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Be Careful Relying on Ancient Sources:

An amusing passage from The Ancient Economy (by M.I. Finley):

Even the rare figure to which an ancient author treats us is suspect a priori .... [W]hen Thudycides (7.27.5) tells us that more than 20,000 slaves escaped from Attica in the final decade of the Peloponnesian War, just what do we in fact know? Did Thucydides have a network or agents stationed along the border between Attica and Boeotia for ten years counting the fugitives as they sneaked across? This is not a frivolous question, given the solemnity with which his statement is repeated in modern books and then used as the basis for calculations and conclusions.

Arkady:
Yeah, and then there's that thing about the speeches.
8.18.2009 7:20pm
Pro Natura (mail):
And then there's the feminist, Berkeley law professor who cites Romulus as an historical King of Rome (I'm not sure whether she was aware of his divine paternity and she-wolf nurturance): See here.
8.18.2009 7:31pm
Laura(southernxyl) (mail) (www):
I wonder if there were inventories kept of slaves, so that missing ones would have been identified that way.
8.18.2009 7:43pm
GMUSOL05:
One more reason why the factual claims of holy books should be taken with a shaker of salt.
8.18.2009 7:51pm
Stephen C. Carlson (www):
Yikes, how does one know that the figures survived the manuscript transmission by manual copying intact?
8.18.2009 8:05pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
I wrote an interesting bit about use of Sagas as part of the historical record here. I cover a bit about the problems of relying too heavily on Herodotus, Xenophon, etc. as well.

But the fact remains that all ancient sources are suspect, but that doesn't mean that they are useless. One has to be careful about using them, but one has to use them nonetheless.
8.18.2009 8:16pm
Cato The Elder (mail) (www):
I was doing a bit of research on the Romans a while ago and I I found a very interesting book trying to combat this very evil called Roman Manpower. Unfortunately I was only looking for figures, so I'm not really sure about its contents...
8.18.2009 8:21pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Pro Natura:

And then there's the feminist, Berkeley law professor who cites Romulus as an historical King of Rome (I'm not sure whether she was aware of his divine paternity and she-wolf nurturance): See here.


Failure to filter out mythological components at its best (or worst).
8.18.2009 8:22pm
neurodoc:
Yikes, how does one know that the figures survived the manuscript transmission by manual copying intact?
Just yesterday heard about the med mal case a colleague was caught up in when a nurse gave 10X the intended dose (24000 of heparin rather than the 2400 U ordered). You think a similar error might have inflated/deflated those slave numbers? (The colleague maintains that while that was a mistake, it had bearing on the outcome of the case, which was not a happy one.)

Did anyone here read Thucydides in the original and know of what consequence that slave number might have been, at least in Thucydides' mind? Was he making some point with it, e.g., the "materiel" losses suffered in the course of that war, or just reciting it for no particular purpose?
8.18.2009 8:22pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Cato the Elder:

For those of us who do any work in documents in their original languages, these sorts of things don't really help.

For example, the numbers of Persian troops who fought at Thermopylae remains hotly contested. The simple fact is that we don't know. Herodotus gives an unreasonable number which could have been inflated for propaganda reasons, by honest error, or some other way.

Typically what is necessary is to put a document in context regarding its author first, then in context regarding other documents. Then material is filtered out, and the rest of the statements subjected to rough correction based on tendencies in such documents.

This assumes that we are looking at ancient historiographical documents, rather than purely practical ones like legal documents, stock lists, and the like, which would be more likely to be accepted at face value.
8.18.2009 8:28pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Arkady:

Xenophon, Herodotus, and others often give inaccurate figures of distance between two points too.
8.18.2009 8:30pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
And lets all remember how many people died in New Orleans when the levies broke -- thousands, if I remember correctly. This isn't just an ancient phenomenon. The same caution should apply, more or less, to almost every form of reporting. Another decent example is the Vietnamese body count figure from the Vietnam war.
8.18.2009 8:45pm
Angus:
And then there's the feminist, Berkeley law professor who cites Romulus as an historical King of Rome (I'm not sure whether she was aware of his divine paternity and she-wolf nurturance): See here.
The fact that supernatural things were later attributed to Romulus does not tell us whether he existed or not. If claims of divine paternity and miraculous birth in ancient sources were enough to dismiss historical figures out of hand, Jesus wouldn't stand a chance.
8.18.2009 8:57pm
Perseus (mail):
W]hen Thudycides (7.27.5) tells us that more than 20,000 slaves escaped from Attica in the final decade of the Peloponnesian War, just what do we in fact know? Did Thucydides have a network or agents stationed along the border between Attica and Boeotia for ten years counting the fugitives as they sneaked across? This is not a frivolous question, given the solemnity with which his statement is repeated in modern books and then used as the basis for calculations and conclusions.

