Two (More) Reasons Ancient Historians Fabricated History

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by Neil Godfrey

Do ancient historiographers sometimes say things they know to be factually untrue? Emphatically, yes. The accusation of deliberate fabrication is made repeatedly. — John Moles
  • Herodotus is dubbed the father, not only of history, but of lies;
  • Polybius castigates historians not only for incompetence, but falsehood;
  • Lucian tells of historians who claimed to be eye-witnesses of things they could not possibly have seen;
  • invention and manipulation of factual material is (I believe) demonstrable in Herodotus and Plutarch, as well as Hellenistic tragic historians.

The motives vary:

  • some, of course, crudely political — propaganda,flattery, denigration;
  • literary rivalry (to trump one’s predecessors, of which we have seen examples even in Thucydides);
  • the desire to spin a good yarn (often important in Herodotus and other historians of the exotic);
  • sometimes (surely) historiographical parody;
  • sheer emotional arousal or entertainment;
  • the need to make moral points
  • or bring out broader patterns or causes behind complicated sequences of events.

(Moles, 115 — my bolding and formatting in all quotations)

John Moles

Those last two points Moles illustrates in some depth.

The Need to Make a Moral Point

Plutarch (ca 46 – 120 CE) knew that a famous meeting between the famous Greek philosopher Solon and the King Croesus of Lydia was more than likely a fiction but that did not matter when it served a moral point:

As for [Solon’s] interview with Croesus, some think to prove by chronology that it is fictitious. But when a story is so famous and so well-attested, and, what is more to the point, when it comports so well with the character of Solon, and is so worthy of his magnanimity and wisdom, I do not propose to reject it out of deference to any chronological canons, so called, which thousands are to this day revising, without being able to bring their contradictions into any general agreement. (Plutarch, Solon 27.1)

Moles comments:

[H]ere historical fact is sacrificed to Plutarch’s need to expound universal moral truths. (Moles, 120)

Plutarch was also quite willing to place persons from mythical times alongside those well known to be historical for the same reason:

Just as geographers, O Socius Senecio, crowd on to the outer edges of their maps the parts of the earth which elude their knowledge, with explanatory notes that ‘What lies beyond is sandy desert without water and full of wild beasts,’ or ‘blind marsh,’ or ‘Scythian cold,’ or ‘frozen sea,’ so in the writing of my Parallel Lives, now that I have traversed those periods of time which are accessible to probable reasoning and which afford basis for a history dealing with facts, I might well say of the earlier periods ‘What lies beyond is full of marvels and unreality, a land of poets and fabulists, of doubt and obscurity.’

But after publishing my account of Lycurgus the lawgiver and Numa the king, I thought I might not unreasonably go back still farther to Romulus, now that my history had brought me near his times. And as I asked myself, ‘With such a warrior’ (as Aeschylus says) ‘who will dare to fight?’ [=it seemed to me that I must make the founder of lovely and famous Athens the counterpart and parallel to the father of invincible and glorious Rome.]

May I therefore succeed in purifying Fable, making her submit to reason and take on the semblance of History. But where she obstinately disdains to make herself credible, and refuses to admit any element of probability, I shall pray for kindly readers, and such as receive with indulgence the tales of antiquity. (Plutarch, Theseus, 1:1-3)

Lucian (ca 125-180 CE), as we have seen in earlier posts, appeared to have fabricated his teacher, Demonax, likewise for edification. See two posts from 2017 for the classicists’ interpretation of the evidence:

I want to focus particularly on Thucydides here because he is reputed to be the most “scientific” of historians, the one who eschewed all myth in his history of the Peloponnesian War and thus set himself as far apart from Homer and Herodotus as one can imagine — according to his reputation. If we find knowing falsehoods in Thucydides then what hope will any other ancient historian have? We will see that Thucydides created scenarios in politics and on the Sicilian battlefields from raw material he found in Herodotus’ account of the Persian War and among Homer’s characters in the Iliad.

