How much can we believe ancient history?

Actually the title should be, "How much does Gary trust the ancient histories?"  Because opinions vary quite a lot, and I can only give you my view.  This is one the questions Alun raised in his review, when he said I tended to trust the writings of ancient people.

Which in fact, I do.  At least, I trust them more than the alternatives.

The author John Maddox Roberts likes to reply with a question of his own, when he's asked about historical accuracy in his Roman mysteries.  He asks back, how much do we really know about the Kennedy assassination?  And that was a major event that happened only 50 years ago.

He's right, of course.  Pick any newsworthy event that's happened in the last three months, and I guarantee you'll find at least two, and probably four or more, strongly differing views about what really happened.

If you go to the library and check the books on ancient Greece, you'll see they fall into three simple groups:

  1. Stuff that was written at the time;
  2. Stuff that Roman period people wrote about the Greeks; and
  3. Stuff that was written in the last 100 years.
Category 1 is Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Artistotle et al.

Category 2 is Plutarch, who wrote biographies, and Pausanias, who wrote the world's first Hitchhiker's Guide to Greece.  They're both Greek, but they're writing hundreds of years after the fact.

Category 3 is piles and piles of books, some by academics, some popular.  The more popular they are, the better written, but the less accurate and comprehensive.  

My level of trust in these books is precisely the order 1,2,3.  The only thing that will modify that order is archaeological evidence and common sense. 

When you read an ancient text, you're reading one man's view, but at least it's the view of someone on the ground as it happened, or as close as we can get.  It's like reading the news these days: you read the article, and then you factor in the likely political bias of the person who's writing the news.  Though come to that, Herodotus and Thucydides strike me as noticeably more balanced and unbiased than quite a few modern historians I've come across, and certainly far more unbiased than every journalist.

The guys writing in the Roman period often worked off older books that have since been lost.  Pausanias personally visited just about everywhere he wrote of.  And described it in detail.  Unbelievably. Minute.  Detail.    This makes them, frankly, more trustworthy than most modern books.

This is going to get me into trouble with my academic friends, but I honestly believe it's true, that modern academic texts have an unfortunate tendency to be infected with left-wing ideology.  So I don't see them as any less biased than ancient texts, but biased in a different way.

It's easy to cherry-pick examples one way or the other, so let me choose one that suits me.  Believe it or not, there are ancient historians who are still fighting the Peloponnesian War.  I swear I could guess modern people's voting patterns by whether they support Sparta or Athens.  And the funny thing is, I've a feeling that 80% of the pro-Spartans are of a left wing disposition, and 80% of the pro-Athenians are right-wing.   Not that I can prove it, but it's the distinct impression I get.  Of course there are purely dispassionate modern articles, and when they are, they spend a lot of time quoting the ancient sources and doing logical analysis.  Which ultimately takes me back to the primary sources anyway.  And I must say, by far the biggest use for modern articles is pointers to ancient sources or quotes that I wasn't aware of.

If someone wrote about the Kennedy assassination, 2,500 years from now, how accurate is it likely to be?

So what it comes down to is, I trust the guys on the ground, writing within 50 years of the event, over people writing 2,500 years out.  


blues buffett said...

Athens: first real democracy supported by Right Wing?
Sparta: two kings, limited citizenry lording it over the helots supported by Left Wing?
Could I ask you why you think that way?
A straw poll of one (me) indicates the other way around! I always thought the opposite to your theory.
cheers, Ray

Gary Corby said...

Hi Ray,

I know it sounds weird, and it should be the other way round, but yes.

The foremost pro-Athenian historian today is surely Donald Kagan, who's the professor of ancient Greek history at Yale. He's also a card-carrying neocon in US politics. His work on the Peloponnesian War is a must read.

Everything he writes regularly gets attacked by people who I guess to be largely left-wing. They argue that Kagan layers his conservative viewpoint onto ancient politics. Which may or may not be true. But then they go on to say that the Spartans weren't such bad chaps after all, and anyway, Athens started it for their own greedy mercantile ends.

Clearly that's a very concise summary of classical geopolitics, but the anti-Athens position is somewhat reminiscent of modern anti-corporate greed.

Sarah W said...

I absolutely agree with getting as close to a contemporary/primary resource as one can get . . . and then squinting at it to find the author's motivation.

History (I tell the classes who take research trips to our library) is like a really long game of 'Telephone.' What happens on this end isn't necessarily what ends up being reported on the other end once it passes through everyone's ears, even if people don't try to jazz it up to make it more interesting.

I'm intrigued by the odd reversal of Spartan and Athenian support -- it is because the historians are going a little too far in their efforts to be impartial?

