Fall of the Roman Empire
May 2, 2009 7:39 AM   Subscribe

If you follow the 210+ reasons why the Roman Empire "fell", you might be interested in this 60-min interview with author Adrian Goldsworthy about his recent book How Rome Fell. The interview includes a number of fascinating discussions about the nature of writing popular history, his theory on why Rome "fell", and why analogies between modern countries and Rome's fate have it all wrong. Goldsworthy also did introductions for the Rome series which can be watched here/here. ( via New Books in History)
posted by stbalbach (75 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
I wish people would use mics and mix their own breathing/acknowledgment sounds out of their podcasts.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:03 AM on May 2, 2009


Bankruptcy!


Barbarization!


Bastardization!



Anyone wanna turn this list into the chorus of some kick-ass punk song?
posted by The Whelk at 8:10 AM on May 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


That's a pretty sweet list. It's good to know that Communists, sensuality, and "abolition of Gods" caused the Roman empire to fall.
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 8:13 AM on May 2, 2009


Also, Emperor Constantine would like to know about this "Fall" as you call it.

I was really impressed by Rome. Really got the feeling of a living city with tiny alleys and of a completely alien moral culture. Nice to see more middle-class families rather than All Scheming Patricians All The Time. Evil Vampire Opium-Addict Cleopatra was a little ...odd. also it was hard to pay attention to the story when Marc Anthony kept showing up nude and sweaty. Not that I'm complaining
posted by The Whelk at 8:14 AM on May 2, 2009


The Whelk is right, that list would make an awesome song ... (It was the end of the Roman Empire, and I feel fine)
posted by Auden at 8:31 AM on May 2, 2009


Reason 212: someone spilled a huge puddle of olive oil
posted by GuyZero at 8:36 AM on May 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


Also, I cannot wait until Jay-Z does a rap version of this. And then it gets mashed up with the Beatles.
posted by GuyZero at 8:37 AM on May 2, 2009


209. Villa economy

Well, there you go.
posted by gimonca at 8:44 AM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


I thought Edward Gibbon settled this 236 years ago.
posted by FuManchu at 8:48 AM on May 2, 2009


Anyone wanna turn this list into the chorus of some kick-ass punk song?

Or something like Animaniacs' Nations of the World.

Holy crap... that has Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union in it and they had to point out that Germany is a single country... I feel so old...
posted by XMLicious at 8:52 AM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Excessive culture? Celibacy? Individualism? Jesus if those killed the Roman Empire, what are they going to do to me?
posted by Kiablokirk at 8:53 AM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Excessive culture? Celibacy? Individualism?

OMG Gore Vidal brought down Rome!
posted by The Whelk at 8:55 AM on May 2, 2009 [5 favorites]


it was the overuse of autotune in pop music
posted by pyramid termite at 8:56 AM on May 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


Rome if you want to. Rome around the world.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:02 AM on May 2, 2009 [4 favorites]


You might point out that the interviewer is MeFi's OwnTM Marshall Poe.
posted by languagehat at 9:03 AM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


I thought Edward Gibbon settled this 236 years ago.
posted by FuManchu

You obviously didn't read through to the end of volume six, where he caps his opus with the enigmatic 'but don't take MY word for it...'

seriously, I cannot get enough of this stuff.
posted by Busithoth at 9:12 AM on May 2, 2009


203. Tristesse

What? They just went into a funk gave up? I can't imagine Rome in a DH Lawrence novel, sitting beneath the wisteria on a Sunday afternoon, saying, 'Mary, of course I want to conquer Dacia, I want it so much. But what does it matter? It means nothing!'
posted by Sova at 9:16 AM on May 2, 2009 [8 favorites]


Rome? She fell because she loved her drama too much! We all tried to tell her, honey, you're bigger than your problems, but she just loved it when things went crazy, and she loved to call and complain and cry and say, oh, what can I do different? I think she thought, if I am not crazy, will I have any personality at all?

