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Greece Versus Rome: Polybius Decides

by July 17, 2019

By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
It is the eternal question for all classics enthusiasts: brawn versus brains, power versus beauty, empire versus empiricism – Rome versus Greece.
Which team do you support?
Picture of Athens

Which is better? Greece or Rome? Illustration of Ancient Athens

Of course the equation is far, far more complex than that. Indeed, most of the choices listed above are somewhere on the spectrum between ridiculously oversimplified or downright wrong; too false to even make a false dichotomy.
From our remote distance of time and space we may feel unable to adequately, or at least authoritatively, answer this question. However, there was one man uniquely placed to give his opinion on the subject – Polybius.
The Greek Roman Historian
Polybius was a Greek historian who had been taken hostage by the Romans in the 160’s BC. From that time on he became an important and prominent member of Roman society and embraced the country and culture that had rent him from his homeland.
Steele of Polybius

The stele of Kleitor depicting Polybius, Hellenistic art, 2nd century BC, Museum of Roman Civilization

Thus, Polybius gives us an intelligent outsider’s view of a budding young empire, one that was already making huge waves in the Mediterranean two centuries before the age of the Caesars.
But how did these waves occur? What tiny ripples set them in motion?
Well, Book VI of Polybius’ The Rise of the Roman Empire is devoted to explaining exactly how Rome became the world beater it was. Not through events (that is tackled elsewhere in his work), but through organization.
According to our historian, the only way for people to prosper in the ancient world was if they had a strong constitution… and Polybius idealized the Roman constitution.
The Robust Roman Constitution
Reconstruction of Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome, built on a strong constitution? Reconstruction of Ancient Rome

He thought it was optimal because it combined the three theoretically sound, but easily corruptible, systems of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Together these became more than the sum of their parts and acted as checks and balances against one another, thus making sure no one body became predominant.
Moreover, each system, Polybius states, inevitably decays and devolves down the social ladder before completing a full cycle (i.e. monarchy becomes aristocracy which becomes democracy which becomes monarchy…). This governmental anacyclosis, or perpetual revolution, according to Polybius, is what made his countrymen inferior to his captors.
So what manifestation did these political pillars take?
Well, first let’s look at the aristocracy – the privileged, out-of-touch members of society who controlled all the wealth of the empire and were nigh on impossible to remove from power.
Yes, of course we’re talking about the heartbeat of Roman politics… the Senate!

Cicero Denounces Catiline in the Roman Senate (1888), by Cesare Maccari

While Polybius propounds the virtue of a balanced system of government, nothing could have been further from the truth, because, in reality, the Senate held all the cards and, by and large, did whatever it wanted to do.
This included the monarchical arm of government, the Consuls, which were appointed by the Senate. Two men were chosen together on one-year terms to be the commanders-in-chief, as well as be responsible for the purse strings of the state. And strictly speaking, one was not eligible for the position of Consul unless he had completed the cursus honorum (path of honor), meaning he had already held every significant office of government.
Meanwhile, the democratic element of Rome’s constitution was the most flimsy and theoretical of the three. Polybius claimed that nothing could be done without first being ratified by the plebeian classes, but in actuality, this was but a tiny obstacle for the Senate to circumvent (or sometimes completely ignore).
Roman Consuls

Roman Drawing – Two Roman Consuls On Their Thrones by Mary Evans Picture Library

Thus, despite technically being a balanced, democratic government with a qualified and responsible head of state, Rome was de facto ruled by a self-interested and pernicious elite.
Such a thing is, of course, unimaginable to us now!
AntiFragile Constitution?
Polybius didn’t merely believe Rome’s constitution to be strong, but felt it was one able to withstand any disaster, one perfectly devised, and therefore eternally fit, for purpose.
And perhaps the Roman constitution was ideal in Polybius’ day. Certainly there was sound reasoning behind his argument; he was no blind acolyte. Rome supremely dominated his known world and it must have been previously unimaginable that Greece/Macedon could ever be knocked off its lofty perch.
After all, the tripartite constitution was borne out of the ashes of the fallible and inferior systems of the old world; Rome had learned the mistakes of its decaying predecessors. And with this knowledge it was ready to be the caput canis for evermore.
However, Polybius could not have predicted Rome’s meteoric rise, its expansion in all directions, its resources and responsibilities, its supreme and unrivaled status.
Statue of Polybius

Statue of Polybius, Vienna Parlimanet Austria.

