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I’ve been involved in an interesting exchange on the Twitter this morning with Helen Rogers (@helenrogers19c) and Will Pooley (@willpooley), both of whom work on different aspects of historical rhetoric, narrative and creative historiography about – well, those things, starting with the question of why ‘narrative’ is sometimes (often?) regarded as a dirty word by academic historians: too easy and simplistic, too focused on Great Individuals and traditional political/military history, too closely associated with popular history, too literary and hence liable to undermine modern critical historiography’s claim to have transcended the old ‘history as art’ model. Of course, none of those things is necessarily true, but that doesn’t necessarily make a difference, given how much is at stake in mainstream analytical historiography’s claim to offer a trustworthy, objective account of the past (and how fragile we know that claim actually is).

Partly as a distraction from the ongoing ghastliness elsewhere, this has prompted me to offer another installment in my – very, very slow – project to make available copies of various old articles that may not be readily available. This is one of my favourites, perhaps because of its utter obscurity: Narrative Economy, first published in P.F. Bang, M. Ikeguchi & H.G. Ziche, eds., Ancient Economies, Modern Methodologies: archaeology, comparative history, models and institutions (Bari: Edipuglia, 2006), pp. 27-47 – an analysis of the different rhetoric approaches of two historians of the Roman economy, Keith Hopkins and Richard Duncan-Jones. The idea was that economic history appears to be the most unrhetorical and artless of sub-disciplines, so demonstrating that it’s actually as rhetorical as everything else would make a general point about historiography…

The idea behind a Toga Party is obvious: to elevate the conventional student pursuit of drinking to excess by associating it with the well-established image of Roman decadence. Vomiting down one’s front is legitimised by classical precedent! To paraphrase Marx’s 18th Brumaire, the participants find in ancient history the self-deceptions necessary to conceal from themselves the humdrum nature of their activities. In a similar manner, the spate of Roman analogies for the rise of Trump serves to present our current historical predicament in more elevated terms as the crisis of the Republic and the potential triumph of decadent autocracy, as historical events in the grand old manner, rather than any of that tedious or depressingly complex analytical stuff. We are living in time of Great Men and Terrible Villainy and Heroic Deeds and Grand Gestures! The fact that this all derives from a thoroughly old-fashioned and dubious conception of history, just as the toga party is based on multiple layers of literary representation and reception, is beside the point, except for pedants like me. No, the Romans didn’t spend their entire time eating honeyed dormice, shagging their sisters and changing the course of World History with their speeches or battles – but ‘The Romans’ did, and that’s what matters. Continue Reading »

This spring, I’m teaching on the Roman Principate, including the nature of political and social life under a capricious autocracy (think not only of the grotesque antics attributed to pantomime villains like Caligula or Nero, but also the air of casual menace in Trajan’s letters that prompts Pliny’s desperate, paranoid grovelling). I’m already wondering what to do about possible Trump analogies, given the prevalence of classical references in current discourse – all the Suetonius-style kinky stuff to add to Caligula’s horse references, consumption habits straight out of Trimalchio and so forth. I’m not (at least at the moment) planning to make any – given everything I’ve already written about the problems of seeing the world in such short-term, individualistic terms – but I can certainly imagine some of my students making such points or raising questions in discussion. Which could be tricky. Continue Reading »

2016, as I reflected on at least one occasion, was a year that seemed to represent a return to old-fashioned l’histoire événementielle, where world-changing developments occurred at the sort of pace with which we humans feel naturally comfortable (indeed, sometimes a bit faster than we might have preferred) rather than unfolding over decades or centuries. Both Brexit and the election of Trump represented, or appeared to represent, the sorts of dramatic turning-points that make for an exciting narrative, played out on a human timescale. But in addition – and this is something that I noted in passing, but could have made more of – it seems to represent, or can be claimed as, a series of events driven by humans and human-level factors, rather than vast, mysterious and impersonal forces and processes. Indeed, the force of the ‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ slogans is precisely that of a revolt against those who surrendered to abstract ideas like globalisation and the march of automation, in the false belief that they are more powerful than any human agency; we are presented with a reclaiming and repurposing of the progressive idea that something else besides eternal capitalism is still possible.

It struck me this morning that there may be a connection here to the sudden popularity of historical analogies, especially classical analogies, for contemporary political developments. Continue Reading »

I’ve just spent a fascinating morning at a workshop on Creative Pathways to Impact, splashing around well out of my depth and comfort zone, in search of further inspiration and possible creative collaborators for some of the ways I want to make use of Thucydides as a genuine ‘possession for all time’, a means of opening up questions about the complexity of the world, politics, power, rhetoric etc in the face of post-truth and post-democracy. One of the activities was the random drawing of cards, giving a research finding, a location and a form respectively, and then discussing as a group how one might enable the first of these of have an impact via the other two. So: Thucydides as a means of understanding the dynamics of power; phone box; street theatre. Continue Reading »

See Part One here.

July A month of very conflicted emotions. On the one hand, back in Berlin; on the other hand, Brexit. On the one hand, the remarkable pleasure to be gained from the Ablehnung of a Ruf, and an opportunity to reflect on the sheer weirdness of German academic appointment processes; on the other hand, Brexit, and the thought that a job in Germany might be no bad thing. On the one hand, some actual research into cheap translations of Thucydides (though not in a REF-able publication, unless the rules change dramatically in the near future); on the other hand, my most-read post of the year on, you guessed it, BrexitContinue Reading »

Death. Death. Crisis. Death. Crisis. Death. Death. That was 2016, that was. Good riddance, apart from the uneasy feeling that it may have been just the overture, and next year we won’t have the all-too-brief comic relief of England v. Iceland to cheer us up.

It’s all been very serious German novel. One of the themes on the blog this year has been the avoidance, if not fervent denunciation, of crass historical analogies, so I’ll save my next discussion of Volker Kutscher’s excellent Krimi series set in 1920s and 1930s Berlin [pervasive atmosphere of impending doom and dramatic irony] until the Tom Tykwer adaptation starts next year, by which time I may have caught up with the latest volume. Rather, I’ve been reminded all too often of Jenny Erpenbeck’s brilliant Aller Tage Abend (and I still dislike the English title End of Days without having a good alternative suggestion), in which the central character dies again and again – as a baby, as a teenager, at various stages of adulthood – with a constant dialectic between the hopeful counterfactual (if only this, then she would have lived…) and the inevitability of death, against a backdrop of twentieth-century horrors. That was 2016, that was… Continue Reading »