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2010-11-05
What is this thing called history?
Recently I've been spending some time at the end of the empire, right down in the fifth century AD, when the whole thing was about to be wrapped up and taken away to make room for the Middle Ages.

There's a lot of controversies, both major and minor, about this period. Almost everything is up for debate; from the motivation of the principal characters, to exactly what happened, when it happened and of course, above all why it happened.

That, as far as I am concerned is what history is all about. A historian should not lay out his narrative as cut-and-dried facts - he should be presenting these facts just as a barrister presents an case in court. In history, as in a court case, the known facts are not the end, but the means to an end. And with a court case and with history, that end is the same - to get as close to the truth as is humanly possible.

Not understanding this, is I think, the major reason why some kids get turned off history at school. Instead of being told 'these are the facts, deal with it', the students should be persuaded to use these facts to construct an argument.

Who did more damage to Rome - Nero or Caligula? Why do you think so? Was Claudius murdered? Is the legend of the foundation of Rome more accurate than many modern historians think? History devoid of debate becomes antiquarianism. That's still fun, but it's much more fun when we start discussing what the facts are trying to tell us. We should always remember that the word 'history' comes from the Greek for 'inquiry'.
 
2010-10-05
Ancient history, modern technology
This blog entry is a little delayed, because I was working late to wrap up the first draft of another book. More details on this later, but all going well, you should see the fruit of my labours some time next year, once all the editing and graphics have been completed.

As ever while I'm writing, I'm intrigued how modern technology and writing ancient history overlap. For this book modern archaeological techniques using ground-penetrating radar had helped to reconstruct ancient earthworks. I downloaded the publication describing this reconstruction from a university archive, and read it on my computer.

As I tried to follow the description of my general on campaign, I had Google Earth open in a window on a second computer monitor (my desk looks like the command module of the space shuttle), and a large-scale map of ancient Germany on my iPad. Now, once I'm done giving the text a final read-through, I'll email it to my editor. We'll probably discuss things on Skype once he has read it.

At least the version of Tacitus I have been using is in paper form. That's my favourite translation in a 105-year-old copy of Church and Broadribb. I sometimes wonder what the old historians would have thought, seeing the tools their modern counterparts have at their disposal. Yet I'd trade them all in an instant for Tacitus' access to the Roman senatorial records.
 
2010-09-04
Frankfurt on my mind

Try to talk to a publisher in the middle of October, and the chances are that you'll be asked to leave a message. This is because the publisher will be fully engaged in the major event of the year for those who get books published for a living - the Frankfurt Book Fair. This five-day fair so dominates many publishers' lives they are almost shocked when you remind them that most members of the general public have never heard of it.

It's not as though the public have not had the chance. The fair has been a regular annual event almost since Gutenberg set up the first printing press about 500 years ago. The fair attracts publishers, large retailers, agents, TV and film people, academics and trade associations. Everyone involved in the book world is there - except authors. So I've never been there, but Frankfurt is very important to me, because that's generally where my publishers negotiate the publishing rights and licensing fees which have seen my books produced in over a dozen languages (and counting). This provides a substantial chunk of my income.

There's another effect as well - Frankfurt keeps me busy over the summer. This is because sometimes a publisher wants to take an idea international, or wants to produce a model of what a planned book will look like (this model is called a 'dummy'), to see what sales such a book can expect. For me as an author the timing goes like this. I produce something in July and August while the rest of the world is taking a break. (I did get to swim in the lake almost every day in July and August, so don't feel too sorry for me.) In September my raw prose is turned into something resembling a book, and in October, while I'm enjoying some well-earned repose, my work schedule for the coming year is determined by negotiations thousands of miles away in Germany.

Frankfurt is on my mind this month, because one of my latest productions will be on the auction block. That production is a book giving my take on the Greek and Roman Myths. The book itself came out at the end of August in the UK and will be out just before Christmas in North America. Naturally, I'm hoping that international publishers find it irresistible. I'd particularly like to see the book find a Greek publisher. There would be something particularly satisfying in seeing my explanation of those ancient legends written in the language of the people who originally told them.
 
2010-08-05
Hooked on history
During the last month I've been asked the same question by people in three different professions; 'How can we get people enthused about ancient history?'

Each of these three professionals - a university administrator, a commissioning editor of ancient history books, and a TV researcher - know that the days of a tweedy professor lecturing the audience are gone for good. In a world of Ipads, 3D TV and always-on internet simply reciting names and dates from two millennia past is not going to grab anyone's attention. There's definitely a place for a tweedy professor (I rather fancy being one myself) but his place is for after members of the public have been hooked on history. The question is what draws people into the subject in the first place.

I've been musing on this question over the summer (it's been a busy one, of which I'll have more to say next month). My theory is that ancient history is so fascinating partly because it is a mixture of detective work and debate. The evidence is fragmentary in so many places that it can be interpreted in different ways. Was Julius Caesar a hero or a villain? Was Cleopatra a victim or a vicious seductress? Was the emperor Claudius murdered?

The other reason antiquity is fascinating is because it is so radically different from anything we experience today (with all those Ipads and internet stuff for instance). Yet the people of antiquity are totally human, with their quirks, kindness and cruelty. Yet the human drama of ancient Greece and Rome is played out on a very different stage. And so I ask myself; 'If I was a Roman, or Greek in a particular place or event, what would I think, feel and believe? How would I understand my world?'

That's what draws me in, and how I try to enthuse others.
 
2010-07-04
Filling the map
Recently I've started playing one of those online games where you wander around a magical landscape and kill things. I'm currently working on Roman citizenship and first century agrarian legislation, and frankly, I need the light relief. Anyway, after I'd played for a week or so, a more experienced player took me by the virtual hand and showed that the area I'd been running around was a small corner of a much larger map.

I mention this, because I've noticed something similar in ancient history over the past few decades. When I finished my first university degree, I felt I basically knew my subject. Not all the details perhaps, but basically who was who and what happened when. Some of that certainty faded as I progressed with my studies, and came across entire eras, cultures, texts and wars that I had not even touched on as an undergraduate.

These days, when ever I start researching a book I do so knowing that I'm basically starting from scratch. A lot of what I think I know will turn out to be misinformed, and I will consult experts who astound me with the depth of their knowledge. So in doing a book I end up filling in another portion of my 'map' of the ancient world with a rich texture of people, places, things and events.

By now I know that the map will never be complete. There's simply too much to discover in the course of a single lifetime. After all, ancient history describes twelve hundred years spread from the Thames to the Tigris and beyond. At best I can play tourist and visit and report on the most interesting times, people and places. I'm rather glad that I'll never know it all. What would I do next?
 

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