Herodotus, Tacitus, and Eyewitness Reporting in Ancient Greece and Rome

News in ancient Greece

Greek and Roman historians were also known to fudge or fabricate their time in the field.

By Dr. Timothy Joseph / 02.23.2015
Associate Professor of Classics
College of the Holy Cross

Eyewitness reporting in ancient times

The historians of ancient Greece and Rome placed a high priority on eyewitness reporting, on being there and seeing for oneself.

Time and research “in the field” and the accompanying brushes with danger gave an historian credibility and authority. Eyewitness accounts also engaged the audience, who could follow in the footsteps of the author’s derring-do.

But in their efforts to win over their audiences, Greek and Roman historians also fudged or fabricated their time in the field.

Suspect Greek measurements in Egypt

The Western historical tradition begins with the Greek Herodotus in the fifth century BCE. The second book of his Histories is a long and detailed discussion of the geography, history, and culture of the Egyptians, and it remains an indispensable resource for the study of ancient Egypt.

Herodotus without his measuring stick

Herodotus often refers to his own visit to Egypt –- but even more often he gets things wrong. Of the famous pyramids of Giza he writes, with bravado, “I myself measured them!” The image of the historian, measuring stick in hand, scaling the pyramids is one that grabs the reader, but much of what he writes about the pyramids’ appearance and construction does not hold up. The inconsistencies in this and other passages have led scholars to question whether Herodotus went to Egypt at all.

Herodotus, however, kept a place of authority and esteem in antiquity. Cicero, the Roman politician and polymath from the first century BCE, in his work On the Laws dubbed Herodotus “the father of history,” a title he keeps to this day in the West.

In the same breath Cicero says that Herodotus tells “innumerable fabulous stories.” Telling entertaining tales, Cicero indicates, had been a part of historical writing from the start.

‘Being there’ in Rome and Iraq

But was he there? Tacitus

Tacitus, who is commonly regarded as the greatest Roman historian, published a biography of his father-in-law Agricola in 98 CE. In it he refers to the emperor Domitian’s execution of the senators Helvidius and Senecio in 93 CE.

A senator himself, Tacitus writes with great guilt about the senate’s complicity in these tyrannical acts: “our hands led Helvidius to his dungeon … Senecio spattered us with innocent blood.”

The scene is striking, but modern historians surmise that Tacitus may not have been in Rome at that time. The insertion of himself as an eyewitness and remorseful actor in these events is very likely a fabrication.

Originally published by The Conversation under a Creative Commons Attribution/No derivatives license.