We told her she would, but sometimes we wondered too.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:26 AM on May 2, 2009 [8 favorites]


when is this podcast going to get going? - its boring crap for the first soo long,,.
posted by mary8nne at 9:28 AM on May 2, 2009


I'd just like to say that his book Caesar: Life of a Colussus is pretty damn good, as well. That "list" is sort of pointless and useless without context, though.
posted by absalom at 9:34 AM on May 2, 2009


Lead?
posted by poe at 9:44 AM on May 2, 2009


I'm suprised they didn't throw in Xylophones and Zebras.
posted by dunkadunc at 9:51 AM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


46. Decline of Nordic character

Wait, does this mean that the Romans were Nordic, or that things got so bad in Scandinavia that there was a giant sucking sound pulling the Romans to their doom?
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:51 AM on May 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


They left "ennui" off the list.

Seriously, I get the feeling that most of the items on the list are "gotcha" items where the professor says, "internal combustion engine", and everyone goes all wtf? and he goes all lol and they are what and he goes well, it's like this...and launches into some thinly stretched analogy that is really probably more like a metaphor, but the whole thing is just a weak attempt at snagging the last ephemeral vestige of the undergrad attention span.

In any case, instead of asking why Rome fell, perhaps we should ask why it lasted as long as it did. Is the decline of empire a process that is inevitable? If so, do modern technologies hasten the process?
posted by Xoebe at 9:51 AM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]



Hypothermia


Immoderate greatness


I'd like to know how one leads to the other.
posted by The Whelk at 9:53 AM on May 2, 2009


My fault! Sorry.
posted by Flunkie at 9:55 AM on May 2, 2009


the list is completely dumb, and quite disappointing (I have not yet read/watched the other links....) I consider the fall of the Roman Empire to be one of the great 'questions' in Western history. (I have not yet made it thru Gibbons either, but I am trying!!!) it's fascinating and ultimately not definitively answerable...

but Rome, the show? AWESOME!! all that sex and violence!
posted by supermedusa at 9:58 AM on May 2, 2009


the list is completely dumb

It's beyond dumb: it's downright absurd.
posted by ornate insect at 10:02 AM on May 2, 2009


For those struggling through Gibbons, you probably should remember that he was more of a writer than a historian, and that historical research has come a long way since the eighteenth century. That's not to say that you shouldn't read Gibbons, but that it's a better source on the worries and ideas of the eighteenth century than it is on why the Roman Empire fell.
posted by jb at 10:28 AM on May 2, 2009


Also, Emperor Constantine would like to know about this "Fall" as you call it.

Are you kidding, Constantine (XI, that is) was the last Roman Emperor, he knows all about it.
posted by Ndwright at 10:28 AM on May 2, 2009


Over-fondness of fiddle music.
posted by binturong at 10:53 AM on May 2, 2009


Thanks for posting this--Marshall Poe's New Books in History site looks great, too.
posted by russilwvong at 11:00 AM on May 2, 2009


211. Over fascination with enumerated lists.
posted by storybored at 11:14 AM on May 2, 2009


Yeah, the list in first link contains:
Celibacy, Hedonism, Lack of Children, Overpopulation,
Anarchy, Bureaucracy,
Abolition of gods, Christianity, and Polytheism among others...

I want to go through the list now and make some giant Venn diagram just to see how much of it isn't self-contradictory.
posted by Avelwood at 11:17 AM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


OK, I've finished listening to the podcast, and the first thing I want to do is answer mary8nne's excellent question:

when is this podcast going to get going? - its boring crap for the first soo long,,.

The boring crap ("You know, everybody should get an agent!" "Yeah, agents are the best!") lasts for almost exactly 15 minutes; after that, they start talking about the fall of the Roman Empire, which is quite interesting. I basically agree with Goldsworthy's approach, which is to downplay the Germans and Persians (who basically attacked when Rome was already weak) and focus on internal politics (as the circle of potential emperors widened from the few hundred senators to the entire aristocracy and then pretty much anyone with an army, it became impossible to control potential rivals and civil wars became endemic, drawing troops away from the borders and bringing in foreigners to pad out the armies). I did get impatient towards the end, when both Poe and Goldsworthy agree that you should "look at the evidence and see what emerges on its own terms" (a ridiculous idea that I thought had been exploded a generation or more ago), and I cursed at my computer when Goldsworthy, in an attempt to show that America is nothing like Rome, made the asinine statement that the U.S. "never sought overseas provinces and possessions" (why don't you ask the Hawaiians, Filipinos, Pacific Islanders, and inhabitants of the Panama Canal Zone, among others, about that?), followed up by "the Romans had no compunction about taking over other peoples and turning them into Romans" (completely unlike the Americans!). But it's well worth a listen.

