Contents - Previous Article - Next Article

How Do We Know They Were Telling the Truth?

The inscription on the reverse of the radiate of Aurelian illustrated at right proclaims that hi si "Restorer of the World." How believable is his claim? Did he really restore the world th the Roman Empire and people? Follow the link to read the article and judge for yourself.

Objectivity is a thorny problem when it comes to interpreting ancient sources. In many, if not most cases, there is only one surviving account of any particular event, emperor, or situation. That person may have been highly opinionated and have had a great personal stake in the events he or she describes. Indeed, the most interesting ancient writers were either highly one-sided or wrote about the social problems and scandals of their day. Anna Comnena, writing in the Eleventh Century, makes it very clear that she is praising the good deeds of her father, the Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus and her Alexiad exalts the Comnenus family name and very vehemently blackens the name of their enemies. Tacitus clearly displays his dislike of the imperial system and his greater dislike of civil wars in his Histories and his Annals. Sometimes, an author will confuse us even more by doing a total flip-flop on an issue. Procopius first writes about Justinian’s re-conquest of Africa and Italy in the Sixth Century with glowing praise in his books on Justinian’s wars, then turns around in The Secret History and blasts Justinian and his empress Theodora, and makes his top generals look like fools. Modern historians still cannot fathom his motives in this and are having trouble trying to decide which accounts of Procopius are closer to the truth to this day. In fact, a reasonable argument can be made for the position that no writer can be truly objective because the filters through which we all view events and people are colored by our own experiences and the culture within which we were raised. If a history was written to be truly objective, it stands a good chance of being so boring and pedantic that nobody would care to read it. While the matter of historical accuracy presents a problem when one is looking for the pure, unbiased, objective truth, strong feelings and bias on the part of primary sources makes history a lot more interesting to read. The way Tacitus and Suetonius villianize Caligula and Nero will keep a reader enthralled for hours. Procopius does wonders with Justinian’s most able military strategist who won every major battle he fought except for the one in which his emperor so pettily denied him supplies and reinforcements. The great Belisarius, strong and faithful Roman general, hero of the Sixth Century, painted as a sycophantic yes-man, boot licking lackey to a grasping, ambitious, ruthless empress who is totally addicted to power. If Procopius is to be literally believed, both Belisarius and Emperor Justinian himself cowered in fear at the feet of this treacherous and spite-filled woman who would have nothing but total submission from the men in her life, whether they be ruler of the most powerful empire on earth or the lowest boy-toy gladiator slave who makes his living killing bears for the public amusement in the Circus Maximus. For little more than the price of a copy of The National Enquirer, you can go out and buy the Penguin Classics editions of Suetonius, Ovid, Herodotus, Polybius, Tacitus, Anna Comnena, Livy, Juvenal, Procopius, and others. Why pay good money for dirt written by a third rate writer in a modern tabloid when you can get first class filth written about some really major big cheeses and presented to us by an author who has such a command of language that he or she can really do a fine job of rubbing our faces in scum that is at least 1000 years old, at only $7.95 a pop to boot! Consider your choices well.

This all gets back to the issue of whether you consider history a story well-told, an exciting drama with a mixture of fact and legend, or an accurate portrayal of facts, dates, and numbers. The scholarly historian has available to him or her some of the best and most accurate data one would care to use, especially in areas in which a lot of research has been done. The British Museum (as well as almost every national museum in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East) has sponsored, coordinated, and collected data from painstaking research by scholars that probably runs into the millions of study hours. One example is a thin volume called Late Roman Bronze Coinage, in which all the late Roman bronze coin types are listed by mint, emperor, reverse type, and OFFICINA (workshop). There are a few mediocre plates of pictures at the back of the book, but most of the data are set forth in tables with abbreviations. The user has to look up or memorize the abbreviations and then try to look up a particular coin in the table. Professional numismatists (coin scholars) spent hours and hours looking at every little late Roman Bronze coin they could get their hands on in order to compile the data. We can see that Constantinopolis and Antiochia were big, busy mints, often with sixteen or more workshops going at the same time while Arelate or Lugdunum had only one to four workshops. The main idea that can be gleaned from this book by students other than coin collectors is which cities were big bustling, important places in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries and which cities were dying out or being taken over by barbarians in what years. However, I would never hand a copy of CHK to a high school student unless she either had a coin she wanted to identify or I wanted to get her turned off to history quickly.

In summary, it can be shown that we are all better learners when we are the ones to decide what and how to study history. To some people, the lurid stories make history come alive. Some students are interested in little details like whether ancient wheat and bread were very much like their modern equivalents. Others love to hold a coin in their hands, looking at the smooth green patina, seeing a portrait of a beautiful woman or an iron jawed emperor. We daydream about the lives of these people and wander over to their bookshelf to pick up a copy of Cassius Dio to read about that particular special person’s life and compare it to our own existence. The study of history means many different things to different people and we all approach it in our own individual way. Our efforts should be directed by what we want to get out of our studies.

Go to next article:
Go back to previous article:

Return to Roman Writers, Writing, and Historians Table of Contents