The Use and Abuse of History: A Syllabus

 Album of "The Führer's Trip to Italy": Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini following a guide showing the authorities a fragment depicting Saturnia Tellus, a detail of the Ara Pacis. Henrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels and Joachim von Ribbentrop are visible in the group. The work was reconstructed in 1938 in celebration of bi-millenium anniversary of Augustus.
© Alinari Archives, Florence
 Album of “The Führer’s Trip to Italy”: Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini following archaeologist & art historian Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli. here showing a fragment depicting Saturnia Tellus, a detail of the Ara Pacis. Henrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels and Joachim von Ribbentrop are visible in the group. The work was reconstructed in 1938 in celebration of bi-millenium anniversary of Augustus.© Alinari Archives, Florence

What follows is my syllabus for an undergraduate history majors course on the use and abuse of history. It is an attempt to use primary sources to teach students how to identify secondary misinformation, propaganda, omission, and weaponization of history.




Class Meetings: 9:30-10:45 am, Fall 2020 on Zoom

Sarah E. Bond, Associate Professor of History, Department of History

This course explores the way that individuals have used the past to service the goals of the present. Since antiquity, monarchs, tyrants, and state historians have bent and even broken the historical record in order to justify actions, to legitimize rule, or perhaps to rewrite the past. We will be looking specifically at instances of Greek, Roman, and Medieval history that were appropriated from the 15th century to today. From the Renaissance use of Rome’s SPQR maxim to Mussolini’s adoration for Augustus, rewriting history has often been a prerogative of those in power. As George Orwell famously warned in the party motto within the dystopian novel 1984, “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past.” The class looks at how, when, and why history has been transformed into propaganda.

Note: Graduating History majors must include at least one graded paper from HIST 2151 in their Portfolio (HIST 3193).

Required Course Texts (All Available through UI Libraries):

Antonova, The Essential Guide to Writing History Essays

Roche and Demetriou, Brill’s Companion to the Classics, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany

Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country – Revisited

Course Objectives:

By the end of this course students will: 1) understand the difference between primary and secondary sources and be able to use both in historical writing, 2) be proficient with the use of both classic and new historical research techniques, 3) be familiar with the digital resources available at the library, 4) be able to discuss the use of history as propaganda and 5) have improved their critical thinking and writing skills.

This course will provide you with guidance and training in historical writing and research. You will develop the following skills: to read secondary and primary sources critically and thoughtfully; to think on your feet and express your ideas verbally; to ponder and research complex historical questions; to use libraries and other resources effectively; to assess and create digital content; to research and write a well-supported paper.

• Learn how to navigate digital archives, online special collections, and scholarly libraries

• Learn how to interpret primary and secondary historical sources from antiquity and modernity

• Understand and frame historical questions.

• Clearly communicate historical knowledge in writing and in speech.

• Support arguments with historical evidence, correctly and appropriately cited.

• Understand how history can be applied to critical controversies and questions in the present-day.

In addition to learning about the reuse of ancient and medieval history, students will hone their research, writing, and presentation skills.  Students will gain experience in defining a topic for investigation, in locating and interpreting primary and secondary sources, and in sifting competing evidence to build an argument.  Students will assist each other in making their written and oral presentations clear and compelling.  Essential to the historian, these skills are valuable in any professional career and in the exercise of democratic citizenship.

Many recent developments, particularly the advent of new digital communication technologies, have combined to erode the barriers between academic and non-academic history.  Increasingly, both “professional” and non-professional historians alike have access to the same information and can reach larger audiences. New formats for presenting history to students and to the general public (e.g. webpages, blogs, videos, photo essays, wikis, podcasts, online games, social media, etc.) have opened up exciting new possibilities for the practice of public history.  In addition to providing training in the basic techniques of the historian’s trade, this course encourages you to explore these possibilities and historians who creates content for a more general audience.