Thucydides (ca 460-400 CE) did the same. In this respect, he was following (“imitating”) his predecessor, Herodotus, by narrating events in such a way as to present a moral lesson for readers. Herodotus had narrated how Athens had once brought low the proud hubris of the Persian king, Xerxes, at the battle of Salamis, and Thucydides subsequently wrote of the demise of Athenian power, arguing through speeches he put into the mouths of his historical characters that the reason for Athens’ fall was the same hubris as had once possessed Xerxes. To drive home the message Thucydides described the fateful battle of Syracuse through the description Herodotus had given readers for the battle of Salamis. Thucydides thus turned the battle of Salamis (where Athens had won her glory by humbling the Persian empire) into the battle of Syracuse (that spelled the end of Athenian power. Thucydides even copied the dramatist Aeschylus’s portrayal of Salamis and pasted it into the battle of Syracuse.

The pattern of echoes has also suggested that Thucydides ‘turned against Athens the tremendous moral which his countrymen delighted to read in the Persians of Aeschylus and the History of Herodotus.’ (Rood, 163)

Thucydides, by perpetual coincidences of thought and phrase, and by the turn and colour of all this part of his narrative, has with evident design emphasized this parallel, and so turned against Athens the tremendous moral which his countrymen delighted to read in the Persians of Aeschylus and the History of Herodotus. . . . Athens, tempted by Fortune, deluded by Hope, and blinded by covetous Insolence, was attempting an enterprise comparable with that which it was her boast to have repulsed and broken at Salamis. . . . [T]he city was sick and it was vain to call for a physician. The name of her sickness was Eros, the fatal, passionate lust for what is out of reach. . . . (Cornford, 201-205)

Timothy Rood

There is a theological lesson here, too. Just as the message of the Jewish Scriptures is that the will of Yahweh will stand regardless of the plans and deeds of mere mortals, so is Herodotus’s Histories infused with the theme that Apollo rules and his oracle at Delphi will be justified regardless of the plans and deeds of Greeks and barbarians. (See the posts on Mandell and Freedman for this comparison.) Likewise Thucydides:

And another Herodotean echo has led some scholars to contend that this ‘tremendous moral’ is a theological one: they argue that when Thucydides refers to the ‘total destruction’ of Athens’ force in Sicily (7.87.6 πανωλεθρία), he alludes not just to Herodotus’ representation of Troy’s ‘total destruction’ (H. 2.120.5 πανωλεθρίη), but also to the explanation Herodotus there gives of Troy’s destruction — that ‘great wrongs meet with great punishments from the gods.’ Nicias’ final speech is also cited as evidence of Thucydides’ preoccupations:

if our expedition was offensive to one of the gods, we have been punished enough’ (T. 7.77.3).

Unlike in Herodotus, however, there is no overt authorial support for a claim of divine involvement; the Herodotean echo, and Nicias’ speech, contribute, rather, to the heightened and tragic tone of the end of the Sicilian narrative. (Rood, 163)

When we read of the very unlike leaders, Pericles and Cleon, in Thucydides’ history, we are in fact re-reading the characters of (noble) Achilles and (unworthy) Thersites in Homer’s Iliad. Cleon makes the same arguments as Pericles but in the mouth of Cleon the arguments are false because Cleon is a disreputable fool. Homer drove home that lesson: the uncouth, low-class and arrogant Thersites in the Iliad made the same criticisms against king Agamemnon as Achilles had aimed at the king. But Achilles was a “good man” and Cleon a “bad” one. Nothing good could come out of a bad character; as the proverb of the day said: excellence of spirit does not sit well upon a fool. This was the moral Thucydides was reinforcing in his creations of Pericles and Cleon.

