Call for papers

History in the Making is again calling for papers for a new issue. From first-year undergraduates with a fresh perspective on American politics, to Honours students with original research, History in the Making is the journal for up-and-coming history students.

If you have an assignment, thesis extract, or a submission prepared just for History in the Making, now is the time to submit. We will select a group of authors to work with our editors to improve their submissions and prepare them for publication in late 2017.

Submissions close 7 May 2017.

 

 

History in the Making author in focus: Rebecca Hart

Rebecca Hart is the author of ‘Where There’s a Will: Using Deceased Estate Documents to Inform Family History’, which was published in Volume 4 Number 2 of History in the Making.

Rebecca has a background in midwifery and health science, and is currently studying for a Graduate Diploma in Local, Family and Applied History at the University of New England (UNE).

In this blog post, she explains her interest in history, gives some advice about submitting to History in the Making, and gives her tips for primary archival research.

How did you come to your topic for your article?

My interest began as purely personal as Hannah, the central figure of my article, is my great-great-grandmother. I had always known the story of her being the local midwife, and became more interested in her when I became a midwife myself, and I really wanted to tell her story. Through the Grad Dip in Local, Family & Applied History at UNE I have been able to explore a range of topics around Hannah, including the paperwork relating to her death. The original essay topic was unpacking the distribution of wealth across generations within the family i.e. from Hannah to her children and subsequently onto theirs. It was interesting to see the differences in how each of the children fared and try to understand their circumstances in a socio-economic sense, especially as her daughters were much more successful than her sons. But the differences in the paperwork were also really interesting – both Hannah and Catherine’s wills are rich in clues about their relationships and connections, but dramatically different in tone, content, and intent. This is the aspect I focussed on for my article – can paperwork such as a will tell us about a person? How? Why would Hannah leave a house to Jack, but let Lizzie use it indefinitely? Why would Catherine leave the farmland to Elsie, but deny her the equipment she needed to run it? For me, family history really lives beyond names and dates on a tree and in the stories – both Hannah and Catherine left such tantalising little clues to explore!

Why do you think the study of history is important?

I think studying history gives us context for our lives. Who are we? How did we get here? Where are we going? Taking a midwifery perspective for example, I realised as a student that midwives are not taught a professional history. There is no ‘Florence Nightingale’ heroic identity or image, or stories of skilled pioneer women, respected in their community. Although the regulation of midwifery is now well documented, much of the discourse around midwifery practice is very negative, emphasising baby-farmers, abortionists, and Dickensian ‘Sairy Gamp’ style drunkards, and often couched in ‘us and them’ terms in opposition to the professions of nursing and/or obstetrics. Midwifery has begun a process of re-establishing itself as a discrete profession in the last decade or so, but we have no context for professional identity or professional pride without knowing our history. How can we know who we are or where we are going if we do not know who or where we came from?

What advice would you give to someone considering submitting an article to the journal?

Do it! It is a really interesting process from being told a paper is good and ‘you should publish that’ to producing an article for publication. It was actually fun to be able to ditch the assigned question and reframe it to focus on my choice of topic. The peer-review feedback process was revealing in the way it presented different perspectives to those I had considered, and also provided genuinely constructive criticism on technical aspects of writing and editing. The 1-1 feedback from my assigned editor was invaluable. There was nothing threatening in the process, and everyone I dealt with from the journal was supportive and encouraging. I was much more excited than I expected to see my paper ‘out there’ – tick that goal off the bucket list! – and the reactions of my lecturers, friends & family have been great.

How did you find and access your primary sources?

Most of the primary sources for this paper are available in public archives – Public Record Offices in Northern Ireland (PRONI) and Victoria (PROV), Registry of Births Deaths & Marriages Victoria (BDMVic), National Archives UK and Australia, Parliamentary papers, Convict LINC Tasmania, Victoria Police Museum, and Trove. Some of these are freely available online, for example, many wills in Victoria can be downloaded free from PROV, and LINC provides extensive convict records free. Other resources require a trip to the archive to view and photograph, such as land grants from PROV. Victoria Police service records must be requested through the media unit before a .pdf is emailed. Although they can be valuable, I have so far refused to pay for services such as ancestry.com, but instead accessed them via my local library. These services can be very hit-and-miss: you might spend hours and find nothing or strike absolute gold in minutes. Similarly, you might find nothing in one and loads in another on the exact same person! It can be time consuming and frustrating. Also, you may or may not be able to access actual documents; sometimes only a transcript is available. BDMVic is excellent in that online searching is now free, and certificates are available for immediate download but of course there is a cost, and at $25 per certificate it can become very expensive to explore a family.

Where would you like to take your research next?

I want to do a major research project around Grannie Watts next year, exploring her midwifery practice in rural Victoria 1880-1920.

You’re hosting a dinner party. Which three historical figures are invited?

1. My great-great grandmother Hannah Jane ‘Grannie’ Watts obviously!

2. Mary Gilbert – the pregnant wife of blacksmith James, Mary was the only woman on the Enterprize, which landed in Port Phillip in August 1835.

3. Abraham Lincoln

History in the Making author in focus: David Taylor

History in the Making recently published David Taylor’s article about race and aesthetics in the nineteenth century portraits of Thomas Bock and Benjamin Duterrau.

David is a PhD candidate at the University of Tasmania, where he is writing a thesis about knowledge and information networks in eighteenth century Britain and Europe. He can be found at UTAS, LinkedIn, Academia.edu and Twitter.

Here, he describes his writing process, his experience of the peer review process at History in the Making, and his ideal dinner party.

What did you learn from the peer review process?

