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Accuracy in Caput Mundi
Few topics engage both the devotees and the detractors of historical fiction as fiercely as does the question of historical accuracy. When Gladiator burst before the public, gallons of cyber-ink flooded the chat boards over this or that hobnail or belt buckle. It’s amusing how much heat can be spontaneously generated over this sort of thing, seemingly contradicting the First Law of Thermodynamics which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed.<br>
Several posters to this board have begun to explore this subject with regard to fiction about Ancient Rome. Some have railed at certain writers for their inaccuracies, while others have been permanently soured on all historical fiction because of some authors’ carelessness with respect to historical detail. Is this a valid topic for further exploration? Absolutely, provided it does not get out of hand.<br>
Before discussing accuracy, we should define it. With regard to historical fiction, there are essentially three kinds, namely, accuracy of detail, accuracy of event, and accuracy of outlook. Accuracy of detail (as well as its absence) is the easiest to detect. Hey, where did Mark Antony get that Pompeii gladius? Accuracy of event means simply did these events occur, or could they have occurred, at this time and in this context. Let’s give back the Republic to the people, says Marcus Aurelius. Hmmm, sounds fishy. The lastâ€â€Â
Great points! I particularly support the idea that well-written, inspiring historical fiction -- 100% accurate or not -- motivates the next generation of scholars and re-enactors and enthusiasts.<br>
There was a great deal of discussion on this board (see the earlier threads on Off-Topic) about "Gladiator" and whether Ridley Scott had done a disservice or a service to Roman studies with his film. I won't reiterate the points I made there, other than to say that "Gladiator" is a better effort at historicity than most of its predecessors, is a good film technically speaking and possesses the "motivating" qualities that bring the younger generation into classics programs, Latin class, and museums. Even it's a "bad" documentary, "Gladiator" is a good film FOR history, because it inspires viewers to dig deeper.<br>
Classics/ancient history programs at the secondary and collegiate levels are endangered throughout the world, but particularly in the U.S., where classics has been tarred with the brush of the "dead white male" culture that radical scholars and students love to tear down in frenzies of iconoclasm. The intellectual Maenads do this out of ignorance, or as someone put it better, "They destroy that which they do not understand."<br>
Ignorance is a curable condition, but it requires interest on the patient's part in order to treat it. Before all else, we have to spark interest, and show the relevance of what we love about the ancient world to the citizens of the modern world. If books and movies help to achieve this, then I can forgive them their unintentional errors, or even a measure of deliberate "dramatic license."<br>
Once we draw the young people into the classroom, then we school them in actual fact (as we know it). But by then it matters not how dry the facts and truth may be, because the appetite is already whetted -- the learner has absorbed the dream of Rome, or Greece, and is prepared to flesh out the details in a way they never would have been, if not for the initial inspiration. Books, movies, wargames, and drama all provide that inspiration -- I agree that authors and screenwriters deserve credit for helping to keep classics alive.<br>
Jenny <p></p><i></i>
Founder, Roman Army Talk and

We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend.
-- Robert Louis Stevenson
Nice read although I think there really aren't many out there that would disagree with you.<br>
I sort of miss the point. I agree that story telling is an art and even if there are some inaccuracies a story can still be very good. If the goal is story telling then anything can almost go (that is what is great about fairly tales; very unrealsitic but great fun and with a moral too). I cann't speak for the perfectionist (I certainly am not) but my personal position regards hollywood and certain book industry productions, when it comes to stories based on historical facts, is that of frustration. I think how the story could have been told better because I think the historical episodes were far more drammatic. I think that history is full of wonderful stories to tell. I believe that most script writers AND modern novel writers ARE simply professionals that do a job. Some are very "good" at it and all try to make a buck (nothing wrong with that and it doesn't even contrast with making art. Shakespear wanted to get rich too!). Infact the sheer amount of books and novels published is enormous so to consider all of them artists would be too much (and we would have to define art and that is a Pandora's box; we would never end the debate!). They produce merchandise and they give what the public wants. Only occasionally is there a talented writer that has the personality to create a public from scratch. He writes something he is convinced of and hopes there that there intelligent readers somewhere that don't simply want another novel along familiar lines, with all the nice usual stories, substories, situations and descriptive styles, all professionally done of course! Ability yes, a form of industrial creativity yes. The BOOK/NOVEL industry! I clearly like the latter type of author, the one that risks, rather than the former one which is out ONLY to make easy money and probably despises his readers ("they are all too stupid to know the difference"). Instead the author that is willing to bet on the public's intelligence is probably inspired by the stories history is full of. History is NOT predictable, real people are ambiguous as are the forces in history. That is why I get frustrated when I come across banalizations of great (his-)stories! The histories CAN be told more effectively (without being pedantic). History is not boring and it is a shame that the vast public can approach history only through historical novels. But it IS better than nothing.<br>
p.s. human make errors but the errors made might also reveal an attitude. An author of a "costume" novel can legitimately be completely indifferent to the historical setting. He can always declare that his choice was an artistic one and we cann't attack him further. But if he declares to be writing a historical novel but then DOESN't do his homework then he must face the critisms.<br>
p.p.s. The second law of thermodynamics says that there is in time an increase of junk! i.e. the quality drops. As you can see with this example laws or statements used out of context can allow one to come to almost any conclusion. I have just concluded that the evolution towards higher quality mass literature violates thermodynamics! Roll over Clausius?! The solution to this riddle? Global warming! Mass culture can be of better quality of the past but for the masses to be educated and well-off enough to read novels there is a price to pay. To live comfortably the masses must transform the energy stored in nature and inevitably degrade its quality (heat). There can be an increase in the quantity and quality of books but the overall entropy of the universe must increase with the result that the world is more polluted. Clausius smiles. <p></p><i>Edited by: <A HREF=>goffredo</A> at: 6/15/01 11:31:30 am<br></i>
Jeffery Wyss
"Si vos es non secui of solutio tunc vos es secui of preciptate."
Hi Highseas,<br>
I agree with most of what you say there, but not all.<br>
Historians are not expected to make mistakes and their work does not consist solely of criticizing their predecessors. Nevertheless it happens, historians do make mistakes and students sometimes take an unique sort of vengeance on their former professors, or 'tormentors'. However, there's quite enough history to describe and new material is discovered every year to keep them occupied just building on the work of others.<br>
The facts that historians are not expected to make mistakes and that they like to build on the work of their predecessors, demands a different kind of prose, much more explicative and riddled with footnotes. Regrettably, you're right there, that doesn't always make for a good read and Goldsworthys are rare (but there's a difference in style between 'the Roman army at war' and 'The Punic Wars', as the latter is written with a broader audience in mind).<br>
The trouble with historical fiction, be it film, books or otherwise, is that they have a much wider reach, which is both a blessing and a curse. You explained the first, and I quite agree, but it's a curse in the sense that a movie like Gladiator influences the general historical conscience in a way no professional historian can. If/when fictional works are full of historical errors, these may stick in the historical conscience of its audience. There's of course no problem with a wrong clasp or belt here and there, but a Roman Emperor stating that he wants Rome to return to a Republic is a problem, in my opinion, that is.<br>
However, as long as fiction is clearly that, I have no objection whatsoever and I do read and enjoy Pressfield, McCullough and the likes, although I sometimes have to turn off the error-sensors.<br>
(professional historian and Dutchman, now that can't be good?)<br>

Jasper Oorthuys
Webmaster & Editor, Ancient Warfare magazine

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