Knowledge and Accuracy in Early Greek Historical Writing

Gordon Shrimpton. Science, Religion, and Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Controversy. Editor: Arri Eisen & Gary Laderman, Volume 1, M.E. Sharpe, 2006.

We expect historians to describe real things done by real people in real places at specific times; unreal events or people are the subject of fiction. Nevertheless, within certain limitations, our preconceptions of history and historical writing and our understanding of what constitutes historical fact have evolved. From antiquity to the present, history has developed alongside and in response to a changing intellectual climate.

The roots of historical writing are scarcely traceable, owing to the loss of all Greek prose written before Herodotus (c. 484-425 BCE) and much of the poetry as well. Nevertheless, the evidence we have points to history’s origins on the eastern side of the Aegean Sea, the result of cultural cross-fertilization between the eastern Greek communities and the non-Greek occupants of Anatolia.

Early Greek historical writing took three principal forms: (1) deeds of individuals, a form of biography; (2) local (or “epichoric”) history, the history of individual city-states or nationalities; and (3) generalizing or universal history. The purpose in writing about an individual was probably to heap praise on the person (if not to heap abuses). The evidence we have for local histories (all of which are lost to us) suggests that they celebrated the importance of a community by trumpeting its great deeds. The generalists like Herodotus and Thucydides (c. 460-400 BCE), on the other hand, tried to maintain a posture of impartiality.

While the Greeks did not write pure fiction, in the eighth century BCE they produced narratives in the form of epic poems, most famously Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. Though these epic poems ostensibly described past events, in fact their primary function was to transmit traditions of a bygone heroic age. Gods and supernatural beings played significant roles, particularly in the Iliad. Perhaps the most delightful part of the Odyssey tells of the hero, Odysseus, and his encounters with weird denizens of outlandish places: one-eyed Cyclopes, gigantic Laestrygonians, a deathless nymph called Calypso, and the witch Circe, who turns Odysseus’s men into animals.

In the fifth century BCE, a new approach to storytelling emerged. Herodotus’s Histories embraced the east-west conflict that began with Croesus of Lydia and culminated in Xerxes of Persia’s invasion of Greece in 480 BCE. It was published about the year 425 BCE. Approximately three decades later, Thucydides’s unfinished Peloponnesian Wars appeared. It described the struggle between Athens and Sparta that resulted in Athens’s ruin (431-404 BCE). These works were serious attempts at describing real occurrences—events that still lived in the memories of the Greek communities that had experienced them. As such, they deserve to be recognized as examples of early historical writing.

Several characteristics set early historical writing apart from epic. First, secular knowledge: the writers told the stories as their own knowledge, or the knowledge of the Greek community. This knowledge was about humans, not gods for the most part, and it was guaranteed almost entirely by human informants rather than by divine sources (such as the Muses). Second, early historical writing presented itself as particular descriptions of specific events. The Homeric epics, by contrast, exhibited a very low degree of specificity; they captured the nature of heroism more than the deeds of precise historical figures—the experience of war (in the Iliad) or the struggle to find a way home (in the Odyssey). Third, historians took special care to search for the causes of the events they narrated. Fourth, the writers were aware of the need for credibility: Herodotus frequently related stories only to criticize them as unbelievable; Thucydides asserted that the poets (such as Homer) were prone to exaggeration. Fifth, the ancient historians’ concern for credibility implies that they had in mind a basic threshold of truthfulness and, quite possibly, a method or set of criteria with which they could ascertain the reliability of a story. And finally, if the historian is free to establish criteria, this freedom implies an absence of centralized control or censorship; the ancient Greeks generally were accustomed to free speech and a political environment in which no one dictated what must be written or believed.

The Intellectual Climate and the Development of Greek History

The intellectual climate in ancient Greece influenced historians’ views of causation. If history is a study of human actions, then we might expect historians to explain those actions in terms of human feelings such as love, greed, and fear. Less personal influences on human activity—natural conditions like drought and epidemics, for example, or such developments as technological change—also demand consideration as causes.

The age into which Herodotus was born was infinitely richer intellectually than any before it. He came from Halicarnassus, on the eastern side of the Aegean Sea, where Ionian natural philosophers since Thales of Miletus (early sixth century BCE) had been developing theories about the very foundations of the phenomenal world for about a century before Herodotus’s time. Other thinkers from the same region, like Hecataeus of Miletus (late sixth century BCE), had compiled stories about geography and mythical heroes. While Herodotus was composing his Histories, moreover, two important intellectual movements appeared: the Hippocratic school of medicine, and Sophistry.

