Why I Hate the Way History is Presented on TV

For all the crap the topic sometimes gets, people do enjoy history. They enjoy learning it. They enjoy studying it. They enjoy understanding it. And those who say they don’t simply haven’t found a focus in history that grabs their attention. Or it could be that they just have yet to find a way in which it is portrayed interestingly enough to grab their attention at all. Enter The History Channel and its ilk.

Within the past decade — maybe 15 years — history has gotten a lot of attention. The ability to make documentaries and programs devoted to specific subjects and to put them all together on a few channels where there is a guaranteed audience means that a lot gets produced. Of course, that means a lot gets rehashed as well, and anyone who has watched The History Channel knows its penchant for World War II. Regardless, quite a bit of other eras get attention that otherwise would not due to their distance from modern memory. Unfortunately, the quality sucks.

This problem of quality isn’t limited to just The History Channel either (although it is perhaps the worst offender), but to almost all forms of such media. Recently I had the opportunity to view a show from a few years past called Time Commanders and broadcast by the BBC. It had a rotating caste of “historians” with the one constant being Dr. Aryeh Nusbacher, a military historian at Sandhurst. What drew my attention to it was that it utilized a slightly modified version of the Rome: Total War (RTW) engine to represent battles played between four contestants, who were generally clueless about the battles or history. RTW is the game that got me truly interested in history (Hellenistic specifically), despite its faults. So naturally, I was intrigued about the show.

I was disappointed.

Let me start by saying that I chose to sample one show based on a battle I was very familiar with: the Battle of Raphia, 217 BC. I felt that this would be the best way to gauge whether this show had any merit. I must admit that I am an amateur historian. My formal training is basically limited to my minor in Latin during my undergraduate education. However, I would like to think that I have done enough reading and spent enough time in history circles that my knowledge of Hellenistic history is adequate enough to provide commentary. If you’re a reader of this, that is up to you to decide, but I do feel that if pressed I could properly defend myself. What follows then is a host of comments I’ve made as I’ve watched the episode. Each entry is begun by the run time in the show at which I’ve noticed something that offends me. So without further ado, here we go:

· 0:00 So we get an introduction to the show, its concept, and the participants.

I hope you Google yourselves so you can read this. You suck.

· 3:35 Ah, the introduction of the experts (read: antagonists): Dr. Aryeh Nusbacher and Mark Urban

· 3:50 Short overview of what battle is being acted out today — Battle of Raphia — and the players’ role as the Ptolemies.

· 4:15 Fighting over Alexander’s Makedonian brand and legacy? Really? We still do this? First off, I think this is asinine because these were two well established dynasties interested in perpetuating their own myth for the sake of their authority, not Alexander’s. Secondly, Urban has just managed to completely ignore and gloss over the reason for the conflict of Koile-Syria: a reason which spawned no less than six fucking wars.

· 5:15 The military briefing.

This map represents borders that have never existed. Ever.

· 5:40 They just used a map that has completely fictional political boundaries. How do you mess that up? Didn’t anyone bother to check?

· 6:23 In previous battles the larger Seleukid elephants triumphed over the smaller Ptolemaic ones? Well, we could conjecture that from what actually happened at Raphia, but we don’t truly know because the records are slim. Nit-picking, I know, but I’m in a foul mood.

· 6:50 Misspelling the Latinized version of Seleukid. 1

· 7:15 Ptolomaios IV resourceful and charasmatic? pft – more like a fatass who was easily manipulated by others.  It was his prime minister Sosibios who got the military organized and prepared to fight Antiochos. Who writes this stuff?

· 7:23 Nice to not mention all the native Egyptians that were drafted to swell the Ptolemaic phalanx, which would have been 20,000 less otherwise. 2

· 8:20 Participants begin to discuss their plan without really knowing what they’re doing, which is actually fine since that’s the point of the show.

· 9:00 Discussion of the terrain. Why is there just a randomly placed watchtower? Oh, is it to make the participants look more ridiculous?

· 10:57 Discussion begin on the participants’ army (Ptolemaic kingdom).

