Writing History – Ancient vs Modern Methods

Ancient and Modern History

Canons of History

The canons of modern history differ significantly from those of ancient history. Both modern historians and ancient historians utilized various sources in order to construct a narrative account that was faithful to the event or series of events under consideration. However, unlike modern historians, ancient historians often favored oral sources over written ones. Written sources were utilized and incorporated into histories, but information obtained directly through person-to-person communication was considered more trustworthy that that obtained from a written source.

Standards of Documentation

Even though ancient historians, like modern historians, aspired to produce truthful accounts of past events, they did not operate with the concept of “facts” the way modern historians traditionally have – what constitutes being a faithful account of past events was measured by a different standard in antiquity that it is in modernity.The reasons for the difference between that way the ancient world and modern societies report and preserve their pasts are complex and difficult to explain, but at one reason was people in antiquity had few ways to record any given moment at the point it occurred.

There were no telephones, tape recorders, cameras, or video cameras. Neither were there photocopy machines, computers, or fax machines. And, since no such thing as journalism existed yet, people in antiquity did not typically take notes at important events. Thus, the gathering, retrieval, and cross-checking of data was an entirely different matter for ancient historians than it is for modern ones. For example, reporting who said what, when, and to whom would be a difficult thing to do accurately without the benefits of modern technology.

Greco-Roman Period

Historical writings of the Greco-Roman period often contain the text of lengthy speeches given by key figures at key moments. How did ancient historians know exactly what was said if they weren’t present (or even if they were)?

From Thucydides, the 5th century BCE Greek historian who wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War, we know that historians composed speeches themselves. There was no expectation to record the words spoken on a given occasion verbatim. Rather, the author needed to convey what the figure would have plausibly said under the circumstances. From oral traditions about what sort of person he or she was, as well as oral reports about the circumstances in which they found themselves, the ancient historian composed a speech for that person on that occasion.

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