Modern Things Romans Would Love #6: Travel and Tourist Tat

Whilst free travel was obviously a thing in the prehistoric power vacuum across the expanses of European land, the notion of having a wander to some far off shore to experience the culture (likely the prostitutes) and bring a little something back to the family (likely an infection) – was never really an option.

Rome sort of opened up a huge part of the world for that sort of thing. I don’t want to say they invented ‘tourism’ but I certainly think it’s up for debate. For the first time in European history a vast stretch of the world was littered with caravans and supply lines onto which one could latch and travel long distances. For the first time in history one system of rule and government dominated sites and cities of differing historical and cultural significance, opening them up to being visited. The Roman empire was heavily decentralised, the provinces run by their own rules, but being a Roman citizen was like a passport unto itself, and offered many benefits, the most important of which would be legal protection. You were ‘safe’ to travel.  

It was almost a rite of passage for wealthy Romans, especially in the imperial family, to visit the ancient cities of Greece. The pyramids of Giza, having stood for thousands of years before the Romans even formed a relationship with the Ptolemys, never mind took full control of the country, must have been a hell of a visit for a Roman. From the natural springs at Aquae Sulis (modern Bath) in Britannia, across the mountains of the Iberian Peninsula, via the brothels of Gallia Narbonensis, across the Alps – via which the venerable Hannibal brought his armies and war elephants – to the ancient temples and statues of Greece and through to places in the East like Alexandria in Egypt, or Antioch in modern Turkey, the Romans had a huge amount of culture and history in their domain that they could visit.

The Great Pyramid of Giza
The Great Pyramid of Giza was old by the time the Romans would have visited it. Credit: Nina Aldin Thune.

The Empire took in a huge number of places older, bigger and more impressive than most things your average provincial Roman had seen. In fact, after visiting and pacifying much of Greece the awestruck Romans were so taken by the grandeur in their building that they basically nicked it. To an extent the Ancient Rome we know of, with its vast buildings, columns, impressive architecture, is a response to insecurity caused by the Greeks. This intellectual culture stared right in the eyes of these Latin warlords and said “Mine’s bigger than yours!”

So, caravans, boats and the rights of citizenship meant anyone rich or just pioneering enough could go and visit these places for themselves.

Some places even built themselves some greatness to make them a place Roman tourists would want to visit. Herod the Great’s Jerusalem was a city deliberately built with grandeur to put it on par with the cities of Rome, Greece and Egypt. Travel and tourism had really become that much a part of Romanised culture.

Two pale columns in Roman Jerusalem
Even today, the ruins of Roman Jerusalem still stand. Credit: Gary Bembridge.

But wait! There’s more! Archaeological evidence from across the Roman world has dug up trinkets from various other parts of the world; Jewellery, figurines, carvings, etc. Basically they found everything but fridge magnets, keyrings and postcards. Not only did Romans have a penchant for travelling the world – sometimes for leisure, sometimes for education and sometimes because they had to because they were soldiers – but they also liked to bring back trinkets for their families. Roman-era tourist tat actually existed. So the next time Aunty Joyce brings you a shitty little bottle of sand from whatever shitty Spanish resort she went and got fucked by a twenty-something rep at, have some respect. For Aunty Joyce for pulling a man like that, and also for the fact that tourist tat is an ancient rite.

Feel like travelling back? Check out our last entry, gender and sexuality liberation.

Or move on to number 5, one that ties in nicely with this one, why Romans would have loved AirBnB

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Modern Things Romans Would Love #7: Gender and Sexuality Liberation

This is one that’s going to piss off so many pseudo-classicists, the ones that come from that lens of neo-classicism. Neo-classicism was an idea that sprung up, predominantly, in Victorian-era Britain, where conservatism and austerity were things to be admired. Meanwhile, behind the scenes and down back alleys you’d be getting wankered on bathtub gin and fucking an unconscious, etherised child. One thing Rome and Victorian England had in common was a hypocritical veil of civilisation on top of a monster of purest, basest savagery. The Romans knew it, the Victorians, fucking hideous hypocrites, pretended it wasn’t there.

Anyway, one of the best things about their interpretation of Roman history is it is all fucking wrong. The austere white marble statues would have been garishly painted in bright colours. The clear delineation of sex and gender roles, as God intended, in this most manly of men’s societies that was Rome, was actually so blurred, muddy and grey you’d be unsurprised to see those roles used as clay, kiln fired, and turned into sexual tableware.

