Historians

 

“There’s something cocksure about Thucydides,” said a colleague; and this reminded me of how exasperating was my Classics master at school when he repeatedly praised Thucydides as a man who applied ‘scientific method’ to history, in contrast with Herodotus, who was a ‘teller of tales.’

Even at seventeen I was not convinced. Every historian is collecting what people have said, reported or recorded about themselves or others. With luck that collection can be augmented, illuminated or modified by material from the archaeologist or the museum curator. But when that collection has been made, the historian must either leave it for others to study, or select from it to present a narration for the public.

The ideals of scientific method, which every educated person has learnt about, need to be present throughout this process. But in writing the narration, the historian will be using personal discretion.

Consider Herodotus on the first known circumnavigation of Africa by Phoenicians at the command of the King of Egypt:

‘So the Phoenicians set out from the Red Sea and sailed into the southern ocean… after two years had passed, in the third they rounded the pillars of Heracles and came home to Egypt. There they said (personally I don’t believe them, though others may) that in sailing around Libya they had the sun on their right hand.’
Book IV.42

The Loeb edition comments:

‘The detail which Herodotus does not believe incidentally confirms the story; as the ship sailed west round the Cape of Good Hope, the sun of the southern hemisphere would be on its right.’

Would Thucydides have included the detail that he did not believe? He was a great man for omitting things, as the discovery of the Athenian tribute lists revealed.

But his writing of Greek is fascinating, which is why Demosthenes, it is said, used to copy out his work repeatedly.

If the historian is not to be only a collector but also a communicator, then to the virtue of scholarship must be added wit and readability. This is perhaps why Gibbon remains a model, as Hugh Trevor-Roper acknowledged.

Next post: Odium academicum and the rise of the open postcard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *