Did Greco-Roman historiographers critically evaluate various historical sources/claims mid-text in their histories?

  • Our question

    We mean to ask: When dealing with sources that were older or less reliable that the historian would nevertheless want to relay (e.g. because they were popular or may count as some evidence), would historians tend to introduce comments that would help protect readers form forming irrational degrees of confidence in said reports?

“Yes, after all…
  • E.g. Historians oft urged caution re biased reports

    Often enough, historians expressed a disdain for apparent bias in their sources, and tended to worry about plausible bias in them

    • Pausanias (110-180 AD): “That Corinthus was a son of Zeus I have never known anybody say seriously except the majority of the Corinthians” [Description of Greece 2.1.1] (Notice this implies Pausanias was acquainted with what people were saying in other locales)
    • Plutarch (46–119+ AD): “Among the calumnies which Antiphon heaps upon him it is recorded that… Antiphon says also that… . But these things are perhaps unworthy of belief, coming as they do from one who admits that he hated Alcibiades, and abused him accordingly.” [Alcibiades 3.1]
    • Aulus Gallus: “Many fictions of this kind seem to have been attached to the name of Democritus by ignorant men, who sheltered themselves under his reputation and authority.” [Attic Nights 10.12]
    • Herodotus (484-428 BC): “At this point I find myself compelled to express an opinion which I know most people will object to; nevertheless, as I believe it is true, I will not suppress it” [The Histories 7.138-139]
  • E.g. Historians oft urged caution re implausible reports

    Historians often showed little tolerance for ostensibly implausible reports, and warned their readers about it while helping them think through any elements that would be plausible.

    • Pausanias (110-180 AD): “They say… But it is utter stupidity to imagine that….” [(Description of Greece) Hellados Periegesis 9.31.7]
    • Plutarch (46–119+ AD): “[h]is seer, when he beheld the entrails of the victim, cried out with a loud voice and said that the god awarded victory… the enemy were terrified and fled away. The sacrificial entrails were then seized and carried to Camillus. But possibly this will seem like a fable. At any rate the city was taken by storm, and the Romans were pillaging and plundering its boundless wealth,…” [Camillus 5.4-5]; see also: “[We hear reports of] statues often dripping with sweat, images uttering audible groans, turning away their faces… But in such matters eager credulity and excessive incredulity are alike dangerous, because of the weakness of our human nature… is carried away now into vain superstition, and now into contemptuous neglect of the gods. Caution is best, and to go to no extremes.” [Camillus 6.3-4]
    • Plutarch (46–119+ AD): “Astonishing, therefore, is the statement… that these one hundred and fifty-nine represented the only Hellenes who engaged… Surely the total number of those who fell, as well as the monuments erected over them, testifies… Besides, had the men of three cities only made the contest, while the rest sat idly by, the altar would not have been inscribed as it was:…” [Aristedes 19:5-6]
    • Quintilian (35-100 AD): “For my own part, however, I regard the portion of the story… as being purely fictitious, since the poet himself has nowhere mentioned the occurrence; and he would scarcely have kept silence on an affair which was so much to his credit.” [Institutio Oratoria 11.2.16.]
    • Titus Livius [Livy] (59-17 AD): “I find in some of the annals that 13,470 men fell… Although there may be some exaggeration, there certainly was a great slaughter.” [The History of Rome 3.8.10-11] (Notice here that Livy nevertheless helped readers discern a historically reliable core.)
    • Dionysius of Halicarnassus (60–7+ BC): “The addition to this account which has been made by certain writers,… does not deserve to be passed over without examination. For some report that a… thereby introducing a detail that is not only improbable, but even impossible; for it is not possible that… But even if one were to admit this assumption, yet he would never make the further assumption that… Why, such institutions resemble myths and fictions of the stage! Besides… Testing the story by such reasoning, I have come to the conclusion that it is not true, but that the following is the true account.” [Roman Antiquities 9.22.1–5]
    • Thucydides (460-400 BC): [Evaluating the Iliad] “Now seeing Mycenae was but a small city, …let not any man for that cause, on so weak an argument, think that fleet to have been less than the poets have said and fame reported it to be. For if… Again,… We ought not therefore to be incredulous [concerning the forces that went to Troy] nor have in regard so much the external show of a city as the power;” [History 1.10.1–2]
  • E.g. Historians urged caution on reports re older events

    When comes to reports about more ancient events, historians would often express hesitance over sources speaking on them.

