Monday, October 30, 2006

Roman Holiday

[posted by Callimachus]

Allan Massie wonders at our modern fictional obsession with ancient Greece and Rome.

He gets at the right idea, I think:

However dimly or unconsciously, there persists the idea that Greece and Rome matter, that they are part of our inheritance. Salvatore Settis quotes John Stuart Mill writing in 1859: "The battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings. If the issue of that day had been different … the Britons and Saxons might still be wandering in the woods."

That's an English perspective, of course. For Americans, the ancients are less immediate, but more crucial. Our Founders were obsessed with them (so far as to give the new American government a Roman "Capitol" building). The classical nations gave us both our models and our anti-models. The establishment of a "capitol" in the swamps of the Potomac could be hubris, and it could be a standing warning.

And for us, the heirs of the Founders, the classical stories tell how a republic (Rome) and a democracy (Athens) can thicken into empire, oligarchy and totalitarianism. Gradually, or in a rush of glory; on the wings of a calamity or in an avalanche of catastrophic success.

To swing back to the European view, however, I think a rising historical interest in Rome -- with a strong skepticism about Rome itself and its accomplishments -- mainly reflects modern concerns.

The What did the Romans ever do for us? speech from Monty Python's "Life of Brian" is one of cinema's juiciest skewerings of cushy anti-imperialism:

Reg: All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Attendee: Brought peace?
Reg: Oh, peace - shut up!

At least one of the Pythons now seems to be interested in walking it back. Terry Jones seems to enjoy historical iconoclasm for its own sake, which is fine. But it's hard not to mentally swap a few ancient proper names for some modern ones in this press release regarding his latest work, Terry Jones' Barbarians, and arrive at a Euro-elite view of modern America and its struggles in the world:

So you think you know everything about the Romans? They gave us sophisticated road systems, chariots and the modern-day calendar. And of course they had to contend with barbarian hordes who continually threatened the peace, safety and prosperity of their Empire. Didn't they?

Terry Jones' Barbarians takes a completely fresh approach to Roman history. Not only does it offer us the chance to see the Romans from a non-Roman perspective, it also reveals that most of the people written off by the Romans as uncivilized, savage and barbaric were in fact organized, motivated and intelligent groups of people, with no intentions of overthrowing Rome and plundering its Empire.

In his new book and the accompanying four-part BBC Two television series Terry Jones argues that we have been sold a false history of Rome that has twisted our entire understanding of our own history. Terry asks what did the Romans ever do for us?

This is the story of Roman history as seen by the Britons, Gauls, Germans, Greeks, Persians and Africans. The Vandals didn't vandalize - the Romans did. The Goths didn't sack Rome - the Romans did. Attila the Hun didn't go to Constantinople to destroy it, but because the Emperor's daughter wanted to marry him. And far from civilizing the societies they conquered the Romans often destroyed much of what they found.

And so forth. A description of one part of the mini-series states, "In Greece and Iran, Jones argues that far from being a godless rabble of swarthy bruisers in tiny skirts, it seems the barbarians of Greece and Persia were peaceable boffins whose innate humanity saw them develop what were, in essence, welfare states."

Particular moments of the present echo the past, and historians (especially amateurs with a nose for the market) react accordingly. They will rediscover old neglected topics, or find new angles into familiar ones, for the sake of comparison to modern times.

A small flurry of new books on Robespierre makes much of the common thread of "terror" and of a state under attack going to extremes in the name of homeland security. In their introductions they often make the explicit connection to contemporary America. Make it clumsily and ignortantly, I might add.

In Civil War historiography, for instance, the defining study of desertion dates from the 1920s, and was expressly written with a view to the problem and the responses to it as they had roiled America during World War I. Nothing of a similar significance has been done since, despite whole masses of new information and ways of analyzing them. The topic will have to wait till it becomes relevant again.

Meanwhile, a new and long-overdue history of the anti-war Democrats in the North (known affectionately as "copperheads") has just hit the shelves, very much in key with contemporary debates over the role of dissent in times of danger.

[Both these topics might have been raised, and been relevant, in the 1960s, but they weren't, and I suspect the young generation of historians then working simply was far removed from this old way of doing things and was seeking out entirely new paradigms rather than revisiting the -- as they would have seen it -- exhausted mines worked by their peers.]

So now the Romans will take their lumps, the barbarians will get their due, and the little bit of truth in that will get run over from the other direction as the pendulum swings for reasons that have nothing to do with Claudius or Vercingetorix.