Who writes the history books?
Written by
Categories: Ancient, Modern

Who writes the history books?

Michael Ignatieff, former head of the Liberal Party of Canada, has been musing about why he lost the election of 2011 (see eg. this excerpt from his book in the Toronto Star).  One of his consolations is that successful political thinkers often fail as practical politicians, because theory and practice are different arts and require different virtues. Canadian readers will have their own opinions about Ignatieff’s career, and I don’t expect that anyone else cares, but this has reminded me of the curious idea that history is written by the victors.  It seems to me that this commonplace is more misleading than helpful.

It is certainly true that the victors sometime write the history books. For example, we know little about many ancient sects, because after they died out nobody preserved their sacred texts or their doctrines. Augustus and his supporters conducted a magnificent propaganda campaign against their enemies Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra, and little of their own perspective survives, so that historians who wish to tell their story need to wield all their powers of imagination.  In these cases, the defeated side died out and its story died with it.

Yet other times, each side preserves its own story.  Plutarch and Appian are rather sympathetic to the Gracchi brothers, even though they were killed and their political programs were violently suppressed. Although more than two hundred years had passed between the careers of the Gracchi and Plutarch’s and Appian’s writing, some pro-Gracchan stories clearly existed and could still win converts.  French victory in the Hundred Years’ War did not make the English stop telling stories about their three great victories and their warrior kings.  And because the War of 1812 ended ambiguously, both Canadian and American patriots have been able to use it to tell cheering stories.  Canadians often remember the siege of Detroit and the sack of Washington, Americans the Battle of New Orleans and the exploits of their navy.

Most interesting are the times where the victors busy themselves with ruling, while the vanquished sit and argue with themselves about how they could have lost or why the defeat was not really their fault. Consider Xenophon the Athenian.  He was born an Athenian knight (hippeos), grew up while his class suffered a series of defeats as they tried to seize power from the faltering democrats, and saw Athens defeated by Sparta and forced to give up its walls, its fleet, and its empire.  He then left Athens for Asia Minor, where he joined the army of Cyrus the Younger, who tried to become king but was killed. Xenophon and part of Cyrus’ army fought their way back to the Aegean coast, where they joined a Spartan army which was campaigning in Asia.  After a few successful campaigns, the Spartans were forced to retreat to Greece, and Xenophon followed them and was granted an estate in the Peloponnese.  He lived well for several decades until the Thebans overthrew Spartan hegemony.  He was driven from his farm and settled in Corinth until his death.  Xenophon and his friends were defeated again and again.  Yet he devoted a great deal of time to writing, and the stories which he tells dominate our view of Greek history from say 411 to 362 BCE.  Ancient and medieval readers loved Xenophon’s literary style and his aristocratic values, so they preserved his writings and accepted his stories, and because Xenophon’s version is often the most vivid and detailed which survives, modern writers tend to be strongly influenced by him even when they acknowledge that trusting him is risky. 

If it is skillfully written and says what they want to hear, people often accept history as written by the vanquished.  Often, each side composes a story which makes it happy and tries to ignore other versions.  Professional historians can’t control the sources which are passed down to them, but they can search out as many versions as possible, consider the perspective and limitations of each, and try to be fair.  If the results are not perfect, neither are they a simple repetition of the victor’s point of view.

Edit 2019-08-27: See also T. Greer, “History is Written by Losers” (2016) https://scholars-stage.blogspot.com/2016/11/history-is-written-by-losers.html which looks at Sima Qian, the great historian of the Han Dynasty who submitted to castration rather than die with his work unfinished … and whose words shape how the emperor who punished him is remembered.

paypal logo
patreon logo

Write a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.