Grading and Assignments:

Attendance:                            20%                                                     Due: Twice Per Week

Attendance is 20% of the final grade in this class and is dependent upon your Zoom presence on Tuesday and Thursdays from 9:30-10:45 during the semester. If you cannot make a Zoom meeting, please just email me ahead of time and let’s chat about why you can’t attend and how you might be able to cover the readings, discussion, and materials for that day.

Discussion Leader:                  20%                                         Due: Assigned Week 7-13

Beginning in Week VII (7) of the course, two students will begin to lead the discussion portion of the course on Thursdays. Your questions for discussion will be disseminated earlier in the week to the class, leaders will meet with me to chat about readings, and then leaders will guide the Zoom class for that day.

Media Review:                        20%                                         Due: September 18, 2020

Reviewing and evaluating media such films, YouTube videos, and podcasts teaching is an important part of making the public historically literate and learning source criticism. In this case, we will be reviewing the movie 300 together as a class and then you will be asked to pick one historical film of your choice to evaluate.

Object History:                        15%                                         Due: November 20, 2020

Based on the “A History of the World in 100 Objects” project, students will choose an object either from the Iowa digital archives or a digital museum archive of their choice to write a thorough history of. Please try and pick an object or place that has been in some way manipulated or used as propaganda. This object history will then form the basis for a broader analysis of how this object has been used or abused in a broader historical context for the final podcast or video.

Final Podcast or Video:           25%                                         Due: December 18, 2020

The final project for this course is a Chicago Style bibliography, media transcript and recorded project meant for public consumption that is based on the object you chose for your object history. Moving from solid historical research to media production is the goal as we keep an eye towards creating content that can inform the general public about the use and abuse of history, heritage, and archaeological finds.


Course Calendar and Agendum

Module 1: The Use and Abuse of History for Life

Welcome to HIST 2151. Please make sure to read over the syllabus and to listen to one episode from the “History of the World in 100 Objects” project before we meet on the first day of class at 9:30 am on Tuesday.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020: An Introduction to History, Heritage, and Historical Reception

Listen to One Episode of Your Choice: The History of the World in 100 Objects 

Thursday, August 27, 2020: Is the Past a Foreign Country?

Read: Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country—Revisited, pp. 1-54 (UI Libraries).

Module 2: The Hero’s Journey

This week, we want to address how historians construct narratives within their own writing of non-fiction, particularly in the genre of biography. One danger of biographical narratives is the idea of the “monomyth” often exemplified in ancient hero epics. The most famous author to address the idea of the monomyth was Joseph Campbell. What we need to discuss in class this week is the allure of the “hero’s journey” in historical writing and the affects that mythology and the archetype of the hero have. Is there a comfort in identifying universals? Has it had an impact on the ways that we understand historical figures and deify them? What are the ways that the monomyth are used and abused today?

Tuesday, September 1, 2020: The Hero’s Journey

Read: Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Links to an external site.)pp. 1-44.

Watch: The Hero’s Journey

Guest Speaker: Joel Christensen (Brandeis University).

Thursday, September 3, 2020:

Listen: Ted Radio Hour, The Hero’s Journey (Links to an external site.)

Read: Lefkowitz, “The Myth of Joseph Campbell,” The American Scholar 59.3, pp. 429-434

Module 3: The Ancient Problem of Pseudohistory: From Primary Sources to Pop Culture

This week, we explore the use of archaeology to try to “prove” assertions of classical or biblical authors. This may be done in service to the construction of pseudohistorical narratives (e.g. aliens built the pyramids) or to support religious claims (e.g. the existence of Noah’s ark). Oftentimes ancient papyri, pyramids, texts, and a dash of guessing are all used to try to reconstruct a past that we are quite uncertain of; particularly since only 3-4% of the ancient Mediterranean survives today. This week we want to decide if pseudohistories such as the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens are in fact as innocuous as they at first seem. Is this all just good old fashioned conspiracy theory or are there some serious biases and troubling motives embedded in the narratives spun by pseudohistories surrounding the ancient world?