Had he done so, then he may not have been so dogmatic in his assertion that the state’s current constitution determines its future strength; he may have conceded that, as nations evolve, so must the manner in which they are governed.
With the blessing of hindsight this is easy enough to say. Thankfully with such well-documented events readily available to anyone with the remotest curiosity in constitutional history, we can sleep safely in the knowledge that the present political arbiters will not commit the same folly of the Romans and needlessly shipwreck the state!
‘New’ World Allure
It’s easy to understand why Polybius wrote the way he did.
As an alien from the old world, the splendor and riches of a foreign country so much mightier than his homeland must have dazzled him.
Interior of the Pantheon

Rome’s Glory: The interior of the Pantheon in Rome, a concrete mausoleum with a beautiful dome and rows of columns.

And so, he simultaneously excused Greek inadequacies and explained his host’s dominance by the system of government the Romans employed.
It was the constitution that made Rome successful, he argued, and not fallible individuals, a disparity of natural resources or a more clement climate. And it certainly wasn’t the two most consistently important factors that have benefited states throughout all of history… timing and luck.
Rome Versus Greece
Book VI of Polybius’ history doesn’t merely talk about Rome’s superiority in governmental structure; the Greek armies also come in for plenty of criticism.
Polybius states that they were obsessed with using natural terrain, rather than discipline and tactics, as the default method of triumphing in battle. The reason being the Greeks were simply too lazy to build trenches or camps.
He also claims Greek bureaucrats were untrustworthy and corrupt when compared to their Roman counterparts.
Not that he puts this down to a weakness in the blood, but because Greeks (unlike Romans) were not sufficiently god-fearing.
He goes on to state that religion (literally ‘superstition’) stops the lower classes from behaving in a decadent and lawless manner. Despite his support for all things godly, he also believes that religion would not be necessary if all men were wise!
Ancient Greek Funeral Painting

The lying in state of a body (prothesis) attended by family members, with the women ritually tearing their hair, depicted on a terracotta pinax by the Gela Painter, latter 6th century BC

Concurrent and parallel with the religious theme is one of ancestral devotion and public funerary rites, which was a great honor for a citizen.
During the ceremony a notable member of society read out the achievements of the deceased’s ancestors. This made diligent service to Rome not only a thing of civic and personal pride, but through these public funerals, a source of family pride as well.
For all these reasons, Polybius believed the Romans had achieved superior feats to the Greeks.

The Birth of the Biography

by July 5, 2019

By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Painting of Thucydides

Painting of Thucydides

What springs to mind when we think about literature of the Ancient World? Maybe it’s Homer’s Achilles dragging the corpse of Hector around Troy or Sophocles’ Oedipus stabbing out his polluted eyes. Perhaps it’s Plato’s Socrates holding forth or Herodotus’ Leonidas and his 300 Spartans. It even might be the dulcet tones of Sappho, the penetrating ones of Catullus, or the scathing superiority of Cicero.
Whilst the above mentioned epic poetry, theatrical drama, philosophical dialogue, historiography, romantic poetry, and private correspondence are all represented as well as appreciated, we give less thought to an area of literature that has never been more prevalent than it is in modern times.
It is the form of writing which is the savior for those wishing to buy lousy, last-minute Christmas presents; the biography.
painting of Aristotle

Aristotle, by Jusepe de Ribera, 1637

The beginnings of this genre are both fragmentary and fractured, as the writers of biography have their smudgy thumbprints all across the literature of antiquity. Consequently, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when ‘biography’ begins.
Fantastical as it may be, a case can be made for Homer’s Odyssey being an early antecedent. A more palatable comparison, however, can be found in early Greek dirges and funeral orations.
Sirens with Odysseus

Odysseus and the Sirens, an 1891 painting by John William Waterhouse

Likewise, the first historians, Herodotus and Thucydides, comprised elements of biography within their works, but these were (as in histories today) used for example, explanation and color. Essentially as a means, not an end.
Thucydides does get mightily close with his almost fanatical devotion to the famous 5th century Athenian statesman, Pericles; likewise with his depictions of Themistocles and Pausanias – two of the leading lights of the Persian Wars.
Statue of the Athenian General

Bust of Pericles

Thucydides’ contemporary Xenophon is sometimes credited with siring the genre. However, his Cyropaedia (life of Cyrus the Great) is more akin to Plato’s Republic or Polybius’ Book VI in that it has an agenda in promoting and justifying a specific form of government or political system.
Not surprisingly, it took the interference of Aristotle to change the way biography was approached.
His views on ethics prompted the rethink that deed was no longer the be-all and end-all of a man’s life, his character was now worth more than a mere footnote.
The reign of Alexander the Great, brief as it was (336-323 BC), was the next great catalyst which brought a spate of biographical works. Notably from Ptolemy I, the founder of the dynasty that would eventually (and incestuously) spawn Antony’s Cleopatra.

