Sunday, February 28, 2010

AtF: Tossing Caesar's Salad

As I recall, we left off last week with me making promises that I probably shouldn’t have made to begin a comparison between Caesar’s account of the invasion of Britain and Tysilio’s. The problem with this plan is that it requires actual, y’know, work. And I’ve got laundry to do and lunches to make. But a promise is a promise. And what kind of blogger would I be if I just didn’t do what I said? Oh, right. I’d be a regular blogger. Cool, then. But I strive to be something…more. So, armed with liquid courage, I press on. For the record, tonights AtF entry is brought to you by Woodford Reserve straight Kentucky bourbon whiskey (commended to me by no less a personage than Stephen Fry) and the letter “G.” Why the letter “G?” I don’t know. I thought it would make this more kid friendly if I incorporated Sesame Street. It’s about time for me to reach a new key demo: small children who like swearing and casual alcohol consumption. They’re our future, after all. So, then. We’re working with After the Flood, Tysilio, and Caesar’s Commentaries on that whole invasion of Britain thing. Gather ‘round, kids. Uncle Cooper has a story to tell.
Caesar tells us (4) that when he initially landed on the shore of Britain, the landing was resisted in a most alarming way for the Roman troops. The British charioteers and cavalry rode into the very waves to attack the Roman soldiers as they tried to leap from their ships into the sea, and the landing was almost aborted due the unusual nature and ferocity of the attack. Moreover, Caesar had made some very serious miscalculations about the tide and weather that had almost lost him his army. But what does the British account say of all this? Nothing. Nothing whatever. There is no triumphant trumpeting about the bravery of the Celtic warriors or the Romans' difficulties in making land.
This is the sort of paragraph you get out of a secondary (tertiary? Quadriniary?) source when said secondary source doesn’t bother to give even the tiniest amount of context. Honestly, that’s one of my favorite things about Christian “history.” If we’re talking about all those genocides ordered by Yahweh back in Ye Olde Testamente Daiyes[1] then it’s important we understand the “context.”[2] If we’re talking about any other variety of history, well, fuck that noise. We’ve visited this before, back when I went wandering in to the Caesar account the first time. Tysilio had a wildly improbable tale of Caesar showing up, realizing that the Britons and Romans were brethren by virtue of their common descent from Aeneas, and then sending a letter saying, “Hey, what up? Wanna be my subjects, brothas from anotha motha?”[3] The Brits were then all, “Nah, that’s coo, man.” At which point Caesar launched an invasion. In Caesar’s account, meanwhile, he justifies his invasion by saying that the Brits had been helping his foes in his Gallic campaigns and that he had to stop it. We can’t completely buy Caesar’s account of the conflict, but not for the reasons that Cooper seems to think. For this we need to understand context. It will also allow us to understand why the Tysilio account differs (if, y’know, we assume Tysilio is real, which I will do for the sake of argument). Caesar’s goal with his accounts of his Gallic wars and invasion of Britain was simple: he wanted to paint himself as the new Alexander the Great. As such, his descriptions of his campaigns played up his military prowess and the military capabilities of his opponents, so that when he inevitably triumphed against terrible odds the people would give him his due praise as an awesome, unparalleled military commander. Tysilio, meanwhile, attempts to tell the story of Britain from Brutus of Troy through to some point after Arthur in all of, like, sixty pages. Some details would have to be skipped over. Meanwhile, though, Cooper’s own translation of Tysilio puts to lie Cooper’s interpretation of the events of Caesar’s invasion in After the Flood.
Instead, we hear only how, on first receiving news of the Roman landing, the Britons under Kasswallawn (Caesar's Cassivelaunus) gathered together at a certain fort in Kent. Caesar had clearly been resisted merely by a band of local levies of whom the Britons' intelligence reports had taken no account.
Yet this is what Tysilio has to say (page 34 of the .pdf):
And when Julius Caesar had read Casswallon’s letter, and [had noted] his reply, he mustered a fleet and came to the mouth of the Thames. And he was met [in battle] by Nennius, Casswallon’s brother, and Androgeus, his nephew, prince of London.[4] Also Trahern, earl of Cornwall, and Caradoc, king of Albany, and by Gwerthaet, king of Gwent, and also Brithael, king of Dyfed. And straightway they, the Britons, made for the castle of Doral, and [from there] they came down to the shore. And they fought heroically on every side.
