Review of Adrian Goldsworthy and Doherty & Turney, or Can There Be Too Much History in Historical Fiction?

Copies of the books have been provided by the publisher in exchange for a review.

The western part of the Roman Empire ceased to exist in the late 5th century CE while in the East it continued all the way to the late Middle Ages, or 1453 to be precise. Still, this long-gone civilization continues to capture our imaginations, as evidenced by two recent novels from British independent publisher Head of Zeus, namely Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Fort and Sons of Rome, written in collaboration by Gordon Doherty and Simon Turney.

As a historian, it was an interesting experience to read these two books back-to-back. They both belong the same subgenre–Roman military historical fiction. They are both set in the later centuries of Roman history; The Fort during the 2nd century CE and Sons of Rome around the turn of the 4th century CE, as Rome is coming out of the Crisis of the Third Century. Neither book takes place in what we conventionally think as Rome, that is the western part of the European continent and the Italian peninsula. Instead, The Fort takes place in what is now Romania, while Sons of Rome is mainly focused on the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.

When reading historical fiction, there are two ways to approach the material: history and plot. When you approach it through history, you are concerned with the historical correctness of context and details. When you approach it through plot, you are concerned with the historical plausibility of the action. In the case of The Fort and Sons of Rome, Goldsworthy has taken the first approach, Doherty & Turney the second. The Fort is about the fictional character Flavius Ferox, while Sons of Rome chronicle the lives of real-life Roman Emperors Maxentius and Constantine.

The result is two different types of stories. One where the context is based in historical research while the characters are fictional, the other where the characters are based in research while the context is fictional. (However, in the case of Maxentius and Constantine, so little is known about them as people, that Doherty & Turney’s characters are near fictional as well.)

Regardless of the approach, what matters in the end is the story. But again, when it comes to historical fiction, there are certain things that need to be taken into consideration that we don’t need to care about when we read fiction that is purely creative. If we go back to the two approaches to historical fiction, i.e. historically based context with fictional characters or fictionally based context with historical characters, the writer’s choices are determined by which approach they take. If we look at The Fort versus Sons of Rome, the first story is fictional and therefore unknown. The second story is historical and consequently known. I wouldn’t be guilty of any spoilers if I told you the plot twists of Sons of Rome, because we know the general outline of the lives of Maxentius and Constantine, but you would be very upset if I told you the twists and turns of The Fort.

Even though the choices each writer of historical fiction makes are limited due to history, there is still the fine balance between how much of history to actually include. Historical fiction is meant to entertain first and educate second, while the purpose of history is the opposite. The main critique levelled at historical fiction tends to be that it is so preoccupied with entertaining that it forgets to educate. In other words, the problem with a lot of historical fiction is that there isn’t enough history, or that history has been bent to fit the story, rather than the other way around.

But what about the reverse? Can there be too much history in historical fiction? My answer to that question is that yes, there can be. Take The Fort for example. As I’ve stated above, the context is historical (Roman fort at the border between the Roman Empire and Dacia, present-day Romania) but the characters are fictional (main character: Flavius Ferox).

Goldsworthy himself is a leading authority on Rome, in particular its army. And this is, paradoxically enough, where the novel stumbles.

To create a historically accurate environment for Ferox to work within, Goldsworthy loses sight of the narrative forest for the historical trees. Unless you, like Goldsworthy, are a Roman army geek, and also somewhat fluent in Latin, names of legions, military terms-of-art, military ranks, and categories of weapons will fly right over your head. This is usually not a problem, but when the text is peppered with italicizied Latin terminology, most of which cannot be found in the sparse glossary nor is explained in the chapter on the historical background, the attempt at historical accuracy becomes a nuisance.

What’s more, for a novel written by a considered authority on Rome, the world presented is surprisingly outdated. The Fort is a story about men, which is not surprising since military settings tend to be male dominated. But that is not an excuse to feature women as background characters only brought to the fore as eye candy, or when the male characters are in need of engaging in some witty banter, or both. Moreover, the Roman army is known for its diversity as it recruited people from all over the lands it conquered and then deliberately stationed them far from home. Very little of that comes across here (unless the character is British). Doherty & Turney are also guilty of pushing women to the back, as well as non-Christian religious movements and ethnic groups. In their case, it’s not as egregiously done as in the case of Goldsworthy; there are women featured, who speak for themselves and take action, albeit in their role as auxiliaries to the men.

