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Friends, Romans, foreigners
Recently I've been engaged in a project that requires me to put myself into the mind of a Roman from around the time of 100 BC. This is not as easy as it seems at first glance. We have inherited a lot of Roman culture (for example the text I am writing this in is called 'Roman script', and both 'Roman' and 'script'
are recognizably Latin words) and this makes it easy to think that the Romans acted and thought as we do.

But did they? For a start we have very little evidence about their thought processes. The best clues would come from contemporary texts, but in fact much of what we know about the last century of the Roman Republic was written after the wrenching social changes that gave birth to the Roman empire. Therefore I've been giving a lot of attention to two writers from the generation after 100 Bc - Cicero and Sallust.

One of the first things that is noticeable in their work is a degree of what we would consider as, frankly, plain nastiness. From a 21st century viewpoint, the Romans of the mid-to-late Republic are remarkably pragmatic, ruthless and selfish. Empathy is not one of their strong points, and they are not big on charity even for their fellow Romans, let alone for the rest of the world. Politics (where admittedly, one sees few societies at their best) was not just dog eat dog, but dog ambush dog and then get a pack together to eat dog's friends and associates as well.

The world of 100 BC lacked some of the social concepts which we take for granted today. The Christian ethic which stresses compassion for the less fortunate and guilt for misdeeds did not exist. 'Sin' as a concept did not arrive in Rome for another two centuries. The nearest the Romans came was 'crimes against the Gods' - and for such crimes, as for any other crimes, Romans felt (or should feel) only shame for having let their society and themselves down.

Likewise, romantic love and chivalry are mostly medieval concepts. Insofar as a Roman male (a chauvinist in every sense of the word) felt romantic love for a woman, this was a character flaw which needed excusing. So we see Cicero denying that he married a young lady for love. He insisted it was just for her money. Likewise kicking a man when he was down or helpless seemed to the pragmatic Romans the very best time to do it. Their reward for an opponent who had fought gallantly was to make damn sure he would never do it again.

These days we tend to depreciate the Roman Republican virtues - their intense loyalties to friends and their fierce pride in their country. They were almost uniformly brave, stubborn, and uncompromising way past the point of pig-headedness, and they faced hardship without flinching (though they liked to complain bitterly about it). They were also capable of sly humour, unexpected and lavish generosity and slushy sentimentality.

To me the Romans of this period are fascinating individuals, and I love living with them in my research and reading. But like most people in a foreign country, I still prefer the values of my own society.
Creating gods
Over the last few weeks I've been preparing a course I'll be teaching over the internet for ICE Cambridge next year. It's on Greek Mythology. While researching I've found this interesting book which argues that the best way to consider Greek gods is as forces and concepts.

So, for example, we have the concept of love, which gives us Aphrodite; and the force of order, which gives us Zeus. Zeus is a force, because it is order that makes electrons orbit their atoms correctly, and all sorts of things that would exist even without humans to imagine them.

Interestingly, as the example of Zeus shows, the Greek gods even extend their operations into the modern world and areas which the ancient Greeks never imagined. This is why Hermes (as Mercury) is still to be found on the beret badges of the British Army Signals Corps, even though the ancient Greeks knew nothing of satellite communications and microwave transmissions.

However, maybe for the modern era we would need some new gods to cover some of the areas which the ancient Greeks never imagined. For example how about Quantum, god of the arcane, the counter-intuitive and downright impossible? I imagine him as a quirky (or even quarky) god, whose symbol would be a cat in a box.

Then there's Ipeeya, goddess of intellectual property. A loving, nurturing goddess when she guards your copyrights, and a vicious, grasping, mean-spirited harpy when you want to use someone else's.
All about Vesta
One of the things about living in the mountains is that some questions get a certain degree of consideration. For example, let's assume that an avalanche took out the gas and electricity supply. How long would it take for the necessities of life to be restored? Remember that the road would have gone too, and there's over a meter of snow just outside my front door and temperatures well below zero.

