BMCR 1990.02.04

History as Text: The Writing of Ancient History

, History as text: the writing of ancient history. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990. 208 pages. ISBN 9780807818893 $39.95.

This eclectic collection of eight “chapters” written by various scholars takes as its unifying theme “the problem of textuality as it affects our shared discipline of ancient history”. The articles do not deal exclusively with ancient historiography, but rather cover a broad range of texts that an ancient historian might consult. In varying degrees and with varying success, they each challenge traditional interpretations of these texts, suggest new ones, and generally urge those who study and write ancient history to reconsider the manner in which they treat their literary evidence. As Cameron notes in her Introduction, ancient historians have lagged behind their colleagues in recognizing the applicability of various literary/cultural theories to the texts with which they deal. History as Text means to “set the discussion going”, and that is without doubt a useful and timely goal. Whether or not it will succeed in doing so remains to be seen.

Three contributions deal squarely with classical historiography. In “‘True Stories’: the reception of historiography in antiquity”, M.J. Wheeldon, using reception theory, addresses two specific issues: 1) why readers often believed historians’ accounts which we know to be fictitious, and 2) how that belief affected “their evaluation of these texts as worthwhile objects”. Objecting to the “less helpful comparisons” of ancient historiography with oratory and poetry, Wheeldon prefers instead the notion that the ancient reader viewed this genre as “non-fictional narrative” (Capote’s In Cold Blood is cited as a modern example). He examines three “contexts of reception” available to the ancient reader of a historical text: “knowledge of the genre”, “the auctoritas of the writer” and “the historiographical “manner of speaking'”. The second of these “contexts” is explored through a brief analysis of the prefaces of Tacitus, Sallust and Livy to show how they are constructed to win their readers’ confidence and establish the authors as objective reporters. For the most part much of the discussion is largely theoretical and speculative, but in his conclusion, Wheeldon finally considers a few concrete examples of the reception of historiography in antiquity, admitting that on the face of it they seem to undermine the argument he has been developing. He has a counterargument, of course, but it is not altogether convincing. One is left wondering instead how this thesis would fare if still more attention had been paid to other examples, in particular to those of readers disbelieving a historical account (e.g., Sen. Suas. 6.14ff.; Juv. 7.104: quis dabit historico quantum daret acta legenti?).