It tells us that modern authors are foolish and petty-minded in their vulgar expectation that Thucydides intended literal accuracy.

Yeah, and then there's that thing about the speeches.

Of course, Thucydides is quite explicit about his embellished recounting of the speeches: "my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said." (I.22)
8.18.2009 9:20pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Angus:

The fact that supernatural things were later attributed to Romulus does not tell us whether he existed or not. If claims of divine paternity and miraculous birth in ancient sources were enough to dismiss historical figures out of hand, Jesus wouldn't stand a chance.


First, I don't think Jesus's actual existence works as a matter of historical record. But....

There has been a lot of research which has concluded that STRUCTURALLY, the story of Romulus and the four kings who came after them is fundamentally mythic and probably derived from pre-Classical (and later lost) Roman mythology. The cases have a lot to do with structural analysis of the stories and aren't tied to to specific claims of divinity, etc.
8.18.2009 9:23pm
Daniel San:
In reading Herodotus, I think it is pretty well accepted that, in confronting large numbers, it is a good rule to begin by dividing by 10 or 100. However, it is amazing how well many factual claims of orally transmitted material can be confirmed by archeology. For a long time, it was assumed that Troy was mythical. The historical source was transmitted orally for hundreds of years and contains odd interactions with gods and heroes. Troy was real and many of the descriptions found in the Iliad are correct; many others are nonsense even if the bits involving gods are omitted from consideration.
8.18.2009 9:24pm
Arkady:


Of course, Thucydides is quite explicit about his embellished recounting of the speeches: "my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said." (I.22)


Yeah, that thing.
8.18.2009 9:28pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Daniel San:

Additionally, it now looks like we have historical records relating to Troy in Anatolian languages too. Score one for philology.
8.18.2009 9:29pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Arkady: Iirc, Tacitus wrote the same thing at one point. Really, pre-Enlightenment historiographies ALWAYS have this problem.
8.18.2009 9:30pm
frankcross (mail):
Thucydides talked a lot about accuracy in his reporting of history. He said he either observed the facts himself (unlikely in this case) or interviewed those who did. But he admitted that sometimes reports of others were inconsistent and he chose the one he deemed best. But he never set out what his criteria were for choosing. And in this case, one can question whether the witnesses he interviewed could give an accurate number.

However, contra Perseus, he also said that he strived for the most accurate rendering of history he could produce.
8.18.2009 9:30pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):
What I find interesting about this topic is how routinely Western sources inflate their figures, the number of Persian soldiers noted above being a prime example. Yet the same sorts of claims made by Chinese sources about Chinese events from the same time frame bear out when surviving logistical records are examined.
8.18.2009 9:35pm
SuperSkeptic (mail):
But the fact remains that all ancient sources are suspect, but that doesn't mean that they are useless. One has to be careful about using them, but one has to use them nonetheless. emphasis added.

very much agreed, but I would note that even more modern figures need to be subjected to similar historical scrutiny - context, author's motive, etc...
8.18.2009 10:23pm
Perseus (mail):
However, contra Perseus, he also said that he strived for the most accurate rendering of history he could produce.

That begs the question as to what his criteria were for an accurate rendering of "history" were since it is not obvious that he should be treated simply as an historian. As you admit, he never set out what his criteria were for choosing between conflicting sources. And more generally, the work is full of omissions and arrangements of events that violate the modern historian's notion of accuracy.
8.18.2009 10:35pm
Daniel San:
einhverfr: Interesting. And yes, a big score for philology. Bronze Age philology strikes me as a frustrating, impossible endeavor. I admire historians, but especially those who work with such fragmentary sources as are found from that era.
8.18.2009 10:52pm
frankcross (mail):
Perseus, I wouldn't say he got everything right, I'm just saying he tried, which I thought you were disputing. He's remarkable for his time, though "for his time" is a pretty big qualification. And I prefer Herodotus. But I think he was trying his best to get the facts right.
8.18.2009 10:59pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
Inspired mostly by the 5th comment, I just posted something on how ancient Greeks and Romans represented numerals: it's even more prone to miscopying than you probably thought.
8.18.2009 11:00pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Dr Weevil:

Surely you can trace the origins back further. The simple answer is that these systems are based on tally sticks. For example in Roman Numerals, you have a contraction of somethng like:

IIIIVIIIIXIIIIVIIIIXIIIIVIIIXIIIVIIIIXIIIIVIIIILIIIIVIIIIX

The above would be abbreviated LX.

and so forth. The Greek system is strcturally similar but the symbols are different.

