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historytutorI’m playing tutor to a friend’s fifteen-year-old son. English, mostly, and history.

The kid is smart enough, but hates most teachers, spends far too much time playing Assassin’s Creed, delights in amassing bits and bits of obscure knowledge, yet won’t make an effort to remember two Roman emperors in a row.

The way he is made to learn doesn’t help, either. They hop from emperor to later emperor, leaving out whole decades – never mind that they contain key logical steps of the whole story. Diocletian, Constantin, something of Theodosius… Right, but what of the fifty years of anarchy Diocletian ends? Blank. How does Constantin become emperor? Never mind. And what about the Visigoths? Who?

Thinking there is no way he can understant – let alone appreciate – history by fits and starts, I try to bridge the gaps. To make him see cause and effect and cause and effect. To show how all these disconnected names are actually characters in one long tale – and a true one.

Speaking of which… we are talking late Empire, here. An eventful, messily adventurous, exciting time, if a gloomy one. The kid is a voracious reader, a lover of adventures and battles – the gorier the better… how, how, how on earth can he miss the stirring romance of it?

So I’m trying hard. I tell him about the people, the places, the times, the battles. I make him think, work out the long shadows thrown by even the dryest piece of fiscal policy. I make him put himself in the shoes of Diocletian, of a peasant faced with ruinous taxes, of a general at the north-eastern border facing the Visigoths…

“I think you have too much imagination,” he says, shaking his head at me – after telling me he likes Julius Ceasar because he invented the testudo formation and some kind of trap or other…

Oh dear.Tetrarchi

At least he never told me yet that history can’t have happened. That was another girl I tutored, years ago. She was fifteen too – it must be a bad age for history.* This started out with Latin, actually. One day she didn’t feel like translating Titus Livius – some battle I forget – she up and told me it was useless, anyway.

“I refuse to believe it ever happened.”

I was perched on a ladder, browsing a bookshelf for an Osprey volume depicting the battle in question – and nearly fell down.

“You refuse what?”

She said it was at once to absurdly complicated and too pat.

“They made it up. They must have. And Latin as well. Who’s fool enough to speak something that needs conjugating at every step?”

I might have mentioned modern German and Russians, but I had other, more pressing questions in mind.

“But, my dear girl, if you don’t think they fought battles, spoke Latin, grew farro, laughed at outrageous comedies, and occasionally murdered each other, what do you believe they did all the time?”

The kid shrugged with the supreme indifference of youth.

“Something else, clearly.”

And she would have proceeded gleefully to invent a known- worldwide conspiracy to magnify the glory of a less-than-glorious Rome – except I sent her back to work  on her translation.

She is a brilliant pharmaceutical researcher now, and we still laugh about her theory when we meet – so I guess one day we’ll laugh about Diocletian as well…

But I don’t despair yet. The romance of history and the fun of the thought-process are there, his for the taking. The kid shall see it – if I have to beat him all the way there.


* Well, actually, at fifteen I already loved history to distraction, and indeed, it was the age when… but I guess that a) I was a bit of a geek; b) this is fodder for another post.