Now let me just establish a few things here. One, gender is not sex. Gender is the social identity related to your sex that is constructed by the self and the society around you. Just because you have a dick it doesn’t mean you’re of the male gender, maybe you like to have long hair, wear dresses, high heels and make up and, by gender, you are a woman. Gender is the presentation of identity, not some biological status.

Sex is that, supposedly, innate biological status but even then things get weird. Predominantly people fall into two sexes, male and female. However biology is amazingly diverse and can give, say, someone with a penis enough biological signals to make them feel as though they should be female. This is gender dysphoria and is also perfectly normal. Often these people will consider themselves transgender. There are also even more complicated biological conditions. Sex is generally chromosomally determined, with XX denoting a female and XY denoting a male. However there are people out there who are XXY. There are people who are born with both nobs and slits. It’s complicated.  

The point is there’s a lot of modern bullshit around sex and gender and it’s all stupid, it’s all bullshit, life is nonsense, evolution is drunk and one day we will all be unified in our energies as a vague entropic mass so stop giving a shit. Back to the Romans.

Gender in Rome, as far as we can best tell from the record, was a matter of action not genitalia.  A woman could be considered a man if she behaved manly enough. A man could be considered a woman if he behaved feminine enough.

Sexuality, too, was a matter of action. ‘Lesbianism’ as a concept pretty much did not exist, without penetration by a dick there’s no sex and therefore no sexuality. Roman women were pretty much free to have as much fanny-fun with friends as they liked, as long as they didn’t penetrate. A husband wouldn’t bat an eyelid about it.

Homosexuality between men was a strange one, too. They did not discriminate against homosexual men in the way we would consider today, exactly. If you were the top, the one sticking it in and penetrating then it would barely get a mention. You were fucking, you were penetrating, you were a man doing as a man does. If you were the penetrated party, however, it would lead to rumour and negative reputation. You were, after all, adopting the role of a woman. You would be judged as feminine.

Romans, as far as we can tell, did not care what sex you acted as, nor what sexuality you exhibited.

They were, though, just rampant fucking misogynists.

They didn’t care if you were a man who acted like a woman, so long as you were willing to adopt the subservience and passivity expected of a woman. If you were a woman who did not take on that subservience and passivity then you’d better damn well do some dominating and penetrating or else you’d end up being a pretty weak man and the only things treated worse in Rome than women were Roman men you opposed.

When there is some disagreement about the roles of sex, gender and sexuality in the west you can almost be sure it is religious nutters leading it. Sexual oppression further east is usually being shouted about by the religious nutters there, too. Whilst they may have divided into at least three major religions, and too many sects and sub-sects to count (some of which disagree entirely with the nutters, I should add) the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have dominated discussion on sex, gender and sexuality, in many countries, for hundreds of years .

History, though, shows that this is little more than a long term fad. The One True God did not smite the empire that dominated Europe and the Holy Land of ‘His’ chosen people for close to a millennium because they buggered each other. Jesus turned the tables of the money lenders, he wasn’t busy going around smacking up eunuchs or men dressed as women. As far as I can tell Allah hasn’t exactly been busy raining hellfire down on gay Muslim women, either. It’s bollocks.

Our ideas, here in the UK and much of the rest of the West, of what men and women are supposed to be comes from that lineage, but it’s just an idea. Across history different cultures have had different ideas about sex, gender and sexuality. These are fluid concepts, subject to change according to fad, fashion, faith and philosophy. The systems we are negotiating now, as relatively liberal societies, bear more resemblance to those of Ancient Rome than they do our conservative near-past.

Why not check out our previous entry, why Romans would have loved energy drinks.

Or move on to the next entry, number 6 on the list – Travel and tourist tat!

Modern Things Roman Would Love #8: Energy Drinks

Romans, man, they lived weird lives, especially the wealthy and powerful. If you were rich you’d be up at the crack of dawn and your breakfast was not Kellogg’s Cornflakes. It would involve you chatting to your clientes – your clients. These weren’t customers of anything, really. These were people you associated with, mutually negotiating to help each other out. It’s not unlike an organised crime gang situation, except a little more civilised and less…you know…robby, stabby, shooty.

So maybe you’re a rich landowner, you have pigs and cattle and no way to distribute it, someone you know introduces you to a butcher, he’s currently selling low-grade stuff so you offer him your animals. He sells your meat, gives you a good cut of the profits and the best cuts of meat when you ask and you’ve got a good thing going. Now your butcher needs some help paying off a gambling debt so he, your cliens (client), comes to you his patronus (patron) and asks for a little help. You oblige, as is your duty and with it being a reasonable request.

