Review: A. Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (1)

[This is the first part of a review of Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome (2011)]

Cover

Bacurius was an officer in the Roman army of the fourth century AD. The church historian Rufinus calls him a Christian. He may be right: the two men had met in Jerusalem. Bacurius’ friend Libanius of Antioch, however, considered the officer a pagan. There may be an easy explanation, like conversion, but that’s not my point. Far more interesting than Bacurius’ religion is the question what modern historians would have thought if only Rufinus’ History of the Church had survived and Libanius’ letters were lost. I am quite sure that no one would have suspected that Rufinus’ information might have been incorrect. Bacurius would have been considered a Christian.

This example illustrates the central problem of the study of Antiquity: there are not enough sources. Researchers are not able to check whether their information is correct. The problem is sometimes identified with a proverb from Roman law: testis unus, testis nullus. Disagreeing sources are, therefore, any historian’s dream: finally a way to contrast evidence and check information.

Usually, ancient historians have only one source. Of course they ask – or should ask – which information might refute that one source, whether that information has ever been around, why that information no longer exists, and by which miracle the surviving source has come down to us. The ancient historian who believes that he has done his job by merely quoting a source, uses a method that is often called naïve positivism.

In the eighteenth century, this was the best historians could offer. Edward Gibbon was sometimes incredibly naïve when he wrote his Decline and Fall; uncritically, he accepted the information from the Historia Augusta, never realizing that this source was a hoax, never asking which sources were used by its author, never preferring that information to the Historia Augusta. In a sense, it is to be regretted that the master of irony is still in print, because it has led generations of amateur historians to believe that “telling a story based on the sources” is all a historian has to do.

[to be continued]

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