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

“Yes, after all…
  • People in general weren't gullible

      Ancients in the Greco-Roman world were, in general, decent at critical thinking about the past, rather than being more gullible than moderns. For example,...
      Sallust: “[Writing is difficult, partly because] when you commemorate the distinguished merit and fame of good men, while every one is quite ready to believe you when you tell of things which he thinks he could easily do himself, everything beyond that he regards as fictitious, if not false.” [War with Catiline 3.2]

  • Polybius etc. says “all agree” 1st hand is best

      Historians like Polybius would say rather explicitly that in their culture 1st hand testimony was the primary way to probe into the past. 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.” [Histories 12.25i.2] This is relevant because Polybius was an expert on the culture.

  • Most inquiry in the past valued witness-testimony

      As one surveys all we know of Greco-Roman culture and their regard for past events, it becomes impossible to deny that they treasured witness testimony above all in trying to ascertain the truth. For example...
      Lysias: “On his stating that he was a Plataean, I asked to what township he belonged, since one of my witnesses there advised me to summon him… I then went and asked at barber's in the street of the Hermae,… and I inquired of such Deceleans… I learnt that… So now, in the first place, I will produce to you as witnesses some Deceleans whom I questioned, and after them the other persons… Relying on this evidence I took proceedings against him before the Polemarch: … I first asked Euthycritus, whom I knew as the oldest citizen of Plataea and whom I supposed to be best informed, whether he knew a certain Pancleon, son of Hipparmodorus, a Plataean. …I went on to ask all the other persons whom I knew as Plataeans. … they told me that I should get the most definite information if I went to the fresh-cheese market on the last day of the month: for on that day in each month the Plataeans collected there. So I went on that day… …I will produce as witnesses Euthycritus whom I questioned first, all the other Plataeans to whom I applied, and the man who said he was this person's master.” [Orations 23-18])
      • E.g. Ancients required witnesses in trials. (Examples abound, but see Dionysius for a taste of ancient values re the value of seeing 1st hand1 and witness testimony2 in court contexts.)
      This is relevant because it reveals a general Greco-Roman valuing of 1st hand witness testimony when it comes to learning about the past.

      1. Dionysius of Halicarnassus: “[The criminals] would… [not be] convicted before a few witnesses only, but their guilt would be made manifest in the Forum before the eyes of all” [Roman Antiquities 5.55.3]
      2. Dionysius of Halicarnassus: “…“Having come to this decision and got ready… numerous witnesses, they brought him to trial for a crime against the state … presenting as witnesses the victims of his acts in person” [Roman Antiquities 10.5.2] …“The first trial… Siccius, coming forward… produced as witnesses… Among them…was Spurius Verginius. … the Icilii… gave an account of their experience” [Roman Antiquities 10.49.1-4] “…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]
  • Ancients oft said “seeing beats hearing”

      Ancients in the Greco-Roman world tended to often quote variations of “eyes are more trustworthy witnesses than ears.” This is relevant because it proverbially praises 1st hand info (seeing vs hearing) while other kinds of info (e.g. old rumor or revelation) were not praised in this manner. And it’s not as if they did not value hearing (or reading).1 So their love of the living voice functions as a fulfilled prediction. While hearing/reading something often meant receiving information merely 3rd , 4th, 5th hand or more, experiencing it 1st hand represented immediate connection with the event or with a witness (his/her testimony) and her authoritative recounting of the event.

      1. Harry Gamble: “In none of these contexts, however, were texts unavailable, unused, or not valued. There were manuals of instruction in the manual arts; notes were used by rhetoricians, who also wrote speeches and produced or used handbooks; and philosophical treatises were produced within the various schools. In short, in the topos of the living voice we have to do not with a principled rejection of books in favor of oral tradition, but with an express preference for personal instruction or demonstration in contexts where it was particularly useful.” [Books and Readers in the Early Church (Yale, 1995), 31-32.]
  • E.g. Historians oft felt 2nd-3rd hand etc. is unacceptable

      Over and above simply valuing 1st hand material more than 2nd hand, and 2nd hand more than 3rd (etc.), Greco-Roman historians around the 1st century tend to find it essentially obligatory that their source-information be 1st hand (or 1st hand as possible). This is relevant because it’s predicted on the hypothesis that testimonies are to be as 1st hand as possible. It’s a coincidence otherwise. For those who allow some lee-way, it clearly wasn’t much.

  • “No, after all…
  • They’d didn’t even prize witness-testimony

      Regarding most historical works (and writing historical works), there was little desire for the content to be grounded in 1st hand testimony as far as possible. This is relevant because if historians did not even have this desire, then all the more lay ancients in general could not be expected to care.

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