Francis Cairns

[I]t is clear that Thucydides had Homer in mind in his work, and to back up the natural presumption that a writer as complex and self-conscious as Thucydides must have intended the resemblances between his Cleon and his Pericles, it can now be suggested that his model in this was Homer’s treatment of Thersites’ echoes of Achilles. . . . Thucydides’ original audience was meant to conclude that what Pericles said was right simply because he was Pericles and that what Cleon said was wrong, even if it was the same as what Pericles said, simply because Cleon was Cleon. . . . Thucydides intended his readers to keep Thersites in mind when evaluating Cleon and wanted to associate Pericles with Achilles. . . . Thucydides is assuming as the background to his character portrayals a standard ancient type of moral assessment, in which actions and words take their worth from that of the actor or speaker. (Cairns, 204)

The Need to Demonstrate Universal Truths

Even the “scientific historian” fabricated details based on “what would have happened” given what we know of human behaviour generally. Thucydides justified this practice:

And perhaps the lack of the mythical element in my history will appear rather unpleasing to an audience, but if those who wish to look at the clearness [to saphes: (clear) truth or plausible representation?] both of the things that have happened and of those which, in accordance with human nature, are going to happen again some time like this and in similar form, should judge it useful, that will be sufficient. It is set down as a possession for always rather than as a competitive display for instant hearing. (Thucydides 1.22.4 – John Moles translation, 104)

The value of history for Thucydides was its ability to teach “universal truths”. Hence Thucydides shaped his characters and assigned them roles for that end:

[To extrapolate general truths]—so that, for example, Pericles to some extent represents the typical Ideal Statesman, Cleon the typical Unprincipled Demagogue, while the politically important Hyperbolus is dismissed parenthetically (8.73.3). Thucydides sometimes resorts also to shorthand formulations such as ‘every form of death ensued and whatever is accustomed to happen in such a situation’ (3.81.5). In other ways, it pulls towards repetition (hence the endless and shifting debate in the speeches concerning the rights and wrongs of empire, the relationship between expediency and morality etc.) and towards the establishment of recurrent patterns (thus the events of the second half of the history, from 5.25 onwards, in some respects reprise those of the first). (Moles, 108)

Compare what we discovered earlier about Thucydides’ account of the plague: How Ancient Historians Constructed Dramatic Fiction: Thucydides and the Plague

Back to Herodotus. Herodotus wrote of a famous debate among Persian conspirators on the relative merits of democracy, oligarchy and monarchy. This was said to have taken place after the death of the mad king Cambyses. The one who argued that Persia should become a democracy was Otanes. Herodotus acknowledged that some of his contemporaries did not believe that such a debate ever happened but Herodotus insisted it was true.

At the meeting certain speeches were made – some of our own countrymen refuse to believe they were actually made at all; nevertheless – they were. The first speaker was Otanes, and his theme was to recommend the establishment in Persia of democratic government. (Herodotus 3.80)

Later, Herodotus described a revolt by Greek city-states in Ionia (Asia Minor) against their Persian overlords and its repression by the Persian military. The Persian general who led that campaign, Mardonius,

did something which will come as a great surprise to those Greeks who cannot believe that Otanes declared to the seven conspirators that Persia should have a democratic government: he ejected the irresponsible despots from all the Ionian states and set up democratic institutions in their place. (Herodotus, 6.43)

That such a debate ever happened is “obviously impossible” since at that time democracy had not even been invented in Greece! Did Herodotus genuinely believe it to have happened? Such a notion

demeans him by making him a much less intelligent man than he was, and much less intelligent than those of his contemporaries who, as he himself admitted, disbelieved in the debate. (Moles, 119)

No, Moles concludes that Herodotus fabricated the debate over democracy among the Persian nobles and either greatly exaggerated Persian leniency towards the rebel Ionians or also fabricated the story of the Persians establishing democratic governments among those Greek city-states.

Why would Herodotus make up these events? The events provided a dramatic point on which he could focus his major themes:

the key moment of moral choice, the constituents of good government, the rise and fall of Persian power, the interrelationship between the success or failure of imperial powers and their respective constitutions. (Moles, 120)

The two events, the Persian conspirators’ debate and the Persian establishment of democratic institutions among their Greek subjects, created memorable moments that brought into focus Herodotus’s larger over-riding interest throughout his Histories in the conflict between Greek and barbarian, democracy and tyranny, hubris and reason, rise and fall of powers.