· 12:32 Despite their inclusion here, the Ptolemies did not have javelinmen present at Raphia. 3

· 12:45 Gloss over the description of the Galatians as “tribesmen” — not to mention that they are equipped terribly wrong in every imaginable sense. They are painted as Picts and armed with a round shield instead of the ovoid thureos. Granted there are going to be some little errors because this uses vanilla Rome: Total War (and an altered version of it at that), but dammit… didn’t anyone bother to check these things?

· 13:25 Nusbacher states horse breeding was the problem? That was why the Successors didn’t have the numbers that Alexander did? pft – twat historian. 4

Just all sorts of wrong here.

· 14:22 The Galatians lightly armed and with spears? Yeah… no. This should be large shields and swords and javelins.

· 14:40 Discussion on the Seleukid army.

· 15:20 Glossing over the idea of command and battle plans.5

· 15:37 Butchering of the pronunciation of argyraspides.

· 16:50 The deployment of the Seleukid army under Antiochos contains several errors in arrangements.

· 17:30 During some of this discussion, there has been a “scouting” attempt and so battle has been joined… sort of.

· 18:38 The “battle plan”, which is rather painful to watch. Here, the participants try to come up with an overall strategy. Then again, these participants have never played Rome: Total War nor are they familiar with Hellenistic warfare; so it’s excusable.

· 22:28 Again, that awful political map. Did none of these historians bother to check?

· 22:13 Troop deployment and continued debate by the participants as to their battle plan.

· 23:45 More asinine comments by the historians.

· 29:54 Holy crap, they actually properly stated that the Ptolemaic archers were Cretans.

· 31:10 Ah yes, the Ptolemaic javelinmen that weren’t actually there saving the day.

· 37:00 Butchered pronunciation of argyraspides again.

· 37:35 I just noticed that they’re using the wrong shields with the phalanx models for the argyraspides.

· 40:30 The “Post Mortem” section wherein the participants are told how poorly they performed. They still won, but it was certainly a close call.

· 41:15 Wow, Nusbacher just got the entire purpose of the Battle of Raphia wrong and ignored that it was a counterattack to Antiochos III’s campaign of the year before to take over the region — not an attempt to get closer to the Seleukid heartland as he states.

· 42:54 Now the historians attempt to show what really happened using a map and blocks representing units… with absolutely no context or history.

Insert thought bubble: I can't make violence interesting, so I'll use this gimmick. Yeah, that should work.

· 43:15 Nusbacher puts a bunch of blocks from the tactical map into a cocktail shaker and throws it… oi. At this point, Urban is so embarrassed by this that he attempts to pretend as though it didn’t happen.

· 43:35 And more errors: Ptolemy was with his cavalry when Antiochos charged, but slipped away to return to the rest of his army. What’s more, Urban ignored the discussion of something very key: what could have Antiochos been thinking when he charged?6

· 45:20 The credits role, the pain is done, and anyone who has watched this is a bit dumber for it. No information on the aftermath or what had happened to Antiochos and Ptolemy after their conflict only makes it all the worse.

So there you have it. A “quick” rundown. I suppose, in a sense, it is meaningless to those of you who have not seen the episode, let alone the show: you lack context. It is fairly easy to get your hands on it, but I doubt that would be actually necessary. There is just simply so much wrong. And that was the point of this.

These shows are lazy, poor attempts at education. They go for flash rather than accuracy, when one can actually do both. Seriously, you can. Most of my critiques wouldn’t take that long to explain — they really wouldn’t. Part of what helps is getting people who actually know the material. Turns out that Urban is not a Hellenistic historian. A look at his bibliography shows that he is much more interested in modern Britain — and like most Brits, likely intellectually masturbates to the memory of the glory days of Waterloo. Nusbacher, however, is clearly the worst offender here. As the prime historian for this program, he should have been checking the information over and over again to guarantee the accuracy of the show’s content. These mistakes are amateurish and give the impression that he got most of his information from layman publications rather than any serious scholarship. His role should have been acting as a bridge between the heady analyses of ancient historians by professors and the viewer at the end of the television. Instead, he simply regurgitates reductionist views decades out of date and spewing out bullet points with no context.

