Was Greco-Roman “history” a truth-aimed genre (i.e. intrinsically claiming to be an accurate recounting)?

  • Question

    Even if historiographers of Greco-Roman histories were also concerned with moral assessments (trying to move the reader to rightly feel praise/blame for main characters), and even if coverage could be biased etc, and even if some felt flexible with audience-recognized side details [determined by common literary conventions], did ancient/Greco-Roman histories nevertheless idealize basic factual accuracy in their historiographical works? Even if errors crept it, were biographers explicitly or implicitly claiming to get things right? Was it a “truth-aimed” genre in the sense that the genre itself suggest the piece was aimed at reporting historical truths accurately?

  • Historians

    • Charles Fornara: “Of the various principles laid down by the ancients, none is more fundamental than the honest and impartial presentation of the facts, and it is entirely consistent with their clarity of vision and intellectual emancipation that the Greeks gave it to the world. The principle was a natural, indeed, reflexive inheritance from the ethnographic-scientific Ionian school: historia, unless accurate, is a contradiction in terms.” [The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome (University of California, 1983), 99.]
    • Ernst Breisach: “[Ancient historians were] keenly concerned with accuracy and truthfulness, putting to shame those who have naively assumed that the mere association of history with rhetoric turned history into fiction…. Questions of historical truth stayed reduced to the demand for narrative accuracy. Greek historians had generally understood the concern with the truth of their accounts in that sense... Truth depended solely on the historian's skills, available material, and will to be truthful. Hence one discussed the wisdom of relying on eyewitness accounts, documents, one's own experience, reliable reporters, and other sources. … Ancient historians, whose main methodological concern was simply accuracy of reporting … Lacking the intent to reconstruct the past in detail and affirming history's practical purpose, ancient historians found the ideals of accuracy of reporting and reliance on ‘good’ authorities sufficient to maintain historiography's standing in rhetoric as the nonfiction category of narration.” [Historiography—Ancient, Medieval, and Modern 2nd ed. (University of Chicago, 1994), 72, 75.]
    • Lisa Hau: “It is clear from such passages that truth is a necessary component of historiography, and that accuracy forms part of that truth.” [Truth and Moralising in Hellenistic Historiographers (Routledge, 2017), 228.]
    • William Harris: “[t]he great historians attempted with some success to do something that had not been done before, namely to use critical methods to construct a narrative and to explain the logic of political events.” [Ancient Literacy (Harvard, 1989), 41.n57]
    • George Sarton:”This selection...is sufficient to illustrate the historical tendencies that are as characteristic of the Hellenistic Renaissance as were its scientific undertakings. There was a widespread need of factual information which was filled more or less well by scholars most of whom were not trained historians and were certainly much below the Thucydidean level, yet they prepared the way for Polybius.” [Hellenistic Science and Culture in the Last Three Centuries B.C. (Dover, 1959), 176.]
“Yes, after all…
  • The historians say they were aiming for accuracy

    Among other evidences we see several historians explicitly testifying that their goal is to report the truth..

