Classical Authors and My Humble Opinion of Them

Apr 2011
3,075
New Jersey
#21
Which was my original thought on the matter:

As a complier, he often tells multiple versions of the same anecdote when he does not know the truth. Sure, some of it is embellished/untrue, but I have no doubt that he got it from a source which embellished it.
This is where we have some disagreement:
Again, Livy often tells several versions of the same story in order to get as close as he can to the truth, so I don't find him to be intentionally dishonest.
You believe he was just trying to get at the truth of the matter, but I don't think that covers his intentions well enough. If one is using information, the way Livy did, that is knowingly from a biased source then he isn't being honest.
 
Jul 2013
940
Melbourne
#24
Good day all.

In the last few years, I have spent most of my time reading classical authors of history, poetry, drama, politics and philosophy, mixing in some medieval and modern works along the way. I thought it would be fun to briefly critique them and get a discussion going about them. I will go in roughly chronological order and note the works read. Do you agree with my assessments?

HOMER (The Iliad. The Odyssey)
It goes without saying that Homer was ahead of his time, as he/she/they wrote 3-400 years before the classical age, but it is almost astonishing how modern Homers works come off. Homer's heroic age Greece is populated by some very complex characters who contemplate some very topical issues. Unlike classical Greek literature, they seem capable of a remarkable degree of tenderness and contemplation . Simply an incredible experience reading these.

HERODOTUS (The Histories)
No work of history is more pure fun. Lively, engaging, and probably 90% nonsense, Herodotus , the father of history, was also the father of history as entertainment. Not that there is anything wrong with that. I would venture to say that he becomes more truthful when discussing the actual war with Persia than during the general encyclopedia of the world.

THUCYDIDES (History of the Peloponnesian war)
As a pure history filled with facts, nothing is more thorough. Also, he is capable of generating interest with his moving speeches (the funeral oration of Pericles) and compelling anecdotes (Diodotus saving Mytilene). Make no mistake about it, though- Thucydides is the driest, sparest in presentation and in many ways the most difficult author to get through. His history will test your spirit.

XENOPHON (The Anabasis, Hellenica)
Self serving, Sparta-phillic and at times dubious in terms of both truth and judgment of what to include and leave out, but also excellent as telling history as a compelling story. THE ANABASIS is an amazing read, you just have to take it, and his other works, with a large grain of salt.

PLATO (The Last Days of Socrates)
A touching story of a wise and gentle man defying the government to the end, combined with some absolutely dated and incomprehensible philosophy.

AESCYLUS (The Suppliants)
Incomplete. I have only attempted the one, incomplete play, so I can't really judge the man. He is a fine source of early myth, but so far is no Euripides.

SOPHOCLES (Antigone, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus)
By today's standards (and compared to Homer), Greek tragedy in general seems a little bare to me, but Sophocles did manage to write about some topics that are still with us today, such as the conflict between the state and the individual in Antigone. I always get a good laugh at how often the structure of Oedipus- someone researching a mystery that folds back onto themselves- is copied for modern pulp films and novels.

EURIPIDES (The Trojan Women, The Bacchae, Ion, Helen)
Head and shoulders my favorite Greek tragedian, what separates this man is the very ahead-of-his-time concerns for woman and their issues. THE TROJAN WOMEN defies narrative convention- it is just a chance to let the women tell their side of the story.

POLYBIUS (The Histories)
I am only about halfway through, and so far, he is one of the most hot and cold of the authors. He is very thorough, with a holistic approach to history, and tries to honestly evaluate his sources, but he spends so much time posturing and explain why he is going to explain something that, on occasion, I have no idea what he is talking about. When he gets down to it, he is excellent.

LIVY (Books 1-10, 21-30)
Often accused of being inaccurate and dishonest, I find him just the opposite. As a complier, he often tells multiple versions of the same anecdote when he does not know the truth. Sure, some of it is embellished/untrue, but I have no doubt that he got it from a source which embellished it. Capable of some fun digressions and nice flourishes to keep you interested. His history of the war with Hannibal is one of my favorite things on this list.

CICERO (Books of selected speeches)
Cicero is Cicero...no better window into the Republic and its values exists. I was a bit surprised at how much time he spends in his speeches condemning other people's sex lives. Truly different times. His brilliance still shows through when he is on point.

CAESAR (The Conquest of Gaul, The Civil War)
Self serving to an annoying level, it is none-the-less undeniably fascinating to hear the campaigns from the man himself. Comical that he writes in the third person, as if he were an unbiased witness.

TACITUS (The Annals of Imperial Rome, The Histories, Germania, Agricola)
Seems like a very honest, straightforward historian who occasionally adds some eloquent flourishes to keep things humming along. Is a good story teller when he wants to be.

SUETONIUS (The Twelve Caesars)
This man really relished getting into the psychology of the emperors centuries before there was such a thing as psychology. A terrific read for history and pleasure.

JOSEPHUS (The Jewish War)
Probably my favorite thing on this list. Josephus writes as a self-serving turncoat, but no one is better at communicating the depth of the tragedy of what he was writing about. Simply an amazing, affecting read about how quickly a war gets out of hand. Honestly changed my thinking reading it.

PLUTARCH (Parallel Lives, Barnes and Noble Addition, volume 1, an select readings from Volume 2)
Very thorough in his attempts to compile the "facts" about ancient historical figures and to put them in context. Obviously it is not all true, but don't let that stop you from enjoying them. Much like Livy, I don't think the embellishments are fully intentional.