    • Thucydides (460-400 BC): “Their accounts cannot be tested; the lapse of ages has made them in general unreliable,…” [History of the Peloponnesian War 1.22]
    • E.g. Livy is the only major Historian to write well after the witness age,1 and he oft urges caution.2 Diodorus Siculus is another historian who wrote on some more ancient events, and made similar comments.3 In cases where historians did need to depend on older accounts, they might try to help readers discern the historical kernel if there was one.4
    1. See Historians usually stuck to writing in the witness-age, Livy being the only major historian who was an exception.
    2. Titus Livius [Livy] (59-17 AD): “The subject matter is enveloped in obscurity; partly from its great antiquity, like remote objects which are hardly discernible through the vastness of the distance; partly owing to the fact that written records, which form the only trustworthy memorials of events, were in those times few and scanty,… perished in the conflagration of the City.” [History of Rome 6.1.2] (see also: “If any way would lead one's inquiry to the truth, industry would not be wanting: now, when length of time precludes all certainty of evidence, we must stand by the rumour of tradition; and the name of the lake must be accounted for from this more recent story.” [History of Rome 7.6.6]; “In the accounts … how far there is any truth in it each must judge for himself, but it is at least remarkable. They say that …” [History of Rome 23.47.8]
    3. Diodorus Siculus (100-1 BC?): ”…we shall give an accurate account, so far as that is possible in the case of things that happened so long ago,… .” [(Library of History) Bibliotheca historica 1.6.2] “…we are in no position to speak on our own authority, …it is impossible that the discovery of writing was of so early a date … writers of history are as a class a quite recent appearance in the life of mankind.” [(Library of History) Bibliotheca historica 1.9.2]
    4. Arrian of Nicomedia (86-146+ AD): “[The shelter] was found impregnable even by Heracles… I cannot affirm with confidence either way, … [I am skeptical Heracles was here] because men are wont to magnify [hard tasks by saying] that they would have been impracticable even to Heracles. [Anabasis of Alexander 4.28.1-2]
      “But Aristobulus, with the more common version, has it as follows: …I can confidently [agree], because probability also inclines this way; but the story has been deprived of exactitude [because] various writers about Alexander have given various [versions]” [Anabasis of Alexander 3.3.6]
      Dionysius of Halicarnassus (60-7+ BC): “Of the stories told concerning this god some are largely legend and some are nearer the truth. The legendary account of his arrival is as follows: …;” [Roman Antiquities 1.39.1] ; “But the story which comes nearer to the truth and which has been adopted by many… is as follows: Hercules, …marched… destroying… he mingled… he also built … turned… , cut… , and contrived other means by which every land and sea might lie open to the use of all mankind.” [Roman Antiquities 1.41.1]
      Sallust: “[Only Turpilius] escaped unscathed. Whether he owed this to the mercy of his host, to connivance, or to chance I have been unable to learn;” [The War with Jugurtha 67.3]
  • E.g. Historians cross-checked & graded competing accounts

    Historians would regularly enough encounter multiple sources speaking to the same issue, and at times there would be disparities. When this happened, historians might be inclined to acknowledge the existence of competing accounts and weigh in themselves on which they find to be more plausible.

