The fathers of history

Only one ancient historian thought his job was to check the facts . . .

The fathers of history

By Quentin Langley

Dateline 20 September 2003

“The father of history” is a title often granted to Greek writer, Herodotus. But he is equally often called “the father of lies”. Both titles are utterly inappropriate. Herodotus was not a liar but nor was he, in the modern sense of the word, an historian. He did not set out to deceive, but neither was his intention to inform, it was to entertain.

Herodotus, like Xenophon and all other classical writers bar one, had a simple criterion for judging whether or not a story should be included in his “histories” – is it interesting? That is not to say he did not sometimes comment on the question of truth. He disbelieved in the “time of gods” for in the pre-literary period, when gods were supposed to have walked with mortals in Greece, the Egyptians already had written histories. To debunk the idea – common to a large number of cultures – that gods once walked the earth, always in pre-historical, pre-literate times, was to his credit.

More amusingly, he refused to believe that the source of the Nile could possibly be snow-capped mountains as the lands south of Egypt must surely be too hot. He also disbelieved stories of sailors claiming to have circumnavigated Africa because of their preposterous claim to have sailed south of the midday sun. He denied the existence of the so-called “tin islands” off the north west coast of Europe.

In some ways it is fortunate for future generations that Herodotus included these stories, despite their doubtful provenance, because they add much to our knowledge of the ancient world. The circumnavigators of Africa are unlikely to have embroidered a false claim with the story of sailing south of the sun – it invited ridicule in the ancient world. Today it supports their claim. Despite the firmly held convictions of Herodotus, the islands of Britain and Ireland are verifiable facts. But since Herodotus included in his writings stories which he hadn’t checked and others which he firmly (if sometimes wrongly) disbelieved, then he is not, by modern standards an historian.

The classical world’s lone exception to the view of the historian as entertainer was Thucydides. He introduced a rule of fact checking which is part of the standard guidance issued to journalists on the New York Times today: triangulation. He interviewed hundreds of participants in the Peloponnesian war but only included accounts that he could confirm from a second source. He was not concerned with which account was more entertaining but with which account was true. Should you ever plan to appear on “Mastermind” and are in need of a suitably impressive sounding specialist subject to revise, choose the history of the Peleponnesian war. There are hundreds of books on the subject, but the masterpiece by Thucydides is the source – the sole source – for all of them. If you read that book, you know everything that is known on the subject.

It would be foolish to assert that Thucydides was never in error. Though as he is the sole source of information on the subject it is nearly impossible to catch him in one. He probably made mistakes. But he was alone in believing it was his role to try to eliminate them.

Despite the pre-eminence often given to Herodotus, whose writing, for obvious reasons, was more entertaining, it is Thucydides who deserves the accolade “father of history”. Father, and grandfather too. For if “History of the Peleponnesian War” was the first history book, then the second was a long time in coming. It is difficult to think of anyone before Gibbon, more than two millennia later, who took the same care to check his facts.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 20 September 2003

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