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Alaric - 'Roman Officer'?
#1
I've just been watching the video of an interesting 2012 lecture by Michael Kulikowski, 'The Accidental Suicide of the Roman Empire' (linked below).

Kulikowski makes a number of intriguing suggestions - and one rather bizarre straw-mannish claim that Peter Heather and Bryan Ward-Perkins believe the empire fell because it "stupidly let in too many foreigners", and this belief is "a reaction to multiculturalism in Britain in the 1990s" [Image: shocked.png]

Aside from this, I was mostly struck by Kulikowski's portrait of Alaric (from about 34m 53s onward) as "The Roman general Alaric, probably known to most of you as the Visigoth who sacked Rome". He goes on to describe Alaric as a 'native officer' in Roman service, who 'rose through the ranks', 'commanded his native unit valiantly and achieved promotion', and was generally speaking 'an ambitious junior officer'.

He goes on to suggest that this Roman officer Alaric became frustrated with the slowness of his promotion and so decided to 'play the barbarian', acting in the role that Rome was somehow forcing upon him, by invading Italy and 'threatening the government as an outsider'. His sack of Rome is "the culmination of a frustrated career, an act of despair after his every attempt at compromise has met with rebuff or betrayal".

But what evidence do we have for Alaric's 'Roman military career'? Zosimus and Socrates Scholasticus mention that he commanded troops during the campaign against Eugenius, presumably at the Frigidus. Aside from this (and both before and after this) he seems to have been some sort of tribal chieftain or bandit leader. He was rewarded with a senior position, according to Claudian's invectives, presumably Magister Militum per Illyricum, by the eastern empire, c.398, but this only lasted a couple of years. His troops were never brought officially into the Roman army, and could not really be described as 'Roman soldiers'. Whatever command he was awarded or promised by Stilicho in the west c.406 appears not to have been honoured by the court of Honorius.

So can we really call Alaric a 'Roman General' in anything but the most technical sense? He seems rather more of a brigand than a Roman military officer; in which case his sack of Rome was not an 'act of despair' by a frustrated yet honorable officer, but one of naked aggression by an opportunistic gangster.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ltjH6HPs7vg&t=2895s
Nathan Ross
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#2
Alaric operated within the framework of the Roman state after he gave up his defiance in the marshes. The status of such men in charge of large non-Roman military forces, equipped and paid by the Roman state can be debated of course: Federate commander or Roman general? I doubt the Romans saw it either or. I doubt Alaraic became frustrated by a lack of promotion (do we even have a source for this?) but he certainly was frustrated by a lack of 'recognition' of his force as a regular Roman army instead of a group under a foedus - recognitiuon would have given him unlimited resources and a fixed position as a leader. That's why he can never have been a 'regular Roman general' in command of a 'regular Roman army', because we know his demands to Honorius in that area.

I think he could have been a general to secure regular payment but forever without command of an army. The most intruiging period for me would be after Stilicho contracts him to invade Illyria and appoints Alaric as magister militum per Illyrium!
Robert Vermaat
MODERATOR
FECTIO Late Romans
THE CAUSE OF WAR MUST BE JUST
(Maurikios-Strategikon, book VIII.2: Maxim 12)
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#3
(06-19-2019, 07:52 PM)Robert Vermaat Wrote: That's why he can never have been a 'regular Roman general' in command of a 'regular Roman army', because we know his demands to Honorius in that area.

Absolutely, yes. I think the best treatment of Alaric and his forces I've yet come across is J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz's 'Alaric's Goths; Nation or Army?' (in Fifth-century Gaul: a crisis of identity?; Drinkwater, Elton 1992). Liebeschuetz describes Alaric as the leader of a mercenary army, exploiting the divisions and discords in Roman control to increase his own power and the status of his (very heterogenous) troops.

In effect, Alaric flourished in the military and political power vacuum between the eastern and western empires in the 395-408 period - specifically the period of Stilicho's conflict with the eastern court - bidding for the favours of each side, and playing each against the other. That neither side treated him as entirely one of their own is unsurprising.