    For example…

    • Thucydides (460-400 BC) says so.1
    • Polybius (200-118 BC) says so.2
    • Cicero (106-43 BC) says so.3
    • Sallust (86-35 BC) says so.4
    • Dionysius (60 BC-7 AD+) says so.5
    • Strabo (64 BC-24 AD) says so.6
    • Josephus (37-100 AD) implies so.7
    • Luke & Gospel Authors say so.8
    • Lucian (125-180 AD+) says so.9
      • Thucydides (460-400 BC): “The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past ... I shall be content. …I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.” [History of the Peloponnesian War Book 2, Sect. 22 (), .]
      • Polybius (200-118 BC): “Now the end aimed at by history is truth, and so we find the poet in the Catalogue of Ships mentioning the peculiar features of each place, calling one town 'rocky,' another 'on the border,' another 'with many doves,' another 'by the sea’;” [Histories 34.4.2]
      • Polybius: “Now the end aimed at by history is truth, and so we find the poet in the Catalogue of Ships mentioning the peculiar features of each place, calling one town 'rocky,' another 'on the border,' another 'with many doves,' another 'by the sea’;” [Histories 34.4.1-4]
      • Polybius: “For just as a living creature which has lost its eyesight is wholly incapacitated, so if History is stripped of her truth all that is left is but an idle tale..” [The Histories 1.14]
      • Cicero: “Who does not know history's first law to be that an author must not dare to tell anything but the truth? And the second that he must make bold to tell the whole truth?” [De oratore 2.15.62]
      • Sallust: “I shall therefore write briefly and as truthfully as possible….” [The War with Catalina 1.4]
      • Sallust: “…Lucius Sisenna, whose account of him is altogether the best and most careful, has not, in my opinion, spoken with sufficient frankness [My insert: i.e. he doctored the truth].” [The War With Jugurtha 95]
      • Cicero: “[Gaius Fannius Strabo] was a writer of a Roman history, highly praised by Sallust for its accuracy…” [Introduction to the Laelius 3]
      • Dionysius of Halicarnassus: “…particularly those who write histories, in which we have the right to assume that Truth, the source of both prudence and wisdom, is enshrined, [Roman Antiquities 1.1.2]
      • Dionysius of Halicarnassus: “[n]o accurate history of the Romans written in the Greek language has hitherto appeared, but only very brief and summary epitomes. … For these reasons, therefore, I have determined not to pass over a noble period of history which the older writers left untouched, a period, moreover, the accurate portrayal of which will lead to the following most excellent and just results:…” [Roman Antiquities 1.5.4, 1.6.3]
      • Strabo: “For the man who has given no thought to virtue and to practical wisdom, and to what has been written about them, would not be able even to form a valid opinion either in censure or in praise; nor yet to pass judgment upon the matters of historical fact that are worthy of being recorded in this treatise.” [Geography I.1.22]
      • Flavius Josephus: “…I have written it down for the sake of those that love truth [Jewish Wars 1:30]
      • Flavius Josephus: “[s]ome have published works under the title of histories … concocting a few things on the basis of misinformation, they have given it the name of ‘history’ with the complete shamelessness of a drunk. … As for myself, I have composed a true history of that whole war, and all the particulars that occurred therein, as having been concerned in all its transactions;” [Again Apion 1.45-47, 49.]
      • Flavius Josephus: “I thought it therefore an absurd thing to see the truth falsified in affairs of such great consequence… [many know] accurately both whence the war begun, what miseries it brought upon us, and after what manner it ended. … I will not… extol the Romans, nor will I determine to raise the actions of my countrymen too high; but I will prosecute the actions of both parties with accuracy.” [The Wars of the Jews 1.6-9]
    1. [Forthcoming], but as an example:
      • Luke: “Since 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 to me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in an orderly sequence, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.” [Luke 1:1-4]
      • Lucian (120ad-180ad+): “The historian's one task is to tell the thing as it happened. This he cannot do, if he is Artaxerxes's physician trembling before him, or hoping to get a purple cloak… A fair historian, a Xenophon, a Thucydides, will not accept that position. He may nurse some private dislikes, but he will attach far more importance to the public good, and set the truth high above his hate; he may have his favourites, but he will not spare their errors. For history, I say again, has this and this only for its own; if a man will start upon it, he must sacrifice to no God but Truth; he must neglect all else; his sole rule and unerring guide is this--to think not of those who are listening to him now, but of the yet unborn who shall seek his converse.… There stands my model, …one that will call a spade a spade, … Thucydides is our noble legislator; …he drew the line which parts a good historian from a bad: our work is to be a possession for ever,…we are not to seize upon the sensational, but bequeath the truth to them that come after; … Such are to be my historian's principles. …frankness and truth… Ornament should be unobtrusive, and never smack of elaboration, if it is not to remind us of over-seasoned dishes.” [How to Write History 1.39-44]
      • Lucian: “They forget that between history and panegyric there is a great gulf fixed,… The panegyrist [wants to gratify important persons]; if misrepresentation will serve his purpose, he has no objection to that. History, on the other hand, abhors the intrusion of any least scruple of falsehood; it is like the windpipe, which the doctors tell us will not tolerate a morsel of stray food. Another thing these gentlemen seem not to know is that poetry and history offer different wares, and have their separate rules.” [How to Write History 1.5]
  • Historians strove to produce 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 some 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 this perspective and goal are irrelevant unless one’s wider intention is to report truths about the past.

  • Historians laboriously collected info/investigated

    Before writing their historical works, 1st century Greco-Roman historiographers tended to laboriously investigate the relevant issues surrounding their topics of choice.

    This page analyzes 8 arguments:

    • The works internally exemplify hard work.
    • Historians imply that labor was the required norm.
    • “Historia” (ἱστορία) denotes a laborious research.
    • Historians testify to laboring to get info.
    • Polybius calls Timaeus the laziest historian.
    • Agatharchides: “old men couldn’t do it!”.
    • Siculus: “Some historians die before completing!”
    • Historians strove for a 1st-hand-as-possible history

    This is relevant because this goal is irrelevant unless one’s wider goal is to report the truth.

  • Historians critically examined claims

    Greco-Roman historiographers tend to be quite discerning, critically evaluating their sources and the claims those sources made.(E.g. They Help readers rationally proportion their confidence).

    This page analyzes 4 arguments:

    • Historians, in-text, judged claim & source reliability.
    • They advocated rational research principles.
    • Historians oft felt 2nd-3rd hand etc. unacceptable.
    • Historians strove to produce 1st-hand-as-possible history.

    This is relevant because this goal is irrelevant unless one’s wider goal is to report the truth.

“No, after all…
  • Histories were flexible with side details

    1st century Greco-Roman historiographers were often flexible with peripheral details, whether or not there was an unalterable core. This is relevant because those side-details are part of the truth. To be “flexible” with them is to fail to be a truth-centered genre.

    But so what? Plausibly…

    • That would not change the general thrust that the reports are meant to be “essentially” accurate; and some historians were not so flexible.