Incidentally, this thread is a classic example of why the fear of "single-link posts" is a bad thing. I presume the list of "210+ reasons" (followed by a fucking Wikipedia link for "Roman Empire 'fell'," just in case we'd never heard of the fall of the Roman Empire) was added as a makeweight, but it's taken over the discussion because that's a lot easier than listening to the podcast and discussing it. Another self-inflicted posting wound.
posted by languagehat at 11:47 AM on May 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


The list was created in 1984 by a German historian who went back through the record and found every possible explanation he could find, as given by other historians, for why Rome fell. The list is "absurd", but that's the point. If you think you know the answer, think again. Mostly the list was used to demonstrate the old style of history was flawed and led nowhere and a new approach was needed, such as "transition" and "continuity" and there being no "fall" and renaming it "Late Antiquity" etc..
posted by stbalbach at 11:50 AM on May 2, 2009 [6 favorites]


yeah languagehat I can't win - 2 days ago I made a single link FPP and it got deleted because it was not "weighty" enough, according to the moderator it needed more links. *sigh* But don't worry, most people won't listen to the podcast anyway, and if they learn nothing else than the existence of 210+ theories on why Rome fell, more the better to arm against future yahoo's who think they know the answer.

"look at the evidence and see what emerges on its own terms" (a ridiculous idea that I thought had been exploded a generation or more ago)

I'd be curious what you mean here. Inductive reasoning is a fundamental tenant of good history writing. Deductive historians are a dime a dozen.
posted by stbalbach at 11:59 AM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Saul of Tarsus's Jewish Heresy.
posted by orthogonality at 12:21 PM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


I missed the original post on New Books In History and it looks like a very cool site, thanks very much.

On the question of Gibbon (not Gibbons), I found them intimidating to read but made it through the unabridged audiobook back when I was commuting by train. A great way to transition from work. Usefully supplemented by the free maps from the ancient world mapping center.
posted by shothotbot at 12:26 PM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


A VISIGOTH EXPLAINS HIMSELF:
"We wanted literature, music, art . . . we were starved for these things.
We didn't sack Rome, really. We were just looking for poems.

Sorry if we broke some stuff . . . "

(Tip o' the hat to Bernie Wrightson and the National Lampoon)
posted by Herodios at 1:27 PM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'd be curious what you mean here. Inductive reasoning is a fundamental tenant of good history writing.

