Videre est credere (Seeing is believing)
It is beginning to dawn on me that re-enactment is a much under-rated academic tool. When a member of the general public thinks of re-enactors, the general perception is of an amiable yet somewhat batty group of people running around the woods in fancy dress pretending to be civil war soldiers, Vikings or whatever.
Now some re-enactors will agree with this definition (I told you that they are a generally amiable bunch), but only if our hypothetical member of the general public will admit to a sneaking suspicion that it all seems rather fun, and he wouldn't mind giving it a go.
Yet I'm beginning to depend more and more on re-enactors. I am encouraged by their generosity and enthusiasm, and with most, their relentless determination to get things right. This is important for a historian. We can speculate how something worked, or what it might be like, but re-enactors give us the nearest thing to asking someone who has actually done it.
That's how we know (for example) that without a scarf a legionary's chest armour chafes his sternum, and that breathing can get difficult in a parade cavalryman's helmet. There's a lot re-enactment can't do, partly because the people inside the costumes are still 21st century humans, and have no choice but to sometimes think and act accordingly.
But until we get a time machine, it's as close as we'll get to understanding how some aspects of life in antiquity actually worked.
As I write, there's a new film out called 'Clash of the Titans' and I want to thank the makers of the film for providing such excellent asdvance publicity for my new book 'The Greek and Roman Myths'. Keep it up, Hollywood!
Actually I think it is no co-incidence that we are getting more films dealing with myth recently. People are beginning to realize that there's a whole chunk of their history and culture out there that no-one bothered to teach them at school. On the bright side, this means that discovering it later for oneself is all the more rewarding.
My involvement with Greek mythology began as do many of my books. I found a gap in my knowledge; and once I had filled it I developed an overwhelming need to tell the rest of the world what I had discovered. In fact, Greek mythology - with some Roman additions -is one long, rambling action-packed story. And I was surprised to note that no-one, in all the books on Greek myths out there, had actually bothered to summarize that story from beginning to end. So I did it.
I also left out all the modern academic stuff about 'motifemes' and 'phenomic content' and concentrated on trying to explain what the Greeks and Romans (including sophisticated characters such as Cicero and Plutarch) got out of it. And, as is my wont, I had a lot of fun while putting it all together.
The book is out at the end of the year and I shall sacrifice some Xmas pud to Athena in the hope that you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Historian of the Apocalypse
The other day I was discussing one of those survival shows where they take a group of celebrities and dump them in the middle of the wilderness (but unfortunately retrieve them afterward). It occurred to me that if civilization did suddenly come to an end, ancient historians would prove to have very practical skills. I was researching sword-making recently, and have a working knowledge of how to make metal tools from scratch. (I'll need earth rich in iron ore, and lots and lots of charcoal.) You can't do archeology without knowing the basics of building anything from a basic wattle and daub hut to a fully-fledged marble temple. I could do the hut in less than a week, but the temple might take much, much longer.
Again I know basic hunting techniques for everything from doves (lime) to wild boar (spears, preferably wielded by someone else), and how to do highly organic farming, with basic irrigation, thanks to my studies of the Archimedes screw. Give me a sheep, and I know the processes for turning the wool on its back into a tunic, and the skin into either parchment or a leather coat. In short, apart from one very minor problem I'd be the perfect person to get civilization re-started after, say, a giant meteor strike. That minor problem is that all my knowledge is theoretical. And whilst in theory I know how to (for example) assemble a flat-pack bedside table, my nearest and dearest are well aware that the practice is somewhat wanting.
Many people won't have noted a dispute between publishers MacMillan and Amazon at the start of this month that resulted in Amazon briefly withdrawing from sale the entire MacMillan catalogue. And even now it appears that many titles are not available. There's all sorts of arguments going on here, but what should be a dispute between two corporations has involved a lot of writers being harmed as collateral damage. I particularly feel for some debut authors - imagine a favourable review coming out, and the public not being able to buy the book?
Amazon dominates the online bookseller's market. As far as I can tell from discussions with other writers and editors, it seems that Amazon is trying to be the only seller of books online, but also the only customer for books offered by publishers. And as a customer it's trying to set really, really low prices. Now I'm all in favour of cheap books, and if I can get a book at half-price I'll do it like a shot. But I'm not the world's biggest book retailer, and I know that if Amazon gets its way, a lot of publishers and writers are not going to survive the transition to the digital era.
This is not in itself a bad thing, but it might be if Amazon starts selling books supermarket style. You don't expect a huge range of books at a supermarket, either of authors or topics. And if the price of books is forced right down across the whle market, some books will no longer be available simply because they won't get written.
This particular fight between Amazon and the publishers is about the maximum cost of eBooks. People expect eBooks to be cheaper than paper books, but at present they just aren't. That's because distribution and printing is where eBooks make savings, but these are a minor cost compared to paying authors, editors, proofreaders, indexers and illustrators. And to make a proper eBook of anything but a plain text narrative you need another editor, and at least one or two computery types to make it work. And this cancels out printing and distribution savings, which in these days of container transport and printing in China weren't too expensive to start with.
It looks as though the digital wars have started for the book industry. As writers and readers there's not much we can do in the short run. In the long run, it's how writers and readers react to the antics of the big boys in the publishing and wholesale markets that will determine the future of the industry.
New Year Resolutions
Every year I make a few of these, partly for the delicious crunching noise that they make as they shatter. This year though, will be different. There are three things I'm determined to change. So here goes.
1. Only buy a book if it's both needed and relevant. Just getting through my backlog ought to take most of 2010, and I'm already being tempted by the new book on Mithridates ...
2. Stay off fiction. People keep asking me about books like 'Lustrum' or the Falco stories, and I have to say that I can't read them. Fiction authors are allowed to invent or bend 'facts' which my trusting subconscious happily accepts and regurgitates in unguarded comments or forum postings. So, just the real thing in my history reading from now on. If I'm wrong it will be because Tacitus was too.
3. Get out more. I went to movies twice over the holiday break, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. There's lakes and mountains and wine cellars in the valley here, and I intend to get into all of them. Come to think of it, Aristophanes and wine cellars should go well together anyway.
Other news is that I start teaching another course next week. I had more fun teaching Rome than anyone decently should who is being paid for it, and hope to do the same this time around in Athens. There's several of the same students on this course, so I'm looking forward to it.