But most of the issues with numbers are often as likely unit errors as numeric errors.
8.18.2009 11:14pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Geek points to anyone who can point to an ancient writing system based on the tally stick values.
8.18.2009 11:15pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
einhverfr,

I suppose that you're referring to the hypothesis that Ogham is derived from tally marks.

And for a somewhat different sort of geek, I have written a library (for C, with a Tcl binding as well), along with command-line and GUI programs that use it, for converting among numeral systems. The great majority of known systems are covered: libuninum.
8.18.2009 11:57pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Bill Poser gets it. :-)

AFAICS, the tally mark hypothesis seems to be the most widely accepted approach to the basis of Ogham in the academic articles and books I have come across. Also it looks like the Ogham system is derived from the Latin alphabet, but that is beside the point (though this fits the archaeology, internal structure, etc. best and this is the most widely accepted theory today).

As to the other type of Geek, I build accounting software, so....
8.19.2009 12:25am
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
einhverfr,

I suppose there isn't a lot of demand for accounting software that handles Egyptian hieroglyphics or Kharosthi....
8.19.2009 12:44am
David Hardy (mail) (www):
Hans Delbruck does some interesting things with the ancient accounts.

Standard: the Persians army is usually put at a million men. He goes thru the logistics. I forget the calculations, but a million men would have required several thousand tons of supplies per day. Was there any transport system in the ancient world that could have moved this? They would have eaten up everything within walking distance by breakfast, so it would have had to come from outside. Also (making some estimates for road width, and using marching data from the Franco-Prussian War), with a million men the tail end of the column would still have been in Persia when the head of the column went into battle in Greece. He figures most fighting in the various wars was between two armies of about the same size, usually a few thousand, with the Persians depending upon a professional corps overwhelming militiamen, rather than upon enormous numbers.
8.19.2009 1:04am
David Hardy (mail) (www):
"And then there's the feminist, Berkeley law professor who cites Romulus as an historical King of Rome (I'm not sure whether she was aware of his divine paternity and she-wolf nurturance)"

She maintains that his status as an oppressor of women was inevitable, given that he was fathered by the hyper-masculine and violent Mars, and learning to relate to his stepmother as, well, an animal.

She claims proof of his historicity in the location of a wall next to a tombstone labeled "Remus, R.I.P., 792 BC," and in the Laws of Romulus, which she found on Westlaw.
8.19.2009 1:17am
Boblipton:
I just reread Herodotus last month and was struck by his fair-handed accuracy: he divides his reportage into things he has seen himself, which are very precise and correct and things which are reported to him, about which he often has an opinion as to their accuracy. Although he is famous for his reporting of gold-mining ants and opining that those sailors couldn't have gone around the southern cape of Africa because they reported the sun to the north, his coverage of Salamis shows a healthy skepticism. Furthermore, his numbers for the Persian army -- I just checked my copy of the Green translation -- are belied by his reporting of the amount of food supplies that the army carried, which meant that he had the numbers and reported them -- he just didn't do the analysis.


In short, while I would not use Herodotus to back a bet on matters he hadn't observed with his own eyes, he tells a good story and offers us the facts as he knows them. If two dozen centuries of digging have managed to invalidate some of them, I think a site like this, with its understanding of cross-examination, should not be surprised.

Bob
8.19.2009 8:43am
xx:
"She claims proof of his historicity in the location of a wall next to a tombstone labeled "Remus, R.I.P., 792 BC," and in the Laws of Romulus, which she found on Westlaw."

Actually, she cited the various historical and contemporary sources suggesting that the first King of Rome was named Romulus. I think its a big stretch - along the lines of relying on the 20,000 number above - to trace particular laws back to an individual that we know so little about, but its not shocking that someone could believe he existed, any more than it is that someone could believe that there was a real person named Jesus or a real person named Arthur.
8.19.2009 10:00am
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Bill Poser:

I suppose there isn't a lot of demand for accounting software that handles Egyptian hieroglyphics or Kharosthi....


No, but I get to handle the idiocies of Greek tax reporting requirements (won't get into here, but will say they are way out there) and similar "good ideas" run amok.

Also I wrote a book on the Elder Futhark Runes looking at the field from a comparative mythological perspective.
8.19.2009 10:41am
KevinM:
The late great Yale history prof., Robin Winks, insisted that ancient sources be subjected to the same scrutiny as modern ones. As he more memorably put it:
"A lie is a lie, even in Latin."
8.19.2009 10:41am
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Boblipton:

Herodotus is an interesting case in point. His work is extraordinarily important and large parts of it are fairly accurate. Other elements require some care.