Anthony and Cleopatra on the Nile by Lawrence Alma Tadema

Some biographers, such as Onesicritus, dealt with how Alexander was brought up, rather that his personality or accomplishments. Ptolemy, however, focused on Alexander, the man, more than his exploits. Furthermore, Ptolemy contributed to the field of biography beyond his scribblings, he also created an ethos of scholasticism, most notably by establishing the Royal Library of Alexandria.
Then there was the memoir, the most self-indulgent and vainglorious form of biography, which was also in existence (even if not prevalent) in the Greek world.
When Romans came to dominate the Mediterranean both artistically as well as militaristically, the biography became exultant and, very often, ‘auto’.
This is thought to have been due to the importance of family, specifically of the reflected glory of noble lineage – a preoccupation that went far beyond familial pride. A Roman’s self-worth was intrinsically linked to the glory of his forbears, a concept that never failed to irk the novus homo, Cicero.

Cicero Denounces Catiline (1888), by Cesare Maccari

The fact that Romans paraded busts of prominent ancestors at funerals shows how much stock they put in…. well, stock.
Indeed, the death of a family member was a wonderful opportunity to pompously self-promote. It could even be said that the distastefully elaborate and lengthy epitaphs from the time were a form of biography in themselves.
In general, biography became an exercise not only in curiosity or narcissism, but also in duty and career advancement.
For example, Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Civili and Commentarii de Bello Gallico (chronicling his part in the Civil and Gallic wars respectively) best capture the imagination. Not merely because they were particularly subtle and sly in terms of self-glorification, but because they worked in advancing his political position – or at the very least, appear to have done. Well… until he was stabbed anyway!
Caesar Gallic Wars

Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar, by Lionel Royer

However, the precedent had been set, a tradition had begun. The emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Hadrian and Septimius Severus all wrote similar such books.
Marcus Aurelius, the great philosophical emperor, reached a zenith in this narrow field with his intellectually curious and stoic form of self-promotion. Indeed, it is thought there is nothing comparable to his introspection written by a native Latin.
It’s important to remember that in general, the biography was not merely a vehicle for glory, but for survival of both oneself and one’s state.
As the Republic was dying and the Empire forming, power seemed to be capriciously ebbing out of the hands of all those who briefly held it. With the stakes so unprecedentedly high, biography was used to defend, accuse, counter-accuse… it became the conduit, the desperate measure the desperate times required.
P.S. The Other Biographers
You may be amazed that the above article could have discussed ancient biography without even alluding to the contributions of men like Theopompus, Timaeus, Plutarch, Josephus, Tacitus, Sulla and Sallust.
The truth is that each of these fine exemplars of the art could easily have devoured the author’s weekly word-count without so much as a “how do you do”.
That said, the one glaring omission who deserves special attention (even in the context of why he has been ignored) is Suetonius.

A fictitious representation of Suetonius from the 15th-century Nuremberg Chronicle

Dealing with the lives of the leaders of Rome from Julius Caesar up to Domition, it is a work truly worthy of scrutiny. Indeed, it could be said (though I’m sure not entirely without detractors) that, when it comes to the biography of antiquity, Suetonius is even more essential than he is elegant and enlightening.
Rather than use my own paltry words, I will borrow from the foremost expert in the field, Christopher Pelling of Christ Church College, Oxford. Here he explains the impact and importance that Suetonius had in highlighting the un-oscillating swing that had occurred in the higher echelons of Roman politics:
“The style of the Caesars proved congenial as spectators increasingly saw Roman history in terms of the ruling personality, and biography supplanted historiography as the dominant mode of record”.
And this style, twinned with the introspection and inquisitiveness of Marcus Aurelius, are the ingredients that go into many of the biographies flying off the shelves today.

