Recent Faculty Book Contributions:
Thomas Burns
Marcus Collins
Mark Ravina

 


Thomas Burns, Rome and the Barbarians, 100 BC – AD 400 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2003)
Over the last quarter of a century some 3,000 students have taken my courses, and their footprints are on nearly every page of this book. They have helped me to better understand what level of detail is necessary and

which explanations and analogies succeed. Nonetheless, when I signed a contract to do this book some dozen years ago, I had no idea just how difficult would be the task. As those familiar with my previous publications know, I had rarely published on Roman history prior to the fourth century, yet even the fourth century is merely the concluding chapter in this book. At this point in my career, I wanted to tackle truly major issues such as historical perception, ancient concepts of historical causation, group and individual identity, and multicultural exchange. In so doing I hoped to give the barbarians of antiquity, so long a fixture of the public imagination as rough fellows with horned helmets who sacked and destroyed Rome, a more richly textured history than I had ever offered the reader before.

The advantages of surveying more than half a millennium in one relatively slender volume is that often the significance of what took such a very long time to develop in historic time stands out much more clearly when viewed -- to borrow a phrase from Ferdinand Braudel -- in the long dureé. This gain is purchased at considerable expense, beginning with the fact that each chapter and many parts of each chapter might have been a fine subject for an entire book. What to include or exclude is, of course, always the author’s greatest challenge, but in this case it has also provided some of the most interesting insights into my own approaches to synthesis. When faced with how to explain rather than just how to tell the story, what has worked in my classes over the last quarter of a century informed my choice. My goal was to write a history in such a way that students and their teachers will learn not just what scholars think happened and why but also experience a bit of the thrill of exploration. These readers should go away with a keener understanding of the minds and approaches of authors such as Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Ammianus Marcellinus, for example, but also of the ways in which numismatics, comparative methodology, and archaeology are changing the way we look at the ancient world and particularly at the evolving relationship between Rome and its barbarian neighbors.

Another necessary cost of surveying so long an era is that mentally telescoping events is unavoidable. The result is that we tend to dramatize changes that were trivial and to accelerate changes that were glacial. When we note the limited cognizance of and tortoise-like pace of change in the Roman-barbarian relationship among the participants themselves, we discover a historical manifestation of relativity. By the standards of the twentieth century, obsessed with measuring change through the advancement of technology, when even nanoseconds seem to matter greatly, there were virtually no changes in Roman society worthy of comment. When the barbarians come up for literary discussion in ancient texts, they are accorded the same old rhetorical formulas that had worked among the Romans for centuries. The Romans used many types of literature as vehicles for self-analysis; others were more purely for entertainment. History and ethnography satisfied both needs, and their exposition remained essentially constant until Christianity took hold. Since the Romans were so content with these genres and their uses, they held fast to most of the traditional themes within each, including discussion of barbarians. Here too very little changed despite the passing of centuries. Both historical and ethnographic works cast all barbarians as if they were like the famous sculpture of the "dying Galatian": mortally wounded, frozen in heroic anguish, timeless.

Reality was far different. Rome's relations with the barbarians and vice versa slowly but inexorably evolved from general ignorance, hostility, and suspicion toward tolerance, synergy, and integration. As far as Romans and barbarians were concerned the era was a drawn-out period of acculturation, characterized more by continuity than by change and conflict, and leading to the creation of a new Romano-barbarian hybrid society and culture that anticipated the values and traditions of medieval civilization. As scholars we gain personal insight by agreeing and disagreeing with others, and my hope for this book is that it stimulates further discussion of major issues.

Marcus Collins

Marcus Collins, Modern Love: an intimate history of men and women in twentieth century Britain (London: Atlantic, 2003).

If books are like babies, then their first reviews resemble their first day at school. You’ve brought the book into the world after a long and arduous period of gestation, rejoiced when cradling the newborn volume in your hands and learnt to love it for all its imperfections, only for reviewers to jolt you into realising that it no longer belongs to you, but to anyone who cares to read it. Your instinct is to protect your baby, to shield it from every playground bully as it faces the outside world. Yet she must now fend for herself, however much her fate is bound up with your own.

The subject-matter of my brainchild, Modern Love: An Intimate History of Men and Women in Twentieth-Century Britain, ensured that its first schoolday would be spent not in some elite academy, but in the intimidating inner-city public school that constitutes the London press. I knew roughly what reception it was likely to receive from other scholars, as I’d received any amount of feedback when delivering papers, submitting articles and soliciting comments from colleagues and experts in my field. But the press is a foreign country. They do things differently there, as I was to find out from the first sentence of the first review. It read as follows: ‘”History is hopeless on love,” says Marcus Collins, and then proceeds to prove himself wrong, in this subtle and persuasive account of relationships between men and women from the 19th century through to the new millennium.’ Flattering stuff – flattering indeed to be reviewed at all in The Economist – but a shade disturbing too. My misgiving was that the phrase ‘History is hopeless on love’ was not mine but John Vincent’s, a crochety right-wing historian dismissive of the ‘New History’ that I admire. I’d used him in the book as a foil against which to argue, and concluded by stating that ‘the history of love [is]… far less hopeless a discipline than Vincent allows.’ No matter: the reviewer had liked the book, even if he or she hadn’t read it too carefully, and so it survived its initial hazing ritual.