I gained an awful lot from the peer review process. For one, it opens your work up to constructive criticism. While you may feel that this kind of thing is a negative thing that you do not need, it’s important to remember that, at most times of your career in history, you will be asked to offer your work up for reading, debate, and criticism. Why not start with History in the Making, where you can get reviews from peers and fellow students, and learn from there? It also allows you to become familiar with the ongoing editing process. Many students come out of high school and into university without the important editing skills that make good work great. Editing is as important as the article itself. It can let down your work if it looks shabbily edited, or not edited at all, no matter how many references you make. Lastly, it taught me to work for reward. You need to set yourself goals as a researcher, and to have a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of publication, is a major bonus.

Why did you choose to study history?

I chose history as much as history chose me. From when I was a little boy, I was exposed to the wonders of history through documentaries and books. As a teenager, I would write fictitious histories of European kingdoms and write myself into their narratives. It might sound obsessive or strange, but I think now that it was history enacting itself through my learning, and vice versa. By writing early and writing a lot, it taught me to develop my thinking, reasoning, editing, and story-telling abilities. So early on, story-telling was as important to me as history itself. The two link together perfectly. Even if history is not your sole passion, it has a way of binding itself to your brain and making you think differently about so many areas of your life.

What’s your writing process?

My writing process is to continuously write. In previous times, I was very much a cerebral researcher, taking thousands of words of notes for an assignment that might be only 500-1000 words in length. That is fine for undergraduate work. When and if you come to postgraduate study, it is important to write continuously, because storing references in a master file or in your head will only get you so far before one or both explode. Writing continuously links to editing continuously, and by the end of a research project, you can be working with a large chunk of good text, instead of starting from scratch! Also, a good lecturer once told me to write up every book that came across my desk. Just write 100-200 words on it, so that you don’t forget later what you read or why you read it.

What’s your favourite history book?

My favourite history book would have to be The Embarrassment of Riches by Simon Schama. It is a study of wealth and culture in the Dutch Golden Age and it is what taught me that history writing doesn’t have to be boring, nor does it have to be strictly academic. The book subconsciously taught some of the most important elements of historical writing: a sharp eye for detail, meticulous research and referencing, and above all, a delivery method that captures the reader. Although I have wandered many different historical paths since first reading it, it is a book I return to in the course of many different investigations. It’s a sign of a good history book, that it becomes a reference guide to many different areas of your work.

Who is a historian you admire and why?

Again, I would return to Simon Schama. A reasonable amount of my lecturers over the course of my studies have crinkled their nose at the mention of his name, as if he were a glass of milk poured on the day of its expiry. I never understood their reaction. There is an unspoken disregard for historians who ‘go mainstream’, as if they’re somehow corrupting the discipline. What Schama has instilled in me is a belief that history is not just for academics and journals, but for everyone, to relate to and to learn from. It is our common heritage, the dirt beneath our feet and the words on the pages before our eyes. We must dust it off, lift it up, and make it presentable to the world, and we must do so with respect to history itself, and not to suit our own ends.

You’re hosting a dinner party. Which three historical figures are invited?

I think the first choice would have to be Rembrandt van Rijn, the famous Dutch Golden Age artist. Not only would be supply interesting conversation, he would also probably paint a quick portrait of our group for posterity. I’ve seen enough time travel movies to know these moments can easily be lost forever. Rembrandt is also highly enigmatic, with a magnetic force around his life and his work that has made or broken the careers of many historians and art historians. Along with him, I think I’d invite the topic of my PhD dissertation, Sir Andrew Mitchell, the British envoy to Prussia during the Seven Years’ War. Not only could this fill in much of my historical research, but he is also a diplomat highly skilled and informed in many different areas, and perhaps there would be no better placed person to enlighten me on the attitudes, beliefs, and world of the eighteenth century than him. His career also crossed paths with many eminent persons of that century, and so it would be like having a reference guide at the table. Having invited a seventeenth and an eighteenth century figure, my last guest would be a Roman, but for a fun evening, let’s go with Caligula. Many of the rumours and anecdotes surrounding the young emperor’s life have persisted for centuries, and while some may be true, many have been brought into question. His fiery determination and acute paranoia for security don’t seem to be in doubt, and also the rich cultural heritage of a young Roman Empire would be too much for my dinner guests to resist. Not only could we be entertained by stories of Rome, but the darker side of Rome would also be fantastic dinner conversation. Maybe we could finally resolve the debate over whether or not he made his horse a Roman consul! It’s in Rome and Greece, too, that my historical inspiration began, so all the more reason to invite this tarnished emperor.

New issue: Volume 4 Number 2

A new issue of History in the Making is out now

After months of painstaking effort by our authors, editors and reviewers, History in the Making is pleased to announce a new issue. In this issue, the journal maintains its high standard of inquisitive, thoughtful works by undergraduates, complemented and honed by a dedicated team of postgraduates.

Two articles in this issue exemplify the exciting and diverse source material available to undergraduate history students. Rebecca Hart provides a close analysis of death certificates, wills, obituaries and deceased estate files to reveal the very personal experiences of a Victorian family. Hart focuses on the experiences and relationships of prominent women within the family, and uncovers the rich stories that can be found in often-dry legal documents. David Taylor accesses interactions between white Tasmanians and indigenous Australians through Benjamin Duterrau and Thomas Bock’s portrayals of Truggernana, Mannalargenna, George Augustus Robinson and their contemporaries, concluding that there is more to these artworks than meets the eye.

