Monthly Archives: March 2012

What does Tacitus’ portrayal of Agrippina really reveal about Tacitus as a historian?

I shall write without indignation or partisanship; in my case the customary incentives to these are lacking. (Annals, 1.1.)

It seems to me a historians’ foremost duty is to ensure that merit is recorded, and to confront evil words and deeds with the fear of posterity’s denunciations. (Annals, 3.65)

The Annals, by Tacitus

The Annals, by Tacitus

The purpose of this short blog post is not to go over Tacitus’ portrayals of Agrippina.  These can be easily covered by the HSC study notes.  Instead I want to deal with Tacitus’ purpose behind the Annals, thus providing a richer perspective than the usual one-dimensional ‘Tacitus is biased against Agrippina’ argument.

For all the usual complaints against Tacitus, it is important to appreciate that as far as he was concerned, he was writing from a non-partisan perspective.  He claimed to hold no grudges.  However, as the second excerpt clearly illustrates, Tacitus is in fact driven by a strong sense of moral indignation about what he perceived to be the excesses of the imperial system.  He was nostalgic about what he saw as the virtues of republican Rome, and despised how it has fallen to the dictates of the power of an emperor.  He was disgusted with how the Senate had become sycophantic, powerless and corrupt over time.  For Tacitus, dictatorship and moral decline goes hand in hand.  This is how historian Michael Grant explains it,

… when state is unified under an omnipotent ruler, human happiness hangs by a thread.  When the emperor is a bad man, and rules badly, there is misery.  Oppressive rule causes – and is caused by –  moral degeneracy. (Grant, M., Tacitus: The Annals of Rome. Penguin, Harondsworth, 1997.)

It is important to appreciate this point when you examine Tacitus’ portrayal of Agrippina.  For Tacitus, the deeds of Agrippina are merely one of the symbols of the moral degeneracy of the empire.  So regardless of how ‘biased’ Tacitus might be against powerful women or not, Agrippina’s deeds as a power-driven woman was always going to be judged negatively by Tacitus.  For Tacitus, virtuous women are the bonds that held the old republic together, and Agrippina was anything but that.

This leads me to my next point.  Tacitus was a gifted writer, but he tended to cast characters into stagnate molds whose nature remain unchanged.  For instance, Nero was always a violent and morally depraved man whose vices were only held in check when his mother had some degrees of control over him.  Once he came out of her shadows, Nero’s vices knew no bound.  Agrippina was a power-driven woman who would murder and seduce to gain imperial power.  She made up her mind to kill Claudius even before they married.  Character development was not Tacitus’ strong point.

I hope this short blog post has shown there is more than one way to read Tacitus as commonly taught in many high school classes.  Yes, it is true that like many ancient writers, Tacitus came from a patriarchal world and there is no doubt that feminist historians have done much to deconstruct Tactius’ portrayals of the women of imperial Rome.  However, you should also be able to step away from the usual one-dimensional critique of Tacitus and see it from the perspective of the author’s purpose and style.


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Reflection on the relationship between history, fictions, films and games

As a history teacher with strong sympathy for the Rankean tradition, I tend to see a clear demarcation between history and fiction.  History should be an accurate representation of the past whereas fiction makes no such claim.  History is concerned with ‘truth’ that is solidly based on evidence.  Fiction is bounded by no such convention.  It is in its claim to historical truth that history derives its authority.  And even if scientific objectivity is impossible in the practice of history, good historical practice should still be characterised by open-mindedness, fair-mindness and balance.  Again, fiction is bounded by no such convention.  If anything, good fiction is characterised by passionate subjectivity.

Armed with this authority, historians like Richard Evans have been able to defend history from its abusers like David Irving during the Holocaust denial trial.  As Eric Hobsbawn said (remember the trial HSC exam?), in order to defend the past, one must assume the attitude that there is a clear distinction between history and fiction.

The First Man in Rome, by Colleen McCullough

Where does 'fiction' end and 'history' begin?

Yet when you look around a bit more, the line between history and fiction really is not as clear as it first seems.  The first thing that comes to my mind is a series of historical novels by a popular Australian novelist and scholar, Colleen McCullough.  She is famous for her Masters of Rome novel series.  The novel series cover the political turmoil in Rome during the last few years of the late Roman republic.

