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General Remarks on Timaeus as an Historian

The story of the brazen bull is this. It was made by
The brazen bull of phalaris.
Phalaris at Agrigentum; and he used to force men to get into it, and then by way of punishment light a fire underneath. The metal becoming thus red hot, the man inside was roasted and scorched to death; and when he screamed in his agony, the sound from the machine was very like the bellowing of a bull. When the Carthaginians conquered Sicily this bull was removed from Agrigentum to Carthage. The trap door between the shoulders, through which the victims used to be let down, still remains; and no other reason for the construction of such a bull in Carthage can be discovered at all: yet Timaeus has undertaken to upset the common story, and to refute the declarations of poets and historians, by alleging that the bull at Carthage did not come from Agrigentum, and that no such figure ever existed there; and he has composed a lengthy treatise to prove this. . . .

What epithet ought one to apply to Timaeus, and what word will properly characterise him? A man of his kind appears to me to deserve the very bitterest of the terms which he has applied to others. It has already been sufficiently proved that he is a carping, false and impudent writer; and from what remains to be said he will be shown to be unphilosophical, and, in short, utterly uninstructed. For towards the end of his twenty-first book, in the course of his "harangue of Timoleon," he remarks that "the whole sublunary world being divided into three parts —Asia, Libya, and Europe. . . ."1 One could scarcely believe such a remark to have come, I don't say from Timaeus, but even from the proverbial Margites. . . .

The proverb tells us that one drop from the largest vessel is sufficient to show the whole contents. This is applicable to the present case. When one or two false statements have been discovered in a history, and they have been shown to be wilful, it is clear that nothing which such an historian may say can be regarded as certain or trustworthy. But in order to convince the more careful student, I must speak on his method and practice in regard to public speeches, military harangues, ambassador's orations, and all compositions of that class; which are, as it were, a compendium of events and an epitome of all history. Now that he has given these in his writings with entire disregard of truth, and that of set purpose, can any reader of Timaeus fail to be aware? He has not written down the words actually used, nor the real drift of these speeches; but imagining how they ought to have been expressed, he enumerates all the arguments used, and makes the words tally with the circumstances, like a school-boy declaiming on a set theme: as though his object were to display his own ability, not to give a report of what was in reality said. . . .

The special province of history is, first, to ascertain what the actual words used were; and secondly, to learn why it was that a particular policy or argument failed or succeeded. For a bare statement of an occurrence is interesting indeed, but not instructive: but when this is supplemented by a statement of cause, the study of history becomes fruitful. For it is by applying analogies to our own circumstances that we get the means and basis for calculating the future; and for learning from the past when to act with caution, and when with greater boldness, in the present. The historian therefore who omits the words actually used, as well as all statement of the determining circumstances, and gives us instead conjectures and mere fancy compositions, destroys the special use of history. In this respect Timaeus is an eminent offender, for we all know that his books are full of such writing.

But perhaps some one may raise the question as to how it comes about that, being the sort of writer that I am showing him to be, he has obtained acceptance and credit among certain people. The reason is that his work abounds with hostile criticism and invective against others: and he has been judged, not by the positive merits of his own composition and his independent narrative, but by his skill in refuting his fellow historians; to which department he appears to me to have brought great diligence and an extraordinary natural aptitude. The case of the physicist Strato is almost precisely similar. As long as this man is endeavouring to discredit and refute the opinions of others, he is admirable: directly he brings forward anything of his own, or expounds any of his own doctrines, he at once seems to men of science to lose his faculties and become stupid and unintelligent. And for my part, I look upon this difference in writers as strictly analogous to the facts of everyday life. In this too it is easy to criticise our neighbours, but to be faultless ourselves is hard. One might almost say that those who are most ready at finding fault with others are most prone to errors in their own life.

Besides these I may mention another error of Timaeus. Having stayed quietly at Athens for about fifty years, during which he devoted himself to the study of written history, he imagined that he was in possession of the most important means of writing it. To my mind this was a great mistake. History and the science of medicine are alike in this respect, that both may be divided broadly into three departments; and therefore those who study either must approach them in three ways. For instance the three departments of medicine are the rhetorical, the dietetic, and the surgical and pharmaceutical. [The second of these though important is discredited by some.]2 The first, which takes its rise from the school of Herophilus and Callimachus of Alexandria, does indeed rightly claim a certain position in medical science; but by its speciousness and liberal promises acquires so much reputation that those who are occupied with other branches of the art are supposed to be completely ignorant. But just bring one of these professors to an actual invalid: you will find that they are as completely wanting in the necessary skill as men who have never read a medical treatise. Nay, it has happened before now that certain persons, who had really nothing serious the matter with them, have been persuaded by their powerful arguments to commit themselves to their treatment, and have thereby endangered their lives: for they are like men trying to steer a ship out of a book. Still such men go from city to city with great éclât, and get the common people together to listen to them. But if, when this is done, they induce certain people to submit as a specimen to their practical treatment; they only succeed in reducing them to a state of extreme discomfort, and making them a laughing stock to the audience.3 So completely does a persuasive address frequently get the advantage over practical experience. The third branch of the medical science, though it involves genuine skill in the treatment of the several cases, is not only rare in itself, but is also frequently cast into the shade, thanks to the folly of popular judgment, by volubility and impudence.