With such thoughts in mind, in November I invested in a serious wood-burning stove, which was about the size and cost of a small car. For this I stacked up a substantial pile of wood under the kitchen window, and at a stroke (well at several strokes of a wood-splitting axe) our house became energy-independent.

Suddenly it became apparent to me why the hearth was such an important part of the home in the days when everyone lived off the grid because there was no grid to be on. The stove has a flat top, so cooking is simply a matter of placing the appropriate pots or pans anywhere on the surface. The flames do an adequate job of illuminating the room, and the entire house stays toasty warm. Add a decent supply of non-perishable food (you can get rice in 50lb bags in these parts) and losing electricity and gas goes from a life-threatening problem to an inconvenience.

Fresh water is not an issue, as it comes white and pure from the sky, and lies around in large piles for months. All one needs is a stove to melt it on. If you like to make your own beer, as I do, the stove even keeps the brew at a decent temperature for fermentation, so none of the necessities of life are absent. They say that no man is an island, but given a decent stove and plenty of wood, I can see that in the past he could at least have been a peninsula.
Forthcoming Attractions
Over the past few months a number of people have asked me what has happened to the book on Petellius Cerialis, since 'Imperial General' has been in the forthcoming section for several months now.

Of course, once an author has written a book his part is more or less done and it's up to the publisher. In this case my anxious queries have established that there was some sort of technical delay which has now been resolved. The books are apparently reaching the warehouse and will hopefully be available in time for Christmas. (And for the one thousand nine hundred and forty-second anniversary of the battle for Rome in which my hero took part.) So all going well, imperial General should grace a few Xmas stockings.

On the topic of Xmas stockings, those looking for a gift for the history fan who has everything should consider the beaker I was given to review at the start of the month. It's a fine Calanthus (a type of tall drinking vessel) in pewter modelled on a genuine version from around the first century AD.

So far, careful testing has revealed that this beaker splendidly complements red wines, port and (rather unhistorically)whiskey and water. It's not cheap, but the workmanship of the side panels is correspondingly splendid. The full review can be found at

On a final note, Neil Faulkner's Guide to the Ancient Olympics will be coming out next year in time for London's celebration of the modern event. I had the chance to see an early draft of this book, and can heartily recommend it.

How accurate is history?
One of the joys of my profession is that I get to have long, interminable discussions with fellow enthusiasts about ancient history. Sometimes these are carefully-considered debates on web-forums, or emails exchanged over a period of months. At other times these are beer-fuelled discussions in a pub, or over whisky long after most commercial establishments have shut their doors.

One such discussion recently raised questions which are worth sharing. The basic question was about the nature of history. History is inquiry into the events of the past and reporting the results. However, on this occasion I was debating with a narratologist - one who believes that what actually happened will never be known. The best we can hope for, he claims, is to discover what people at the time thought was happening. Sadly, what we usually get instead is the version of the story that those people in charge at the time wanted people to believe was happening. Then that version of the story is further twisted into what the people in charge right now want us to believe actually happened. Somewhere along the way reality drops out of the picture and all we have left is a credible myth.

My position accepts that cynicism is justified, but misplaced. There is indeed a narrative which is manipulated and twisted as far as possible (and a touch further) by those in power. However, what is mostly manipulated is not history, but history in the making - that is; news. It is precisely the job of the historian to stand back, and from the perspective of years, decades or centuries, to enquire whether (for example) so-and-so really was the great president or emperor that people thought at the time, and whether his claims were justified boasts or blatant propaganda.

My position is that history is not just inquiry, it is a conversation between the historian, those who have - for whatever reason - distorted the events of the past, and the objective facts as far as these can be established. In this conversation, the misunderstandings, spin and outright lies can be examined, rejected, and replaced with something nearer the truth.

Ah, argues my friend, but all the historian accomplishes by his inquiry is to again distort events, this time to suit his own perspectives and prejudices. This may be so, but if the truth is out there, I believe that it is not 'a truth' or 'my truth' but 'the truth', and it is my job to keep looking for it and reporting what I find.


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