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The Athens Dialogues - An International Conference on Culture and Civilization

Academic Events

Stories & Histories

Chair: Professor Hans-Joachim Gehrke, President of the German Archaeological Institute and Professor Johannes Koder, Professor and Director of the Institute for Byzantine and Neohellenic Studies, University of Vienna, Member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences

Main Speakers: Roderick Beaton, Richard Buxton, Edhem Eldem, Richard Hunter, Johannes Koder (co-chair), Vassilis Lambrinoudakis, Peter Meineck, Himanshu Prabha Ray, Damian Sutton

Respondents: Takis Kampylis, Hyun Jin Kim, Dimitris Papanikolaou, Sir Peter Stothard

The section focused on the Greek culture’s impact on historiography and storytelling or, more generally speaking, on the relationship between history and the manifold ways of dealing with it. There were four main objectives.

Firstly, we confronted different modes of perception of the past, taking as point of departure two contrasting features often understood as mutually excluding each other, namely the professional view of the modern historian and traditional manners of remembrance, mythmaking, and storytelling. Taking into consideration the ancient Greek historiography, where such opposition did not exist, we tried to overcome this rigid antithesis and to look for intermediate phenomena between these concepts instead, by considering their relationship and interconnections and by crossing the border between traditional, even orthodox, distinctions between myth and reality, facts and fiction. Thus we entered the sphere where professional or even scientific history comes close to historiography which is shaped by narrative structures or where literary genres deal with historical facts, events, and /or constellations. This reminded us of the ideas of Hayden White’s Metahistory and Paul Ricoeur’s Temps et Recit, which may have served as theoretical framework. In other words, a part of the section was about narrative concepts as a means of bridging the gap between history and storytelling, between the world of historical facts and the realm of mythical events. This helped to bring together professional historians and literary scholars or authors.

Secondly, we had to ask whose history one is dealing with. When we put this question we were looking for the “social surface” of memory and we aimed at studying the relationship between a given political organization, social community, or cultural unit and ‘its’ respective history. This is of utmost importance since a group’s orientation towards its own past is relevant for and characteristic of the group’s very identity and social cohesion. Considering how it shapes its past leads us to a better understanding of the unit itself. In addition, we took into account the impact of gender and culture, of different worldviews and ideologies, on the comprehension of history. It was therefore discussed how the ways of memorizing, thinking, and understanding the past can contribute to the making of (not to say construction) of different collective or individual identities and vice versa.

We used these general approaches, thirdly, in order to come to a better understanding of (ancient) Greek perceptions of the past. Historiography we are normally considering first is far away from being the only, or even main, way of dealing with past times. Instead of confining ourselves to the works of historiography we have to include into our research other genres of handing down memories and other modes of remembrance, like oral traditions, epic and elegiac poetry, theatrical performances, novels, official monuments and documents, and we have to compare and to confront them with the historians and their works. Thus we get more information on how the Greeks shaped their past, and we can even integrate into our study other ancient concepts of history, e.g. from Near Eastern civilizations, and their contrasting views of the Greeks and their behaviour.

Fourthly, the most important works of Greek literature and historiography very often tell of paradigmatic or even archetypical situations, fates, and relations, like war and peace, love and hate, individual and community. They combine these tales with certain views of the world and tend to explain the events and relationships they speak of by mythical and/or historical, or perhaps more adequately mythistorical, interpretations. Thus great narratives have been created, like the story of the Trojan War, the return of a hero, the global battle between Greeks and Barbarians as a struggle between freedom and despotism, the fate of a nearly mythical warrior like king Alexander of Macedon, and so on. All these stories deserve special attention not only as they are, but in particular because they have deeply influenced later concepts of the past, not least our own ones. Having been transformed in various ways, they have contributed to the formation of certain worldviews concerning, for example, the relationship of East and West, like the idea of a “clash of civilizations.” They have thus become truly fundamental tales, a kind of modern charter myths, at least in Western thought. Our aim was to study this impact of ancient models and to modify it, so to speak, by putting it back into its historical context thus showing that we have not to deal with metaphysical or religious features, but with phenomena of specific receptions. Particularly at this point, we had the opportunity to discuss the different aspects of these narratives and their perceptions with authors and journalists.