Inductive reasoning is not the same as looking at the evidence and seeing "what emerges on its own terms." Nothing "emerges"; we see only what we focus on, and pretending we're not trying to focus on anything is simply giving in to unacknowledged prejudices and preconceptions. To quote Carl Becker's address to the American Historical Association (which I recently posted):
Finding the course of history littered with the débris of exploded philosophies, the historians of the last century, unwilling to be forever duped, turned away (as they fondly hoped) from 'interpretation' to the rigorous examination of the factual event, just as it occurred. Perfecting the technique of investigation, they laboriously collected and edited the sources of information, and with incredible persistence and ingenuity ran illusive error to earth, letting the significance of the Middle Ages wait until it was certainly known "whether Charles the Fat was at Ingelheim or Lustnau on July 1, 887", shedding their "life-blood", in many a hard fought battle, "for the sublime truths of Sac and Soc". I have no quarrel with this so great concern with hoti's business. One of the first duties of man is not to be duped, to be aware of his world; and to derive the significance of human experience from events that never occurred is surely an enterprise of doubtful value. To establish the facts is always in order, and is indeed the first duty of the historian; but to suppose that the facts, once established in all their fullness, will 'speak for themselves' is an illusion. It was perhaps peculiarly the illusion of those historians of the last century who found some special magic in the word 'scientific'. The scientific historian, it seems, was one who set forth the facts without injecting any extraneous meaning into them. He was the objective man whom Nietzsche described— "a mirror: accustomed to prostration before something that wants to be known, ... he waits until something comes, and then expands himself sensitively, so that even the light footsteps and gliding past of spiritual things may not be lost in his surface and film". "It is not I who speak, but history which speaks through me", was Fustel's reproof to applauding students. "If a certain philosophy emerges from this scientific history, it must be permitted to emerge naturally, of its own accord, all but independently of the will of the historian." Thus the scientific historian deliberately renounced philosophy only to submit to it without being aware. His philosophy was just this, that by not taking thought a cubit would be added to his stature. With no other preconception than the will to know, the historian would reflect in his surface and film the "order of events throughout past times in all places"; so that, in the fullness of time, when innumerable patient expert scholars, by "exhausting the sources", should have reflected without refracting the truth of all the facts, the definitive and impregnable meaning of human experience would emerge of its own accord to enlighten and emancipate mankind. Hoping to find something without looking for it, expecting to obtain final answers to life's riddle by resolutely refusing to ask questions— it was surely the most romantic species of realism yet invented, the oddest attempt ever made to get something for nothing!
I've bolded the key sentence. This insight was insisted on so noisily by the frequently annoying but unquestionably brilliant postmodernist crew that I would have thought no one could ever again talk with a straight face about facts speaking for themselves.
posted by languagehat at 2:31 PM on May 2, 2009 [5 favorites]


The list was created in 1984 by a German historian who went back through the record

You have no idea how disappointed I am that this part of the sentence didn't end in "time".
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:25 PM on May 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


That's nobody's business but the Turks.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:35 PM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ok.. we have to put the quotes in the context, how they are used.

"what emerges on its own terms." .. this was said by Goldsworthy in the context of the inductive vs deductive debate. He didn't use those terms exactly, but that is what he was saying ie. that some historians come up with a theory first, then go back in history and find what they are looking for (deductive) - history is not casual that way, as Marshall Poe then said, he wanted a t-shirt which said that. Goldsworthy's point is that one has to look at all the facts and try and interpret them as they are, not to exclude the inconvenient ones that don't fit a pre-supposed theory.

The quote bolded in the above extract by Carl Becker, in the context of its use there, is discussing an idea prevalent in the 19th century scientific approach to history - which is correct, one can't just list a bunch of facts and expect the truth to emerge on its own, one needs to interpret those facts, even if they are not all available. This is what led Teddy Roosevelt to lament that history is nothing but a bunch of contingencies - a natural reaction if all you read was 19th century history texts, A led to B led C etc..

As for postmodernists, isn't that a different idea, that we can't really "know" anything, that history texts are just a form of literature with genres and tropes, informed and defined by language and past works, not really connected to the real world so much as its own prism.
posted by stbalbach at 3:58 PM on May 2, 2009


I am glad that Goldsworthy also stuck up for Gibbon. I find the idea that Gibbon blames Christianity for the fall of Rome unsupported by the text. He is happy to point out early Chirstian hypocrisy but thats not quite how Gibbon is presented in popular imagination.
posted by shothotbot at 4:41 PM on May 2, 2009


That's nobody's business but the Turks.

My HS Latin teacher was a leggy Turkish woman who, in addition to wearing knee-high leather boots and dressing like Vampira on a job interview, would insist that Turks (Or, more properly, Ottomans, as she thought of herself) were the real heir to the Roman Empire (and thus, really Roman) cause they kept it alive for the Johnny-Come-Latelys in Italy.

She was kinda awesome.
posted by The Whelk at 4:55 PM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


"look at the evidence and see what emerges on its own terms" (a ridiculous idea that I thought had been exploded a generation or more ago)

No, it's the basis of all good empirical history.
posted by jb at 5:46 PM on May 2, 2009


Having read down farther - I see what you are talking about, but you also don't know what you are talking about.