Tuesday, September 8, 2020: Greek Ideas of Atlantis and the Search for Ancient Aliens

Read: Plato, Selections from Timaeus  (Links to an external site.)and Critias;   Guay, “Archaeology and Aliens: Teaching the Myth of Atlantis (Links to an external site.),” Society for Classical Studies Blog (December 13, 2018). 

Optional Reading: Bond, “Pseudoarchaeology and the Racism Behind Ancient Aliens (Links to an external site.),” (November 13, 2018).

Thursday, September 10, 2020: Pseudoarchaeology: A Debate

Watch: Lost Worlds: Atlantis

Listen: “Was There a Real Atlantis?” Our Fake History Podcast (Links to an external site.) (March 7, 2017).

Module 4: This is Sparta?

This week we want to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the city of Sparta. The Spartans and their army have taken on a mythical place in pop culture, from the movie 300 to bumper stickers that declare “Molon Labe!” But what is real and what is projected onto the past? That is the question we must ask when looking at the primary sources and then tracking how the texts, art, and media surrounding Sparta has been used in the present.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020: Sparta in the Primary Sources

Read: Plutarch, Moralia (Links to an external site.); Xenophon, The Polity of the Lacedaemonians (Links to an external site.); Map: Sparta  (Links to an external site.)

Optional: Herodotus, Hist. 7.203-234: on Thermopylae (Links to an external site.)

Thursday, September 17, 2020: Sparta in the Modern Imagination

Read: Bond, “This is Not Sparta (Links to an external site.),” Eidolon (May 7, 2018).

Watch: “Sparta and the Nazi Imagination,” (Links to an external site.) Classics Confidential (November 19, 2011); History Science Theater 300 (Watching the 300 Together).

Optional: Crowley, “Why the White House Is Reading Greek History: The Trump team is obsessing over Thucydides, the ancient historian who wrote a seminal tract on war, (Links to an external site.)” Politico (June 21, 2017).

Due Friday, September 18 (11:59 pm): Movie Review Part I. 

Module 5: Augustus and His Propaganda

We have addressed historical nostalgia, omission, and the valorization of the archetypal hero as tactics for modifying the past to serve current ideologies or theses. We have even looked at how Sparta has been appropriated by various groups; however, manipulation of the past is not just a method used in the present time. This week we go back to the rule of the Roman princeps named Augustus (who reigned 31 BCE-14 CE) who began the Julio-Claudian dynasty after the fall of the Roman Republic. We will look at his tactics for legitimizing his rule and how he employed art, literature, divine genealogy, building projects, and legislation to argue for his (and his family’s) imperial legitimacy following the defeat of Cleopatra and Antony at the Battle of Actium.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020: The Augustan Revolution from Republic to Principate:

Read: Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, 1-32. 

Optional:Augustan Rule (27 B.C.–14 A.D.), Heilbrunn Art History Timeline, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.  (Links to an external site.)

Thursday, September 24, 2020: A New Mythology of Rome’s Founding

Read:  Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, 167-238.

Writing a Media Review: Tips (Links to an external site.)

Due: Friday, September 25, 2020 at 11:59: Media Review Part II

Module 6: Mussolini, Hitler, and the New Rome

This week we take the propaganda playbook for historical modification and obfuscation that we have seen over the past few weeks and explore how it was put to use in the first half of the 20th century within fascistic movements. Pay special attention to the creation of mythologies and the use of ancient texts to support arguments for legitimacy. Then consider Andrea Giardina (Links to an external site.)‘s allegation about Mussolini’s new narrative connecting him to Augustus: “Mussolini has taken on Augustus’ features. With the celebrations of Augustus’ second millennium in 1937, which culminated in the “Exhibition of Augustus’ romanity”, the exaltation of Augustus / Mussolini became paroxysmic. The historians competed to find analogies between the duce’s politics and the first Roman emperor’s politics…The strongest analogy, however, was associated to the work of those two characters as restorers and revolutionaries. The comparison consented in finding again, after so many centuries, a political style that appeared as a character that was peculiar to the quality of being an Italian. In the actions of Augustus and Mussolini, one could find the creative genius of the politician that transforms everything, although seemingly not touching anything.”

