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..
• 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
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.)
• 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
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.
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.
• [Note: Modern historians do agree that Greco-Roman historians generally stuck to the recent past.]1
• Wee 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
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.
• 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.
But so what? Plausibly…
• 1st hand sources were merely valuable; they weren’t essential. [But...]1