Historians really do read sources and wait for the stories to emerge from the facts of the situation (as far as we can know them). Of course, you have the problem of how to interpret the facts, as with any study. But the beginning and end of history is: what do we know, what can we know, how do we interpret the evidence, etc - it all has a small t-truth behind it (aka reality).

I have to say that when I think of post-modern history, brilliant is not what I think. That word goes to the imaginative and rigorous historians who are rarely loud and almost never noticed outside of their fields. Post-modernism has gotten people talking about bias in history (which stories get told), but frankly, the social historians did that 30 years earlier (see E.P. Thompson and history from below, and he was himself building on social history from the early twentieth century).
posted by jb at 5:51 PM on May 2, 2009


As for postmodernists, isn't that a different idea, that we can't really "know" anything, that history texts are just a form of literature with genres and tropes, informed and defined by language and past works, not really connected to the real world so much as its own prism.
posted by stbalbach at 6:58 PM on May 2 [+] [!]


This may be an accurate description of post-modern history texts, but my history texts are not just a form of literature, or else I would have put a lot less damn work into writing it. As for being informed by language and past works, well, I fooled them - I didn't read any of the past works!

Of course it has a genre and trope - any form of expression does, like a scientific article. But the content of good history should be constantly be engaged with the real world, or what we know about the real world that was. Otherwise, we should really just all move to writing bodice rippers because they are a lot more entertaining (and really do have no connection to the real world past or present).

(And three posts in a row is why I should read the whole thread before posting. But it would have just been one long post then.)
posted by jb at 5:55 PM on May 2, 2009


The problem with "look at the evidence and see what emerges on its own terms" is that it's so obvious as to be completely meaningless. No historian is going to stand up and say "Hey guys, guess what, I came up with this neat abstract theory and then went ahead and cherrypicked historical facts to fit it." Not even Hegel did that. Everyone always claims to be presenting just what the evidence says.

I mean, OK, staying close to the evidence is good advice for the practicing historian (in the sense that it's a good prophylactic against flights of fancy). But to claim that this is the silver bullet for any given historical problem is sheer nonsense. It's like if a physicist were to stand up at a conference and say, "I've discovered how we can formulate a theory of everything! The secret is to pay close attention to the equations!"
posted by nasreddin at 6:00 PM on May 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


This may be an accurate description of post-modern history texts, but my history texts are not just a form of literature, or else I would have put a lot less damn work into writing it. As for being informed by language and past works, well, I fooled them - I didn't read any of the past works!

That, of course, should be RESEARCHING and writing. Because that's what I spent years doing - RESEARCH into boring old documents that tell us something of what happened.

Now I'm struggling to write it, which is really difficult. I could come up with an exciting story very easily, but I am struggling because it has to be an interesting but TRUE (as far as we know) story.
posted by jb at 6:01 PM on May 2, 2009


Now I'm struggling to write it, which is really difficult. I could come up with an exciting story very easily, but I am struggling because it has to be an interesting but TRUE (as far as we know) story.

I think we've had this discussion before, but it's worth pointing out that there is no difference between "a story that best takes account of the available evidence" and "a story that best takes account of the available evidence and is also true as far as we know." Metaphysical truth-claims are completely irrelevant to history-writing.
posted by nasreddin at 6:04 PM on May 2, 2009


Looking at this question from the standpoint of "the fall of the Roman Empire" is all wrong-- an artifact of state-centric history that was prominent around Gibbon's time but just doesn't make sense today. Rome was not a civilization, but a group of politicians and soldiers who supported them. What happened from 300-600AD was not a decline of civilization, but the rise of newly independent civilizations to replace rule by an old and corrupt group of elites. In fact, what we decry as a "decline" from "classical" imperialism to "dark age" feudalism was actually the replacement of a corrupt system of second-class citizenship for local residents and hereditary slavery with an actual rule of law, that is, government based on written contracts where both local and national authorities had duties to fulfill.

