Tag Archives: Ancient History

Ancient History, a “Funny Kind of History”

It is in the end not very surprising that university students of history, with some knowledge of the sources for, say, Tudor England or Louis XIV’s France, find ancient history a ‘funny kind of history’. The unavoidable reliance on the poems of Horace for Augustan ideology, or in the same way on the Eumenides of Aeschylus for the critical moment in Athenian history when the step was taken towards what we know as Periclean democracy, helps explain the appellative ‘funny’. But the oddities are much more far-reaching, extending to the historians themselves in antiquity, in particular to two of their most pervasive characteristics, namely, the extensive direct quotation from speeches and the paucity of reference to (let alone quotation from) actual documents, public or private. The speeches are to us an extra ordinary phenomenon and they produce extraordinary reactions among modern commentators. We have no good reason for taking the speeches to be anything but inventions by the historians, not only in their precise wording but also in their substance. Certainly that is how they were understood in antiquity: witness the discussion in his long essay on Thucydides (ch. 34-48) by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the most acute and most learned of ancient critics and himself a prolific composer of speeches for his multi-volume Roman Antiquities.

Modern writers find themselves in difficulties. Not only does the position of a Dionysius of Halicarnassus seem immoral – it has been said that one would have to regard Thucydides as ‘blind or dishonest’ – but, worse still, one must consider seriously abandoning some of the most interesting and seductive sections of Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Caesar, Sallust, Livy, Tacitus, Dio Cassius and the rest as primary or secondary sources.There is no choice: if the substance of the speeches or even the wording is not authentic, then one may not legitimately recount that Pericles told the assembled Athenians in 430 BC that their empire ‘is like a tyranny, seemingly unjust to have taken but dangerous to let go’ (Thucydides 2.63.2). I have no idea what Pericles said on that occasion but neither have the innumerable historians who repeat from a speech what I have just quoted. Except for Thucydides and perhaps Polybius, there is no longer any serious argument, though the reluctance to accept the consequences is evident on all sides . . . . 

The above extract is from pages 12-13 of M. I. Finley’s Ancient History: Evidence and Models. Finley made significant contributions to the field of ancient history. He knew what he was talking about.

Unfortunately a good many authors who think of themselves as historians, some may even be professional academics in university history departments, are not so mindful of the limitations of their methods. One of their more sober colleagues wrote:

Laziness is common among historians. When they find a continuous account of events for a certain period in an ‘ancient’ source, one that is not necessarily contemporaneous with the events , they readily adopt it. They limit their work to paraphrasing the source, or, if needed, to rationalisation.

That was Mario Liverani, p. 28 of Myth and Politics in Ancient Near Eastern Historiography.

I could quote many more and have done over many posts. But two recent comments have prompted me to post again, to accept how widely the field of ancient history is misunderstood. If too many of its practitioners are too romantic in their interests to understand the fundamentals of critical inquiry and treatment of their sources, then it is no wonder many of us lay public also misunderstand what is required.

Here is part of one of the comments that I think many of us can relate to:

I know senior historians teaching ancient history at Macquarie Uni in Sydney, through my membership of the SSEC (Society for the Study of Early Christianity), who point to the Babylonian Talmud as strong evidence for Jesus’ existence. What would be your response to that view ?

My response to that view is what you would imagine Liverani’s response would be. Some ancient historians get carried away with love of their narratives and lose their critical acumen. Finley also discussed how writing history is a form of ideology, and a good number of historians write as advocates of pet ideologies — including Christian origins.

Another comment expressing an idea one hears especially among biblical scholars, in particular those looking at Christian origins and the historical Jesus:  read more »

How Historians Study a Figure Like Jesus

Life of Apollonius of Tyana . . . is a text in eight books written in Ancient Greece by Philostratus (c. 170 – c. 245 AD). It tells the story of Apollonius of Tyana (c. 15 – c. 100 AD), a Pythagorean philosopher and teacher. — Wikipedia

In addition to teaching wisdom on his travels Apollonius was said to have performed miracles (exorcising demons; raising the dead) and to have even made an appearance to a follower after his death.

