Out of Time

On Hadrian and Being Harried

History is battleground of ideas, a terrain laid with hidden dangers and the sad remains of methods passed beyond the pale. You might imagine – or even remember – the dull drag of history across the page, but the dates and happenings are never just there, ready formed, waiting to be relayed. Historians take positions, form perspectives, dash in, out and around conventions that the reader may never recognise and would rarely care to know. History is, after all, a profession for some and carries with it the arcana of half forgotten lore.

But a feature of history on the run – magazine articles, television interviews, newspaper columns – is that the traces of skirmishes past, of major shifts in thinking, just barely show through, if at all. Take Robin Lane Fox’s account of the Roman emperor Hadrian in yesterday’s Financial Times, for instance. It’s a battle fought against the shadows of opponents long since gone.

Lane Fox is a long established historian at New College in Oxford and knows well the intricacies of ‘classical’ Europe. He has written with authority on Alexander the Great and published his Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian to a very favourable reception. Spend even a moment reading his Financial Times article and you’ll see why – his style is fluid but clear, his logic straightforward and his capacity to engage the reader in considering the relationship between past and present exemplary in a field that has elevated waffle to a high art.

Writing to coincide with the opening of an exhibition on Hadrian at the British Museum, Lane Fox argues that ancient history “is both powerfully near to and far from our own world”. His case for Hadrian as “a thoroughly modern emperor” is not entirely personal – it flits agilely between the emperor’s enthusiasm for hunting to address the recent hunting ban in England, his love of a younger man, which Lane Fox reminds us was by no means the same as contemporary homosexuality, an invasion of what is now Iraq and the always troublesome problem of Jerusalem. Hadrian solved the problem brutally, by levelling the city and forbidding Jews entry to the site.

There’s pause for reflection in that for us all.

In a short article Lane Fox compresses an impressive amount of detail, analysis and interpretation. But at the edges of his argument, sufficiently away from Hadrian himself, are little bombshells dropped on enemies quite removed from this particular field of engagement. Lane Fox frames his observations of the emperor by noting that “in recent years, post-imperial and post-colonial historians have had few positive words for the motives and impacts of western empires”.

That’s not an entirely unjustified position, but it is an enormous caricature of many different, and often contradictory, approaches to understanding the past that stand in some sort of opposition to the narrative history – with its presumption that all evidence lies on the surface – that Lane Fox writes. And it presumes that all previous accounts of Western empires were adequate and well informed. If anything, the move into post-colonial history writing has been pushed by a retrieval of evidence once ignored through a more critical examination of sources than traditionally practised. The result has been a shift of focus away from the glory of empire to its underside, the grit of domination.

As an undergraduate I once attended a tutorial at which Ranagit Guha, one of the founders of the Subaltern Studies Group, spoke of his motivation for writing history and his frustration with the field and its narrow focus on European concerns as a younger man. But when asked what he thought imperialism meant, he didn’t launch into a methodological analysis or a diatribe. He captured the often forgotten reality that Hadrian certainly imposed on Judea by paraphrasing George Orwell’s vision of the future. Imperialism was “boots in your face. Forever”.

From that perspective, Lane Fox seems lax in his appraisal of the implications, both in the past and for the present, of Hadrian’s actions. He does point to the intolerance inherent in Roman rule, but when he harries “friends of the classics” who “may be enemies of what they idealise and wish to preserve” his words seem unconvincing and delivered from on high. He quickly shifts to criticising “rich friends of the classics” for their “collections of antiquities” when Hadrian’s vast collection contained nothing but copies. This sensitivity for high culture, it seems, somehow excuses the destruction of Jerusalem and curtails any consideration of how that affects us today.

History is never straightforward, rarely just the words that appear on the page. Even in a short article the subtext can abound with confrontation, criticism, re-evaluation and disengagement from what the historian might see as an unsavoury norm. Robin Lane Fox has given us a superb overview of Hadrian and his milieu, but the devil is in the far less obvious detail.

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One Response to Out of Time

  1. Greg Sadler says:

    When I read Roman history I’m always interested by how they managed culture on the fringe of their empire. It seems to me – based on evolution of pottery and architecture specifically from England, the Near East and Northern Africa – that a lot of what went on was gradual social evolution rather than any sort of empire or totalitarianism. I.e. empire expansion was drive by cultural evolution. Native people would see the arrival of Roman ways and adopt them over a couple of generations. Not because they were forced to, but because they thought it was just a good idea.

    I think that speaks volumes about how we govern cultural evolution in the modern day. It seems some people want to mandate cultural compliance while others want to save cultures from evolution at all. Both these ideas seem fundamentally misguided. We learn, perhaps best from the Assyrians, that cultural mandates just don’t work. Saying ‘comply or die’ just leads to rebellion. The idea of making ‘cultural zoos’ is perhaps newer, but in many ways just as silly.

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