Banning Books and History is based on an academic paper presented by Sanford Holst at the University of Pittsburgh on June 23, 2023. Published here with permission of the author.
The banning of books around the world is often accompanied by the suppressing of history. This includes denying the history of slavery, sexual identity, and even essential parts of ancient Greek history.
In today’s world there are three different kinds of book banning. The first is a simple “challenge” in which someone requests a particular ban and the book is taken off library shelves. The second is an outright ban, when the challenge is upheld and the book is permanently removed. The third occurs when facts are labeled as fiction and materials are removed from history classes and denied in society. This happens all too often in countries where writings and events are not convenient for those in power
Book banning has been a serious problem for many years in places all around the world. In Florence, Italy, the 1497 “bonfire of the vanities” burned books which were deemed by religious leaders to be immoral.[i] When the Latin Bible was translated into English by Tyndale and into German by Martin Luther, those copies were seized and burned by the Catholic Church.[ii],[iii]
In 1933 many Nazi bonfires consumed books written by Jews, communists, and others. Among these were the works of Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway, Helen Keller, Lenin, Jack London, Thomas Mann, Karl Marx, Upton Sinclair, Stalin, and Leon Trotsky.[iv] In 1988 The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie was banned by many Muslim countries and the following year Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling for his death.[v]
Books in the USA have been hit with an ever-rising deluge of challenges and outright bannings in recent years, primarily for addressing racial or sexual matters. This has struck a major nerve among teachers and the book-reading public. A recent poll showed that 73% of Americans are opposed to the banning of books, and 43% responded by reading one of those banned books during the past year.[vi] The issues involved with each of these books have been discussed at length in many forums.
What has been largely overlooked in these controversies is the banning of history that otherwise would be discussed in classrooms.
A surprising example of this is the restrictions placed on the teaching of early Greek history. The ancient Greeks wrote many volumes about what they understood to be their history. Yet later scholars deemed those writings to be imaginative creations and dismissed them as mythology, so they were essentially banned from history classes. For example it was held with great certainty that the Trojan War never happened, and the Mycenean Greeks never existed.
At Hissarlik [when he first began to excavate at the site of Troy], Schliemann, tense with excitement that pervaded his whole being, looked out across the Trojan plain. Standing alone on the Hill, he was isolated theoretically as well as physically from most scholars of literature and archaeology. These contended that the Iliad and the Odyssey were collections of songs composed in different ages by various bards, each celebrating the deeds of some mythical hero. It was generally thought that the songs, being inconsistent in their artistry, were not the works of a single poet. Most professors of ancient literature were convinced that the subjects of the collected songs were fictional, not factual.[vii]
When archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann unearthed the cities of Troy and Mycenae in the 1800s it demonstrated the “mythical” Mycenaean Greeks had actually lived, and the Trojan War actually happened. Discussion of the Mycenaeans was no longer banned from classrooms.
The same thing happened in 1900 when Sir Arthur Evans uncovered the Minoan palace at Knossos on Crete, and the Minoans were suddenly seen to have actually existed.[viii] Since then there have been many other archaeological discoveries which show more Greek “myths” were based on real events. But strangely enough, scholars in academia have not been willing to acknowledge them. So those works remain banned from history courses.
Let us take a deeper look into these discoveries and bannings, as well as their impact on students today.
By 1873 Schliemann had revealed enough of the ruins at Troy in modern-day Turkey to identify it as the city described in Homer’s Iliad. But people had lived so long with the assumption of it being an imaginary place that there was considerable hesitance to believe him.
So three years later Schliemann performed excavations at the location he thought was Mycenae in Greece. There he unearthed the massive walls, buildings and gold-filled burial places that established it as the city much discussed in Homer’s writings. Now the evidence was overwhelming. The Mycenaean Greeks were not mythological but actually existed.[ix] And the long Trojan War actually happened.
Sparsely occupied since the Neolithic Age, Mycenae experienced greater development after 2000 BC. Its grave shafts show the city was highly prosperous from 1600 BC onward. Even so, its most massive walls and buildings were not raised until after 1350 BC. That meant the city was fully vested with the accoutrements of power when the Trojan War occurred around 1200 BC. During the tumultuous times following that war Mycenae deteriorated alongside the other cities of Greece and fell into disuse by 1100 BC.
Arrival of the Early Greeks
Other discoveries surround the first arrival of those early people into Greece. It is widely accepted that they originally “came down from the north” into what is now known as Northern Greece. This fertile land extended from Mount Olympus and Northern Thessaly in the east to the Ionian Sea in the west. Opinions differ as to whether this happened around 3000 BC or as late as 2500 BC because the Greeks were itinerant people in those days. They traveled to higher or lower elevations with the seasons as they hunted game and collected the bounty of nature. So they left virtually no permanent buildings or towns behind that we have been able to find. It is not clear whether they already spoke Greek when they came to this wide swath of land or developed that language during the hundreds of years they lived there.
