An interview with John Dillery, author of Clio’s Other Sons: Berossus and Manetho

Author John Dillery, whose book Clio’s Other Sons: Berossus and Manetho has been shortlisted for this year’s Runciman Award, kindly agreed to answer a few questions for us.

Clio’s Other Sons is a scholarly work, liberally annotated with footnotes. How long does it take to research a work such as this? Where do you start?

It took me 16 years to write. I started by thinking hard about why these non-Greek priests – Berossus the Babylonian and Manetho the Egyptian – would want to write a history of their native lands in a language not their own, using in some cases methods of treating the past that were not their own, but from elements that were. What was the purpose of these histories? One of the main researchers who worked in this area (Arnaldo Momigliano) – a massively important and learned scholar – was chiefly interested in why these works were not read by the Greeks. I was interested in a more positive set of questions: what is in them and why?

You have written several works focusing on history and historiography. Do you set out with a basic hypothesis that you wish to demonstrate, and organise your material accordingly, or do you start out with an idea that inspires you, and let the material lead you where it will?

More your second scenario than the first. While probably illusory, I like to think that I am letting the material dictate what large questions I end up asking. Otherwise, I think one tends to hunt for answers that one has already determined to be the right ones.

Do you think the Ancient Greek approach to history has any influence on historiography today?

Absolutely. I think (along with Momigliano and others) that one of the great legacies of the ancient Greeks was narrative, analytical/critical history. One needs to be careful here; no human societies that I know of – ancient or modern – do not ‘curate’, care for, or in some form recapture their pasts. But writing history in narrative form and critically (being aware of one’s sources and their problems) is something that I think the ancient Greeks pioneered. I should add here that I do not think there was just one Greek approach to history; the Greeks practiced all sorts of approaches; they also happened to have the one exemplified by the likes of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius.

Our study of Ancient history is complicated by the lack of written contemporary sources. Today, we live in the age of information overload. How do you think this affects what modern historians write about recent history? What sort of histories will be written in future?

I am not sure I feel qualified to answer these questions but I’ll try. The ancient Greeks and others know that writing history is about selection, emphasis (esp. in terms of detail provided), and available information. I imagine the problem is that there is simply so much information now and of such a variety of types, that sorting, sifting, and ‘seeing the forest for the trees’ – getting the big picture and launching meaningful analysis – is now extremely challenging. I don’t know what histories will be written in the future, but the ones that will last will always be the same: driven by the admittedly quixotic quest to pursue historical truth while admitting the human limitations to do so.

Your book focuses on ‘narrative history’, i.e. history as a ‘story’ with a sequence of events. Is this view of history more or less influential today than it was in the Ancient world?

Well, as I argue in the book, for a long time I think, history was thought uncritically to have to be ‘story’. New methods, and old ones too, have challenged this view: quantitative history, ‘longue durée’ history, orally transmitted history, etc. I think ‘narrative history’ is important still today – many works of popular or general history are written this way, for in some sense I think the general reader expects this form. But the other forms are also influential and will continue to be so and so they should be.

Your book is partly about Hellenisation, the process of diffusion of Greek culture. Are there any parallels between Hellenisation and more recent processes of political and social construction influenced by one particular country or culture?

Absolutely. In some ways the influence of colonizing Britain and the English language is a similar case. In my book I try to work out some of the implications of my view of Berossus and Manetho by looking at the ways people treat the issues of curating the past in pre- and post-colonial India.

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ As a Professor of Classics, do you find that your students are able to see connections between the Ancient world and modern times, or do they view their study of Ancient Greece as something distant and abstract?

Well, I think a lot depends on how the teacher presents the material. If you teach the material as a set of ‘Great Books’ then at one level you will emphasize points of common human interest, but at the same you’ll risk the students viewing the works as ‘classics’—old and dusty and not relevant to them. One does need to stress the great humanity of ancient Greek literature, but at the same time you need to show your students that ancient Greek culture is not our own – that its literature was produced was produced in very specific times and places. Hopefully, they will see that humanity is united by common problems and the attempts at solving them, but that the way the problems are defined and the attempted solutions bear the hallmarks of the worlds that produce them.

If there is one insight you are trying to convey with Clio’s Other Sons, what is it?

That Hellenization means not, or not just, the use of ancient Greek and Greek culture, but that the Greek language and the culture that produced it became things to think with in the ancient world more broadly. That Greek in particular –much as French once, and now English—became a powerful tool of expression, and Hellenization correspondingly not about ‘becoming Greek’, but that Greek became part of the very fabric of cultural definition.

What next for you? Do you have another book in the pipeline? What subjects are you particularly inspired by at the moment?

I want to go back and work on the Greek historian Herodotus, and especially his working methods and assumptions.

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