The Greeks: plus ça change…

Cheri speaks as though from my own heart in lamenting the Greeks. How, oh how, to reconcile their ancient grandeur with their Euro-busting, book-cooking financial profligacy of today?

And then I remembered that passage by Polybius, that great Greek sage, which I reproduce here to cause a smirk rather than offense.

In The Rise of the Roman Empire (VI, 56), he tells us that

among the Greeks… men who hold public office cannot be trusted with the safe-keeping of so much as a single talent, even if they have ten accountants and as many seals and twice as many witnesses, whereas among the Romans their magistrates handle large sums of money and scrupulously perform their duty because they have given their word on oath.

Now, clearly one part of his observation seems, ahem, dated and the other rather au courant. 😉

Bookmark and Share

Can a storyteller make stuff up?

Truman Capote making stuff up

Truman Capote making stuff up

The book manuscript that I’ve just sent off to my editor at Riverhead happens to fall into the genre of “creative non-fiction.” It is a story built on actual lives–ancient ones and modern ones–that illustrate various themes around the great mystery of success and failure in life, including yours and mine.

The job of creative non-fiction, as Ira Glass would agree, is to make true stories riveting and small stories grand. It is, in short, simply good story-telling.

Still, you would have to lack all sense of irony not to smirk at that phrase. Creative non-fiction. Say what?

Creative means making stuff up. Non-fiction means not making stuff up. The very notion would seem to be an oxymoron. Or perhaps not?

Herodotus and Thucydides walk into a bar….

This particular question happens to be the oldest controversy in non-fiction writing. Recall that Herodotus believed in embellishing history to make it more palatable and (ironically) realistic, whereas Thucydides took him to task for telling lies and promised to stick to just the facts, ma’am. But even Thucydides then found that he had to “make stuff up” to get at the actual truth, because if he had used only, for instance, dialogue that he himself had actually overheard (while taking notes), he would have painted the wrong picture of the Peloponnesian War altogether.

By the time, we get to the era in which my main characters–Hannibal, Fabius and Scipio–lived, Polybius is the one who tries to stick to just the facts (but again doesn’t quite manage), whereas Livy is the one who says ‘Oh Heck’ and just tells a good yarn. By the time we get to Plutarch, we essentially throw out the rule book and just enjoy–even as we, paradoxically, come away with the impression that we have finally gotten closer to the truth of the characters involved. And so the controversy bubbles on, down the ages.

… and Truman Capote serves them a drink

Jean Ku, a friend of ours, just passed on a fascinating essay on the topic by her writing teacher, David Schweidel, the author of two books. Schweidel begins his history of creative non-fiction more recently. One strand, which Schweidel calls reportage, started with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and continued with Tom Wolfe and The New Journalism. The other is memoir.

So what makes reportage creative non-fiction? Schweidel thinks that

Creative nonfiction, I’d say, attempts to convey the feeling as well as the facts. Clearly, Truman Capote does a lot of work to convey feeling.

It does this by using the techniques of fiction, which are

  • dramatized action
  • dialogue
  • the point of view of a participant
  • the presentation of specific details, … such as gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, ….

And what makes memoirs creative non-fiction? Well, the fact that they

are works of memory. Memory is selective, self-serving, often mistaken. People lie to make themselves look better. Sometimes people lie to make themselves look worse… Or simply misremember. Most readers understand that story-tellers, especially when they’re telling stories about themselves, take such liberties. In the words of Grace Paley: “Any story told twice is fiction.”

And so, concludes Schweidel,

In theory, creative nonfiction has to be an oxymoron. Creative means made up, and nonfiction means not made up. Hence, oxymoron. In practice, though, creative nonfiction is a redundancy. Why? Because virtually every work of nonfiction is creative.

Bookmark and Share

Livy and Polybius

I got an email from Fabrizio Dinatale, who is writing a dissertation at the University of Reading (UK) on Polybius and Livy. He asked my opinion on the “qualities/defects” attributed to each of them.

Fabrizio, I replied to your email but I keep getting error messages. (“550 550 unrouteable address (state 14)”)

Here is what I said:

Hi Fabrizio,

your dissertation sounds fascinating. Send me a link once it’s finished and I might link to it. You will be the expert on the topic. I am, as you may have picked up from the blog, not a historian, just a writer who’s having fun with Hannibal and Scipio as the main characters in a book about, well, you and me.

That said, Livy and Polybius are my main ancient sources, so I do have some impressions, as I said here and here.

