Did the Romans Ever Smile?

Once upon a time, historians and men of letters might have assumed that the people of the ancient past were, at heart, very similar to themselves. The Romans, for example, may have dressed in a curious manner and had strange religious habits involving chickens, but beneath the patina of culture they were an understandable people.

Nowadays, both scholarship and popular culture tends to stress the unfamiliarity of ancient worlds, the alien qualities that make them other to ourselves. Ancient Rome, as portrayed in recent films and TV dramas, is an amoral place of blood, violence and unconstrained sex; today’s Romans are viciously addicted to slaughter, and their rulers are all maniacs.

Even their minds work differently, it seems. Mary Beard, in her book Laughter in Ancient Rome, points out that Romans never smiled. Or, at least, their language had no word for it. The verb ridere, often translated as ‘smile’, actually connotes laughter. More particularly (bearing in mind the nature of their jokes) it connotes laughing at somebody else. The idea of the Romans going about in stone-faced solemnity, only cracking up at some poor fellow citizen’s misfortunes, seems shocking in its lack of human empathy. By contemporary standards, this sort of attitude would suggest a serious mental disorder. Was ancient Rome a society of psychopaths?

Not a happy man... Portrait bust of an unknown Roman.

Not a happy man... Portrait bust of an unknown Roman.

Of course, this is an exaggeration. Even if the Romans looked down on open expressions of happiness or fellow feeling (Beard points out that subridere, a ‘suppressed laugh’, might come closest to smiling), they must have been capable of it. Their portrait busts, certainly, tend to accentuate a forbidding gravitas, but less prestigious art, even some of the famous Roman-era mummy portraits from Egypt, clearly shows a much greater facial expressiveness. Indeed, some of the people depicted are undoubtedly smiling.

The ghost of a smile, at least... Mummy portrait from Roman Egypt, 2nd century AD

The ghost of a smile, at least... Mummy portrait from Roman Egypt, 2nd century AD

What Mary Beard means, I think, is that we should exercise caution in our assumptions about the peoples of the past. Language is not an accurate map of reality, but nevertheless reflects the structure of thought in a society. This is worth bearing in mind when we go about trying to reconstruct those ancient societies in fiction.

Novels, necessarily, deal in empathy. Historical fiction seeks not only to reconstruct the fabric of a lost world but also to get inside the heads of its inhabitants, examine their fears and motivations. Just as we ‘translate’ the speech of our fictional Romans or Vikings or medieval knights into modern English (the older habit of using ‘archaic’ speech in historical novels seems, thankfully, to have died out), so we translate their thought processes, their reactions and their ideologies into forms recognisable to a contemporary readership. This, of course, is inevitable. I have yet to read a historical novel that manages completely to eradicate all trace of a modern consciousness. Perhaps I would not want to.

But neither should we, in our attempts at translation, try to ignore the strangeness of historical societies, nor rely on comfortable stereotypes or received wisdom. Every age creates its own vision of the past – this is why history is constantly changing. If our visions are to be original, challenging and vital, the stories we tell about the past need to engage with the strangeness, perhaps even the alien unknowability, of our long-dead subjects. Even if, perhaps, we allow them the occasional smile.

A version of this piece was originally published as a guest post on Laura's Little Book Blog.


How 'accurate' is historical fiction?

   The Ludovisi Sarcophagus (mid 3rd century AD): an accurate depiction of ancient warfare, or just a dramatic one?


The Ludovisi Sarcophagus (mid 3rd century AD): an accurate depiction of ancient warfare, or just a dramatic one?

Novelists who write about the past are often asked about the importance of historical accuracy in their work. This is perhaps a strange question; history, after all, is not an exact science. The past no longer exists, so how could we measure the accuracy of our view of it? Instead, history is a method of attempting to understand the fragments left to us of the past, a set of tools and parameters for interpretation and speculation.

But, of course, this isn’t really what the question is about. ‘Accuracy’ (for want of a better word) in historical fiction is all about accordance with the sources, paying attention to details and not veering off into fantasy. It is about the construction of a plausible view of the past that fits with what we know and does not contain jarring anachronisms.

Put like this, the question is much easier to answer, for me at least: ‘accuracy’ is extremely important. One of the most fascinating aspects of historical fiction is the constant collision and interplay between the novelistic imagination and the raw matter of the past. Individual stories take root from the greater story of past events, and are constantly fed by it. Beyond the story itself, the structure that will get the characters from prologue to dénouement and hopefully carry the readers along with it, there is the accumulation of supporting details.

Historical research provides the furniture of my character’s world, the clothes they wear and the food they eat. It provides the thoughts in their heads. It is a liberation, not a chore. The more I know of the period I’m writing about, the more comfortable and confident I feel about imagining the bits I don’t know. And, of course, it’s those gulfs of the unknown, and the bridges we build to cross them, that makes the exercise so rewarding.

But can we take ‘historical accuracy’ too far? In this age of the internet, the raw matter of history is available to all, the sources and the speculations about any era easily accessible. So should novelists spend less time worrying about ‘accuracy’, and more on telling a unique and engaging story?

Writers of a previous generation were certainly less concerned about historical rivet-counting. Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman novels are powerfully evocative works of imagination, but at times could have historical purists wincing. Wallace Breem’s novel Eagle in the Snow concerns the fall of the Rhine frontier in the 5th century, but his Roman army seems largely transplanted from the days of Hadrian. Both Alfred Duggan and George Shipway wrote novels of the Roman past which have stood the test of time, although by the standards of modern scholarship they may default on the details.

Breem’s portrayal of the barbarian hordes menacing the Roman frontier, however, may have been inspired by own experiences with the North West Frontier Force in British India. Shipway’s painstaking narration of Suetonius Paulinus’s army on the march through Britain on the eve of Boudica’s revolt perhaps draws on his time as a cavalry commander and staff officer, again in India, in the 1930s. And Alfred Duggan’s service in the Norwegian campaign during World War II doubtless fed into his descriptions of military life in a another era.

All of these writers brought to their work a sense of authenticity: the grit and sweat and tedium of army life, the reality of combat, the sense of adventure in strange and distant lands in a time before television, the jet engine and the internet shrunk the world.

It is this sense of authenticity, I believe, that people are looking to find when they ask about ‘historical accuracy’. Not the sterile checking of facts, but the sensation of a real world, complete in all its details. Whether we achieve this by personal experience, imaginative empathy or a painstaking immersion in the minutiae of history, it should be the desired end of all our research.

Authenticity will always trump ‘historical accuracy’. Because history is changing all the time.


This piece originally appeared as a guest post on Lynsey James's blog.