History as Rhetoric
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Categories: Ancient, Modern

History as Rhetoric

A pale red marbe statue of a man in robes and cap seated at a weighty desk
The protective statue of Virgil, Mantua’s patron, now looks down from the inside wall of a museum instead of the outside wall of the Palazzo della Ragione (Palazzo Te, collezione civiche inv. n. 11605, photo by author)

There is a school of thought which says that ancient Greek and Roman historians were more interested in telling pretty stories than about critically comparing different reports to understand what had happened in the past. Generally advocates of this view appeal to later and Roman writers like Livy and Tacitus, and to proscriptions by rhetoricians about how history ought to be written; opponents appeal to earlier and Greeker writers like Thucydides, and note that those proscriptions were seldom written by working historians, and often fail to say what the relativists wish they said. And like unto the battle-lines in Homer, back and forth the combat goes, enlivening the discussion periods at conferences, fattening journals, and keeping librarians busy delivering the latest salvo. Since ancient historians only left incidental traces of their working methods in their writings, and not many non-historians wrote anything about the subject at all, the debate will keep scholars happily bickering for decades to come. I tend to lean against this way of thinking, but because the debate focuses on later periods than I do, I would recommend that interested readers check Luke Pitcher’s book below for an introduction.

One of my favorite tools in such situations is to look for parallels. Medievalists tell me that very little is known about how chroniclers worked in the middle ages, and little research has been done (Anne Curry’s book on Agincourt has some helpful footnotes here). More seems to be known about writers from the sixteenth century as in the following quote from Robert Black, Machiavelli (Routledge: London and New York, 2013) pp. 248-252. I was struck by his remarks on how Italian humanists in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries wrote history, and since they are evidence against my own views they deserve to be quoted:

Machiavelli intended his work to conform to the norms of humanist history, aiming to imitate Bruni’s and Poggio’s Florentine histories. The text is laden with features characteristic of ancient Roman historiography such as lengthy speeches … It is clear that Machiavelli was attempting to recreate the periodic style of the classical Roman historians, and particularly Sallust and Livy, in the modern vernacular … In line with the conventions of humanist historiography, Machiavelli showed little concern for factual accuracy. The work’s many methodological shortcomings, errors and even inventions have been frequently highlighted, beginning in the sixteenth century with the definitive historian of grand-ducal Florence, Scipio Ammirato (1531-1601) …

Black continues with specific examples:

As with earlier humanist civic historians, Machiavelli’s critical approach was limited to discussing Florence’s origins, rejecting not only Giovanni Villani’s legendary account but also Bruni’s theories. Instead he followed new research by Poliziano and even consulted the recently discovered first six books of Tacitus’ Annals, first printed in 1515. …. Otherwise he conformed to the normal humanist historical practice of choosing a principal source for his narrative [see Marinetti 1974: 134 = “Machiavel historiographique des Médicis,” in André Rochon et al., Les écrivains et le pouvoir en Italie a l’époque de le Renaissance, deuxième serie, Paris pp. 81-148], making little attempt to integrate the accounts found in chronicles and histories: reliability was not his principal concern. Although, as the official Florentine historian, he could doubtless have gained access to the vast archival resources preserved in Florence, he nevertheless limited himself to printed sources, easily transportable to his country house in S. Andrea in Percussina. [A detailed list of sources follows- ed.]. Again in line with normal humanist practice, Machiavelli did not hesitate to include his own inventions, particularly in the numerous speeches (for example, the remarks which he puts in the mouth of Lorenzo the Magnificent following the Pazzi conspiracy, which bear no resemblance to the summary of the speech which Lorenzo is recorded to have delivered to the Florentine consultative assembly, as preserved in the Florentine archives). He adopted the same practice for the narrative itself … Paramount for the humanists and for Machiavelli was the idea of verisimilitude or probability; history was, according to Cicero, the job of the orator or rhetorician [as were many other things- ed.]. In classical rhetorical theory, truth was defined not as absolute veracity or rigorous adherence to sources but rather as verisimilitude [citation needed- ed.]: for an advocate in court (whose practices determined the norms of classical [or at least Roman- ed.] rhetoric) what counted was not literal truth but what could convincingly be regarded as truth in a court. … since his purpose was to illustrate the contrast between ancient military virtues and modern corruption, he showed no hesitation in correspondingly minimizing deaths in modern engagements. Machiavelli realized that, in contrast to engagements during the Italian Wars, earlier fifteenth-century battles were relatively bloodless, and so he resorted to the technique of rhetorical hyperbole- sanctioned by humanist historiographical theory- to drive his point home.

The renaissance humanists give us a natural experiment on how reasonable people from a very different environment than 21st century academe thought the ancients wanted them to write history. But like all parallels or natural experiments, it has limits. The humanists had exactly the same manuals of rhetoric and polished histories by Latin writers which we have. But vanishingly few of these proscriptions were written by working historians, and they do not always say what the strongest advocates of history-as-rhetoric tell readers they say. If more of the early humanists had been able to read Greek historians like Herodotus who visibly wrestled with the problem of learning what had happened in the past, they might have taken a different approach. Still, this at least tells us that readers in a very different context came to the same conclusion as the history-as-rhetoric school today.

Further Reading: Luke Pitcher, Writing Ancient History: An Introduction to Classical Historiography. I.B. Tauris, 2009. Link.

Edit 2023-03-08: converted to block editor

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