All that being said, I enjoyed both books very much. Sons of Rome does a great job of going inside the minds and hearts of two young men who lead their lives at the center of Roman Imperial politics, not because they chose to, but because their social status and family lineage forced them to without any possibility of opting out.

As paradoxical as it might seem, despite its outdated history and sometimes stiff characters, I enjoyed The Fort the most out of the two, and the reason for that is Flavius Ferox. As a historian, I am well acquainted with characters who have lived to make a mark in history. I am familiar with their motivations, I know their life stories, and I know their end. The same goes for any battles that are fought. This is why, out of all the characters in The Fort, Hadrian, future emperor of Rome, is the least interesting to me.

In enjoyed The Fort because Ferox is a clean slate. The end of the siege that he finds himself under together with the people who populate the fort under his command is unknown to me. Whereas I know how Constantine and Maxentius’s careers developed, it is with Ferox I stand on the top of the fort, staring into the thick fog, looking for signs of the enemy, and wondering if we will live to see another day.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Defne Suman’s THE SILENCE OF SCHEHERAZADE, or Searching for the Voice of the City of Smyrna

A copy of this book has been provided in exchange for a review.

Smyrna (modern name: Izmir) is one of the oldest cities in the world. Located on the Anatolian coast of present-day Turkey, Smyrna traces its history back 5,000 years, making it a contemporary to the fabled city of Troy, located not far away. Smyrna is mentioned in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation when Jesus tells the book’s supposed author, John of Patmos, to send messages to the Seven Churches of Asia.

Destroyed in the 7th century BCE, Smyrna was reestablished in the 4th century BCE by none other than Alexander the Great. Over the centuries, Smyrna grew to experience prosperity, tragedy, conquest, and liberation all the way to the early 20th century when the Greco-Turkish War, fought in 1919–1922 as a result of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, caused excessive damage to the city and forced a large part of its population to flee and never return.

Book cover of Defne Suman's novel The Silence of Scheherazade showing a the blue profile of a woman behind green vines and against a yellow background.

The events of the Greco-Turkish War and their impact on the city of Smyrna serves as the backdrop to Defne Suman’s novel, The Silence of Scheherazade (Head of Zeus, 2021), translated into English by Betsy Göksel. Told in hindsight by a mysterious woman given the name of Scheherazade as a child, the story focuses on four families and their lives leading up to the disaster. Among these many individuals, Scheherazade pays particular attention to her mother, a woman she never knew. Born out of wedlock, Scheherazade was given to another family, and as a result the girl became mute, her new name a cruel historical joke.

Time and again, Scheherazade describes the city where she was born–Smyrna. She wants to convey the magic and mystery of this ancient place, to share what she experienced and what she remembers. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Smyrna was still a multicultural and multiethnic city where the inhabitants spoke several languages out of necessity, where the three Abrahamic religions and their subdivisions rubbed elbows in neighbourly relations going back centuries. Scheherazade mentions streets, buildings, and squares by name. She describes people as they go about their daily business.

And still, the novel’s city of Smyrna is as mute as Scheherazade. It doesn’t reply when she calls on it. The crowds are without faces, characteristics, and names. The Jewish community–one of the largest in the Ottoman Empire–is conspicuously absent. The four families blend in with each other, and turn into people who come and go without leaving an impression. An attempt at magical realism when toads rain from the sky only elicits a shrug from the characters. Violence in the streets as Smyrna is drawn into the armed conflict becomes a nuisance rather than the disaster it actually was.

