Lisa Hau awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship

Published: 8 June 2017

She will work on a project called “A Re-evaluation of Tragic History”

Lisa Hau has been awarded is an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship for Experienced Researchers. It will be held in Heidelberg from 1 September 2017 to 31 August 2018. She will work on a project called “A Re-evaluation of Tragic History”. 

The project is a re-evaluation of a type of ancient Greek history writing which is traditionally looked down on as 'rhetorical' and 'sensationalist'. This criticism goes back to the Greek historian Polybius, who pours scorn on his predecessor Phylarchus for narrating the fall of the city of Mantinea in dramatic fashion ‘as if it was a tragedy’, hence the modern appellation ‘tragic history’. The project  starts from the observation that the works of 'tragic history' are not characterised only by rhetorical expressions and detailed scenes of atrocities, but also by vivid descriptions more generally, including descriptions of the emotions of its characters, as well as by a greater focus on characters marginal to Polybian historiography, e.g. women, children and slaves. These features seem less out of place in a work of history in the 21st century (when ‘history’ no longer means writing only about the wars and politics of white, middleclass males, and when many historians believe they have a duty to tell the stories of victims of atrocities while some experiment with the inclusion - even invention - of circumstantial details in order to make the past ‘feel present’) than they did in (the first half of) the 20th century. The project will examine the works of ‘tragic history’ – Diodorus, Agatharchides and some more fragmentary works - in the light of ancient literary and rhetorical theory in order to see how far such theories may have influenced them; in the light of Hellenistic literature and art more broadly, in order to place them in their cultural context; and through the lens of modern historiographical theory and practice – especially narrativism, experientalism, and presentism - in order to gauge if similar purposes may have motivated their ‘tragic’ practices. The result will be a better understanding of a genre which may not, in fact, be alien to our present modes of engagement with the past.  

Lisa Hau

First published: 8 June 2017

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