Christina Auret said...

Even when you can get a contemporary source, the beliefs of the source still play into things.

I am South African. My pre and post end of apartheid world history text books (we used both sets when I was in high school) both cover Russian history.

The facts are 100% the same and the wording is very close to identical.
But the apartheid era text convey that communism was a terrible idea, while the post apartheid text book makes you see it as a wonderful idea brought low by the baseness of human nature.

All this really tells you is that the USSR backed the ANC, but if only one of the texts survive 2500 years and is used as a source you would sit with a bias problem.

Gary Corby said...

Christina, that's a perfect example of having to adjust for the hidden agenda of the historian. Thanks!

I've been trying to think of the classical source most likely to be as skewed as that. I'd probably pick Xenophon, but of course, you could never know for sure. It's a pity the Spartans thought writing was for wimps.

Gary Corby said...

I like your telephone analogy, Sarah.

The odd reversal of support...I really can't explain it. The concept of left-right politics didn't exist in the sense we know it.

In Athens the tension was between common people (Cancel debts! Redistribute the land!)and the wealthier, powerful families (This democracy thing has no future!).

Best I can suggest is, Athens later did some very cynical and nasty things to maintain power over their client states, and they were running a mercantile empire. But their nastiness level was maybe 10% of later regimes elsewhere that are generally admired, so it beats me.

It might be the other way round: that the weird proto-pseudo-socialism-communism of Sparta is hard for a modern conservative to swallow, so they're naturally pro-Athens, which causes their modern opposites to back the other horse?

Steph Schmidt said...

Oh don't forget in group 1 to consider translator bias! There are constant disagreements by academics over what a word could mean in dead languages. Romans and Greek historians have it a little easier but you still can't drop into a Ancient Greek 101 course very easily.

Geoff Carter said...
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Geoff Carter said...

I have to agree about 1st hand accounts - Caesar's Account of The Gallic War is about the most important book for understanding the Celts.

Personally, I am pro-barbarian - I think of the Greeks as Pirates, Athens in particular, and the Spartans make most fascists look respectable, and as for the Romans,they were simply the Nazi's of the Classical world - only more successful.
I would not like any of them to move in next door; All of which shows the futility of cross-cultural comparisons.

Gary Corby said...

That's a very good point, Steph; I forgot about that.

Generally for anything important I'll check the the Penguin translation and the Perseus Project, which tends to even out translation wobbles. If I'm desperate I'll then go to Loeb. If I'm really desperate I'll read it myself, but I've yet to see any text that wasn't done a million percent better by the pros.

Gary Corby said...

Geoff, I need you to become a movie director, so I can watch what you'd create. The costuming alone would be worth the ticket.

If you could feature one of the Roman vs Greek battles you'd be looking at some serious BAFTA awards.

Geoff Carter said...

I see the entire classical world as a surreal black comedy - so sell me the film rights to your books and lets get it on!
Pericles and the pirates of the Aegean - Alpha rho rho rho rho . . .

Taymalin said...

I've always found Sparta more interesting, simply because the culture is so different from anything I've ever experienced. They've always captured my imagination more than the Athenians.

In university, my philosophy professors always used them as an example when discussing moral relativity. Maybe the reason for the divide is that left-wingers tend to embrace moral relativity, and the Spartans are just kinda cool, whereas right-wingers tend to be a bit more black and white (wrong is wrong no matter what, and right is right, no matter what).

Moral relativity makes it easier to say that the Spartans weren't so bad. :)

Gary Corby said...

Geoff, I'll have my agent call your agent. Love the title.

Who are we attaching for Pericles? For that matter, who plays Nico and Diotima?

Gary Corby said...

You might be right, Taymalin.

The one I think gets undeserved bad press is Alexander. He tends to get beaten up these days for burning Susa to the ground, but in his own day people remarked how reasonable he was.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

What a fascinating discussion, Gary! I'm kind of stunned by the Left/Right split between Sparta and Athens but I guess that makes sense. Nah, it's still a bit of a stretch for me.

Geoff Carter said...

Gary - they love the title Pericles and the pirates of the Aegean -I can get the finance – if it starts with a huge explosion and lots bodies, including Ephialtes [CGI character] falling from acropolis, - then Nicolaos [Viggo Mortensen] and Pericles [Steven Fry] fly their hang gliders off the top of the Parthenon to drop Greek fire on the King of the Pirates [Alan Rickman] who has used the confusion to kidnap Diotima [keira knightly [in Leather]].
I‘ve recast Socrates as a dwarf [Daniel Radcliffe] who knows the secret of gunpowder and has a magic bow.
If Meryl Streep gets the part of Artemis - who is jealous of Diotima’s beauty and arranges her kidnap and forced marriage Hercules - Arnie says he will play this part, or Zeus.
I do love these academic discussions - Season’s greetings

Peter Rozovsky said...

