he could figure out what was the next train after the 5:18? Or this, over the telephone between wife and husband:

“Hello, dear! I think I’ll come in town for lunch. What trains can I get?”

“Just a minute–I’ll look them up. Hold the wire. … Let’s see, here’s one at XIl:LVIII, that’s twelve, and L is a thousand and V is five and three I’s are three; that makes 12: one thousand…. that can’t be right…. now XII certainly is twelve, and L … what does L stand for? … I say, what–does–L–stand–for? … Well, ask Helma…. What does she say? … Fifty? … Sure, that makes it come out all right…. 12:58…. What time is it now? … 1 o’clock? … Well, the next one leaves Oakam at I:XLIV…. that’s…” etc.

Batting averages and the standing of teams in the leagues are another department where the introduction of Roman numerals would be suicide for the political party in power at the time. For of all things that are essential to the day’s work of the voter, an early enlightenment in the matter of the home team’s standing and the numerical progress of the favorite batsman are of primary importance. This information has to be gleaned on the way to work in the morning, and, except for those who come in to work each day from North Philadelphia or the Croton Reservoir, it would be a physical impossibility to figure the tables out and get any of the day’s news besides.


On matters such as these the proletariat would have protested the Roman numeral long ago. If they are willing to let its reactionary use on tablets and monuments stand it is because of their indifference to influences which do not directly affect their pocketbooks. But if it could be put up to them in a powerful cartoon, showing the Architect and the Stone-Cutter dressed in frock coats and silk hats, with their pockets full of money, stepping on the Common People so that he cannot see what is written on the tablet behind them, then perhaps the public would realize how they are being imposed on.

For that there is an organized movement among architects and stone-cutters to keep these things from the citizenry there can no longer be any doubt. It is not only a matter of the Roman numerals. How about the use of the “V” when “U” should be used? You will always see it in inscriptions. “SVMNER BVILDING” is one of the least offensive. Perhaps the excuse is that “V” is more adapted to stone-lettering. Then why not carry this principle out further? Why not use the letter H when S is meant? Or substitute K for B? If the idea is to deceive, and to make it easier for the stone-cutter, a pleasing effect could be got from the inscription, “Erected in 1897 by the Society of Arts and Grafts,” by making it read: “EKEATEW IZ MXIXLXIXLXXII LY THE NNLIEZY OF AEXA ZNL ELAFTX.”

There you have letters that are all adapted to stone-cutting; they look well together, and they are, in toto, as intelligible as most inscriptions.

On the Uselessness of History

Curator’s Comments: Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life, written in 49 AD, proves two things: there have always been people who love historical research and there have always been those who think such inquiries are an unenlightening waste of time. We at the Hysterical Society are concerned that the pendulum of modern public interest in historical research is just beginning to swing towards Seneca’s view. What do you think?

Seneca’s reminder to all historians:
don’t be a bore.

Chapter XIII, from On the Shortness of Life

It would be tedious to mention all the different men who have spent the whole of their life over chess or ball or the practice of baking their bodies in the sun. They are not unoccupied whose pleasures are made a busy occupation. For instance, no one will have any doubt that those are laborious triflers who spend their time on useless literary problems, of whom even among the Romans there is now a great number. It was once a foible confined to the Greeks to inquire into what number of rowers Ulysses had, whether the Iliad or the Odyssey was written first, whether moreover they belong to the same author, and various other matters of this stamp, which, if you keep them to yourself, in no way pleasure your secret soul, and, if you publish them, make you seem more of a bore than a scholar. But now this vain passion for learning useless things has assailed the Romans also. In the last few days I heard someone telling who was the first Roman general to do this or that; Duilius was the first who won a naval battle, Curius Dentatus was the first who had elephants led in his triumph. Still, these matters, even if they add nothing to real glory, are nevertheless concerned with signal services to the state; there will be no profit in such knowledge, nevertheless it wins our attention by reason of the attractiveness of an empty subject. We may excuse also those who inquire into this—who first induced the Romans to go on board ship. It was Claudius, and this was the very reason he was surnamed Caudex, because among the ancients a structure formed by joining together several boards was called a caudex, whence also the Tables of the Law are called codices, and, in the ancient fashion, boats that carry provisions up the Tiber are even to-day called codicariae. Doubtless this too may have some point—the fact that Valerius Corvinus was the first to conquer Messana, and was the first of the family of the Valerii to bear the surname Messana because be had transferred the name of the conquered city to himself, and was later called Messala after the gradual corruption of the name in the popular speech. Perhaps you will permit someone to be interested also in this—the fact that Lucius Sulla was the first to exhibit loosed lions in the Circus, though at other times they were exhibited in chains, and that javelin-throwers were sent by King Bocchus to despatch them? And, doubtless, this too may find some excuse—but does it serve any useful purpose to know that Pompey was the first to exhibit the slaughter of eighteen elephants in the Circus, pitting criminals against them in a mimic battle? He, a leader of the state and one who, according to report, was conspicuous among the leaders of old for the kindness of his heart, thought it a notable kind of spectacle to kill human beings after a new fashion. Do they fight to the death? That is not enough! Are they torn to pieces? That is not enough! Let them be crushed by animals of monstrous bulk! Better would it be that these things pass into oblivion lest hereafter some all-powerful man should learn them and be jealous of an act that was nowise human. O, what blindness does great prosperity cast upon our minds! When he was casting so many troops of wretched human beings to wild beasts born under a different sky, when he was proclaiming war between creatures so ill matched, when he was shedding so much blood before the eyes of the Roman people, who itself was soon to be forced to shed more. he then believed that he was beyond the power of Nature. But later this same man, betrayed by Alexandrine treachery, offered himself to the dagger of the vilest slave, and then at last discovered what an empty boast his surname was.