So anyway, they would meet with their clientes somewhere in the region of 5am-10am. Certainly by the time midday came around you’d be done with that business for the day. But Roman business is never, truly, done. So a light lunch of some bread, oil, if you’re lucky maybe you’ve got a stuffed songbird left over, and then it’s off to the forum. The forum is a combination of a market square, a meeting room, a coffee shop and a newspaper. Here influential Romans would walk and talk with their friends – they may or may not have a client/patron relationship – but they were definitely people they would wish to be seen walking and talking with (more on this in another entry).

That takes you through to the afternoon, at which point you may entertain the idea of some exercise, or a bath, or both. Maybe you’d go with a friend, do your bathing, rub a little olive oil into each other and scrape it off with a strigil, a sort of human squeegee used for getting oil, sweat and muck off your skin. “No homo!” as the homophobic kids would say, except it was Rome so there may have been a little homo (more on this in another entry). Whether homo or not, your exercise, bathing and potentially homosexual exploits now take you to the early evening and you have plans for dinner. You’re going over to your friend Nommus Maximus’ house.

So you go home, make sure you’re well dressed, your wife puts on some make-up that will probably slowly drive her mad (a lot of weird stuff about lead in Rome) and by the time you’re ready it is close to 8pm. You make your way to Nommus’ place, have a chat, take your laying-on-your-side seat at the table (love that Romans ate this way) and he keeps your there eating fried dormice and drinking diluted wine until well over midnight.

And you need to wake up at around 5am to deal with your clients again.

Jesus Herbert Walker Christ, somebody get these guys a can of Monster, they fucking need it. Seriously, the Roman day was busy.

They made up for it, though, there were dies fasti (allowed or permitted days, when work and social business could take place) and dies festi (festival days, or holy days when official business was literally profane). At some points in Roman history there was over 100 dies festi – yup, a third of the year off work, for every Roman citizen. So maybe they didn’t need Red Bull because they knew how to take time off. Of all the things we inherit from Rome this is not one of them. For shame.

Are you feeling all buzzed after all the energy drink? Well check out our last entry – drawing dicks on things!

Or you could move on to number 7 on the list – Gender and Sexuality liberation

Modern Things Romans Would Love #9: Drawing Dicks

You know how it is! Especially if you’re a bloke but, come on ladies, we know you did it too! Don’t think I don’t see you non-binary people! Oh, sure, it’s an elephant. Any dick is an elephant if you draw two eyes on it!

There’s a beach, there’s a stick, you’re a man in his thirties, meaning you have the mental maturity of a twelve-year-old, what do you do? DICK IN THE SAND!

There’s a toilet stall wall, you’re taking a shit, it’s a stubborn one, you’re bored, you’ve got a Sharpie in your pocket, what do you do? DICK ON THE STALL!

You’re a teenage boy sat beside your friend in class, it’s a serious one, the room in near silent reverence of the teacher, oh that teacher hates hijinks and piss-arsing around, but you’ve got a pen, your friend has their book open on the desk, it’s right in front of you, your biro is twitching with excitement and anticipation in your hand, what do you do? DICK ON THE BOOK!

You’re a Roman builder, you’ve just finished a section of Hadrian’s wall that you’re particularly proud of, you want to bless it with masculine fortitude, strength and longevity, what do you do? DICK ON THE WALL!

Romans fucking loved the D. Seriously, a dick is like a holy symbol to them. No, it’s not LIKE a holy symbol, a dick is a holy symbol to Romans. There’s dick everywhere across the empire. Go out to your local Roman ruins, I guarantee somewhere there’s a dick. If there isn’t, there was one and it has eroded. Dick, dick, dick, dick, floppy dick, hard dick, biggus dickus, littlus dickus – Romans dug dick.

Was it the immaturity of an overly masculinised culture creating, essentially, a cult to their own genitalia? Probably. Does it matter? No. Why doesn’t it matter? Because it’s funny. Because dicks are funny.

Romans had dick statues as part of their worship and rituals. Why not? It’s like a mushroom, an alien and a human all combined DNA to make a weird fleshy outcrop with the potency to help create life. Why not worship it!?

Solid bronze phallic amulet in the form of a pripus with hindquarters of a horse mounted by a figure of a woman, three bronze pendants are suspended from the base, Graeco-Roman. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
This is a fascinus – an image of the divine dick. Supposed to ward off the evil eye, penis charms were given to kids to keep them safe. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

It was a symbol of strength, protection, luck and fertility. They couldn’t have gone and banged the gong enough for schlong.

