Name and shame for bad classicists
I’ve long been tempted to have a regular extra blog post, collecting together recent howlers about the ancient world presented to an unsuspecting audience by journalists etc who should know better. What has tended to put me off is the “let who is without sin . . .” principle. That is to say, everyone makes mistakes, and if you name and shame someone today, they’ll do it to you the next time you make a slip.
Anyway, I’ve given up those scruples just for a while.
A colleague emailed me the other Saturday morning to tip me off about an interview with the Margaret-Thatcher-loving, tv-historian Dr David Starkey (pictured here with a royal), in the back of the Guardian’s Guide section. Starkey, it turns out, is a real Roman hater (odd that – I’d have predicted the reverse). “What did the Romans ever do for us?” asked the interviewer:
“The Roman empire is a greatly exaggerated virtue”, responded the Doctor, “That’s the case with most empires, and certainly the sort the Romans created, which was, if not mono-cultural, then certainly very centralised and very aggressive, riding roughshod over highly diverse and different native cultures. We’re very reverent about the Roman empire, but the really creative periods are what followed. The Romans were overrated and over here.”
Now I don’t mind anyone hating the Romans, or anyone giving the Middle Ages their fair due. But I do mind them spreading this rubbish. The grudging admission that the Roman empire was not mono-cultural is one thing (try looking at the culture of Roman Syria and comparing it with Roman Scotland and then doing the mono-culture test). But where has Starkey been if he thinks that Rome was very centralised and rode roughshod over native cultures?
Not in a library that’s for sure.
In fact what’s puzzling about the Roman empire is not how efficiently oppressive they were, but how they managed to run the show with such a limited centralised bureaucracy. And the question has always been why on earth did they end up persecuting the Christians, when (with the partial exception of the Druids and the very occasional, temporary bans on some eastern religions in Rome) their religious strategy was consistently one of live and let live, not annihilation.
Like them or not, you’re never going to understand the Romans if you misrepresent them like Starkey did.
Just as I was huffing and puffing over this, the radio started pumping out some more ghastly classical garbling on Saturday Live.
I’m afraid this was partly the work of my friend Bettany Hughes, who has done an enormous amount of good stuff for ancient history on television, and she’ll kill me if she reads this. But on that Saturday morning she was discussing Helen of Troy (on whom she’s written a book) with presenter Muriel Gray.
The question was why had no one written a book on Helen of Troy before (not entirely true, there are plenty of studies as Helen as a literary figure -- but biography, no).
The pair had some high-minded feminist view on this puzzler, which on other occasions I would have admired. Men, they wondered, had probably been frightened off the subject because of their terror at dissecting the life of the most beautiful woman ever. And so on.
Had it never occurred them that no classicists had taken on the life of Helen because she was a MYTH. It's the Romulus problem again. Helen of Troy did not exist and is no more the apt subject for a biography than Maid Marian.