Around the UK in 14 days
Usually I write up this blog while relaxing after morning coffee and musing on the world as it relates to writing ancient history. This time things are somewhat different. After a time there comes a point where personal contact with others is necessary. While most things can be done over the net and phone, eventually a face to face meeting is the best way sort things out.
However, as it takes a lot to get me out of my comfy mountain valley these days, when I do go, I make sure I get my money's worth from the trip. So I'm in England for the next two weeks. During this time I will go to two archaeological sites, two museums, Oxford and Cambridge universities and the British Library. I will also see two other writers, four publishers several editors, and do various interviews for radio, magazines and a history website.
So far so good. I've arrived and been around Caerleon, one of the archaeological sites on my list, and things are looking good for the rest. It is going to be a busy start to the month.
If it can be said ...
...it can be said clearly. These words were by a German philosopher, Schopenhauser, I think. While I note that Schopenhauser does not always seem to follow his own dictum, it is a good one nevertheless.
It is also one that some of my colleagues in academia might also consider taking to their hearts. I'm particularly talking about a certain sociologist here, because I've recently been looking at how Roman senators of the first century AD behaved towards each other.
(Or to put it another way, the dynamic of interpersonal relationships of a homogeneous semi-horizontally stratified peer group has been explored in terms of social and economic exchanges across a spectrum of result-based activities.) And believe me, that's putting it clearly in comparison to some of the stuff I've been wading through. Sometimes technical language is essential for an exact meaning. But sometimes this jargon-laden text is employed not to explain a difficult concept, but to hide that the concept is elementary. Indeed, I have on occasion parsed a particularly difficult sentence for meaning, and discovered that there is none.
Now I'm not objecting too strongly, because there's also some worthwhile ideas buried under all that guff, and anyway, if all academics were able to express themselves in a way that members of the general public enjoyed reading, I'd be out of a job.
Yet I've just started Alan Cameron's "The Last Pagans of Rome", which is eight hundred or so pages of highly technical argument. I don't agree with all of his conclusions, yet they are written in crystal-clear prose which carries his meaning unambiguously. If he can make analysis of subscripts to classical texts a pleasure to read, is it that hard to describe (for example) where, when and how people say hello to each other?
One has to pay due respect to Murphy's second law* but if the year goes as planned it should be a good one. I've two books which should be coming out, and another two that I'll be writing. As ever,the more I get into the topic of a new book the more I look forward to writing it. The problem is, I looked forward to it so much I got started early, and am having trouble picking up the threads now that I'm back after the holidays.
I had already set up a number of maps locating where my protagonists were at key times, and much-annotated time lines with scrawls that my time off has rendered somewhat cryptic. L6.C7 I understand, because I tend to write text references in Latin or Arabic as convenient, so this refers to a quote in chapter 56, line 107 - but in which text? 'Chk H re pel' means that I want to check what Herodotus says about peltasts, but why I wanted to do that I now forget. And then there's something written in Greek that even a Greek probably couldn't understand.
Having done some archaeology, I can usually unerringly dig down to a printout or journal from the strata of paper that slowly builds up around my desk and computer monitor, but after a three week break the piles are looking both ominous and unfathomable. I know, for example, that there's an article on trireme building I'm going to need soon, but it's currently a needle in a paper haystack. Also somewhere in that haystack are my passwords for two text repositories and to my virtual classroom for the e-Learning course I'll be starting next week.
I really did enjoy my holiday break. However I suspect I might need another three weeks to get back to where I was before I took the time off.
*If everything seems to be going smoothly, you have overlooked something.
Weighing the cost of the holidays
As we roll up to the Saturnalia, I'm thinking about what I can afford for the holidays. Not so much in terms of cash, because I know what I want Santa to deliver and some time ago made the necessary arrangements to get it. And that's part of the problem, because my presents will be mainly books and computer games. I spend a lot of time working and playing on my computer or sprawled out on the sofa snoozing gently with a copy of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire balanced on my stomach. Do I really need something that will encourage yet more physical inactivity?
What I should have asked for are a set of weights and some ice skates. Because by my current performance, if I put on weight over the festive period, I'll still be dieting and exercising it off in spring. So the question is what I can afford? vintage port, certainly. Maybe a bit of single malt scotch. Then my wife makes a Christmas cake which is diabolically tempting, but so loaded with sugar and alcohol that it is not permitted within six feet of a naked flame. I'll have lots of that, and sugared plums too. Then there's the chocolate, the crisps, the cookies, the nuts, and the chocolate crisp cookies (with nuts).
I'm not sure when I moved from thinking of some food as too expensive in terms of cash and started thinking of it as too rich in calories instead. It would be good to think that there was a window in which I could afford to eat calorific foods without severe consequences to either my wallet or my waistline. If there was, it was before I started writing, as these days my mid-winter blowout leaves both in need of some attention.
That said, Christmas is a time for counting one's blessings. I was walking to the shops the other day and saw some builders working on a house in gently swirling snow while the temperature went hunting for double figures in negative territory. Those guys probably don't have to count calories, and I almost hope they earn more than I do. But I still wouldn't swap jobs - with them or anyone.
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'.