This statement will not come as a surprise to those who are well-versed in history, but others who know less about the evolution of historical writing may find the idea shocking—most speeches recorded by ancient historians were falsified. Unless the historian from antiquity specifically stated that an included speech within his work was derived from an official record or monument, you can safely assume that most of the speech was fabricated by the author. For the most part, the earliest historians (except Thucydides) did not see this as a problem; the goal of most ancient historians was to make their work dramatic and exciting, even at the expense of truthfulness.
Although the speeches recorded by ancient historians were usually falsified, that does not mean that the ideas and strategies presented in the speeches were inaccurate. Most of the classical historians, even if the speech was wholly their own creation, tried to write their speeches in the character of their subject. If the historian was writing a speech for a cautious man, the speech would be written from a viewpoint of caution; if the speech was for a man of rash action, the wording would be tailored toward careless impulsiveness. In short, ancient writers usually had no clue what the people they wrote about actually said, so they made do with fabricating speeches that they believed were in character with what these people would have said.
Some ancient historians who were writing about contemporary events did likely hear speeches from the people that they wrote about in their books. Yet, the ancients did not have the convenience of televised speeches or audio recordings that now grace us today—it was simply much harder to record or remember speeches with accuracy in the days of old. As a result, even speeches that were written down by first-hand witnesses were more often than not simplified summaries of what was actually said.
Thucydides, regarded by many to be the greatest historian from ancient Greece, openly wrote about the use of fake speeches in history books, including his own:
“In this history I have made use of set speeches some of which were delivered just before and others during the war. I have found it difficult to remember the precise words used in the speeches which I listed to myself and my various informants have experienced the same difficulty; so my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.”
(Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 1, chapter 22)
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Pericles’ funeral oration, painted by Philipp Foltz (1805–1877), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.