Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.01.28

Aurelio Pérez Jiménez, La verdad tamizada: cronistas, reporteros e historiadores ante su publico. Serie Mediterranea.   Madrid:  Ediciones Clásicas, 2001.  Pp. 236.  ISBN 84-7882-471-5.  

Contributors: Aurelio Pérez Jiménez, Gonzalo Cruz Andreotti, Felipe Sahagún, Leone Porciani, Carlos Alacalde Martín, José Maria Candau Morón, Antonio Ramírez de Verger, Maria Dolores Verdejo Sánchez, Jesús Peláez, Pedro Bádenas de la Peña, Mayte Penelas, Ángel Galán Sánchez


Reviewed by Peter Van Nuffelen, K.U. Leuven, Belgium (peter.vannuffelen@arts.kuleuven.ac.be)

This book is a collection of essays in Spanish on a well-known topic: historians present their information not in a purely objective way, but select events and choose a perspective. The truth is always "sifted". The essays are all, with one exception, written by Spanish scholars and they cover a wide range. In time they stretch from the 5th century B.C. to the 15th century A.D., going from Greece to Spain. Most essays relate to Antiquity or to Byzantium, except the last one which discusses Spanish historiography of the late 15th century. As the papers cover almost the whole of ancient historiography (with the exception of Late Antiquity, which in a sense remains the "step-child" of scholarship on ancient historiography), and as many authors offer general perspectives on the historiography of a certain period, the book can be read as an introduction to the matter. However, the chosen subjects do not constitute a homogenous whole. Some authors treat well-worn topics like oral traditions in Herodotus or the use of rumours by Tacitus, whereas another discusses Ovidius, who does not really fit in the categories summed up in the title of the book. As a consequence the volume is rather uneven in scope. Although there is little fundamentally new in the book, most papers are of a good quality. The book is not entirely free from printing errors, particularly in the references.

A brief introduction by Aurelio Pérez Jiménez and Gonzalo Cruz Andreotti (pp. 1-5) stresses that historians always work in a specific socio-cultural context and that their presentation of the facts is determined by their creativity to deal with the demands of the political class. We will not discuss the first essay "Information and Public Opinion" (pp. 7-30), written by Felipe Sahagún, a specialist in communication theory, who analyses the phenomenon of distortion of the truth and of truth- finding in the context of the recent sharp increase in information and communication.

Although his essay has the general title "Greece and the Orient: the Writing of Memory" (pp. 31-45), Leone Porciani treats a very specific question. In a famous passage of his essay on Thucydides, Dionysius of Halicarnassus writes that the earliest Greek historians "all had the same aim: to make generally known the traditions of the past as they found them in local monuments and religious and secular records in the various tribal and urban centres" (5.3, translated by S. Usher, Loeb Classical Library). Taking position in a long- standing debate on this question, the author argues that καὶ should be read before "religious and secular records", which implies that the earliest Greek historians drew on oral and written sources. He argues that for Dionysius these written sources were not chronicles or local histories but documents and situates this passage in the context of a historiographical debate of the Hellenistic and Roman period, of which for example traces can be found in Josephus, Contra Apion (I 11-23). The Jew Josephus claims that non-Greek historiography was better than Greek, because the former used old documents, whereas the latter drew heavily on oral sources. Dionysius' contention that the earliest Greek historiography also used documents aimed at countering such critique. This of course says more about ideas about historiography in the Hellenistic period than about early Greek history writing.

Two aspects of Herodotus' History are discussed by Carlos Alacalde Martín in "Herodotus. Oral Tradition and Public" (pp. 47-68). He stresses that Herodotus conceived his work as a unit to be read by all Greeks, although he may have read parts of it during public "lectures". As Herodotus wants to convince his readership of his accuracy, he stresses the quality of his sources and of his research. To show this, the author discusses the various types of sources used by Herodotus, with a stress on ὄψις and ἀκοή. The author touches briefly on various other aspects of Herodotus' work, in a paper that reads like an introduction to Herodotus.

José Maria Candau Morón offers an interpretation of history-writing in the Hellenistic Period in "History as spectacle. On some tendencies in Hellenistic Historiography" (pp. 69-86). Apart from the so-called "pragmatic history", the kind of history produced by Thucydides, Xenophon and Polybius, we witness in the Hellenistic Period the rise of a very different kind, exemplified in figures like Cleitarchus, Duris, Philarchus, and Callisthenes. Some of these authors have in the past been catalogued as "tragic historians" and accused of wanting to arouse the emotions of their audience at the expense of the facts. In line with recent scholarship, José Maria Candau Morón offers what he calls a "minimalist" interpretation of this critique and argues that these authors accorded much more weight to the narrative and artistic qualities of their work than their predecessors did. This "literarization" of history was an innovation of the Hellenistic Period and influenced Roman historiography also. In the last pages of his paper this tendency is situated in a vast cultural change from the Classical to the Hellenistic Period, characterised i.a. by the rise of individualism. This last part seems to me less convincing, and would demand a more extensive exposition.