What is interesting about her historical fictions is the amount of historical research that actually went into her work.  While her work is a collection of ‘what-might-have-been’, her speculations are in fact based on solid research of available historical evidence.  When you also consider the fact that some famous ancient historical works from ancient Rome are really a mix of facts, speculations and rumours (Suetonious anyone?), all of a sudden the lines between history and history fictions is not so obvious.

I can think of two reasons why historians should not ignore ‘fictions’.  Like it or hate it, more people engages with history through the ‘fiction’ genre than the non-fiction genres.  This is especially so when you include genres like films, plays and historically themed computer games.  Dr Marnie Hugh-Warrington pointed out that statistically more people in America engage with history through films and documentaries than they do through academic books.  It is probably similar in Australia.  This type of popular engagement with history through fictions, films and games shape public history. If historians do not ‘engage’ with how history is portrayed through these popular mediums, historians might become irrelevant.

Another good reason why historians should not ignore fictions and films is that films and fictions have strengths that academic historical work often lacks.  This is the power of fictions and drama to enable the audience to ‘feel’ history, to ‘re-imagine’ the past vividly.  A good example to illustrate this is the recent two part television drama series on HBO called ‘Rome’.

Rome, HBO

Caesar's triumph. A scene from 'Rome' (HBO).

In an interview about the drama series, the film director openly stated that he did not aim for historical accuracy but he aimed for historical authenticity.  For example, in the drama series there was only one Battle of Philippi, yet historically there were two battles.  However, the director was very careful in making sure he accurately portrayed the relationships and attitudes of the time, such as relationship between men and women, masters and slaves, Romans and Greeks and Jews, plebians and patricians, and the role of public and private religions in Roman society.  (See this clip on how the director and historical consultant have approached the portrayal of women in HBO:Rome.)  The director also paid careful attention in reconstructing Roman army tactics.  (See this clip on portrayal of the Battle of Philippi.)  One can say that the usual sin of historical anachronism is remarkably absent in this television series.  HBO:Rome shows the potential strengths of historical drama series in engaging the public with history.

Yet what does it mean for historians to ‘engage’ with these popular mediums?  There is no absolute right answer to this very important question.  Should historians be the arbiter of public ‘history’, pointing the rights and wrongs of how history is portrayed in films, drama and fictions?  This is a position that many Rankean historians are very comfortable with, because it reflects the authoritative nature of history.  A good example was the debate generated by the film ‘Troy’.  (See Mark Rose, ‘Troy Fallen’, Archaeology 14 May 2004.)  Historians nitpicked the many errors in the film, including the use of coins in funerals in the film, which did not exist in late Bronze Age, and the unhistorical focus on the worship of Apollo among the Trojans in the film.

But this kind of ‘engagement’ is quite limited, and it does not take historians beyond the proverbial ivory tower.  How else can historians engage with the popular mediums?  I think some of the more successful attempts like the work of Colleen McCullough and HBO:Rome points to some possibilities.  First of all, historians should not be afraid to get involved.  This might involve actually producing the work (e.g. McCullough) or be directly involved in the production process of the work (e.g. HBO:Rome).

Secondly, Historians should be sensitive to the fact that genres like fictions, drama and films have very different conventions from academic history.  Often compromises have been made.  Fictions and films are ultimately public forms of entertainment.  Academic historical works are usually not thought of as entertainment, unless you’re a historical nerd like me.  However, what historians can offer to fictions and films is ‘historical authenticity’.  This is the ability to re-imagine the past through the thoughts and attitudes of the past.

Thirdly, historians need to be continually reflective on the mediums through which the past is communicated.

Engagement with public mediums of history is fraught with dangers from a Rankean perspective, but is necessary to ensure the relevance of the discipline.


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Historiographical lessons from Holocaust denial trial – Part 1

Warsaw ghetto liquidation, WW2In 2000, a libel case was fought in the British court that had direct relevancy to historiography.  This was the lawsuit issued by British holocaust denier David Irving against Penguin Books Publishing and Jewish-American historian Deborah Lipstadt.