Eighteenth and nineteenth century United States history remains a popular topic for our contributors. Hope Williams recounts the activities of abortionist Ann Lohman, known as ‘Madame Restell’, in nineteenth-century New York City. Her career, the controversy with which it was met, and the media coverage of that controversy, are evaluated as manifestations of contemporary social issues. Peter Harney also accesses the social issues that loomed large in the United States at the turn of the nineteenth century, by examining the transformation of punishment from physical violence to architectural power and surveillance. Harney places that transformation in a broader social context of disease, secularisation and industrialisation.

History in the Making continues to publish strong works examining early modern and ancient periods. Jennifer Lord explores the portrayal of female mystics by male and female hagiographers, to identify attitudes to gender in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. She concludes that these mystics were constructed in a way that accommodated their spirituality within existing power structures. Debbie Turkilsen reaches further back, closely examining the rhetorical devices used by Julius Caesar to persuade his audience in The Civil War. She reveals that the text is indeed rhetorical, intended to communicate Caesar’s attitude towards the controversial events described in his work.

Cover 4.2

Peru’s ‘Difficult Times’ and the Ongoing Struggle for Human Rights

The years 1980 to 2000 in Peru have been given a special name in the Quechua language used in parts of the country: ‘sasachakuy tiempo’ or the ‘difficult times’.

During those two decades, a Maoist rebel group known as the Shining Path (or Sendero Luminoso) fought what was effectively a civil war against the Peruvian government and armed forces.

The war was bloody and protracted, with massacres and torture of combatants and civilians common, and both sides guilty of committing atrocities. By the time it ended, approximately 70,000 Peruvians had died and 500,000 people had been internally displaced.

This traumatic period in Peruvian politics has left two distinct legacies that still compete for space in the country’s modern public memory. Continue reading

Music and Dictatorship: The Cultural Legacy of ‘El Proceso’

In 1966, whilst condemning the use of violence in response to a racist United States, Martin Luther King Jr famously said that “a riot is the language of the unheard”. If rioting is the language of the unheard, then music is what gives this language life. Beyond the ubiquitous western obsession with Dylan, Joplin, the Beatles, or Patti Smith, equally impressive is the role Argentine rock- rock nacional- punk and heavy metal played in countering the country’s repressive political dynamics.

Whilst these genres spawned a number of artists that would influence the national music scene to this day, we focus in the contributions of three seminal artists whose responses to the 1970s and ’80s dictatorship contributed to a profound shift in Argentina’s popular culture landscape. Charly Garcia, Los Violadores, and V8 each represent the most complete examples of how rock, punk, and heavy metal respectively interacted with the mainstream culture of the time.

'Los Violadores being searched by police'‘Los Violadores being searched by police’

 

Censorship

In March 1976, the Argentine military seized power and began a dictatorship that would mire the country’s democratic and cultural expression for the next seven years. Referred to by the military junta as ‘the process of national re-organisation’, or ‘el proceso’, this was justified by the government as a necessary response to left-wing ‘subversives’ who were allegedly undermining Argentina’s political and economic stability.

The dictatorship crushed political expression and social outreach. Beyond the military’s political opponents, the hunt for so-called ‘subversives’ also forced journalists, students, social workers, and religious charities into submission. According to the report handed down by the National Commission on the Disappeared in 1984 –Nunca Más– at least 8,960 people were ‘disappeared’ or killed by state hands during the dictatorship and a further 1,300 were detained (human rights groups estimate the true figures at around 30,000). Unofficial estimates put the total at 30,000.

Aside from its impact on broader civil society, the dictatorship also stifled the Argentine arts scene by mandating a puritanical and state-controlled Christian morality and limiting independent cultural expression through censorship and restrictions on public gatherings. Nonetheless, music’s ‘harmful’ influence still infiltrated Argentina’s youth during this time.

In an interview with the Argentina Independent, historian and journalist Sergio Pujol stated that throughout this period the folklore subgenre known as ‘Nueva Canción‘ (New Song) was implicitly associated with the guerillas and left-wing politics, and imbued with notions of protest, testimony, and complaint. Further, the rock nacionalcritique “was aimed at the bourgeois way of life from a hippie consciousness and a countercultural style: closer to [Herbert] Marcuse than Che [Guevara].”

For this reason, junta member Emilio Massera paralleled rock with Marxism and other ‘plagues’ of modernity in a famous speech at the University of El Salvador in 1977. At the same time, other means of dissent such as journalism foundered. Pujol notes that even Rodolfo Walsh’s famous ‘Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta’ was restricted in its social reception, leaving “little more than rock in those years.”

Rock Nacional

At the start of the dictatorship, rock nacional occupied a fraught political space. Leftist Argentines favoured the politically explicit nature of folk, with figures such as assassinated Chilean musician Victor Jara dominating the popular imagination of what the political struggle should entail —collectivism, greater economic equality, and liberation from foreign imperialism.

Rock, on the other hand, equaled hedonism.

In ‘Rock and Dictatorship’, an exploration of the historical evolution and role of rock nacional during this period, Pujol summarises general leftist sentiments: “The music of the people was not —could not be— progressive music. Exceptions excluded, rock musicians were seen as harmless addicts, people a little naïve who perhaps could not understand the nature of imperialism and preferred to lose themselves in the illusions of music in place of the struggle for a better world.”

At the same time, rock national was far removed from the austere cultural dynamics prescribed by the military in its search for “positive and essential” national values. Hence, it received little traction from either side of the trenches.

