Light is in the eye of the beholder

Coming off a couple of weeks of intense study, the results of which i condensed to 8 parts even though I easily could have done 15 or 20 if it did not get so redundant, I decided to do some light reading and picked up Romans and Barbarians by Derek Williams.

In it a couple of interesting tidbits developed, one which I knew and the other which I did not.

The one I knew was how tenuous our hold on ancient history is. For example, many scholarly tomes have been written about the battle of the Teutoburg Forest, also know as the Varian Disaster where German "barbarians" crushed three Roman Legions so thoroughly that those legions were never to return to the Roman battle lists.

Of course, there are certain problems with the knowledge we possess...for example, the location was quite uncertain and, as it turns out, wrong. The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest took place nowhere neat the Teutoburg and we thought it did because of writings a century later.

In fact, as Williams points out, Transmission was via a single medieval manuscript, uncovered in 1451 at the monastery of Hersfeld, southern Germany; demonstrating on what slender threads the bequests of ancient learning have sometimes hung." (1)

His point is well taken. So much of what we "know" about ancient history is more accurately phrased, "What our best educated guess is, since we presuppose that we are better qualified to interpret the accuracy of writings than the people who wrote it."

I am always amazed how people so easily dismiss the accuracy of Herodotus with his claims of a million Persians, but their "more accurate number" ranges from less than a hundred thousand to 450,000. Do they even know how wide that range is? They explain how unit sizes were probably A,B,or C, thus rendering the numbers of Herodotus...WHO WAS THERE....are obviously inflated and their own more accurate...YET NOT EVEN CLOSE TO EACH OTHER.

Note that I am not arguing Herodotus was accurate...simply pointing out the ridiculous nature of claiming we know for certain things we know so little about.

But the thing he brought up I did not know actually applies to the Dreamcatchers project.

Twice, first while discussing Ovid and second while discussing P. Quintilius Varus, he points out that the Roman narrative for the Sarmatians, Dacians, Getans and other steppe barbarians from the Grecian border, and the Germanic tribes from the Rhine border, were portrayed as the "noble savage", a people so close to the pure morals falling by the wayside that they were to be emulated by the Romans who were descending into moral decay.

Anyone who has studied the "Indian Wars" of the U.S. instantly recognizes the narrative terms that were such a large part of the discourse in the American media that one might be confused about whether it is Tacitus speaking or Frederic Remington.

Just a fun little note to tie together Rome and the US. You are welcome.

1 Williams, Derek, Romans and Barbarians: Four Views from the Empire's Edge 1st Century AD, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1998, p. 71


Riot Kitty said...

I think you are missing your true calling, you should definitely teach!

Darth Weasel said...

thank you. I love teaching, and love history, it does seem like a natural. doubt it will ever happen, though, because I would be too old before finished school