If a Roman was sailing off to a battle and saw a dick in the sand on the beach, they’d want to land there. If they saw a dick on the wall of their toilet stall they would want to shit there. They’d know this was a blessed shit, a manly shit. If a Roman student had a dick on their book they’d probably be getting straight As and, well, Roman builders did actually mark their work with dicks. They were etched above doorways to houses, placed on outside fort walls, etched in quarries. No walk along Hadrian’s wall is complete without hunting for some cock, it’s littered with them.

To a Roman the phallus was as potent as the sword. The two often were compared, the thrusting stab to the guts of a gladius, the thrusting stab to the cunt of a dick – what’s the difference? For an empire that spread, led and bred around what was, at the time, the known world to Europeans? It could be argued their dicks were the most effective weapons, creating more Romanised life than their swords or words ever could.

So the next time you have the urge to etch a nob on something, do it and justify it by saying you are honouring Roman culture and it is your duty to bless whatever you’re drawing a dick on with luck, power and longevity.

Had enough cock for one day? You could check out the previous entry, easily available abortions (content warning: its about abortion)

or move on to the next modern thing Romans would love, energy drinks!

Roman Top Ten, Modern Edition!

Ahh, Romanitas – The essence of Romanhood, Romanity, Romanness. What does it mean? Well that depends who you ask. Roman culture is, thanks to the influence of some…less than objective scholarship, simultaneously associated with the heights of austere civilisation and the worst of excess. If you want to blame anyone for this duality blame the Victorian scholars who revived Roman scholarship after it sort of fizzled away post-renaissance.

They loved themselves a bit of Rome but all they knew of it was the texts written by military propagandists (Caesar’s memoirs of his wars), the letters of slimy political ponces (Cicero’s letters and speeches) or, worse, the meandering ramblings of the stoics (Seneca’s letters or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations). These don’t exactly paint a true picture of Rome, never mind the fact that the Roman artefacts being discovered were all this austere, plain white marble.

We now know that many, if not all of those statues, would have been covered in colourful paint. We know building cladding would have been decorated, frescoes would have dominated the walls of even lower middle-class homes. The Romans fucking loved life.

Even a slave in Rome could have a good life. It seems a strange idea, I know, because our idea of ‘slavery’ is tainted by its more recent forms that were disgusting abuses of other human beings. A Roman slave, though, could be a trusted member of an inner circle, treated very well and eventually become a freedman, and live their own life. Much of Emperor Claudius’ inner circle of advisors were his slaves or freedmen, with Narcissus and Pallas being the most famous examples.

The point is our conception of Rome and Romans and the reality of Rome and Romans are often two different things. Sadly none of us can use a time machine and go there. Frankly I’d fucking love to. But there is evidence that Romans were not the upstanding, austere, severe military-political citizens they are made out to be.  A lot of that idea comes from written sources that are, of course, going to be written by well-educated individuals about the most important stuff going on. Your everyday common-or-garden Roman probably didn’t give a shit. They had to worry about putting food on the table, their kids, whether they wanted/needed more kids, whether they could afford a slave to help out around the house, praying to the lares (their household gods) and worrying what the neighbours thought (they were VERY socially conscious.)

They were also drunken, overfed, horny, orgiastic, vapid, wine-swigging party goers. We like to imagine Romans as severe, learned and wittily conversational. But a lot of them were dumb as a box of rocks, mostly pissed (as in drunk) and bawdy as hell. They were more TOWIE than BBC4, more Real Housewives and less Downton Abbey. I guess what I’m trying to say is they aren’t as far from you or I as scholarship would have you think. People is people, and people will do what people do. Get fucked up on substances, do each other, demand entertaining and graffiti dicks on things.

So what’s the best way to get people, nowadays, to relate to the Romans?

How about ten articles detailing the top ten aspects of modern bullshit that the Romans would have loved?

Well why not move straight on to number 1 – Easily available abortion…(Content warning – it’s about abortions)

The Sopranos Vs. Sex and the City

There’s a battle raging right now on Twitter about the receptions of two shows. HBO’s mob drama-slash-family soap opera The Sopranos and HBO’s writer drama-slash girl gang soap opera Sex and the City and, obviously as happens with so many of these kinds of debates, it has turned into a battle of the sexes.

The Sopranos clearly appeals to the male fantasy, after all don’t men spend their days fantasising about murdering their best friends due to betrayals of trust, having abusive mothers, panic attacks and needing therapy and having their family fall apart before their eyes before, presumably, being shot in the head and fading to black?

