“Stuff I Did”: The Res Gestae, Tulips, and Squeezes

We tend to think of the Latin language as fancy, formal, and technical. But my favorite Latin word when I am teaching ancient Roman civilization in Origins of the West is “res,” which means “thing.” In Origins, we encounter it in the term res publica, literally the “public thing,” which began, according to tradition, in 509 BCE, when the Roman people, led by Brutus the Liberator, exiled King Tarquin the Proud and replaced the monarchy with a republic. A monarchy is a private thing—the king treats the kingdom like he owns it—but a republic is a public thing, owned by the people as a whole.

We also encounter the word when we read Vergil’s Aeneid, which begins in medias res—in the middle of things.1 Book one of the Aeneid begins with Aeneas already in Carthage; we learn the previous events, the fall of Troy and his voyage to north Africa, through flashbacks, as Aeneas narrates them at the banquet Queen Dido throws for him in books two and three. By book four, we’re back to the present.2

I made this diagram to illustrate how the Aeneid is structured in medias res. The numbered items on the outside of the arch are the events in the order they occurred; the book numbers on the inside of the arch are the order in which we read them.

Finally, my favorite use of my favorite Latin word is in the phrase res gestae, or “things done.” This is the title of a document written by the emperor Augustus (63 BCE-14 CE) near the end of his life.3 The title is usually translated “accomplishments” or “achievements,” but it basically means “stuff I did.” So we’ve got “public stuff,” “in the middle of stuff,” and “stuff I did.” So much for fancy, formal, and technical.

We know of the existence of the Augustus’ Res Gestae from a passage in the biography of Augustus by the ancient Roman author Suetonius, written around 120 CE. Suetonius tells us that Augustus compiled a list of his accomplishments and arranged for them to be published on bronze tablets to be erected in front of his mausoleum in Rome.4

The bronze tablets no longer survive, but a copy that was sent to the provinces does. The Latin text of the Res Gestae is carved into the interior walls of the cella (the inner room) of the Temple of Augustus in what is now Ankara, Turkey (then Ankyra, provincial capital of Galatia). A Greek translation is found on the exterior wall (which makes sense, as Galatia was in the Greek-speaking part of the empire). The inscription is also known as the Monumentum Ancyranum.5

The ruins of the Temple of Augustus in Ankara. Only the cella is still standing.

I use a translation of this text whenever I teach the Age of Augustus. It’s a rare example of an extant ancient historical text that is not only contemporary with its subject but also written by the person in whose voice it is. (Unlike, for example, the Suetonius biography, written about a century after Augustus died, or the Funeral Oration of Pericles, written by Thucydides in Pericles’ voice.)

A portion of the Latin inscription of the Res Gestae on the wall of the Temple of Augustus.

In the document, Augustus lists the achievements he wishes to be remembered by. It’s a combination of a memoir, curriculum vitae, and a completed to-do list. The document is not particularly well-organized, but if we were to reorder the items and group them under headings (which is what I have my students do), they might look something like this:

  • Military Victories and Conquests
  • Diplomacy and Peacemaking
  • Public Works
  • Donations
  • Restoration of the Mores Maiorum (the “ways of the ancestors”)

If you are familiar with the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where John Cleese’s character asks, “What have the Romans done for us,” you might think of the Res Gestae as Augustus’ answer to the question, “What has Augustus done for us?” And both answers would include “the aqueduct” and “brought peace.”

Equally as fascinating as the document’s content is the story of how it was found. I knew that it survived only in the provincial copy carved into the Temple of Augustus in Ankara, and I knew that at some point it was recognized as the work of Augustus. Beyond that, I vaguely assumed that it had been identified by a classically-educated nineteenth-century British diplomat—like Lord Elgin, only less destructive.

As usual, I was partially right. My instincts were correct, but I was off on the details (just like with King Arthur flour). It wasn’t a classically-educated nineteenth-century British diplomat; it was a classically-educated sixteenth-century Flemish diplomat. Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522-1592) was ambassador of Emperor Ferdinand of Austria to Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent. During his time there, between 1554 and 1562, Ghiselin de Busbecq traveled around the Ottoman empire and later published his observations in Turkish Letters (1581). He wrote,6

Here we saw a very beautiful inscription, containing a copy of the tablets in which Augustus gave a summary of his achievements. We made our people copy as much as was legible. It is engraved on the marble walls of a building now ruinous and roofless which formerly may have formed the official residence of the governor. As you enter the building one half of the inscription is on the right, and the other on the left. The top lines are nearly perfect; in the middle the gaps begin to present difficulties; the lowest lines are so mutilated with blows of clubs and axes as to be illegible. This is indeed a great literary loss, and one which scholars have much reason to regret; the more so as it is an ascertained fact that Ancyra was dedicated to Augustus as the common gift of Asia.

