- Nov 2011
- The Bluff
That's not exactly how source transmission and preservation works. It is, though, how oral transmission works. One might think of "Homer" for example. Confusing the two doesn't help matters. Even so, in times when illiteracy was the norm, Chinese whispers were far more accurate than the example you give; it had to be.So, in our context, someone was at a battle. They may have had certain impressions of that battle and they may even have been 'in the know' about numbers etc - if anyone knew! They go away and tell someone else, others, who tell many others. Then many miles away and maybe a century later, our 'source' writes an account of said event, which many today will take as gospel truth.
But you can just imagine all the variations of that story along the way!
Back to our sources, many are participants or coeval with events (Xenophon, Thukydides, Ephoros, Polybios, etc) yet others (Diodoros, Livy, etc) rely on prevoius written histories. The danger in transmission is not Chinese whispers but rather twofold: summarising of earlier works necessarily leaves information out based on personal preferences and what remains of the original is even more obscured when it is done more than once (Ephorps using the Oxyrhynchus historian and then summarised by Diodoros for example); all surviving sources were copied from existing manuscripts and so scribal innattention can introduce error into the text which can grow with each copying process. The degredation seen in Chinese whispers is strongly mitigated by the fact that this material is written. Still Livy is a good case in point when he fails to understand Polybios' Greek at Kynoskephalai and says the Macedonians threw down their sarisai as they were useless and resorted to swords. All due to not comprehending Polybios' term for "couching".