Ancient Historians

Mar 2017
854
Colorado
#11
I like the narrative of Cleopatra's death, because you can follow it through historians.

Strabo was in Alexandria about 5 yrs after Cleopatra's death. She just wasn't important as far as he was concerned. He saw Acteum as the end of a Civil War between Antony & Augustus, and Cleopatra just wasn't significant. He says either poison or asp, "two versions of this story exist." So he's going on rumor. That's it: no lead up, no palace activity. He does say that ONLY her older sister was legitimate ... which gives some fodder for a modern ethnicity brouhaha.

Plutarch writes about 100 yrs after her death. He provides lots of details ... and tells us his sources: he is the last historian to have reported reading the biography of Cleopatra written by her personal physician Olympus, and, through his grandfather, got personal stories from Philotas of Amphissa, medical student and friend of Antony's son Antyllus. The stories of banquests & practical jokes come from Philotas, who was THERE. Plutarch reports tiny punctures on her arm (probably from Olympus' post-mortem) and her habit of wearing a hair comb containing poison. She's attended by two handmaidens, one dead and one adjusting the dead queen's diadem when servants come in (then she drops dead). Plutarch: How did Cleopatra die? ... "no one knows"

Suetonius was contemporaneous with Plutarch, but maybe he didn't like him. He doesn't seem to have read Plutarch's version, and Strabo doesn't really have anything interesting ... so Suetonius adds some text about psylli (men who suck snake poison from wounds). There may have been guys that did that, but only to living people ... it doesn't really make sense for a corpse.

Cassius Dio writes after Plutarch's & Suetonius' deaths. He combines Plutarch (pin pricks, poison hair pin, handmaidens) with Suetonius (psylli) and then makes up a whole bunch of stuff. There's paragraphs with conversations of Cleopatra trying to seduce Augustus, instead of Plutarch's begging for mercy, then bargaining. Cleopatra is searched for weapons (a mere Roman soldier body searching a sexy queen? ... oh dear, oh dear). He adds a suicidal eunuch for color. First mention of her vast "treasures." Strabo had a sentence, Plutarch five paragraphs ... now there are pages.

Galen was contemporaneous with Cassius Dio and was educated as a physician in Alexandria, and stayed close to his sources. He leans so heavily on Plutarch, he almost quotes him word-for-word (Galen is the only other historian to name the handmaidens). He talks about Suetonius' psylli ... and adds "I don't think so." He adds that he's seen "execution by cobra" (describing it) in Alexandria and it just doesn't fit.

The Cassius Dio version is juicer, and it's clear it's the most popular. From there it only gets worse. Pin pricks on the arm evolve into a bite on the breast. Civil War evolves into a war declared on Rome by Egypt. The battle of Acteum develops into a fight between Egyptian and Roman gods (OK, a poet did that ... but you can see where i'm going). Just Google "Augustian Propaganda" to see how Cleopatra was used as a scapegoat.

Many people treat Plutarch almost as a poet because he's spun his Marc Antony into a morality tale ... but it's filled with great details.

I'm not making a case for "most influential" historian, but in this tale, Plutarch is the only one to cite his sources ... most of the other guys plagiarize & invent like it's an admirable skill. "Most accurate" maybe .... in this case.

100 yrs is a long time and I actually did the math to see if a 60 yr old Philotas could have drunk wine with a 20 yr old Lamprias (Plutarch's grandfather) ...... who was 60 when he talked to a 20 yr old Plutarch: only a couple of yrs either way, but it works. It makes me want to try this again with other narratives: I guess that's what "professional" historians do.

Plagiarism was done by every ancient historical author ... and in medical texts as well. Galen has some history, but his main point is medical ... in the same text as Cleopatra, he goes on to discuss snake poison & treatments. Galen sometimes does a good job of citing the original authors: in one section, he compares Cleopatra's treatment with that of Dioscorides (another physician in her court) ... cut&pasting snippets from their books.
 
Nov 2011
837
The Bluff
#13
Assuming we're speaking of the Hellenistic period (including Rome's interaction with the Greek east), then Ploybios would bulk very, very large. While one might posit Livy, he used Polybios (as well as others) and wrote at what might strictly be considered after the end of the "Hellenistic" period. The same for the Gospels and Thukydides and Herodotus who wrote well before the Hellenistic period. Polybios covered the period from the 139th Olympiad (220) down to 146/5 and it is a great pity that much of his manuscript (and tactical treatise) have not survived the outrageous fortunes of source preservation. For that period of Rome and the Hellenistic east, his complete work would more than invaluable.

