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.”