Dr. Adrian Goldsworthy, on the pitfalls of writing about ancient Roman history.
Adrian Goldsworthy: [00:00:00] If you write about you know, I’ve written about Caesar, I’ve written about Anthony, Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, you’ll never quite know what someone else was thinking when they do something. The danger is that you create an image of what you think Caesar was like, or Cleopatra was like. And then when you come to a gap in the source, you fill it in with, well, this is what my Caesar would have done.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:00:23] That’s a clip from today’s guest, Dr. Adrian Goldsworthy, who is a very excellent and legitimate historian. I mean, PhD, Oxford, many, many books, fellowships, awards recognized historian. And since I’ve been splashing around in those waters a lot lately, I thought it’d be good to talk to a real expert. And you know, that’s really the roots of this show all along. If you want to know about something, you have to be willing to seek out and talk to the experts and talk to experts who have varying opinions, because as we found out, there still are a lot of bullshitters out there. Take, for example, this little bit of history as portrayed in a BBC documentary about the Romans and their sacking of Judea.
Speaker 1: [00:01:19] What’s going on Titus?
Speaker 2: [00:01:21] Another tough general. We’re running out of water supplies, men are tired. We can’t beat this bunch. We might as well give up in 47 days now, dammit. That’s how long the journal said it would last.
Speaker 1: [00:01:35] I got it from one of the prisoners I had.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:01:39] No, I realized that I’ve kind of obsessed on this tiny little bit of history here. But I’m going to have to go over it one more time in order for that clip to make sense, because what they claim to be depicting there is this Bayesian and his son, both of whom go on to be Caesar’s emperors of Rome, and their sacking of Judea. And they’re referring to Josephus, who is the prisoner who has prophesized all this stuff. But here’s the thing. And here’s always been the thing, what I care about, and why I was so excited to have this interview with Dr. Goldsworthy and really dig into the nuts and bolts of how history is done, is it just like bad science, we have to be able to spot bad history. And in particular history like this that has just unbelievably huge ramifications for our culture, because we are whether we’re Christian or Jewish or Muslim, or even if we’re not religious, but in meshed in the Western Christian centered culture, this history is fundamental to understanding who we are. And if the people who were doing this history are not doing it right and are not able to sort out and see through what might be a deception for very understandable political reasons, then we’re likely to really run afoul when we start trying to figure out what this history means for these big pictures, Skeptiko. Who are we? Why are we here, kind of questions? So with that, let me play another extended clip that kind of gets at this problem that I’ve stumbled into, when it comes to how history is sometimes done. That is one of my frustrations, again, coming in to this from the outside being kind of a science and a tech guy and going into your world. And like, I got very interested in Josephus, and I still am very interested in Josephus. But I’m also interested in the parapolitical and I read the Jewish war, and I read, okay, this is propaganda literature. We shouldn’t trust anything that he says really, but he has one agenda. And then I look at stories in there using the source in there. It’s the old analogy of, I lost my keys in the parking lot. But I’m gonna look over here under the streetlight because the light is better. It’s like, you’re not gonna find it there. This is one of my favorite and this is a highly regarded, highly respected Josephus expert in historian who writes claims to, quote unquote, want to make up broadly post-colonial perspective on the hybrid identities of insiderness, outsiderness, when revisiting Josephus, and I’m like, okay, but don’t you have to start with, what’s his motivation? What was his agenda? What is he telling us and how does that conform with what we know about how the history plays out?
Adrian Goldsworthy: [00:04:54] Exactly. I mean, it’s when I was doing my doctorate, they would trust only a section but Some of the faculty was trying to push all this postmodern narratological thought onto us that was clearly nonsense. And it was this assumption that there is no reality. Therefore, all the treaties are stories. That’s all they are. I never quite understood how someone felt that they would then there was a good reason for anybody to pay them to do this, if they were saying it’s all nonsense, but I’m gonna tell you some stories about it. My reality is as good as yours. It is not. And the thing with Josephus is, …
Alex Tsakiris: [00:05:27] So we cover a lot of ground on this interview with Dr. Adrian Goldsworthy, who is by the way fantastic guest went all over the map when I took him in all sorts of different places that he probably doesn’t normally go. And he just handed it off, because like all thinkers of any substance, they don’t mind being pushed a little bit being challenged with tough questions. In fact, it’s my experience that they love it because they love thinking outside of the box. So this turned out to be an interview that I really, really enjoyed. I had to prepare for it a lot, because I really don’t know that much about history. But I enjoyed every second of it. I hope you do too.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:06:07] Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science and spirituality, with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakirirs. And today we welcome Dr. Adrian Goldsworthy to Skeptiko. So this being a show primarily about science, consciousness and spirituality. We don’t have many opportunities to interview top notch historians. But we certainly have one today. Dr. Adrian Goldsworthy is a super impressive guy, doctorate Oxford, Research Fellowship Cardiff, Assistant Professor at University of Notre Dame, the one in London, not the one in South Bend, Indiana. And then there are the books really quite amazing, but also very readable books on Roman history, Roman warfare, his specialty, some novels thrown in there as well, but many, many about all these famous Roman figures that we, I don’t know, still feel so close to and they feel so relevant in our lives. So one other thing I just wanted to mention, check this out. A lot of these books can be read for free, on Kindle unlimited if you are so inclined, but what a great, great opportunity you can buy him too I’m sure, Adrian would appreciate that. But you know what he makes a little bit of dough if you just read him on unlimited as well. So that’s there, and just an amazing body of work that is ever increasing, because this guy is really high quality, but he’s also prolific. So Dr. Goldsworthy, it’s absolutely terrific to have you with us today. Thanks so much for joining me.
Adrian Goldsworthy: [00:07:56] Thank you for inviting me.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:07:58] So as I mentioned, ancient history is really out of my swing zone. But I think I like so many people who read your fantastic books are fascinated with the Romans, fascinated with this history. When did that fascination kind of come to life for you?
Adrian Goldsworthy: [00:08:19] When I was very young, really it’s part of it was seeing some of the old epic movies on the television. Every Christmas or Easter holiday BBC would be showing Spartacus or Quo Vadis, or one of these things. And I started to get books about the Romans, and then it’d be this insufferable little child who was telling you what was wrong with all the equipment and things they were wearing. But it helped where I grew up and where I live. Now there’s a remains as Roman amphitheater remains of a Roman army base 25 miles away. So, it felt like my history, I could go and crawl over the stones the Romans left behind. And that always made it history in general, just fascinates me. And I can go anywhere or see a book about anything and easily get distracted and think, “Oh, wow, that’s interesting.” And my tendency is always to read a lot on anything I start if I become interested. So I’m easily distracted. But there’s something about the Romans that I returned to all the time because, apart from their influence on Western culture, there’s so many things we refer to that have a Roman origin, but we don’t necessarily realize it. So finding out why we do this. Why we say that, no, why we write stories that way. These sorts of things are all interesting. But in the end, you can say about the Romans, the one thing they never were was dull. So even though you wouldn’t necessarily want to have them living next door to you, or the Roman Empire out there today. It’s very exciting stuff. It’s interesting. It’s dramatic. It’s over the top, sometimes it’s appalling, but it’s never dull. So after all these years of studying it full time, it’s still absolutely fascinates me and I’m still learning lots of new things. So, I can’t see the fascination going away. It’s just nice that I think, as I say, a lot of people, you hear something or you read something, and then it’ll spark a memory. So I remember being in a, we’re doing some filming once and chatting to one of the cameraman who said, “Also, what’s this? You know, crossing the Rubicon? What does that mean?” Because it had come up in what we were filming. So talking about that, and it was just, “Oh, yeah, that’s.” So, it’s there. It’s sort of lurking in the shadows. And it’s just more interesting when you know more.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:10:28] That is such an interesting point. Because I do think we all have this sense that we’re looking into the mirror when we look at the Romans, but at the same time, is that overblown do you think sometimes I think this is something you wrestle with a little bit in your writing is that are we sometimes prone to draw too many parallels too many links?
