How to write history

Carlos Zilio, ROUTINA DILACERANTE, 1971, gouache on paper, 50,2x35,2cm


Commentary on the book by Lucian of Samosata

About Luciano de Samosata, little or nothing is known. Having lived under the Roman Empire between 125 and 181, he well represents a literate “Roman” production that extends after Augustus and that was conveyed and consolidated under the prescriptions of the Greek language and, therefore, accustomed to the Greco-Roman rhetorical discernment acclimated in the cities. Thus, if on the one hand its verb is Greek, on the other its matter is Roman.

Lucian, like Philostratus (170-250), Pausanias (115-180) and even Marcus Aurelius (121-180), author greek and princeps from Rome, are icons of this literate production – corroborating Paul Veyne's thesis that the Roman Empire is actually Greco-Roman, since there is no way to subtract from it the Hellenic hue and its coloring, so to speak. This datum could already be gauged in the verses of Horace in the XNUMXst century: “Captured Greece captured the victorious glaive and brought the arts to uneducated Latium”.

The consolidation of Greek letters in Rome between the second and third centuries (between Antoninos and Severos) is confused with an artistic, philosophical-literate mode, which arises in the wake of the criticism of Plato (mainly from the Sophist and Gorgias), which Philostratus in Life of the Sophists gives the nickname of Second Sophistic. One of its main characteristics, in addition to the close relationship with the sophists of Pericles' time, is that its agent must demonstrate his artistic abilities, either by performance oratory, or for his dexterity in the rhetorical handling of genres. Another issue that matters to the sophist is the full awareness of the linguistic register, especially with regard to the virtue of elocution: purites (purity).

If we stick to these two elements, we have a sophistic paradigm in Luciano, since his work is varied in terms of genres and he is recognized as a worshiper of “good Greek”. It is worth remembering the lesson of Photius, Byzantine patriarch and scholar of the XNUMXth century, who says that Lucian's expression is excellent, making use of a distinctive, current and emphatically brilliant style. It can also be said that the sum of these two elements represents rhetorically what Barbara Cassin pointed out as the touchstone of the Second Sophistic: the mimesis cultural. She says: “The Hellenism of the first sophistic (…) is linked to the universality of the law and of the political institution, while that of the second is linked, without mediation and not by chance, to that of culture”.

the treaty How to write history is a perfect example of a work of the Second Sophistic. Starting from a literate genre extremely valued among the ancients: history, Luciano claims his place as a critic of historiography given that, according to him, there are countless authors of history: “there is no one who does not write history. Even more, they all became Thucydides, Herodotus, and Xenophon to us.”

The first differentiated fact that is worth emphasizing in this proem is Luciano's subtle ironic humor when proposing his booklet on history, which denotes his systemic stance of not surrendering to the genre, let's say, pure. He is, rather, a defender of generic plasma, which leaks incessantly from his production – it is worth remembering the “Menippean satire” –, and which, in his didactic-historiographic work, catches the reader's eye in the first few lines, when comparing the makers of stories, his contemporaries, to the patients of Abdera who, full of mania, wander around reciting tragic verses after being stricken with a high fever.

Thus, it does not propose an exemplary history of Marcus Aurelius's war against the Parthians, nor a critique of it, writing. He, like a pepaideuménos, prescribes a pharmakon for those who are affected by the evil disease to write: “What I will propose to historians is a small exhortation and a few pieces of advice, in order to participate in the construction of your work, if not the inscription, at least touching the mortar with the tip of the finger".

The work, therefore, assumes the didactic discourse and, as such, operates the rhetorical prescription that delimits vice so that virtue stands out. This binarism, which accentuates vices and clarifies virtues, points, therefore, to the epideictic, however as it should be read under the prism of advice, as indicated by the verb deî (must) of the Greek title, Luciano gives evidence of articulation with the deliberative – whose target is not the boule or the senate, but the group of “maniacs” of letters and adulation, determined to be historians. This plasmatic mark appears again and reinforces the salt of the work, its refinement.

Among the vices that must be avoided, Luciano begins his criticism of flatterers/story writers and, to that end, registers the gender distinction between history and eulogy: “most people, neglecting to narrate what happened, take their time whether in praise of commanders and generals, raising their own to the heights and debasing enemies beyond measure, for ignoring that the isthmus that delimits and separates the story from the encomium is not narrow, but there is a high wall between them”.

Luciano goes further, uses the Aristotelian comparison between poetry and history to indicate that the second deals with what was and, the first, with what could be. Based on this premise, he informs that history written by flatterers is more related to inspired poetry than to history itself. In this case, he introduces one more element that can be read in an ironic way, since the idea of ​​this type of poetry is essentially Platonic, just by observing the dialogue Pure.

This delimited comparison, namely that of inspired poetry and historiography, so to speak, adulatory or manic, is interesting, however, since it is not related to the passage from Poetics the Aristotelian theory referred to which, despite stressing the differences between poetic and historical art, treats both poetry and history as mimeseis. This poetry to which Luciano refers is the inspired one, constructed by a bard, who is full of god (entheos), serves only as a link in a chain of inspiration, interposing itself between the divine and the human. He, an inspired poet, is not, therefore, accustomed to the necessary and essential technicalities of a poetic art, just as the historians Luciano deals with are not accustomed to those of history. Thus treated of him, read as pharmakon, points to a solution to the incurable disease of those who imagine that writing does not require ars et ingenium (art and ingenuity), but only “good will”.

* Paulo Martins Professor of Classical Letters at USP and author of Roman elegy: construction and effect (Humanites).


Lucian of Samosata. How to write history. Belo Horizonte, Tessitura, 2009.


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