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.


  1. Who needs facts if you have an agenda? Unfortunately, that attitide will never die. A few works of that sort appeared in connection with the 2000 year anniversary of the Varus battle last year, mostly books that wanted to place the battlefield contrary to any historiographic or archaelogical evidence somehwere at the writer's door; but there was also some nationalistic rubbish that should never have made it into print.

    And these days people won't even have the decency to fall upon their swords when an Emperor sends them a letter. ;)

    The only thing you can do is to write a blog post or a review.

  2. As you I am often vexed by so-called (and self appointed) experts who expound on what they claim is history which has been 'stolen' misappropriated or otherwise erased from the official record. Having been raised by a father who was born in Vilnius I remember times in my youth when elders would solemnly tell me about the 'Great Lithuanian Empire' which extended from the Baltic to the Black Seas. Large maps would be produced which showed of past glories and territories of the Lithuanian nation which had been 'stolen' by jealous neighbors. I was told of all the amazing contributions to western civilization by people whose names I have long since forgotten. Which is a shame as I am sure some part of it was true (the nation thing wasn't as that was a kingdom which is something else entirely). My father through these lectures never seconded the opinions and I have since come to believe he was dubious but diplomatic.Fast forward 35 years or so and I am married to an Albanian immigrant. From my wife's extended family I hear stories which somehow ring familiar. Great kingdoms,stolen territories,jealous neighbors and rewritten histories. I am solemnly told of the great Albanians who made major contributions - The epic poet Homer, the philosopher Aristotle,Alexander III(aka the Great)and before I forget Agamemnon,Achilles and the Trojan Heros too! Large 'history' books are produced which 'prove' these 'facts'.(and by the way Aurelian,Probus,Diocletian,Constatine et alia are Albanian too. With tongue clenched firmly between teeth it takes all my will power to resist asking why they left out Jesus. It seems that many people today are so overcome with the fever of nationalism that they cannot comprehend that the nation state is a relatively modern phenomenon. With the notable exception of Rome which created its own form,the idea of the greater nation or even 'dying' for such a thing would have seemed ludicris to people in the not so distant past.