August 20, 2008

Ancient Journalism, Part 1

Professor James McGrath challenged me the other day to come up with parallel examples of "live" [okay, nearly live] "note-taking" or "journaling" in antiquity. Time's precious since I reported to school this week, but this one's been building in my head for a day or two.

Note: "Journalism" is often called the first draft of history, but not all of it has to get written down in real time. A "Journalist" can write today about events that happened yesterday or a week ago. (This past spring, Newsweek Magazine did a whole issue on the year 1968! But I won't stretch it that far.) Anyway, for this post, my definition of "Ancient Journalism" is any historian who wrote about events in his own lifetime, IF he recorded those events within a year or less after they happened, or finished happening. Last Note: Tonight, I'm also going to look at whether a King commissioned the writing of the "Journalist" in each case.

Okay, here's what I've got so far (in reverse-historical order):

Nicolas of Damascus - chief advisor to King Herod the Great, Nicolas also wrote the history of those days during Herod's life. (The work is mostly lost, but Josephus relied on it as a source.) Nicolas wrote from 14 to 4 BC, relying on his own current, ongoing experience and Herod's memoirs. (Bonus Question: Do you think Herod wrote those memoirs, or did he dictate them to someone?)

Horace, Virgil & Livy - this is a stretch, but I'm going in order. Scholars have debated how much these three "worked for" Augustus, but their writings included events in their own day (poetically, poetically & allegorically, and historically - respectively). To whatever degree Augustus [either directly or subtly] influenced their work, it's interesting that they most praised Rome and roman values; the fact that this debate can even happen goes to show that Augustus did not commission outright flattery. He was building something greater than himself.

Julius Caesar - not a king (yet) and he wrote it himself, but he chronicled his Gallic Wars and Civil Wars in true journalistic fashion. Also, Caesar did it deliberately to provide source material (along with, naturally, his own p.o.v.) for future historians. "Real time"? No. Nightly? Evidently yes, at times.

Polybius - skipping 150 years or so a hundred plus years, Polybius does NOT count... or does he? Polybius MIGHT have kept a journal of the Macedonian and Punic Wars he took part in, and more probably did than didn't, but we can't say so for sure. (Though he was at least writing habitually before 167 BC.) Polybius mentions note taking as part of bookish research and contrasts it with actual experience, but this doesn't rule out note taking based on actual experience. Also, Polybius' feelings on "pragmatic history" are something I should post about another time, but his eventual composition was published years after the events, whether or note he built up private journalistic archives for his own sake, beforehand. Finally, Polybius' friendship with Scipio helped inspire his work - Scipio a General and proconsul was like-a-king, but didn't commission the work. Polybius was personally motivated.

Callisthenes - skipping again, this nephew of Aristotle went with Alexander the Great's entourage and kept a complementary account of their ongoing events. The work was in finished form up to about two years (or less) behind "real time" - when Callisthenes suddenly made a mistake or two and got executed in early 327 BC. As a very experienced historian, Callisthenes was absolutely commissioned by the young King and brought along deliberately as a chronicler.

Ptolemy - Alexander's General, who claimed Egypt, wrote a history of those days long after they passed, but likely had his own journals from the campaign to use along with his memories and these other sources.

Nearchus - a subordinate commander under Alexander, his memoirs became popular when he published them years later, but it's unclear whether he worked from personal journals or simply recalled events years later.

Aristobulus - of Cassandrea, a minor officer of Alexander. Like the last two, his history wasn't published until after 301 BC, but the wealth of detail he gives on chronology, geography and botany strongly suggests he kept personal records of such information along the way.

And last, but oh, so definitely not least:

Thucydides - his History of the Peloponnesian War is a case study in what to make of a historian whose process and sources are virtually unknown. And yet... Thucydides is also a case study of an author who [undoubtedly must have] combined personal experience with eyewitness accounts and whatever rare & relevant documents he could find. Thucydides was not commissioned by any King to write and his work was only published after his death, but the last 'book' found in in was a semi-organized collection of notes. He was still at work, and it is highly probable at least some of his notes came from the battles he himself fought in and the events he himself witnessed - though of course we can't say how quickly he put down those events.

But Thucydides is also a model for understanding early historiography. I confess, it's been years since I read through Michael Finley's amazing introduction to the Penguin edition (1972). This was almost the first college text I had to read as a freshman (1992) and Finley's intro probably deserves a post of it's own. As I said some weeks ago, if Thucydides & Herodotus get "bonus points" for being primitive historians, so the Gospel writers should get a lot of slack for being amateur biographers. I really may have to do a whole post just on Finley's treatment sometime fairly soon.

For tonight, that's my list. Who best fits the "Journalist" label? Nicolas of Damascus, Julius Caesar, at least one if not all four of the Alexandrian chroniclers mentioned, and POSSIBLY Polybius & Thucydides, though we can't say for sure about those two. That's not too shabby for starters...

Of course, there's a lot left to consider... Part Two & Three coming "soon".

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