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Of festivities and floorboards
The launch of the holiday season has caught me off-guard (which is why this blog entry is somewhat later than usual). You see, my wife entered December with the stern intent of our doing something about the living-room floor which admittedly did sag and bulge in alarmingly odd ways. This was explained once we got the carpet off and discovered that immediate remedial action was required.

But I'm in the middle of writing a course for Cambridge, and the process of describing the anthropomorphizing role of myth gave me an idea about viewing the aspects of gods in a new light. This led to my roughing out an academic paper, while my beloved made pointed comments about exposed floor joists. Then, just as I was returning to my role as an ad hoc carpenter, I received the academic reader's comments on a book that's been months in the works. I reviewed these comments to a background of increasingly plaintive remarks from the living room about the importance of having floorboards.

In the end it took over ten days, but largely due to the fact that I can accomplish a lot if threatened by a circular saw wielded with credible menace, the living room now has a beautiful wooden floor. It is polished, level and smooth - while my proposed academic paper remains rough, my response to the book comments is unbalanced, and my course notes are still unpolished. I believe this is what is known as a work/life balance.

Now there's the promise of festive parties in the offing, but what I really want for Christmas is time to check the footnotes in Stern's book on ancient calendars to see if deviant calculations of Easter were really as non-heretical as he suggests. After all, this pertains to the early Christian church, and so must be in the true spirit of Christmas?
A matter of perspective
It's very hard to avoid thinking of people in antiquity as modern folk with some odd customs. But to think as a Roman, you have to appreciate how different their circumstances were. This was brought home to me again this week by life in the mountains.

When we arrived here I remarked to my wife that the builders had not thought through the design of the kitchen door. It was very secure - metal plated in fact - except that it had a large double-glazed window taking up almost the entire upper half. It would be child's play for a burglar to break the glass, then reach in and unlock the door, since it has one of those latch arrangements instead of a mortice key.

I was wrong and the builders were right. Burglars are not a problem in these parts. In fact some people don't even know where their door keys are, because they don't use them. But without that window, I'd have stepped outside yesterday without seeing that a few hundred kilos of potentially lethal wildlife was snuffling around a few feet from the doorway. To be precise, a large - very large - brown bear.

As bear and I considered each other from a distance of about four feet, that metal plating and large window combination suddenly made perfect sense. You need to see the danger through the window, and have a secure door to protect you from it.

When I first saw that door I had been using city thinking in the backwoods, and so I got it wrong. Now how many false assumptions have I made because I was thinking like a modern Englishman instead of as an ancient Roman?
It's a 'dog help dog' business
This morning I was talking with someone about ancient history, and he mentioned another writer, adding incidentally 'A competitor of yours'. Actually this writer has done me the favour of reading through one of my books before it was published, and the result made it a much more accurate and readable experience. In turn I have endeavoured to do the same for several other writers whose pre-publication books have passed through my hands.

If there is competition, the way I see it, the competition is writers of ancient history, both fact and fiction, against all the other topics and genres out there. Unless one is a genius writing about wizards at a magical boarding school, it is very hard for just one writer to sustain a genre. What we need is more writers in ancient history, not fewer. If one writer gets readers interested in ancient Athens for example, then those readers will look for other books about ancient Athens, one of which might be mine. So other writers are not competitors so much as team workers helping to build up a market.

The number of books on ancient history that come out every year are relatively few. The number that are aimed at a general readership are ever fewer. There's a reason for this. Before one writes on ancient history it is necessary to know rather a lot of facts. I was once asked to review a manuscript where page one had our hero - a tribune of the plebs - knocking on the door of the forum to give the senate a report of a battle he had just fought. But the forum is not a building, and tribunes of the plebs don't leave Rome during their year in office and the senate (usually) meets in the Curia and never in the forum anyway ... well, you get the idea.

Also, if one is going to write on ancient history it's worth having at least basic Latin and Greek because every book I've done had at least some esoteric stuff that hadn't been been translated into English. Then one needs to be able to write in a manner accessible to the general public, which needs a radical style change if all previous publications have been for fellow academics.

Finally, one has to accept that all those years of education and months or years of writing might well earn less than one might get from working the same hours at a the local pizza joint. So other popular writers of ancient history are not competitors. They are fellow enthusiasts who need to be encouraged. If nothing else, an awful lot of them buy my books.
The Hermit Option
Recently a journalist sent me an email in which she politely complained that I'm 'impossible to contact'.

It turned out that what the journalist meant is that I cannot be contacted by phone. And that's true. Journalists like phone conversations. They happen quickly, are spontaneous, and there's always the delicious chance that the interviewee might say something monumentally stupid. On the other hand, questions sent by email get measured, thoughtful replies and the entire exchange can take days rather than minutes. I like email.

My friends have long ago discovered that when I'm working, ringing phones don't even count as background noise. So they use email, and receive a reply at a time when I am able to give them my full attention. Also, the only way to stop salespeople calling on a phone is not to have one, or turn it off. So to save frustration, potential vendors should note that I have applied options A and B to landline and mobile respectively.

So yes, I'm impossible to contact. Unless you want to send me an email or facebook message in which case or do the job very efficiently. If the matter requires a phone call, I'll make it from my side. But special offers (ending soon!) are unlikely to get a response, because unlike sales calls, sales emails can be swiftly filtered into the bin.

Of course, the hermit option only works if you don't mind being cut off from instant communication from friends, family and society at large. I can live with that, because I live mainly in the first century BC in any case. Your mileage might vary.

I recently completed a book where the timeline of events was constructed from fragments from various ancient sources, cross-referenced with dozens of modern scholarly papers and different reference books, including a prosopography, the senatorial fasti and a specialized work which I could only get in the original Spanish. It's just as well that my journalist did not contact me as I tried to figure my way through that lot. My response to the interruption would probably not have been fit to print anyway.
Ancient history, modern controversy
Back in Augustan Rome a young man was planning to write a history of the past century. A wiser writer discouraged him, saying 'there are many hot coals beneath those ashes'. By this he meant that many of the burning issues of the recent past were still too controversial for a dispassionate analysis.

He could have saved his breath. Even two thousand years later ancient history has hot topics aplenty waiting to burn the unwary author. Take the Vascones, for example. These are a tribe who inhabited north-west Spain at least a generation before Augustus.

What archaeologists call 'continuity of culture' in the architectural remains might lead one to assume that the descendants of those people live in the area today. In later Latin the 'v' sound shifted to a 'b' and in modern English we change the 'ones' ending to a simple 's' (e.g. Latin Scipiones= English Scipios). Apply the above to 'Vascones' and we get 'Basces', or 'Basques'.

And just like that you are plunged into a debate about the Basque country, who the original inhabitants were and whether the modern Basques were the original Vascones. Ancient history, meet red-hot modern nationalist sentiment.

In the same spirit people write to me with passionate views about whether ancient Macedonians were Greeks. This has less to do with antiquarianism than that the modern country called Macedonia aggressively promotes its links with Alexander the Great (who actually conquered those bits of the place his father did not annex). Many Greeks feel strongly about this, rather as the French might feel if the Italians suddenly adopted Napoleon as their own.

And there's the question of whether the defenders of Masada in Judea were Zealots (freedom fighters) or Sicarii (a nasty bunch of proto-terrorists with a penchant for murdering their fellow Jews). This matters a lot to some people.

So if you think anything a millennium or two away is 'ancient history', think again. After all a nation defines itself by the values and the lessons that its history has taught. Meddle with that history at your peril.

As the modern writer Falkner once remarked 'The past is not dead. It's not even past'. Hot coals, indeed.

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