Forum: T. P. Wiseman

T.P. Wiseman applauds those historians who restlessly question orthodoxies and received facts.

‘The cardinal virtues of the historian are curiosity and suspicion. The passive and the credulous can only perpetuate unexamined orthodoxies, and there is no more unhistorical activity than that. But in practice, even the most original mind ' takes some things for granted – a chronology, for instance, or a basic narrative structure – which ultimately rest on earlier historians' hypotheses or combinations of evidence, but have been so universally accepted as to seem no longer worth critical examination. That can be dangerous.

For the Roman historian, whether political, social, or literary, the last generation of the Republic is an uniquely well documented period (largely thanks to Cicero and his correspondence), and one that has been subjected to generations of intense and sophisticated investigation. It is not easy to imagine that our existing evidence can be made to reveal any significant novelties. But how much of the familiar picture is made up of preconceived ideas that should be challenged? Two very unpretentious recent articles show what curiosity and suspicion can still achieve.

Elizabeth Rawson, in Latomus 1982, has used a neglected passage in Cicero's Brutus to reveal a Roman commander of precocious brilliance, an emulator of Alexander the Great without Alexander's luck, who hoped to defeat the Parthians in the campaign that ended with twenty thousand dead on the field of Carrhae; 'his influence on the events of his time was very great, though perhaps wholly disastrous' – and it has passed unnoticed until now. Sir Ronald Syme, in Classical Quarterly 198l, restores to life one of the great orators of the forties and thirties BC, whom Quintilian had failed to distinguish from his father, a worthy jurist of no great oratorical gifts: 'a new magnitude emerges to strengthen and adorn the annals of Roman eloquence'.

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