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq

 Recognizing the Res Gestae wasn’t Ghiselin de Busbecq’s only accomplishment. He was also interested in plants, and claimed to have been the person who introduced tulip bulbs to Europe. This claim was an exaggeration, but Ghiselin de Busbecq probably contributed to their popularization. 7 Tulips became so popular in the Dutch Republic of the 17th century that the buying and selling of the bulbs is referred to as “Tulipmania,” and the rise and subsequent collapse of the market in 1637 is considered an early example of an investment bubble. 8

‘Still Life with Flowers,’ 1639, by Hans Bollinger (fl. 1623-1672), now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. The striped tulips, known as ‘broken,’ were the most highly sought-after during the tulip craze. It is now known that the ‘break’ is caused by a virus. Coincidentally, the name of the most valuable broken variety was ‘Semper Augustus.’

The surviving copy of the Res Gestae was mentioned by classical scholars a few times in the subsequent centuries, but serious study of it was only undertaken in the nineteenth century, beginning with the work of Theodor Mommsen, a groundbreaking German historian of ancient Rome. Mommsen was not an archeologist, and he did not travel to Turkey to study the inscription in person. Rather, he relied on drawings made by others to produce his scholarly edition of the Res Gestae in 1865, and a second edition that utilized plaster casts of the inscription in 1883.9

Another technology that has been developed by epigraphers (people who study inscriptions) is known as “squeezes.” A squeeze is made by pressing dampened paper onto the inscription, letting it dry, then lifting it off. The resulting impression is lightweight and easy to work with (although the image is reversed; epigraphers have to become adept at reading ancient languages backwards). Taking a squeeze allows for prolonged study of the text off-site, and for simultaneous study of inscriptions from multiple sites.

I was delighted to learn that Cornell University, my doctoral institution, has an extensive collection of squeezes, including the Res Gestae. The Res Gestae squeeze was obtained as part of the Cornell Expedition to Asia Minor and the Assyro-Babylonian Orient (1907-1908). I was not aware of this collection’s existence while I was studying there, although ancient Greek and Roman history was one of my minor fields. At that point, in the pre-digital era, the squeezes were just sitting in storage in the attic of Goldwin Smith Hall, home of Cornell’s Classics department. But the squeezes have since been restored and digitized.

One of the squeezes of the Res Gestae now in Cornell’s collection.

Another Cornell connection to the Res Gestae, slightly more tenuous, is that Theodor Ernst Mommsen (1905-1958), grandson of Theodor Mommsen, taught medieval history at Cornell beginning in 1954 (having escaped Nazi Germany in 1935) until his untimely death from suicide in 1958. His successor was Brian Tierney, with whom I studied.

In the 1930s, archeologists excavated the Ara Pacis, an Augustan monument mentioned in the Res Gestae10

When I returned to Rome from Spain and Gaul, having settled affairs successfully in these provinces, in the consulship of Tiberius Nero and Publius Quinctilius [13 BC], the senate decreed that an altar of Augustan Peace should be consecrated in thanks for my return on the field of Mars, and ordered magistrates and priests and Vestal Virgins to perform an annual sacrifice there.

As part of his program to connect his rule to the glories of imperial Rome, Mussolini had a museum constructed to house the Ara Pacis, located near the ruins of the mausoleum of Augustus on the banks of the Tiber. The text of the Res Gestae was carved into an exterior wall of the museum. The Ara Pacis museum opened in 1938, a year celebrated as the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Augustus.11

Mussolini’s Ara Pacis museum. The Res Gestae was carved on the wall in the foreground.

The Mussolini-era museum has since been demolished and replaced with a new building, completed in 2006, designed by American architect Richard Meier. The wall with the Res Gestae was preserved, however. So if you want to see an inscribed version of the Res Gestae, there’s no need to visit Ankara; there’s one in Rome, near its original location, although not on a bronze tablet.

Whenever an academic administrator asks me for the goals of a course, I always use the same three (polished a bit more for administrative consumption):

  • Teach them stuff (content).
  • Teach them to do stuff (skills).
  • Teach them how it relates to other stuff (connections).