Tuesday, September 29, 2020: Resurrecting Rome

Read: Roche, “Mussolini’s ‘Third Rome’, Hitler’s Third Reich and the Allure of Antiquity: Classicizing Chronopolitics as a Remedy for Unstable National Identity? (Links to an external site.)” Fascism 8 (2019): 127-52.

Thursday, October 1, 2020: Romanitas and Romanità: Bread and Circuses

Read: Arthurs, “Bathing in the Spirit of Eternal Rome: The Mostra Augustea della Romanità (Links to an external site.)” In Brill’s Companion to the Classics, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, 157-77.

Watch: (1)L’inaugurazione dell’Ara Pacis nel nuovo assetto urbanistico (Links to an external site.)(2)La mostra augustea della romanità (Links to an external site.)

Module 7: Tacitus and the Mythos of Germany

This week we look at the impact of an ancient Roman text on the nationalism and identity of Germans hundreds of years after it was written. Just as last week was a lesson in how to use archaeology as a propagandistic tool within fascist regimes, this week we see how the Germania of Tacitus was used to support the alleged supremacy of Nazi Germany and the creation of an idea of true German-ness.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020: Tacitus’ Germania

Read: Tacitus, Germania (trans. Townshend).

Optional: Benario, Herbert W. “Arminius into Hermann: History into Legend.” Greece & Rome 51, no. 1 (2004): 83-94. Accessed September 28, 2020. (Links to an external site.)

Thursday, October 8, 2020: Germany’s Germania

Read: Krebs, “A dangerous book: the reception of the Germania,” In Cambridge 

Companion to Tacitus, pp. 280-299.

Optional: Germania: The Battle Against Rome (Links to an external site.)

Module 8: The Use and Abuse of the Hebrew Bible

This week, we address the use and abuse of the Hebrew Bible, which we often call the Old Testament. This week and next week, we want to address how and why Bible passages have been used to justify actions or beliefs of later peoples (e.g. slaveholders, homophobic peoples). In this module, we consider in particular the pernicious Curse of Ham  (Links to an external site.)and the interpretation of Genesis in Jewish, Islamic, and Christian culture. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020: The Book of Genesis

Read: Genesis, Chapters 1-11. (pages 1-31 in this PDF) (Links to an external site.)

Thursday, October 15, 2020: God’s “Curse of Ham” and the Justification of Antebellum Slavery

Read: Goldenberg, Black and Slave : The Origins and History of the Curse of Ham (Links to an external site.)pp. 1-27.

Listen: “Slave Bible From The 1800s Omitted Key Passages That Could Incite Rebellion” NPR (December 9, 2018). (Links to an external site.)

Optional: Goldenberg, “Chapter 14: The New World Order.” 

Guest Lecture: Nyasha Junior (Temple University)

Module 9: The Use and Abuse of Biblical Texts and Archaeology

This week, we focus in on the formation, use, and abuse of the New Testament portion of the Bible. From the Book of Revelation, an apocalyptic book written perhaps by an author named John in Asia Minor around 96 CE, to the Book of Romans, allegedly written by the Apostle Paul probably around 57 CE. Just as with the Hebrew Bible, the ways in which modern politicians and believers cherry-pick texts or choose to interpret them can have a significant impact on the inclusion or exclusion of groups of people. We again return to the question of how and why these texts have been used to buttress oppression and the issues surrounding Biblical Literalism.  (Links to an external site.)

Tuesday, October 20,  2020

Read: The Book of Revelation (Links to an external site.)

Listen: The Book of Revelation, Christian Zionism in America, and More, Interfaith Voices (March 16, 2012).  (Links to an external site.)

