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.

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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.

History in the Making Author in Focus: Patrick White

In the Summer-Autumn issue of History in the Making, Patrick White, a PhD candidate at James Cook University, published an article considering Australian discourses of post-war, home-front defence and the question of northern development in relation to Townsville’s Lavarack Barracks.

Here, he details the archival basis of his research project, explains how a year in the United States spurred his interest in history, and lists essential reading for those interested in northern Australia.

How did you find and access your primary sources?

For the HITM article I based my primary research on newspaper articles and editorials from the relevant period. It was a pragmatic decision, James Cook University’s Mabo Library has a very good collection of newspapers stored on microfilm and good facilities to utilise them. I also chose some letters between key politicians – for example between the Queensland Premier and the Prime Minister – because they directly discussed some of the issues I explored in the article.

What did you learn from the peer review process?

The importance of clear topic sentences! And you must establish a good literature review to help guide the reader. These are the basics but sometimes you might ‘know’ you need to do something but not really understand why or how important it is until you are peer reviewed. The process at HITM was great and I was lucky to get some very helpful feedback.

What’s your favourite history book?

Two Australian books at the moment: Geoffrey Bolton’s A Thousand Miles Away: a history of north Queensland to 1920 and Alan Powell’s Far Country: a short history of the Northern Territory. These are not glamorous offerings but as a northern Australian, they appeal to me. There are very few really good histories of the Northern Territory or north Queensland but these two certainly stand out. Bolton’s is quite old now (1960s) and is an excellent summary of north Queensland’s post-colonial settlement. The pattern of development described by Bolton remains evident today. Powell’s NT history covers a lot of ground but must be an essential early stop for anybody studying the Territory.

Why do you think the study of history is important?

I started studying political science when I was an undergrad international student in the United States. I was there during the Bush-Gore election and in the following years for 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan and the build-up to war in Iraq. Politically, this was immensely volatile and interesting period. A vast array of ideas and topics were bouncing around and I began to understand how history could be radically manipulated to substantiate politics or controversial policies. This concerned me and the importance of history – professional, objective, detailed and holistic – was clear. I quickly added history to my studies and never looked back. I’d like to see good history become more accessible and more widely appreciated as a crucial central pillar of academia by universities and the community.

How do you juggle your studies and the rest of your life?

As we all know, maintaining full-time work while studying is very difficult. Attempting to participate in the community and have a social life on top of these is occasionally impossible. Sacrifices need to be made and I am not a naturally gifted student or researcher so I need to work hard to get anywhere. Quarantining time each day is critical to achieving your goals. Two hours per day to read, take notes, edit or write is important. Just get in there and do something each day. I am lucky to have a good desk at home and a space at the university. Primary research is a whole other ball game though. That requires vast quantities of time and effort and I expect that the skills and tactics of a good research ferret are developed throughout a lifetime.

Where would you like to take your research next?

I am working on a political history of northern development. The idea of developing northern Australia has been around for a long time and it sporadically attracts interest from governments. However, little is known about its politics. I hope to make a contribution to filling this gap. I am also interested in football fan sub-cultures known as ‘Ultras’. These sub-cultures have roots in southern and eastern Europe but have spread to all corners of the globe, including Australia. I envisage doing some work in this space.

History in the Making Author in Focus: Emily Gallagher

In the latest issue of History in the Making, Emily Gallagher, a fourth year undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, published an article on the neglect of atrocities in Australian historical writing about World War I.

In a short author interview, she explains the pleasures of studying history, the struggle to fairly write about the darker aspects of Australia’s wartime history, and her fascination with Australia’s official historian of World War I, C.E.W. Bean.

Why did you choose to study history?

History is humbling. An epistemology where dissatisfaction dominates your professional and private practice. For me, to study history is to rebel against inadequacy, deny the impossibility of the task, and participate in a type of story telling that never ends. This is truly an exciting, often intoxicating, cause.

What questions do you still have about the topic of your research?

Like all historical studies, my research is fundamentally unfinished. Time is not fixed and the boundaries of my published research are exponentially expanding. Of all the questions that have persisted and emerged I would like to know ‘how’, how can we teach the atrocities committed by Australian soldiers in war to overcome the glorification of the Anzacs without desecrating their memory? This is a question I intend to answer.

