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Ancient Writers: Truth, Bias, and Point of View

Most of the primary sources one comes across when studying history are quite heavily biased. In fact, if one is to read history from a neutral or a balanced source, it is very likely to be dull and uninteresting. Writing was a lot more of a chore in ancient times and the materials and tools (stylus, wax or clay tablet, papyrus, parchment, vellum) were expensive. If a person were motivated enough to write something down it was usually from his (or occasionally her) very opinionated point of view. Some ancient historians and geographers (Herodotus, Strabo) tended to be less biased and were simply compiling all the available information of the period on their particular subject of interest. Since this was usually the "official" version, it inevitably contained a certain amount of official bias. How much more interesting it is to read an account of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora by Procopius even if it is not fair. Tacitus, writing of the period 27 B.C. to about A.D. 80 had mostly derogatory things to say about his own people, the Romans of Senatorial and Equestrian (propertied) classes. Cassius Dio, writing in the early Third Century A.D. about events one or two hundred years old, would be considered a secondary source. He was hard on both Romans and barbarians, but, for obvious reasons, refrained from being too critical of the current Severan Emperors.

Civil and military leaders of the Roman Empire are often found to be quite controversial figures. Julius Caesar was a staunch supporter and reformer of or the murderer of the Republic depending on whose viewpoint you take. The author has material on Flavius Stilicho, an important Roman general of the late fourth and early fifth century. Since he was half Vandal, and openly supported and implemented Emperor Theodosius' policy of heavy use of barbarian troops in defense of the Empire, he was not well liked by those who believed in purity of Roman blood in the military forces. Some contemporary sources include Jordanes, Claudian, Apollinaris, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, Bishop Ambrose of Milan, and, a little later, Zosimus. Stilicho, and for that matter Aetius, his counterpart in the 430's to 450's A.D., was condemned as being overly cruel, of favoring his friends and treating all others shabbily, of having designs on the throne, of usurping many aspects of imperial power, of conducting savage raids through loyal provinces, and of being a despotic governor. The other side of the argument has these two men showing strong leadership in an age when true leadership was almost totally unheard of. These men faced and dealt with crises that nearly destroyed what was left of the Western Roman Empire and made the best of a bad military situation and an inept and weak government. In this last case, those who applaud Stilicho and Aetius also condemn Honorius and Valentinian III as weak puppet emperors with an acute lack of initiative of any kind.

A few interesting items of ancient trivia may help you and your class to realize how these peoples' lives were radically different and yet very much like our own. Graffiti on the walls of Pompeii promotes political candidates, sings the praises of popular gladiators, and instructs the reader with whom he might spend the evening and a few copper coins having a good time. Students will be surprised at how much of the modern world they can recognize in history.


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