Pliny the Younger Distinguishing Fiction and History

I recently began reading Literary Texts and the Roman Historian, by David S. Potter. He begins by quoting a letter Pliny the Younger had written to a friend:
I heard a true story, but one that seemed like fiction, and one worthy of your broad, deep, and plainly poetical genius. I heard it at a dinner party when various extraordinary stories were being passed back and forth. I trust the person who told it, although what is true to poets? Still, the person who told the story is one of whom you might think well if you were to write history.
Literary Texts and the Roman Historian, page 5 (citing Pliny the Younger, 9.33.1).

What I found interesting is the distinction Pliny draws between "fiction" and "history." As Potter writes, "What is perhaps most interesting is the conceptual framework within which Pliny introduced the story. Reliability is defined in terms of dichotomy between poetry and historia, forms of narrative that are at the opposite ends of the spectrum of narrative representation. Pliny's framework is worth thinking about because it rests upon two assumptions: that history will be "true" and that the expression of this "truth" will be in the form of a narrative." Id. Although ancient authors could blur the lines or fail to live up to their own standards, just as they can today, Pliny demonstrates a desire to pursue history as truth rather than as simply useful or exemplary fiction.


Anonymous said…
There's no doubt that ancient people were just as interested in distinguishing fact from fiction as we are. The only thing I would caution is that these comments come from a member of the Roman aristocracy, someone with the leisure and cosmopolitan experience to think long and deep about these issues. He would also have been exposed to any fashionable skepticism currently prevailing in Rome. The early Christians, on the other hand, came from a wide variety of social classes and most likely did not share the scrupulous mindset of a Roman noble. I think some authors have pointed out that parts of the Gospels and Acts resemble popular history more than the academic treatises of people like Thucydides or Polybius. Not to say that they weren't concerned with accuracy, but I do wonder whether their standards were quite as stringent.

Popular posts from this blog

How Many Children in Bethlehem Did Herod Kill?

Where did Jesus say "It is better to give than receive?"

The Bogus Gandhi Quote

Discussing Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Revamping and New Articles at the CADRE Site

Exodus 22:18 - Are Followers of God to Kill Witches?

A Botched Abortion Shows the Lies of Pro-Choice Proponents

Jewish writings and a change in the Temple at the time of the Death of Jesus

Tillich, part 2: What does it mean to say "God is Being Itself?"

The Folded Napkin Legend