Herodotus’ Giant Ants

by June 12, 2019

by Cam Rea, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Illustration of the Bust of Herodotus

Earlier this week I came across a quote by Herodotus on Classical Wisdom’s Facebook page. The main theme was “giant gold digging ants.” Sounds fanciful, right? Well, behind every myth is a general truth, and that is something I think we all can agree on. Herodotus states in The Histories book 3.102:
“Besides these, there are Indians of another tribe, who border on the city of Caspatyrus, and the country of Pactyica; these people dwell northward of all the rest of the Indians, and follow nearly the same mode of life as the Bactrians. They are more warlike than any of the other tribes, and from them the men are sent forth who go to procure the gold. For it is in this part of India that the sandy desert lies. Here, in this desert, there live amid the sand great ants, in size somewhat less than dogs, but bigger than foxes. The Persian king has a number of them, which have been caught by the hunters in the land whereof we are speaking. Those ants make their dwellings under ground, and like the Hellene ants, which they very much resemble in shape, throw up sand-heaps as they burrow. Now the sand which they throw up is full of gold.”
herodotus histories fragment

Herodotus histories fragment

Understand that Herodotus never went to India or anywhere near India… as far as we know. But, I think his statement speaks for itself, and perhaps even Herodotus was skeptical of the giant gold digging ants. However, I could be wrong?
Saying all that, there may be truth to this story after all. I hereby give to you, the audience, and to Mr. Herodotus, a potential explanation.
They were not giant ants at all, but, in fact, men who looked like ants. To be more specific, they were the Saka (Scythians) Tigraxauda.
Ant people

Saka (Scythians) Tigraxauda

But before you scoff, let me explain first the location and name of these mistaken ant people.
First, the location of the Saka Tigraxauda was east of the Caspian Sea, and they were found between the provinces of Hyrcania and Chorasmia. The Saka Tigraxauda are also suggested to have been none other than the Massagetae, a people also described in depth by Herodotus, even though not everyone agrees that they were.
However, it is the name that is interesting, and more pertain to our theory. Saka Tigraxauda, also Tigra-Khaud, is said to mean “Saka that wore pointed caps.” Additionally, the word Tigra-Khaud is reported to be a corrupt form of the Sanskrit rendering of “Tigra-kakud”, meaning “pointed projection”, a metaphor for horns.
Golden Man

The “golden man” from the Issyk kurgan, 4th or 3rd century BC.

Back to our Herodotus quote – In the northern Indian province of Kashmir, it was remarked that unnatural sized ants “Tigra-kakud” dug for gold. But this, in fact, could just be Saka, wearing the namesaked horned headdress, that dug for gold and attacked anyone who intruded, just like ants. However we should add that this description of the Saka wearing pointed hats is generic, for most Saka wore pointed hats.
Of course we can not conclusively prove this – and probably it will remain a mystery. Additionally, we can not ascertain what is more likely: giant ants digging up gold or small Scythians mining in northern lands, though personally I am predisposed to the latter. Some folks on facebook have posited that Herodotus’ description instead refers to gophers or prairie dogs, while others have contended that they were in fact camel spiders… either way, it seems that, once again, there may be more to Herodotus’ tales than first meets the eye.

Pericles’ Funeral Oration

by November 10, 2018

It is the close of the first year of the Peloponnesian war. Athens, no stranger to war, finds itself mourning those who had fallen on the field of battle, the sons and fathers lost. As was customary in Athens the bodies of the deceased had been collected and displayed under a tent for three days. During this time, various citizens paid tribute and the families were allowed to say goodbye to their loved ones. After the tree days, a funeral procession would be held where an esteemed citizen would make some small speech on behalf of the lost. And so it was around the year 430 BCE that Pericles would be selected to address Athens.
Statue of the Athenian General

Bust of Pericles

While Pericles’ funeral oration undoubtedly reflects the sentiments of the statesmen, we must remember that the text was not transcribed verbatim. Thucydides would have written the funeral oration some time after the actual speech, giving him ample time to reword and edit anything he pleased. However we can still be reasonably sure that the text by Thucydides is a faithful representation of the actual funeral oration.
As Pericles takes the stage, he makes clear his concerns about such a speech. While the funeral procession is surely a noble tribute for such courageous souls, Pericles believes that the words of any many will often fall short of accurately describing the deeds of the dead. Pericles believes he runs the difficult task of balancing a speech so as not to undercut the valor of the warriors while simultaneously not appearing to exaggerate. These concerns noted, he declares that it is tradition for words to be spoken on such an occasion, so he hesitantly obliges.
Painting of Pericles