There is another, who has not survived outside of wretched allusions and scant fragments, who will have been just as important to the early Hellenistic period: Hieronymus of Kardia. From what we can ascertain this work covered the final years (if not a summary of the reign) of Alexander III down to at least the death of Pyrrhos (and possibly after). Written under Antigonid patronage, this massive work covered the years which saw the settling out of Alexander's empire into what would become the Hellenistic east while also covering western events such as Pyrrhos' campaigns. It is generally acknowledged that this work - long and involved enough to be described as a work one could never read to the finish by Dionysius of Halikarnassos (De Comp Verb 4.30) - became the basis of several later histories, most (in)famously underpinning Diodoros' Books 18-20 (and those existing in scraps which followed down to 270 odd) for the Diodochoi narrative. Although I believe Diodoros used an intermediary, that writer will have based his work of the Kardian's along with much found in Plutarch's Lives for the period. Arrian, too, will have used him (along with at least Duris of Samos) for his Successors (also lost aside from wrethced summaries). Perhaps Dionysius' harsh criticism played its part in this work falling from favour: too long and involed to keep copying when no longer popular enough?? A great shame.
 
Mar 2017
854
Colorado
#15
  • Dios

    Dios

That's a very interesting observation. Not to diminish your statement at all, but do other historians echo this?

I can't speak to Tacitus, but I think it's a fair assessment for Plutarch. He provides more information about individuals, but tends to bend the big picture to get his point across.
 
Mar 2017
854
Colorado
#16
  • Dios

    Dios

Partly due to this thread and partly due to another one, I've been taking event descriptions and lining them up side by side. It's an interesting little exercise if you organize them by date.

I am absolutely shocked at Cassius Dio. I'm not saying he did it with everything he wrote, but where I could compare Cassius Dio to other authors ... he wrote fake history. He invented things. His style was to report some of the facts, but then he wants to get a point across and invents conversations and speeches that he quotes word-for-word that happened 100's of yrs before him, that no one else even mentions ... PAGES of created dialogue. The best example (so far) is what happens after Caesar's death before the funeral. Compare Suetonius (about 100 yrs closer to the event) and Cassius Dio. They don't just differ, they conflict in a huge way. I'd put my money on Suetonius' version, particularly since it largely matches Plutarch (two against one). Plutarch & Suetonius were contemporaries, but from what I've read, appear to use different sources ... at least in the events I've looked at.
 
#18
Partly due to this thread and partly due to another one, I've been taking event descriptions and lining them up side by side. It's an interesting little exercise if you organize them by date.

I am absolutely shocked at Cassius Dio. I'm not saying he did it with everything he wrote, but where I could compare Cassius Dio to other authors ... he wrote fake history. He invented things. His style was to report some of the facts, but then he wants to get a point across and invents conversations and speeches that he quotes word-for-word that happened 100's of yrs before him, that no one else even mentions ... PAGES of created dialogue. The best example (so far) is what happens after Caesar's death before the funeral. Compare Suetonius (about 100 yrs closer to the event) and Cassius Dio. They don't just differ, they conflict in a huge way. I'd put my money on Suetonius' version, particularly since it largely matches Plutarch (two against one). Plutarch & Suetonius were contemporaries, but from what I've read, appear to use different sources ... at least in the events I've looked at.
As a rule, one should be sceptical of speeches and dialogue in the work of any ancient historian. It's my understanding that even Thucydides is viewed with suspicion when he presents speeches.
 
Nov 2011
837
The Bluff
#19
As a rule, one should be sceptical of speeches and dialogue in the work of any ancient historian. It's my understanding that even Thucydides is viewed with suspicion when he presents speeches.
And a very good rule it is. Even Polybios, who lambastes Timaeus for his speeches, includes many such. In Polybios' view, Timaeus wrote "how to" inserts rather than what was actually said or meant. Just how Polybios knew exactly what was said or meant to be conveyed in the speeches he inserts is another question. For example, he was not ever present for the speeches he presents between the agitators of the Second Macedonian War and can only have reconstructed these from other writers' works or hearsay from those present. Diodoros eschews speeches and then includes plenty!