But to return to the point from which I have digressed, and to show that some people bestow useless pains upon these same matters—the man I mentioned related that Metellus, when he triumphed after his victory over the Carthaginians in Sicily, was the only one of all the Romans who had caused a hundred and twenty captured elephants to be led before his car; that Sulla was the last of the Roman’s who extended the pomerium, which in old times it was customary to extend after the acquisition of Italian but never of provincial, territory. Is it more profitable to know this than that Mount Aventine, according to him, is outside the pomerium for one of two reasons, either because that was the place to which the plebeians had seceded, or because the birds had not been favourable when Remus took his auspices on that spot—and, in turn, countless other reports that are either crammed with falsehood or are of the same sort? For though you grant that they tell these things in good faith, though they pledge themselves for the truth of what they write, still whose mistakes will be made fewer by such stories? Whose passions will they restrain? Whom will they make more brave, whom more just, whom more noble-minded? My friend Fabianus used to say that at times he was doubtful whether it was not better not to apply oneself to any studies than to become entangled in these.

On Language & the Historian

Actually By Jonathan Swift

The following extract includes Swift’s thoughts on the vagaries of language, history, and historical interest from A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue (1712):

In case you haven't heard of him, Jonathan Swift is the Stephen Colbert of the eighteenth century.

In case you haven’t heard of him, Jonathan Swift is the Stephen Colbert of the eighteenth century. Wikipedia.

As barbarous and ignorant as we were in former Centuries, there was more effectual Care taken by our Ancestors, to preserve the Memory of Times and Persons, than we find in this Age of Learning and Politeness, as we are please to call it. The rude Latin of the Monks is still very intelligible; whereas, had their Records been delivered down only in the vulgar Tongue, so barren and so barbarous, so subject to continual succeeding Changes, they could not now be understood, unless by Antiquaries who made it their Study to expound them. And we must at this Day have been content with such poor Abstracts of our English Story, as laborious Men of low Genius would think fit to give us; And even these in the next Age would be likewise swallowed up in succeeding Collections. If Things go on at this rate, all I can promise Your Lordship is, that about two hundred Years hence, some painful Compiler, who will be at the Trouble of studying Old Language, may inform the World, that in the Reign of QUEEN ANNE, Robert Earl of Oxford, a very wise and excellent Man, was made High Treasurer, and saved his Country, which in those Days was almost ruined by a Foreign War, and a Domestick Faction. Thus much he may be able to pick out, and willingly transfer into his new History, but the rest of Your Character, which I or any other Writer may now value our selves by drawing, and the particular Account of the great Things done under Your Ministry, for which You are already so celebrated in most Parts of Europe, will probably be dropt, on account of the antiquated Style and Manner they are delivered in.

How then shall any Man who hath a Genius for History, equal to the best of the Antients, be able to undertake such a Work with Spirit and Chearfulness, when he considers, that he will be read with Pleasure but a very few Years, and in an Age or two shall hardly be understood without an Interpreter? This is like employing an excellent Statuary to work upon mouldring Stone. Those who apply their Studies to preserve the Memory of others, will always have some Concern for their own. And I believe it is for this Reason, that so few Writers among us, of any Distinction, have turned their Thoughts to such a discouraging Employment: For the best English Historian must lie under this Mortification, that when his style grows antiquated, he will only be considered as a tedious Relator of Facts; and perhaps consulted in his turn, among other neglected Authors, to furnish Materials for some future Collector.

Curator’s Comment: Do you think the above piece proves  his point?

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