Charly García's first solo album, 'Yendo de la cama al living'Charly García’s first solo album, ‘Yendo de la cama al living’

Charly García was one of the central figures of rock nacional during the 1970s and ’80s, whose current cultural reach remains strong. García was instrumental in the bands Sui Generis, La Máquina de Hacer Pájaros, and Serú Girán and subsequently forged a successful solo career. His music was not directly rooted in the notion of political struggle but was often largely allegorical and provided an important means through which Argentines could identify with life under an unnamed repressor.

For example, his 1982 solo album ‘Yendo de la Cama al Living’ (‘Going from the Bed to the Living Room’) expressed the feelings of surveillance which many had encountered in the previous decade and which caused many rock nacional artists —including Javier Martinez from Manal, Billy Bond, and Leon Gieco— to leave Argentina to guarantee their personal safety. Acting as a counterpoint to songs about the social uncertainty caused by the Falklands/Malvinas War and the dictatorship, in ‘Collective Unconscious’ García assured the public that despite the social ‘transformer’ the dictatorship represented, the pulse of the country would emerge vibrant following these events: “Nurse your freedom, you will always carry her/Inside your heart/They can corrupt you, you can forget her/But she is always there.” 

The following year, García would remember those who had fallen in the dictatorship and envision a return to democracy in his song ‘The Dinosaurs’. “The friends from the neighborhood may disappear/ The singers on the radio may disappear/ The ones who are in the newspapers may disappear/ The person who you love may disappear…/But the dinosaurs are going to disappear.”

Experts like Pujol and Dario Marchini both challenge the tendency to characterise rock nacional musicians as highly politicised due to the abstract nature of their lyrics and their distance from political dissidence. But for Pujol, as rock nacional became more popular throughout the 1970s and ’80s it also took on a political role in the way it sustained the public sphere.

In an interview with Buenos Aires daily Página 12, Pujol recognised the capacity of rock to cradle solidarity by bringing people together at concerts. “There, rock literally was physically at the forefront, with its public knowing that after jumping up and down at a full Luna Park [Buenos Aires venue], the police would be outside bringing their paddy wagons to get everyone in jail.”

With public gatherings restricted during this time, both touring and choreography became highly politicised acts in themselves. Additionally, with rock nacional not necessarily being embraced as politically explicit music during this period, its capacity to criticise the weakness and complicity of Argentine social institutions and customs with the human rights abuses of this time was, and remains, strong. In Pujol’s opinion, “the most interesting thing Argentine rock had to say, and especially García, was not so much a critique of authoritarianism of the military as the genuflection of Argentine society. Before, during, and after the dictatorship.”

Punk

In the late 1970s, punk was a scarcely recognised genre in Latin America. Beyond the reaches of Argentina, Los Saicos had emerged in Peru during the mid-1960s as possible pioneers of the genre worldwide, around a decade before punk arrived in Britain. In Argentina, Los Voladores (The Flying Ones) formed at the end of the 1970s, in 1981 changing their name to Los Violadores (The Violators).

The documentary ‘Ellos Son Los Violadores‘ (‘They are the Violators’) directed by Juan Riggarozi, explores both the band’s etymology and political impact. In a period where the creation of a distinctly ‘Argentine’ identity was mandated by the dictatorship, members of the band cite foreign artists as inspirational.

The band’s founder and guitarist, Pedro Braun, travelled to London in 1977 and says his artistic trajectory was shaped by its punk scene, whereas singer Pil Trafa visited the United States in 1978. Their first ever concert was in the affluent Belgrano area of Buenos Aires in 1978, and the following year the working class Pil Trafa wrote the defiant song ‘Represión’ —which the band started playing in 1981, when Pil Trafa joined the group— clearly delivering on Pedro Braun’s desire “to cause a shock among society and the people.”

In ‘Represión’ the band juxtaposed scenes of repression in all facets of daily life with the broken promise of economic growth and national progress under the dictatorship: “Repression behind your house/ Repression in the kiosk at the corner/ Repression in the bakery/ Repression 24 hours a day/ Long weeks sacrificed/Tough work, very little pay/ Unemployed people, it doesn’t matter/ where is, beasts, the equality we desire?” 

In this way, Los Violadores were distinct from the rock nacional artists in the manner in which they drew the social battle lines and aimed to challenge what they perceived as the complicity of civil society with the dictatorship. The band’s manifesto of defiance was christened with the song “Uno, dos, ultraviolento’” formally released in 1985. This song references Anthony Burgess’ classic novella on free will ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and satirized conservative Argentine society, “The bad guys in leather/ We want to have fun/ With my Drugs/ Off to the attack we go.

Nonetheless they were not widely patronised by leftist activists, with Pedro Braun stating that “it was like we were historical aliens. The way we stayed together: it was us against the world.”

In this period, the band also collaborated with German punk band Die Toten Hosen to help them tour Buenos Aires in 1980. The German band had contemporaneously released a single entitled ‘Hier Kommt Alex’ (‘Here Comes Alex’) also referencing ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and, like Los Violadores, maintained a strong anti-fascist stance throughout their musical careers.

 

Heavy Metal

Resistance to the dictatorship through music was also present in the heavy metal scene.

V8, one of the most important heavy metal bands in Argentine history, emerged at the end of this period. Given the military government’s highly Christian sensitivity and the ‘hippie’ dimension of Latin folk music, the visceral and confronting nature of V8’s lyrics and performance style were designed to shock civil society.

They dressed solely in black when performing and refused to participate in a concert put on by the military government supporting Argentina in the Falklands/Malvinas War. And in a time when repression was the norm, heavy metal fans found the concerts of bands such as V8 or Riff to be release they needed. This often ended in violence.