It is also generally agreed that these Greek-speaking people then began to migrate southward around 2200 BC and continued this activity in large numbers until 2000 BC.[x] Thereafter historians seem to have been distracted by the Minoans on Crete and ignored the Greeks on the mainland until 1600 BC. By that point the Greek people were already well-established in their principal cities of Mycenae, Argos, Tiryns, Thebes and possibly Athens. What happened during this time?
According to scholars in academia, nothing happened. No serious effort has been made in the past, nor is any being made at present to study this time period. That is quite strange.
It is particularly unusual because many ancient Greeks wrote about this period of time and traced the origin of the Greek people back to a great leader named Hellen. He was said to be born in Thessaly and eventually took control of what we know as Southern Greece. He then divided the land among his sons, who each gave their name to the region they ruled.
Among the ancient Greek writers who mention Hellen and the events of these times are Hesiod, Plutarch, Hecataeus, Thucydides and Strabo. The ancient author Apollodorus had this to say:
And Deucalion had children by Pyrrha, first Hellen, whose father some say was Zeus, and second Amphictyon, who reigned over Attica after Cranaus; and third a daughter Protogenia, who became the mother of Aethlius by Zeus.
Hellen had Dorus, Xuthus, and Aeolus by a nymph Orseis. Those who were called Greeks he named Hellenes after himself, and divided the country among his sons. Xuthus received Peloponnese and begat Achaeus and Ion by Creusa, daughter of Erechtheus, and from Achaeus and Ion the Achaeans and Ionians derive their names. Dorus received the country over against Peloponnese and called the settlers Dorians after himself. Aeolus reigned over the regions about Thessaly and named the inhabitants Aeolians.[xi]Apollodorus The Library 1.7.2-1.7.3
It was a common practice in those days to name Zeus as the father of any great leader. This was similar to Homer’s custom of bringing gods into everyday occurrences. Even so, the underlying events described by the Greeks have often turned out to be true.
Since we are dealing with oral history which was not written down until many years later, we cannot know for certain that Hellen was one person rather than a composite persona combining several people’s deeds. Similarly the individuals named as his sons may in fact have been his actual sons or may have been a composite of several people who came after Hellen. However the central point of the many variations of this legend is that the ancient Greeks agreed the first Greeks originated in the area around Thessaly. Led by “Hellen” they then extended their influence southward across all of what we now know as Southern Greece.
Many experts have verified the dates between 2200 and 2000 BC as the time the Hellenes surged into Southern Greece. For example John V. A. Fine of Princeton University tells us:
The arrival of proto-Greeks in Greece in the years around 2000 BC, then, would be in conformity with what little is known about the wanderings of other Indo-European-speaking peoples and particularly with the appearance of the Hittites and Luwians in Asia Minor. For several centuries these proto-Greeks spread over much of Greece, destroying various settlements and gradually blending with the natives. Archaeology has revealed the existence in this period of many communities in the Peloponnesus, central Greece, and Thessaly.[xii]
Numerous archaeological findings support this as being the time frame in which these events occurred. It may have taken the entirety of these 200 years to accomplish this monumental change.
Archaeologists and historians
It is also worthy of note that archaeologists have been much more forward than historians in exploring this time period in Greece. Officially this is referred to as the Early Helladic period (3200-2000 BC). During those days the people of mainland Greece lived in small villages or as farmers and hunters. They subsisted mainly on grains, olives, figs, and wild game such as deer. Women played an important economic role in the community by weaving cloth and making clothing, a significant industry at that time.[xiii]
But changes began to happen in the latter part of that period, which is known as Early Helladic III (2200-2000 BC). This began with acts of destruction such as the one at the much-studied House of Tiles at Lerna.[xiv] Other acts of disruption and destruction started and stopped over the next 200 years.
At the end of that period a new form of pottery called Minyan Ware came into widespread use, indicating the type of social change usually brought by invasion or large-scale arrival of new people.[xv]
After that upheaval, the Middle Helladic period became a time of economic decline.[xvi] Even though the local economy had previously been fairly rustic, it was a working system. When it was disrupted, the flow of goods was impaired. Along with these changes, the borderlines between the Ionian, Aeolian, Dorian and Achaean regions also shifted under stronger or weaker leaders. Yet they continued to have in common their Greek language, their recognized heritage from Hellen, and shared legends.
During those years the Minoans began to flourish on the island of Crete,[xvii] and that eventually had a beneficial effect all across the mainland. By 1600 BC the dominant city of Mycenae was so prosperous that shaft graves for its leading citizens were being filled with objects of gold. Tiryns and other Mycenaean sites likewise became stronger.
Those observations are only highlights from the many reports written by archaeologists describing what happened at locations all across Greece. It should be mentioned that their detailed excavations proved to be consistent with the basic content of the ancient Greek writings.
Yet historians have declined to pick up those findings and talk about the history of these critical years. This was the time when Greek-speaking people first arrived in the towns and cities they would make famous. This was when their social practices were formed, which would stay with them though the Classical Age. This was when they came to know their gods and legends which would fill the great plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.