Polybius took Thucydides as his model, Livy Herodotus. Which is to say: Polybius believed in thorough research, fact-checking, original reporting, less embellishment. He personally interviewed eye witnesses and traveled the routes that Hannibal took, even over the Alps. He had a personal connection in that he was the tutor and friend of Scipio Aemilianus (Scipio Africanus’ adoptive grandson) and stood next to him when the Romans burnt Carthage to the ground.

Polybius was writing for his fellow Greeks to explain how the most momentous event in history up to that time–Rome’s rise to superpower status–could have happened. And the biggest step in that rise was Rome’s near-death experience but ultimate victory over Hannibal.

Livy was completely different: somewhat lazy (he did not travel), and unconcerned about originality (ie, he plagiarized Polybius freely). He embellished liberally. Above all, he was writing less a history than propaganda, as you said. And for Romans, in Latin. His mission was to narrate the past, mythical and actual, in a coherent way that appeared inexorably to lead to … Augustus! Rome as the chosen people, you might say.

In that sense, he was not unlike Virgil, who went one step further in the Aeneid and implicitly tied Augustus to Aeneas as though everything had all been preordained all along.

Have fun. Again, i’ll be interested in what you end up concluding in your dissertation.

Bookmark and Share

The father of biography



Let’s get back to the bibliography for my book.

Right now–while we’re still dealing with the ancient sources–I’m going through the texts in chronological order. And after Polybius and Livy, that brings me to Plutarch.

You recall that Herodotus was the father of history. Well, Plutarch must be the father of biography. Like Herodotus, Thucydides and Polybius, he was Greek. But Plutarch lived much later, in the first and second century AD–three centuries after Hannibal and Scipio. So I don’t use Plutarch because I think he has any scoops over Polybius, or more accurate information. Why, then, do I use (and love) Plutarch?

Because he was the first to take an interest in character. That’s what he wanted to capture: the characters of the great Greeks and Romans. For that he used the big events and deeds in their lives and, just as much, the tiniest but telling details. Occasionally, he may have stretched the facts a bit, but, hey, let’s relax about that and just enjoy.

In that respect, of course, Plutarch does exactly what I aspire to do in my book. I too want to capture how characters respond to success and failure, ups and downs.

Plutarch’s main work was his Parallel Lives (which we usually read in the John Dryden translation), in which he paired one great Greek with one great Roman. Alexander the Great, for instance, is paired with Julius Caesar, and so on.

Hannibal was neither Greek nor Roman, so we don’t have a Life with his name as title. But Hannibal, who is my main character, features prominently in several of Plutarch’s Lives: Fabius (who also plays a big role in my book), Marcellus (a Roman consul killed by Hannibal), Cato the Elder, Flamininus (conqueror/liberator of the Greeks and the man who finally hounded Hannibal into suicide).

Plutarch’s life of Pyrrhus, which I’ve quoted from, is one of my favorites, by the way.

The tragedy is that many of his lives are lost. And the loss that hurts most is, of course, the Life of Scipio, my other main character.

Bookmark and Share


I left off my series on the bibliography for my book with a long post on Polybius. Polybius, as I said, was one of the greatest historians ever, but most of his books were lost. This means that for the history of Hannibal’s war against Rome we have to rely heavily on another ancient source. And that is Titus Livius, or Livy in English.

There are big problems with Livy. He lived a century and a half after Hannibal’s war. Polybius had interviewed eye witnesses and traveled Hannibal’s route, but Livy did not even attempt any such research. Instead, he merrily plagiarized Polybius (and mentions him only once, by my count). At least we can take comfort from knowing that he had all of Polybius available to him, as well as other sources lost to us, such as Roman documents.

The next problem is that Livy had an agenda other than telling the best and purest history. Like his contemporary Virgil, Livy was writing under the reign of the emperor Augustus, who “restored” Rome’s republic after the long civil wars by replacing it with a monarchy in all but name.

Virgil responded by writing an epic poem, the Aeneid, placing Augustus in the context of a noble unfolding of destiny. A literary masterwork, but somewhat close to brown-nosing the great emperor. Livy sort of did the same, only in prose. So he starts his “history” with Aeneas’ flight from Troy, his journey to Italy, Romulus and Remus and so forth.

Aeneas flees burning Troy

Aeneas flees burning Troy

In general, Livy always makes the Romans look good and their enemies look bad. So the Gauls are unreliable and lazy brutes. The Greeks are savvy but slimy know-it-alls. The Carthaginians are either cruel or cunning or miserly or deceitful. Much of Livy is propaganda. Awfully entertaining propaganda, as it happens.