The Res Gestae is a perfect example of this approach in action. Teach them stuff: the document is literally made up of, and named for, the stuff Augustus did. Teach them to do stuff: in addition to the skill of reading and interpreting a document, the Res Gestae also gives students the opportunity to learn about disciplines like archeology and epigraphy and techniques like squeezes that lie behind the conveniently anthologized, printed, translated text in front of them. Teach them how it relates to other stuff: the history of the Res Gestae not only connects to the history of the interest in and study of the classics—by Ghiselin de Busbecq in the 16th century, Mommsen in the 19th, and Mussolini in the 20th—it also, more unexpectedly, connects to the history of horticulture and early-modern capitalism. No wonder it’s one of my favorite texts to teach.

Vergil or Virgil: What’s in a Roman Name?

Yesterday I made a brief Facebook post regarding an insight one of my students had during a discussion of Book II of Vergil’s Aeneid (the Fall of Troy). The account of the attack on Priam’s palace reminded him of the siege of Helm’s Deep in Tolkien’s The Two Towers. A friend of mine questioned my spelling of “Vergil” in the post. I assured him that I was correct and realized that this was a perfect opportunity for a blog post on Roman onomastics (the study of naming customs).

My friend thought that the correct spelling for the name of the poet of the Aeneid is “Virgil.” He’s not wrong: look at the cover of my (well-thumbed) copy of the Fitzgerald translation of the Aeneid.

So why did I write “Vergil” and not “Virgil”? The poet, of course, didn’t spell his name either of those ways. His full name was Publius Vergilius Maro. But that just leads us to another question: why are we referring to him by a shortened form of his middle name? Well, it’s not a middle name in our understanding of the term—that is, the second of two personal names chosen by our parents, and followed by our last name, which is the family name. The name in the middle position of a 3-part Roman male name was not a personal name chosen by one’s parents; it was part of the family name. In other words, Publius Vergilius Maro’s father and brothers would also be named Firstname Vergilius Maro, and not Firstname Middlename Maro.

Here’s how it worked. The name of a male Roman typically had three parts:

The praenomen (first name) Marcus
The nomen (clan or gens name): Tullius
The cognomen (branch of the gens): Cicero

There were so few praenomines available that the Romans developed a set of standard abbreviations for them; these abbreviations are found, for example, in inscriptions on Roman monuments. They are also commonly used by modern writers. So we could refer to our poet as P. Vergilius Maro, and there would be no doubt that we are talking about a Publius. Here are all the praenomines and their abbreviations (I tell my students that an ancient Roman baby name book was a single page):

A.Aulus
App.Appius
C.Caius or Gaius
Cn.Cnaeus or Gnaeus
D.Decimus
K.Kaeso or Caeso
L.Lucius
M.Marcus
M’Manius
Mam.Mamercus
N.Numerius
P.Publius
Q.Quintus
S. or Sex.Sextus
Ser.Servius
Sp.Spurius
T.Titus
Ti.Tiberius

Notice that not only are there merely eighteen names to choose from, but some of them are just numbers: Quintus, Sextus, and Decimus (Fifth, Sixth, and Tenth)! I don’t know if those names were reserved for actual fifth, sixth, or tenth sons (or children); I also don’t know why the other numbers are missing.

A boy born after the death of his father was given the praenomen “Postumus.” Sometimes a second cognomen was added (later called an agnomen), especially in honor of military achievements: P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus (P. Cornelius Scipio, the conqueror of Africa). If a boy was adopted by another family, he would assume the new family’s nomen and cognomen; his original nomen would have the syllable “an” inserted in it (making it an adjective) and would become his agnomen. For example, when P. Aemilius Paullus was adopted by the Scipio family, his new name became P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus (the Aemilian Cornelius Scipio). Similarly, when C. Octavius was adopted by C. Julius Caesar, his new name became C. Julius Caesar Octavianus (the Octavian Julius Caesar). We commonly refer to him as “Octavian.” (Later, he was granted the agnomen “Augustus”).

If this is how male names worked, how about female names? Was there a corresponding list of female praenomines, and was P. Vergilius Maro’s mother known as Mrs. Vergilius Maro? No and no. Female Romans had only one name: the name of their father’s gens (his nomen) with a feminine ending. If a family had more than one daughter, they would be distinguished by maior (the elder) and minor (the younger). Roman women did not change their names at marriage. Here are some examples:

C. Julius Caesar’s daughter = Julia
M. Tullius Cicero’s daughter = Tullia
L. Aemilius Paullus’ daughter = Aemilia
T. Livius’ daughter = Livia

Back to Vergilian spelling. One good indication that a particular Roman has had a prominent place in the western tradition is if his name has been anglicized. We don’t say “Q. Horatius Flaccus”; we say “Horace.” We don’t say “T. Livius”; we say “Livy.” We don’t say “P. Vergilius Maro”; we say “Vergil.” But that still doesn’t answer the question where “Virgil” came from.