No serious ancient historian was so tied to specific factual truth that he would not sometimes help general truths along by manipulating, even inventing, ‘facts’. — Moles, 120

There are many different types of ancient historians. Some write historiography according to rhetorical prescriptions, some do not, or not to the extent claimed by the theory. Some see truth very largely in terms of prejudice. Some are not interested in truth at all, writing purely and simply to entertain. . . .

We must also admit that even the most serious and ‘historical’ ancient historians share characteristics with the most purely ‘literary’. The difference between the two is a matter of degree. . . (Moles, 118)

And there are many types of lying historians. I won’t repeat the seven types of lying historians that were covered in an earlier post that discussed another chapter in the same book as the Moles’ essay, Lying Historians: Seven Types of Mendacity.

Cairns, Francis. 1982. “Cleon and Pericles: A Suggestion.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 102: 203–4. https://doi.org/10.2307/631138.

Cornford, Francis M. 1907. Thucydides Mythistoricus. London: Edward Arnold.

Moles, J. L. 1993. “Truth and Untruth in Herodotus and Thucydides.” In Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World, edited by Christopher Gill and Timothy Peter Wiseman, 88–121. University of Exeter Press.

Rood, Timothy. 1999. “Thucydides’ Persian Wars.” In The Limits of Historiography: Genre and Narrative in Ancient Historical Texts, edited by Chris Shuttleworth Kraus, 141–68. Leiden ; Boston: Brill.


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20 thoughts on “Two (More) Reasons Ancient Historians Fabricated History”

  1. Thank you again Neil for your insights. Yet the elephant in the chat room remains – the Roman Catholic church, that union of politics, economics and religion that survives as the trunk of the tree of Christianity. With respect to my catholic friends, I am very skeptical of the RCC as being founded on much historical truth. Human nature was not more virtuous then than is now was it ?
    I remain as sure as I am that virgins don’t conceive and people don’t rise from the dead as I am that Jesus never existed; actually that could explain a multitude of the evidence that we do have. The lack of credible historical evidence for Jesus’ existence in the context of first century Roman / Jewish struggles is consistent with a propaganda theme for why the Jesus character was invented. Neil how have your views developed on Jesus mythicism in the last year ?

    1. Neil how have your views developed on Jesus mythicism in the last year ?

      To me, the question of the historicity of Jesus is a non-issue. Our interest is in the origin and nature of early Christianity and we work with ancient texts available. No historian begins with a naive reading of any text. The first question is always, “What is this text? Is it a personal diary? Is it a government text for public viewing?” etc. We don’t pick up a book with a story of a red-caped girl visiting her grandmother and being eaten by a wolf and think it might contain some historical core. We first study the work’s context and discover the type of work it is before we know how to use it as evidence for anything. Ditto any source a historian has. Hence, in the words of classicist A. J. Woodman:

      ‘Our primary response to the texts of the ancient historians should be literary rather than historical since the nature of the texts themselves is literary. Only when literary analysis has been carried out can we begin to use these texts as evidence for history; and by that time . . . such analysis will have revealed that there is precious little historical evidence left.’

      Another classicist, J. L. Moles, comments on Woodman’s words:

      Modern historians naturally dislike such views, because they challenge the very basis of ancient history as an intellectual discipline, since the ‘evidence’, at almost all periods, consists overwhelmingly of literary texts. While most historians concede that ancient historiographical texts are in some senses ‘literary’, they nevertheless insist that this ‘literary’ aspect is detachable and there is solid fact underneath. On this view, ancient works of historiography are like Christmas cakes: if you don’t like almond icing, you slice it off, and you’ve still got a cake—a substantial object uncontaminated by icing.

