The Joy of History
For most people history is that desire to know what happened in the past, to embrace a sense of development and change over time, and explore foundations of the world around us. A good history will make a good story, or we hope it will. Part of its attractiveness may be that it is our story, directly or indirectly, but it is a story nonetheless, a story someone wants to tell or people want to hear.
The claim that history is a story of something which actually happened is over ambitious. The best we can do is put two and two together and, if we are lucky, get four and a half. We cannot with certainty know the past any more than we can know the present; even less so, for in the present at least we have the first-hand experience of our own lives. We cannot relive the past or feel the ‘then’ time passing. Instead we seek to re-imagine, to satisfy our curiosity for who, when, what, where, how and above all why; and to engage with the evidence available; and yes, even if it cannot be delivered as a complete package, to establish as far as possible what actually happened, and where we find it expose ‘fake’ history. This desire for accuracy should override the motive to tell a good story or a story with a purpose behind it: that is the difference between a history and, say, a story in a poem or in a play or novel or film. Historical novels and films come somewhere between the two, for they fill in gaps creatively; but evident inaccuracies will diminish their effect.
The historical evidence for ancient Rome comes from two sources, the literature of the ancient world and what has since been unearthed by archaeology. The evidence from writers is undeniably hit and miss. Some writings have survived only in part, others do not cover all the events and eras. Roman historians tended to record public events, military campaigns and politics, almost all of which was about influential men. There is much less in the literature from the perspective of women, of more ordinary folk, or of slaves. Archaeology on the other hand continually offers fresh insights into the broader life of the ancient world. There are, though, a few writers like Martial, Petronius and Pliny, who give us glimpses of people at street level, and from others we can make useful inferences.
We use the ancient historians, the findings of archaeology and what we can piece together from letters, poems, speeches, inscriptions, graffiti even, to build our own picture and form our own story. Such a narrative is shaped by the questions we ask, by what we can actually see, or what we want to see, or what other people want us to see, or is revealed through fortuitous discoveries, all of which are subject to accidental errors and inaccuracies in transmission. And all these factors are multiplied when the world we are examining is so distant, and the accessible evidence so patchy.
But let’s not grumble. The literature allows us to see much more of ancient Rome than we can see of most other ancient societies. We should perhaps not expect too many more discoveries to add to this body of literary evidence, but it is by no means stagnant: seemingly minor discoveries can put other things in an entirely different light, and new angles and interpretations continue to challenge accepted views. Indeed, the process – and pleasure – for a historian is to engage with this material, to take a well-worn narrative and in the light of different sources seek a fresh perspective. It may not be a wholly original view – the desire for difference can be a distraction – but as far as possible I want to find my own way to it.
The question constantly in the historian’s mind is what to take on trust from the literary sources and what with a pinch of salt. We can only ever write a history in pencil; for there will always be scope for new interpretations and realignment. One thing we can be sure about: before very long the gaps and grey areas and other flaws in our narrative will be exposed and in turn need to be updated. We shall need to challenge our own story, our hunches and conclusions, and apply scientific principles to what is essentially a creative art.
Like many others I grew up believing that the English king, Richard III, had a hunchback. It seemed quite radical later to have to remove his hunchback when revisionist ideas were circulating, with good reason, that this was a piece of propaganda by the Tudors. I had just about come round to the view that Richard was a maligned monarch and in fact was as physically fit as any other, when in 2012 his body was discovered under a Leicester carpark to reveal he suffered from scoliosis, which affected his spine and posture but probably not to the point of making him a wholly disfigured hunchback. So at least partly accurate. We can never be too sure of very much. And it cautions against being dismissive of oral folklore.
George Sharpley, 2017