Did Greco-Roman historiography self-identity as relaying witness testimony?

  • Our question:

    A man puts put a poster on a notification wall labelled "witness based". Books are on display as well.

    Do historical works from the Greco-Roman mediterranean proudly self-identity as relaying witness testimony (autopsy).

    Like writings throughout time and location, written works in the 1st century Mediterranean tended to fall within classic genres (e.g. romance, fiction, poetry, history/biography). While there were no hard and fast rules, works of a given genre would share a distinct family resemblance to each other which would be discernible to the audience via classic hallmarks and which would orient the reader towards hearing the content in a particular way that seemed appropriate to that genre. We mean to ask here whether biographies in the early Greco-Roman empire largely identified as being witness-warranted. That is to say: did Greco-Roman biographies self-identify being eyewitness testimony (i.e. as αὐτοψία [autopsia] which is derived from αὐτός [autos, “oneself”] and ὄψις [opsis, “sight, view”])?

“Yes, after all…
  • Polybius etc. testify that they did

    The great Greco-Roman historians regularly testified that their content was derived from 1st hand experience (their own or that of witnesses who they interrogated), or was at least grounded in witness-testimony (2nd hand, maybe 3rd).

    For 5 simple examples and more:

    • Josephus, Luke, Tacitus, Nepos, Polybius, Theopompous, Xenophon, Herodotus etc. boast “I saw events xyz 1st hand”
    • Philostratus (170-250 AD): “[He] honoured me also with one interview, then with a second and a third… And in fact all that I have recorded above about those sophists I stated on the authority of Damianus, who was well acquainted with the careers of both.” [Lives of the Sophists 2.23.606]
    • Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD): …”[Regarding my prior work:] …when all my materials were prepared for that work, … I composed the history of those transactions; and I was so well assured of the truth of what I related, that I first of all appealed to those that had the supreme command in that war, Vespasian and Titus, as witnesses for me, for to them I presented those books first of all, and after them to many of the Romans who had been in the war. … Now all these men bore their testimony to me, that I had the strictest regard to truth…” [Against Apion 1.50-55]
    • Dionysius of Halicarnassus (60 BC-7 AD+): “Hitherto I was ignorant of all this; but now, having learned of it through information given me and having many credible witnesses and having also examined the slave, I have recourse to…” [Roman Antiquities 11.29.3]
    • Polybius (200-118 BC): “so that I have been present at some of the events and have the testimony of eyewitnesses for others. [otherwise] I should be safe neither in my estimates nor in my assertions.” [The Histories 4.2.1] (E.g. He testifies to using Gaus Laelius, Perseus’s friends, various Carthaginians, and the African prince Gulusa as witnesses).1
    • Herodotus (484–425 BC): “…I know this, because I was told at Dodona…” [The Histories 2.52] (See more here on Herodotus’s travels and witness-interrogations)

    This is relevant because these historians are representative of a the larger mass of historians and standard expectations.

    1. Polybius (200-118 BC): “That account I got from the Carthaginians themselves; for natives know best…I heard a still more detailed story from [king] Massanissa” [The Histories 9.25]
      Polybius: “…no one will admit, except those who have lived with him [Scipio], and contemplated his character, so to speak, in broad daylight. Of such Gaius Laelius was one. He took part in everything he did or said from boyhood to the day of his death; and he it was who convinced me…” [The Histories 10.3]
      Polybius: “Some of these details leaked out at the time, and others were communicated subsequently to Perseus's intimate friends;” [The Histories 29.8]
      Pliny (23-79 AD): “…as Polybius tells us on the authority of the African prince Gulusa.” [Natural History 8.31]
  • Historians oft say: “I saw this stuff 1st hand”

    Greco-Roman historians jumped quickest to record events they saw 1st hand. Compared to modern history, writings of ancient historians are disproportionately about things historians were themselves involved in.

    Consider these 7 examples, and more…

    • E.g. see these historians boast of being 1st hand testimony.
    • E.g. They used their memoirs.1
    • Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD) says “My history is a 1st hand”2
    • Luke (AD 70) says he participated in what he narrates.
    • Luke wrote most elaborately on the sea voyage he attended.
    • Tacitus (56-20 AD) says he was a witness3
    • Cornelius Nepos (110–25 BC) says he witnessed relevant events.4
    • Polybius (200-118 BC) did.5
    • Theopompous (380-315 BC) did.6
    • Xenophon (430-354 BC) wrote a lot of 1st hand witnessed history.7
    • Herodotus (484–425 BC) boasted of it.8

    This is relevant because they, by contrast, did not synthesize and write as much on all the other events they had ample documentary access too.