Kulikowski, in his lecture, illustrates his discussion of Alaric with a slide of the Monza Diptych (labelled 'A Late Roman Officer') - whether this actually shows Stilicho or not, I think the inference is clear: Alaric, we are encouraged to believe, was a similar sort of officer to Stilicho. But Stilicho's position and promotions were very regular, including palatine tribunates, despatch as an envoy to the Persians and even marriage to the emperor's niece. Very far, I would say, from a semi-bandit warlord like Alaric.

But making Alaric into a kind of 'Roman officer' effectively turns the crisis of 408-10 leading up to the Sack of Rome into a Roman civil war. This neatly disposes of the 'problem of the barbarians', which I suspect is kind of Kulikowski's aim here!
Nathan Ross
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#4
(06-19-2019, 08:39 PM)Nathan Ross Wrote: But making Alaric into a kind of 'Roman officer' effectively turns the crisis of 408-10 leading up to the Sack of Rome into a Roman civil war. This neatly disposes of the 'problem of the barbarians', which I suspect is kind of Kulikowski's aim here!


Well it was more of a civil war that a barbarian invasion of fur-clad savages intent on plundering an ending an Empire, as we would read in schoolbooks of days long past (I hope). 
Alaric did not want to sack Rome because it was his last piece to play on the board and he knew it. But the civil war of Stilicho vs. the East was how it got him where he ended up in 410. Had Stilicho not wanted to take Illyricum and probably the whole East, Alaric would never have been put in a position where he could exploit the weakness of two Empires with his waxing and waning band of Goths (et al) of which he never was a true leader.

The same would happen 60 years later when the Ostrogoths were sent to Italy - although Alarics Visigoths and Theodoric's Ostrogoths were totally incomparable. One had a warband, the other a tribe.
Robert Vermaat
MODERATOR
FECTIO Late Romans
THE CAUSE OF WAR MUST BE JUST
(Maurikios-Strategikon, book VIII.2: Maxim 12)
[Image: artgroepbutton.jpg]
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#5
(06-19-2019, 11:19 PM)Robert Vermaat Wrote: a barbarian invasion of fur-clad savages intent on plundering an ending an Empire

Ha! But does anyone seriously believe that sort of thing nowadays? Even popular historians are very keen to deny the old stereotypes - which doesn't stop the more academic ones having fun with it: Kulikowski, in the lecture above, has a few laughs pretending that he once believed all barbarians resembled Arnold Schwarzenegger...

I do wonder, though - if barbarians did not really have long hair and dress in furs, why do we have laws in the Theodosian code prohibiting people in Rome from wearing their hair long and dressing in 'garments made of skins'? Seems odd to make laws against a literary device... [Image: tongue.png]


(06-19-2019, 11:19 PM)Robert Vermaat Wrote: Alaric did not want to sack Rome because it was his last piece to play on the board and he knew it.

Certainly Alaric himself was a skilled political operator (or just a good extortionist). His reticence in sacking Rome is sometimes presented, I think, as a sort of noble desire to preserve it - like he's more Roman than the Romans or something - which I dont think holds much water. He probably knew that sacking a famine-ridden metropolis of c.800K hungry and desperate people would cause more problems than it solved!

But whatever Alaric's qualms, they need not have been shared by his troops. Many of his men had until recently been slaves of the Romans; many more (30K of them, if we believe Zosimus) had their wives and families massacred by Roman regular troops in 408. His entire army had spent years fighting Romans, attacking Roman towns and fortresses and besieging Roman cities. They owed Rome nothing, had no reason to love it and plenty of reasons to hate it. Any residual ideas that the sack was 'civilised' or 'genteel' need to be thrown out of the window, I think.


(06-19-2019, 11:19 PM)Robert Vermaat Wrote: his waxing and waning band of Goths (et al) of which he never was a true leader.

