I’ve been living in the past with some scholars and historians. They have a fine and delicate line to tread: engaging readers without developing too intrusive an authorial persona (which for a reader feels like a stranger taking you possessively by the elbow); using contemporary comparisons and metaphors to illuminate historical circumstances (which can sound as if the author has a pathetic urge to look cool); and explaining things with too much technical detail or in a very informal manner (which can sound, respectively, self-important or patronising).
The fall of the Roman Empire is at the formal end of this spectrum. Peter Heather gives us our popular history straight, which I appreciated, though I don’t think he is always good at including those odd details which simultaneously astonish or amuse, and reveal something unfamiliar about a period. One exception was the enjoyable paragraph in which he describes how he co-opted his young son for a reconstructive experiment to establish the likely duration of a formal Imperial acclamation, thus demonstrating that most emperors must have been bored almost to extinction. The maps are very useful, helping one to keep track of Vandals and Visigoths as they peregrinated about the ancient world. And an additional charm for me was the sense of declining and falling with Mr Boffin ghostly at my shoulder.
Tom Holland has established a line in classical history which walks a middle course; his persona is more present in his writing and he is fond of the modern metaphor or comparison. He also salts his chapters generously with idiosyncracy: the priestess who sprouted a beard, the Spartans’ use of palaeontology to create political capital. Persian Fire was a fun read, but I sometimes found myself saying ‘Hmmm’ in a faintly sceptical tone.
And finally Eileen Power, who constructed biographies of peasant and tradesman and even (the boldness of it) a woman. I found the tone uneasy here, for example: ‘[Ermentrude] finds the steward, bobs her curtsy to him, and gives up her fowl and eggs, and then she hurries off to the women’s part of the house, to gossip with the serfs there.’ I never like the use of the present tense in a historical context, and to me passages of this kind sound patronising in two directions at once (those poor dim mediaeval women who obviously couldn’t think of anything except gossip as they didn’t go to university, and all the poor stupid modern readers who need to have everything explained in a simple homely way as they didn’t go to university…) In justice to Power, her book was published in 1924, attempting a fairly new genre of economic and social history. Moreover, she was addressing readers who might indeed be living in information poverty: Lord Reith had only been improving the British for two years, and many people might still not have free public libraries if Andrew Carnegie had passed them by. But the whiff of dumbing down remains.