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

Don’t conform to the popular. There is no history or historiography more valuable than another, embrace your passion, however unconventional it may be. In the words of Raphael Samuel: ‘the contours of national past are continually changing shape. Mountains turn out to have been molehills while conversely tumuli, as they appeared at the time, may seem, on a longer view, to be foothills of a mighty peak.’

How do you juggle your studies and the rest of your life?

It is my perfectionism that supports me most powerfully to ensure I balance all the important aspects of my life. My personal best is achieved when I ensure I have an active, socially rich and political engaged lifestyle. Practically, I function incredibly well on six hours of sleep. This has certainly been a great fortune in enabling me to gain the extra time needed to pursue my academic ambitions without jeopardising my social, sporting and employment opportunities.

What’s your favourite history book?

I love books and I can faithfully say I have no favourite. But, theoretically, if I had to nominate a ‘history book,’ I am currently enthralled by Edward Said’s book, Orientalism.

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

My first guest comes to mind effortlessly, C.E.W. Bean. Australia’s official war correspondent for the First World War, Bean is a character that has left an imposing legacy on the writings of this nations official history. Bean is not a flawless historian, however his histories remain the defining character of academic, public and political Australian Anzac history. He is secretly loved by many Australian historians. Secondly, I would love to see my Grandfather again, simply because I miss him. Lastly, (excluding the issue of his thick German accent) I – like many others – think dinner with Albert Einstein would guarantee good conversation.

History in the Making Author in Focus: Matt Firth

In the last issue of History in the Making Matt Firth, a postgraduate student at the University of New England, published an article on the changing policies of Australian colonial governments toward corporal punishment between 1788 and 1838.

Here, Matt explains how he arrived at his topic, the challenges of balancing writing and research with an active family and business life, and what he’d like to ask the Holy Roman Emperor.

How did you come to your topic for your article?

One of the things I love about history is the many tangents any inquiry can open up, and I have to say that my article was definitely tangential to my normal interests and inclinations as a medieval historian. In taking a unit at the University of New England entitled ‘Crime, Incarceration and Servitude’ I had anticipated researching Early Modern carceral ideology. I did this to an extent, tracing the evolution of the English prison system from 1550–1850, but my attention kept returning to the colonies. This opened the opportunity to work with the delightful staff in the history room at the State Library of Tasmania (I am Hobart based), and pore over their collection of convict memoirs and British Parliamentary papers, and an article on flogging in Colonial Australia was born.

How did you find and access your primary sources?

I usually find that my initial leads come from secondary sources. Searching a university database will normally locate relevant journal articles and the footnotes are invaluable. In this case, from there I went to the State Library and spoke with the historians there who provided access to the sources I had located, and they made further suggestions. Naturally as my research developed, new sources were found, old ones discarded and many trips to the Tasmanian State Archives were made.

How do you juggle your studies and the rest of your life?

This is not easy. Communication and commitment are the key. I came to my postgraduate degree later than many—ten years after attaining my BA—and am married, have a little girl and run a small business. I study part-time. However, I am doing both a Graduate Certificate in Classical Languages and a Master of History, so part-time is a matter of opinion! Sacrifices need to be made at all levels and flexibility is a must: study, work and family all require no less than 100% commitment. I schedule every hour of my weekdays from 6am to midnight and ensure I allot time to both family and study alongside work. I remain flexible on the weekends to ensure my family comes first, however the hard conversations have been had and they know I need blocks of time to study on the weekends.

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

Firstly, don’t simply submit the essay that was submitted for marking. Edit in line with your marker’s comments and edit it to ensure it reads as a stand-alone article as opposed to simply answering a question Secondly, pay attention to the journal style guide and make sure you stick to it – I say that as both an author and reviewer!

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

Raising deceased historical figures from the dead is way more likely than me hosting a dinner party. We will have to go down the pub.

I would take Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire, Henry V of England and Louis XIV of France. Men who committed their lives, resources and people to establishing pan-European autocracies. I would like their opinions on the EU.

What do you plan to read next?

