In Pursuit of Truth: The Ancient Historian

Did the ancients have a different standard of truth? Were they inherently less objective than we are now? How does one understand an author like Thucydides or Tacitus?

This post is about some of the finer nuances about the ancient historian’s understanding of truthfulness in historiography. Grasping the differences between the ancient and modern ideas about truthfulness in history is (I think) key to understanding ancient intellectual culture. We live in an age of documented evidence: letters, telegrams, footage, surveillance cameras, etc. We have an abundance of cold, hard evidence we can point to in order to prove what we’re saying, otherwise we are  very careful to make sure that we keep our speculations away from the real facts.

The ancient historians had no such evidence, and that very much affected how they wrote history. It should also be on the mind of the modern reader, understanding how ancient historians proceeded despite the dearth of “real” evidence.

I am currently reading through the first book of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, and have so far gotten through the first 24 sections. These sections are essentially an introduction to the rest of the work, and a broad overview of Hellenic history, including the history of the name “Hellas.” It is a seamless introductory narrative that lays a very solid foundation for understanding the remainder of the work.

Before diving into the narrative of the Peloponnesian War itself, Thucydides makes statements about his purpose and his methods:

καὶ ὅσα μὲν λόγῳ εἶπον ἕκαστοι  μέλλοντες πολεμήσειν  ἐν αὐτῷ ἤδη ὄντες, χαλεπὸν τὴν ἀκρίβειαν αὐτὴν τῶν λεχθέντων διαμνημονεῦσαι
ἦν ἐμοί τε ὧν αὐτὸς ἤκουσα καὶ τοῖςἄλλοθέν ποθεν ἐμοὶ ἀπαγγέλλουσιν:
ὡς δ᾽ ἂν ἐδόκουν ἐμοὶ ἕκαστοι περὶ τῶν αἰεὶ παρόντωντὰ δέοντα μάλιστ᾽ εἰπεῖν,
ἐχομένῳ ὅτι ἐγγύτατα τῆς ξυμπάσης γνώμης τῶν ἀληθῶςλεχθέντων, οὕτως εἴρηται” (Thucydides 1. 22.1).

“As regards what is said in the speeches, whether they occurred when they [Athens and Sparta] were intending to go to war, or already were at war, it was impossible for me to remember accurately, both those [speeches] I heard myself, and also the ones I heard from various other places. I have presented them as saying what was most appropriate to each situation, holding very closely to the general sense of what they actually said.”

All Thucydides really had to go on was memory, both his own and others’. He assures his audience, however, that he has represented everything as accurately as possible.

In light of the lack of evidence to elaborate on, the historian focused on different matters. History narrated events generally as they occurred, though historians were freer to create works that were not just boring historical narratives, but artistic and poetic works. History occupied the realm somewhere between epic poetry and what we might consider “proper” history that is not so much artistic as informative.

Quintillian, the rhetorician of the early Roman Empire, spoke of history as one of three types of narrative, fictitious narrative, comedy (which has a certain “verisimilitude”), and historical narrative. In his opinion, the proper rhetorician should start with historical narrative, since it is by far the most factual. (Inst. Or. 2.4.2)

We moderns might consider an author like Thucydides to be fictitious since there is no way he could have been as accurate as we would have liked. We know for sure that the speeches are fictitious, since there is no way that Thucydides could have remembered them word for word. Furthermore, they are so highly dramatized that they act like literary set-pieces. Was the factual narrative taken seriously and the speeches disregarded as mere literary adventures? Why are the speeches so important?

I am still deciding what I really think on this issue, but one answer that I have so far is that far from being mere literary adventures, the speeches are a vehicle for something much more important. Somebody like Thucydides often worked out certain themes implicitly, using the speeches as his crucible for these themes. One somewhat obvious example is the speeches that occur in Book 1 between Athens, Sparta, and Corinth. Corinth poses a contrast between the Spartan and Athenian characters, which is then fleshed out in full primarily through the speeches in the remainder of the book, and even the entire work.

Unlike nowadays, there could be no history apart from the historian’s own biases. A historian introduces his biases in what he omits or includes. Likewise, a historian focuses on certain themes and allows those to play out. In that sense, I think our own view of history is nuanced very differently from the ancient view on history. Standards of objectivity were necessarily limited to the evidence available, and ancient readers relied heavily on an author’s own understanding of events. I think it is important to note that readers of ancient history were not looking for pure facts alone, but a combination of facts and literary style.