In a letter to Titinius Capito, the Roman official and career lawyer Pliny discusses the idea of writing a book of history. Of particular concern to him was the choice of topic: he was uncertain whether he should treat an ancient or a modern subject. Valid arguments existed for both options. An older subject might allow for a more considered perspective, far removed from the passions of immediate memory; whereas the treatment of a current subject might inflame unreasonable emotions in his readers. Pliny has serious doubts about choosing a subject that might be within the living memory of his readers. He summarizes his feelings with this sentence:
Graves offensae, levis gratia. [Epistulae V.8.12]
And here we can see how the sententious brevity of the Latin language can express an idea that might take two or three times the volume of English verbiage. Literally the sentence reads, “Serious offenses, meager in thanks.” What he means is that, when writing about a modern topic, he might anger many while receiving little in the way of thanks. One can understand Pliny’s sense of hesitation. But it seems to me that he might have overlooked the fact that there are arguments that can be made for both sides. In the very same letter, he quotes Thucydides; and even a brief moment of reflection might have reminded him that the great Greek historian wrote his work very much within the living memory of his contemporaries. He conducted countless interviews with people who had been present during the momentous events he so vividly describes. He visited the scenes of the action, and he walked the ground where such events took place.
In the twentieth century, the American historian William Shirer certainly benefitted from having been a correspondent in Berlin during the 1930s; his history of the Third Reich, composed decades later, is imbued with a pungent sense of emotion that could only have come from personal experience. Bernal Diaz, who served with Hernando Cortes during the latter’s campaign of conquest against the Aztec Empire in the early 16th century, wrote his precious work when he was an old man in his eighties. His driving motivation was to correct the many misconceptions and lies that had begun to surround the career of his former commander, of whom he speaks in the most reverential tones. Because of its clarity and immediacy, his History of the Conquest of Mexico has become a precious document, something irreplaceable in every respect.
Clearly there is much value in proximity; and Fate confers a special authority on those historians who are close to historical events and have the ability to translate that authority into cogent writing. For me, one of the most unforgettable images in a work of history is the Ammianus Marcellinus’s description of his escape from the city of Amida, which had been subjected to a long siege by the Persian king Shapur II. The account is found in XIX.8 of his history. Ammianus says that, as he was making his way through the rocky terrain away from the fallen city, he encountered a ghastly sight: a horse dragging the torso of its former rider. The cavalryman had gotten his arm entangled in the reins, and had fallen off; unable to extricate himself, he had been battered to his death on rocks and sand for many miles. Such is the compelling power of being witness to momentous events.
But there are valid arguments on the other side as well. Perhaps the removal of an event from the passions and bile of the era can promote a seasoned, rational maturity in historical writing. Edward Gibbon’s history is perhaps the best example of this: he takes us across many centuries, locales, and dynasties, and benefits from a sweeping rationalism that animates the whole. There is feeling here, but it is deployed in the service of a philosophy of history, rather than as a rapier with which to skewer unfavored personages. And is there not much to be said for this? Who can say when historical immediacy crosses the line into bias and slander? It is true that Procopius’s Anecdota gives us many gossipy details about Justinian and Theodora, but one cannot escape the feeling that the writer remains a scorned court official who is revenging himself with his pen. The writer Sidonius Apollinaris, writing around 460 A.D., expressed a thought similar to what Pliny observed in the quote mentioned earlier. He says,
Telling lies is despicable, but speaking the truth is dangerous…it is the type of work where little thanks comes from mentioning the good, and reference to notorious events causes a great deal of outrage.
[Epistulae IV.22: Turpiter falsa, periculose vera dicuntur…Est enim huiusmodi thema vel opus in quo bonorum si facias mentionem, modica gratia paratur, si notabilium, maxuma offensa.]
Without doubt, he who wishes to chronicle modern events must have a measure of courage. But this measure of fortitude need not be confined to modern studies. We live in an age of rampant politicization: there are many who wish to interpret historical events through the filter of their own prejudices and preconceptions. To some degree this has always been so, of course; bias is an unavoidable fact in studies of all types. But there seems to be now a greater willingness by some to depart entirely from what used to be generally accepted principles. Unable to accept the past as it is, there are some who seek to “re-imagine” it in ways that serve their own interests. And this is where I might have to disagree respectfully with Pliny and Sidonius: it seems to me that it takes just as much thankless courage, and focused discipline, to write about events in the remote past, as it does to write about current events. No matter the undertaking, courage and discipline remain the timeless constants in all human endeavors. So know that he who is bold, and possessed of the conviction of rectitude, will never for long be lacking in fortune’s favor and enduring gratitude.
Read more in Thirty-Seven: