A KNOWING OUTSIDER.

I find it hard to believe I’ve never mentioned Neal Ascherson here before; had LH existed in the late ’90s, when I was reading his amazing Black Sea, it would have provided plenty of post material, and when I reread it one day, as I intend to, it will doubtless do so. At the moment I want to share the very first paragraph in the book, the start of the acknowledgments, which I happened to glance at in the course of looking something up and thought represented my own intellectual aims quite well:

Many people, living and dead, have helped me to write this book. The germ of the idea, as I now realise, came to me when I was sixteen years old, as I read Mikhail Rostovtzeff’s classic work about the Black Sea past, Iranians and Greeks in South Russia. At the time, I was being taught Latin and Greek literature, and I felt it was important not to be stereotyped as a ‘classicist’. I tried to find some private niche from which I could understand the classical world not as a Graeco-Roman — or as a forced into some post-Victorian version of a Graeco-Roman mind-set — but as a knowing outsider. I wanted to be a monk who wrote Latin in rhyme, or a dangerous Scythian who travelled light and put down no roots. In any case, the result of opening Rostovtzeff was an imaginative invasion and occupation which I have never since thrown off. Most of a lifetime passed before I could carry out the invader’s command, before I could stand on the burial mound of a nomad king above the outfall of the Dnieper or the Don. But it was Rostovtzeff who issued the original order.

I urge everyone with even a vague interest in that part of the world to read the book; it’s an ideal combination of scholarly and reportorial virtues (according to his Wikipedia article, Eric Hobsbawm called him “perhaps the most brilliant student I ever had,” but after graduating “he declined offers to pursue an academic career” and “chose a career in journalism”), and damn well written to boot.

Comments

  1. Iranians and Greeks in South Russia
    Wasn’t “Iranians” an unusual usage in 1922? Weren’t they called Persians? Did Mikhail Rostovtzeff invent “Iranian”? I can see that he might have wanted another category.

  2. I presume he’s referring to other Iranian peoples in the Black Sea region, such as the Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans and Ossetians. In other words, speakers of Iranian languages (or ancient peoples surmised to be speakers of Iranian languages). The Iranian language group contains more than just Persian, as you probably know. But I’ve never read the book so this is just guessing.

  3. “The correct name of [the Persian] empire is Iran; but the Europeans improperly applying the name of a single province to the whole, call it Persia.”
    So said the Historical Magazine in 1792, so, not unusual usage, certainly not original to Rostovtzeff.

  4. But although the Sanscrit has long been a dead language, and though the writings in which it is contained are much older than the earliest specimens of Greek literature, we must not suppose that it was, as we have it now, the same old Iranian which was taken into Europe; on the contrary, it bears evident marks of those changes which long usage introduces into every language…

    —John W. Donaldson, The New Cratylus: Or, Contributions Towards a More Accurate Knowledge of the Greek Language (J. and J.J. Deighton, 1839), p. 86.

  5. [Sanscript] bears evident marks of those changes which long usage introduces into every language
    Examples ?

  6. [Sanscript]
    I had just been writing an IT text about Javascript …

  7. @Grumbly Stu: well, a/e/o all collapsing into a, for example. That would certainly have stood out to a Graecist.

  8. But which Sanscript? Devanagari?

  9. But which Sanscript?
    Aryal.

  10. Aryal.
    Well played!

  11. Trond Engen says:

    Untouched by human tongues language is like bedrock. Sanskrit’s all sandhi.

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