Monday, February 10, 2014

At the Extremes of Popular History: The Rise of Rome by Anthony Everitt.

The Rise of Rome is Anthony Everitt’s chronicle of the Empire’s beginnings. It falls firmly within the genre of Popular History. As such, it permits one to examine the difference between Popular History and Academic History. Popular History exists to present the general public with an aspect of the past, in a manner that is both informative and entertaining. It serves a positive purpose in that it introduces people to a topic that they might not otherwise consider if presented with a more ponderous approach. Academic History exists to expand the knowledge of history among students and enthusiasts. Ideally focusing on accuracy and empiricism, it also exists to enlarge the information base of the field. Frequently, this genre provides a forum for a history writer to introduce a new perspective on a topic.

In the preface to his book, Anthony Everitt states “The city’s foundation myths and the events of its early centuries are almost entirely unhistorical, but they were what Romans believed of themselves. They are a rich poetic feast…If this book serves any purpose, it is as a reminder of what we are losing” (Everitt, p. xi). These explanations serve as a rationalization for presenting a story so filled with legend and mythology that accuracy becomes obfuscated. Popular historians frequently use the devices of myths and legends in concise form to add color to a narrative. But the best intention in that case is to draw-in a less serious public in order to teach them something. (Okay, some popular historians just want to sell books, just like some academic historians just want to prove how smart they are, but let us presume noble goals unless proven otherwise.) “What Romans believed of themselves” is a small piece of the story that contributes to the whole of what happened. 

Inauspiciously, Everitt opens with a section entitled “Legend,” and the sentence “The origin of Rome can be traced back to a giant wooden horse” (Everitt, p. 3). The origin of Rome most certainly cannot be traced back to Troy. It takes him several chapters to begin discussing the actual origins of Rome. This is a tactic that the author employs throughout the book: During Tarquin’s challenge to the Republic, Everitt states “Three stories are told about this desperate period…they are (surely) fictions” (Everitt, p. 83). But since Everitt cannot resist coloring-in the black and white, he spends the rest of the chapter retelling these fictions. The author frequently presents alleged historic scenes he personally disbelieves, like the post-Punic War meeting between Scipio and Hannibal, which he demonstrates Scipio could not have attended (Everitt, p. 279). In homage to the “rich poetic feast” of myths, the actual incidents are lost in a fog of words.

Another poetic device used frequently, is to make mythical figures a living part of the portions where the author is relating facts. Everitt will begin a sentence with “Since the days of Romulus,” a figure who probably did not exist (Everitt, p. 118). Or, he will end a description of a ritual to the goddess Juno with “it was obvious to all, including the Queen of Heaven” (Everitt, p. 270). Yes, I am being literal-minded here, but this colorized version is an attempt to bind excessive myths to events in order to make the history more jazzy. Mixing fact with fiction creates confusion.

In addition to the believed fiction of the Romans, Everitt will quote actual fiction from novels. To describe Carthage, he quotes extensively from Gustave Flaubert’s tale Salammbo…twice (Everitt, pp. 213 & 238). At this point, The Rise of Rome could not be more comically unhistorical if Everitt had written it as a series of limericks. Compare this to other popular histories like Richard Miles’s Carthage Must Be Destroyed. Despite the admittedly sensationalist title, (which is a quote from Cato), this book relies on modern archeological evidence to flesh-out the city. Popular History does not have to sacrifice candor to be interesting.

Everitt’s flair for drama and addiction to legend make one suspect the veracity of episodes presented as fact. Throughout the pre-war negotiations between Flamininus of Rome and Phillip of Macedon, I found myself asking “how much of this version is theatrical?” Other stories are obviously false, like the story of Archimedes being murdered during the sack of Syracuse because he “was absorbed by a diagram he had drawn in the sand and was oblivious to the rape and pillage going on around him” (Everitt, p. 263). Are we honestly expected to believe that Archimedes didn’t notice the explosive destruction of his city and the screams of its residents? Once an historian’s audience begins to doubt their truthfulness, there is little he or she can teach.

This is unfortunate, because Everitt is knowledgeable. He draws on a variety of resources and has a writing style that keeps one engaged. There is much in The Rise of Rome that is factually accurate. But it is shrouded among the myths and legends with which the author insists on dazzling his audience.

Everitt, Anthony. The Rise of Rome. New York: Random House, 2012.