With all, one has to take them with a grain of salt. These were mostly constructed on the basis of what the historian thought would be said. Thukydides, as DiocletianIsBetterThanYou has said, has been the feller of many a tree for the papers written on his use of speeches. There are several for which he was certainly present (Perikles' famous Funeral Oration for example) but, even then, he is relying on memory and hence his explanation of rendering the best he could or, in circumstances where a source was present, the gist of what was said. There are other speeches for which he certainly cannot have been present and for which one wonders about his source. The speech of Hermokrates in Syracuse is one such (6.33-34). This will, at best, be the gist of what Thukydides thought should be said or what might have been summarily reported to him. It certainly contains views which, I believe, can be attributed to the historian himself (33.5-6):

Few indeed have been the large armaments, either Hellenic or barbarian, that have gone far from home and been successful. They cannot be more numerous than the people of the country and their neighbours, whom fear unites; and if they fail for want of supplies in a foreign land, to those against whom their plans were laid they nonetheless leave renown, although they may themselves have been the main cause of their own discomfort. Thus these very Athenians rose by the defeat of the Persians, in a great measure due to accidental causes...
Did Hermokrates know that the Persians failed because they were not more numerous than the Greeks of the homeland and because they'd major supply problems? More likely it is Thukydides' own Athenian view and what he might have said in Hermokrates' place. We see similar with the speech of Phormio in 428 to his sailors before taking on the superior numbers of the Peloponnesians off Naupactos (2.89). While it remains possible that Thukydides was present as a marine or trierach, it is far more likely he was not and reports what someone has possibly told him. Here Phormio tells us precisely the favoured tactics and approach of Athenian naval forces to sea battle (89.8) and, as a fleet commander, Thukidides would be well versed in this. Again, I believe this is more what Thukydides feels would have been said. But we never really know hence, as DiocletianIsBetterThanYou says, scepticism should be close to hand.
 
#20
And a very good rule it is. Even Polybios, who lambastes Timaeus for his speeches, includes many such. In Polybios' view, Timaeus wrote "how to" inserts rather than what was actually said or meant. Just how Polybios knew exactly what was said or meant to be conveyed in the speeches he inserts is another question. For example, he was not ever present for the speeches he presents between the agitators of the Second Macedonian War and can only have reconstructed these from other writers' works or hearsay from those present. Diodoros eschews speeches and then includes plenty!

With all, one has to take them with a grain of salt. These were mostly constructed on the basis of what the historian thought would be said. Thukydides, as DiocletianIsBetterThanYou has said, has been the feller of many a tree for the papers written on his use of speeches. There are several for which he was certainly present (Perikles' famous Funeral Oration for example) but, even then, he is relying on memory and hence his explanation of rendering the best he could or, in circumstances where a source was present, the gist of what was said. There are other speeches for which he certainly cannot have been present and for which one wonders about his source. The speech of Hermokrates in Syracuse is one such (6.33-34). This will, at best, be the gist of what Thukydides thought should be said or what might have been summarily reported to him. It certainly contains views which, I believe, can be attributed to the historian himself (33.5-6):



Did Hermokrates know that the Persians failed because they were not more numerous than the Greeks of the homeland and because they'd major supply problems? More likely it is Thukydides' own Athenian view and what he might have said in Hermokrates' place. We see similar with the speech of Phormio in 428 to his sailors before taking on the superior numbers of the Peloponnesians off Naupactos (2.89). While it remains possible that Thukydides was present as a marine or trierach, it is far more likely he was not and reports what someone has possibly told him. Here Phormio tells us precisely the favoured tactics and approach of Athenian naval forces to sea battle (89.8) and, as a fleet commander, Thukidides would be well versed in this. Again, I believe this is more what Thukydides feels would have been said. But we never really know hence, as DiocletianIsBetterThanYou says, scepticism should be close to hand.
Indeed. In my research I have made considerable use of Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors. In some respects Lactantius is a good source. He seems to have had a good knowledge of political history between AD 303 and 313, and he has been shown to accurately quote two different edicts. However, much of his account of Diocletian's abdication consists of a dialogue between Diocletian and Galerius. The Christian rhetor would not have been present for any such conversation, and the dialogue is basically designed to enhance his unflattering characterizations of the emperors and to support his narrative of divine justice.

The Historia Augusta has been shown to invent letters and conversations out of whole cloth, although this text perhaps wins the award for most unreliable ancient text.
 

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