Adrian Goldsworthy: [00:10:50] I always try to write the history and not go in saying this is going to give us lessons for today. I think in some cases, there are lessons for today. But if you go looking for something, you will find it, in the sources, consciously or unconsciously, you will see things that way. It’s much better to try and see, “Well, what is it we actually know” and with the ancient world, so often what we don’t know, because so much material has been lost. And that’s particularly true of many of the sort of what would have been a natural assumption. For a Roman, though, again, what does it mean to be a Roman, this empire was vast, it lasted a long time, Roman citizenship is really a legal status, there are people from all over the world with and you weren’t expected to conform in every aspect of your life. So that no, it’s quite interesting when you look at Pliny who had arrested Christians brought before him. And there’s this famous letter where he writes and portrays and saying, “Well, this is what I’ve been doing, is this the right thing” and gets the Emperor’s replying. Part of it is, as far as he was concerned, they should have just lied, said, “I don’t believe that” and gone their way. And nobody would have cared what they were doing in their private life. But it’s this very Roman thing, when authority says to you, this is what you should do, you must do it, you must conform. But most of the time, you have all these people around the Empire who are Roman. They weren’t, it wasn’t a one size fits all society. But there were some things you’re supposed to share with everyone else. But I believe that human nature hasn’t changed over the millennia, I think human beings are essentially the same. Yes, different cultures have different assumptions, different languages even make you think, in different ways. And there are, I’m getting to the stage in my life, where with a young son of seven, I’m seeing things that are very different for him growing up compared to my day, the idea that if anyone had told me when I was seven, that all telephones would no longer be plugged into the wall and would have a camera in them. So, there’s lots of different stuff, but basically, human emotions, human behavior, so much as the same. So many things repeat themselves, not necessarily identically. But similarly enough. And really, if it wasn’t like that, we wouldn’t be able to write history at all, because if the Romans were completely alien, then you wouldn’t read Cicero and read one of his letters where he’s deeply upset by the death of his daughter, or he’s worried about family things that are very, alongside all the politics alongside the assumptions that they make about the world that are very different to us. They are people. Deep down, they’ve got those same emotions, the same biological things there that are driving them. So, they are a lot like us.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:13:42] I think that’s so fascinating in so many ways. And it kind of leads into a lot of the things that I did want to ask you about today. Because I think, history as an academic discipline, is in a very curious state, and has been for a while, and I find your books, subtly subversive, in some interesting little ways. And one of the ways is what you just talked about in terms of the human factor, and you bring that to life in an undeniable way. So let’s just touch on something, the great man theory, what is it? What do you think about it? And what do you think your books tell us about that?
Adrian Goldsworthy: [00:14:27] It’s been the trend in academia for a long time to deny this at all. Everything has to be the cause of much wider trends, their social trends, their economic, their technological in terms of how does the printing press and its development, change the way people act and think how the population sizes or the ability to produce food, produce other goods. And all of that I’m not denying its importance in any way whatsoever. But what’s always striking is if you sat with the same people in the common room at a university when they talked about politics, whether it’s politics within the departments, which often in universities are fairly viciously waged, compared to what’s happening at state level, national level, whatever it might be, they talk about personalities all the time. And they don’t talk so much about well, of course, this is the trend and everybody must do this. In our lives, you notice, there are people who may be in positions of authority, whatever that is, in a small club, society, a church, department at a business or whatever. And their personality affects everybody around them. And sometimes the people who aren’t officially in charge, but have big personalities or a particular influence, influence the way others behave. It’s obvious, as soon as you look at life, it’s obvious as soon as you look at your own experience, and there are the people who make a big difference.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:15:52] It doesn’t even fall just in one category. I mean, if we want to kind of be more expansive and more inclusive, which hell why not, we certainly have been less so in the past. I mean, it’s not just Julius Caesar and Augustus, it’s Bodaka. It’s Genghis Khan, it’s right down the list, right it’s Spartacus. And so it’s, I don’t know why that we push against that so much. But I fear that it’s kind of has some other bigger issues in terms of how we want to see ourselves in the world and how we want to see ourselves as less than human in some ways that kind of conform to other ideas.
Adrian Goldsworthy: [00:16:29] It is, although when it comes down to it, everybody lives their life as a biography. And they are very concerned about what affects them personally, there are these altruistic people who say, “Yeah, this is bad for me, but it’s good for the country, it’s good for the wider population, but most of us have that drive to eat, to feed, to have, what wealth we need, the things we want. We don’t have so there has always been this contrast, and that people can somehow divorce their actual lives and their experience from how they’re studying history. And again, there is a great danger, if you write about, I’ve written about Caesar I’ve written about Antony, Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, particularly in the ancient world, but some extent even in the modern world, you’ll never quite know what someone else was thinking. When they do something. And the extent to which they are thinking rationally, or they’ve just got up, they’ve had a bad cold the last few days, they don’t feel well, they’re still sleeping, they say go and do this to someone. And for most of us, what we say doesn’t matter. But for some people it really does, because they’re they have they’re in positions of authority. The danger is that you create an image of what you think Caesar was like, or Cleopatra was like, and then when you come to a gap in the source, you fill it in with, well, this is what my Caesar would have done. And I try always to avoid that. But in the end, you have to think it’s rather like a big contrast is always made between Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, the one gets murdered spectacularly on the Ides of March stabbed to death by Brutus and Cassius list sort of thing. Augustus becomes the first proper emperor creates the principate, this system that will last for centuries. And the classic contrast is, well, of course, this shows he’s much more politically savvy, he understands, he doesn’t upset the Senate and all this sort of thing. Until you actually look and then see that Caesar was only in Rome for barely half a year, having fought Civil War constantly, and then is murdered, and he’s murdered by people who by the time we get to Augustus, they’re all dead. And most of the people who thought like, I mean, everyone’s watched, and this is what happens if you think and act that way. Augustus has decades, he lives far longer than anyone expects, and he survives, and he doesn’t have to keep fighting Civil War, it’s a different. So you’re comparing but if you look and look chronologically, look what Caesars actually doing, where he is, what he was doing, then all these ideas, well, he should have thought of a solution to this he should have done that, he didn’t have the time. It’s like Alexander the Great dreaming that he was planning this great society, this great new empire that would do this and do that. What he’s actually doing is riding, marching on foot, traveling, sleeping under canvas, fighting lots of battles, but nearly all his life, he doesn’t have a lot of time. And in that sort of situation, those more immediate factors like the people trying to kill you, will probably fill your mind to a degree that any of us know when we really busy doing something, the abstract thoughts don’t really come and the more simply you’re having to live if you’re struggling to stay warm at night because you’re camping and the weather’s turned bad and you’re getting enough to eat [unclear 19:37] get a fire lit. Those things stop you thinking necessarily, might clear your mind and you might come back from that trip. It’s so easy to turn these people just merely representatives of ideas, and not flesh and blood human beings that tend to be a bit complicated and often contradictory and often might say, I believe this that the other but there are aspects of their life where they don’t quite live up to that because we’re all human, we all make mistakes, we’re all flawed. And many of us will, can easily convince ourselves that when it’s okay if I do that, so it’s trying to make that history human. If it isn’t human, then I don’t think it’s really history, it becomes just abstract ideas that might be very clever, but probably have a little basis in reality.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:20:21] Awesome! I love all that. And I would also wrap it into something you just talked about, but I love the way you put it here. Hindsight is the enemy of history. And I think maybe, you want to expound on that just a little bit in terms of no matter how straight you’re trying to play it as a historian, it’s really, really hard not to fall into that trap, isn’t it?
Adrian Goldsworthy: [00:20:41] Well, it is. I mean, that was the really the idea behind via the Philip and Alexander, the great book that I did a couple years ago. And that’s Alexander the Great’s famous, we all know, coming to this story, this is what he’s going to do, he’s gonna come King, very young charge off, go and conquer and end up in India. And then on his way back, we forget about all the things his father had to do before he got there. And we also forget how brief this career was, and that there were plenty of people alive when Alexander died, who could remember a time before his father, which was a time before Macedonia mattered. And Macedonia was a nowhere place, it really wasn’t this military superpower that it became in an incredibly short time. And sometimes I was just reading a novel, just in the last few weeks that was published in 1942. So in the middle of the Second World War, and it’s about somebody in the British Army up until the evacuation from Dunkirk, and it’s all sort of the first nine months of the war, the phony War, when they go to France, expecting to refight the First World War. And the problem is, even within those two years, he’s writing and said, “Well, people don’t remember this saying, they’re talking about this as if somehow we were all stupid, but everybody was expecting things to be like last time, there was no reason to believe it hadn’t happened yet.” And that’s even in somebody’s lifetime, you can often see how quickly we come to accept. We’ve still got quite tight lockdown rules here in the UK. This is a year and a bit on, ask somebody at Christmas 2019 whether they thought this could happen. And would people put up with this, they would probably have said, ‘No’, but you quickly become used to it. And the danger is once you know, that’s what happens, you tend to make it inevitable, and you’re looking for reasons to explain why this happened. Which means you forget the random chance, I mean, famously, even Shakespeare picked it up from Plutarch with Julius Caesar had he actually listened to the warnings of don’t go to the Senate today. What’s he’s about to leave Rome in three days’ time for big campaign not come back for years, so and the sheer chance that Augustus survives these illnesses that are considered no more than on at least one occasion, he hands over his signet ring to a gripper, but he’s expecting to die, everybody believes he’s going to die. But he doesn’t.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:22:58] The flip side of that, that you point out, also, is that we do have the advantage of knowing how things turn out. And that can inform how we interpret these actions, right? So when Augustus is they’re gonna kind of Prop him up and then kind of toss him aside once they get used him because he’s just a kid, right? But he, he manages to become the great Augustus. And then I think we reflect back and we go, that must have been there all along, too, as well. And there’s a truth to that, too. So we got to play both sides of it, don’t you? That’s tricky.
