Did Greco-Roman historiographers tend to value their reports being as empirical/1st hand as possible?

  • Our question

    Whether or not it was considered necessary, did historians—all other things being equal—most value historical works (and writing historical works) that were mostly or entirely grounded in 1st hand experience, and to a lesser degree 2nd hand experience, and—to a far lesser degree still—3rd hand experience? For Greco-Roman historians, did closeness to ostensibly reliable witness experience correspond to the value of the report itself?

  • Historians

    • Eric Eve: “Writing was seen as a useful aid to memory and as a means of preserving a record for posterity when it might otherwise be forgotten, but it was not seen as a substitute for memory, which antiquity highly valued. Some historians were accused of simply reworking written sources to literary effect, without any living experience of their subject matter, but even historians who faithfully practised autopsy might employ written sources in a supplementary fashion, for example to acquire information that was not available to them from any other source [Behind the Gospels(Fortress, 2014), 95.]
    • Samual Byrskog: “The ancient historians, being most eager to find out things about the past, valued eyewitness testimony higher than any other kind of ‘sources’.” [“A New Perspective on the Jesus Tradition Reflections on James D.G. Dunn’s Jesus Remembered,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 26(4) (2004): 465.]
“Yes, after all…
  • Ancients prize testimony being 1st hand as possible

    A man with an eyeball for a head has an empty speech bubble. Three people sit on the floor facing him with hearts above their head. A Greek column is in the background.

    Greco-Roman inquirers about the past place great value the source's being directly witness-based, or close enough.

    This [page]https://beliefmap.org/greco-romans/value/history/witness-testimony) analyzes 5 arguments:

    • Ancients were oft critical thinkers.
    • Polybius etc. say “all agree” 1st hand is best.
    • Most inquiry in the past valued witness-testimony.
    • Ancients oft said “seeing beats hearing.”
    • E.g. Historians oft felt 2nd-3rd hand etc. is unacceptable.

    On the other hand, this counterevidence is also analyzed:

    • They didn't even prize witness testimony.
  • Historians oft boast of their 1st hand seeing

    If an historian actually observed the event on which he was writing, or relevant details, he would often proudly boast of it right within the text itself.

    For example…

    • Dio Chrysostom (40-115 AD): "I shall now relate a personal experience of mine; not merely something I have heard from others.” [Discourses 7:1]
    • Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD): “and as for the History of the War, I wrote it as having been an actor myself in many of its transactions, an eyewitness in the greatest part of the rest, and was not unacquainted with any thing whatsoever that was either said or done in it.” [Against Apion 1.50-55]
    • Thucydides (460-400 BC): “Of the events of the war I have not ventured to speak from any chance information, nor according to any notion of my own; 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]1
    • They may super-boast if they saw it all “from the beginning.”

    This is relevant because, for those historians who did indulge in boasting within their text, such boasting quickly diminishes for every remove from a relevant witness; we never really see boasting for material obtained 3rd hand. This makes sense if witness testimony was prized, but little sense if it was not.

    1. As another simple example, he seems here to be boasting of his 1st hand experience with the sickness he was writing on. Thucydides: “[f]or I was sick myself and saw others suffering” [History of the Peloponnesian War 2.48:3]
  • Greco-Roman histories self-identify as witness grounded

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

    Historical works from the Greco-Roman mediterranean proudly self-identity as relaying witness testimony.

    See [this page]https://beliefmap.org/greco-romans/histories/say/im-witness-based) to analyze these 4 supporting arguments:

    • Polybius etc. testify that they did.
    • Historians oft say: “I saw this all 1st hand.”
    • Histories cited witnesses via emphasis.
    • Histories DID get witness-testimony or close.

    This is relevant because such self-identification was often gratuitous if the author was not intact trying to relay that his work carried value in virtue of connecting directly to witnesses.

    But as a counter-evidence:

    • Historians didn’t even strive to produce a witness-based history. (See discussion in page link above.)
  • Historians oft felt 2nd-3rd hand etc. is unacceptable

    Greco-Roman historiographers tended to lambast the use of hearsay in their reports (especially when witnesses were available).

    See this page to analyze 4 arguments:

    • Historians: “ONLY share/relay 1st hand info.”
    • Historians say hearsay is a last resort.
    • That’s wrapped into the definition of historia” (ἱστορία).

      Historians usually stuck to writing in the witness-age.

    • Historians labored to produce direct witness-based history.

    But, as a counter-evidence…

    • Historians did not even regard witness-grounding as valuable (See discussion in page link above.)
  • Historians strove to produce direct witness-based 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.

    See this page to analyze 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 people, including historians, usually don't strive for something they place no value on obtaining.

    But as 2 counter-arguments…

    • Greco-Romans didn’t care if testimony was 1st or 9th hand. (See page link above.)
    • Historians didn’t even work to investigate. (Again, see link above.)