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?
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.
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.