The Battle of Salamis in his account is very good, as is his coverage of the whole Megacles ruse involving dressing up the Thracian girl as Athena. At the same time, even here, we see some things I have a hard time accepting. For example, he calls the Megacles ruse "extremely silly" and seems to marvel at the fact that it worked at all, but his passage provides fertile ground for comparative studies suggesting a play off far deeper religious themes. I find it strange that, as a Greek, he wouldn't have been in touch with this element of the ruse.
8.19.2009 10:48am
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
One more reason why the factual claims of holy books should be taken with a shaker of salt.

This. One of the more ridiculous aspects of many devout religious believers is how certain they believe they are about even minute details of the lives of people who lived 2,000 years ago.

Even if you assume that scriptures aren't complete BS (an assumption I accept-- I quite willingly assume that the "Jesus" of the New Testament refers to an actual charismatic preacher who left a big impression on many followers in the Middle East 2,000 years ago), there's no reason to believe that several contradictory texts, which were selected from many others floating around by political committees long after the events that they depicted would have taken place, get anywhere close to accurately describing what happened. And this isn't just a problem with Christianity-- it infects Islam, Judaism, and many other religious faiths.

And yet people just assume they know exactly what happened, down to minutiae such as whether Mary ever had sexual intercourse.
8.19.2009 2:18pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Dilan:

So I look at the New Testiment in more or less the same way I look at The Golden Ass. Both are, more or less, descriptions of mystery cults with some added moral teachings thrown in. One can see more or less three different elements that need to be understood and separated.

1) Mythological (virgin birth, resurrection, miracles, etc). Volumes have been written, and volumes more could be written, on the influence of Hellenic mystery cults on the development of the Christ Myth. At this point, I would suggest that there are no aspects of the Christ Myth which cannot be explained through Hellenic mystery cult antecedents.

2) Moral. These areas have not received the same scrutiny that the mythological elements have. There are fundamental questions which remain outstanding regarding these components in the Gospels and their relationship to eachother. I.e. did the author of a developing version of one use another as a source? These questions could be answered if looking back at some of our earliest manuscript sources, but have not been adequately studied. Furthermore I am not qualified to do such studies or have an opinion on the matter beyond "nobody has done work in this area."

On the moral side though, you have an issue of pseudopigrapha. If a developing mystery cult existed, there may have been a strong tendency for authors to pretend that their works were originally from the source of their cult. Other examples of pseudopigrapha in other religions include the Zohar (which came out of Jewish communities in 13th century Spain), and the Corpus Hermeticum (Greek, second century).

This problem is generally ignored despite the fact we know it was happening on the mythological side. For example, the Gospel according to John wasn't fully formalized in it's original Koine Greek form until the middle of the Second Century.

However, all in all, the question of whether Jesus was a historical person becomes a lot less interesting than the tracing of mystery cult themes into Christianity.
8.19.2009 3:12pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Also one problem occurs to me from reading too much into legal documents from ancient periods as well.

Folks look at some things nd say "this was outlawed because it was pagan, it evidently warranted enough focus because a lot of people were doing it."

However, if you look at Seattle, public nudity is not per se illegal. I haven't yet seen someone walking around Seattle in the nude but there are specific events where people do in groups. However, this suggests that lots of laws exist not because folks would otherwise do things, but because the forces that be are AFRAID they might.
8.19.2009 3:19pm
JohnKT (mail):
THE PERSIAN VERSION
Robert Graves

Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon
The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon.
As for the Greek theatrical tradition
Which represents that summer's expedition
Not as a mere reconnaissance in force
By three brigades of foot and one of horse
(Their left flank covered by some obsolete
Light craft detached from the main Persian fleet)
But as a grandiose, ill-starred attempt
To conquer Greece - they treat it with contempt;
And only incidentally refute
Major Greek claims, by stressing what repute
The Persian monarch and the Persian nation
Won by this salutary demonstration:
Despite a strong defence and adverse weather
All arms combined magnificently together.
8.19.2009 6:42pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
In case anyone wondered what my third category was, it was non-mythical story details. Whether these are historical or whether fictitious in the New Testament is an open question. But they can be separated from the mythological aspects fairly easily.
8.19.2009 8:56pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):
einhverfr,

But not so easily from the moral component.
8.19.2009 11:52pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Soronel,

True, in both cases.
8.21.2009 12:18pm

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