Saturday 25 June 2016

SPQR or How to Write History

I have recently finished Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Profile: 2016), and very good it is too. I have not been a huge fan of Mary Beard over the years, finding her rather strident in terms of being an academic and in terms of media profile. Or perhaps I am just jealous: her blog and books get read, and she is presumably paid a lot more than I am, being a professor at Cambridge University.

Be that as it may, I did buy this book at my usual supermarket. That, at least, must tell us something about the author, as usually the only things you find there are ‘romances’ and chick lit. As it was cheap, the Estimable Mrs. P offered to buy it for me. I took it while I spent a week away, ‘sleeping with books’ (a small prize of internet kudos for anyone who can match where I was to that marketing slogan), and it became my bedtime reading. It is a fairly light and easy read.

The point is that the book is certainly popular history. Beard takes us from the mythical foundations of Rome to 212 AD, when all free people in the Roman Empire were made citizens. She discusses the texts we have, artefacts which have been discovered and the limits of what we can know, or guess, about Rome and the Romans. The book has plenty of illustrations, black and white in the text and some coloured plates in the middle. Not only that, but the plates and figures are referred to by the text, which is not something that is always the case with popular history.

The point about this book, as against a number of others that I have read, is that it lays a pointer as to where what we know stops and speculation starts. We have, for example, a number of texts about the foundations of Rome, but the question arises as to what these texts actually mean. Livy was not reporting from his own knowledge the earliest history of Rome. It was, perhaps, wishful thinking, or hope, or a ploy within the politics of his own time that he wrote what he wrote. We cannot, as it happens, know.

Berry is fairly dismissive of those who think that we can reconstruct early Rome from what we have. The problem is, in part, of course, that a lot of the earliest Rome is buried under the later Rome. This causes archaeological problems, in that we cannot get to the earliest deposits unless we go through valuable later ones, and anyway, if the earliest Rome was, as we now suspect, little more than a collections of mud and wood shacks, there may well not be any earliest deposits to find. Rome is quite a damp lace and wood tends not to last that long in such circumstances.

All this should give pause for thought to the enthusiastic wargamer and rule writer. We simply do not know anything about the earliest times of Rome, or anywhere else. What we do know, or think we know, are the musings and stories of later generations, the formation myth hearers, who thought to write them down for others to read. As such, of course, we have a fair few foundation myths in various bits of literature, and they usually contradict.

It is thus very difficult to believe that we can really wargame anything very much in an historical sense of the early period in Rome. The Battle of the Caudine Forks, 321 BC, at which the Samnites trounced the Romans, was not really a battle at all, in Beard’s view. Somewhere between a shambles and a farce, the Romans were trapped without water and surrendered. How on earth could we wargame that and, even if we did, why would we bother?

A lot of the earliest history is like this. Was Rome really ‘sacked’ by the Gauls? If it was, what did this mean, in fact? After all, if Rome really was all but destroyed, it recovered remarkably quickly. This should at least give us pause for thought. If the history so confidently written and taught over subsequent centuries is, in fact, highly dubious, how can we even slightly claim to be undertaking historical wargaming with only the slenderest of ties to any sort of history at all.

As with Rome, so with everywhere else. No war is comprehensible by those who are involved in it, and none are so by those who work with or read the history of it. The early wars of Rome are unknowable to us. Even the later wars, those of the Empire, are largely a mystery. And let us not think that more recent wars are any the better. Because we have more documentation, we might think that what we are doing is better, more accurate, and more ‘historical’. But the chances are that we are simply blundering around failing to understand the most important points, because the participants and historians found them too blindingly obvious to report. Of course, we can triangulate using other documents, similar situations, analogies to other bits of history, but we cannot know and must find it hard to be ‘historical’.

All that said, of course, we should not keep trying. We can do better, bit by bit. We can learn, we can investigate, and we can get a slightly better grip on what was going on. But we do have to recognise that it is exactly that, only slightly better, and still quite likely to be very wrong. We, inevitably, project our own certainties and knowledge onto the past, even when we are simply playing a game. Our view of the past changes as our circumstances change. The certainties of Romulus and Remus have become the murky mists of mythic foundation stories, as we have moved from the certainties of Empire and Imperialism (and national particularism) to the fragments of postmodern political images.

And so a fine book and an easy to read popular history of Rome, which does not give too many hostages to fortune. I recommend it as a read and as a view of how to ‘do’ history. But I could have done without the colour photo of the author inside the back cover, I confess.


  1. You know you've brought to mind a video I watched recently on a YouTube channel called Lindybeige (top stuff by the way, recommended for all his oddness). Lindy discussed a theory propounded by an academic that a famous battle of the Punic Wars (I think it was Zama) did not in fact occur. He concluded that it had, but testing the premise was useful in a way.

    1. There is a school of thought that we need to prove everything, even our own existence.

      There is another that that way madness lies.

      And, of course, Douglas Adam's observation that there is a theory that if we ever find out what the universe is for, it will immediately be replaced by something even more bizarrely inexplicable. And a further theory that this has already happened....

    2. Thanks for sharing that link Conrad. I ended up watching lots of them last night. Very entertaining. Some thought provoking stuff on weapons handling, routs etc etc.

  2. One of the good things about wargaming is that our battles take place in an alternative reality. We can accept that we don't know certain things, fudge what we need to, and just get on with the game.

    1. Oh, agreed. But can we then go on and call our 202 BC wargame 'Zama'?