Before writing their historical works, did 1st century Greco-Roman historiographers tend to laboriously investigate matters?

  • Question

    Did Greco-Roman (and Jewish) historiographers in the 1st century tend to laboriously invest a lot of care, energy, and time into researching their topic prior to producing their histories? Rather than being a quick recollection, were these works carefully prepared for, often taking several years of dedicated investigation as they as they collect information and critically examine their sources (be they direct witnesses or, if necessary, records [e.g. field notes in a war] and any prior histories written on the matter)?

  • Historians

    • Charles Fornara: “The arduous nature of the work deserves emphasis, especially since it is often taken for granted… It is self-evident form the conditions of their endeavor laborious or gratifying as they may have seemed, that the Greek historians—Herodotus, Thucydides, Theopompus, Callisthenes, Polybius et. al.—were fully occupied by it and, in the main, devoted to it the years of their prime.” [The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome (1983, University of California Press), 48.]
“Yes, after all…
  • Historians traveled for years gathering info

    While Roman historians tended to focus on local Roman history, which didn’t require travel, Hellenistic historians would travel for several years gathering information in preparation for writing their historical work; field work was expected.

    This page analyzes these 4 arguments:

    • Historians oft boasted their field research extent.
    • Historians shared details knowable only by field research.
    • Historians say field research was important.
    • Historians tended to get witness approval or close.

    This is relevant because, of course, traveling was expensive, arduous, and time-consuming. It definitely counts as laborious investigation.

  • The works internally exemplify hard work

    The writings are glaringly academic; they eloquently pack in a density of details which would have taken work to secure.

    • Hard-to-get sources are cited, used, and quoted (e.g. personal letters of participants).1
    • The works abound with accurate names, titles, events, circulating traditions/myths associated with certain peoples attitudes, relations, political minutia, name-places, dates etc., a vaste number of which are confirmed or virtually confirmed. [Forthcoming]
    1. For example, consider Plutarch:
      Craig Keener: “Plutarch’s extant works, meanwhile, cite 150 earlier historians, and he uses an estimated twenty-five specified sources even for just his seven biographees from the late Republic..”[Christobiography (Eerdman’s 2019), 130.]
      Consider the work Plutarch must have put in to obtain all these letters:
      Plutarch: “as Terentia asserted… but as Tiro, Cicero's freedman, has written…” [Life of Cicero 41.3-4]
      Plutarch: “he was most ungrudging… as may be gathered from his writings.” [Life of Cicero 24.4]
      Plutarch: “…some …dwell much upon an expression which Cicero used in a letter… but of the… speeches… they say nothing. Moreover, [he made certain men] famous by what he said or wrote…” [Life of Cicero 24.6-7]
      Plutarch: “[i]t is clear that… For he writes in his letters that…” [Life of Cicero 37.2-3]
      Plutarch: “…Brutus was very angry, and in his letters to Atticus attacked Cicero,…” [Life of Cicero 45.2]
      Plutarch: “Empylus also, who is often mentioned by Brutus himself in his letters, and also by his friends,… a striking example in his letters.” [Life of Brutus 2.3-5]
      Plutarch: “Porcia,… relates that she now desired to die, but was opposed by…“ [Life of Brutus 53.5]
      Plutarch: “[t]here is in circulation a letter of his to Hidrieus the Carian, which runs as follows: “As for Nicias,… This story is related by Hieronymus the philosopher.” [Life of Agesilaus 13.4]
      Plutarch: “Menecrates… actually dared to write the king a letter beginning thus: ‘Menecrates Zeus, to King Agesilaüs, greeting.’ To this Agesilaüs replied: 'King Agesilaüs, to Menecrates, health and sanity.’” [Life of Agesilaus 21.5]
      Plutarch: “…Alexander, who found at Sardis certain letters of Demosthenes and documents of the King's generals, which disclosed the amount of money they had given him.” [Life of Demosthenes 20.5]
  • Historians imply that labor was the required norm

    Often enough, historians explicitly say or imply that real labor was required to step into the role of a historian.