Optional: Listen: #13: Using the Bible in Political Debate (Links to an external site.)

Guest Star: Robert Cargill (Iowa)

Thursday, October 20, 2020

Read: Romans 1 ;  (Links to an external site.) Flannery and Werline, Introduction” & Jackson, “Chapter 6:  Culture Wars, Homosexuality, and the Bible,” The Bible in Political Debate. 

The Late Antique and Medieval World (200-1450)

Optional Monographs: Patrick J. Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe; Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages.

Module 10: The Fall of the Roman Empire and the “Dark Ages”

This week, we address the ideas, myths, and rhetoric surrounding the “Fall of Rome” and the transition to the “Dark Ages. (Links to an external site.)” We start off by reading Bishop Augustine of Hippo’s  (Links to an external site.)account of the Sack of Rome in 410 CE by Alaric and his Visigothic troops, and then move to one of the most influential writers about Rome’s supposed decline, Edward Gibbon, who published the first volume of his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776. Some questions to ponder and address are how the narratives of decline and darkness were constructed, how they might have serviced the objectives of the Enlightenment and modern American politicians, and why we insist on comparing ourselves (over and over) to ancient Romans. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Read: Augustine, City of God,  (Links to an external site.)Book 1;  (Links to an external site.)Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Excerpt. ;  (Links to an external site.)Matthew Gabriele, “Why The Middle Ages Wasn’t More Violent Than The Modern World (Despite What ‘Game of Thrones’ Says (Links to an external site.)),” Forbes (November 28, 2018). 

Guest Stars: Matthew Gabriele (Links to an external site.) and David Perry (Links to an external site.)

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Read: Murphy, “Augustine and the Rhetoric of Decline,” History of Political Thought 26, no. 4 (2005): 586-606. Accessed October 16, 2020.  (Links to an external site.)

Pick (2 ) of the many columns listed here to read: Are We Romans?

Module 11: The Crusades in Pop Culture

Weeks after September 11, 2001 and the fall of the Twin Towers, President Bush  (Links to an external site.)  to “rid the world of evil-doers,” then cautioned: “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.” This use of the word “crusade (Links to an external site.)” and the historical baggage behind it is what we need to unpack. This week, we are looking at the role of the Crusades in modern popular culture and the ways in which they have been misunderstood and manipulated today. There were seven major crusades launched between 1095 and 1291 (Links to an external site.); however, the anti-Semitism and actions of the Crusaders against Jews, Muslims, and fellow Christians (e.g. in Constantinople) are not always fully known by people today. Moreover, white supremacists often appropriate the iconography of Crusader groups (Links to an external site.) to justify their actions today. Perhaps more literacy about the use and abuse of the Crusades can help us to better understand how and why these “holy wars” became so embedded in the American psyche.

November 3: The Crusades in the Sources

Read: Primary Sources: Pope Urban II’s Speech to the Council of Clermont; (Links to an external site.) Jewish Virtual Library, “The Crusades (Links to an external site.)“;  Gregory X, “Letter on Jews” (Links to an external site.)

Secondary Analysis: Madeleine Schwartz, “The Origins of Blood Libel, (Links to an external site.)” The Nation (January 28, 2016).

Watch: Horrible Histories: The Crusades 

November 5: The Misuse and Misunderstanding of the Crusades

Read: David Perry, “Introduction,” Whose Middles Ages, pp. 1-8; Nicholas Paul, “Modern Intolerance and the Medieval Crusades.”  ; Talia Lavin, ” QAnon, Blood Libel, and the Satanic Panic (Links to an external site.),” The New Republic (September 29, 2020); Cord Whitaker, “The Secret Power of White Supremacy — and How Anti-Racists Can Take It Back,” Politico (October 29, 2020).

