All posts tagged history

And this is why we study History, kids.

Published October 17, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

This semester, my class is “directed research,” which (as I may have said before) largely means “self-directed research.”  I’m cool with that; if I can’t direct myself at 42, I have problems.  (Okay, admittedly, I do have problems, but they’re not academic in nature.)  The problem with it, of course, is that I’m getting no strong guidance as to how to focus my vague notion of a research topic into a proper thesis.

I started the semester with the plan to study ancient Greek and Roman gender role definitions and attitudes towards transgressions of their societal gender role definitions.  Way too broad, and can only give a literature review, so that was no good.  Narrowed it to just gender role transgressions, with the expectation of comparing Greece and Rome.

Only that’s no good, for several reasons:

  1. Many works of modern scholarship (especially when treating with a field as narrow as gender role transgression) treat the cultures as at least partially interchangeable.
  2. Some of the primary sources treat them as being basically the same culture.
  3. Some late Greek sources were written in the Roman Imperial period, and were partially or entirely tainted by Roman values, leaving it unclear what’s truly Greek and what’s actually Roman.
  4. Aside from a few fine points, on the subject of “proper” roles for men and women, the Greeks and Romans largely agreed.

But one of my modern sources gave me a lot of interesting ideas of different angles from which to approach the problem, and I decided to focus on the connection between (the perception of) tyranny, and gender role transgression, as it was not uncommon for those described as being tyrants to also be described as effeminate, or to be accused of intentionally trying to cross gender boundaries, particularly by cross-dressing.

So I decided that my paper for the semester would ask the question of why the ancient Greeks and Romans connected tyranny and gender role transgression (I really need to come up with a more succinct way to put that) and in general just what it was about men (and women) behaving outside the gender norms that upset and even frightened the ancients so.  And I figured that secondary sources weren’t going to cut it for that research question, and began my dive into primary sources.

But after reading through a few pertinent Plutarch Lives, I felt like I was still approaching it all wrong, and would never get any insight just by reading; I had to start applying the same level of critical thought that I did in reading the modern scholarship.  So I started just turning over the question in my head, thinking about the patterns I had already seen.

The Romans were much more unforgiving of these transgressions, more quick to apply the dreaded ‘effeminate’ label, and as the Empire wore on and it became more common for the Emperors to behave in non-standard ways, they got more upset by it, rather than less.   So something was changing as time went on.  And then it hit me, just like that.

The world was changing.  The narrow old definitions of proper and improper were being left behind.  And, whether consciously or not, some people simply could not handle the fact that times were different for them than they had been for their fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, etc, and they retreated into a knee-jerk conservatism that barked insults at anyone it perceived as not fitting into its perfect world view.

Just like certain people in the modern world.

It’s not (just) that failing to learn from History dooms one to repeat it.  It’s (also) that History teaches us to understand our modern world more fully.

(I realize most people probably already know this.  But it only just crystallized for me, and I felt like posting about it.  And since I’ve been rather quiet of late, I thought it was best not to resist that urge.)

Book Report: TransAntiquity

Published September 26, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

I should be reading the next of the ten gazillion (seemingly) library books I have out for this semester’s research project, but I’m going to write this report on the first one instead, in the hopes that discussing it will help me to process the information and figure out exactly what my topic question is.

So, as you can see, the title of this book is “TransAntiquity:  Cross-Dressing and Transgender Dynamics in the Ancient World,” a title which is actually a bit misleading, as the modern concept of transgender is, well, modern, only a few decades old.  So this is more an approach from the modern perspective, with full understanding (and acceptance) of transgender.  (And this is, of course, the kind of book you don’t want to buy:  it’s priced for library purchases, not individual purchases, over $100 a copy.)

Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I didn’t actually read this book cover-to-cover.  I’m researching a paper that’s going to be on the definitions of gender (and behavior towards transgressors of those definitions) in ancient Greece and Rome, and so I skipped over two of the essays in this book, because they really did not apply:  one was about Pharaonic Egypt, and the other was about a period I’d more consider to be the early Middle Ages than late Antiquity (y’know, post-600 AD) so it was actually concerned with Christianity’s reaction to gender transgressions, which is a completely different topic.  (Technically, one of the ones I did read also included a lot of discussion of early Christianity, but it also talked about pre-Christian Rome.  Plus…well, I’ll get to it in turn, and you’ll see why I had to read it.)