ARRIAN (The Complete Alexander)
He wrote a fanboy piece, and he wrote a good one. Every Alexander fan should read it with a lot of joy and a little skepticism. Manages to throw in some very interesting "facts."

PRECOPIUS (The Secret History)
A very fun and crabby hate piece on Justinian and Theadora. I have no idea how true it is.

SCRIPTORES HISTORES AUGUSTAE (The Augustan history)
I understand that that these are of disputable historical value because no one knows when they were written, by whom, and what sources were used. If nothing else, they are fun reads, and I have to think that some drop of history survives in them.
Ironically when you are trying to work with the material teh boring authors, the Tactitus', Thucydides' or Polybius' are by far the better historians to work with. By and large making a work more readable makes it far more difficult to use as almost without exception when you go to Herodotus, for example, you have to ask yourself - did this really happen, or is he story telling here? For me Polybius is simply invaluable.
 
Mar 2012
2,345
#25
Ironically when you are trying to work with the material teh boring authors, the Tactitus', Thucydides' or Polybius' are by far the better historians to work with. By and large making a work more readable makes it far more difficult to use as almost without exception when you go to Herodotus, for example, you have to ask yourself - did this really happen, or is he story telling here? For me Polybius is simply invaluable.
For the record, I never said I found Tacitus or Polybius boring. Tacitus I find to have a very pleasing style in that he does have nicely written passages to keep things going, without sacrificing truth.

Polybius I just find damned confusing when he gets into his infinite digressions explaining why he is explaining things. It is the unnecessary posturing that makes him difficult.

Thucydides...dear god.
 

Otranto

Ad Honorem
May 2013
2,083
Netherlands
#26
I have not read Aescylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Arrian, Precopius, or even heard of the Augustan History before, but I completely agree with your other assessments, except that I did not find Xenophon and Caesar's self-serving extreme or annoying. I stopped reading Josephus because I felt that he lied about how he survived the suicide pact.

I very much agree that Livy is truthful and that he had to accept unreliable sources for a lack of alternatives. He admits that he has to "accept as true what has the appearance of truth." This is very reasonable. Livy is as impartial as you can expect someone who writes with a strong moral purpose to be. For example, he praises Pompey and criticizes Caesar despite his friendship with Augustus (though he may have waited to publish some of it untill after Augustus' death, still he did not compromise).
 
Oct 2014
430
Las Vegas NV
#27
Caesar's writing in the third person [and in the present tense] reminds me of Nixon referring to himself as ''the President.''

Livy, Suetonius, and Tacitus are very difficult for me to read in Latin because of long and convoluted sentence structure. I doubt whether there are any translations into modern-day English to enliven the texts, as Greek and Latin are seldom taught in high school or college as they were before 1970.
 

Otranto

Ad Honorem
May 2013
2,083
Netherlands
#28
Caesar's writing in the third person [and in the present tense] reminds me of Nixon referring to himself as ''the President.''

Livy, Suetonius, and Tacitus are very difficult for me to read in Latin because of long and convoluted sentence structure. I doubt whether there are any translations into modern-day English to enliven the texts, as Greek and Latin are seldom taught in high school or college as they were before 1970.
I can't read Latin but yes I read that about Livy, it already starts with his opening sentence.

T.J. Luce was the only English translator I found that managed to translate it into one sentence, and he also made it easy to read. Other translations have two or three sentences. De Selincourt's translation is the most popular on Goodreads but has "Rome" instead of "the city" and "our nation" instead of "the Roman people." I have no idea why a translator would do that.

Anyway, I enjoyed Luce's translation, so maybe you'd want to compare that to the Latin (he's only translated books 1-5 though).
 
Jul 2013
189
Oregon
#29
Sallust is definitely on the list, and is indeed a primary source.

If you found Thucydides an easy read, then you are a far, far better man than I, although there were some extremely compelling parts of it. One of my favorite passages of anything on here was Diodotus saving Mytilene form the wrath of Creon.
Oh no, not easy merely easier then some other things I've had to read vis-a-vis law & economics.

I did an experiment maybe a year or so ago where I read several different translations of Thucydides, a chapter here in one a chapter there in another; the Rex Warner Penguin, one in the Landmark, one by Steve Lattimore & one other I can't remember. The Lattimore really was more 'difficult' since his is supposedly the closest to the original Greek while Warner's was reworked but as clear as Thucydides can be [Warner was also a novelist so that helps].
 
Mar 2012
2,345
#30
I have not read Aescylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Arrian, Precopius, or even heard of the Augustan History before, but I completely agree with your other assessments, except that I did not find Xenophon and Caesar's self-serving extreme or annoying. I stopped reading Josephus because I felt that he lied about how he survived the suicide pact.

I very much agree that Livy is truthful and that he had to accept unreliable sources for a lack of alternatives. He admits that he has to "accept as true what has the appearance of truth." This is very reasonable. Livy is as impartial as you can expect someone who writes with a strong moral purpose to be. For example, he praises Pompey and criticizes Caesar despite his friendship with Augustus (though he may have waited to publish some of it untill after Augustus' death, still he did not compromise).
A good example of Xenophon's bias is that in HELLENICA, he only mentions Epaminondas parenthetically, and not at all in the context of Leuctra.

Love Xenophon, but that really annoyed me.
 

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