Filling the map
Recently I've started playing one of those online games where you wander around a magical landscape and kill things. I'm currently working on Roman citizenship and first century agrarian legislation, and frankly, I need the light relief. Anyway, after I'd played for a week or so, a more experienced player took me by the virtual hand and showed that the area I'd been running around was a small corner of a much larger map.
I mention this, because I've noticed something similar in ancient history over the past few decades. When I finished my first university degree, I felt I basically knew my subject. Not all the details perhaps, but basically who was who and what happened when. Some of that certainty faded as I progressed with my studies, and came across entire eras, cultures, texts and wars that I had not even touched on as an undergraduate.
These days, when ever I start researching a book I do so knowing that I'm basically starting from scratch. A lot of what I think I know will turn out to be misinformed, and I will consult experts who astound me with the depth of their knowledge. So in doing a book I end up filling in another portion of my 'map' of the ancient world with a rich texture of people, places, things and events.
By now I know that the map will never be complete. There's simply too much to discover in the course of a single lifetime. After all, ancient history describes twelve hundred years spread from the Thames to the Tigris and beyond. At best I can play tourist and visit and report on the most interesting times, people and places. I'm rather glad that I'll never know it all. What would I do next?
The gestation process
Way back when, I finished my first book, and thought'That was fun! But there's this idea for another ...'. That was a decade ago, and every book sparks an idea for another two that just have to be written. So the backlog in my 'Ideas and Projects' folder keeps growing. And after each book is done it's straight back to the folder for the next proposal to present to a commissioning editor.
Then the idea bounces around the publishing house, and comes back adapted by discussions about the best approach. Then I prepare a timeline, with milestones such as the completion of research and notes, draft sample chapter, and completion of first draft.
After that, it's time to settle down, tune out the planet, and emerge blinking into the sunlight after about a year immersed in writing up the topic. Even though other things happen, I tend not to be really there. I once left a dinner party to write up the First Battle of Bedriacum while a fresh idea was still clear in my mind.
Once a book is written, it probably won't end up in the shops for at least another year. There's edits and re-writes, indexing, captions, indexing and design. And that's apart from the stuff that happens in the background such as publishers meeting with distributors and retailers to determine where, when and how the book will be published.
Then, once it has been released, assuming that the book gets good reviews and sales, the book starts to pay off the publisher's advance. Every author wants the advance paid off as soon as possible, both because that's when the book rewards the effort and enthusiasm put into it, and because this means that the public like the end product.
Overall, a the project will take about four years to go from notes in my ideas folder to something which earns royalties. It's not a quick process, but there's nothing more satisfying than helping an idea to become a book.
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.