Earlier today I read an article where Leonardo DiCaprio claimed that his latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street, is “like a modern-day Caligula”. I have neither seen the film, nor met the two-thousand-and-two-year-old Roman emperor, so perhaps I’m not the best qualified person to examine this comparison. But if no-one else is going to do it, I’d like to have a crack, because there’s more to be gained from this than meets the eye.
First though, it’s worth having a think at the millions of different ways history interacts with the modern world – because it does, a lot. Films, music, books, television shows, games, websites; it is everywhere. The example above might seem like a one-off, but believe me it isn’t. I had the idea for this blog yesterday, and since then I have seen at come across at least half a dozen other examples that would have been equally decent ways to kick off this discussion. This was the week that Michael Gove picked a fight with Baldrick and when the BBC aired a programme about Britain’s national debut in full-contact battle re-enactment.
Maybe it’s to be expected. After all ‘history’ is a very loose, amorphous term for something which has been going on for a *long* time. I’m certainly not about to try and pin it down and duct-tape a definition to it. That kind of behaviour is counter-productive and way more effort than it’s worth. When viewed in comparison, ‘modern culture’ seems to be all hype. Bitcoin might seem exciting now, but you have to remember that before that, the most exciting innovation on our horizon was just a mobile phone welded to a pair of glasses (which *still* hasn’t had a market debut yet).
And yet, ‘modern culture’ is happening to all of us, right now. Each of us keeps bumping into history in our daily lives, and we drag it into others’ as well. Part of the inspiration for this blog was from a tweet by an industry professional lamenting the fact that pages about Skyrim and beer had a higher PageRank for the term ‘standing stones’ than archaeological sites. Mark my words when I say this is No Bad Thing.
As for Leo; he’s right, but he’s wrong. Caligula was groomed for a high rank from an early age by his great uncle, and his entire family was killed off amid political intrigue that led to him being the natural successor to a throne he doesn’t seem to have enjoyed. By contrast, Jordan Belfort, the central character of The Wolf of Wall Street was born a relative nobody, chose his own path, and is still with us today. But, yes. Both men were young and had more power than they knew what to do with. DiCaprio used the word “like”, so we can’t get too critical.
The thing that I really want to draw attention to is the fact that a top-flight professional actor (an American who is constantly surrounded by fans and journalists and film types) felt that the best comparison he could make for a story that he helped tell, was with a long-dead dude from another continent. People like to claim that we learn about history to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. That is demonstrably not true. Human beings have and will always make mistakes. We are infinitely fallible, and no amount of packing in the history knowledge will fix that. We learn about history because there is so much of it that it would be rude not to.