Monday, July 23, 2018
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
WHAT DO WE REALLY KNOW OF THE PAST?
Here is one of those statements that can knock you sideways, if you are of a reflective cast of mind. It will force you to come to grips with the reality of how little we know of history.
Recently I was reading my way through The Fall of the West, a bulky tome by the English historian Adrian Goldsworthy, published in 2009 and bearing the subtitle “The Slow Death of the Roman Superpower”. In some ways, drawing upon recent archaeology and historiography that was not available in the 18th century, The Fall of the West is like a rewriting of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Goldsworthy has just been considering the argument, popular among some recent historians, that Roman power was not declining in the third century AD because we have evidence that there was still much wealth in the Roman Empire. Therefore, goes this particular argument, the fragmentary tales we have of destructive Roman civil wars at this time must be exaggerated, because the economy was apparently not disrupted.
Goldsworthy drops his bombshell has he responds to this argument thus:
“It is worth bearing in mind that if we had the same amount of evidence for the twentieth century as we have for the third, then we would not have any real idea of the scale of the Great Depression or the impact of two world wars. For instance, Japan’s and Germany’s growing prosperity would doubtless be seen as inexorable and unbroken in the course of the century. Any talk in literary fragments of the devastation caused by war would doubtless be dismissed as wild exaggeration. It is clear that there were many very wealthy people in the Roman world at the opening of the fourth century. This does not necessarily mean very much – after all, some people remained rich and prosperous throughout the Great Depression. There are no figures to tell us whether the number of wealthy individuals was smaller in the fourth century compared with the second. There were the very poor in both periods, and those at every stage in between, but again we know nothing of numbers and proportions in the overall population.” (Chapter 7, Adrian Goldsworthy The Fall of the West)
I have added the emphasis here, because it is the underlined parts that really knocked me back.
Think about it for a moment. Rome was a literate civilisation. Much of its great literature survives (and of course much of it has vanished). Rome has left many monumental and archaeological remains across Europe, most of which can now be dated with reasonable accuracy. It also had many historians and chroniclers whose works we still have. About some aspects of Roman history a good historian can write with reasonable confidence – indeed with far more confidence than anybody can write about pre-literate societies or more ancient civilisations. But EVEN SO, with all those resources at the historian’s command, there are still vast areas of Roman history that we simply cannot know, for the Roman Empire was not a documented society in the way modern societies are. Statistics as such did not really exist.
I am fixing here upon the phrases “if we had the same amount of evidence for the twentieth century as we have for the third” and “there are no figures to tell us…”
This is one of those paragraphs that makes me see the very uncertainty of what we regard as history.
Four years ago on this blog, I reviewed the journalist Frances Mossiker’s The Queen’s Necklace, a careful account of a royal scandal that preceded the French Revolution. Mossiker built her book by putting together and commenting upon contrasting and often contradictory contemporary reports of the scandal, nearly all written by people who had their personal axes to grind. As I said at the time, when I first read Mossiker’s book, it “forced me to see how the same events could be reported and interpreted in completely different ways by different witnesses.” It opened an abyss under me – the knowledge that there is often no solid ground to stand on when it comes to narratives of history.
Adrian Goldsworthy’s remark about the lack of documentary evidence, and the fragmentary nature of resources, opens that abyss again.