In the documentary ‘Heavy Metal’, directed by Juan Astrain, vocalist Alberto Zamarbide stated that their music “was a shout of resistance, very particular in the ‘80s —like punk, like heavy metal… the enemy was the military government.”

“V8 was a catalyst for everything that was being brewing within the youth,” adds former drummer Gustavo Rowek. “It focused all the hate towards the hippies, as a generation that had absolutely failed with their ideas.”

Nowhere was their dissent more apparent than in the particularly explicit song ‘Destruction’: “I no longer believe in anything/ I no longer believe in youI do not believe in anyonebecause no one believes in me/ …but luckily I can see/ What the decision/ The final judgment/ Will be the solution, destruction.”

This rebellious atttitude was not without consequences, either for the musicians or the fans. “Walking around the street, wearing black clothes and long hair, we would end up inside [in prison], it was always the same. I was completely used to it. Sometimes I talk to younger kids and they don’t know the inside of a prison. We knew all the police stations in the City and the Greater Buenos Aires,” laughs Rowek.

V8 in 1983 (photo: Wikipedia)V8 in 1983 (Wikipedia)

As in the case of Los Violadores and Charly García with punk and rock nacional respectively, V8 inspired a new wave of Argentine heavy metal bands from the mid to late 1980s, both increasingly professional and prolific.

Argentina, Politics, and Music Today

Whilst many of its aspects have since been forgotten or cast aside, one of dictatorship’s strongest (albeit unwilling) legacies isthe music produced during that period.

Whereas prior to 1976 rock nacional was a formative genre often heavily influenced by Anglo-Saxon rock, blues, jazz, and folk, today it is a source of national pride. Similarly, military attempts at censorship merely led to the emergence of punk and heavy metal in Argentina as popular sources of cultural expression during and after the dictatorship.

Today in Buenos Aires, a visit to a punk venue such as Salón Puerreydon will soon reveal Los Violadores or even V8 as old favourites. On the city’s airwaves, not a day passes by without the broadcast of Charly García and his contemporaries.

Garcia’s fabled and troublesome dinosaurs, meanwhile, faded to black long ago.

 

Cameron McPhedran 

Cameron McPhedran has traveled extensively through the Americas and lived in Buenos Aires and Berkeley. He is currently studying a Masters of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of New South Wales, and had worked as a reviewer and editor for History in the Making.

This post originally appeared on the Argentina Independent, and we thank them for allowing us to republish it here.

 

Popular Imagination vs. Historical Reality: What does HBO’s Rome reveal about the practice of history?

The release of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in 2000 led to a revival of literary and public interest in antiquity and the historical epic that had remained dormant for thirty-six years – the last successful historical epic about ancient Rome was Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).

While historians tend to disseminate history through scholarly literature, directors disseminate historical narratives through film and storytelling. Both may employ different techniques, methodologies, approaches and target different audiences, but their role remains the same: they interpret, revise and produce a selective history that aligns with contemporary imagination. It is this similarity that has facilitated a partial reconciliation between the two; filmmakers aim to teach history by employing historical consultants to ensure historical ‘accuracy’, while historians turn to film to view, teach, and learn about history and its representation. To analyse film as both an art and text provides insight into the popular imagination of society toward historical events.

HBO’s Rome (2005-7) and Popular Imagination

While Gladiator inspired the return of the epic both in cinema and among historians, the HBO television series Rome shook popular conceptions of ancient Rome. Bruno Heller, executive producer and writer, stated that the primary aim of the series was to ‘deliver something fresh’, namely a historically stimulating and entertaining show that did not ‘take a kind of pastiche approach’ and allowed the audience to engage.[i] Christopher Lockett, a historian of film and popular culture, argued that Rome accounted for popular conceptions of history by deviating from standard depictions to incorporate a series of ‘accidental histories’, whereby the history of Rome is determined by unintended consequences, events and circumstances, that both thematically and narratively, worked toward ‘subtle dislocations of unitary and monolithic power and historical agency’ often found within individual actors like Julius Caesar.[ii] In doing so, the series is just as much about Rome during Caesar’s rule as it is about contemporary conceptions of popular culture and history. In order to analyse this interplay of history and imagination, a comparative study of reviews on websites such as IMDB message boards is illuminative.

According to four online message boards – IMDB, Amazon, Tv.com and Metacritic – reviewers who gave the show ten out of ten stars did so primarily due to its ability to be both historically accurate and entertaining. The general public admired the series’ ability to incorporate both ‘popular and intelligent entertainment and scholarship’ by interweaving ‘historical authenticity’ and ‘quality storytelling’ appropriate for television.[iii] While many recognised that Rome failed in some respects to achieve historical accuracy, they asserted that history itself was an act of storytelling, a ‘piece of art’ that can ideally be moulded to suit the entertaining nature of television.[iv] Reviewers tended to conclude that by playing around with historical facts, the series was able to be appropriately dramatic whereupon ‘fiction helped the story flow’ enough to ‘feel at Rome during Caesar’s day’.[v] By drawing together film as a form of art with history as storytelling, the reviewers emphasise the vitality of the filmmaker’s creative freedom in order to attract and educate the audience.

