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Posts Tagged ‘imperialism’

This year of all years, one might hope that Remembrance Day would encompass all the dead of the First World War – not just in the carefully orchestrated public ceremonies at national level, where diplomatic protocols will play a role, but across Britain. Judging by the flags around the town where I live, that’s a bit of hopeless liberal idealism. I’m not actually objecting to the waves of union jacks, with a sprinkling of the flags of the home nations; of course this will be primarily a commemoration of ‘our’ dead – and it still always strikes me how many of the surnames on the war memorial are familiar from the locality today.

No, it’s the other flags. (more…)

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Reading David Andress’ thought-provoking new book Cultural Dementia*, on the ways that the anger and resentment of much contemporary politics in the UK, France and USA are founded in confused, self-serving and largely imaginary ideas of national pasts, I’m inevitably reminded of Thucydides, and his denunciation of the Athenians’ unwillingness to make any effort to enquire into the truth of the past but simply to accept the first story the hear – especially, we may surmise, if it flatters their sense of themselves and their place in the world, like the story of the tyrannicides that served as a foundation myth of democracy. The duty of the historian – the theme that I’m lecturing on in Toronto this week, as it happens – is to struggle to uncover the truth of things, to treat everything critically, to make no compromises for the sake of personal loyalties or entertainment, to acknowledge ambiguity and complexity, and try to help others to come to terms with it. (more…)

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In the recent debates about the Ethics and Empire project at Oxford and its apparently apologetic agenda – see the Oxford open letter, the letter from non-Oxford scholars of empire and colonialism, James McDougall in the Grauniad – ancient historians have kept relatively quiet; Jo Quinn was one of the signatories of the Oxford open letter, and was denounced in the Daily Mail for her pains, but the second letter seems entirely modern in its focus. This is understandable, not from any sort of cowardice or secret imperialist sympathies on the part of ancient historians, but because in the first instance this does appear to be a debate focused on the particular dynamics and problematic history of the British Empire, with the modern postcolonial experience in other regions as the second-ranked concern.

However, as I tend to argue at the drop of a hat, it’s difficult if not impossible to escape the spectre of the Roman Empire when discussing modern imperialism. (more…)

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There’s a great scene in the 1990s Welsh teenage drama series Pam fi, Duw? [Why me, God?], where everyone has gone to London (can’t remember why) and the indomitable grandmother insists on dragging the family across the city to visit the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square – to their utter bemusement, as she’s a dyed-in-the-wool socialist, but you don’t argue with Mamgu. When they finally get there, she sticks up two fingers at it and says something to the effect of “That’s for Tonypandy, you bastard!” (more…)

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Who works in the text? According to Tom Geue, in an excellent paper in the Bristol Classics Research Seminar last week, this question is at least as important for our understanding of Roman culture as the more familiar “Who speaks in the text?”. He took as his case study Georgics IV, a poem ostensibly devoted to old-fashioned Italian small-holding in which remarkably little real work gets done. Slavery is of course more or less invisible throughout the Georgics, with the slave treated as a mere prosthesis so that his labour is credited to the owner, but the fourth book takes things still further. Half of it is devoted to bee-keeping: a gift of heaven, a slight field of toil bringing great reward, in which the owner’s labour is limited to tearing off the wings of the ‘kings’ so that the bees are not inclined to give in to their tendencies to idleness… (more…)

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Another interesting and helpful link via a post on The Monkey Cage (which has recently moved to the Washington Post, and unfortunately seems to have become much slower and less reliable as a result), this time to a new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA that seeks to understand global historical development via a cultural evolutionary model. It’s a nice short paper (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/09/20/1308825110.full.pdf+html), so you can and really should read it for yourselves, even if you skip the equations, but in brief the authors constructed a model of the Afroeurasian landmass as a grid of 100x100km squares:

Each grid cell is characterized by existence of agriculture, biome (e.g., desert), and elevation. At the beginning of the simulation, each agricultural square is inhabited by an independent polity, and the cells adjacent to the steppe are “seeded” with military technology (MilTech) traits, which gradually diffuse out to the rest of the landmass.

Once the model was set in motion (from a starting-point of 1500 BCE), each polity had a certain chance of conquering every other polity to build a larger polity, and each conquered polity had a certain chance of taking over the ‘cultural genome’ of its conqueror – i.e. adopting its traits of military technology. The result is a pattern of the diffusion of different forms of military technology and the expansion of complex multi-cell polities (empires) from three cores in the 1500-500 BCE period (Egypt, the Fertile Crescent and eastern China) to encompass most of Europe, the Middle East and China by the end of 1500 CE. This pattern was then compared with the ‘actual’ course of imperial expansion, put together from historical atlases, and the authors claim a 65% rate of prediction of which cells would have which level of ‘imperial density’ at a given date; a re-run of the model, omitting the military technology factor, had only a 16% success rate. It is these claims that have led the study to be reported in the non-academic press as ‘explaining’ history and ‘predicting’ the rise and fall of empires. (more…)

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