History is the bits of what happened that make it into the history books.  Example:


Livy:  ‘Can’t I? Indeed I can,’ said Livy. ‘Do you mean to say that I mustn’t write a history with an epic theme because that’s a prerogative of poetry, or put worthy eve-of-battle speeches in the mouths of my generals because to compose such speeches is the prerogative of oratory?’

Pollio:  ‘That is precisely what I do mean. History is a true record of what happened, how people lived and died, what they did and said; an epic theme merely distorts the record. As for your generals’ speeches they are admirable as oratory but damnably unhistorical: not only is there no particle of evidence for any one of them, but they are inappropriate. I have heard more eve-of-battle speeches than most men and though the generals that made them, Caesar and Antony especially, were remarkably fine platform orators, they were all too good soldiers to try any platform business on the troops. They spoke to them in a conversational way, they did not orate. What sort of speech did Caesar make before the Battle of Pharsalia? Did he beg us to remember our wives and children and the sacred temples of Rome and the glories of our past campaigns? By God, he didn’t! He climbed up on the stump of a pine-tree with one of those monster-radishes in one hand and a lump of hard soldiers’ bread in the other, and joked, between mouthfuls. Not dainty jokes but the real stuff told with the straightest face: about how chaste Pompey’s life was compared with his own reprobate one. The things he did with that radish would have made an ox laugh. I remember one broad anecdote about how Pompey won his surname The Great – oh, that radish! – and another still worse one about how he himself had lost his hair in the Bazaar at Alexandria. I’d tell you them both now but for this boy here, and but for your being certain to miss the point, not having been educated in Caesar’s camp. Not a word about the approaching battle except just at the close: “Poor old Pompey! Up against Julius Caesar and his men! What a chance he has”!’

Livy:  ‘You didn’t put any of this in your history,’ said Livy.

Pollio:  ‘Not in the public editions,’ said Pollio. ‘I’m not a fool. Still, if you like to borrow the private Supplement which I have just finished writing, you’ll find it there. But perhaps you’ll never bother. I’ll tell you the rest: Caesar was a wonderful mimic, you know, and he gave them Pompey’s dying speech, preparatory to falling on his sword (the radish again – with the end bitten off). He railed, in Pompey’s name, at the Immortal Gods for always allowing vice to triumph over virtue. How they laughed! Then he bellowed: “And isn’t it true, though Pompey says it? Deny it if you can, you damned fornicating dogs, you!” And he flung the half-radish at them. The roar that went up! Never were there soldiers like Caesar’s. Do you remember the song they sang at his French triumph?

“Home we bring the bald whoremonger,
      Romans, lock your wives away.” ’

I, Claudius, Robert Graves

More to explorer


  1. Well what d’ya expect of an official court historian like Livy? What dignity for a dignified son of a god like Augustus if Livy wrote the deified Julius “warts and all”?

  2. Of course there were ancient historians who did give a warts and all all portrayal: Suetonius comes to mind. Tacitus might have as well have etched his take on Tiberius in acid. Livy is an interesting historian. I wish more of his work had survived the ravages of time. Sadly Pollio’s contemporary history has been entirely lost, although it lives on in the pages of Appian and Plutarch. Pollio criticized his contemporary Sallust, but I rank Sallust in the top ten percent most reliable historians of antiquity.

  3. Donald R McClarey

    Matthew Arnold in Culture & Anarchy (Cornhill Magazine 1867-1868, collected 1869) quoted the remark of Cato, reported by Sallust, ” publice egestas, privatim opulentia”, public squalor and private opulence.

    In a splendid passage, Sallust says, “It is worth while, when one considers houses and farms extended to the size of cities, to take a look at the temples of the gods which our ancestors, truly religious but mere mortals, constructed. Their practice was to ornament the shrines of the gods out of piety, and their own homes with martial glory, and to take nothing from the defeated enemy except the power of doing harm.” (Bellum Catalinarium et Jugurthinum, xii)

    That said, Tacitus, with his terse, epigrammatic style, is the better writer.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: