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February 29th, 2012

The Study of History

The study of history works both ways. We need to study the past to inform the present. But we can also populate the past by studying the present. This may lead to some flawed and anachronistic thinking—I agree that it may, but I want to leave that aside for now.

I believe, as a novelist and as an historian, that people are people. They do certain things, they react viscerally to certain ideas, they use violence to accomplish certain ends. Power tends to corrupt. In that one area, at least, there has not been very much progress. There’s another aspect to history that is seldom taught in schools. In a narrow, particular way, history in the West begins with Herodotus, a 5th Century Ionian Greek who wrote the first history we can read. We call him the Father of History. And we speak of things before then as “before the dawn of recorded history.” That’s a fancy way of saying “back in the day.” Back when people were primitive. Right?

A few years ago, I read a superb book by a retired academic, Colin Renfrew, who pointed out that when Alexander conquered Babylon, about three hundred years before Christ was born (if you believe in that) or roughly two thousand four hundred years ago—when Alexander visited the great temple of Babylon, the priests there showed him records that were three thousand years old. Renfrew’s point is that “back in the day” had a “back in the day.” And that when the first scribe wrote the first flood table in Babylon, human beings had been farming, making tools, and fighting wars—already—for nine thousand years. Ever tried to cure a child of a bad habit? The human race has some bad habits that are at least fifteen thousand years old.

When I wrote a fictional biography of Alexander, I didn’t want it to be an “adventure” novel. My Alexander is at least in some part Hitler, and Napoleon, and Frederick the Great and Ghengis Khan. Conquest is never pretty. The extermination of subject populations was every bit as hated, feared, despised and argued against in fourth century Greece as it is today. Few things are more false then our modern notion that “they thought differently back then.” These are the Ancient Greeks. They invented philosophy and ethics as we know them today. They probably thought and talked more about issues of right and wrong than any group of people in modern society. Nor was Alexander widely accepted as a god—or even a great man—in his lifetime. But a hundred years later—his cult was accepted, or even worshipped, almost everywhere in the Mediterranean. His life defined heroism and conquest. It still does.

There is yet another lesson of history. I know what my grandfather thought of Hitler. I know what I think of Hitler. What will my great-grand-daughter think of Hitler?

February 29th, 2012

Enter Alexander

Who was Alexander? Why write a book about him? Why is history interesting?

History is interesting — and important, even vital — for the same reason that your personal history is vital to you. Every one of us is the sum total of all our successes and failures — every good and bad decision we’ve ever made, piled atop those our parents made. And we talk about ourselves and our experiences, constantly. Just look at Facebook!

History — the study of history — is to a nation and a people, what life experience is to an individual. Failure to understand that history will inevitably lead us to make the same miscalculations that we make when confronted with another person’s personal issues and traumas. It is impossible to understand Nazi Germany without understanding the 30 Year’s War of the seventeenth century and Bismarck in the nineteenth — and a host of other causes. It is impossible to understand the world we live in now — and especially the troublesome world of terrorism and violence — without knowing the history behind it. So called “political science” has very little to offer without the rich compendium of truths and half-truths of the raw data of history — mostly because there’s very little science to human politics and a great deal of raw emotion and suffering.

Enter Alexander. Alexander is one of the most important figures of history—at least in the west. He really lived. He really conquered a great deal of the world. He really changed history. By doing so, he created himself as a god and affected everything from Pop culture icons to religion — affects which not only linger but resound to this very day. When early Christians wanted icons of the risen Saviour, they copied pictures of Alexander. When, about the same time, Julius Caesar looked for a hero to emulate in a much more vainglorious and worldly way — he chose Alexander. Our notions of what masculine beauty is — our notions of what fame is — our very notions of what conquest, and victory in war are — all owe something to Alexander.

February 29th, 2012

What is it about Greece?

Ten years ago this May, my wife and I were married at Fort York. We took our honeymoon on the Greek island of Lesvos (home of the word “Lesbian”) off the coast of what is now Turkey. I had taken Classics in University (a long time ago) and I knew a thing or two about Greek history. Or so I thought.

What is it about Greece? Looking at the Parthenon from the rooftop bar of the Attalos Hotel — lit with spotlights on a soft spring night — was beyond romantic. It was ethereal, graceful, the very soul of ancient wisdom, and also of history and democracy, two things in which I believe very strongly. Then, over the next three weeks, we wandered around Lesvos and saw marvel after marvel — a castle built on Bronze Age Foundations that rises, era by era, through Classical Greece and Rome and into Byzantine, Frankish, and Turkish occupation — a military monument to the passage of empires; the Archaic city of Mythymna, casually abandoned out the back of our hotel for our exploration; the Archaic city of Eressos, and Sappho’s citadel, a short hike away; a Bronze Age pier, built with giant stones the size of sheds, laid together perfectly and still functioning as a sea wall, four thousand years later.

There’s no end of it. I sat in waterfront cafes with my wife, and decided (like many thousands of philhellenes before me) that someone should write about all of this. But I decided that, instead of writing a modern novel, like James Chatto’s Greek for Love (which we read in situ) I’d write something I’d always fancied — an historical novel.

In fact, I wrote six novels before I got to write one about Lesvos and Chios — the Tyrant series. Although Lesvos creeps into many of them, they are, in the main, about the fascination intersection of Greek and Nomadic cultures around the Black Sea. The publishing industry has its own rhythms that can influence, or even dictate, the course of an author’s work. And at the end of the Tyrant series, as I’d started back in time to the Archaic, I was asked to write a book on Alexander.

February 7th, 2012


We all know that things on the internet are wrong. Since I know that’s no surprise to any of you, here’s what I ask, in the name of history. Before you post a quote—check it. It takes about 15 seconds to use google or any other browser. That’s how long it took me to 1) find that the Washington mis-quote on arms was bogus, 2) disprove the Pelossi office assertion on budgets, and 3) skewer the latest anti-Obama distortion. Politicians and their offices lie. We don’t have to help them. If we’re going to shout our political views in an election year, let’s at least get the historical facts as close to correct as can be managed.

I think what annoys me the most if people who WILLFULLY distort history. it is not enough to mis-quote a famous person—let’s be offended when called on it! George Washington didn’t say that Americans needed privately owned arms to defend their liberties, because he didn’t believe anything of the kind. He was willing to use Federal troops to break the Whiskey Rebellion, and he forbade his commanders to retreat into the back country in the winter of 1776 lest the ‘little people’ gain too much control of the revolution. He was a great man—and he was an arrogant aristocrat.

Thomas Paine, now—he probably said anything you need him to have said—about anything.