How pre-Modern ideologies have coloured our perceptions on Roman History
written by Felix Paulinski
During my first year as an undergraduate, I remember having a meeting with my personal tutor in the Classics department. The sixth-form education I had received prior to this meeting had taught me a fairly two-tiered approach to history: ‘this source says this; another differs; make compromise with the two sources, and you have the ‘historical truth’.
While this may sound like a flippant dismissal of my college education – truth be told that the courses I took during this time forged the backbone of much of my historical understanding – historical context was something that was not high up on my academic agenda. Consequently, when asked by my tutor to express an opinion on the study of history, I projected a belief, which at the time I felt to be gospel truth, whereby I thought that historical censuses existed because the events to which they allude certainly happened. In other words, I believed that, through perusing this middle ground of source analysis, common, and more importantly, correct forms of the ‘historical truth’ would emerge; anything that deviated from this middle ground, I dismissed as ‘trendy revisionism’, written for the sake of either titillating the past, or tying it in with current affairs – the sole purpose for both being to sell books.
To some extent, I have not fully dispensed with this view. One need only walk into a high-street bookshop to see that the manner in which the past is being treated as a playground for the here and now. Boris Johnson’s (2006) The Dream of Rome, for instance, is a work that shamelessly rides the train of comparison between Rome and the European Union; through which he uses Rome as a means to lament on his own grievances with the E.U. And although the product of highly stylised narrative History, Tom Holland makes it explicitly clear in his preface in Rubicon (2003) that his account of the fall of the Roman Republic was tailored to fit the Rome-USA superpower analogy – likewise, in his Persian Fire (2005), Holland does not even attempt to disguise that his impetus behind his work stemmed from the recent ruminations on the concept of ‘East versus West’.
Since studying history at a university level, my views on history are generally not as static. No longer do I fully endorse the view that reinterpretations of the past are done solely for the sake of populist controversy; nor do I now believe that using the ‘here and now’ to decipher the past is an entirely defunct historical methodology. The reason behind this being that my studies have brought to my attention ‘well-established’ works of historical writing, written before ‘my time’, which but by no means conformed to my initial perception of the ‘historical consensus’. What also struck me as quite interesting is that each successive interpretation that I came across differed depending the time period in which they written. It seemed to me that each successive culture generation tried to steer away from the tissue of discourse and perceptions of the previous ones. In other words, every generation of historical writing reconstructs the past with their own perceptions of reality, firmly rooted in the time that produced them (Terrenato, 2001, 71-2).
Ancient Rome was not, and, to the same extent, is not exempt from such a process. In fact, Rome is something – at least in western scholarship (Hingley, 2001b) – which embraced this process with open arms. For many, Rome as a concept never really fell and continues to exist, quite prominently, within the spheres of education, law and politics, as ’…the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.’ (Thomas Hobbs, 1651, in reference to the papacy, quoted in Vance, 1997, 5). This lingering persistence of the Eternal City, coupled with the anachronisms of the historical process, has made Rome a fertile paradigm for ‘making sense of – and also for destabilising – history, politics, identity, memory and desire.’ (Edwards, 1999b, 7).
Before I unravel the aims of the paper, it is, at this point, necessary to resolve any ambiguities surrounding the title of this paper: ‘Intrusive ideology: how pre-Modern ideologies have coloured our perceptions on Roman History.’ The term ‘pre-Modern’ is not intended to be synonymous with the historical term ‘early modern’ (nominally associated with the medieval period’s many forms); instead, it is used as an inclusive, but general, term for a period starting from the beginnings of the Enlightenment (c.1700) up until the start of ‘twentieth-century’ history – which, to confuse the situation even more, traditionally starts at 1918. The primary function of this paper is to use the ‘pre-Modern’ period as a means of exploring how historical writing is never exempt from its own anachronisms. To reflect this truism, I have selected the authors of two works of history, and one work of archaeological research as case studies. These take the form of the following: Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88), Theodor Mommsen’s Römische Geschichte (1854-56) and Francis Haverfield’s Romanization of Roman Britian (1923 – 4th ed.).
