Basic A-Level Intro: How Far Can Ancient Texts Be Reliable Sources?

One of the first things that students of late-Republican Roman history have to learn is that they cannot treat Ciceronian texts as authentic records of history. They must realize not only that the statements about his own lifetime, especially in his speeches, contain bias and misrepresentation, if not at times downright fantasy, but that most accounts of past history in his works have a persuasive element that tends to overshadow his devotion to the truth as he knows it. Cicero knew the ‘laws of history’, that one should neither venture to say anything false nor fail to venture to say anything true.” (Lintott, Cicero as Evidence, 3)

THIS quote from Andrew Lintott is pertinent not only to Cicero and not only to the Late Republic at Rome. There are a plethora of difficulties, even dangers, in looking at the ancient sources and using them as historical evidence for the events of any period in the Classical world. The question as to how far we can understand the sources in their original historical context is difficult enough – being able to understand the author’s own bias, outlook and, as is still often the case, prejudices and self-aggrandisement where the writings are with a political purpose, and particularly where ‘speeches’ by protagonists in events are the mainstay, the questions verge on purely unanswerable. We can check, to a certain extent, with other documented accounts of the events, perhaps more hopefully on epigraphic and archaeological evidence (though again to a great extent these also rest upon a level of interpretation). With Cicero, we are fortunate in having a large amount of personal correspondence with his friend Atticus and many of the latter’s replies – such is useful for comparison in that these epistulae are where Cicero has let down the pompous novus homo – the politician of new stock without the “masks in the cupboard” trying to stamp his authority over firstly the courts where he was successful and then the political heights which, in one way he achieved by winning the Consulship of 63 and in his foiling of the Catalinarian Conspiracy. More difficulties arise with the Greek historians, such as Thukydides. What, after all, was history for the readers of Classical Athens? In his own word, Thukydides tells us what HIS interpretation was:

The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.” (1.22.4)

He states that, unlike those who wrote before him, he would avoid the stories and what we today may term ‘sensationalism’ for the, he hoped, perpetual relevance of his work for future generations. In itself, this makes him sound wonderfully modern – and for centuries made Thukydides some almost infallible source by which all other accounts had to be judged. Yet he immediately thereafter throws his whole account into question:

In this history I have made use of set speeches some of which were delivered just before and others during the war. I have found it difficult to remember the precise words used in the speeches which I listened to myself and my various informants have experienced the same difficulty; so my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.

Are we to believe that there is not reliance on any form of sensationalism in an account where the author freely admits he has only vague (often second hand) accounts of many of these speeches, and of the ones he heard, his memories were at best vague – on occasion, he admits even to have made up the speeches in order to suit what he feels would likely have been said under the circumstances? Such an admission by a modern historian would have her or his works consigned to pseudo-academia at best and purely fallacious fiction at worst, and yet his accounts, though much more questioned and more deeply debated now, are still the basis for our understanding of the Peloponnesian Wars. Why? Marincola:

General studies of individual historians tend to emphasize the ‘construction’ that the historian engages in while narrating his version of the past rather than on the past reality that the history is supposed to represent: in other words, Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War is studied for what it tells us of the author’s own view of the conflict, and of the preconceptions shared by him and his audience, rather than for what it tells us of the actual historical circumstances of the years 431 to 411: his text is A Peloponnesian War rather than THE Peloponnesian War.” (Blackwell’s Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography, 2011, 3)

Another question – why these historical writers? For the Greek history of the fifth and fourth centuries, the Great Three stand out – Herodotos, Thukydides and Xenophon – those who were looked upon as the greatest by the ancients. However, for the period from Alexander to Actium, there are some 600 plus historians known of who wrote in Greek, and yet we only have Dionysios of Halikarnassos, Polybios and Diodoros more or less extant (compared with the simple fragments of the others – many of whom are known by name alone). Why did these three survive when the others were lost? What was it that made these three works become the canon and not others? Pure happenstance? A deliberate choice of what was viewed as reliable among the ancients? Questions we will probably never be able to answer in concrete terms: all of which we can be truly certain is that the vast majority of what was written has been almost certainly forever lost.

For the concepts of political thought in Greek historical writing, the earliest examples lie in the epic works of Homer and Hesiod. As Raaflaub (in Ancient Greek Democracy, 2004, 28ff) points out, the using of epic is highly problematic. The main events concern great heroes and gods and must therefore be examined with a very large pinch of salt. However, the everyday and the mundane aspects of life in these can perhaps be more readily accepted as being more or less true – if such were incorrect then there would be nothing in these epics onto which the listeners would be able to latch as a point of understanding. The mundane is the rooting point in much of what we find in the sources as reliable, otherwise the source becomes nothing – even fairy tales and myths have a basis in a realistic grounding of daily life and an all encompassing understanding upon which the mythological can be constructed.

However, even where we have the sources, the problem lies in understanding these. As Kosso points out:

Crossing the gap between available evidence and the historical objects of inquiry encounters two distinct difficulties. One is that the things we want to know about are in the past; they are dead, gone, and unobservable. The other difficulty is that many of the objects were people. They were willful and idiosyncratic, and they were not of our own culture, so understanding them is bound to be even more difficult than understanding our neighbors and compatriots.” (Philosophy of Historiography in A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography, 2009, pg 9)

What are you as historians looking for in these sources? Can you understand the wilfulness and the idiosyncrasies that made the writers who they were and per se what they wrote? For whom were they recording their writings? How far can you trust the references they make to previous records to which they had access, but are lost to us? Where there are contradictions in two accounts of events, how far can either be trusted? These are the questions that you as students starting out on your studies must ask yourselves and hold in mind as you examine the sources put down in front of you for your essays.


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