I’m really enjoying HBO’s series Rome. I gather BBC viewers have had a less detailed, more sex-focused version of the series to watch, which is a pity for them. What I’m enjoying in particular about the show is the meticulousness of its attention to Roman material culture combined, far more unusually, with some thoughtful attempts to capture the mentalite of Roman society, particularly through the viewpoint characters of Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus. The addition of those characters is also one of the smarter storytelling strategies I’ve seen in a historical film: when it’s nothing but “real” people and “real” events, history tends to drag cinematic or televisual work down like a lead balloon, leaving a writer and director nowhere to go but towards tarting up history or coldly respectable costume-drama accuracy. (Though I gather some classicists have noted a “real” Pullo and Vorenus are mentioned in Caesar’s Gallic histories…)
The series has helped me to more clearly articulate an argument in one chapter of the manuscript I’m working on, where I try to discuss how 19th Century Shona political theories and practices form part of the “deep grammar” of postcolonial political struggle in Zimbabwe. Part of the argument I’m making is a criticism of common attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by historians to redeem precolonial African polities from colonial misrepresentations, to legitimate precolonial African political systems as sophisticated and “civilized”. Often such attempts went further, arguing not only against clearly racist dismissals of precolonial political structures, but attempting to turn the evaluative claims of colonial observers on their head, to characterize precolonial African political systems as constitutional, democratic, freer or in some respect more humane and tolerant than 19th and early 20th Century European regimes.
You can’t quarrel with the first part of that effort. It doesn’t matter which precolonial African society we’re talking about: it can be taken as a given that its political systems were in their own way sophisticated and complex, even if we’re talking about small groups of hunter-gatherers. Even if you want to reserve the term “civilization” for societies whose political and social systems rise above a minimal level of size, scale and complexity, there were plenty of precolonial African political systems that were “civilizations” in this sense.
Even the second part of that counterthrust by historians has some legitimacy to it, in that there were African political systems which I think could reasonably be called democratic or implicitly “constitutional”, in British sense of an evolving set of precedents and constraints on the power of the polity. The problem in my view arises when that became the gold standard for attacking colonial misrepresentations, when a historian felt obligated to find something preferable or laudable in any given precolonial African polity, something that makes the colonized morally superior to the colonizer.
A lot of that thinking has died down, and some kinds of historical scholarship about precolonial societies and political systems never indulged in it in the first place, such as the Marxist-inflected “modes of production” scholarship about many precolonial African societies. That work did leave a legacy, however, in that most precolonial specialists in African history (a less and less common specialization in recent years) tend to avoid or soften any kind of evaluative commentary about precolonial political life, and to stress disjunctures between the present and the past rather than connections and continuities. At the least, most precolonial African political systems end up morally and ethically comparable in most historical scholarship. If there is a moral dimension to the analysis, it tends to be the default position that the violent destruction or disruption of precolonial African political structures by colonial conquest was an evil simply because it denied Africans self-determination or sovereignity and because it reduced the diversity or plurality of political models and discourses available to humanity in service to the monoculture of modernity. In that view, all precolonial African political systems are morally equivalent: whatever they were, it is wrong that they were destroyed.
This is where HBO’s Rome comes in. One of the things that the series has reminded me is that most of us have a crude evaluative understanding of Roman society and politics somewhere in our heads. We think we know what Rome was well enough to not just talk about what happened in classical Rome but to have an opinion about the virtues and vices of Rome’s political and social order. That opinion frequently rests on a sloppy, blurry or even grossly inaccurate received understanding of the history involved, and is typically voiced in terms of bad analogies to the present. But protests by classicists notwithstanding, at least none of us feel shy about having an opinion, bad or good, about what we imagine Rome to have been, and about particular events and personalities within its history. There are a handful of other historical examples where a similar lack of inhibition is exhibited in contemporary discourse: classical Greece; medieval Europe (often England or France); Renaissance Europe (primarily Italy and the Netherlands); the Reformation; colonial America; the French Revolution; the Industrial Revolution (often England’s); the antebellum US South; early 20th Century US; the US in the 1950s. In all these cases, historians often yelp in agony over the inaccuracies involved in popular or common evaluative claims, but mostly concede the legitimacy of evaluative claims, that it is ok to have opinions about the moral, ethical, personal desirability and attractiveness (or lack thereof) of those societies and political systems.
Not so precolonial African polities, and I think that’s one reason that interesting examples like the Oyo Empire, the Munhumutapa state, Buganda, the Empire of Mali, or Igbo towns can never cross a threshold of general familiarity with anyone who has a general interest in the past. Learning about those precolonial societies from the Africanist literature still largely has the feel of piety and obligation, of knowing details for details sake, or of overcoming ignorance that is articulated in the same terms that we talk about trying to eat a healthy breakfast. You can guilt people (Americans, Europeans or even contemporary Africans) into thinking they should know that history. They may come to know it rather dutifully. But save for a few points of purchase where evaluative claims flash into intense visibility, as in the debate about the meaning of slavery within precolonial African societies, none of those political systems and social orders ever become the food for analogy, for illustration, for putting meat and bones on some contemporary moral or ethical argument.
I think part of the reason for that is the reluctance of scholarly historians studying precolonial Africa to roll up their sleeves and make strongly felt or envisioned evaluative claims about the political and social systems they study, save for arguments that valorize or celebrate the contributions of those societies and regret their destruction. The field can’t push its content into some wider circulation or general knowledge until valorizing argument appear in equal measure with critical or hostile appraisals of some precolonial systems. In my case, I have no problem arguing strongly that precolonial 19th Century Shona political theory and practice was civilized, sophisticated, intricate, and deeply human, and repays study for that reason alone, but that it was also in many respects flawed and destructive, and that the legacy of those ideas and practices in contemporary Zimbabwe is at least one of the underlying reasons for postcolonial misrule. In the chapter, I am particularly focusing on the characteristic indirection and non-transparency of Shona political discourse and some consequential propositions about causality and conspiracy within political life. Part of making that argument meaningful in the present is claiming the structural connection between the past and the present, but it’s also being willing to say, “These political practices and structures, though deeply complex, were also wrong“.
That’s what almost all of us (Africans, Americans, Europeans, anybody and everybody) feel like we can say things about Rome and its history: you can admire or be appalled by the Republic, or the early Empire, or the Pax Romana, a partisan, enemy or bemused observer of political and social systems whose practicioners lie many centuries dead. That is possible partly because of written records, partly because of a long history of classicist knowledge, partly because of the legacy of Eurocentrism, but also because there are no gatekeepers who rush to stand in between such judgement and its historical substance, who try to forbid it, who burden every attempt to own or make use of that subject matter with some restorative project. Not so precolonial African history: at least, not yet.