Adrian Goldsworthy: [00:23:32] Oh, certainly. And I mean, when somebody becomes, a great athlete wins, the Olympic gold wins, just started Wimbledon, the tennis tournament, you’ll think, “Oh, well, there’s a sense that, if they do this more than once, then there’s obviously something with inside them that”, but there’s also the sheer luck, and that they don’t get an injury early in their career. But can somebody can be as promising as anything that goes, something in their head starts, they can’t cope with a life with the pressure that could go, it’s clearly there with Augustus. But you can also that the hard thing is you need to remind yourself that it was perfectly reasonable for Cicero to think, praise the young man, reward him, discard him. Antony to think he’s a boy who has everything to a name because imagine some 19-year-old turns up and say, “Yeah, I’m going to be ruler of the state. I’m going to be the leading man in there, never done anything in my life, but I’ve just inherited all this money in this life”. Now you would react like that he shouldn’t win. So there’s clearly there’s that incredible self-confidence. I mean, I know a lot of people it’s a natural thing when you’re young you think you can do anything, because you haven’t had the disappointments yet. But when you actually go on and do it, and but it’s luck, as well as ability. It’s this combination. And I think, particularly because I’ve saved a lot of military history and that was miserable, my initial interest. You can reduce military history to the economic power the organization of one side against the other so that it becomes inevitable that the union will win the Civil War. It’s inevitable that the allies, particularly once America’s enter the war in 1941, are going to win. Shot didn’t seem like that at the time. And it could have gone wrong. And people could have said, “Look, this is not worth it, we might as well negotiate, let’s settle.” So, narrative history is vital, you can’t understand the confusion, the chaos, the chance factor within battles, as well as all the planning, as well as all the preparation, as well as the bigger social economic picture, all of that matters. But it all comes down to that. The chance, the confusion, the chaos and the bit, you don’t really understand. And the danger is, again, that you see, well, that’s what happens. Everybody must have realized, if you had any sense at all, you must realize this is what’s going to happen is, you know, again, people’s lives aren’t like that. And these great plans don’t always work out.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:26:06] I want to return for just a minute to the human factor issue, because I have a kind of long way around the barn question indulge me but I recently interviewed a guy, Dr. Alexander Omada. He’s quite a prominent Professor of Psychiatry and a doctor down in Brazil. And he’s also kind of a researcher on the intersection between medicine and spirituality. And the kind of headline there from him is, from a worldwide basis, psychiatry and psychology have kind of grown up to the fact that spirituality and religion is just a reality, it relates to our health in undeniable ways, you’re much more likely to be in better health, less suicide rate, live longer, live happier, all those things, without attaching any meaning to that. I’m not a religious person, I’m not religious in any way. But he’s saying, “Just follow the facts. And that’s where we go. And that’s where we have to go as a science. And we have to understand that.” One of my frustrations is sometimes when I look at history as an academic discipline, it looks like something written by atheists for atheists, and don’t ever go into anything else. So I love when you address that, as you do when Augustus closes the doors to the temple of Janice, what is he doing there? Is it just ritual? It certainly seems self-serving, to a certain extent calling peace, when we’re in the middle of war, but at the same time, it seems to be interwoven deeply in a spiritual belief system that he has. And isn’t that something we have to process as a part of this all as well, in his history, maybe have a little bit of myopia on the spirituality and religion factor?
Adrian Goldsworthy: [00:28:04] It does, because it’s harder to quantify. And it is not fashionable in academic circles, you’re expected to be sort of generally rather liberal in your political attitudes, and skeptical of religious beliefs, because that’s old fashioned. That’s it, there are plenty of exceptions to that. But that’s the sort of the default setting almost for most academics these days. And it’s a big problem. Because on the one hand, even if you’re not a Christian, or you’re not Jewish, you don’t believe any of these things, if you try and study English literature history, anything until almost the immediate past, and you don’t understand Christianity, and how important that can be to individual, we’re not going to understand why people did things, you’re not going to understand Cromwell or the English Civil War, you’re not going to understand the Enlightenment, even when it’s a reaction against aspects of formal religion. Nevertheless, they’re thinking in ways that are shaped by a moral sense that is shaped in turn by that.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:29:03] And worse yet, in the Romans, we can just throw the pagan term out there and then dismiss it entirely like that is somehow a lesser, rich spiritual experience, then our experience.
Adrian Goldsworthy: [00:29:16] The interesting thing about the word is of course, it means sort of country bumpkin, it’s rustic. The Romans were in the Christian era, dismissing people as just a bunch of pigs who didn’t know anything, and they’re all fashioned in their religion as well. So you almost take this on. One of the problems is that it’s very hard to understand Ancient Religion because there aren’t scriptural texts in the same way, what we have a physical remains, we know that somebody’s built this temple. We know they dedicated this altar because often there’s an inscription saying this is what we did. And the fact they’re spending lots of money but you also get the equivalent sort of widow’s mite, the poorly calf, the cheap one that somebody has thought and even the reverse I mean, one of the striking things just across the Bristol Channel for me is the city of Bath where you’ve got the remains of hot springs that were the Romans developed into a bath complex from the first century onwards, and you get these [unclear 30:12] these little LED tablets where people have inscribed the curse on it, wrapped it up and thrown it down into the hot springs to reach the gods of the underworld. And its always quite sort of banal. It’s whoever be he man or woman, boy or girl, slave or free later Christian or pagan, who stole my towel, if they don’t return it will all these things happens. So but this is clear evidence when lots of people are doing this. And some of them are so formulaic, you might wonder well are there either their books that you copy, this is how you curse someone, or other professionals that you can basically pay some coins to, and they’ll write this for you. But you get, there is clearly belief ritual, all of this is absolutely everywhere, in the ancient world, in so many aspects of life in many, many different forms, many of which we glimpse, but we don’t really understand. And there’s a great danger, you don’t want to make it, if you’re a Christian, assume say that it’s exactly the same as your emotional experience. If you’re an atheist, then you tend to sort of see all religion as a bit weird and wacky. So you’re coming from an outsider, and you just you, you either make it very sort of mechanistic, you know, it’s, I offer you this because I want this in return. And there’s an element of that as there would be with people lighting candles to saints now in Catholic countries. But it isn’t just that it’s perhaps a little a little broad to expand this, but there’s an element in all of this, there is human hope, there are things we don’t know, because this is the future, and it hasn’t happened yet. And we’d like it to happen this way. And we’re trying to make so work out how to get the but there is that people were more likely to do what they they’re doing or to take risks if they have some hope that they will succeed. And that’s true in so many walks of life, and it’s often a form of religion. But again, you will find that some of the atheists are remarkably superstitious. It’s difficult because it’s hard to come to someone say like Augustus, who builds all these temples, revives all these rituals, and yet some of it is politics. But deep down, what does he actually believe? You attend to assume, because we have a few people like Cicero, who are quite cynical of many aspects, and the philosophical schools are becoming this sort of, Oh, you know, that the gods are just this sort of vague record, you know, personifications of a divine thing out there. But even they are saying, well, lots of other people actually believe this. And for this to persist, it’s, I mean, I was just writing something a couple of days ago, this was for a novel, and I was writing about some Christian characters or pagan characters, some Jewish ones, in the early second century AD, and trying to understand what those faiths might have been in a small town, then, particularly from the Jewish perspective, where you’ve had the great temple destroyed and 70, animal sacrifices ended that center, have so much of the has gone. And if you look, archaeologically, it was one point, I was trying to make him a historical note to this book. If you look at somewhere like Galilee, for the second, third centuries AD, there’s almost nothing to show that the population is doing anything that conforms to Jewish ritual. And then suddenly, in the fourth and fifth centuries thing, it’s there, again, it springs up. Now, that can’t have happened unless people have actually remembered all of this. It’s just that they haven’t done anything, that archaeologically in terms of the sort of pottery they’re using, the way they’re designing houses, that there’s nothing visible. But there’s so much of life that isn’t going to be visible in our material culture, as the archaeologists would call it. And it’s so you find lots of these things that that persist, because clearly, people are talking about it when you’re remembering what your grandfather or your grandmother told you. And you might be doing all of these things, not necessarily doing it very publicly, or making a big show of it, but you are doing it and you continue. So it’s a great danger. And because so much of academic study of all disciplines, especially in the arts has become very theoretical. And we have this sense of modeling and we label everything in all these terms that are there to make a sound intelligent, but you lose that contact with the fact that in the end, you again, you’re coming back to people, two families, two generations living, doing their thing and living in a world that like ours is very uncertain, but if anything in most of them are much closer to the bread, I mean, a pandemic on this scale we’ve just had is appalling, but compared to the fires, the plagues that would Ravage the Roman Empire or the Black Death in the middle age, these are, we are very fortunate to be living in 21st century especially in the Western Country where we have access to the scientific medical discoveries, to lifestyle standards of health that are so many are so much higher than they have been in the bulk of human history.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:34:56] I think the complexity and the multi layering of your answer is the only thing we can do in the face of this, and I would tie it back in a couple of ways to what you were talking about earlier, we, as modern people in this culture should not assume that these Romans are any different because we know they’re not different. And then the historian like you goes and brings forth all this stuff and go, “I knew it, they are me, I see them in the mirror.” And I would say the same is true from a spiritual perspective. My thing is, we are all living rich spiritual lives. Whether you’re an atheist, or whether you’re highly religious or spiritual. You still wake up at two o’clock in the morning, staring at the ceiling, wondering what will be the fate of your son? What will be the fate of the ones you love? Where are your ones that you love to have passed on? And would you hear them whispering? And in your dreams you wonder if there’s a reality to that. And then, my thing on this show for a couple of 100 shows saying, “Is there any reality to that?” Well, terminal lucidity in near death experience in reincarnation research at the University of Virginia is all conclusively pointing in the same way, there is this extended consciousness realm that we all do have a sense that’s out there. So if we are somehow in some way we don’t understand, because we don’t understand it, I don’t understand it. But if we are engaged in that extended consciousness realm, then I think it’s only reasonable to assume that so was Julius Caesar, so was Spacey and so we’re and that to write that out of the history seems like a mistake in the same way that you’re saying to not look at it with also kind of a little bit of a suspicious eye and say, “But I also see other motivations that might be involved in the same way that I see him in the modern culture.” So are we in sync on that?