It feels as if the novel, and Scheherazade inside it, are reaching for something. There is something the novel, the woman, and the city want to communicate, but their voices refuse to make a sound. Is it because Scheherazade herself is not present in the stories she is telling? Is it because Smyrna of the past millennia no longer exists? Renamed Izmir in 1930, the ties to history, shattered by the disasters of the war, were severed. How to speak of the trauma you have experienced if every time you bring it up first need to explain who you used to be? It renders you mute, whether you are a city or a woman.

There is beauty in this novel. There is history. There is grief and loss. Independence, strength, love, and happiness. But in the end it is difficult to say whose story is being told. Smyrna and Scheherazade both reach for their past and for a knowledge of who they are. Perhaps that is where the story lies.

Sources:
Defne Suman, The Silence of Scheherazade (Head of Zeus, 2021).
Britannica Online, Izmir (page accessed October 1, 2021).
ANU Museum of the Jewish People, The Jewish Community of Izmir (page accessed October 1, 2021).
Wikipedia, The Seven Churches of Asia (page accessed October 1, 2021).

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Review of Priya Satia’s TIME’S MONSTER. HOW HISTORY MAKES HISTORY.

The more I learn about the human activities in the past we choose to label as history, the more interested I become in the epistemology and historiography of history as an academic field of study. Epistemology is the study of knowledge and how knowledge is created, or How We Know What We Know and Why This Is What We Think We Know. Historiography is a term that carries two meanings. It means the study of the history that has been published by historians and the history of history. I find both the epistemology and the historiography of history endlessly fascinating. How It’s Made: History Edition.

My fascination for how history is made is why I am happy to have been able to publish my second book review for the International Network for the Theory of History, an international community of scholars and web hosted by the University of Ghent in Belgium. This time I have reviewed TIME’S MONSTER. HOW HISTORY MAKES HISTORY (Belknap Press, 2020) by Priya Satia, Professor of History at Stanford University. In her book, Satia takes a closer look at how British historians were complicit in rationalizing and making legitimate the actions of the British Empire, particularly in India.

To read my review in full, please click here.

Enjoy!

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Peter Wilson’s HEART OF EUROPE, or The Holy Roman Empire, the Central-European Colossus, Explained

Say “the Holy Roman Empire” and you are likely to get one of four responses.

The person you are speaking to thinks you are talking about the Roman Catholic Church.

The person thinks you mean the Roman Empire.

You get the knee-jerk reply, “It wasn’t holy, Roman, nor an empire,” the person most likely unaware that they are quoting French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire.

You get a blank stare.

The Holy Roman Empire is arguably the best kept out-in-the-open secret of pre-modern European history. Located at the center of the European continent, it was a dominating force in European politics, religion, and warfare for nearly one thousand years.

It was in the Holy Roman Empire that the Roman Catholic Church faced its first major secular opposition through the Investiture Controversy. It was in the Holy Roman Empire that Martin Luther published his 95 Theses. It was in the Holy Roman Empire that Protestantism as a third branch of Christianity developed. It was because of decisions made in the Holy Roman Empire that Spain became an Empire in and of itself. The Holy Roman Empire is where the Thirty Years War, the most destructive military conflict on the European continent, second only to World War II, was fought. The Thirty Years War ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, negotiated and signed in the Holy Roman Empire, and which continues to influence international politics to this day. The Holy Roman Empire is the First Reich to Adolf Hitler’s Third.

And still so few have heard of it.

One reason for the obscurity of the Holy Roman Empire could be that it is notoriously difficult to define. Starting with when the Empire existed, there is consensus that it ended in 1806 when it was dissolved to prevent Napoleon Bonaparte from getting his hands on the Imperial title. But when did it begin? Some scholars say with Charlemagne (9th century), some with Otto I (10th century). When did the Empire get its name? No one really knows. What is the Empire’s name? Well, that depends.

Another reason for the Empire’s obscurity could be that the vocabulary we use today to explain geopolitical territories lacks the words to describe what the Empire was. In one way, Voltaire was right; the Holy Roman Empire was not holy, not Roman, and not an Empire. Granted, there was an Emperor who ruled over it, which by definition makes it an Empire. Furthermore, this Emperor claimed to be the successor of the Emperors of the actual Roman Empire. But when the Holy Roman Empire came into existence, Rome had been gone from the European continent for more than three hundred years.

