giovedì 11 maggio 2017

Reflecting on "Mary Beard's Ultimate Rome," one year later

It's been more than a year since the BBC broadcast Cambridge historian Mary Beard's celebrated documentary Ultimate Rome: Empire Without Limit. It was an unprecedented critical success, and English media relished and enjoyed the astonishing quality of such a magnificent production. In a time where ancient history, and historiography in general, are suffering the most from institutional budget cuts, from the competition with sexier, scientific disciplines, and from the postmodern disregard for the ancient past, Ultimate Rome tried to prove all the naysayers wrong.

In a sense, the documentary has succeeded spectacularly. It has been hailed by The Guardian as "a thoughtful and resolutely British series that, like its predecessors, deserves to draw in viewers by the million." Personally, I have admired Beard's wit and her down-to-earth, no-nonsense attitude in Ultimate Rome. In the past, I enjoyed reading Beard's groundbreaking academic works, and I have included them when I was preparing the syllabus of my university course about gender issues and female cults in ancient Rome. I was delighted to discover such a lively popularisation of ancient historiography in her documentary. Well, I wish there were more exploration of gender topics in a documentary on ancient Rome, but I digress, for the theme of the present post is not the many things that I have found enjoyable in Ultimate Rome, but the few things that were, in my opinion, quite problematic or debatable.

What follows is a personal selection from some of these issues. It goes without saying that, notwithstanding the accuracy of my personal notes from over one year ago, my memory might fail me. Plus, I might be just wrong in my (mis)recollections. Finally, let me just remark that in no way such criticism detracts from the value of Beard's scholarship. I simply and firmly believe that historiography is a science, sic et simpliciter, and, as such, it must be subjected to the very same evaluation and quality control that preside over any other science. Readers already acquainted with the usual themes of the blog know how many posts I have devoted to such topic.

And now, one note from each of the fourth installments of the series:


We start with nothing more than a trifle. In the first episode, Beard takes the viewers to the Ara Pacis in Rome. Contrary to what images and words suggested, the Augustan Res Gestae seen here is not original. It is a fascist replica engraved in the external wall of the Museum of the Ara Pacis in Rome. Yet, the inscription is presented as if its originality was not in question, which may have led the viewers to take it at face value for a real document. Ancient historians, like palaeontologists, very rarely have the luxury of such mind-blowingly complete documents. History is, most of the times, reconstructed from bits and scraps.


The second episode has to do with the unique Roman engineering prowess. Or was it? While standing in front of a stone milestone on the Via Domitia (in France), Beard asserts that, for the first time, it was possible to know exactly where one was on a state network of roads, thanks to a standardised,  precise distance-tracking system. This is exactly the kind of ancient historiography that struck me as quite problematic, especially after the demise of Western Civ in the US and after the groundbreaking impact of global history and Big History on our understanding of the human past. If we take into consideration the parallel and independent development of human cultures scattered all over the world, what about the extremely well-organised Inca road system (e.g., chaskiwasi, tambos, etc.), for instance?
Again, the same point of view is deployed when Beard speaks of the Roman market system, and pottery in particular, as the first example of "globalisation." I may be too harsh here, as this is no longue-durée, big-historical documentary, but again such a statement can be quite misleading. For the record, globalisation as a process began during the first out-of-Africa migration of the genus Homo. Should you really want to maintain a rigorous, geographical focus, long-distance trade in Europe is attested since Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals, by the way. Maybe a redefinition of "globalisation" could have contributed to clarify those general statements.