I'd agree with the waxing and waning, and the 'et al' - but why was he not their true leader, do you think?
Nathan Ross
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#6
(06-20-2019, 09:52 AM)Nathan Ross Wrote:
(06-19-2019, 11:19 PM)Robert Vermaat Wrote: a barbarian invasion of fur-clad savages intent on plundering an ending an Empire

Ha! But does anyone seriously believe that sort of thing nowadays? Even popular historians are very keen to deny the old stereotypes - which doesn't stop the more academic ones having fun with it: Kulikowski, in the lecture above, has a few laughs pretending that he once believed all barbarians resembled Arnold Schwarzenegger...
I seem to recall that last time AWM had a "late antique" issue, it was full of maps with frightening sharp pointy ethnic labels burrowing into the soft vitals of the Roman empire which could have been drawn in 1900, and some distinguished Late Antique historians use "uncontrolled immigration" to market their books. Guy Halsall can still find quotes from recent scholarly books about the legions leaving Britain to "shore up a crumbling continental empire" (when really, as he points out, they are last seen marching to fight the current ruler of that empire).
Nullis in verba

I have not checked this forum frequently since 2013, but I hope that these old posts have some value. I now have a blog on books, swords, and the curious things humans do with them.
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#7
(06-22-2019, 07:43 PM)Sean Manning Wrote: maps with frightening sharp pointy ethnic labels burrowing into the soft vitals of the Roman empire which could have been drawn in 1900

Yes, they do still turn up pretty frequently! - Bryan Ward-Perkins includes one in his 'Fall of Rome', just to make fun of it, but I think he points out that it's difficult to explain movements of armies and 'peoples' without maps and arrows...


(06-22-2019, 07:43 PM)Sean Manning Wrote: some distinguished Late Antique historians use "uncontrolled immigration" to market their books. 

This is often mentioned (by other historians complaining about it), but I haven't come across many actual claims of this sort recently; it seems to be a bit of a chimera, but perhaps I haven't read widely enough into the subject.

Kulikowski has suggested a couple of times (including in the interview above) that Peter Heather is a sort of revenant of 19th-century volkswanderung thinking, but from what I've read of Heather's work he seems very keen to deny anything of the sort.

Who are you thinking of?


(06-22-2019, 07:43 PM)Sean Manning Wrote: Guy Halsall can still find quotes from recent scholarly books about the legions leaving Britain to "shore up a crumbling continental empire"

That's from Worlds of Arthur, isn't it? From what I can see (I've just had a look at the notes at the back of the book and checked!) it seems to be from a 2003 essay on vernacular Latin by A. Orchard - that Halsall had to dig that far to find something suitably unreconstructed suggests that these views might not be all that common nowadays after all!
Nathan Ross
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#8
(06-22-2019, 11:22 PM)Nathan Ross Wrote:
(06-22-2019, 07:43 PM)Sean Manning Wrote: some distinguished Late Antique historians use "uncontrolled immigration" to market their books. 
This is often mentioned (by other historians complaining about it), but I haven't come across many actual claims of this sort recently; it seems to be a bit of a chimera, but perhaps I haven't read widely enough into the subject.

...

Who are you thinking of?
I don't know! The main Late Antique specialists I follow are Steve Muhlberger and Guy Halsall who both seem concerned about the way this period is used (here is Halsall's take), I would like to read more auf Deutsch by Roland Steinacher. I would certainly want to read the books by Heather and Ward-Perkins before I took a side in the current drama between them and Halsall.

But given the way widely cited (and even more widely read) writers talk about the Achaemenid empire, I don't have trouble believing the claim: vague ideas about Mongols, Zulus, or Turks, and 19th century stereotypes about the orient, have a lot of influence on how researchers talk about Achaemenid armies.

I hope we can agree that its not hard to find the fall of the Roman empire interpreted that way in the wider culture by people who read books? I think I could find examples but I would have to read people who I really don't want to read.

