Saturday, April 12, 2014

Experiencing the Roman Empire

Pausing from reading Peter Heather, I opened David Mattingly’s Imperialism, Power, and Identity, Experiencing the Roman Empire.”  Tufts University established in 2005 the Miriam S. Balmuth lecture series, the purpose of which is to “explore the continuing relevance of the study of antiquity to the modern world.”  Mattingly was invited to give the inaugural lectures.

The Tufts University Department of Classics Chair, Bruce Hitchner, wrote the foreword to Mattingly’s book.  Far from being suspicious of drawing conclusions coinciding with the spirit of the age, he applauds them:

“. . . From the late nineteenth century until the end of the Second World War, Roman rule and the role it played in influencing the identity of the peoples of the empire was viewed in positive terms, reflecting the mostly favorable views of imperialism and colonialism held by classical scholars throughout this period.  But with the breakup of the European empires after World War II, assessments of Roman imperialism began to shift, albeit rather cautiously.  Indeed, as Mattingly demonstrates in these lectures, classical historians and archaeologists have remained surprisingly hesitant to abandon entirely visions of the Roman Empire from the age of imperialism.  His call, for example, to replace the outdated imperial-age concept of Romanization in favor of an approach emphasizing the insights provided by postcolonial studies is a bold attempt to transform the terms of the debate on the meaning of the Roman Empire in the contemporary world.

“Mattingly backs up his call for a new vocabulary for interpreting the Roman imperial experience by applying a powerful postcolonial perspective to a diverse array of topics in the history of the empire – the exploitation of landscapes and resources, sexual relations, art, family values, native societies – to create a new and challenging vision Roman power and imperialism. . . .”

Comments:  There is no hint of Collingwood’s “Idea of history” in the above.  Earlier views of the Roman Empire are to be criticized for viewing it in “positive terms.”  Those now “outdated” views are to be superseded by the “insights provided by postcolonial studies.”  Mattingly, apparently, is exemplifying that “up to date” approach. 

Has it been implied that one can’t find truth in a narrow curriculum including just Vergil, Cicero, Sallust and Terrence?  What about a modern curriculum which in the Chairs’ own words disparages “out of date” views of history and by implication favors “up-to-date” views?  Is truth a function of the passage of time?  Should we view the word “progress” as neutral, implying that we merely move on from one thing to the next in history and sometimes the results are good but sometimes bad; or should we invest the word with a positive value: we move on (or perhaps “can” move on) from one thing to the next in history and the direction is perforce a good one?  And if “perforce” what is generating the force?    Here, I don’t see much difference from the Roman view.  They studied Vergil, Cicero, Sallust, Terrence and produced the best of all possible people, the Roman upper class.  At Tufts they are studying the most up-to-date views of post-colonialism and, presumably, graduating the most up-to-date students.

Lest I be misunderstood – although I expect to be misunderstood anyway – I am not applying my own value to the two views expressed in Hitchner’s foreword to Mattingly’s book.  I am objecting to having as one’s goal the rejecting of “out of date” views (as opposed to incorrect, fallacious or invalid because of new evidence) and replacing it with views more up-to-date, politically correct, and in keeping with the spirit of the age. 

Finally, to be fair, I have yet to read Mattingly’s book.  Hopefully he won’t be as crass as the foreword would lead one to expect.

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