“The future is dark, the present burdensome. Only the past, dead and buried, bears contemplation.” Thus G.R. Elton in The Practice of History, a book that I read at an impressionable age and so can still quote large chunks verbatim despite disagreeing with most of it. This line has always struck me as particularly, but interestingly, wrong; it encapsulates, tongue in cheek, the essentially conservative view of history as a means of escape into a past that is always conceived as preferable to the present – if only because it’s already over, so human suffering is more bearable (echoes again of Hegel’s account of history as the view from the shore of a distant shipwreck). It’s also linked to an explicit anti-determinism; there is no underlying logic to historical development, so the past speaks only to itself, not to the present, let alone to the future. Stuff happens, and we can grasp it properly only in retrospect. (more…)
Posts Tagged ‘Roman Empire’
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. (more…)
Perhaps the most striking thing about Tom Holland’s fine and interesting article in this week’s New Statesman on ‘Why Empires Fall: from Ancient Rome to Putin’s Russia’ is how far it ignores, and even at times rejects, the promise of the title. What the casual reader might expect to find under such a heading is a general theory of the imperial life-cycle, perhaps drawn primarily from Rome as the archetypal empire and the paradigm of decline and fall, that can be applied to the present (focusing on Russia for a change, rather than the usual debates about the USA as an imperial power). Instead, Holland offers a range of narratives of different imperial collapses, emphasising the complexity of events and the plethora of competing interpretations, and also identifying the great counter-example of China; it’s all thoroughly historical and historicist, eschewing the kinds of social-scientific theorising that one might find in Michael Doyle or Michael Mann or in a typical ‘Empires Ancient and Modern’ op-ed. What does persist through time, in his account, is not a universal principle of imperial destiny but the belief in the paradigmatic status of Rome, regularly revived as model, ideal – and awful warning.
The article doesn’t go so far as to state clearly that the real problem with trying to learn from the past is the persistent belief that we can do this because the pattern of future events has already been set in the past. Indeed, there are a few points (more…)