Rather than proceed with serious study of this time period, historians have continued to fall back on the claim that the ancient Greek writings are just mythology. They are not real. They are not history.
Those same things were said about the Trojan War and Mycenaean Greeks before Schliemann made his discoveries. They were just mythology. They were not real. They were not history.
It is now evident that archaeologists have put enough physical evidence on the table to allow a satisfying outline of early Greek history to be written. It should be published and made available to students in all schools and universities.
The Greek people themselves have no such reticence to acknowledge this history. How much do they embrace the early history of their people? Consider this: it is only the outside world that calls their people Greek, following the Roman tradition.[xviii] The people of this remarkable country still call themselves Hellenes in honor of Hellen, their founding father.
Doing Better for Students
The current ban on early Greek history is a tremendous loss for students at all levels, from elementary grades to graduate schools.
This is due to the traditional portrayal of the ancient Greeks, which has always shown them as rich, literate, and surrounded by grand buildings. To students, the Greeks appear to have been born with silver spoons in their mouths. Rich students may be able to identify with this, but what about the rest of the young people in the classroom? How does this relate to their life?
When the full history of the Greek people is studied and taught, including the arrival of the first Greeks into what would become Southern Greece, the student’s experience becomes entirely different. The arriving Greeks were rustic people who had lived in the wilds of the north and moved from place to place with the seasons. They did not settle down and build cities until they arrived in the south. Yet over the years they successfully raised themselves up step by step until they became the rich and powerful people who fought the Trojan War many centuries later. After the setback of a dark age they worked to recover, then kept working until they created the spectacular Classical Age. In time they were surrounded by philosophers and playwrights, and stood atop the Acropolis of Athens in the shadow of the Parthenon. They fully earned the right to be remembered for thousands of years.
For students from ordinary or disadvantaged families, seeing these Greek people working to raise themselves up until they created a magnificent life can be an inspiring moment. This is a worthy lesson for students of all ages.
History is here to be studied and loved. We may start out knowing a great deal about a particular time and place, or only knowing a little. Either one is perfectly acceptable because it is the journey and fabulous discoveries that reward us and keep us going forward.
Banning books is a terrible idea. Banning history is an even worse idea. Neither act of suppression should be allowed to continue without a great deal of resistance.
o o o
[i] Deiming, Barbara Sandro Botticelli (Köln: Taschen, 2000), p. 79.
[ii] Pollard, Alfred W., ed. Records of the English Bible (Kent: Wm. Dawson & Sons, 1974), pp. 87-91.
[iii] Morris, Dvaid B. “Martin Luther as Priest, Heretic, and Outlaw: The Reformation at 500” Library of Congress, retrieved on May8, 2023, from https://www.loc.gov/rr/european/luther.html.
[iv] “Bannings and Burnings in History” Freedom To Read, retrieved on May 8, 2023 from https://www.freedomtoread.ca/resources/bannings-and-burnings-in-history.
[v] Erlanger, Stephen “Rushdie has lived under an Iranian death sentence since 1989” New York Times, August 12, 2022, retrieved on May 10, 2023 from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/12/nyregion/salman-rushdie-fatwa-satanic-verses.html
[vi] Knight, Taylor “Most Americans oppose book bans amid new wave of censorship: poll” New York Post, December 16, 2022, retrieved on May 6, 2023 from https://nypost.com/2022/12/16/most-americans-oppose-book-bans-amid-new-wave-of-censorship-poll.
[vii] Poole, Gary and Lynn One Passion, Two Loves (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1966), p. 66.
[viii] Cline, Eric H. 1177 BC: The year civilization collapsed (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), pp. 20-21.
[ix] Payne, Robert The Gold of Troy: The story of Heinrich Schliemann and the buried cities of ancient Greece (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1959), pp. 206-207.
[x] Pomeroy, Sarah B., Stanley M. Burstein, Walter Donlan, Jennifer Tolbert Roberts A Brief History of Ancient Greece: Politics, Society and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 18.
[xi] Apollodorus, The Library, translated by James George Frazer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1921), sections 1.7.2-1.7.3.
[xii] Fine, John V. A. The Ancient Greeks: A Critical History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 5.
[xiii] Emily Vermeule, Greece in the Bronze Age (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1964), pp. 36-42.
[xiv] Caskey, John L. “The Early Helladic Period in the Argolid”. Hesperia. 29 (3) (July–September 1960), pp. 285–303.
[xv] Drews, Robert The Coming of the Greeks: Indo-European Conquests in the Aegean and the Near East (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 12-13.
[xvi] Pomeroy, Sarah B., Stanley M. Burstein, Walter Donlan, Jennifer Tolbert Roberts A Brief History of Ancient Greece: Politics, Society and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 18.
[xvii] Fitton, J. Lesley Minoans (London: The British Museum Press, 2002), p. 6.
[xviii] Martin, Thomas R. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996, second edition 2013), p. 23.
Banning books and history – academic paper
Banning books and history often go together — banning the history of slavery, sexual identity and even parts of ancient Greek history.
The content of this website is drawn from the banned-books research of historian Sanford Holst