March 07, 2013


What's the purpose of writing history? Some people might say "to tell the truth" and that's a perfectly reasonable response- its there in one of the first history books when Herodotus talks about making sure that the deeds of Greeks and Barbarians are not forgotten. Some more postmodern people might talk about writing different narratives of the past and that's legitimate too: whether its women's history or black history or the history of the poor, that kind of history has added a lot to our understanding. We don't write history from the perspective of white men anymore and that's all to the good: we are more sensitive to the fact that there are other stories about the past that need to be read and written. These two modern senses of history though don't really help us understand why someone would write a history about someone who was a King but who they believed almost certainly never existed. Such a history isn't true but nor does it rescue some marginalised group from the margins- so why would you write it?

I can see your raised eyebrow right now- why Gracchi are you asking that kind of question. I'm asking it because it gets right to the heart of something I find fascinating about ancient historians- because they did write that kind of history. Take Plutarch. I'm currently reading his life of Theseus. Early on he admits that to write a life of Theseus goes beyond the 'solid foundation of fact'. He promises his readers that he will attempt to purify fable and 'make her submit to reason' but he acknowledges that she may defy him and he may not be able to tame her. (The verbs are lovely- the historian here is male, the myth is female and the language is that of 'submit' and 'defies'. Let me stick to my task though and not wonder off into an excursus on Plutarch's sexism!) The question therefore remains why should he write such a life?

Plutarch is quite coy. Firstly it must be said he does accept that something around Theseus's life is probably true. At the end of the life for example he talks about Cimon's discovery of the bones of Theseus and his restitution of them to Athens and talks about Theseus's qualities as a King- his ability for example to help the poor as though these were real things. But I think something else is going on here.

Plutarch's history is being used in a two different senses. Firstly he wants to tell the story of Theseus because he thinks Theseus was an admirable man- in that sense Theseus's life is one of instruction and he takes moments in the life to compare between Theseus and other politicians. For example he suggests that Theseus thought of Hercules like Themistocles later thought about Miltiades: Plutarch sees some aspects of politics as universal through time- a key difference to a modern historian who would stress discontinuity rather than continuity. Amongst those continuities is the continuity that Plutarch sees in a state. So Plutarch's lives are mapping out the histories of Athens and Rome- by addressing Theseus as well as Romulus Plutarch maps out a continuity in the city's characters. In both cases, the continuity means that the myth doesn't have to be true- it is the universal quality that has to be true. Plutarch is using his history to explore the nature of Athens and the nature of envy, and the key issue is whether he is right about them- his story is just an illustration.


edmund said...

isn't a lot of history about finding continutiites rather than just discontinutious particularly the history of periods without much written records- so that history equivlant to Plutarch?