Untitled2

It comes as no surprise, then, that the creators of Rome attempt to use their creative licence to incorporate ‘historically marginalised and historically invisible actants’ such as Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus – the former a legionary, the latter a centurion – in order to demonstrate how unintentional consequences can shape the course of Roman history.[vi] One reviewer extensively commented on the series’ unique interplay of history and fiction, stating:

What Rome does most successfully, I think, is to make the two least historical characters the most memorable. While Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo are mentioned only in passing in Caesar’s Gallic Wars, here they dominate the storyline, offering a credible backdrop for the main ‘historical’ events and characters whose exploits and fame are well known to the history books. How fitting was it that in the series finale the coldly calculating Octavian, the future Augustus and first emperor of Rome, shakes the hand of lowly plebe Titus Pullo, his only true friend in the world…[vii]

For classicist Monica S. Cyrino it is precisely this interplay that enables Rome to ‘invite the audience into the grand historical account’ and offer viewers ‘a close-up of how history is made’.[viii] By creating a personalised account of these two characters in the retelling of historical events, audiences were able to connect with the events and characters despite the boundaries of time. As one reviewer noted, by incorporating the characters of Pullo and Vorenus, the series was able to ‘remind us [the audience] that these figures were people in all the complexity of motivation that we experience in people today’ – an account that would not have been possible had the perspectives been rooted in aristocratic personalities like Caesar.[ix]

The result is a kind of history that is not driven but ridden; rather than a planned teleology devised by great men, the history of Rome is an accident, comprised of unforeseen circumstances that can be attributed to the problem of antiquity. Classicist Mary Beard’s analysis of the study of ancient history perfectly aligns with the methodology employed by the creators of Rome. Beard wrote:

At its best, the study of ancient history is as much about how we know as what we know. It involves an engagement with all the processes of selection, constructive blindness, revolutionary reinterpretation, and wilful misinterpretation that together produce the ‘facts’… out of the messy, confusing, and contradictory evidence that survives.[x]

Rome most certainly took advantage of the limitations surrounding antiquity to provide a perfect mix of historical accuracy and entertainment in an attempt to distinguish itself from its predecessors. It is precisely this deliberate restructuring of history that causes tensions between historians and filmmakers to emerge.

 

History in Images and History in Words

Central to the debate surrounding the tensions between history and film is historian Robert A. Rosenstone. Rosenstone highlights that academic historians who criticise film for deviating away from historical reality, fail to take into account that written history is just as much shaped by conventions of language and genre as film is by production and popular imagination, especially films representing the ancient past.[xi]

Rome attempts to connect to the audience through its unique medium of visual appeal; it has the advantage to cater to popular imaginations that no other medium can match in terms of depth and breadth of audience influence. Rome’s opening credits successfully offer a sense of familiarity by incorporating a mix of desire, spectacle and triumph with that of a tangible, believable and recognisable past that resonates with the values of the present. This mix is illustrated through the vibrant colours of graffiti written on Roman walls to present an authentic feel to the Roman lifestyle, against the backdrop of markets bustling with people from different social backgrounds.[xii] From the outset, Rome encapsulates everyday life and its peculiarities. As demonstrated in Rome’s dual aim to educate and entertain, the art of filmmaking itself cannot be subject to the standards of academic history.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eDDPdLdiH_E

The argument for historical accuracy is further muddied in relation to visual depictions of antiquity. Like filmmakers, scholars of antiquity have been known to incorporate historical reality and popular imagination in their literary works. Referred to as ‘sensational historiography’, ancient historians were convinced that historical amplification through the elaboration of historical events was a unique and distinguished practice as it generated ‘pleasing effects’ and in turn, stimulated and engaged audiences.[xiii] For example, ancient Greek historian Polybius (ca. 200 – 118 BC) comments on how Phylarchus (c. 215 BC) wrote not to present facts, but to engage his readers, writing ‘carelessly’ and never missing ‘an opportunity to emphasise the lurid details’.[xiv]

Similarly, Rome has taken on historically marginalised ancient figures like Atia Balba Caesonia (58 – 43 BC), the mother of emperor Augustus, and interwoven her in the series as Atia of the Julii. The makers of Rome took several liberties in their representation of Atia: while ancient historian Tacitus (c. 56 – 120 AD) describes her as a religiously pious and admired Roman matron, the Atia of Rome is canny, headstrong and sexually voracious.[xv] The makers of Rome willingly deviated from historical records in an attempt to appeal to popular imagination. One reviewer described Atia as a ‘voracious wonder… bad to her beautiful bones’, with others admiring her portrayal as an ‘ambitious political strategist’.[xvi] Perhaps this is why characters like Atia drew in over three million viewers per episode.[xvii]

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Likewise, the inherent evidentiary problems of antiquity also bring about tensions between historical consultants and filmmakers. Without a ‘universally agreed factual basis for film’, filmmakers are left with no alternative but to succumb to imagination to tell stories of the ancient past.[xviii] If historians are consulted to provide advice on the representation of historical material, they are often called upon only after a script is written or when filming has begun. They rarely have direct involvement in historical filmmaking. Rosenstone contends that this tension primarily arises due to a lack of understanding: few filmmakers are trained historians and few historians are trained filmmakers.[xix] This relationship becomes difficult for historical consultants like Kathleen Coleman who discovered that preference for artistic innovation saw her historical advice be pushed aside in the making of Gladiator, which, for her, was an attitude indicative of the assumption that audiences take no interest in debates concerning historical authenticity in film.[xx]

Interestingly, however, for Jonathan Stamp, the historical consultant of Rome, it is the obligation of filmmakers to entertain the audience by telling stories and it is not for the historical consultant to say what did not happen, but to find ways of presenting an authentic past – to be authentic is to ‘get the details right’ through costumes, architectures, colours, movements, gestures, hairdos, and dynamism of interactions.[xxi] Only then can a historian generate debate among the audience as to the representation of history in film.[xxii] David Eldridge has observed, based on an assessment of three hundred films, that when producing an interpretation of the past, ‘the filmmaker has interacted with professional historiography, public attitudes, political utilisation of history and the conventions of the historical film genre to craft a narrative and style that convey a perspective on the past through cinematic means’.[xxiii] Both the historical consultant and filmmaker produce an interpretation of the past that aligns just enough with historical reality as it does with popular imagination. It is for this reason that Rome has proved popular, both for its appeal – storytelling, excellent writing and authentic historical detail – and repulsiveness – excessive sex, anachronism and soap opera tendencies.