I’m going to talk about each essay in turn, but I’ll address the book as a whole first, briefly.  This grew out of an academic workshop held at the University of Pisa, and most of the contributors work at universities in Italy and Germany, with a few UK universities thrown into the mix as well.  Consequently, the authors and editors pretty much assume that if you’re reading the book, you must speak all the major European languages, and they don’t translate their French, Italian and German quotes.   (And I always seemed to be reading it in a time and place where I couldn’t just use Google Translate to get a rough idea of what was being said; all I could do was guess based on cognates and my rusty-to-the-point-of-not-really-existing Latin and German skills.)  The constant reminders that I’m just an ignorant American were kind of painful.  (I do want to learn other languages!  I just suck at them.  And have too much else going on in my life to take proper lessons.)

Anyway, as scholars of the ancient world, the authors are hampered by the existing evidence, and can only address what information survives, so behavior that would actually be identified as trans by modern standards is conspicuously absent for the vast majority of the book, because there just isn’t much surviving data to support a discussion.  There’s a lot of talk about cross-dressing, and about men who were labelled as effeminate, and some discussion of women who were labelled as masculine, and what function those labels served in their society.  So it was really useful to my project, but might not be so useful to other research endeavors.

Okay, so now I want to talk a little about each essay, to give an idea what’s in the book.  (Also to help me process the information properly.  What can I say?  I think better via fingers on a keyboard.  That’s just the messed up way my brain is wired.)

Read the rest of this entry →

Words Crush Wednesday — Julius Caesar and the Pirates 2

Published December 9, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Today’s Words Crush Wednesday is following up on this earlier post.

In reading the original that was referencing I found some startling differences.  In the other book, we were told that Julius Caesar was on his way to Rhodes to be trained in rhetoric when he was captured by the pirates.  However, according to Plutarch, that he was in self-imposed exile from Rome, for fear of being added to Sulla’s proscription list.  So at the time Caesar is captured, he’s already a married man (his wife being the daughter of one of Sulla’s enemies, Sulla wanted Caesar to divorce her, which seems to have started the whole chain of events), though he is still apparently quite young.  (I’m still trying to get a handle on how old he was, but birth dates in antiquity are not always known or reliable.  He may have been about 24, though.  Which in Rome was quite young indeed:  you couldn’t be Consul until you were 43, for example.)  So, rather than simply updating that old post, I thought I’d just post the relevant excerpt from Plutarch…

This remark [Sulla’s remark that in Caesar there were many Mariuses] was reported to Caesar and for some time he went into hiding, wandering from place to place in the Sabine country.  In the end he became ill and while he was going from one house to another at night, he fell into the hands of some of Sulla’s soldiers who were searching the district and arresting those who were hiding there.  With a bribe of two talents Caesar persuaded their leader, Cornelius, to let him go and then went immediately to the sea and sailed to King Nicomedes in Bithynia.  He stayed for a short time with the king and then on his voyage back was captured near the island of Parmacusa by some of the pirates who even at that time controlled the seas with their large fleets of ships and innumerable smaller craft.

First, when the pirates demanded a ransom of twenty talents, Caesar burst out laughing.  They did not know, he said, who it was that they had captured, and he volunteered to pay fifty.  Then, when he had sent his followers to the various cities in order to raise the money and was left with one friend and two servants among these Cilicians, about the most bloodthirsty people in the world, he treated them so highhandedly that, whenever he wanted to sleep, he would send to them and tell them to stop talking.  For thirty-eight days, with the greatest unconcern, he joined in all their games and exercises, just as if he was their leader instead of their prisoner.  He also wrote poems and speeches which he would read aloud to them, and if they failed to admire his work, he would call them to their faces illiterate savages, and would often laughingly threaten to have them all hanged.  They were much taken with this and attributed his freedom of speech to a kind of simplicity in his character or boyish playfulness.  However, the ransom arrived from Miletus and, as soon as he had paid it and been set free, he immediately manned some ships and set sail from the harbour of Miletus against the pirates.  He found them still there, lying at anchor off the island, and he captured nearly all of them.  He took their property as spoils of war and put the men themselves into the prison at Pergamum.  He then went in person to Junius, the governor of Asia, thinking it proper that he, as praetor in charge of the province, should see to the punishment of the prisoners.  Junius, however, cast longing eyes at the money, which came to a considerable sum, and kept saying that he needed time to look into the case.  Caesar paid no further attention to him.  He went to Pergamum, took the pirates out of prison and crucified the lot of them, just as he had often told them he would do when he was on the island and they imagined that he was joking.  [Life of Caesar, 1-2, Rex Warner translation, from the 2005 revised Penguin edition.]