It is not the aim of this paper to examine the explicit, and, at times, I have to say shameless, explications of Rome for the sake political capital, neither is it the aim of this paper to wave away Rome as a smokescreen for hidden agendas – indeed the scholarly sophistication of the three historians prevents this from occurring in full bloom. It is more an exploration of how attitudes towards ancient Rome, being banded about at any given time, have influenced notable figures in the development of Roman history and archaeology.
Nor it is not my intention to focus on how doctrines of philosophy were fundamental in forging the opinions and historical analysis of these three writers. Instead, the focal point of this paper is to critically assess the manner in which both the cultural mores and, just as importantly, the events of the times of Gibbon, Mommsen and Haverfield resonate throughout their prose. Although influential in the forging of any historian’s work – indeed, for Gibbon especially, philosophy and history were inseparable entities – philosophy, I feel, is something complicated enough to be treated as the subject for a different paper. For instance, were I to focus on Gibbon’s, shall I say, unsympathetic, views towards early Christianity (D&F, XV-XVI) and other extremities of faith, my analysis would fall into a quagmire, distorting my overall aim. I have thus attempted to keep things simple by using each historian as an example of a certain theme. Chapter One largely deals with Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.
It is an attempts to explain his shift of emphasis in his subject matter when he make the transition from volume I to volumes II & III. In assessing the reason behind this, I shall draw upon how Gibbon’s role in the British government, under the North administration, and events surrounding this, such as American Revolution (1776-1783), coloured the historian’s work while he was writing the second and third volumes of the Decline and Fall. Chapter Two examines Mommsen’s sentiment of pan-German unification, and the manner in which the revolutionary spirit of 1848 left their imprint on the Römische Geschichte – in doing this, I shall also explore the extent to which the omission of his forth volume on the principate was a reflection of this. And, in Chapter Three, rather than exploring the effects of a specific event on the writing of Haverfield, I examine how the changing perception of the British Empire – in the form of ‘New Imperialism’ – from the 1870s until the early twentieth century, was a profound influence on the theory of Romanisation.
The three chapters, and the three respective authors upon which they focus, should not, however, be viewed as isolated case studies, drawing upon a particular theme and minor facets of the historical context of each author’s work. This study also, as already stated, assesses the extent to which the cultural climates of ‘pre-Modern’ Europe influenced the macroscopic aims the three historians: Chapters One focuses on the role of the ‘Classical education’ and the ‘grand tour’ on the historian; Chapter Two looks at how pan-German notions of nationalism, traditionally associated with early Germanic resistance to Rome, medieval Germany and Ancient Greece, still found themselves paradoxically transferred to Ancient Rome; Chapter Three explores how of Roman imperialism was transferred to that of the British Empire and how, in turn, these ideas were transferred to the study of Rome. It is in chapter three that I It is also in chapter three that I examine recent reassessment and deconstruction of Haverfield’s theory of ‘Romanisation’ (cf Hingley, 2000; Freeman 2007; Mattingly, 1997). In doing so, I shall highlight the extent to which deconstructionist studies are as anachronistic to us as Romanisation was to Haverfield. This is done not so much to humble the, I have to say groundbreaking, recent research in this area of academia; it is done more to highlight the fact that, regardless of time, the historian’s prose is never exempt from his cultural norms and events of his time.
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- Roman Palmyra by A. M. Smith II
- The Acropolis Museum in Athens
- Chesterholm Museum (Vindolanda)
Although one may detect a changing chronology of attitudes towards Rome, this is not a chronicle of the historical writing of Rome during this period; it is more a study of how the magna opera of these three authors fit into their respective socio-historical contexts.
Finally, I must note that Chapter One on Gibbon is roughly thirty percent larger than the other two. This is not a reflection on the availability of source material; it is more a reflection of where my interests lie.