I have been in the academy now, as a student or an instructor, some forty-four years. I have witnessed all sorts of changes – most strikingly, a vast expansion in the scope, reach, and cost of the administration (which now dwarfs the faculty in most institutions). One thing has not changed, however – the peculiar rhythm that punctuates the academic year.
The first part of every term is for students and for those who teach them light-hearted. We start out well rested. The material is new and exciting for the most interested students and familiar and welcome to those not teaching it for the first time. Most important of all, there are no exams, no papers to write, and nothing to grade.
When I was a student, I found that I had the time to read books and articles of significance that I was not required to read, and I freely and joyfully indulged myself. When I became an instructor, if I was not teaching a new course, I found that I could continue for a time nibbling away at the research and writing that I had been doing in the summer.
Soon enough, however, four, five, or six weeks into the term, the deluge begins. There are preliminary exams to take or administer and papers to write or grade, and one must bear down to catch up or get the grading done. At this point, self-indulgence comes to an end. Or, at least, it should. Those students who wish to succeed set aside their outside reading, and their instructors set aside their research projects. The latter may still find some time to read things that they need to read, but very little writing gets done – except under the pressure of a deadline. For once the deluge begins, it does not stop. After the first preliminary exam comes the second, and there are additional papers as well.
By the end of term, exhaustion sets in. After Thanksgiving, on virtually every campus, there is a flu epidemic. The main function of the vacation is to put a substantial proportion of the student body on planes so that they can contract diseases from their fellow travelers, bring them back, and infect those who remained on campus or traveled only a short distance for the holiday. In the Spring, disease is less of a problem, and, at least in northern climes, the change in weather ordinarily brings relief. But there is exhaustion nonetheless. At my 9 a.m. classes, young people who are ordinarily energetic and attractive (as the young tend to be) with some frequency look like something the cat dragged in.
This year, my teaching was especially demanding. In the morning on the days I taught, I lectured on the origins of war, using case studies – the Peloponnesian War, World War I, the Second Punic War, World War II, and the Cuban Missile Crisis – intended to illustrate the dangers associated with entangling alliances, the difficulties of crafting a lasting peace, and the folly to which fecklessness can give rise. This course is hard on the students. Comparative history requires jumping from example to example, and one must learn the details from scratch over and over again. Structurally, there may be similarities between some of the cases. Noticing the similarities and the differences is the point of the course. But the devil really is in the details. Circumstances which are similar are never quite the same, and one must attend to the particularities of each case. This course is less hard on me than on my students. I have taught it frequently in the past. But I do have to remind myself of much that may in the interim have slipped my mind.
In the afternoons came the genuine challenge. I am working on a book on early Sparta – before and during the Persian Wars – and I wanted to teach a course that would require me to present what I had learned to an audience of relatively well-informed, diligent, and interested undergraduates. If I could explain myself to them, I could explain myself to that part of the reading public apt to purchase such a book. It is, I have always known, amazing what one learns in the process of trying to explain something of this sort to others unfamiliar with it.
Even more to the point, I taught the course with an eye to forcing myself to master material pertinent to the book that I was not fully in control of. This meant that I had to work like a dog all term, reading and re-reading the primary sources and coming to grips with the secondary literature. Above all, it meant that I had to tackle Achaemenid Persia – Sparta’s great foe in the Persian Wars.
You might think that this is all old hat. After all, scholars have had Herodotus, Xenophon, and the Jewish Bible to rely on for centuries, and there is not all that much to be learned from the biographies written by Cornelius Nepos and Plutarch, from the Moralia of the latter, from Diodorus of Sicily, and from the geographers Strabo and Pausanias. And you would be – partly – right. The subject on which I am working is well-trod ground.
But there is one thing that has changed. For something like twenty-five years, a group of scholars, mainly in Europe, have met annually for what they call the Achaemenid History Workshop to compare notes on the empire founded by Cyrus, expanded by Cambyses and Darius, and sustained by Xerxes. One could, of course, read about it two hundred years ago (and well before that) in Herodotus, Xenophon, and Plutarch and in the Book of Esther and the Book of Nehemiah. But there is also evidence (and lots of it) on papyrus, clay tablet, and stone in Aramaic, in Egyptian hieroglyphic, and in some of the languages that used cuneiform script – Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian – and there is archaeological evidence from localities stretching from Pakistan to Libya and from the Persian Gulf to Romania. There is no one in the world who can read all of the pertinent languages. And until the members of the Achaemenid History Workshop began gathering and reading papers to one another, there was no one in the world fully aware (much less in control) of all of the available evidence. To get a sense of what is now known, you can now work your way through Amélie Kuhrt, The Persian Empire: A Corpus of Sources from the Achaemenid Period (Routledge) and read Pierre Bryant, From Cyrus to Alexander (Eisenbrauns). And if you do, you will find Xenophon, The Education of Cyrus, tr. Wayne Ambler (Cornell) fascinating, The Landmark Herodotus, ed. Robert Strassler more exciting than ever before, and you will read the Book of Esther and the Book of Nehemiah with new interest and respect.
Thanks to the Achaemenid History Workshop, we now know a great deal that we did not know before. We can compare taxation practices in Babylon and Egypt. We can trace the workings of the Persian courier system. We can compare the practice of making land grants in Mesopotamia in return for military service with the practices in Anatolia and along the Nile. In its day, Achaemenid Persia was the greatest empire ever known to man, and we now have a pretty good idea how it was sustained.
For me the most interesting aspect of what has been learned is the light it casts on the pictures drawn by Herodotus and Xenophon and by the authors of the Book of Esther and the Book of Nehemiah. Put simply, although the evidence from the Near East suggests that these observers were wrong in certain particulars, it tends overall to confirm their expertise, to suggest that their judgment was penetrating, and to make one think that – on matters where we cannot test what they say by comparing it with documents from Persia, Babylon, or Egypt – their reports deserve respect and careful consideration.
For what I have gained by all of this labor I have nonetheless paid a price – something very much like the price paid by my students. Since mid-March, when we had our Spring vacation, they have been exhausted, and so have I. If I had my way, I would be writing manically right now about the battles of Salamis and Plataea. But I am simply too tired. The words scholarship and school come from the Greek word schole, which means leisure. I need some leisure from my leisure. Something of the sort happens every May.