Moreover, the territory the Holy Roman Emperor ruled consisted of a plethora of political and judicial entities–secular and clerical, alike–who all had a different relationship to the Emperor as a person and as a sovereign. To complicate matters further, the Emperor didn’t inherit his position; he was elected by an Electoral College. Whom these Electors elected depended as much on politics and alliances as it did on pedigree. The extent of the lands that the Emperor ruled depended on the person, meaning that depending on the martial prowess of the medieval Emperors or the family ties of the early-modern Emperors, the Holy Roman Empire stretched and contracted based on who was elected Emperor.

To avoid having to get into the intricacies of the Holy Roman Empire at any given time when discussing medieval and early-modern European history, “Germany” has become sort of a short-hand, which in one way is correct because the Empire did cover much of what is Germany today, and over time, it became formally known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. But it is also incorrect because the Holy Roman Empire included parts of what is today Austria, France, BeNeLux, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Italy.

Swedish historian Harald Gustafsson perhaps says it best when he describes the Holy Roman Empire as “a complicated entity that floated around the map of Central Europe for a thousand years.” (my transl.)

In an attempt to make sense of this complicated thing that floated around on a map and claimed to be something it was not, historian Peter H. Wilson wrote his book Heart of Europe (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020). Similar to the subject it tackles, the book is a colossus, clocking in on 1,008 pages (one page for each year the Empire existed?).

Instead of tracing the Empire’s history chronologically, Wilson comes at it thematically. Each chapter deals with one aspect of the Empire’s complicated existence. Still, the internal structure of each chapter is chronological so that once you get to the end of the book, you also get to the end of the Empire.

The thematic structure works well because it enables the reader to pick and choose what to read and delve deeper into. It also works well because where most histories of the Empire focus on its early-modern history, this approach gives ample room to discuss the Empire’s medieval history, without which the developments of the early-modern period would be difficult to understand (e.g., the explosiveness of the Reformation can only be fully understood if you are aware of the severity and the repercussions of the Investiture Controversy).

The problem with the thematic structure is that it becomes difficult to locate where specific turning points in the history of the Empire are explained. Same thing with terms of art, which in the case of the Empire’s government bureaucracy are numerous and often in German. The book contains a glossary and an index, but the glossary is quite short and the index quite long, which results in neither of them being particularly helpful. There is a chronology, but because the Empire existed for as long as it did, the chronology is 55 pages long and still only skims the surface.

The book contains several maps that chart the development of the Empire from its beginnings to its end, and present some of the many Leagues that formed as a result of shifting political, religious, and dynastic alliances over the centuries. The maps are detailed and meticulous, and provide a welcome visual aspect to the complicated internal structure of the Empire. Also included are the family trees of the most significant family groups and dynasties that dominated the position of Emperor in the Middle Ages and the Early-Modern Period.

Peter H. Wilson’s Heart of Europe is a much-needed deep dive into the complicated history of the Holy Roman Empire, the knowledge of which is crucial to the understanding of European history, from the Middle Ages until today.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

History Judges But Who Is Presiding Part 2: Joan Wallach Scott’s ON THE JUDGMENT OF HISTORY

In 2014, I wrote a post here on The Boomerang about a phrase I kept hearing and which puzzled me, “History will judge…” Pundits and politicians alike were throwing this phrase around as if there in the future existed a panel of historians expected to pass judgment on humanity based on our actions (or in-actions).

Since I wrote that blog post six years ago, this phrase has come into even heavier rotation as chaos and morally ambiguous behavior became the norm on behalf of members of our executive branch, and, to some extent, our legislative branch as well.

I am not alone in thinking about the use of this phrase. Historian and Professor Emerita Joan Wallach Scott became puzzled by it in 2019 when a friend of hers commented on the anti-climax of the Mueller Report by saying that history would judge those who worked to corrupt the democracy of the United States.

This exchange sent Wallach Scott on an investigative journey to find the origins and the meaning of the concept of history as an agent of judgment. The result of that journey is the book, On the Judgment of History (Columbia University Press, 2020).

