Currently rereading Robert Graves’s I, Claudius (1934), in the wake of teaching HIS 302 this past semester. I was taken with this section from Chapter 9, in which a young Claudius meets the historians Livy and Pollio and discusses competing theories of history writing.
Livy said: “The trouble with Pollio is that when he writes history he feels obliged to suppress all his finer, more poetical feelings, and make his characters behave with conscientious dullness, and when he puts a speech into their mouths he denies them the least oratorical ability.”
Pollio said: “Yes, Poetry is Poetry, and Oratory is Oratory, and History is History, and you can’t mix them.”
“Can’t I? Indeed I can,” said Livy. “Do you mean to say that I mustn’t write a history with an epic theme because that’s a prerogative of poetry or put worthy eve-of-battle speeches in the mouths of my generals because to compose such speeches is the prerogative of oratory?”
“That is precisely what I do mean. History is a true record of what happened, how people lived and died, what they did and said ; an epic theme merely distorts the record. As for your general’s speeches they are admirable as oratory but damnably unhistorical: not only is there no particle of evidence for any one of them, but they are inappropriate. I have heard more eve-of-battle speeches than most men and though the generals that made them, Caesar and Antony especially, were remarkably fine platform orators, they were all too good soldiers to try any platform business on the troops. They spoke to them in a conversational way, they did not orate. What sort of speech did Caesar make before the Battle of Pharsalia? Did he beg us to remember our wives and children and the sacred temples of Rome and the glories of our past campaigns? By God, he didn’t!…”
Livy said: ‘Pollio, my dear fellow, we were not discussing Caesar’s morals, but the proper way to write history.”
Pollio said: “Yes, that’s right. Our intelligent young friend [Claudius] was criticizing your method, under the respectful disguise of praising your readability. Boy, have you any further charges to bring against the noble Livy?”
I said: “Please, sir, don’t make me blush. I admire Livy’s work greatly.”
“The truth, boy! Have you ever caught him out in any historical inaccuracies? You seem to be a fellow who reads a good deal.”
“I would rather not venture…”
“Out with it. There must be something.”
So I said: “There is one thing that puzzles me, I confess. That is the story of Lars Porsena. According to Livy, Porsena failed to capture Rome, being first prevented by the heroic behaviour of Horatius at the bridge and then dismayed by the astounding daring of Scaevola; Livy relates that Scaevola, captured after an attempt at assassinating Porsena, thrust his hand into the flame on the altar and swore that three hundred Romans like himself had bound themselves by an oath to take Porsena’s life. And so Lars Porsena made peace. But I have seen the labyrinth tomb of Lars Porsena at Clusium and there is a frieze on it of Romans emerging from the City gate and being led under a yoke. There’s an Etruscan priest with a pair of shears cutting off the beards of the Fathers. And even Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who was very favourably disposed towards us, states that the Senate voted Porsena an ivory throne, a sceptre, a golden crown and a triumphal robe; which can only mean that they paid him sovereign honours. So perhaps Lars Porsena did capture Rome, in spite of Horatius and Scaevola. And Aruns the priest at Capua (he’s supposed to be the last man who can read Etruscan inscriptions) told me last summer that according to Etruscan records the man who expelled the Tarquins from Rome was not Brutus but Porsena, and that Brutus and Collatinus, the first two Consuls at Rome, were merely the City Stewards appointed to collect his taxes.”
Livy grew quite angry. “I am surprised at you, Claudius. Have you no reverence for Roman tradition that you should believe the lies told by our ancient enemies to diminish our greatness.”
“I only asked,” I said humbly, “what really happened then.”
“Come on, Livy,” said Pollio. “Answer the young student. What really happened?”
Livy said: “Another time. Let’s keep to the matter in hand now, which is a general discussion of the proper way to write history. Claudius, my friend, you have ambitions that way. Which of us two old worthies will you choose as a model?”
I looked from one face to the other. At last I said, “I think I would choose Pollio. As I’m sure that I can never hope to attain Livy’s inspired literary elegance, I shall do my best to imitate Pollio’s accuracy and diligence.”
“A joke is a joke, Pollio, and I can take it in good part. But there’s also a serious matter in
question and that is, the proper writing of history. It may be that I have made mistakes. What historian is free from them? I have not, at least, told deliberate falsehoods: you’ll not accuse
me of that. Any legendary episode from early historical writings which bears on my theme of the ancient greatness of Rome I gladly incorporate in the story: though it may not be true in
factual detail, it is true in spirit. If I come across two versions of the same episode I choose the one nearest my theme, and you won’t find me grubbing around Etruscan cemeteries in
search of any third account which may flatly contradict both — what good would that do?”
“It would serve the cause of the truth,” said Pollio gently. “Wouldn’t that be something?”
“And if by serving the cause of truth we admit our revered ancestors to have been cowards, liars and traitors? What then?”
I’ll leave this boy to answer the question. He’s just starting in life. Come on, boy, answer it!”
I said at random: “Livy begins his history by lamenting modern wickedness and promising to trace the gradual decline of ancient virtue as conquests made Rome wealthy. He says that he
will most enjoy writing the early chapters because he will be able, in doing so, to close his eyes to the wickedness of modern times. But in closing his eyes to modern wickedness hasn’t he sometimes closed his eyes to ancient wickedness as well?”
“Well?” asked Livy, narrowing his eyes.
“Well,” I fumbled. “Perhaps there isn’t so much difference really between their wickedness and ours. It may be just a matter of scope and opportunity.
“I hadn’t considered the matter before, that there are two different ways of writing history: one is to persuade men to virtue and the other is to compel men to truth. The first is Livy’s way and the other is yours: and perhaps they are not irreconcilable.”
This is always the issue, isn’t it? Of course, I stand with Claudius and Pollio here – call me a naive positivist, but I still believe there is such a thing as the truth, and we can get close to it if we really try. If you want to write a novel (say, like I, Claudius) then you should clearly label it as such. The trouble is that truth-seeking history really takes effort, as Livy notes, and if taken to extremes leads to tedious books like The Lion, the Lily, and the Leopard. There is nothing wrong with making a historical argument, or retelling a historical narrative, in a clear, compelling way. Just make sure that you don’t go too far in making things up, especially in the service of your fatuous politics (a shockingly common occurrence, I regret to admit).