Ancient History: Evidence and Models

M.I. Finley

Pimlico 2000 [1985]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2001
A selection of essays first published in 1985, Evidence and Models offers lively and incisive commentary on methodological and historiographical issues in ancient Greek and Roman history. Finley combines a mastery of the details with a feel for the broad themes and processes of history, extracting key ideas without overreaching himself or producing nebulous generalisations. And despite being a prolific and much-honoured historian — in his seventies when he wrote these essays — he does not rest on his laurels or pay homage to received wisdom. At little more than a hundred pages of text, Evidence and Models is succinct and accessible: it should be read by everyone involved with classical history, from school students upwards, but it's a work that historiographers and historians of other periods will also appreciate.

The opening essay takes a brief look at the notion of progress in historiography. "The Ancient Historian and His Sources" then attacks "the widespread sentiment that anything written in Greek or Latin is somehow privileged, exempt from the normal canons of evaluation"; archaeological evidence also needs to be placed within a conceptual framework. "Documents" considers the problems of generating statistics from classical sources: their small numbers and unrepresentative survival pose problems, even where their context is understood, and Finley urges a shift of attention from isolated documents to those that allow analysis as a group, approached "with significant questions in mind". And "How it Really Was" considers notions of historical objectivity, starting with the German historian Ranke's wie es eigentlich gewesen. Here Finley attacks crude antiquarianism, the collection of facts without hypotheses or models — with a particularly scathing dismissal of the modern trend towards narrowly specialised monographs on cities or regions.

Using Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War as a case study, Finley argues that historians writing on classical warfare have been biased by their own eras' ideas about war, and have placed too much reliance on literary sources; he argues that more attention should be paid to the profits of war and their distribution. And a final essay considers some of Max Weber's ideas about Greek history — the debate over phylai and a supposed shift from tribal to territorial organisation, the polis as a form of "charismatic domination", and the nature of Greek law — using these as a basis for broader reflections.

May 2001

External links:
- buy from or
Related reviews:
- more ancient history
- more historiography
- books published by Pimlico
%T Ancient History
%S Evidence and Models
%A Finley, M.I.
%I Pimlico
%D 2000 [1985]
%O paperback, notes, index
%G ISBN 0712666737
%P 131pp