Sex and the City clearly appeals to the female fantasy, after all don’t women spend their days fantasising going through endless dramas, relationships, make-ups, break-ups, getting cancer, losing jobs, having unhappy marriages, terrible families, having to balance all of that with a career and then finally having it all wrap up in the end because at least you end up with the right man?

To an extent they’re both ludicrous, both dated, both sexist and both stupid – I should know, I’ve watched both.

Now I know the question you’re asking. Why would a manly man in his 30s have seen all of Sex and the City, were you drunk/high/trying to get laid and the answer is – another question! Why does that matter? (also you’re a massive sexist, but let me explain where I think the problem lies.)

Did I relate more to one than the other? Yes. The Sopranos spoke more to me than Sex and the City but did I feel one more valid than the other? One ‘better’ than the other? No.

I think the issue lies in interpretation, not sex and gender. I’m a working-class bloke and yet I’ve seen musicals, opera, plays, TV shows of all kinds, anime, paintings, sculpture etc. etc. There are some things I love (like music) and some things I enjoy less (like paintings) but there is validity in all of it. Were some of these things stuff that, as a man, of my class, I shouldn’t be indulging in? Why yes. But in the famous words of Rage Against the Machine “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” There’s a reason I want to take it all in, and that is because often those things that are the least relatable to me are the things that can teach me most about myself and others.

The problem that I think we are dealing with is one of frames of reference.

We can look at all art as valid, and ask what of ourselves, if anything, we see in it. If we see nothing of ourselves we can ask ourselves why.

Or we can look for the art we see some of ourselves in, ask why we see nothing of ourselves in everything else, and ask the art why.

In one, art is a mirror for self; we probe the mirror to get a virtual, reflected image of us. Sometimes it isn’t accurate, sometimes we see other things we recognise reflected and sometimes, like Count Dracula, we see no reflection at all, but merely take in the ambience of the scene.

In the other, our selves are the mirror and art must be reflected in us to be valid. If we do not see our own selves reflected back at us it must be the art that’s the problem. It’s not taking into account X, Y or Z issue, not reflecting X, Y or Z culture.

Now don’t get me wrong, a lack of representation is definitely an issue in media. In the western, American-European dominated sphere, anyway. But I rarely get the feeling that’s what people are arguing about.

In this instance the issue I am seeing is that a show about so-called ‘white men’ (although the question of whether Italian-Americans can be considered ‘white’ in American culture is a whooooole different discussion) is only considered ‘better’ than a show about white women because men.

Yet is there something of all of us reflected in each? Definitely. The Sopranos features some of the best written female characters in modern television and Sex and the City has some surprisingly insightful moments that can inform men about the juggling act of masculinity and strength versus emotion and vulnerability. Neither is a unisex experience. If anything they’re all very trans exclusionary!

What is more, certain experiences are neither male, female or non-binary, neither black nor white, they’re of no fixed religion, no specific identity, they’re universal.

On that note, though, here are my recommendations – If you want a great show about the bittersweet nature of success as it causes your whole life to collapse around you watch Bojack Horseman. If you want a humorous look at what it is to be a woman in modern Western society, balancing old-fashioned misogynistic expectations with your hopes, dreams and ambitions watch Tuca and Bertie. Both are not Netflix, both are fantastic and certainly Tuca and Bertie did not get the love or respect it deserves.

Bad History: Presentism

Myth: The best way to understand people in the past is with present-day attitudes.

Fact: Why are we even doing facts any more? Historiography is about interpretation! But it’s difficult to interpret past cultures through a present-day lens.

You might think, sometimes, that people in the past were really stupid.

They didn’t understand that germs cause disease; they didn’t have proper science; there’s a lot, we think, that they didn’t understand and we do. But we’ve got these wonderful things called science and progress, so we can look back on the past when they had less science and less progress and judge the past that way! Right?

Not quite. Here’s why.

The Past is a Foreign Country

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” – L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between

It’s a cliché now, but it’s a cliché for a reason: the past was seriously fucking different. People believed different things, went about their days differently, had a completely different conception of the world. Sure, there were some similarities – but generally the deeper you dig down, the weirder you find history gets.

Generally, it’s kind of difficult to think outside the belief system you have. If you’re really religious, and I tell you there’s no God, my atheism is probably pretty alien to you. If you believe in magic and I can’t see how your magic works, we’re not going to be able to agree. Actually, my no-gods-no-magic system might seem pretty alien or boring to you, just as believing in magic is pretty alien to me. And it might be difficult for us to bridge that gap.