I have returned to my medieval studies and am working on a research paper looking at the political uses of torture in late Anglo-Saxon England (so not entirely removed from convict flogging). I am reading Larissa Tracy’s Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literature as an accompaniment to this.

History in the Making Author in Focus: Elizabeth Morgan

In the last issue of History in the Making Elizabeth Morgan published an article delving into Australian memorialisation traditions since the mid-ninteenth century through her examination of local cemeteries in Albury, New South Wales.

Here, in the first in a new series of author in focus interviews, Elizabeth explains how she came to her topic, her experiences of peer review as a first-time author, and her personal fascination with history, community and identity.

How did you come to the topic for your article?

My topic of cemeteries and death culture came from a fabulously named subject at the University of New England: Waking the Dead, which of course generates much interest. I can’t think of many history students who don’t profess a love of cemeteries, gravestones, and memorials. The cemetery research I completed was for the research component of ‘Waking the Dead’, but it was incredibly fun to complete. Who could say no to several days wandering cemeteries in the name of actually studying? In the course of researching the article I learned a great deal about the town I grew up in, the way in which death is treated in Australia (and worldwide) and, excitingly, the way things are changing even now. It’s lovely to take the study of history and relate it to the present day.

What did you learn from the peer review process?

When I first started thinking about the peer review process I was sagely advised to “leave my ego at the door”, meaning that my work was likely to be shredded and I shouldn’t take it personally. Thankfully, for both my writing and my ego, the peer review process was fairly painless. All the comments I received were less intimidating than those received on the original assignment I submitted for university.

The main point that came through the peer review process was that, although I thought I had adjusted writing from ‘uni assignment’ to ‘article’, I still had included a lot of assumed knowledge and things I’d mentioned in passing because I had a good grasp on the topic. This totally overlooked the fact that my audience may have never heard of some things I assumed were common knowledge. The peer reviewers helped me identify these gaps in my writing, which I was able to fill in and expand on during the editing process.

The only difference between peer review and comments from your university markers is that you aren’t being given a grade by the peer reviewers, and they haven’t read a hundred essays on the same topic before they’ve gotten to yours. They still want your work to be as good as you can make it, and they are looking for the potential for your work to be polished to a publication standard. It is very rare for an article to be accepted without revisions, even for your academic lecturers! My article is definitely stronger for having gone through the peer review process.

What questions do you still have about the topic of your research?

I suspect I could spend a good chunk of a research career on this one topic. My immediate questions about cemetery were ones I raised in the conclusion of my article: what will I find by correlating the small plaque grave markers that are common today with the obituaries in the local newspaper, and how has that changed over time as grave markers have become smaller in both the size and the sentiments expressed on them. Death is a concept that western society is gradually reacquainting itself with in the 21st century and the way this new trend is expressing itself is fascinating in light of how it was almost taboo in the 20th century. ‘Natural’ shroud burials and no burials at all are becoming more popular, and it will be interesting to see how unmarked graves will be considered in the future when there is no marker to indicate to the viewer who is buried in front of them and why they should care.

Any research can be a rabbit-hole of possibility if you want it to be!

What do you plan to do when you finish your studies?

This question assumes I plan to finish studying! Given enough time and money, I’d love to learn all of the things. Alas, I have been restricted to finishing my undergraduate degree before I move on to another. In my immediate plans are honours, PhD, and studies in Theology and more languages: just a few things to be going on with!

Ultimately I’d love to research and teach, but for now I study history because I really enjoy it, not for an ultimate career goal.

Why did you choose to study history?

I came to university as a mature-aged student, while I was at home with babies. I thought the best idea would be to study something that interested me rather than looking ahead towards a career. Although my road through my undergraduate degree has been long and bumpy—life happens! I still hold to this principle.

Studying history helps me put the world in context. Finding a sense of ‘identity’ or ‘community’ was something I struggled with as a young adult, but history helps me see that I am part of a broader community. It helps me understand how things today have come about, by looking backwards at the threads that have woven together to create the events of today. I find it fascinating to see the pieces of various ‘puzzles’ come together to create different effects over time.

What historical period would you like to visit?

I really enjoy having antibiotics, running water, electricity, enough food, and the Internet. I would really like to stay here in the future, rather than visit any historical period!