Adrian Goldsworthy: [00:36:51] I think was 77. I mean, one nice example I’d give is, you’ve had a lot of stuff over the years looking at sort of demographics in the Roman Empire and saying, “Well, life expectancy on average is low, because an awful infant mortality is appallingly high. And many women die during childbirth, many children don’t last very long.” And therefore, there’s then being this sort of very rational, rather cold assumption that means the Romans or anybody else [unclear 37:18] didn’t really care when a child died, because well, they do lots of them will have a few more, and it’ll be fine in the long run. And that’s partly because archaeologically, we don’t find so many graves of children. But that’s because children’s bones are desperately fragile, especially in infants. And in many cultures, we don’t find graves at all. So we don’t know how they get disposing of the dead. It’s so they’re doing things that aren’t visible archaeologically. But you’ve only got to go there’s a museum at Corbridge on Hadrian’s Wall, and they have two tombstones in there. And one of them is this little girl, and it’s carved on stone. But it’s like a child’s picture, the way children will draw and they’ll draw the fingers and the thumb, because they know you’ve got four fingers and a thumb. So they draw them all holding a bowl. And it’s this little guy has three years, a couple of months, a few days. And the family and other family obviously have enough money to put this up. But you can’t look at that and tell me these people didn’t care, that they’re not feeling exactly the same emotions that any parent feels when they hold one of those tiny things and just wonder and then to lose it. And yes, they’re in a world where lots of terrible things happen. You know, we’re lucky, we’re very insulated, though, again, some people have to face terrible disease and other disasters, in modern day, in our countries, but it’s just so human and it’s that same sense. And you can see the hope as well that their little girl’s gone somewhere nice, that anyone is going to think in those circumstances, the sense of this wasn’t just flesh and blood that didn’t function properly and then died, and “Oh, well, let’s dispose of it.” So it’s there and it’s there in any period of history, but it’s particularly so in the ancient world, it’s just that, as with so many things, you get glimpses, and you can’t, but deep down anyone today, you can judge their actions, their beliefs on what they do what you know publicly, but you don’t know what they thought, you don’t. So that there’s that element of mystery, but it’s rather like Napoleon, that sense of not being a religious man, but having this sense of his own destiny, his star, that meant that I’m special, I can do these things. And if I do it, I’ll succeed so that he sometimes takes absurd gambles and probably could have stayed Emperor in 1813. If he’d be willing to negotiate, but doesn’t because, “I can win.” And eventually, the dice just don’t go his way and he does… But if you remove that personality again and that personality that’s rooted in a sense of, in his case, Destiny, but of something that is more than simple calculation, then none of it makes sense. And you can’t really explain these things in an accurate way. So I think it needs to be there. As I said, it’s the balance of trying to look at all sides. But this is an element because we’re talking about people.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:40:16] You’ve touched on this a couple times, but let’s talk about it directly. And that is, sources. And I think you bring for us a new kind of understanding of the challenge that historians face. And I’d like how you do it directly. I remember I was reading one of your books, and it had this small, just little bit on a geographer from Crete. And I don’t even know what that means in that time period. But you’re adding just this little tidbit because you’re saying, “Gosh, darn it, I can’t, I can’t fill in all these gaps. And I can’t even trust this all the sources that I have completely, I have to be always looking for these other angles, these other sources” that seems to be such an awesome part of your work, talk to us about the gaps and filling in the gaps and maybe not filling in the gaps.
Adrian Goldsworthy: [00:41:08] Well, there’s so much really, because that the Greeks and the Romans wrote down a huge amount. But we have a tiny, tiny fraction of 1% that’s preserved in any shape, or form. And most of it is just missing. And that’s the formally published books as it were. But again, formally published means that people copy them out, because this is before presses. So, books were expensive things, they’re also big, bulky things to carry around. So we’ve lost a lot of that, but then you’re dealing with a population of, even the conservative estimates the Roman Emperor talking 60, 70 million over centuries. We don’t know what the level of literacy was. But there are clearly a lot of people who never write anything down. It’s quite interesting that it tells you something about the society, the communist form of any writing from the ancient world, from the Roman world is a letter of recommendation, saying, “Do this for my friend, give him a job, give him help. Or imagine you see me when he or she stands before you.” So it tells you about how they’re interacting as people. But there is so much that’s missing. And there is so much where you can see with things like the writing tablets from vendor land, the papyri from Egypt, from the Middle East, [unclear 42:24], it looks very impractical. But in a lot of particularly desert areas, they use broken pieces of pottery as paper. Because if it’s from a big amphur, it’s reasonably flat, and it’s cheap. And what else you’re going to do with it, it’s only good to throw it out so you can write on it. So particularly if you’re sort of not so good copies, but you’ll even the army will send messages on this stuff. And you have these incredible fragments, there’s the one from a little outpost on one of the roads going down to the Red Sea Ports where it talks about an attack by 60 barbarians on this outpost on the caravan that’s been sheltering by an out. But this account is written by an ordinary soldier as far as we can tell. So he’s not even a center in our office. But it’s down to that level. And it sounds straight out of a John Ford Western. I mean, there’s a woman and two children are abducted, they find they are dead. They’re chasing, you could sort of see John Wayne, they’re looking at a really rugged and upset but we’ll get him back sort of thing. And its pure chance it survives. And there’s a big chunk broken out in the middle of it. So we don’t get the full story. And then it’s forwarded on to sort of all the outposts along this road Look, there’s a warning there’s trouble out there do that. So you get these glimpses of the everyday you get the vindolanda writing tablet that is an invitation to a birthday party by the wife of one commander, one garrison to the wife of another so Fisher Leper Deena and it’s interesting because it’s written obviously by a scribe but the last line is written in different handwriting, which is probably the woman’s so it makes it you know, that’s probably the earliest handwriting certainly in Britain, perhaps in Europe by a woman that just about at 8100. But it’s so normal, inviting a friend over because it’s your birthday. But what’s interesting is that from that we’d always thought that these places as army basis, this is we call them forts, fortresses where a legion lives a fort is where an auxiliary unit about a 10th of the size lives, but fought comes up. The idea is, it’s very military it’s about walls and towers and defenses and a garrison of men ready to fight. But the writing tablets make it clear that the commanding officers brought his wife, his children, his slaves, his hunting dogs, his horses, were finding within the barrack blocks their children’s and women shoes and things in the, again it’s one of those surprises you expect the Roman army to be desperately clean about everything but the floor is actually rush matting, and when it gets dirty instead of cleaning it out and putting new stuff in, they just pile more on top. And so these and you can tell from all the remains of the parasites, the insects, you know, this is quite a sort of unhealthy environment. But this is where the but and there are shoes and things that are found in this mat, big things that were clearly covered over in in the dim light, nobody could see because it’s still there now, best part of 18 centuries later. But it’s telling us that this isn’t a forte as we see it, it’s an army base like one today, it’s a garrison town. It’s got the families, it’s got the noisy children running around, and it’s got all the shops outside, it’s got the so it’s a very different thing. And the hints of all of this, were there in the sources. But until things like the vindolanda, tablets and activations came out, nobody put the pieces together. Once you do, it’s obvious that this is what we should have expected. And that it’s obvious that these relatively aristocratic women are trying to have the same sort of social life they’d have back in southern Gaul, or Spain, or Italy, or wherever they came from. And they’re socially networking with their peers and doing and their trading favors. You know, we have another letter from a woman who’s asking a favor of the commander, because she’s a friend of his wife, so they’re doing all these very Greco-Roman things, but on the very, very edge of the Roman Empire as it was then right out in the wilds. So we have it and it’s one of the things to me that’s so fascinating about the ancient world is that there isn’t just one type of source. Now you have the literature, you have the writings of the Cicero’s, the Caesars, the Pliny’s the poet’s, you also have these other texts that maybe get turn up, we’d never have heard of [unclear 46:40] Leper Dina her husband [unclear 46:40], were it not for these writing times, we know nothing about them, other than what’s revealed from this day in, in vindolanda. But in [unclear 46:48] case, we’ve also got one of her shoes. And that’s the thong between the toes break. So rather than repair it, she’s wealthy enough, that gets thrown away by some new ones. But that tells you again about this, one of the children seems to have had some sort of, perhaps mind defect with some health problem, because his shoes wear out, in a strange way on the front side of either sole, either, he’s just doing something in the way that kids will. But how many times you say, “Don’t do that,” yeah, he’s got to stand that way. He’s gonna walk that way.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:47:20] That’s riding on a skateboard.