When I do history, I’m always thinking about the beliefs people in the past had and the information they had, too – because the information they had would have been different, and sometimes they would have had less of it. I partly know this because people tell me this when I interview them – they’ll say “well, back in the 1970s we didn’t know this and that and the other…”. In their memories, it has a profound effect. And that was 50 years ago! Imagine 500 years ago! People change, cultures change, ideas change. If you want to understand how people think, you have to meet them on their terms.

Missing the Weird

Another reason presentism isn’t great for doing history is that it means you miss out on a lot.

Take thinking about science (again, yes, I know I harp on about this a lot). If you had a quick “history” lesson in a science textbook about Isaac Newton or Michael Faraday or Marie Curie or whoever, you might have read a couple of paragraphs that basically went: “Once upon a time people were stupid and didn’t know about this, then this super-smart-clever person came along and discovered a cool thing, now science is more advanced, the end.” It’s a kind of “history” that puts the cart before the horse: the writers know where they wanted to end up (telling you about the cool science thing) and arrange the history around that.

Most historians are a bit different. We don’t think about our work as leading up to a predetermined conclusion, but we do want to explore all the possibilities, the what-could-have-beens, the things that existed and maybe never really went anywhere – or maybe they do survive today, but not in forms we expect. The past is weird and presentism squashes and confines all that weirdness.

Our Weird Present

Now I’m going to go full wanky postmodernist historian and ask: how much do we actually know? How much have we actually progressed?

On the surface, I guess the answer is pretty obvious. Yes, we have made progress. Running water, heating and electricity are widely available in the West. We can talk to each other via phones and the internet at any hour of the day or night. We can fly around the world and even go to space. People centuries ago couldn’t have dreamed of doing this. We have made important breakthroughs. I don’t want to downplay that.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of knowledge we’ve lost. We don’t know how to make black glass. The secret to making Roman concrete was lost for thousands of years. Even closer to today, some people rely on ageing medical technologies and often people don’t know how to maintain or repair these old medical devices. Knowledge can and does disappear surprisingly quickly. That’s not progress.

And yes, we have all these devices – but how many people know how to build or maintain them? That’s specialist knowledge, developed over years, and it’s often difficult to explain to outsiders – I know, because getting people to explain their specialist knowledge to me is my job, and it’s a bloody hard one sometimes.

We also know more – at least, we think we do – but are we any more rational? I’m not convinced. People in the past believed a lot of strange things – but so do people today! 60% of American adults believe in at least one of spiritual energy within physical things, psychics, reincarnation or astrology. One in six Brits believe the moon landings were fake. A quarter of Americans also think that the Sun orbits the Earth, and they’ve thought this for decades.

Now, given that the examples I’ve given are from the US and UK, we could just throw our hands up and say Brits and Americans are uniquely stupid, and maybe the rest of the world has made some progress. I’m…not entirely sure that’s true? I think people in most countries have weird, entrenched beliefs, because most humans have weird, entrenched beliefs. We haven’t built up to this perfect period where everyone is super-smart and rational, and we’re not receding from an imaginary Golden Age of rationality. People are just weird. We’ve believed weird things since before we could write those weird things. The last ever human is going to believe some pretty weird shit, too. Understanding that weird stuff, with all its weird possibilities, is key to doing history.

Bad History: Great Men!

Myth: The best way to understand history is by looking at important people and understanding their qualities.

Fact: Uh…not really. Maybe sort of? It gets complicated.

When you sat through history lessons at school you might have learned about kings and queens, or if there’s a show on TV it’s probably about a bunch of historical figures. Biographies are pretty much always popular; movies, books, everywhere you look people want to hear about other people doing stuff and being important.

Against the seductive power of hearing about people doing stuff, you’ve got a lot of people who seemingly don’t like to hear about people doing stuff. These people will complain about “Great Man History”, and insist you read books about it or you’re doing history bad and wrong.

So – what is the “great man” theory of history and what’s so wrong with it?

The Great Man Theory

To tackle this bit of bad history we’re going to…have to do a little bit of history.

