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Did Greco-Roman historiographers often lambast the use of hearsay (especially when witnesses were available)?

  • Our question

    Over and above simply valuing 1st hand material more than 2nd hand, and 2nd hand more than 3rd (etc.), did Greco-Roman historians—especially those around the 1st century—tend to find it essentially obligatory that their source-information be 1st hand (or 1st hand as possible)? Did often they cast insult and shame upon those daring to use gratuitously indirect sources (e.g. rumor, hearsay) due to potential laziness? Even in cases where the “historian” may have lied about being—or using—a good sources (e.g. a group of direct witnesses), did they nevertheless give clear indications suggesting that they knew what dubious information looked like and that they were supposed to avoid it?

  • What historians are saying

    • Richard Bauckham: “The ancient historians — such as Thucydides, Polybius, Josephus, and Tacitus — were convinced that true history could be written only while events were still within living memory, and they valued as their sources the oral reports of direct experience of the events by involved participants in them. Ideally, the historian himself should have been a participant in the events he narrates — as, for example, Xenophon, Thucydides, and Josephus were — but, since he could not have been at all the events he recounts or in all the places he describes, the historian had also to rely on eyewitnesses whose living voices he could hear and whom he could question himself. [Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2006), 8-9.]
    • Craig Keener: “[t]he plain preponderance of evidence from antiquity demonstrates that ancients did regularly prefer eyewitnesses. Failing the eyewitnesses themselves, they would appeal to material that they believed came from the eyewitnesses. They thus sought information from sources as close to the eyewitnesses as possible. In antiquity someone seeking to produce an authoritative work, rather than simply to recount stories to a neighbor, would generally seek to consult the same sorts of sources we do, especially eyewitnesses. This was the historical and biographic practice everywhere favored in antiquity.4Whenever possible, ancient historians and biographers drew on recent oral memory from eyewitnesses.” [Christobiography (2019), 272.]
    • Samuel Byrskog: “[For ancients] Autopsy [eyewitness testimony] was the essential means to reach back into the past.” [Story as History—History as Story (Mohr Siebeck, 2019), 64.]
“Yes, after all…
  • Polybius etc. say “only share/relay 1st hand info”

    Historians from Thucydides to Lucian loudly insisted that historians were to only share and relay information which was vetted by witnesses or those close enough..

    For example...

    • Lucian (125-180+ AD) insisted on this.1
    • Josephus (37-100 AD) insisted on this.2
    • Polybius (200-118 BC) insisted on this.3
    • Thucydides (460-400 BC) insisted on this.4

    This is relevant because these are the historians we are concerned about. And moreover, earlier historians saying this (especially Thucydides) set the standard for what the later historians largely felt obligated to mirror.

