Did 1st century Hellenistic historians tend to travel for several years to gather information for their historical work?
Even if Roman historians tended to focus on Roman history, which didn’t require travel, did Hellenistic historians more broadly essentially expect field work? Were histories meant to be an assembly of information collected from a professional who made a point to travel to the key locations on which he is reporting, both to take in the land and to interrogate local witnesses?
- David Aune: “Travel (requiring leisure and means) was thus a necessity for the accomplished historian…” [The New Testament in its Literary Environment (Westminster, 1987), 81.]
Historians oft boasted that they did
Throughout their works historians explicitly or implicit boasted of their rigorous work by calling attention to or implying that they travelled to acquire their information..
Consider these 4 examples...
- Herodotus (484-428 BC): “I also heard other things at Memphis… I visited Thebes and Heliopolis… I wished to know… took ship for Tyre in Phoenicia, where I had learned by inquiry… did not tally with the belief of the Greeks” [The Histories 2.3, 44]; “no one that conversed with me, Egyptian, Libyan, or Greek, professed to know…” [The Histories 2.19-24] “Here are presented the results of the enquiry carried out by Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The purpose is to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks; among the matters covered is, in particular, the cause of the hostilities between Greeks and non-Greeks.” [The Histories, introductory paragraph]; “I know this, because I was told at Dodona” [The Histories 2.52]
- Thucydides (460-400 BC): ““For I well remember… often repeated saying that it was to last thrice nine years.I lived through the whole of it, …associating with both sides, with the Peloponnesians quite as much as with the Athenians, because of my exile, I was thus enabled to watch quietly the course of events.” [History of the Peloponnesian War 5.26]
- Polybius: “I speak with confidence on these points, because I have questioned persons actually engaged on the facts; and have inspected the country, and gone over the Alpine pass myself, in order to inform myself of the truth and see with my own eyes.” [The Histories 3.48]; “I am aware that it has been stated at forty stades; but this is false, as I know from personal inspection and not from mere report,—and in our day it has been still farther contracted” [The Histories 10.11.4] [Note: See Polybius's comments on travelling to obtain witness testimony/approval here]
- Appian of Alexandria (95-165 AD): “[m]y history has often led me from Carthage to Spain, from Spain to Sicily or to Macedonia, or to join some embassy to foreign countries, or some alliance formed with them; thence back to Carthage or Sicily, like a wanderer, and again elsewhere, while the work was still unfinished. At last I have brought the parts together, ... I have made this research also in respect to each of the other provinces, desiring to learn the Romans' relations to each, in order to understand…” [Roman History Praef. 1.12]
They shared intimate details that originate from the area
The historians enjoyed cataloguing a range of details one would most naturally only be able to acquire by visiting the different locals.
- Thucydides's work brims with such details.1
- Pausanias’s work brims with such details.2
- Polybius’s work brims with such details.3
This goes to show that historians placed great value on travel and demonstrates that they acted on this value.
- Some samples include:
• Thucydides: “This is what the Thebans say and they allege that they [viz., the Plataeans] took an oath. The Plataeans do not agree …” [History of the Peloponnesian War 2.5:5-6]
• Thucydides: “These people [on the Aiolian islands] believe that Hephaestus has his forge in Hiera.” [History of the Peloponnesian War 3.88:3]
• Thucydides: “Oldest of all were… , who are said to have dwelt in a district of the island; but who they were, whence they came, or whither they went, I cannot tell. We must be content with the legends of the poets, and every one must be left to form his own opinion. The Sicanians appear to have succeeded these early [legendary] races, although according to their own account they were still older; for they profess to have been children of the soil. But the fact proves to be that they were Iberians, and were driven from the river Sicanus in Iberia by the Ligurians. [History of the Peloponnesian War 5.2:2]
- Some samples include:
• Pausanias: “[t]here are sanctuaries here of Asclepius and Athena; [they are] saying that she was born and bred among them…. There is a stream they call Tritonis…” [Description of Greece 8.26.6]
• Pausanias: “as you go down again from Trapezus to the Alpheius, there is.. where they celebrate… The Arcadians say… [and] at this spot sacrifices are offered...” [Description of Greece 8.29.1]
• Pausanias: “On the left of the sanctuary of the Mistress is Mount Lycaeus. Some Arcadians call it Olympus, and others Sacred Peak. On it, they say, Zeus was reared. …the Cretan story has it that Zeus was reared [here].” [Description of Greece 8.38.2]
• Pausanias: “The Phigalians accept the account of the people of Thelpusa about the mating of Poseidon and Demeter, but they assert that Demeter gave birth, not to a horse, but to the Mistress, as the Arcadians call her. Afterwards, they say,…,” [Description of Greece 8.42.1-2]
- For example:
• Polybius: “But since the peculiar natural advantages of this site are generally unknown, because it lies somewhat outside the parts of the world ordinarily visited; and since it is an universal wish to be acquainted with things of this sort, by ocular inspection, if possible, of such places as have any unusual or remarkable features; …I must now state the facts… The sea called ‘The Pontus’ has a circumference of [Note] twenty-two thousand stades… [Polybius then gives paragraphs of rich details from obvious 1st hand experience].” [The Histories 4.38-39]
Historians say it was important
Historians often enough straightforwardly express in their writings that traveling to see the land and interrogate witnesses is of utmost importance to the very project of history.
- Flavius Josephus: “[s]ome of their contemporaries daring to write accounts of events at which they were not present and about which they have not troubled to gain information from those who know the facts. In fact, even in relation to the war that happened recently to us, some have published works under the title of histories without either visiting the sites or going anywhere near the action;… they have given it the name of ‘history’ with the complete shamelessness of a drunk.” [Again Apion 45-47]
- Polybius: “In the same fashion systematic history too consists of three parts,… the second the survey of cities, places, rivers, lakes, and in general all the peculiar features of land and sea and the distances of one place from another,… “ [Histories 12.25e.1]; “So I should say that history will never be properly written, until either men of action undertake to write it (not as they do now, as a matter of secondary importance; … ), or historians become convinced that practical experience is of the first importance for historical composition. Until that time arrives there will always be abundance of blunders in the writings of historians. Timaeus, however, quite disregarded all this. He spent his life in one place, … deliberately renounced all … personal exertion in travel and inspection of localities …” [The Histories 12.28]1
- Dionysius of Halicarnassus (60 BC-7 AD+): “Theopompus [380-315 BC] of Chios… As a student of history he deserves praise on several grounds. … he was an eye-witness of many events, and came in contact with many leading men and generals of his day, whether popular leaders or more cultivated persons. All this he did in order to improve his History.” [Epistula ad cn. Pomeium Geminum (Dionysius to Gnaeus Pompeius) in The Three Literary Letters, trans by Roberts, 6.]
- The irony is that Polybius admits even lazy Timaeus travelled:
• Polybius: “not even about matters he [Timaeus] has even with his own eyes and places he has actually visited does he tell us anything trustworthy.” [The Histories 12.4d.1–2]
Historians oft got witness approval or close
Greco-Roman historiographers, especially around Plutarch’s time (c. AD 100), tended to directly or indirectly try to ground their material in witness approval.
This page analyzes 4 arguments for this claim...
- Anc. historians testify that they did.
- Anc. historians labored to produce witness-based history.
- Anc. historians oft felt 2nd-3rd hand etc. is unacceptable.
This is relevant because it obviously required travel.