4.20.2009

A Brief History of Dirt

"They passed the solitary Column of Phocas, and looked down into the excavated space, where a confusion of pillars, arches, pavements, and shattered blocks and shafts - the crumbs of various ruins dropped from the devouring maw of Time--stand, or lie, at the base of the Capitoline Hill."
The Marble Faun, Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1860

A few things recently made have made me think about 'dirt' - of the salacious as well as the archaeological kinds. It's partly to do with archaeology, and the best way I can think to get around to explaining my antipathy to 'women's history'.

I've always felt that anyone's life, if examined under a microscope, can be made to look bad. A few night ago I had dinner with a former Democrat 'operative' who used to work on opposition research. He told me some of the ways that voting records were manipulated to make any office-holder look bad during election campaigns.

King David was a great king but, as I've mentioned before, because of his private life there were debates amongst Islamic scholars about whether or not be was a Prophet. In Judaism and Christianity we accept that the good he did outweighed the bad, but in Islam it is questioned. [Image: BNF]

I was tempted to jest that even Jesus could be made to look bad under a microscope, but ... since he was condemned by Pontius Pilate, I guess we already know that.

Every once in a while someone comes up with the 'bright' idea (please note: heavy use of sarcasm) of nominating me for something, and I get vetted. Although, ironically, the two times that I know of, the issue has been not with me but with men I was dating ... I try to discourage such nominations, because frankly someone rooting through my life is not worth the 'honor' of the 'position' I'm being considered for. As boring as I try to keep my life, it's easy to make minor issues look bad.

I have no interest in the 'dirt' of others' lives. I love the Daily Mail for its' amusing stories, but tend to ignore the ones about celebrities' love lives. I also have no interest in gossip about people I know, nor about those long dead. That may seem like a strange thing for a historian to write.

Throughout history, private lives have been just that - private. Most people had feet of clay when it came to their loves, peccadilloes and bedroom habits, but it did not distract from their public loves, nor did it make them any less great. I don't care if Alexander the Great was bisexual, as it seems in no way to have affected his military record. Catherine the Great may be gossiped about because of her lovers, but I prefer to concentrate on the way she modernized and revolutionized Russia. Nelson's mistress made no difference to the outcome of Trafalgar.

Clearly a lot of people do care, or so many tabloids wouldn't be sold each day.

I love writing about Greek and Roman history as most of the gossip and scandal has been lost or can be ignored. Almost nothing is know of Gaius Marius' private life, and that meant that when doing research on him I could concentrate on his accomplishments rather than his foibles.

The catalyst for the recent publishing trend for Women's History was Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Few of the books that have followed in its wake have been either as well researched, nor as well written, though they have continued the concentrated over-examination of people's private lives.

Georgiana was a rather silly girl. She wasn't involved in politics; she slept with a politician. Her love life may have been exciting, but she was not particularly interesting - certainly not according to her husband. Far more interesting was Lady Elizabeth Foster, the much-maligned mistress whom the Duke of Devonshire married after Georgiana's death. Thanks to Foreman's biography, Elizabeth is universally derided. Whenever I read such books, I want to shout "but! there are two sides to every story!" ...

Elizabeth was certainly an attractive woman, as we can see in these two portraits: by Angelica Kauffman (Ickworth House, above); and by Joshua Reynolds (Chatsworth House, below). But for a man as powerful as the Duke of Devonshire to keep her by his side from 1782 until his death in 1811, and for him to marry her in 1809 when not only did he not 'have' to, but she was 50 and had probably lost much of her youthful bloom ...

Although Elizabeth's role as anything other than a bedroom distraction is glossed over in Foreman's biography ... my guess is that what kept the Duke interested in her was her brain and their common interests. Georgiana may have been 'fun' and had a nice selection of hats, but Elizabeth was educated.

Edward Gibbon - of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire fame - was a huge fan of hers.

She funded a translation of Horace into Italian by Molajoni. And she corrected it before publication where she thought it was inaccurate. The Iter ad Brundusium and the Aeneid were also illustrated and published thanks to her.

She was a patron of the arts as well as a great Classicist.

She arranged for the Vatican to have casts of the Parthenon frieze soon after Lord Elgin brought it to London. She got involved in the post-Napoleon repatriation of works of art to Italy. And ...

This is what the Roman Forum looked liked in 1760; a higher resolution version of this engraving by Piranesi is here. By the time Elizabeth visited after her husband's death, the arch had been cleared of the accumulation of topsoil, but much of the Forum was still buried and used as pasture for cows.

Cardinal Ercole Consalvi helped her get a permit, and in December 1816 Elizabeth started to excavate, beginning with the Column of Phocas - seen here in the left foreground. Then she dug around the area, down to the Roman travertine paving. Some of her finds can be seen in the Capitoline museum, such as the porphyry column shafts.

Elizabeth Foster was an interesting woman, but ... well, you can see why I'd be annoyed when these aspects of her life are ignored in favor of making her some sort of a fluffy mistress who 'stole' silly Georgiana's husband, when Georgiana was too busy choosing hats. I've heard a lot of women apologize for Georgiana, saying she was a 'product' of her age - but so was Elizabeth. If one sets aside her private life, she's still interesting. The same cannot be said for Georgiana.

History should be about public lives and achievements, not bedrooms.

(A book of Elizabeth's papers is available here on Google books.)

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