It’s only after that incident that he decides to go to Rhodes for training in rhetoric, since he’s in the area.  So that’s Plutarch’s version.  BTW, that Nicomedes mentioned early on?  Caesar spent so much time there that it was assumed in Rome that Nicomedes had made a conquest of him, and he was mocked for it for the rest of his life.

Then I went and looked at Suetonius’ version of the same events, and found some very striking differences.  To start with, Sulla is convinced by Caesar’s friends and allies not to proscribe him or force him to divorce his wife.  (Though he thinks it’s a bad idea to let him off so easily, making that same remark about there being many Mariuses in Caesar.  A remark which is a bit too prescient to be creditable, in my opinion.  At this point in his career, Caesar has done nothing to show his military strength, nor to show his future favor to the populares.)  Caesar leaves Rome on military service in Cilicia, until returning to Rome after Sulla’s death…

After this revolt was suppressed, Caesar brought a charge of extortion against Cornelius Dolabella, a man of consular rank who had once been awarded a triumph; but he failed to secure a sentence, so he decided to visit Rhodes until the resultant ill feeling had time to die down, meanwhile taking a course in rhetoric from Apollonius Molon, the best living exponent of the art.  Winter had already set in when he sailed for Rhodes and was captured by pirates for nearly forty days, to his intense annoyance; he had with him only a physician and two valets, having sent the rest of his staff away to borrow the ransom money.  As soon as the stipulated fifty talents arrived and the pirates duly set him ashore, he raised a fleet and went after them.  He had often smilingly sworn, while still in their power, that he would soon capture and crucify them, and this is exactly what he did.  Then he continued to Rhodes, but Mithridates was now ravaging the nearby coast; so, to avoid the charge of showing inertia while the allies of Rome were in danger, he raised a force of auxiliaries and drove Mithridates’ deputy from the province — which confirmed the timorous and half-hearted cities of Asia in their allegiance. [Divus Julius, 4, Robert Graves translation, from the 2007 revised Penguin edition.]

Not only is the timing different, in Suetonius’ version there’s a logical motive for Caesar to want to prove himself militarily:  he’s trying to make the (Senate and) people of Rome like him again after he failed in his court case against the ex-consul Dolabella.

One more version:

Caesar was only about eighteen years of age at the time of Sulla’s dictatorship; and when a search was made for him with a view to putting him to death, not, it is true, by Sulla himself, but by his minions and partisans, he escaped from the city at night by assuming a disguise which effectually concealed his rank.  Later, but when still quite a young man, he was captured by pirates and so conducted himself during the entire period of his detention as to inspire in them to an equal degree both fear and respect.  Neither by day nor by night did he remove his shoes or loosen his girdle — for why should a detail of the greatest significance be omitted merely because it cannot be adorned in imposing language? — lest the slightest change in his usual garb might cause him to be suspected by his captors, who guarded him only with their eyes.

It would take too long to tell of his many bold plans for the punishment of the pirates, or how obstinately the timid governor of Asia refused to second them.  The following story, however, may be told as a presage of his future greatness.  On the night following the day on which his ransom was paid by the cities of Asia — he had, however, compelled the pirates before payment to give hostages to these cities — although he was but a private citizen without authority, and his fleet had been collected on the spur of the moment, he directed his course to the rendezvous of the pirates, put to flight part of their fleet, sank part, and captured several ships and many men.  Well satisfied with the success of his night expedition, he returned to his friends and, after handing his prisoners into custody, went straight to Bithynia to Juncus, the proconsul — for the same man was governor of Bithynia as well as of Asia — and demanded his sanction for the execution of his captives.  When Juncus, whose former inactivity had now given way to jealousy, refused, and said that he would sell the captives as slaves, Caesar returned to the coast with incredible speed and crucified all his prisoners before anyone had had time to receive a dispatch from the consul in regard to the matter. [Velleius Paterculus, History of Rome II.XLII-XLIII, translation by Frederick W. Shipley (in 1924)]

