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Introducing the Classical world
Introducing the Classical world

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This is the writing of history, another type of source that relies on words. Many of the things we said about literature apply to historiography as well, and we won’t need to repeat them. The reason we think it’s worth having a separate paragraph on historiography is that where literature is associated with art, history-writing is today associated with truth. As a result, it’s a natural instinct to read ancient historians with the expectation that they are more reliable sources than literature. To a degree, that’s fair enough. Most ancient historians took pains to distinguish themselves in one way or another from poets. However, the character of these distinctions varied greatly, and rarely matches the distinctions most of us today would make between history and literature. For instance, the association of historiography and truth, while known, is rather different in the ancient world. Tacitus (a Roman born in CE 56 and a sophisticated historian if ever there was one) starts his most famous work (the Annals) with a line of verse. Herodotus, the first Greek historian to survive in bulk, is at the centre of an enormous debate: some scholars think that he simply made up large chunks of his work, and no one thinks that everything he says can be taken as fact. He even says himself:

My business is to record what people say, but I am by no means bound to believe it – and that may be taken to apply to this book as a whole.

(Herodotus 7.152; trans. de Sélincourt)

So even in the fifth century BCE, history was as much about belief as about truth. You will read several ancient historians during your study of the Classical world. To explore the question of what they thought it meant to write history is immensely rewarding. The downside is that historiography is no more straightforward a source than any other. As you read ancient historians, always ask yourself what you think their aim is and how reliable you consider their evidence to be.