      Once we begin with accepting the gospels as texts without known provenance and comparable to other literature of the period and apply the critical standards of the Woodmans and Finleys (see https://vridar.org/2017/12/10/the-evidence-of-ancient-historians/) then the question of whether Jesus existed outside the texts simply does not arise.

      1. Regarding

        “To me, the question of the historicity of Jesus is a non-issue. Our interest is in the origin and nature of early Christianity …”

        To me, ‘the historicity of Jesus’ and ‘the origin and nature of early Christianity’ are intimately linked.

        1. The question of the historicity of Jesus is a cultural interest. There is nothing in the texts or any other evidence to justify it being a question of persons or events outside the texts. If a historical inquiry works with the texts then I don’t see how the question of a historical Jesus even arises. Unless we want to believe, like children, that a bed time story is true at some level. On what basis can we justify the question?

        2. I mean, we can wonder/ask out of idle curiosity if Jesus was historical but we have nothing with which to even begin exploring that question. Everything we have is a theological-literary construct without any external sources to give us a hint that there ever was any other reality behind that theological-literary figure.

          1. Neil I think you are completely dismissing my view, that the gospels and NT are most likely Roman propaganda. While it is marginal, it still deserves consideration.
            In this view, as put by some mythicists like Atwil (US), Valiant & Fahey (US), Carrington (Australia), Humphries (UK), Blackhirst (Australia), the genre of the gospels then takes on a more sinister character, a view which you do not seem to like to entertain, because you believe that the Jews did not pose such a great threat to Roman dominion and that the Romans could have easily annihilated them without resorting to inventing Jesus for the longer term tactics of dividing, diluting and diffusing the Jews’ faith.
            I believe that the smokescreen of the RC church could explain the dearth of evidence and weight of public opinion away from mythicism and that it’s a no-brainer that Jesus probably never existed. Please correct me if you think I am putting words in your mouth.

            1. The idea that a work like Mark may be propaganda does have validity, but it doesn’t necessarily mean what you seem to imply here.

              If we take “propaganda” to mean that it was an official production of the Roman state, then no, I don’t find that likely. However, in fact almost all prophetic stories from the classical world were propaganda of some kind, though seldom produced via official channels. They often had the purpose of trying to sway people’s view that one side or another of a conflict was favored by the gods, was doomed to fail to destined to succeed. There are, in fact hundreds of examples such prophecies. In addition, Jews were producing a lot of such prophetic writings, including pseudo-Orpheus and pseudo-Sibylline works.

              But there are many reasons why the Gospel(s) wouldn’t be official Roman productions, not least of which is that they are simply far to complex in their construction and are too concerned with intra-sectarian issues. However, it is certainly true that by the 3rd century Romans were starting to use the Gospels as propaganda against the Jews, but again this was common with prophetic writings, and we have many examples of random prophetic writings, in some cases centuries after they had been produced, being used as for Roman propaganda purposes even thought they were clearly not produced by the Romans (in some cases these were Greek or Babylonian writings, etc.)

              1. Thanks Mr Price. I think I’ve read it in your book, “Deciphering the Gospels”, and I could check, but while I have your attention, could you please just summarise why you think the gospels were written.
                I see your point that the gospels are too complex for Romans themselves to have concocted. What about Joe Atwil’s view that the Romans had help in the writing of the gospels by certain learned and avaricious leading Jews who were in league with the Romans ?
                In our modern age the American government seemed to be in league with the Saudis in the orchestration and propaganda purpose of the 911 attacks as political mass deception in a mood of the fear, apathy and impotence of the masses. That justified the so called “war on terror”. So just as this official story has been concocted, could not the gospels, posing as the official story, have been similarly devised ? After 1,500 years of Roman church control, it is not unreasonable to believe that the historical truth has been lost and what we have left is a preposterous and ridiculous version of the truth.
                I don’t drink coffee but I’d be honored to buy you a cup.

              2. @Peter

                I don’t think there was any one reason why “the Gospels” were written. It seems we have multiple Gospels, the four canonical plus other non-canonical, that were all produced for different reasons.

