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Realism vs Authenticity

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While reading the works of ancient historians such as Livy, Herodotus, and Thucydides it is natural for one to notice a difference in how each author presents and articulates certain types of events. Things like the transitions of rulers and logic and reasoning for going to war are both recurring topics in the writing of these historians. Through reading the histories of these men, one begins to realize that Livy and Herodotus use similar tactics to describe major events, such as a change in rulers or a decision to go to war, where as Thucydides uses a bit of a different style.

In Livy’s “The History of Rome” there are instances where a native voice is heard. What I mean by “native voice” is that Livy writes not as an objective historian, but as a Roman from the time he writes about. The author seems to articulate events, specifically ones dealing with omens and or religion, as a Roman who either witnessed or lived around the time of these events would. One example of this is when Livy writes about the reign and downfall of Tullus Hostilius. After the war with the Sabines Rome was in a state of prosperity under Tullus. However, there was a prodigy of falling rocks on Mount Alba, and allegedly a voice asking them to sacrifice according to the rights of their ancestors. Shortly after, a plague struck. The people were reluctant to take up arms, but Tullus was very military oriented and believed they would be safer in the field than back home, ignoring the prodigy of the gods to pay more attention to their religious duties as a city. Then when Tullus caught the plague, he tried to revert back to religion, being frightened of what the gods may do. Tullus fell out of favor, as Livy explains, “Everywhere, men wanted to return to the situation under Numa,” the religious leader before Tullus, “believing that the only help for their sick bodies was to seek favor and pardon from the gods.” (Livy 1.31). This alone describes the Roman fear of their deities and the respect they have for the divine. Livy goes on to write how Tullus, after he had become ill, “hid himself away, busying himself with these rites,” which were the rituals set by Numa. He did them incorrectly however and “Struck by a thunderbolt, he perished in the flames of his palace.” (1.31). Livy is very effective in his use of these divine events to get across a feeling of authentic “Romanness” in that these kinds of stories were what the people actually thought happened. Romans truly believed that Jupiter struck Tullus with a thunderbolt for doing religious rituals incorrectly. By portraying events in this way, Livy achieves a voice that portrays the thoughts and views of the people about which he is writing.

As well as Livy, Herodotus is another historian that I believe writes with a similar agenda and style when explaining events such as those previously described in this paper. While Herodotus was writing about an entirely different civilization, in an entirely different time period, I believe that parallels can easily be drawn between the works of the two historians. Herodotus proves my point in a few areas, one being Xerxes’ decision to go to war against Athens. Xerxes, while ruling Persia was planning to attack Athens after his campaign against the Egyptians both for profit, and to avenge his father Darius’ loss. Just to make sure he was making the right decision, Xerxes brought his decision before his council and asked for their opinions. During this meeting, Xerxes was dissuaded from his decision by Artabanus, so Persia would not be declaring war on Athens (Her. 7.7-12). Later that evening Xerxes had a dream of a phantom that told him that his change of thought was a very bad thing and that he should have stayed with the original plan. He dismissed this dream, only to be approached the next night by the same phantom who told him if he does not listen to him, “ Just as you have in short time risen to greatness and might, so you will swiftly be brought low.” (7.14). Xerxes then explained to Artabanus his dream and that if Artabanus acted like he did (wearing his clothes, sitting on the throne, sleeping in his bed etc), he too would see the phantom and know why they needed to attack. Artabanus did as he was told and indeed saw the phantom, who changed his mind as well (7.15-18). The Persians then marched against Greece in accordance with the prophecy of the phantom, and in fear of what may come if they did not obey “the vision that god has sent”. Like Livy, Herodotus uses things such as prophecies, auguries, godly dreams etc. to achieve a voice that is authentic to the story’s time and characters.

Unlike the two historians previously mentioned, Thucydides does not use auguries or prophecies to enhance his voice or to make it fit with his narrative. In cases of major decision-making or the transition between rulers, Thucydides uses a much plainer, matter-of-fact style that would fit more with current historians. Thucydides’ writing in these cases give off almost a “text book” feel when reading it. The use of long speeches or pretexts to describe why a certain event occurred or a war broke out speaks to Thucydides’ ability to write history in a more scientific way. Thucydides was very good at using facts and evidence-based reasoning for these types of things, where Herodotus and Livy relied more on the religious aspect of the culture to describe what was thought at the time. Numerous accounts of long arguments or debates between two sides of a potential war can be found in Thucydides where nothing but human interaction can be seen as the cause of the conflict. There may be some instances in Livy or Herodotus where they use this technique, but Thucydides uses this exclusively. One example, among many, is Thucydides’ account of the plague that struck the Athenians in book 2 of his “The Peloponnesian War”. Thucydides writes, “It struck the city of Athens suddenly and first attacked the people in the Peiraeus, so it was even claimed by them that the Peloponnesians had put poison in the wells.” (Thuc. 2.48). Thucydides then went on to describe the disease and its symptoms and side effects in a way similar to a medical diagnosis. In comparison to how Livy handled a similar situation, Thucydides seems to be far more realistic, relying on science and the actions of humans to describe his events. Livy used religion and the gods as the reason for the plague in his history.

Although Thucydides writes a more scientific history, and doesn’t use intervening gods or prophecies as a reason for or cause of events, Livy and Herodotus seem to have captured a more authentically dictated narrative. From what one can read about these ancient societies, the gods and religion seem to have played a huge role in their customs and cultures. It is almost a bit strange to read a history of these periods where the gods do not intervene or strike fear in the people to make them act in accordance to what they would prefer. While, looking back, Thucydides may have written a more realistic and evidence-based history, I believe that Herodotus’ and Livy’s histories allow their readers to see the events more as they would have been portrayed if the reader was living in the period being written about.

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