David Irving was long regarded as a self-taught historian with specialisation in the history of Nazi leaders.  His notable books included Hitler’s War (1977), in which he portrayed Hitler as a rational statesman who has limited war aims.  Another one of his notable work was Churchill’s War (1984), in which he portrayed Churchill as a drunkard who lost the British Empire.  His note of fame was his book, The Destruction of Dresden(1963), in which he highlighted the destruction of civilians in Dresden by allied bombing during World War Two, and gave his estimates of civilian deaths at between 100,000 and 250,000.  This book became a bestseller, although during the Holocaust denial trial, his estimates were shown to be highly inflated and based on witnesses with limited credibility.  Throughout his student and professional career, he was dogged by controversies surrounding his close links with extreme right wing politics in Britain and Germany, as well as his anti-Semitism.

Irving decided to bring a libel lawsuit against Professor Deborah Lipstadt, an American historian at Emory University, who portrayed David Irving as one of the most dangerous holocaust deniers.  Among Irving’s controversial claims was that most European Jews did not die in gas chambers or crimes against humanity during the Second World War, but from diseases.  He also argued that the number of Jews who died was more like a few thousand rather than six million.  According to Lipstadt, one of the reasons why Irving decided to sue her in an English court rather than an American court was that in English courts, the burden of proof in a libel suit lies with the defendants, while in American courts, the burden of proof in a libel suit lies with the plaintiffs.  I.e., Lipstadt and her co-defendants, Penguin Books Publishing, had to prove that they did not unfairly damage Irving’s professional reputation and that Lipstadt was correct in labelling Irving as a racist and manipulative liar who twisted evidence to fit his slanted interpretations.

To do that, Lipstadt needed to delve into historiography, and she enlisted several notable historians to assist her, including Professor Richard Evans (Cambridge University) and Professor Christopher Browning (University of North Carolina).  Aside from serving as expert witnesses, they also helped Lipstadt in collating evidence and re-examining Iriving’s works.  Of particular importance was Evans’ careful cross-checking of the footnotes in Irving’s works.  Evans’ research and expert testimony would prove crucial in Irving’s downfall in this lawsuit.

Lesson 1: What is history?

Historians who are strong influenced by the Rankian school have seen this lawsuit as a watershed, because it seems to illustrate that you can prove history based on careful and objective examination of evidence.  Lipstadt noted in her book, History on trial (2005), that her case was based entirely on documentary evidence, and that not a single oral testimony from survivors and veterans was used in the trial.  This suggests that within limits, it is possible to construct historical account based on careful and fair analysis of documentary evidence and eyewitness accounts. In other words, the postmodernists have been wrong all along.  Richard Evans was most aware of this when he wrote his book, In Defence of History, in which he argued that postmodernists would have been unable to defend history in the face of onslaught by deniers of holocaust and other genocides, since they do not see a clear distinction between history and fiction.

There was the inevitable letter in the Guardian from a postmodernist who said this is all nonsense because we invent history, or words to that effect. But I think the trial did vindicate the possibility of obtaining accurate historical knowledge approaching the truth about the past, about past events, and did make it very clear where the line can be drawn. (Richard Evans, In Defence of History)

Even E.H. Carr made a similar point when he argued in his book, What Is History? that extreme relativism would lead to a morally dubious situation in which historians are unable to defend history from the deniers of genocide and war crimes.

Some legal scholars have been pointed out that the trial did not really resolve the debate between the Rankians and the postmodernists.  In a civil lawsuit, a judge need to decide between the plaintiffs and the defendants on a balance of probabilities.  Hence the best that a judge can do, in legal theory, is to decide that one side was most probably right.  Also, some legal scholars have also argued that in this case, Justice Gray was mainly concerned with whether Irving’s reputation was unjustly damaged, not with whether the Holocaust really occurred.  That question was beyond the professional mandate of the judge.

However, one might counter with two arguments.  First of all, the burden of proof in this case was with the defendants (Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Publishing), so they had to summon a very detailed case to prove their point.  Secondly, in order to prove their case, they had to prove that the historical evidence for the death of six million Jews in World War two was solid and irrefutable.

Lesson 2: Roles and responsibilities of historian

The second lesson that can be drawn from this case is that historians cannot sit in the ivory tower of academia and focus on their work alone.  They must engage with the public to communicate their research, and defend fair and responsible representations of the past from popular and political abuse of the past.

On this point, postmodernist historians would appear to be unable to fulfill that responsibilities.  In order to label a piece of work as an ‘abuse’ of the past, it implies that some works are fair and reasonably accurate representations of the past.  This would run against the grain of postmodernism, which is ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ and skepticism towards any pretension of academic authority.  (Lyotard)

If one accepts that historians have a moral responsibility to defend the past, and the Irving v Lipstadt trial certainly appears to illustrate that point, then an extreme relativist approach to the past is impossible.