That one was written about 20-25 years after the death of Augustus, so it’s considerably the earliest of the three versions.  Velleius Paterculus is not exactly the greatest Roman historian (in fact, he’s routinely overlooked for being rather uninspired) but his text is much earlier than many of the others that cover Octavian’s civil wars and the reign of Augustus.  (Truth be told, I’d have overlooked him, too, if I hadn’t needed a copy of Augustus’ Res Gestae, which is in the same Loeb Classical Library volume.)  Presumably, the similarities between his version and Suetonius’ version means that they were both using (the now lost volumes of) Livy as a source, or one of the other lost early histories of that time period.  Or maybe Caesar published an account himself and it’s since been lost, but….yeah, probably not.  (Not enough troops to send hither and thither in an emotionless, impersonal, third-person narrative of epic dullness.  Why did he write his memoirs in the third person?  And with less info about what he was thinking than in the accounts of people who wrote centuries after his death?)

Oh, and that wasn’t a typo on my part:  Plutarch and Velleius Paterculus give the governor of Bithynia a slightly different name (Junius v. Juncus) and a different rank.

To me, the detail that stands out in this third version is the hostages the pirates sent to the cities of Asia.  You don’t think of pirates as doing that.  You think of polities doing that.  Was Julius Caesar really captured by pirates, or was he captured by the people of some island hostile to Rome, or one of Rome’s allies?  If it was the latter, that would explain the governor’s reluctance to act hastily.  (Or it could have been the greed Plutarch indicated.  Roman governors were known for their greed.)  Another thing that stands out is the fact that — in all three versions — he recovers the ransom (and more) from the pirates after their defeat…but does he return it to the people from whom it was originally taken?  There’s no word on that subject…

Either way, there’s no sign here of Caesar’s much-vaunted clementia.  But perhaps mercy was only for Roman citizens, not “barbarians” like the pirates.  (The Gauls and especially the Germans certainly saw no clementia from Caesar…)

But, actually, Suetonius eventually addresses that issue:

Yet, even when he did take action, it was his nature to show restraint; if he crucified the pirates who had held him to ransom, this was only because he had sworn in their presence to do so, and he first mercifully cut their throats. [Divus Julius, 74, Robert Graves translation, from the 2007 revised Penguin edition.]

While I agree that having one’s throat cut must be a more pleasant death than crucifixion, if only for the relative speed of the two deaths, I would think that true mercy would have been to let them live, personally.  As I said before, this is all very informative of the way that the Romans viewed the world.  There’s not a word against Caesar in any of these accounts — though, admittedly, they were written by post-Augustan folks, who had therefore been subjected to Augustan (and post-Augustan) propaganda their whole lives — and it genuinely seems like they didn’t see that there was anything wrong in what he had done regarding those pirates.  It’s an unpleasant glimpse into their world view.


(BTW, this is my 400th post.  I’d have done something more special than this for it, only I have a paper due tomorrow.  And another one due the 16th.)

History is stranger than fiction.

Published October 13, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Seriously, if I changed the names and wrote it as a novel, everyone would say it was too implausible, that it was too far-fetched for people to ever act this way.

I’ve been reading about the early period (1810-1820, roughly) of the Wars of Independence in Spain’s American dominions.  I’m sure everyone involved was acting for reasons that made sense at the time, but looking at it from 200 years later, from a different cultural mindset, it just looks like chaos.  Worst of all, it’s chaos where people kept making choices that made the fighting last longer, instead of ending sooner.  Of course, in some cases, I don’t think ending the fighting really entered their thought process at all.  As far as I can tell from the historical record (as processed by professional historians, anyway) it seems like a lot of people were out to grab power for themselves — which certainly happens all the time in fiction, too — and a lot of other people seem to have just been exceedingly stubborn, and perhaps just a little bit self-deluding.  Possibly a lot self-deluding.

For example, when Buenos Aires, capital of Rio de la Plata, declared its independence from Spain, all the other provinces of the Rio de la Plata decided that there was no reason they should have to listen to Buenos Aires any longer now that there wasn’t a king (Napoleon forced him to abdicate in favor of Napoleon’s brother Joseph), and they declared their own independence of both Spain and Buenos Aires.  In response, Buenos Aires, which had not finished winning its independence from Spain, declared the other provinces in rebellion, and attacked them.  A government in the process of rebelling was itself rebelled from.*  And this sort of thing was going on all over South America:  when they should have been banding together to fight off the Spanish and royalist forces, they were fighting amongst themselves instead.

