I should say from the beginning that this is not the sort of defence of Arron Banks that’s likely to carry much weight with any hypothetical future popular tribunal considering charges of willful destruction of the prosperity and well-being of the British people. Further, my immediate reaction to his original “True the Roman Empire was effectively destroyed by immigration” tweet was a typical kneejerk academic one – something along the lines of “yes, why don’t we revive Tenney Frank’s ‘Race Mixture in the Roman Empire’ while we’re at it?” – followed by an attempt at getting #BanksHistory trending on Twitter, and I don’t think that was entirely wrong. At the same time, there is something about the way that the battlelines in Banks versus Beard ended up being neatly drawn between ‘ignorant right-wing billionaire combining memories of schoolboy history and Gladiator with current ideological prejudices’ and ‘heroic authoritative Professor just fighting for Truth’ that makes me feel a little uncomfortable.*
Now, as far as historical claims are concerned I’m more with Beard than Banks: there’s no denying that an influx of people from outside the empire – albeit a minuscule number in comparison to the empire’s existing population – was a problem for the Roman state, but this was one of numerous problems rather than in any sense the sole cause of the supposed ‘fall’ (which is of course an even more contested concept). Certainly the contemporary resonances that Banks clearly intended to be picked up from his remark – migration will bring about the collapse of our entire civilisation – are completely spurious.
My concern is rather with the authorisation of such claims, and here Banks does have a point: “You don’t have a monopoly on history”. There are other reputable historians who put a different, more Banks-friendly spin on events – Peter Heather’s vision of violent conquest, for example, isn’t quite the same as blaming mass migration, but it’s a lot closer to it than the mainstream story of long-term, largely peaceful transition and gradual fragmentation – and history as a discipline is founded on the questioning of authority, the back-and-forth between different interpretations, the fact that the evidence can always be understood in different ways and fitted into different narratives etc.
Now, this is a point with some worrying associations: the fact that reputable academic historians disagree is regularly used as grounds for legitimising marginal views as being equally valid and/or for rejecting the mainstream view altogether (see e.g. most things written about pyramids and mysterious lost ancient civilisations, the Holocaust denialists, and for a scientific comparison the climate change denialists). But it’s still a valid point. It doesn’t reduce history to a mere matter of opinion – as Beard has rightly noted in a subsequent blog, “in order to have an interpretation worth listening to, you do actually have to know something” – but it does mean that there is always scope for debate about the evidence and its interpretation, and that the word of a Cambridge professor isn’t the end of the argument simply because she’s a Cambridge professor.
Mary herself makes no such claim, but it does seem to be implicit in the statements of some of her supporters and in the reporting of the argument: how dare this silly little man stick to his opinion and try to argue back when Mary Beard has told him that he’s wrong?
Obviously Twitter is a terrible place to try to have a serious discussion about historical evidence and its interpretation, except between people who share an enormous amount of common knowledge and understanding, are engaging with the same questions at the same level of analysis, and so can see not just what the other is saying but also what is being implied and taken for granted.Beard versus Heather, say, might be illuminating; Beard versus Banks isn’t, or at least not as a historical debate. The issue is that they’re not just in different leagues in historical terms but are playing by different sets of rules, and probably not even playing the same game.
This isn’t just a matter of one isolated Twitter spat, as that would scarcely be worth spilling ink over. One wider issue is that this sort of thing is always a possibility in encounters between academic historians and the general public; unless the authority of the historian is accepted without question (as of course it often is), things can rapidly degenerate into a dialogue of the deaf, because the topic may be the same but the discourse is completely different. (This is the other side of my regular complaint about television history programmes, that ‘accessibility’ is achieved by taking out all the nuance, uncertainty, ambiguity and debate). I always think of the autodidact character in Angus Wilson’s brilliant Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, quoting from his out-of-date encyclopedia, even to the point of celebrating Piltdown Man as a great archaeological discovery.
But at least in these situations there is the possibility of a constructive conversation, of the historian being able to explain why things are more complicated and why this matters, with some respect for their interlocutor. On Twitter, that’s an awful lot harder, even when the issue is a simple one (e.g. No, Thucydides didn’t say that, here’s the actual source). Beard again:
Twitter is ideal for mono-causes (it was all immigration, wasn’t it?), not fitted at all for complexity… When it comes to deconstructing the idea of ‘borders’ and ‘barbarians’, and exploring the ‘Romanness’ of some of those who it became convenient to brand ‘foreign’, indeed the major differences in those apparent polarities between now and then, then I am beaten if it has to be half a sentence.
Remarks of 140 characters too easily sound like dogmatic assertions or a condescending put-downs, even when that isn’t intended. Nuance disappears, whether because it’s next to impossible to do that in 140 characters or because a longer more complex sentence strung out over a series of tweets is even harder to follow.
And that’s assuming that people even want to engage constructively. I assume someone must have studied the way people receive (in the technical literary sense) tweets, but my guess is that the predominant factors in engagement and response are largely instinctive, based on humour, key words and phrases, conformity to existing prejudices and name recognition factor – whether the celebrity of the person tweeting, or the status of the person they refer to (Thucydides again).
So, people are already conditioned to respond more positively to some tweets than others – and I would imagine that convoluted academic thoughts grab the attention of a rather more select audience than confident assertions. Moreover, when it comes to the more engaged partisans, each side already has its instinctive sense of why the other isn’t a credible opponent for their champion – Beard is a typical liberal ivory tower elitist with no understanding of what real people think, Banks is parroting half-remembered school lessons from the distant unenlightened past for ideological purposes.
Is it, as Tom Holland suggested, a great thing that Roman history and its contemporary relevance is being widely discussed? I’m really not sure. It’s great for writers on ancient topics who want to publish non-academic pieces on why Trump is the new Cleon/Caligula/Nero/Whatever, but, as I’ve argued previously, I am now seriously sceptical as to whether such takes offer any contribution at all to understanding. If Banks now tones down his assertions about #WhyRomanHistoryMeansWeShouldSupportMyPolitics, that’s a victory for historical values – but if so, it’s been won at a high cost in terms of time (especially Beard’s time) and heightened emotions. Still, we wouldn’t be proper historians if we didn’t keep trying – just so long as we keep in mind that even Arron Banks is sometimes right about certain things.
*Of course, every time I think of the condescending way that some of Banks’ supporters referred to “Mrs Beard”, let alone the repulsive “you’re next for the guillotine, traitor!” rhetoric, I feel less certain as to whether a bit of meta-commentary is really what’s required here…