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.
I empathize with your impatience with those who would grind history into a “better” lens for viewing the present. Sure, HBO’s thoroughly enjoyable Rome can be viewed with less cultural baggage than might a similarly constructed series for the Oyo Kingdom or others. However, I think that has more to do with the nature of how most Westerners view Rome than with forces working towards and advocating for prescriptive or redemptive African histories.
For many Westerners, I think that Rome is culturally distant, i.e. its impacts are believed insignificant to explain collective identities today. As such, it matters little to many of us, how Romans are portrayed. We don’t believe that it says much significant about ourselves nor that others think it has such significance. Furthermore, even among laypersons, there already exists a sense that Rome was a “great” civilization for a variety of achievements. No matter how callous, brutal or incestuous it might have been, it meets the standards of civilization that Westerners and I believe much of the world have come to accept. Nor is the view of Rome that we are seeing in HBO’s series fundamentally different than the conventional wisdoms about its society. We can easily watch and judge Rome, because it is a settled matter for most of us.
A caveat is in order. I’m more familiar with the literature of African politics than African history as such. However, the contemporary literature I see is replete with moral claims about political and social practices. From what the precolonial African history I’ve read, there are implicit and explicit moral claims even if we think they are incorrect. The problem is not so much that they don’t exist or cannot be had, but rather that there are prevailing senses of what the correct moral claims ought to be. I’ve read and talked to several traditionalist conservatives, who hold unpopular if not “wrong” views of the antebellum South. Often, they feel they do not get a fair hearing and that holding those views cost them dearly in professional opportunities and collegial respect. For them (and for historians of other eras), there are gatekeepers constraining and burdening the marrow of history for their own projects. My point here is that precolonial African history is not really unique in this.
Returning to your implied comparison between Rome and Oyo as fodder for tv series, I doubt that a Rome-like Oyo series would be nearly as successful in North America and Europe where Rome is distributed. Oyo enjoys less cultural resonance necessitating much more backstory to support anything more than a crude caricature for the series. [Heck, the Brits have argued that they needed even less backstory for Rome than their ignorant American cousins when they explained why they stripped out much of the history in favor of the sex and violence. :)] I also doubt that the audience it attracted would be worried about making moral judgments of it or would most historians if it were done well. (Of course, I’m not a historian.)
Caveat: Actually, using history for redemptive and prescriptive purposes doesn’t bother me too much. It bothers me when it is poorly done, but not that it is done. Too me
One note. I think many precolonial African histories do not excite the passions of lay readers. However, I don’t think that is because of any particular orthodoxy or attempt to shy away from moral claims. Rather, I think it is because many people write books of history with the same narrative style as they write monographs. They have learned to write for a small, specialized audience so well that they do not write well for a larger, general audience.
I don’t think I’m bothered by redemptive and prescriptive history at all–like you, I’m largely bothered when it is poorly done, crudely done, or when round pegs get blatantly hammered into square holes. It’s partially a question also of which format that history takes, too. A redemptive staging of a theatrical work based on the Sunjata epic wouldn’t alarm me in the least, though I think if that staging insisted that Sunjata was a constitutional monarch founding a democratic society, I’d get pretty irritated.
I also agree that a Rome-like series about Oyo or any number of other precolonial societies would likely founder, for the reasons you cite and more besides.
You’re also right that precolonial African histories don’t excite non-specialists, and this has a lot to do with how most of them have been written. But I still would say that the narrowness of the style is marked by a reluctance to make judgemental claims save for vaguely redemptive ones. That’s what rich, large, generalized narratives need to do, to translate knowledge of a place into relevance for wider audiences: feel comfortable having an evaluative opinion, including a negative one, about the whole or the components of the society being written about.
Redemptive or lazy? I agree that many westerners have a particularly simpleminded and moralistic view of African history as opposed to histories of other parts of the world. And I’d add that this ends up being belittling Africans past and present by diminishing that history. The stories we tell about Europeans’ ancestors may be epic tragedies, but the stories we tell about Africans’ ancestors may only be children’s fables about how it is wrong to harm the innocent. It’s particularly ironic when this condescension comes from people who are consciously engaged in the task of enhancing African dignity through the recounting of the past.
What motivates the gatekeepers, though? You allude to people being involved in a “restorative” project–e.g. erring on the side of saying nothing at all critical about Africa. How much of it is this kind of prescriptive moralism, and how much is simple laziness? By laziness I mean that educated westerners already have a story to tell about Africa–the story of European imperialism–and inertia works against saying anything else. So if I want to lay all the ills of a particular contemporary African society at the feet of nefarious meddling “neocolonial” western corporations, maybe I’m motivated by guilt, or maybe I just already know how to talk about meddling westerners from my study of the Belgian Congo. Maybe contemporary African historians, like generals, always want to be fighting the last war.
Anyway, that’s a possible alternative motivation that occurs to someone outside the field like me. I’m wondering if you or other posters inside the field also see this distinction, and if you do have a gut sense for what the mixture of guilt vs. laziness might be.
Here’s a concrete example of the guilt vs. laziness distinction. It’s shocking how blase Americans can be about conflict in contemporary Africa. If nasty ethnic warfare breaks out in the Balkans it’s a political issue in which Americans will take sides. If equally nasty ethnic warfare breaks out in Liberia, we feel bad that people are dying, but no one takes sides. It’s not politics, it’s a natural disaster.
The one exception to this rule for Americans I can think of was Apartheid in South Africa. For a long time there was an involved political debate in America about what U.S. policy towards South Africa should be. Americans took sides and argued with each other, because they saw the ethnic conflict in South Africa as both more specific (people knew the particulars–Soweto, Mandela, Botha–instead of just generic categories like “Africa”, “blacks” and “whites”) and more general (the conflict was a struggle about human freedom that had relevance for us). So I would bet that the racial angle is what made it real for Americans, but specifically how? The most simple answer I can come up with is that South Africa looked very familiar. We’d had a version of Apartheid in the U.S., and have ethnic categories that break down along the same “white” and “black” lines as in South Africa. People were passionate because it was easy to draw analogies to our own society.
That’s the laziness explanation. The guilt explanation would say that in many westerners’ moral calculus, a black person harming another black person isn’t as bad as a white person hurting a black person, and therefore Apartheid deserved more passion than Liberia (or Bosnia) because it was a greater tragedy. I guess personally, I hope that laziness explanation is more true. Laziness is unfortunate human foible, but the guilty moral calculus is pretty repugnant to me.
[sic] I meant Apartheid or Bosnia deserved more passion than Liberia, but you get the point…