From Latin to Lee
Today, as part of my Intro to Latin class, I was required to write a discussion post for week 7 of the class. Discussion posts are integral parts of college education in an age when people have difficulty communicating. So, colleges and universities make an effort to encourage discussion between piers through weekly discussion posts that require the student to make an initial post and reply to other students. Most students (and some professors) regard this requirement as an aggravation and a burden. I look at it as an opportunity to apply some critical thinking to some folk who aren’t usually critical…or thinking. It was time to consider Lee.
This week, we had to discuss how the ending –ion became part of the English language as well as this little excerpt from the writing of Roman historian Valerius Maximus’ Facta etc Dicta Memorabilia. Below is the excerpt.
Roman Fake News
“What should I say about Hannibal? Did he not bring the Roman army to such lamentable disaster at Cannae by enmeshing it in many crafty nooses before coming out to fight? To start with, he saw to it that the Romans had to face into the sun and the dust that the wind so often stirs up there. Then he ordered part of his troops to pretend to flee during the actual battle; when a Roman legion detached itself from the rest of our army in pursuit of them, he had that legion butchered by troops which he had placed in ambush.
Finally, he instructed four hundred horsemen to seek out the Roman commander, pretending to be deserters; when our general ordered them to lay down their arms and retire to the edge of the fighting (as is the usual way of dealing with deserters), they drew swords which they had hidden between their tunics and their breastplates and cut the tendons of the knees of the Roman fighters. This was Punic bravery, fitted out with tricks, treachery, and deceit. That is most definitely the reason why our bravery was foiled; we were cheated rather than defeated.”
No! It can’t be! History is objective, right?
It’s obvious here that history is not always objective. In fact, it almost never is whenever history moves from “just the facts” to the story of what happened. If you’re interested in U.S. history, especially regarding the War Between the States, this little jewel is quite vindicating. “History is written by the victor”! It’s usually written favorably toward their perspective. That includes the individual accounts and the narrative.
It’s kind of like when the Philadelphia Eagles beat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. Oh, the excuses those Patriot fans threw out were so obvious. Tom Brady, it turns out, is not invincible.
So too it was for Rome and the Army of the Potomac. Robert E. Lee has been compared to Hannibal several times and ways. He constantly humiliated the Federal Army in Northern Virginia. He was always outnumbered and used classical tactics to defeat an overwhelming force that seemed both incompetent and clumsy. Yet, the excuses prevail in American history books, so much so, that they base some Union victories on arbitrary outcomes.
More importantly, look at the adjectives used to describe Hannibal and his tactics. “Crafty nooses, pretend, butchered, ambush”, were a few. The Roman writer intimated that the Punic bravery was something other than real bravery. He also claimed that they cheated to obtain victory. We know Hannibal as a barbarian while his military training was probably equal to that of the Roman generals. Where did he learn to fight? He learned from his father who was trained in Spain.
Furthermore, Roman tactics were some of the most barbaric military tactics known to mankind. They literally invented ways of torturing combatants and prolonging their deaths for days to scare anyone who may consider rebellion. Who were the real barbarians?
Controlling the Narrative
While most Roman historians didn’t practice as professional historians like we think of today, their goal wasn’t much different. They controlled the narrative understanding the farther in time one gets away from the event, the more a historian can manipulate the narrative. I will give them credit, many historians would simply leave out embarrassing details such as this defeat. I suppose it was so bad and the effects so broad that leaving it out was not an option. The next best thing is to control the narrative. That’s exactly what the Jews attempted to do with Christ’s resurrection. Control the narrative!
The same is true today. We read so-called professional historians claim that Lee had a “foot fetish”, that he mistreated his slaves, that he was a traitor, that he was a barbaric general to his own troops, or that his cause was disunion or the propagation of the institution of slavery. Was any of this written by any of his contemporaries? Almost all of these allegations are extremely recent and specious. Winston Churchill said, “Lee was the noblest American who had ever lived and one of the greatest commanders known to the annals of war.” Who is more objective, post-modern American historians or an impartial outsider?
History or just a story?
In the very least, the idea that anyone would claim such a lopsided history should always give us pause. Whether it’s the Romans, the English, or our own historians, we should always approach the narrative with a suspicious minds eye, especially when it becomes heretical to disagree with it.
So, why can’t we just believe the history books? Well, it seems we get more from the Romans than just –ion from the stem of the fourth principle part of a Latin verb.