In the novel I, Claudius, Robert Graves imagines a conversation between three Roman historians: Claudius, Livy and Pollio. After a long argument involving moral decline and sulphurous sheep, the young Claudius comes to the conclusion that:
“…There are two different ways of writing history: one is to persuade men to virtue, the other is to compel men to truth”
The lesson is clear; it doesn’t really matter about the truth if you tell a good story. Not a surprising sentiment to find in a historical novel, it even goes as far to call mere truth-tellers:
“undertakers who lay out the corpse of history”
But should we ignore what really happened, for the sake of a good story? That surely depends on why we’re telling the story and whether the changes in Graves’ terms persuade us to virtue.
We tell stories not only for their entertainment value, but also to explore human experience. The virtue that arises from telling historical stories lies in its ability to make us reflect on contemporary issues and make them better. If positive change becomes less likely because the history has been altered to make it more dramatic then we should be critical of the alteration. We also have a responsibility towards people who cannot speak for themselves. It is not enough to just know someone’s name because of a story.
Whenever I talk to people about Egyptian mathematics I have to deal with the stereotypes of ancient Egypt before I can address the interesting mathematical fragments that they left behind. Popular culture represents ancient Egypt as a death obsessed, mystical culture. This view is contrary to the picture of their mathematics which shows a highly organised state with complicated state structures and a love of precision. You may think that The Mummy was just a harmless bit of fun, but films like this lead to a prejudicial view of ancient Egypt that is hard to overcome. Surely we should protect the memories of real people, especially if they are long dead?
If we want people to be inspired by the history of mathematics then we need to be careful that its representation is socially and culturally inspirational. The portrayal of mathematicians, both real and fictional, in films and TV shows is one of a set of people who are odd. They are usually loners with no social skills and overwhelmingly men, too wrapped up in solving. Does it drive us to virtue to continue with this meme? Does it encourage more people to become maths enthusiasts?
Seeing a film with known inaccuracies will always leave me feeing lied to and tricked. No amount of dramatic pauses, fabulous costumes and stunning performances will ever make up for it. To want real people to be portrayed honestly and accurately is not pedantry, just as wanting facts to be displayed accurately on a graph is not.
The standard comments I get when sticking up for people from the past is that I should lighten up, I’m dismissively told that perhaps I should just go and watch a documentary. I’ve never understood why people think that this is somehow a lesser option – it sounds like an excellent plan!