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”.
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 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.
“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.
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.
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?
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!”