In the same way the science of genuine history is threefold: first, the dealing with written documents and the arrangement of the material thus obtained; second, topography, the appearance of cities and localities, the description of rivers and harbours, and, speaking generally, the peculiar features of seas and countries and their relative distances; thirdly, political affairs. Now, as in the case of medicine, it is the last branch that many attach themselves to, owing to their preconceived opinions on the subject. And the majority of writers bring to the undertaking no spirit of fairness at all: nothing but dishonesty, impudence and unscrupulousness. Like vendors of drugs, their aim is to catch popular credit and favour, and to seize every opportunity of enriching themselves. About such writers it is not worth while to say more.

But some of those who have the reputation of approaching history in a reasonable spirit are like the theoretical physicians. They spend all their time in libraries, and acquire generally all the learning which can be got from books, and then persuade themselves that they are adequately equipped for their task. . . . Yet in my opinion they are only partially qualified for the production of genuine history. To inspect ancient records indeed, with the view of ascertaining the notions entertained by the ancients of certain places, nations, polities and events, and of understanding the several circumstances and contingencies experienced in former times, is useful; for the history of the past directs our attention in a proper spirit to the future, if a writer can be found to give a statement of facts as they really occurred. But to persuade one's self, as Timaeus does, that such ability in research is sufficient to enable a man to describe subsequent transactions with success is quite foolish. It is as though a man were to imagine that an inspection of the works of the old masters would enable him to become a painter and a master of the art himself.

This will be rendered still more evident from what I have

Ephorus was fairly acquainted with naval, but not with military tactics.
now to say, particularly from certain passages in the history of Ephorus. This writer in his history of war seems to me to have had some idea of naval tactics, but to be quite unacquainted with fighting on shore. Accordingly, if one turns one's attention to the naval battles at Cyprus and Cnidus, in which the generals of the king were engaged against Evagoras of Salamis4 and then against the Lacedaemonians, one will be struck with admiration of the historian, and will learn many useful lessons as to what to do in similar circumstances.
B.C. 371. B.C. 362.
But when he tells the story of the battle of Leuctra between the Thebans and Lacedaemonians, or again that of Mantinea between the same combatants, in which Epaminondas lost his life, if in these one examines attentively and in detail the arrangements and evolutions in the line of battle, the historian will appear quite ridiculous, and betray his entire ignorance and want of personal experience of such matters. The battle of Leuctra indeed was simple, and confined to one division of the forces engaged, and therefore does not make the writer's lack of knowledge so very glaring: but that of Mantinea was complicated and technical, and is accordingly unintelligible, and indeed completely inconceivable, to the historian. This will be rendered clear by first laying down a correct plan of the ground, and then measuring the extent of the movements as described by him. The same is the case with Theopompus, and above all with Timaeus, the subject of this book. These latter writers also can conceal their ignorance, so long as they deal with generalities; but directly they attempt minute and detailed description, they show that they are no better than Ephorus. . . .

It is in fact as impossible to write well on the operations in a war, if a man has had no experience of actual service, as it is to write well on politics without having been engaged in political transactions and vicissitudes. And when history is written by the book-learned, without technical knowledge, and without clearness of detail, the work loses all its value. For if you take from history its element of practical instruction, what is left of it has nothing to attract and nothing to teach. Again, in the topography of cities and localities, when such men attempt to go into details, being entirely without personal knowledge, they must in a similar manner necessarily pass over many points of importance; while they waste words on many that are not worth the trouble. And this is what his failure to make personal inspection brings upon Timaeus. . . .

In his thirty-fourth book Timaeus says that "he
Timaeus's want of practical knowledge.
spent fifty continuous years at Athens as an alien, and never took part in any military service, or went to inspect the localities." Accordingly, when he comes upon any such matters in the course of his history, he shows much ignorance and makes many misstatements; and if he ever does come near the truth, he is like one of those animal-painters who draw from models of stuffed skins. Such artists sometimes preserve the correct outline, but the vivid look and life-like portraiture of the real animal, the chief charm of the painter's art, are quite wanting. This is just the case with Timaeus, and in fact with all who start with mere book-learning; there is nothing vivid in their presentment of events, for that can only come from the personal experience of the writers. And hence it is, that those who have gone through no such course of actual experience produce no genuine enthusiasm in the minds of their readers. Former historians showed their sense of the necessity of making professions to this effect in their writings. For when their subject was political, they were careful to state that the writer had of course been engaged in politics, and had had experience in matters of the sort; or if the subject was military, that he had served a campaign and been actually engaged; and again, when the matter was one of everyday life, that he had brought up children and had been married; and so on in every department of life, which we may expect to find adequately treated by those writers alone who have had personal experience, and have accordingly made that branch of history their own. It is difficult perhaps for a man to have been actually and literally engaged in everything: but in the most important actions and most frequently occurring he must have been so.

