Category Archives: Ancient historiography

How Ancient Historians Worked — Summary

I’ve decided to wrap up this series with this post. The book I have been discussing is online for anyone interested in following up the issues in more depth. In the future I may have time to discuss how the same points about Thucydides can be found to apply to other ancient historians like Tacitus, Josephus, Polybius, and so forth, too.

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Here are the key points:

  1. A historian may inform readers he is relying upon eyewitness testimony and personal investigations in order to encourage readers to have confidence in the superiority of his narrative, but the reality may in fact be quite different. In fact the historian may well be re-creating historical scenes from other literature (epics, plays, works of other historical times and places) that are vividly realistic mental images for the reader.
  2. It was believed important for historians to select noble topics to write about. Their historical narratives were meant to serve the interests of both education and entertainment.
  3. Educational and inspirational messages were in the form of setting before readers actions that demonstrated the noble or right way to act in various circumstances, or conversely illustrating cases where the ignoble or foolish course of action brought disaster and shame. In this sense historiography belonged to what rhetoricians called the epideictic function. The point was to praise (and sometimes to praise the good by demonstrating the converse) what was good and noble in the past as an inspiration for contemporary audiences.
  4. Truth was a matter of what was plausible given all we know of the human nature and the natural world. Hence gaps in historical knowledge could be validly filled in by the historian creating scenes that were “true to life”. Historical facts were those details or events that fulfilled the purpose of the historian’s narrative. read more »

How Ancient Historians Constructed Dramatic Fiction: Thucydides and the Plague

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Plague of Athens by Neapolitan School

The plague of Athens is one of the most detailed, vivid and life-like accounts of any event from ancient times. The historian who penned it (Thucydides) assures all readers that he relied upon eyewitness reports and that he personally investigated what had happened in order to be sure of leaving a record that would be of use (as well as interest) to posterity.

But how historically true is it? Is it hyper-sceptical to even ask that question?

I ask because a few New Testament scholars who study Christian origins claim that those who raise doubts that the author of the two-part prologue to Luke and Acts was really relying upon eye-witness testimony as he appears to be claiming are “hyper-sceptical” and unreasonably biased against the Bible. This post is part of a series showing that such critical questions are indeed applied to works other than those in the Bible and that they are perfectly legitimate and gateways to deeper understanding of the texts.

Further, among ancient historians and classicists we find the rule that we can never be certain of the historicity of a narrative without external or independent corroboration. This, too, is another detail dismissed as “hyper-scepticism” among some New Testament scholars who have built “bedrock history” upon their biblical sources.

Before resuming with Woodman’s discussion of the way the historian Thucydides worked it’s worth pausing to consider an extract by Henry R. Immerwahr from the Cambridge History of Classical Literature:

The close association of history and literature produced a distinctive manner of presentation which creates difficulties for anyone who tries to use the ancient historical works as source materials. Especially through the influence of epic and drama Herodotus and Thucydides set a style followed by almost all ancient historians, which may be called mimetic, that is, they write as if they had been present at the events they describe. (An exception is the Oxyrhynchus historian who aims at a more dispassionate narrative.)

When Herodotus describes the conversations between Gyges and Candaules or the feelings of Xerxes after Salamis we can hardly believe that this is based on evidence; it is rather an imaginative, ‘poetic’, reconstruction aiming at authenticity in an idealized sense.

The same is true of Thucydides when he supplies motives for actions by delving, so to speak, into the minds of the participants (e.g. the feelings of Cleon and the assembly in the discussion of Pylos, 4.27*1″.) without mentioning his informants.

The use of speeches is only the most obvious device of the mimetic method; it reaches into the smallest narrative details and tends to destroy the distinction between ‘fact’ and interpretation. This factor, more than any other, gives ancient historiography its unique character. (CHCL – pp. 456-7)

It is often forgotten that Thucydides is our only evidence for the plague, as for so many other events of the war. It is not mentioned by Aristophanes or in any contemporary medical writing. It is mentioned by Plato (Symp. 201d), but many years later. (The contemporary Sophocles makes no mention of it.) Woodman, p. 66

This post does not argue that there was no plague in Athens during the Peloponnesian War — although see the side box for the status of the evidence for its historicity.

What this post examines is Professor of Classics A.J. Woodman’s case for Thucydides having constructed a fictional scene based upon that apparently historical event. We will see the way “historical” writing was conceived in the Hellenistic, Roman and Jewish worlds in the Classical-Hellenistic-Roman eras.

I am focusing on Thucydides because he is generally considered the historian to be most like the moderns, taking scrupulous care to establish the certainty of any fact he writes, avoiding any mythical or miraculous tales, striving for an almost modern form of “scientific accuracy”. If it can be shown that this image of Thucydides’ work is accurate then we may indeed read ancient historical works in hopes of finding that others, too, have at least to some degree written the same way, especially those for whom we have evidence that they aspired to be compared with Thucydides in some way. Thinking specifically here of Josephus and the author of Luke-Acts.

This continues from my previous post on A.J. Woodman’s argument. His book can be found online at Scribd.

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The Best of Ancient Historians Following Homer and the Epic Poets

A.J.Woodman

This continues from my previous post on A.J. Woodman’s argument. 

History ain’t what it used to be. It is all too easy for us moderns to read a work by an ancient historian, say Josephus or Tacitus or Thucydides (some would even add a few biblical authors), and think that by making allowances for pre-modern naïvety and a few mythical tales that we are reading a regular account of the past not so very different from what we would expect from our own modern historical works.

