What sources do we have for the history of the early Roman Empire, and what problems do we have in their interpretation?

Not an essay I got a particularly great mark on since I spent a lot of the time before the due date in hospital and had to research, write and reference this in the space of a morning, but it is a little different to my normal assignments so possibly still worth a skim-read.


A time of limited surviving archaeological or written evidence, the known history of the early Roman Empire is less than extensive. Sources lasting more than two and a half thousand years, their endurance is both incredible and coincidental. Only by a great deal of hard work and fortuity, do today’s academic historians of the Roman world have numerous sources to found and develop their knowledge, using coinage, inscriptions and the written word to uncover secrets of the past. On the other hand, such sources are so infrequent and so often incomplete that they offer newfound issues of interpretation. Both material and written records provide excellent opportunities for exhibiting and analysing the events of the past, however, it is doubtless that such records will offer chance for interpretation and therefore little degree of certainty arrives with any individual source.

One of the most frequently used sources of ancient history used is literary material written by contemporary historians. Ancient authors often write history in order to preserve the memory of contemporary events in battle or politics; Greek historian, Herodotus, opens his work by elaborately announcing his self and his aims to write ‘in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done’[1]. However, it is common that historians such as these may write accounts containing exaggerated victories or demonised rulers in order to present a biased account of the history of their time to inflate their personal and political views; histories such as these are subject to some extent of fictionalisation. Ancient historians of the early Roman Empire, such as Livy, Strabo and Tacitus, may be examined in terms of their reliability due to their means of gathering evidence for their histories. Commonly, word of mouth and living through events would provide them with information enough to relate in their texts as well as some basic source material such as earlier inscriptions and records; though it must be noted that often contemporary writers are influenced by emotional reactions to tragedies and victories causing a greater tendency for hyperbole. Nevertheless, the veracity of such writings may be tested by comparing the works to other accounts of the same period or events and using archaeological evidence to substantiate claims made by the authors.

In order to analyse particular issues concerning the interpretation of contemporary historical accounts as sources, a scrutiny of Livy will provide details of his reliability as an historian. Livy is a celebrated historian whose style and elegance in his writing should not be brought into question, according to J Lempriere[2], however, his history of the early Roman Empire is criticised for being filled with superstitious tales. Allocated the position of ‘story-teller’ by modern historians Marcel Le Glay and Jean-Louis Voisin[3], it is argued that his method of recording history strode the margin between fact and fiction. This is because Livy exhibits fondness for romanticised instances of traditional heroism, particularly with regards to the foundation of Rome as a city. Also, Le Glay and Voisin bring it to attention that Livy uses sources without performing any sort of critique[4]; this definitely carries into question his reliability as a factual historian. As well as the problems with using Livy as an accurate source, it is difficult to utilise Livy’s works as a complete history of Rome regardless due to the incompleteness of his works; of Livy’s 140 books written, only 35 survive[5]. Overall, Livy provides a usable outline of the history of Rome as believed or experienced by people of the time, however, to use Livy as an historical source to any greater extent would prove naïve due to his obvious inconsistencies with the truth, taking the truth to be considered a credible version of events; at points Livy describes events such as the raining of milk and blood from the sky, a happening that cannot be recognised as fact from a single retelling due to its improbability. On the other hand, if confirmed by alternate sources such as similar written accounts or archaeological evidence, Livy makes a valuable source for a varied viewpoint.

A different form of source that may be used to analyse the history of the early Roman Empire is coinage; Roman coinage has often been accepted of greater historical importance than any other, and in this it is often a striking and beautiful representation of current political situations, victories and intentions. [6] In innumerable ways, we can appreciate the value of coinage as historical sources in equal measure to alternate sources; we can decipher trade networks or travel routes by analysing the location in which coins are discovered; in part this is more useful than some written records which often neglect to report on any economic matter.[7][8] Furthermore, whilst small and often with very little wording to interpret, the images used reflect contemporary religious and politics beliefs within a particular city or state by bearing a commissioned image of the current ruler as man or god. W H Auden controversially wrote that ‘serious historians study coins and weapons’[9], due to his belief that ancient historians were prone to write meaningless self-promotions. However, being commissioned by the ruling elite as a form of propaganda for the state means that they may well be riddled with pro-government bias.[10] In addition to this, there is often a significant lack of factual data on coins due to their trend for containing very short and usually abbreviated inscriptions, or absence of any form of wording. This leaves the coin open to a great deal of interpretation meaning that any evaluation of the coin may contain bias or manipulation by the reader since the significance and purpose of the image or images cannot be evidenced by supporting text. Historians, such as Christopher Howgego[11], suggest that literary sources are far superior sources of history due to their ability to relate the complexity of contemporary politics intentions and allegiances in far greater detail.

