This afternoon I bought an old, second-hand book called ‘Three Greek Romances’ (1953 trans. Hadas) – having decided that it might be poor form if I have a Classics BA(Hons), MA and PhD without ever having read a single one of the Greek novels. I read the first little bit of the introduction, and I want to share the very first paragraph:
Once upon a time” is not the way classical Greeks opened a work of literature. When Solon retired from politics he went to see Thespis act a play, and was scandalized. “Are you not ashamed,” he said to the playwright, “to tell so many lies before so many people?” Thespis replied that lies were legitimate in a work of the imagination, but Solon would not be convinced. Tragedians continued to write plays, but their personages and themes were derived from a body of myth which was regarded as ancient history; what they did, in effect, was to make the ancient histories intelligible and meaningful. Only the comic poets could freely invent persons and events, and the closest affinity of prose fiction, which is the latest literary invention of the Greeks, is with New Comedy.
It got me thinking about what we do as ancient historians, and it’s pretty much exactly what the tragedians were doing: we attempt to make ancient history intelligible and meaningful, by constructing narratives out of the evidence that we gather. This ties into some recent conversations I’ve had about truth in history (in particular at last weeks Classics and Cake at Senate House last week) and what our job as historians his. I don’t particularly have a good answer to the question, but as I have repeatedly stated I think that there is an inherent truth and falsehood in all the evidence types we look at – archaeological, epigraphical, literary etc. If we don’t start with a whole truth then we can’t hope to construct one, and it certainly is not the job of the historian to attempt the construction of truth. A truth, a side of truth, a slice of truth perhaps, but not a truth in whole. If we attempt then we don’t do the evidence justice, we certainly don’t do the societies we study justice, and we don’t do ourselves justice.
So, why do we Classics?
Because, what else is there?