Saturday 12 November 2016

Historiographical Greatness

The discussion we have had about how Alexander III of Macedon came to be known as ‘the Great’ has been, to me, at least, fascinating. There is a great deal there about how we view, receive, and consume, even, history. Even those of you who basically said that Alexander was great are taking a historiographical view.  Greatness is, of course, is the eye of the beholder.

As was pointed out, other people through history have been given the epithet of ‘the Great’ – Peter, Catherine, Frederick, Alfred. In many cases it seems that this is so because they have a historical achievement to their name, or at least a set of spectacular bits of achievement which have accumulated around their name. Peter did a bit of westernising and beat the Swedes. Catherine did a bit of land expanding (not personally, I don’t think). Alfred did a bit of defending and brought in some literacy. And so on. Whether a leader is a great one depends on what you care to examine.

More recently, of course, there has been a decline in greatness. In part, I suspect, this is because historiography has changed rather. Instead of the ‘great man’ (or ‘great woman’} view of history, which allows alexander to conquer the world and gives him the credit, there has been the rise of other historiographical viewpoints.

I may have mentioned before that there are a variety of views about the causes, course and conclusion of the English Civil Wars (which were neither English nor Civil, but let us leave that argument for another day).  These views include religion, the rise of the gentry, the fall of the gentry, the poor weather in the first half of the seventeenth century, the fissiparous nature of the three kingdoms (and one principality), the increasing power of Parliament, the decreasing power of Parliament and so on.

Similarly, depending on what you focus on, you can make a case for the wars being won by Puritan discipline, or by the fact that the navy backed Parliament, or by the victory of the hard liners in London in 1644 leading to the creation of the New Model Army, and so on. History, and more importantly, the interpretation of history, is never that simple.

Perhaps that is why I do feel a little disappointed in those wargamers who simply argue that Alexander was great, and deserves his plus three on the general-ship dice. Firstly, they decline to engage in any historiographical comparisons, and secondly they miss out on a good deal of interesting stuff. Maybe Alexander was great, but he did have to work and win battles in a certain strategic and historical context. He had no access to machine guns, and so had to make the pike work as hard as possible.

The context in which any general works is something of a given. Generals are notorious for entering into a war ready to fight the last one, but as someone pointed out recently in the news, really, given funding constraints, particularly in peace time, the generals have little choice in the matter. Alexander came to the throne in a kingdom already committed to invading Asia; in fact, it already had done so. While it would be theoretically possible for Alexander to have withdrawn the expeditionary force, it would probably not have gone down too well at home. The invasion was pretty well forced upon him by circumstances.

Similarly, the arguments on the Parliamentary side in late 1644 pretty well forced a change in the nature of the armies and general-ship. A number of factors were recognised, implicitly if not explicitly. Firstly, and most importantly, there was the question of what winning the war might look like. What would happen if the war was lost was perfectly clear – the Parliamentary leaders would hang. What winning would look like was more difficult. How do you negotiate with a defeated king who is still king?

Despite these issues, the most pressing factor was that the war had to be won. This consisted in a number of facets, such as creating the NMA, although actually that army was only one of a number of forces operating in 1644-5. The difference is that Fairfax was permitted to do what it took to win the war without constantly referring to London. Thus came about the string of victories in the summer and autumn of 1645.

The freeing up of the military strategy of the Parliamentary forces was a major factor, but not the only factor, in winning the first Civil War. The country was weary of troops and fighting. Trade was depressed and taxation was high. Some sort of solution was needed. This is the context for the political decisions which eventually won the war.

What, then, of the great man thesis? Was Alexander just lucky to hit the Persian Empire just when it was at its most rocky? Did the political and economic situation in the Empire simply suit an invader with a reasonably good army that, even when he made mistakes, could fight its way out of trouble? These are historiographical questions, and are unlikely to be decided one way or the other.

On a similar theme, of course, we can question whether Cromwell was a great leader or just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Again, as I’ve tried to point out, the context was specific. The war was won before Cromwell really came to prominence as a war leader, but we see him as the person of the wars. Whig history of the late Victorian era has a lot to answer for here.

As I mentioned, there are no real answers here. The evidence is, broadly speaking, given. All we argue about are interpretations. In ECW studies, the debate is swinging back from the Marxist sort of economic and radical politics explanations towards to view that the major problems were the King himself and unresolved (and probably, unresolvable) issues in religion, which themselves related back to differences between Charles and a lot of his subjects. But this is a change of interpretation, a change of emphasis in how we view the importance of what was going on. We could suggest that it has arisen as a consequence of the realisation that in the contemporary world, religion is more important than the secular Marxist historians might have thought.

But the point, I think, is that the question is never quite so straightforward as ‘was Alexander the great?’


  1. In the particular case of Alfred, it could be that the epithet was coined simply to divert attention from his dreadful record as a pastrycook - I think it's a PR scam - even Catherine, whose activities with horses were notorious. There's a thread developing here - Alexander obviously wished to cover up some awful failure or personal inadequacy. We need more research.

    1. I think you may be onto something with this line of thinking.

    2. We could, of course, simply invent something for all of them. It would probably be far more interesting than the 'real' thing, even from the limited resources of a wargamers non-wargaming imagination....

    3. Ooooooh....

      I am, of course, sorely cut through.

  2. Is the concept of greatness actually about the great person per se, or is it about the needs of those that labeled them as great? How many were known as great in their own life times as opposed to being labeled as great? Where later generations applied the epithet, I suspect some nationalistic myth-building was going on. I'm sure someone must have written on this, and the myth-building concept would certainly fit with the justifications I have read by some medieval historians for e.g. the Norman invasion of England.

    1. I think this is true, but i also think that there is a bit of useful historical shorthand going on: I'm pondering Charles the Bold at the moment, for example.

      As for the Normans, I suspect that Bill would prefer 'William the Conqueror' than 'William the Bastard', whatever the nuanced historical implications the latter might have.

      Earlier in the year I did meet someone who was working on the Victorian appropriation of the Black Prince as a national symbol of something or another. On the other hand, 'the Black Prince' is another bit of handy historical short-hand.

    2. Historical shorthand is useful, but it can also get in the way when people lose sight of what it is a shorthand for. We see plenty of examples where the shorthand becomes the reality rather than a signpost to the reality.

    3. I guess we all like to categorise things and people; it saves us having to think.

      Charles was Bold, Alexander was Great, Hammurabi was the Law Giver and so on. It frees up so much brain power for the important things, like all the Christmas advertising that is breaking out at the moment.

  3. This is a very good topic. Thinking how little we are able to explain the current year's events leads me to the conclusion that we will never have any real idea about the past.

    It all seems to be just "a series of unfortunate events".

    1. Yes, but it is slightly worse than that: a series of unfortunate events, most of which we are clueless about.