To investigate the meaning of this concept, Wallach Scott presents three case studies–the Nuremberg Trials following World War II, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa following the dismantling of Apartheid, and the movement for Reparations in the United States. What binds these case studies together is that they “explore the different ways in which the idea of the state as the embodiment and enactment of history operated.” (p. xx). Moreover, they engage directly with the nation state as the telos of history; they highlight the connection between nation states and racism; and they demonstrate the use of the nation state as the impetus for what the people involved intend to achieve. In the case of the Nuremberg trials, the goal is the conviction of the war criminals who perpetrated the Holocaust. In the case of South Africa’s TRC, a path forward out of Apartheid. In the case of the Reparations Movement, a reckoning with the United States’ original sin, slavery.

The case studies are based on extensive and impeccable research, as would be expected of a historian of Wallach Scott’s caliber. It raises several important questions, explicitly (“Could the nation state exist without racism at its core?” (p. xxii)) and implicitly (What is the purpose of history?) In her case studies, Wallach Scott demonstrates how history has been utilized (Nuremberg), deferred (South Africa), and challenged (the US). In the end, however, the case studies only partially succeed in addressing the issue at hand, namely why we today refer to history as an impartial, moral judge.

Wallach Scott shows us where the idea of History as Judge comes from by stating that it “is associated with the Enlightenment belief that there is but one History, which moves in an ever-improving direction: forward, upward, cumulatively positive.” (p. xv) Because of its origins in the Enlightenment, this One History of forward-moving positivity is inherently European, male, white, colonial, Christian (Protestant, to be exact), intrinsically intertwined with the development of the nation state, and the view of the nation state as the culmination of human civilization (or the nation state as telos).

To answer the question of why this phrase has caught on the way it has, Wallach Scott states that in an increasingly secular age, History has become the “righteous Judge of the Universe.” (p. 76) That is to say, where people used to turn to God on Judgment Day for the separation of sheep and goats, we now turn to History in a future deferred.

These conclusions have led me to the following conclusions of my own.

First, as Wallach Scott concludes, the idea of History as a moral judge is an expression of increased secularism in the United States. But, it is also an expression of the normalization of Apocalyptic Christianity in the American mainstream. Writes Wallach Scott, “The unveiling of the role of race in the economic history of the United States explodes long-standing, congratulatory progressive histories as myth. [—] This acknowledgment is a form of restitution and it opens the possibility for reclaiming the lost promise of justice, the messianic hope of the judgment of history.” (My italics.) Wallach Scott’s decision not to delve deeper into this view of history is the book’s lost opportunity.

Second, there is a conspiracy at the heart of American history and the argument over what that conspiracy is, is the reason for the seemingly irreconcilable polarization in American society today. I agree with Wallach Scott’s conclusion that “appeals to the judgment of history […] function more as consolatory polemic in the present than as evidence of deep confidence in the future.” (p. 82) There is no doubt that American society is in crisis. Until we can start having a constructive conversation about the buried secrets of our past, we will continue to be a society in crisis. History will not save us, because, as Wallach Scott also states, History with a capital H is written by a group of highly trained and specialized professionals known as historians. It is not a force of its own.

Finally, the idea of History as a Moral Judge of Good and Evil is an American idea and based on American values, which in the mainstream are Christian (Protestant, to be exact) values. Of the three case studies that Wallach Scott presents, two use history to pass judgment and one does not. It is not a coincidence that the two in question (Nuremberg, Reparations) involve Americans in leading roles. The third (the TRC) was an internal South African affair. As a historian trained and educated entirely outside of the American educational system, I reacted to the use of the phrase “History will judge” already in 2014 because the idea that such a notion is even possible was (and is) completely alien to me.

On the Judgment of History by Joan Wallach Scott is a thought-provoking book that opens up for discussion on the role of history and what history is and can be. Ultimately, the book misses its mark because in its choice of case studies, it becomes a demonstration of the belief that the internal concerns of the United States are also the concerns of the world.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.