    1. Lucian: “…[On how to write history:] when possible, a man should have been present and seen for himself; failing that, he should prefer the disinterested account, selecting the informants least likely to diminish or magnify….” [How to Write History 47]
    2. For example, Josephus criticized competitor historians for ignoring available 1st hand data:
      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. [i.e. on the basis of records rather than witnesses] ...[giving their work] the name of ‘history’ with the complete shamelessness of a drunk.” [Against Apion 45-47]
      Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD): “every one that undertakes to deliver the history of actions truly, ought to know them accurately himself in the first place, as either having been concerned in them himself, or been informed of them by such as knew them….” [Against Apion 1.50-55]
      Flavius Josephus: “Yet it does occur to me to wonder at your shamelessness, … you had come to know nothing of what happened… for you were in Berytus…; nor had you followed…. And what I myself did during the siege you were unable to discover, for all the [possible] reporters were destroyed… [Yet] you claim to have portrayed with precision what happened… how is that possible? For you neither chanced to be involved in the war nor did you read the field notes of Caesar. …you have crafted a text opposite to what is in the field notes of Caesar.…” [Life of Josephus 356-358]
      As summarized by Byrskog and Barclay:
      Samuel Byskog: “For Josephus… autopsy in the sense of direct participation in the events was more or less taken for granted as an essential criterion of the suitability of a person intending to write about the recent past.” [Story as History—History as Story (Mohr Siebeck, 2019), 156.]
      John Barclay: “[c]riticism of others on this score… [i.e. doing history while not being a witness] echoes a long tradition of Greek historiographical polemics” [Flavius Josephus, Against Apion translation and commentary (Brill, 2007), 34.]
    3. Polybius: “So far is he [Timaeus] from accurate investigation of the truth by questioning others… [he] entirely retrained from looking at things with his own eyes, and devoted himself to learning by hearsay. But even the ear may be instructed in two ways, reading and answers to personal inquiries: and in the latter of these he was very indolent” [The Histories 12.4, 27]
      Polybius: “I suppose everyone would now agree that industry in the study of documents is only a third part of history and only stands in the third place.” [The Histories 12.25i.2]; to believe, as Timaeus did, that relying upon the mastery of material alone one can write well the history of subsequent events is absolutely foolish, ….” [Histories 12.25e.7]
      Polybius: “[When it is not] possible for a single man to have seen with his own eyes…, the only thing left for an historian is to inquire fromas many people as possible,…” [The Histories 12.4c.4-5]
      Polybius: “I speak with confidence on these points, because I have questioned persons actually engaged on the facts; … to inform myself of the truth and see with my own eyes.” [The Histories 3.48]
      Polybius (200-118 BC): “I thought this was the best point; first, because… and, secondly, because the period thus embraced in my history would fall partly in the life of my father, and partly in my own; and thus I should be able to speak as eye-witness of some of the events, and from the information of eye-witnesses of others. To go further back and write the report of a report, traditions at second or third hand, seemed to me unsatisfactory either with a view to giving clear impressions or making sound statements.” [The Histories 4.2]
      • See also: Polybius laboriously consulted witnesses
      • See also: Polybius critically evaluated his witnesses
    4. Thucydides (460-400 BC): “But of the acts themselves done in the war, I thought not fit to write all that I heard from all authors nor such as I myself did but think to be true, but only those whereat I was myself present and those of which with all diligence I had made particular inquiry.” [History of the Peloponnesian War 1.22.2](cf. 5.26)
  • Plutarch etc. say “hearsay is a last resort”

    Various historians noted that using 2nd-3rd hand reports (and beyond) were only acceptable if witnesses closer to the event were not available. (And in these circumstances, historians generally preferred not to write on the topic at all.)

    Consider two examples:

    • Plutarch: “However, when one has undertaken to compose a history based upon readings which are not readily accessible… he should live in a city which is famous, friendly to the liberal arts, and populous, in order that he may have all sorts of books in plenty, and may by hearsay and enquiry come into possession of all those details which elude writers and are preserved with more conspicuous fidelity in the memories of men.” [Demosthenes 2.1–2]
    • Herodotus (484-425 BC): “I have seen it myself,… We ourselves viewed… speak of what we have seen, but we learned through conversation about… ; the Egyptian caretakers would by no means show them… Thus we can only speak from hearsay of the lower chambers; the upper we saw for ourselves” [The Histories 2.148]1
    1. Guido Schepens: “Herodotus’ actual research practices bear out the importance attached to the distinction between direct and indirect sources of information. Throughout his account, especially in Books 1–4, the author takes care… to indicate whether he has acquired his knowledge by opsis or akoē. [My insert: by seeing or hearing] [“History and Historia: Inquiry in the Greek Historians” in The Blackwell Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography ed. Marincola (Blackwell, 2007), 42.]
  • That's part of the definition of “historia”

    The idea of laboring to obtain 1st hand testimony as far as possible is wrapped up in the very definition of “historia” (ἱστορία), which is the word applied to the subject and profession of Polybius, Plutarch etc.1 This is relevant because, to the degree that one is not laboring to witness things first hand nor critically interrogate witnesses and sources close to them, one is ostensibly just not doing history as they contemporaries defined it.