Adrian Goldsworthy: [00:47:21] And that’s how I that’s something, there’s a story there that in the same way that you’ll often find Roman tiles that have been laid out to dry, and then a dog or a cat has come and walked across them and left the pawprints. And that’s still there. Because when it’s baked in, that has stayed there. And it’s been on the roof. All these little humans touch we get that the archaeology gives us very much a sense of the mundane the day to day. But it’s limited because what you mostly find are the rubbish, the things people threw away, the vindolanda writing tablets, so precious to us, are all the letters, all the paperwork that when somebody was about to move on, they thought, “I’m not carrying that all the way, hundreds of miles, 1000 miles, another province, just shove it on the bonfire.” And because there would as the fire heated up, it’s such thin wood, it’s been lifted off, and landed somewhere else and then got buried and preserved, or there’s one they found a couple of years ago, or a set of tablets that were in a line. And the thinking is that maybe somebody was carrying a basket or a bucket to the fire with a hole in it, and they just dropped out. And then they’re demolishing the fort around them. It’s buried within days. So it’s preserved, so you have the archeology you have these inscriptions, people chose to set up all of this, it’s all telling you about the same world. And academics being academics have a dreadful tendency to separate off into their little disciplines. And I’m gonna pick up any look at inscriptions. I’m an archaeologist, literary texts don’t matter. I’m a historian, the texts of what’s matter, the archaeology doesn’t count.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:48:51] Let’s pick up on that, because that is one of my frustrations, again, coming in to this from the outside being kind of a science and a tech guy and going into your world. And like, I got very interested in Josephus, and I still am very interested in Josephus, but I’m also interested in the political and I read the Jewish war, and I read, okay, this is propaganda literature. We shouldn’t trust anything that he says really, but he has one agenda. And then I look at stories in there using the source in there. It’s the old analogy of, I lost my keys in the parking lot, but I’m gonna look over here under the streetlight because the light is better. It’s like, you’re not gonna find it there. This is one of my favorite and this is a highly regarded, highly respected Josephus expert in historian who writes claims to, quote unquote, want to make a broadly post-colonial perspective on hybrid identities of insiderness, outsiderness, when revisiting Josephus and I’m like, “Okay, but don’t you have to start with? What’s his motivation? What was his agenda? What is he telling us? And how does that conform with what we know about how the history plays out?”
Adrian Goldsworthy: [00:50:11] Exactly. I mean, it’s when I was doing my doctorate, they were trans only a section, but some of the faculty was trying to push, push all this post-modern neuropathological thought onto us.
Was clearly nonsense, you know, and it was this assumption that there is no reality. Therefore, all the treaties are stories. That’s all they are. I never quite understood how someone felt that they would. Then there was a good reason for anybody to pay them to do this. If they were saying it’s all nonsense, but I’m going to tell you some stories about it.
And my reality is as good as yours know it is nonsense. And the thing with Josephus is you can get the extreme cases if you go to, , a site that is, I think it is Gamala up on the Golan Heights, that the storm by the Romans in 67 Josephus described the siege, the archeologist and the local archeological unit took this very seriously.
Cause they have bronze plaques with quotes from Josephus as you go through the breach and all that, but never, that it’s clearly somewhere that was besieged and stormed by the Romans. And it fits well enough. But it also fits in with, at some of the exaggeration, some of the confusion and the, you know, we all get things wrong.
We all have those moments where we say the wrong word. And 2000 years later, you’re looking at thinking, oh no, he must have met something very significant by that. But it’s unfortunate that in the fashion, in modern, academic study of so many disciplines has become this very theoretical base. But almost if you start sponsoring all these words and saying, you’re going to do this postcolonial analysis, it justifies what you’re going to do rugged rather than the actual case, with many of these, these particular approaches, I don’t particularly have that much sympathy with them, but you can be a good historian or a good archeologist and work with that approach.
As long as you treat the evidence sensibly rationally, and you do everything else, like a good historian archeologist or whatever it might be. And it, it does come back to this. I mean, you have the basic problem. If you look at Josephus narrative of the Jews, Or say millennia antiquities and say, well, I don’t believe this because clearly, you know, this is the guy who’s telling you that, um, he’s, you know, with his forties, he’s got is about to be, , you know, with his last few companions, let’s all draw lots to see who sort of who’s the last one to kill everybody else.
You know, this sort of thing, you know, you’re looking at thinking, oh, and it was just luck and divine traits that made that I’m the one who survived. And you know, these poor blokes have had a fast one fold on them by him, which again, it’s, there’s an element where, you know, because in his life, for instance, you know, he’s defending himself against all the accusations made against him by other people.
So there’s an element where some of what went on is common knowledge, at least other people’s versions of it. And yes, you get any people describing the same event and they’re not going to describe it. But, I mean,
Alex Tsakiris: [00:52:52] the thing I was looking at in Jeff Josephus from a pair of political standpoint, which jumps out at me is he comes out and he says, and this is like every, certainly every BBC documentary I’ve watched, but every history channel I’ve watched, in addition to what I’ve read, kind of totally skips over this part.
He comes out and he says, Hey. I figured this out because I am like super Jew. You know, I was down at the temple when I was 14. I knew all this stuff. This is the Messiah.
I’ve read the whole thing. I figured it all out this, I mean, this is so clear your li , serving this agenda that the Romans have that, you know, if I can defeat you with, uh, sticks and arrows. Great. But if I can, co-op your belief system and that reduces your will to fight all the better.
I mean, there’s no other way to read that. I don’t know.
Adrian Goldsworthy: [00:53:40] And it’s clearly on the fact that he wrote an Aramaic version as well. It’s. Jewish people in Babylon, look, you don’t want to do this. You know, it’s this, and it’s, you’re sitting there in Rome. You’ve been made a Roman citizen
Alex Tsakiris: [00:53:52] 200 with 200 of your friends and the Villa of, of the space yen.
Adrian Goldsworthy: [00:53:56] Yeah. Um, it’s so the problem of course is is that if we just decide, we can’t believe anything, he says, then we have very little and you know, there are some things you can verify the details of, of particularly, you know, some of the stuff like the Roman army units, involved names of commanders, we start to identify.
So these people are around, but he’s giving you it’s, it’s the same basic problem. If you look at Julia sees as a kind of conquest of call, you know, think how patent anybody else would have loved to be judged by history purely by their own version of what they did. You know, an opponent was trying to do this on San Halina.
