My recent book on Sparta - 'Rise of a Warrior Nation' – order your copy today! - contained several pages worth of Plutarch's text. A fellow writer, a modern historian who spends an inordinate amount of time getting permission to use material which he has quoted, remarked enviously that it is just as well Plutarch can't sue.
I replied that if he did, he could start with Shakespeare who lifted 'Antony and Cleopatra' - at times almost verbatim - from Plutarch's Life of Antony. But there is a wider issue here. When I'm quoting, I'm translating, and translating is also interpreting. It's not copying but a creative act. Gone are the days when a writer on the classics could just dump a paragraph of the original Greek onto a page in the confident expectation that his readers would simply switch languages and keep going.
So to tell a modern reader what an ancient Greek had to say, I have to wrap a wet towel around my head (Plutarch is tough, but Thucydides is a beast) and climb into the text. Previous translations, if they exist, are a help, but they are often wildly subjective, sometimes wrong, and they often use archaic English as well.
As an example, once when reading Thucydides in translation, I found text referring to warships 'sunk' in battle. Yet triremes don't sink – which is why no-one has ever found a wrecked one. They are made of wood and buoyancy-positive. Even with a dirty great hole in the bottom, a trireme would keep floating, though in a somewhat water-logged condition. And in the original text, that's what Thucydides says – he uses a word meaning somewhere between 'waterlogged' and 'swamped' - but not 'sunk'.
In other words, a writer on ancient history might not need permission to quote his sources, but he does have a duty to convey their words as accurately as possible, both in mood and in meaning.
I'm more than happy to quote ancient authors when I can, at and length. My first writing job was as a journalist, and I was taught that whenever possible I should allow those who are involved in a story to tell it in their own words. My job is to put those words in context so that everyone is clear what is going on.
Imperium sine fine - empire without end (Vergil)
Given that I spend a lot of time in the Roman empire, it dawned on me recently that it is odd that I have not given much thought to empires in general. (Partly this sudden burst of introspection was inspired by Goldsworthy's thoughtful treatment of the subject in his Pax Romana, which I'm reading through at the moment.)
Empires are one of those things where it seems obvious what they are until you try to actually pin them down. (I remember this same feeling when I looked at a sociological analysis of gifts. Is it really a 'gift' if you are expected to reciprocate? What are the motives of the giver? And so on.) It's the same with empires -when you get down to it, they are slippery things. For example does an empire have to have an emperor/empress? What about the Athenian Empire, run by a democratic government, or the empire of the Roman republic? Why was the Middle Kingdom of China ruled by an Emperor, but the Persian Empire ruled by a King?
Why do we not refer to the continental USA as the Washingtonian Empire? People used to think it would be – we have the Empire State building in New York because New York state was regarded as the right place to start an American empire. If we argue that empire is imposed without the consent of the governed, we run out of Roman Empire some time in the third century, when most of the population of the um, whatever-it-was, was Roman and apparently wanted to stay that way.
There are centralized empires run rigidly by diktat, and other empires where the imperial system simply took over the top layer of government and left the rest running pretty much as it was. (The early Roman emperors were good at this.) Then there's a hegemonic empire in which the ruling state does not directly order subject states about, but makes sure that sympathetic governments are elected in these states, and that the population subscribe to the religion, culture and politics of the hegemonic state.
Overall, it seems that every empire is unique. While several have common features, none shares them all, and there is no one defining characteristic. You will notice that I have not even tried to find out where, or if, the European Union belongs in this discussion. That's one for present politicians and future historians to deal with.
As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I tend to avoid historical novels set in ancient Rome. The problem is that I read with a metaphorical red pen in my hand, marking items of text 'problematical', 'anachronistic' and 'totally wrong'. Some writers seem not to have grasped the fact that the Romans had a radically different society to our own, and believe that putting twentieth-century folk in togas pretty much sorts out the 'historical' aspect of it all.
This is certainly the attitude of Hollywood screen-writers (with a few honourable exceptions). It's the reason why, in this household, I'm ejected from the room when everyone wants to watch a sword-and-sandal epic. Otherwise I keep jumping up and down, shouting at the TV and rushing off to grab books from the shelf that prove what is happening on-screen is total nonsense.
