Ancient Literary Sources How Reliable Essay

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Ancient Literary Sources

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TOPIC: Essay on Ancient Literary Sources How Reliable Are Ancient Assignment

One of the most obvious problems with the study of ancient history is the question of the reliability of ancient sources. While reliability is an issue in the study of all types of history, a major reliability problem for ancient Roman historical sources is that they were frequently not written contemporaneously with the described events. In fact the Roman historical "tradition was not fixed in writing until the last centuries of the Republic." (Cornell, p.47). Furthermore, the historian does not know where these authors got their facts and other information, though one can make an educated guess about the general types of sources used for such information. Even the early historians studying and writing about the Roman Republic had concerns about the reliability of early works. Q. Claudius Quadrigarius began his history of Rome with the Gallic capture of Rome in 390 BC because "he believed that during the Gaul's occupation of the city all written records had been destroyed, and all historical traditions concerning events prior to 390 could therefore be regarded as untrustworthy. (Forsyth, p. 63). Furthermore, other areas of historical study, such as archeology, have yet to reveal substantial information about the time period. Instead, as far as written history is concerned, people are forced to rely upon two written histories, one by Livy and one by Dionysius, both of which drew from earlier written histories and oral tradition. However, it is significant that neither of them had access to sources that were written during the first two centuries of Rome's existence, so that there are no contemporaneous sources for that material. Because of this problem, scholars have had a variety of opinions about the reliability of these ancient sources. Understanding the scholarly perspective allows one to better form an opinion regarding how reliable these ancient literary sources are for the earliest stages of Rome's history, and allows one to agree or disagree with Tim Cornell that people can distinguish between reliable structural facts and unreliable narrative elaboration in these sources.

What is most interesting is that the historians themselves acknowledged problems with source materials. Livy acknowledges the mythology surrounding the creation of Rome, so that its creation-story is not factual, and also reveals his personal bias by acknowledging that his interest is in focusing on the morals of the community, and how Rome has declined as the standard of morality has declined. (Livy, Preface). Moreover, he begins his discussion of early history by talking about tradition, and not suggesting the factual truth of the stories that he is relaying. In that manner Livy acts more like a sociologist or anthropologist, explaining Roman culture of his time, rather than discussing the actual history of Rome. At best, this can reveal what the Romans of Livy's time believed about ancient Rome. However, when talking of the early years of the republic, Livy claims to be able to speak objectively about the facts, but uses very opinionated terms to describe a people whom he never met, and from whom he was separated by two centuries lacking a written history.

Livy states, "there is no question that the Brutus who won such glory through the expulsion of Superbus would have inflicted the gravest injury on the State had he wrested the sovereignty from any of the former kings, through desire of a liberty for which the people were not ripe." (Livy, Book two). However, an equally likely explanation is that people did try to revolt against the monarchs, and, because those revolts were unsuccessful, stories about them were suppressed and did not become part of the oral tradition that formed the foundation of the written tradition. What this example makes clear is that Livy's bias colors his interpretation of the facts, which suggests the possibility that he omitted or enhanced certain facts in his history, to fit his thesis that morality in Rome had been in a steady decline.

Like Livy, Dionysius acknowledges factors that might lead one to question his written history, because he believes that it conflicts with the oral tradition of the Greeks about the Romans. He states that "almost all the Greeks are ignorant of the early history of Rome." (Dionysius, p.15). He also indicates that prior historians have misstated Rome's true history, " taking this method of humouring barbarian kings who detested Rome's supremacy, -- princes to whom they were ever servilely devoted and with whom they associated as flatterers, -- by presenting them with 'histories' which were neither just nor true?" (Dionysius, p.15). Therefore, he makes it clear that he is drawing upon historical sources that have been intentionally inaccurate. He also makes it clear that he has a pro-Roman bias, which could slant his selection and presentation of source material.

As a result, the general consensus among historians is that the written histories do not present a complete picture of early Rome. Instead, historians like Cornell believe that "the surviving accounts present a highly contrived and unrealistic picture of the early age of Rome. (Cornell, p. 48). By this, they mean that the known authors may have used rhetoric and elaboration to paint a historical picture that is not necessarily accurate. Furthermore, some historians suggest that the ancient historians actually lied about events, though there is no historical evidence to suggest that the histories by Livy or Dionysius contain outright lies of their creation. In fact, what is known about Rome and about how its history was put into written form makes it clear that historians could not have dramatically changed their versions of history without those changes being noticed by the Romans, who were committed to Rome's history. However, while a dramatic change could not have occurred in a short period of time, a dramatic change could have developed over an extended period of time. As Cornell pointed out, in the Roman Republic, "the story of the city's past was not confined to history books, but was rather a living tradition that formed part of the consciousness of the entire community of Roman citizens. In this sense the Roman historical tradition can be defined as the sum of what successive generations of Romans believed in their own past." (Cornell, p.50).

Despite his acknowledgment that Rome's history was a living history, subject to embellishment and change, depending on the narrator, Cornell also believes there is a strong basis for the belief that the structural facts in the tradition are reliable. The "Romans of the later Republic thought they knew a great deal about their own history, a claim that would be very hard to understand if there were not some sound basis for it." (Cornell, p.53). This does not mean that Cornell believes that one should have a blind belief in the written histories, but, rather, taking "a cautious approach to the information contained in the literary sources, in contrast to the unjustified and often arbitrary practice of radical skeptics who tend to reject much of the literary material out of hand without sufficient evidence to back their claims." (Cornell, p. 61).

Raaflaub disagrees with Cornell's perspective, because Raaflaub believes that the annalists created a literary genre, which had a "peculiar characters and scientific shortcomings that drastically reduce[d] its source value and disqualifie[d] most of its content for the task of reconstructing the history of archaic Rome." (Raaflaub, p.24). However, he feels that their positions are not as dissimilar as they initially appear. He agrees that the annalists passed on structural facts, but that they each, as individuals, put in a narrative superstructure of the facts. This leads Raaflaub to question how one can distinguish between the structural facts and the dramatization of those facts by the individual annalists. When one does so, Raaflaub believes that the structural facts actually provide very limited information about the first two centuries of Rome. (Raaflaub, p. 25). Therefore, Raaflaub believes that the historical reliability of the literary sources is questionable, and must be "guided by clear methodological principles." (Raafluab, p.26).

Wiseman also disagrees with Cornell's approach. Where Cornell suggests that, for a history, everything begins with tradition, Wiseman cautions, "if everything depends on the tradition, we need to be very careful about identifying what exactly it is that the tradition offers. The dreadful, inescapable fact is that there was no written history of Rome before about 200 B.C." (Wiseman, p. 311). Given that Livy and Dionysius are relying on works written after that time to give them information about Rome during that time period, he finds it impossible to verify factual information from that time period by relying on literary sources. Moreover, Wiseman does not feel that it is intellectually disreputable to be systemically pessimistic about the likelihood of authentic history being transmitted in the literary tradition. (Wiseman, p.315).

Although my own individual experience with ancient Roman history is limited by the same problems experienced by the above-scholars, what I do have is experience with how history is remembered in modern times. Individual perspective changes how histories… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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