Brief Encounter

Tom Holland: I welcome our AI overlords

The historian and podcaster on humanity’s golden age—and how it’s all going to end

September 06, 2023
Illustration by Michael Rea
Illustration by Michael Rea

What is the first news event you can recall?

The Winter of Discontent. I was 10 years old in the penultimate year of the Callaghan government, and had just graduated to watching The Two Ronnies, who had a seemingly limitless appetite for jokes about strikes and the general uselessness of the British economy. I wanted to understand them, and so started reading newspapers and watching the news just as the Labour government entered its death spiral.

What is the biggest problem of all?

The fact that Homo sapiens has become the equivalent of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs: an agent of mass extinction.

If you could spend a day in one city or place at one moment in history, what would that be?

Jerusalem after the crucifixion of Jesus, just to see what actually happened. But if I could set my time machine to ­prehistory as well as history, I would head to Alberta in the late ­Cretaceous—which, ­judging by the fossils there now, was ­especially rich in dinosaurs.

What is your favourite quotation?

“Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean…” Tennyson.

Which of your ancestors or relatives are you most proud of?

I am inordinately proud of all my living relatives, but of those who are dead I am most proud of my great uncle, Charles Holland, who was the very model of an elite sportsman. He trialled for both Aston Villa FC and Warwickshire CC, was one of the first two British cyclists to compete in the Tour de France, and competed in two Olympics. A legend and an inspiration.

What have you changed your mind about?

The degree to which we are fish swimming in Christian waters.

What is the last piece of music, play, novel or film that brought you to tears?

I went to see The Marriage of Figaro at Covent Garden in the summer, and the climax of the opera—the confrontation between the count and the woman he thinks is his adulterous wife, the exposure of his own adulterous designs, and the forgiveness he receives from the wronged countess, all compressed into a bare few minutes—brought me to tears, as it always does. The moral and emotional complexity of it all, fused with the exquisite quality of the music, seems to me the very summit of human creativity. If I had to offer an invading alien war fleet one thing that justified sparing us, that sequence would be it.

How much ancient history is fiction?

I think that many of our most significant sources for the classical past have the quality of ­literature, which is not quite the same as fiction. Certainly, to write the history of the Greeks or the Romans is to engage in literary criticism at least as much as it is to write history.

What is the most significant cultural legacy of the Roman Empire?


Pax is about Rome’s golden age. Is anywhere, anything or anyone currently enjoying a golden age?

The whole of humanity is enjoying a golden age. More people are living for longer in better health and conditions than ever before. This said, the fact that this same golden age simultaneously threatens environmental collapse is less a bug than a feature.

And how will it end?

I, for one, welcome our new AI overlords.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

That I made a corn circle, which was labelled in one guide to the corn circles of Wiltshire as “an obvious fake”.

What do you most regret?

I regard regret as a most corrosive emotion, and so I try to regret nothing. 

“Pax: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age” (Abacus, £30) is out now. Tom’s podcast with Dominic Sandbrook, The Rest is History, is available on all major podcasting platforms