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2011-12-04
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.

 
2011-11-04
Getting 2012 into shape
November already? Well, in one way I'm not surprised, because I'm actually up to December with my writing. On the other hand it's something of a shock to see autumn leaves outside the window where there was mid-summer a few moments back.

There's another way I can tell that the year is ending, and that's because developments are speeding along for 2012. There's a number of projects in the works of which I'll be telling more as they get sorted out.

The first is that my teaching schedule is becoming clearer for next year. I enjoy teaching. And the internet lets me work with students from all over the world without having to venture into the four-foot snowdrifts outside my front door. I'm hoping to do three semesters next year, so if this works out, expect a coming blog entry to read like a huge advertisement for Cambridge University's Continuing Education programme.

Secondly, I'm working with a very large internet Roman site on a project that will be unveiled in 2012. Details are under wraps at present, but this is another new development that has me excited about the future. I'm also going to be working on a new book dealing with Roman Spain, so I might need to include the Pyrenees in next year's diary.

Talking of mountains, we got interested in buying a place in the Monashee mountains in the Bigfoot country of south-east British Columbia. It turned out the sellers were interested in moving before the winter, so we'll be moving sooner rather than later. I'll be writing next month's blog entry (and much else besides) even deeper in the wilds, where the bears and elk considerably outnumber the human population.

And there's no building work scheduled in the area over the next year. I checked.
 
2011-10-04
Moving on
Some of our relatives complain of the mess that we make of the 'M' page in their address books. We seldom stay anywhere for more than a couple of years. We change towns often, countries occasionally and continents infrequently. We are now in a beautiful town surrounded by vineyards, mountains and lakes. This time next year, we won't be (though the next destination is currently uncertain). Friends often ask us why we don't settle down, and we usually ask 'Why should we?'

Look at it like this. Do you remember your first day at school? Probably. Now do you remember your hundredth? Exactly. By constantly moving to new places we have fresh experiences, meet new challenges, make new friends and find different ways of doing things. Of course, for me as an ancient historian, this is great. So much of what we take for granted is a result of cultural conditioning.

It's hundreds of little things, for example whether we carry a bouquet of flowers with the flowers facing up or down. People in Anglo-American cultures carry the flowers head up, but many Europeans carry the bouquet head down, which - when you think that the blooms are heavy and delicate - is the more sensible way of doing it. With such everyday observations, my concepts of how people function in a society and how that society itself functions are constantly called into question. This stops me from unconsciously thinking of the Romans as simply modern Englishmen in togas.

That's not why we move though. My wife and I can work anywhere that has a good internet connection and somewhere to keep our libraries. We keep in touch with friends ad family through visits (we usually end up somewhere eminently visitable) and the net, and we see and understand far more of each place we stay than a tourist would. So the view out of our front window keeps changing, and meals vary from pancakes with maple syrup to spaetzle mit kase, tagliatelle or fish and chips. The main reason we move far and often? Because we can.
 
2011-09-04
Utile sed non facile (Useful but not easy)
On Friday I was talking with an interviewer who asked me how important Latin was for those studying ancient Rome. I've been pondering the question ever since. I remember seeing a Classics exam paper several years back when students were offered English versions of the material they were being questioned on. If even people who study the language at university level need translations, why should the rest of the population even bother?

I'd better add disclaimer here - my Latin is abominable, mainly because I tend only to read it. I can appreciate when Caesar is using an accusative of motion, but could not produce one of my own even if it saved me from being thrown to the lions. (And being thrown to the lions - Ad bestias - IS an accusative of motion.) But, even when the Latin is the convoluted and highly affected language of someone like Cicero, on occasion there is no alternative but to wrap a wet towel around one's head and get on with it.

There are two reasons. One is that all translation is also interpretation. So the translator stands between reader and Roman. Here the Latin says' amicus', and the translation says 'friend'. But in the context of the text this 'friend' is one whom our Roman favours for business dealings, rather than one with whom he discusses the chariot races over a beaker of wine. In modern English 'contact' is probably a better word. And translating someone like Martial is like explaining a joke - the meaning comes across, but the impact has gone. Secondly, reading the original Latin, with its odd mixture of rigid structure and quirky exceptions almost forces one to think like a Roman, which is what Roman historians need to do as part of their job.

Most certainly the Roman world can be appreciated by the non-Latinate, and aspects such as Roman art and architecture speak profoundly without needing language at all. Also, there are translations a-plenty these days for all the major Latin authors. But for those of us who have the privilege of guiding others around the fascinating and diverse world of antiquity, sometimes only the original Latin will do.
 
2011-08-04
Getting ahead of myself
The past two weeks have revealed one of the disadvantages of living in the Okanagan Valley deep in the interior of British Columbia. Even fans of the town where I live (and they are many) admit that it is no hotbed of ancient history. In fact the local library has four books on the subject - two of which I donated. I could not live here if not for the internet, by which I keep in contact with academics and enthusiasts all over the world, and maintain extensive links to online journals.

But there are times when friends are unavailable, and the books I need are not online, university libraries won't lend them and they can't be ordered from booksellers. And that's the case now. I knew that with my current project I was going to need a particular rare and out-of-print book, and eventually managed to get a copy printed to order. (This system, called 'print on demand', is becoming increasingly common, but with some books it takes time.) Also, I need access to the pictures of a friend who has wandered all over a site for which I need good maps and photos. Inconsiderately, this individual is currently on holiday in Peru.

It's my fault. Had I stuck to my original milestones when I mapped out the project, I'd only need this material in October, and it is all arranged to be sitting on my desk by then. But as happens more often than my long-suffering wife would like, I got carried away. I occasionally found myself still hammering away at the keyboard at 2 a.m. as I put a sequence of events into text while it was all crystal-clear in my mind. So I'm now finishing chapter nine when I should be starting chapter six.

So now I have to wait for the world to catch up. Fortunately sunny weather, high temperatures and four miles of lakeside beach bring to mind a few possibilities for passing the time. I got mildly sunburned yesterday while reading an article on cataphracts. At the time I was at a picnic site halfway up a mountain overlooking the lake. After all, I wouldn't be here if life didn't also have its benefits.
 

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