    • Titus Livius [Livy] (59-17 AD): “I prefer to disbelieve the story, and am at liberty to do so, as opinions differ. An argument against it is that… Moreover… ” [Roman Antiquities 4.29.6]
    • Philostratus (170–250 AD): “Some say that…, others that… Again some say…, others that…. Some say that…, others…, but on these points I could discover nothing worth mentioning.” [Lives of the Sophists 2.5.576]
    • Plutarch (46–119+ AD): “What some story-makers add to this… I think is false. And, in just the opposite vein, there are some who say…” [Themistocles 2.6]
    • Plutarch (46–119+ AD): “As for his interview [some doubt]. But when a story is so famous and so well-attested, and, what is more to the point, when it comports so well with the character of Solon, …, I do not propose to reject it out of deference to any chronological canons, so called, which thousands are to this day revising, without being able to bring their contradictions into any general agreement.” [Solon 27.1]
    • Titus Livius [Livy] (59-17 AD): “I prefer to disbelieve the story, and am at liberty to do so, as opinions differ. An argument against it is that… Moreover… ” [Roman Antiquities 4.29.6]
    • Herodotus (484-428 BC): “Besides this story…, I also heard other things at Memphis in conversation with the priests of Hephaestus ; and I visited Thebes and Heliopolis, too, for this very purpose, because I wished to know if the people of those places would tell me the same story…” “I took ship for Tyre in Phoenicia, where I had learned by inquiry that there was a holy temple of Heracles ... I found that their account did not tally with the belief of the Greeks, either;” [The Histories 2.3, 44]
    • Arrian: “They say that… because a story was told about… This has been recorded neither by… nor by… nor by any other writer whose testimony on such points any one would feel to be worthy of credit. It is sufficient therefore for me to record it as unworthy of belief.” [Anabasis of Alexander 6.28.2]
    • Appian: [After sharing accounts] “The reader may compare these cases together as he likes” [Roman History 11.7.41]
    • Dionysius of Halicarnassus: “I shall interrupt the narration of what follows that I may give the reasons...to disagree with [other historians]… [because some here] may suspect that I am inventing… [Note: He then argues rationally to his conclusion]” [Roman Antiquities 4.6.1]
  • E.g. Historians might just outright cry “error” (disagreeing)

    Often enough, various historians in analyzing a prior text or rumor may mention it only to explicitly decry it as erroneous or ignorant. They took pleasure in correcting misinformation.

    • Examples abound.
    • Plutarch (46–119+ AD): “What some story-makers add to this… I think is false. And, in just the opposite vein, there are some who say…” [Themistocles 2.6]
    • Diodorus Siculus: “[s]ome [histories] have not attached to the several events their own proper dates,” [Library of History 1.3.1-2]
  • E.g. Historians might criticize sources as lazy, biased etc.

    Occasionally historians would lambast sources for failing to be diligent, unbiased or putting in sufficient effort to apprise themselves of the relevant facts.

    • Polybius (204-117 BC) discusses these as reasons to ignore Timaeus.1
    • Historians would critique people in general for this sort of behavior.2
    1. Polybius (204-117 BC): “However large the jug, we can tell the contents, they say, from a single drop….[Likewise] When we come across one or two instances of misleading information in a book, and then find that they are actually deliberate lies, clearly we can no longer trust or believe any information given by this author. …[All can see] Timaeus’ versions of speeches are deliberate falsifications. He does not reproduce them verbatim, nor does he even give us an accurate paraphrase, …[he cares more for] rhetorical flair than to give an account of what was actually said.”[Histories 12.25]
      Polybius: “[Yet even then] [w]hile making a great parade of accuracy, is, in my opinion, wont to be very short of the truth. So far is [Timaeus] from accurate investigation of the truth by questioning others that not even about matters he has even with his own eyes and places he has actually visited does he tell us anything trustworthy.” [Histories 12.4.1–2]
      Polybius: “[I ask future readers, if you] ever find me making misstatements or neglecting the truth intentionally to censure me relentlessly,…” [Histories 16.20.8]
      Polybius: “Blinded, however, by personal malignity, he [Timaeus] has recorded for us with bitterness and exaggeration all his defects; while his eminent achievements he has passed over in entire silence: seeming not to be aware that in history such silence is as mendacious as misstatement.” [Histories 12.15]
      • He is also rather hard on Phylarchus:
      —• Polybius: “Since, among those authors who were contemporaries of Aratus, Phylarchus, who on many points is at variance and in contradiction with him, is by some received as trustworthy, it will be useful or rather necessary for me, as I have chosen to rely on Aratus' narrative for the history of the Cleomenic war, not to leave the question of their relative credibility undiscussed, so that truth and falsehood in their writings may no longer be of equal authority. In general Phylarchus through his whole work makes many random and careless statements;” [Histories 2.56.1–3]
    2. Herodotus (484-425 BC): “Now it seems to me that by this story the Greeks show themselves altogether ignorant of the character and customs of the Egyptians.” [The Histories 2.46]
      Thucydides: “[t]his was the solitary instance in which those who put their faith in oracles were justified by the event.” [History of the Peloponnesian War 5.26]