And that this is no impossibility, Homer is a convincing instance; for in him you may see this quality of personal knowledge frequently and conspicuously displayed. The upshot of all this is that the study of documents is only one of three elements in the preparation of an historian, and is only third in importance. And no clearer proof of this could be given than that furnished by the deliberative speeches, harangues of commanders, and orations of ambassadors as recorded by Timaeus. For the truth is, that the occasions are rare which admit of all possible arguments being set forth; as a rule, the circumstances of the case confine them to narrow limits. And of such speeches one sort are regarded with favour by men of our time, another by those of an earlier age; different styles again are popular with Aetolians, Peloponnesians, and Athenians. But to make digressions, in season and out of season, for the purpose of setting forth every possible speech that could be made, as Timaeus does by his trick of inventing words to suit every sort of occasion, is utterly misleading, pedantic, and worthy of a schoolboy essayist. And this practice has brought failure and discredit on many writers. Of course to select from time to time the proper and appropriate language is a necessary part of our art: but as there is no fixed rule to decide the quantity and quality of the words to be used on a particular occasion, great care and training is required if we are to instruct and not mislead our readers. The exact nature of the situation is difficult to communicate always; still it may be brought home to the mind by means of systematic demonstration, founded on personal and habitual experience. The best way of securing that this should be realised is for historians, first, to state clearly the position, the aims, and the circumstances of those deliberating; and then, recording the real speeches made, to explain to us the causes which contributed to the success or failure of the several speakers. Thus we should obtain a true conception of the situation. and by exercising our judgment upon it, and drawing analogies from it, should be able to form a thoroughly sound opinion upon the circumstances of the hour. But I suppose that tracing causes is difficult, while stringing words together in books is easy. Few again have the faculty of speaking briefly to the point, and getting the necessary training for doing so; while to produce a long and futile composition is within most people's capacity and is common enough.

To confirm the judgment I have expressed of Timaeus,
Timaeus on Sicilian history.
on his wilful misstatements as well as his ignorance, I shall now quote certain short passages from his acknowledged works as specimens. . . . Of all the men who have exercised sovereignty in Sicily, since the elder Gelo, tradition tells us that the most able have been Hermocrates, Timoleon, and Pyrrhus of Epirus, who are the last persons in the world on whom to father pedantic and scholastic speeches.
B.C. 413. Thucyd. 7, 42 sqq.
Now Timaeus tells us in his twenty-first book that on his arrival in Sicily Eurymedon urged the cities there to undertake the war against Syracuse; that subsequently the people of Gela becoming tired of the war, sent an embassy to Camarina to make a truce; that upon the latter gladly welcoming the proposal, each state sent ambassadors to their respective allies begging them to despatch men of credit to Gela to deliberate on a pacification, and to secure the common interests. Upon the arrival of these deputies in Gela and the opening of the conference, he represents Hermocrates as speaking to the following effect: "He praised the people of Gela and Camarina first, for having made the truce; secondly, because they were the cause of the assembling of this peace congress; and thirdly because they had taken precautions to prevent the mass of the citizens from taking part in the discussion, and had secured that it should be confined to the leading men in the states, who knew the difference between peace and war." Then after making two or three practical suggestions, Hermocrates is represented as expressing an opinion that "if they seriously consider the matter they will learn the profound difference between peace and war,"—although just before he had said that it was precisely this which moved his gratitude to the men of Gela, that "the discussion did not take place in the mass assembly, but in a congress of men who knew the difference between peace and war." This is an instance in which Timaeus not only fails to show the ability of an historian, but sinks below the level of a school theme. For, I presume, it will be universally admitted that what an audience requires is a demonstration of that about which they are in ignorance or uncertainty; but to exhaust one's ingenuity in finding arguments to prove what is known already is the most futile waste of time. But besides his cardinal mistake of directing the greater part of the speech to points which stood in need of no arguments at all, Timaeus also puts into the mouth of Hermocrates certain sentences of which one could scarcely believe that any commonplace youth would have been capable, much less the colleague of the Lacedaemonians in the battle of Aegospotami, and the sole conqueror of the Athenian armies and generals in Sicily.

1 See 3, 37. The point seems to be that the remark was too commonplace to put into the mouth of a hero.

2 The text is again hopeless.

3 The text is uncertain, and I am not at all sure of the meaning of ἐπ᾽ ὀνόματος, cp. 25 k, 27. These public harangues of doctors to attract patients are noticed in Xenophon, Memorab. 4, 2, 5.

4 Tyrant of Salamis in Cyprus, B.C. 404-374. See Isocrates, Orat. x.

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