Monday, 23 August 2010

Why History should only be written by Historians

History is written by the victors. To anyone who finds this an unpalatable truth, I have one piece of advice: get over it. The history of Roman Britain will always be the history of the Romans in Britain. Archaeology can show us vignettes from the lives of ancient Britons, but it cannot give us a History of the Ancient Britons. All we can hope to do is to observe how the history of the Romans in Britain touched the lives of the native population.

One individual who has not realised this truth, or who has chosen to ignore it, is the owner of the Roman Scotland web site, one Euan Lindsay by name. I'm sure I have been here before, refuting false or misguided statements. A favorite topic of his seems to be how the academic establishment has conspired to falsify Romano-British history, particularly where the "Lost Roman Legion" is concerned. I believe that it is always bad form to begin with an agenda, but let us leave that aside.

Now Mr Lindsay is entitled to his own opinion. Indeed, he is positively encouraged to voice that opinion, as long as he sticks to the Rules of Historical Enquiry, because history is an academic discipline like any other. A physicist is not permitted to invent the results of falsified experiments. A statistician cannot arbitrarily skew the results of a survey to satisfy some personal belief. A mathematician cannot assume that a theorem is true without demonstrating the proof. Likewise, the historian is not allowed to make stuff up.

Mr Lindsay, unfortunately, is guilty of making stuff up. This simply will not do. He begins well enough, by listing the sources of evidence that he intends to utilise in tracking down the Lost Legion: namely,

  1. "the primary written sources from antiquity";
  2. "the archaeological source in the shape of marching camp remains" (I presume he does not literally mean the "shape" of the camps);
  3. "the tribes known to have been in conflict with Rome" (and here he begins to stray from "evidence" into "interpretation", if not wishful thinking); and
  4. "casting a canny eye over the landscapes that these factors point towards" (scientific analysis has now left the room)
His argument goes rapidly downhill, because he has not followed the Rules of Historical Enquiry. In category (1), his "ancient sound-bites" (a truly toe-curling phrase in this old emperor's opinion) are very woolly indeed. He claims that "when taken with the archaeological body of evidence of destruction in southern Scotland and along the Stanegate in 105 AD ..." (er, exactly what evidence is this?) "... it assists in painting a tantalising picture of the troubled years immediately preceding Hadrian’s ascension to power in 117 AD". Tantalising is, of course, the wrong word; vague, is more accurate.

Category (2), "the fragmentary remains of the once-mighty chains of camps which marked the progress of many Roman armies on campaign in Scotland" (once mighty? shudder), leads precisely nowhere. So it remains unclear how this can be "an incredibly fruitful – if speculative - line of enquiry".

Category (3), where Lindsay hopes to "glean a fair understanding of which tribes were frequently at odds with Rome", actually relies upon category (2), allegedly permitting us "to focus on marching camps which sit in the problematic lands of those notably intractable tribes". Which notably intractable tribes? On the one hand, Lindsay is arguing that marching camp = intractable tribe, but on the other hand, intractable tribe = marching camp; we could dance around this circle all day.

Finally, in category (4), "it is absolutely imperative that a quest like this is undertaken out in the countryside" ... where the truth will leap up and slap us in the face? What about all that careful sifting of (1) literary evidence, however tantalising, and (2) archaeological evidence, allegedly incredibly fruitful, and (3) tribal, er, evidence ...?

Any case based on these vague factors would (and should) be laughed out of Historical court. There's a reason why History should only be written by Historians.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Pictish Nationalism

Theodor de Bry's PictAs an outsider looking in -- I am, after all, a Roman emperor -- I am always bemused by the rampant Pictish nationalism on the internet. Whenever the subject of the Romans in Scotland arises, you can be sure that a Pictish sympathiser will pop up to berate us for our interest in an alien imperialist power. In any discussion of Caledonia, it seems that we should be rooting for the underdog, the downtrodden native.

The resurgence of interest in the Ninth Legion (see previous posts here and here) seems to have touched a Pictish nerve. And an earlier post on Roman Nonsense on the internet attracted a rash of argumentative comments from individuals with suspiciously Pictish names like Thormod and Calag.

It is one thing to be enthusiastically interested in a past culture, and steeping yourself in the evidence for that culture. After all, re-enactors do that, and occasionally come up with a surprisingly new slant on the ancient evidence. But it is quite another thing to be fanatically obsessed to the point that evidence no longer matters, and a blinkered anti-Roman, anti-imperialist view colors your judgment.

Still, at least the AlbaWest web site (which started that particular line of discussion) is now extinct. Just like the Picts.