Yeah. I didn’t really lose Waterloo. It was everybody else’s fault. And you know, and I I’d really beaten the British anyway, when those Prussians just turned up and nobody knew that was going to happen, you know, I could never. But again, with all of these things, there’s a lot, they have to, most of them what’s the best propaganda.
And most of the best lines starts with a sort of kernel of truth. If you keep the big things, then you can slip more and more in, because if you start saying wacky stuff from the staff, then no one’s going to read it. So again, I I’ve, I, I confess I’ve used Josephus a lot because there’s a source for the Roman army.
No one else describes the army of that period, actually doing what NAMI is supposed to do and fighting compared to Josephus. And we don’t have anyone else talking about what it’s like to face the Romans. So when you, it talks about, you know, the, the deafening sound of their trumpets and their battle cry, and he claims, well, I was so clever.
I got my man to cover their ears. So we were all right, we didn’t, but it’s, it’s giving you a sense of what it might’ve been like that you don’t otherwise get. So it’s, it’s useful and it’s useful for lots of the often with these people, the things they say almost as an aside. It’s easier to rely upon more, but you need with any of these things you need to come from right from the first you’ve got to have worked out, you know, what’s the agenda, what are they doing?
What are they trying to do? And therefore, how does that affect how I treat all of this? And that’s, you know, that’s sort of basic stuff. You should be doing the problem again, if in an academic discipline, this becomes merely a text, then none of that matters. Reality. Doesn’t matter. You can’t get back to reality anyway, so don’t worry about it.
But you know, it’s striking with Joseph is on the whole, his accounts, his descriptions of buildings tie up very well with the archeology when we have them. Um, there was some peculiar, the allergies. I mean, there’s the idea when he talks about some of these valleys and cousins that are so deep, you can’t see the box.
Awesome. She does a couple of times. And I, I like the one. I did the idea because I wear glasses that maybe he’s just short-sighted and he can’t, but I suspect it is simply exaggeration or in the same way you have all this stuff. We’re going to be about the greatest war in history, which is what you said to DCIS.
And everybody else has said it’s fairly standard in ancient history. Um, with the one of these things, you’d love to have more, you’d love to have someone you could set against this. You’d even like the official Roman version. You know, the commentary is of Titus and Vespasian that he says he, he used, what did they actually say?
And what’s the, it’s rather like, I mean, one of the most frustrating things of all is if you go to Rome, you can see Trajan’s column there in the middle of Trajan’s forum. And it’s got hundreds and hundreds of scenes with thousands of figures, very intricately carved of Roman soldiers, fighting of bridges of, um, force of DC and they’re fighting, but we don’t know the stories of them.
And clearly this is telling a story and there are bits where you’re probably supposed to recognize where this is food. This is what’s going on. Um, you know, the Bayeux tapestry is, is, is famous over here because it’s 10 66 and the Norman Congress. It was something we all did in school. And in my day though, not now, but it’s got these nice bits of Latin captured captions, embroidered into it.
And we know more about the story. This is like not having the captions and not having the story at all.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:57:54] It’s like watching a foreign film and, you know, there’s some cultural references that
Adrian Goldsworthy: [00:57:58] are yes. Um, or something silent, you know, you don’t get, let’s go. So it it’s, that’s the, that’s the big problem. And it’s there in all of anxious because you so rarely get more than one side for the same event.
And, um, you know, one of the main points I tried to make in the book on Phillip and Alexander is that we talk a lot about Alexander the great, and there’s been this great. Um, you know, for a long time, this, this scholarly view that there was this sort of official version and then what they call the Vulgate, the more critical version of Alexander.
And they all go back to these, uh, you know, a few basic sources, but actually all that we have was written down three, 400 years later after Alexander’s death. And we’re just assuming that this is accurate. And we’re assuming that they’ve used the earliest sources. Um, you know, you don’t have in the same way, you can look at first century BC and you have something in Caesar’s own words.
You have lots in Cicero’s own words, you get a sense, you know, from Cicero, you can tell what at least he thought was funny. Some of the jokes that were circulating at the time, the jokes he felt he could make to, uh, to the, the court, but also to the bystanders, the people hanging around in the forum, watching a trial, when it’s going on.
That makes them again, much more human. It gives them more, more of a sense of their personalities than we can ever really get for, um, Phillip and Alexander. So there are these problems and depending on the topic you look at and the subject you look at, the sources will vary. You know, one of the, um, paradox is really is that if you look at the second century D which is the height of the Roman empire, and you’ve got famous emperors, like Trajan Hadrian, Marcus are really is, um, you know, you have, Microsoft really has meditations.
That is a remarkable document because when you, you know, most philosophers come out with great ideas, but they don’t have to put them into a vet. This fellow is in charge of large part of the work. And when he’s talking about how difficult it is to get up on a cold morning out of a warm bed, you know, you immediately recognize that, but it’s also, but he talks very little other than the whole, you know, you must not become too much to Caesar.
You must be tolerant. You must be all of these good things you should aspire to. And the worry that you will be corrupted by power. You know, it’s, it’s, it’s admirable to have someone in that position thinking in this way, but actually that second century period of history, we know very, very little about the archeology is some of the most spectacular from the entire Roman period.
The monuments, I, you know, this is a lot of the great stuff. This is when the empire is at its most prosperous, but we don’t have any good narrative histories of any part.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:00:38] He drew and let me throw it, let me throw out one pet theory, just intelligently it’ll be short, but it has kind of emerged from a couple of different guests that I’ve talked to.
So, , Josephus kind of famously says, Hey, and I have a revelation. You’re going to be, yeah, no Caesar. And the, the copper scrolls, the dead sea scrolls, the copper scroll is a treasure map. And at the bottom of the treasure map, it says, and then this is a copy. Josephus being Josephus super elite among the Jewish elite.
What if he knows basically the idea. What’s in the information contained in that copper scroll. What if he has the treasure map in his head? And what if that is his real bargaining chip with the space? Because it is interesting, isn’t it? That Vespasian who is the soldier, soldier, but really, you know, in unique ways isn’t inline to be the emperor, doesn’t have the bloodline doesn’t, you know, it has kind of been cast out by Nero.
Something happens and now he goes down to Egypt and he seems to have a lot of dough to assemble an army. And he shows up in Rome and everyone’s like, oh, okay. I guess you’re the guy. How far off is that? Do we have anything that would directly contradict
Adrian Goldsworthy: [01:01:50] it? I mean, the thing is you’ve got to remember the timing.
So this is 67. Niro’s still alive until a few months later where all the bad decisions and the craziness has done. I mean, I’ve just been to the British museum, has a very nice exhibition about narrow. Yeah. They’ve tried over the top to be controversial by saying, you know, he was just misunderstood and fire wasn’t his fault.
And yeah, so he persecuted all these Christians, but, you know, that’s sort of thing the Romans did. And it was just hostile sources saying, you know, Nero might’ve started well, but turned into a very bad emperor. And when you think again, take a teenager with no experience of politics, public life, the military, and suddenly say, you’re in charge of the world and nobody’s going to ever say no to you.
Probably not going to go, well, this is the, so it shouldn’t surprise. In fact, it should surprise as it goes as well for as long as it does and you know, the whole killing your mother and that sort of thing, various wives, this it’s, it’s not surprising. so the whole empire is suddenly for the first time, really, since they haven’t went Augusta state and they didn’t know that Tiberius would take over, there’ll be another record.
Civil war is no longer in living memory, but it’s a possibility everyone knows about. So Vespasian yeah. This fellow surrenders and suddenly says, look, look at all these wonderful things. You’re going to be emperor. It’s going to be great. Roman sources are full of these prophecies of people’s future glory.
Some of which may be true. You know, we don’t know if all the people who were told they were going to have great things and it never quite panned out for them. In Vespasian case, he is in charge of the biggest field army that’s operating at the time. And the Eastern provinces have almost a third of the entire Roman army stationed in them.
And part of that is in Egypt, which can’t be governed by a Senator. So can’t produce a claimant to the throne. And when the Syrian governor is willing to do a deal with you, but again, with Fest, Bayesians case, you know, that gala the first successor he’s sending his son Titus to go and say, yes, look, I’m a good little boy.
I’m on your side. He doesn’t, he isn’t the first to commit. It’s only once the fighting started that he then committed because you get to the point where if you’re in charge of an army, you’re either going to die or you’re going to become emperor because no one’s going to trust you. And unless you’re very, very assuredly or Alliance with whoever’s winning, and particularly as the emperors that they’re choosing, don’t seem that good.