The Hippocratic movement featured careful observation of diseases and their progress, systematic recording of those observations, and the development of theories about the relationship between human characteristics, diseases, and local climates. These medical writings were given the name “inquiry” or historia in Greek; Herodotus took that term and applied it to his Histories.

The Sophists were itinerant teachers of rhetoric. They contributed an array of verbal and conceptual tools that proved convenient for the refinement of historical writing. The two most famous Sophists of the age were Gorgias of Leontini (c. 485-380 BCE) and Protagoras of Abdera (c. 490-420 BCE). Both were relativists in a world that generally inclined toward absolutism. Gorgias was a master of style; he taught the persuasive power of the spoken word. For him, the true nature of things was relatively insignificant. Far more important was what you could persuade people to think of the nature of things. Gorgias’s influence can be seen particularly in the speeches that Thucydides writes for the protagonists in his Peloponnesian Wars. Protagoras’s famous dictum—“Man is the measure of all things: of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not”—indicates that humans alone, without the gods, were able to determine the truth for themselves, and that whatever they saw as true was true for them, regardless of the views of others. The relativism of Protagoras is evident throughout Herodotus, whose Histories ranges from the Greek west (Italy and Sicily) to the Persian east (as far as Babylon) and describes a rich fabric of human customs and lifestyles, with an interest that was usually nonjudgmental.

A clear example of Herodotus’s relativist perspective is found in a story in Book 3 regarding the Persian king Darius. The king once summoned to his presence a group of Greeks and a group of Indians, people from the furthest extremities of his empire. Herodotus reports that the king then asked of the Indians what would induce them to burn their dead, and of the Greeks what would persuade them to eat theirs. The Greeks at that time did burn their dead, so the story goes, while the Indians were in the habit of eating theirs. When the king’s question was posed, both groups cried out in horror at the suggested sacrilege. Herodotus’s conclusion is that there are no universal absolutes to guide human conduct: custom reigns supreme.

Since the eighth century BCE, Herodotus’s fellow Greeks had been discovering and colonizing extensive parts of the coastline of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea (Hecataeus’s lost work—Periodos Ges, “Tour around the World”—apparently provided an ethnogeographical tour of their shores). And many Greeks had been living as mercenaries and traders deep in the heart of the Persian Empire and Egypt. Thus, Herodotus could easily have collected stories about lands and peoples from Italy to the Indus valley and from Egypt to north of the Danube by touring the Greek diaspora.

Herodotus engaged passionately in debates over geographical questions such as the boundaries of the continents, the source of the Nile, and the reason for the river’s annual flooding. Though we can never be certain that the views he expresses are entirely his, the explanation that he provides for the aggressive imperialist tendencies of some peoples, and the softness and passivity of others, followed the lead of the Hippocratic movement by relating national inclinations to such things as climate, soil productivity, or harsh living conditions. On the level of human causation, he ascribed Darius’s desire to subjugate Athens in the 490s to a lust for revenge for the Athenian support of the Ionian revolt against his rule, and the revolt itself to the foolish ambition of two Milesians. But the Histories also assumes deeper motivations: an underlying propensity of empires to expand and press upon their neighbors. And though he avoids explicit statements regarding the supernatural, Herodotus’s interest in underlying forces is apparent. While the assaults on Greek city-states by the Lydian king Croesus and his predecessors in the sixth century BCE are related as matters of fact that need no further explanation, of greater interest is the story he tells to explain Xerxes’s decision to attack Greece in 480 BCE. According to Herodotus, Xerxes was hesitant to attack, but he was compelled by a terrifying dream to accept his mission and embark on the campaign. Thus, the drive to expand seems to be a necessity for empires, perhaps even a supernatural one.

