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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Of Triumphs and Mirrors

What I Learn From Reading Book Reviews

A few weeks ago I saw a mention of an adult book that looked interesting, The Roman Triumph by Mary Beard (she is an expert on ancient Rome who also reviews and comments on books in the field for the TLS, the Times Literary Supplement). That looked interesting — I thought it was about what the Romans had achieved, their accomplishment, the sense in which they had triumphed. But this week the TLS reviewed her book and I saw I was wrong. Here is an excerpt for those who are curious, http://www.hup.harvard.edu/pdf/BEAROT_excerpt.pdf, and I see she has a neat blog aimed at the non-specialist and full of fun opinions, http://timesonline.typepad.com/dons_life/ 

Dr. Beard’s book is actually about the event called a "Triumph" as it was held in Rome — we have all seen these in movies or read about them in books — the victorious general who is awarded a triumph, a grand procession through Rome, with his defeated enemies also paraded — it is all Roman decadence, arms, victory culture. There was a time when I planned to write about a Roman triumph in a book, so I did some basic research, and could list the key events that would take place during the ceremony/parade/celebration. But the whole point of this new book is that the neat package I had assembled is wrong (or at least questionable). Here’s what she says on another blog,

"The best history is not just about WHAT we know about the past. It is also about HOW we know it.

My Roman Triumph explores an amazing ancient ceremony: the lavish parade held after all major Roman victories (or “massacres” – depending on whose side you were on). It could be mind-blowing in its extravagance. Famous works of art, despondent or proudly unbowed prisoners, piles of bullion, captured weapons, even exotic trees were carted through the streets. It is a ceremony that has been imitated by successful generals ever since – including Admiral Dewey who had a triumphal parade, including a cardboard and plaster triumphal arch, down Madison Avenue in 1899.

But my book is also about HOW we reconstruct the ancient ceremony – and whether we can believe what either ancient or modern historians choose to tell us. In fact I explode an awful lot of myths about the triumph."

These are the themes I keep coming back to on this blog — history is not just story, not just diligence and accuracy, it also about how we think about the past. History is about detective work, and imagination, and understanding, but it is also a portrait of how we think at any given moment — it is a mirror of the present as well as a dim effort to see into the past. 

I’ll be following Dr. Beard’s blog, and, I expect, soon adding her book to the pile on my night table.