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The trouble with the past

IT IS LIKE I read Suetonius and bred with Danielle Steel. In Cleopatra’s new biography, the Queen remembers the feeling that Caesar’s chest is pushing her body. When she takes a bath, “first the calves disappear, then the harmonious thighs disappear.”

Cleopatra, a notable woman who smuggled into the audience with a sacked Caesar, may have lovingly recalled his hug. Her thighs may have been in harmony. No one knows for sure, but Alberto Angela hasn’t repented about the “fictitious part” of his book, which was a huge hit in Italy and is now being released in English. He argues that this is the “only possible approach” when the writer provides the vivid details the reader wants. “If reality disappears, we can make plausible reconstructions based on what we know,” he argues.

Angela’s Egyptian ruler, albeit in exaggerated form, embodies a broader tendency in history writing. Modern readers are keen to discover the intimate aspects of life gone by, especially the female and minority aspects (last year’s book on feminism and racially top nonfiction charts in both Britain and the United States). However, in many cases, patched documentary records are not published in today’s ridiculous terminology. So, more and more, the authors use their imagination to add flesh to the skeleton of the dead, putting in what’s missing. Sometimes, as in the case of Cleopatra, it’s literally.

History is “not the past,” Hilary Mantel once said. “It has remained on the sieve for centuries.” In the classical world, what remains is sparse. Even the very basics are unknown. “I don’t know almost anything with numbers,” said Mary Beard of the University of Cambridge. “We don’t know the date of the eruption of Pompeii … we don’t know the population of the Roman Empire.” Evidence of women and minorities is particularly thin. There are few first-person testimonies from Greek and Roman women. Interestingly, Nero’s mother is known to have written a memoir, but it was lost (like almost all classical literature). Sappho’s poetry can only survive in scrap.

Such a foreign country

Such silence speaks volume. Unfortunately, they don’t fill them. It makes the work of a meticulous modern historian painstakingly difficult. About 12,000 small tiles were needed to make a square meter of fine Roman mosaic. To create an academic yet fascinating paragraph on classical history, writers, like mosaicists, need to combine small geographer colors, poet samples, and ancient chronicler excerpts. Still, it may lack the details and insights that modern readers crave.

In part, novels fill the gap. Writers such as Pat Barker and Madeline Miller have revisited the classical world and myths from a female perspective. But books like Angela, who claim to be non-fiction, are at a loss to blur the line between history and imagination and to distinguish between documented facts, assumptions, and fantasy. In the “Kingdom,” Emmanuel Carrère used autobiographies, fiction, and historical bricolage to add texture to early Christian stories. It was a French bestseller. More generally, the history of stories that fill the past with sight and smell by writers such as Tom Holland and Helen Castor has gained a great deal of readership.

Academic historians tend to sniff about all of this. However, their own work may not be tainted by attractive decorations, which are also often untouched by the reader. As an example of an extreme comparison, Diarmaid MacCull’s Thomas Cromwell’s in-depth biography sold a fine 32,000 copies in the UK. Mantelpeace’s “Wolf Hall” trilogy, which tells the story of Cromwell’s life, sold 1.9m. As diplomatically said by popular medieval writer Dan Jones, scholarly history tends to “not have a clear readability at the top of the list of priorities.” More frankly, he thinks “most of my education is unreadable.”

“People like stories,” explains Jones. What he calls a “painful academic textbook” may be “very useful” to professionals. However, they are not intended for the general reader. The scholars themselves are beginning to notice the problem. Two years ago, Halbrands and Francis Gavin of Johns Hopkins University wrote an article entitled “Historical Occupations Are Slow Motion Suicide.” They lamented their lack of interest in “clear and easy-to-understand prose,” blaming the moment when “academic historians began writing primarily for themselves” while “popular” became “ridiculous.”

The clash of these trends-increasing interest in unanswered questions from well-meaning sources, and the clutter of scholarly texts-represents an opportunity for writers like Angela. He dares to grab it. In “Cleopatra” he is often reminiscent of the city of Rome and can see the red roof. Alexandria is careful to be able to smell the spices on the market (even if the word “ensnale” appears too often in his renderings), Queen).

This is all a concern for those who think that a correct understanding of the past is an important intellectual property, and even a citizen’s property. On the one hand, the great expanse of history, and among historians, none of it is terribly new. “Everyone has a fictitious history from the beginning,” says Beard. “That’s what Tacitus did. That’s what Herodotus did.” Until very recently, the invention was part of the job description. Early historians such as Thucydides openly acknowledged that many of the speeches in their work were partially composed.

Indeed, some of the women created to regain the feminist taste of modern readers are “partially fictitious,” says Beard. “But the Romans are partly fictional.” History “is about filling the gap,” she summarizes.

This article was published in the printed Books & arts section under the heading “Missing pieces”.

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