    1. Samuel Byrskog: “It is not surprising that autopsy [witness testimony] became very closely linked with the writing of history. The Greeks actually formed the term Ιστορία or Ιστορίη (Ionic) on the basis of ίστωρ, which recurs in ίδέίν/είδέναι. … The ancient Roman grammaticians regarded autopsy as inherent in the etymology of the very term ιστορία.” [Story as History—History as Story (Mohr Siebeck, 2019), 52.]
      Charles Fornara: “The fact that the Greek word for ‘inquire,’ ‘research,’ ‘investigation’ (historia) became the name of a particular class of literature leaves no doubt possible about what was considered the defining characteristic of the genre… the interrogation of witnesses and other informed parties and of the redaction of the answers into a continuous narrative.” [The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome (1983, University of California Press), 47.]
  • Historians usually stuck to writing in the witness-age

    In surveying what historical events Greco-Roman historians wrote on, one is immediately struck with the overwhelming tendency to only write on issues in the recent past, particularly while witnesses were still alive or those who would have heard their accounts. Reports about the distant past are quite rare.

    Consider 4 arguments:

    • [Note: Modern historians do agree that Greco-Roman historians generally stuck to the recent past.]1
    • We see Livy as the only big exception (all other “major” Greco-Roman historians stuck to writing in or near the witness-age.2
    • Diodorus testifies that historians avoid topics where evidence is wanting (like the distant past)3
    • Those like Livy used the best sources they could find, and still often urged caution re their reliability.
    • One could be harshly criticized for writing a history after witnesses died.4

    This is relevant because it fits very well under the hypothesis that historians generally felt that testimony rapidly lost value after it exceeded 1st and 2nd hand, so much so that it was considered unacceptable for the historian qua historian to depend on it.

    1. Charles Fornara: “[t]hey were for the most part the historians of their own generations or, failing that, excerptors of those who were. The lifespan of oral tradition as comparatively brief (cf. Polybius 4.2.3). When Herodotus, for example, sought out contemporary recollections of still living history, he froze a waning memory. His successors were left with little but the possibility of improvements in detail. Much might still be garnered from privileged and special sources of information accessible to the local historians. But after Herodotus had written, the witnesses were no longer there to be interrogated. It was thus a natural law of historia that the historians of each generation establish the record of their own time.” [The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome (1983, University of California Press), 48.]
      Christopher Bryan: “Ancient historians… were convinced that really worthwhile history could only be written about events that were still within living memory” [The Resurrection of the Messiah (Oxford, 2011), 363. n. 26]
      David Aune: “The requirement of personal visual experience resulted in several restrictions. First, the historian was limited to contemporary history.” [The New Testament in its Literary Environment (Westminster, 1987), 81.]
    2. These major historians are Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, Sallust, and Tacitus.
    3. Diodorus Siculus: “[s]ome [histories] have rejected the ancient legends because of the difficulties involved in their treatment,….” [(Library of History) Bibliotheca historica 1.3.2]
    4. For example...
      Josephus: “But if thou art so hardy as to affirm, that thou hast written that history better than all the rest, why didst thou not publish thy history while the emperors Vespasian and Titus, the generals in that war, as well as king Agrippa and his family, who were men very well skilled in the learning of the Greeks, were all alive? for thou hast had it written these twenty years, and then mightest thou have had the testimony of thy accuracy.” [Life of Josephus 359] … “But then I was not in like manner afraid of my own writing, but I offered my books to the emperors themselves, when the facts were almost under men's eyes; for I was conscious to myself, that I had observed the truth of the facts; and as I expected to have their attestation to them, so I was not deceived in such expectation.” [Life of Josephus 361] [/evid]
  • 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…

    • 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.
    • Histories did get witness approval and/or close.

    This is relevant because it fits perfectly on the hypothesis that historians felt works must be as 1st hand as possible. It is more surprising on competing hypotheses that it was permissible to depend wholly on 2nd or 3rd hand sources.

    But so what? Plausibly…

    • 1st hand sources were merely valuable; they weren’t essential. [But...]1
    1. But in response, the labor historians put in was often so intense that any suggesting it was merely valuable (rather than necessary) is quite dubious. More importantly, the marked absence of histories that write about the distant past is hard to explain if using 3rd or 4th hand etc. were permissible. (See this point above).