History18 Jan 2008 12:25 am
At the Devoted Intellect, one of our main pursuits is the separation of fact from fancy (perhaps this is because we are such fanciers of fact). Bias is a concern in any text purporting to be an accurate record of human affairs; however, the farther back we travel in time, the more confounded the testimony of our forbears becomes. The ancients and many of the not-so-ancients often had what could politely be called an open-minded approach to the recording of history: this accounts for the gold dust-collecting hairy ants of Herodotus, rains of frogs in the Old Testament, and the dragons seen by every explorer from Marco Polo to Sir Francis Drake.
The first writer in the Western historical tradition to abjure the inclusion of myth and legend in his books was Thucydides of Athens. Thucydides was a nobleman of famous family and a General in the Athenian army. His monograph, History of the Peloponnesian War, ranks among the great masterpieces of literature—it is a genotext, which is to say, it is the first of kind and the beginning of a tradition.
Thucydides’ social status placed him in a unique position to witness both the origins and the proceedings of the conflict between Athens and Sparta for mastery over the Aegean and Magna Graecia. Thus, in many ways, The Peloponnesian War looks like the result of a long-term journalistic effort. Thucydides tell his reader that he relies only on his own experience and the eyewitness accounts of sources he personally deems reliable, and the work itself bears the distinct imprint of a writer who had a vested interest in the outcome of his subject.
The History of the Peloponnesian War was not without manufactured events, most notably the many speeches of the main actors, such as Pericles and Alcibiades, but its effect on the future of historiography cannot be understated. Though innumerable subsequent historians—Livy and Charlemagne’s biographer, to name just two—proved fond of legend, nearly all of those who were familiar with Thucydides or his followers applied at least some standard for scientific veracity to their own research.
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