    • Polybius (200-118 BC): “But personal investigation demands great exertion and expense; though it is exceedingly advantageous, and in fact is the very corner-stone of history. This is evident from the writers of history themselves. [The Histories 12.27]1
    • Titus Livius [Livy] (59-17 AD): “If any way would lead one's inquiry to the truth, industry would not be wanting:
    • Flavius Josephus: [Harshly criticizing another self-proclaimed historian] “For you neither chanced to be involved in the war nor did you read the field notes of Caesar. [Life of Josephus 356-359](Trans by Mason, Brill, 2001).
    • Lucian of Samosata (125-180+): “Facts are not to be collected at haphazard, but with careful, laborious, repeated investigation [How to Write History 47]; “[Historians] should prefer the disinterested account, selecting the informants least likely to diminish or magnify from partiality. And here comes the occasion for exercising the judgement in weighing probabilities.” [How to Write History 47]
    • Dionysius of Halicarnassus (60 BC-7 AD+): “…particularly those who write histories, … ought,… with great care and pains, to provide themselves with the proper equipment for the treatment of their subject.” [Roman Antiquities 1.1.2]2
    • Historians imply that their work requires travel[!] and laboring to consult witnesses[!] (see inside articles below)
    • Historians say “critically examining” is essential[!], which would’ve taken labor.
    1. Similarly,
      Polybius: “…history too consists of three parts, the first being the industrious study of memoirs and other documents and a comparison of their contents, the second [is travel][See], and the third being the review of political events;” [Histories 12.25e.1]
      See here for some of the laborious historiographic principles Polybius regarded as required for the historian qua historian: {Historians advocated good historiographical principles}, and also see how he lambasted Timaeus for failing. For an example of Polybius putting his own principles in action,
      Polybius: “No one need be surprised at the accuracy of the information I give here about Hannibal's arrangements in Spain, an accuracy which even the actual organizer of the details would have some difficulty in attaining,… The fact is that I found on the Lacinian promontory a bronze tablet on which Hannibal himself had made out these lists during the time he was in Italy, and thinking this an absolutely first-rate authority, decided to follow the document.” [Histories 3.33.17–18]
    2. Similarly,
      Dionysius of Halicarnassus (60 BC-7 AD+): “Theopompus [380-315 BC] of Chios… As a student of history he deserves praise on several grounds. … Especially admirable are the care and industry which mark his historical writing, for it is clear, even if he had said nothing to that effect, that he prepared himself most fully for his task and incurred heavy expense in the collection of his material. … 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.]
  • “Historia” (ἱστορία) denotes a laborious research

    The very Greek word associated with the labor of a Herodotus and a Polybius—ἱστορία—carried within it the notion of seriously hard work.

    • By Herodotus’s time (c. BC 450) it denoted laboriously researching.1
    • By Polybius’s time (200-118 BC) it meant laboring specifically to study the past.2

    This is relevant because the meaning of the term likely corresponds with what historians qua historians actually did.

    1. Guido Schepens: “Herodotus’ various research practices make it a priori unlikely (pace Sauge 1992) that the word put on prominent display in the opening line of his work would not (or not yet) have the broad, generic meaning of ‘research’ or ‘inquiry.’ Attempts to connect his historiē with a particular field of investigation (either geographical, ethnographical, or historical: Drews 1973) or to scale down its polyphonic largess (Lateiner 1989: 56) to one privileged central meaning—be it seeing, questioning, judging, or hearing—fail to convince. All these modes of inquiry are involved in Herodotus’ active quest for data (see Hdt. 2.99.1; cf. Müller 1926; Bakker 2002: 15–19, with reservations with regard to ‘seeing’).” [“History and Historia: Inquiry in the Greek Historians” in Greek and Roman Historiography (Oxford, 2011), 40.]
    2. David Aune: “‘History’ (Greek: historia, ‘inquiry’) is a term that originally was used of any type of research but eventually was restricted to study of the past. As a designation for a type of writing, ‘history’ emphasizes a method that describes the main feature of this type of literature. ‘Historia,’ therefore included not only ‘history’ as we understand it, but the reporting of all aspects of the world and its inhabitants based on inquiry or discovery.” [The New Testament in its Literary Environment (Westminster, 1989), 81.]
  • Historians testify to laboring to get info

    A number of historians explicitly testify that they put in significant work and effort in order to fulfill their duties as an historian.

    • Herodotus (484-428 BC): “I was unable to learn anything from anyone else, but this much further I did learn by the most extensive investigation that I could make, going as far as the city of Elephantine to look myself, and beyond that by question and hearsay” [The Histories 2.29] (He also titles his work “the Histories” which as we noted above carried within it a testimony to committing labor)1
    • Thucydides (460-400 BC): “I have described nothing but what I either saw myself, or learned from others of whom I made the most careful and particular enquiry.” [History of the Peloponnesian War 1.22.2]2; “I took great pains to make out the exact truth.” [History of the Peloponnesian War 5.26]
    • Polybius (200-118 BC): “…and we see that generally the task of investigation has been entirely scamped by him [Timaeus], and this is the most important part of history.” [Histories 12.4c.3; cf. 12.4c.1–5.] ; “In the same fashion systematic history too consists of, …industrious study of memoirs and other documents,…;” [Histories 12.25e.1]
    • Diodorus Siculus (1-100 AD?): “…all men should ever accord great gratitude to those writers who have composed universal histories, since they have aspired to help [all] by their individual labours…” [Library of History 1.1.1-2]; “…an undertaking of this nature… would yet require much labour and time, have been engaged upon it for thirty years, and with much hardship and many dangers we have visited a large portion of both Asia and Europe that we might see with our own eyes all the most important regions and as many others as possible; … [Our resources were] enthusiasm for the work which enables every man to bring to completion the task which seems impossible, [and Roman records etc.]3 [Library of History 1.4.1-2]
    • Luke (1-100 AD?): “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated [My insert: comprehended] everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.” [Luke 1:1-4]

    This is relevant because it is unlikely that they were lying.