Hopefully in this Bad History series, we’re getting to show that lots of people have lots of different ideas about how to do history. This isn’t just something that cropped up when historians discovered the internet – we’ve been arguing about how to write history probably since people started writing history down! But for the Great Man theory, the important parts start in the 19th century with a guy called Thomas Carlyle. Thomas was a writer-historian-essayist-philosopher-mathematican-all-around-too-bloody-smart guy who wrote a book called On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. He argued that history is shaped by special, “great” individuals, thanks to their special qualities as people (and maybe with a bit of divine inspiration thrown in). On Heroes is a book that makes some pretty grand claims – partly because it started out as a series of lectures aimed at making easy-ish money for our Thomas – but this one sticks out:

“The History of the world is but the Biography of great men.”

Well, that’s a pretty grand claim. And it’s one that is at the heart of the Great Man theory of history: people, mostly men, who are inherently special and important in some way, are ultimately what change the world. Things like social, economic and health conditions can play a part, but ultimately it all comes down to some people being special. If we study what makes them special, we can also be like them and change the world.

(This is why Great Man theories sometimes come up in leadership and management – the idea is that by studying important people, you can become an effective leader. Your mileage may vary as to how well this works.)

Even Thomas Carlyle probably wasn’t that great of a man – it’s not like he sat down to write his lectures one day and went “perfect, I’ll come up with a new theory about history”! He based his ideas on thoughts that people had already had about heroes and heroism.

Thomas Carlyle influenced people like the American poet-essayist-philosopher-these-people-did-too-fucking-much Ralph Waldo Emerson, but it’s not like he wrote one book and everyone went “we love this theory”! Half a century later, biologist-philosopher Herbert Spencer would lay into Thomas because he believed that people were more a product of their environment – that environment would thereby shape action, not special great people.

(Oh, and by the way? That’s the “survival of the fittest” guy. He made that phrase up. Man, the 19th century really was just full of Very Serious People picking fights.)

And, of course, Karl Marx laid into Thomas. Ol’ Karl was big on understanding material conditions and class struggle to understand history, and he was not best pleased about thinking about history as the lives of special rich people. This is why lots of people influenced by Marx (so, a lot of people – this isn’t a big conspiracy, Marx is just an important thinker, hell, I’m influenced by Marx!) will look down on anything that looks like Great Man theory.

So, Great Man theory was controversial even a couple of decades after Thomas came up with it. It’s not like everyone was writing Great Man history and thought it was awesome until some jumped-up professors had a problem with it. People have been dunking on it since the nineteenth century!

But what’s wrong with Great Man history anyway?

Not Just People

This kind of depends on how much influence you think individuals have over the course of events. If you think it’s primarily people who shape events and that economics, culture and health take a back seat, you’ll love Great Man history. If you think it’s important to understand systems and not just a handful of people, you won’t like Great Man history much – if at all.

Now, I think society, culture and material conditions affect what people can do – and that this is broadly more important than how individuals act. I think this because I like looking at what people believed back in the olden days, and seeing how it shaped their actions. I think sometimes you can live through big, terrible, scary events and there’s nothing much you as an individual can do about them (thanks, coronavirus pandemic). But if you think individuals are big enough to shape society and culture singlehandedly, you’ll like Great Man theory and me (or anyone really) harping on about its faults isn’t likely to change your mind.

There are also things that may look like Great Man history but are not, so let’s talk about them.

People Can Do Things

Some people take one look at Great Man history, decide anything that involves individuals is Great Man history, and spend the rest of their time yelling about how anything with individuals is bad and wrong history.

Those people are missing the point.

The problem with Great Man history is not that it involves certain people, it’s that it says history happens because some people are special and more important than the societies and cultures they live in – and that’s just not true. Sometimes, though, people are special and do have special knowledge.

I do a lot of research on the history of space science and the Mullard Space Science Laboratory – the UK’s oldest space science centre, housed in a 19th-century mansion in the middle of nowhere. (Yes, really.) Every single person I’ve interviewed has had special knowledge that they try to explain to other people, like me, and all these people are important because nobody on Earth has their specific combination of knowledge and experience. This is similar where you’re looking at any kind of history with specialist knowledge, like fashion history or food history. Acknowledging the experiences of the people I interviewed isn’t Great Man history: they still do the work they do within wider societies and cultures. But it is important to understanding how space science has developed.

People Like People

The other thing is something that I tried to get at while writing the introduction: people like hearing about people, especially when they don’t want to slog through 20 pages of academic-ese. People are intereresting and entertaining. Analysis of material conditions? Eh, that can just be…boring in the wrong hands?

So that means people like biography. People like hearing about what other people got up to. Even when it’s not the most accurate or useful way to look at the world, it’s still one of the most accessible – hell, I did it when talking about Thomas Carlyle!