Module 12: The Black Death and the Birth of the Renaissance

There is no doubt this week may be a bit difficult to get through, as we discuss and think about the misconceptions surrounding the Black Death, which peaked in Europe from 1347-1351 and caused the death of over 25 million people in Europe alone. There are many parallels with today, but also many differences, such as our knowledge of germ theory. Moreover, the “silver lining” of the Black Death has often been articulated as the “fact” it gave birth to the Renaissance. This week we dig into this assertion and explore its validity. We will also address how pandemics magnify and impact existing inequality.

As Bioarchaeologist Gwen Robbins Schug  points to, “Bioarchaeology and other social sciences have repeatedly demonstrated that these kinds of crises play out along the preexisting fault lines of each society…”The people at greatest risk were often those already marginalized—the poor and minorities who faced discrimination in ways that damaged their health or limited their access to medical care even in prepandemic times. In turn, the pandemics themselves affected societal inequality, by either undermining or reinforcing existing power structures.” We should perhaps take this into account when thinking about the fact that “Marginalized and minoritized patients have and will suffer more acutely during the COVID-19 crisis.”  There is much to take from the Black Death for today’s society, but also many pernicious myths to dispel. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020: The Black Death in the Sources

Read: Boccaccio, The Decameron  (Links to an external site.)(Excerpt); Jewish History Sourcebook: The Black Death and the Jews 1348-1349 CE (Links to an external site.)

 (Links to an external site.)

Listen: Monica H. Green,  “On the Black Death and the Global History of Disease (Links to an external site.),”  The Global History Podcast (May 20, 2020). 

Thursday, November 12, 2020: COVID, the Black Death, and Misconceptions of a Renaissance

Read: Ada Palmer, “Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages (Links to an external site.),” Ex Urbe (June 24, 2020).

Watch:What Made The Black Death (The Plague) so Deadly?” (Links to an external site.)

Module 13: Witches and Witch Trials

This week, we look at late medieval witch hunts and track the use of the idea and phrase into the present as connected to everything from presidential rhetoric to the #MeToo movement. How many witches were actually killed and what do archival documents reveal about them? Beyond misconceptions about gender (e.g. especially in Scandinavian countries, many accused witches were male and not just female) and the Church’s involvement (many secular entities ran witch hunts and trials as well), there is also the issue of how the term shorthand for unjust persecution. As we did with the crusades, we must ask ourselves about the historical reality behind these common words and separate the past reality from its present usage. This week is also an excellent time to begin practicing using online archives and search engines to aid you in your final projects. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020: Witchcraft in Context

Read: Malleus Maleficarum (1486);  (Links to an external site.)Michael R. Lynn, “Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe” (Links to an external site.) Newberry Library. 

Peruse: Cornell’s Witchcraft Collection;   (Links to an external site.)Scottish Witchcraft Database (Links to an external site.)

Thursday, November 19, 2020: The Misuse if the “Witch Hunt”

Read: Penny Chavers, “McCarthyism: The Witch Trials of the Twentieth Century” History Daily (December 2, 2018).  (Links to an external site.)

Listen: Which Witch?a Deep Dive into Witches and Devils Throughout History with Mikki Brock (Links to an external site.)

Watch: Witchcraft Crash Course (Links to an external site.)

Guest Speaker: Greg Jenner

Module 14: Workshop on Archives, Objects, and Museums

This week we are committed to drafting, sharing, and editing our ideas for the final project together! We will be looking at tools for podcasting and for video construction, speaking with librarians and educational tech experts, working in small groups to crowdsource ideas, and trying to perfect an approach to public history with our chosen objects that will be effective. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2020: Podcasting and Video Editing

Peruse: IDEAL (Iowa Digital Engagement and Learning);  (Links to an external site.)

Multimedia Labs on Campus (Links to an external site.)

Podcast Editing Software (Links to an external site.)

Thursday, December 3, 2020: Drafting and Editing Together

Please bring your current drafts, ideas, problems, and work with you to class! Time to brainstorm, comment, edit, and work through issues together. 

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