    1. Encyclopedia of World Biography: “The writing of Herodotus's great work, the Histories (the name is simply a transliteration of a Greek word that means primarily ‘inquiries’ or ‘research’) [My insert: So Herodotus testifies to laboring in the very title of his work], must have occupied a considerable portion of his later life.” [2011, Gale]
    2. See this quote and more here under “Thucydides says ‘I laboriously consulted witnesses](/greco-romans/histories/strive/relay/witness-testimony/#example-thucydides).”
    3. Fuller quote:
      Diodorus Siculus: “As for the resources which have availed us in this undertaking, [it is firstly enthusiasm,] in the second place, the abundant supply which Rome affords of the materials pertaining to the proposed study. [They] provided us in the course of our long residence there with copious resources in the most accessible form. […We] acquired an accurate knowledge of all the events connected with this empire from the records which have been carefully preserved among them over a long period of time. …having first investigated to the best of our ability the accounts which each people records of its earliest times.” [Library of History 1.4.3-4]
  • Polybius calls Timaeus the laziest historian

    Polybius extensively critiques Timaeus in the severest of words, many of which focus on his being incredibly lazy as a historian (failing to fulfill the historian’s basic story).

    • Polybius (200-118 BC): “…whereas he [Timaeus] is thought to have possessed great and wide knowledge, a faculty for historical inquiry, and extraordinary industry in the execution of his work, in certain cases he appears to have been the most ignorant and indolent person that ever called himself an historian. And the following considerations will prove it. … Study of documents involves no danger or fatigue… But personal investigation demands great exertion and expense…” [The Histories 12.27]

    This is relevant because Polybius’s comment that Timaeus is the laziest historian is an indirect statement about the laborious practice of most historians. Timaeus was not lazy at all (e.g. he applied probability and actually did travel some.1; he also spent decades reading/researching), so Polybius likely thinks most historians are quite industrious indeed.

    Charles Fornara: “[Polybius's] polemic against Timaeus, by our standards and indefatigable and enterprising scholar, is revealing. Not only did he deride this ‘armchair’ historian for priding himself on the pains he took to collect books on the customs of Ligurians, Celts, and Iberians (12.28a.3); he even sneered (12.27.4-6) that Timaeus chose Athens as his place of residence because it possessed a good library …” [The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome* (1983, University of California Press), 48.]

    1. Polybius: “[Timaeus] tells us, then, in the same Book, that he investigated the history of the colony, no longer applying the test of mere probability, but personally visiting the Locrians in Greece proper.” [Histories 12.9.2]
      Polybius: “In this respect Timaeus, while making a great parade of accuracy, is, in my opinion, wont to be very short of the truth. 2 So far is he 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 12.4d.1–2]
  • Agatharchides (c. 150 BC): “old men couldn’t do it!”

    Agatharchides of Cnidus testified that his old age would prevent him from completing his history.

    • [Full quote forthcoming]1

    This is relevant because it is unlikely that Agatharchides is referring to the mere labor of writing (which is what he is doing as he records this). Instead, it suggests that, unless the would-be historian had already travelled and obtained 1st hand experience--e.g. by being a general in the war he is writing on—they would need to put in significant work traveling and inquiring in their older age.

    1. A fragment cited by Photius in his Bibliotheca Cod. 250.110, 460b).
  • Siculus (c. 50 BC): “Historians sometimes die before completing!”

    Diodorus Siciulus made an incidental comment that often enough histories were not completed because the historians would in fact die before completing their work.

    • Diodorus Siculus (100-1 BC?): “[s]ome [histories] have failed to complete the plan to which they had set their hand, their lives having been cut short by fate.” [Library of History 1.3.2]

    This is relevant because writing works which require no investigation takes relatively little time. But it seems historians had no such luxury; they rather tended to invest a great deal of time in producing their histories, and this time is most plausibly spent on the labors of investigation (e.g. traveling and interrogating witnesses).

  • Historians strove for a 1st-hand-as-possible history

    Ideal Greco-Roman historiographers worked hard to relay honest witness testimony, and in their eyes: the more direct/1st hand the testimony was, the better it was.

    This page analyzes examples and 5 arguments…

    • Histories DID get witness approval and/or close.
    • Historians oft say “witness testimony only!”
    • Lying historiographers pretended to be or use witnesses.
    • Ancients prize testimony being 1st hand as possible.
    • Greco-Roman histories self-claim to be true.
    • Ancients strove to echo “from beginning” witnesses.

    This is relevant because it would naturally involve laborious investigation.

“No, after all…
  • Historians didn’t critically examine the sources

    Greco-Roman historiographers were not particularly discerning; they rarely critically evaluated their sources and the claims those sources made.

    Each of these are forthcoming...

    • E.g. Diodorus’ history is full of myth.
    • Ancient histories were flexible with side details.
    • Socrates was fictionalized.