Call for Papers, History in the Making Vol. 4, No. 2

Did you write a great essay and would you like to see it published in a journal?

Do you want to gain experience of the peer review process?

History in the Making is open to all undergraduate and postgraduate students currently enrolled at an Australian university.

We are currently inviting students to submit articles for publication – you can submit at any time, but if you submit by Friday, 5 June 2015, you will be considered for the next issue, to be launched in Semester 2, 2015.

Find out more at: https://journal.historyitm.org/how-to-submit

A Reflection on Fifty Years of Independent Australian First World War Scholarship

In early August 2014 many European nations commemorated the beginning of the Great War, the supposed war to end all wars, which claimed the lives of millions and whose consequences paved the way for a second, even more deadly conflict barely twenty years later. In Australia, some of these overseas events made the news, while at home, Albany (WA) held a ceremony for the centenary of the first Anzac departure from the commonwealth’s shores. However, on the whole, it has been all quiet on the commemorative front. And so it remained until April, when Australia’s commemorations began in earnest. On Anzac Day, thousands gathered around memorials or on beaches to commemorate the sacrifice of the first Australians to land at Gallipoli as well as to celebrate the birth of a nation. Many historians were watching, analysing, and perhaps even participating in the unfolding rituals.

Taken at face value, academic interest in Australia’s First World War involvement and its enduring repercussions is unsurprising. After all, the Anzac legend has come to occupy an increasingly central position in contemporary popular and political discourse about Australian history. Nonetheless, this interest is a fairly recent phenomenon. During the interwar period, Australians wishing to learn more about their country’s role in World War I beyond their own lived experience could really only turn to C.E.W Bean’s Official History, a twelve-volume behemoth, published between 1921 and 1942. After World War II, nothing changed for another two decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, academic circles still snubbed Australian war history as a topic worthy of study. Around the same time, the pageantry and ritual of 25 April was suddenly struggling to attract widespread popular attention and, for a moment, Anzac appeared destined to become an obscure reference in Australia’s past, forgotten by scholar and public alike. However, from the mid-1960s onwards, a combination of circumstances, including the 50th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign, the opening of sealed archives, the Vietnam War and ensuing debates concerning conscription, saw World War I become a relevant, even pressing issue in Australian society again.

Leading the initial charge of academic interest was Ken Inglis, who was soon followed by many others, such as Lloyd Robson and Bill Gammage. Their pioneering work went beyond analysing the conflict’s purely military aspects and considered the social and cultural implications of Australia’s Great War involvement. These initial studies, which cover issues such as the Anzac tradition’s roots, the ‘civil’ religious aspects of commemoration and the social history of the first Australian Imperial Force, have remained hugely influential. This influence is reflected in the central themes and debates that make up Australian Great War historiography today, which include: the Gallipoli campaign; Bean’s role in the propagation of the Anzac legend; the validity of the Anzac legend’s claims; conscription; bereavement and mourning; memorialisation and commemoration; and the dominant position of Anzac in contemporary Australian history. Nevertheless, as broad as this list appears, there are also significant gaps in Australian First World War studies. For example, the predominance of Gallipoli in the public’s understanding of the war is reflected in the historiography, and there are few detailed analyses of other major campaigns in which the Anzacs fought. Australian war art and literature has also received relatively little attention, especially when considering the amount of scholarship available on British, French and German works. Recent publications suggest that historians are beginning to explore these areas and others, but so far the surface has only been scratched.

For those who find the First World War fascinating, confronting, intriguing, or perhaps a combination of these sentiments, it is an exciting if somewhat overwhelming time to undertake research in this domain. Approximately half a century ago, Ken Inglis looked back at Australia’s Great War history and, apart from Bean’s government sponsored magnum opus, he found very little. Five decades later and we can now turn to an increasingly rich historiography to inform and challenge our approaches to the study of an event popularly conceived as having given birth to the Australian nation. For the greater public, 2015 may be the centenary of the Anzac Landings, but for historians it also marks fifty years of independent Australian First World War scholarship.

– Matt Haultain-Gall (PhD Candidate, University of New South Wales)

[Note: A version of this blog post first appeared as the guest editorial in History in the Making 4, no. 1, 2015]