Rhodes, Ba’al, Bel, and the destruction of heritage

In 2015, ‘so-called’ IS militants captured the ancient city of Palmyra. They promptly destroyed some of the most historic buildings in the world, using the destruction as part of elaborate executions for added levels of atrocity. At the centre of this, was the temple of Bel (or Ba’al, I am confused about this point). To most in historical circles, this destruction was particularly upsetting. Indeed, it’s one of the reasons I have avoided writing about it until now.

However, to put a positive spin on such a shitty story, it’s nice to know that part of that temple is to be recreated as part of a temporary exhibit in Trafalgar Square, London.

(And if one positive story isn’t enough, you should also check out the Army, which is signing up ‘monuments men’ to go into war zones and rescue at-risk heritage.)

However, this is not the only time in recent history where the subject of destroying historical objects has reared its head. In America, over the last year, the subject of race relations on campus has been especially heated. Among the many changes that students are demanding is the removal of mascots, crests, statues and names of racist founders. This mirrors the banning of Confederate flags as symbols of white supremacy.

In the UK, one of the focal figures for this campaign is Cecil Rhodes, a man who played a huge role in the development of the British Empire. He was also, as were many of his peers, massively racially prejudiced. Fun fact; he also started the De Beers diamond company, who are also pretty shady characters. But, he also gave a lot of his money to education, including things like the ‘Rhodes Scholarships’, which has provided more than a few future heads of state with the chance to study at Oxford University.

This is what the UK’s imperial history looks like; a fat white dude who probably rendered at least one species of animal extinct

So, should Oxford University tear down Rhodes’ statue? Think very carefully, because if you said ‘yes’, that’s a similar sort of logic to that of those ‘so-called’ IS chaps. Granted, you probably weren’t going to murder anyone in the process, but that’s because you’re actually a pretty decent person, rather than a homicide-tourist.

IS destroys statues, temples and ancient monuments because these don’t agree with the IS philosophy. Are we going to damn the memory of our own historical figures because they don’t agree with our modern philosophy? On a day when Germany is finally reprinting Mein Kampf, should we monumentalise only our heroes? Or should our villains stay on plinths as well, so that we might never forget them?

This will always be an impassioned subject. We remember when Iraq was overthrown, images of the statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled. However, in the Ukraine, which is currently still engaged in conflict with Russia, a different reaction has taken place. Rather than tear down one statue of Lenin, a local artist has turned it into something radically different:

Lenin Vader Statue

Perhaps the best way to maintain our history, is to accept that it did happen, but that it can still be relevant to the world we live in today.

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Slavery Reparations: Paying For The Past

This week UK Prime Minister David Cameron went on a trip to Jamaica, and didn’t apologise for slavery. He couldn’t apologise because that might open the path for legal action by any country that has a claim to reparations. The UK has been on the recieving end of historic claims for a while; give the Falklands back to Argentina; forgive criminalised homosexuals like Turing and Wilde; give the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

We’re not the only ones. When the EU was attempting to claw back its loans to Greece, the understandably upset Greece demanded unpaid war reparations from Germany. In almost every case, the answer is the same; the nation of the present cannot be responsible for the actions of the nation of the past.

In many cases, this is because the UK cannot afford to set a precedent. If it starts giving things back, making amends, then more claimants will come a-knocking. The power dynamic is also a relevant point. Greece is never going to persuade Germany to just give money back, and the same is true of Jamaica and the UK. For all that we’re no longer the same empire that benefited from slavery, we are definitely in a position to ignore demands like this.

But there’s also the problem of just how much time has passed. There’s no way to wind back the clock on history. Jamaican culture has been irrevocably changed by slavery. If reparations were made, then the native Caribs would be justified in demanding that all those of African descent went back to Africa. And that is plainly ridiculous.

Yes, our antecedents were well out of order. But there are better ways to repay the situation. Possibly not by building a prison and shipping their criminals back them, but still…

History We’d Like to See: Rockstar Games’ Court of Henry VIII

Assassins Creed 2

Before you go and get all excited, this is not a thing. I’m just saying it should be. This week Henry VIII was voted ‘the worst monarch in history’ by the Historical Writers Association (HWA), in a vote that was controversial at best. Sure, he did fuck things up for a lot of people, but was he the Worst Ever? A lot of people with a lot of qualifications disagree.

But I’m not here to get involved in that. I’m here to tell you why the world needs Rockstar Games to do a Tudor era video game.

When it comes to historical computer games, few big-league studios are really investing in them to make them major hits. Off the top of my head, you’ve got Assassin’s Creed and Red Dead Redemption in the first-person category, and then a bunch of others like Total War and Civilization in the strategy corner.

And Assassin’s Creed feels like it’s earning diminishing returns.The free running ‘n’ murderin mechanic has been run into the ground, and now it’s time for something a bit different. With the main franchise ostensibly brought to an end, it remains to see whether Ubisoft will revitalize the series with a new offering. But it’ll be an uphill struggle for sure.

And that’s why Rockstar Games are a logical fit for the studio best placed to produce a Henry VIII game. The court of the Tudor megalomaniac would be a brilliant place to stage an environment-based game. A game like Grand Theft Auto, or Bully, or Red Dead Redemption. The games that Rockstar produce so well are the ones where you have repeated interactions with the same people. And each time, the tension grows.

The attention to detail is an absolute must for any studio that is looking to produce a historical game. But equally, it is important to strike a good balance. For example, Rockstar has shown that its games can be fun, in many cases they allow the gamer to dive head-first into a sandbox world and enjoy themselves in their own twisted way. And I like to think that’s something Henry VIII would’ve appreciated.

But equally, Rockstar games understand the narrative of rags-to-riches, often on the backs of others. This is another thing that fit well with the behaviour of the period. Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn came from relatively minor families and built themselves up. They were symptomatic of the times. Imagine a game where you slowly accrue power by bullying monks or seduce the king himself.

The mini-games are another important aspect, and drunken debauchery and mounted jousts make for excellent mini-games. The scions of nobility clearly had a lot of fun in this era if court gossip is to be believed, and it’s exactly this kind of behaviour that makes for fun gameplay.

It wouldn’t have to be black and white morality. As long as you accept the corrupt nature of the court, then Rockstar is great at satirizing a situation. With a wink to the gamers behind the controls, player characters could find themselves in outrageous situations.  Let’s be honest  here; sex, combat and comedy are three of the biggest drivers in the games industry. Here is a situation rife with all three.

So can you make it already?

Stop trying to make #celtic happen. It’s not going to happen

This week it was announced that celts were not a single genetic group. Total shocker. The results suggested that most of England was historically inhabited by a single (possibly Anglo-Saxon) genetic group. However, the fringe populations (in Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and Scotland) seemed much less related. Celts were not a people.

BBC's genetic map of the UK
Genetic map of the UK, displaying the results of the study.

If anything, ‘celtic’ culture is a catch-all term, used to refer to groups who never saw themselves as united. Hell, the term was coined by the Ancient Greeks, who probably weren’t aficionados on culture on the other side of Europe. It has since been used by people who nostalgise for a time that never was.

So please, can we stop it with all the ‘celtic’ stuff now?

Putin as Hercules

I’m not the right man to talk about the mad weirdness that is Putin, but portraying yourself as Hercules is nothing new. Loads of people have done it; from Alexander the Great, to Pompey Magna. And yes, more recent people have done it too. This art is neither subtle, nor particularly brilliant, but then, neither is the man himself.