Pericles Addressing the Crowd

“When men’s deeds have been brave, they should be honored in deed only, and with such an honor as this oration public funeral, which you are now witnessing.” – Thucydides, Pericles’ Funeral Oration
The speech that Pericles delivers is such a dramatic departure from the customary oration that it is often considered a eulogy of Athens itself. Pericles begins by mentioning the struggles of the Athenian ancestors whom “…after many a struggle transmitted to us their sons this great empire.” And what an empire it might appear to be. Pericles goes to great lengths to detail the glory and the esteem of the Athenian empire.
With a government that pursues liberty and gives power to the many and not the few, Athenian democracy has become a model for success for all the Greek city-states. A system of government where the weak are empowered and public office is achieved through merit and not a matter of privilege. Pericles describes that in Athens any man, no matter his station in life, can find a way to strive within society. Pericles explains…
“Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition.” –Thucydides, Pericles’ Funeral Oration
Peloponnesian War Depiction

Illustration of War

Pericles continues by recounting the several military conquests and how their army is considered to be far superior than any other the ancient world can produce. Even the Spartans who come upon their land often find themselves retreating from Athenian spears. And the brave Athenian soldiers, even when fighting on foreign soil, have little trouble overcoming their adversaries. Pericles continues by declaring that Athens also excels in times of peace, holding several games and sacrifices throughout the year. It would appear that the empire of Athens has found prosperity in all measures of life. Pericles says himself…
“To sum up: I say that Athens is the school of Hellas, and that the individual Athenian in his own person seems to have the power of adapting himself to the most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace. This is no passing and idle word, but truth and fact; and the assertion is verified by the position to which these qualities have raised the state.” -Thucydides, Pericles’ Funeral Oration
So why would Pericles go to such great lengths to paint his city as a thriving metropolis? Remember that this is not a political rally, but rather a funeral procession. It is likely the Pericles would have been thoughtful of Athenian moral at this time. On the precipice of a great war, Pericles would have done well to bolster the spirits of the living while commemorating the sacrifices of the departed. Pericles gives another explanation by explaining that the merits of the great city reflect the merits of the lost. And the greatness of Athens is only possible through bloody sacrifice and steeled determination.
Picture of Athens

Illustration of Ancient Athens

“I would have you day by day fix your eyes upon the greatness of Athens, until you become filled with the love of her; and when you are impressed by the spectacle of her glory, reflect that this empire has been acquired by men who knew their duty and had the courage to do it.” -Thucydides, Pericles’ Funeral Oration
When faced with war, these soldiers chose death over dishonor, glory over cowardice. Pericles considers this bravery to be the truest form of a mans worth. He spends ample time detailing the fear that must have raced through their minds, and how they swiftly abandoned that fear for courage and valor. A rather eloquent and concise summary of a warriors sacrifice, Pericles subtly mourns the lost men while taking note of their willingness to lay down their lives for the homeland.
This message has been repeated through the ages. ‘We mourn them yes, but their sacrifice is not in vain…’ is a timeless message reappearing throughout thousands of years of human history. Pericles’ funeral oration is often compared to the Gettysburg address, where in 1863 former US president Abraham Lincoln reflected on the greatness of a nation that owed much to the sacrifices of dead men.
Despite the words of Pericles, Athens would suffer greatly in the coming years. The Peloponnesian war would continue for several years. Untold numbers would die and Athens itself would suffer a great plague and an eventual defeat at the hands of the Spartans. It is fortunate however that the great city would allowed to live and eventually recover.
Pericles’ funeral oration remains a poignant reminder that all things come at a cost. And while we might enjoy several luxuries within our own lifetime, there are often those who suffer selflessly on our behalf; falling again and again under the blows of outrageous fortunes so that we might live contently, peacefully. And if nothing else, we would do well to remember them…
“And when the moment came they were minded to resist and suffer, rather than to fly and save their lives; they ran away from the word of dishonor, but on the battlefield their feet stood fast, and in an instant, at the height of their fortune, they passed away from the scene, not of their fear, but of their glory.”- Thucydides, Pericles’ Funeral Oration

History: A Factual Fiction

by April 10, 2014

By Ben Potter
Nero fiddling as Rome burns.
The solidarity of dozens of men claiming ‘I’m Spartacus’.

Death of Caesar
Caesar looking into the eyes of his surrogate son as the blade of betrayal sliced open his mortal flesh while he pathetically gasps, through a mouthful of blood and spittle, the words: “et tu Brute”.

