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2017-09-04
A matter of perspective
There's an apocryphal story about researchers in Beijing University who discovered a way to predict earthquakes.

To test their device, they rushed to a tectonically active area in the remote Himalayas.

Sure enough, as soon as they had set up their equipment they found that a powerful quake was due. Realizing that a large village nearby would be flattened by the quake, the researchers sent an urgent warning. Consequently, despite massive damage, not a single life was lost.

As the villagers returned and started to stoically rebuild their lives, the scientists detected strong aftershocks on the way. Again warned in time, the villagers escaped without a scratch. Then they killed the scientists and smashed their equipment.

'But why?' asked an anthropologist sent from Beijing to investigate. 'Did they offend your customs, your Gods?'

'No', the villagers replied. 'They were just evil men. They had a machine that caused earthquakes.'

And that's the problem we have as historians. We assume that our Greeks and Romans and Gauls are approaching issues from approximately the same direction as ourselves, while in fact their mindset might be completely different.

We can't understand ancient history without understanding the minds of the men and women who made it. And that, I respectfully submit, is impossible. But that's the fun part of it. We still have to try.
 
2017-08-04
Calling children names
Recently I was discussing the Roman name 'Postumus', made famous by such persons as Agrippa Postumus, the son of Augustus' henchman. As the name says, Postumus was the last son of Agrippa, being born after his father's death.

The connection with the word 'posthumous' is clear but wrong. The name 'Postumus' actually comes from an older, originally Etruscan, word meaning 'last'. Thus a son born after his father's death is certainly the last son of that father, but so also might be a son born to the deceased wife of a father who did not intend to remarry. (Many Roman women died in childbirth). Or perhaps the parents were unanimous that their current child would be the last that would make him 'Postumus; but possessed of living parents.

The connection with the word 'posthumous' confuses not only unwary modern historians it also confused Romans. In his text 'On the Latin Language' the scholar Varro makes explicitly the statement 'A child is called Manius if he is born in the morning (manes), Lucius if he was born at dawn (from Lucis 'of the light') and Postumus if he was born after the death of his father.'

Though Varro was originally wrong, he eventually became right, because other Romans made the same assumption as did Varro. Therefore a father who called his son 'Postumus' would have to spend the rest of his (or his son's) life explaining that he was still alive. It was easier to call the boy Marcus. However, if dad really was dead, then Postumus was a good name, so that seems to be how the name came to be used.

The same sort of thing happens these days. Originally a girl was called 'Natalie' if she was born on Christmas day - on the Nativity of Christ. These days the name can be given to girls born at any time of year, which is a pity, because I always liked that sly old joke 'I know a girl called Natalie she was born on September 25th'.
 
2017-07-04
Ancient Voices
My recent book on Sparta - 'Rise of a Warrior Nation' order your copy today! - contained several pages worth of Plutarch's text. A fellow writer, a modern historian who spends an inordinate amount of time getting permission to use material which he has quoted, remarked enviously that it is just as well Plutarch can't sue.

I replied that if he did, he could start with Shakespeare who lifted 'Antony and Cleopatra' - at times almost verbatim - from Plutarch's Life of Antony. But there is a wider issue here. When I'm quoting, I'm translating, and translating is also interpreting. It's not copying but a creative act. Gone are the days when a writer on the classics could just dump a paragraph of the original Greek onto a page in the confident expectation that his readers would simply switch languages and keep going.

So to tell a modern reader what an ancient Greek had to say, I have to wrap a wet towel around my head (Plutarch is tough, but Thucydides is a beast) and climb into the text. Previous translations, if they exist, are a help, but they are often wildly subjective, sometimes wrong, and they often use archaic English as well.

As an example, once when reading Thucydides in translation, I found text referring to warships 'sunk' in battle. Yet triremes don't sink which is why no-one has ever found a wrecked one. They are made of wood and buoyancy-positive. Even with a dirty great hole in the bottom, a trireme would keep floating, though in a somewhat water-logged condition. And in the original text, that's what Thucydides says he uses a word meaning somewhere between 'waterlogged' and 'swamped' - but not 'sunk'.

