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

  • Question

    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.

    When inquiring into the past, did everyday people in the Greco-Roman world (including Jews) tend to prize direct 1st hand empirical experience, or 1st hand testimonial evidence over and above secondary sources (e.g. most documents)? Given the proximity and availability of actual witness testimony (or something near enough), did people have a tendency to proportionately disvalue rumor and hearsay? In general, did they think that the more direct the connection was between their belief in x and an originating perception of x’s truth, the more reliable the belief was (much like we do today)?

  • Historians

    • Samuel Byrskog: “Eyes were surer witnesses than ears. The ancient historians exercised autopsy [eyewitness testimony] directly and /or indirectly, by being present themselves and/ or by seeking out and interrogating other eyewitnesses; they related to the past visually. Autopsy was the essential means to reach back into the past.” [Story as History—History as Story (Brill, 2002), 64.]
    • Harry Gamble: “[i]n the topos of the living voice we have… 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.]
“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 a quick and overly simple example of widespread skepticism,...

    • 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”

    A box is diagonally divided. In the top left is a man plugging his ears with his fingers, on the bottom right is an eyeball with a check mark over it.

    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…
  • Historians didn’t even prize witness-testimony

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

    But no, that page also debates 8 counter-arguments:

    • Historians oft boast of their 1st hand seeing.
    • Greco-Roman histories self-identify as witness grounded.
    • E.g. Historians oft felt 2nd-3rd hand etc. is unacceptable.
    • Historians STROVE to produce direct witness-based history.
    • Even liars pretend to be or use witnesses.
    • Historians claimed to report true history.
    • Historians prized witnesses as such.