Letters from my fans

From William A. Percy
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  • Todd White

Incidentally, Todd White informed me that my recent very favorable review of his brilliant book Pre-Gay L.A on Amazon.com doubled its sales.

  • Michael Dietler

Below are two emails and my response.

His emails

Dear Mr. Percy,

A friend just sent me a copy of your rather cranky review of the Cambridge Ancient Economic History of the Greco-Roman world. Normally I would not have bothered replying to such an obviously truculent piece, but I thought a few words really should be sent to you concerning my own contribution given that your commentary was so completely off base.

In the first place, concerning the size of Massalia, had you taken the trouble to read the definition of the western Mediterranean provided in the fourth paragraph, you might have realized that, according to the conventions adopted by the article, the Italian cities you mentioned fall within the CENTRAL Mediterranean rather than the west. Hence, there is no contradiction at all in stating that Marseille was the largest city in the western Mediterranean until the Roman conquest and yet was smaller than the cities of Etruria, etc. The contrast between the western and central Mediterranean was precisely the point in making these statements. Most other readers seem to have understood this easily, even undergraduates. The scale of your arrogance is really quite astonishing in assuming that another scholar would write this as you suggest without noticing such an obvious contradiction. I recommend more careful reading before activating your keyboard in pursuit of imagined errors. Concerning your doubts about my statement that Marseille was the largest city in the western Mediterranean, I would be delighted to hear about another candidate you might be able to suggest. But having worked in the region for nearly 30 years, I suspect I might have already heard of it if it existed (Massalia was about 10 hectares -- or 20% -- larger than Carthago Nova, the only other plausible contender).

Contrary to your assertion about chronological imprecision, it was patently clear what I meant by the "Roman period" : the period after the Roman conquest of the region, which, as stated, was not covered by the article. But, of course, this clarification was in the same paragraph that defined the western Mediterranean -- which you also failed to read, or comprehend. Moreover, this should have been abundantly obvious to anyone reading the article who did not have a pedantic axe to grind. The article also clearly lays out the chronology of the city's growth (p. 50-51), in direct contradiction of your statement that no date is given for Marseille's great size. Shall we again attribute this to shallow reading?

As to your statement about geographical imprecision, I am completely mystified. The phrase you cite "in the area of Spain" does not exist in the article AT ALL -- and decidedly not in the place you suggest. False citation makes for easy criticism, but not good scholarship.

The phrase with which your review began was "...I was shocked to discover some egregious errors within the few pages..." Let me say that I have precisely the same feeling in reading your review, but in my case with genuine reason. I have no objection to legitimate criticism, and, in fact, welcome it. Your point about the conquest of Tyre by Babylonians rather than Assyrians (not a chronological error, but one of the name of the agent of destruction) is well taken. Who destroyed Tyre is actually irrelevant to the gist of the article, but factual statements should be correct, and this was accepted from another source without proper verification. It should be corrected. But the tone with which that comment was delivered and the inaccuracies and distortions in the rest of your comments are simply beyond the bounds of good scholarship.

Enough said. I have no desire to carry this discussion into the public domain or any further. I just wanted to let you know that the sloppiness and obvious gratuitous snideness of such attacks do not pass unnoticed, by me or other readers. I am not familiar with your work, so I don't know whether this is typical or the result of a temporary lapse in judgement, but I will charitably assume the latter.

Sincerely, Michael Dietler


One final thing I forgot to say in my earlier message: do you really imagine that I don't know where Marseille is located?! It is, in fact, on the eastern edge of the Rhône delta, less than 25 miles from the mouth of the river (and within sight of it!), not "well to the east of the Rhône, between it and the Alps" as you erroneously claim (the Alps are over 100 miles further east -- perhaps you were thinking of Toulon, Hyères, Antibes...? Or perhaps just trying deliberately to exaggerate and mislead?). Moreover, the phrase you criticized was quite obviously intended to signal that no comparable harbors existed between the Rhône and the Pyrenees, not that Marseille was located between those two points! Only an unbelievably pedantic reading of the phrase, mixed with a heavy dose of churlish arrogance, could have possibly resulted in your curious misinterpretation of it. But that seems to be your characteristic way of misreading things. Did it not give you a moments hesitation that no one else had come up with a similar reading -- not the author, who was presumably familiar with the region, not the editors, not proofreaders, not other readers...?

Frankly, I think you owe me an apology. But you don't strike me as the kind of person who admits mistakes. So I won't be holding my breath.

Best wishes, Michael Dietler

My response:

Michael Dietler’s shrill, hysterical replies to my critique of his article are amusing! It appeared in the tedious, tiring, tendentious tome, sloppily edited by Walter Scheidel, Ian Morris and Richard P. Saller, published by a press that used to proof meticulously. Dietler’s rage can perhaps be understood by the fact that he has languished as an associate professor for nearly two decades – a rank that some years ago Harvard sought to abolish because it tends to collect misanthropic malcontents, tenured but unable to get promoted! Dietler alone, of all the other authors, editors and agents of the press that I criticized, has replied to my admittedly rather acrimonious review. Cambridge should never have stooped to print such a wretched tome. Like so many others these days, that mess was compiled to get merit raises and even tenure and promotions for a clique of mutually admiring, time- serving, and system-abusing squirrel scholars.

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