(06-22-2019, 11:22 PM)Nathan Ross Wrote:
(06-22-2019, 07:43 PM)Sean Manning Wrote: Guy Halsall can still find quotes from recent scholarly books about the legions leaving Britain to "shore up a crumbling continental empire"

That's from Worlds of Arthur, isn't it? From what I can see (I've just had a look at the notes at the back of the book and checked!) it seems to be from a 2003 essay on vernacular Latin by A. Orchard - that Halsall had to dig that far to find something suitably unreconstructed suggests that these views might not be all that common nowadays after all!
Well, something 10 years old by a youngish University of Toronto professor does not seem that obscure to me ... in Achaemenid army studies a lot goes back to folks like Eduard Meyer before WW I. But I have found that when Halsall gets indignant about "this has been demonstrated again and again" its wise to check his footnotes, because sometimes they don't say what they say he says Sad

Also, I think that one problem with the maps with scary arrows is that they often present a 50 year process, which began when the Romans recruited some barbarian soldiers, as a single military campaign like Timur raiding Anatolia and Syria in 1400-1402. And they imply that the 'nation' existed from the start and was a whole nation, and overlook the chance that the generals, at least early on, were trying as hard as possible to be Christians and Romans because that was where the respect and power were located.
Nullis in verba

I have not checked this forum frequently since 2013, but I hope that these old posts have some value. I now have a blog on books, swords, and the curious things humans do with them.
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#9
(06-23-2019, 09:06 AM)Sean Manning Wrote: here is Halsall's take ... the current drama between them and Halsall.

Thanks - I've read Halsall's blog with great interest in the past, but I hadn't seen that post.

There does seem to be a long-running and quite amazingly impassioned beef between certain historians in this field - although I wonder how much of it is powered by the personalities concerned, and their supposed prestige or influence (or lack of it) outside of their immediate academic circle!

I'm only just beginning to read some of the main players, so to speak, but I do suspect that many of their views are not as wildly opposed as some of them might pretend, and there's quite a bit of shouting at straw men going on. Interestingly, one of the best refutals of the 'barbarian invasions brought down the empire' thesis comes from Adrian Goldsworthy, who suggests that the empire collapsed from within, in a process going back to the third century, and small bodies of outside invaders took advantage of the chaos... But as Goldsworthy seems to be considered a 'popular historian' his work is seldom considered in these debates.


(06-23-2019, 09:06 AM)Sean Manning Wrote: its not hard to find the fall of the Roman empire interpreted that way in the wider culture by people who read books?

Oh certainly. But I do wonder whether, even in the widest popular culture, there isn't a vague idea that the old notions of ravaging barbarian hordes are maybe a bit outdated - or perhaps that view is in turn only suggested by populist blowhards who want to 'overturn' such fashionable stuff etc etc?


(06-23-2019, 09:06 AM)Sean Manning Wrote: one problem with the maps with scary arrows is that they often present a 50 year process, which began when the Romans recruited some barbarian soldiers, as a single military campaign

Yes, I agree. Certainly in terms of the Goths and their various movements 378-418: the usual big swooping arrows make them look like one united people, with a plan, perhaps directed by Goth-Command... Ultimately all these big movement maps resemble divisional battle plans from the Franco-Prussian war or something, which was probably around the time they first appeared in historical studies!

But as far as Alaric is concerned, the debate around 'immigration' is superfluous anyway - his army/nation/whatever had its genesis within the Roman empire. Interestingly, I notice that Jerome refers to the men who sacked Rome in 410 as 'a congress of deserters and slaves'.

But this is a long way, I think, from presenting Alaric as a 'normal' Roman general, like Stilicho or Arbogast, leading a normal-for-the-5th-century Roman army, and that the sack of Rome was 'the most genteel of sacks, with all sorts of niceties being observed... and has more the appearance of a troop of soldiers getting a bit out of hand' (as Ralph Mathison puts it, in 'Roma a Gothis Alarico duce capta est', 2013).
Nathan Ross
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#10
(06-23-2019, 10:36 AM)Nathan Ross Wrote:
(06-23-2019, 09:06 AM)Sean Manning Wrote: here is Halsall's take ... the current drama between them and Halsall.

Thanks - I've read Halsall's blog with great interest in the past, but I hadn't seen that post.