Antonio Ramírez de Verger treats "The Attitude of Ovidius towards Women. The Example of the Amores" (pp. 87-106), a topic which hardly squares with the general theme of the volume. With long quotations he illustrates different topics, like the social background of the women represented by Ovidius, seduction, fidelity and infidelity, and problems in relations.

Although its title seems to suggest otherwise "Propaganda and the Deformation of History in Rome. Tacitus and the use of rumores" (pp. 107-138), the paper of Maria Dolores Verdejo Sánchez covers almost the whole of Roman historiography (restricted to Latin, as it seems). This very wide scope results in somewhat unfortunate generalisations, like the claim of a more or less general absence of objectivity and sincerity in Roman history- writing because most historians wanted to gain their readers for their own cause (p. 108- 109). Tacitus' use of rumours is interpreted in the light of this general thesis. But the topic is not very satisfactorily handled, as the authors restricts herself to a rhetorical analysis of Annales 1.4-5, but does not discuss other modern interpretations of Tacitean rumores.

Jesús Peláez treats the "Wonderful phenomena at the Death of Jesus: History or Symbolism? (Mt 27.45-53)" (pp. 139-157). Matthew's gospel is the only one to give a very long list of strange phenomena which happened at Jesus' death: the eclipse of the sun, the curtain of temple which was torn, an earthquake, rocks that split, tombs that opened and the resurrection of the dead. By adducing numerous parallels from the Old Testament Peláez can show that all these phenomena indicate a theophany. This implies that Matthew, who is writing for a public of Jews, claims that the day of Jesus' death was the "day of Jahwe", that would mark the end of time and the liberation from slavery and death. Without wanting to claim that the author did not make his point, it should be pointed out that not all Old Testament parallels are well chosen: for example Amos 8.9, which says that "the day will become night", announces a punishment of Israel and not a liberation. The reader would also have liked to read more on the further implications of this for Matthew's christology.

Pedro Bádenas de la Peña studies the "Human Dimension in Byzantine Historiography and its Influence on the Narrative Structure" (pp. 159-178). The first part of this paper is a long sketch of scholarship on Byzantine historiography, which is a bit unbalanced. It stretches back to the distinction Krumbacher made in 1897 between popular chronicles and learned histories, a theory that was refuted more than thirty years ago. More recent trends are too briefly treated for the ordinary reader to fully understand. In the second part the author distinguishes between two periods in Byzantine historiography as far as the human dimension is concerned: an early period, during which persons are more an incarnation of a certain quality, and a later period after the 10th century, when men and their emotions are more naturally (in our eyes) presented. Although the author may well be right, the paper is too short to fully argue his point (as a matter of fact, one would need an entire book).

With the essay of Mayte Penelas, "The Arab Historian and the Christian Sources: the Historiae of Orosius" (pp. 179-200) we leave the Greek-speaking world. About the end of the 9th century (according to the hypothesis of the author p. 183), the world history of the fifth-century priest Orosius was translated into Arab by an Arab Christian. It was not a mere translation: important passages from other authors like Eusebius of Caesarea and Isidorus of Sevilla were added, together with a continuation up to the reign of Heraclius in Byzantium (610-641) and Roderic in Spain (710-711). The author studies how this Arab version of Orosius was read by the Egyptian historians Ibn Jaldun (1332-1406) and Al- Maqrizi (1364-1442). Whereas the former is more critical towards his source, and often leaves elements out, the latter changes only some words most of the time. Both, of course, leave Orosius' christian polemics out.

The last paper, by Ángel Galán Sánchez, is not related to the Greco- Roman world or Byzantium, but discusses the forced conversion or expulsion of the Spanish Muslims at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th century ("Historians, Monarchy and Propaganda at the End of the 15th Century." pp. 201-236). He argues that there is an intimate connection between propaganda, legitimisation of power and historiography, and that the end of the 15th century well illustrates this. He chooses as example the forced conversion of Spanish Muslims during the final phase of the Reconquista, showing how Spanish historians adapted the facts to justify the imperial policy and the "restoration" of Spanish territorial integrity.

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