It may or may not have been part of their intention: but by suppressing the details of their private lives, Shakespeare, Homer, Juvenal, and Tacitus—and others—have escaped being caricatured by subsequent generations.

The original word is Italian: caricatura, from the verb caricare, to burden or overload; and a caricature of a person is a representation in which certain of his or her features, habits, fears, likes, dislikes, ambitions or behaviour are emphasised to the point of obscuring the complex reality that constitutes a human being.

The OED describes a caricature as ‘A portrait or other artistic representation, in which the characteristic features of the original are exaggerated with ludicrous effect.’

It gives a further definition as ‘An exaggerated or debased likeness, imitation, or copy, naturally or unintentionally ludicrous.’

The danger with any short—and therefore selective—account of a person’s life is of descending into caricature. That danger is magnified if the account is given for the entertainment or titillation of an audience who are going to be more interested in one bad error than years of quiet achievement.

Caricature may not be deliberate, but the result remains.

Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars, one colleague said, left him disgusted. It contains a great number of important facts, but a large part of it consists of anecdotes whose origin was report or gossip—many of them degrading or embarrassing.

In more general terms, this process of caricature by selection is inherent in history. Gibbon observes, when discovering how little is known about the reign of Trajan:

‘It is sincerely to be lamented, that whilst we are fatigued with the disgustful relation of Nero’s crimes and follies, we are reduced to collect the actions of Trajan from the glimmerings of an abridgement, or the doubtful light of panegyric.’

And similarly, he remarks on the reign of Antoninus Pius:

‘His reign is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history; which is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.’
      Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter III

The word history

History is a potentially confusing word, as students find out if they need to translate it into Latin or Greek.

English has many abstract words that are hard to pin down; and prose composition can be salutary when the student discovers how abstract expressions can become vague or confused, or even be used deliberately to euphemize or deceive.

Latin is very sparing with abstract terms, as to a lesser extent is Greek.

In English, history is commonly used in several different meanings:

  1. The study of past events, as a pursuit.
  2. The compilation of a record of them
  3. The presentation of them as a narrative
  4. The events themselves
  5. The past in general, as opposed to the present or future.

When President Trump said that history is written by dreamers, not doubters, he was using sense 4. When a journalist replied that no, it is written by historians, he was using senses 2 and 3.

On Sunday 10th July 2016, Bill de Blasio, the Mayor of New York, gave a short speech after Mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York. His purpose was to give consolation and reassurance after a week of racial strife and shooting. In the course of it, he said, “Partly our history uplifts us, and partly our history afflicts us.” He was using the word history in sense 4 and perhaps sense 3 also.

Among past and present cultures, there are three that may be noted for their preoccupation with history in most or even all of these senses: Roman, Jewish and American. They have in common not only mechanisms for self-preservation but also professed ideals of order, action and justice.

Sense 1 is clear enough in Latin and Greek: historia.

But how can a student put the word into Latin or Greek in senses 2-5? Possibilities include rerum gestarum memoria, or res gestae, or praeterita; and τν ργων μνήμη, or τ συμβεβήκοτα, or τ πρίν.