There does seem to be a long-running and quite amazingly impassioned beef between certain historians in this field - although I wonder how much of it is powered by the personalities concerned, and their supposed prestige or influence (or lack of it) outside of their immediate academic circle!
Yes, I work in Achaemenid studies, the other end of classical antiquity (and in Austria not the UK) so if I wanted to get a handle on the situation, the first thing to do would be to read books by three or so other researchers. I am a little bit uncomfortable seeing scholars call their colleagues "not the sharpest knife in the drawer" in footnotes, it seems that that could do as much to interrupt someone's career as sinister back-room dealings and old boys' networks.

I will say this: a very large minority of the US military sees themselves as Spartans or legionaries standing up against the oriental or barbarian hordes Sad And it does not take much digging to find people who present themselves as defending civilized, Christian Europe against barbarian, Moslem intruders and cite Charles Martel at Tours as a model. Nor people in the wider culture whose interpretations of archaeogenetics sound like something they should be working out in private with a lover rather that in public as a scholarly project. So to me, saying that the old racist and colonialist ideas are behind us is not just wrong but dangerous.

But I also agree that its wrong to excuse or minimize atrocities committed by a disadvantaged group (or blame them on anonymous lower-class 'soldiers'). I have a blog post sketched about how a BBC In Our Time interview talked about Ottoman atrocities in the 16th century without using phrases like "flayed alive" or "contrary to the terms of surrender, the prisoners were all killed."
Nullis in verba

I have not checked this forum frequently since 2013, but I hope that these old posts have some value. I now have a blog on books, swords, and the curious things humans do with them.
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#11
(06-23-2019, 12:56 PM)Sean Manning Wrote: saying that the old racist and colonialist ideas are behind us is not just wrong but dangerous.

Yes, that's unfortunately true. Although I would suggest that those sustaining and promoting ideas like that are not drawing their inspiration from the likes of Bryan Ward-Perkins or Peter Heather - they care little about the disputes of contemporary liberal academia, or any sort of considered study.

To an extent, of course, the popular view is shaped by the academic one, but I suspect that anyone who thinks that the Roman empire fell because of 'uncontrolled immigration' is more likely to have their view challenged by reading Heather's work (for example) than confirmed by it!


(06-23-2019, 12:56 PM)Sean Manning Wrote: But I also agree that its wrong to excuse or minimize atrocities committed by a disadvantaged group (or blame them on anonymous lower-class 'soldiers').

Quite so. It's this minimisation of atrocity (which often fades into excusing or exonerating the perpetrators, or even blaming the victims) that I find least palatable.

There's an intriguing comment from Isidore of Seville about the AD410 sack of Rome, claiming that Alaric ordered "none of the Romans who would be found in Christ's places would be treated according to the laws of war". We might ask what the 'laws of war' were in the early 5th century... We might also ask what the maximum capacity of the churches of Rome might have been at the time - twenty thousand, perhaps, in total? That leaves a lot of defenceless citizens fully exposed to Gothic 'treatment'... [Image: shocked.png]
Nathan Ross
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#12
(06-23-2019, 01:19 PM)Nathan Ross Wrote:
(06-23-2019, 12:56 PM)Sean Manning Wrote: saying that the old racist and colonialist ideas are behind us is not just wrong but dangerous.

Yes, that's unfortunately true. Although I would suggest that those sustaining and promoting ideas like that are not drawing their inspiration from the likes of Bryan Ward-Perkins or Peter Heather - they care little about the disputes of contemporary liberal academia, or any sort of considered study.
But the novelists and political commentators get their ideas from TV personalities and pop books, and the TV personalities and pop books get their ideas from academic books aimed at a broad audience, and the broad academic books draw on carefully written research for specialists. So ideas still ripple outwards from academe to the broader public.

Many of the strange ideas about Achaemenid armies in books and videos by people without a lot of training in ancient history are pretty faithful extrapolations of ideas from academics like W.W. How, Robin Lane Fox, Peter Green, Paul Rahe, VDH, or John Keegan, who in turn got their ideas from stereotypes about the east in pop culture. As academics, we can't say "we had nothing to do with the guys with lambadas on their riot shields" (especially when we specifically boost our friends' books aimed at a large audience and overlook aspects which would cause us to dismiss someone else's book as not scholarly).
Nullis in verba

I have not checked this forum frequently since 2013, but I hope that these old posts have some value. I now have a blog on books, swords, and the curious things humans do with them.
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#13
(06-23-2019, 01:51 PM)Sean Manning Wrote: So ideas still ripple outwards from academe to the broader public. 

