Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Mapping the past – the Historian’s dilemma.

Historians take from the past only what suits their purposes.

Of the last 2500 years of historiography the above statement probably holds true for most of the period and for most of the historians. It can be argued that it is the historian’s job to take from the past what suits their purpose. The Historian must of necessity be selective as it is impossible to recreate the past in its entirety, he/she must take the evidence that is available, determine what is most reliable and valuable and interpret it for the readers. The problem is, of course, how does the historian decide what to use and what to ignore and also what interpretation do they place on the evidence they do use. The question of selectivity and subjectivity has really only become a cause for concern among historians since the nineteenth century when Von Ranke declared that Historians should tell ‘how it actually happened’. The debate he sparked off then, has raged on, as historians attempt to define the nature of the discipline and the ground rules for Historians.

Herodotus, often regarded as the first historian, is also the first to stand accused of writing history to suit his own purposes. J.A.S. Evans questioned whether he was the father of history or the father of lies?Herodotus, very much a storyteller, wrote in a masterly literary style, he selected interesting topics, be they geographical or anthropological and he was not averse to putting words in the mouths of his characters. His approach to the past, what he selected, and how he related it, was conditioned by his need to produce a story with rhetorical qualities for oral transmission in public.

Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian wars was a genuine attempt at balance from a writer who had actually seen it from both sides, having been banished from Athens to Sparta during the war. He nonetheless, was inclined to manipulate his sources in order to underpin his own moralising. He contrasts the qualities of fair play and honest dealing of the people of Melos with the Athenians who killed or enslaved them, in order to illustrate the cynicism of power. He then counterpoints the treatment of Melos with the disaster that befell Athens when they attempted to take Syracuse to illustrate his view, that the Fates have a way of hitting back at those who have behaved immorally.

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