Resources on the web

Thanks to the internet, we have access to a wealth of information. Unfortunately, it’s not always entirely clear whether the information that’s floating around is actually accurate or not. My aim here is not to open a can of worms and engage in lengthy philosophical discussions about what does or does not constitute The Truth – there’s plenty of that going around on various news sites these days, courtesy of the current White House.

If you do a search on Google about anything related to the ancient world, it’s likely that a Wikipedia article on that subject will occupy the number one spot in the list of search results. Wikipedia is a valuable resource – especially as far as photos are concerned. If you’ve looked through one of our magazines, you’ll probably have noticed that we sometimes publish photos taken from the Wikimedia Commons website, which is the image repository for Wikipedia. There’s some good stuff there, made available using a Creative Commons licence.

But how reliable are the encyclopedic articles on Wikipedia? This is where things become more difficult. Ostensibly, anyone is able to contribute to Wikipedia, but this isn’t actually true. Wikipedia tends to be dominated by aggressive editors who view experts in particular fields with distrust. Just look at the discussion (‘talk’) page for the entryexpert editors’. One of the first comments is by an expert in biological matters, who complains that on Wikipedia, all editors are presumed equal, and as a result he gets ‘frustrated at times with non-expert editors as they push there pet aspects on topics especially in popular/media/social hot topics without knowing where [sic] they talk about.

With experts essentially being shut out, this means that Wikipedia is able to foist ideas onto an unsuspecting public that are either plain wrong or otherwise misleading or outdated. A good example is the entry that deals with Greek warfare. The opening paragraphs state, as a matter of fact, a few things that are subject of vigorous academic debate if not simply wrong. The whole notion of the ‘rise of the Greek city-state’ ca. 800 BC is something that needs serious qualification, and I know many who would balk at the idea that hoplite warfare and the ‘rise’ of the city-states went hand-in-hand, to say nothing about the supposed ‘scale and scope of warfare in Ancient [sic] Greece’ changing ‘dramatically as a result of the Greco-Persian Wars’.

While the bibliography for that article is fairly extensive, the footnotes mostly reference Victor Davis Hanson and Tom Holland, which means that the editors of this article assume a particular position when it comes to Greek warfare that does not accurately reflect the range of divergent opinions in this particular field. In my opinion, a good encyclopedic article – which this is clearly not – should engage with academic debates on the topic and present these to the reader. If I were writing this, I’d made explicit that what e.g. Victor Davis Hanson has written about Greek warfare is very different from the writings by Hans van Wees or Peter Krentz, and would leave it up to the reader to make their own decision about who might or might not be correct.

So while Wikipedia is useful as a source of pictures, you cannot take the information in the articles at face value. Personally, I would put my confidence in people who know something about the subject that they’re writing about – i.e. the much-maligned experts – and who also attach their names to the material that they produce. Frustrated with Wikipedia himself, Roger Pearse, for example, has put together an invaluable website that deals with the Roman cult of Mithras.

For the Ancient History website, we’ve created a page with links to websites that deal with the ancient world. Next time you want to look up something about a particular ancient topic, why not avoid Wikipedia (except for the pictures), and check out one of these resources instead? Or, you know, take out a subscription on Ancient History magazine.

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