Really, if you put that kind of thing in a novel, no one would accept it.

Honestly, I kind of want to.

Change all the names, invent new personalities for all the major players, set it in a fictional world (maybe a fantasy world, or steampunk!) and just go crazy with fiction based on this convoluted reality.  (Though first I would need a heavy-duty timeline, seriously detailed maps, and probably a couple of flow charts to help me keep track of what’s going on where and when.)

Fortunately for all parties involved, I have neither the time nor the ability to write such a thing.  Anyone else who’d like to have a go at it, feel free.



* This is why we have Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia, instead of just one nation.  Although the latter had only been added to the Rio de la Plata very late, so it’s understandable that they didn’t want to stay part of it.  They used to be part of Peru.

Julius Caesar and the Pirates

Published September 15, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

I had planned on summarizing the set-up, but since I encountered it in Terry Jones’ Barbarians, rather than in the dry books I’ve been reading for class, I figured I should just quote the section in question, because there’s no way I can tell it anywhere near as well.  So, lengthy blockquote incoming!  (Oh, and the blockquote has another blockquote inside it, but I don’t think WordPress is set up to do that, so I’m putting the interior one in Italics.)  Just before this quote, he’s been talking about the island of Rhodes, and how the Romans ruined its economy, putting an end to the patrols the island used to send out to fight off pirates.

When the young Julius Caesar tried to go to school there in 76 BC he was actually captured by pirates.  He claims to have been rather a jolly captive, and to have got on very well with the pirates, after being insulted by their initial demand for a ransom of 20 talents.  He insisted they raise it to 50:

He made so little of them, that when he had a mind to sleep, he would send to them, and order them to make no noise.  For thirty-eight days, with all the freedom in the world, he amused himself with joining in their exercises and games, as if they had not been his keepers, but his guards.  He wrote verses and speeches, and made them his auditors, and those who did not admire them, he called to their faces illiterate and barbarous.

He said he would have them crucified, and they all laughed.

Once his ransom was paid and he was freed, he hired a fleet, set out in a hot pursuit and captured ‘most of them’.  After handing them over to the authorities, he personally arranged their crucifixion.  Caesar then went on with his planned course of study.

The quote in the middle is from Plutarch, but obviously the original source of the story was from Gaius Iulius Caesar himself.  So he personally spread this story about himself…though he probably tried to make himself sound a bit less horrible than Mr. Jones makes him sound.  (For that matter, even Plutarch’s version isn’t terribly flattering, considering the insults he hurls at the pirates who don’t like his speeches and verses…which he was writing before being trained in oratory by the teachers on Rhodes.  Not to mention that I remember hearing classmates who were translating Caesar complaining that his Latin was actually pretty bad.  (Though I don’t know what their basis of comparison was.))

What gets me about this story, of course, is that we probably have very little proof that any of it actually happened.  We know Caesar said it happened, and that people believed him, but do we have records from Rhodes about the incident?  Letters to his father asking for the ransom?  Letters from the pirates begging to be freed from their prisoner?  (Okay, yeah, that’s unlikely, I know.  Something about the story puts me in mind of a more gruesome twist on “The Ransom of Red Chief” though…)  If one had the time, and the access, it would be interesting to find out if there’s any surviving corroborating evidence, or if we only have Caesar’s (and later Plutarch’s) word for it.

Now, if Caesar himself was writing about it and saying it happened, then it probably did.  Too many people would have known it hadn’t happened; if he was lying entirely, they likely would have called him on it, seeing as he had a lot of enemies in Rome.  But there are a lot of details that did not necessarily happen the way he said they happened.

For example, Jones (and/or his co-author Alan Ereira) suggests that Caesar might have cut a deal with one of the pirates to help him capture the others, a fact that he conveniently left out of his version of the story.  I would suggest that there are also any number of other little ways he could have sidestepped around the matter to make himself sound better.  Without having read Caesar’s original version, I can’t say exactly what they were, of course.  But, for example, maybe he played much less of a role in their capture than he let on.  Or, even more likely, maybe he wasn’t such a brave and commanding captive, but acted more like a normal person would when kidnapped.  He would have been in his mid-twenties, so he was probably not acting like a frightened child (unlike his nephew/adopted son, Julius Caesar actually was a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield, so he probably had no shortage of bravery by that point in his life), but he could have been tied up and helpless the whole time for all we know.  After all, any pirates who had escaped with their lives would hardly have called him on it if he’d been lying!

