2018-11-30

“Now we know” — how ancient historians worked

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by Neil Godfrey

In 1935 the foreign correspondent of a certain English newspaper, finding himself without much material to report, despatched to England stories which supposedly dealt with the build-up to the Abyssinian war but which were in fact derived from an old colonel’s military reminiscences, published several years previously in a book entitled In the country of the Blue Nile. The correspondent’s newspaper was delighted with the reception given to these stories by its readers, and accordingly sent him a series of congratulatory telegrams – whereupon a colleague remarked to him: ‘Well, now we know, it’s entertainment they want!’41 The colleague had only then come to realize what had been known long ago to Tacitus, to whom the foreign correspondent’s technique would have seemed very familiar.

41 For a full account of this amazing and instructive story see Knightley (1975), 176—7 (whose book should be recommended reading for those who wish to understand how ancient historians worked). The reporter who deceived his newspaper and the public on this occasion assumed (quite rightly) that no one could check his stories on account of the distance involved. The same is even more true of ancient historians (see above, p. 153), who lived in a world where communications were so much more difficult.

Woodman, Tony. 1980. “Self-Imitation and the Substance of History. Tacitus, Annals 1.61-5 and Histories 2.70, 5.14-15.” In Creative Imitation and Latin Literature, edited by David West and Tony Woodman, 155, 235. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

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2 Comments

  • Mark Jager
    2018-11-30 21:30:34 UTC - 21:30 | Permalink

    The war correspondent story probably inspired Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Scoop”, published in 1938, which is based in a fictional country in east Africa. The wikipedia entry for “Scoop” has this to say

    Christopher Hitchens, introducing the 2000 Penguin Classics edition of Scoop, said “[i]n the pages of Scoop we encounter Waugh at the mid-season point of his perfect pitch; youthful and limber and light as a feather” and noted: “The manners and mores of the press, are the recurrent motif of the book and the chief reason for its enduring magic…this world of callousness and vulgarity and philistinism…Scoop endures because it is a novel of pitiless realism; the mirror of satire held up to catch the Caliban of the press corps, as no other narrative has ever done save Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page.”[12]

    .
    “Scoop” can be read online, or downloaded, at https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.182288

  • Neil Godfrey
    2018-12-01 00:06:12 UTC - 00:06 | Permalink

    One will regularly see remarks among biblical scholars that a claim in the sources is more likely to be true than false because witnesses were alive who could have contradicted the account. Turn to the classics department, however, and one reads more often that authors were not afraid of making up stories because they could be confident that no-one would go to the trouble of checking up and contradicting them. Two different worlds.

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