Can We Trust Ancient Historical Accounts?
By Adrian Altieri
For Penn students who have taken history courses at the university, an introduction to a historical method of critical thinking is commonplace. Professors often discuss the importance of reliable primary sources, careful sifting through other sources of evidence, and a sense of caution when drawing sweeping conclusions about historical events. These are the standards to which we hold modern historians; we would expect them to “do their homework” and present concrete evidence for any claims that they make. However, the majority of classical historians, both Greek and Roman, fail to meet most, if any, of the criteria for a careful historical analysis.
Ancient historians may leave us with inaccurate accounts for one of several reasons. Perhaps the most well-known Greek historian is Herodotus, who lived from around 484 to 425 BCE. Although a fair portion of his magnum opus, Histories, has been confirmed by modern historians (particularly many of the details concerning the Greco-Persian wars), Herodotus has been criticized by both contemporary and current writers for fabricating many of his accounts in order to entertain his audience. One of the most obvious examples of a made-up historical account is in Book III of Histories—in Chapter 102, Herodotus describes gold-digging ants which are bigger than foxes roaming through a region in India. A Greek reader, who has most likely never been to India, would immediately be captured by this far-fetched account. These gold-digging ants serve as entertainment and should not be taken as a truth.
A large source of scholars’ criticism of Herodotus stems from the method that he uses to gather his information—he says that “it is my rule throughout this history that I record whatever is told me [sic.] as I have heard it” (2.123). He tells his readers to take what he reports with a grain of salt, given that he is writing a record based on accounts from people that he may not directly trust, but this fact does not help his case for being an objective historian. Falling in line with his idea of history as entertainment, he, on occasion, uses direct speech to tell a story from the point of view of a local. One of the most well-known examples of this is when he takes the point of view of a resident of Hellespont describing Xerxes’ invasion of Greece. It is highly unlikely, bordering on impossible, that Herodotus’s source for this event recorded the locals’ reactions verbatim to later be reported in Histories. Again, Herodotus instead shifts our perspective to improve the quality of his story as a whole, sacrificing accuracy in the process.
Although he does not mention him in his writings by name, Greek historian Thucydides (~460-400BCE) was one of Herodotus’s most aggressive critics. To modern historians, Thucydides is known as having a much more “scientific” process, which involved a careful vetting of sources, a critical cross-examination of those sources, and a more detailed analysis of cause and effect. In his seminal work, History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides makes an assertion that most modern historians believe is an affront to Herodotus: “In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time” (1.22). Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides’ intention is not to create a piece of entertainment whose main purpose is to keep the reader involved, but rather to create an accurate account of events to assist future generations. One of the most famous parts of History of the Peloponnesian War is Thucydides’ account of the Plague of Athens, which killed between 75,000 and 100,000 people between the years of 429 and 426 BCE. Thucydides is careful to not give a suggestion for the cause of the epidemic (while Herodotus may have suggested divine intervention, for example), and he instead leaves a medically detailed account of the symptoms, spread, and outcomes of the plague. This style of medical writing that features empirically-gathered evidence combined with an analysis of the consequences of disease has influenced pandemic-era writings up until our modern time, including those of the Black Death, Smallpox, Polio, and eventually COVID-19.
Several centuries later and on the Italian peninsula, Roman historians (and writers in general) attempted to emulate the styles of their Greek predecessors. Although more famous as a general (and eventually a dictator), Julius Caesar was also a prolific writer. In Commentarii de Bello Gallico, he recounts his military conquests throughout Gaul (modern-day France). Read in many introductory Latin courses, De Bello Gallico is portrayed as an example of Roman military history. However, the historicity of Caesar’s claims are often called into question by modern classicists, who view large sections of his writings as either gross exaggerations or even baseless lies. In Book I, Caesar lays out the context for his conquests through Gaul by describing the leaders of his enemies, his own legions, and, of course, himself. Although he gives the occasional praise for Gallic bravery (incredibilis virtus), he paints the leader of the Suebi, Ariovistus, as excessively proud, hot-tempered, and even barbaric. In the mind of a Roman, Caesar’s descriptions of the Gauls make them see evil and deserving of being conquered. As for himself, Caesar boasts several Roman virtues, including libertas, aequitas, virtus, diligentia, and innocentia, (civil liberty, equality, courage/virtue, diligence, integrity [in this context, innocentia makes sense as “incorruptibility” in the face of bribes]).
Independently of the terms that he uses to describe himself and others, the numerical figures that Caesar provides are often inaccurate and recorded in ways that do not make sense to the modern historian. An example of this may be Caesar’s numerical account of the Helvetii, a Celtic tribe, and their allies. He claims that there are 263,000 Helvetii and 105,000 allies, figures that he supposedly discovered from records written in Greek found at the Helvetian camps. David Henige, a historian and bibliographer at UW Madison, raises several points about this account, particularly the Helvetii’s reason for recording every single tribe member on a tablet and how it is possible that the Gallic tribes were literate in Greek, of all languages. Following his conquest of the Helvetii, Caesar encounters and defeats the Usipetes and Tencteri, making the outlandish claim that zero Roman soldiers died in battle. Furthermore, Henige criticizes Caesar’s lack of any source, credible or not, for the number of Usipetes and Tencteri as well as for the Roman casualties (or lack thereof).
Across the classical period, the term “history” is applied relatively loosely, at least by modern standards. However, the reasons for inaccuracies are not always the same; in the case of Herodotus, his aim of entertaining his reader drove his method of collecting evidence and writing. As for Caesar, endless boasting and clever military propaganda to convince the Romans to support his war efforts provided the inspiration for Commentarii de Bello Gallico. In the context of these two historians, Thucydides is a breath of fresh air for today’s scholars, as he pioneered this idea of scientific inquiry (ῐ̔στορῐ́ᾱ in Greek, which most literally means “inquiry”) that we still use today.
Henige, David. “He Came, He Saw, We Counted : the Historiography and Demography of Caesar’s Gallic Numbers.” Annales De Démographie Historique, Persée – Portail Des Revues Scientifiques En SHS, 11 Mar. 2016, https://www.persee.fr/doc/adh_0066-2062_1998_num_1998_1_2162.
“Herodotus – Book III: Chapters 89–117.” LacusCurtius, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Herodotus/3D*.html.
Hu, Rollin. “Herodotus’ Histories and Its Reliability.” News-Letter, 11 Feb. 2016, https://www.jhunewsletter.com/article/2016/02/40565.
Mark, Joshua J. “Thucydides on the Plague of Athens: Text & Commentary.” World History Encyclopedia, 1 Apr. 2020, https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1535/thucydides-on-the-plague-of-athens-text–commentar/.
Martin, Hubert. “The Image of Caesar in Bellum Gallicum 1.” The Classical Journal, vol. 61, no. 2, 1965, pp. 63–67. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3295460. Accessed 12 Jun. 2022.
“Thucydides, the Peloponnesian War.” Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Book 1, Chapter 22, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0200%3Abook%3D1%3Achapter%3D22.
Adrian Altieri (College ’23) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Classical Studies (Languages and Literature) and minoring in Chemistry.