But it would seem that people accepted the story as fact.  (Plutarch was not the type to recount a story he didn’t believe, especially not without labeling it as such.  That’s why his Lives are treated with respect by modern historians, despite that many of them took place a number of centuries before he was born.)  This tells us a lot about what kind of person Julius Caesar was, that they accepted without question that he could behave in such a close manner with a group of pirates, and then calmly, callously put them all to death in a horrible fashion.

And most likely his audience thought he was great and noble for having done so, which tells us a lot about what the Romans were like.

But I find myself wondering about those pirates.  Who were they?  Where did they come from?  What made them pick Caesar in particular to be their hostage?  Rhodes was the place for Roman youths to learn oratory, and they all would have been fairly wealthy if they could make that trip, so there should have been any number of potential abductees available to them.  Honestly, I half suspect that they weren’t so much the “attack on the open seas” kind of pirates, but more like the pirates in the Dionysos myth I related last week, who claimed to be giving him passage, and then held him to ransom.  Of course, without having read either Caesar’s or Plutarch’s full version of the tale, I could be totally wrong about that.  Though that, too, is one of the places Caesar might have fudged his story; if he’d accidentally bought his passage on a pirate ship, surely he wouldn’t just admit it!

Even further, I wonder about what it was like for the pirates, while they were holding him prisoner.  If we decide to suspend disbelief and accept Caesar’s/Plutarch’s word about the way he behaved, what did the pirates think of that?  If he was “joining in their exercises and games,” they might have been fooled into thinking he was becoming their friend; they might have genuinely believed he was joking when he said that he’d have them all crucified.  (Even before Stockholm’s Syndrome was given its name, it must have already existed.)  How betrayed must they have felt when they found out he was serious about putting them to death?  After all, if there’s any truth to the account, then they were the ideal abductors, doing nothing to harm or even constrain their captive.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure Plutarch’s account of Caesar’s life is on the reading list for the Roman history class I’m taking this semester, so I’ll probably return to this topic (and/or just edit this post) later in the semester, after I’ve read it.  But I think there’s the potential there to make some really interesting historical fiction.  For those with the time and skill to write it, anyway.  (Which sadly leaves me right out.)

Missing Letter Monday – No “M”

Published August 24, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

“On This Day in History”

On this day in history,
Sixteen hundred and five years ago,
Alaric the Visigoth
And his Christian Barbarian hordes
Rolled into the greatest city in the world—
Or so its residents still stubbornly called it—
For their third occupation,
And the sacking that would go down in history.

Honorius, Caesar in Ravenna,
Refused to give the Visigoths a place to call their own.
Alaric tried to ask.
He tried to be polite.
He really was a civilized barbarian.
(After all, he wasn’t born in the city he was sacking!)
But Honorius wouldn’t listen.
He didn’t like to listen.
(And he had a cockerel that he had dubbed after his so-called capital.)

Without receiving any concessions,
Alaric tried to seize the capital,
To force capitulation.
“Burn nothing you don’t have to,
And don’t touch the churches!”
Were the orders of the day.
Holy relics were left alone.
(For the greater part, at least.)
The city still stood when the Goths left,
Even if the people were saddened,
And even poorer than before.
(And they had already been near destitute.)

It really was a unique sacking.
There was rape and pillage, of course.
Slaughter, yes. But not on the usual scale.
The pagans thought Christianity was at fault;
Pagan sacrifices had been banned so recently
(Well, less than a century, if you can call that recent)
So surely the city fell as Jupiter’s revenge!
The Bishop of Hippo—St. Augustine, to you—
Wrote books and books and books to insist otherwise.
He said Alaric’s leniency was due to Christianity—
But not that the Barbarian Alaric could have learnt Christian values,
Because how could a Barbarian learn?—
Rather he said that Christ personally had protected the city.
(D’you know the Sting song “St. Augustine in Hell”? I like that one…)

Alaric conquered the city
All roads once led to,
And he went down in history.
But he didn’t win a place for his people to live,
And he left the city in defeat,
Despite his plunder.
The stubborn nature of Honorius won the day,
Even if the night fell to Alaric’s blades.