    1. Craig Keener: “A writer with good notes could publish memoirs years after the evens described (e.g. Xenopone’s Anabasis). Some (e.g., Sen. E. Controv. passim) published memoirs based on memory. See Rebenich, ‘pros,’ 313-14 on commentarii, privated records, especially as used by Romans.” [(Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: Volume 1: Introduction and 1:1-24:7* (Baker Academic, 2012), 406.]
    2. Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD): “[I] Joseph, … who at first fought against the Romans myself, and was forced to be present at what was done afterwards, [am the author of this work].” [War of the Jews 1.3]
      Josephus: “I shall therefore begin my work at the point where the historians of these events and our prophets [OT writers] conclude. Of the subsequent history, I shall describe the incidents of the war through which I lived with all the detail and elaboration at my command; for the events preceding my lifetime I shall be content with a brief summary” [The Jewish War 1.18](see: Josephus, Ant. 5.1-9; Against Apion 1.1-5))
      Josephus: “[t]hey see some of the present generation bold enough to write about such affairs, wherein they were not present,… I have composed a true history … having been concerned in all its transactions; for I acted as general … I …became a captive. Vespasian also and Titus … forced me to attend them continually. …I was put … sent to accompany Titus …[during] the siege of Jerusalem; during which time there was nothing done which escaped my knowledge; …I saw, and wrote down carefully; and what informations the deserters brought [out of the city], I was the only man that understood them.” [Against Apion 1.45-49, cf.56⁠1]
      • See: Josephus quotes in footnotes here criticizing 2nd hand reports.
      • E.g. Josephus jumped to describe his experiences (e.g. the sufferings of prisoners, Bell. 1:22).
      Josephus: “How impudent then must those deserve to be esteemed, who undertake to contradict me about the true state of those affairs! who, although they pretend to have made use of both the emperors’ own memoirs, yet they could not be acquainted with our affairs who fought against them.” [Against Apion 1.56]
    3. Cornelius Tacitus (56-120 AD): “Meanwhile this book, intended to do honour to Agricola, my father-in-law… I remember that he used to tell us… After his consulate he gave her to me in marriage” [Agricola 3, 9]
    4. Cornelius Nepos (110–25 BC): “…we relate this, not as hearsay, but as what we know, for we were often present, by reason of the intimacy between us, at his domestic arrangements.” [Life of Atticus 13:7]; “I myself heard him proudly assert, and with truth, at the funeral….” [Life of Atticus 17.1]
    5. Polybius (200-118 BC): “And I, as I wrote and reflected on the time when the Macedonian monarchy perished, did not think it right to pass over the event without comment, as it was one I witnessed with my own eyes;” [History of the Roman Republic 29.21.8]
      Polybius: “I am bound, therefore, to add to my statement of facts a discussion on… I must also describe… …a new work,… chiefly because, in the case of most of them, I was not only an eye-witness, but in some cases one of the actors, and in others the chief director.” [The Histories 3.4]
      • See how Polybius also criticizes 2nd hand reports (1st hand essential);
    6. Dionysius of Halicarnassus (60 BC-7 AD+): “Theopompus (380-315 BC) … 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.]
    7. As has been noted regarding Xenophon’s Hellenica (Historica Graeca):
      Samuel Byrskog: “An Athenian by birth and training, Xenophon served in the army of Cyrus the Younger. He lived for considerable periods in Sparta and, as an exile, in Scillus, near Elis and in Corinth. Through personal experience he became acquainted with the Greeks of Asia and with the Persian Empire. He had been a devoted follower of Socrates, while in later years he was a close friend of the Spartian king Agesilaus, whom he accompanied on several campaigns. He had all the opportunity of personal participation in the events described; and it is indeed likely that many of the matters he recorded are based on his own participation and experience. Although the Historia Graeca cannot be classified as his memoirs, because the central feature of putting the author at the center of attention in memoirs is lacking, his primary source of information was probably his own memory, perhaps supplemented with some written notes.” [Story as History—History as Story (Mohr Siebeck, 2019), 154.]
      It is worth adding:
      Carleton Brownson: “Many critics consider the Hellenica to be a personal work, written by Xenophon in retirement on his Spartan estate, intended primarily for circulation among his friends, who knew the main protagonists and events, having most likely participated in them.” [Delphi Complete Works of Xenophon (Delphi Classics, 2013), 515.]
    8. Herodotus (484–425 BC): “So far, all I have said is the record of my own autopsy and judgment and inquiry. Henceforth I will record Egyptian chronicles, according to what I have heard, adding something of what I myself have seen. The priests told me that….” [The Histories 2.99 ]
  • Histories cite witnesses via forced story-inclusion

    Historians in the 1st-2nd century would sometimes tip readers off to their witnesses by how they conspicuosly included the person in the account, especially at a key moment where a witness would be needed.

    A full page at /greco-romans/histories/cite-witnesses-via-emphasis will analyze this evidence:

    • Examples abound (from Plutarch, Nepos, Josephus).
  • Histories did get witness-testimony or close

    Greco-Roman historiographers tended to successfully ground their material in witness testimony or approval.

    See this page to analyze 4 arguments:

    • Historians strove for a 1st-hand-as-possible history.
    • Histories self-identify as witness-testimony.
    • Historians oft felt 2nd-3rd hand etc. unacceptable.
    • Greco-Roman histories self-claim to be true.
    • More forthcoming.

    This is relevant because if they did tend to successfully obtain witness testimony or close, then it is only natural that they would intimate to readers, implicitly or explicitly, that they did. (Rarely do we put such difficult work into things while leaving our audience completely in the dark that it was done; audiences will usually be aware one way or another.)