Saturday, April 24, 2010

Aimless Reading: The G's, Part 11 (Michael Grant)

Grant, Michael
Greek & Roman Historians


Not sure where I bought this -- online or at Talking Leaves...Books. I must have bought it when I was working on my orals in graduate school. I have almost no memory of having read it, despite the fact that there are graduate school type markings throughout the text. It appears to concern (and to be concerned by) the general inaccuracy of classical history and the unreliability of classical historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides.

Influenced as I was by Olson in graduate school, I read both Herodotus and Thucydides . Olson argued that Herodotus' methodology–which Olson frequently referred to as " 'istorin " or "finding out for oneself"–despite its tendency toward credulousness and fabulation, was preferable to the kind of history practiced by Thucydides, in which documentation and factual accuracy come into the foreground.

The logic behind this argument was that Thucydides' methology is one of exclusion, while Herodotus' is one of inclusion. Thucydides makes judgments as he goes along, determines what he considers to be the most accurate documentation of a specific event or events, and then excludes all information he considers irrelevant or inaccurate.

Herodotus takes up just the opposite task. His investigation is less a set of judgments than a reportage of the information he discovers while seeking out the truth. If there are three explanations for what causes the flooding of the nile, Herodotus offers all three, along with his own commentary on the possible veracity of each explanation. In the same situation, we can be pretty sure that Thucydides would choose an authoritative explanation and leave the others out.

Herodotus seems to recognize that fabulation is inherent in history itself (which might explain the conflation of the terms 'history' and 'story' into a single term, "histoire,' in French, for instance). Thucydides attempts to create a science capable of separating fact from fiction, story from history, the true from the false. Herodotus, then, represents a kind of relativism which recognizes truth as provisional and contextual and ultimately subjective, whereas Thucydides represents a kind of absolutism that asserts the primacy of authority, fact and objectivity in the reconstruction of history.

It's no wonder the poet loves Herodotus. The longer I work on reconstructing my own history, the more I have to agree with Olson's Herodotus myself.

from Greek & Roman Historians

Historiography in antiquity dealt with important and noteworthy events, or at any rate those regarded as such, according to principles, interests, aims and tastes of great diversity. These events vary according to the social ambience in which a work is composed, according to its intended public, and according to the historiographical tradition to which it belongs...The different types of history in antiquity aimed at different readers, had different aims, were composed according to different principles.

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