Real History Versus Pop History

by Gene Callahan

My current research involves a lot of digging into Roman and American history. For the most part, along the way, I’ve been reading books by historians aimed at an academic audience. But I recently picked up Cicero by Anthony Everitt, the sort of “pop” history book that is made into a History Channel special. Let me tell you, after some time without reading a book like this, I was shocked by how lax the standards for this sort of work are.

For instance, Everitt, in discussing Cicero’s election as Quaestor, writes, “Doubtless many citizens of Arpinum took the trouble to travel to Rome to vote for their local boy.”

Doubtless, hey? Now this is where an historian begins his research, not where he ends it. He now has a hypothesis: “Hmm, it seems plausible that residents of Cicero’s home town would have come to Rome to vote for him.” At this point, he can get to work. He examines diaries from people in the town, potsherds from ruins at Rome, organic remains, voting records… in short, whatever he can get his hands on that might confirm or refute his hypothesis. And if he can’t find that evidence, he says “We have no idea if anyone from Arpinum came to vote for Cicero.” What he does not do is simply make a guess!

But Everitt guesses about once a page or so:

“Terenetia was left behind in Italy, where she doubtless spent much of her time with little Tullia.”

“Although [Cicero] seldom troubled to describe the daily round in his correspondence, there is no reason to suppose that he deviated the habits and conventions of his friends and peers.”

I imagine a future Everitt writing a history of Germany in several thousands years, at a time when there are large gaps in the evidence for what happened in the 20th century: “Although some fellow named Adolf Hitler caused some local trouble in Bavaria in the 1920s, doubtless a civilized nation like Germany could not possibly have taken such a nut seriously, and he faded from the scene.”

9 thoughts on “Real History Versus Pop History

  1. Lee, if you want to get your history from the HBO series Rome, that’s OK by me. But don’t confuse it with the work of actual historians:

    1) By using words like “doubtless,” Everitt actually tries to hide the fact he is guessing.
    2) He leads readers who don’t read real historians to think that history is just about transcribing what happened and making guesses where your “sources” are silent. “Ah, history is all just a matter of opinion anyway.” As soon as Everitt arrives at a real historical question, he stops!
    3) Any guess “may be right” — so what? Would you drive over a bridge built by an engineer who said “I guess aluminum is good enough here”?
    4) What is gained by saying, e.g., “doubtless Cicero went both ways” (with zero evidence) as opposed to “we have no evidence concerning Cicero’s love life” is a certain appearance of authority, based merely on the fact that you happened to get a publisher to print your ungrounded guesswork in a book.

    In short, the effect is a lot like treating astrology as a branch of astronomy.

  2. Gene,

    If someone shoots a bullet into the sky, then it isn’t going to clear the atmosphere; the bullet will land somewhere, though rarely do we have any records of direct observations of that event. However, we might say that doubtless it fell back to earth, because of the law of gravity. But aren’t we just “guessing”?

    My take from those quotes you provided was that Everitt was merely deriving, from his understanding of human nature and the pesonalities involved, various facts for which there is no relevent evidence. Should this be a starting point to investigate alternative hypotheses and seek out relevent evidence? Of course, but I don’t see the problem with taking an educated guess.

    My comment “he might be right” was to point out that an absence of evidence is not a mark against a hypothesis, even if you think it is a mark against the person offering the hypothesis. In any case, I really do think that historians (and engineers) are guessing, and so I don’t have a problem with it like you.

  3. Lee,

    The situation is much less certain than a bullet that is fired into the air landing.

    As Gene says he is using the word “Doubtless” to hide the fact that it’s guessing. I think many people who have read a lot recognize these sorts of words as obvious words-people-use-when-guessing. I’m not sure if the intended audience would.

  4. current,

    Is everitt really trying to deceive? People often use the word “doubtless” when they are inferring, with some unstated assumptions, beyond the evidence at hand. If you think doubt should be proportional to evidence (which I don’t), then it might seem paradoxical, but I think it is an ordinary use of the term in everyday life.

    But I don’t really care very much. Everitt may be deserving. I was just surprised by the strength of Gene’s reaction. However, I think our differences have more to do with underlying methodological disagreements — for which the comments of a blog are not a good forum to be debated.

  5. Lee, it depends on how you are using “guessing.” Historians are no more “guessing” that Caesar crossed the Rubicon than physicists are “guessing” that electrons attract protons — yes, either may be overturned by new evidence, but, given the evidence we’ve got, each is about as certain as empirical propositions can be.

  6. The normal meaning of the word “doubtless” is that the author has no doubts. I think it is hard to stretch that to meaning the reverse, that the author has doubts.

    The word may be used rhetorically in that way. But, that’s just fancy lying.

  7. Lee, with the example of a bullet, we have a deterministic theory of how gravity works that has been tested and tested and tested. We can doubless assume that things fall.

    But there is no such theory on the topic of voting paterns in Rome. The question is empirical.

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