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Monthly Archives: August 2006

Back in the olden days, when GCSEs were significant exams worthy of veneration due to their nearly departed proximity and A-levels were imbued with importance due to their imminence and their clear life altering impact, I pursued history at both levels with a true sense of relish and with an abiding sense of enjoyment of the past. Then I loved the certainty, the sophistication and the complication of history, the challenge of entangling the knowable fact from the impenetrable murkiness in which motive and involvement could be hidden. The pieces never could be put together to complete the puzzle, and one could instead admire the puzzle from the outside and only imagine what the whole image could look like.

Over time this fascination lapsed. I stopped the academic study of history, got enthralled by the more sociological and meta-historical purpose that authors such as Jared Diamond or Paul Kennedy saw in the tapestry of history. The many histories of many places compiled together to reveal history’s response to Newton’s Laws, precise defined and entirely reflective upon the field which they guided in its direction. They were interesting books, placing much of time into its context, but nonetheless far removed from the more methodological, chronological narrative that history can become when the finer details are appreciated and true distinction can be drawn between epochs, ages and emperors.

Now after a gap of many years I find myself coming back to the historical fold with a more keen interest, but focused on an area of history that I’ve had little effective formal schooling, certainly we were taught it during year 7, but little of those lessons abide with me and I doubt anyone truly remembers the lessons of a decade ago.

I am drawn towards the Antiquities, the history of the ancient world as we so scantily know it. The power of Persia; the worlds first super power, the Awesome empires of China, the fledging Athenian political revolution that endeared Greece to all posterity.

My true interest though has been captured by the most enduring and triumphant of the Antiquities, in the shape of the 2000 year history of the Greatest Empire the civilized world ever saw, clothed under the purple robes of the Roman Imperators. My interest started, as did many an Emperor, with a humble beginning that in all likelihood I should conceal from posterity, but I shall work no such illusion. It began with the HBO series Rome, which charted the end of the Roman Republic and the assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar, one of the most famous events of all western history. It went on to sample the ambiguity and eccentricity of the world inhabited by the world first true historian, Herodotus in his two volumed work. The death throws of the Roman Republic were completed in better detail in the excellent Tom Holland book Rubicon, the title referring to the now forgotten stream that marked the boundary of Italy and the sacred Roman soil from the provinces that the expanding Republic administered. From there it went fictional, in Robert Graves’ highly acclaimed work I, Claudius and now I have started upon an abridged version of the most resplendent monument in the histories of the Roman Empire, in Gibbons famous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

My interest in history has changed as well. The puzzle no longer grips me as intently. I accept that the world is far too complex the details far too finicky and the events too lost too sustain that sort of inquiry. Instead I have taken the lesson to heart that there is nothing truly new under the sun, and in the actions of these old rulers and odd people who lived and died under an empire so vast that exile from it meant that there was no civilized place for its inhabitants to go, can teach valuable and apt lessons for the modern world. History, our past, defines our outlook and our future, and the person who can control or define or even select the apt example from the past will do well to carry events forward in the future. That sense of communion, of belonging to the historical narrative is a powerful sensation. The ancient world is also rich in symbolism, we have images that are enshrined in theirs, and consequently our, myths and legends that provide apt metaphors for much of modern life. Again the power of symbolism is unconquerable, worth if an image is guaranteed a thousand, a hundred thousand words. Our ability to learn from, to use and to exploit the past is one of the most critical concepts that can be taken from history.

We may not have a Monarchy in politics, but many of the other institutions of the modern world could without any dissimulation wear upon their shoulders cochineal dyes. People, the character of humanity, its capacities for high or low, have not changed as much as they ought to have; the realities of people are ever evident in history. This broad brush history can be found in the most vivid colors in the life, organization and necromancy of the Roman Empire and that is perhaps why I find it the most fascinating of all. History is not the study of what has gone for me anymore, it is the study of what is alive today through the forensic lens of what has gone before, to discover the world that exists outside of all the fine surface decoration that has been grafted on modern man. This gritty reality, this reduced essence of man, feels most accessible in the scholarship of antiquity.

There is only power, and those who are too weak to take it. So says one of the most prominent fictional villains of all time, and it is this obiter dicta of a non-judicial Lord, that I have found myself compelled to spend a little while considering. I’ve not always been very interested in power. Power you see, in its most meaningful sense is power over people, and my reaction to the enforced extra interaction with others that such power would bring is easily understood as an undesirable result that could never be compensated for by the perks of power inside my inwards facing soul.

In my naivety I convinced myself that I had nothing to do with power, would actually consider myself more morally upright and beyond the vulgarity of playing the power game. I would maintain the Spartan whiteness of my moral complexion. I would shut my eyes to this misdirection of the human will and suffer no folly for this willful blindness. I would be wary of it impeding upon me and my life. The power demands of others would be considered and blocked, but I, spotless, harmless, me, would refrain from ever being entangled with anything beyond defense against the dark arts.

I wish I could say that I was still of this persuasion, that I could honestly say that I would refrain from playing the little mental and mind games that are concomitant with the power game, but I don’t think I want to be that person anymore. Power is useful, it is the definitive ingredient in many a human life, and its absence or presence, its gradients and its affiliations will do much to untangle the spiders web of allegiances, allegations and actions that cross and re-cross life in all its essence.

More essentially, to take the moral stand that I am aloof from power games inflicts on me two detriments, first it tells all that in fact I am weak, and must depend on convention or morality to hold my ground, both bases that are fickle and grounded in the Mob. Secondly, in and of itself, the moral claim to aloofness is a power play in and of itself it is the use of this moral cudgel to gain power over others. Better honestly and fully in the game, that truly inescapable and most worldly of games, than dishonestly out of it. I do believe that it is possible to turn the moral force into tremendous power, through the invocation of the divine or the spiritual, but inside my value system I have no inherent access to either, and so must not look to them to be manipulated as a power base.

There is a darker side to my desire to understand power. I begin to understand that the only way to be immune to the pressure that the power of others can exert against you, is to be able to deconstruct their movements, to understand where their power originates, how it can be applied and therefore where its weaknesses lies and what counter forces can be applied against it. Similarly it is patently clear that the only genuine counter to a force exerted in one direction is to exert a force in the exact opposite direction. Therefore when power bases will be wielded against me, I will be required to have a power base, or the appearance of one of my own to stand up. The weak and innocent are always the first to suffer in any conflict, and I have no desire to be described as either. How much better to be secure in your own strength or confident of the weakness of your enemies rather then to fear the strength of others and not know the disposition of their forces.

Like all the great Hegemonic Empires, I am convinced that I only do this for good. I have no ill will towards anyone that I wish to unleash my rage against by the manipulation of power, but rather that I do not wish to be exposed to the misdirected blasts of another. I desire safety. At least that’s what I’m currently telling myself. I’m sure that at some point I will use any power I ever accrue, if it is significant to achieve any ends, in the manner I have so carefully circumscribed above. I don’t imagine myself immune from this process. As we all famously know, Power Corrupts.