                I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to determine for sure why any of them were written. “Luke” claims t be written as a research piece for a wealthy patron, so maybe that one is the most straightforward. “Mark” I believe was written by an associate of Paul’s or someone within the group that originally collected and published Paul’s works. I believe now that story is an allegory written in the style of a mystery religion theogony. The story was intentionally multi-layered and written in a way that was intentionally open to misinterpretation. This was something in vogue among mystery cults.

                As for Matthew, John, Peter (non-canonical), Thomas and others, its hard to say.

                John certainly wouldn’t have been written with the help of any Jew, as John is viciously anti-Jewish and was likely written during a time of Jewish oppression by the Romans. It may be proper to call John propaganda, I just don’t think it was propaganda produced by any official effort of the Roman state.

                As for Matthew, I really don’t know why it was written. I suspect it may have been written simply for profit. It seems that Matthew may have been disseminated through the Roman book market which is why it became the most well known of the Gospels. I think maybe Matthew was written by someone who came into contact with Mark, saw that it was a compelling story and had a number of hidden parallels with the Jewish scriptures, so the author then made his version that called out these parallels and labeled them “prophecy fulfillment”, and that’s really what launched in the interest in Jesus and Jesus worship.

                I think prior to Matthew “Christianity” was virtually non-existent. It was a tiny Jewish mystery cult prior to the First Jewish-Roman War, then basically got wiped out by the war, then was re-launched based on the literary sources alone once the Gospels of Mark and Matthew gained circulation.

                That’s kind of how I see right now anyway…

              3. Thank you RGP for your considered response, staying on the subject of why ancient historians fabricated their works. It certainly is such a fascinating subject because the evolution of Christianity has taken in so many people, including me, over such a long period of time. And we then ask where this storybook character Jesus came from if he was fabricated ? You refer to the ancient mystery religions and it makes me ask why one would believe that Jesus was any more historical than Inana, Zalmoxis, Osiris, Attis, Adonis, Tamuz, Dyonisus ?
                It seems that you consider that Matthew’s gospel preceded the writings of Paul ? Perhaps we differ here, as it makes more sense to me that the celestial Messiah of Paul and the movement his epistles refer to, were prevalent before the need to invent the Jesus we have in the NT. It follows to me that the Romans hijacked this messianic movement and interfered in i to manipulate it for propaganda to difuse the Jewish uprisings.
                Where I get mixed up is that the setting referred to in the gospels and the epistles is not the same as the setting at the time of writing.
                Cheers, and thanks again for your book, it’s great.

            2. As to why the Gospels May have been written, Jörg Rüpke, an expert on Roman era religion, has proposed they were written to meet a demand for such literature in the post-Josephus era. See his 2018 book Pantheon. (I’m not sure he explains the Pauline epistles.)

              1. Does Jörg Rüpke have to explain the Pauline epistles? The genuine ones are at heart occasional letters. The pseudographs, interpolations, and editing are attempts to both “tame” them, generalise them from the particular, and correct for the “Delay of the Parousia”.

            3. Neil I think you are completely dismissing my view, that the gospels and NT are most likely Roman propaganda. While it is marginal, it still deserves consideration.

              I have seen no evidence to support the notion that our canonical gospels and other NT writings are “Roman propaganda” — presuming you mean state/imperial sponsored propaganda. Some of the names you mention as proposing that view have produced arguments that are speculative and riddled with fundamental errors of basic logic. That conclusion is arrived at after reading and considering some of the arguments of those names you list. I have not dismissed it out of hand.

  2. I think we apply the label “history” a bit too freely. Apparently ancient historians were lazy in that they preferred to invent fictional stories (easy) than to “true” find stories that demonstrated their moral or universal truths. (I put “true” in quotes as errors can always be made.)

    Imagine if a classical musician took apart a Beethoven symphony and reassembled it to make it easier to play or for some other reason. How would that be received?

