June 16th, 2010


Unjustified and unjustifiable

The British and Irish media are full of the Bloody Sunday report, and justifiably so. We have witnessed the extraordinary sight of a Conservative Prime Minister standing at the despatch box and admitting that British soldiers killed 13 unarmed civilians in Derry on 30 January 1972. I haven't had a chance to read more than the summary and skim one chapter of Lord Saville's report, but it is thorough and forensic: the Paras shot without justification, and lied thoroughly, and had the full backing of the state.

The House of Commons was the setting for the statement yesterday. It was one of many arms of the state that failed in 1972. Hansard's report of the debate the day after records the refusal of the Speaker to allow the one member actually present on the day to give her account. It doesn't record - but the Guardian did - her physically taking out her frustration on the Home Secretary of the day (of whom the Guardian's description as "placid" should be taken as a euphemism for "drunk"). I would not normally use this adjective of her, but her behaviour was rather mild under the circumstances.

The British state is not good at holding its own agents to account when they use deadly force. (Back in the mid-90s I got into some controversy when defending the continued imprisonment of another Para who had been convicted of murdering a civilian; since he was subsequently acquitted on appeal, I should not comment further on that particular case.) We shouldn't be under any illusions that the Saville Report will lead to justice, but at least it has produced truth.

June Books 10) The Portadown News, by Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson's satirical online newsletter brightened up the early Noughties in Northern Irish politics (previously celebrated on this blog here, here and here). It irritated the heck out of some, to the point that the Andersonstown News, that bastion of free speech and unbiased enquiry, got him sacked from his job for updating his website at work. The book basically pulls together, somewhat edited, his articles from March 2001 to 2004, a period of political stagnation; it's all somewhat dated now, and his casual sexism was not even funny then, but his sæva indignatio at the sectarianism and hypocrisy of all sides in Northern Irish politics is still refreshing and justified. (Full disclosure: I was myself mildly and indirectly targeted by Emerson back in November 2003.) The book is a bit of a curio now but still has plenty of enjoyable moments.

June Books 11) The Provinces of the Roman Empire, by Theodor Mommsen

I bought this three years ago, ages before I had my plan of reading Gibbon from start to finish, but at a time when I had vague thoughts of another project which in the end I gave up on before I started - reading books by winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. One of the reasons I gave up, of course, was that in its earliest phase the prize often went to worthy but unexciting writers. The second laureate, after French poet Sully Prudhomme, was German historian Theodor Mommsen, and his History of Rome was particularly cited by the committee. The Provinces of the Roman Empire, from Caesar to Diocletian was one of the later volumes in Mommsen's series (or possibly two, depending how you count them), surveying everywhere other than central and southern Italy, starting with northern Italy (including the Adriatic) and then going clockwise around the borders starting with Spain and ending with Mauretania (modern Morocco).

One of my increasing frustrations with Gibbon (as chronicled on reading_gibbon) is his habitual haziness about the geography of places that don't interest him, which is basically everywhere outside the very narrow triangle connecting Rome, Paris and London (by my reckoning Lausanne is just on the longest edge of the three). Mommsen totally reverses this, with a detailed discussion of the niceties of local administration from Scotland to Mesopotamia. I hadn't really appreciated how varied the arrangements were between client kingdoms / statelets and formal provinces. Another point that is clear from Mommsen, but denied by Gibbon in the face of the evidence, is that the Empire's boundaries were actually fairly fluid where geography allowed; central Germany, lowland Scotland, Dacia, and the eastern frontier of Mesopotamia and Armenia all slipped in and out of Roman control over the years. (In fairness, Gibbon rules out the earlier and more volatile half of Mommsen's time period by starting in the mid-second century, but I think his line that the borders were stable is still simply incorrect.)

Mommsen is a bit romantic about the Germans; gives a great account of Trajan's column; is utterly fascinated by the Jews (apparently he was an anti-Semite as regards contemporary public policy in Germany, but it doesn't really come across in his historical analysis - see comment from selenak below), very good on Palmyra, Persia and Ethiopia; very bigoted on Africa (ie Tunisia/Algeria) and Syria. The English translation did not strike me as having the excellent fluency of style attributed to the German original, let alone being anywhere near a match for Gibbon. But it filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge, and I'm a little regretful that I didn't grind through this before starting The Decline and Fall.