Edinburgh International Book Festival
17th August 2016
The Studio Theatre is a much more intimate venue than the Baillie Gifford. My favourite perch (stage left, top of the stairs) is a lot closer to the dais. The ventilation system still roars, but you learn to put up with that at the Book Festival. Journalist and critic Stuart Kelly introduced us to Michael Scott, who actually needed little introduction, as he is a well-known face from historical documentaries on TV. If anyone demonstrates that there is a future for you in history, if you are relatively young and personable, then it is Michael Scott. There is a fascination with bygone civilisations, documentaries on cable TV channels every night, and even on the day of Michael’s talk there was an article in The Guardian about Cahokia, the pre-Columbian city on the Mississippi. The time is ripe for the slim and the good-looking to have footage of themselves taken treading thoughtfully through ancient, sun-drenched rubble, with their own awed commentary playing.
Michael’s book, Ancient Worlds: An Epic History of East and West, from which he read a twenty-minute excerpt, attempts to demonstrate the συμπλοκἡ – ‘symploce’, the interweaving and interconnectedness – between the large empires and civilisations that sprang up in the first millennium BCE and into the first CE. He spoke to us of Antiochus the Seleucid Emperor, of Hannibal, of Philip of Macedon, of Diodotus king of Greco-Bactria, and of Zhao Zheng (Qin Shi Huangdi) king of Chin and first Emperor of a united China. These were all relatively young leaders, with new ideas, existing in a world where these vast territories were known about, where the idea of ‘world domination’ was conceived, where a global picture was first formed. These Empires were not necessarily alike; for example, the Chinese Empire was founded on uniformity, obedience, and standardisation, all of which were strictly enforced, whilst the newly-emerging Roman Empire tended to be syncretic, to dominate by adopting what it found. In the world that Michael presented to us, war was a shaper of history and culture, and history itself, which was being documented, was a lesson for the ruler and potential ruler. “You can’t govern in China without history in your mind,” was an established axiom that Michael quoted and drew upon.
His delivery was that of the TV documentarian, as you would expect. The history on offer today was very much a case of ‘Names, Dates, and Greats’, which until recently has been a denigrated approach. What has focused historians again on the broad issues of history is the fact that we are, today, very much aware of global issues, of globalisation. This was a trend which, he thought, had been growing since the First World War, a conflict that had involved peoples from many continents. I pointed out to him that he had dealt with very broad issues, and asked whether he had any sense of the fragility of history, of small things – the stumbling of one soldier, the decision of Genghis Khan to come out of his tent and turn left instead of right, the historical ‘butterfly’ effect – that might radically affect these apparent broad historical movements. He replied with a couple of examples. Firstly, how the introduction of direct democracy in ancient Greek city-states was an accident, brought about by a split in a ménage à trois. And secondly the visit of a few ‘Roman ambassadors’ to the court of the Emperor of China. No one really knows whether these ‘ambassadors’ were genuine envoys or a group of chancers, but what is known is that their banal gifts to the Emperor did not impress him, and he sent them away with a flea in their ear. Michael said that if they had ‘done their homework’ and bothered to find out what the Emperor really valued, they could have brought about a completely different relationship between two empires at the extremes of the known world.
This was a fascinating presentation. Michael Scott spoke with great clarity and was very attentive to questioners. If there was a down side, it was that his PowerPoint maps were not very clear. If he didn’t actually invent the term ‘Game-of-Thrones-esque’ he is the first person I ever heard use it. And indeed it seemed appropriate, because you could take any of the real persons he talked of – from Qin Shi Huangdi, to Diodotus, to Hannibal – and substitute the names Stark, Lannister, Bolton, Baratheon, or Targaryen with ease. It is that which made his talk primarily an entertainment, although an informative one. This is a problem that Game-of-Thrones-esque history has to deal with – the conflict between necessity to have detail and hard fact in historical study, education, and presentation, whilst dealing with broad, global issues in a palatable format. That’s the area Michael Scott operates in, and the line he walks.
Reviewed by Paul Thompson