Almost twenty years ago I wrote the introduction to a new edition of Jerome Carcopino’s Daily Life in Ancient Rome, which was first published in English in 1941. It remains one of the best introductions to the subject, at least in the sense of the range and depth of the material brought into the picture. Despite its age, it is even now useful and none of the more up-to-the-minute accounts (rightly problematizing the whole notion of “Daily Life”) have ever quite replaced it for basic, conveniently arranged info on (eg) where Roman loos were, or what rich or poor Romans ate for their first meal of the day. But those who used it, I reckoned, did not often know much about Carcopino himself (of whom there was a rather sanitized obituary in the book). The fact was that Carcopino was not merely a Nazi collaborator, but he was an enthusiastic one. He served as Minister of Education in Vichy France, and, as French colleagues told me, personally signed the order banning Jews from French academies abroad.
Outside France this went largely unnoticed – so much so that Carcopino’s Daily Life book was the basis of that classic of Jewish Borscht Belt humour: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Once you do notice, of course, it becomes blindingly obvious (all those little asides about the pollution of the Italian stock by easterners!). So, I outed Carcopino’s career in the course of my introduction. I didn’t want to stop people using the book (as I said, it is useful). But I did want them to know what they were reading and to be able to judge the conclusions and assumptions more acutely.
There will be those who think I should have had nothing whatsoever to do with the book – especially now when there is a vociferous (I don’t know how large) body of opinion in the humanities which insists that one should not cite the work of scholars who are tainted (politically or sexually or however), one should not recommend their work to students, and one should not thank them in one’s acknowledgements. This may be news (and indeed puzzling) to those outside the academy. But, at its most extreme (and it isn’t always this extreme), it means not citing in your footnotes, and presumably not reading, the most authoritative recent work on a particular subject if it were written by (eg) someone whose public remarks have been taken to be racist, or who is plausibly alleged to be a harasser. (It’s hard to get the words right here … Professor X would presumably deny the charges of racism or harassment, and that is only one of the complexities.)
Now it is absolutely right to be worried about the politics of citation. I am not talking here about those pages of flattering acknowledgements which can seem to be more a way of displaying one’s contacts, and with them one’s politics, than actually about thanking those who have helped you. (A fault of book-writers going back centuries, I should say.) More important there is a real concern that the range of works cited in academic books and articles is inward looking, self-reinforcing and circular. To parody slightly, the line-up of footnotes in some books consist mainly of the author and his stale, pale, male friends all citing each other’s work. Does it matter? Yes: not so much because of “citation indices”, which have much less importance in granting academic prestige in the humanities than in the sciences (though the use of such metrics in evaluation and promotion is growing), but because of the “gate-keeping” and the exclusivity they promote and appear to validate. Works cited in footnotes are often, after all, those that appear to be “the” work on the subject, they are the ones that get looked up and then cited again. It often means that scholars coming from a different tradition, or increasingly I am afraid those writing in a language other than English, get marginalized. It’s always worth asking “who have I?” or more crucially “who have I not?” cited here.
But that isn’t quite the same as the “should you cite work by someone you find politically distasteful, or worse?” question. Let’s ratchet it up a bit (with some entirely imaginary examples). Suppose the best work on the subject on the coinage of Roman Bithynia was written by a convicted gangland murderer. Or suppose the one of the key studies of gender in Hellenistic Macedonia was by a woman found guilty of being a Russian “plant” who had interfered online with some important UK elections. Would I still cite their work in my footnotes? Yes. If they had sent me helpful responses to specific queries from their prisons, would I still thank them in my acknowledgements? Yes.
It is the old question of the separation (or not) of the writer or artist and their work: the Eric Gill question, if you like (though that is a much trickier case than most I am dealing with). It is one of the toughest lessons to learn that some of the most important contributions to scholarship are made by those of whom one disapproves, on a scale from medium-strength dislike to total abomination; and that personal or political approval isn’t a useful, and certainly not a sufficient, criterion for citation (notwithstanding the structural discrimination in footnote politics that I just referred to). Yes, there are some fuzzy edges here. As my Carcopino example showed, biography can and should sometimes make a difference to how you read. That means that when I am recommending books to students I do sometimes fill in the background (try reading Maiuri’s lavish publication of the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii without knowing what regime had bankrolled it … it has the fasces proudly displayed on its binding but most students miss that!); but I don’t leave them off the reading list. There is also the question of whether, even on my “liberal” terms, there are nevertheless some writers, beyond Carcopino or Maiuri, whom I would feel obliged to “cancel”. I do ponder that (like I ponder which statues I would pull down). But I find the truly awful cases where non-citation might seem uncontroversial (the Ian Bradys, the Pol Pots of the world) happily haven’t made much of an impact on the study of the ancient world or the humanities in general (can you think of one?). And in Classics the financial argument (I am not going to cite this book because it might indirectly add to the author’s royalties) hardly applies either. You don’t write about antiquity if you want to make money.
But maybe that is to wriggle too much (the “get out of jail free card” that classicists often reach to). It is really the oversimplification of the moral issues that disturbs me, especially when I hear people boast about those scholars they won’t cite or acknowledge. It’s not just that when a book is published, whatever the biographical ties that bind, it is also on its own in the world. More to the point, there is no way any writer can keep themselves clean of the faults of their predecessors. You may not cite something, or even read it, yourself. But you do cite others who have read and cited it. There is no innocent terra firma here.
I’m sure that everyone can think of examples from their own fields (Heidegger is only the tip of the iceberg). But those who study the writers of the ancient world are on particularly dodgy ground here. Can those of us who devote our lives to (say) the study of the rhetoric of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars (three million killed) really take care to omit from our bibliography those whose faults are far less harmful? And before you say that is to judge the past by the standards of the present, let me remind you that there were those in ancient Rome itself who judged Caesar as guilty of crimes against humanity for the “genocide” in Gaul.