Alternatively, one may look at inscriptions, such as those on temples or gravestones, in order to analyse the history of the early Roman Empire. R G Collingwood argues that the ‘value of inscriptions as historical material is so great that it can hardly be exaggerated’[12], stating that they tend to be informative official documents containing text void from corruption. It is estimated that more than 30,000[13] inscriptions are available for interpretation of the history of the Roman Empire, placing them as a voluminous source of history compared to literary sources, often detailing occasions not covered by Roman historians, providing largely reliable evidence for previously unknown events. Often the purpose of creating inscriptions was for public consumption; this would imply a certain level of accuracy regarding the inscriptions acting as a reflection of contemporary beliefs, this would promote the reliability of such inscriptions as historical source material. However, similar to the difficulties presented to us by the use of coinage as historical source material, inscriptions may present bias since their contemporary use may be questionable. Again, there is often a use of abbreviation in Roman epigraphy, perhaps presenting issues in interpretation, however, in practice, the use of abbreviated text allows for maximum use of the space of the material enabling the dedicator to impart more information onto a single stone.[14] A fundamental problem with interpreting inscriptions is that they have survived largely fragmentary, posing a threat to the complete understanding of the text without an expert epigraphist being able to reimagine the missing parts by using related documents or similar inscriptions; though this could prove to incorrectly restore it, providing false evidence for events in early Rome.

In conclusion, despite such an array of media preserving both written and material sources, including coinage, manuscripts and inscriptions, it is evident that their exists little certainty with which each individual source can offer insight into the history of the early Roman Empire. It is only by association of the written and material sources to evidence claims by the other that we can begin to understand and to interpret the events of the past with any such accuracy and reliability. It is almost impossible to fully and accurately comprehend an ancient source when it is often damaged, decayed or lost in-part proving the text to be incomplete; however, even partial texts can allow greater comprehension of already known events and in this, we can gain knowledge more objectively by comparing sources by various authors.

[1] G. Rawlinson, ‘The History of Herodotus’, The Internet Classic Archive <http://classics.mit.edu/Herodotus/history.mb.txt&gt; [accessed 28th March 2014]

[2] J. Lempriere, Classical Dictionary of Proper Names mentioned in Ancient Authors (London: Routledge, 1879), pp.333-334.

[3] M. Le Glay et al, A History of Rome (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), pp.585-586.

[4] Ibid.

[5] J. Lempriere, Classical Dictionary of Proper Names mentioned in Ancient Authors (London: Routledge, 1879), pp.333-334.

[6] M. Grant, Roman History from Coins (London: Cambridge University Press, 1958), pp.9-17.

[7] Ibid.

[8] ‘Coins as an Historical Source’, Fitzwilliam Museum <http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/dept/coins/exhibitions/ancientcoins/&gt; [accessed 30th March 2014]

[9] W. H. Auden as quoted by M. Grant, Roman History from Coins (London: Cambridge University Press, 1958), p.16.

[10] M. Grant, Roman History from Coins (London: Cambridge University Press, 1958), p.17.

[11] C. Howgego, Ancient History from Coins (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp.64-67.

[12] R. G. Collingwood as quoted by L. Keppie, Understanding Roman Inscriptions (Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 1991), p.9.

[13] L. Keppie, Understanding Roman Inscriptions (Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 1991), p.9.

[14] L. Keppie, Understanding Roman Inscriptions (Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 1991), pp.18-19.

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