In the third episode, Beard shows in a rather straightforward and absolutely correct way the mixed ethnic composition of Roman Britain, sagaciously deconstructing the ignorant, racist claims of local ethnic purity. Just to be clear once and for all: there is no such thing now, and there was no such thing in the ancient past. Ethnic purity has always been a myth. (On the other hand, obtuse inbreeding led to the War of Spanish Succession, so beware of "purity.")
The results of chemical analyses concerning the isotope signature in the tooth enamel of Roman era bones from York allows her colleague Ella Eckhart to ascertain that the remains pertained to someone who originally grew up in a much colder climate, such as Germany or Poland.
Now, is this an epistemically warranted assertion?
First of all, what about altitude? What if that human being came from the Alps, or the Pyrenees? Simple fact: the higher you go, the colder the temperature you get. There is no need to think in two dimensions. There is no doubt that the addition of archaeological technologies such as stable isotopes analysis have contributed to reshape radically our understanding of ancient physical mobility. However, as Roman historian Greg Woolf has recently cautioned, researchers should avoid such reliance on methodologies that are so constrained by the poor availability of data (in most cases fragmentary). As a matter of fact, isotopes from water consumption are not reliable when considered in a larger environmental network of short-range variation and, most of all, in the Roman technological network which allowed high-altitude drinking water to be brought by aqueducts (see G. Woolf, G. 2016. “Movers and Stayers”, in: L. de Ligt & L. E. Tacoma (eds.), Migration and Mobility in the Early Roman Empire, Leiden & Boston: Brill, pp. 438- 461: 455). Science provides an empowering set of methods, but before using it, one has to master epistemology. In cases like this one, palaeogenetics might be of invaluable help, provided that the quality of data is sufficiently reliable. Maybe this issue has already been resolved by additional research, but I do not recall any clear assertion on that from the episode.
Second, I think that it is quite misleading to conflate (ancient) geographical regions and (modern) peoples. Slavic peoples from the area now occupied by Poland, for instance, were not identified as "Poles" until the eleventh century (at least). As a matter of fact, all European identities and languages were invented and standardised during the Nineteen-century process that Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger famously called the "invention of tradition."
I know that Beard's was a clever rebuttal to mock racist, blatant claims on ethnic purity, but the parallel between modern Polish (or Germans) and ancient Roman Britain citizens was a bit anachronistic. This is the hard problem implicit in  every popularising effort - especially in history, where labels, names, and definitions might be associated with long-held, essentialised beliefs: what should you give for granted? How should you explain very complicated, longue-durée processes in  just a couple of minutes?


Unfortunately, the final episode of  Ultimate Rome did really jump the shark - for me, at least.
A single, highly problematic sentence that has defined so far the dominant paradigm in contemporary Roman History raised my eyebrow. In Beard's own words, "the Romans didn't believe in their gods, they didn't have internal faith in our sense." Roman religion, consequently, "was a religion of doing, not believing" (Beard, M. 2015. SPQR, Profile Books, London. p. 103). A step back might be helpful now. Originally conceived as the wedge to overthrow the previous and problematic disciplinary paradigm (deeply rooted in the Reformation's vocabulary and in its depreciative and belittling view of Catholic ritual as devoid of real religious meaning), this rather curious definition managed to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In other words, and to cut a long story short, since belief was reputed to be a culturally conditioned state of mind that may or may not be present, either you have it or you don't. We have it ("our internal sense of faith"). Romans didn't have it. They did things, they did not believe in things. Full stop.

The most shocking consequence for the discipline is that ancient Romans, with their stress on orthopraxy and rituals, become a bit like Chalmers' zombies, lacking internal conscious states about beliefs. Therefore, through this scholarly perspective, ancient Romans are reputed to have had a totally different cognitive machinery that almost made them a bizarre sort of cognitively peculiar human beings.
An idea which, frankly, seems particularly bonkers. 
Cognitive science of religion is currently helping to reconsider such a statement: ancient Romans were, rather unmistakably and beyond any reasonable doubts, members of the species Homo sapiens. As such, it could be considered more than a safe bet to presume that they were agents with beliefs, desires, and intentions, evolved to communicate with and relate to other agents with beliefs, desired, and intentions. Goddesses and gods, as culturally postulated superhuman beings (according to the classical definition advanced by Melford Spiro in 1971), were a distinct class of imagined agents - but agents nonetheless. Which was the necessary and sufficient condition to communicate with and relate to them, and to believe in whatever they might have been reputed to say. Cognitively and historically speaking, there is so much more to say, but, since I do not want to steal my own thunder, wait for my paper on the topic.

And there you have it: a complete nitpicker's guide to an otherwise brilliant, fabulously shot, and sincerely informative BBC documentary. Do not get me wrong: I have loved and I strongly recommend this documentary. And I eagerly wait for a Mary Beard/BBC documentary on gender issues, androcentrism, and patriarchy in the ancient Mediterranean. That would be awesome.

That's all, folks. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

Credits: all images ©2016 BBC

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