So if Polybius clearly emulated his fellow Greek Thucydides in trying to stay close to facts and analysis, Livy takes Herodotus as his example and embellishes and invents freely for the sake of a cracking good read. At that, he succeeds.

When the Europeans woke up at the end of the Middle Ages and rediscovered the classics, Livy became one of their favorites.

Personally, I couldn’t care less about Livy’s shortcomings. I’m in it for the stories, the characters, the scenes that I need to tell the story that I want to tell, which involves so many other people. More to come soon.

Bookmark and Share

America as the new Rome: Polybius and us

Anybody seen Polybius?

Anybody seen Polybius?

In my previous post on Polybius, I promised to tell you why he is so important to us Americans in particular. Here is why:

His ultimate explanation for Rome’s greatness was that Rome had a constitution that was uniquely and perfectly balanced between the three types of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.

An excess of any of the three, Polybius thought, was bad. Monarchy led to tyranny, aristocracy to oligarchy, and democracy to mob rule. (Worth pondering, you anti-elitist Palinistas out there.)

But Rome achieved balance: the consuls were the monarchical element, the senate the aristocratic, and the popular assemblies the democratic.

Our founding fathers agreed with Polybius completely. And so they set out to create that same, perfectly-balanced constitution. Arguably, they succeeded. So we are the modern Rome of Polybius!

(I can tell you what the American analogs to the consuls, senate and assemblies are, but I’ll let you guess first.)

Bookmark and Share


First off in this series of posts about the bibliography for my book–in the category of ancient sources–is, of course, Polybius. His life is one of the most fascinating ever lived, and his importance to us–especially to us Americans, as I will explain in the follow-up post–is enormous.

Let me lead up to Polybius in three short steps:



1) The first “historian” in history was a Greek writer named Herodotus. He lived during the fifth century BCE, the golden age of classical Greece, and wrote what he called “enquiries”, or histories in Greek. So that’s where we got the word! The main matter he was “enquiring” into was the glorious victory of the Greeks over the Persians, which forever changed world history.

In style, Herodotus was a genius story-teller, and I love him for that. But he was, shall we say, liberal with the facts and the truth. He tells us that Ethiopians have black semen, and so forth. He did not lie, but he embellished. But what the heck! He was the first.



2) Next up, one generation after Herodotus, was another Greek (it’s pretty much all Greeks from here on for a few centuries), named Thucydides. He was critical of Herodotus’ methods and wanted to bring a more factual, rigorous and scholarly style to history-writing. And I love him for that just as much as I love Herodotus! Together, Herodotus and Thucydides gave us history, my passion, just as Plato and Aristotle, another pair of Greeks one generation apart, gave us philosophy.

Thucydides had another war as his subject, as important to world history as the Greco-Persian wars. He wrote about the Peloponnesian war between Athens and her allies and Sparta and her allies. As the the Greek victories over the Persians had made the Greeks (even though there was no country called Greece) preeminent in the known world, the fratricidal war among the Greeks prepared their political decline. It was a tragedy.

In the process of describing this tragedy, Thucydides brought an analysis to bear that is also considered the foundation of all International Relations, and in particular of Realism in world politics (think Kissinger). That was my subject in graduate school, in case you care.

3) Next up were several other Greeks, including Xenophon, who would be giants in their own right were they not wedged between Thucydides and our guy, Polybius. So, because this is along post already, we will skip over them.

4) And now: Polybius.

He was a Greek. No surprise. In style he took clearly after Thucydides rather than Herodotus, which is to say that he believed in facts, research, cross-examination of eye witnesses, and above all in travel. Polybius  personally traced the route of Hannibal in order to write about his war.

Polybius was born about two centuries after Thucydides died, so the Mediterranean had changed completely. The Greek city states had declined in power after the tragedy that Thucydides described and then been swallowed up by Macedonia and Alexander the Great. Then Alexander died and his generals carved up the eastern Mediterranean into huge monarchies. In the western Mediterranean, Carthage was still the superpower.

But–and this is the phenomenon that Polybius tried to explain in his Histories–all that changed during his life time. Rome survived its war against Hannibal and Carthage by a hair. Then it turned east toward the Greek world until it dominated the whole Mediterranean. Polybius wanted to explain how and why Rome was able to do all that.

The circumstances in which he did his research would make a thriller all by themselves. He was a Greek aristocrat and when the Romans got around to his part of Greece they decided to send 1,000 hostages back to Rome just to keep the Greeks well-behaved. Polybius was one of them. He went to Rome as a prisoner for sixteen years!