Thucydides’s observations are less complex in some ways, but considerably more profound in others. He explains the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War on two levels. First, he identifies three proximate causes: two aggressive acts by Athens aimed at embarrassing Corinth, Sparta’s only powerful maritime ally; and a new alliance struck between Athens and Corcyra, a colony of Corinth. But Thucydides declares that the real cause of the war was one less talked about: the growing power of Athens and the fear it inspired in the minds of the Spartans. He does not specify what he means by “the growing power of Athens.” But Athens had colonized the mineral-rich area of the Strymon River in Thrace in 437, which gave Athens access to great wealth. And the subsequent alliance with Corcyra, which had a navy as large as Corinth’s and about half the size of that of Athens, was probably enough to convince the Spartans to take steps to limit further Athenian expansion.

Thucydides was no explorer of the natural world; his interest was in human nature. He admired few (Themistocles and Pericles were notable exceptions), and he was generally pessimistic about the motives of the politicians and generals about whom he wrote. He was fascinated by power and understood instinctively its relationship to fear and how both fear and the lust for power affected both the strong and the weak. The weak fear the strong, but the strong fear the loss of power and possible revenge from wronged victims. Fear drives the strong to displays of strength in order to intimidate the weak. This need to display power relentlessly, avoiding no challenges lest avoidance be seen as irresolution, exposes the strong to the danger of overextension. The continuous display of power, with its consequent risks, also tends to brutalize—to promote corruption, self-absorption, and greed in imperial rulers, and desperation in the oppressed.

Of course, historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides were not the only ones to comment on human behavior. Dramatic poets like Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes also developed similar pictures of human failings. Indeed, Aristotle declared that poetry was more “serious” than history because it addressed universals (e.g., the experience of war rather than a specific sequence of battles fixed in time and geographical space), while history addressed only unique events. This judgment is rooted in the Greeks’ attitude toward reality as they saw it and tried to express it in words. The Greeks spoke of three levels of reality: onta (things that are what they are), phainomena (things that appear to be what they may or may not be), and genomena (things that have happened). We derive the terms ontology and phenomenology from the first two expressions; genomenology would be a natural derivative from the third. The Greeks’ analysis was really a hierarchy, with onta at the top of the reality scale and genomena at the bottom. On the face of things, historians collected and reported genomena. As a consequence, their work seemed trivial to serious thinkers like Aristotle.

But both Herodotus and Thucydides are clearly interested in the permanent realities (onta) that can be seen beneath the surface. Thucydides saw patterns in events. He regarded his account of the devastating civil war in Corcyra, presented in grim detail, as typical of all the other civil conflicts that erupted throughout Greece during the Peloponnesian War. He narrated each decision taken during the war as an illustration of human nature. In the opening remarks of his Peloponnesian Wars, he announced that, human nature being what it was, similar conditions would recur in the future. He saw constancy behind upheaval, and even in unforeseen chance that dashes expectations.

Herodotus was equally preoccupied with patterns. Empires behaved predictably. It was not within the power of even the greatest monarch, Xerxes himself, to bridle the urge for conquest. Extensive parts of Herodotus’s Histories read like studies of a particular phenomenon. Superficially, Book 3 is an account of Darius’s seizure of the Persian throne, followed by the organization of his empire, interrupted by a seemingly endless parade of digressions on other monarchs and tyrants. We can read the book as a simple history if we choose, but there is surely a deeper message: the book is a study of the very nature of monarchic rule.

Ultimately, what set ancient historical writing apart was its attention to particular knowledge of events and peoples from the past. Both Herodotus and Thucydides saw their task as more than that of a teller of tales about the past: they were dealing with knowledge.

Knowledge, Fact, and Truth in Ancient Greece

The Greeks typically regarded sure knowledge of something as information derived from an eyewitness. Herodotus’s word for “I know” (oida) means literally “I have seen.” He explicitly identifies his account of the beginning of the east-west conflict as knowledge. Early in Book 1 of the Histories, after briefly recounting tales of the origins of the conflict—tales that Herodotus attributes to unnamed Persian wise men and that look like historicizations of Greek myths—he dismisses them and declares that he will begin with the person he “knows” began hostilities between Greeks and non-Greeks: Croesus, king of Lydia.

If being an eyewitness to events or speaking with one was not possible, the ancient historian resorted to the next best thing he could devise—and by so doing developed an early form of historical method: visiting the places he wrote about in the Histories, or identifying people with exceptional knowledge about the past. These informed sources were most notably priests in important temples, because the temples for generations had been storehouses for votive offerings from nations or significant persons. Each offering had a story preserved by the keepers of the sanctuary and passed on from priest to priest. After his visits to these temples, Herodotus would record descriptions of the contents of the shrines and put together a narrative of the past from the stories told to him by the priests. He employed this method of historical reconstruction during his visit to Egypt, with results that have inspired fierce scholarly debate. The results were less controversial when he visited the shrine to Apollo at Delphi and wrote about the early history of eastern Greek relations with Lydian monarchs, who had sent many spectacular gifts to the shrine.