What I would love to read is an account of what caused this sudden and unprecedented swell of civilized behavior throughout Europe. I'm betting Christianity had something to do with it.
posted by shii at 6:08 PM on May 2, 2009


I think we've had this discussion before, but it's worth pointing out that there is no difference between "a story that best takes account of the available evidence" and "a story that best takes account of the available evidence and is also true as far as we know." Metaphysical truth-claims are completely irrelevant to history-writing.
posted by nasreddin at 9:04 PM on May 2 [+] [!]


No, not to this historian. Because metaphysical truth claims are why I get up in the morning. When I write history - as opposed to fiction - I believe that I am writing about a past that really was. Now, of course, this is just a belief; after all, I could be living on a holodeck.

But that way of thinking would just lead to more bad holodeck episodes, so I prefer to engage with the real world and where it came from, and I hope that by studying where it came from I can better understand how complex contemporary things (like societies and economies) work.
posted by jb at 6:14 PM on May 2, 2009


Anyways - sorry to derail. We should get back to Roman history. Where I am, as I will freely admit, completely out of my depth, since I don't know the facts. I am listening to a great podcast on the History of Rome while I do data-entry, but that's only gotten as far as Augustus. None of the latest scholarly debates, of course, but it's been good to get a handle on the names and dates, or what Livy claims are the names and dates (the author is good at noting what evidence, if any, exists for events).

What shii says about new polities is interesting. Something I have studied recently is state formation in northern Europe c800-1100, with a bit of a look-back at the 500s-700s, and there was definitely more coalescing of power in Europe through this period. The Roman expansion itself seems to have had a knock on effect, as it presented a challenge to the existing societies perhaps galvanising them, and there was a serious flow of gold into Germany in the late Roman period - and German kings, like Scandinavian kings, got serious power from being able to give away gold and riches to their warriors and supporters.

I'm not so sure I would characterise feudalism as more civilized... nor do I think Christianity had much to do with it. The basis of Christianity doesn't sit too well with early distinctions of status (we're all equal in death, rich men and camels through needles, etc), but the Church was quickly taken over by the elites so any qualms got quiet. Except when they were used by peasants in revolts, of course.
posted by jb at 6:31 PM on May 2, 2009


"the Romans had no compunction about taking over other peoples and turning them into Romans" (completely unlike the Americans!).

If that's a straight comment, I certainly agree; if it's sarcasm, I'll have to disagree heartily.

I basically agree with Goldsworthy's approach, which is to downplay the Germans and Persians (who basically attacked when Rome was already weak)

I'd downplay the Germans mostly because so many of the Germans didn't want to destroy Rome per se, they just wanted to run it.

made the asinine statement that the U.S. "never sought overseas provinces and possessions"

It's a common enough delusion, but you'd think a professional historian would be a bit better than that. On the other hand, I've read a couple of histories (one popular, one not) that have either outright claimed or strongly implied that the Crusade called against the Cathars was the self-defence against Cathar assaults, so, you know...

My HS Latin teacher was a leggy Turkish woman who, in addition to wearing knee-high leather boots and dressing like Vampira on a job interview, would insist that Turks (Or, more properly, Ottomans, as she thought of herself) were the real heir to the Roman Empire (and thus, really Roman) cause they kept it alive for the Johnny-Come-Latelys in Italy.

I've read a history of the Crusades recently that argued the fall of the Eastern Empire shouldn't be considered a tragedy for similar reasons; on the other had he mostly seemed to be trying to exculpate the Roman Church and Western Europeans for spending as much time killing other Christians and looting Constantinople as, you know, trying to take Jerusalem.

move to writing bodice rippers because they are a lot more entertaining (and really do have no connection to the real world past or present).

I hear Georgette Heyer actaully did quite a lot of good research for her historical romances...

I'm not so sure I would characterise feudalism as more civilized...

I'm quite sure I wouldn't, especially if the evidence for this is a lack of slavery (hint: calling it serfdom doesn't make it not-slavery) or a respect for the rule of law.

nor do I think Christianity had much to do with it. The basis of Christianity doesn't sit too well with early distinctions of status (we're all equal in death, rich men and camels through needles, etc), but the Church was quickly taken over by the elites so any qualms got quiet.

