Back in 2002, I attended the European Social Science History Conference for the first time, in The Hague. Despite discovering that, as an impecunious young scholar who had looked for the very cheapest accommodation available, I was booked into a run-down holiday camp several miles out of town with no restaurants anywhere nearby, I had an amazing time; it was a great opportunity to meet other ancient historians from Europe and the US with an interest in social and economic history, but also to attend sessions organised by historians of other periods, focusing on themes like historical theory, migration, gender, peasants and demography. I came away fired up with enthusiasm, and with the idea that we ought to set up an email list for ancient ec & soc historians to stay in touch with one another – but was talked down by a colleague, who suggested that such a thing really wasn’t necessary when we have the Classicists email list.
Since then, I’ve attended all but one of the biennial ESSHC events, which continue to be enormously stimulating, and indeed risen (aka been press-ganged) to become one of the Network Chairs (along with Arjan Zuiderhoek from Ghent) who organise the Antiquity section of the programme, soliciting proposals for panels and reviewing the unsolicited paper proposals we receive. It continues to be a great way of keeping up with current research in the field from across the globe (this year, a whole contingent of Brazilians came along!) and especially from new, up-and-coming researchers – and I’ve continued to feel that it would be good to have a bit more continuity, a way for us to stay in touch in between the conferences and to include those who couldn’t make it for whatever reason. This time two years ago I got to the point of making some serious plans for setting up a blog – one or two people may recall getting an email from me to this effect – but that fell by the wayside due to lack of time and energy.
But now we have this; partly because over the last two years I’ve developed a still stronger sense of how the internet is reshaping research culture and academic discourse, partly because a strong message from those who attended ESSHC this year (in Valencia) was the need for better communication, both among ourselves and with the wider community of ancient historians, and this feels like the easiest way to do it. This is not intended to be the sort of blog that depends on publishing new posts every week; rather, the idea is that it will operate as a hub for the ESSHC antiquity network – we plan to post reports on the conference sessions over the next month or so, and will happily include calls for papers and conference announcements on relevant themes, as well as our own – but with the possibility that it can become something more if people wish it to be. We can imagine book events, round table discussions of key works in the field, but also the chance for scholars (especially young scholars) to put up posts based on their research as a means of promoting debate and getting feedback, when they’re too busy to set up a blog of their own. Other suggestions always welcome; anything to promote the field of Social Science Ancient History.
Which does beg the question: what the hell is that? I’m not sure it’s a name any of us would necessarily have chosen, or would automatically apply to our own work, but it is the designation of the organisation from which this blog has emerged – and it does mark out a distinctive attitude or approach to ancient historical research. It’s defined not by subject matter, in the way that we do tend to describe ourselves as ‘economic historians’ or ‘cultural historians’ or the like, but by an openness to theoretical and methodological questions, a willingness to explore new possibilities and above all to open up conversations with other disciplines. It is open and inclusive rather than restrictive, with the risk of becoming unhelpfully vague – I would see no problem in applying it to ancient historians as varied in their approaches as Finley, Hopkins, Loraux, Ober, Vidal-Naquet, Humphreys or Halperin – but at the same time I can imagine some colleagues reacting to it with instinctive horror or hostility.
Which is, I think, as it should be. There remain serious theoretical and methodological issues within ancient history that need to be debated – and whatever you may think is the best way forward, there’s no denying that the relationship between history/classical studies/humanities in general and the social sciences is something we all need to think about in the modern university, if not the world more generally. This blog aims to be one of the sites where such thinking can take place…