Archive for April 15th, 2011

Falsifying history

Friday, April 15th, 2011

In classic times (the Greek and Roman age) writing history was a popular pastime, especially if one wasn’t into poetry or plays. Histories were considered the equivalent of novels as, one has to admit, real events provide more twists and surprises than most novelists can think of. Writing a history, or a biography, was a serious business but vulnerable to the likes and dislikes of the historian. The advantage of this is that the histories have their own flavor although as time went by later historians copied a lot from earlier historians. Such things are easily noted when one is able to compare different historians writing about the same period.

Fictionalizing history, or rather, making it up, was not done. If there was fiction it was because the historian didn’t know and he would make a note about it. A prime example is the first historian Herodotos, whose world was very limited and everything happening outside the world he knew were just hearsay and legends. Nevertheless the events that took place in his own times were detailed and could be verified to an extent. If one doesn’t have a reliable source errors and mistakes happen quickly.

One of the most controversial histories from the Roman age is the Historia Augusta, a sort of continuation to The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, filling up the period until 284. There is no author known and it is not certain if the work is by one author. Some think many parts are direct copies from earlier historians whose work is lost. What is controversial about the work is that few works describing the period 100 to 284 have survived. Mostly fragments have survived of those. The exception is the Historia Augusta which was probably written or composed around 395. What is controversial about it is that parts of it that are used as proof or support of events have been verified as fake. The one who created the work made things up to create his history. So there is a problem discerning true historic facts from fake historic facts. As the counter-proof available is so limited one has to be skeptical when reading this work. Even so, it is considered to be an entertaining and interesting work, also covering rebel-emperors in its accounts.

The more trustworthy part of the Historia Augusta is the first part, covering the emperors from 117 to 222. Reason for this is that the Roman Empire was still very stable in those times so that there is more verification possible. The second part, from 222 to 284, covers a period with the Roman Empire in turmoil with a large number of emperors changing seat in a short time. For that reason the first part is available as a Penguin classic under the title Lives Of The Later Caesars and as I am still interested in reading the histories of those times I decided to purchase it, even as some parts are uncertain to be true. Even falsified there will also be a certain amount of truth in a history.