Christopher Tyreman spends a lot of time arguing that the development of Christianity as the state religion of Rome was pretty much the root of hierarchal, millitant Christianity. Believing in equality or non-violence is great and all, but it doesn't work so well when you have an Empire to run.
posted by rodgerd at 7:06 PM on May 2, 2009


Moving beyond the "lively" debate on metaphysical interpretations of truth, post-modernism in history and inductive vs reductive reasoning in interpretating the facts (good grief...), I wanted to post a sincere thank you to the OP. This was very interesting.

I very much liked Tom Holland's Rubicon. I have several of Goldsworthy's Roman histories too. I'm waiting to read his biography of Caesar, and am looking forward to comparing it to Everitt's biography of Augustus (his bio of Cicero was superb).

Roman history fascinates like (almost) no other.
posted by Mephisto at 7:24 PM on May 2, 2009


This discussion has taken a lovely and engaging turn. I love it when that happens!
posted by The Whelk at 8:13 PM on May 2, 2009


I looked for the old standards: homosexuality, moral decline, and everyone's favorite, The Jews. Check, check, and check.

Perhaps the only thing to do with this list is to group it, turned the matched pairs of opposites into spectrums, then begin eliminating anything that is non-testable. Either that, or we just use it as a checklist of things to accuse Godless atheists of promoting in their war to destroy America. Wait, that last has already happened.
posted by adipocere at 8:46 PM on May 2, 2009


It's a testament to Gibbon's skill as a writer that any of us still think that there was a Fall of the Roman Empire. The Western part of the Empire was overrun. The vast majority of the empire survived, with most of the 'causes' of the fall quite intact.

It was a surprise to me the first time I travelled to western
Asia to discover that much of the world felt that Rome finally fell in the 1400's
posted by kanewai at 9:09 PM on May 2, 2009


I think that the sense in which history necessarily literature or otherwise fiction-y is valid only in about the same sense that the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics could be described as literature relative to the ensemble interpretation. The argument could be made but in the end it begins to seem pointless to talk about truth at all in the first place.

And kanewai, it stuck out like a sore thumb that you left out the word "Empire" from that last sentence mentioning Rome existing until the 1400's. I am imagining the head of the Black Knight tumbling onto the ground and shouting, "It's only a flesh wound!"
posted by XMLicious at 9:40 PM on May 2, 2009


in the end it begins to seem pointless to talk about truth at all in the first place.

Well, yeah. That's about the long and short of it.

And kanewai, it stuck out like a sore thumb that you left out the word "Empire" from that last sentence mentioning Rome existing until the 1400's. I am imagining the head of the Black Knight tumbling onto the ground and shouting, "It's only a flesh wound!"


I think he was talking about the Byzantine Empire, a.k.a. the Eastern Roman Empire.
posted by nasreddin at 9:43 PM on May 2, 2009


The Roman Empire never fell; the so-called "middle ages" are book-keeping errors. Renaissance Italy was at most a few hundred years after the end of the era of Roman Emperors.
posted by GuyZero at 10:33 PM on May 2, 2009


As I understand it (I'm not a professional historian), what Becker said was really a function of history as it was practiced in the early 20th century, and the beliefs of historiians then. People really thought that once we'd established all the facts, once we'd published all the important state document, we would be able to write a "complete history". There was quite a bit of enthusiasm, and Great Works of Erudition were published.

But we found out that there were too many facts. Historians started to do all kinds of awesome stuff with documents related to the lives of ordinary people. When there weren't any documents, we started digging the ground. And we came out with way too much evidence.

The "real" past is unkowable; there were simply too many people doing too many things. We need abstractions to grasp it.

