What kind of historian are you?

Book being read: Plato, The Laws

New article out: O. Rees, “Horse(wo)men of the Steppes: The Amazons“, Ancient Warfare Magazine

I was at an ancient warfare conference in Aberystwyth not that long ago (which was brilliant by the way) when I started to notice a hierarchy that I had never really seen before. In hindsight I should have guessed it was there, but as is often the way – it is not until you experience something that you can really see it.

What I noticed was that the type of historian you are, or are perceived to be, influences the way other historians talk with you. So, this conference was full of PhD candidates and established academics, with one or two freelance/independent researchers floating about (myself included). It was not until the 2nd day that people began to get inquisitive about your ‘credentials’, “So where are you based?” they would ask, “Nowhere, I’m a freelance historian” I would answer in my innocence . . . a cold wind would blow down my neck as I watch the proverbial tumble weed smack my answer clean in the face. “Oh” they would say, and that would be that – we could no longer talk about history, apparently, and any opinion I then held could be discarded or just plain ignored.

This did not particularly bother me because I was there in an academic capacity and I knew that if my paper could be delivered in a strong manner then the lack of respect afforded to freelancers (also known as popular historians) would be undone. [And what’s more, I had a core group of friends who were not bothered by credentials or styles, but on ideas theories as well as lots and lots of beer.] What interested me was the dismissal of the popular historian, as if that role does not count for anything.

I have a different approach and one I share with anyone who will listen. For me there are three main types of historian, rather usefully summed up by the three ancient Greek historians: Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon.

Type A – Herodotus: The historian who enjoys the nuances to the narrative and wants people to know the stories behind actions, beliefs, events and relationships. This is your classic popular historian, the sort of books which are historically weak but bring the period to life and engage with the wider public. This is the historian who will most likely spark people’s interest in the subject.

Type B – Thucydides: This is your academic historian who tries so hard to balance sources and events that quite often the actual narrative does not aptly tell the stories. They focus on the validity of the method, not on the telling of the events; prefers to discuss arguments rather than action it is brilliant at its analysis and inquisition (but is often very hard to read).

Type C – Xenophon: This is a new breed of historian that is coming from the lack of academic jobs available to people who are more than qualified. It is also coming from historians who decided to leave the academic route but still hold the historical method to be an important tool (this would include me by the way). This historian is trying to marry the first two types by aiming their work at the popular market but at the same time trying to introduce the latest research, not by ‘dumbing it down’ but by removing what I would describe as clutter (more often than not this is semantic debate).

The growth of the Xenophon type is an encouraging sign that up-to-date research may actually begin to filter into the public sphere – something that has been a long time waiting. I would encourage any Xenophon type to continue exposing themselves to the academic element of the discipline by going to conferences, but I would also say that they should present their own papers as well. The reason is twofold: i) peer review is always a good thing and your ideas can be challenged and evolved, ii) it adds credibility to your work from the perspective of the academic world.

I always get a strange reaction when people hear that I am a popular historian, but once I get started talking about my ‘academic style’ research on PTSD in Ancient Greece, these preconceived notions they hold soon melt into the background. Because of this academic engagement I have been able to create a large network of distinguished professors, I have become known for my work in PTSD theory application, and I am having my new method being utilised by historians outside of the Ancient era. So don’t think that the three styles of history are incompatible, and don’t get stuck on the style of history that you work in. Popular engagement is an important element of history, as is the in depth analysis – each has its place.


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2 Responses to What kind of historian are you?

  1. Luke Sprague says:


    I enjoyed this post, thank you for taking time out of your day to write it. As an independent historian with a master’s degree who works on his own I find that often-academic historians look down upon anyone not contained within the ivory towers.

    If you read the OAH newsletter from this month you’ll find academic historians lamenting the fact that it seems they are disconnected from the public and as you call them “popular historians.”

    Really, there are two audiences, similar to what you said, an academic audience, and a public audience. The academic audience focuses inward and particularly engaged on talking to themselves; whereas, the public audience, includes the academic, if, if, the content is written in the vernacular (common) tongue.

    This has been going on since the Middle Ages, no surprises; it is just a question of who is whose patron?

    The patron of the academic audience is the state, the government, the “greater good,” whereas the public audience is the private individual, a company, or private organization.

    The academic audience talks for the purpose of hearing themselves; they also rank themselves based on that ongoing conversation. The public audience talks for a specific goal, albeit, a specific person’s biography, a company history, or reaching a wider audience for sales.


    • owen says:

      Hi Luke,
      I think you are spot on here, I suppose the problem I sometimes observe comes from the strange idea that these various forms of history cannot sit side by side – which I just do not agree with. In my field there is a similar split within academia between ‘ancient historians’ and ‘classicists’, so it is as much to the detriment of the academic conversation as it is the public one.

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