This means that historians need to play a balancing act.  On the one hand, they must focus on the main task of separating facts from myths and fictions, and arriving at an interpretation that is as fair and accurate as possible.  As French historian Claude Mazauric stated,

History, as a means towards knowledge, has no other purpose than to establish the truth of past events by repositioning them in the network in which the historian finds them and to give them at least clarity, if not an explanation. That is why history is, indissolubly, establishment of facts and interpretation of recontextualised movement of which facts, in their singularity, are the materialisation.  (Claude Mazauric, ‘The role of historians is not the validation of social values’, L’Humanite, 15 January 2006)

Mazauric is only partly right, because on the other hand historians must be effective communicators to the public.  They must make effective contribution to the public debate about the past, and at times gave passionate defense of history.

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E.H. Carr on the relationship between Historians and Facts

E H CarrThese are extracts from E.H. Carr, What is History? (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001)

The Empiricists (or more affectionately known as ‘Rankean’)

E.H. Carr first describes what the empiricists perceive to be the relationship between historians and facts.

This is what may be called the common-sense view of history.  History consists of a corpus of ascertained facts.  The facts are available to the historians in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fishmonger’s slab.  The historian collects them, takes them home and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him…

In other words,

First get your facts straight, then plunge at your peril into the shifting sands of interpretation –  that is the ultimate wisdom of the empirical, common-sense school of history.

Problems with the Empiricists

Carr begins to unravel the empiricist perspective.

It used to be said that facts speak for themselves.  This is of course, untrue.  The facts speak only when historians calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context…

In other words,

The historians is necessarily selective.  The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a pre-posterous fallacy…

Sources, according to Carr, do not come to us in ‘pure’ form, but have been selected for us through conscious and/or unconscious a priori decisions (i.e. bias).  One example that Carr would give for this assertion is the study of ancient Greece.

Our picture of Greece in the fifth century B.C. is defective not primarily because so many of the bits have been accidentally lost, but because it is, by and large, the picture formed by a tiny group of people in the city of Athens.  We know a lot about what fifth-century Greece looked like to an Athenian citizen; but hardly anything about what it looked like to a Spartan, a Corinthian or a Theban…

In other words,

Our picture had been pre-selected and predetermined for us, not so much by accident as by people who were consciously or unconsciously imbued with a particular view and thought the facts which supported that view worth preserving.

Carr also considers the example of medieval studies.

What we know as the facts of medieval history have almost all been selected for us by generations of chroniclers who were professionally occupied in the theory and practice of religion, and who therefore thought it supremely important, and recorded everything relating to it, and not much else.


‘The history we read,’ writes Professor Barraclough, himself trained as a mediaevalist, ‘though based on facts, is, strictly speaking, not factual at all, but a series of accepted judgments.’   (p.8)

Carr further considers the problem of abundance of documents in modern history, a problem not shared by medieval and ancient historians.

The modern historians … has the dual task of discovering the few significant facts and turning them into facts of history, and of discarding the many insignificant facts as unhistorical.  But this is the very converse of the nineteenth-century heresy that history consists of the compilation of a maximum number irrefutable and objective facts. (p.9)

Carr then further considers the historiographical problems posits by the Stresemann archive.  To briefly explain, Gustav Stresemann was the foreign minister of the German Weimar Republic during the late 1920s, when Germany was beginning to recover from the Great Depression.  He was widely remebered by most historians as an able stateman and diplomat.  Stresemann’s secretary subsequently compiled a set of primary documents detailing Stresemann’s communications with Soviet Union. Carrs asks,

What do the paper tell us?  Among other things they contain records of some hundreds of Stresemann’s conversations with the Soviet Ambassador in Berlin…  These records have one feature in common.  They depict Stresemann as having the lion’s share of the conversations and reveal his arguments as invariably well put and cogent. while those of his partner are for the most scanty, confused and unconvincing… (page 13)

In other words,

The documents do not tell us what happened, but only what Stresemann thought had happened, or what he wanted others to think, or perhaps what he wanted himself to think, had happened… (It was) Stresemann himself, who started the process of selection.   (page 13)

The Three Neglected Truths (Collingwood hypothesis)

Having undermined the empiricist tenet regarding the relationship between historians and facts, Carr then goes on to state what he describes as the three neglected truths about the role of historians.