 

The Challenge of the Visual

History and film are seldom grouped together as uniquely individual mediums of historical representation. Ken Burns, a documentary filmmaker, proclaimed that scholars tend to ‘speak only to themselves’ when they present a past that is dense with historical facts, leading to a rising disinterest toward historical studies from the public as history becomes too ‘anti-narrative’.[xxiv] On the other hand, historians like Robert Brent Toplin assert that while academic history can be ‘anti-narrative’, it exposes its readers to historiographical debates and multiple perspectives in a way that film cannot.[xxv] He thus concludes that films ‘rarely give audiences a sense of the challenges in historical representation’ as they ‘imply that the study of history is a tidy operation’.[xxvi] It is precisely this perspective of film that Rome challenges.

Rome proposes an alternative presentation of history; it attempts to challenge popular perceptions of history as being a linear sequence of events by offering an authentic retelling of Rome in which unpredictability reigns supreme. Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus are treated as agents of change; both their luck and misfortune prove crucial to the events of Roman history as depicted in Rome. In this way, Rome is able to cleverly fashion the relationship between everyday history and the history of big events, and offer a new ‘branding’ of the historical epic. According to Stamp, the past helps filmmakers and historians alike to ‘brand’ stories in a way where the audience becomes familiar with a particular storyline or plot and thus rarely anticipate the end result. Rome has attempted to shift popular imagination away from the standard historical genre to ‘offer something fresh’.[xxviii] The world of Rome is therefore ‘much more exotic, and strange, and unexpected, and slightly bizarre than the Rome we have been given all these years’.[xxix]

Indeed, while in the last episode of season one Caesar falls to his death – a historical event universally known, Rome at the same time shook preconceived notions of Caesar’s death by making it appear as an accidental historical event.[xxx] Various historical accounts and literary works explain the multiple warnings Caesar received about his death. Ancient historians Plutarch (c. 46 – 120 AD) and Suetonius (c. 69 – 122 AD), for example, recount that Caesar set off to the Senate house after heavy persuasion from Brutus, surrounded by no other but his contemporaries.[xxxi] In Rome Caesar is accompanied by Lucius Vorenus, Marc Antony and surrounded by a few others. Though instructed by Caesar not to leave his side, Vorenus was pulled aside by Atia’s slave who reported troubles at home. Vorenus’ decision to leave the procession indirectly led to Caesar’s inevitable downfall. In Rome, it is the coincidences of everyday circumstances that trigger major historical events. Through the displacement of hierarchies between fictional and historical actors, the coherence of conventional historiography is transformed to illustrate the contingency of historical action.

By intertwining the history of big events with the history of the everyday, Rome encapsulates the complexities of Roman history in an attempt to, in the eyes of Stamp, ‘go through the portal of historical detail into an authentic archetypal world that resonates with people’.[xxxii] Of course, HBO’s success with Rome lies in its ability to realistically portray historical characters in a human context, like that of Pullo and Vorenus. In fact, in an online history forum one reviewer praised Rome for taking this approach, stating that when films or shows are made about Rome, they almost always portray the ‘glory’ and ‘achievements’, rarely capturing the ‘down-and-dirty everyday urban life’ of Rome.[xxxiii] Thus, Rome was able to shift popular conceptions of history away from just politics toward an intertwining with the social.

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While classicists Alastair Blanshard and Kim Shahabudin state that Rome may never have had ‘regular orgies, saluted its emperors with raised arms, or condemned gladiators to die with a downward point of the thumb’, it is film that has allowed these representations of historical events to become ‘absolute mainstays of popular conceptions about Roman culture’.[xxxiv] This observation highlights the importance of the duality of both historical reality and popular imagination, for both film and written history. Without one or the other, neither medium will deliver a comprehensive understanding of historical events.

Mirela Kadrić

Mirela Kadrić has just finished a Bachelor of Political, Economic and Social Sciences, with a major in History and Political Economy, at the University of Sydney. She is currently enrolled in the Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in History. She plans to write her honours thesis on the construction of Bosnian Muslim identity before, during and after the Bosnian War (1992-95). She is interested in historiography, theories of nationalism and national identity, and has extensively studied 19th-20th century Russian history.​