So according to Cooper the Tysilio account says that Caesar wasn’t met in battle upon landing by anything more than a local levy. But according to the Tysilio account itself, which was translated by Cooper,[5] the entirety of the British Isles showed up to say, “Howdy,” to Caesar’s landing force. This seems like a problem. Y’know, for Cooper. But we’re not even to the fun bits yet. See, the very next bit of Tysilio tells of the death of one Labenius in that battle. Again, we’re going with Cooper’s translation, which leads to one of the weirdest footnotes I’ve ever seen:
246 LXI = Alibiens. Interestingly, the death of Alibiens is mentioned in Caesar’s account, in which he appears as the tribune Quintus Laberius Durus. GoM (4:3)[6] transposes the name understandably enough as Labienus, although Labienus (Caesar’s second-in-command) had actually been left behind on the continent (Caesar, p. 108). Furthermore, Liberius was slain during the second attempt at invasion the following year in 54 BC according to Caesar, all of which indicates the sometimes garbled though authentic nature of the Celtic sources.
So if I’m reading this right, and FSM knows I might not be, Cooper found the account of the death of a guy named Alibiens in the Tysilio account, then chose to conflate Alibiens with Labenius and, further, to say that the fact that the Tysilio account claimed the death of Labenius during Caesar’s first battle on British soil confirms the accuracy of the British source in spite of the fact that Labenius was in Gaul at the time and would remain quite alive for another year or so. I don’t think I’ve consumed enough Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey to understand that one yet. I don’t think there’s enough in my apartment to help. And I have at least three-quarters of a fifth left. Meanwhile, Cooper also makes a big deal of the fact that Caesar shows absolutely no awareness of various forts and whatnot, thereby indicating that the Tysilio account is accurate. You know what else Caesar’s account shows no awareness of? London. Yeah, I went there.[7] By Cooper’s measuring stick we can prove Lewis and Clarke were making shit up because they never mentioned Seattle. They never went to the Pacific after all! This is actually where the Breaking the Master Narrative stuff[8] comes in deeply handy as background. The explorers of the 15th Century were far more sophisticated in their knowledge of the world than the monks of Nennius’ and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s day. Yet they believed in the existence of all kinds of crazy crap that just plain didn’t exist. Moreover, the place names survived in one form or another for centuries, simply because it was believed that they did exist. As such, we can say that it’s possible all these places Caesar didn’t mention didn’t actually exist. We could also say that they did exist and that it proves there was an independent British account of Caesar’s invasion. The thing about it is this: I would be shocked to learn there wasn’t an independent British account. I strongly doubt it was a sophisticated written account, but by the same token it didn’t need to be. Oral history is a powerful thing. It’s also woefully inaccurate. But as far as place names goes and whatnot, it’s generally fairly good at maintaining the memory of important places. As such, we can’t wholly discount things like Tysilio. But we should not, by any stretch of the imagination, take that as a license to throw out Caesar’s accounts. That’s just stupid. Or dishonest. And I think we all know where I think Bill Cooper fits on that spectrum…[9] ------------------------------ [1]”I was at a day spa. D-A-I-Y-E.” --Derek Zoolander. [2]Generally, it’s that Bronze Age combat and, well, life, was brutal, ergo the Jews were brutal. But that doesn’t really matter, since an all-powerful and loving god would figure out a way to keep his people safe without, y’know, ordering them to run every baby they see through with a sword. It really seems we’re looking at a post hoc justification for brutality. But I don’t have to tell you that… [3]That’s what you’d call a “paraphrase.” [4]::Cough:: London didn’t exist yet. ::Cough: : Sorry. Had something in my throat there… [5]Admittedly, after After the Flood, as best I can tell. But considering the content of the chapter we’re working on, something tells me Cooper had at least a passing familiarity with Tysilio by the time he wrote After the Flood. [6]Geoffrey of Monmouth, as best I can tell. This brings up a whole host of new problems, though. Mostly, though, it just makes me want to hit Bill Cooper in the head with something headache-inducing but non-lethal. [7]I’m a mean drunk of a historian. [8]Which I will get back to, Fake Al Gore… [9]You can be at both ends…


Fake Al Gore said...

You know, as I was reading this I thought, "I need to pester him about that some more."

Damn you, footnotes! Damn you all to hell! *shakes fist*

Michael Mock said...

"I’m a mean drunk of a historian."

This begs to be a sig line.

Geds said...

Fake Al Gore: Bwah ha ha!

Michael: Perhaps I'll put it on my work email...