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Old November 14th, 2017, 04:08 PM   #1

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Is the 'argument to patriotism' really valid?


Even though this might be considered better suited for the General History section, I posted it here because the majority of cases in which the argument applies seem to be found in the Ancient World.

The argument which I'm referring to is the act of discrediting troop numbers (or, in fact, any kind of number) given by historians of any point in time by reasons of 'he/she was being patriotic'. To defend the point that this kind of argument is useless, I will provide two examples.

The first one I got from Mary Beard, in her SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, published in 2015. The author states that Livy's numbers for Roman casualties during the Punic Wars were probably scaled downwards 'for patriotic reasons', meaning that the historian changed these numbers to make it seem that the Romans won rather easily.

I can't pinpoint exactly where I got the second example, but it concerns Julius Caesar's commentaries about his campaigns in Gaul. It seems that Caesar purposely told his tale in a way that made Roman hardships in the campaign look even worse that they really were. This, of course, for the 'patriotic' reason of showing how Roman troops, and consequently Caesar himself, could surpass these hardships and win even against many difficulties in a foreign environment.

Therefore, it seems to me that the 'argument to patriotism' can be used both to scale up and to scale down hardship and numbers in general, and because of that I defend that it is not really a valid argument. Indeed ancient numbers seem wrong, but using this kind of argument will lead us nowhere. Any opinions on this matter?

PS: My point here is not about the examples per se, but about the kind of argument used in them. Even though individual examples may be questionable, the general idea seems to hold.
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Old November 14th, 2017, 04:28 PM   #2

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Quote:
Originally Posted by James Cook View Post
Even though this might be considered better suited for the General History section, I posted it here because the majority of cases in which the argument applies seem to be found in the Ancient World.

The argument which I'm referring to is the act of discrediting troop numbers (or, in fact, any kind of number) given by historians of any point in time by reasons of 'he/she was being patriotic'. To defend the point that this kind of argument is useless, I will provide two examples.

The first one I got from Mary Beard, in her SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, published in 2015. The author states that Livy's numbers for Roman casualties during the Punic Wars were probably scaled downwards 'for patriotic reasons', meaning that the historian changed these numbers to make it seem that the Romans won rather easily.

I can't pinpoint exactly where I got the second example, but it concerns Julius Caesar's commentaries about his campaigns in Gaul. It seems that Caesar purposely told his tale in a way that made Roman hardships in the campaign look even worse that they really were. This, of course, for the 'patriotic' reason of showing how Roman troops, and consequently Caesar himself, could surpass these hardships and win even against many difficulties in a foreign environment.

Therefore, it seems to me that the 'argument to patriotism' can be used both to scale up and to scale down hardship and numbers in general, and because of that I defend that it is not really a valid argument. Indeed ancient numbers seem wrong, but using this kind of argument will lead us nowhere. Any opinions on this matter?

PS: My point here is not about the examples per se, but about the kind of argument used in them. Even though individual examples may be questionable, the general idea seems to hold.
Well, Julius Caesar's were political, since he was writing about his own exploits. He would want it to seem more difficult to impress the people of Rome.
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Old November 14th, 2017, 04:34 PM   #3
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I also didn't get the vibe that Rome won Punic War easily. Livy's account sounds like Rome had a really rough time. He was of course making a morality lesson, about how awesome the republican virtue was, and how quickly the virtuous has fallen, but still, I don't think he made it sound like Rome was just strolling with ease.
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Old November 14th, 2017, 05:42 PM   #4

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I'm not sure about this argument. Yes, sometimes you can argue numbers can be inflated or reduced. However, in most cases, like Caesars, there doesn't seem to be much reason for him to diminish his accounts of the actual numbers of gauls he fought. While there are several ways to make valid inductive arguments that he inflated those numbers.

Also, I haven't read Mary Board's reasoning, but it seems odd that someone would argue they overcame less of a challenge than what they did.

Last edited by RidiculousName; November 14th, 2017 at 05:44 PM.
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Old November 15th, 2017, 02:39 AM   #5

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Originally Posted by mariusj View Post
I also didn't get the vibe that Rome won Punic War easily. Livy's account sounds like Rome had a really rough time. He was of course making a morality lesson, about how awesome the republican virtue was, and how quickly the virtuous has fallen, but still, I don't think he made it sound like Rome was just strolling with ease.
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Originally Posted by RidiculousName View Post
I'm not sure about this argument. Yes, sometimes you can argue numbers can be inflated or reduced. However, in most cases, like Caesars, there doesn't seem to be much reason for him to diminish his accounts of the actual numbers of gauls he fought. While there are several ways to make valid inductive arguments that he inflated those numbers.

Also, I haven't read Mary Board's reasoning, but it seems odd that someone would argue they overcame less of a challenge than what they did.
You, RidiculousName, are right, but that's not Beard's point.

I've read again the section of Beard's book pertaining to the example given, and the numbers Livy provides are only for the first thirty years of the 2nd century BCE, and therefore did not include the losses against Hannibal, for example (so it wasn't about winning the whole of the Punic Wars, as mariusj pointed out). Also, in my OP I have certainly oversimplified things by saying that the Romans 'won rather easily', and for that I apologize. Nevertheless, the author says that the figure of 55000 casualties given by Livy is "far too low. There was probably a patriotic tendency to downplay Roman losses (...)." I think the idea here is that the ancient historian was trying to make it appear that the Romans were superior to their enemies, and therefore did not need lots of casualties to defeat them, even though it was still difficult. And it must be remembered that this number is only a battle casualty count, and does not take in account the number of wounded soldiers, even if they died because of their wounds. So, in a sense, Livy could use this number not to downplay the challenge Romans faced, but to inflate their capability in overcoming such challenge.

I agree this is a much weaker argument in comparison to the one that explains why Caesar would inflate his numbers, but I still think it might hold. It's like facing a wrestler: the ability of this wrestler is constant, so if he fights well it is still difficult, but it makes a difference if you took 10 punches before you won or if you only took 5. So, if the objective is to doubt the numbers given by ancient historians, or historians in general, I still think 'patriotism' could be used both ways, both to inflate or to deflate these numbers.
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Old November 15th, 2017, 02:38 PM   #6
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There are cases where the numbers seem generally illogical given the amount of people on the planet/in the region etc and if the number is abnormally high this would be the reason one would assume why? I do see your point when the number is plausible that we shouldn't write off the ancients for lying or exaggerating and should accept it unless given reason to not. We also shouldn't take it as black letter fact either because people can interpret things with various agendas so this is a rough balance. I think the best standard would be if one sources from the enemy or someone who wouldn't have the same agenda and see if the accounts differ. If they don't, it's probably largely accurate.

Last edited by EmperoroftheBavarians43; November 15th, 2017 at 02:40 PM.
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