The mnemonic power of these images of the Ancient world are well-known to us all. We shouldn’t, however, thank the likes of Plutarch or Tacitus for such vivid portrayals, but Mervyn LeRoy, Stanley Kubrick and William Shakespeare.
Modern artists like these are not responsible for the immortalization of well-documented facts, but rather for giving us a history which is undeniably more effective at infiltrating the collective-consciousness.
Rome burning
Just to set the record straight: the fiddle hadn’t yet been invented in the 1st century AD, and Tacitus, an eye-witness to the blaze, reports that Nero made considerable efforts to counter its deadly effects.
Moreover, we’ve no idea as to the exact dialogue from the revolting slaves during the Third Servile War (73-71 BC), and the famous ‘et tu’ was considered an anachronism within a century of the event itself.

So, what to make of all this? Is this important? Do we care? Does the truth get in the way of a good yarn?

Perhaps talk of this sort is enough to get you a little hot under the collar. Well… if so, let’s hope that this source-based approach to the value of authenticity takes some of that heat and uses it to shed a little light.

The words of the aptly named professor Donald Watt are a good place to start our investigation:
“The historian’s main concern is accuracy; the producer of film and television is concerned with entertainment. The unspoken premise of the first proposition is that to be accurate is to be dull. The unspoken premise of the opposed proposition is that to be entertaining it is necessary to distort or misrepresent”.

‘Balderdash!’ The purist in us screams.

Well… let’s compare notes. Livy and Polybius both wrote of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. However, whilst Polybius was in his late teens at the time of the Carthaginian general’s death, Livy would not even be a twinkle in his father’s eye for another 120 years.
Here’s the contemporary account:
“The summits of the Alps, and the parts near the tops of the passes, are all quite treeless and bare, owing to the snow lying there continuously both winter and summer. But parts halfway up both sides are wooded and generally inhabitable”.

And here’s Livy, writing 170 years after the fact:

“There were no tree trunks or roots by which a man could hoist himself up, only smooth ice and thawing snow, over which they were always rolling… Four days were spent at the cliff, and the animals nearly perished of starvation: for the mountaintops are all particularly bare and such grasses as do grow are buried beneath the snow. Lower down one comes to valleys, and slopes bathed in sunlight, and streams, and near them are woods, and places more suitable for human habitation”.

To put this plagiarized and embellished passage into a modern time-frame, it would be like one of us picking up a pen one lazy afternoon and writing with vivid veracity about the annexation of Texas in 1845.

And although we often give the ancients a pass when it comes to the art of historiography, Livy wasn’t writing during the pioneering days of Herodotus. Indeed, by his time the genre was already well-established. More to the point, the man he uses as his ‘inspiration’, Polybius, wrote a largely factual and, often, disinterested work.

In other words, Livy couldn’t say that he didn’t know any better viz-á-viz the presentation of the cold, hard facts.

That said, facts, no matter what the temperature, may not have been Livy’s raison d’etre; there’s no reason to think he was trying to pull a fast one. As a product of the Golden Age of Latin Literature, and a contemporary of men like Virgil, Horace and Ovid, he may have been much more concerned that his prose was purple than precise.

The underlying question that we’re left with then is: ‘Who is better, Polybius or Livy?

Despite my own personal love for Polybius, I cannot find any ammunition with which to argue that he is more entertaining or accessible than the text of Livy. Meanwhile it’s hard to deny the allure of Livy’s work.

Therefore, we have to ask yet another question: Do we ‘learn’ more with an entertaining tale?

Well… possibly, though possibly not. To be accurate we should say we learn less, but learn more easily and swiftly.

So where does such thinking lead us? Shall we watch Braveheart to learn about British history? Or read Dan Brown to learn about Da Vinci?

The very notion repulses.
These two examples are perhaps perverse extremes. There are other, more moderate illustrations such as HBO’s Rome. It has all the main historical events in the right place and looks astonishingly good, but it too must be taken with a pinch of salt.
It seems that Professor Watt’s proclamation about the incompatibility of truth and entertainment is not without its supporting evidence… But, in our humble opinion, there is still a place for the trustworthy historian. It is because we have such confidence in his or her credibility that we are overawed by the truth they communicate… and so the long dead world comes alive on the page.
Take, for instance, Thucydides’ accounts of the Athenian plague or Polybius’ of the inadequacy and pomposity of Roman social climbers. They resound strongly, simply because they are believed.

So while I would always advocate reading the more accurate source, I feel it is still better to read something rather than nothing. People should enjoy history, not neglect it on the bedside cabinet.

Whatever the source and whatever the motivation, it is hard to argue with the words of a man who knew a thing or two about writing, William Faulkner:

“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read!”