The history of history: a reminder

So, I’m not going into the history of history in a lot of detail here, but I want to illustrate a point about it in the form of a quote. I may have done this before; if I have, apologies. This is from Tacitus’s Agricola, and it’s a commonly-quoted speech delivered by the British chieftain Calgacus prior to the battle of Mons Graupius in about 83 AD.

To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.

That last part is typically quoted as “they make a desert and call it peace.” Pick your translation.

So … did Tacitus have, what, like a guy with a wax tablet standing behind Calgacus as he made his speech, scribbling away like mad and translating from Caledonian to Latin on the fly?

Like this?
Like this?

Did he bollocks. He just wanted to put some stuff into the voice of a noble barbarian chieftain that made people go “mmm, good point” and feel good about not feeling good about the Roman empire. In essence, Calgacus was the crying Native American of his age. And like that guy, he might not even have been real! It’s possible that Tacitus just made him up.

But here’s the other thing: no Roman reader thought that it was real either. Like, if they thought about it for a moment they must have known that there was no way on earth that Tacitus could have got the text of a speech Calgacus gave. Did medieval readers? I don’t know; a lot of people have based their thinking about medieval monks on the premise that medieval monks weren’t a bunch of credulous dipshits, which I’m not sure is accurate.

You can work out the implications for yourself, I’m sure.


The history of history: a reminder

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