What follows are some points from a major contribution to the study of this figure by a historian of ancient history, Maria Dzielska.


As with historical Jesus scholars discussing the genre of the gospels, ancient historians pose questions about our account of Apollonius:

Scholars keep wondering at the true character of this work: what sort of biography it is (Leo), whether it is a Heliodoran romance, romantic hagiography, or whether, according to J. Palm’s recent suggestion, it is a documentary romance.

(Dzielska, p.12)


Unlike the gospels the Life of Apollonius of Tyana mentions sources. Ah, if only the gospels would have done the same! The principal source the biographer, Philostratus, relies upon is Damis, the life-long close companion of Apollonius, and you’d think that if only we had a gospel saying directly that everything we read came from Peter we would have all our questions about the reliability of the gospels settled. But perversely, it would seem, most historians don’t believe that Damis ever existed and that Philostratus made him up to add a respectable and authoritative tone to his narrative.

Dzielska singles out the one historian known to have assumed (naively, without clear evidence, Dzielska and others claimed) the existence of Damis.

Furthermore, Grosso assumes that Damis did exist


The Hypomnèmata of Damis have always been a great problem in the studies of Philostratus’ work. Scholars have wondered whether the memoirs were only a figment of Philostratus’ literary imagination, or whether they constituted a real notebook compiled by a certain pupil of Apollonius. This question has been raised not only by specialists in literature but also by historians. The latest views on the “Damis question” I present below. On their basis I consider Damis a fictitious figure and his memoirs (or notebooks) an invention of Philostratus. . . . .

Using all his literary means Philostratus tries to assert that everything described by “Damis” is historically valid. As to his other sources, he either criticizes them (I 3), or dismisses them with a brief mention (I 3; 12). It is just this indiscriminate attitude towards “Damis” relation that makes us believe in Philostratus’ authorship of the memoirs.

(pp. 19-20)

An examination of the details said to be from Damis leads a number of scholars to think that this Damis knew nothing more than what was already in the works of Tacitus, Josephus Flavius, Suetonius and Cassius Dio. A truly independent source would be expected to yield truly independent information. There are other details that raise suspicions about the reality of Damis, but I will move on.

Sifting History from Fiction

We know a good number of biblical scholars attempt to persuade us that the gospels are reliable sources because the geographic, social and political details in them are perfectly consistent with the real world at that time.

Compare what ancient historians think of that sort of argument:

Yet Bowie is right to suggest that the conformability of historical accounts contained in VA [=Life of Apollonius] to historical events of the first century does not prove in itself the historicity of the events of Apollonius’ life as outlined in VA.

(p. 13)

The gospels are known to be theological depictions of Jesus. Only apologists consider them historically true in all details. Similarly with Apollonius’s biographer:

that Philostratus, as a man of letters and sophist full of passion for Greek Romance and for the studies in rhetoric, was hardly interested in the historical Apollonius. . . .

he had to invent this figure, as it were, anew. Thus, using his literary imagination, he turned a modest Cappadocian mystic into an impressive figure, full of life, politically outstanding, and yet also preposterous.

(p. 14)

Biblical scholars use criteria of authenticity or memory theory models to try to figure out what in the gospel narratives is historically probable as distinct from theological or mythical overlay. Ancient historians appear to have been very slow to have picked up on these advanced techniques of their New Testament “counterparts” and still rely upon independent corroboration.

In the present work where Apollonius is treated both as a historical figure existing at a definite time and in a definite geographical region, and as a literary hero, it is my duty to refer all the time to the work which called him into being as a literary figure……. I consider this material useful and historically valuable only when it finds its confirmation in other literary and historical sources.

(pp. 14-15)

Fiction in the Guise of History/Biography

We spoke above of Philostratus’s sources. Philostratus does give us an account of Apollonius that is rich in detail, both as to detail about his sources, and details of places and chronology throughout the narrative. Some biblical scholars have argued that rich narrative detail is an indicator of historical memory or eyewitness accounts. Some ancient historians have likewise thought the same. But not all. The historian needs to have clear grounds for reading a passage as history as distinct from fiction:

Why not then acknowledge the historicity of, let us say, a romance story about King Artaxerxes’ trial of Chaereas contained in Chariton’s Story of Chaereas and Callirhoe, or Iamblichus’ story about a bad king Garmos who persecuted the hero and heroine of Iamblichus’ Babyloniaca 2?