But the Romans had a very nuanced and complex relationship towards Greeks. They dominated them politically and militarily but they admired and envied them culturally. A big historical thesis is that Rome was both captor (militarily) and captive (culturally).

Polybius’ fate shows that. He wasn’t thrown into a dungeon in Rome but became the guest and teacher in the household of the great Scipiones. Yes, that’s the family of great Scipio, Hannibal’s nemesis. So he had access to all the family archives. He and the younger Scipiones became very close, and some scholars say that this may have biased him towards their role in the Hannibalic war. Personally, I don’t care.

Polybius also stood next to a Scipio (the adopted grandson of Scipio the Great) when the Romans finally burnt and razed Carthage to the ground.

As a practical matter, Polybius then had to tell the story of all three wars between Rome and Carthage leading up to this moment. And for that, he talked to people who had known Hannibal, to veterans on both sides, crossed the Alps and so forth. This is why he is my, and everybody’s, first and best source.

Now, there is only one huge problem with Polybius. It is this: Most of his writing was lost. You may have other things to worry about in life, but I actually cringe when I think of what that means.

In practical terms, it means that we need a few other sources. Next, After the follow-up: Livy.

Bookmark and Share

About Hannibal’s elephants

(Note to readers: I have corrected and updated this post here.)

So the other day I get a text message from our dear friends, the Rammings, with an urgent plea to intervene in one of their heated controversies around the dinner table of their rustic farm house in hip and rural North Carolina. James Ramming, aged eleven and studying Latin (and contemplating adding Greek), was contesting whether Hannibal’s famous elephants were …. Indian or African. It’s the obvious first question to ask about his elephants, which must be why the adult experts never ask it.

I pick up the phone and report for duty. And as I talk I discover …. that I have no idea what the answer is. So I extricate myself from the conversation with James and go back to our trusted old friends, Polybius and Livy. Those two, it turns out, didn’t even know enough to ask the question. (How many elephants would a Greek and a Roman historian in those days have seen?)

The fact that Hannibal took war elephants with him in his attack on Rome–and crossed with them over the snowy Alps–is usually the first and only thing that people know about Hannibal. It’s entered our collective lore. Above, a snivelly-nosed Hannibal on a (vaguely Indian-looking?) elephant who seems to be going shopping. Below, a more dramatic rendition of the Alpine crossing, with (vaguely African-looking?) elephants tumbling into the gorges as the mountain Gauls attack from the heights. (Actually, Polybius says that all the elephants survived.)

Well, which is it? One line in the middle of this Wikipedia entry claims that

he probably used a now-extinct third African (sub)species, the North African (Forest) elephant, smaller than its two southern cousins, and presumably easier to domesticate.

Makes sense. After all, Carthage was in Africa. Except that I don’t think so. I’ve already written about the trouble we get into when we confuse Carthage’s geography with modern notions of human race, what we might call the “Denzel trope”. I think the same applies to elephant race.

This Wikipedia article talks about the origins of war elephants in India. It is these that Alexander the Great would have encountered. Then he died and his generals, notably Seleucus and Ptolemy, carved up his empire to start their own kingdoms. They also seem to have taken over the tradition of fighting with war elephants. Carthage’s mother city, Tyre in modern Lebanon, was in the Seleucid empire, which included Syria. I think that Carthage, a naval empire oriented toward its mother city in the East more than toward the lands south across the Sahara, would have got its elephants from there. Hence, they would have been Indian.

That might explain why Hannibal’s favorite elephant–the one he was riding through the swamp when he caught the infection that blinded one of his eyes–was named Surus, “the Syrian”.

In any case, those beasts scared the bejeezus out of the Romans. War elephants were the tanks of antiquity. If things went according to plan (a big if), they plowed into the enemy ranks and broke up the formation. All the time, the archers and javelin-throwers were firing from their little fortress mounted on the elephant. Check out this fearsome rendition of the battle of Zama:

I’d rather be one of the guys on top in that one. Except……

Except that this was one of those many cases where things went wrong for the side with the elephants. Modern tanks go kaputt but not berserk. Ancient tanks went berserk. If they panicked, they were as likely to turn around and plow into their own ranks (the elephants didn’t care, after all). That happened here at Zama. For that reason, the elephants usually had mahouts with lances (you can see them in the picture), whose job was to kill the elephant as soon as he or she (both males and females were used) threatened the home side.

Long story short. Probably a sub-species of Indian. And soooo much fun to imagine. More, much more, in future posts.

Bookmark and Share