Didn’t the Spartans share and share alike – eating from a common mess. and all? It’s no terrible stretch to understand how a woolly-headed communitarian of our own time might find that attractive if cherry=picking for ancient precedents to support his or her world view. ===================================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Peter Rozovsky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Rozovsky said...

Now for the part of my comment that was lost:

Of course, communitarianism is more prominent a leftist cause than political indepence is these days. Back when the reverse was the case, say from the eighteenth century through the 1960s, perhaps leftists favored Athens and rightists Sparta.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Peter,

I had to look up communitarian.

Yes, the Spartan men ate in messes. You were assigned your mess when you came of age, and that was it for life. Some messes were higher or lower status than others, so it was sort of like a combination platoon and social club.

I'd hesitate to assign Sparta to any of the modern labels.

I picked the Peloponnessian War as one example, but it seems to have really struck a cord!

I could easily pick a couple of others.

Susanna Fraser said...

Joining the chorus having trouble wrapping my brain around the idea of left wing=pro-Sparta and right wing=pro-Athens. I've always assumed it was my own left wing views (by American standards--I'd probably be dead center in a lot of other countries) that explains my gut-level preference for Athens. Sparta was a fascinating place, but mostly for its sheer strangeness and brutality. I can't connect to it. Athens 2500 years ago, even when it appalls me, is a place I can recognize despite the gulf of time and culture separating us.

Amalia Dillin said...

I don't know -- Sparta had VERY liberal ideas in some respects that put Athens to shame. Women's rights, as a primary example. Not to say they were perfect by any means, but I can understand the attraction. I'm not sure I feel like Athens or Sparta really were anything more than a victim of their own egos. One of my history professors explained it to us in such a way that made it sound like the rest of Greece kind of encouraged Athens and Sparta to go at it in order to keep their attention elsewhere so they could go on about their own business without worrying that they were going to be the next victim of expansion by either party. It's colored my view of the Peloponnessian War ever since.

Gary Corby said...

It's certainly true that Corinth egged on Sparta, their motivation being that Athens was crushing the Corinthians in a trade war, plus the arguments over who controlled Megara. Thebes was probably running a "balance of power" strategy similar to Britain before WW1.

The women's rights argument may be a bit of a two edged sword. I'm unclear whether the Athenian record on women's rights was quite as bad as people assume (not that I'm biased or anything...), but even disregarding that, there's an unfortunate analogy:

In their time, Nazi Germany had one of the better records for women outside the home. The Nazi logic went that happy, healthy women with lots of outdoor exercise were more likely to produce supermen. The similarity to the Spartan position is a bit disturbing. Not that I'm necessarily right, but I see parallels.

Anonymous said...

Gary, I liked the article. I share your observation on politics and history writing. I would like to ask, as someone who seems to like to read Classical history, is there a site you could link to or post where you discuss the methods for assessing the value of ancient text as sources for history, and if you had ever looked into historical issues surrounding Jesus of Nazareth? I’ve noticed there are some who feel that this person was based on a myth of some sort and that the sources used by historians looking into Jesus are inadequate for concluding Jesus did anything or existed. The claim is that people like Bart Ehrman or E.P. Sanders, secular historians of the New Testament period, are using methods that are rejected by other historians to reach their conclusions. I would like your insight on this question if you could.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Mike,

Alas, I'm not a Biblical scholar, or anything like one. If it's any help, there are piles of people who've dedicated their lives to this sort of thing, but I'm not brave enough to even dip a toe in that pool.

As for assessing the value of any one historical text...what you generally look for is cross-confirmation from multiple sources. If three different authors say more or less the same thing, and if you can also find archaeological evidence that backs them up, then you're onto a winner. Anything less than that and you have to start using your judgement.

My hero Nicolaos is alive right at the moment when western civilization begins. One of the reasons I write these books is to show where we come from! So I rely quite a lot on the very first book of history ever written, by a guy called Herodotus. He's writing his book at the same time as Nicoloas is solving murders. (And yes, Nico will meet Herodotus at some point.)

dipylon said...

I am pro-Athenian for the simple reason that I am Athenian, so there! :-)

Gary Corby said...

Welcome Dipylon, to a blog about ancient Greek murder mysteries!

Since you're the expert on the ground, tell me, when Athens plays against Sparta at football, what happens?