Alaric died not long after,
And his brother a few years later.
But a few years after that,
The Visigoths were finally settled in Gaul,
In the part of France we now know as
Toulouse, in Aquitaine.
(Could Eleanor trace her descent back to those Visigoth leaders?
That would be so cool! Probably not the case, but…)

Stunned survivors wrote and wrote.
As they wrote the sack was turned into a slaughter.
A slaughter and an outrage.
The collapse of a great civilization.
It wasn’t.
It wasn’t even a great civilization.
It hadn’t been powerful for centuries,
And it had never been “great” at all,
Not in the ways they intended.
Alaric is known now as the Barbarian Destroyer,
The Toppler of the legacy of Julius and Augustus.
Their heirs had already long since toppled that legacy,
With no need of Visigothic invaders.
Let’s call Alaric what he was:
A chap who wanted the best for his people,
And fought to obtain it,
Even if it was only gotten after his death.

If you want to learn about Alaric the Visigoth, check out Terry Jones’ Barbarians, by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, which I’ve been reading lately. And yes, the conventional date for Alaric’s entry into the city is August 24, 410. (Whether that’s accurate is another question entirely.)

Sorry it started to lose any slight sense of poetry after a while and just turned into a history lesson with weird line endings. (But hey! I wrote about the sacking of a city without being able to refer directly to the city or its people!)

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Repost: History is written by the…

Published September 11, 2014 by Iphis of Scyros

Original URL:  http://39years.blog.com/2014/09/02/history-is-written-by/

Sep 2: History is written by…

Twice now, when I’ve told someone that one of my classes is starting with “the history of history” they’ve shuddered because “history is written by the winners”…which in this case doesn’t even make sense. (Why would that make them shudder? Even if I had meant that it was a general survey of all of world history, which I didn’t, why would that be shudder-worthy? Spending the same amount of time doing micro-history of something terrible, like the Holocaust, that would be shudder-worthy. Spending a few weeks on a general survey of world history would be so brief on all points that nothing terrible would get more than a few minutes.)

Of course, those shudders don’t just bother me because they make no sense in this context. They bother me more because that stupid platitude needs to be retired, pronto! It simply isn’t true! It’s as pointless and backwards as “What you don’t know can’t hurt you” and “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Because history is not written by “the winners.” History is and always has been written by whoever has the time, education and inclination to do so. In the beginning, that meant people like propagandists for Egyptian Pharaohs, or self-motivated Greeks like Herodotus and Thucydides. Now, yes, Herodotus was writing as “the winner” when he was writing about the Persian Wars. But Thucydides was an Athenian, and they lost the Peloponnesian War.

The Egyptians are the more typical, though. Whether the Pharaoh won his battle or lost it, they wrote about it none the less. They kept records, for example, of the Battle of Qadesh, even though Ramses II lost it. They simply played up his personal heroism despite being out-numbered, out-schemed and over-powered by the Hittites. Because those Egyptian scribes were writing for the true driving force of most of humanity’s self-recording: they were writing for the ones in power where they lived.

That’s very different from saying that “the winners” write history. An Athenian writing about the Peloponnesian War is one thing, after all, since there was no “publication” as we know it, thus the idea of restricting the “press” was impossible, since there wasn’t any “press” yet. But it’s not as though the losers in a war or battle never recorded them. Do you think that early 19th century English textbooks ignored the fact that the American Revolution happened, or that they imported textbooks from the US if they wanted to read about it? Would the 17th century Spaniards have pretended that the Spanish Armada wasn’t sunk in 1588? Did the French in the mid-nineteenth century pretend Napoleon never existed? No, no and no. They would have stilted their descriptions to fit their own outlook (less so in the Napoleon case, because of changes in the historical process by that point and because the issue is inherently more complex) but they wouldn’t have ignored their losses nor would they only have presented them in the way that the winners would have.

History can be a tool of terrible propaganda, and often has been, and no doubt will continue to be one as long as there are people out there who want to exert power over others, because the way information is presented can be a very powerful tool in that regard. But it has nothing to do with winning and losing. It’s important that people learn the difference.

Also important is this: if a history student (especially at the graduate level!) tells you they’re reading about the history of history, they almost certainly mean the progression of changes to the historical profession since the Enlightenment. It’s almost more philosophy than history, especially once you reach the postmodernists.

So if you must shudder, at least make it in sympathy for weighty and potentially dull texts full of philosophical erudition, and not “because history is written by the winners.”

The student you’re talking to will thank you for it.

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