    Maybe some of these histories should be demoted to “accounts” or some other label indicated mixed fiction and nonfiction.

  3. Very informative, valuable overview, reminiscent of the Carrier online classic about ‘crackpots of the Roman Empire’.
    I especially like the revealing remark,:
    “And perhaps the lack of the mythical element in my history will appear rather unpleasing to an audience, but if those who wish to look at the clearness [to saphes: (clear) truth or plausible representation?] both of the things that have happened and of those which, in accordance with human nature, are going to happen again some time like this and in similar form, should judge it useful, that will be sufficient. It is set down as a possession for always rather than as a competitive display for instant hearing.” (Thucydides 1.22.4 – John Moles translation, 104)—
    Imagine if the author of Luke had prefaced his account with THAT kind of disclaimer! For if he had, it would have been a kind of evidence for the historicity of his heroic main character. But how could a gospel NOT be written “as a competitive display for instant hearing”? (!)

  4. When I try to imagine being alive in ancient times, it seems obvious that people then could just say or write whatever they damn well pleased. Why do we imagine it was some kind of wikipedia world, where people cited and disputed and corrected everyone else. There was no infrastructure for moderating publishable discourse. You just have to watch Lawrence of Arabia and this fact will lodge itself in you mind.

    So why would a historian not fantasize a little? Don’t we do it now, with our youtube channels and our memoirs-that-don’t-have-to-be-real.

    Tom Adams

  5. Hi Neil, at your quoting Herodotus 6:43 you have confused Mardonius, the Persian general, with Miltiades, Athenian general and hero of Marathon.

    It is interesting that that you have chosen to highlight the Ionian Revolt. This is something that I had cause to look into as a module of a course in Ancient History I took a number of years ago. It is possible to render a coherent and plausible account from the information that Herodotus provides that makes sense outside of Herodotus’ interpretation and commentary; much as we can make coherent and and plausible account of the New Testament outside of the traditional and Christian presentation which lies behind the several “Quests for the ‘Historical’ Jesus”. History will always be interpretation of bald facts and narrative; such as they are. And that interpretation will be in the context of the present as much as the past.

    Regarding Thucydides and Homer; for Thucydides History turns the Iliad on its head: the united and overpowering Achaean armies of all Hellas carried Troy; the disunited and inadequate arms of Athens failed to carry Syracuse. Achilles fell in front of Troy; but not before he had decapitated the Trojan leadership and ensured victory by killing Hector. At Syracuse there was also a lone hero: the mothax Glyppus, sent out from Sparta to command the defence. Happenstance perhaps allowed Thucydides to transvalue the Iliad in line with Hesiod’s schema of five ages; the Age of Iron, the present aeon, being a poor facsimile of the Heroic Age; just as, and maybe more so, present leaders and actions coming up short against the leaders and actions of storied Marathon; Thermopylae; Salamis; and the Persian War.

    Macaulay does something similar in The Lays of Ancient Rome: Horatius:-

    Then none was for a party;
    Then all were for the state;
    Then the great man helped the poor,
    And the poor man loved the great:
    Then lands were fairly portioned;
    Then spoils were fairly sold:
    The Romans were like brothers
    In the brave days of old.

    Now Roman is to Roman
    More hateful than a foe,
    And the Tribunes beard the high,
    And the Fathers grind the low.
    As we wax hot in faction,
    In battle we wax cold:
    Wherefore men fight not as they fought
    In the brave days of old.

    It was ever thus; and in legend Yesteryear always golden against a tarnished present.

    1. Thanks for the correction re the name of the Persian general.

      One probably can always find ways to rationalize any contradictions but I don’t think the main point — that such a debate about democracy — was impossible at that time and place is overthrown. The idea simply contradicts the known facts.

      There are quite a number of scholarly studies showing Thucydides’ emulation of Homer’s Iliad. That Thucydides reversed and reshaped much that is in Homer was the point. Homer was not to be repeated, but to be the base line by which the grandeur of the new work’s theme was to be judged.

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