Exactitude and fantasy

>>Early Greek history “sets a special challenge to the disciplined mind. It is a game with very few pieces, where the skill of the players lies in complicating the rules”. So wrote Iris Murdoch in her novel The Nice and the Good. Strictly speaking, she was referring to the archaic period. But in practical terms, it could be extended to embrace the whole of ancient history, where sources are few; or, rather, appear in a sudden floods (usually associated with a very well-preserved writer such as Cicero) closely followed by frustrating periods of drought. Historians must wring every last drop of juice from this or that inscription, potsherd, or literary source, proceeding with painstaking care and engaging in minute acts of close-reading. But then the fun of it is that they may make the most extraordinary leaps of the imagination to bridge the gaps. This process, of almost pettifogging exactitude combined with what some might regard as little short of fantasy, can be frustrating. But it is this marriage of precision, abstract thinking and creativity that makes ancient history so absorbing and endlessly fresh. Someone is always coming along and knocking down the fragile house of cards constructed by the last thinker, and boldly building another elegant edifice.<< Charlotte Higgins: End of an era (Guardian)