The historical adventures presented by “Damis” are different from those described by Iamblichus in the Babyloniaca only in so far as they are a falsification compiled with a chronicler’s precision.

(p. 24)

Dzielska, Maria. 1986. Apollonius of Tynan in Legend and History. Roma: L’Erma di Bretschneider.


Dealing with Silence and the Absence of Evidence in an Age of Resurgent Orthodoxy

In the world of biblical studies, scholars and laypeople alike tell us over and over that the absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence — and with good reason. Actually, they have two good reasons. First, it is true, in a technical sense. They are not identical propositions. And second, they have to keep telling us, because we keep not finding evidence.

Scholars of ancient history have long had to deal with the lack of evidence, and to determine what, if anything, it means. They ponder especially over expected evidence that refuses to be found.

What is and what is not

Consider, for a moment, what we mean by “describing” something. Its Latin root scribus, to write, reminds us that we’re writing down (de-) what something is. Yet each time we commit to writing what something is, we imply what it is not.

The act of describing is the act of drawing a circle on a Venn diagram. Things inside the circle are “X”; things outside the circle are not “X.” Recall that the Indo-European root of scribus is the word for “cut, separate, or sift.” To describe something is to scratch mentally a circle in which X resides.

Imagine that objects of type X are red. Therefore, a green object cannot be an X. We may find such statements a bit too dogmatic, and so we soften them — “All known objects of type X are red.” “We do not expect to find green instances of X.”

The Battle of Jericho — History?

You will recognize this immediately as an inductive argument, as we’re trying to build a model that accounts for and describes the properties of objects of type X, via a process of investigating known instances. In the real world, people used to say that all swans are white, which led to the classic “surprise” at finding the first black swan.

What did you expect?

However, I would again draw your attention to a key concept in this discussion: expectation. People expected the next swan they saw would be white, because all previous swans they had encountered were white. European and American archaeologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries expected to find lots of tangible evidence for the United Kingdom of David and Solomon. The books they held to be true history (1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles) led them to expect it.

But then the unexpected happened. They kept not finding evidence. What did that mean? Did the evidence disappear? Were we extremely unlucky in our searches? read more »

What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography?


Because so many NT scholars desperately want the gospels to be both Greco-Roman biographies and reliable histories, we could almost forget that these two forms of literature are not the same. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s what Plutarch said:

It being my purpose to write the lives of Alexander the king, and of Caesar, by whom Pompey was destroyed, the multitude of their great actions affords so large a field that I were to blame if I should not by way of apology forewarn my reader that I have chosen rather to epitomize the most celebrated parts of their story, than to insist at large on every particular circumstance of it. It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives.

And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever.

Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavour by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated of by others. (Plutarch’s Alexander [emphasis and reformatting mine])

We could boil these comments down into the following points. A biography: read more »

Is history a trial?

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
Image by mtkr via Flickr

History as most generally practiced is about interpretation of the “facts” (or data or evidence — the distinction is important and was discussed at some length in comments here).

Historians seek out evidence from sources of identifiable provenance: diaries, police records, government papers, newspapers, etc. The nature of the sources, the provenance of the sources, are important for the historian in knowing how to assess the reliability or biases of those sources.

The debate among historians of Australian history over the extent of massacres of aboriginal peoples is about interpretation of the “facts” — the facts being the tangible documentary evidence.

It is the same with ancient history. An ancient inscription may be very clear in the tale it tells, such as the rise of Syrian king Idrimi. But how should that tale be interpreted? Is it a true narrative or a piece of mostly fictional propaganda? External witnesses are brought in — what do other texts, remains or monuments indicate? What do we know of the literary style and its purposes elsewhere? read more »