It’s just a travesty. And due to programs such as these, there is a widening gulf between academia and the public. Why would any historian want to be associated with this? Why would anyone want to deal with snobby historians? And that is not to mention what it had done to other fields of historical research by turning it all into a sort of pulp fiction.

Oh, and if you’re curious, I also checked out the episode focusing on the Battle of Tigranocerta between Rome and Tigranes of Armenia. Yeah, it’s just as bad.

Finally, as a postscript to all this, it could be mentioned that Dr. Aryeh Nusbacher had undergone a sex change a few years ago. He is now a Lynette and still teaching at Sandhurst as far as I can tell. That may explain why Time Commanders only had two seasons. This is not, however, to somehow add weight to my argument: it has no bearing in my mind as to her abilities. Only an asshat would think that. No, I only mention this so that if she ever Googles herself, she can still find this under her current name and know how much she sucks.

  1. Latinized would be Seleucid; however, the show has spelled it as Selucid. []
  2. It is important to note here that the Ptolemaic victory at Raphia was due to these levied Egyptians. That the phalanx would have been nearly half the size would have certainly changed the outcome of the battle; however, this was somewhat a “deal with the devil”. In doing so to help bring victory, the Ptolemies finally gave the Egyptians what they needed to revolt: arms and training. This resulted in a thirty year rebellion in Upper Egypt with a pharaoh in opposition to the Makedonian government in Alexandreia. That seems like a pretty fucking big deal to me. []
  3. This does depend on how you want to interpret the Cretan mercenaries that were hired. A number of them were Neo-cretans, which is an odd term that shows up now and then. The Cretans were mostly known for their archery, civil wars, and piracy. You can build an argument for them being equipped with javelins, but I assure you that it is beyond the abilities of these two historians. []
  4. This is a common statement (or at least sentiment), which makes absolutely no sense. Most of the time historians make it seem as though Hellenistic monarchs had no idea what they were doing; that they willfully neglected raising cavalry. First and foremost, it should be said that the Seleukids maintained a large cavalry force. At Raphia it was smaller than it had been and what it would be, but this is thought to be due to the need to patrol the eastern provinces, which had just rebelled and were brought back into the fold just a few years previously as well as the concurrent campaign to regain control of central Asia Minor. Secondly, for the other Hellenistic kingdoms, there had been nearly fifty years of continuous warfare and before that Alexander’s campaign and his constant demand for reinforcements. Add to this the devastation brought by the Galatians to the countryside where the nobles would live and of course you’re going to have a decrease in available cavalry. Horses are pretty damn expensive to have around. Only the rich baronage could afford them. And when they’re all dead, that’s that. []
  5. This is something that doesn’t really get enough attention. We have to remember that it is difficult to get thousands of a people to suddenly stray from a battle plan at a moment’s notice. It should be said that there certainly was methods of communication on the field by way of a trumpets and banners; however, these are chaotic battle lines kilometers long with lots of noise and lots of dust. Generally, a plan is made and the units and their commanders stick to it and it is practically impossible to change in the midst of the action. Even if a general were to stay with his troops in hopes of adjusting to events in the battle, this isn’t an era of modern communication and he still isn’t going to get immediate results. []
  6. In truth, we don’t know what Antiochos actually thought, but it has been debated. Despite the few battles that he lost, he was not a fool. Hell, even Napoleon and Caesar lost battles. Bar-Kochva (one of the few Seleukid military historians) attributes Antiochos’ continual chase of the Ptolemaic cavalry as an attempt to capture or kill Ptolemy IV; not simply getting caught up in the moment of the chase. While it would have been better for Antiochos to return with his victorious cavalry and charge the rear of the Ptolemaic line, the potential benefits of dead Ptolemy were legion. Although Ptolemy’s minister ran the kingdom, a state without a head would be in utter chaos and ripe for the picking. After all, to quote the historian Polybios, “The mere statement of fact, though it may excite our interest, is of no benefit to us, but when the knowledge of the cause is added, then the study of history becomes fruitful.” []
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