As the importance of eyewitness accounts implies, the ancients did not value “depersonalized” information in the same way that we do today. In our modern intellectual environment, we gather information from books, mass media, and the Internet. Usually we have no personal knowledge of the source of the information. By contrast, the ancients’ reliance on written text was minimal. For them, information was as good as the person who remembered and supplied it.

Ancient writers put great faith in human memory. The word for “truth” used most commonly by the historians and philosophers was aletheia, which means “the absence of forgetfulness” or “the absence of obscurity.” Today, modern studies, such as those from Bartlett and Harrison, throw considerable doubt on the reliability of human memory. But the Greeks did not question that something clearly remembered, especially by a number of eyewitnesses, was unquestionably true. If an account were not true, then the eyewitness was lying; weakness of memory was never a consideration. Confused or disorderly recollection was a sign of an uneducated mind; a wandering or crooked memory was a sign of falsehood. By extension, words from ancient Greek that are often translated as “accuracy” really reflect memorative quality rather than what we would consider factual accuracy. Thucydides’s favorite word was akribeia, which meant “orderly precision” in the fifth century.

Indeed, in a famous passage that is regularly misunderstood, Thucydides enunciated his method of fact gathering. He declared that he had taken great care not to receive information from chance informants, but had put himself out considerably for people who possessed this special quality of akribeia; he was referring to educated elites, who had trained memories. Herodotus’s preferred expression was atrekeie, which means “straightness.” Educated Greeks who trained themselves in mnemonics knew that a key to memorative accuracy was orderliness or “straight” thinking.

The fact that the Greek word for “I know” (oida) means “I have seen” suggests that the Greeks trusted their senses to provide secure knowledge. This is very different from today, when so much of what we “know” cannot be observed with our senses alone. We cannot see the bacteria or viruses that cause diseases without the aid of a microscope, and we do a great deal of testing and deduction to establish that what we see through the microscope is in fact the organism that is the source of our discomfort. We see the sun revolving around us and the planets moving against a backdrop of nearby stars. But thanks to more careful observation through telescopes, mathematics, and Newton’s theory of gravity, we “know” that Earth and the other planets circle the sun in a vast universe.

The ancients, however, relied on the experiences of informants. The generalists in particular relied on personal informants and rarely on documents. The reason they spurned documents appears to lie in their need to maintain the appearance of neutrality. There is evidence that local histories made considerable use of archival records and public inscriptions, but the purpose in citing these documents, compatible with the purpose in writing the local history itself, was to celebrate local achievements rather than supply impartial proof. Generalists who cited such documents were identifying themselves with the celebratory traditions of the locality, and thereby compromising their narrative. This absence of documentation tended to eliminate the unique aspects of an event from the record. Studies from Bartlett have shown that personal informants, on whose memories the generalists relied almost exclusively, would drop specific details from their memories and reshape their descriptions along the lines of widely held public beliefs and expectations.

Intellectual Freedom

It is easy to overlook the importance of intellectual freedom in the development of good historical writing. History that is influenced by a “party line” is compromised. Most ancient civilizations were monarchies or theocracies; this usually meant that all records of the past came under scrutiny—whether for political or theological orthodoxy. In Persia and Egypt, the only people who could write were under the influence of the king or the pharaoh. In China, the historian Sima Qian (c. 145-85 BCE) was castrated for recording events in a way that displeased the emperor. By contrast, the Greeks cultivated political freedom and prized free speech. Living in independent city-states, they were not used to centralized governments controlling their lives and seeking to influence their thoughts.