However, even more insidious are the historical novels that get it right – almost. Even these writers might occasionally enliven the story with a bit of creative inaccuracy or anachronism because it's 'just fiction'. However, my gullible mind absorbs facts and factiods alike. Then when challenged on something I have spouted in a paper or a lecture, I might check back and discover with horror that it came from fiction. So abstinence is the only thing that works for me.
Nevertheless, in a sporting attempt to keep in the spirit of things I offer this extract from 'Flowers from Washington: a novel of ancient America' written in the year AD 4000 and set in 2017.
'By Gad!' said Hiawatha to Marilyn Monroe, 'The Confederacy council must hear of this at once.' He jammed on his top hat, holstered his trusty six-shooter, and rushed out. As ever, the hover-train from Broadway was packed with commuters, so he took a short cut on foot past the Lincoln Memorial, pausing only to admire the outline of the Apple Plaza which dominated the skyline. ...
The 45, 47, 50 minute hour
As part of a book I'm currently finishing ('24 Hours in Ancient Rome' for Michael o'Mara Books), I've had to get to grips with the Roman hour. To understand the Roman hour is to understand something of the Roman approach to life.
For the Romans, as for us, there were 24 hours in the day. Fair enough – twenty-four is a useful number. We can divide the day into two-hour watches for a sentry, three or four hours for a split shift, six hours for a quarter day, eight hours for a working day, and twelve hours for a half-day. It's a good number. However, the half-day is the problem.
In the Roman mind, half the day is in darkness, and half is daylight. Ergo, you need twelve hours for the day, and twelve for the night. Res ipsi loquitur. Therefore, since midsummer days are half again as long as midwinter days, 'hours' in midsummer are 75 minutes long, and the winter versions last a mere 45 minutes. (If the Romans had bothered with minutes – thanks to their diabolical concept of time, it was hard enough even to keep track of the hours.) At night the hours mirror the day, with long hours in winter and short hours in summer – and I'm not talking metaphorically here.
The only accurate method of timekeeping at night was the water clock, and all sorts of ingenious contrivances kept the hours of a water-clock synchronized with the lengthening and shortening hours of the day. Remember that the days don't get uniformly longer as we approach midsummer – thanks to the Earth's slightly oval orbit, winter days lengthen slowly and then rush forward in late spring. Given that devices to accurately measure the standard hour only developed in the modern era, you can imagine the challenges that Roman timepiece makers faced in the variable-rate Roman hour.
All this timekeeping chaos would have been sorted out in an eyeblink if the Romans had adopted an hour of standard length. But who are we to sneer, with our oddball calendar, seven day weeks that don't fit in anywhere, and daylight saving time added (or not) more or less randomly every spring by different nations?
On a different note, one of last year's projects has just seen the light of day – or more accurately - the lights of your local bookstore. 'Sparta, Rise of a Warrior Nation' is out now (in the UK – with North America, the Spartans only hit your shores in another month or so.) I'm already working on the sequel - 'Sparta, Fall of a Warrior Nation', and having a great time doing so.
Hooray for Hellenistics!
Lately I've been spending quite a bit of time hanging around the Hellenistic era. For those who don't know, the Hellenistic era is that period beginning with the birth of Alexander the Great (or his death, depending which historian you consult) and finishing with the death of Cleopatra VI of Egypt. (Who is the only Cleopatra that most people have heard of.)
It's interesting how even those who are reasonably well up on the Greeks of the Athenian era or the Rome of Scipio Africanus have little idea of who Antiochus III was, or what happened in the Syrian Wars. Among non-history buffs, the average citizen has little idea that the Greeks once ruled Bactria (an area on the south-west of Afghan border) or that Iran was once part of the Seleucid Greek-ruled empire.
Yet the more I get into this Cinderella of ancient eras, the more fascinating I find it. There's huge battles, complex multi-level politics and obscure kingdoms and city-states. And elephants, and pirates, mercenary armies and beautiful princesses. Really, if you like your history gung-ho and over-the-top, you can't go wrong with the Hellenistics.
The only problem is that there is something of a barrier to entry for the newcomer. Just jumping in produces more bewilderment than fascination. It takes a while before you sort out your Ecbatana from your Attalus, but once the various dynasties and diverse geography have been roughly sorted out, you can relax and enjoy a very fun ride.