That doesn’t mean you have to do Great Man history – it’s totally possible to acknowledge the societies and cultures these people grew up in. Actually, I think it makes for a more interesting biography! But it explains part of the pull of Great Man history, and also some of the vehement reactions against anything that even looks like it.

People are interesting and we all want to think they’re great and special. Truth is, they’re not, and it’s not helpful – but it’s fun to look at people as people anyway.

A New Lease of Life?

When I was last at the Flavian Amphitheatre, I overheard a guide talking about how there were grand plans in the works to restore the floor to some of its former glory. The Flavian Amphitheatre was named after its patron, Titus Flavius Vespasianus – better known to us as the emperor Vespasian – and his family the Flavians, but you’d know it better as the Colosseum. It’s not called that because it’s bloody big, but because it was built near to a gigantic statue of the former emperor Nero that the future emperor Hadrian had moved closer to it. These proposed new works would allow demonstrations of how the floor, the theatre and all its theatrical magic, would have worked, and for new performances to take place in the historic amphitheatre.

Of course any talk like that is subject to change, delay, corruption and cancellation so you think nothing of it. However now it appears the Italian government is stumping up the cash (nearly €20m, or about £18m) to make that a reality.

Currently the old floor is mostly missing, revealing the networks of tunnels and chambers that were beneath the stage itself, essentially the ‘backstage’ area, known as the ‘hypogeum’. This is where stage-hands controlling trap doors would have worked their magic, animals would have been caged and gladiators would have paced nervously.

So will everyone be happy about this? Of course not! Any restoration project of a monument of the significance of the Colosseum will cause issues. There should be little doubt that making more money is likely one of the driving factors and often profits get in the way of good practice. Also any major structural works are liable to cause problems in other areas of the structure. If, for example, they are hoping to be able to use the area for gathering of 50,000 people or more then that is 50,000 people’s worth of wear and tear, per event, to be accounted for. It’s a messy problem with no simple solution.

But gripping onto the Colosseum as a relic, a museum piece to be seen and not touched, hidden behind glass and treated with kid gloves – that was never its intended purpose and I have to ask myself the question: what would the original planner, the person who started building the theatre think?

Vespasian was a fucking peasant by comparison to the Julio-Claudian line that had come before him. He was technically an ‘equestrian’ by Roman class – sort of an upper-middle class guy. Whilst Nero was busy trying to turn Rome into a new Greek cultural wonderland, Vespasian was busy quelling the Jewish rebellion in Jerusalem and, before he’d had time to wrap up, Nero had taken his own life and three other wannabes were claiming to be emperor – Galba, Otho and Vitellius. Rome had another civil war on her hands and it would have been a long and bloody one if not for one simple fact. Vespasian was fuckin’ ‘ard, mate! I plan to write a series about key figures in Roman history so I’ll hit you with more detail later, but Vespasian’s ascent to Emperor was almost inevitable the moment he decided to go for it.

During his reign Nero had built this obnoxious, yet technologically marvellous, palace known as the Domus Aurea – the Golden House. This, he thought, was exactly what the people needed after a fire had ravaged huge parts of Rome in 64CE. Allegedly ‘bling’ed beyond the ken of even the most arrogant gangster rapper, it apparently had a steam powered spinning statue of Nero himself. Imagine if a disaster struck your country and your government decided the best way to cheer you up was to build gold statues of themselves. If you live in the UK it shouldn’t be so hard, that’s basically the Tories. That’s what happened.

Needless to say Vespasian was a man of more practicality and less sentimental stupidity than Nero, he knew the people would need buildings. Panem et circenses – bread and circuses – were, after all, what kept the Roman populace happy. Smack bang near the middle of this Domus Aurea, where Nero had had a lake built, Vespasian had it drained and used that site to begin construction of what has since remained one of the pinnacles of Roman architecture and a symbol of Romanness – Romanitas – itself. Romans did not just build buildings to be marvelled at, they also had to be used.

Future Emperors would tear down, repurpose or bury other parts of the Domus Aurea, but the Colosseum remains, emblematic.

I don’t think Vespasian would mind it being given a lick of paint, a rivet or strut here or there, or some re-facing and re-cladding, if he knew the people were still deriving pleasure from a building he commissioned nearly two-thousand years ago.

Vespasian was about practicality, and Romans were about longevity and legacy. So long as it is done right, and no medium or long-term harm comes to the building they, I don’t believe, would have any objection to reviving the Flavian Amphitheatre for the purposes of shows and entertainment. Just…no animal shows, okay? It’s not okay to pit people against lions anymore. Not PC, you know?