The answer is that it comes from the Middle Ages. The poet of the Aeneid was especially revered during the Middle Ages, when his work was used for divination: a questioner would open the Aeneid at random and point to a line, whose significance would then be used to answer the question. This practice is known as the sortes Vergilianae (or Virgilianae). As a result, the poet got a reputation as having been a magician. The Latin word for “magic wand” was virga; hence, his name came to be spelled “Virgilius.” This was later anglicized as Virgil.

Today, both spellings are used and both are acceptable. I prefer “Vergil” because it’s closer to his original name. But if I were writing about medieval uses of the Aeneid (for example, in Dante’s Divine Comedy), I would probably spell it “Virgil.”

Schliemann Syndrome

A trireme. A warp-weighted loom. A hike across the mountains of Attica. A peplos. Jumping weights. Hoplite armor.

What do all these items have in common (apart from their connection to ancient Greece)? They are all examples of a phenomenon in classical studies that I have labeled “Schliemann Syndrome.”

Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) is well known as the excavator of ancient Troy and Mycenae. His work, along with that of other pioneering archaeologists like Sir Arthur Evans, pushed back the boundaries of ancient Mediterranean history by thousands of years. But Schliemann was no average dry-as-dust academic.1

Heinrich Schliemann

Most classical scholars of his era believed that the poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were entirely works of the imagination. Nothing like the Trojan War ever occurred, and the Homeric poems were literature and not in any way historical.

Schliemann had a different attitude. He saw Homer as a historian and his account of the Trojan War as a reliable history. Schliemann was not an academic; he was mostly self-taught. But he was fluent in multiple languages, including ancient Greek, and, having made his fortune in business (including in the California Gold Rush!), he had the resources to test his hypothesis.

In 1871, he began his excavation at Hissarlik, a mound on the Aegean coast of what was then the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey), one of the possible candidates for the site of ancient Troy. Among the artifacts he found there in 1873 was a cache of golden objects, which he labeled “The Treasure of Priam.”2 Priam was the wealthy and powerful king of Troy during the Trojan War, so clearly, reasoned Schliemann, any treasure found in Troy must be his. Some of the treasure was jewelry, and Schliemann took a photo of his wife Sophia wearing what he called “the jewels of Helen of Troy.” Who wears jewelry? Beautiful women. Who was the most beautiful woman in the world, who, according to Homer, was living in Troy? Helen. Ergo, the jewels were hers.

Sophia Schliemann wearing the “Jewels of Helen of Troy.”

Schliemann believed that having found the remains of a wealthy, hitherto unknown civilization on the site of Troy meant that he had proved his hypothesis, that the Homeric poems were historical. We might see some holes in this argument, but Schliemann didn’t. Instead, having found the home of one side in the Trojan War, he set out in 1876 to explore the home of their opponents. Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek contingent, was called by Homer the King of Mycenae, and so to Mycenae Schliemann went. There, among the artifacts of a pre-classical Greek civilization that would come to be called “Mycenaean,” Schliemann found a hammered-gold death mask. Who would get an elaborate burial with precious grave goods? A king. Who was king of Mycenae? Agamemnon. So Schliemann, naturally, promptly identified it as the “Mask of Agamemnon.”

The Mask of Agamemnon, now in the National Museum of Athens.

Schliemann was an important scholar who made significant discoveries, but as you can see, he was enthusiastic to the point of obsession and tended to over-identify with his subject. For example, he named the two children he had with Sophia “Andromache” (the wife of the Trojan hero Hector) and “Agamemnon.”3 In his honor, I refer to examples of later scholars who behave similarly as exhibiting “Schliemann Syndrome.”

