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Ancient Historians

Influential Ancient Historians

Faces of History: Historical Inquiry from Herodotus to Herder by Donald R. Kelley

In his book, which is written in a scholarly, colorful, and interesting style, and is as rich with thought-provoking questions as it is lean on assumptions, author Kelley goes to great lengths to set the stage for every historian's work that he discusses. On page 3, he says that "the difficulty" in writing about ancient historians, is, initially, "the question of what qualifies, retrospectively, as 'history'." Does one include the writings of an ancient historian like Herodotus, Kelly asks, since Herodotus's "inquiries" are very subjective and do not fit "modern prescriptions of historical methods"?

And as one reads through the various books on ancient historians, it becomes apparent that chroniclers like Herodotus must be considered historians because there is little else to base "history" upon - and moreover, it is vain and narrow in vision to consider modern objectivity as the only legitimate approach to the past.

Meantime, Kelley (p. 4) presents a point by illustrating the difference - the "polarization" of strategies - between two giants of ancient history, Herodotus and Thucydides; he cites Herodotus's style of story-telling and curiosity, and Thucydides' interrogative inquiries into the causes and "progression" of the Peloponnesian wars. And in that setting, Kelley asks, which distinctive technique is to be more valid: is it "history which tells a story, with or without a point, [or] history which poses a question, whether answerable or not." Both of those techniques will be presented through discussions of several important historians, in this paper. Kelley also rather succinctly sums up the difficulty presented to today's generation of scholars - and those researchers from the more recent past -when it comes to deciding what was factual, and what was simply oral history handed down and perhaps watered down from its origins. "Whatever messages authors may have wanted to send" (p. 6), he writes, "the messages received are construed in different times, places, and circumstances." He continues, brilliantly portraying the larger question of the truth behind history: "The historians behind the words, like the thoughts between the lines, are truly beyond our grasp...[and] the histories that we read have been written in worlds that are not only different but even in some ways incommensurable..."

And with that profound introduction to the subject of ancient historians, the paper will examine historical analyses from several other noted scholars.

Literary Texts and the Roman Historian - by David S. Potter

Author David Potter (p. 12) writes that "good and bad history was evaluated in terms of its relationship to truth." That last phrase is telling, in the sense of a search for objectivity, given that so much evidence - in previous analysis of ancient historians - exists that shows there was not always a desire to present the truth by the ancients, rather, there seemed a passion for them to spin it their way, lest someone else would come along and lay it out another way. And Potter also makes a salient point (p. 15) when he writes: "the dichotomy between 'true' and 'false' in the evaluation of history may also be connected with the tendency to discuss the work of historians in language laden with moral overtones." The language we discover when we read ancient history, Potter continues, "reflects a tendency to attribute value to a statement because of a speaker's reputation rather than by invoking an external control of reliability." How credible the speaker was, and the injection of moral overtones certainly suggests strong subjectivity, which today's historians would probably not accept. Let's say, the "historian" writing about 9/11 spent a number of pages not just chronicling events leading up to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but blasting the Clinton Administration - in strong political tones - for not dispensing with (e.g., killing) bin Laden long before. Certainly the Clinton years, and the first eight months of the Bush era, are part and parcel of the background story - in Bush's case, his administration was given detailed, pointed, well researched documents that warned his team of terror being planned. And certainly the FBI had ample evidence that radical Islamic fundamentalists with wads of money were training to fly but didn't want to learn how to land. But if the "historian" writing that piece laid blame on Bush, or Clinton, as an absolute political factual point, it would no longer be considered objective.

It's no big surprise that in ancient times, given that access to any information was restricted, if a writer only had one source, that the "facts" would be slanted that way. And (p. 15) Potter spells it out directly, albeit subjectively, when he writes that if a person did not investigate the truth "accurately, the chances were that he was a self-conscious liar or a fool."

It's germane to note that, in pre-printing press times, the word "publication" - which today means dissemination of written texts in numerous genres - meant that "an author has lost control of his text" (p. 29).

There were three stages to publication, Potter explains. The first stage (ekdosis), was when the author considered his or her work completed, and handed it on to followers. The second stage of publication (diadosis) indicated that the work was given to "the world at large" - and the third stage, paradosis, was the passing on of a text from one generation to another. What sometimes happened, to alter the text's meaning, was that when friends or students asked the writer for a copy, the writer would provide notes from the text, and those notes were sometimes later represented as factual excerpts of the text.

Potter explains that "Historiography" - in the Greco-Roman genre - should be seen by the researcher as the "process of acquiring knowledge and explaining it rather than as a record" (p. 79). This helps explain why "objective" historical records are very few and far between; the historical writer is trying to find the information, and interpret it, analyze it. And since so many obstacles were put in the path of those long-ago historians, nit-picking about their lack of pure objectivity seems almost petty. Meantime, Potter points out (p. 80) that in about the 5th Century BC a more "systematic record of phenomena developed," making it possible for a relationship - albeit "problematic" - to be established between "historians" and other "systematic recorders of events." Basically, that means things began to be written down in a more consistent way - although the nagging issue of subjectivity vs. objectivity still remains a subject of debate among scholars in 2003.

Greek and Roman Historians - by Michael Grant

The writings of ancient historians, Michael Grant's book clearly shows, were continually offering future readers their interpretation of history, allowing their prejudices and personal feelings to enter into their chronicles - all of which defies and is the antithesis of pure modern objectivity, Indeed, the ancient historians did not consider it obligatory to acknowledge all sources, but rather they often followed a path of "ignoring or rejecting" (p. 37) what data they did not wish to include, Grant informs us. Ancient historians also did not make "judicious" use of which sources should be followed. Xenophon, the Greek historian, for example, admitted that he omitted actions if they were "not worth mentioning" (p. 38), Grant observed. But this is not to say all ancient historians are to be discredited, just because they did not follow the path of pure objectivity, or AP style journalism, or Chicago Style, or Harvard style citations. Quite the contrary. The great body of ancient historical records is illuminating and highly informative - notwithstanding "flaws" by today's modern standards - in its presentation.

It's very easy in the year 2003 to look back in stern judgment at the genuineness of a writer of the history of Rome, Livy, who may have recorded that the granting of provocatio - the first known right of appeal from a magistrate - occurred on three separate occasions, 509, 449, and 300 (P. 38). And part of the reason these glitches occurred was that early history, early society, was "much more oral than our own" (p. 39); a chronicler simply listening to an older person relate his interpretation of events, then writing them down, opened the door to inaccuracies. Grant believes oral history, in many cases, was "incomplete, contradictory, untrustworthy, and sometimes purely fictitious" (p. 39). And before the reader in 2003 stands too harshly in judgment, one has to remember that even today, professionals - such as the New York Times reporter who was recently fired - on occasion invent stories for their own purposes.

And beyond the issue of fictitious historical writing, Grant discusses the rumors and innuendos - using Roman historian Tacitus's work as an example of these kinds of distortions. "He implants grave suspicions which he neither substantiates nor refutes. Their cumulative effect can be damning and distorting" (p. 41). Grant reports that…[continue]

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