And once the Nubian legions join him, then he’s got nearly half the Roman army on his side. So there is an awful lot. And those resources, mind reminders. Well, the east is where the real money is still at this stage. So when people there want to back you, they also want, I mean, the paradox is if you look at the first century, BC, these stern provinces, always back the loser in Rome, civil wars, it’s Pompey, it’s Brutus and Cassius it’s Mark Anthony, but it isn’t really their fault.
It’s just, those are the people who keep going to them, but they give them lots of money. And then the Victor comes along and says, well, you’re on the wrong side. It’d be nice. If you could just, just to be Frank, just reassure me by giving. So I think there’s, there’s plenty of, of logic, but again, had the decisive battle of the civil war is fought by only an advanced guard of troops loyal to the best base.
And if they lost things, might’ve turned out very differently and it’s a confusing night’s engagement, you know, so lots could have gone wrong. And none of these armies are really the veteran troops from Judea. Don’t actually get to the fighting, even though there’s, you know, so these are the ones that, because for long periods in Roman history, the army, the empire so powerful, there isn’t that much fighting going on.
So you don’t have. Armies that are used to fighting on a grand scale, which is what you need to do when you find other Romans. So it tends to make civil wars, all about numbers and a lot less predictable than they might otherwise be. So again, it’d be a question of how I’m looking at it. If I’m looking at it as a historian, I would say there are all those factors and the chance and Vespasian is so unusual.
And even in serotonin, he’s the only man described who, where it said that his character improve. Once he became emperor and he gets a remarkably good press, even though they thought he was mean, they thought he was stingy know, they didn’t really like him. He wasn’t one of the proper aristocracy, but I do wonder if you just had somebody who was genuinely very good, and able, and as well to plan this and lucky which everybody had to be in the Romans were quite happy to acknowledge.
So as the historian, I would tell it that way as a novelist, I would start thinking there’s a good story. And I’d push possibilities in a way, because you can. The historian in me has to say, look, that’s the evidence. As far as it goes, anything else is possible so much as possible. There is so much, we will probably never know the real truth,
Alex Tsakiris: [01:06:30] You bring up some really good, some really, really good. Counter arguments that don’t exactly argue against it, but kind of counter evidence that has to be considered. So I really appreciate that. I’ll tell you what we’re at an hour. Do we have a few more minutes for maybe a lightning round here?
Adrian Goldsworthy: [01:06:46] We could try it.
I’m not very good at short answers, as you may have noticed. No,
Alex Tsakiris: [01:06:50] no, no. Take your time. I I’m, I’m thoroughly enjoying every, every minute of that. And I think the audience will as well, so we’re soaking it up. So my final kind of point was on the Roman way. The Roman playbook, if you will, that you reveal that so many times in somebody different, interesting ways, a couple of them that we’ve all heard that you might want to come comment on is divide and rule.
Uh, another one that I really like that I got from you is spare the conquered, overcome the proud with war. , maybe. Even tie those two together in
Adrian Goldsworthy: [01:07:25] a way that’s the Concord overcome the proud with where I can’t take credit for that. That’s the poet Virgil, who was significantly more talented artists than I’m ever going to be.
But, um, because it’s, although it’s one of those things virtual doesn’t, the Latin doesn’t translate as easily as home as Greek does. So if you read the neared, it can come across as very stilted. When you can read it in LaSeon, there is a richness to the language, but there’s also a subtlety because this is not an epic written for a genuinely heroic society.
This is one it’s more like a modern novel. That’s clever it’s because you’re dealing with, you’re setting it in this ancient past, but actually you’re dealing with very hard politics. That’s got a lot of people killed. , that is really the Roman attitude. I mean, the Romans are obviously aggressive because they ended up owning most of the known world.
As far as that they exist. They don’t, this empire doesn’t just happen better. They’re not peacefully defending themselves. , they are aggressive on the other hand there. They’re not simply aggressive. And they do get to the point where under Augustus they’re deciding, look, we’ve probably got all the bits of the world that are worth having, and we don’t want any more.
It’s just expensive. We don’t know that’s a justification for not fighting more with, and there’s clearly differences of opinion, but, , that is very much the Roman attitude. They, they don’t, they don’t see outsiders as having equal rights or any right to exist. And they don’t see peace as the product of coexistence and friendship and this sort of thing.
They see peace as the product of Roman victory and Roman victory doesn’t have to be going out and killing everybody. And it doesn’t have to be the Romans occupying everywhere. It does
Alex Tsakiris: [01:08:59] have to be total victory and permanent victory, as opposed to what is kind of common of that era, right? And of this era.
And in a lot of
Adrian Goldsworthy: [01:09:07] ways, it’s very much a sense that Roman power is respected and that nobody will do anything you don’t want them to do. You usually don’t actively want them to do very much. I mean, they’re very sort of hands off and the way they run the provinces and they tried to get people to run their own affairs as much as they can.
And that’s partly laziness and partly meanness, but then they’re also it’s, but it’s this sense that once you get to become an enemy and it’s very easy to become an enemy know tribes that simply look at Caesar’s voice, the wrong way become enemies. And there is this, they are very touchy, but again, that’s not that uncommon in the ancient world.
People in the ancient world go to war for almost no reason as we would understand it. , usually because they think they can and it will be beneficial. And there’s a nice story. Nice in useful historical sense rather than what happened of a Roman army advancing in Asia minor in the early second century BC and the advanced guard gets ahead of the main column, the local, see them think, oh, there’s not very many of them.
They don’t look that well, equip let’s attack. They do this, then the whole Roman army turns up and they sent me to, oops, not such a good plan. There’s a lot more of them. And then they send an invoice saying, sorry, we didn’t realize you were strong. Can we be friends? And the Roman sake, fine. Give us so much grain, give us some much money.
And that’s, we’ll forget all about it. They sort of understand this sense that if you can’t and dominate others, if you can’t Rob others, you will. And that therefore, so it is this very dangerous, very predatory world where the Romans make sure they are the biggest baddest spreaders are out there. Um, and they do want their wars to be permed.
They do want to, um, make sure you don’t find them again. So you either cease to exist or you are very much a subordinate, ally and friend that will do what you’re told. , , which means they don’t give up because they expect wars to be fought that way. So they have far more serious and they enjoy third of Hannibal’s safe.
The appalling losses here, flip the Carthaginians inflict on them and they won’t give it. Whereas most normal anxious societies would have given in negotiating them thought, well, maybe 20, 30 years time will happen. Another guy, , the Romans it’s life or death. And one thing, however, to bear in mind with this sort of divide and rule concept, which is clearly how they work, what’s very striking is wherever the Romans go.
Some local leaders, some local communities welcomed them and some see them as an opportunity rather than a threat because the people at the enemy, they really fear and the ones they really hate and care about are the close neighbors. The ones you fought for generation after generation are the ones you can see expanding the Romans are they arrive and you’re faced with a choice.
Do I fight them? Do I join them? If I don’t join them quickly, will my enemies, my rivals join them and then they’ll come. The Romans will help them. So. There are some tribes in Britain, for instance, that never fight the Romans. And that’s true in every province. So it’s it, isn’t this simple sort of resistance against expanding.
It it’s a lot more complicated, but the ancient world is very divided in the first place. And even within individual states, there are always leaders who are thinking, well, I could be in charge. I should be the chief, or I should be the king rather than him. , and you know, you’ll have this, um, I’m about to write a budget at the moment where you get lots of Patheon princes are sent to Rome for an education and every now and again, there’ll be requests.
Can we have one back please, by a faction within the empire. Now most of these people who’ve lived in. Never quite seemed to make it for very long when they go back as king, it might be because the people who have asked for them aren’t as powerful as they think they are, or it might be tacit as claims.
They’ve just become too Roman, you know, they’re no longer thinking like a path, you know, nobleman. They don’t like hunting. They don’t like, they want to read books instead. You know, what sort of thing is that? , , but the difference is, is that you’re not getting Romans going to other countries and other kingdoms, even path.
Yeah. That’s so powerful and waiting to come back. Humans have this, this greats. And of course they, the truly remarkable thing about the Romans is their ability to absorb other people and to make them Roman. And whereas you can say, you know, the sense the experiment, the experience of America has to be, to bring people from all over the world and make them American.
Most empires have gone in there’s very much remainder and elite and then the provinces, the Concord, , but the Romans. Particularly the better off, but quite a large section of Britain, of goal of Spain. I mean, Syria. So you could start to have emperor is like, , Septimius, Severus from north Africa, Hadrian Trajan from Spain.
, Phillip, the arrow, you know, all of these people, that was one of the problems that you face with Jewish society is that particularly as second temple Judaism has developed. Whereas in the past, lots of people, uh, Jews have gone off and volunteered 14 other people’s armies. And that’s a very good way into the Roman system.
