The Politics of Posterity

Titus Livius, or simply Livy, Historian of Rome. The question is why did he write his histories?

In assessing the battlefield casualties Rome suffered in the first thirty years of the second century BC, Livy (c59 BC – c17 AD) estimates 55,000. The classicist Mary Beard distrusts the figures – and that number, she suggests, is far too low. In the first instance, ‘there was no systematic tally of deaths on an ancient battlefield; and all numbers in ancient texts have to be treated with suspicion, victims of exaggeration, misunderstanding and over the years some terrible miscopying by medieval monks.’ In addition, she continues, ‘[t]here was probably a patriotic tendency to downplay Roman losses; it is not clear whether allies as well as Roman citizens were included; there must have been some battles and skirmishes which do not feature in Livy’s list; and those who subsequently died of their wounds must have been very many indeed (in most circumstances, ancient weapons were much better at wounding than killing outright; death followed later, by infection).’ (SPQR, p.131-2)

Why do we write history in the first place? The Historian EH Carr defines history as ‘an unending dialogue between the present and the past’. (What is History, p. 30) In his second epilogue to War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy bemoans the absurdity of the modern historian, who, ‘like a deaf man, answers questions no one asks.’ He continues, ‘[i]f the purpose of history be to give a description of the movement of humanity and of the peoples, the first question in the absence of a reply to which all the rest will be incomprehensible is: what is the power that moves peoples? To this, modern history laboriously replies either that Napoleon was a great genius, or that Louis XIV was very proud, or that certain writers wrote certain books.’ It cannot be, therefore, that simple lists of facts (whatever those might be) constitute a purposeful history; such an approach represents a mere claim, an assertion, an extension of power.

The phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ is often attributed to Winston Churchill, but of course this is not accurate. For example in the nineteenth century, foreshadowing Mary Beard’s skepticism around ancient Roman records, Francis Butler’s biography of one Charles George Gordon notes that Gordon lost many ancestors at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, but that ‘it is the victor who writes the history and counts the dead, and to the vanquished in such a struggle there only remains the dull memory of an unnumbered and unwritten sorrow.’ (Butler, Charles George Gordon, p.6) Whatever its origins, the implication of the phrase is that history is a practice of remembrance, and the history of Warfare is better remembered by those who have won battles because a) they are alive to tell the tale, b) victories are worth remembering, and c) the loser – if alive – generally prefers to forget such occasions. It recalls what I’ve written about before, that society in many respects could be considered a managed forgetting; we remember what we need to remember, what we like to remember, and in a way that suits us.

To return to Mary Beard briefly, a throwaway comment in her SPQR book on the Roman battles with Pyrrhus of Epirus may shed some further light on this question. The Greek king from the fourth / third century BCE was a constant thorn in the Roman side, and fought many battles against the Romans. His memory persists in the phrase Pyrrhic victory, which stems from one or more battles where, despite his win, he had lost so many men that he mas as well have lost the battle. Beard points out that the characterisation was ‘rather kind to the Romans’ side of the story, for Pyrrhus was a serious match for them.’ (SPQR, p.128) It is unclear, of course, whether it was in fact the case that Pyrrhus had lost so many men as to render his victory somewhat empty, per the comments on dubious records above; an alternative narrative could be that while the Romans had to admit to their people that they had been defeated by Pyrrhus, it suited them to add ‘but we killed most of his men.’

History, then, has in large part been political. The record is set; for this is a power assertion. As a ruler, the legitimacy of my position rests on a positive narrative of success, prosperity, glory and not losing. Furthermore, this is the very act of ontological creation: reality itself becomes what the powerful decide that it should be. Thus, the narrative went out that the Romans were so great that even when defeated by kings like Pyrrhus, the damage inflicted on the enemy was so great as to render him humbled. Fast forward to more recent times, and there were minimal if any allied war crimes in World War II, just Axis crimes. The Russians didn’t interfere in the 2016 US election, and even if they did it didn’t have an impact. The Brexit negotiations have gone super well.

I still remember from my history class in school as a kid that Gavrilo Princip of the Black Hand, a Serbian Nationalist group, shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand in August 1914, triggering World War I, which ended in 1918. Big men, assassinations, strategy and alliances. That was history. We didn’t learn that, at 19, he was spared the death penalty because he was too young. Similarly, we didn’t learn that his remains a contested legacy. I went to school before the breakup of Yugoslavia, but there remain to this day those who hail Princip as a freedom fighter, and those who condemn him as a murderer. Their purpose is not, of course, to dispute the facts, but the meaning of that history. Building on that, their purpose is a modern one, and more interested in the present and the future: they capture an icon around which to build a separatist or nationalist state-myth; or they resist that interpretation as narrow and myopic, denying a more liberal cosmopolitanism. For those who think about Princip today, he is a tool with which to strive for a desired future, not an objective attempt to definitively agree a past. He died malnourished and underweight in prison, three years after his arrest. The house he grew up in was deliberately destroyed and rebuilt three times in the century that followed, most recently in 2015.

In Tolstoy’s first epilogue to War and Peace, he says that ‘[i]f we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, the possibility of life is destroyed.’ What he means, essentially, is that any attempt by historians to rationalise history, to categorise it or render it as something definitive, is futile. There are too many contingent forces at work to definitively say that ‘because Napoleon did this, so-and-so happened.’ The rational causation hypothesis, the reductionist approach to historicism, is a poor intellectual position. Life is too ecologically interconnected to be reduced to an act, an event, a will. And so our histories – should we write them for posterity? Perhaps we should just make art. It may make more sense.

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