It’s nice to believe people. When someone writes a book and slaps ‘history’ on the cover, it is tempting to believe in the authority that word implies.
As a historian, when you uncover an ancient text that claims to tell you about the history of its civilisation, it’s very tempting to take it on board. Particularly if this useful ancient author has included names, dates and intriguing details in his narrative.
Let us take for our example Livy.
He wrote a massive work of the whole history of the Romans. Not much of it survives, but what we have gives us an idea of the enormity of the enterprise.
Livy deserves a lot of credit for this. He devoted his life to his work, and the narrative is sustained with an impressive level of depth, quality of writing, and attention to detail. He deserves credit for creating a narrative that is as rich and compelling in its detail as the universe which Tolkien created. He deserves credit too for the fame which he won – fame in antiquity so great that the popularity of his work meant all other accounts of Roman history fell out of favour, and were no longer circulated.
This popularity means that Livy’s detailed, lengthy narrative is our best literary source for much of Roman history. The others, less popular, did not survive to our day.
That’s a shame, you might think, but it’s a good thing we’ve got Livy, since he’s the best of them. You would be thinking there along the same lines as many earlier scholars. You’d be thinking wrong.
Think for a moment of a crowd of witnesses of a car crash. You ask them what happened, and they all start to talk at once. Whose account do you hear the most of?
The one who shouts the loudest.
Whose account do you believe?
Not necessarily the one who shouts the loudest.
Livy’s account, like all accounts, is clouded by his personal priorities and perspective. He worked hard to make a narrative of history that spoke to his contemporary audience – it’s a history full of important names, great events of the city and idealised depictions of their great ancestors. It’s detailed and interesting, and events as they unfold are described in ways that evoke a film.
He was successful. This does not mean he was correct.
Livy is convincing and tempting, but he must not be taken at face value. His account is not proof of anything except of what Romans liked to hear. Here, as with all literary texts, we must avoid generosity.