One of the most significant, most studied, and most controversial events in ancient Greek history is the Battle of Marathon. The main source for the battle, Herodotus’ Histories, raises a number of questions. For example, Herodotus states that the Athenian army advanced on the invading Persian force “at a run.” Many classicists have questioned whether it was physically possible for the heavily armed Athenian hoplite phalanx to do this, especially given that the two armies were a mile apart. How to resolve the question? Run an experiment with American college students. In 1973, two professors at Penn State, Walter Donlan and James Thompson, equipped Physical Education majors with 15 lbs. of weight and had them run in formation for 1600 yards; they couldn’t do it. Donlan and Thompson concluded that Herodotus’ account was inaccurate.4

Another Marathonian question arises in the aftermath of the battle, when, Herodotus says, the victorious Athenian army marched back to the city as quickly as possible, hoping to arrive before the (still intact) Persian fleet could round the peninsula of Attica.5 Could they have made it back in the time Herodotus says they did? British scholar N.G.L. Hammond (1907-2001), author of a standard textbook in ancient Greek history,6 writes,

Taking the direct route from Mt Pentelicus, I walked fast from Athens to the mound at Marathon in 6 hours and returned the same day to Athens in 7 hours.7

Based on this experience, Hammond concludes that Herodotus’ account of the timing is plausible.

Perhaps the most dramatic instance of Schliemann Syndrome that I have come across is also connected to the Persian Wars: the reconstructed trireme Olympias. Ancient historians had many questions about the trireme, the three-oared warship that brought the Athenian navy victory in the Battle of Salamis in the 2nd Persian War in 480 and was the foundation of their fifth-century empire. For one, how were the “3 oars” (the literal meaning of “trireme”) arranged? If there were three levels of oars, how was the ship constructed so that they didn’t get tangled up with each other? How easy was the ship to maneuver? How fast could it go?

Another British scholar, John Morrison (1913-2000), hypothesized that the 3 levels of oars were cantilevered out from the hull. He tested his hypothesis by building a full-sized replica of an ancient trireme and then launching it in the Aegean Sea beginning in 1987. I brought Ford Weiskittel, one of the organizers and volunteer rowers involved in this effort, to Mount St Mary’s to speak back in the 1990’s. I took him to dinner before his talk and told him about the concept of Schliemann Syndrome, and then somewhat hesitantly suggested that Olympias was a manifestation of it. He immediately replied, “oh, absolutely.”

The trireme Olympias.

Not all instances of Schliemann Syndrome are military. While preparing a class on ancient Greek athletics, I learned about the practice of using halteres, or “jumping weights,” in the long jump event. Curious about how these worked, I discovered a study undertaken at Texas Tech University in which scholars constructed some weights, gave them to student athletes, and measured their efforts.

The history of textiles is another area that lends itself to Schliemann Syndrome. Looking for images of Minoan artifacts, I came across not only the so-called Snake Goddess figurines uncovered in Crete but also modern re-creations of the costume.

The Penelope Project, named for the wife of Odysseus in the Odyssey who tricks her suitors by unraveling by night the shroud she weaves by day, explores the technology of ancient weaving. I’ve also found patterns and videos for making a peplos, the dress worn by ancient Greek women.

I wanted to show a clearer representation of the peplos to my students, so I made Peplos Barbie.8 Uh-oh—I think I’ve caught the Syndrome.

Pumbaa the Philosopher

My favorite scene in the movie The Lion King is the one where the three friends—Timon the meerkat, Pumbaa the warthog, and Simba the lion—are lying on their backs looking at the night sky and discussing the stars. Pumbaa asks the others if they’d ever wondered what “those sparkly dots” are. Timon replies that he knows what they are—they’re fireflies that got stuck in “that big bluish-black thing.” Pumbaa answers that he always thought they were “balls of gas burning billions of miles away.” Finally, after much prodding, Simba says, “Somebody once told me that the great kings of the past are up there watching over us,” and the other two laugh at him.

This is my favorite scene because it’s the perfect way to introduce a class discussion of the beginnings of ancient Greek philosophy. Simba’s explanation is different from the other two. It is mythical, in the original ancient Greek sense of “storytelling”—a mythos is literally a story. Simba even presents it as a story that someone told him (the audience knows it was his father Mufasa): “Somebody once told me” that the stars were “the great kings of the past.”

In contrast, both Timon’s and Pumbaa’s explanations are what we could call scientific—based on observations explained rationally. Timon’s explanation is based on everyday sense experience. Fireflies are sparkly things that fly around at night, so the stars must be fireflies that got stuck in the dome of the sky. Pumbaa’s explanation (which, of course, is the right one—the stars really are “balls of gas burning billions of miles away”) depends on observations made at a distance incorporated into a rational framework. 1

Timon’s and Simba’s explanations are analogous to the ideas of the earliest Greek philosophers. In the 6th century B.C.E., some Greeks who lived in cities in the region known as Ionia (the west coast of Asia Minor, or modern Turkey) began to give rational instead of mythical answers to questions about the natural world. “Nature” in ancient Greek is physis, so they are called the “Ionian physicists”—the guys from Ionia who studied nature.2 These early philosophers were convinced that the universe, although apparently chaotic, is actually orderly and can be explained rationally. The Greek word for “chaos” was chaos; the Greek word for “order” was cosmos, which was then extended to refer to the orderly universe (the cosmos has a cosmos). The Ionian physicists thought that the apparent diversity and disorder of the universe could be reduced to a single underlying principle, which they called the arche. Thales, for example, proposed that the arche was water; for Anaximenes it was air.