In the first place, the facts of history never come to us ‘pure’, since they do not and cannot exist in a pure form: they are always refracted through the mind of th recorder.  It follows that when we take up a work of history, our first concerns should be not with the facts which it contains but with the historians who wrote it… (page 17)

The second point is …one of historian’s need of imaginative understanding for the minds of the people with whom he is dealing… (page 18)

The third point is that we can view the past, and achieve our understanding of the past, only through the eyes of the present.  The historian is of his own age, and is bound to it by the conditions of human existence.  (page 19)

These three ‘neglected truths’ are actually the restated views of an even more famous historiographer, R.G. Collingwood.  Carr also refers to them as the “Collingwood hypothesis“.  (page 21)

Problems with the Collingwood hypothesis

Carr essentially agrees with the Collingwood view of history.  However, he further ponders on the moral problems presented by this relativist view of the study of history.  First of all,

The emphasis on the role of the historian in the making of history tends, if pressed to its logical conclusion, to rule out any objective history at all: history is what the historian makes. (page 20)

This tantamounts to total skepticism, a key feature of the postmodernist view of history.  As Collingwood stated, “there is no point in asking which was the right point of view” (page 20)  Or as English historian Sir George Clark would say, there is no objective historical truth.  To Carr, this is a profoundly unsatisfactory state of affair.

It does not follow that, because a mountain appears to take on different shapes from different angles of vision, it has objectively either no shape at all or an infinity of shapes.  It does not follow that, because interpretation plays a necessary part in establishing the facts of history, and because no existing interpretation is wholly objective, one interpretation is as good as another…  (page 21)

A greater lurks still for historians who subscribes to the Collingwood hypothesis, that of extreme pragmatism towards facts.

If the historian necessarily looks at his period of history through the eyes of his own time, and studies the problems of the past as a key to those of the present, will he not fall into a purely pragmatic view of the facts, and maintain the criterion of a right interpretation is its suitability to some present purpose?  (Emphasis mine) On this hypothesis, the facts of history are nothing, interpretation is everything… (page 21)

This is not good enough for Carr.  While extreme historical empiricism is an illusion, a complete disregard for objective and balanced interpretation is an overkill solution.  It means that historians can treat historical evidence with complete disrespect.  It also robs them of the authority to speak about the past.  In the face of popular abuse of history, this creates tremendous dangers.  On what basis can historians truly speak on behalf of the past, if the evidence can be straitjacketed into any “present purpose”?  On what basis can one speak out for the past in the face of holocaust deniers, genocide deniers, or other politically motivated abusers of history?

What then, is Carr’s solution to this dilemma?


First of all, Carr argued that historians have an obligation to be as fair-minded as possible in how they interpret evidence from the past.

The duty of the historian to respect his facts is not exhausted by the obligation to see that his facts are accurate.  he must seek to bring into the picture all known or knowable facts relevant, in one sense or another, to the theme on which he is engaged, and to the interpretation proposed. (Page 22)

In other words, interpretation is the “lifeblood of history” (page 22), of which historians must seek to be fair.

On a further note, Carr reflects on the dichotomy that is human condition, which creates this very historiographical dilemma, this tension “between a view of history having the centre of gravity in the past and a view having the centre of gravity in the present.”  (Page 23)

The predicament of the historian is a reflexion of the nature of man.  Man … is not totally involved in his environment and unconditionally subject to it.  On the other hand, he is never totally independent of it and its unconditional master… (page 24)

Therefore a historian is, similarly,

… neither the humble slave, nor the tyrannical master, of his facts.  The relation between the historian and his facts is one of equality, or give-and-take.  As any working historian knows, if he stops to reflect what his is doing as he thinks and writes, the historian is engaged on a continuous process of moulding his facts to his interpretation and his interpretation to his facts.   (Page 24)

According to Carr, historian exists in a dynamic relationship with evidence from the past.

The historian starts with a provisional selection of facts and a provisional interpretation in the light of which that selection has been made – by others as well by himself…. The historians without his facts is rootless and futile; the facts without the historian are dead and meaningless. (Page 24)

What, then is History?

… it is a continous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past. (Page 24)

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