The next review was less complimentary, but equally slapdash in claiming that I’d overlooked a biographical detail that in fact appeared on page 230. I wondered whether the reviewer had got that far in the text. In any case, my book came home crying that day. And the review after that took a little lustre off the first by declaring a chapter deemed ‘fascinating’ by The Economist to be ‘about as exciting as a game of ping-pong’. It was all very perplexing until I realised that reviewers were less concerned about me than about themselves. Though happy to pass off my juiciest anecdotes and choicest phrases as their own, they saw their job as one of free-associating on the book’s topic rather than addressing its central claims. Since the subject was love, I was able to surmise that the reviewers variously bickered over the washing-up, felt deflated by the single life and doubted the value of oral sex.

Since I’d characterised British papers in my book as ‘the most unscrupulous, if entertaining, press in the West’, I shouldn’t have expected anything better. But I did hold out hopes that someone, somewhere would actually engage with my arguments. Then, a full month after the first review had appeared, it actually happened. A lengthy, thoughtful, sensitive and (best of all) effusive notice appeared in The New Statesman. Its author approached the book from the perspective of a young single woman bewildered by options but bereft of certainties: Nobody wants to be a single thirtysomething woman today because it is considered to be a nightmare of desperation - and so it is… Is anything to be done about this? Probably not, if we keep speed dating. Marcus Collins has produced a far more useful contribution to this modern dilemma by writing a history of relations between men and women through the 20th century.

I’d never considered the merits of my book relating to speed dating before, but by this point I was willing to take any compliment going. I was happy to think of myself as having some acute insight into the psyche of Gen X women. I was an oracle, a seer. Or so I liked to believe until I recalled my sundry failed relationships, my obtuseness, fecklessness and selfishness, my being as clueless as Sigmund Freud on the question of ‘what do women want?’ The moral of the story? Don’t believe half of what you hear and none of what you see. Except, that is, in the case of my book, available in a good bookstore near you.


Mark Ravina

Mark Ravina, The Last Samurai : the life and battles of Saigo Takamori (Hoboken, N.J. : John Wiley & Sons, 2003).

My latest book is a biography of Saigo Takamori, the great 19th century

 

Japanese statesman. Saigo was a complex figure. He can be seen either as one of the founders of the modern Japanese state or as a rebel and traitor to that state. As one of the leaders of the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Saigo supported key reforms that defined the new government. Saigo was instrumental in the abolition of the daimyo class and their replacement by centrally appointed governors. He helped forge a new national army and wrote in favor of replacing traditional samurai stipends with government issued bonds. In 1873, however, Saigo quit the government in disgust over its refusal to send him as special envoy to Korea. He returned to his native Satsuma (in far southwestern Japan) and became a symbol of samurai tradition. Rebels appealed for his support in their attacks on the Meiji government, but Saigo refused their requests. In 1877, however, after many of his would-be supporters were dead, he led his own unsuccessful revolt against the government and died in combat.

My book followed a somewhat unexpected course. I started the project in 1998, after I was approached by a commercial press considering a "world biography" series. I was intrigued by the prospect of a book advance and I envisioned a quick, two-year project, based largely on secondary sources. Saigo was, after all, the subject of dozens of biographies in Japanese, and I didn't imagine that I would have much to add. As I began my research, however, I realized that Saigo was much discussed but still poorly researched. Historians had picked over Saigo's letters, but neglected his lectures and his poems. As I read these sources, I began to find a coherent vision behind Saigo’s seemingly paradoxical role as both revolutionary and counter-revolutionary. Saigo was motivated by a romantic vision of the samurai as warrior-yeoman: hardy, selfless and self-reliant. Such men, thought Saigo, could lead Japan into the modern world while maintaining the best of traditional values. This romantic vision was hopelessly impractical and Saigo’s policy pronouncements were often naïve or contradictory. His idealistic view of Japan, however, enthralled much of the Japanese populace. The book also led to some unexpected experiences: this past year I learned to be a television “talking head.” My brief celebrity was the result of a coincidence. My book turned out to have same name as a major Tom Cruise film, and the movie, although not based on my book, was “inspired by” historical characters and events explored in my study. Warner Brothers spent over $40 million promoting the film, and this sparked some genuine curiosity about samurai and 19th century Japan. I did my first television taping last August for a documentary entitled "The Samurai" produced by Greystone Communications for the History Channel. In November I taped a less serious, but entertaining segment for a History Channel series called "History vs. Hollywood." In December I had 30 seconds of fame on CNN, 90 seconds on CNN International, a long interview on NPR with Valerie Jackson, and a bunch of short interviews on syndicated radio programs. It is fashionable to comment on the vapidity of American electronic media, but I was more struck by the range in quality. Some interviewers had read my book in great detail, while others drew on half-remembered clichés about Japan. One producer instructed me to imagine an audience of junior high school students, while others wanted details of Japanese philosophy. The movie, by the way, is hopelessly inaccurate and melodramatic, but I loved it anyway.