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2012-06-04
The modern ancient historian
Back in the olden days - 'twas about 5 BC, I recall - I once needed to check how Caesar used the word 'amicus' in his writings. So I pulled on my coat, attached bicycle clips to my trouser legs and cycled down to the Ashmolean museum, where they had a single (of less than a dozen in Britain) concordance of Caesar. A concordance, for you people living in the AD era, is a dictionary listing alphabetically every word Caesar wrote, and telling you where and in what book that word is to be found. I spent a happy morning with Ceasar's campaigns at one elbow, a notebook at the other and the concordance in front of me. The concordance was actually three books, each not much smaller than the single mattress in our guest bedroom.

But as I say, that was BC - Before Computers. That experience of almost a quarter century ago was brought back to me last week, when a similar task came up - in this case to determine whether Caesar used different words to describe the pilum and the javelin. This being AD - After Digital - all it took was to call up Caesar's works from my digital library, run a word search through the English text and compare it to the original Latin. It turns out that Caesar often used the word 'hasta' (spear) for both the pilum and javelin. It has been translators who specified the difference.

Not only did this take twenty minutes rather than a morning, but I did it at home while sipping coffee. And unless the Ashmolean has changed dramatically, sipping coffee in the reading room would probably have had me sent down on manslaughter charges for giving the librarian apoplexy.

Again, the other day I needed to look at the Etruscan town of Volterrae. Using google street view, I walked the modern town, and then called up archaeological reconstructions from an academic website. Then using a mapping program I examined a 3D model of the terrain, and checked on ancient references to Volterrae in the Perseus digital archive, which also had pictures of various Etruscan artefacts.


A quick email to a colleague produced a set of fifty pictures of specifically Roman remains, and one aspect which interested me particularly - the Roman theatre outside the town - was described in excruciating detail in an academic paper from the JSTOR digital archive. In short,in a morning I was able to achieve more, while sitting in a small mining town in the interior of British Columbia, than I could once do in a week at Oxford University. The fibre-optic cable that wriggles in through my basement connects me not just to the modern world, but the ancient one as well.

After this blog, the next task is to welcome students to my current course. The Russian student will be abed by now, while the Australian should be starting tomorrow's breakfast. The English students will be having dinner, while we North Americans are somewhere between morning coffee and lunch. This means that on our online forum we will have a conversation which rolls through 24 hours along with the planet. But first I'll have my own morning coffee (without milk as my wife currently has me on a strict diet). After staring out at the vista of mountains and forest for a while one of us will remark 'time to get back to the world'. The After Digital world, that is.
 
2012-05-04
Making it up
Many things seem pretty easy until you actually have to try it. That's certainly the case with writing fiction. I'll confess that in the past I have considered it as rather the equivalent of playing tennis without a net. After all, why spend an afternoon in the library chasing down an elusive fact when you can just invent stuff wholesale. It's fiction, right?

Then I was asked to try actually writing some of the stuff. Historical fiction, based in the Roman Republic. The task I set myself was to be as accurate as possible. That is, based on what is known, the events of my story had to be entirely possible, based on factual detail, and never contradict reality. The result, I discovered, was rather like playing tennis with two nets.

On the one hand there was my bunch of fictional protagonists, and on the other the actual geography and chronology of real people and places. So to get person A to town B in a certain amount of time, I needed to check sailing conditions for that time of year, and then discover what sort of roads would take my character inland. Then I had to make sure that the real historical figure I needed my character to interact with was indeed there at that time, and check where he went after that.

Weaving fiction into a known set of historical events was great fun, and had an unexpected bonus. That is, because I kept strictly to the facts wherever possible, a lot of the fiction took care of itself. Events and people slotted neatly into my timeline simply because they were in that timeline to start with. And time and again I was spared the task of inventing a fictional character, group or event because research turned up a genuine historical person, group or event that was doing pretty much what I wanted anyway. Hooray for historical imperatives!

Anyway, the fiction has now been written and tied up with a pretty pink bow and sent off for editing. In another month I'll sit down and take a look at it with fresh eyes and make sure it is ready for publication. By then you'll be able to see and read more about it on this site and elsewhere. Don't worry. I'll supply the links.
 
2012-04-04
Throwing off my er, chains?
It would appear that the baggage handlers on our national airline are contemplating a strike. They are unhappy with their overtime and sick leave arrangements, among other things. While reading about this, it struck me that while I am self-employed, I'm a pretty unreasonable boss to myself. Maybe I should go on strike to teach me a lesson.

Overtime? Well, if I work until 2am to get a chapter finished, I'm paid no more for doing so. Sick leave? I can take as much time as I like, but can't expect to get paid for it. And the work will just keep piling up while I'm abed. Then there's the pay. How about getting paid every six months (in royalties), with the payment anywhere between half again more or half less than expected - but usually less? And as for job security - I need to re-apply for employment every time, which in my case is usually twice a year. Pension? No.

How would my baggage handlers take those terms and conditions? Let's see. Morning commutes to an airport to load the 6 am flight in the rain can't be a lot of fun, while on my morning commute - between breakfast table and study - traffic consists of the cat crossing the carpet. I can't imagine anyone loading aeroplanes for fun, while I have written entire books for exactly that reason. (Oddly enough, these books have also done well commercially.)

And if it's a beautiful spring morning, I can spontaneously down tools and take a stroll to the local coffee shop. As my wife has just pointed out, I don't - but the point is that I can if I want to. It's just that first century Spain is currently more interesting than a mocha latte.

In fact it's shaping up as a busy year. I'll be teaching three courses and doing a bit of media consultancy work on ancient world epics. I'm hoping to have two books published this year, and to have another two ready for editing by next January. I'll also have several encyclopaedia entries written and want to publish two magazine articles on topics I feel strongly about.

Since I can't also fit in a strike, I guess I'll have to remain a (self-)oppressed mass.
 
2012-03-04
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.
 
2012-02-04
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.
 

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