The Official Website of Richard Reilly
Roman Roamin > Reconstructing history without records
Reconstructing history without recordsI just finished "Shogun" by James Clavell. It's the third time I've read this amazing historical novel. When I think about his work, and the engaging historical novels of James Mitchner and Colleen McCullough, I am impressed with their scholarship, but equally impressed with their ability to let the reader live and breathe in a period far from the familiar world they call home.
But, as I wrote a novel set in the murky fog of the distant past, I have to admit I was jealous that they were able to draw upon well documented sources to flesh out their stories. In my novel almost every basic human function remains a mystery to modern scholarship. What did they eat? What materials did they use to stain their walls, stuff their cushions, or fuel their lamps? We know how later Romans lived, but in these very early, primative days... ?
There is almost no source material for the period in which this novel takes place: Italy, between the years 627 and 508 BCE. This is due to a number of factors, chief of which is the absence of paper, a material unknown until several hundred years later, and then paper will not become cheap and plentiful for several hundred more years. Nonetheless, if the ancient peoples of Italia were determined to create records, such as the Etruscans, for example, they could have made parchment from animal skins, or inscribed waxed tablets and sealed them in dry stone vaults. The simple truth is - they didn't. Except for a hundred short tomb inscriptions, we have no records whatsoever from the Etruscan people. They did not have an eye for posterity, unlike almost any other culture on earth.
And why was this? I suggest one answer, which is merely a theory: they felt they lived in a confluence of forces that was immediate and fleeting. They lived in partnership with forces beyond this material world, and their harmony with these forces superceded the day by day existence we humans experienced in our mortal bodies. As such, life was lived beyond, and merely reflected by mortal man on earth, who dedicated a play to the forces beyond, and burnt their scripts to symbolize the transience of all we endevored to do on this earthly plane.
Rome owes much of their culture to Etruria, including lictors, fasces, dining couches, atriums and temple mounts. As the more advanced civilization, Etruria gave Roma knowledge of metal-working, dying cloth, building roads, irrigation and drainage, and more. And both cultures absorbed much from the Greeks, including a pantheon of gods in human form, medicine, coins, and the alphabet. In this very early period, just what belonged to Rome alone?
It would just be so much easier for historians if we knew what the Etruscans and early Romans had to say about themselves in their own words. But no - silence.
And so we rely on archeology, linguistics, and our knowledge of other cultures of the same period in relation to Italy. And we do the best we can with the facts - facts - we have available to us.