There are now taboos. That mean you can’t do that. And the Romans struggled with this idea and they struggle with how to deal with the group that comes. Concert of basically, as I say, tick, the boxes of being Roman performed sacrifices to Jupiter, to the Imperial cult, and then go and believe whatever they like in their home and in their house and do whatever they like.
So that’s one of the reasons for this friction that the aristocracy can’t be absorbed and become Roman and people like Harriet, who obviously are, you know, ambiguous figures in the first place. But they’re trying to straddle this sense of being a king for the Jews, not just in their kingdom, but beyond, but also a Roman and giving temples and endowing, you know, the games in Greece and this sort of thing, and advising a gripper.
And it’s, it’s a very hard tight rope to walk, but it is clearly the Romans were good at ruling it, making this empire work because it does last a very long time. And it falls because it rots away from the inside and this, I don’t buy the idea that simply because of wider demographic, economic, social factors, , you know, there was just, that was just the need for this big empire and it just sort of happened.
This was actively built and preserved for a very long time. And then, , let go as well. So it’s, it’s, it’s a complicated story
Alex Tsakiris: [01:15:15] That’s wonderful answer. And you know, even in the last part of the elites of Judea and them straddling line, it’s no different for every, every other barbarian group.
They’re all doing the same thing in the way that you just so beautifully kind of described. Hey, so one more kind of topic Roman way. To me, it seems so obvious both in our time in the Roman time. And that is that social engineering is always in play, , controlling the narrative, controlling the beliefs.
The aspirations of the people, , , is always. Front and center because it’s part and parcel what we do. It’s called governance. It’s called. If you don’t do it, someone else will do it better. And then they will assassinate you and all that thing. Why do we sometimes kind of want to push against the idea that this para political subterfuge is always in play and we see it is now.
And it was then it’s,
Adrian Goldsworthy: [01:16:12] I suppose it depends on what the group in power trying to do and your own views and reactions do it. But as with anything else to be really successful, the best thing is to encourage people to do something they really want, or that they get something they really like from it. So, with Augustus, this is clear revolution in the way people are thinking and the way they will accept profound change in the way the republic works. And it works differently for different classes, he starts to suddenly for instance, the equities this this social class below the Senate, from Augustus onwards, has a far more prominent role they’ve ever had before.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:16:50] Adrian touch on this cloaking change with tradition, this isn’t a change this is renewal. And that’s social engineering. That’s social engineering.
Adrian Goldsworthy: [01:16:58] Of course, and it’s because people are the same that again, you’ve, as I say, it’s like trying to sell someone, something, persuade them, it’s what they really need, or what they’ve always wanted, even if they didn’t realize that’s what they wanted. It’s there, it’s the way governments work. But it’s often a two-way process, because there is an element of what your population is doing and what it wants its government to do. And it might be less organized and focused. But some of these moves, it’s often very hard to tell where the movement starts. And where the government decides, actually, this is going on, let’s ride it. Let’s see where this takes us. And let’s make sure that it benefits us, rather than necessarily going and sort of, basically sending people around saying, “Hey, this would be a good idea wouldn’t if …
Alex Tsakiris: [01:17:43] proactive versus reactive, I get that confused all the time.
Adrian Goldsworthy: [01:17:47] It clearly made political sense for Constantine, to become Christian, doesn’t mean it wasn’t a profound emotional thing for him as well. And it does mean that there’s enough people out there whose support is worthwhile. So the idea that Christians are a fringe group until suddenly he comes along, it’s official religion and everybody’s Christian. Doesn’t make sense, either. And often, we’re thinking in far too theological away, because we think you’re either a Christian or you’re not. If you’ve come from a polytheistic tradition, where you have this different sense of spirituality, then adding in Jesus or this Jewish God as an extra deity is fine. That’s perfectly you know, but you can do that it doesn’t mean you don’t sacrifice the Dynasis as well. It doesn’t mean you might some, I think, actually, there’s bits of them that are the same, we can be far too structural about it. And again, forget that. But usually these things work, because it’s sort of almost a meeting somewhere in the middle. And that’s why I think sometimes if people try to force drastic change through social engineering, they do it clumsily, as has happened with various revolutions, it can go badly wrong, or it ends up being imposed by force, which often then turns what might have been a well meant idea and just suddenly becomes far more sinister. So it is a two-way process. It isn’t simply from the top down. I think there’s a more of a mix there.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:19:14] Fantastic. So Dr. Goldsworthy in the time that we have left and you’ve been so incredibly generous with your time with us today. Tell us about the books. Tell us about the ones that we see up on the screen. We haven’t really talked a lot about them in detail, Pax Romana is fantastic. So is Augustus and Caesar and some of the other ones and some of your fiction as well. What would you direct someone to who is kind of new to your work but maybe, is interested in what you have to say?
Adrian Goldsworthy: [01:19:49] So much depends on what you like; I don’t expect one person to necessarily like all the different things I write. My books reflect very much the sort of things I like to read, in the end, I’m writing for myself as an audience. They’re the books I’d love to have, but they aren’t out there. And that’s true both of this fiction, the novels or stories as it is of the nonfiction. For the nonfiction, I guess probably one of the biographies are either Caesar or Augustus or Antony Cleopatra. If you want more of a mix of something more Hellenistic, more not simply Roman. They’re a good starting place. And then I Pax Romana talks about how the Empire worked. Was there really peace? How did the frontiers function it helps, I hope you can read it without having prior knowledge of Roman history, but it helps if you have a bit? The story of an individual leader like Augustus, or Caesar is often a more accessible way if you want to start because again, you can just look at it as this is how a politician how a military leader might function. And hopefully, there’ll be enough in there to tell you well, this is how it works for the Romans. And this is how we know about it, this is what we guess. The force, the novels only just come out in in Britain a couple of weeks ago, and the I think the Kindle might be available in the US already. But the printed book won’t be for a month or two. I think that’s August. That’s an adventure story. I basically see them the Roman novels, I’ve written the vindolanda series that they’re basically Westerns, but set in the early, late first early second century AD. And it’s meant to be escapism, I’ve tried to make the world as accurate as possible. And as real, and it’s a great writing a novel is a wonderful thing for historian because you can play around with ideas, because you’ve got to make your world complete. As a historian I can say, we don’t know this, there’s the evidence is so much. And then there is a gap, we simply don’t know. But in a novel, you can’t simply open a door onto nothing. There’s not a new sort of novel. And you’ve so I’ve got to make a world that’s plausible, that fits with all the evidence, but goes beyond that. Because there’s so much we don’t know. So those are fun for me. But I consider those, as I said, it’s escapism, if you want an adventure story, a rattling good yarn, that sort of thing. That’s what those are meant to be. The books are for there. I hope anyone who is interested enough to say pick up the book on Julius Caesar to want to know more about him, will even if they’ve got no prior knowledge of history, or the ancient world will be able to follow the book understandable get something from it. And read what, when all said and done, these are remarkable stories. And though these men did some terrible, terrible things, and no people like actually Cleopatra, they, they weren’t the nicest before around. Nevertheless, there is looking at it, they also lived in extremely difficult, dangerous time. So you have sympathy for them as well. But it’s just trying to understand their names we know, maybe we know the Shakespeare play, maybe we’ve read it at school or seen it on the stage. This is trying to say, well, what’s the reality behind it? And how do the two match up. So, that’s what I try and do, as I say, these are, these are books I would like to read. So because they’re not there, I write them.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:22:56] But you like to read them. And I like to read them too. And I think our audience, I hope you do check them out. And again, Kindle Unlimited, you can get a start and then you won’t be able to stop. That’s the only problem I see is that this guy, the writing, it sucks you in and you will become a fan very quickly. And then the other thing is to have this interview to know that this is someone who really cares about the way that history is done, I think adds a greater depth. I felt that was the case in reading the books. But hearing that today just really makes me even more of a fan of your work. So it’s been an absolutely terrific opportunity having you on and thanks so much.
Adrian Goldsworthy: [01:23:41] Thank you for inviting me. It’s been fun to do.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:23:44] Thanks again to Dr. Adrian Goldsworthy, for joining me today on Skeptiko. The one question IT up from this interview is and I kind of hinted at it at the beginning. What do you make of the state of history as an academic discipline? We talk a lot about science. How does history in particularly the way that history seems to be being done? How does that factor into your personal confidence in what we’re being told about the history that’s being written right now? We’re living in some various dark times, as well as about this ancient history. As always, I’d love to get your thoughts on any of this track me down in the Skeptical Forum, send me an email, whatever works for you. I do have I think some really good shows coming up. Stay with me for all of that. Until next time, take care and bye for now.
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