[i] Cited in Gary Devore, ‘Now We are Rome: Ancient Roman Torture on Film, and Modern American Torture in the News’, The Awl, December 13, 2014, http://www.theawl.com/2014/12/now-we-are-rome, viewed 20 June 2015.
[ii] Christopher Lockett, ‘Accidental History: Mass Culture and HBO’s Rome’, Journal of Popular Film and Television 38, no. 3 (September 2010), p. 104; Andrew B. R. Elliot, ‘Rewriting European History: National and Transnational Identities in Rome’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 33, no. 4 (November 2013), p. 578.
[iii] Clemontine, ‘Quality Historical Epic’, review of Rome (HBO television series), TV.com, 25 February 2009, http://www.tv.com/m/shows/rome/reviews/, viewed 17 June 2015; R. A. Favlo, ‘History Brought Alive’, review of Rome (HBO television series), Amazon, 13 October 2010, http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/cr/rR9V9OJPQW3QIN/ref=aw_cr_i_40, viewed 17 June 2015.
[iv] Daria84, ‘A Masterpiece’, review of Rome (HBO television series), IMDB, 24 March 2012, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0384766/reviews?start=30, viewed 17 June 2015.
[v] Jenny, ‘Rome Series 1: Gladiator has Met its Match’, review of Rome (HBO television series), 14 April 2007, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0384766/reviews?start=10, viewed 17 June 2015; Bmoore-13, ‘Worthwhile, Fun History Lesson’, review of Rome (HBO television series), IMDB, 21 January 2007, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0384766/reviews?start=150, viewed 17 June 2015.
[vi] Lockett, ‘Accidental History’, p. 111.
[vii] LordVishnu, ‘Vale Roma!’, review of Rome (HBO television series), IMDB, 26 March 2007, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0384766/reviews?start=70, viewed 18 June 2015.
[viii] Monica S. Cyrino, ‘Introduction’, in Monica S. Cyrino (ed.), Rome, Season One: History Makes Television (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), p. 6; Elliot, ‘Rewriting European History’, p. 583.
[ix] NardiViews, ‘Phenomenal! Best Depiction Ever!’, review of Rome (HBO television series), Amazon, 25 November 2009, http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/cr/rR1SKFQHCM4KJ3R/ref=aw_cr_i_1, viewed 18 June 2015.
[x] Mary Beard, The Roman Triumph (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 5.
[xi][xi] Ibid., pp. 34-5.
[xii] Holly Haynes, ‘Rome’s Opening Titles: Triumph, Spectacle and Desire’, in Monica S. Cyrino (ed.), Rome, Season One: History Makes Television (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), pp. 49-50.
[xiii] W. Jeffrey Tatum, ‘Making History in Rome: Ancient vs. Modern Perspectives’, in Monica S. Cyrino (ed.), Rome, Season One: History Makes Television (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), p. 33; Martin M. Winkler, ‘Gladiator and the Traditions of Historical Cinema’, in Martin M. Winkler (ed.), Gladiator: Film and History (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), p. 17.
[xiv] Polybius, The Histories, 2.56, trans. Robin Waterfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 118-9. Also see Tatum, ‘Making History in Rome’, pp. 29-41 for a comprehensive analysis on ancient and modern historiographical perspectives on the writing of Roman history.
[xv] Publius Cornelius Tacitus, A Dialogue Concerning Oratory, 28.17, vol. 8, trans. Arthur Murphy (New York: Random House, 1942), p. 92.
[xvi] John Leonard, ‘Live from Caesar’s Palace’, New York Magazine, September 8, 2005, http://nymag.com/nymetro/arts/tv/reviews/12443/, viewed 23 June 2015; Christopher T. Chase, ‘“ROME”: If You Want To’, review of Rome (HBO television series), IMDB, 28 August 2005, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0384766/reviews?start=0, viewed 23 June 2015.
[xvii] Cyrino, ‘Introduction’, p. 3.
[xviii] Robert Stow, ‘Popcorn and Circus: An Audience Expects’, in Andrew B. R. Elliot (ed.), The Return of the Epic Film: Genre, Aesthetics and History in the 21st Century (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), p. 76.
[xix] Cited in Marnie Hughes-Warrington, History Goes to the Movies (New York: Routledge, 2007), p. 16-7.
[xx] Peter Desmond, ‘The Roman Theatre of Cruelty’, Harvard Magazine 5, no. 22 (September-October 2000), http://harvardmagazine.com/2000/09/the-roman-theatre-of-cru.html, viewed 23 June 2015; Kathleen Coleman, ‘The Pedant Goes to Hollywood: The Role of the Academic Consultant’, in Martin M. Winkler (ed.), Gladiator: Film and History (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), p. 48.
[xxi] Jonathan Stamp, ‘Balancing Fact and Fiction: The Ancient World of HBO’s Rome’, interview with J. Paul Getty Museum, http://www.getty.edu/museum/programs/villa_council_rome.html, viewed 12 June 2015.
[xxii] Ibid.
[xxiii] David Eldridge, Hollywood’s History Films (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006), p. 3.
[xxiv] Thomas Cripps, ‘Historical Truth: An Interview with Ken Burns’, American Historical Review 100, no. 3 (June 1995), p. 745.
[xxv] Robert Brent Toplin, ‘The Filmmaker as Historian’, The American Historical Review 93, no. 5 (December 1988), p. 1220.
[xxvi] Ibid., p. 1216.
[xxviii] Stamp, ‘Balancing Fact and Fiction’, http://www.getty.edu/museum/programs/villa_council_rome.html.
[xxix] Cited in Devore, ‘Now We are Rome’, http://www.theawl.com/2014/12/now-we-are-rome.
[xxx] Alan Taylor, ‘Kalends of February’, Rome (United States: Home Box Production, 2005), season 1, episode 12.
[xxxi] Plutarch, Life of Julius Caesar, trans. Thomas North (Miami: Hard Press Publishing, 2012), pp. 66-7; Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, trans. Catherine Edwards (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 38-9.
[xxxii] Stamp, ‘Balancing Fact and Fiction’, http://www.getty.edu/museum/programs/villa_council_rome.html.
[xxxiii] Mandate of Heaven, ‘In Response to Ajax_Minoan’, review of Rome (HBO television series), Historium, 10 September 2012, http://historum.com/history-films-television/47238-hbo-s-rome-3.html, viewed 24 June 2015.
[xxxiv] Alastair J. L. Blanshard and Kim Shahabudin, Classics on Screen: Ancient Greece and Rome in Film (London: Bristol Capital Press, 2011), p. 1.