In other words, a writer on ancient history might not need permission to quote his sources, but he does have a duty to convey their words as accurately as possible, both in mood and in meaning.

I'm more than happy to quote ancient authors when I can, at and length. My first writing job was as a journalist, and I was taught that whenever possible I should allow those who are involved in a story to tell it in their own words. My job is to put those words in context so that everyone is clear what is going on.
 
2017-06-04
Imperium sine fine - empire without end (Vergil)
Given that I spend a lot of time in the Roman empire, it dawned on me recently that it is odd that I have not given much thought to empires in general. (Partly this sudden burst of introspection was inspired by Goldsworthy's thoughtful treatment of the subject in his Pax Romana, which I'm reading through at the moment.)

Empires are one of those things where it seems obvious what they are until you try to actually pin them down. (I remember this same feeling when I looked at a sociological analysis of gifts. Is it really a 'gift' if you are expected to reciprocate? What are the motives of the giver? And so on.) It's the same with empires -when you get down to it, they are slippery things. For example does an empire have to have an emperor/empress? What about the Athenian Empire, run by a democratic government, or the empire of the Roman republic? Why was the Middle Kingdom of China ruled by an Emperor, but the Persian Empire ruled by a King?

Why do we not refer to the continental USA as the Washingtonian Empire? People used to think it would be we have the Empire State building in New York because New York state was regarded as the right place to start an American empire. If we argue that empire is imposed without the consent of the governed, we run out of Roman Empire some time in the third century, when most of the population of the um, whatever-it-was, was Roman and apparently wanted to stay that way.

There are centralized empires run rigidly by diktat, and other empires where the imperial system simply took over the top layer of government and left the rest running pretty much as it was. (The early Roman emperors were good at this.) Then there's a hegemonic empire in which the ruling state does not directly order subject states about, but makes sure that sympathetic governments are elected in these states, and that the population subscribe to the religion, culture and politics of the hegemonic state.

Overall, it seems that every empire is unique. While several have common features, none shares them all, and there is no one defining characteristic. You will notice that I have not even tried to find out where, or if, the European Union belongs in this discussion. That's one for present politicians and future historians to deal with.
 
2017-05-04
Alternative history
As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I tend to avoid historical novels set in ancient Rome. The problem is that I read with a metaphorical red pen in my hand, marking items of text 'problematical', 'anachronistic' and 'totally wrong'. Some writers seem not to have grasped the fact that the Romans had a radically different society to our own, and believe that putting twentieth-century folk in togas pretty much sorts out the 'historical' aspect of it all.

This is certainly the attitude of Hollywood screen-writers (with a few honourable exceptions). It's the reason why, in this household, I'm ejected from the room when everyone wants to watch a sword-and-sandal epic. Otherwise I keep jumping up and down, shouting at the TV and rushing off to grab books from the shelf that prove what is happening on-screen is total nonsense.

However, even more insidious are the historical novels that get it right almost. Even these writers might occasionally enliven the story with a bit of creative inaccuracy or anachronism because it's 'just fiction'. However, my gullible mind absorbs facts and factiods alike. Then when challenged on something I have spouted in a paper or a lecture, I might check back and discover with horror that it came from fiction. So abstinence is the only thing that works for me.

Nevertheless, in a sporting attempt to keep in the spirit of things I offer this extract from 'Flowers from Washington: a novel of ancient America' written in the year AD 4000 and set in 2017.

'By Gad!' said Hiawatha to Marilyn Monroe, 'The Confederacy council must hear of this at once.' He jammed on his top hat, holstered his trusty six-shooter, and rushed out. As ever, the hover-train from Broadway was packed with commuters, so he took a short cut on foot past the Lincoln Memorial, pausing only to admire the outline of the Apple Plaza which dominated the skyline. ...
 

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