The Greek historians did write for an audience, however, and hoped for approval. The Athenians reportedly paid Herodotus handsomely for giving readings from his work. But audience sentiment could also go the other way. According to Herodotus, when the tragedian Phrynichus presented a play to the Athenians about the fall of Miletus, the reaction was violent. Outraged, the Athenians imposed a heavy fine on the playwright and forbade all future performances of that work. A far more notorious case regarding intellectual freedom was the trial and execution of Socrates in 399 for unorthodoxy toward the gods of the state and for corrupting the youth of Athens. Despite the appearance of free speech, then, there remains the possibility that Greek historians were inhibited by an undercurrent of strong public opinion, or by what John Stuart Mill would much later call the “silent majority.” From this distance, the impact of this presumed “silent majority” is difficult for us to measure, because the known examples of its open expression, though often violent, are still quite rare.

But while Mill wrote in an environment in which a predominantly Christian moral orthodoxy was thundered from pulpits, reiterated by print media, and sometimes enforced by police and public prosecutors, ancient Athens, like most other Greek city-states (until Macedonian times at least), was generally unencumbered by these conditions: there were no pulpits, no print media, no state police, and prosecutions were conducted sporadically by citizen volunteers. In short, there is no reason to think that the ancients were more subject to intimidation than historians in modern democracies, who may still face public outcries if their ideas are seen to be deviant. On the contrary, ancient Greek writers enjoyed freedom to seek out the truth and record it as they saw fit, to a degree that is rare for any period in history.

The Greek community influenced the individual’s intellectual freedom in a more subtle way, however. The ancient historians had no way of asserting personal ownership of their material, especially after it was released on papyrus. The knowledge they passed on remained in some sense the property of the larger community. It was not until the seventeenth century, with the work of Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle, that intellectuals sought to commodify the knowledge that resulted from their investigations. Bacon argued that scholars should cease to rely on trained memories (as the medieval scholars had done) and should instead trust their discoveries to print for wide and immediate circulation. Boyle, an Irish scientist perhaps most famous for his attempt to prove the possibility of a vacuum by using an air pump, put Bacon’s idea into practice—but with unexpected results. At first, Boyle asserted his discoveries were openly available to all; however, people began to publish his findings as their own, and in 1688 he circulated an “Advertisement about the Loss of his Writings” deploring the theft. The offense of plagiarism had to be identified and exposed through his pamphlet.

Boyle’s actions gave birth to two important ideas: the notion of intellectual property and the claim that discovery conferred ownership. Boyle and Bacon signaled a sharp departure from scholarship in the Middle Ages, which relied heavily on tradition (preserved in writing but also committed to memory) and included no concept of intellectual property. As for the Middle Ages, so for antiquity: the ancient historian was more a transmitter of traditions somehow still “owned” by the larger community than a discoverer of truth.

The Study of Unpredictable Human Behaviors

At the turn of the twentieth century, the study of history was regarded as highly as any other. In the decades that followed, however, history, as Novick points out, began to suffer by comparison to the hard sciences, such as physics and chemistry. The most obvious difference between history and these other studies was the linearity of many of the sciences. Scientists could predict outcomes from known beginnings in a way that historians could not. Hydrogen combines with oxygen in a ratio of two parts to one to make water, and always will. The orbits of the planets can be calculated and their positions predicted for centuries into the future. Historians, for all their knowledge of the past, can predict nothing with precision. With the passage of time, scientists expect to accumulate precise knowledge sufficient to resolve present controversies; in contrast, the passage of time seems only to increase historians’ uncertainty.

Most recently, chaos theory, which studies the less predictable aspects of nature, like the earth’s atmosphere, has offered historians a more attractive model by removing linearity as a prerequisite for scientific knowledge. History as a study of a massive system of relatively unpredictable human behaviors might very well find a home with this new theory.

Thucydides’s assumed interest in information (rather than informants) makes him look deceptively modern, but the information age in which we live began with the seventeenth century and has little to do with ancient Greek culture. The ancients’ reliance on human memory (as opposed to documents) to preserve what was important to them gave a special shape to what they took for knowledge. It made ancient history less specific in detail than its modern counterpart. At the same time, Greek history’s attention to “real” subjects gave it a frame of reference that was far more precise than epic poetry.

Beyond that, the Greek historians’ belief that the stability of universal laws (onta) lay behind the complexity of specific, transient events (genomena) gave a poetic dimension to their work that escaped Aristotle. It transformed their writing of history into a kind of philosophy or, as Dionysius of Halicarnassus (first century BCE) said of Thucydides’s work, “philosophy teaching by examples.” Research for this essay was made possible thanks to a generous grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Special thanks to Helene Cazes and Jillian Shoichet.