Historical works are nothing like epic poetry. At least to us. Historians are trying to get the facts right and record what they believe really happened. Ancient historians, however, did not quite work like that. We have seen in the previous two posts that even that reputably most “modern” and “scientific” of ancient historians, Thucydides, looked upon Homer as a historian-predecessor of his. If the Iliad is what Thucydides understood as “history” then perhaps we should be a little more cautious in the way we approach his own historical work, and indeed historical works of all the ancients.

How prose trumped poetry

Thucydides rejected poetic presentation. Plain prose was his tool. We saw in the previous post that his rejection of the poetic with all the embellishments that poetry brings with it was not because he believed such a medium was inappropriate for a “historical work”. Rather, it was because he wanted to convince his audience that the subject matter about which he was writing was itself of such grand and superior importance that poetry was superfluous.

The topic or theme was impressive enough on its own merits. In this, the greatness of his subject, his work surpassed that of his predecessors, including Herodotus and Homer.

Thucydides made poetics sound like a cheap way to enhance the greatness of one’s chosen topic.

Below we have a closer look at that prose style and will see that even ancient readers saw something rather poetic about it anyway. Thucydides’  prose was far from pedestrian.

(Pause: Did similar thoughts run through the mind of the author of Luke-Acts? What greater subject to write about than the coming of Christ and the origins of the Church? How to surpass the predecessors?)

Thucydides “the disaster drama” entertainer

In the previous post we saw that Thucydides expressed regret that readers “may seem” to find his work “less entertaining” because it would lack the tales of the fabulous and legendary that were found in The Histories of Herodotus. Woodman’s translation draws attention to what he believes are key details in the Greek that tend to be overlooked by many readers, including scholars. Thucydides, he argues, is not saying that his work will not be found entertaining. He is saying that it will lack the entertainment that comes from the mythical and fabulous narratives since those sorts of stories won’t be a part of his work.

We must infer that he did expect his work to be entertaining in all other respects, which is certainly the impression we derive from 23.1-3, where he returns to the thesis . . . that [his subject matter] the present war is the greatest of all. (p. 28)

Here is 23:1-3

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Ancient Historians: Thucydides, historian of realism, not reality

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Professor of Classics, A.J. Woodman

This continues from my previous post on A.J. Woodman’s argument. His book can be found online at Scribd.

There are good reasons for approaching the Book of Acts and other historical writings of the Bible from the perspective of the wider literary culture of their day. Thucydides, the Greek historian of the Peloponnesian War, is generally thought of as an outstanding exception among ancient historians because of his supposedly well-researched and eyewitness accounts of the facts. Classicist Professor A.J.Woodman reminds us, however, that we may be advised to reconsider why we should ever think of anyone as being an exception to the ethos and culture of one’s own day.

Through these posts I am exploring the nature of ancient historiography, and by implication re-examining the assumptions we bring to our reading of the Bible’s historical books. Beginning with Herodotus and Thucydides is relevant because we will see that Jewish historians, in particular Josephus, were influenced by them. We will see that by understanding Greek and Roman historians we will also understand more clearly and in a new light the nature of the works of Josephus. And by understanding the nature of ancient historical texts we will read Acts and other historical books in the Bible with fresh insights and improved critical awareness.

The first thing to note about Thucydides is that, for all his differences from Herodotus, he wanted his own work to be read with reference to Herodotus’ Histories. He borrowed directly from Herodotus to demonstrate to readers the superiority of his own work.

Herodotus advertized the greatness of his topic. Thucydides did the same and more so. Herodotus announced that the Persian Wars were a large-scale event? Thucydides responds by greatly exaggerating the extent of the Peloponnesian War to a far greater scale.

Far from being disengaged or objective, Thucydides has deployed standard rhetorical exaggeration in order to demonstrate the superiority of his own work and subject over those of Herodotus. (p. 7)

The translation reflects the original Greek words borrowed:

thycyherod1

We will see that this — the choice of a most important or great topic — is a recurring theme in all historical writings. Ditto for intertextuality.

Homer the historian

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How History Was Done in Bible Times: Myths about Herodotus and Thucydides

Was it acceptable for Greek, Roman and Jewish historians to invent accounts of the past?

Did even historians imitate and creatively reproduce entire passages from the great epic poems and tragic plays of their day?

Can we trust ancient historians who declare they relied upon eyewitness reports?

How does our understanding of history differ from the ancient concept of “historia”?

What implications do the answers to these questions have for the way we interpret the historical books of the Bible?

Thucydides has long been reputed to have been the first “scientific historian”. In his introduction he clearly indicates that his account of the Peloponnesian War is to be based on eyewitness reports and his own personal observations. He will eschew all myth and fable. His prose is austere, complex and compressed. He is accordingly judged to be a sober, critical, authoritative historian.

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A.J. Woodman

Classicist A. J. Woodman in a 1988 publication, Rhetoric in Classical Historiography: Four Studies, showed us that these views of Thucydides were in fact myths. Moderns have naively taken Thucydides’ words at face value or sometimes misinterpreted them in the light of modern ideals of how history should be written. We have also failed to recognize that even this “founder of scientific history” is in fact writing creative fiction that very often has more in common with Homeric epics and Greek tragedies than dry, scientific history.

So how is this possible? And if we can err in attributing our ideas of historical interests to Thucydides can we be sure we are not making the same mistakes with, say, Luke-Acts?

Before Thucydides we have Herodotus. Woodman begins by pointing out a few important details about this “father of history” that we will soon see carry over to Thucydides despite the many obvious differences between these two historians. read more »

What Josephus might have said about the Gospels

The Jewish historian Josephus had a bit to say about the nature of historiography, and why he believed his historical writings were more truthful than those of Greek historians. His criticisms of Greek histories have some interest when compared with modern questions about the historical reliability of the Gospels. . . . read more »