I don't think Goldsworthy believes he's not building abstrations. From the context, I think what he means is that specialists tend to look super-closely at the trees, and forget that all this talk about the structures of oak settlement doesn't address the fact that the majority of the forest is made of maple.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:37 PM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sounds like the united states is on the right track!
posted by eiro0701 at 10:50 PM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


What I mean to say about truth is that I think historians already know they aren't writing the transcendent veil-piercing vision of the Buddha or something and that's not what they mean if they use the term to distinguish their work from literature. The concept they would call "truth" is intelligible and relevant to what they do. And there are equivalent concepts and motivations in other fields. Saying "truth is irrelevant in history" is talking about truth in the first place and is begging the question that it's relevant to anything. (Er, I think I used the phrase "begging the question" correctly there, right?)

I think he was talking about the Byzantine Empire, a.k.a. the Eastern Roman Empire.

Yes, he was certainly talking about the Byzantines, and I definitely would say that the Roman Empire could have been said to have lasted well into the Byzantine era for purposes of analyzing the collapse of empires. And the Byzantines also considered themselves to be Roman.

But even early in the 1400s Byzantine hegemony was basically something the size of Rhode Island, which I expect is why kanewai left "empire" off at that point. That's all I meant by talking about only the head being left.
posted by XMLicious at 11:00 PM on May 2, 2009


What I mean to say about truth is that I think historians already know they aren't writing the transcendent veil-piercing vision of the Buddha or something and that's not what they mean if they use the term to distinguish their work from literature. The concept they would call "truth" is intelligible and relevant to what they do. And there are equivalent concepts and motivations in other fields. Saying "truth is irrelevant in history" is talking about truth in the first place and is begging the question that it's relevant to anything. (Er, I think I used the phrase "begging the question" correctly there, right?)

Except I didn't say "truth is irrelevant to history." I said "metaphysical truth-claims are completely irrelevant to history-writing," which is specifically drawing the line between the philosophical debate over big-T Truth and the historical debate over correspondence to available evidence. In other words, we don't actually disagree. I just don't think correspondence to available evidence should be equated with truth; that kind of loose vocabulary just clouds the issue. I'm fine with using the latter as a convenient shorthand for the former in situations where it's clear that no metaphysical or epistemological questions are at stake, but this is not one of those situations.

I don't think you used "begging the question" correctly, because you haven't identified a circular argument (that I can see, anyway).
posted by nasreddin at 11:19 PM on May 2, 2009


I dredged up this example so I wanted to mention it: truth is big in Boolean mathematics in my own field and the meaning of "truth" there isn't physical. But it's not metaphysical really, so it doesn't matter.

So if you're just talking about taking care with vocabulary, and saying that big-T truth isn't relevant even to anything like the sciences either, then yeah, I agree. My initial comment was supposed to be about characterizing history as literature being similarly potentially perilous use of vocabulary but I can see I sort of screwed it up and the literature thing was someone else's comment anyways.

And speaking of perilous use of vocabulary, I think you're correct that I used "begging the question" wrongly.
posted by XMLicious at 12:30 AM on May 3, 2009


Truth sounds better when it's pronounced "twoof".
posted by Burhanistan at 12:44 AM on May 3, 2009


Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Metafilter?

I keed. This was interesting.
posted by Haruspex at 12:56 AM on May 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


I said small t-truth, as I always do.

and Monday, stony Monday's is the best comment on the whole issue.
posted by jb at 6:34 AM on May 3, 2009


As I understand it (I'm not a professional historian), what Becker said was really a function of history as it was practiced in the early 20th century, and the beliefs of historiians then. People really thought that once we'd established all the facts, once we'd published all the important state document, we would be able to write a "complete history".

So there was an equivalent in history to the notion, "the future of physics lies beyond the sixth decimal point" of the turn of the century? That's really interesting.
posted by XMLicious at 9:03 AM on May 3, 2009


CCXII: CONFVSION FROM VSING V INSTEAD OF V
posted by zippy at 10:19 AM on May 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


That word goes to the imaginative and rigorous historians who are rarely loud and almost never noticed outside of their fields.

Examples appreciated. Fields unimportant.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:17 PM on May 3, 2009


CCXIII SELF INFLICTED POSTING VVOVNDS
posted by mwhybark at 11:38 PM on May 3, 2009


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