Herodotus, the first Greek historian (literally, “inquirer”), mostly inquired about human events. But his curiosity was so omnivorous that he sometimes inquired about natural phenomena—physis—as well. For example, in book II of the Histories, where he discusses Egypt, he wonders about the annual flooding of the Nile. He presents three possible explanations, all of which he rejects, but which correspond well to the three friends from Lion King.

One of Herodotus’ explanations, like Simba’s “great kings of the past,” is mythical. The Nile “flows from Ocean,” which flows “round the whole world.” Herodotus says that this explanation “has less knowledge” and is “more wonderful in the telling” than the others because it has its source in poets like Homer: this “story . . . is indeed only a tale” [mythos]that “cannot be disproved. . . . . For myself, I do not know that there is any river Ocean, but I think that Homer or one of the older poets found the name and introduced it into his poetry.”3

In contrast, Herodotus’ other two explanations of the Nile floods are rational, similar to Timon’s and Pumbaa’s understandings of the stars. One is based, like Timon’s fireflies, on everyday sense experience. The Nile floods, some say, because winds from the north prevent the river water from flowing into the Mediterranean, causing it to back up and overflow its banks. Unfortunately, says Herodotus, those winds don’t always blow, yet the river still floods. 4 The other rational explanation, like Pumbaa’s, depends on processes that are far removed from what we can see. It is “more reasonable-seeming than the others yet is the most deceived; for it too makes no sense at all. It declares that the Nile comes from the source of melting snow.” But that is contrary to reason, Herodotus argues, because upstream the Nile flows through climates even hotter than Egypt’s—so how could there be any snow there to melt?5

After debunking the three explanations, Herodotus proceeds to give his own—which is also wrong, as it turns out.6 The Nile actually flooded because of monsoon rains far from Egypt.7 But the first three explanations are a textbook demonstration of the shift from mythical understanding of the cosmos to a rational one. It’s almost like Herodotus saw The Lion King.

Thanks to my colleague Michael Sollenberger for consultation on Herodotus’ language.

Asking Historical Questions: Wait, that’s Redundant

One of the history courses I took as an undergraduate at Santa Clara University was History of California with the late Father Jerry McKevitt, S.J.1 The class was very interesting, and I enjoyed doing my research paper on Helen Hunt Jackson, a 19th-century reformer whose novel Ramona became known as the “Indian Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”2 I didn’t go on to study California history in graduate school or to teach it in any of my classes. I do, however, frequently make use of something I learned in the class. One day Father McKevitt was returning graded papers to us, and they must have been pretty bad, because I remember him saying, “Listen, people. History answers two questions: ‘What happened?’ and ‘So what?’” (I assume that this particular set of papers had not done a good job of answering one or both of these questions.) I remember thinking to myself, “Whoa. That’s so true.” In just about every one of my history courses, at some time or other I quote Father McKevitt to the students.

Father Gerald McKevitt, S.J.

Approaching the study of our discipline by means of asking questions is particularly appropriate for historians. Of course, practitioners of any scholarly discipline might say that they begin by asking questions. But for us historians, it’s right in our name. The first writer to use the word “history” in the context of the study of the past was the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, known as the “Father of History.” The English title of his work is Histories, a translation of the original ancient Greek Historie, meaning “inquiries” (from the verb historien, “to inquire”). This is his opening sentence:

“These are the researches [historie] of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feud.” 3

Because what Herodotus inquired about was the events of the past (“the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the barbarians”), and because he presented the answers to his inquiries in book form (“These are the researches [historie] of Herodotus of Halicarnassus”), the word historie came to mean not just the act of inquiry but also the subject of the inquiry (the history of the Persian Wars) and the result of the inquiry (A History of the Persian Wars). But students of history should always keep in mind that doing history begins with asking questions. And make sure that your historical writing clearly and completely answers both the “what happened?” and the “so what?” Father McKevitt said so!