...As academics, we can't say "we had nothing to do with the guys with lambadas on their riot shields" (especially when we specifically boost our friends' books aimed at a large audience and overlook aspects which would cause us to dismiss someone else's book as not scholarly).

This is certainly true as well. Although I suspect the field of opinion within current thinking on late antiquity is rather narrower than within (say) Greek or Hellenistic studies - there are no Hanson-type figures there, as far as I'm aware (although I get the impression that some scholars would make that claim about their 'opponents'!)

Would you not say that the grosser manifestations are coming more from the popularity of certain film and TV things ('300', 'Gladiator' etc) than from academia? I can see the link between them, I'm just wondering whether some academics are prone to see a closer relationship than exists in reality.

On the 'outward ripple', I found this lecture by Bryan Ward-Perkins at the 2017 Jaipur Literary Festival very interesting - he's making the same points as usual, from his 2004 book, but what's unusual here are the questions at the end, from an at-least-partially non-western audience, and how he responds to them. Certainly evidence of some 'traditional' thinking among the some of the questioners, but I don't think we could accuse W-P of being freaked out about multiculturalism, or of playing to an anti-immigration agenda.
Nathan Ross
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#14
(06-23-2019, 02:41 PM)Nathan Ross Wrote: Would you not say that the grosser manifestations are coming more from the popularity of certain film and TV things ('300', 'Gladiator' etc) than from academia? I can see the link between them, I'm just wondering whether some academics are prone to see a closer relationship than exists in reality.
Nathan, for things to reach audiences in the tens of millions and up, there has to be decades of work by many people preparing the ideological ground. So on one hand blaming anything in the Zack Snyder film on an academic would be like the fox which peed in the Tigris and said it hoped it was not causing a flood downstream, but for that to be a hit there had to be mass market books reaching a hundred thousand to a million, inspired by midlist nonfiction reaching ten thousand, based on monographs reaching a thousand, derived from articles reaching a hundred.

I think academics often play a role in those middle and upper levels of the chain, influencing people with the audiences of a hundred thousand to a million like David Brin, Steven Pressfield, or Tom Holland who inspire the filmmakers and TV directors (or inspire children who will grow up to become filmmakers and TV directors). That does not mean that they control what their audiences do with it, but they do chose to pass on some things and erase others, and they do chose to keep saying things which get certain audiences very excited.

But like I said, I am not an expert on late antiquity, I have just seen the same ugly pattern play out with classicists, medievalists, and economists who all want the world in 1880 to reflect some timeless truth about the special virtues of Europe and Europeans and not the accident that its a shorter sail from Bristol to Halifax than from Shanghai to Los Angeles, and that western Europe happened to be in an aggressive, expansionist mood when the locals figured out how to sail around Africa.
Nullis in verba

I have not checked this forum frequently since 2013, but I hope that these old posts have some value. I now have a blog on books, swords, and the curious things humans do with them.
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#15
(06-23-2019, 08:10 PM)Sean Manning Wrote: academics often play a role in those middle and upper levels of the chain, influencing people with the audiences of a hundred thousand to a million like... Tom Holland who inspire the filmmakers and TV directors...

Funnily enough, I've noticed (on Twitter) that Halsall seems to reserve the absolute pinnacle of his disdain for Tom Holland in particular! [Image: tongue.png]

I can see that the formation of opinion and popular cultural and political understanding of the past operates on multiple levels, and over considerable periods of time. But I still don't think that any academic historians working on the 'fall of rome' era at the moment (as far as I'm aware, and I would welcome suggestions) is putting out work that could be appropriated by political extremists, whatever personal feuds they might have with each other; the political and cultural ramifications of the era are too well known, and the debate too closely contested.

We can only hope that more popular historians and writers are as scrupulous!
Nathan Ross
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