Classics and pop culture / Discussion / History

What’s truth got to do got to do with it? University Challenge and Ancient History

Doing a history PhD is pointless – according to (both of) my city-banker-friends. All I’m doing is accumulating knowledge with no real world application, they say, as they use their iPhone 5 and somebody else’s money to trade imaginary bits of paper with randomly assigned values. I take their ‘banter’ in good faith, but, after a while, I snap: “Yeah? Well knowing that Arthur Balfour was the second British Prime Minister of the 20th Century once won me £200 in a Pub Quiz.”

And with that, the cat’s out of the bag. The best way to make our knowledge seem relevant is by using it to show off in the 6 Bells or the Queen’s Head on a Monday night. The whole discipline of history is relegated to a series of ‘facts’ – to 1066 and all that – and nothing more. But with ancient history, actually defining a fact can sometimes be tricky, meaning that answering apparently simple questions can be a difficult business.

A Paxman photo for the ladies.

A Paxman photo for the ladies.

All of this is prompted by Jeremy Paxman asking ‘which Babylonian king was overthrown by the Persians in 539 BC?’ on this week’s University Challenge [10.50 into the episode]. My PhD, I should say, is about the Persian Empire, and so, for perhaps the first time ever, I actually thought I knew the answer to a UC question. ‘Nabonidus’, I hollered, as Trueblood of St Peter’s, Oxford, buzzed in. ‘Belshazzar’ he said. ‘Correct, yes’ said Paxo, looking a little surprised. Now if Paxman was surprised, I was staggered.

I’d never even heard of Belshazzar.

Now my PhD is not directly concerned with the Persian conquest of Babylon, nor do I know much about pre-Persian Babylon, but surely I should know the name of the king that the Persians defeated in 539? Baffled – and feeling more than a little stupid – I retreated to a corner to consult my textbooks.

Sure enough, the Cyrus Cylinder, a text composed by the victorious Persian King, Cyrus, in an attempt to make his rule palatable to the native Babylonians, mentions the defeat of a Babylonian ruler called Nabonidus – there are lots of translations online, one example is here. Equally, a chronicle compiled in Babylon, known to historians as the ‘Nabonidus Chronicle’, is pretty explicit in naming Nabonidus as the loser (online text here). Indeed, all of the contemporary texts on the Persian conquest of Babylon that I could find in an admittedly-short-but-by-no-means-limited search referred to Nabonidus as the last Babylonian king of Babylon.

The Cyrus Cylinder, now in the British Museum

The Cyrus Cylinder, now in the British Museum

So who the hell was Belshazzar? Well, he appears as the last Babylonian king in the Book of Daniel, when he calls upon Daniel to interpret some mysterious writing on the wall. Daniel concludes that the writing is indeed on the wall for the Babylonian Empire – hence the phrase. The Bible is unequivocal; but so is the Babylonian material. So which source is right?

Usually, when historians are faced with a problem like this, we weigh up the strengths and weaknesses of the two sources and decide which is more likely to be accurate. In this instance, we’d probably conclude that the contemporary Babylonian records can be believed – after all, surely Cyrus knew the name of the king that he had defeated – and that Daniel is either mistaken or mendacious. The Book of Daniel was written some 400 years after the events described (though no doubt using earlier sources), so an error is hardly surprising.

But in this case, things are a little more complicated. You see, there are some Babylonian references to Belshazzar, who seems to have been the eldest son of Nabonidus. Now Nabonidus gets a bad press in the ancient sources – he is accused of trying to make changes to Babylonian religious practice – and it is apparent from these texts that Nabonidus spent a number of years away from Babylon. Who did he leave to rule in his place? Belshazzar, of course. This text gives some details, but Belshazzar seems to have been given full royal powers, including control of the army.

Was Belshazzar, then, king in all but name? If that’s the case, it’s easy to see how some confusion could have crept into the Jewish tradition. Any non-Babylonians exposed to Babylonian rule might well assume that the person acting like the king, was, in fact, the king. Indeed, to all intents and purposes, from a Jewish perspective, Belshazzar was the king – the man who commanded the Babylonian armies, received foreign ambassadors, and so forth.

So was the answer on University Challenge wrong? I think so, but I can understand why it was accepted: the researchers simply hadn’t considered the merits of the source.

And that brings me back to my starting point. There isn’t really a simple answer to this question. In trying to work out whether Belshazzar was acceptable, I had to grapple with issues of source reliability; I had to consider how differing perspectives can lead to differing interpretations of facts; I had to think about how people might define the very idea of a king. If some people thought Belshazzar was their king, does it de facto make him their king?

If anything is pointless about History, it’s trying to reduce this process to a one-word answer on a television quiz show.

Too often, we try to get people interested in history through little “factual” details. But when this is our approach, is it any surprise that some of my mates think that what I do is pointless? After all, does the name of some long-dead king actually matter? What really mattered in 539, was the further expansion of the Persian Empire, transforming Persia into the world’s most powerful geo-political force. What is interesting about the Nabonidus or Belshazzar debate is precisely the fact that there is a debate. If you have a different idea from me about what it is to be a king, then you might well have a different answer to the question.

History, then, is only superficially about facts; really it’s about problems.

With that in mind, I’m involved in an outreach project which aims to make some of ancient history’s most contentious debates accessible to a wider audience. In late October, we’ll be releasing a film about a moment in the reign of Alexander the Great. Scholars are divided about Alexander’s motivation at this time; we’ll present all the evidence that there is and ask you which side of the debate you agree with. For some early information on the film follow @olympusnews on Twitter.


3 thoughts on “What’s truth got to do got to do with it? University Challenge and Ancient History

  1. Very eloquently put. It’s all too easy to try to sell ancient history as the discipline of finding out what happened, as some German historiographers would go chanting, ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’. But even attempting historical reconstruction is only part of the job. The so-called ‘historical books’ of the Hebrew Bible are indeed one of the best cases for illustrating this. For all their problems, it’s often far more interesting to look at how they were being used as a historical text by communities in Hellenistic Yehud, than as a source for the reconstruction of actual historical events.

  2. This problem manifests itself in University Challenge particularly because it is an antediluvian programme, created in a more fact-centric age, designed to appeal to an audience the heavy majority of which were not university educated, and prone to guessing that the relative merits of each could be determined by recall of factoids.

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