Fake quotes

King Darius I is listening to the speeches of his bodyguards (Paris, BnF, Français 1753 f.130v)

Based on their works, ancient and medieval historians were closer to modern documentary-makers than to professional historians. What mattered most for them was not methodology, reliability of information and discoverable fact, but the mise-en-scène of all of it. Something more akin to entertainment than to science humaine. Persuasion rather than information. History was the daughter of rhetoric and for a long time it was taught – when it was – as an application of rhetorical principles to the recovery of the past in view of clear aims, whether judicial (to accuse or defend), deliberative (to persuade or dissuade) or epideictic (to praise or blame).

History being subservient to rhetoric, factuality was fluid for this kind of history writing. It took modern historians long to rise up to this view and start subjecting pre-modern historical texts to reliability tests. A hundred years ago, it was still possible to take a chronicle or an ancient historical text at face value. Today, we’ve ramped up our exegetical suspicion and we see potential rhetoric and deception at every corner.

One key area where ancient and medieval European history departed from factuality was that of speeches. These histories are peppered with political and military leaders giving speeches to crowds that nobody would have been able to record or jot down as they happened. Except for a few extant eyewitness accounts, history has always been about hindsight. And hindsight is all about reconstruction in absentia.

Fake speeches and fake quotes.

Modern historians agree that most, if not all, speeches recorded by ancient and medieval historians are fake in that they are misrepresented quotations. This was not necessarily a deceptive technique. The fake quote contributed to the narrative atmosphere, filling the space around a dry statement of fact or a subjective view. Fake flesh on factual bones.

It would be unfair to disparage the use of fake speeches and fake quotes in ancient and medieval history. They had their use within the genre, just like the liberties history documentary makers take with their subject, such as simplification, appeal to authority, suppression of source criticism, etc. Nobody would want a documentary to read like a scholarly article or a monograph. We want it informative yet entertaining, grounded in historical truth but making a point, factual yet rhetorical. And this is just what our ancient and medieval forebears expected from their histories.

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